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Slavery, glory, disease, heroism, globalization, gold… nine questions about the Conquistadors

Heroic adventurers in the XVIe century, the conquistadors became the protagonists of a bloody epic, a symbol of cruelty and exploitation. Beyond the Manichaeisms and anachronisms, what was the mentality of these men, but also the stakes and the balance sheet of a conquest which, under certain aspects, can be seen as the origin of globalization?

This article is taken from Figaro History “The Epic of the Conquistadors”. Find in this issue a special file on the conquest of the New World.

The epic of the conquistadors. Le Figaro History.

Fernando Cervantes is a specialist in the intellectual and religious history of modern Spain and Hispanic America. He teaches at the University of Bristol in the UK.

How was the conquest organized?

There is nothing in reality that looked like a “ organization of the conquest “. What can be observed in contemporary sources is the gradual emergence among Europeans of the awareness that they found themselves, with the discovery of the American continent, faced with something radically new which required particular modes of organization, which, in turn, would have to be adapted to changing circumstances and needs.

It was only after Christopher Columbus reached some islands in the Bahamas in October 1492 – an event that led to intriguing discoveries in the Caribbean, including Cuba and Haiti (renamed Fernandina and Hispaniola) – that Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon began to think in terms of what we have come to call “ conquest “, but which, in their minds, was always conceived as “ establishment and evangelism “. On the return from this first trip of the Genoese, very insufficiently financed and mainly private, royal support therefore began to show itself in earnest. Hadn’t Columbus brought back evidence that gold, pearls and spices were found there, as well as real novelties such as pineapples, peppers, hammocks and a group of “ indians » Named thus on purpose by the man who thought he had reached the Indies?

The first impressions of what would later be called “ america were inevitably immersed in an Asian context: Columbus remained convinced until his death in 1506 that what he had “ discovered was in Asia and that Cuba was a peninsula of China. Thanks to royal support, European explorers and settlers would soon be able to come into contact with the Christian populations of this continent, well known in the European imagination since the first expeditions to Mongolia of the Franciscan and Dominican friars in the 13th century.e century. In turn, these had fueled the legends about the Christians of the East – foremost among them that of the priest John – who wanted to help Crusader Europe in its task of reconquering the Holy Land for Christianity.

It is in this undeniably medieval spirit that the first contacts with the newly discovered lands were therefore conceived and organized. It was thought that their inhabitants either had been evangelized in the past – and therefore only needed a reminder of their true origins – or were willing to accept their integration into Christianity in order to contribute to the conversion of non-Christians. Christians and the coveted conquest of Jerusalem. They were therefore, from the beginning, considered full vassals of the Catholic monarchs and, more importantly, free individuals. The idea of ​​a conquest did not see the light of day until much later: when Hernán Cortés, in a clear act of disobedience to his immediate superior, Diego Velázquez, governor of Cuba, defeated the Mexica (or Aztec) Empire of central Mexico in 1521, thereby to see the New World as the astonishing novelty that it really was.

What was the profile of the conquistadors?

The profile of the first explorers and settlers can only be explained in the context of the last years of the reconquered, the movement of gradual repossession of lands under Islamic occupation since the VIIIe century, culminating in the final surrender of Spain’s last Islamic enclave, the Kingdom of Granada, in January 1492. Near Granada, the town of Santa Fe was hastily built by Isabella and Ferdinand in the days before the fall of the Islamic kingdom. There is a church there…

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