The motivation for the Iberian peninsula’s growth of empires was summed up as ‘Gold, Glory and God’.
Religious approval – God was certainly used as the major justification for the conquistadores. Spain and Portugal each sought the Pope’s approval for their sovereignty over the territories that were being discovered.
In 1455 Pope Nicholas V had recognised Portugal’s Henry the Navigator’s achievements by issuing his Romanus Pontifex (literally ‘from the Roman Bishop’) which gave Portugal all rights in these new lands in return for their proselytising the Catholic faith.
In 1481 a Papal bull had allocated all lands south of the Canaries as Portuguese, but the voyages of Columbus had reopened the debate.
Spanish-born Pope Alexander IV saw an opportunity to spread his and the Church’s influence when he issued two bulls in 1493. First his Inter Caeterato updated the Romanus Pontifex by dividing up the world between the two countries and the second obligated them to teach the natives ‘the good customs of Christianity’.
This also declared that no nation was permitted to take over territories already claimed by another Christian nation (meaning the Catholic variety of course). Colonisation of these lands had received holy sanction and the race was on.
The Inter Caetera granted all points west of the Azores and Cape Verde as Spanish, yet made no allowance for the new discoveries to the east by Portugal.
Carving up the World – The Portuguese were unimpressed and sought Spanish agreement both to move the line westward and to recognise their discoveries.
They jointly signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 which breached the Papal bull, though it was later to be ratified by the new pope Julius II in 1506. The agreed longitudinal line was still vague and became a cause for dispute for many years. Of course many of these territories were being divided up before they had even been discovered. Each new voyage by the two parties yielded further information and each created further dispute.
By 1524 there were claims and counter claims and, given discoveries in the Orient, the Spanish wanted the agreed line in the Atlantic to run right on around to the other side of the globe, thus creating two complete hemispheres of influence for the two countries.
This tortuous process was however smoothed to some extent by inter-marriage. In 1525 Portuguese King John (João) III married Catherine of Austria, the youngest sister of Charles I of Spain (aka Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor). The next year Charles then married John’s sister, Isabel of Portugal.
In 1529 they signed the new Treaty of Zaragoza. This defined a line that did pass around the globe but was still more theory than based on any real-world geographical division. It had little appreciation of the impact this might have on the islands and the lands that it had arbitrarily divided.
Colonisation – in the meantime the Spanish had rather concentrated attention westward, establishing settlements in Cuba and Haiti, aka Hispaniola. From these bases it expanded into Central and North America. They travelled by land across to eastern Mexico and it was from there that they began to explore the Pacific.
It was the discovery of the Americas that led to a massive migration that followed fast on the heels of the discoverers. The peninsula’s combined population was only ten million and yet almost a quarter of a million Europeans would emigrate during the 16th century.
Conquistadores – much of the ground-breaking work in these colonies fell to the Conquistadores. They were not funded by the Spanish crown, instead they operated under a rather loose arrangement where they had to provide their own volunteer personnel and supply their own horses and weaponry in pursuit of profitable ventures in the New World. A little like a land-based privateer.
This was very exciting when it became evident that the local civilisations had long worked in precious metals – gold, silver, copper and tin. Better still from the Conquistadores viewpoint, the locals worked these metals only for adornment, as utensils or as items of religious importance. There was absolutely no local tradition in applying hard metals to create weaponry.
The locals found themselves confronted with aggressors backed by Spanish Toledo steel weapons, equipped with firearms and armour. They could only respond with simple wooden or stone weapons. The impact of firearms with their loud noise and associated smoke and flash must have seemed like magic to them. They had never seen horses and, often scantily clad, they fell easy victims to the Spanish mastiff attack-dogs.
The colonists were drawn by the opportunities offered in this New World. The conquistadores became the police and military authorities controlling access to these opportunities. Quite quickly the importation of silver from the Americas represented 20% of Spain’s economy, providing the fuel for the newly united nation to grow and prosper.
Conquistadores were permitted to create their own approach and invent their own rules; there was no-one supervising their methods. One fundamental assumption they all quickly adopted was that the local peoples were pagan savages who needed to be civilised and converted to the Catholic faith. Perhaps this was based upon their country’s history of religious compulsions?
The mechanism applied by these ‘soldiers of fortune’ was called the ‘Encomienda’ system; deriving from encomendar, literally meaning ‘to entrust’. They were entrusted to look after the well-being of the locals. It was an approach similar to that used in the Reconquista in the peninsula where the conquerors on both sides took control of the area and levied a tribute upon the vanquished.
The Conquistadores foisted their feudal system upon the New World natives. In essence this denied the locals their own way of life and culture. They had to pay tribute and also endure the enforced religious conversion to Catholicism.