If you’ve heard much about the Spanish in the New World, you’ve probably heard the phrase “God, Glory, and Gold.” While no catchphrase can fully capture the complexities of a historical topic or period, this particular phrase is a pretty good place to start, nonetheless. So, let’s look at “God,” “Glory,” and “Gold” in turn as the basis for a brief introduction to the Spanish New World Empire.
As we discussed in a previous entry, the Spanish had just completed the “Reconquista,” toppling the last Muslim kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. Probably any European power at the time would have assumed that God was with them in such a struggle, but the Spanish believed that God had manifested his favor in various concrete ways throughout the reconquest. For example, some Spanish soldiers reported seeing St. James fighting on a white horse during several key battles. Then, just as the Reconquista wrapped up, they became aware of an entirely new world. The timing was further evidence for many Spanish of God’s overwhelming favor toward the fledgling kingdom.
Thus, “God” was very much a motivation for Spanish activity in the New World. Spanish clergy of multiple religious orders headed to the New World to convert Native Americans, hoping to create both good Christians and good Spanish citizens. As a reward for driving Islamic powers from Western Europe, Spanish monarchs got to nominate their own choices for church officials within their New World empire; the pope essentially rubber stamped these choices. This meant that in the New World, Spanish missionaries were as much agents of the Spanish Crown as they were of the Catholic Church. While missionaries worked with secular authorities to some extent in all European New World empires, the relationship between the two in Spanish territories was particularly intimate.
A good example of this marriage of secular and sacred interests in the Spanish New World Empire is the use of missions to spread Spanish influence and power for a significant portion of the next few centuries. On the one hand, these missions were designed to bring in nearby Indians to convert them. But once converted, these Native Americans were supposed to adopt a Spanish sedentary lifestyle. In other words, the mission was supposed to become the center of a new Spanish settlement, eventually. Missionaries would often be joined by Spanish families to seed the initial population, as well as soldiers who would not only protect the mission-settlement complexes, but who could also (in theory) assert Spanish power against still-hostile tribes. Such a use of missions as proto-settlements is how the Spanish colonized California starting in 1776 (a year that probably sounds familiar!)
The Spanish pursuit of “Glory” in the New World also had ties to the Reconquista. The reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula took place over centuries. Generations of Spanish men grew up expecting to prove their piety and their manliness against Muslim foes (and sometimes other Christians …). Generations of Spanish nobles from poorer or less important houses looked to these conflicts to improve their own situation. These and other factors led to a martial culture developed over centuries … that suddenly had no outlet with the last foe defeated! The conquest of the New World provided an outlet for those who needed to make a name for themselves. Most of the Spanish expedition leaders in the New World were less important nobles who hoped that successful conquests across the Atlantic could provide them access to prestige and wealth in a post-Reconquista world.
In point of fact, two of the early conquistadors (“conquerors”) were overwhelmingly successful at doing just this, which gives us a nice segue into discussing that third motivation: “Gold.” After decades of Spanish conquistadors chasing rumors of wealth around the Caribbean, a man named Hernan Cortes hit the jackpot when he came across the Mexica (Aztec Empire). Due to a combination of factors, Cortes toppled one of the mightiest empires in the world at the time. One of the most important factors was the large number of Indian allies who joined Cortes. The Mexica placed tremendous tribute demands (including human sacrificial victims) on the surrounding conquered peoples. Some of those groups saw in the Spanish an opportunity to get rid of the Mexica.
Cortes built the new core of the Spanish New World Empire essentially right on top the highly organized Aztec empire. The Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan became Mexico City. The Spanish used existing tribute records to organize surrounding areas, collecting both resources and labor as tribute. Hoping to make their own fortunes, some of Cortes’ companions began conquests of Central America and what would become northern Mexico, expanding the territory of the now largely mainland empire. About a decade after Tenochtitlan fell, Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incan empire in South America. Pizarro happened to catch the empire in a civil war, making the conquest all the easier. So now, Spanish exploration and conquest had been rewarded with two tremendously wealthy civilizations as spoils.
In hindsight, we know that there were no other areas of such wealth left to find in the Western Hemisphere. The Spanish would certainly find silver and gold in the ground in vast quantities, but never again would they encounter something like the Aztec or Incan empires. But of course, they didn’t know that at the time! Spurred on by these tremendous successful early successes, Spanish conquistadors began chasing rumors of wealthy empires and lost cities of gold throughout North and South America. This search for quick prestige and wealth – for the next “Mexico” –is what would lead the Spanish into what is now the United States. We’ll turn to that story in our next entry.