IV. The Early Modern Period, 1500–1800 > H. Latin America, 1500–1800
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See 1524–25)
H. Latin America, 1500–1800
1. The Spanish Conquest
The conquest and colonization of Spanish America progressed outward from the earliest colony in Santo Domingo. By 1600, the territory from New Mexico and Florida in the north to Chile and the Río de la Plata in the south was, with the exception of Brazil, under the rule of the Crown of Castile.  1
At the time that Spaniards engaged in the exploration, conquest, and colonization of America, Spain was a multiethnic society in the process of centralization and unification under the Crown of Castile (See 1479–1516). The crucial element for unity was the imposition of the Christian faith on the entire population. The Catholic kings consequently expelled Jews and Muslims unwilling to become Christians. In the expansion of Christian control, the kings distributed land and people taken from the Muslim rulers. Using the same method in America, the crown took advantage of the conquerors' individual initiatives while remaining the source of political legitimacy and organization in the New World settlements.  2
The triumph of the Spaniards over incredible numerical odds was due to their ability to exploit the fissures of local societies and to adapt their military training to new conditions. Spaniards allied with discontented native lords and learned to use native weaponry. Interpreters and translators provided them with better knowledge of the societies they intended to dominate. Through warfare and slavery, the Spanish conquest took a heavy toll on native lives. The cruelty of the conquerors gave rise to the Black Legend, popularized by Protestant European states in their wars against Spain. Besides the horrors intentionally provoked, contact with the conquerors caused native inhabitants to suffer epidemics of diseases to which they had not developed immunological defenses. Also, the introduction of European cattle destroyed the ecological system on which Indian agriculture was based. The conquerors quickly subdued those societies where centralized states had been established; in other areas, their advance was slower and suffered repeated setbacks.  3
The crown acted swiftly to prevent conquerors from becoming a new feudal aristocracy. It reserved for itself the power to issue authorizations (capitulaciones) for the exploration, conquest, and settlement of new territories. It issued laws prohibiting Indian slavery. Christianizing campaigns also strengthened royal control over conquered territories, since the Church was directly subordinated to the crown. In their eagerness to convert natives to Christianity, members of religious orders carefully studied native societies to improve their methods of uprooting native religions. The crown prohibited non-Castilians from immigrating to the New World, but many foreigners could obtain legal permission to travel and settle there. Soon, the original conquerors gave way to a colonial bureaucracy.  4
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.