The Early American Explorers
Chapter title – Conquistadors and Missionaries
Dispute Between Spain and Portugal
Columbus had stopped to consult with Portugal’s John II before returning to Spain on his first voyage. Feeling threatened by the Spanish sponsored voyage, the Portuguese king had dispatched a letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella warning that all lands south of the Canary Islands belonged to Portugal, as stated by the Treaty of Alcáçovas.
Treaty of Alcáçovas
Spain and Portugal had fought a war, known as the War of the Castilian Succession, in which the Portuguese defeated the Castilians in the mostly inconclusive war in the 1478 Battle of Guinea. The Treaty of Alcáçovas ended the war. The Treaty gave the Portuguese control of the Azores, Madeira, the Cape Verde islands and “lands discovered and to be discovered…and any other island which might be found and conquered from the Canary islands beyond toward Guinea.” The Castilians retained control of the Canary Islands, which they had begun colonizing in 1402. The treaty was noteworthy as it was the first treaty that bestowed upon European powers the authority to create spheres of influence in overseas territories without input from the natives living there.
Christopher Columbus Changed the Situation
King John’s letter to the Spanish monarchs alarmed them, as they did not have sufficient naval forces in the Atlantic to back up the claims that Columbus had made in their behalf. They decided to consult with Spanish-born pope Alexander VI to issue a decision on the new discoveries.
Treaty of Tordesillas
The Treaty of Tordesillas divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. It divided it along a line drawn up along a line drawn from pole to pole that passed about 320 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands. Spanish-born pope Alexander VI had issued a papal bull that established this line. The two countries agreed to this on June 7, 1494. Spain received the lands to the west of the line, Portugal to the east. The Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella commissioned Columbus to return for a third voyage. Part of his mission was to try to discover the extent of their new possessions.
Spain ratified the Treaty on July 2, 1494, Portugal on September 5, 1494.
The Age of the Conquistadores lasted about three decades and left an indelible mark on South, Central and North America. The Conquistadors, literally “conqueror,” in Spanish, conquered and explored large tracts of territory in all three continents. The reader may wonder what sort of men made up this compelling force, what motivated them, what was the structure of their armies and what sort of weapons they used. This section will attempt to answer those questions.
Who They Were
A conquistador army was not part of the Spanish military, it was an independent force authorized by the Spanish king and queen. The men that comprised a conquistador force came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Many were military veterans, released from service when Spain reduced the size of its army after the Reconquista and other wars. Others had non military backgrounds, having been sailors, fishermen, and nobles in the past. Many poor men whose future was not promising also enlisted in the conquistador force. Recruits received education in reading, writing, math and languages. They learned military arts from their officers and, with luck and valor in battle, could gain election as officers from their peers. Spanish law forbade single Spanish women from settling in the new lands, thus most women that accompanied a Spanish force would be in company with their husbands. Many of the soldiers would thus marry native women and settle in the new lands. Spanish law also forbade anyone that was not Spanish from immigrating, thus men of other nationalities often changed their name to a Spanish one to qualify for enlistment. Even though the Spanish government encouraged these expeditions, they did not finance them. Generally, a group of former military types would gather, form a company and organize the expedition, picking up other recruits as needed. They financed the expedition themselves. Most conquistadores did not gain vast riches through these expeditions. Many times the Spanish government took over the administration, and tax revenue, of the lands they conquered, forcing them to continue exploring, and conquering, new lands.
Motivation – Gold and Riches
The quest for gold fueled the motivations of the conquistadores. Europe had very little native gold. Kings needed gold to pay their armies. Spain’s smaller population and inferior resources made it more dependent upon foreign mercenaries than their traditional rivals of France and Italy. The conquests of the conquistadores and the discovery of gold in the Inca and Aztec empires led to Spain becoming the leading holder of gold in Europe. Historians estimate that somewhat less than 100 tons of gold made its way across the Atlantic from the New World to the old within 60 years after Columbus’ last voyages. The Spanish government effectively confiscated this rich supply of gold when they replaced the conquistadors as leaders of the various regions with Spanish bureaucrats. This action led the conquistadores to travel further into the interior in search of more gold.
Conquistador weaponry for hand to hand combat consisted mainly of the steel sword, halberds and spears. Most of the conquistadores would have been classed as rodeleros. These men were expert swordsmen that could use their steel swords and shields to great effect against the numerically superior Aztec and Inca warriors. The Aztecs and Incas did have body armor that they made of cotton sandwiched between layers of leather and cloth. It was effective against the arrows launched by warriors of conflicting tribes, but Spanish steel swords penetrated it easily. Halberdiers used a weapon called the halberd, which was sort of a cross between a battle axe and sword, the halberd was effective as either an offensive or defensive weapon in the hands of a skilled user. The stabbing tip could be used as a pike against charging foes and the sharp battle axe used to inflict vicious cutting lacerations against an enemy. The spear could be used as either a defensive weapon or thrown as an offensive one.
European weaponry at the time consisted mainly of a weapon called an arquebus. This was a defensive weapon whose name derives from the German word Hakenbüchse, or “hook gun.” The gun was mounted on hook like projection that steadied the weapon when the shooter fired the gun. Historians think that the arquebus first appeared in the Ottoman Empire sometime around 1465 and in Europe sometime around 1475. These early guns had to be fired by holding a lit match to a firepan filled with gunpowder. This operation required a great deal of preparation at a time when the soldier was probably under attack. The weapon was effective in European wars when enemies in formation attacked. However, the natives of America used unconventional guerrilla tactics, making them much less useful.
The cross bow uses a bow mounted on a frame to propel an arrow, called a bolt, at a high rate of speed towards its target. The crossbowman draws the bowstring back and secures it into place on the lock. He then loads the bolt, aims the weapon and releases the lock by pulling the trigger. The crossbow is much more accurate than the arqebuss. The crossbowmen, used in conjunction with the arqebuss, could provide an effective covering fire for artillerymen and swordsmen in a fight. Maintenance was easier for the crossbow than the firearm.
Conventional military cannon were too big for the conquistadores to transport through dense jungle and mountainous terrain. Thus, they used the smaller cannon from their ships. They mounted the guns on makeshift carriers. The thunderous explosion when a cannon discharged created dismay among native warriors and the devastating impact of the shell as it landed created many injuries, deaths and mayhem. These cannon had a range of about 2000 yards and caused much destruction among massed native troops. The warriors adapted to the cannon, becoming accustomed to the sound and changing tactics to lessen the impact of artillery.
European soldiers often wore full body armor, however most of the conquistadors could not afford this type of armor. Those that could found it impractical in the hot, humid environment of South and Central America. The extreme humidity also tended to rust the armor quickly. Thus, over time the conquistadors adopted some of the armor types used by the Inca and Aztec warriors. Mounted calvary tended to wear more armor than foot soldiers. Mounted soldiers’ horses could bear the extra weight of the armor with little problem. The armor provided vital protection for the soldiers while charging the ranks of native warriors flinging spears, shooting arrows and throwing stones. Many foot soldiers wore chain mail or just a breast plate to protect vital organs.
The natives prolific use of slings, arrows, clubs and other bludgeoning weapons made the wearing of a helmet imperative. Many conquistadores wore helmets that covered the top and sides of the head as well as the neck region of the body. The soldiers also made ample use of curved metal shields to deflect spears, arrows and other weapons. Many of these shields featured a spike in the middle that they could use to stab an opponent.
The Spanish brought horses to the New World, first by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, and by later Spanish conquistadors and settlers. The natives did not have horses and had not seen them prior to contact with the Spanish. The Spaniards brought their own particular breed, known as the Spanish Colonial Horse, to the New World. This breed was a mix of two ancestral horses, the Iberian horse and the Berber horse. The Iberian horse consists of a number breeds of horses native to the Iberian peninsula. These horses bred with the Bard, or Berber, horse of North Africa which the Moors introduced after their invasion. The Barb horse possesses great stamina and a fiery temperament. These horses form the breeding stock for most horses found today in North America. Many broke free and roamed the vast desert areas of the West. Natives obtained stocks of these horses, which improved their lives by improving the efficiency of their hunting activities. Initially, however, they did not have them, lending the Spanish a major advantage in their military campaigns against the Aztec, Maya and Inca Empires. Spanish Heavy and Light Cavalry played an essential role in subduing these civilizations.
With the rise of firearms and skilled pikemen, the heavy cavalry had become less effective in European wars. However in the New World the situation was different. The Amerindian warriors did not have firearms or experience in defending against a charge by heavy cavalry. The quick, powerful charge by mounted cavalry troops in full armor able to thrust downward with his lance at his less mobile foe was an important advantage. The psychological impact on the native troops was negative, to say the least. The heavy cavalry, supported by infantry armed with crossbows and firearms, allowed a small number of Spaniards to dominate a force far superior in numbers.
Light cavalry consisted of troops trained in more agile movements than heavy calvary. These troops wore lighter armor, helmets and limb guards. They used the lance favored by heavy calvary as their offensive weapon. Their training allowed them to move quickly around enemy positions, mount fast charges and retreat quickly. These troops also served as scouts for the main conquistador force.
Rodeleros, also called Sword-and-Buckler Soldiers or shield bearers, formed the backbone of the conquistadores force. These solders carried straight Spanish swords as their main offensive weapons and used shields to ward off swords and projectiles. Well drilled in the art of fencing, these soldiers could pierce the cotton armor of their native adversaries easily and fend off the razor sharp obsidian bladed macuahuitl of their attackers. Together with the calvary, bowmen and gunners the much smaller conquistador forces laid waste to the Aztec, Mayan and Incan Empires.
The Mission System of Spanish Colonization in the United States
As the conquistadors conquered the huge empires of South and Central America, Catholic missionary priests and friars accompanied the solders as they explored and conquered. After the conquistadors had completed the subjugation of the natives, the missionaries moved in to convert the to Christianity and educate them.
The system that evolved consisted of three basic elements, the garrison, the mission and the town hall. Spanish soldiers garrisoned the fort, keeping order and protecting the territory. Priests and friars inhabited the mission building where they instructed the natives in the ways of Catholicism. The missionaries taught the natives how to raise crops, livestock and instructed them in many other trades. The town hall served as a meeting place where residents could gather to voice their needs and grievances. This system continued as the Spanish moved into the region that would become the United States southwestern states of Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, California and others. Many of the oldest towns in these states began as Spanish missions.
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