In 1502, the seventeen-year-old Bartolomé de las Casas arrived on the island that the natives called ‘Haiti,’ which meant ‘the mountainous island.’
Las Casas’ father was a merchant. He had come to the land that the Spanish called ‘The Indies’ to take advantage of trading opportunities and brought his family. The family arrived 10 years after Columbus had first landed there.
Bartolomé de las Casas was a prolific writer. He began to write a journal of his time in ‘The Indies’ as a teenager and continued it for the next 59 years, until his death in 1566. His journal and its associated texts eventually became the most comprehensive literature on events that took place in the land that came to be called ‘the new world’ that we have.
Las Casas came to the area as a teenager. Teenagers like to hang around with other teenagers. There weren’t a lot of Spanish teenagers on Haiti at the time. Las Casas began to spend time with local teenagers. He learned the language very quickly. His friends were people that the Spanish called ‘Indians.’
We will see shortly that the conquerors tried hard to have friendly relations with the locals, at least at first. When they realized that the people who lived in these lands would not accept their way of life easily, they began to apply pressure. When they realized that no amount of pressure would get the natives to change their ways of life to match the requirements of the conquerors, they began exterminating them.
When Las Casas saw that the people from the society where he was raised were killing the people he had come to think of as ‘his people,’ he became a vocal opponent of the treatment of the local people. This put him into direct opposition with the people behind the conquest.
He spent his life working within the system to try to change policy.
But his opponents—the ones who wanted the locals wiped out—thought of him as an ‘Indian lover.’ The ‘Indians’ were the enemy. Las Casas was trying to thwart the goals of the conquistadors, which meant he was trying to go against the church.
In part, the Catholic Church reaction was defensive and personal against Las Casas: Church officials realized his writings could show that the Christians had committed atrocities with the knowledge and support of the church. In part, they began to fight him because he tried actively to change their behavior and bring some of the worst offenders against the local people to justice, including a large number of high officials in the church. The leadership of the Catholic church didn’t want people to know the things he had written and didn’t want him to have a platform in his opposition to their activities.
They put his books on a list called the ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum,’ a list of books banned by the church.
This was not a passive ban that could be taken lightly. The Church body that enforced this ban, the inquisition, was known for its incredible brutality. The two countries most involved in colonization, Spain and Portugal, both had important alliances with church officials. The governments of these nations enforced the ban against the long list of books. For centuries, no one knew about Las Casas’ writings, because they had been banned.
During the 1800s and 1900s, the church lost virtually all of its power to enforce its edicts. Officials no longer had the ability to gather books and destroy them, or to prosecute their owners. In 1966, the Church officials realized that it did the organization no good to have a list of banned books when it couldn’t enforce the ban. They officially ended the practice and made ownership of all books legal.
Although the ban didn’t exist anymore, it had been highly effective for nearly 400 years. Most of the books that were banned were either not available at all or available only in ancient editions that were so old and fragile that the public couldn’t be allowed to even see them, let alone read them.
The internet is making more and more of these books available as time passes. When I began to look for Las Casas’ works in the late 1990s, I found only excerpts from the first volume of the Historia on the internet, and then only in Spanish, with only one of his books (the Devastation of the Indies) having been translated into in English. (The Historia was originally published in 1552; it was a six-volume set with 260 chapters and more than 2,600 pages.) As more and more works of the period become available, we get a better and better picture of what happened.
I keep defaulting to Las Casas, however, for an understanding of this period in history, for several reasons.
First: he was clearly very intelligent.
Second: the people of his own time clearly placed a great deal of trust in him. Columbus and many others trusted him so much they left their personal papers to him to help him write his Historia.
Third: he is able to see both sides of the issue. He was a member of the conquering society, but he lived among and understood the ways of life of the society that was being conquered.
He spent his formative years with people of his own age who had entirely different ideas about the way human existence could work. He was in a position to contrast these ideas with the ideas of the Europeans that had come to make a new life in this new world.
I think it is important to understand what Las Casas was trying to do with his writings. He himself explains it better than anyone else can. This is from the introduction to Historia:
The ultimate cause for writing this work was to gain knowledge of all the many peoples of this vast new world. They had been defamed by persons who feared neither God nor the charge, so grievous before divine judgment, of defaming men and causing them to lose esteem and honor.
It has been written that these peoples of the Indies, lacking organized nations and structured governments, did not have the power of reason to govern themselves. In order to demonstrate the truth, which is the opposite, this book brings together and compiles natural, special and accidental causes which are specified below. Not only have the new-world natives shown themselves to be very wise peoples and possessed of lively and marked understanding, prudently governing and providing for their people and making them prosper in justice; but they have equaled many diverse nations of the world, past and present, that have been praised for their governance, politics and customs; and exceed by no small measure the wisest of all these, such as the Greeks and Romans.
This advantage and superiority, along with everything said above, will appear quite clearly when the new-world natives are compared with Europeans.
This history has been written with the aforesaid aim in mind by Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, a monk of the Dominican Order and bishop of Chiapa, who promises before the divine word that everything said and referred to is the truth, and that nothing of an untruthful nature appears to the best of his knowledge.
Las Casas’ book includes enormous quantities of evidence from official documents, from the personal and professional papers of prominent people of the time, from eye-witness accounts by various respected people, and from things Las Casas himself saw with his own eyes. At the end of the book, he summarizes its points this way:
I have declared and demonstrated openly and concluded, from chapter 22 to the end of this whole book, that all of the people of these Indies are Human. They had their towns, villages and cities, most fully and abundantly provided for. With a few exceptions in varying degrees they lacked nothing, and some were endowed in full perfection for political and social life and for attaining and enjoying that civic happiness which in this world any good, rational, well provided and happy society wishes to have and enjoy; for all are by nature of very subtle, lively, clear and most capable understanding.
Las Casas describes the first half century of conquest in very great detail. His books provide a theme that we can follow to understand when, where, and how certain policies in the early years of the conquest became a reality, and the effects these policies had on the world and its people.
As we will see, at first, the conquering societies tried to assimilate the people of the new world into their culture. But this didn’t last very long. Let’s start with the early attempts at assimilation.
The Capitulations of Santa Fe had granted Columbus certain rights and authorities over any land he might discover. This document granted Columbus three official titles:
Each title meant something specific:
As governor, he was essentially the government of any lands he might discover. He could make all rules and laws that kings and governments of Europe could make.
As Admiral, he commanded the military. If he made rules in his role as the governor and if people didn’t follow them, he could order the military to enforce the rules.
As Vice-Roy, he was the administrator of the land, a position of nobility. This title granted him the right to share in any revenue he collected from the land. In Europe, the government collected both rents and taxes from the land and people. He wanted his land to begin generating taxes and revenue. The more money the land generated, the more he would get.
He told the natives that they were subjects of the crown and under his governance. If they followed his rules, they would be allowed to live in peace.
What rules would he require them to follow?
He arrived back in Haiti in November of 1493. Two months later, he passed a law called ‘La Tributa.’ This law required the locals to pay taxes.
They were living on land that belonged to the King and Queen. Columbus was their representative. He was required to make sure they compensated the owners of the land for their generosity in letting them live on it.
He had brought a large quantity of trinkets called ‘hawk’s bells’ to give away to the locals. (These were tiny bells, so named because people who owned hawks attached them to their birds so they could hear their birds coming.) The native streams had gold dust in them. Columbus told them that they had to pay the king and queen for the use of the land where they lived in gold.
Qqq hawks bell picture page 273
They would have to open the bell and use it as a vessel; the tax started out to be ½ of a hawk’s bell full of gold every 4 months. This worked out to be 2 grams of gold for each three-month period.
At first, the locals paid the tax. They had a lot of gold. A few people could go out and collect it and give Columbus what he wanted, keeping his military from bothering them.
Columbus must have decided he had set the tax too low and, in 1495, doubled it, to 4 grams of gold dust per person, per four-month period.
As the Vice-Roy, Columbus’ share was half. The rest belonged to the owners of the land, the King and Queen of Spain.
The sovereigns had accountants who quickly realized that they weren’t getting the amounts of rents they should get. They knew the native population of the island. (Three million according to official records.) The knew they were supposed to get ½ of 4 grams per person, or a total of 6 million grams every 3 months. They weren’t getting it.
It turned out that Columbus had a soft heart. He let some people slide on their taxes. Sovereignties can’t work if some people are allowed to slide on their taxes. If some people can get away without paying, others won’t pay either; the discontent will grow. Everyone has to pay.
If people won’t pay without aggressive enforcement of the tax, the government will have to enforce the tax aggressively. The system can’t work otherwise.
In 1513, the crown cracked down, passing a new law ‘La Requerimiento.’ This law was posted in all of the towns and villages of Haiti, the only island under the total control of the Spanish at this time. Criers were sent to read the text to the locals in their own language. The government wanted the people to know that it was in charge; failure to pay rent would no longer be tolerated. Here are some excerpts from the law:
Almost all those who have been notified of their obligations have received and served their Highnesses as lords and kings, in the way that subjects ought to do, with good will, without any resistance, immediately, without delay, when they were informed of the aforesaid facts. If you do this also, you will do well and their Highnesses shall receive you in all love and charity, and shall leave you, your wives, and your children, and your lands, free without servitude.
If you do not do this, or if you delay maliciously in doing it, we swear to you that with God’s help we will come mightily against you and you make war against you in every way we can; we will subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and His Majesty; we will take your wives and children and make them slaves; we will sell them into slave markets and use the money as His Majesty commands. We will take your property and do you all of the misery and harm that we are able to do to you, as is fitting for vassals who do not obey and do not want to receive their rightful master.
We hereby inform you that the deaths and damages that you will receive from this are your fault, and not His Majesties nor mine, nor the soldiers that came with me and will enforce these rules. [The full text of this document can be found at http://www.gabrielbernat.es/ espana/leyes/requerimiento/r1513/r1513.html.]
It is often said that the truth is stranger than fiction.
It would seem hard to believe that anyone who truly believed in an afterlife judgment would write such a thing. If a fiction writer claimed someone who believed in afterlife judgment passed such a law as a premise for a book, readers would probably not accept it. But the document above is a real law passed by real people who at least claimed to believe in an afterlife judgment.
The government of Columbus and governors that followed him enforced the law as it was written. The government under Columbus manufactured special copper medals, a different design for each three-month period. When people paid for a given period, they would get the appropriate medal attached to a string, to use as a necklace. They had to wear the current medal around their necks at all times. Any found without the necklace were deemed to be in violation of the Requerimiento.
The military went through all of the native towns at the beginning of each rental period inspecting everyone. Soldiers had to arrest any people without the medals—along with their children, as the law specified—and bring them to the nearest market to sell them as slaves. Any of the people who were passive and accepted the situation were allowed to live out the rest of their lives as slaves. (Many records indicate that this meant days or, at most, weeks; they were not treated well.)
What if people resisted arrest?
The soldiers were required to execute any who resisted on the spot. The government gave them instructions to conduct these executions in the most brutal and inhumane ways they could devise. Here Las Casas describes the enforcement methods he saw used, with his own eyes. (Warning: the quote that follows is brutal and graphic in its description of violence. Think about whether you have a tolerance for such descriptions before you read it.)
They spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!” Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone else who happened to be nearby.
When Columbus first arrived, gold dust was abundant in the streams. The early miners removed it. The easy gold wasn’t there. The native villages couldn’t get enough gold to pay the taxes required for that entire village. They realized that if they didn’t pay, the soldiers would come and enforce the order.
The natives began to desert their farms, villages and homes, in order to escape the death squads. They began to go into remote areas of the mountains to live. The mountains were cold and many died of hypothermia; they had little food and many starved to death. Las Casas discusses the decline in the native population at great length, not just on the big island of Haiti where he lived, but throughout the lands controlled by the people of the Western Hemisphere. He points out that the official native population of Haiti was three million when he arrived in 1502. The 1550 census listed only 200 natives left alive on the entire island. The next census showed zero full-blooded natives.
There were three major mechanisms that caused the population decline:
The first was the decline in the food supply. Food production stopped. When Columbus first arrived, the natives had large warehouses full of food. They kept stockpiles in case the harvest was short in a given year. Las Casas points out that they burned these warehouses themselves and destroyed their own reserve food.
They truly believed that no one owned the land, so no one owned the food. Even as the Spanish were killing them, they didn’t change this belief. They didn’t lump the Spanish together. Some were good and some were bad. They felt those who were good deserved the same rights as the locals to the food. They shared.
Finally, when they realized that the Spanish weren’t going to leave, they decided the only way to remove them was to starve them out. They couldn’t let them starve if there was still food (it is hard to imagine this point of view, but you can find ample evidence that they held it in many of the documents of the time). The only way to starve the Spanish was to destroy all the food.
This didn’t work, however. The Spanish had gold (the gold the natives were removing from the streams and later mines to give to the Spanish, in an attempt to get them to stop the killing). The Spaniards could buy all the food they wanted in Europe and have it shipped back to them.
The second major cause of the population decline was disease. The people from Afro-Eurasia had lived in close proximity to cows and other farm animals for thousands of years. If a serf family owned a cow in feudal Europe, its milk could mean the difference between life and death for its owners and their children. Cows can be stolen and, if they were to leave the cow outside at night, someone would eventually steal it. To prevent thieves from stealing their farm animals, they would bring the animals into their homes and sleep with the animals.
Over the course of thousands of years, two very serious cattle diseases mutated to be able to attack humans: cow pox mutated into what is probably the most dangerous disease humans have ever had, smallpox. The ‘rinderpest’ virus, a cattle disease, mutated to become human measles, a disease that is often fatal.
Afro-Eurasian people were not as susceptible to these diseases as people in the Western Hemisphere because they had lived with the diseases for thousands of years. When an outbreak of smallpox went through a community, those highly susceptible would all die. At first, this meant most of the people. But those who had some sort of resistance would survive and pass down their resistance to their children. In the next wave, a smaller percentage would die. Each wave would kill a smaller percentage. By the 1500s, Europeans had such a great immunity that most waves of disease killed only about 20% of the people who got it.
The native people had never experienced these diseases and had no resistance.
The 2010 paper, ‘The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas,’ explains the role disease played in the decline in population:
Before Europeans initiated the Columbian Exchange of germs and viruses, the peoples of the Americas suffered no smallpox, no measles, no chickenpox, no influenza, no typhus, no typhoid or parathyroid fever, no diphtheria, no cholera, no bubonic plague, no scarlet fever, no whooping cough, and no malaria. Although we may never know the exact magnitudes of the depopulation due to these diseases, it is estimated that upwards of 80–95 percent of the Native American population was decimated within the first 100–150 years following 1492 (Newson, 2001). Within 50 years following contact with Columbus and his crew, the native Taino population of the island of Hispanola, which had an estimated population between 60,000 and 8 million, was virtually extinct (Cook, 1993). [Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 24:2, Spring 2010, 163-188.]
The third reason for the decline in population is the one that got the most attention from humanists like Las Casas:
The conquerors enslaved the native people and either worked them to death, or simply slaughtered them. This was easy for them to do: the native people did not have any weapons, they had never had to develop militaries, they had never had to design their economies around war or give leaders the power to commit atrocities. They had no experience in mass murder and had powerful social taboos against harming others; this often caused them to refuse to kill soldiers even when killing a few soldiers could have prevented the soldiers from slaughtering their entire village.
The people who had grown up in Afro-Eurasian societies had experience with war; they knew the most effective ways to kill, had all the necessary tools, and were willing to do anything necessary—including destroy the environment that supported them—in order to make sure they always had enough weapons to keep the killing going.
They had been raised to believe that their sovereigns gained their power and authority from God Himself. To disobey sovereign law was to disobey the all-powerful Creator of the universe. Nothing was more important to them than sovereign law.
The Conquest of the Mainland
Hernando Cortez led the first large-scale military action on the American continent. He left Cuba with a small group of ships on February 19, 1515. His goal was clearly to conquer the entire continent.
The expedition made its first stop on the beautiful island of Cozumel, about 100 miles west of the tip of Cuba and just off the coast of Mexico. The people who lived on Cozumel told Cortez that there were two other people from his culture who already lived in Mexico. These two men were living in the city of Chetumal, about 100 miles southwest of Cozumel.
The two men, Gonzalo Guerro and Gerónimo de Aguilar, had been the only survivors of a shipwreck about seven years earlier. Cortez wrote them a letter and sent it by native courier. The letter invited the Spaniards to come to Cozumel and join Cortez’ expedition.
Gerónimo de Aguilar responded to the message. He wanted to get back to the world he had left behind. The other chose to remain behind and declined the offer. He sent a letter back that explained the reason he wanted to stay behind. (An engraved copy of this letter, together with a 70-foot high stature of Guerro, stands today at the main road entrance to Chetumal; Guerro is a great hero to the Mayan people; see text below for more information:)
Aguilar went with Cortez. He spoke both Mayan and Spanish so he could translate, a huge help in this expedition. He also understood the customs of the Mayan people, so he could make sure that Cortez followed the proper protocols to get along with the people who lived there.
After the group left Cozumel, their next stop was the city of Potonchán (now called Celestún) at the mouth of the Tobasco River.
Peter Myrtar, the official historian of the Spanish Crown, provides this description of Potonchán:
There exists a great city extending along the Tabasco river; so great and celebrated, as one cannot measure, it extends flanking the coast about five hundred thousand steps and has twenty-five thousand houses, dispersed among gardens, that are made splendidly with stones and lime in whose construction projects the admirable industry and are of the architects. [De Orbo Novo]
Cortez spent two weeks in this beautiful city. While there, he met a woman who was to play a very important part in the conquest of Mexico. In her native language, her name was ‘Malintzin.’ The Spaniards had a hard time pronouncing the last syllable, so they called her ‘Malinche.’
Cortez and Malinche became lovers. Malinche decided to go with Cortez on the rest of his trip.
Most Mexican people today know the name ‘Malinche.’
The native people of Mexico consider her to be a great traitor. They put a large share of the blame for the atrocities that were to follow on her shoulders.
Malinche had been born and raised in Tenochtitlan (now called ‘Mexico City’). She came from a prosperous family and received a good education. She had moved to Potonchán as a teenager. Her native language was Nauhatal, the language of the central Mexico valley, but she was very well-educated and spoke many local dialects. She was fluent in Mayan so she could communicate through Aguilar. Malinche had a natural aptitude for languages and became fluent in Spanish very quickly.
(Malinche and Cortez would eventually marry. But this would be a long time in the future.)
Malinche was familiar with the legends and religious superstitions of the Mexican people. One legend tells of a god from the east named ‘Quetzocoatal.’ According to the legend, Quetzocoatal had arrived from the eastern sea some 1,200 years earlier. (This would be the year 319 AD by the Christian calendar, just before Constantine issued the edicts that led to the Dark Ages.) The legend holds that the blond haired blue-eyed Quetzocoatal had created the administrative system that was still in place in Mexico as of 1519.
Quetzocoatal then told the people he could not stay and would have to return home. He told them that he would trust them to rule themselves until he returned and took back his position of authority. He said he would return and, when he did, they would have to return authority to him.
Malinche told Cortez that he may be able to take advantage of this legend.
Rather than taking the bold step of claiming to be Quetzocoatal himself, he could claim that Quetzocoatal would soon be arriving and that he, Cortez, had been sent ahead to prepare things for the god’s arrival. Cortez decided to follow Malinche’s advice and pretend to be an emissary of Quetzocoatal.
His men were not very well suited for this mission. They were mostly lower class people he had picked up in the bars of Cuba by promising them a share of any spoils they could find. Cortez told them they would have to act respectably for the ruse to work. He set strict behavior rules. When two of his men violated the rules the first day, to show that he meant business Cortez conducted a quick court marshal and had them hanged. The others appeared to have gotten the message because they were able to act respectably, at least for a while.
Under Malinche’s guidance, they headed for her home city, Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). The closest landing was a native village located where the colonial Spanish city of Veracruz now stands. They arrived there April 21, 1519.
Some of the men were afraid of what they faced. Cortez was worried that they would turn coward and run, so he decided to make this impossible. He unloaded the ships and put the goods they would need on shore. Then he sent people out to set fire to the ships. The entire crew watched while they burned and eventually sank. There was no going back. They would succeed or die.
Malinche knew just what to say to the locals. She told them that Cortez was an ambassador for Quetzocoatal. Quetzocoatal would soon be arriving. Cortez had been sent ahead to make sure everything was ready for his arrival. He was to go to the capital, Tenochtitlan, and make arrangements so that the administration could be turned over to Quetzocoatal as soon as he arrived.
Tenochtitlan was an island city in the middle of a lake, connected to the mainland by three causeways. Cortez arrived at the gate to the main causeway on October 8, 1519 and formally requested entry into the city. The picture below is a copy of the map Cortez drew of Tenochtitlan.
Qqq map of tenochtitlan page 282
Many historians believe that Tenochtitlan was the most populous city on Earth at the time. More than 500,000 people lived on the island itself, with at least 3 million more living around the lake. The Aztec leaders knew Cortez was coming of course; they had messengers and a well-organized system for relaying news. But they couldn’t agree on what they should do about it.
Some of the leaders believed it was a trick. They thought that Spaniards had simply taken advantage of the legend, which was, in fact, what was happening. But some were not so sure. They thought it might be true. They thought that they needed to at least let Cortez into the city to explain himself.
The leaders kept Cortez and his men waiting just outside of the city for a full month before they made their decision. Finally, they agreed to let him in. On November 8, 1519, Cortez and his men marched along the great causeway into the most populous city in the world, being welcomed as if they were the emissaries of their most revered god.
When they arrived, an island-wide feast and celebration was held in their honor. Montezuma, the highest leader in the administration, hosted the party. We can tell by the events that happened next that Montezuma was one of the leaders who did not believe that Cortez represented any gods. Cortez must have realized that Montezuma did not believe him and would make trouble, so he decided to take steps to make this impossible. Cortez told Montezuma he wanted to talk to him in private and they met in a side room where Cortez had stationed several armed men. Cortez took Montezuma hostage. He made it clear that he would torture and kill Montezuma if he didn’t cooperate.
Montezuma came to be regarded as a great traitor to his people because of his response: he agreed to cooperate. Within a few days, Cortez had been granted the Aztec equivalent of the keys to the city. The Aztecs put him and his men up in the nicest building in town and showered them with gifts and honors. Cortez had it made. All he would have to do is not make any serious mistakes and he would control this massive and powerful land without having to fight anyone.
The Fall of the City
Unfortunately, Cortez had already made a mistake.
He had partnered with the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, for this trip. The governor provided all of the money and ships; Cortez commanded the operation. They had agreed to split any profits of the voyage 50/50. But Cortez clearly didn’t have any intention of keeping his end of the bargain. He got his men together three days before the scheduled departure date and left with all the ships and equipment, without taking any of his partner’s men or even notifying them he was leaving.
Governor Cuéllar realized Cortez didn’t have any intention of sharing what he took with him.
The governor put together a second expedition to go to Mexico. The leader was to find Cortez, arrest him, and bring him to justice. The second expedition arrived at Veracruz in April of 1520. Cortez found out they were there through Montezuma’s messenger system. The party included 19 ships and 1,400 soldiers.
Cortez decided it best that he talk to them in person, so he left the city.
Here is the problem:
Cortez’s men were from the lower classes and were already having a hard time following the rules. Many of the people on the trip liked to drink alcohol. The Aztecs had an alcoholic drink called pulque, that they kept offering to the Spaniards. (Pulque is fermented maguey leaves; when it is distilled it is called ‘tequila.’ The Aztecs reserved tequila for religious ceremonies, but ordinary people could drink pulque. They still do; it is the drink of the very, very poor in Mexico today.) Cortez had forbidden them to drink alcohol on penalty of death by hanging.
Another rule involved sex. Some of the local women were attracted to the Spaniards. They kept flirting and trying to get the men into bed. Cortez had forbidden any sexual activity with the locals. (Since there were no Spanish females, this meant no sex at all.) Again, men who violated the rule were to be hanged.
Cortez had let them know he meant business from the first, by hanging two of his men. As long as Cortez was there, his men behaved. But Cortez feared that if he left, his men might think they could get away with breaking the rules.
They apparently didn’t understand that they had to keep up the deception, because the 140 of them could not remain if even a tiny percentage of the hundreds of thousands of locals wanted them gone. Cortez was in a bad situation. He didn’t want to leave, but he felt he didn’t have any choice. If he could talk to the Spaniards who had come to arrest him, he might be able to get them on his side. If he couldn’t talk to them, they could mess up his plan and make it impossible.
As soon as Cortez left, the men he left behind began to violate the rules. The locals started to realize that these weren’t emissaries of their god at all; they were simple opportunists trying to get what they could. They finally evicted the Spaniards.
There are several stories about what happened next. Some say that the massacre the Spaniards perpetuated was preemptive: they had learned that the locals would move against them, and they wanted make sure the locals knew they would not tolerate this. Others say that the locals told the Spaniards to leave first, and they reacted with the massacre.
Regardless of which way it happened, the Spanish selected a religious celebration to show their strength. The Spanish blockaded all of the exits to the building where the celebration was being held and then killed everyone there. The next day, thousands of citizens volunteered to use force to remove the Spanish. The 140 of them had no chance against the thousands arrayed against them.
In the meantime, Cortez was on his way to meet the party that had been sent to arrest him. He had some very good luck. He located the Spanish camp and sent a spy in to get information. The spy found out where the command tent was located. The other party had no idea Cortez was there; he caught them totally by surprise. In the middle of the night, Cortez and his men moved in and captured the commander of the unit, Pánfilo de Narváez.
Cortez told Narváez that he had located a city of gold. Cortez offered Narváez a choice: his first option was to put himself and his troops under Cortez’s command. If he did this, he and all his men would share in the gold in accordance with their rank and Narváez would likely end up one of the richest men on Earth.
His second option was to refuse to cooperate. If he did this, he would be executed, and Cortez would make the same offer to his next in command. Narváez didn’t consider his choices very long. He decided to put his troops under Cortez’s command.
By now, Cortez knew about the debacle in the city. He knew that the Aztecs would never let him back. The city was on an island in the middle of a lake. The only way to get there on foot was by a causeway so narrow two people could barely pass. There would be no way to take the causeway by force. But Cortez had another plan.
Smallpox infections lead to large numbers of pustules that fill up with puss. The puss contains the variola virus, the source of the disease. Military leaders who want to use smallpox as a weapon can collect the puss and store it in vials. The puss remains contagious for a very long period of time. (As I write this, the disease itself has been wiped out. However, the virus itself still exists. Major world governments that have biological weapons have stored the pus that contains the virus in vials, in case they ever need to do what Cortez did.) Cortez could smear some pus on blankets and other items that were bound for markets in Tenochtitlan. Then, he would just have to wait; in about 3 weeks, smallpox would break out in the city.
Qqq smallpox picture here page 286
The illustration to the right is from a book written by Aztecs at the time of the conquest called the Florentine Codex. It shows drawings of people with the disease that swept through Tenochtitlan in 1520. The photograph above it comes from a web description used to help physicians to help identify specific kinds of smallpox, depicting the symptoms of ‘Variola Major,’ the deadliest form of smallpox.
The quote below is from the Florentine Codex, describing the onset of the plague:
Before the Spaniards had risen against us, first there came to be prevalent a great sickness, a plague. It was in Tepeilhuitl that it originated, that there spread over the people a great destruction of men. Some it covered with pustules; they were spread everywhere, on one’s face, on one’s head, on one’s breast, etc. There was indeed perishing; many indeed died of it.
No longer could they walk; they only lay in their abodes, in their beds. No longer could they move, no longer could they bestir themselves, no longer could they raise themselves, no longer could they stretch themselves out face down, no longer could they stretch themselves out on their backs. And when they bestirred themselves, much did they cry out. There was much perishing. Indeed many people died of the sickness and many just died of hunger. There was much death from hunger; there was no one to take care of another; there was no one to attend to another.
At this time this plague prevailed indeed sixty days.
And then the Spaniards came.
They moved there from Texcoco; they went to set forth by way of Quauhtitlan; they came to settle themselves at Tlacopan. And in Nextlatilco, or Ilyacac, there indeed war first began.
The Spaniards didn’t really ‘fight’ for Tenochtitlan.
They waited until the city was helpless—with the great majority of the people either dead or crippled from disease—and took over.
Once Cortez controlled Tenochtitlan, he sent his troops outward in all directions. The Spaniards treated Central America the same way they had treated Haiti: it was a cash register, a source of gold and other treasure. They took what each area contained and moved on. The people were nothing but nuisances to be brushed aside.
What about their cultures?
In this area, the Spanish moved aggressively. After taking Tenochtitlan, Cortez had every single building and monument torn apart, stone by stone. The stones were then used to rebuild in Spanish Colonial style. They destroyed any books or records they could find. The Spanish wanted to eradicate any trace of the culture, the beliefs, and the society that existed before they arrived in Mexico.
South and North America
In 1520, Hernando De Soto, then 24 years old, joined the Spanish military. He was sent to a unit in Panama which was then under the command of Pedro Arias Dávila.
De Soto gained a reputation as an expert in biological warfare. He was good at it.
His standard operating procedure involved organizing distribution of items that were infected with smallpox to the native people. A few weeks after the presents arrived, smallpox broke out. He would wait until the people were helpless from the disease and move in. De Soto was notorious for his cruelty. He wanted gold. He would kidnap leaders and hold them for ransom. Once he had all the gold people would give him for the leaders, he took others hostage and tortured them to get their gold. Bartolomé de Las Casas described his activities in gruesome detail in La Historia.
De Soto’s methods were very effective. He did things the other men in the military would not do and brought in far more gold than others. His commanders promoted him over and over. He was promoted to officer rank in 1521. By 1522, he had his own command.
In 1523, he met Francisco Pizarro.
Pizarro had arrived in the new world in 1509. He had accompanied the explorer Balboa in his crossing of the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific in 1513. During the next five years, Pizarro became a close associate of Governor Dávila. Dávila wanted power and Balboa was in his way, so he wanted Balboa removed. This presented a problem: Balboa was an officer with a large contingent of troops who would protect him. Dávila told Pizarro that, if he could bring in Balboa, he would be well rewarded. Pizarro was able to capture Balboa and bring him into the fort, where Dávila had Balboa beheaded. He delivered the promised reward and made Pizarro mayor (Alcalde) and magistrate of the newly formed Panama City.
Pizarro knew about the ‘Great South Sea,’ as Balboa had named it (the Pacific Ocean, on the west side of the Isthmus of Panama), because he had been there several times. Native traders brought goods up and down the coast. They had told Balboa and Pizarro of land rich with gold called ‘Peru’ further south on the west coast of what is now called South America. In 1524, Pizarro and De Soto went south themselves to have a look. They landed at the city of Tumbes; it had a population of 178,000 at the time. The people of Tumbes didn’t have a lot of gold, but they traded regularly with the people further to the south and told the explorers that the lands to the south had enormous amounts of this metal.
The two conquistadors made a second trip to Tumbes in 1526. They brought some blankets and other items that they traded to the locals in the markets of Tumbes, and then they immediately left. As soon as they left, smallpox broke out among the people of Tumbes. The next two years, an epidemic raged through the Incan areas, spreading from Tumbes southward.
Pizarro and De Soto then went back to Spain and spent several years there with their attorneys securing legal rights to conquer Peru and keep a share of any gold or sliver they could extract from the people there. Their attorneys negotiated a very good deal: they had the right to keep 80% of the gold and silver they got from the land. The other 20% was to be called the ‘quinto real,’ or the ‘royal fifth.’ This would go to the crown.
When they returned with their armies in 1530, Tumbes was uninhabited. The smallpox had caused such devastation to the city that the few survivors had fled. In fact, there had been many cities to the south along the coast; all were deserted. The survivors of the plagues had fled to the very high Andean mountains, where the disease hadn’t been as virulent.
The Incan leadership had moved to the city of Cuzco; the highest official left alive was named ‘Atahualpa.’ Soto arranged a meeting with Atahualpa and, as soon as Atahualpa arrived, Soto had him placed in manacles. He had done this many times before to other native leaders: he wanted their money. He wanted to make the people think that they would be left alone if they turned over the required ransom to the Spaniards. There was a storage building close to where the two met, a building now called the ‘treasure room.’ The building is still there; its floor size is 10 feet by 20 feet, and the ceiling is 8 feet high. Soto wanted the building filled to the top with gold; after the Spaniards had removed the gold, the Incans had to fill it again, this time with silver. The Spaniards would take the silver and the Incans would have to fill it third time, again with silver. Soto told the people that, if they did this, he would take the gold and silver and leave, releasing everyone unharmed, and never return.
The people complied and delivered the required silver and gold. Pizarro and De Soto ended up with a total of 1,326,539 pesos, or about 50,000 KG (25 metric tons), of gold, and about twice that amount of silver. The gold alone would be worth $2 billion at 2020 prices.
Qqq treasure room 289
Hernando De Soto’s share of the ransom was 17,740 pesos (630kg) of gold. De Soto used his money to purchase a large estate in Castile.
He was now officially a member of the landed gentry. He began to look for a suitable wife. Queen Isabella’s cousin, also named Isabella, was unmarried. Soto wanted her for a wife. The king needed money very quickly to pay for a war and De Soto had money to lend (gold was used for money in Europe at the time). De Soto agreed to make the loan provided the king paved the way for him to marry Isabella. The two were married in Castile, Spain, in 1537.
The Queen was very close to her cousin and wanted to give her and her new husband a truly magnificent wedding present. She ended up giving the De Sotos the province that the Spanish then called ‘Florida.’
At the time, the Spanish had not explored any areas north of Cuba. They used the term ‘Florida’ to refer to all Spanish possessions north of Cuba. God Himself had granted all land of the Americas to the King and Queen of Spain, and their heirs and assigns, forever, in the Papal Bull of 1493. The queen of Spain gave all land North of Cuba to her cousin and her new husband, Hernando De Soto, in 1537.
Officially, Hernando De Soto was the ‘Marquis and Adelanto’ of Florida.
The term ‘Adelanto’ translates to ‘president.’
The title ‘Marquis’ meant that he would have the same rights that Columbus had: if he could put any land under Spanish control, he would be entitled to administer it in exchange for a share of the revenues it generated.
De Soto was now president of North America. He had never been there. He wanted to see what his land looked like. He led a group of 800 people through the lands in the southeastern part of North America during a four-year period between 1539 and 1542.
The map below shows his route. Several of the people in his group were writers. They kept journals describing their four-year trip through the areas that are now the states of Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas. Four accounts exist of this journey.
The first to be published was by the ‘Gentleman of Elvas,’ an otherwise unidentified Portuguese knight who was a member of the expedition. His chronicle was first published in 1557. An English translation by Richard Hakluyt was published in 1609.
Luys Hernández de Biedma, the King’s factor (the agent responsible for the royal property) with the expedition, wrote a report which still exists. The report was filed in the royal archives in Spain in 1544. The manuscript was translated into English by Buckingham Smith and published in 1851.
De Soto’s secretary, Rodrigo Ranjel, kept a diary, which has been lost. It was apparently used by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés in writing his La historia general y natural de las Indias. Oviedo died in 1557. The part of his work containing Ranjel’s diary was not published until 1851. An English translation of Ranjel’s report was first published in 1904.
The fourth chronicle is by Garcilaso de la Vega, known as El Inca (the Inca). Garcilaso de la Vega did not participate in the expedition. He wrote his account, La Florida, known in English as The Florida of the Inca, decades after the expedition, based on interviews with some survivors of the expedition. The book was first published in 1605. Historians have identified problems with using La Florida as a historical account. Milanich and Hudson warn against relying on Garcilaso, noting serious problems with the sequence and location of towns and events in his narrative. They say, ‘some historians regard Garcilaso’s La Florida to be more a work of literature than a work of history.’ Lankford characterizes Garcilaso’s La Florida as a collection of ‘legend narratives’ derived from a much-retold oral tradition of the survivors of the expedition.
We have already looked at some excerpts from these writings. They describe a densely populated land with well-organized people. The diseases that would soon ravage the land had not yet arrived. Historians differ about how these diseases came. Some claim that De Soto brought them and spread them. He had a long history of using germ warfare and was very familiar with the methods needed for this. But since De Soto clearly intended to be in the same general area for many years, this seems unlikely. The disease would have spread much faster than he traveled; when it caught up to him, he and his men would all be at risk of death themselves. (In his previous germ warfare campaign, he had spread the disease and then immediately left for four years.)
It is possible. De Soto and many in his group died in 1541 after an outbreak of disease that could have been smallpox. But it is also possible that the disease arrived later. We know that the plagues were already spreading north from Mexico City and outward from the areas in the western part of America that the Spanish had explored. It is possible that these plagues were not spread intentionally: infected people can carry both smallpox and the measles, the two most deadly diseases, without symptoms. But, in the end, it really doesn’t matter whether the diseases were spread intentionally or by accident.
There is an entire literature genre called ‘Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic fiction.’ You can find hundreds of such works on the internet. I expect that most people in the world today have read many books and/or watched many movies on this topic.
To have a story, some people would have to survive the collapse of society as they know it. The books and movies tell the tales of the survivors. The structures of their societies have collapsed. Although the plots vary, the standard story involves people who flee cities and come together at some country location. They spend most of their time struggling just to survive. We might imagine that survivors of the great American holocaust, deprived of the societies that had kept them comfortable, would have done the same things.
Human beings survived.
But the immense, well administered, prosperous, and orderly societies that had existed for thousands of years no longer existed. Long before the first British corporations landed in Virginia, the societies that had dominated the Americas for thousands of years were basically gone.