Popular accounts of the European invasion of the Inca Empire emphasize a single event—Francisco Pizarro’s capture of the Inca warlord Atahuallpa at Cajamarca on November 16, 1532—as a definitive moment of conquest. Historical and archaeological scholarship tells a more complicated story. Recent studies of the Incas have shown their empire to be less powerful than once believed, relying on the cooperation of powerful men and women whose personal and family interests did not always align with the policies of the state. When the ruler Huayna Capac died suddenly in a pandemic that swept through the central Andes, the ensuing sovereign crisis intensified factionalism and provincial resistance, culminating in a devastating civil war in which Atahuallpa and his army of frontier veterans triumphed. After unsuccessful voyages of exploration, Pizarro and his men entered Inca territory in this uncertain atmosphere, intent on plundering and colonizing the Andes. Encouraged by provincial lords, they sought out Atahuallpa, captured him, and held him for ransom. With the most powerful Inca lord a prisoner, Andean elites quickly pivoted to formulate new tactics for gaining or holding onto power. For several years, the invaders looked less like conquerors and more like Inca allies or subjects who quickly grafted themselves onto existing power structures. Although there was fierce resistance to Spanish plundering in the mid-1530s, Pizarro and his companions survived because of their alliances with Inca nobles and other Andean elites, who accepted the status of a subject nobility. As Spanish monarchs claimed Inca sovereignty, the imperial titles (Inca and Coya) became entwined with the Spanish nobility, but the legacy of the Inca continued to inspire ordinary Andean people to resist Spanish colonial rule.
The Fall of the Inca Empire
R. Alan Covey
The Concheros Dance in Mexico City
In the middle decades of the 20th century, groups of Concheros dancing in public places began to attract academic attention. However, a much wider interest in their activities developed in the run-up to the celebrations for the so-called “discovery” of the Americas in 1992, when they were invited to participate in some of the commemorative events. Their dance tradition, one among many in Mexico, is often assumed to have been created either in the 1820s after Mexico gained its independence from Spain or more recently after the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Both were periods when central Mexico became more aware of the Aztec past and interested in reviving aspects of it, and the Concheros’ circle dances were thought to have been part of that revindication—an invented tradition. However, their history has more complex roots than this. The predominant myth claims that the dance began in the Bajio region in the 16th century, an area that had not been dominated by the Aztecs. Counter to that, however, are the beliefs that many began to advocate as the movement of Mexicanidad (or Mexicayotl) flourished during the late 20th century, which has led to the eponymous Mexica challenging many of the Concheros’ beliefs and practices.
Aztec Apocalypse, 1519–1521
The Conquest of Mexico is typically explained in terms of European military superiority, and although this offered an advantage to the forces arrayed against the Aztecs, it was merely part of a broader picture required to understand their downfall. Indigenous political circumstances played the key role in the Conquest, which can best be understood as an Indian victory over other Indians. The Spaniards represented less a conquering force, with which other native groups opportunistically allied, than an opportunity for groups opposed to the Aztecs to employ the relatively minor Spanish forces to multiply their own superior military strength. The Spaniards recognized their own pivotal role and shifted much of the timing of the conquest to sustain it. Other circumstances of the Spanish arrival, including the massive population loss from the accompanying smallpox, did play a role, but one that was primarily understood and used against the Aztecs by the allied Indians. So ultimately, the Conquest can be best understood as an Indian victory over other Indians, but with the Spaniards manipulating the outcome to ultimately win the peace.
The Lienzo de Tlaxcala and the Indian Conquistadors
Federico Navarrete Linares, Margarita Cossich Vielman, and Antonio Jaramillo Arango
The conquest of Mexico can be better understood if one leaves aside the myths of European superiority and acknowledge the key role played by the Indigenous conquistadors in the defeat of the Mexica and later the formation of the realm of New Spain. Dozens of Mesoamerican polities, large and small, joined the victorious Indo-Spanish armies, and hundreds of thousands of Mesoamerican women, warriors, and assistants, participated in the twenty years of “Mesoamerican wars” that started with the war against México-Tenochtitlan, 1519–1521, and continued all across what is now Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua until the 1540s. The victorious Indigenous conquistadors produced legal testimonies and historical accounts of their feats of war to obtain rewards and privileges, often granted by the Spanish crown. The most spectacular were the lienzos, visual histories of the conquest painted on large cloths. There are many of these Indigenous accounts, but the best known and perhaps the most influential one is the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. It is the most complete account of the Mesoamerican wars, produced by the most important ally of the Spaniards, and it is also the foremost example of the historical and ritual discourses produced by the Indigenous conquistadors, as the ultimate proof of their leading role in this process. This spectacular artwork easily assimilated European pictorial conventions to the much more complex Amerindian pictographic and ritual narrative genres. As such, it was the anchor for complex ritual performances that re-enacted the feats of those wars and also allowed for the constitution of the Amerindian “complex beings” of Malinche and Santiago, the keystones of Tlaxcalan cultural memory of the conquest. Its communicative success can be proved by the fact that the Tlaxcalan embassies that presented the Lienzo de Tlaxcala and other historical books and precious gifts obtained the privileges they sought and asserted the autonomy of Tlaxcala.
The Pizarro Clan
Susan Elizabeth Ramirez
This essay focuses on the principal Pizarro family members who played active roles in the exploration, invasion, and colonization of the Andes. Francisco Pizarro served as leader until his assassination by Diego de Almagro partisans in 1541. Juan fought against stout native resistance until he was fatally injured during the siege of Cuzco. Gonzalo led the forces against the New Laws and their implementation by the first viceroy, Blasco Núñez Vela. After the viceroy and his forces were defeated and he was executed, Gonzalo ruled the Andes until Licenciado Pedro de la Gasca arrived to reestablish crown hegemony. Royalist and Gonzalo’s rebel forces clashed. Gonzalo’s defeat cost him his life. Hernando, long the de facto patriarch of the family, emerged as the defender of family interests. He married his niece, the mestiza daughter of Francisco; consolidated their holdings, selling assets at risk of confiscation in Peru; and reinvested the proceeds in safer products in Spain. His manipulations and planning allowed him to establish an endowment that assured the survival of the family into the 20th century.
Mexico in Spain’s Oceanic Empire, 1519–1821
On August 13, 1521, the Spanish conquistadors and their native allies seized Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. The Spaniards succeeded because they had forged alliances with the Tlaxcalans and other indigenous self-governing communities (altepetl) to fight the Aztecs. After the conquest these communities continued their traditions, and the Spaniards largely replaced Aztec leadership with their own. In addition, the friars and the secular church converted the natives to an extent, and together with the crown they foiled the conquistadors’ attempts to become liege lords with jurisdiction. The process culminated in the New Laws of 1542, which curbed the encomienda, a grant to Spaniards that comprised several Indian towns paying tribute. A society of social bodies evolved, composed of municipal councils, lay brotherhoods of churches, and others, complete with their own laws and jurisdictions. Then a series of silver strikes beginning at Zacatecas in 1546 drew settlers into the Bajío north of the former Aztec and Tarascan empires. The local natives resisted initially, and when peace came, they and the settlers created a dynamic early capitalist economy that invigorated other regions. The frontier expanded when animal herds moved further north beyond the mines, and the zone of Spanish influence grew to the south as well. In 1540 Spanish conquistadors and their indigenous allies began occupying the northwestern Yucatan Peninsula, and they took Tiho/Mérida in 1542. The Yucatan, the Bajío, and the other regions that composed colonial Mexico successively integrated into a global commercial network spanning Europe, Africa, and Asia. The crown and the merchant guild (consulado) in Seville sought to capture the burgeoning Atlantic commerce within the fleet shuttling between Seville/Cadiz and Veracruz and restrict the silver flowing from Acapulco to Asia via the Philippines. Yet market forces defied most of the rules they put in place. Merchants from Asia settled in Manila; Peruvians docked in Acapulco; and the Dutch, French, and English competed with fleet merchants or operated contraband trade from the Caribbean islands to New Spain. In the 18th century, the crown loosened trade regulations within the empire and continue curbing the autonomies of social bodies. A series of investigations (visitas) shook New Spain, and more compliant viceroys and officials appeared, while the friars lost over one hundred parishes (doctrinas) during the mid-century. The king expelled the Jesuits in 1767; registered ships sailing individually replaced the fleet in 1778; and in 1786 José de Gálvez introduced the intendants in New Spain. As the empire transitioned toward a territorial state, Napoleon imprisoned the Spanish king (1808). In 1810 Miguel Hidalgo and a popular following unleashed the War of Independence. As the conflict unfolded, the legitimacy of the old order crumbled, and the empire dissolved in 1821.
Conquest and Colonization of Panama, ca. 1509–1530
Darién was the first Hispanic frontier in continental America. A military frontier of warriors, horses, dogs, and arquebuses, clearly reminiscent of the medieval period, Darién was created in 1509 in the most distant periphery of the empire, in a marginal and hostile space. The conquest of these jungle lands, soon transformed into a “cemetery of conquistadores,” and the following expansion through the isthmus was one of the hardest experiences that the Spanish faced in their advance through the New World. For the Indigenous Cueva population, the invasion of the West was even more dramatic. In just a few decades, the Cuevas were extinguished as a result of wars, epidemics, and the slave trade, practiced on a large scale by Spanish captains and Crown officials. Darién was a type of experimental laboratory. There in the art of war a race of frontier captains was forged, which later expanded throughout the continent. With the foundation of Panamá (1519), the frontier moved to the Pacific, and Spanish expansion was projected, like a spearpoint, toward Central America and Perú, seeking new opportunities and leaving the territory practically empty of men and resources.
The Welsh Colony in Patagonia
In July of 1865, some 160 Welsh immigrants settled in the valley of the Chubut River, located in the middle of a Patagonian territory controlled by the Indigenous Tehuelche. This was to be the beginning of a unique colonization process. Unlike many other migratory experiences, the colonizing effort promoted by a group of Welsh nationalist leaders was aimed at liberating their compatriots from the oppression to which they felt they had been subjected in the United Kingdom. Their utopian objective was to establish a “New Wales,” in which they could work their own land, freely practice their language (Cymraeg, in Welsh) and the religion of their nonconformist denominations, and achieve a certain degree of political autonomy. In spite of facing an unknown and arid territory, the Welsh managed to produce wheat irrigated by canals. What is more, they would overcome prejudices about the “savage” nature of the Indigenous peoples, eventually working with the Pampa and Tehuelche tribes to develop a model of peaceful coexistence based on complementary economic practices, providing a unique example of relations between Europeans and Native Americans. Economic development allowed the arrival of additional contingents of settlers. During the first decades, Welsh was the language of daily life, in social, political, economic, cultural, and religious contexts. The valley of the Chubut River became dotted with chapels. But in 1885, after the military campaigns that deprived the Indigenous peoples of their territories, the Argentine government materialized its sovereign presence over Patagonia. Although in 1891 Argentina made possible the creation of a new Welsh settlement in a valley of the Andean foothills, the process of nationalization and assimilation was underway. Influences within the political and educational spheres, as well as the arrival of immigrants of other nationalities, allowed the national government to gradually displace the Welsh from their position of primacy in the Chubut territory. Although the autonomous Welsh Utopia did not flourish, some traces remain. More than 155 years after the arrival of the first contingent, there are still Welsh speakers and students in Patagonia. The eisteddfod and the arrival of the first immigrants’ ship are celebrated every July 28, a date officially considered to be the founding of the current province of Chubut.
The Colonial Mosaic of Indigenous New Spain, 1519–1821
From a geographically, environmentally, linguistically, and ethnically highly variable Mesoamerica, Spain created a core region within her American territories. But for New Spain’s indigenous inhabitants (Mexica or Nahua, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Maya), despite experiencing demographic catastrophe, political and religious subjugation, and labor exploitation during and after conquest, native cultural patterns and agency influenced the reshaping of governance and community (the latter into pueblos de indios), economy, and spiritual and social life during the period of colonial rule. Because environments, indigenous languages, patterns of political, economic, and spiritual organization, ways of structuring family life, varieties of cultural expression, and forms of interrelationships with Spaniards varied so much, indigenous people did not experience a single New Spain. Instead, a multiplicity of New Spains emerged. These indigenous New Spains would play different roles during the independence period, which led to a protracted struggle, further impoverishment, and growing isolation in the new nations of Mesoamerica but cultural survival as well.
The Conquests of Peru
Between 1472 and 1572, the conquests of Peru were many: by the Inca, who in the 15th century spread from their southern Andean heartland in Cusco to build an empire that stretched from what is now southern Colombia to northern Chile and Argentina; by the Spanish conquistadors under the leadership of Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro, who reached down from Panama in search of the rumored wealth of the kingdom of “Birú” and fatefully encountered the aspirant Inca emperor Atahualpa at Cajamarca in November of 1532; by the Spanish crown, which intervened after the revolt of Atahualpa’s brother Manco Inca in 1536 and the rebellion of the conquistadors in the 1540s; and by the Inca’s former subjects, the Spaniards’ Indian allies, and their mestizo sons, who ended independent Inca resistance by helping to capture Atahualpa’s nephew in the Vilcabamba valley in 1572. This essay sketches the century-long arc of those many conquests, which together yielded a historical entity not quite like any other in the early modern world, let alone Americas: a composite Spanish-Indian kingdom whose incredible wealth lay not just in the gold and silver that its mines and burials produced but in the network of subjects and laborers that drew both the Inca and their Habsburg successors on to further conquests than was wise.