Spanish Conquest of Central America (1520- )

Conquistadors
Figure 1.--Alvarado's conquest of Guatemala was a bloody affair. Here the Spanish hurl Native Americams who dared resist them in pits with sharpened stakes. The Native Amerivans dug and covered the pits so that the Spaniksh Conquistadores would ride into them. The Spanish when they found the pits used them to kill the Native Americans resisting them. We are not sure who drew this scene and when, but it looks to be a 16th century work.

The conquest of Central America is primarily the story of the conquest of the Maya states in northern Central America (1551–1697). There were, however, other tribes further south. Rodrigo de Bastidas established Spain's claim to the isthmus of Panama. He sailied along the Darién coast (March 1501). Christopher Columbus, on his fourth voyage, sailed along the Caribbean coast of Central America from the Bay of Honduras to Panama. The next forays to Central America were launched from the growing Spanish colony of Cuba. Vasco Núñez de Balboa was the firstv European to cross the Isthmus of Panama. Balboa claimed the Pacific Ocean and all the lands adjoining it for the Spanish Crown. The next Spanish expedition from Cuba on the Yucatán Peninsula looking for slaves to work the Cuban plantations as the Native American population on the island had been desimated. The focus of the Spanishm howevere turned north to the Aztec Empire. After defeating the Aztecs, the Spanish turned their attention south. The first Conquistador to lead an expedition south was Pedro de Alvarado, one of the most ambutious and cruel of the Conquistadores. The principal campaigns to control CentraL America were fought in the north by Alvarado. The strongrst tribes were located in the highlands of Guatemala and El Salvador. These were the Maya and related states. Alvarado reached Guatemala traveling down the Pacific coast (1523). He commanded a relatively small force made up of a few hundred Spanish horsemen and soldiers, but backed with Native American allies he prevailed in a bloody campaign.

The Maya

The Maya are one of the best studied of the major pre-Colombian native American civilizations. Unlike the Aztecs and Incas, the Maya were a much older civilization which had passed its peak by the time of the encounter with the Europeans. The Maya first appear in the Yucatan Peninsula about 2600 B.C. They became a civiization of major importance about 250 AD in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras, El Salvador, and northern Belize. Unlike the Inda and Aztecs, the Maya were not a centralized imperial state. There virtually independent city states were connected by extensive trade routes. The Maya show evidence of assimilating the technology and culture of previous civilizations which had developed to the north in moden Mexic, especially the Olmecs. The Maya are especially noteworthy for their achievements in astronomy, mathematics, accurate calendars, hieroglyphics, and archectecture. Mayan hieroglyphics,probably of Olmec origins, was the most sophisticated writing system in Meso-America. The Mayan archetectural heritage is especially impressive. Many sites in the Yucantan and northerm Central America include temple-pyramids, palaces, and observatories. The Maya especially venerated the jaguar and built temple-pyramids to the being they saw as the Lord of the Underworld. As with the other Meso-American civilizations, these edifaces were built without metal tools, beasts of burden, or even the wheel. Mayan agriculture was especially impressive as methods such as storing rainwater in underground reservoirs dealt with the limited available groundwater. The Maya were also accomplished weavers and potters. The Spanish encountered the Maya centuries after their classical era, unlike the Aztec and Inca who were in their acendancy. The decline of the Maya is one of the great mysteries in archeology. There are numerous theories. Increasingly archelogists are coming to believe that the decline was a more gradual process than was once believed. The process appears to have involved expanding populations which required overcultivation of available land resulting in decling yields that could not support dense populations.

Spanish Exploration

Rodrigo de Bastidas established Spain's claim to the isthmus of Panama. He sailied along the Darién coast (March 1501). Christopher Columbus, on his fourth and last voyage, sailed along the Caribbean coast of Central America from the Bay of Honduras to Panama (1502-03). When after sime difficulty, hecfinally made it back to Spain, he reported seeing natives wearuing gold ornamnts in Costa Rica. The first effort at colonization occurred in what is now Costa Rica, but faoled (1506). The next forays to Central America were launched from the growing Spanish colony of Cuba. Vasco Núñez de Balboa was the first European to cross the Isthmus of Panama and view the Pacific Ocean (1513). Balboa claimed the Pacific and all the lands adjoining it for the Spanish Crown. The next Spanish expedition from Cuba on the Yucatán Peninsula looking for slaves to work the Cuban plantations as the Native American population on the island had been desimated. The focus of the Spanishm howevere turned north to the Aztec Empire. Only gradually did the conquest of Central America take place where no rich empires were found.

Conquest of Mexico (1519-21)

Spain then colonized the Caribbean and then hearing rumors of a rich inland empire began to plan to colonize the mainland. The Aztec were a war-like people located in the central valley of Mexico and dominated much of southern Mexico during the 15th and early 16th centuries until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. Their capital Tenochtitlan was unknown to Europe, but was one of the great cities of the world. Diego Velasquez, Spanih Governor of Cuba, put a trusted soldier, Hernando Cortez, in charge of an expedition to the mainland. Hernando Cortés sailed from Cuba in 1519. Cortez's campaign against the Aztec's is one of the most dramatic events of history, brilliantly told by several historians. The golden booty helped make Spain the leading European power. It also provided a secure base for the further conquest of the Americas and this meant Central America.

Guatemala (1523- )

The Spanish encountered the Maya centuries after their classical era, unlike the Aztec and Inca who were in their acendancy. The conquest of Central America is primarily the story of the conquest of the Maya states in northern Central America. There were, however, other tribes further south. After defeating the Aztecs, the Spanish turned their attention south. The first Conquistador to lead an expedition south was Pedro de Alvarado, one of the most ambutious and cruel of the Conquistadores. The principal campaigns to control CentraL America were fought in the north by Alvarado. The strongrst tribes were located in the highlands of Guatemala and El Salvador. These were the Maya and related states. Alvarado reached Guatemala traveling down the Pacific coast (1523). He commanded a relatively small force made up of a few hundred horsemen, soldiers and Native American allies.

El Salvador


Yucatan (1527-46)

Although Yucatan is a part of modern Mexico it was at the time of Cotrez's conquest of Mexico (the Aztecs) not a part of the Aztec Empire, but rather populated by the Maya. When the Spaniards first reached Yucatan (1517-19), much of peninsula was controled by ruling castes of central-Mexican origin. They rebuilt Chichén Itzá into a powerful Early Postclassic center. During the Late Postclassic period (1250-1520) the center of Maya leadership in Yucatán had shifted to Mayapán which briefly reunified the region. Mayapán was defeated (1441).. As a result, northern Yucatán split nto sixteen small city-states. This fragmentation meant that the Spanish did not dencounter a strongly, centrally organized Mayan state. Francisco de Montejo, a Cotrz ally, became a wealty nobelman in Mexico. He lobbied the crown to grant him a Capitulación (royal contract) to raise an army and conquer Yucatán. The Crown hesitated for several years and finally issued the Capitulación (1526). The Spanish conquest consisted of three campaigns (1527-46).

Nicaragua (1520-24)

The pre-Conquest population of Nicaragua is not known with any certainty. Some estimates suggest it may have been as high as 1 million people. One report speculates about an Aztec trading post. Columbus passed along the Caribbean coast (1502). The Spanish made no attempt to colonize what is now modern Nicaragua untill two decaded later. Gil Gonzalez Davila led the first Spanish expedition (1520). Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba conquered the area (1524). He founded the modern cities of Granada and Leon. The Native American population was descimated by the Spanish conquest. The Spanish killed some Native Americans in the conquest. European duseases killed even more. The population was largely enslaved. As many as 0.2 million were sent to work in Spanish mines in the new South American colony carved about of the Inca lands. The royal govenor in Nicaragua, Francisco de Castañeda, favored slave hunting. Rodrigo de Contreras became governor of Nicaragua (1532). Reformer Bartolomé de Las Casas and Emperor Carlos V forced Contreras to cancel a slave tradeing expedition (1536). The Governor expelled the reformer. A Spanish Census about three decades after the conquest showed only 11,137 Native Americans left in the country’s heartland of western Nicaragua (1548).

Honduras (1525-38)

The Maya dominated western Honduras, but declined (early 9th century). The most important Mayan city-state was Copán. Christopher Columbus landed on the coast of modern Honduras near modern Trujillo on his fourth and last voyage (1502). He named the country Honduras because the waters was so deep along the coast. Conquistador Hernán Cortés landed in Honduras (1525). He left 6 months later after failing to find another rich Native American empire to plunder, returning to Spain. Spanish planters on Cuba raided the northern coast attempting to capture Native Americans they could enslave. Pedro de Alvarado began the actual conquest of Honduras. He defeated the resistance led by Çiçumba near Ticamaya (1536). Alvarado divided the conquered native lands among his men. The natives living their essentially became slaves in the repartimiento system. Native resistancde to Spanish britality flared up in Gracias a Dios, Comayagua, and Olancho (1537-38). Lempira led the uprising in Gracias a Dios.

Belize (1638)

Northern central America including Belize was dominated by the Mayan. The Maya appeared to have begun to move into coastal Belize from the Guatelan Highlands (about 1500 BC). The highpoint of Mayan civilization in Belize was a few centuries before the arival of the Spanish (1200 AD). Important Maya sites include: Caracol, Lamanai, Lubaantun, Altun Ha, and Xunantunich. Archeologists describe Maya cites with high population densities. Columbus sailed along the coast of Central America, including Belize (1502). There was for a long time even after Spanish settlement of Mexico and elsewhere in Central America, no settlement along the coast of what is now Belize. The first European settlement seems to have been inadvertant--shipwrecked English seamen (1638). More English settlements followed, but the English hold on the coast was precarious.

Costa Rica (1506-63)

Christopher Columbus was the first European to find what is now Costa Rica. He landed near modern Puerto Limón during his fourth and last voyage (1502). He found a friendly population and noted the gold decorations that some of the local population wore. This was the origin of the name Costa Rica (rich coast). Columbus speculated thst their might be a rich empire farther inland. Spanish King Ferdinand, as a result, appointed Diego de Nicuesa governor of the region and disparched him to colonize it (1506). The Native Americans this time were not friendly. The diseases the Spanish brought may have been a factor. De Nicuesa was contronted by the tropical jungle, disease, and unfriendly natives. With half his party dead, he returned to Spain. The Spanish persisted. The major effort led by Gil González Dávila founded a colony on the Golfo de Nicoya (1522). He launched a bloody conquest of the natives, killing and torturing them into submision. González returned with some gold, but many in his expedition died and there was still not settlmebt in Costa Rica. Juan Vásquez de Coronado arrived as another royal governor (1562). He decided that to found a permanent settlment that he needed to move inland to the central higlands. Here he founded Cartago which became the first permanent Spanish colony in Costa Rica (1563). The Spanish tended to found cities along the coat where they could be supported by their navy. Tropical diseases and the fertility if the central highlands with its rich volcanic soil caused Vásquez to move inland.

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Created: 8:22 PM 6/14/2008
Last updated: 8:22 PM 6/14/2008