In the forty years following Columbus’s first trip to the New World, the Conquistadors made Spain
the dominant force from Mexico south (except for Brazil, which remained Portuguese). Catholic
and militant, Cortes overpowered the Aztecs (1521) and Pizarro (1533) conquered the Incas.
The tiny Spanish force overcame the more vastly numerous natives partly by superior arms
and partly by psychological flukes. The sudden windfall in captured gold and mined silver
made Spain the nouveau riche star of Europe.
If we try to depict this as “brutal white guys rape a peaceable, noble, sophisticated ancient culture,”
we’re kidding ourselves. Nobody in this story exemplifies anything approaching human virtue.
Let’s start with the Aztecs, a benighted totalitarian society of bloodthirsty sun-worshippers with lots
of gold in their temples. Human sacrifice was as popular as beer at a ballgame. Their “flower wars,”
were not peace marches, but expeditions to collect captives to slaughter to the voracious sun god.
If you won their favorite sport – a cross between soccer and basketball – you earned a chance to get
your throat slit by a holy man dressed in human-skin vestments. Just married? Newlyweds were considered
prime sacrificial meat. It was, as Scott Powell puts it, a culture with no mitigating virtues.
The Spanish Conquistadors were no better. They were idle, ruling class soldiers, out of work now that
the 400-year Catholic crusade had exterminated the Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula. They had a very
Catholic style of conquest. They’d show up at the shores of an alien culture and the captain of the
ship would read (in Spanish, of course, and incomprehensible to the local natives) “The Requirement,”
a demand that everybody immediately convert to Catholicism. When no local understood or responded,
the devout Spaniards took on the job of bringing god’s vengeance upon the natives – as profitably as possible.
Put these gore-addicted, god-maddened, gold-hungry tribes of psychopaths together and what do we get?
A holy carnival of blood.
In 1519, sailing ships, which the Aztecs had never seen before, arrived on the coast. The ships were
loaded with white men, creatures the Aztecs had never before seen and whom they assumed to be gods.
Many sources suggest that the Aztecs saw in the pale Spanish leader Hernan Cortes the return of their
long-absent god Quetzalcoatl.
Emperor Montezuma II – in one of history’s greatest foreign policy kneeslappers -- sent an offering
of gold to his divine visitor. Of course, advertising the presence of gold to a conquistador was a mistake.
Cortes, greed inflamed, moved inland, towards Tenochtitlan. Though the Aztecs numbered in the millions and
Cortes had only five hundred men, the Spanish had muskets, metal armor, and fought on horseback. The Aztecs
– accustomed to fighting one-on-one to capture sacrificial victims – were both overpowered by arms and awed
by the mounted soldiers (the Aztecs thought horse and rider were one being). The mystical perspective of
the Aztecs prevented them from having a clue what was going on. Montezuma was taken hostage and
eventually killed. Tenochtitlan – weakened by the loss of the Emperor and by European- borne diseases fell.
A similar scenario unfolded in 1533 with Pizarro and the Incas. In the face of 80,000 native warriors,
100 Spaniards captured Emperor Atahualpa under false pretenses and swiftly decapitated the empire.
In addition to bringing home captured gold, in 1542 the Spanish began mining silver at Potosi, and
a river of precious metals flowed back to Spain.
The gold and jewels that Cortes had ripped out of the bloody conflict bought him popularity at home,
and he was appointed governor of the new territory. He built Mexico City on the ruins
of Tenochtitlan, which became the most important European city of North America.
Thus was the lord’s work done.