The Spanish Conquistadors And The First Genocide In Modern History (II)

Part I

The Crusaders, Christianity, and the conquistadors

It has to be clearly noticed that, in fact, the Spanish conquistadors, have not been like medieval West Roman Catholic Crusaders at least from the very formal meaning of this word as the conquistadors did not ever receive some special indulgence from the Roman Catholic pope for their services in the New World. However, from the very practical point of view, the conquistadors’ methods and attitudes were extremely closely related to those of the Vatican’s military-confessional campaigns in the Middle East against the Muslims, in South Europe against the heretic Cathars, or in the Baltics against the local pagans like Prussians and Lithuanians up to 1410 (the Battle of Tannenberg) by the Teutonic Order. The main Crusades were a series of expeditions from the 11th to the 14th centuries for the sake to establish Christian (the Roman Catholic) power over the Muslim-controlled holy places of Palestine.

In general, the Spanish “conquistadores” were soldiers and adventurers in the 16th century of whom the most known have been Hernán Cortés who conquered the Aztec Empire in present-day Mexico, and Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of the Inca Empire in today’s Peru. The conquistadors discovered and occupied the Caribbean, Latin America (without Brazil), South and South-West today’s USA, and the Philippines. Many would-be conquistadors explored immense areas but conquered nothing and founded no permanent settlements. Nevertheless, as proper and functional colonial administrations have been established their role and activities diminished and finally disappeared.

H. Cortés, during his conquest of Mexico for Roman Catholic Spain, carried with him an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and fought and conquered under the flag of the Cross, decorated with the Crusader slogan, “in hoc signum vinces” (With this sign, you will win) which originally comes from the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. In other words, according to the official tradition of the Christian Church, Constantine saw in a dream the sign of the cross. The cross was with the inscription “With this sign, you will win”. That was a night before the battle of 312 near Rome against Maxentius. It was made by Constantine’s order a great “Labarum” – a long cross. And, he won the battle and civil war. From the time of Constantine the Great, the “Labarum” became the banner of the East Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire. The Spanish conquistadors, as well, brought with them a form of racism that became derived from post-Reconquista Roman Catholic prejudice against converted Muslims and Jews. The Spanish idea of both their racial and religious superiority, combined with material inducement, brought final disaster for the Native Americans.

The Spanish conquest of the New World, the “European” microbes, and forced laborers

The initial timeline of the Spanish conquests of the New World from Ch. Columbus first landing in the Bahamas (1492) until the mid-16th century was probably the most terrible period of genocide in the world’s history but, nevertheless, for sure, it was the first genocide in the global history of Modern Time. It is calculated that the death toll may have reached around 70 million native inhabitants of the New World out of 80 million in this period. There were several reasons for such a demographic catastrophe of the Native Americans. Millions of them died of diseases brought by the Iberians like influenza, measles, smallpox, or typhus. Alien microbes traveled more quickly compared to the West European conquerors themselves. Those “European” microbes killed between half and 95% of the pre-Colombian Native American population who have been totally helpless in fighting against them.

The first voyage of Ch. Columbus in 1492
The first voyage of Ch. Columbus in 1492

From one point of view, there is no evidence, i.e. historical sources, that the Spanish conquistadors with purpose infected the autochthonous peoples of the Americas, but on the other hand, the Iberians imposed living conditions upon the American Indians which made them more vulnerable to the imported diseases. It is an undisputable historiographical fact that the native population of the Americas was harshly exploited as forced laborers and were concentrated in labor camps (konz.-lagers), especially in the cases of the search for gold and silver. The Native Americans have been forcibly deported from their homes to other locations for the purpose of replacing the local labor of natives who died. However, the newly brought peoples have been deprived of food, water and were housed in unsanitary dwellings. They were separated from their families and normal support systems being beaten, brutalized, and deprived of free movement – in one word, being the slaves.

According to some Spanish historical sources (like the Dominican Bartolome de Las Casas), the conditions of forced labor usually led directly to the death of the Indians in the mines of Hispaniola. According to de Las Casas, women and men were given to eat only wild grasses. The mothers of babies promptly saw their milk dry up and their children die. With the women and men being separated and never seeing each other, as a result, no biological reproduction was possible, i.e., no new children have been born. The males have been dying in the golden and silver mines from overwork and starvation. Similar truth was about women too. The local inhabitants, who have been so numerous before 1492, began to die out as would do any nation being subjected to such terrible treatment.

In principle, the local types of such brutal mistreatment of the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists and authorities have been manifold. There were many cases that enslaved women killed their babies and children and sometimes themselves too due to the harsh living conditions. In addition, mining supervisors often raped and sexually exploited the local Indian women, regardless of the fact that their husbands, brothers, or sons have been already working in the mines. There were some recorded cases that the number of dead mineworkers was so high that their corpses were not buried but rather left to be eaten by wild animals and vulture birds. Many Indian laborers fell victim to the plague but no one took care of them or get them food. In conclusion, the Spaniards did not with purpose transmitted different kinds of diseases to the Indians, but so many died of these diseases as a cause of the harsh living and working conditions imposed on them by the Spanish conquerors.

Racial superiority and genocide 

On one hand, different types of diseases were the focal source of the killing of millions of the Native Americans who had thickly populated the Americas in the pre-Columbus time, the Spaniards as well as have been killing the Indians in a series of genocidal episodes across the American continents. The Spaniard conquerors insisted on their inherent biological and cultural superiority as human beings over the native inhabitants. It practically meant that the Spaniards had the “divine” right to rule over the Indians and moreover to dispose of their lives in any way they proper for them. Such ideology included and physical elimination of the Native Americans or “barbarians” not being equal with the Iberians regarding their humanity. Even Mexican Aztecs, who had a superior culture in the region, built cities, being engaged in commerce, owned no property, and lived totally at the mercy of their ruler for the Spaniards have been demonstrating the servile and base spirit of the barbarians (“inhumane little men”). The Spaniards have been especially offended by the Aztec religious practices which included human sacrifice and, therefore, proclaimed that the waging a war against Aztec barbarians is justified not only on the foundations of their paganism but even more so because of their prodigious sacrifice of human victims, the extreme harm that they inflicted on innocent persons, and the impious cult of their idols. From the facts’ point of view, human sacrifice was unquestionably a part of Aztec religious life and tradition. The Aztecs have been as well as in some cases engaged in extreme cruelty against their enemies. However, the Spaniards have not been much better at dealing with the Aztecs and other Native Americans.

It is important to say that the philosopher and Roman Catholic theologian Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda justified the Spanish behaving with the Indians by warring against them using the reference to the pope’s blessing of the Spaniard venture in the Americas. The fact was that the imperative for conversion into Roman Catholicism accompanied this new type of crusaders to the Americas. The Roman Catholic priests who usually followed the conquistadors in the majority of cases did not condone either the torching or killing of the native inhabitants of the New World even at the time when stable Spanish civil and military colonial authorities were established. According to de Las Casas in his expression of grief written to the Spanish King Phillip II (1556−1598, who became the King of Portugal in 1580 as well), the Spanish colonists have been treating the native Indians worse than animals, having little concern for their souls as for the bodies.

The question of slavery in the Spanish New World

However, there were those Roman Catholic priests who have been defending converted Indians with two crucial arguments: 1) they became Christians; and 2) they became the subjects of the Spanish crown – therefore, they could not be reduced to forced labor and especially slavery by the Spanish colonial authorities. The Catholic monarchs of Spain, King Ferdinand II (of Aragon) and Queen Isabella I (of Castile) showed very little enthusiasm for slavery and, consequently, Ch. Columbus’ design to transform the territories in the Caribbean into a prosperous slave trade for Spain was rejected by the Crown and he was imprisoned for a short while. Queen Isabella I, tried to improve the situation for the Native Americans by creating a system of indentured landholding, whereby the Indians were, in theory, to cultivate the land of the Spaniards four days a week having the rest of the week to take care of their own portions of land (the well-known system of corvée in feudal West Europe). Nevertheless, in the very practice on the ground, the local Spaniards in the Spanish colonies in the New World did everything to successfully avoid any restrictions on their practical ability to exploit the natives. The Queen died in 1504, and her will was that the Indians have to be well and justly treated, but her husband, King Ferdinand II practiced the right of the Crown to enslave the Indians and, therefore, their position became worse after 1504.

H. Cortes' route of exploration 1519-1526
H. Cortes’ route of exploration 1519-1526

The West European idea of what to do with the Native Americans has been slowly in progress since the mid-16th century. A new Spanish King (and German Emperor), a Habsburg Carlos I (Charles V) (1516−1556), explicitly ordered the abolition of slavery among the native Indians in 1530 followed by the new laws against slavery in the Spanish colonies in 1542. Pope Paul III in his Papal Bull issued in 1537 declared the Indians to be real human and, therefore, capable to receive the Christian faith (to be converted). Consequently, Native Americans should not be deprived of their freedom and the ownership of their property. However, the peak of the demographic catastrophe of the native inhabitants in the Spanish colonies already occurred and, as a result, the Spaniards brought the black slaves from Portuguese Africa to the New World to do the harsh physical work that the Native Americans practiced previously to do in the first half of the 16th century. Soon, the numbers of black Africans overcame the numbers of their Spaniard masters but still, the Spanish governors of the colonies and their representatives continued with the practice of the brutal exploitation of both the native inhabitants of the Americas and the newly brought slaves from Africa.

The greediness for gold and silver of the Spaniards

From several contemporary Spanish historical sources is clear that pure greediness was, in fact, the focal character of the Spanish conquest that led to the deaths of millions of the Native Americans and later African slaves. For instance, B. de Las Casas clearly wrote that sheer greed (especially for the gold and silver) was the focal stimulus that was behind the criminal deeds committed by the Spanish colonial authorities.

The same B. de Las Casas wrote that the insatiable greed of the Spaniards reached proportions which simply removed any reservation they may have had about abusing the Indians when both gold and silver became accessible by occupying the mines run by the Aztecs and Incas. The Spaniards were like men in desperation, crazy, mad, out of their minds with only greed for gold and silver and, therefore, the lives of the Native Americans meant next to nothing.

When Ch. Columbus first landed on the Bahamian Island of Santa Maria de la Conception he met there very peaceful, friendly, and hospitable native inhabitants. He was, however, immediately attracted with small golden rings in Indian’s noses and tried to get them to take him to the mine of this precious metal, which he thought is located in the southern part of the island. It is true that Ch. Columbus did not come to the Americas to enslave or destroy its native peoples as he arrived just for gold, silver, and riches. However, in practice, for the reason of the absence of the fortune that he hoped to find there for both his sovereigns Ferdinand II and Isabella I and himself, he turned to the Indians themselves and their labor as a source of wealth. He was thinking that he could easily conquer the Native Americans and used them as labor slaves and servants either in the New World or back in Spain to cultivate agricultural fields, collect harvest crops, and work in mines. However, the reality of newly discovered islands spoiled his personal designs as the number of local dwellers was not so promising for massive exploitation as forced workers.


Ch. Columbus discovered several islands during his first trip to the Americas. He described them as the fertile and lush lands (Hispaniola and Cuba) expressing his vision of highly productive agriculture manned by native Indian slaves. He took with him back to Spain 20 Indian captives and promised the Spanish monarchs that he would bring them such great wealth that the King and the Queen could be able to finance new Crusades for the sake to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims. However, when he returned to Hispaniola in November 1493, he found there abandoned small garrison he left and fortress destroyed. That was the Indian response to the Spanish rape of the local females and attacks on the Indian property. However, such a situation led to the reprisals, kidnapping, and killings of the local Indians by the Spanish soldiers that were the beginning of the Iberian genocide over the Native Americans. It was soon followed by forcing them to do harsh physical works that were fully exploited by the Spaniards.

Statue of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in the plaza of the same name in Medellin, Extremadura, Spain
Statue of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in the plaza of the same name in Medellin, Extremadura, Spain

In 1509, the Spaniard expeditions sailed to the islands of Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Much as in those discovered lands, Ch. Columbus and his conquistadors killed native elites and forced the native into forced labor in both mines and on the land. Here, as elsewhere, the Spanish soldiers behaved as the dogs of the war upon the Native Americans. Similarly, it was done in Cuba where Spaniards established their control in 1511. In this conquistadors’ expedition participated de Las Casas as a chaplain who described once again the horrific cruelties inflicted on the Indians by the Spaniards. For example, only on one occasion, provoked by no one, the conquistadors butchered some 3000 Indians including children and women. In many cases, the local Indians in order to save their lives were running to the hills from their villages, and for those who left there were only two options: death or forced labor. In Cuba, the Native Americans (both men and women) even routinely committed suicide (by hanging) as the only way to avoid the Spanish plunder and destruction. However, according to de Las Casas, more than 7000 children died of hunger when their parents were captured and forced to work in the mines.

As a matter of fact, the more the native Indians tried to escape the exploitation yokes imposed on them, the more harsher punishments have been inflicted by the Spanish masters. The natives have been living on a narrow subsistence level in pre-1492 times. However, since the beginning of the 16th century, the Indians were obliged to support a new Spanish population by their work, services, and food gathering. Due to several reasons, soon they started to die in big numbers. It is impossible according to historical sources to reconstruct the exact numbers of those inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands who died during the first half-century of the Spanish administration. Nevertheless, de Las Casas wrote that the native population of Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti) when the Spaniards arrived was some 3 million but only 200 of them left in the mid-16th century. The island of Cuba became totally depopulated due to the forced transfer of around half of a million of the natives to Hispaniola for the sake to replace the Indian workers who had already died there. The natives of the Bahamas were very much eliminated like the islands around Puerto Rico. All of these islands in the mid-16th century were abandoned and desolate.

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