South America: Chapter III

(by William Henry Koebel)

The Spanish Conquistadores


The pioneer conquistadores of South America afford an interesting study. Such men as those who took their lives in their hands and sailed out into the unknown were actuated by two motives - the love of adventure and the desire of gain.
There is no doubt that the second consideration by far outweighed the first.


A man of the period left Spain or Portugal for the New World for one cogent reason only, to seek his fortune.
If he won fame in the achievement of this, so much the better. Indeed, as a matter of fact, it was generally impossible to achieve the one without the other, although this fame might frequently have its shield sullied and blackened by a number of wild and terrible acts; for circumstances tended to make the conquistador what he almost invariably became, a daring being who let the lives of no others stand in the way of his own interests.

He was not, as was the case with corresponding officials of a later epoch, sent out on an accurately defined mission for which his emoluments were definitely fixed and guaranteed by the Home Government.

The conquistador nearly always risked much of his own before he set sail from his native land.
A man was seldom given a Governorship, even of an unknown region in the New World, unless he showed himself prepared to finance in part an expedition which should be of sufficient importance to furnish the new territory with men and live-stock, and everything else of the kind.


The conquistador, in fact, was generally the active partner in an enterprise which was largely commercial.
Sometimes his sleeping partners were the merchants of Spain; sometimes it was the King himself who joined in the venture; at others it was both King and merchants who jointly assisted the pioneer.

But it was very seldom that an adventurer of the kind succeeded in obtaining an important concession unless he were prepared to subsidize it heavily from his own pocket.

We may instance Pedro de Mendoza.
It was the part he had played in the sack of Rome which enabled this wealthy adventurer to organize the great expedition which set sail for the Provinces of the River Plate.

Here we have the curious anomaly of the Church being robbed by a mercenary, and the money obtained by the loot employed in an object which was ostensibly in the interests of the Church in the New World.

In order to satisfy the public nearer home, it is true that the conquistadores were almost invariably accompanied by priests; but once well without the jurisdiction of Rome, Spain, and Portugal, they took very good care that the priests should not interfere in their concerns.


Having been accepted as a guarantee of good faith, their sphere of utility had ended with the arrival in the New World so far as the conquistadores were concerned.
Many of them became active participants in the wild deeds of the conquistadores.
Did they, on the other hand, show themselves desirous of protesting, the more reckless pioneers made strenuous attempts to muzzle their eloquence.

When the spirit of the age and the circumstances in which these adventurers sailed to the South-West are considered, many of the atrocities committed are less to be wondered at than would otherwise be the case.

It may be taken for granted, in the first place, that the temperament of these men was sufficiently wild and reckless to cause them to embark in any extraordinarily perilous enterprise of the kind.
With all they had in the world sunk in the venture, they would move heaven and earth, and squander countless human beings, before admitting defeat.

The failure of Indian labour meant financial ruin; this was frequently staved off at the cost of thousands and tens of thousands of lives.
Such characteristics as these were by no means confined to the Spaniards and Portuguese.


We have some terribly vivid examples of it on the part of the Welzers, the German merchant princes who contracted with Charles V. to subdue and settle Venezuela. Sir Clements Markham relates that the first Governor of the new colony, an official of the name of Alfinger, came out with a strong force in 1530.

On his marches he would employ many hundreds of native porters; these men were chained together in long lines, each slave having a ring round his neck made fast to the chain.
When one of the slaves was too ill or too exhausted to proceed any farther, Alfinger had the unfortunate wretch's head severed from his body, so that the body dropped away from the chain without the march being hindered.

It is difficult to imagine a more callous or atrocious proceeding than this, but undoubtedly financial considerations lay at the bottom of it.
The thing was done, perhaps, pour encourager les autres, and certainly many a poor staggering wretch marched on mile after mile, when under ordinary circumstances he would have dropped exhausted at an earlier stage.

Thus the last atom of physical energy was wrenched by terror from the slaves - a species of economy which, if worked out wholesale, may have proved sufficiently profitable from their owner's point of view!


Long even after the passing of the pioneer conquistadores the methods of the Spanish Court encouraged abuses of authority and many acts of tyranny.
Officials, such as Governors and even Viceroys, were wont to pay certain sums down for the transference of the tenure of office, and it was then their task to wring as much from the governed territory as possible in order that they might retire from the New World to the Old the owners of vast fortunes.

To expect fair government under conditions such as these was to conceive human beings on a higher plane than that on which they are wont to be planned.
Indeed, notwithstanding the atrocities and financial iniquities which were rife throughout Spanish and Portuguese Colonies, to imagine the various officials as necessarily inhuman and criminal is, of course, absurd.

Many of these were men of talent, and of merciful and gentle disposition; but in many even of these cases the altogether extraordinary influence and atmosphere of the Southern Continent ended by driving them to acts from which in Europe they would have shrunk whole-heartedly.

The dispositions of the men were not invariably at fault; but the system under which they worked was never anything else.



It is time, however, to forsake generalization, and to return to the Spanish pioneers who first colonized Haiti, and then set foot on the mainland itself.
In the ill-fated island the drama, begun with the advent of the Spaniards, was being continued in deeper and bloodier shades.

The royal edicts came pompously out from Spain, commanding that the welfare of the Indians should be the first consideration on the part of the Colonial Government; but the thunder of such edicts, worn out by the voyage, died away ere they reached the island.
Ovando, it is true, made some endeavours to act up to the spirit of these enactments; but in view of the condition of the labour market and the clamourings of the settlers it was, humanly speaking, impossible to carry this out.


As time went on both settlers and Governors accustomed themselves to treat the aborigines rather as beasts of burden than as men, and they were hunted, slain, or driven to labour with as little compunction as if they had been pack-mules.

The slightest sign of revolt was wont to be punished by an outlet of blood which left the unfortunate folk cowering in deeper terror and despair than before.
The utter misery of the Indians may be imagined when the measures they took to free themselves are taken into consideration, for in the end they adopted the plan of committing suicide as the only means of cheating the rapacity of their white oppressors.


Native families, and even entire villages, found gloomy consolation in a self-sought death.
Even in this they were not invariably successful.
Perhaps never has the irony of fate been more strongly illustrated than in the tale that is told of one large slave-owner and his human chattels.

These latter, having come to the end of their endurance, had determined to follow the example of so many in the neighbourhood, and to do away with themselves in a body.
The Spaniard, however, received notice of the intention of these people in time.
Hastening to the spot, he came upon them just as they were preparing to effect their end.

He was undoubtedly a crafty being, this. Proceeding into the midst of the distraught folk, he called for a rope.
This, he explained, was in order that he, too, might hang himself and thus accompany the Indians to the next world, where they would thus still remain his slaves.

The ruse proved entirely successful.
The credulous Indians became, as it were, horrified back to life at the idea; they abandoned the attempt upon their lives, and continued in sorrowful despair to serve their Spanish owner.


In 1509 Ovando sailed back to Spain, and some return was made to Columbus's family for the part he had played in the discovery of the new Colonies.
His son, Diego, came out, having been endowed with the titles of Viceroy and Admiral.

Thus the Court of Spain had at last conceded some of the privileges which had been so effectually won by his father.
It is certain enough that the experiences of Diego's generation were very different from those of his father's.
The new Commander took up his residence in state in Haiti, where he lived with great pomp and style.
The Indians, however, it is said, suffered more under his Governorship than had been their lot under that of his predecessor.


The tide of conquest was flowing past the islands, and beginning to spend itself on the continent.
In 1508 began the actual colonization of the Spanish Main. The first territories to which the Spaniards made their way were those which gave on the Gulf of Darien.

Here a companion of Columbus in his second voyage, Alonso de Ojeda, was given the district extending from the Cape de la Vela to the Gulf of Uraba, and this territory was termed the Land of New Andalusia.
Another adventurer, Nicuesa, came as his neighbour, holding the Governorship of the coast from the Gulf of Uraba to the Cape Gracias a Dios. These two conquistadores, although as jealous of each other as was usual with almost all these pioneer explorers, joined forces against the Indians, whom they attempted to subdue by means of an iron hand rather than by a silk glove.


The Indians, however, proved themselves of a very warlike disposition, and the joint forces of the Spaniards were unable to crush the power of the aborigines.
After a while the leaders were obliged to withdraw their forces from the district they had occupied.
Some while afterwards Nuñez de Balboa took charge of Uraba. On his arrival he found that matters on the Gulf of Darien had reached a desperate pitch.
As the fortunes of the Spaniards had waned, the confidence of the Indians had increased.
There is no doubt that the majority of men would have recoiled from the task which faced Balboa when he found himself at the head of a number of starving Spaniards, scarcely able to maintain their precarious foothold in a hostile country.

Balboa gathered together the despairing remnants, and contrived to put fresh heart into his men.
He then turned to the Indians, and won their esteem by his considerate treatment. He proved himself, in fact, in every respect an able and successful leader.


It was in 1512 that he set out on his famous expedition across the Isthmus, and won his way to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
It was certainly not the least dramatic moment in the history of early America when Balboa, in a frenzy of joy, seized the flag of Castile, and, holding it aloft, plunged his body into the waters of the ocean, claiming it for his King.

As was the fate of so many able men of that period, it was not long before Balboa was superseded.
The fine governmental structure he had built up was very soon wrecked by his successor and superior, Pedrarias.
Friendly communication with the Indians was ruthlessly broken off. The natives were chased unmercifully by bloodhounds, and numbers slain.

Balboa, chafing beneath a situation which must have been keenly distressing to him, was suspected by Pedrarias, and arrested.
The Bishop, Quevado, however, intervened in favour of the single-minded ex-Governor; a reconciliation of a kind was patched up, and, in order to strengthen this, Balboa was officially betrothed to the daughter of Pedrarias - a purely political move this, since Balboa was already united to the dusky daughter of Careta, an aboriginal chief.


There is matter for the novelist here and to spare; few situations can be found which hold more possibilities. In this case they led to the death of Balboa, which would probably have happened irrespective of the strange situation in which he found himself.

The cause, however, was merely renewed jealousy on the part of the Governor. Balboa had prepared a further expedition of discovery, so thoroughly, indeed, that the suspicions of Pedrarias were again needlessly aroused.
A mock trial brought about a real catastrophe, which ended in the beheading of Balboa in 1547, at the age of forty-two.


In the meanwhile much had been happening in the neighbourhood.

Charles V. found himself in some danger of running short of men in the face of these tremendous additions to his empire.
He farmed out a portion of these new Colonies, contracting with the Welzers, merchant princes of Augsberg, in Germany, to take charge of and to extend the settlements in that part of the continent which is now known as Venezuela.

An official of the name of Alfinger was appointed as the first Governor of this new settlement.
He is said to have practised the most barbarous cruelties on the unfortunate Indians, some of which have already been referred to.
Alfinger was succeeded by other officials of his nationality, who are said to have proved themselves somewhat less cruel rulers.

But, on the whole, this colonizing scheme of the Welzers proved a dreary failure; they had little interest in the permanent occupation of the country, and sought merely for the gold and precious metals.

Thus, with the knowledge that their occupation would be shortlived, they forced the Indians to ever more strenuous labours than those to which they were accustomed even at the hands of the Spaniards.
In the end the country became depopulated.
The Welzers shrugged their shoulders, and admitted that their utility was at an end in that district. With this the Spaniards took possession of the country once again.


Gonzalo Jimines de Quesada now became prominent as a conquistador in the territory to the north of Peru, known then as New Granada. Quesada himself, although he lacked nothing of the courage and determination (frequently of a merciless order) of the average conquistador, was undoubtedly endowed with certain attributes which were possessed by very few of these hardy pioneers.

For one thing he was scholarly; he had been given an elaborate education, and knew well how to put it to the best purposes.
Quesada led an expedition up the Magdalena River. He had for companion Benalcazar.
They approached the country from the south, occupied Popagan and Pasto, and founded Guayaquil.

They also penetrated the Valley of Curacua and Bogotá, and thus traversed the whole Province.
This brought them into contact with the Chibcha Indians. In the end these unfortunate beings were completely subdued, their civilization destroyed, and they themselves divided as slaves among the Spaniards.

Quesada, accompanied by a band of mercenary Indians, started on his journey in order to seek for gold.
He was, in the first place, received in a friendly way by the natives; but in the end these, dreading the greed which the invaders took no trouble to conceal, attacked them.


The warfare between the Spaniards and the natives commenced, with the conquest of the natives as the result, as given above.
It has already been explained that many of the characteristics of the Incas and of the Chibchas were curiously alike.

In history this extended even to the fate of the respective Royal Families.
Pizarro slew Atahualpa; Quesada was even more thorough. For not only did he destroy the Prince of the Chibchas, but the whole of the Royal Family as well.


These acts do not appear to have lain very heavily on the conscience of Quesada, if fruitful years be any test. The tough old conquistador lived to the age of eighty, expiring in the year 1579. In 1597 it is said that his body was taken to Bogotá Cathedral.



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