The Iberian Powers in Colonial Empires

10 October 2016

The Iberian powers were able to establish and maintain colonial empires in the Americas for so long based on luck. There was no way to foresee the outcome of each conquest. There were a few times that the battles could have gone either way. It is commonly argued that the Iberians were able to colonize easily because they were “civilized men” while the natives were “barbarians”. (Restall 132) The real culprits were military prowess, strategic thinking, Iberian disease, and lack of a unified community.

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In Matthew Restall’s book Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, he addresses the myth of superiority regarding the Indigenous peoples of Latin America. It was thought that because Colonial Latin America was conquered in the name of the Church, God was on the side of the Iberians. “The succession of bulls (proclamations) issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 grandly, if vaguely, ceded to Ferdinand and Isabella the right to occupy “such islands and lands…as you have discovered or are about to discover. ”” (Mills, Taylor, Lauderdale Graham 64) The Spanish Crown had the blessings of the church on their side.

When you listen to the topical versions of accounts from that time period, they reveal a one sided account of events. However, Restall’s in depth look at the colonization of Latin America, specifically Mexico, shows a different side of the story. In Mexico and Peru, the Iberian advantage was less about God and more about superior military technology. The indigenous peoples had not been exposed to the caliber of weapons the Iberians brought with them when they came to Latin America. As a result the Indigenous people’s weapons were antiquated and were offered no aid in fighting off the resistance.

The indigenous people fought “with slings, spears, two-handed swords edged with obsidian, and bows and arrows”. (Burkholder and Johnson 54) The Iberians were mounted. They were equipped with “mobility, the firepower of artillery, steel swords and armor”. (Burkholder and Johnson 54) Aside from weapons, the Iberians brought military strategy. The Latin Americans were no match for the strategic warfare that the Iberians were bringing to the table. In both Mexico and Peru the Iberians were strategically advanced and outplayed the natives.

In Peru, the Pizarro took advantage of the civil war to kidnap and ransom Atahualpa. In Mexico, Cortez used his strategic knowledge to capture Moctezuma. (Chazkel 9/21/11 and 9/26/11) Another advantage that the Iberians had against the natives of Latin America was their lack of unity. People saw themselves as members of specific communities as opposed to a larger ethnic group. Both the Aztec and Incan empire were made up of multiple ethnicities. The Aztec empire grew so rapidly that the Aztecs were always looking for more land and conquering the people it belonged to.

They were imperial civilization with a social hierarchy. This alienated some of the newly conquered peoples and when the Iberians arrived, the disenfranchised members of Aztec society sided with the Iberians against their oppressors. An example of this would be the rogue Aztecs assistance in the capture of Moctezuma. Although the Aztecs put up a strong resistance for three months, due to a lack of unity the Iberians were able to infiltrate the empire rather quickly. The Incas had a slightly different problem. Their leader died without a successor.

The Incan empire was strong but divided by civil war by the time the Iberians arrived making it easy for them to divide and conquer. The Incan did not give up as easily as the Aztecs and held an underground resistance in Cuzco until 1570. (Chazkel 9/21/11 and 9/26/11) The Iberians also had the benefit of disease on their side. Cortez was able to be successful because of the Small Pox virus that the Iberians brought with them to Latin America. The effects on the Aztec civilization were devastating. The Aztecs were unable to recover their advantage between the ambushes and the loss of men to disease.

In the Incan empire, the Iberian diseases had arrived before the Iberians. It is believed that Iberian diseases killed the Incan leader Huayna Capac. (Chazkel 9/21/11 and 9/26/11) In conclusion, the Iberian advantage in colonial Latin America was their advancement compared to the Indigenous people. The military prowess, strategic thinking, Iberian disease, and lack of a unified community made the Latin Americans an easy mark for the colonizers of the world. The fact that they were outnumbered physically did not matter because what they lacked in manpower disease aided with.

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