Spanish Exploration and Conquest in the Americas

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An account from the adventurer and conquistador Bernal Díaz portraying the Spanish arrival  and conquest in the New World.

When Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492, he may not have found a heretofore undiscovered land, however, he did set into play a series of events that would forever alter the shape of history. Early accounts of the Spanish conquest often proposed a heroic myth of European superiority where relatively small numbers of Spaniards were able to defeat vast numbers of indigenous warriors due to exceptional characters and more advanced technology (Restall, 3). These early accounts were certainly heavily biased, however, these narratives have defined the basis of our understanding of the Spanish conquest for much of the intervening 500 years (Restall, 12).

One account that seems to diverge from this narrative (though it was certainly self-aggrandizing) is Bernal Díaz’s account of the conquest of Mexico which offered a far less heroic portrayal of the infamous conquistador Hernán Cortés. This work gave an account of the conquest of Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire and their interactions with King Montezuma, and, though it was not published until after Díaz’s death, it has become a cornerstone for historians attempting to piece together the history of the fall of the Aztecs (Díaz, 44). The conquest of Mexico became symbolic of the larger Spanish conquest of the Americas and the success of Cortés served as an inspiration for future conquistadors looking for fame and wealth in the New World, eventually leading to Spanish domain over much of the Americas (Restall, 17). Of course, all of these accounts have historically focused on individual achievements and the accomplishments of exceptional men, while ignoring other, far more important factors (disease brought to the Americas being foremost among these) and tend to overstate the importance of Spanish conquistadors. In recent decades, we have come to understand the conquest of the Americas as vastly more complicated and uncertain than the early chroniclers suggested, yet these works have characterized our perceptions of Spanish conquest for centuries. They were part of the Spanish propaganda of economic and political dominance that they hoped to, and largely did, achieve through conquest in the New World.