Spanish Conquistadors

In Spanish, the word “conquistador” translates to “conqueror”, a fitting title for the groups of Spanish and Portuguese explorers who attempted to conquer the Central and South American territories that they descended upon. The conquistadors’ mission was to conquer these lands in the name of their home countries.  


Juan Ponce de León was a Spanish-born conquistador who made it his mission to find riches, such as gold and the famed “fountain of youth”. A skilled explorer, he would eventually become the governor of Puerto Rico, which in the early 1500s was known as the island of San Juan Bautista. It was rumored that the island was full of gold, so León obtained permission from his native Spain to sail there and explore it. He was granted the opportunity to do so, and was shortly after named governor of the island.

Another rumor took hold, this time about the island of Bimini (present day Bahamas). He was informed that on the island, one could find the “fountain of youth”, and anyone who drank from or bathed in the waters of the fountain could become young again. León set out for Bimini, but accidentally wound up in what is present day Florida, therefore making him the first European to lead an expedition into the area. 


Hernán Cortés, another 16th century explorer from Spain, had already made his way through Hispaniola and Cuba (where he held a number of important titles) before he descended upon Mexico. After acquiring the help of a priest who spoke an indigenous Maya language, Cortés was able to navigate the territory, eventually claiming Mexico for Spain in March of 1519. The only thing that stood in his way, however, was the Aztec empire, and after building alliances with various indigenous groups (among them, the Tlaxcalans), Cortés led a campaign to destroy the Aztecs. He was successfully in defeating the empire, and therefore ushered in a full Spanish colonization of Mexico.       

Francisco Pizarro of Spain got wind of the rumor that there were riches to be found in Peru, located in South America. After three failed attempts to overtake the Inca Empire, which before Columbus was the largest empire in South America, he was successful in capturing and executing the Incan ruler. Pizarro thus conquered the Incan people and founded the city of Lima, which is today the capital of Peru. 

Despite sailing at different times and to different locations, all of them had the similar motive of “For Gold! For God! For Glory!” The gold represented the riches that were present and subsequently taken from the Native empires; the mention of God represented the religious work they wanted to perform in converting natives to Christianity through the use of missionaries; and glory represented the fame and the seeming immortality these men would achieve after conquering these territories. 


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