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The Spanish and Portuguese settlement of the New World

Before colonizing America, Europeans had been fighting one another for hundreds of years. Due to some smooth-sailing explorers, Spain and Portugal were in the lead for international conquest moving into the 1500s. So that these two countries wouldn't step on each others' toes, the pope issued a decree in the year after Columbus's first voyage, dividing the New World between Spain and Portugal. Because the pope's line managed to miss pretty much all the land, leaving Portugal holding nothing but waves, the two countries got together and amicably signed the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). This agreement moved the dividing line a few hundred miles west so that Portugal got Brazil, plus some land in Africa and Asia. Spain got the rest of the "heathen" world and immediately sent in the conquistadors.

Spanish explorers spent the first half of the 1500s in heavy armor looking for gold. Some looked in the wrong places in North America, but they all managed to make some interesting discoveries:

- Vasco Balboa (1513) made it across the Isthmus of Panama to become the first European to wade into the Pacific Ocean. He found pineapples and pearls.

- Ferdinand Magellan (1519) sailed west from Spain with five small boats and an international crew of Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, English, and German sailors. After making it around South America (the Strait of Magellan is named for him), he died in the Philippines, but a few members of his crew made it all the way around the world and home again in 1522 with a cargo of cinnamon and cloves.

- Ponce de Leon (1513) explored Florida. The Indians he met were so tall and beautiful that he thought he must be near a fountain of youth.

- Francisco Coronado (1540) spent years marching around the American Southwest. Coronado found the Grand Canyon and millions of buffalo but no riches that he could easily add to the Spanish treasury.

- Hernando de Soto (1539), with 600 men in bright armor, marched through the middle south of what is now the United States. De Soto ended up sunk in the Mississippi River, but after three years, a few of his men made it back to Mexico wearing animal skins.

- Francisco Pizarro (1532) persuaded the Incan sovereign to turn over his gold, and then Pizarro turned over the whole empire looking for more. He conquered the Incan Empire covering most of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. The mines in what's now Bolivia produced the largest amount of silver the world has ever seen. (Read more about the Incan and other early American empires in Chapter 6.)

- Hernán Cortés (1519) took over the Aztec Empire, centered in Mexico City, trading the lives of his men and thousands of Aztecs and other natives for gold.

Soon, Spain and the rest of Europe were glittering with precious metal. New World treasure made Europe rich. Having money to explore, trade, and conquer made Europe even richer.

The introduction of Christianity

The encomienda (1503) system was a decree from the Spanish rulers assigning groups of American Indians to colonists whose purpose supposedly was to protect and Christianize them. However, rather than Christianizing the American Indians, many colonists actually used them as slaves. Soldiers called conquistadores (1510) signed agreements with the Spanish king, raised money from investors, and then marched off looking for plunder. The total number of these mercenaries was about 10,000, but they had guns, horses, and no hesitation about killing anybody who got in their way. To turn a profit for themselves and their investors, the conquistadores were experts at getting American Indians to fight one another. Many sincerely believed they were bringing the gift of true Christianity to a savage world and that any gold they picked up along the way was their just reward.

A Black Legend historical theme popular in the 1900s said that the Spanish killed, raped, and looted for treasure, leaving nothing but suffering behind. Although some Spaniards certainly were cruel and greedy, Spain hardly had a monopoly on those bad habits.

Despite the abuses, Spanish settlers who thought they were spreading the word of God founded missions and settlements in places where the Spanish found no gold, including New Mexico and California. (Ironically, gold was discovered in California in 1848 just nine days before Spain's successor, Mexico, turned the territory over to the United States.)

Blending cultures and people

The conquerors also married American Indian women. The women converted to Catholicism, couples got married, and the Spanish-American Indian children were called mestizos. This mixture of ethnic groups and cultures forms a majority of the population of Mexico, Central America, and South America to this day.

La Malinche

La Malinche was an Indian woman who accompanied Hernán Cortés and played an active role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Acting as interpreter and intermediary, La Malinche smoothed the way for Cortés. She also was the mother of Cortés's son, who's considered one of the first mestizos. In Mexico today, people both love and hate La Malinche. She's remembered alternately as a traitor, a sellout, a heroine who helped save at least some of the native peoples of Mexico, and the symbolic mother of the new Mexican people. The Mexicans also celebrate Columbus Day as Día de la Raza — the birthday of what they see as their whole new race of people.

Spaniards' ideas of civilization often backfired on them. The Pueblo Revolt, also known as Pope's Rebellion (1680), was an American Indian uprising in New Mexico that killed hundreds of Spanish settlers and priests. The American Indians rebuilt their sacred kiva (ceremonial chamber) on the ruins of the Spanish plaza in Santa Fe; it took Spain almost 30 years to regain control. In the New World as a whole, the influence of a Spanish culture having intermarried with the native society is still evident from San Francisco, California, to the Tip of South America, 8,000 miles south.

No more than 50 years after Columbus discovered the Bahamas, hundreds of small Spanish and mestizo towns had sprung up, especially near the gold and silver mines in Mexico and Peru. In addition, the Spanish founded the first universities in the New World, 85 years before the English got around to starting Harvard. They also are credited with establishing the first permanent town in what would become the United States — St. Augustine, Florida (1565) — before the first English settlers arrived in the New World.

Caribbean piracy and Spanish wealth

All the treasure Spain amassed from the New World attracted fortune hunters with ships who didn't mind stealing from the Spanish. Privateers (a name they preferred to pirates) operated for 200 years, from approximately 1560 to the mid-1760s. These pirates were most successful during the 1640s through the 1680s.

Caribbean piracy arose out of conflicts over trade and colonization among the rival European powers, including England, Spain, Holland, Portugal, and France. Most of the privateers who had permission from their governments to attack foreign ships were from Holland and England.

Because Spain controlled much of the Caribbean and all of the gold, most of the attacked cities and ships belonged to the Spanish Empire. Some of the best-known pirate bases were in the Bahamas (1715 to 1725), Tortuga (established in the 1640s), and Port Royal in Jamaica (after 1655). Among the most famous Caribbean pirates were Edward Teach (also known as Blackbeard) and Henry Morgan.

The decline of Spanish power

Closer to home, the Spanish were having trouble maintaining their European domination over the mostly Protestant country of Holland and sent their great fleet — the Spanish Armada (1588) — to invade and subdue England, Holland's Protestant supporter.

In a battle just north of the English Channel, the English and Dutch attacked the Armada. Even though the attacking ships were outnumbered, they managed to scatter the Spanish fleet and sink some of the Spanish ships. More Armada ships were lost in storms that arrived just in time to help the English and Dutch fleets. When England and Spain finally signed a peace treaty in 1604, the English were free to move to unclaimed North America. Spanish power began a slow decline that lasted for more than 300 years.

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