5 Most Brutal Conquistadors of the New World
Conquistadors have been wrongfully praised for years in literature, film, textbooks, and classrooms.
Do you remember learning about the epic feats of Christopher Columbus? I remember being told that Hernán Cortés was a great leader—astute, brave, intelligent, and an unparalleled conciliator and negotiator. While that may have been true, they neglected to tell us about the other side of the coin.
The deadly mix of greed, brutality, superior weaponry, unknown diseases, and battlefield PTSD is what led these conquistadors to flock to the “Indies” and massacre whoever kept them from the New World’s gold.
Today, we’ll take a deep dive into world history, through passages unknown by many that are yet to be discovered. Spanish conquistadors felt the same way when they set foot in the Americas for the first time.
This isn’t just a list of examples of famous conquistadors, but rather a ranking of the most brutal ones, famous for their ambition and death tolls. Maybe you’ve never heard these names before, but I assure you that they still ring bells in many towns and cities of the New World.
Keep reading to learn about the deadliest Spanish conquistadors.
Table of Contents:
- What Does Conquistador Mean?
- What Did the Spanish Conquistadors Do?
- The Worst European Explorers
- Who Were The Most Famously Brutal Spanish Conquerors?
- Aftermath of the Conquers
What Does Conquistador Mean?
The definition of conquistador or conquistadora in Spanish is a person who conquers a place. While in English the direct translation is conqueror, when you say conquistador, you’re referring exclusively to the Spanish—among them white and black conquistadors—ones who came to the Americas as explorers and invaders.
The pronunciation of qui is similar to “ki” of “killers.” The u between the q and i is silent.
In English, the term’s synonyms include winner, victor, champion, hero, and master. If you look it up in Spanish, chances are you’ll find words referring to a “romantic conqueror,” like casanova.
What Did the Spanish Conquistadors Do?
Conquistadors would “explore” unknown land by subjugating, enslaving, killing, and torturing the natives—as well as stealing their gold, silver, jade, precious gemstones, and other resources. They came from all over Europe but most of them were Spanish, specifically from the southern provinces.
The conquistadors’ main feature is that they were ambitious, which makes sense when you discover that these people were normally poor or belonged to the low nobility at best. The promise of great wealth was enough to make people join the cause. Many were veteran soldiers—the Spanish were Europe’s finest at the time—and some were expert navigators or strategists.
Sadly, they not only killed, enslaved, tortured, and looted, but also destroyed temples, burned historical texts, and melted precious works of art.
As Spanish Catholic men, these conquistadors and their crews—and soon enough the Spanish Empire—justified their invasions and stealing with evangelization. They said they were going to new lands to spread the Lord’s word and save the natives’ souls from eternal damnation.
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The Worst European Explorers
Conquistadors weren’t well organized, and many of their milestones were mere strokes of luck.
Few governments or monarchies initially believed in their quests seeking adventure and fortune. So, they had to raise money and gather men by themselves. More than an army, they were a bunch of mercenaries with volatile leaders.
Who Were The Most Famously Brutal Spanish Conquerors?
Let’s get to the ranking of the most bloodthirsty, ruthless, cruel conquistadors of the European expeditions to what they called the Indies. I ranked them from least to most brutal, according to their conquest strategies, death tolls, ambition, and sadism.
5. Juan Ponce de León
Death by: poisoned arrow
In the early 1500s, most conquistadors started their careers in the Caribbean islands.
Juan Ponce de León, a prolific genocidal maniac, joined Columbus’ second expedition and played a key role in the massacres of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, where he became the governor.
But his greed knew no borders, so he continued on his way to a place he baptized as Florida. On his second trip there, he was welcomed in Tampa Bay by the natives who were done with him and all the conquistadors. He was gravely hurt before disembarking and died in La Habana a few days later.
4. Pedro de Alvarado
Death by: horse crushing
One of the most notable milestones of Pedro de Álvarado as a brutal conquistador was the massacre of Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs.
It was a result of his volatile and impulsive character since it was unprovoked and unauthorized by his superior Hernán Cortés. By doing this, he killed unarmed men, women, and children during a local festivity. The logic behind the killings was that if natives had received them with pounds of gold as a gift, imagine the quantities they must have. So, they killed the natives to steal their treasures.
The most common manner of torture before the killings was to burn the governants’ feet. This is what Pedro de Alvarado and Hernán Cortés did to Aztec Emperor Cuauhtémoc. He never talked and according to oral tradition he said, “Am I taking a delightful bath?”.
3. Francisco Pizarro
Death by: stabbing
Pizarro is one of the Spanish conquistadors to tear down the Inca Empire during the Peruvian campaign. He forcefully conversed the Emperor—before strangling him—and killed thousands of Incas.
These acts became the preliminary blueprint of the mass genocides that followed. Pizarro was murdered by the son of his former colleague, whom he had sentenced to death.
2. Christopher Columbus
Death by: Reiter’s syndrome
In recent years, Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) has been knocked off his pedestal, as new and not-so-new information came to light about his career as one of the most notorious conquistadors—not explorers.
Slavery, torture, and genocide are linked to his name today. It’s unbelievable that there are still holidays and other honors in his name. But, each year more Columbus monuments are vandalized and torn down in Latin America and the U.S. due to indigenous rights protests.
1. Hernán Cortés
Death by: pleurisy
Here you have it, the worst of all the conquistadors: Hernán Cortés. After his Cuban campaign, he went rogue and traveled to Mexico. This small expedition eventually resulted in the slaughter and ruination of the Aztec Empire.
A perfect example of the “strokes of luck” is the story of Hernán Cortés and how he conquered the New World. Learning history in the classrooms of Mexico, something just doesn’t add up: how did a few dozens of people who came in three ships massacre and dominate millions of natives, many of whom were bloodthirsty warriors?
The natives were initially impressed by the Spanish conquistadors, as they brought shiny armor, horses, and mirrors. Unfortunately, they also imported lethal diseases such as smallpox, mysles, and typhus. There is no way of knowing the exact number of deaths they caused, but experts estimate that 60% to 95% of the native population was wiped out.
While this was happening, Cortés had to fight the Aztecs, the most murderous and sadistic of prehispanic civilizations. When Hernán and his crew were invading the coasts he collected a bounty of 12 women. One of them was the iconic, unparalleled La Malinche.
She was beyond intelligent. Her ability to learn languages and to establish diplomatic relations is what got her so far in history—along with Hernán and La Conquista (the Conquest). She was the one who told Hernán about the utter contempt that other smaller civilizations had against the Aztec butchers.
Through La Malinche, he created liaisons and conspired to defeat them. Many expeditioners said that none of the conquests of the New World would have been possible without her.
Aftermath of the Conquers
La Conquista was a 300-year period with many tragic twists and turns. After the genocides, diseases, and massacres, societies eventually embraced the Spanish culture, along with their own indigenous traditions.
While there is still much to debate about those years, this merger enriched both cultures in the long term. What we can do is educate new generations about the real reasons behind these “expeditions” and the true colors of men who many have called great leaders for years. It is a form of respect for the descendants of indigenous people who were looted, tortured, massacred, betrayed, and demoralized.
It’s important to support those who are still fighting for their rights. No one should be discriminated against due to the color of their skin. Latin America—like many other regions that have suffered the consequences of colonization in terms of civil rights—faces both racism and classism. White people are treated differently than those with darker skin. This is a stigma that citizens with indigenous roots have to endure to survive. As a society, it is our duty to change this unfair system.
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