When Columbus came to the New World, he was seeking a new route to India for access to silks and spices. Instead, he discovered the Americas. In what we now know as the Bahamas, he found indigenous people, who he enslaved to find gold and other riches.
In the end, he did not find much, but the rumors he brought back with him of rivers flowing with gold and easily subjugated natives opened the door to Spanish and Portuguese colonization.
Both Spain and Portugal were world powers at this time, and rivals in their search for new lands and riches. The Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494, split South America down the middle, giving Portugal eastern territory and Spain western territory.
Spanish explorers who searched for gold and power in the New World were called conquistadors. Despite Columbus’ failure to turn up gold on his visits to the Americas, other conquistadors were luckier.
Plundering the New World
Hernan Cortes was one such man. Cortes came to Hispaniola in 1504. In 1519 he arrived at the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Cortes and his men were astounded by the gold they saw around them. Both men and women wore gold as jewelry and it adorned the rich artwork found all over the capital.
Initially, Cortes took Aztec ruler Moctezuma, hostage, and murdered many high ranking officials, but they were driven out of the city by the people. In 1521 Cortes returned, and with the help of tens of thousands of natives who no longer wish to be ruled by the Aztec Empire and smallpox, he took Tenochtitlan for Spain, renaming it Mexico City.
Cortes returned to the Americas many times, eventually dying embittered and in debt from financing his own journeys.
Through the years many conquistadors came to the Americas in search of gold including Fransisco Pizarro who brought down the Incan Empire and founded Lima, Peru.
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When Pizarro and his men captured the Incan Emperor Atahualpa in 1532, he filled a large room with gold and silver to try and buy his freedom. After the room was filled Pizarro and his men used Atahuapla to rule the Incan empire, forced him to convert to Christianity, and eventually killed him.
Hernando de Soto was another conquistador, who brought European diseases to what we now know as the southern United States. Unlike Pizarro, Soto did not return to Europe with substantial treasures. Many conquistadors failed to colonize the Americas due to resistance from natives and steep competition from enemy nations and countrymen alike.
Despite some failures, Spain was thriving off of its occupation of the New World, and as the riches came pouring in, a new economic system was developed, called capitalism. Amidst the chaos of economic distress and inflation that followed in the wake of capitalism, a Spanish Renaissance bloomed.