Conquistadors: The Rise and Fall, April 25, 2024, Nat Geo, “The Growth of the Colonies”


Conquistadors: The Rise and Fall returns with an insightful episode, “The Growth of the Colonies,” airing on National Geographic on April 25, 2024. The episode examines the expansion of the Spanish Empire and the establishment of colonies in the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Spanish conquest of the Aztec and Inca empires played a pivotal role in the growth of their colonial empire. Hernán Cortés’s conquest of the Aztec Empire in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru led to the establishment of New Spain and the Viceroyalty of Peru, respectively. These conquests brought vast territories and resources under Spanish control.

The Spanish were motivated by the search for wealth, power, and the spread of Catholicism. They envisioned a hierarchical colonial society with Spaniards at the top and native peoples and Africans beneath them. The encomienda system, which granted Spanish conquerors tribute and labor from indigenous communities, was a key mechanism for exploiting native labor and resources. However, abuse and resistance led to its gradual replacement by the repartimiento system.

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The growth of colonies was not without challenges. Spain faced competition from other European powers, such as England, France, and the Netherlands, who sought their own colonial empires. Additionally, the introduction of European diseases, particularly smallpox, had a devastating impact on native populations, reducing their numbers significantly.

The episode also explores the complex social dynamics within the colonies. The Spanish society was patriarchal, with women occupying a lower status. A racial hierarchy emerged, with mestizos (people of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry) and indigenous peoples at the lower levels. However, the castas system, which categorized people based on race and social status, allowed for some social mobility.

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The Spanish established their colonies alongside indigenous communities, such as building Mexico City on the site of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. They created two “republics”: the República de Españoles, which included Spaniards and their enslaved Africans, and the República de Indios, for native peoples. Each republic had semi-autonomous town councils, allowing native elites to maintain positions of authority and govern daily affairs.

As the Spanish Empire expanded, new cities were founded, including Vera Cruz, Panama, Cartagena, and Lima. The colonies became a source of immense wealth, especially with the discovery of silver deposits in Cerro Rico, present-day Bolivia. The labor of indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans was crucial for mining and other industries.

Conquistadors: The Rise and Fall airs on Nat Geo at 9.00 pm on Thursday, April 25, 2024.

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