The Gamble Of The Conquistadores

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Pablo Edronkin

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The Spanish Conquistadores or conquerors are a prime example of what means betting your life to an idea: they literally abandoned the world they knew and their prior life in order to win a prize or die trying to.

It was a very big thing to do, and many died indeed trying, but a few actually made immense fortunes. But we have to place our comments within the context of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and consider the social structure that existed at the time, because saying that these soldiers and adventurers were cruel or greedy is much too simplistic.

Exploring the Austral Andes.
Exploring the Austral Andes.

It is a frequent mistake to attempt to interpret history from a modern viewpoint; history cannot be understood really if explanations are sought by means of values which are not current to each time lapse where facts do actually take place. Among the conquerors there were not only Spaniards, but men from all across Europe, as historical data shows.

Many of those - at least during the early stages of conquest - belonged to military formations that were being dissolved after the fall of the Muslim Kingdom of Grenada, which ended a centuries-long war against them in western Europe. This happened in 1492.

At that time, there were very few opportunities, socially speaking, to improve your living standards; if you didn't have money or military glory, you had little left. The conquest of America ostensibly offered all these things.

A summer afternoon for an explorer.
A summer afternoon for an explorer.

The leaders of the parties, what in English is interpreted as the Conquistadores, received a title from the Spanish authorities. They became 'Adelantados,' which literally translates as 'those who go forward.' These men received authorisation and official sanctioning to organise expeditions to the new world, and they, the leaders themselves, were usually of noble birth but no hope of receiving any form of inheritance. So their situation was tight.

The Spanish authorities understood that after the fall of the last moors in the peninsula, deactivating their huge armies would pose many dangers, unemployment, crime, etc. so they found with this conquest a new job for their soldiers. And of course, there were many - including the Church itself - who wanted to bring into Christianity all those Indians they just ran across.

But the biggest group of all was that of the soldiers and sailors, and as such, their motivations where the most significant: they were betting their lives, but in their view that was not more hazardous than staying in their countries. The were making the bet of their lives, literally, but if they lose and died, nothing would have changed and they would not end up worse than they lived in a hopeless Europe.

A Gea explorer at the end of the world.
A Gea explorer at the end of the world.

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