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Christopher Columbus discovered previously unknown lands in 1492, and within 20 years the conquest of these new lands was proceeding quickly. How were the Spanish conquistadors able to do it? The Spanish armor and weapons had much to do with their success.
The Swift Success of the Conquistadors
The Spanish who came to settle the New World were generally not farmers and craftsmen but soldiers, adventurers, and mercenaries looking for a quick fortune. Native communities were attacked and enslaved and any treasures they may have had such as gold, silver or pearls were taken. Teams of Spanish conquistadors devastated native communities on Caribbean islands such as Cuba and Hispaniola between 1494 and 1515 or so before moving on to the mainland.
The most famous conquests were those of the mighty Aztec and Inca Empires, in Central America and the Andes mountains of South America respectively. The conquistadors who took these mighty Empires down (Hernan Cortes in Mexico in 1525 and Francisco Pizarro in Peru, 1532) commanded relatively small forces: Cortes had around 600 men and Pizarro initially had about 160. These small forces were able to defeat much larger ones. At the Battle of Teocajas, Sebastian de Benalcazar had 200 Spanish and some 3,000 Cañari allies: together they fought Inca General Rumiñahui and a force of some 50,000 warriors to a draw.
There were two sorts of Spanish conquistadors: horsemen or cavalry and foot soldiers or infantry. The cavalry would usually carry the day in the battles of the conquest. When the spoils were divided, cavalrymen received a much higher share of the treasure than foot soldiers. Some Spanish soldiers would save up and purchase a horse as a sort of investment which would pay off in future conquests.
The Spanish horsemen generally had two sorts of weapons: lances and swords. Their lances were long wooden spears with iron or steel points on the ends, used to devastating effect on masses of native foot soldiers.
In close combat, a rider would use his sword. Steel Spanish swords of the conquest were about three feet long and relatively narrow, sharp on both sides. The Spanish city of Toledo was known as one of the best places in the world for making arms and armor and a fine Toledo sword was a valuable weapon indeed. The finely made weapons did not pass inspection until they could bend in a half-circle and survive a full-force impact with a metal helmet. The fine Spanish steel sword was such an advantage that for some time after the conquest, it was illegal for natives to have one.
Foot Soldiers' Weapons
Spanish foot soldiers could use a variety of weapons. Many people incorrectly think that it was firearms that doomed the New World natives, but that's not the case. Some Spanish soldiers used a harquebus, a sort of early musket. The harquebus was undeniably effective against any one opponent, but they are slow to load, heavy, and firing one is a complicated process involving the use of a wick which must be kept lit. The harquebuses were most effective for terrorizing native soldiers, who thought the Spanish could create thunder.
Like the harquebus, the crossbow was a European weapon designed to defeat armored knights and too bulky and cumbersome to be of much use in the conquest against the lightly armored, quick natives. Some soldiers used crossbows, but they're very slow to load, break or malfunction easily and their use was not terribly common, at least not after the initial phases of the conquest.
Like the cavalry, Spanish foot soldiers made good use of swords. A heavily armored Spanish foot soldier could cut down dozens of native enemies in minutes with a fine Toledan blade.
Spanish armor, mostly made in Toledo, was among the finest in the world. Encased from head to foot in a steel shell, Spanish conquistadors were all but invulnerable when facing native opponents.
In Europe, the armored knight had dominated the battlefield for centuries and weapons such as the harquebus and crossbow were specifically designed to pierce armor and defeat them. The natives had no such weapons and therefore killed very few armored Spanish in battle.
The helmet most commonly associated with the conquistadors was the morion, a heavy steel helm with a pronounced crest or comb on top and sweeping sides that came to points on either end. Some infantrymen preferred a salade, a full-faced helmet that looks a little like a steel ski mask. In its most basic form, it is a bullet-shaped helm with a large T in front of the eyes, nose, and mouth. A cabasset helmet was much simpler: it is a large steel cap that covers the head from the ears up: stylish ones would have an elongated dome like the pointy end of an almond.
Most conquistadors wore a full set of armor which consisted of a heavy breastplate, arm and leg greaves, a metal skirt, and protection for the neck and throat called a gorget. Even parts of the body such as elbows and shoulders, which require movement, were protected by a series of overlapping plates, meaning that there were very few vulnerable spots on a fully armored conquistador. A full suit of metal armor weighed about sixty pounds and the weight was well distributed over the body, allowing it to be worn for long periods of time without causing much fatigue. It generally included even armored boots and gloves or gauntlets.
Later in the conquest, as conquistadors realized that full suits of armor were overkill in the New World, some of them switched to lighter chainmail, which was just as effective. Some even abandoned metal armor entirely, wearing escuapil, a sort of padded leather or cloth armor adapted from the armor worn by Aztec warriors.
Large, heavy shields were not necessary for the conquest, although many conquistadors used a buckler, a small, round or oval shield usually of wood or metal covered with leather.
The natives had no answer for these weapons and armor. At the time of the conquest, most native cultures in North and South America were somewhere between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age in terms of their weaponry. Most foot soldiers carried heavy clubs or maces, some with stone or bronze heads. Some had rudimentary stone axes or clubs with spikes coming out of the end. These weapons could batter and bruise Spanish conquistadors, but only rarely did any serious damage through the heavy armor. Aztec warriors occasionally had a macuahuitl, a wooden sword with jagged obsidian shards set in the sides: it was a lethal weapon, but still no match for steel.
The natives had some better luck with missile weapons. In South America, some cultures developed bows and arrows, although they were rarely able to pierce armor. Other cultures used a sort of sling to hurl a stone with great force. Aztec warriors used the atlatl, a device used to hurl javelins or darts at great velocity.
Native cultures wore elaborate, beautiful armor. The Aztecs had warrior societies, the most notable of which were the feared Eagle and Jaguar warriors. These men would dress in Jaguar skins or eagle feathers and were very brave warriors. The Incas wore quilted or padded armor and used shields and helmets made of wood or bronze. Native armor was generally intended to intimidate as much as protect: it was often very colorful and beautiful. Nevertheless, eagle feathers provide no protection from a steel sword and native armor was of very little use in combat with conquistadors.
The conquest of the Americas proves decisively the advantage of advanced armor and weaponry in any conflict. The Aztecs and Incas numbered in the millions, yet were defeated by Spanish forces numbering in the hundreds. A heavily armored conquistador could slay dozens of foes in a single engagement without receiving a serious wound. Horses were another advantage that the natives could not counter.
It's inaccurate to say that the success of the Spanish conquest was solely due to superior arms and armor, however. The Spanish were greatly aided by diseases previously unknown to that part of the world. Millions died of new illnesses brought by the Spanish such as smallpox. There was also a great deal of luck involved. For example, they invaded the Inca Empire at a time of great crisis, as a brutal civil war between brothers Huascar and Atahualpa was just ending when the Spanish arrived in 1532; and the Aztecs were widely despised by their subjects.
- Calvert, Albert Frederick. "Spanish arms and armour: being a historical and descriptive account of the Royal armoury of Madrid." London: J. Lane, 1907
- Hemming, John. "The Conquest of the Inca." London: Pan Books, 2004 (original 1970).
- Pohl, John. "The Conquistador: 1492-1550." Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008.