Conquest of Central America

Spanish conquistador

The Spanish conquest of Central America ranks among the most violently destructive processes in world history. The combination of prolonged warfare, forced labor, enslavement, and disease decimated the indigenous population, which nonetheless survived and endured both the conquest and 300 years of colonial rule. The conquest profoundly affected every aspect of life across the isthmus.

After consolidating their conquest of Hispaniola and establishing garrisons along the coast of Cuba in the 1490s, Spanish explorers began probing the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula and the Caribbean coasts of Central and South America.

In 1509, the Spanish Crown granted two concessions for colonization of these unexplored lands. One was christened Nueva Andalusia, covering the territory east of the Gulf of Darién (at the junction of present-day Colombia and Panama).

The second, Castilla de Oro, extended from the Gulf of Darién north to Cabo Gracias a Dios (at the modern Nicaragua-Honduras border). Initial forays along these coastal regions met with stiff native resistance, disease, hardship, and failure.

These early Spanish encounters with the Caribbean littorals of Central and South America implanted virulent European diseases among the native inhabitants that quickly spread north, south, and west. Within a decade, smallpox and other pathogens were decimating the population of both the Andes and the Central American isthmus, years before Spaniards actually set foot in these areas.

Weakening indigenous polities by causing precipitous demographic declines and generating profound cultural and political crises, the rapid spread of these highly contagious pathogens helped to make subsequent conquests possible.

The first Spanish successes in these regions were those of Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a minor nobleman, indebted farmer, and gifted military leader. Invading the Darién region, Balboa subdued numerous polities and accumulated considerable treasure before hacking his way across the Central American isthmus in Panama at the head of 190 Spaniards and numerous Indian porters and guides.

On September 29, 1513, Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean, which he dubbed the “South Sea.” By the late 1520s, Panama City, the settlement at the Pacific terminus of the land corridor through Panama, had become an important shipbuilding center and the launching-off point for subsequent expeditions of exploration and conquest, including the conquest of Peru.

Mosaic of Groups

Conquest of Central America

Pre-Columbian Central America was populated by a mosaic of ethnic and linguistic groups divided politically into scores of kingdoms, city-states, and smaller polities. This political fragmentation was paralleled in subsequent divisions and conflicts among the Spanish, a key feature of the Central American and Peruvian conquests.

These conflicts first erupted in 1519, when the conquistador Pedrarias Dávila executed Balboa after accusing him of treason. Establishing the settlement of Panama City the same year, Pedrarias was supplanted by royal orders by Gil González Dávila, who launched exploratory expeditions north into Costa Rica and Nicaragua, slaughtering and enslaving the native inhabitants.

A key moment in these initial incursions came in 1522 along the shore of Lake Nicaragua, when Dávila convinced the Nicaráo cacique Nicaragua to submit to Spanish suzerainty and embrace Christianity. Soon afterward, the Chorotega cacique Diriangén assaulted and defeated Dávila’s forces, compelling his hasty retreat back to Panama.

To this day, the opposite paths chosen by the caciques Nicaragua and Diriangén in response to Spanish demands—peaceful submission versus armed resistance—serve as symbolic counterpoints in discussions regarding Central America’s relations to more powerful adversaries.

A bitter conflict soon arose between Pedrarias and Dávila, the latter refusing to relinquish his claims on the Nicaraguan territories. In 1524, Pedrarias’s subordinate Francisco Hernández de Córdoba returned to Nicaragua with a stronger force, determined to subjugate the region’s indigenous polities. Meeting initial success, he founded two towns, Granada and León.

The next two years saw a series of civil wars erupt in Nicaragua between the competing conquistadores and their respective allies, as Dávila attacked Hernández and the latter rebelled against Pedrarias, who in turn defeated and executed Hernández.

Meanwhile, with the conquest of Mexico consolidated, Hernán Cortés and his lieutenants turned their attention south. In 1523, Cortés dispatched Pedro de Alvarado south to the Guatemalan highlands. Deftly exploiting the political rupture between the Cakchiquel and Quiché kingdoms, much as Cortés had exploited indigenous divisions in Mexico, Alvarado allied with the Cakchiquel and defeated the Quiché in a series of battles and massacres.

A legendary moment came in the Battle of Quetzaltenango of April 1524, when the combined Spanish-Cakchiquel force slaughtered the much larger Quiché army and Alvarado personally killed the Quiché chieftain Tecún Umán. Alvarado’s Guatemalan campaign was marked by a series of atrocities and outrages that later became memorialized in highland Indian oral and written culture.

Soon after the Battle of Quetzaltenango, Alvarado captured and burned alive a large number of Quiché lords and nobles. Then, after using his Cakchiquel allies to defeat their enemies the Tz’utujils, Alvarado betrayed the Cakchiquels by executing their leaders and committing other atrocities.

Surviving Cakchiquels fled into the mountains, where for four years they engaged in a guerrilla campaign against Alvarado’s forces. Relentlessly pursuing his erstwhile allies, Alvarado’s forces captured many rebel leaders and hanged them in the central plaza of the Cakchiquel capital of Iximché as an object lesson to other potential rebels. Alvarado then destroyed the capital city.

These and related events were later recorded in a native manuscript, the Annals of the Cakchiquels. In the coming years, Alvarado, his lieutenants, and their successors continued their conquest of the highlands, committing many outrages and establishing the kingdom of Guatemala under the jurisdiction of New Spain. Soon after, Alvarado went on to become a leading figure in the conquest of Peru.

The last autonomous polity in Guatemala to be subdued by the Spanish was the kingdom of Tayasal in the jungles of the Petén in 1697. It is estimated that warfare, forced labor, and disease during the first 50 years of the conquest killed more than onethird of Guatemala’s 2 million inhabitants.

Alvarado’s forceful leadership in Guatemala effectively quelled incipient disputes among his men. This was not the case in the rest of Central America, where conflicts among Spaniards frequently erupted into open civil wars.

In 1524, after dispatching a seaborne expedition under Cristóbal de Olid to the Gulf of Honduras, Cortés discovered that Olid had rebelled against his authority and allied with Cortés’s nemesis, Governor Diego Velázquez of Cuba. After sending Francisco de las Casas to relieve Olid, Cortés marched overland hundreds of kilometers through the steamy jungles of Yucatán and the Petén to subdue Olid himself.

The 19-month-long campaign was a disaster. When he finally reached Honduras, his forces thinned and exhausted, Cortés found that Las Casas and González had already vanquished and beheaded Olid. Despite a Mexican tribunal’s sentences of death, Cortés ensured that neither was punished for the act.

Civil Wars

From the 1520s to the 1550s, in short, much of Central America became a vast killing ground. Civil wars between rival conquistadores continued, while divisions and fractures among indigenous polities led the Spanish to adopt a piecemeal strategy, prolonging the process of conquest and the violence that accompanied it.

Frustrated in their efforts to discover large caches of gold and other treasures and repeat the experience of Cortés in Mexico, the Spanish invaders turned to whatever marketable commodities from the region might turn a profit. In the late 1520s, gold was discovered in Nueva Segovia in north-central Nicaragua. The mines soon proved disappointing.

By this time it had become apparent that the region’s most valuable marketable commodity was human labor. The slave trade thus became the most important pillar of Central America’s early colonial economy. Many indigenous peoples fled into the interior, joining other native groups that maintained stiff resistance against determined Spanish efforts to subdue them.

What the Spanish called indios bravos (wild Indians) in the tropical mountains and jungles of eastern Nicaragua and pockets of Honduras, Guatemala, and elsewhere remained outside the orbit of Spanish control throughout the colonial period.

Estimates for the Pre-Columbian population of Central America vary widely. By the best estimates, as many as 5 million people inhabited the isthmus before the Spanish arrival, with well over 1 million in western Nicaragua and southern Honduras. From 1528 to 1550, an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 indigenous inhabitants of this latter region were enslaved.

Many died en route, the survivors shipped primarily to Panama and Peru. A report to the Crown of 1535 estimated that by that time approximately one-third of western Nicaragua’s Indians had been enslaved. The slave trade peaked between 1536 and 1540. In 1550, the practice was banned, by which time it had slowed to a trickle, for the simple reason that there remained few Indians left to enslave.

By this time, warfare, forced labor, the slave trade, and diseases had reduced western Nicaragua’s indigenous population by around 90–95 percent. Following a larger pattern in the Americas—wherein lowland indigenous populations experienced more precipitous declines than highland populations—the highlands of Guatemala saw a lesser decline, but still of enormous magnitude.

As elsewhere in the Americas, the Spanish intended that a spiritual conquest accompany the military conquest. Religious conversion of the natives was meant to be integral to their economic and political subjugation.

In practice, the spiritual conquest was much more partial and incomplete than the military conquest, as many indigenous spiritual beliefs and practices survived for centuries beneath a veneer of Roman Catholicism.

In sum, and by almost any measure, the Spanish conquest of Central America represents one of world history’s most destructive holocausts, one that bequeathed to subsequent generations across the region a legacy and social memory of violence that endure in various forms to the present day.