Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2008
THE ANTECEDENTS OF CONQUEST
‘Without settlement there is no good conquest, and if the land is not conquered, the people will not be converted. Therefore the maxim of the conqueror must be to settle.’ The words are those of one of the first historians of the Indies, Francisco Lopez de Gomara. The philosophy behind them is that of his patron, the greatest of the conquistadores, Hernán Cortés. It was this philosophy which came to inform Spain's overseas enterprise of the sixteenth century and did much to make Spanish America what it eventually became. But its success was not inevitable, nor was it attained without a struggle. There are several ways in which an aggressive society can expand the boundaries of its influence, and there were precedents for all of them in medieval Spain.
The reconquista - that great southwards movement of the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula into the regions held by the Moors – illustrated something of the wide range of possibilities from which precedents could be drawn. Fought along the border dividing Christendom from Islam, the reconquista was a war that extended the boundaries of the faith. It was also a war for territorial expansion, conducted and regulated, if not always controlled, by the crown and by the great military-religious orders, which acquired vassals in the process along with vast areas of land. It was a typical frontier-war of hit-and-run raids in pursuit of easy plunder, offering opportunities for ransom and barter, and for more intangible prizes, like honour and fame.