The epic voyage undertaken by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and 1493, which led to the discovery of the Americas, sparked an unprecedented wave of exploration in what was described as the New World.
Certainly, one of the primary factors that encouraged such a wave of exploration was a pure sense of curiosity and a desire to uncover the mysteries of that New World.
But the deeply religious Spaniards, who pioneered the exploration of that particular area of the globe, also felt a moral obligation to spread Christianity among the ‘heathens’ that inhabited the Americas.
In order to sustain such an ambitious and expensive foreign policy, the Spanish monarch required extraordinary financing.
Through interaction with the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands and the indigenous peoples of the mainland, they got to know that gold existed in fairly substantial quantities.
Spain’s King Ferdinand understood that the acquisition of that gold was the only way in which he could fund his scheme of exploring and spreading the word of God.
The king became desperate for gold and, on July 25, 1511, he unequivocally instructed his New World colonists to “get gold, humanely, if you can, but at all hazards, [to] get gold”, an objective that was adopted by subsequent Spanish monarchs for centuries.
Thus, the Spanish conquistadors embarked on a policy of brutal colonisation and began the drawn-out process of pilfering America’s gold and silver treasures.
The looting started on the Caribbean islands and, one after the other, Santo Domingo, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica were all drained of their treasures of gold. The amount of gold that was extracted from these islands was considerable, amounting to just under 1 t each year from 1503 to 1530. By 1530, the gold resource of those islands was largely exhausted.
New supplies of the precious metal began to flow from the mainland in the third decade of the sixteenth century, when the conquistador Hernando Cortes conquered the Aztec civilisation of Mexico.
In 1518, Cortes declared war on the Aztec king, Montezuma, in order to lay his hands on the vast stores of gold known to exist in the capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlan.
Gold was of little value to the Aztec’s except as decoration and, thus, Montezuma freely surrendered his empire’s treasures to the conquistadors. However, the king’s brother launched an attack on the Spaniards and fierce hostilities ensued for a time between the Spaniards and the Aztecs.
By 1521, the Aztecs had been conquered and Mexico, with all its gold, became part of the Spanish Empire.
Far to the south of Mexico, in the vertical landscape of Peru, lay the kingdom of the Incas. The Incas were the great gold hoarders of America. Their treasure included objects and bullion looted from the Chimu civilisation in 1470 and also included gold that had been exploited from the alluvial deposits of the streams of Peru. It is also believed that the Incas mined gold in places such as the Curimayo valley, north-east of Cajamarca.
Their hoarding stemmed from the fact that they worshipped the sun god, Inti, and the metal was inextricably linked with that deity. Gold was so revered that the Incas referred to the precious metal as the “tears wept by the sun”.
A Spanish contemporary described the gold wealth contained within the Temple of the Sun in the Inca capital of Cuzco thus: “The interior of the temple was the most worthy of admiration. “It was, literally, a mine of gold. On the western wall was emblazoned a representation of the deity, consisting of a human counten-ance looking forth from amidst innumerable rays of light, which emanated from it in every direction, in the same manner as the sun is often personified with us. “The figure was engraved on a massive plate of gold of enormous dimen-sions, thickly powdered with emeralds and precious stones. “It was so situated in front of the great eastern portal that the rays of the morning sun fell directly upon it at its rising, lighting up the whole apartment with an effulgence that seemed more than natural, and which was reflected back from the golden ornaments with which the walls and ceilings were everywhere encrusted.”
Rumours of the wealth of this country and of the immense stores of gold held by King Atahualpa, inevitably, filtered northwards and reached the eager ears of the Spanish. An expedition led by Francisco Pizarro set out in 1526 to see whether reports of this golden civilisation were true.
Pizarro’s discoveries in Peru exceeded his wildest expectations– gold abounded in the Inca cities, and their sun temples were covered in golden ornaments of the greatest beauty.
Motivated by their instruction to “get gold at all hazards”, between 1531 and 1534, Pizarro declared war on the Incas and, in time, managed to capture the king at Caxamalca. In an attempt to secure his release, King Atahualpa promised to completely fill his prison cell with gold ornaments. Although the ransom was paid with some 6 t of pure gold objects, Pizarro had the king killed.
Unfortunately for posterity, the gold objects looted from the Incas were melted down and shipped back to Spain.
A few years later, in 1536 to 1538, another conquistador, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, discovered a third gold-hoarding civilisation,namely the Muisca, who inhabited the central highlands of present-day Colombia’s Eastern Range. Fortunately for those indigenous peoples, Quesada was less successful than Cortes and Pizarro in his campaign, as the bulk of the king’s treasure had been hidden.
The Spanish were not content with the acquisition of the gold of Mexico and Peru and were convinced that the dense jungles of Central and South America had more treasure that could be looted. Thus, the adventures of Cortes, Pizarro and Quesada are but three of the first episodes in South America’s long, brutal and exploitative colonial history.