“And when they have given them the gift, they appeared to smile, to rejoice exceedingly, and to take great pleasure. Like monkeys they seized upon the gold. It was as if then they were satisfied, sated, and gladdened. For in truth they thirsted mightily for gold; they stuffed themselves with it, and starved and lusted for it like pigs.” ~ An Aztec’s description of the reaction of the conquistadors to gold. (Recorded by Friar Bernardino Sahagun, who was missionary for 50 years in Mexico in the sixteenth century)
In November 1519, when Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico with five hundred conquistadors, he was received by the King of the Aztecs, Moctezuma. The Aztecs were awed by the war horses and the ferocious mastiffs that the conquistadors had brought with them. Moctezuma is supposed to have said:
"Our lord, you are very welcome in your arrival in this land. You have come to satisfy your curiosity about your noble city of Mexico. You have come here to sit on your throne, to sit under its canopy, which I have kept for awhile for you… For I am not just dreaming, not just sleepwalking, not seeing you in my dreams. I am not just dreaming that I have seen you and have looked at you face to face. I have been worried for a long time, looking toward the unknown from which you have come, the mysterious place. For our rulers departed, saying that you would come to your city and sit upon your throne. And now it has been fulfilled, you have returned. Go enjoy your palace, rest your body. Welcome our lords to this land.”
Moctezuma was naive and superstitious. He feared that Cortés was an exiled God who had arrived to claim his lands. He made several serious miscalculations. Much to his later chagrin, he allowed Cortés and his men to live in his palace. He pampered Cortés by giving him a tour of his city. He showed Cortés the gold and silver artifacts in his temples and palace. In January 1520, he formally accepted vassaldom to the King of Spain and agreed to become a Christian.
Cortés made a series of cunning and ruthless moves and took control of the Aztec palace. On his orders, the conquistadors decapitated the Aztec Empire by seizing Moctezuma. With their King a hostage of the conquistadors, the Aztecs were paralyzed for months. But when the conquistadors slaughtered hundreds of unarmed civilians (including women and children) during a religious ceremony, the Aztecs launched a ferocious attack. Seeing that Moctezuma had lost the power to control the Aztecs, Cortés had him strangled.
In early 1521, the conquistadors found a new ally: smallpox. The disease moved swiftly, decimating the Aztec population. The Aztec Empire became the land of the dead and dying. By August 1521, the conquistadors had captured the capital city of Tenochtitlan. They tore apart the palaces, temples, and other important buildings to get their hand on Aztec gold. In 1520 when Cortés arrived in Mexico, the Aztec population was 25 million—a century later the population was just one million.
The same kind of massacre, loot, and vandalism happened at the Inca Empire, located in Peru. The Inca ruler Atahualpa, like Moctezuma, made the mistake of trying to bribe the conquistadors, who were being led by the Spanish warlord Francisco Pizarro, with gold and silver. But the conquistadors would not be satisfied with anything less than the entire Inca Empire—they captured Atahualpa and held him hostage in Cajamarca. They demanded and received a roomful of gold and silver as ransom. They melted down seven tons of gold and thirteen tons of silver, and then they refused to release Atahualpa.
In July 1533, the conquistadors executed Atahualpa and began their march to the Inca capital of Cuzco, high in the Andes. Cuzco was the center of the universe, according to Inca cosmology. Here there was a series of bloody battles, first between the Inca soldiers and the conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro, and then between the rival factions of the conquistadors. There was a massive slaughter on all sides. Smallpox and other diseases played a role in devastating the Inca community. From 1520 to 1571, the Inca Empire lost a major part of its population.