Accessibility statement

From Conquest to Colony: Spanish America, c.1400-1750

Tutor: Jesús Sanjurjo (tutor for 2018-19) / Helen Cowie

Module type: Period Topic

Module code: HIS00055C

In 1519, a small band of Spanish soldiers led by Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico. Within two years, they had conquered the warlike and powerful Aztec Empire, decimating the native population and giving the Spanish King Charles V his first territory on the American mainland. Colonisation, evangelisation and plunder followed, as the Spaniards consolidated their power in the New World. Plants, animals and germs crossed the Atlantic for the first time, radically changing the lives of people in three continents.

The Spanish conquest of Mexico was one of the most dramatic feats in military history. How was it possible for an army of just 500 Spaniards to overthrow one of the largest and most sophisticated civilisations in the Americas? This module examines the causes and consequences of the conquests of both Mexico and Peru and studies the ways in which Iberian rule transformed indigenous societies in the New World. We begin by taking a look at the major Pre-Columbian civilisations, the bloodthirsty Aztecs and the sun-worshipping Incas. We then study the conquests themselves and their repercussions for both Spaniards and Indians, examining the key characteristics of colonial society. Students will get the chance to explore the conquest through a range of primary sources, from the letters of Cortés to the pictorial chronicles of Felipe Guaman Poma.

Seminar topics may include:

  • Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica: The Maya and the Aztecs
  • Pre-Columbian South America: The Incas
  • The Conquest of Mexico
  • The Conquest of Peru
  • In Search of El Dorado: Economy, Government and Society in Colonial Spanish America
  • Spreading the Gospel: Evangelisation, Resistance, Syncretism
  • The Columbian Exchange: Food, Animals, Disease
  • Amazons, Giants and Cannibals: Conquest, Exploration and Myth in the Americas 

To find out more

You might like to look at the following:

  • Burkholder, Mark and Lyman Johnson. Colonial Latin America. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008 (6th Edition).
  • Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain. London: Penguin, 1963.


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.