The age of discovery, marked by the Spanish exploration and colonization of the New World, came at a significant financial cost. The Spanish Crown, eager to exploit the untapped riches of these newfound territories but constrained by limited resources, devised an innovative solution: the Conquistadores.
The term "Conquistador," derived from the Spanish verb "conquistar," which means "to conquer," described a new breed of adventurers, explorers, and warriors. The Spanish Crown granted these Conquistadores licenses known as "encomiendas," giving them the authority to explore, colonize, and govern portions of the New World on Spain's behalf. While this system allowed Spain to further its colonial ambitions, it did so without depleting the royal treasury.
Central to the agreement between the Crown and the Conquistadores was the "Quinto Real" or the Royal Fifth. This stipulated that one fifth of any treasures, especially gold and silver, discovered or acquired in the New World, would be sent back to the Spanish Crown. This provision ensured a continuous flow of wealth into Spain, reinforcing its status as a burgeoning global superpower during the 16th and 17th centuries.
However, this arrangement was not without its risks for the Conquistadores. They were responsible for financing their own expeditions, a venture that could be exceedingly costly. If their efforts in exploration, conquest, or colonization failed, they risked losing their entire investment, which, for many, meant financial ruin. This high-risk, high-reward system attracted a diverse group of individuals. While the allure of unimaginable wealth drove many to embark on these perilous journeys, others were motivated by religious fervor. Keen to propagate Catholicism, they viewed the New World as a vast expanse filled with souls awaiting conversion to Christianity.
The Conquistador model served Spain well for many years. Through these adventurous individuals, Spain's dominion over vast stretches of the Americas grew exponentially. Towns, cities, and entire civilizations fell under Spanish control, and the once mighty empires of the Aztecs and Incas were subdued. As a direct consequence, the Spanish treasury burgeoned with gold and silver, solidifying Spain's dominant position in European and global affairs.