Military History Conquest of Mexico and Peru
Scott Doebler, Matthew Restall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0193


The traditional, master narrative of the momentous collision of worlds in 16th-century Mexico and Peru centers on small bands of Spaniards, who quickly overwhelmed indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere with their superior technology and leadership. That narrative, rooted in the accounts and perspectives of the Spanish conquistadors themselves, has until very recently dominated the historiography of “the Conquest,” as it has long been known. The years since the 1970s have seen monumental shifts in how scholars approach the period of “the Conquest,” stemming from two distinct historiographic currents, which together have driven complex revisions to the master narrative of “the Conquest.” The first is New Military History (NMH), which emphasizes the study of war and society. New military historians focus on social, cultural, and gendered aspects of war, as opposed to the set-piece tactical battle histories, unit histories, and biographies of famous generals. Though still interested in battle itself, the NMH came to emphasize larger implications of war. While the NMH hardly engaged directly with the Conquests of Mexico and Peru, its development widened the pool of scholars considered “military” historians, made the study of warfare widely accepted, increased the field’s diversity, and pushed military historians to be more theoretical. As NMH blurred the lines between military, social, and cultural history, a second shift took place, known as the New Conquest History (NCH). The NCH developed primarily within colonial Latin American history. During the last quarter of the 20th century, scholarship focusing on Latin America increasingly studied indigenous peoples, African slaves and their descendants, and non-elite Spaniards, whose experiences in the Conquest period were largely ignored. The NCH gives indigenous-language sources particular attention, but also stresses newly found sources or the reinterpretation of familiar ones—be they written in Spanish or a native tongue, or a nontextual visual source—in order to reveal new protagonists and multiple perspectives on contact phenomena and Conquest moments. “The Conquest” is now seen as a protracted series of wars of invasion, resulting in slow and incomplete conquests of indigenous societies. Spanish-language literature published in Latin America is too vast to be included here. Instead we focus on English-language books and articles, which themselves will lead researchers into Spanish-language primary and secondary sources.

General Overviews

The wars of invasion and conquest in Mexico and Peru have been used for various larger purposes. Some works, like Todorov 1984 and Seed 2005, have placed them in the context of the greater encounter of East and West. Others, like Elliott 2006 and Mann 2011, contextualized the Conquest period within the implementation of differing European colonial systems in the Americas. In Reséndez 2016, the context was the consequences of military invasions on indigenous peoples. Restall and Fernandez-Armesto 2011 is intended as a handy introduction to the invasions themselves, providing background on who participated in the invasions, while Restall 2003 also challenges the assumptions written into the master narrative of conquest. Crosby 1972 departs from narratives on the Conquest period by using environmental history to explain many ecological changes during the period. Thomas 1993 is an example of a repackaging of traditional narratives.

  • Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1972.

    A classic study of the impact of the encounter between worlds. By looking at the consequences of new crops, disease, and animal exchange, he argues that the most important changes that resulted from the encounter were biological. The book also includes a groundbreaking chapter on diseases’ role in the Conquests.

  • Elliott, J. H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    A monumental work that compares the British and the Spanish Empires, noting many similarities but finding key differences in the physical geography, locations of natural resources, population densities of indigenous peoples, and relationships with their home countries. Although traditionalist in its narrative of the Conquest of the Americas, the first and second sections will be of particular interest for overviewing European invasions and the subsequent colonial world.

  • Mann, Charles C. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. New York: Vintage, 2011.

    This readable and carefully crafted synthesis places 16th-century Mexico and Peru in the larger context of the Atlantic World during Latin America’s Conquest and colonial period.

  • Reséndez, Andrés. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. New York: Mariner Books Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

    Sweeping coverage of the 15th to the 20th century, but chapters 1, 2, and 4 in particular explore a major consequence of the Spanish invasion era: the forced movement and coerced labor of indigenous peoples in the Caribbean, Spain, and northern Mexico.

  • Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    An accessible introduction to New Conquest History (NCH). As the title suggests, it challenges the master narrative of conquest by breaking down many of the myths embedded in the simplistic portrayal of the invasion wars.

  • Restall, Matthew, and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. The Conquistadors: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    This book overviews who the conquistadors were, why they set out on their invasions, and what the consequences for many of them were: a life that was nasty, brutish, and short. Drawing from NCH, the authors also add new participants to the ranks of “conquistadors.”

  • Seed, Patricia. “The Conquest of the Americas.” In The Cambridge History of Warfare. Edited by Geoffrey Parker, 131–147. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    A short, traditionalist (some would say old-fashioned) interpretation of the role of technology in defeating the Aztecs, Inca, and other indigenous states. She contends that gunpowder, iron weapons, disease, and skillful alliance formation gave Europeans significant advantages in the Conquest wars.

  • Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

    Just as William Prescott’s famous 1843 account of “the Conquest of Mexico” was an update of Bernal Díaz’s narrative (Díaz del Castillo 2009, cited under Primary Sources on the Conquest of Mexico), so is this an update of Prescott, but with the important addition of some original archival research and interpretation of key moments in the war.

  • Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

    Using Spanish-language, primarily intellectual sources, this older work charts the Conquest era through four phases: discovery, conquest, love, and knowledge. Over time, knowledge of the “other” proved a key component of the Conquest, creating an “understanding-that-kills” indigenous culture. The resulting colonial world that shifted indigenous societies towards a more individualistic European identity.

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