The Spanish Invasion of South America

The first Europeans to touch at what is now Colombian territory visited the Guajira peninsula in 1499, but sailed no further west. Serious attempts to explore the coast of Caribbean Colombia did not begin until 1501-2, nine years after Columbus’s first landfall in the New World. The partners in this enterprise were Rodrigo de Bastidas (a Seville merchant) and Juan de la Cosa, formerly a pilot with Columbus. During their first voyage from the Guajira to the Isthmus of Panama, Bastidas and de la Cosa discovered and named the harbour of Cartagena (later to become one of Spain’s principal Caribbean ports), traded with the chiefs of the Sinú region, and returned with a good quantity of gold from the Gulf of Urabá.

The Spanish explored South America from Hispaniola (present day Haiti and Dominican Republic), landing first on the Caribbean coast of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in 1514. The building of the city of Santa Marta was started by Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1525. Bastidas had the following proclamation read out on the beach;

  ‘I assure you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you, and I will make war on you in every place and in every way that I can, and I will subject you to the yoke and obedience of the church and their highnesses, and I will take your persons and your women and your children, and I will make them slaves, and as such I will sell them, and dispose of them as their highnesses command: I will take your goods, and I will do you all the evils and harms which I can, just as to vassals who do not obey and do not want to receive their lord, resist him and contradict him. And I declare that the deaths and harms which arise from this will be your fault, and not that of their highnesses, nor mine, nor of the gentlemen who have come with me here.’

The Spanish foot-soldier

The explorers of New Granada were not a hand-picked elite. Cieza de León recorded in 1554 that ‘Scarcely a year elapsed without seeing an expedition fitted out…People of all ages and every grade of society flocked…but the majority were either coarse and avaricious adventurers, or disappointed courtiers.’ Their equipment would have reflected this, varying from the full armour of the few horsemen or caballeros who accompanied the infantry, to makeshift defences used by the majority.

Among the alternatives for armour were cuirasses and quilted cotton ‘jacks’, both popular in the previous century. The Cortes and Pizarro expeditions recorded only jacks (often referred to as the poor man’s substitute for armour), but Heredia’s Colombian expedition considered cuirasses initially, taking on board ‘leather cuirasses which had been prepared as a protection against the poisoned arrows’. However, these were subsequently rejected in favour of ‘cotton for defensive armour, the moisture not being suitable for cuirasses.’

Although worn in 16th century Europe by sailors and soldiers - with mail sleeves and helmet - the quilted cotton defence seems to have been particularly suited to the conditions of the Americas, where it was principally accompanied by swords and lances. By 1573 cotton armour was so accepted for the American expeditions that it was issued to every soldier on de Soto’s Florida expedition.


Relations between the Spanish and Indians were not always unfriendly, and European goods reached native settlements in fairly large quantities as presents or as a result of trade. As early as 1529, an expedition under Pedro de Lerma was offering the Taironas agricultural tools of iron, and also ‘many beads, many combs, knives and scissors, coloured hats, caps, and shirts finely worked at the neck’. Another list of 1536 included shirts, doublets, coloured caps, axes, spades and hoes. Wine was also a popular article of trade. By 1572-3 the Indians were becoming more sophisticated in their wants, and we find a Tairona chief from the Bonda region (who already wore a sword and dagger) asking for arquebuses, gunpowder and shot (Castellanos). Like any other prized possessions, European articles were placed in Indian tombs as funerary offerings.

Spanish demands, however, increased. ‘The Spanish settled on the coast, and used Indians to work their farms. They demanded gold, and the Indians gave it. And when the Indians ran away, and went up to the Mamas in the mountain to escape, the Mamas gave them more gold and said, “Give it to the Spanish, and go back to work. Because without the fish and salt that you send from the coast, the rest of the Sierra cannot live.” The Spanish squeezed the Indians ever harder. But in 1600, after nearly a century of co-existence, a new governor in Santa Marta provoked a major uprising.’ (From the narrative to ‘From the Heart of the World - the Elder Brothers’ Warning’.)

‘It was the arrival of the Catholic fathers after the initial conquest which sparked off the rebellion, because they forbade the continuance of the religious rites of the Indians.’ (Tayler 1997: 10). In 1599, Governor Juan Guiral Velón confronted the Tairona leader, Cuchacique, in a decisive campaign which broke the back of lingering Tairona resistance and the remnants of their society, decimated by war and introduced diseases, retreated into the heights of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Mama Valencia is the Kogi Mama responsible for remembering history. This is how he describes the effect of Spanish Invasion in the narrative to the documentary. ‘People used to live in peace, all over this land. We, the Older Brother, had no problems with the Younger Brother at all. Always in peace, in peace, in peace. That’s how it was. And then he arrived. Younger Brother arrived, and he started to kill us, and to destroy. They set dogs on us. We were terrified and the people panicked and didn’t know what to do and just ran wherever they could. That’s how it was. Things fell from our bags as we ran and scattered everywhere. Falling. Scattered. Our finest things. And when we stopped and we looked - hey - everything was gone. Nothing left.’ (Transcript: 12).

As much gold having been looted from the Sierra as they wanted, Spanish presence in the province diminished, and the remaining indigenes were left, with only some missionary incursions, to reconstitute their society. It was not until 1875 that there was any attempt to re-establish a colonial administrative presence there again. It is this protection afforded by their harsh environment that allows for the argument that the descendants of the Tairona, and especially the Kogi, represent a special case in the history of South American indigenes.