Spanish Population of South America in the 16th Century

After the initial Spanish conquest of the Inca empire, its leaders began to transform the land into a Spanish colony. Francisco Pizarro had received a governorship from the Spanish crown in exchange for conquering the new lands in the south. The Governor’s actions were directly responsible for the increase in the Spanish population of South America in the 16th century.

Pizarro immediately recognized that he would need to build new cities. Only the very northern parts of the Inca empire used sea faring vessels and thus had cities close to the coast. The Incas capital was located very far inland at Cuzco which had an elevation of nearly 11,000 ft. Pizarro thus set about building a new capital named Ciudad de Los Reyes (City of Kings – now called Lima) in 1534.

Spanish Population of South America in the 16th Century

Spanish Population of South America 16th century chart

A capital on the coast allowed for a port to be built and Lima to become the center of trade and economic activity in Spanish South America. Hearing tales of immense wealth in the lands of the Inca, colonists initially flooded in. It took just 8 years for the local Spanish population to increase from 1,500 to nearly 5,000.

What these colonists found was not at all close the stories they heard. While there was plenty of wealth in Peru, this wealth was firmly grasped in the hands of an elite few. The conquistadors of the initial conquest had in turn been granted encomiendas. This essentially made them lords over tracts of land and the natives worked and gave tribute to them.

Eventually, this was replaced by a mita tax system, which gave a little more freedom to natives, though was not substantially different. The reality that most of the wealth had already been taken from the Inca or was firmly in the hands of the elites led to a less dramatic increase in colonists over the subsequent decades. The population of Spanish people had only reach 10,000 by 1560.

The were other reasons, of course. Until 1572, the remaining Inca struggled with the Spanish in a drawn out guerrilla war. This Inca resistance made highways unsafe for travel and terrified the local population. Spanish South America was also difficult to get to. Peru is located on the western coast, meaning sea faring ships needed to travel around Cape Horn to reach there.

The legacy and brutality of the Spanish rule in South America is still seen today. Local native populations have never recovered from the initial onslaught of conquest and disease brought by the European invaders.

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Source: The Last Days of the Incas

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