Explorations and Encounters
Christopher Columbus’s voyages began a centuries-long series of encounters between peoples of the Americas and Europe. The Kislak Collection includes a selection of dramatic objects and records that reflect this complicated and extraordinary epoch. This section presents materials from the voyages of exploration of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), Hernán Cortés (1485–1547), and Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1475–1541) and material about the natives of the Americas they encountered. It also features the Conquest of Mexico paintings, created in the seventeenth century, which depict the cataclysmic encounter between Cortés and the conquistadors and Moctezuma and his people.
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Columbus and the Taíno
When Christopher Columbus arrived on the Bahamian Island of Guanahani (San Salvador) in 1492, he encountered the Taíno people, whom he described in letters as “naked as the day they were born.” The Taíno had complex hierarchical religious, political, and social systems. Skilled farmers and navigators, they wrote music and poetry and created powerfully expressive objects. At the time of Columbus’s exploration, the Taíno were the most numerous indigenous people of the Caribbean and inhabited what are now Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. By 1550, the Taíno were close to extinction, many having succumbed to diseases brought by the Spaniards. Taíno influences survived, however, and today appear in the beliefs, religions, language, and music of Caribbean cultures. Read more about Columbus and the Taíno »
Cortés and the Aztecs
In 1519, inspired by rumors of gold and the existence of large, sophisticated cities in the Mexican interior, Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) was appointed to head an expedition of eleven ships and five hundred men to Mexico. At that time the great empire of the Mexica—now known as the Aztecs—dominated much of Mesoamerica. Their capital, Tenochtitlán, had become such a splendid city that, according to records, it dazzled the Spaniards, exceeding anything they had seen before. Two years after the arrival of Cortés and his conquistadors, constant war and diseases new to the Americas had destroyed Tenochtitlán, and the Aztec Empire was no more. Read more about Cortés and the Aztecs »
Pizarro and the Incas
Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1475–1541) arrived in present-day northern Peru late in 1531 with a small force of about 180 men and 30 horses. Taking advantage of a civil war, he and his compatriots toppled the ruler, Atahualpa, in 1532. Over the next several decades the Spanish suppressed several Inca rebellions, achieving complete control by 1572. Pizarro’s Spanish rivals assassinated him in 1541 in Lima, the city he had founded in 1535. Read more about Pizarro and the Incas »
Interpreting the Conquest
After Spain’s conquest of Mexico and other American lands, these events inspired books, paintings, and other historical and artistic records. In this section are materials illustrating these interpretations. Some of these items highlight the efforts of Bartolomé de las Casas (1474–1566), an early Spanish historian and Dominican missionary in the Americas, to persuade the Spanish Empire that indigenous peoples deserved humane treatment. Also featured are the spectacular Conquest of Mexico paintings created in the seventeenth century that capture the drama of the original encounter as imagined and interpreted by artists 150 years later.
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Conquest of Mexico Paintings
The Conquest of Mexico paintings are significant both artistically and historically. Painted in the seventeenth century, the eight detailed canvases tell the story of the 1521 Spanish conquest of the native Aztec people. These images highlight battles between the Spanish and the Aztecs, ceremonial encounters of the Spanish conquistador with the emperor Moctezuma, and other pivotal historic moments. The series ends with the dramatic “Conquest of Tenochtitlán” (the capital of the Aztec civilization, now Mexico City) and the capture of the last Aztec king.
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Conflict and Accommodation
The conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés and the victories of other conquistadors in ensuing decades did not end conflict and dissension in the Americas. In this section, the exhibition provides examples of continued discord or disagreement, of cultural, political, and economic adjustment and accommodation, as well as examples of the skillful use Native Americans made of Spanish laws and courts to maintain their rights and win concessions for their people.
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