Guns, Germs, Steel

The story I was always taught is that the Spanish conquistadors rolled over the Aztecs, Maya, and Incas in what would be an inevitable victory chalked up to guns, germs, and steel.  But I always found this conclusion a bit smelly.  Sure the Spanish had guns and horses, but they didn't have very many of them (a few hundred) and they were not very good.  Three and a half centuries later, the US struggled at times in its wars with North American tribes (just ask the Custer family) despite having FAR better guns, many more trained troops (just after the Civil War), numerical superiority rather than inferiority, and a much better logistics situation (land access by rail vs. sea access by wooden boat).  In addition, Latin American civilizations faced by the Spanish were better organized, far more numerous, and technologically more advanced than plains Indians.  So why the seemingly easy victory by the Spanish?

Apparently there is a new book discussing this topic, which claims the results were much more contingent than commonly believed.

The “steel and germs” explanation for the rapidity of conquest has not convinced all specialists. The newcomers’ technological advantages were insufficient and in any case only temporary; differential mortality was a long-term process, not something that happened at the moment of outsiders’ assault. Thinking about the endemic vulnerabilities of empires helps us understand the situation. The Aztecs and the Incas were themselves imperial formations of relatively recent origin, with highly concentrated power and wealth at the center and often violent relations with not entirely assimilated people at the edges of their empires. When the Europeans arrived, indigenous people were not sure whether the newcomers were enemies, gods, or evil spirits–or potentially useful allies against an oppressive power. These uncertainties made it harder for their rulers, who had no way of knowing what was in store for them, to respond effectively. Cortes and Pizarro recruited allies among disaffected peoples, thereby making their armies as large as the Aztec and Inca forces they fought against. The battle against the Aztecs was hard-fought, with Spaniards suffering reverses, despite their indigenous allies and the hesitations of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. The conquest of the Inca empire–more centralized than that of the Aztecs–was also facilitated by turning those excluded under Inca power into indigenous allies.


  1. Gil:

    Disease was definitely a big factor. North America was highly populated and unconquerable up to the time up to the time of Columbus and it is said Western disease had decimated the population by the time the White people decided to colonise it.

  2. rob t:

    and yet te yucatan remained largely unconquered until the 1900s. Mexican history is not shy about the number of spaniards that died in the many offensives against the maya and their descendents.

    Events of the past were as complex as events of today.

  3. Eris Guy:

    Apparently I went to school a few years before you, as I never was taught in school the “gun, germs, steel” argument as the cause for the conquistadores victory. I was taught the Spanish allied with the local tribes who were tired of the Aztec’s cannibalism; that Cortes burned his ships as an act of desperation; and that disease helped a lot. Pizzaro’s tale was almost as wild. Both victories had a quite a bit to do with overthrowing brutal tyrannies. So sayeth the teachers I knew.

    No one who has read The Conquest of New Spain can believe the fall of Aztecs an easy victory.

  4. TDK:

    Like your other commentators I was taught that the Spanish Conquistadors succeeded by making alliances, and that was in the 1970s. Certainly there was a Spanish interest in exaggerating their abilities and minimising their need for allies but I don't think that has been tenable or advanced by any proper historians for many decades.

  5. bigmaq1980:

    Correct. Outside of "germs", the factors relating to all historical "conquests" were at play. If one were to line all the factors up and weigh them for impact, "germs" would get a big proportion, but one would think that logistics, materials knowledge, and weaponry/armor (for examples) are ones that could arguably get as much weight. This new book seems to argue that local politics were also a big factor, possibly the final deciding factor.

    Having read the Diamond book some years back and subsequent commentary, his line of argumentation seems to get confused to say that the indigenous were somehow "helpless" or "angels" in their own right. This is a problem.

    Neither side had societies or behavior that was to be admired, if one holds any value for the rights of the individual.

    It seems the new book quoted here goes some way of dispelling any myth to the contrary, showing the real humanity at play on "both" (in reality multiple) sides.

  6. Ross:

    A very interesting first hand account I recommend is "The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico" by Bernal Diaz (follow that up with a book called "Broken Spears", if you have a chance). At least in that case, disease wasn't so much a factor (it was still a fairly early time in the contact between the two continents), and it was clear that the guns and horses supplied limited advantages. I recall one account where a Tlaxcalan warrior beheaded a Spanish horse in battle, so much for their immortality. The natives also soon realized that retreating to and attacking from hills went a long way to neutralize horses. A lot of credit can be given to Cortez's diplomacy, offering an end to human sacrifice and tributes to subjected people (such as the powerful Tlaxcalans) and sealing these alliances with marriages between his men and the daughters of the nobles of his allies, as well as to internal divisions within the Aztec nobility. And even so, there were moments when it looked like Cortez's men were about to find themselves made offerings to the gods.

    I don't have a good single book to recommend on the Inca ("1491" and Todorov's "Conquest of America" come to mind), and I have less knowledge about specific battles, but in that case, disease had runs its course through the empire, decimating the nobility and leaving some top level positions filled by inexperienced people with strong rivals. So "germs" did help a lot. Pizarro happened to arrive in the middle of a civil war (between inexperienced strong rivals) and committed his men to one side of it. Here the tech advantage was quickly neutralized by two things: first the terrain was mountainous and the roadways were adapted for human runners, so they had lots of steps going up and down. So much for horses and the wheel. Additionally, the Andeans quickly adapted their bola, used for hunting birds, into an effective horse stopper (one wonders how the European middle ages would have turned out if they had been smart enough to invent the bola), and they had a very thickly woven form of cotton armor, which was light effective enough at stopping projectiles that some of Pizarro's ditched their armor in favor of it.

    One thing that concerns me about superficial accounts of the European conquest of the Americas is the lack of distinction between the various first nations and their interests. The Tlaxcalans made out pretty well, relative to where they started, by merging, both politically and genetically, with the Spanish. To treat the native people's as a single population of "Indians" and identify the struggle along racial lines is a fairly skewed way to really understand history.

  7. epobirs:

    Charles Mann's books, 1491 and 1493, are terrific compilations of a lot of different fields of history. The number of conditions that came together to create the events are such that it is very difficult to give equal treatment to all of them.

    One area I found especially fascinating was the population estimates for the Americas in the pre-Columbian era. The effects of disease that preceded Europeans by decades were so devastating that it created a false picture of the native civilizations for centuries. Rather than propaganda, there was honest misperception based on the remnant tribes they found, leaving little evidence of the sophistication and numbers that had once existed as there was little or nothing in written form to provide a history.

    Much of what was constantly touted as European villainy during my childhood really just came down to 'shit happens.'

  8. NormD:

    One quibble - the book is not new - it was published in 2004

  9. 3rdMoment:

    Agree with all the other commenters. "Guns, Germs, and Steel" isn't just about the Aztecs and Incas, it attempts to explain the much broader pattern: Europeans conquered or colonized North and South America, Africa, Australia, and Polynesia. All of these cases were difficult historically complicated in various ways. But there are zero cases of Eurasians being colonized by Americans, Australians, or Sub-Saharan Africans.

  10. BGThree:

    Any theory must account for the massive decimation of the native population that occurred around the time of the Spanish conquest. Correlation of course does not necessarily mean causation. About the only things that can account for millions of people dying (if it wasn't the Conquistadors slaughtering them in war) are disease and/or drought/famine. Therefore Spanish horses' methane and CO2 emissions are to blame for changing the climate and causing crop failure.