Columbus stumbles on the American continent in 1492. A generation later, Spanish conquistadors subjugate the Aztecs, the Mayas and the Incas. Before long, Spain’s vast American empire stretches from New Mexico in the North to Argentina in the South.
Everywhere they go, the Spanish bring Catholic missionaries: 10 million native Americans are converted before 1550. The Franciscan missionaries raze native temples, confiscate sacred images and ban traditional games and dances. Women are instructed to cover their naked bodies, and chastity and monogamy are enforced by the whip. In the words of a Franciscan missionary, conversion has to be “reinforced by the fear and respect which the Indians have for the Spaniards.”