[ Question ]

Predictions/questions about conquistadors?

by Daniel Kokotajlo1 min read22nd May 202018 comments


World Modeling

After my post on conquistadors got loads of attention, I figured I should do more in-depth research. (For the post, all I did was read a bunch of Wikipedia articles). So I'm reading "The Conquest of Mexico and The Conquest of Peru" a 1400-page book written by a blind Harvard historian in the 1830s. It was recommended by Wikipedia as a classic work on the topic, the most thorough narrative of events to be found even today. (Let me know if you know of a better book to read!)

It seems good to register predictions and questions in advance, to help resist the natural human tendency to learn a bunch of facts and then rationalize why they support what you thought all along.

In the answers I'll put some of mine, and I would be very interested to hear yours as well.

New Answer
Ask Related Question
New Comment

2 Answers

1. On the importance of disease to Cortes' conquest:

--I predict that disease killed within a factor of 10 as many of Cortes' allies as enemies (Confidence: 80%, Tenochtitlan was under siege and a big city so probably especially vulnerable)

--I predict that I'll eventually conclude that Cortes had a >10% chance of winning even without the disease. (Confidence: 80%)

--I predict that I'll find some textual evidence of disease helping the Spanish maintain control later, e.g. locals deciding that the disease meant they needed to convert to christianity rather than deciding that it meant they needed to overthrow the foreigners, or e.g. some local ruler or population considering rebellion but then being too weak due to disease. (Confidence: 60%)

2. On the importance of "cunning" to Cortes' conquest:

--I predict that I'll conclude Cortes' had significantly more relevant data (stories of European interactions with American civilizations) than Aztec leaders had-- in particular, that the Aztecs didn't know about what happened in hispaniola, and knew less about what happened in Yucatan than Cortes did. (Confidence: 90%)

--I predict that I'll conclude the Aztecs suffered from a big information disadvantage, militarily: They had a noticeably worse sense of the capabilities and weaknesses of Spanish technology and tactics than the Spaniards dis of Aztec tech and tactics (Confidence: 80%)

--I predict that I'll conclude the Aztecs suffered from some sort of diplomatic cunning disadvantage, e.g. not even considering the possibility that Cortes might kidnap the Emperor, e.g. being preoccupied with prophecies and religious implications that distract from level-headed calculations of military and strategic possibilities. (Confidence: 65%)

3. On the importance of technology to Cortes' conquest:

--I predict that guns weren't that big a deal; they probably were useful as surprise weapons (shocking and demoralizing enemies not used to dealing with them) but that most of the fighting would be done by swords, bows, etc.

--I predict that I'll conclude the following ranking of technologies by importance: (Credence: 20%, it's hard to get so many things exactly right!)

Steel armor


Steel weapons


4. On the importance of disease to Pizarro's conquest:

--I predict I'll conclude that disease was mostly a factor in that it reduced the total number of native troops and also got a bloody civil war started. That is, if somehow the population had just been naturally lower, and a bloody civil war had happened, Pizarro would have had just as good a chance as he did have. (Credence: 70%)

5. On the importance of "cunning" to Pizarro's conquest:

--I predict that Pizarro designed his strategy to learn from Cortes' experience (Confidence: 90%)

--I predict that the Incas were not aware of what happened to the Aztecs at all (50%) or just vaguely (90%)

--I predict that Inca rulers made at least three serious mistakes in anticipating what Pizarro et al might do, mistakes that they wouldn't have made had they been familiar with the history of Cortes and the Aztecs

6. On the importance of technology to Pizarro's conquest:

--Same predictions as in 3, with the same confidence.


  1. On the importance of disease to Cortes' conquest:

--I predict that disease killed within a factor of 10 as many of Cortes' allies as enemies (Confidence: 80%, Tenochtitlan was under siege and a big city so probably especially vulnerable)

Answer: Yes. The book doesn't give numbers but it does say the disease ravaged everywhere, including Tlaxcala, and lists a few prominent Tlaxcalans who died.

--I predict that I'll eventually conclude that Cortes had a >10% chance of winning even without the disease. (Confidence: 80%)

Answer: Yes. Cortes actually ruled all Mexico for several months before the disease arrived; afterwards, there was a rebellion against his rule and much bloodshed before he was on top again. But there's some chance the rebellion wouldn't have happened (the Spaniards themselves caused it by massacring some nobles at a festival, while Cortez was away with most of his men!), or would have been nipped in the bud, or would have happened but been crushed anyway without the help of disease (since, again, Tlaxcala etc. lost population and leadership due to the disease also, and the new Aztec leader that replaced the dead one was seemingly just as com... (read more)

Very cool that you posted these quantified predictions in advance!

2Daniel Kokotajlo1yTheir major flaw is that their resolution criteria are pretty vague. But, better than nothing I guess!
I predict that guns weren't that big a deal; they probably were useful as surprise weapons (shocking and demoralizing enemies not used to dealing with them) but that most of the fighting would be done by swords, bows, etc.

I think you should count pikes and swords differently, here, especially if the Spaniards are using the pike square.

4Daniel Kokotajlo1yWhen I said "swords, bows, etc." i meant the "etc." to include pikes, spears, javelins, crossbows, etc. -- the usual medieval weaponry. From what I've read so far, it is unclear whether they used the pike square or not. The book hasn't mentioned any pikes or spears yet, which suggests that they used swords, crossbows, and a few guns (the things the book does mention) but it's possible that they did use pikes and the historian just didn't think it worth mentioning. Edit: The book does mention lances on the horsemen.
2Daniel Kokotajlo1yThis painting shows pikes, or at least spears: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_Tenochtitlan#/media/File:The_Conquest_of_Tenochtitlan.jpg [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_Tenochtitlan#/media/File:The_Conquest_of_Tenochtitlan.jpg]
2Vaniver1yMy (weakly held) take is that a category of 'usual medieval weaponry' obscures a lot of detail that turns out to be relevant. Like even talking about 'swords', a 3 foot sword made of Toledo steel is a very different beast from a macuahuitl. They're about equally sharp and long, but the steel sword is lighter, allows fighting more closely together (note that, at this time, a lot of the successful European tactics require people somewhat tightly packed working in concert), and is more durable. (The obsidian blades, while they could slice clean through people and horses, weren't very effective against mail and would break on impact with another sword.)
4Daniel Kokotajlo1yI agree with this; this is why I said "Steel weapons."

I would suggest that a book written on the subject in the 1830s is not a great book to understand what happened - if only because it was written in times where tendentious historiography was the norm. And unlike Gibson's Fall, a lot of the documentary material was not available then. There is so much more better and more comprehensive history. Which most importantly shows that while the 'highlight events' of these 'conquests' are correct, they did not actually mean at the time what they might mean to us today. I'd suggest starting with Restall's '7 myths' as an easy read but if you want a truly comprehensive history of that period and region, Thornton's 'Cultural history of the Atlantic world'.

I wrote up details of how these books (and more fit together) in a blog post last year - including excerpts of relevant quotes and links to YouTube videos: http://metaphorhacker.net/2019/09/so-you-think-you-have-a-historical-analogy-revisionist-history-and-anthropology-reading-list/ . It was aimed to provide some context to people trying to make historical analogies.

Thanks for the advice! I'll check those titles out.

2Daniel Kokotajlo1yUpdate: After having read your blog post I am less optimistic. The books you recommend are arguably more tendentious than the one from 1830! At least the one from 1830 was primarily trying to recount events, rather than argue for some overarching lesson. What did you mean when you said tendentious historiography was the norm then (implying that it isn't now)? As for the 7 myths in particular: Definitely seems worth reading for me. It looks like I don't believe any of those myths fully (despite getting my knowledge of this part of history from wikipedia and school) but I do believe some of them partially. Thanks for the tip! Thornton's book looks even better for me. The quotes you pulled in your blog post are things I already believed, however. But still, like you said, this is a modern comprehensive history so it's exactly the sort of thing I need.
3Dominik Lukeš1yPerhaps, I should have phrased that differently. In the 1800s, the historiography was not so much tendentious as unreflective. The books I list certainly have a point of view. But they are aware of that point of view and do not hide under "primarily trying to recount events". Because any recounting involves selection and emphasis and selection is always personal (ie epistemology is ethics). The books I list point out the gaps in those accounts and offer a way in which we could think of the past with those gaps filled in (and perhaps choosing other things for the gaps). For example, when you say something like "Europeans conquered the Americas and India", this only makes sense if you stick with the Cortez et al. winning battles and controlling territory narrative. These things happened. But actually the answer to "How come these people conquered X" is, "They didn't". You are viewing it from a nation state WWII perspective (Germany taking over Poland, France, etc) and from the point of view of the eventual outcome 500 years later. The other narrative that intrudes is that of the 1800s 'British Raj', 'Opium Wars, and 'Scramble for Africa', 'American Westward expansion'. But in 1800, nobody was expecting the world to look like it did in 1890. China and India were still major powers (India not as a unitary state), most of America was not under control of anything like a single power, Indians were winning as many encounters as they were losing, Europeans in Africa were helpless and mostly supplicants to local powers, Ottoman Empire while on the wane was still a major player, Japan was still closed to the world, etc. The year 1800 saw no steamships, no trains, and much of what we think of as industrial revolution was in textiles manufacturing and mining. Europe was in the grips of major conflicts and losing as many colonies as it was gaining. If you look back at the time of Cortez from 1890, it will look different than if you look at it from 1800, 1700, or 1600. What t
2Daniel Kokotajlo1yThanks, that's a helpful clarification. I do look forward to reading the things you mentioned. I agree it is important to read multiple books coming from multiple perspectives. I also agree that it is dangerous to read a recounting of events without mentally reminding yourself that this recounting probably has some selection bias of some sort on it. However, I still think that individual human historians can be more or less biased in their recountings, and that insofar as they try to be less biased, they can often succeed at least partially. Anyhow, this matter of "They didn't" intrigues me, obviously. I don't know (yet) what happened after Cortes and Pizarro won, but didn't a bunch of Americans get basically enslaved? Weren't the silver mines at Potosi basically hell on earth? Weren't the American religions suppressed, their temples destroyed, etc.? Sure, it wasn't complete genocide like what the Germans tried to do to the Jews, but it was still pretty bad from the perspective of the pre-conquest Americans, no? And insofar as I'm trying to draw analogies to what an AI takeover might be like, this seems good enough. I guess my question is: In what meaningful sense did the spanish NOT conquer "new spain" in the span of a decade or so? It sounds like you are saying the industrial revolution was the main driver of European dominance in the world, not colonialism. Fair enough (I'm not sure what I think yet on that subject) but it still seems like colonialism was a surprising happening that needs explaining, and IMO the explanation is a combination of experience and technology (Good ships, good weapons, good navigation, etc. Also the ability to sail around and encounter loads of parts of the world and then move on, building up experience that the people they encountered lacked. E.g. Pizarro probably couldn't have taken over Peru without knowledge of the stories of previous spanish conquests in the americas. e.g. if somehow all the Aztecs had teleported to Spain and His
3Dominik Lukeš1yThanks for these questions. I think Restall's and Thorton's books will answer these adequately. But Sharman's 'Empires of the weak' is even more forceful in this thesis. However, Scott's 'Against the grain' is also an important element. Essentially he argues against the conflation of the civilisations with buildings and recorded institutions with 'nations' in today's sense. Most people were not controlled by them until much later. So while the 'silver mines' were indeed hell on Earth, they represented a sliver of the population. Cortes and Pizarro managed to destroy relatively new and hugely unpopular empires by relying on local allies (and they were learning from each other in that). They achieved nothing like the control the Nazis did in Poland or France. They were much less successful with the Mayas who were already more fragmented and therefore more resilient. The Portuguese in India did the same but managed to just snag some edge disputed territory and became just one (very minor) of the many players in the region. Remember they achieved nothing of note in Japan and even less in China (until 300 years later). Yes, they got some port cities on the coast of East Africa but they very tenuous holdings. It is important to look at not just where they succeeded but also where they failed. If you're looking for some successes, I think the Spice Islands are more in that vein but even there things did not always go all the well. The reason why all these Europeans did this at the same time was as you describe: they were learning from each other and were exporting their competition abroad. Opportunities for growth in Europe were limited, the Ottomans were making trade with India more difficult; and the religious aspect was also important - Columbus was not just after trade but also opening up a westward route to Jerusalem (and finding the mythical Prester John). The people in the places they came to were not interested in exploration. The Aztecs had loads of space to
2Daniel Kokotajlo1yI think I agree with most of the object-level claims you made, but I still think the term "conqueror" is justified. If the Spanish didn't conquer the Aztecs, then Alexander didn't conquer Persia, Genghis Khan didn't conquer China, etc. etc. More relevant comparisons would be the British East India Company conquering India, I think, and the Russian conquest of siberia, ukraine, and central asia, since those conquests lasted for a long time and allowed significant influence to be exerted on the locals. Anyhow, if AI has the potential to do to humans what Cortes and Pizarro did to the mesoamericans, I think we have good reason to be very worried. So for my purposes -- drawing analogies to AI -- I think it should count as conquest. The fact that it took a while for most Americans to be "actually controlled" by the Spanish doesn't matter.* It seems like you are saying that Europeans colonized the world (as opposed to Chinese, or Americans, or Africans, or Ottomans) because they had the will to do so whereas other regions were more inward-focused. This seems implausible to me, except maybe in the case of China. For example, the Portuguese took over the Indian Ocean fairly easily, it seems; I find it hard to believe that the Ottomans wouldn't have done it first if they could. Or one of the Indian states. China, it seems, actually could have, and chose not to -- their bureaucrats burned their treasure fleet etc. And anyhow it seems like the only people who had ships as long-ranged as those of the Europeans were the Chinese. Thoughts? *Justification for this: I think what's important is the "window of opportunity" for resistance by the conquered, before too many bad things happen to them. Even if it takes a century for the bad things to happen, if there isn't a realistic opportunity to boot out the invaders after time T, then it seems like you've been conquered by time T, in the relevant sense of the word. (In the AI context, I'm worried about our "window of opportunity" t

To add, if you really want a very comprehensive look at Cortez, read Restall's most recent book 'When Montezuma met Cortez'.

2Daniel Kokotajlo1yI don't care about Cortes in particular; I'm interested in drawing broader lessons from what happened. I would be interested to hear more about what Montezuma was thinking, which apparently that book talks about, so maybe I'll check it out. Thanks.