Francisco Pizarro, poster child for Spanish expansion into the New World, was on the hunt for gold. That was his expressed purpose. He landed on Peruvian soil in 1532 and was greeted peacefully by 10,000 Incans, including chief Atahualpa. Pizarro had only 200 men, but they were armed to the teeth: steel and guns. Setting the tone for centuries to come, Pizarro feigned friendship until his men could get near the Incan leaders. Once upon them, the Spaniards attacked, slaughtering many and taking Atahualpa hostage.
It is said that Atahualpa offered to fill a large room with gold and two others with silver, in exchange for his freedom. Pizarro agreed, taking hundreds of millions of dollars in precious metal, but once done, he had the chief executed. Superb Incan goldwork was blithely melted down, its cultural value erased, and turned into ingots for the Spanish crown. In the same year, Pizarro looted the Incan capital of Cuzco. That which the Spaniards didn't take was hidden in the Andes Mountains.
South America was gradually conquered, millions of inhabitants wiped out by warfare and disease. Once pacified to a manageable extent, Spain focused its energies on Mexico and lands even further north. By this time, the Aztecs had already been defeated by Hernan Cortes. Slave labor was used to establish and work a bevy of mines across North and Central America. Ships were filled with gold and dumped off at Seville. The War of Spanish Succession saw an interruption in the gold shipment, with many coins stored away until ships could be spared again. At the end of the war, when a new fleet was dispatched to recover them, an enormous fortune was lost in the Bahama Channel to a hurricane.
Spain was not alone in exploiting the New World. The Portuguese Empire had conquered Brazil, and in the 1780's, discovered a wealth of gold and diamonds there. Lisbon had been devastated by an earthquake in 1755, but the damage was entirely reversed with Brazilian riches. Scholars believe that, in less than 20 years, Portugal transported some 1.75 milllion pounds in gold dust. They would also garner riches from lands much further away, such as Japan.
Warfare, disease, enslavement, and genocide: this was the price for the wealth of dynasty's. The thing about gold is that it is always owned by kings, but it never stays in one place forever. As the world shrank and cultures collided, gold from all over the world would trade hands, both through bloodshed and through peaceful negotiation. However, like Rome, gold would soon trickle into the hands of commoners, particularly with the American Gold Rushes.
If you missed it, be sure to read A Brief History of Gold Part One
Next up will be A Brief History of Gold Part Three