Why did the conquistadors melt down the Indian gold work they captured?

From the few accounts I’ve read, the logs and various journals of Columbus’s four voyages, for example. the royalty of Europe prized the novelty aspect of treasures from the new world. They would dote on and trade and present as presents even the simple things like Indian blankets and fur and horn objects.
So I would think that the ransom of the Aztecs and Incas would be worth less once melted down.

Just a guess but wouldn’t a bunch of cast bars of equal size be a lot easier to handle and ship than a collection of statues, jewelry and trinkets of varying sizes and shapes? Particularly if you’re looking to quickly load up the ships and send them back to Spain.

It would be easier perhaps to determine the value of it as well.

That, plus there was the whole heathen/non-Catholic aspect. Better to obliterate their blasphemous trinkets.
Missionary madness
Sweep up culture with a broom
Trashing ancient ways
Is par for the course
It’s [frickin] rude

  • RHCP

I would say the idol, and space aspect covers much of the reason. Bars are too big for people to loot on the way to the Spanish treasury finishes it. Once in Europe they used much to in royal jewelry and to pay for war. It’s obvious you have gotten the booty from the new world if you don’t melt it down. Remember that all of it was not melted down. There was a flood of emeralds at the same time from the same source.



There’s also the fact that the likes of Cortés were dealing with piles of gold and silver artefacts that had to be divided up. Everybody wanted their fair share and melting stuff down into uniform ingots helped minimise arguments.
Bernal Díaz describes the division of the spoils in Tenochtitlan in some detail and it’s clear that the process was messy, divisive and even near deadly. Made all the more difficult because they did not have access to proper scales and were having to improvise standard weights. Melting most of it all down into two inch bars and stamping these with the royal crest at least gave a semblence of control to the division.
A fifth had to be set aside for the king, another fifth for Cortés and so on down. Accusations of cheating leading to fights bedeviled the whole affair as it was.

Note that some of the better pieces weren’t melted down because it was indeed realised that they’d be more valuable intact. (But there’s a limit here. Some people in Europe might appreciate individual pieces for their aesthetic qualities, but not enough for you to offload tonnes of the stuff on this basis.)

The men themselves seem to have recast their shares into longer ingots that they could strap to their bodies. One such was found in a routine archaeological excavation in Mexico City in 1982, possibly having been dropped in the fighting during the escape on Noche Triste. (Now in the Museo National de Anthropologia in the city, it was part of the Royal Academy’s Aztecs exhibition in London in 2003. Perhaps the less prepossessing artefact in the show, yet one of the most startling.)

Let’s not forget the desire for gilded altar fixings.
Or solid gold ones.

I would think that one other factor was that for the conquistadores gold was valuable in and of itself so it didn’t need to be artistic. I don’t think this is the only reason, the other reasons given above seem likely as well, but I do think that may have been part of their motivation.

They did use gold and silver at that time for transactions. Melted down it was never worth less than the same weight of gold already in circulation. Once people catch on that a large influx is occurring, it’s worth less.

In the video series Art of the Western World, I remember Michael Wood saying that Albrecht Dürer was deeply affected by the golden Aztec artifacts he saw being unloaded from ships, so obviously not all of it was melted down before being shipped to Europe.

What Dürer saw is the interesting exceptional case.

Prior to meeting Cortés, Motecuhzoma had tried the tactic of sending the Spaniards a pile of treasure as a gift in the hope that this would satisfy them. Again, this haul is described in some detail by Díaz. Eventually, in July 1519, Cortés takes the decision to send a party back to Spain to report on events to date. By the usual rules, the king is due a fifth of the booty, but after much arguing in the camp, they decide to send most of Motecuhzoma’s gift back with this party. There’s thus no problem of dividing it up into shares. The gesture is also intended to emphasise the relative sophistication of the peoples Cortés has discovered. He’s demonstrating that he’s hit the mother lode - a fabulously rich city-based empire, not the scattered and thin riches that the likes of Columbus had found on the islands.
The dispatch of the party back home is however more usually noted because they carried the first of his famous series of letters back to Spain. (This doesn’t discuss the treasure in much detail - think of it as the covering note.)
On receiving this treasure, Charles V makes a big deal out of it, creating a travelling expedition of them to show off the fabulous wealth that’s coming his way. It’s this that Dürer’s diary entry (a pdf) records his reaction to in Brussels in 1520. The individual pieces he mentions can be matched up against Díaz’s account.

None of this collection survives. It was presumably melted down into handy bullion once the propaganda point had been made.

What’s this mask for? A silly naked savage dance to honor some bogeyman God yeah say? We’ll just melt that down nice and quick to make crosses to shred the light of civilization on these poor souls. Obviously they aren’t favored by the lord, look how they die from diseases. No need for feathers or bone ornaments either, they won’t be much use in those new mines.

Not to be metallurgically picky here, but if this was the common practice, i am guessing that at that time no jewelers and metalsmiths had much of a concern for the various coloring and grading found within the genus called “gold”.

The grades of coloring in gold were irrelevant? They’d just melt em into bars for easy shipment and sale?

Pity, that. I wonder if 1,000 years ago the gold that people wore was more clearly varied in tone than it is now.


It must have been more varied in tone. Doesn’t take much amalgamate to create white, yellow or pink gold.

In a minor hijack, what compounds are added to gold to change the color, and what color is pure gold?

Pure Gold is gold-colored. :rolleyes:

Red Gold has Copper added.

I woulda thought so too, except my “minerals and rocks” book lists gold as “yellow-golden” colored. So I guess fool’s gold, which IS listed as golden-colored, looks more like gold than gold does? :smack:

And of course, the stuff that has survived likely did so as the workmanship was exceptional.

There was likely a lot of gold jewelry that would have been unremarkable to dudes then.