Cortes and His Conquest for the Aztec Empire
The Aztec Empire was one of the most powerful and influential of its time but that did not allow them to stay at the top for long. Although they were clearly one of the best empires, conquering their neighboring civilizations and constantly growing, the Spanish Conquistadors were on the rise throughout this century. There were four main factors that lead to the fall of the Aztecs, one being the massive armies that ran the Spanish conquests. Their advanced technology was a huge benefit for the Spanish. Another disadvantage was the fact that the Spanish had allies on their side. Finally, one factor that many do not think about is the fact that the health of the civilizations played an important role. The Spanish had much better immune systems due to being exposed to rare diseases early on whereas the Aztecs had a very weak system which caused many of them to die as soon as a disease occurred.
All of this first began when the Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, sailed the oceans and came across the Americas on his voyage. King John II felt that he was in no position to fund Columbus on his journey to the East Indies so he had no choice but to try and convince Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. He knew what they wanted to hear so explained to them that once he arrived he would begin to spread the religion of Catholicism. Columbus thought that to get to Asia all he would have to do is sail towards the east and he would avoid all of the detores and end up in Asia. So after about 11 weeks of sailing, he landed in what he thought were the East Indies but was actually the Bahamas. The Queen and King were not very thrilled about this but decided to fund him a couple more times so he can discover golds and other riches in the New World. Having the opportunity to go on the voyage once again, he was able to establish a colony called Hispaniola, where the Spanish had gone to settle.
Hernan Cortes had lived in the colony that Columbus had founded, Hispaniola, where he worked as a farmer. In 1511, Cortes decided to join Velasquez and take over Cuba. When in Cuba, Cortes had worked as a clerk for the treasurer and eventually worked his way to become the Mayor. This was not enough for him so he was constantly trying to convince Velasquez to let him roam around Mexico. At first he had agreed to let Cortes go but he quickly changed his mind and called it off. This did not stop Cortes from leaving. Upon arrival to Central America, he had the mindset to conquer land for Spain and convert their people into Christianity. He then made an appearance in the city of Mexico which brought him a lot of attention because they had mistaken him for the Aztec God, Quetzalcoatl. The people believed it to be their God because on their Aztec calendar, 1519 was the year that he shall return to his people. Cortes and his men approached the city on horses, which amazed the people even more because they had never seen such an animal before. The people truly believed it was their God so they, according to Hernan Cortes, “…came out of the city to greet me with many trumpets and drums, including many persons whom they regard as priests in their temples.”
As he traveled deeper into Central America, Cortes actually stopped at a city called Yucatan and he met many different Mayans. These people were telling him where he could find one of his men, Aguilar, who had been involved in a shipwreck and was captured by the Mayans. This was actually a benefit for Cortes because he would now has a translator that he did not have before. So when Cortes found this out about Aguilar, he immediately was ready to go deeper into the Mayan Civilization. As the crew continued to go throughout the civilization, they came into contact with another native group. This group was very frightened by their arrival because they had never seen cannons or horses before. The Mayan group had felt the need to surrender and once they did they gave Cortes gifts of gold, food, and even women. The men really only used the woman for sexual pleasure but one female, Dona Maria, was special to all of the men. Like Aguilar, Cortes saw her as a valuable translator because not only did she speak the Mayan language but she spoke the Aztec language as well. She was to report to Aguilar and he was to report to Cortes.
The journey deeper into Central America continued as they traveled down to the city of Tenochtitlan. When the Spanish arrived here, they had an encounter with the Tlaxcalans. This native group was under the control of the Aztecs and were forced to pay taxes under the ruling. Although they were not fans of the Aztecs they did not know how to take the arrival of Cortes. The only way they knew how to defend themselves from outsiders was to commence battle. This attack on Cortes and his men lasted for several days. Since the Spanish had the advantage, with horses, it was hard for the Tlaxcalans to keep up. The Tlaxcalans even had the number advantage in this battle but the fact that the Spanish had their cavalry skills, it helped Cortes and his men defeat them. After the short battle, Cortes said, “Tlaxcalans have told you much evil of me, but believe no more than you see with your own eyes, especially from those who are my enemies, some of whom were once my subjects, and having rebelled upon your arrival, make these statements to ingratiate themselves in your favor.” This was a huge turning point for the Aztec conquest because Cortes now has the Tlaxcalans as an ally to help him defeat the Aztecs. Once the Tlaxcalans came to an agreement on helping Cortes and his men, they march down through Central America. Now the natives, known as Cholulas, were waiting for the Spanish so they could attack them. This attack did not last long because like the battle against the Tlaxcalans, the Spanish had their cavalry skills to put them on top. Although it was a smaller battle, there were more than “…three thousand of the inhabitants…” dead. This was one of the last battles that the Spanish had to face before reaching the Aztecs civilization, Tenochtitlan.
The Aztec empire grew to be about two hundred thousand natives, which was one of the largest cities and populations on Earth at this time. It was not merely made up of Aztecs but rather many of the neighboring people that they had conquered. It was not good for the Aztecs because as soon as the Spanish arrived to the city, the non-aztecs immediately became allies with Cortes’ men. On the other hand, the Aztec King, Montezuma II, greeted the men with open arms and treated them like very important guests. In a speech given by Cortes he says, “We also know that our lineage was brought here by a supreme lord, who afterwards went back to his realm. And we always have believed that his descendants one day would come to subdue this land…” He provided them a rest area right in the center of the city. The Spanish had an opportunity to roam around the city of Tenochtitlan but they saw very disturbing things. They began to see human skulls and bones and realized that the Aztecs use human sacrifice. “And when the sacrifice was over, they chopped off the heads of the Spaniards. They strung the Spaniards heads on poles on the skull rack; they also strung up the heads of the horses, arranging them below, while the heads of the Spaniards were above. They placed them so they faced east toward the rising sun…” As they were destroying all of the Aztecs’ statues, Montezuma was trying to bribe the Spanish with goods such as gold and food, to have them stop. Cortes saw that Montezuma was vulnerable so he captured him and held him hostage. This lead to Cortes controlling the Aztec empire through Montezuma.
Before he even started his journey, Cortes was told that he could not proceed with going to the Aztec Empire by Diego Velazquez but he did not listen. So Velasquez had sent over troops to his location. Cortes always has a plan so when he heard that Velasquez sent over troops, he had conjured up his men and those of the Tlaxcalan so they can stand before the troops. A majority of Cortes’ troops went to battle and the other portion stayed at the empire to secure the civilians. As usual, Cortes comes out on top and has most of Velasquez’s men join him. While most of the men were gone, one of Velasquez’s troops was able to kill a priest which created a huge conflict. When Cortes returned back to the center of the city, it came to his attention that Montezuma was now dead and it is uncertain who had committed the murder. This was too much for Cortes to deal with so he had no choice but to flee. The Aztecs began killing many of the Spanish soldiers as they were about to leave.
Shortly after Cortes had fled the city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec empire was under the rule of Montezuma’s successor, also his older brother, Cuitlahuac. Only 80 days into his ruling term, he and most of the empire began to die. The Spanish had transferred the smallpox disease all over the Aztec Empire. Since the Aztecs were not immune to any disease, it was easy to destroy their population. When Cortes realized what was happening to the empire, he quickly returned to regain his power. Coming into the throne now was Montezuma’s cousin Cuauhtemoc who was unfortunately the final Aztec Empire. Before the Spanish entered into the city, they felt the need to conquer the neighboring tribes. Doing so, this caused his men to regain their power as well. The Aztec empire was at its weakest point because they had no one in control. Because of this, the Spanish had the ability to properly control the surrounding areas. Cuauhtemoc tried to hold his empire together but the Spanish were very invading and he just couldn’t anymore. It was now time for Cortes to complete what he had gone to Tenochtitlan for.
It took Hernan Cortes about three years to fulfill his mission and seize the Mexico area. The Aztec Empire was one of the most powerful and influential of its time but that did not allow them to stay at the top for long. The four factors that allowed him to do so consisted of his massive armies, advanced technology and weaponry, the gaining of allies, and the weak immune system of his opponent. Cortes played an important role in the reshaping of the world. His victories had secured new land and opportunities for the Spanish. This domination has carried into the present day and has molded the world today.
Cortés, Hernán. Hernán Cortés to Emperor Carlos V., 1522. In Hernán Cortés: Letters from Mexico. Translated and edited by Anthony Pagden, 72-74. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986.
Brooks, Francis J. “Motecuzoma Xocoyotl, Hernán Cortés, and Bernal Díaz Del Castillo: The Construction of an Arrest.” The Hispanic American Historical Review, 1 May 1995, www.jstor.org/stable/2517303?seq=3#page_scan_tab_contents.
Jansen, Maarten, and Gabina Aurora Pérez Jiménez. “The Mat and the THRONE.” Encounter with the Plumed Serpent: Drama and Power in the Heart of Mesoamerica, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, 2007, pp. 1–32. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1wn0rc9.5.
Portilla, Miguel Leon. “An Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico .” Speeches of Montezuma and Cortés, pp. 1–14., doi:https://www.tamdistrict.org/cms/lib/CA01000875/Centricity/Domain/545/Mexico%20DBQ%20Docs.pdf.