Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire: Wikis


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The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire was one of the most important campaigns in the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The invasion began in February 1519 and was acclaimed victorious on August 13, 1521, by a coalition army of Spanish conquistadors and Tlaxcalan warriors led by Hernán Cortés and Xicotencatl the Younger against the Aztec Empire.

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Aztec omens for the conquest

Many accounts from the conquest of the Aztec empire are predominantly Spanish. Most primary sources of the conquest come from Hernan Cortes’ letters to Charles V and Bernal Diaz’s written work, True History of the Conquest of Mexico. The primary sources from the people affected as a result of the conquest are seldom observed. Indigenous accounts, however, were documented as early as 1528. Written in the native tongue of Nahuatl, the Sahugan natives of the Aztec empire described seven omens that were believed to have occurred 10 years prior to the arrival of the Spanish from the Gulf of Mexico. The seven omens included:

Aztec empire on the eve of the Spanish Invasion
  1. a strange appearance in the eastern sky,
  2. fire consuming the temple of Huitzilopochtli,
  3. a lightning bolt destroying the straw temple of Xiuhtecuhtli,
  4. the appearance of streaking fire across the oceans,
  5. the “boiling,” and later flooding, of a lake nearby Tenochtitlan,
  6. a woman weeping in the middle of night
  7. the capturing of an unknown creature with a fishing net.[1]

Meanwhile, back in Tenochitlán, Moctezuma was in a quandary as to how to best deal with the unwelcome strangers. Ancient legend prophesied that Quetzalcoátl, the bearded, fair-skinned Toltec ruler-god, would return from the east in the year Ce Acatl to reclaim his kingdom. Evil omens that had confounded the Aztec priests and sorcerers over the previous decade only heightened Moctezuma's anxiety. First, despite fair weather, the waters of Lake Texcoco had suddenly boiled up, flooding the island of their capital city. Then an inexplicable conflagration had consumed the temple of their chief god, Huitzilopochtli. The voice of a woman wailing in the night had repeatedly disturbed the city's slumber. Immense comets with fiery tails had been seen shooting through day-time skies and a great column of fire had appeared in the east every night for an entire year. All of these were taken to be signs of Quetzalcoátl's imminent return.

The emperor Moctezuma (often spelled Montezuma in English) was said to have consulted fortune tellers to determine the causes of these omens; but they were unable to provide an exact explanation until after the arrival of the Spaniards.

However, it should be noted that all sources depicting omens were written after the siege and fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. When the Spanish first arrived, native peoples did not view them as supernatural in any sense but rather as simply another group of powerful outsiders. Many Spanish accounts incorporated omens in order to highlight the preordained nature of the conquest and view their success as Spanish destiny. This means that native emphasis on omens and bewilderment in the face of invasion "may be a postconquest interpretation by informants who wished to please the Spaniards or who resented the failure of Moctezuma and of the warriors of Tenochtitlan to provide leadership."[2]

Spanish arrival in Yucatán

In 1517 Cuban governor Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, commissioned a fleet of three ships under the command of Hernández de Córdoba to sail west and explore the Yucatán peninsula. Córdoba reached the coast of Yucatan. The Mayans at Cape Catoche invited the Spaniards to land, upon which Córdoba had the Spaniards read the Requirement of 1513 to them. Córdoba took two prisoners whom he named Melchor and Julian to be interpreters. On the western side of the Yucatán Peninsula, the Spaniards were attacked at night by Maya chief Mochcouoh (Mochh Couoh). Twenty Spaniards were killed. Córdoba was mortally wounded and only a remnant of his crew returned to Cuba.

The year after the ill-fated Córdoba expedition, Governor Velázquez decided to commission another expedition under the leadership of his nephew Juan de Grijalva. Grijalva's expedition of four ships sailed south along the coast of Yucatan to the Tabasco region, a part of the Aztec empire.

Spanish conquest of Yucatán

Not being part of the Aztec Empire, the conquest and initial subjugation of the independent city-state polities of the Late Postclassic Maya civilization came many years later. With the help of tens of thousands of Xiu Mayan warriors, it would take more than 170 years for the Spanish to establish control of the Maya homelands, which extended from northern Yucatán to the central lowlands region of El Petén and the southern Guatemalan highlands. The end of this latter campaign is generally marked by the downfall of the Maya state based at Tayasal in the Petén region, in 1697.

Cortés' expedition

Commissioning the expedition

Map depicting Cortes' invasion route

Even before Grijalva returned to Cuba, Velázquez decided to send a third and even larger expedition to explore the Mexican coast. Hernán Cortés, then one of Velázquez's favorites, was named as the commander, a decision which created much envy and resentment among the Spanish contingent in the Cuban colony. Velázquez's instructions to Cortés, in an agreement signed on 23 October 1518, were to lead an expedition to initiate trade relations with the indigenous coastal tribes.

One account suggests that Governor Velázquez wished to restrict the Cortés expedition to being a pure trading expedition. Invasion of the mainland was to be a privilege reserved for himself. However, by calling upon the knowledge of the law of Castile that he gained while a student in Salamanca and by utilizing his famous powers of persuasion, Cortés was able to maneuver Governor Velázquez into inserting a clause into his orders which enabled Cortés to take emergency measures without prior authorization if such were deemed "in the true interests of the realm."

Perceiving this to be the opportunity of a lifetime, Cortés embarked on this enterprise zealously and energetically. He began assembling a fleet of eleven ships and a force of well-armed men.

Cortés ostentatiously invested a considerable part of his personal fortune to equip the expedition. Cortés committed the greater part of his assets and went into debt to borrow additional funds when his assets ran out. Governor Velázquez personally contributed nearly half the cost of the expedition.

The ostentatiousness of his endeavor probably added to the envy and resentment of the Spanish contingent in Cuba who were also keenly aware of the opportunity that this assignment offered for fame, fortune and glory.

Revoking the commission

Velázquez himself must have been keenly aware that whoever conquered the mainland for Spain would gain fame, glory and fortune to eclipse anything that could be achieved in Cuba. Thus, as the preparations for departure drew to a close, the governor became suspicious that Cortés would be disloyal to him and try to commandeer the expedition for his own purposes, namely to establish himself as governor of the colony, independent of Velázquez' control.

For this reason, Velázquez sent Luis de Medina with orders to replace Cortés. However, Cortés' brother-in-law had Medina intercepted and killed. The papers that Medina had been carrying were sent to Cortés. Thus warned, Cortés accelerated the organization and preparation of his expedition. [3]

He was ready to set sail on the morning of 18 February 1519 when Velázquez arrived at the dock in person, determined to revoke Cortés's commission. But Cortés, pleading that "time presses," hurriedly set sail thus literally beginning his conquest of American Indian territories and nations with the legal status of a mutineer.

Cortés' contingent consisted of 11 ships carrying about 100 sailors, 530 soldiers (including 30 crossbowmen and 12 arquebusiers), a doctor, several carpenters, at least eight women, a few hundred Cuban Natives and some Africans, both freedmen and slaves.

Cortés lands at Cozumel

Cortés spent some time at Cozumel island, trying to convert the locals to Christianity and achieving mixed results. While at Cozumel, Cortés heard reports of other white men living in the Yucatan. Cortés sent messengers to these reported castilianos, who turned out to be the survivors of the 1511 shipwreck, Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero.

Aguilar petitioned his Maya chieftain to be allowed leave to join with his former countrymen, and he was released and made his way to Cortés's ships. According to Bernal Díaz, Aguilar relayed that before coming he had unsuccessfully attempted to convince Guerrero to leave as well. Guerrero declined on the basis that he was by now well-assimilated with the Maya culture, had a Maya wife and three children, and he was looked upon as a figure of rank within the Maya settlement of Chetumal where he lived.[4]

Although Guerrero's later fate is somewhat uncertain, it appears that for some years he continued to fight alongside the Maya forces against Spanish incursions, providing military counsel and encouraging resistance; it is speculated that he may have been killed in a later battle.

Aguilar, now quite fluent in Yucatec Maya as well as some other indigenous languages, would prove to be a valuable asset for Cortés as a translator - a skill of particular significance to the later conquest of the Aztec Empire which would be the end result of Cortés' expedition.[5]

Cortés lands on the Yucatán peninsula

After leaving Cozumel, Cortés continued round the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula and landed at Potonchan, where there was little gold. However, Cortés discovered a far more valuable asset in the form of a woman whom Cortés called Doña Marina. She is often known as Malinche and also sometimes called "Malintzin" or Mallinali. Later, the Aztecs would come to call Cortés "Malintzin" by dint of his close association with her. [1]

Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote in his account The True History of the Conquest of New Spain that Doña Marina was "an Aztec princess sold into Mayan slavery." She was not actually an Aztec princess but was of noble birth, probably of Toltec or Tabascan origins.

Her lineage notwithstanding, Cortés had stumbled upon one of the keys to realizing his ambitions. He would speak to Gerónimo de Aguilar in Spanish who would then translate into Mayan for Malinche. Malinche would then translate from Mayan to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. With this pair of translators, Cortés could now communicate to the Aztecs quite effectively.

Christened Marina by Cortés, she later learned Spanish, became Cortés' mistress and bore him a son. Native speakers of Nahuatl, her own people, would call her "Malintzin." This name is the closest phonetic approximation possible in Nahuatl to the sound of 'Marina' in Spanish. Over time, "la Malinche" (the modern Spanish cognate of 'Malintzin') became a term that denotes a traitor to one's people. To this day, the word malinchista is used by Mexicans to denote one who apes the language and customs of another country. [2]

La Malinche was later made legendary through depictions in book and film.

Cortés finds Veracruz

Coat of arms of Villa Rica, Veracruz. First town council founded by Spaniards. Tile mosaic located in Mexico City.

Cortés landed his expedition force on the coast of the modern day state of Veracruz. He learned of an indigenous settlement called Cempoala and marched his forces there. On their arrival in Cempoala, they were greeted by 20 dignitaries and cheering townsfolk.

Cortés quickly persuaded the Totonac chief Xicomecoatl (also known as King Chicomacatt) to rebel against the Aztecs.

Faced with imprisonment or death for defying the governor, Cortés' only alternative was to continue on with his enterprise in the hope of redeeming himself with the Spanish Crown. To do this, he directed his men to establish a settlement called La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. The legally-constituted "town council of Villa Rica" then promptly offered him the position of adelantado.

This strategy was not unique.[6] Velásquez had used this same legal mechanism to free himself from Diego Columbus' authority in Cuba. In being named adelantado by a duly constituted cabildo, Cortés was able to free himself from Velásquez's authority and continue his expedition. In order to insure the legality of this action several members of his expedition, including Francisco Montejo, returned to Spain to seek royal acceptance of the cabildo's declaration.

The Totonacs helped Cortés build the town of La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz which was his starting point for his attempt to conquer the Aztec empire. This settlement eventually grew into the city now known as Veracruz ("True Cross").

Scuttling the fleet

Cortés scuttling fleet off Veracruz coast

Those of his men still loyal to the Governor of Cuba conspired to seize a ship and escape to Cuba, but Cortés moved swiftly to quash their plans. To make sure such a mutiny did not happen again, he decided to scuttle his ships, on the pretext that they were no longer seaworthy. There is a popular misconception that Cortés burned the ships instead of scuttling them. This may have come from a mistranslation of the version of the story written in Latin.[7]

With all of his ships scuttled except for one small ship with which to communicate with Spain, Cortés effectively stranded the expedition in the so-called New World and ended all thoughts of loyalty to the Governor of Cuba. Cortés then led his band inland towards the fabled Tenochtitlan. The ship was loaded with the Royal Fifth (the King of Spain claimed 20% of all spoils) of the Aztec treasure they had obtained so far in order to speed up Cortés's claim to the governorship.

In addition to the Spaniards, Cortés force now included 40 Cempoalan warrior chiefs and 200 other natives whose task it was to drag the cannon and carry the supplies. The Cempoalans were accustomed to the hot climate of the coast, but they suffered immensely from the cold of the mountains, the rain, and the hail as they marched towards Tenochtitlan.

Alliance with Tlaxcalteca

Cortés arrived at Tlaxcala, a confederacy of about 200 towns, but without central government. Their main city was Tlaxcala. After almost a century of fighting the Flower wars, a great deal of hate and bitterness had developed between the Tlaxcalans and the Aztecs. The Tlaxcalans knew that eventually the Aztecs would try to conquer them. It was just a matter of time before this tension developed into a real conflict. The Aztecs had already conquered much of the territory around Tlaxcala. It is possible that the Aztecs left Tlaxcala independent in order to have a constant supply of war captives to sacrifice to their gods. [3]

The Tlaxcalans initially greeted the Spanish with hostile action and the two sides fought a series of skirmishes, which eventually forced the Spaniards up onto a hill where they were surrounded. Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo describes the first battle between the Spanish force and the Tlaxcalteca as surprisingly difficult. He writes that they probably would not have survived, had not Xicotencatl the Elder persuaded his son, the Tlaxcallan warleader, Xicotencatl the Younger, that it would be better to ally with the newcomers than to kill them.

On 18 September 1519, Cortés arrived in Tlaxcala and was greeted with joy by the rulers, who already saw the Spanish as a possible ally against the Aztecs. Due to a commercial blockade by the Aztecs, Tlaxcala was poor, lacking, among other things, both salt and cotton cloth, so they could only offer Cortés and his men food and women. Cortés stayed 20 days in Tlaxcala. It was there that he could appreciate for the first time the way of life of the inhabitants of Mesoamerica. Cortés seems to have won the true friendship of the old leaders of Tlaxcala, among them Maxixcatzin and Xicotencatl the Elder, although he could not win the heart of Xicotencatl the Younger. The Spaniards agreed to respect parts of the city, like the temples, and only took the things that were offered to them freely.

All that time Cortés offered to talk about the benefits of Christianity. Legends say that he convinced the four leaders of Tlaxcala to become baptized. Maxixcatzin, Xicotencatl the Elder, Citalpopocatzin and Temiloltecutl received the names of Don Lorenzo, Don Vicente, Don Bartolomé and Don Gonzalo.

It's difficult to know if they understood the Catholic faith. In any event, they apparently had no problems in adding "Dios" (God in Spanish), the lord of the heavens, to their already complex pantheon of gods.

An exchange of gifts was made and thus began the alliance between Cortés and Tlaxcala.[8]

Cortés marches to Cholula

Meanwhile Mexican ambassadors continued to press Cortés to leave Tlaxcala , the "city of poor and thieves" and go to the neighbouring city of Cholula, which was under Aztec influence. Cholula, founded in the year 2, was one of the most important cities of Mesoamerica, the second largest, and probably the most sacred. Its huge pyramid made it one of the most prestigious places of the Aztec religion. However, it appears that Cortés perceived Cholula as a military power rather than a religious center. He sent emissaries first.

The leaders of Tlaxcala urged Cortés to go instead to Huexotzingo, a city allied to Tlaxcala. Cortés, who had not yet decided to start a war by going to Huexotzingo, decided to make a compromise. He accepted the gifts of the Mexica ambassadors, but also accepted the offer of the Tlaxclateca to provide porters and warriors. He sent two men, Pedro de Alvarado, and Bernardino Vázquez de Tapia, on foot (he did not want to spare any horses), directly to Tenochtitlan, as ambassadors.

On 12 October 1519, Cortés and his men, accompanied by about 1,000 Tlaxcalteca, marched to Cholula.

Massacre of Cholula

There are contradictory reports of what happened at Cholula. Moctezuma had apparently tried to stop the advance of Cortés and his troops, and it seems that he ordered the leaders of Cholula to try to stop him. Cholula had a very small army, since as a sacred city, they put their confidence in their prestige and their gods. According to the chronicles of the Tlaxcalteca, the priest of Cholula expected to use the power of Quetzalcoatl against them.

La Malinche told Cortés, after talking to the wife of one of the lords of Cholula, that the locals planned to murder the Spaniards in their sleep and although he did not know if the rumor was true or not, Cortés ordered a pre-emptive strike, urged on by the Tlaxcalans, the enemies of the Cholulans. The Spaniards seized and killed many of the local nobles to serve as a lesson. After Cortés arrived in Cholula he seized their leaders Tlaquiach and Tlalchiac and then ordered the city set fire. The troops started in the palace of Xacayatzin, and then on to Chialinco and Yetzcoloc. In his letters, Cortés claimed that in three hours time his troops (helped by the Tlaxcalans) killed 3,000 people and burned the city.[9] Another witness, Vazquez de Tapia, claimed the death toll was as high as 30,000.

The Azteca and Tlaxclateca histories of the events leading up to the massacre differ. The Tlaxcalteca claimed that their ambassador Patlahuatzin was sent to Cholula and had been tortured by the Cholula. Thus, Cortés was avenging him by attacking the Cholula. (Historia de Tlaxcala, por Diego Muñoz Camargo, lib. II cap. V. 1550).

The Aztec version put the blame on the Tlaxcalteca claiming that they resented Cortés going to Cholula instead of Huexotzingo.[10]

The massacre had a chilling effect on the other Mesoamerican cultures and on the Mexica themselves. The tale of the massacre inclined the other cultures in the Aztec empire to submit to Cortés' demands rather than risk the same fate.

Cortés then sent emissaries to Moctezuma with the message that the people of Cholula had treated him with disrespect and had therefore been punished. Cortés' message continued that the Aztecs need not fear his wrath if Moctezuma treated him with respect and gifts of gold.


Map of the Valley of Mexico on the eve of the Spanish conquest

On 8 November 1519 after nearly three months, Cortés arrived at the outskirts of Tenochtitlan, the island capital of the Mexica-Aztecs. It is believed that the city was one of the largest in the world at that time. Of all the cities in Europe, only Constantinople was larger than Tenochtitlan. The most common estimates put the population at around 60,000 to over 300,000 people.

Cortés welcomed by Moctezuma

According to the Aztec chronicles recorded by Sahagún, the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II welcomed him with great pomp. Sahagún reports that Moctezuma welcomed Cortés to Tenochtitlan on the Great Causeway into the "Venice of the West".[citation needed]

A fragment of the greetings of Moctezuma say: "My lord, you have become fatigued, you have become tired: to the land you have arrived. You have come to your city: Mexico, here you have come to sit on your place, on your throne. Oh, it has been reserved to you for a small time, it was conserved by those who have gone, your substitutes... This is what has been told by our rulers, those of whom governed this city, ruled this city. That you would come to ask for your throne, your place, that you would come here. Come to the land, come and rest: take possession of your royal houses, give food to your body."[11]

Meeting place of Montezuma and Hernán Cortés

According to Sahagún's manuscript, Moctezuma personally dressed Cortés with flowers from his own gardens, the highest honour he could give, although probably Cortés did not understand the significance of the gesture.

Many historians[citation needed] are skeptical of Sahagun's account that Moctezuma personally met Cortés on the Great Causeway because of the many proscriptions and prohibitions regarding the emperor vis-à-vis his subjects. For instance, when Moctezuma dined, he ate behind a screen so as to shield him from his court and servants. There were various restrictions on seeing and touching his person.

This contradiction between "the arrogant emperor" and the "humble servant of Quetzalcoatl" has been problematic for historians to explain and has led to much speculation. All the proscriptions and prohibitions regarding Moctezuma and his people had been established by Moctezuma, and were not part of the traditional Aztec customs. Those prohibitions had already caused friction between Moctezuma and the pillis (upper classes). There is even an Aztec legend in which Huemac, the legendary last lord of Tollan Xicotitlan, instructed Moctezuma to live humbly, and eat only the food of the poor, to divert a future catastrophe. Thus, it seems out of character for Moctezuma to violate rules that he himself had promulgated.

Moctezuma had the palace of his father Auítzotl prepared to house the Spanish and their 3000 native allies. Cortés asked Moctezuma to provide more gifts of gold to demonstrate his fealty as a vassal of Charles V. Cortés also demanded that the two large idols be removed from the main temple pyramid in the city, the human blood scrubbed off, and shrines to the Virgin Mary and St. Christopher be set up in their place. All his demands were met. Cortés then seized Moctezuma in his own palace and made him his prisoner as insurance against Aztec revolt, and demanded an enormous ransom of gold, which was duly delivered.

Knowing that their leader was in chains and being required to feed not just a band of Spaniards but thousands of their Tlaxcalteca allies, the populace of Tenochtitlan began to feel a strain weighing upon them.[citation needed]

Defeat of Narváez

At this point, Cortés received news from the coast that a much larger party of Spaniards under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez had arrived. Narváez had been sent by Governor Velázquez not only to supersede Cortés, but to arrest him and bring him to trial in Cuba for insubordination, mutiny, and treason.

Cortés' response was arguably one of the most daring of his many exploits. Some describe it as absolutely reckless but he really had few other options. If arrested and convicted, he could have been executed. Leaving only one hundred and forty men under Pedro de Alvarado to hold Tenochtitlan, Cortés set out against Narváez, who had nine hundred soldiers, whereas Cortés, reinforced as he approached the coast, mustered about two hundred and sixty. With this much smaller force, Cortés surprised his antagonist by means of a night attack during which Cortés' men took Narváez prisoner.

The move was a desperate one but the secret of Cortés' success lay in his quick movements, for which Narváez was not prepared, as well as in his rapid return to the plateau, by which he surprised the Natives who held Alvarado and his people at their mercy.

The desperate defense of the Spaniards in the absence of Cortés would have been unavailing had the latter not moved quickly. In contrast with that quickness, but equally well adapted to the necessities of the case, was the methodical investment and capture of Tenochtitlan, showing the flexibility of Cortés in adapting his tactics to various situations.

When Cortés told the defeated soldiers about the city of gold, Tenochtitlan, they agreed to join him. (Narváez lost an eye, and was eventually killed during the exploration of Florida.)

Cortés then had to lead the combined forces on an arduous trek back over the Sierra Madre Oriental. Years later, when asked what the new land was like, Cortés crumpled up a piece of parchment, then spread it part way out: "Like this", he said.

The Aztec response

Meanwhile, other Aztec nobles were in dismay at the royal submissive attitude and planned a successful, but temporary, rebellion which resulted in driving Cortés and his allies out of Tenochtitlan.

When Cortés returned to the city, he found that Alvarado and his men had attacked and killed many of the Aztec nobility (see The Massacre in the Main Temple) during a festival. Alvarado's explanation to Cortés was that Alvarado had learned that the Aztecs planned to attack the Spanish garrison in the city once the festival was complete, and so he had launched a preemptive attack. Considerable doubt has been cast by different commentators on this explanation, which may have been self-serving rationalization on the part of Alvarado, who may have attacked out of fear (or greed) where no immediate threat existed. In any event, the population of the city rose en masse after the Spanish attack.

The Aztec troops besieged the palace housing the Spaniards and Moctezuma. The people of Tenochtitlan chose a new leader, Cuitláhuac. Cortés ordered Moctezuma to speak to his people from a palace balcony and persuade them to let the Spanish return to the coast in peace. Moctezuma was jeered and stones were thrown at him, injuring him badly. Moctezuma died a few days later (accounts as to who was actually guilty of his death do not agree; Aztec informants in later years insisted that Cortés had him killed.) After his death Cuitláhuac was elected as Tlatoani.

The Spaniards and their allies had to flee the city, as the population of Tenochtitlan had risen against them and the Spanish situation could only deteriorate. They took all the gold they could carry; Bernal Diaz relates that the men formerly of Narváez' contingent particularly loaded themselves down. Because the Aztecs had removed the bridges over the gaps in the causeways that linked the city to the mainland, Cortés' men constructed a portable bridge with which to cross the openings. On the rainy night of 1 July 1520, the Spaniards and their allies set out for the mainland via the causeway to Tlacopan. They placed the bridge unit in the first gap, but at that moment their movement was detected and Aztec forces attacked, both along the causeway and by means of canoes on the lake. The Spanish were thus caught on a narrow road with water on two sides. The retreat quickly turned into chaos. The Spanish discovered that they could not remove their bridge unit from the first gap, and so had no choice but to leave it behind. The bulk of the Spanish infantry, left behind by Cortés and the other horsemen, had to cut their way through the masses of Aztec warriors opposing them. Many of the Spaniards, weighed down by gold, drowned in the causeway gaps or were killed by the Aztecs. Much of the wealth the Spaniards had acquired in Tenochtitlan was lost in this manner. During the escape, Alvarado is alleged to have jumped across one of the narrower channels. The channel is now a street in Mexico City, called "Puente de Alvarado" (Alvarado's Bridge). (Because it seemed that Alvarado crossed an invisible bridge in order to escape)

In this retreat the Spaniards suffered heavy casualties, losing probably more than 600 of their own number and several thousand Tlaxcalan warriors. It is said that Cortés, upon reaching the mainland at Tlacopan, wept over their losses. This episode is called "La Noche Triste" (The sad night), and the old tree ("El árbol de la noche triste") where Cortés allegedly cried is still a monument in Mexico.

Spaniards find refuge in Tlaxcala

The Aztecs pursued and harassed the Spanish, who, guided by their Tlaxcalan allies, moved around Lake Zumpango toward sanctuary in Tlaxcala. On 8 July 1520 the Aztecs attempted to destroy the Spanish for good at the battle of Otumba. Although hard-pressed, the Spanish infantry was able to hold off the overwhelming numbers of enemy warriors, while the Spanish cavalry under the leadership of Cortés charged through the enemy ranks again and again. When Cortés and his men killed one of the Aztec leaders, the enemy broke off the battle and left the field. The Spanish were able then to complete their escape to Tlaxcala. There they were given assistance and comfort, since almost all of them were wounded, and only 20 horses were left. The Aztecs sent emissaries and asked the Tlaxcalteca to turn over the Spaniards to them, but the people of Tlaxcala refused.

While the flower wars had started as a mutual agreement, the Tlaxcala and the Aztecs had become entangled in a true war. The Aztecs had conquered almost all the territories around Tlaxcala, closing off commerce with them. The Tlaxcalteca knew it was just a matter of time before the Aztecs tried to conquer Tlaxcala itself. Therefore, most of the Tlaxcalan leaders were receptive when Cortés, once his men had the chance to recuperate, proposed an alliance to conquer Tenochtitlan. Xicotencatl the Younger, however, opposed the idea, and instead connived with the Aztec ambassadors in an attempt to form a new alliance with the Mexicans, since the Tlaxcalans and the Aztecs shared the same language and religion. Finally the elders of Tlaxcala accepted Cortés' offer under stringent conditions: they would not be required to pay any form of tribute to the Spaniards, they should receive the city of Cholula in return, they would have the right to build a fortress in Tenochtitlan, so they could have control of the city, and they would receive a share of the spoils of war.

Cortés knew that without this alliance the Spanish had little chance of surviving, especially if the Tlaxcalteca decided to join the Mexica. He accepted in the name of His Catholic Majesty, Charles V.

Unfortunately for the Tlaxcalteca, the Spanish had no intentions of turning over the city of Tenochtitlan to them. While Tlaxcalteca troops continued to help the Spaniards after the fall of Tenochtitlan and the region received better treatment, the Spanish would be the new rulers and would eventually disown the treaty. Forty years after the conquest, the Tlaxcalteca would have to pay the same tributes as any of the other indigenous cultures.

Siege of Tenochtitlan

Model depicting the first lake battle between Spanish and Aztecs

The joint forces of Tlaxcala and Cortés proved to be formidable. One by one they took over most of the cities under Aztec control, some in battle, others by diplomacy. At the end, only Tenochtitlan and the neighboring city of Tlatelolco remained unconquered.

Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan and mounted a siege of the city that relied on cutting the causeways from the mainland, while controlling the lake with armed brigantines constructed by the Spanish. The siege of Tenochtitlan lasted eight months. The besiegers cut off the supply of food and destroyed the aqueduct carrying water to the city. Even worse, many of the inhabitants of the city were also being ravaged by the effects of smallpox, which was spreading rapidly across most of contemporary Mexico (and beyond), killing hundreds of thousands. In fact, a third of the inhabitants of the entire valley died in less than six months from the new disease brought from Europe. Cannons, horse cavalry, and starvation did the rest. Despite the valiant resistance (during which the defenders cut the beating hearts from 70 Spanish prisoners-of-war at the altar to Huichilobos[12]), Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco fell on 13 August 1521 when the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc, surrendered to Cortés. Still the Spaniards asked for a last tribute to secure peace: gold, food, and women of fair skin.[13]

The city had been almost totally destroyed by fire and cannon shot during the siege, and once it finally fell the Spanish continued its dismantlement, as they soon began to establish the foundations of what would become Mexico City on the site. Meanwhile the surviving Aztec people were forbidden to live in Tenochtitlan and the surrounding isles. The survivors went to live in Tlatelolco.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan

After the fall of the city, Cortés imprisoned the royal families of the valley. Among other important figures, he personally tortured and killed Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec Emperor; Coanacoch the King of Texcoco and Tetlepanquetzal, King of Tlacopan (28 February 1525). He wanted to get from them the location of the gold treasure and expected to avoid another Aztec rebellion.

Integration into the Spanish Empire

The Council of the Indies was constituted in 1524 and the first Audiencia in 1527. In 1535, the Holy Roman Emperor and Spanish King Charles V named Antonio de Mendoza the first viceroy of New Spain. The name "New Spain" had been suggested by Cortés and was later confirmed officially by Mendoza.

Conquest of Mesoamerica

The fall of Tenochtitlan usually is referred to as the main episode in the process of the conquest of Mesoamerica. However, this process was much more complex and took longer than the three years that it took Cortés to conquer Tenochtitlan.

Even after the fall of Tenochtitlan, most of the other Mesoamerican cultures were intact. The Tlaxcalteca expected to get their part of the treaty; the Purepechas and Mixtecs were happy at the defeat of their longtime enemy, and possibly other cultures were equally pleased.

It took almost 60 years of wars for the Spaniards to suppress the Indian population of Mesoamerica. After the Spanish conquest of central Mexico, expeditions were sent further northward in Mesoamerica, to the region known as La Gran Chichimeca. The expeditions under Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán were particularly harsh on the Chichimeca population, causing them to rebel under the leadership of Tenamaxtli and thus launch the Mixton War.

In 1540, the Chichimecas fortified Mixtón, Nochistlán, and other mountain towns then besieged the Spanish settlement in Guadalajara. The famous conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, coming to the aid of acting governor Cristóbal de Oñate, led an attack on Nochistlán. However, the Chichimecas counter-attacked and Alvarado's forces were routed. Under the leadership of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, the Spanish forces and their Indian allies ultimately succeeded in recapturing the towns and suppressing resistance.

In 1546, Spanish authorities discovered silver in the Zacatecas region and established mining settlements in that territory. The Chichimeca resisted the intrusions on their ancestral lands by attacking travelers and merchants along the "silver roads." The ensuing Chichimeca War (1550-1590) would become the longest and costliest conflict between Spanish forces and indigenous peoples in the Americas. The attacks intensified with each passing year. In 1554, the Chichimecas inflicted a great loss upon the Spanish when they attacked a train of sixty wagons and caputed more than 30,000 pesos worth of valuables. By the 1580s, thousands had died and Spanish mining settlements in Chichimeca territory were continually under threat. In 1585, Alonso Manrique de Zuñiga, was appointed viceroy. The viceroy was infuriated when he learned that some Spanish soldiers had begun raiding and enslaving peaceful Indians. He was determined to restore peace to that region and launched a full-scale peace offensive by negotiating with Chichimeca leaders and providing them with lands, agricultural supplies, and other goods. This policy of "peace by purchase" finally brought an end to the Chichimeca War.[14]

The Spanish conquest of Yucatán took almost 170 years. The whole process could have taken longer were it not for three separate epidemics that took a heavy toll on the Native Americans, killing almost 75% of the population and causing the collapse of Mesoamerican cultures. Some believe that Old World diseases like smallpox caused the death of 90 to 95 percent of the native population of the New World.[15]

The Aztec empire under Spanish rule

It seems that Cortés' intention was to maintain the basic structure of the Aztec empire under his leadership, and at first it seemed the Aztec empire could survive. The upper Aztec classes, at first, were considered as noblemen (to this day, the title of Duke of Moctezuma is held by a Spanish noble family). The upper classes learned Spanish, and several learned to write in European characters. Some of their surviving writings are crucial in our knowledge of the Aztecs. Also, the first missionaries tried to learn Nahuatl and some, like Bernardino de Sahagún, decided to learn as much as they could of the Aztec culture. Cortes banned all human sacrifice in Mesoamerica.[16]

But soon all that changed. To pay off the Spanish army that captured what is now contemporary Mexico, the soldiers and officers were granted large areas of land and the natives who lived on them as a type of feudalism. Although officially they could not become slaves, the system, known as encomienda, became a system of oppression and exploitation of natives, although its originators may not have set out with such intent.

In short order, the upper echelons of patrons and priests in the society lived off the work of the lower classes. Due to some horrifying instances of abuse against the indigenous peoples, Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas suggested importing black slaves to replace them. Bartolomé later repented when he saw the even worse treatment given to the black slaves.[17]

The other discovery that perpetuated this system was extensive silver mines discovered at Potosi, in Peru and other places that were worked for hundreds of years by forced native labor and contributed most of the wealth that flowed to Spain. Spain spent enormous amounts of this wealth hiring mercenaries to fight the Protestant Reformation and to halt the Turkish invasions of Europe. The silver was used to purchase goods, as European manufactured goods were not in demand in Asia and the Middle East. The Manila Galleon brought in far more silver direct from South American mines to China than the overland Silk Road, or even European trade routes in the Indian oceans could.

The Aztec education system was abolished and replaced by a very limited church education. Even some foods associated with Mesoamerican religious practice, such as amaranto, were forbidden.

Eventually, the Indians were not only forbidden to learn of their cultures, but also were forbidden to learn to read and write in Spanish. In some areas, some of the natives were declared minors, and forbidden to learn to read and write, so they would always need a Spanish man in charge of them to be responsible of their indoctrination.

In the 16th century, perhaps 240,000 Spaniards entered American ports. They were joined by 450,000 in the next century.[18] Unlike the English-speaking colonists of North America, the majority of the Spanish colonists were single men who married or made concubines of the natives, and were even encouraged to do so by Queen Isabella during the earliest days of colonization. As a result of these unions, as well as concubinage and secret mistresses, a vast class of people known as "Mestizos" and mulattos came into being.

See also


  1. ^ Leon-Portilla, Miguel(ed.). The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966. Pp. 4-6.
  2. ^ Schwartz, Stuart B., ed. Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston: Bedford, 2000.
  3. ^ Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the fall of Old Mexico p. 141
  4. ^ Guerrero is reported to have responded, "Brother Aguilar, I am married and have three children, and they look on me as a Cacique here, and a captain in time of war […] But my face is tattooed and my ears are pierced. What would the Spaniards say if they saw me like this? And look how handsome these children of mine are!" (p.60).
  5. ^ Later in the voyage a young woman, La Malinche, would be given to Cortés as a slave by the Chontal Maya inhabitants of the Tabasco coast. La Malinche spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and a regional lingua franca, as well as Chontal Maya, which was also understood by Aguilar. Cortés would be able to use the two of them to communicate with the central Mexican peoples and the Aztec court. See See The Conquest of New Spain, pp.85–87.
  6. ^ See: Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York, 2003.
  7. ^ Cortés Burns His Boats
  8. ^ Hugh Tomas, The conquest of Mexico, 1994.
  9. ^ Empires Past: Aztecs: Conquest
  10. ^ Informantes de Sahagún: Códice Florentino, lib. XII, cap. X.; Spanish version by Angel Ma. Garibay K.
  11. ^ Anonymous informants of Sahagún, Florentine codex, book XII, chapter XVI, translation from Nahuatl by Angel Ma. Garibay.
  12. ^ Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva Espana, capitulo CLII
  13. ^ Sahagun, Anonymous informants of Tlatelolco 1521
  14. ^
  15. ^ The Story Of... Smallpox – and other Deadly Eurasian Germs
  16. ^ Spanish/Cortez's Response to Sacrifice
  17. ^ Blackburn 1997: 136; Friede 1971: 165–166
  18. ^ Axtell, James (September/October 1991), "The Columbian Mosaic in Colonial America", Humanities 12 (5): 12–18,, retrieved 8 October 2008 


Blackburn, Robin (1997). The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (1st Verso pbk [1998 printing] ed.). London: Verso Books. ISBN 1-85984-195-3. OCLC 40130171. 
Friede, Juan (1971). "Las Casas and Indigenism in the Sixteenth Century". in Juan Friede and Benjamin Keen (eds.). Bartolomé de las Casas in History: Toward an Understanding of the Man and his Work. Collection spéciale: CER. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. pp. 127–234. ISBN 0-87580-025-4. OCLC 421424974. 

Primary sources

  • Anonymous Conqueror, the (1917) [1550]. Narrative of Some Things of New Spain and of the Great City of Temestitan. Marshall Saville (trans). New York: The Cortés Society. 
  • Hernán Cortés, Letters – available as Letters from Mexico translated by Anthony Pagden (1986) ISBN 0-300-09094-3
  • Francisco López de Gómara, Hispania Victrix; First and Second Parts of the General History of the Indies, with the whole discovery and notable things that have happened since they were acquired until the year 1551, with the conquest of Mexico and New Spain
  • Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain – available as The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico: 1517-1521 ISBN 0-306-81319-X
  • León-Portilla, Miguel (Ed.) (1992) [1959]. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Ángel María Garibay K. (Nahuatl-Spanish trans.), Lysander Kemp (Spanish-English trans.), Alberto Beltran (illus.) (Expanded and updated edition ed.). Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-5501-8. 

Secondary sources

  • History of the Conquest of Mexico, with a Preliminary View of Ancient Mexican Civilization, and the Life of the Conqueror, Hernando Cortes By William H. Prescott [4]
  • Conquest: Cortés, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas (1993) ISBN 0-671-51104-1
  • Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire by Jon Manchip White (1971) ISBN 0-7867-0271-0
  • History of the Conquest of Mexico. by William H. Prescott ISBN 0-375-75803-8
  • The Rain God cries over Mexico by László Passuth
  • Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest by Matthew Restall, Oxford University Press (2003) ISBN 0-19-516077-0
  • The Conquest of America by Tzvetan Todorov (1996) ISBN 0-06-132095-1
  • Time, History, and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico by Ross Hassig, Texas University Press (2001) ISBN 0-292-73139-6
  • The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society by Frances F. Berdan, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, (1982) ISBN 0-03-055736-4

External links

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