How Did Hernan Cortes Conquer Tenochtitlan?

How Did Hernan Cortes Conquer Tenochtitlan?

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An illustration of the meeting of Cortes and Moctezuma at Tenochtitlan. Image credit: Public Domain.

On 8 November 1519, Spanish explorer Hernán Cortes reached Tenochtitlan – capital of the Aztec Empire. It would prove to be an era-defining moment, signalling the beginning of the end for the American continent’s great civilisations, and the start of a new and terrible age.

Starting afresh in the New World

Like many men who set off to explore distant lands, Cortes was not a success back at home. Born in 1485 in Medellín, the young Spaniard was a disappointment to his family after quitting school early and allegedly badly injuring himself whilst escaping out of the window of a married woman.

Fernando Cervantes joined me on the podcast to reframe the story of the Spanish conquest of the New World, set against the political and intellectual landscape from which its main actors emerged.

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Bored of his small-town life and distant family, he left for the New World in 1504 aged just just 18, and settled in the newly created colony of Santo Domingo (now in the Dominican Republic.) Over the next few years, he caught the eye of his colonial masters as he took part in expeditions to conquer Hispaniola (Haiti) and Cuba.

With Cuba newly conquered by 1511, the young adventurer was rewarded with a high political position on the island. In typical fashion, relations between him and the Cuban governor Velazquez began to sour over Cortes’ arrogance, as well as his rakish pursuit of the governor’s sister-in-law.

Eventually, Cortes decided to marry her, thus securing the good will of his master, and creating a newly wealthy platform for some adventures of his own.

Into the unknown

By 1518, many of the Caribbean islands had been discovered and colonised by Spanish settlers, but the great uncharted mainland of the Americas remained a mystery. That year Velazquez gave Cortes permission to explore the interior, and though he quickly revoked this decision after another squabble, the younger man decided to go anyway.

In February 1519 he left, taking 500 men, 13 horses and a handful of cannon with him. Upon reaching the Yucatan peninsula, he scuttled his ships. With his name now blackened by the vengeful governor of Cuba, there would be no going back.

From then on Cortes marched inland, winning skirmishes with natives, from whom he captured a number of young women. One of them would one day father his child, and they told him of a great inland Empire stuffed with staggering riches. In what is now Veracruz, he met with an emissary of this nation, and demanded a meeting with the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma.

Tenochtitlan – the island city

After the emissaries haughtily refused him many times, he began to march onto the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan – refusing to take no for an answer. On the way there he met with other tribes under the yoke of Moctezuma’s rule, and these warriors quickly swelled the Spanish ranks as the summer of 1519 went slowly by.

Finally, on 8 November, this ragtag army arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlan, an island city said to have been astonishingly rich and beautiful. Seeing this host at the gates of his capital, Moctezuma decided to receive the strange newcomers peacefully, and he met with the foreign adventurer – who was basking in the local belief that this strange armoured man was actually the serpent God Quetzalcoatl.

The meeting with the Emperor was cordial, and Cortes was given large amounts of gold – which was not seen to be as valuable to the Aztecs. Unfortunately for Moctezuma, after coming all this way the Spaniard was fired up rather than placated by this show of generosity.

In November 1519, Hernando Cortés approached the capital of the Aztec kingdom and came face to face with its ruler, Moctezuma. The story which follows has been told countless times following a Spanish narrative. A key part of the story has been overlooked - until now. After being taught the Roman alphabet, the Native Americans used it to write detailed histories in their own language of Nahuatl. Camilla Townsend is a Professor of History at Rutgers University. For the first time, she has given these sources proper attention, providing a fresh take on our understanding of native Mexicans. She showed me how Moctezuma and his people were not just the exotic, bloody figures of European stereotypes and how the Mexica people did not simply capitulate to Spanish culture and colonization but realigned political allegiances, held new obligations and adopted unfamiliar technologies.

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Cortes’ bloody road to power

While in the city he learned that some of his men left by the coast had been killed by locals, and used this as a pretext to suddenly seize the Emperor in his own palace and declare him to be a hostage. With this powerful pawn in his hands, Cortes then effectively ruled the city and its Empire for the next few months with little opposition.

This relative calm did not last long. Velazquez had not given up on finding his old enemy and dispatched a force which arrived in Mexico in April 1520. Despite being outnumbered, Cortes rode out of Tenochtitlan to meet them and incorporated the survivors into his own men after winning the ensuing battle.

In a vengeful mood, he then marched back to Tenochtitlan – in his absence, his second-in-command, Alvarado, had ordered the killing of hundreds of Aztec people after they attempted to perform a ritual human sacrifice as part of their celebrations for the festival of Toxcatl. Shortly after Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma was killed. Despite claiming that it had happened in an uncontrollable riot, historians have suspected foul play ever since.

As the situation in the city escalated terribly, Cortes had to flee for his life with a few of his men on what is now known as La Noche Triste: in his confidence, he had underestimated the Aztecs, failed to understand their tactics and overestimated the ability of his own troops. He lost 870 men, a significant percentage of the Spanish forces in Mexico, as a result.

After forming alliances with local rivals, Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan and besieged the city, almost razing it to the ground, and claiming it for Spain under the name of Mexico City. With no one to tell him otherwise, he then ruled as the self-styled governor of all Mexico from 1521-1524.

Cortes’ legacy

In the end, Cortes got what he probably deserved. His demanding of recognition and wilful arrogance gradually alienated the King of Spain, and when the ageing explorer returned to the Royal court he met with a chilly reception.

Cortes retired back to Mexico, where he spent time on his extensive states, as well as engaging in some Pacific exploration: he is credited with the Western ‘discovery’ of the Baja California peninsula.

He eventually died, embittered, in 1547, having left behind a legacy of European empire-building in the Americas, and wiped a powerful civilisation off the face of the earth.

Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire

The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, also known as the Conquest of Mexico or the Spanish-Aztec War (1519–21), [7] was one of the primary events in the Spanish colonization of the Americas. There are multiple 16th-century narratives of the events by Spanish conquistadors, their indigenous allies, and the defeated Aztecs. It was not solely a contest between a small contingent of Spaniards defeating the Aztec Empire but rather the creation of a coalition of Spanish invaders with tributaries to the Aztecs, and most especially the Aztecs' indigenous enemies and rivals. They combined forces to defeat the Mexica of Tenochtitlan over a two-year period. For the Spanish, the expedition to Mexico was part of a project of Spanish colonization of the New World after twenty-five years of permanent Spanish settlement and further exploration in the Caribbean.

Support or occasional allies b :

Independent kingdoms and city-states:

200,000 Aztecs dead (including civilians) [4]

Following an earlier expedition to Yucatán led by Juan de Grijalva in 1518, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés led an expedition (entrada) to Mexico. Two years later, in 1519, Cortés and his retinue set sail for Mexico. [8] The Spanish campaign against the Aztec Empire had its final victory on 13 August 1521, when a coalition army of Spanish forces and native Tlaxcalan warriors led by Cortés and Xicotencatl the Younger captured the emperor Cuauhtémoc and Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. The fall of Tenochtitlan marks the beginning of Spanish rule in central Mexico, and they established their capital of Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan.

Cortés made alliances with tributary city-states (altepetl) of the Aztec Empire as well as their political rivals, particularly the Tlaxcaltecs and Tetzcocans, a former partner in the Aztec Triple Alliance. Other city-states also joined, including Cempoala and Huejotzingo and polities bordering Lake Texcoco, the inland lake system of the Valley of Mexico. Particularly important to the Spanish success was a multilingual (Nahuatl, a Maya dialect, and Spanish) indigenous slave woman, known to the Spanish conquistadors as Doña Marina, and generally as La Malinche. After eight months of battles and negotiations, which overcame the diplomatic resistance of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II to his visit, Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan on 8 November 1519, where he took up residence with fellow Spaniards and their indigenous allies. When news reached Cortés of the death of several of his men during the Aztec attack on the Totonacs in Veracruz, Cortés claims that he took Motecuhzoma captive. Capturing the cacique or indigenous ruler was a standard operating procedure for Spaniards in their expansion in the Caribbean, so capturing Motecuhzoma had considerable precedent but modern scholars are skeptical that Cortés and his countrymen took Motecuhzoma captive at this time. They had great incentive to claim they did, owing to the laws of Spain at this time, but critical analysis of their personal writings suggest Motecuhzoma was not taken captive until a much later date. [9]

When Cortés left Tenochtitlan to return to the coast and deal with the threat of the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez, Cortés left Pedro de Alvarado in charge of Tenochtitlan. Cortés left with a small army to the coast with the plan of attacking during the night. After defeating Narváez's fleet, Cortés convinced most of his enemy's crew to go with him by promising great riches. Upon reaching Tenochtitlan, Cortés and the new enlarged force received the message that "the Aztec had risen against the Spanish garrison" during a religious celebration. [10] Alvarado ordered his army to attack the unarmed crowd he later claims that the Aztec's had used the celebration to cover up a counterattack. Cortés realized that the defeat was imminent and decided to escape yet, the Aztecs attacked. The Massacre is most known as the Noche Triste (the sorrowful night) about "400 Spaniards, 4000 native allies and many horses [were killed] before reaching the mainland". [10] Moctezuma was killed, although the sources do not agree on who killed him. [11] According to one account, when Moctezuma, now seen by the population as a mere puppet of the invading Spaniards, attempted to calm the outraged populace, he was killed by a projectile. [12] According to an indigenous account, the Spanish killed Moctezuma. [13] Cortés had returned to Tenochtitlan and his men fled the capital city during the Noche Triste in June 1520. The Spanish, Tlaxcalans and reinforcements returned a year later on 13 August 1521 to a civilization that had been weakened by famine and smallpox. This made it easier to conquer the remaining Aztecs. [14] The Spaniards' victory is attributed to their technological advances and the Aztec empire's vulnerability due to the smallpox spread. As a result, the Aztec's tactics countering the Spaniard's advanced technology is understated. According to Hassig, "It is true that cannons, guns, crossbows, steel blades, horses and war dogs were advanced on the Aztecs' weaponry. But the advantage these gave a few hundred Spanish soldiers was not overwhelming." [15] In the words of Restall, "Spanish weapons were useful for breaking the offensive lines of waves of indigenous warriors, but this was no formula for conquest. rather, it was a formula for survival, until Spanish and indigenous reinforcements arrived." [7]

The integration of the indigenous allies, essentially, those from Tlaxcala and Texcoco, into the Spanish army played a crucial role in the conquest, yet other factors paved the path for the Spaniards' success. For instance, the Spaniards' timing of entry, the compelling ideologies of both groups, and the Spanish unfamiliarity with the Aztec Empire. Therefore, the Spaniards lacked a sense of danger and power structure within the empire. "A direct attack on a city as mighty as Tenochtitlan was unlikely and unexpected" from the enemy empires. As well, it was very uncommon that an attacking army would come unannounced. [15] In addition, aside from the infantry and the allies' role in the Spanish conquest, cavalry was the "arm of decision in the conquest" and "the key ingredient in the Spanish forces". [16]

Many of those on the Cortés expedition of 1519 had never seen combat before, including Cortés. A whole generation of Spaniards later participated in expeditions in the Caribbean and Tierra Firme (Central America), learning strategy and tactics of successful enterprises. The Spanish conquest of Mexico had antecedents with established practices. [17]

The fall of the Aztec Empire was the key event in the formation of the Spanish Empire overseas, with New Spain, which later became Mexico.

1. His Expedition to Mexico was not approved by the Governor of Cuba

Before he went on his first expedition in 1519, Hernan Cortes served as a magistrate under the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velazques. When he was elected as a captain of the future expedition, it became clear that his intentions were different than the governor’s plans.

The original purpose of the expedition was to meet the local natives and arrange terms for trade. However, Cortes had the intention to conquer which is why Velazques canceled the expedition in the last moment.

Cortes did not follow the orders and set sail with his fleet of 11 ships.

Later Years and Death

Despite his decisive victory over the Aztecs, Cortés faced numerous challenges to his authority and position, both from Spain and his rivals in the New World. He traveled to Honduras in 1524 to stop a rebellion against him in the area. 

In 1536, Cortés led an expedition to the northwestern part of Mexico, in the process exploringꂺja California and Mexico&aposs Pacific coast. This was to be his last major expedition.

Back in the capital city, Cortés found himself unceremoniously removed from power. He traveled to Spain to plead his case to the king, but he was not reappointed to his governorship.

In 1541, Cortés retired to Spain. He spent much of his later years desperately seeking recognition for his achievements and support from the Spanish royal court. Wealthy but embittered from his lack of support and acclaim,਌ortés਍ied in Spain in 1547.

Hernán Cortés: Master of the Conquest

On Aug. 13, 1521, Cortés and his reinforced army swarmed across the causeways of Tenochtitlan to complete the conquest he had begun less than three years earlier.

Lebrecht Music & Arts Photo Library/Alamy Stock Photo

On Aug. 13, 1521, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés received the surrender of Cuauhtémoc, ruler of the Aztec people. The astonishing handover occurred amid the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the shattered capital of a mighty empire whose influence had stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and extended from central Mexico south into parts of what would become Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. After an 80-day siege Cortés had come to a terrible resolution: He ordered the city razed. House by house, street by street, building by building, his men pulled down Tenochtitlan’s walls and smashed them into rubble. Envoys from every tribe in the former empire later came to gaze on the wrecked remains of the city that had held them in subjection and fear for so long.

But how had Cortés accomplished his conquest? Less than three years had passed since he set foot on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, yet he had destroyed the greatest power in Mesoamerica with a relative handful of men. His initial force comprised 11 ships, 110 sailors, 553 soldiers—including 32 crossbowmen and 13 bearing harquebuses (early firearms)—10 heavy guns, four falconets and 16 horses. The force size ebbed and flowed, but he never commanded more than the 1,300 Spaniards he had with him at the start of the final assault.

On its face such a victory would suggest Cortés was a commander of tremendous ability. Yet scholars of the period have long underrated his generalship, instead attributing his success to three distinct factors. First was the relative superiority of Spanish military technology. Second is the notion smallpox had so severely reduced the Aztecs that they were unable mount an effective resistance. And third is the belief Cortés’ Mesoamerican allies were largely to credit for his triumph.

That the Spaniards enjoyed distinct technological, tactical and cultural advantages over their Mesoamerican foes doesn’t mean Cortés’ victories came easy

The conquistadors’ military technology was unquestionably superior to that of every tribe they encountered. The warriors’ weapons and armor were made of wood, stone and hide, while those of the Spaniards were wrought of iron and steel. Atlatls, slings and simple bows—their missiles tipped with obsidian, flint or fish bone—could not match the power or range of the crossbow. Clubs and macuahuitls—fearsome wooden swords embedded with flakes of obsidian—were far outclassed by long pikes and swords of Toledo steel, which easily pierced warriors’ crude armor of cotton, fabric and feathers. And, finally, the Spaniards’ gunpowder weapons—small cannon and early shoulder-fired weapons like the harquebus—wreaked havoc among the Mesoamericans, who possessed no similar technology.

The Spaniards also benefitted from their use of the horse, which was unknown to Mesoamericans. Though the conquistadors had few mounts at their disposal, tribal foot soldiers simply could not match the speed, mobility or shock effect of the Spanish cavalry, nor were their weapons suited to repelling horsemen.

When pitted against European military science and practice, the Mesoamerican way of war also suffered from undeniable weaknesses. While the tribes put great emphasis on order in battle—they organized their forces into companies, each under its own chieftain and banner, and understood the value of orderly advances and withdrawals—their tactics were relatively unsophisticated. They employed such maneuvers as feigned retreats, ambushes and ambuscades but failed to grasp the importance of concentrating forces against a single point of the enemy line or of supporting and relieving forward assault units. Such deficiencies allowed the conquistadors to triumph even when outnumbered by as much as 100-to-1.

Deeply ingrained aspects of their culture also hampered the Aztecs. Social status was partly dependent on skill in battle, which was measured not by the number of enemies killed, but by the number captured for sacrifice to the gods. Thus warriors did not fight with the intention of killing their enemies outright, but of wounding or stunning them so they could be bound and passed back through the ranks. More than one Spaniard, downed and struggling, owed his life to this practice, which enabled his fellows to rescue him. Further, the Mesoamerican forces were unprepared for lengthy campaigns, as their dependence on levies of agricultural workers placed limits on their ability to mobilize and sustain sufficient forces. They could not wage war effectively during the planting and harvest seasons, nor did they undertake campaigns in the May–September rainy season. Night actions were also unusual. The conquistadors, on the other hand, were trained to kill their enemies on the field of battle and were ready to fight year-round, day or night, in whatever conditions until they achieved victory.

That the Spaniards enjoyed distinct technological, tactical and cultural advantages over their Mesoamerican foes does not mean Cortés’ victories came easy. He engaged hundreds of thousands of determined enemies on their home ground with only fitful opportunities for reinforcement and resupply. Two telltale facts indicate that his success against New World opponents was as much the result of solid leadership as of technological superiority. First, despite his sparse resources, Cortés was as successful against Europeans who possessed the same technology as he was against Mesoamerican forces. Second, Cortés showed he could prevail against the Aztecs even when fighting at a distinct disadvantage.

Cortés proclaimed his victories in letters to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and included this detailed map of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. (Le

In April 1520, as the position of the conquistadors in Tenochtitlan became increasingly precarious, then Aztec ruler Montezuma II—whom the Spaniards had held hostage since the previous November—was informed Cortés’ ships had arrived at Cempoala on the Gulf Coast bearing the Spaniard’s countrymen, and he encouraged the conquistador to depart without delay. While Cortés’ troops were elated at what they assumed was impending deliverance, the commander himself rightly suspected the new arrivals were not allies. They had been sent by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, governor of Cuba, whose orders Cortés had disobeyed in 1519 to launch his expedition, and their purpose was to punish rather than reinforce.

Reports from the coast indicated the fleet comprised 18 ships bearing some 900 soldiers—including 80 cavalrymen, 80 harquebusiers and 150 crossbowmen—all well provisioned and supported by heavy guns. The captain-general of the armada was Pánfilo de Narváez, a confidant of Velázquez, who made no secret of his intention to seize Cortés and imprison him for his rebellion against the governor’s authority.

Cortés could not afford to hesitate and thus allow Narváez time to gather strength and allies. Yet to march out of Tenochtitlan to engage the new arrivals also presented significant risks. If Cortés took his entire force, he would have to abandon the Aztec capital. Montezuma II would reassume the throne, and resistance would no doubt congeal and stiffen, making re-entry a matter of blood and battle, in contrast to the tentative welcome he had initially received. But to leave behind a garrison would further reduce the size of the already outnumbered force he would lead against Narváez. With the swift decision of the bold, a factor indeterminable by numerical calculation, the Spanish commander chose the latter course.

Cortés marched out with only 70 lightly armed soldiers, leaving his second-in-command, Pedro de Alvarado, to hold Tenochtitlan with two-thirds of the Spanish force, including all of the artillery, the bulk of the cavalry and most of the harquebusiers. Having done all he could to gain an edge over Narváez by feeding his couriers misinformation and undermining the loyalty of his officers with forwarded bribes of gold, Cortés marched with all speed. He crossed the mountains to Cholula, where he mustered 120 reinforcements, then marched through Tlaxcala and down to the coast at Veracruz, picking up another 60 men. Though still outnumbered more than 3-to-1, Cortés brought all his craft, daring and energy to bear and, in a rapid assault amid heavy rain on the night of May 27, overwhelmed his foes. Narváez himself was captured, while most of his men, enticed by stories of Aztec riches, readily threw in their lot with Cortés. Soon after his surprise defeat of Narváez, the bold conquistador proved himself equally capable of defeating Mesoamerican forces that held a numerical advantage.

The bold conquistador proved himself equally capable of defeating Mesoamerican forces that held a numerical advantage

On his return to Tenochtitlan, Cortés discovered Alvarado had indulged in an unprovoked massacre of the Aztecs, stirring the previously docile populace to murderous fury. The Spaniards quickly found themselves trapped and besieged in the capital, and hard fighting in the streets failed to subdue the enemy. Not even Montezuma could soothe his people, who met their emperor’s appeal for peace with a shower of stones that mortally wounded him. With the Spanish force growing short of food and water, and losing more men by the day, Cortés decided to withdraw from the city on the night of June 30–July 1. After a brutal running fight along a causeway leading to shore, the column was reduced to a tattered remnant, leaving Cortés with no more than one-fifth of the force he had originally led into Tenochtitlan. The overnight battle—the worst military disaster the conquistadors had suffered in the New World—would go down in Spanish history as La Noche Triste (“The Night of Sorrows”).

The debacle left Cortés with few materiel advantages. Only half of his horses survived, and the column had lost all of its powder, ammunition and artillery and most of its crossbows and harquebuses during the retreat. Yet the Spanish commander managed to hold together his flagging force. Skirting north to avoid a cluster of hostile villages, he headed toward Tlaxcala, home city of his Mesoamerican allies.

Over the days that followed Aztec skirmishers shadowed Cortés’ retreating column, and as the Spaniards neared the Tlaxcalan frontier, the skirmishers joined forces with warriors from Tenochtitlan and assembled on the plain of Otumba, between the conquistadors and their refuge. The trap thus set, on July 7 the numerically superior Aztecs and beleaguered Spaniards met in a battle that should easily have gone in the Mesoamericans’ favor. Again, however, Cortés turned the tables by skillfully using his remaining cavalry to break up the enemy formations. Then, in a daring stroke, he personally led a determined cavalry charge that targeted the enemy commander, killing him and capturing his colors. Seeing their leader slain, the Aztecs gradually fell back, ultimately enabling the conquistadors to push their way through. Though exhausted, starving and ill, they were soon among allies and safe from assault.

One long-standing school of thought on the Spanish conquest attributes Cortés’ success to epidemiological whim—namely that European-introduced smallpox had so ravaged the Aztecs that they were incapable of mounting a coherent defense. In fact, Cortés had defeated many enemies and advanced to the heart of the empire well before the disease made its effects felt. Smallpox arrived in Cempoala in 1520, carried by an African slave accompanying the Narváez expedition. By then Cortés had already defeated an army at Pontonchan won battles against the fierce, well-organized armies of Tlaxcala entered the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan and taken its ruler hostage.

Smallpox had ravaged the populations of Hispaniola and Cuba and indeed had equally disastrous effects on the mainland, killing an estimated 20 to 40 percent of the population of central Mexico. But as horrific as the pandemic was, it is by no means clear that smallpox mortality was a decisive factor in the fall of Tenochtitlan or the final Spanish victory. The disease likely reached Tenochtitlan when Cortés returned from the coast in June 1520, and by September it had killed perhaps half of the city’s 200,000 residents, including Montezuma’s successor, Cuitláhuac. By the time Cortés returned in the spring of 1521 for the final assault, however, the city had been largely free of the disease for six months. The conquistadors mention smallpox but not as a decisive factor in the struggle. Certainly they saw no perceptible drop in ferocity or numbers among the resistance.

On the subject of numbers, some scholars have suggested the conquest was largely the work of the Spaniards’ numerous Mesoamerican allies. Soon after arriving in the New World, Cortés had learned from the coastal Totonac people that the Aztec empire was not a monolithic dominion, that there existed fractures of discontent the conquistadors might exploit. For nearly a century Mesoamericans had labored under the yoke of Aztec servitude, their overlords having imposed grievous taxes and tributary demands, including a bloody harvest of sacrificial victims. Even cities within the Valley of Mexico, the heart of the empire, were simmering cauldrons of potential revolt. They awaited only opportunity, and the arrival of the Spaniards provided it. Tens of thousands of Totonacs, Tlaxcalans and others aided the conquest by supplying the Spaniards with food and serving as warriors, porters and laborers. Certainly their services sped the pace of the conquest. But one cannot credit them with its ultimate success. After all, had the restive tribes had the will and ability to overthrow the Aztecs on their own, they would have done so long before Cortés arrived and would likely have destroyed the Spaniards in turn.

For his overthrow of the Aztec empire Hernán Cortés earned royal appointment as governor of the conquered territory, dubbed New Spain. (AKG-Images)

To truly assess the Spanish victory over the Aztecs, one must also consider the internal issues Cortés faced—logistical challenges, the interference of hostile superiors, factional divides within his command and mutiny.

Cortés established coastal Veracruz as his base of operations in Mexico and primary communications link to the Spanish empire. But the tiny settlement and its fort could not provide him with additional troops, horses, firearms or ammunition. As Cortés’ lean command suffered casualties and consumed its slender resources, it required reinforcement and resupply, but the Spanish commander’s strained relations with the governor of Cuba ensured such vital support was not forthcoming. Fortunately for himself and the men of his command, Cortés seems to have possessed a special genius for conjuring success out of the very adversities that afflicted him.

After defeating the Narváez expedition, Cortés integrated his would-be avenger’s force with his own, gaining men, arms and equipment. When the Spaniards lay exhausted in Tlaxcala after La Noche Triste, still more resources presented themselves. Velázquez, thinking Narváez must have things well in hand, with Cortés either in chains or dead, had dispatched two ships to Veracruz with reinforcements and further instructions both were seized on arrival, their crews soon persuaded to join Cortés. Around the same time two more Spanish vessels appeared off the coast, sent by the governor of Jamaica to supply an expedition on the Pánuco River. What the ships’ captains didn’t know is that the party had suffered badly and its members had already joined forces with Cortés. On landing, their men too were persuaded to join the conquest. Thus Cortés acquired 150 more men, 20 horses and stores of arms and ammunition. Finally, a Spanish merchant vessel loaded with military stores put in at Veracruz, its captain having heard he might find a ready market for his goods. He was not mistaken. Cortés bought both ship and cargo, then induced its adventurous crew to join his expedition. Such reinforcement was more than enough to restore the audacity of the daring conquistador, and he began to lay plans for the siege and recovery of Tenochtitlan.

While the ever-resourceful Cortés had turned these occasions to his advantage, several episodes pointed to an underlying difficulty that had cast its shadow over the expedition from the moment of its abrupt departure from Cuba—Velázquez’s seemingly unquenchable hostility and determination to interfere. Having taken leave of the governor on less than cordial terms, Cortés was perhaps tempting fate by including of a number of the functionary’s friends and partisans in the expedition. He was aware of their divided loyalties, if not overtly concerned. Some had expressed their personal loyalty to Cortés, while others saw him as their best opportunity for enrichment. But from the outset of the campaign still other members of the Velázquez faction had voiced open opposition, insisting they be permitted to return to Cuba, where they would undoubtedly report to the governor. Cortés had cemented his authority among the rebels through a judicious mixture of force and persuasion.

But the problem arose again with the addition of Narváez’s forces to the mix. While headquartered in Texcoco as his men made siege preparations along the lakeshore surrounding Tenochtitlan, Cortés uncovered an assassination plot hatched by Antonio de Villafaña, a personal friend of Velázquez. The plan was to stab the conquistador to death while he dined with his captains. Though Cortés had the names of a number of co-conspirators, he put only the ringleader on trial. Sentenced to death, Villafaña was promptly hanged from a window for all to see. Greatly relieved at having cheated death, the surviving conspirators went out of their way to demonstrate loyalty. Thus Cortés quelled the mutiny.

Whatever advantages the Spaniards enjoyed, victory would have been impossible without his extraordinary leadership

But hostility toward the conquistador and his “unlawful” expedition also brewed back home in the court of Spanish King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In Cortés’ absence his adversaries tried every means to undermine him, threatening his status as an agent of the crown and seeking to deny him the just fruits of his labors. The commander was forced to spend precious time, energy and resources fighting his diplomatic battle from afar. Even after successfully completing the conquest, Cortés received no quarter from his enemies, who accused him of both defrauding the crown of its rightful revenues and fomenting rebellion. On Dec. 2, 1547, the 62-year-old former conquistador died a wealthy but embittered man in Spain. At his request his remains were returned to Mexico.

Setting aside long-held preconceptions about the ease of the conquest of Mexico—which do disservice to both the Spanish commander and those he conquered—scholars of the period should rightfully add Cortés to the ranks of the great captains of war. For whatever advantages the Spaniards enjoyed, victory would have been impossible without his extraordinary leadership. As master of the conquest, Cortés demonstrated fixity of purpose, skilled diplomacy, talent for solving logistical problems, far-sighted planning, heroic battlefield command, tactical flexibility, iron determination and, above all, astounding audacity. MH

Justin D. Lyons is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Ohio’s Ashland University. For further reading he recommends Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control, by Ross Hassig The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519–1521, by Charles M. Robinson III and Conquest: Cortés, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico, by Hugh Thomas.

Later Life and Death

Although his governorship position had been taken away from him, Cortés still wielded some amount of power in Mexico. For example he was still able to embark on a number of minor expeditions. In one such expedition, he discovered Baja California Peninsula in 1536.

With his civil authority stripped from him, Cortés’s influence in the New World waned. In 1541, he went back to Spain to attend to some problems concerning his estates.

Hernán Cortés spent a fortune during his expeditions in the Americas and conquest of Mexico. He tried desperately to get back most of the money he spent from the Spanish Crown, but to no avail.

He spent his later years not as wealthy as he used to be when he was the governor of Mexico. Feeling neglected in Spain, he decided to give Mexico a shot again. However, he was struck down with dysentery in the course of his preparations. On December 2, 1547, the famous Spanish conqueror of Mexico died in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Seville Province. He was 62.

Before he was eventually buried at Hospital de Jesus in Mexico City, his body was moved about eight times.

Spanish Conquest Of The Aztec Empire

The fall of the Aztec City of Tenochtitlan to the Spanish led by Conquistador Hernan Cortes marked the end of an era as the Old and New Worlds collided with catastrophic results for the New World which would be decimated by War, famine and disease.

On his arrival, Hernan Cortes was accompanied by a force of 530 Armed Europeans and a few hundred Cuban natives and African slaves.

The land was ruled by Aztec King Moctezuma who had been the Aztec Emperor since 1502.

Under his rule, the Aztec Empire had reached its greatest heights with its borders reaching their greatest extent since the inception of the Empire.

At first, the reports of strange encounters on the Coast with pale skinned men did not bother Moctuzema because the Aztec Empire was already advanced in Trade with many foreigners already present and conducting trade at the great market of Tlatelolco.

Over the next few days Moctezuma’s diplomats were dispatched bearing Golden gifts for Cortes and the Conquistadors, constructing sleeping quarters and providing servants.

Moctezuma was uncertain as to how to treat the Foreigners, and the explanation for the hospitality extended to Hernan Cortes and the Conquistadors may lie in an Ancient Aztec Prophecy of the Pale Skinned Aztec God Viracocha or Quetzalcoatl of Ancient Mesoamerica who had been Prophesied to return around the same time as Cortes had arrived in Moctezuma’s lands

It was decided to treat the strange new Visitors as the returned God Viracocha until Moctezuma could be sure about their intentions.

Meanwhile, Cortés found out that Moctezuma had huge quantities of stored Gold, and began discussions with other disgruntled local vassal Chiefs unhappily paying Tribute to Moctezuma.

An alliance was forged bewteen Hernan Cortes and these disaffected Chieftains who agreed to assist the Spanish in their march on Tenochtitlan.

The initially friendly relationships between the Aztecs and the Spaniards soon soured as the Spaniards now inside Tenochtitlan as Moctezuma’s guests, took the Emperor Moctezuma hostage and also killed many local Nobles.

As a result, the City of Tenochtitlan erupted in open rebellion and the Spanish found themselves trapped in the now hostile City with their sleeping quarters coming under attack.

In response, the Spanish attempted to use Moctezuma to calm the rebellion, but even Moctezuma was stoned by his own people. Sources disagree here whether Moctezuma died from the wounds caused by the rocks or if he was strangled by the Conquistadors because he was no longer of any use to them.

On the 1st of July 1520, the Spaniards attempted to flee the City at night but they were spotted and attacked by a massive Aztec force on Canoes along the waterway out of Tenochtitlan.

Although the Spaniards eventually managed to cross to the mainland, they had lost a significant number of men and Gold in the worst defeat suffered by Cortes.

The Aztec regrouped under a new Emperor but they could not foresee the deadly Biological disaster that would seen wreak havoc throughout the Kingdom as Smallpox which had been brought by one of the Spaniards spread, effectively decimating 40% of Tenochtitlan’s population within a year.

The smallpox weakened the Aztec cities around Tenochtitlan which soon fell to the Spanish and made it possible for the Spaniards to lay siege to Tenochtitlan.

The siege was characterised by a series of brutal and chaotic fights along the waterways and within the City precincts of Tenochtitlan as the Spaniards sought to establish control over the City whilst the Aztecs feverishly defended it.

To make things worse for the Aztecs, the City was by now suffering from extreme starvation and the people were forced to drink the salty lake water which weakened the population even further, allowing Cortes to enter the City in a series of bitterly contested surges until the Aztec City was finally subdued in August 1512.

The Aztec Empire had now been brought to a brutal end, and the outcome of the first great meeting between the Old and New worlds would forever alter the course of History.

Hernan Cortes Summary

Hernan Cortes was a Spaniard conquistador who undertook the exploration of the Mexican region in 1519. Cortes did so in defiance of the Crown’s appointed officer, the governor of Cuba. However, he was able to reach Mexico and bring about the end of the Aztec Empire through a series of strategic alliances and battles. Ultimately, the crown acknowledged his conquests and he was made the governor of Mexico. During his reign, he built Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan.

Cortes leaving his ships

Proceeding west from Potonchán, they arrived at San Juan de Ulúa and then to La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz on Good Friday, April 19, 1519, where Cortés declared himself governor of the new town, thus providing legitimacy for his expedition. He sent one ship to Spain with treasures he had acquired and a letter explaining his rationale for the expedition. It is in this town that several historians reported that he “burned” his ships to ensure his men could not return to Cuba and
that he forced them to continue inland. According to Winston A. Reynolds, he did not actually “burn” his ships but scuttled or beached them, thus destroying them. This distinction is important because the erroneous belief that he burned his ships placed Cortés among heroic figures such as Caesar and other ancient heroes. Cortés’ deeds, one way or the other, remain a universal symbol of bold vision and heroic action.

500 Years Later, The Spanish Conquest Of Mexico Is Still Being Debated

An artistic rendering of the retreat of Hernán Cortés from Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, in 1520. The Spanish conquistador led an expedition to present-day Mexico, landing in 1519. Although the Spanish forces numbered some 500 men, they managed to capture Aztec Emperor Montezuma II. The city later revolted, forcing Cortés and his men to retreat. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images hide caption

An artistic rendering of the retreat of Hernán Cortés from Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, in 1520. The Spanish conquistador led an expedition to present-day Mexico, landing in 1519. Although the Spanish forces numbered some 500 men, they managed to capture Aztec Emperor Montezuma II. The city later revolted, forcing Cortés and his men to retreat.

Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Five-hundred years ago, two men met and changed much of the world forever.

About 500 Spanish conquistadors — ragged from skirmishes, a massacre of an Indigenous village and a hike between massive volcanoes — couldn't believe what they saw: an elegant island city in a land that Europeans didn't know existed until a few years before.

"It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before," wrote conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo.

The date was Nov. 8, 1519. Bernal's leader, Hernán Cortés, walked them down a causeway leading into the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, and was greeted by this land's most powerful man: Emperor Montezuma II. (Montezuma was Mexica, but the term Aztec is often used to denote the triple alliance of civilizations that made up his empire.)

According to Cortés, Montezuma immediately recognized the divine right of the Spanish and the Catholic Church to rule these lands and he surrendered his empire.

But according to historian Matthew Restall, author of the book When Montezuma Met Cortés, this is simply wrong.

"The more that I thought about [the surrender], the more I decided it just didn't quite make sense," he tells NPR. "But then what really got me interested was this question, 'If it's a lie, how has it lasted for 500 years?' "

The meeting of Montezuma and Cortés — in what today is Mexico City — and the true story of the conquest that followed it still weigh heavily in Mexico half a millennium later.

Twice this year, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has publicly asked the Spanish crown to apologize for atrocities against native people.

"We have not forgotten this issue and continue believing they should offer an apology for the invasion," he said during a news briefing in October. So far, Spain has rejected that request.

The story of the Spanish conquest, as it has been commonly understood for 500 years, goes like this: Montezuma surrendered his empire to Cortés. Cortés and his men entered Tenochtitlán and lived there peacefully for months until rebellious Aztecs attacked them. Montezuma was killed by friendly fire. The surviving conquistadors escaped the city and later returned with Spanish reinforcements. They bravely laid siege to Tenochtitlán for months and finally captured it on Aug. 13, 1521, with the Spanish taking their rightful place as leaders of the land we now know as Mexico. Conquest accomplished.

"History is messy, and this story tidies up all of that mess and turns the messy, unpleasant war that took place 500 years ago into a nice, tidy dramatic narrative that has a hero [Cortés] and antihero [Montezuma] and has some kind of climactic, glorious ending," says Restall.

In When Montezuma Met Cortés, Restall revises this story. He ditches the word "conquest" and instead refers to the time as the Spanish-Aztec war. He says Cortés was a "mediocrity" with little personal impact on the unfolding of events and refocuses on complex territorial battles between the Aztecs and their rivals. The Tlaxcallan Empire, which allied with the Spanish, was the driving force, outnumbering conquistadors 50-to-1 during the war with the Aztecs. Smallpox and a betrayal from an Aztec ally dealt the final blow. The wondrous island city fell, but it would take years for the Spanish to establish control in New Spain.

The messy history of the Spanish and Aztecs is still strikingly visible in the center of Mexico City. Right next to the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral (a centuries-long expansion of the first Spanish church built here, in the 1520s) sit the remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, buried beneath the city surface.

Archaeologists have made key discoveries about the Aztecs at the Great Temple site in Mexico City. Eduardo Verdugo/AP hide caption

Aftermath of the Conquest of the Aztec Empire

Within two years, the Spanish invaders had taken down the most powerful city-state in Mesoamerica, and the implications were not lost on the remaining city-states in the region. There was sporadic fighting for decades to come, but in effect, the conquest was a done deal. Cortes earned a title and vast lands and stole most of the riches from his men by short-changing them when payments were made. Most of the conquistadors did receive large tracts of land, however. These were called encomiendas. In theory, the owner of an encomienda protected and educated the natives living there, but in reality, it was a thinly-veiled form of enslavement.

The cultures and people meshed, sometimes violently, sometimes peacefully, and by 1810 Mexico was enough of its own nation and culture that it broke with Spain and became independent.



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