Conquest of Mexico

The fall of Tenochtitlan
The fall of Tenochtitlan

The conquest of Mexico represents one of the most ofttold and epic sagas in the European conquest of the New World. Our knowledge of the defeat of the Aztecs (Mexica) is based on a rich array of firsthand accounts, both Spanish and native.

The first conquest of a major indigenous polity in the Americas by a European power, the conquest of Mexico fueled the European imagination while providing a template for the violent subjugation of the rest of Mesoamerica and large parts of South America in the decades to follow.

With the conquest of Cuba complete and much of the Caribbean under Spanish dominion, the first explorations along the coast of modern-day Mexico were in 1517 under captain Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. This initial exploratory foray was followed in 1518 by an expedition under Juan de Grijalva that further probed the easternmost fringes of the Aztec domain.

Both were under the authority of the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez. In a series of sometimes violent encounters with the native inhabitants along the coast, the Grijalva expedition learned that a great city lay somewhere in the interior.

The stage was thus set for a third expedition, also under Governor Velázquez’s authority, to ascertain further the nature of these mysterious lands and peoples. After much behind-the-scenes political intrigue and deal making within Cuba, the governor selected Hernán Cortés as the expedition’s leader—a choice he would soon come to regret.

Setting Sail

The 11 ships under Cortés’s command set sail from Cuba in December 1519 with some 530 European men, several hundred Cuban Indians (including women), 16 horses, and numerous dogs.

They were exceedingly well armed with artillery, cannons, swords, cutlasses, lances, crossbows, arquebuses, and other weaponry, and well stocked with bread, meat, and other provisions, including trinkets for use as gifts to friendly natives. Officially this was to be an expedition of discovery only. Governor Velázquez had not granted its leader the authority to conquer or colonize.

Spaniard army
Spaniard army

Making initial landfall at Cozumel Island, Cortés learned from the natives that two Christians were held captive in the interior. One of them, Jerónimo de Aguilar, had shipwrecked off the coast of Yucatán in 1511 and lived among the local inhabitants for the past eight years. His knowledge of Chontal Maya and native customs would prove crucial in the events to follow.

The expedition continued north and west, past Yucatán and along the coast of present-day Tabasco state. On March 25, 1519, at the village called Potonchan, after one in a series of violent encounters with coastal peoples, Cortés was given 20 young native women as a peace offering.

One of these women, Malinali, baptized Marina, became one of the key actors of the conquest, acting as Cortés’s interpreter, confidant, and later mistress, bearing his child—reputedly the first mestizo (Spanish-Indian) child. She spoke both Maya and Nahuatl, the latter the language of the Aztecs, and had intimate knowledge of Indian people’s customs and practices.

To Mexicans she was later known as La Malinche (Doña Marina), or worse, La Chingada (the violated one) and conventionally has been viewed as a traitor to her people, an interpretation challenged by more recent feminist scholarship.

The expedition reached San Juan de Ulúa, an island off the coast of modern-day Veracruz, on Maundy Thursday 1519. Reaching the mainland on Good Friday, Cortés established friendly relations with the local Totonac chieftain, an Aztec subordinate named Teudile.

On Easter Sunday, Cortés undertook a characteristically theatrical gesture when he staged a mock-battle on the beach, firing cannon and racing his horses, to the astonishment of his hosts. He also asked for gold, which he portrayed as medicine for sick comrades.

Within days, Aztec emperor Moctezuma II was informed of the strangers’ activities via oral reports and painted renderings. Scholarly debates continue regarding whether Moctezuma and his priests viewed the bearded strangers as gods, particularly whether Cortés was the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl returning from the east as prophesied.

In order to circumvent the authority of Governor Velázquez and establish his own authority to wage a campaign of conquest, Cortés pulled a legal sleight of hand, founding a town called Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, appointing its officials, and resigning his office.

His men in turn elected him the town’s principal judicial and military authority. In accordance with Spanish law, he now derived his authority directly from the Crown. The maneuver is often cited as a prime example of the conquistador’s political cunning.

Inland Expedition

With their base at Villa Rica, the expedition inland began. Soon a pattern developed, whereby Moctezuma politely denied Cortés the right to enter the Aztec capital, and Cortés politely insisted on visiting the sovereign as an ambassador of King Charles I. The campaign that followed demonstrated Cortés’s masterful ability to perceive and exploit the political and ethnic divisions between the Aztecs and their subordinate polities.

Events in Cempoala—in which Cortés tricked the Cempoalan cacique into an alliance—are often cited as exemplary of this ability. So too is his decision to scuttle his ships, along with other actions that worked to instill a sense of purpose, unity, and loyalty among his men.

Last day of Aztec empire
Last day of Aztec empire

After winning the alliance of the Tlaxcalans—one of the few polities the Aztecs had proved unable to subdue—and slaughtering some 6,000 Cholulans in an infamous surprise attack, the expedition reached Tenochtitlán on November 8, 1519. Entering the magnificent city, the Spaniards were greeted graciously by the indecisive Moctezuma.

A few days later on November 14, Cortés boldly took the Aztec emperor hostage, holding him as prisoner within his own capital city. After some six months in this uneasy state, Cortés learned that Governor Velázquez of Cuba had dispatched an expedition under Pánfilo de Narváez to arrest him (Cortés) for violating his orders.

Leaving his second in command Pedro de Alvarado in charge in Tenochtitlán, in early May 1520, Cortés hastened back to Cempoala, defeated the Narváez force on May 28–29, and won over its survivors. Returning to Tenochtitlán, the Spanish force under his command now more than 1,000 strong, Cortés learned to his chagrin that Pedro de Alvarado had slaughtered hundreds of Mexican nobility during a religious celebration.

Trapped for several days, the Spanish force barely escaped the city in its withdrawal of La Noche Triste (The Sorrowful Night) of July 1, 1520, in which an estimated 400–600 Spaniards were killed. During the fighting, the emperor Moctezuma was slain, by which side remaining a matter of debate. Regrouping his forces near the coast, Cortés decided to lay siege to the great city.

In an audacious and monumental undertaking, he supervised the construction of 13 brigantines, which were then carried in sections over the mountains, assembled, and launched on Lake Texcoco. By this time, his forces numbered some 900 well-armed Spaniards, 86 horses, and thousands of Indian allies.

The siege of the island city of Tenochtitlán began in May 1521. Meanwhile an epidemic, probably of smallpox, was laying waste to the Aztec capital. Even before the siege had begun, an estimated one-third of the city’s inhabitants had succumbed to European diseases against which they had no immunity.

After three months of furious fighting, the Spanish invaders and their Indian allies reduced Tenochtitlán to rubble. Leading the city’s defense was Cuauhtemoc, Moctezuma’s cousin, whom much Indian lore later came to memorialize as a hero. The city fell on August 13, 1521—some two and a half years after the invaders’ first landfall at Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz.

Scholars have emphasized various factors that made possible the defeat of the mighty and war-hardened Aztecs by a few hundred Spanish invaders. Near the top of all such lists is Cortés’s political brilliance, combined with his unshakable will to conquer, acquire riches, and spread the Christian faith. His ability to perceive and exploit preexisting divisions within the Aztec polity, and success in gaining thousands of loyal Indian allies, are often cited as sine qua non of the conquest.

Also emphasized in this vein is that no native inhabitants could have known that Cortés was but the advance guard of an aggressive and expanding kingdom, accustomed to campaigns of conquest, inspired by an exclusive and highly militarized religion, determined to create an overseas empire.

Other major factors most often cited in making the conquest possible include Spanish superiority in the technologies of warfare, especially their horses, swords, and armor; the invaders’ skills in the arts of war, steely resolve, unity of purpose, and loyalty to each other and their leader; the adversaries’ very different cultural conceptions of warfare, with the Spaniards focused on killing the enemy, and the Aztecs more concerned with capturing prisoners for later sacrifice; the Spaniards’ advantage of language, thanks to Jerónimo de Aguilar and La Malinche; the weak and indecisive leadership of Moctezuma; the role of myth, legend, and fatalism in weakening Aztec resolve; and the role of disease in weakening the Aztec capacity to resist once the final siege had begun.

Atop the smoldering ruins of Tenochtitlán the Spaniards built a new capital city—Mexico City—often using the same blocks of stone they had just toppled, and foundations already in place, using the labor of the vanquished Indians to realize their vision of the Spanish Christian kingdom spread to the New World.

For the next 300 years, New Spain would be Spain’s most important colony. Soon many of the victorious conquistadores and their countrymen began looking beyond Mexico, as New Spain served as a launching point for further campaigns of conquest.