The Conquest of the Aztec Empire

Storming of the Teocalli by Hernán Cortés and His Troops
Storming of the Teocalli by Hernán Cortés and His Troops. 1848 painting by Emanuel Leutze

From 1518-1521, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and his army brought down the mighty Aztec Empire, the greatest the New World had ever seen. He did it through a combination of luck, courage, political savvy and advanced tactics and weapons. By bringing the Aztec Empire under the rule of Spain, he set events in motion which would result in the modern-day nation of Mexico.

The Aztec Empire in 1519

In 1519, when the Spanish first made official contact with the Empire, the Aztecs ruled most of present-day Mexico either directly or indirectly.

About one hundred years before, three powerful city-states in central Mexico - Tenochtitlan, Tlacopan and Tacuba - united to form the Triple Alliance, which soon rose to pre-eminence. All three cultures were located on the shores and islands of Lake Texcoco. Through alliances, wars, intimidation and trade, the Aztecs came to dominate most of the other Mesoamerican city-states by 1519 and collected tribute from them.

The pre-eminent partner in the Triple Alliance was the Mexica city of Tenochtitlan. The Mexica were led by a Tlatoani, a position roughly similar to Emperor. In 1519, the tlatoani of the Mexica was Motecuzoma Xocoyotzín, better known to history as Montezuma.

The Arrival of Cortes

Since 1492, when Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, the Spanish had fairly thoroughly explored the Caribbean by 1518. They became aware of a large landmass to the west, and some expeditions had visited the shores of the Gulf Coast, but no lasting settlement had been made.

In 1518, Governor Diego Velazquez of Cuba sponsored an expedition of exploration and settlement and entrusted it to Hernan Cortes. Cortes set sail with several ships and about 600 men, and after a visit to the Maya area of the southern Gulf Coast (it was here that he picked up his future interpreter/mistress Malinche), Cortes reached the area of present-day Veracruz in early 1519.

Cortes landed, founded a small settlement and made mostly peaceful contact with leaders of local tribes. These tribes were bound to the Aztecs by ties of trade and tribute but resented their inland masters and tentatively agreed with Cortes to switch allegiances.

Cortes Marches Inland

The first emissaries from the Aztecs arrived, bearing gifts and seeking information about these interlopers. The rich gifts, meant to buy off the Spanish and make them go away, had the opposite effect: they wanted to see the riches of the Aztecs for themselves. The Spanish made their way inland, ignoring pleas and threats from Montezuma to go away.   

When they reached the lands of the Tlaxcalans in August of 1519, Cortes decided to make contact with them. The warlike Tlaxcalans had been enemies of the Aztecs for generations and had held out against their warlike neighbors. After two weeks of fighting, the Spanish gained the respect of the Tlaxcalans and in September they were invited to talk. Soon, an alliance was forged between the Spanish and the Tlaxcalans. Time and again, the Tlaxcalan warriors and porters which accompanied Cortes' expedition would prove their value.

The Cholula Massacre

In October, Cortes and his men and allies passed through the city of Cholula, home of the cult to the god Quetzalcoatl.

Cholula was not exactly a vassal of the Aztecs, but the Triple Alliance had much influence there. After spending a couple of weeks there, Cortes learned of a plot to ambush the Spanish when they left the city. Cortes summoned the leaders of the city to one of the squares and after berating them for treason, he ordered a massacre. His men and Tlaxcalan allies fell on the unarmed nobles, slaughtering thousands. This sent a powerful message to the rest of Mesoamerica not to trifle with the Spanish.

Entry into Tenochtitlan and capture of Montezuma

In November of 1519, the Spanish entered Tenochtitlan, capital of the Mexica people and leader of the Aztec Triple Alliance. They were welcomed by Montezuma and put in a sumptuous palace. The deeply religious Montezuma had dithered and fretted about the arrival of these foreigners, and did not oppose them.

Within a couple of weeks, Montezuma had allowed himself to be taken hostage, a semi-willing "guest" of the intruders. The Spanish demanded all sorts of loot and food and while Montezuma did nothing, the people and warriors of the city began to get restless. 

The Night of Sorrows

In May of 1520, Cortes was forced to take most of his men and return to the coast to face a new threat: a large Spanish force, led by veteran conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez, sent by Governor Velazquez to rein him in. Although Cortes defeated Narvaez and added most of his men to his own army, things got out of hand in Tenochtitlan in his absence.

On May 20, Pedro de Alvarado, who had been left in charge, ordered the massacre of unarmed nobles attending a religious festival, The enraged inhabitants of the city besieged the Spanish and even Montezuma's intervention could not alleviate the tension. Cortes returned in late June and decided that the city could not be held. On the night of June 30, the Spanish tried to stealthily leave the city, but they were discovered and attacked. On what came to be known to the Spanish as the "Night of Sorrows," hundreds of Spanish were killed. Cortes and most of his most important lieutenants survived, however, and they made their way back to friendly Tlaxcala to rest and regroup. 

The Siege of Tenochtitlan

While in Tlaxcala, the Spanish received reinforcements and supplies, rested, and prepared to take the city of Tenochtitlan. Cortes ordered the construction of thirteen brigantines, large boats which could sail or be rowed and which would tip the balance while assaulting the island. 

Most importantly for the Spanish, an epidemic of smallpox broke out in Mesoamerica, slaying millions, including countless warriors and leaders of Tenochtitlan. This unspeakable tragedy was a great lucky break for Cortes, as his European soldiers were largely unaffected by this disease. The disease even struck down Cuitláhuac, the warlike new leader of the Mexica.

In early 1521, everything was ready.

The brigantines were launched and Cortes and his men marched on Tenochtitlan. Every day, Cortes' top lieutenants - Gonzalo de Sandoval, Pedro de Alvarado and Cristobal de Olid - and their men assaulted the causeways leading into the city while Cortes, leading the small navy of brigantines, bombarded the city, ferried men, supplies and information around the lake, and scattered groups of Aztec war canoes.

The relentless pressure proved effective, and the city was slowly worn down. Cortes sent enough of his men on raiding parties around the city to keep other city-states from coming to the relief of the Aztecs, and on August 13, 1521, when Emperor Cuauhtemoc was captured, resistance ended and the Spanish were able to take the smoldering city.

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 slavery.

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.

Sources:

Diaz del Castillo, Bernal. . Trans., ed. J.M. Cohen. 1576. London, Penguin Books, 1963. Print.

Levy, Buddy. Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma and the Last Stand of the Aztecs. New York: Bantam, 2008.

Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Touchstone, 1993.