The Spanish Conquest of Mexico



To the victor go not only the spoils, as the old saw would have it, but also the opportunity to tell the story of a victory without fear of contradiction. The Spaniards and generations of historians, including even the renowned William Prescott, have presented the Conquest of Mexico by a handful of brave and resourceful soldiers as the inevitable consequence of the cultural superiority of European over native cultures. As the Aztec scholar Inga Clendinnen has forcefully put it, “Historians are the camp-followers of the imperialists.” Thanks to a closer and more critical reading of the sources, we can now see that there was considerable rewriting and often blatant distortion of the course of events, even with such otherwise impeccable figures as Father Sahagún. Particularly untrustworthy are the self-serving letters of Hernán Cortés to his sovereign Charles V, since that wily commander was acting illegally and without royal permission throughout his campaigns on Mexican soil.

In the history partially fabricated by the Spaniards, the Aztecs’ terrible destiny had been preordained in the weak and vacillating figure of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, held spellbound by a series of sinister omens, and by the myth of the “returning god-ruler”: that Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl had come back in the person of Cortés himself. According to these accounts, now held in suspicion by specialists in Aztec culture, strange portents had appeared to the terrified monarch in the final ten years of his reign. The first of these was a great comet “like a tongue of fire, like a flame, as if showering the light of the dawn.” Then, in succession, a tower of the Great Temple burned mysteriously; the water of the lake foamed and boiled and flooded the capital; and a woman was heard crying in the night through the streets of Tenochtitlan. Two-headed men were discovered and brought to the ruler, but they vanished as soon as he looked at them. Worst of all, fisherfolk snared a bird like a crane, which had a mirror on its forehead; they showed it to Motecuhzoma in broad daylight, and when he gazed into the mirror, he saw the shining stars. Looking a second time, he saw armed men borne on the backs of deer. He consulted his soothsayers, but they could tell him nothing, but Nezahualpilli, King of Texcoco, forecast the destruction of Mexico.

Inflicting great cruelties on his magicians for their inability to forestall the doom that he saw impending, the Aztec monarch was said to be dumbfounded when an uncouth man arrived one day from the Gulf Coast and demanded to be taken into his presence. “I come,” he announced, “to advise you that a great mountain has been seen on the waters, moving from one part to the other, without touching the rocks.” Quickly clapping the wretch in jail, he despatched two trusted messengers to the coast to determine if this was so. When they returned they confirmed the story previously told, adding that strange men with white faces and hands and long beards had set off in a boat from “a house on the water.” Secretly convinced that these were Quetzalcoatl and his companions, he had the sacred livery of the god and food of the land offered to them, which they immediately took back with them to their watery home, thus confirming his surmises. The gods had left some of their own foods in the form of sweet-tasting biscuits on the beach; the monarch ordered the holy wafers to be placed in a gilded gourd, covered with rich cloths, and carried by a procession of chanting priests to Tula of the Toltecs, where they were reverently interred in the ruins of Quetzalcoatl’s temple.

The “mountain that moved” was in reality the Spanish ship commanded by Juan de Grijalva, which after skirting the coast of Yucatan made the first Spanish landing on Mexican soil in the year 1518, near modern Veracruz. This reconnaissance was followed up in 1519 by the great armada that embarked from Cuba under the leadership of Hernán Cortés. The peoples of the Gulf Coast, some of whom were vassals of the Aztec Huei Tlatoani, put up little resistance to these strange beings, and Cortés soon learned of their disaffection with the Aztec state and with the heavy tribute that they had been forced to pay. On their way to the Valley of Mexico and the heart of the empire, the conquistadores met with opposition from the Tlaxcallans; after crushing these fierce enemies of the Triple Alliance, Cortés gained them as willing allies; the Tlaxcallans would come to play a key role in the overthrow of Mexican civilization.

A figure crucial to Cortés’s plans was his native interpreter and mistress, known to history as La Malinche. This beautiful and intelligent woman was of noble birth, and had been presented to Cortés by a merchant prince of coastal Tabasco. Much of his success in dealing with the Aztecs must be attributed to the astuteness and understanding of this remarkable personage. But misunderstandings nevertheless seem to have been the rule in the confrontation and clash of these two cultures. For instance, far from being held in thrall by a view of Cortés as the returned Quetzalcoatl, Motecuhzoma appears to have dealt with him as what he said he was, namely, an ambassador from a distant and unknown ruler. As such, Cortés had to be treated with respect and hospitality. Welcomed into the great capital and even into the royal palace, Cortés chose to take his host captive, to the chagrin and disgust of the Huei Tlatoani’s subjects.

The dénouement of this tragic story is well known. Learning that a rival military expedition under Panfilo Narváez had been sent to Veracruz by his enemy the governor of Cuba, with orders for his arrest, Cortés moved down to the coast and defeated the interlopers. On his return to Tenochtitlan, he found the capital in full revolt. During the uprising, Motecuhzoma was killed – the Spaniards being the likely perpetrators – and the booty-laden conquistadores were forced to flee the city by night, with great loss of life.

Thus ended the first phase of the Conquest. Withdrawing to the friendly sanctuary of Tlaxcallan, the invaders recovered their strength while Cortés made new plans. Eventually, both armies met in a pitched battle on the plains near Otumba, a confrontation in which Spanish arms triumphed. Then, joined by his ferocious allies from Tlaxcallan, Cortés once again marched against Tenochtitlan, building an invasion fleet along the shores of the Great Lake. The siege of Tenochtitlan began in May 1521, and ended after a heroic defense led by Cuauhtemoc, the last and bravest of the Aztec emperors, on 13 August of that year. There then ensued a blood bath at the hands of the revengeful Tlaxcallans that sickened even the most battle-hardened conquistadores. Although Cortés received Cuauhtemoc with honor, he had him hanged, drawn, and quartered three years later. The Fifth Sun had indeed perished.

How was it that a tiny force of about 400 men had been able to overthrow a powerful empire of at least 11 million people? First of all, there is little question that the weaponry of these men of the Renaissance was superior to the essentially Stone Age armament of the Aztecs. Thundering cannon, steel swords wielded by mounted horsemen, steel armor, crossbows, and mastiff-like war dogs previously trained in the Antilles to savor the flesh of Indians – all contributed to the Aztec downfall.

A second factor was that of Spanish tactics. The Spaniards fought by rules other than those that had prevailed for millennia in Mesoamerica. To the Aztecs, as Inga Clendinnen has noted, “battle was ideally a sacred duel between matched warriors”; in fact, before the Aztecs waged war on a town or province, they would often send them arms to make sure that the contenders were so matched. The “level playing field” meant nothing to the Spaniards, whom the Aztecs perceived as cowards – they shot their weapons at a distance, avoided hand-to-hand combat with native warriors, and took refuge behind their cannons; the Spaniards’ horses were held in far higher estimation! Equally incomprehensible and thus devastating to the Aztecs’ defense was the Spanish policy of wholesale terror, so well exemplified by the act of Cortés in cutting off the hands of over fifty Tlaxcallan emissaries admitted in peace into the Spanish camp, or the massacre of vast numbers of unarmed warriors at the order of the terrible Pedro de Alvarado, while they were dancing at a feast.

Thirdly, the role played by thousands upon thousands of seasoned Tlaxcallan warriors – the deadliest enemies of the Triple Alliance – can hardly be overlooked. Not only were they vital to the defeat of the Aztec empire, but they continued to serve as an auxiliary army in the conquest of the rest of Mesoamerica, even participating in the takeover of the highland Maya states.

But most significant of all was that invisible and deadly ally brought by the invaders from the Old World: infectious disease, to which the New World natives had absolutely no resistance. Smallpox was apparently introduced by a black who arrived with the Narváez expedition of 1520, and ravaged Mexico; it had decimated central Mexico even before Cortés began his siege. Along with measles, whooping cough, and malaria (and perhaps yellow fever as well), it led to a terrible mortality that must have enormously reduced the size and effectiveness of Aztec field forces and led to a general feeling of despair and hopelessness among the population. Given these four factors, it is a wonder that Aztec resistance lasted as long as it did. The completeness of the Aztec defeat is beautifully defined in an Aztec lament:

Broken spears lie in the roads;

we have torn our hair in our grief.

The houses are roofless now, and their walls

are red with blood.

Worms are swarming in the streets and plazas,

and the walls are splattered with gore.

The water has turned red, as if it were dyed,

and when we drink it,

it has the taste of brine.

We have pounded our hands in despair

against the adobe walls,

for our inheritance, our city, is lost and dead.

The shields of our warriors were its defense,

but they could not save it.

M. Leon-Portilla, The Broken Spears: Aztec Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico, pp. 137-8. Beacon Press, Boston 1966.

New Spain and the Colonial world

Within the space of about three years following the fall of Tenochtitlan, most of Mexico between the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the Chichimec frontier had fallen to the Spaniards and their grim Tlaxcallan allies. During this period, there were a number of native revolts (such as occurred among the Tarascans), but these were quickly suppressed. This vast territory became organized as New Spain, with a viceroy responsible to the Spanish king through the Council of the Indies.

The conquistadores had not been ordinary soldiers, but adventurers expecting riches. To placate them, the Crown granted them encomiendas, in which each encomendero would receive tribute payments from vast numbers of Indians; in return, the encomendero would ensure that their souls would be saved through conversion to Christianity. In time, this led to incredible abuses against the natives, and in 1549 a new system, repartimiento, was substituted, in which the natives were theoretically supposed to get fair wages for their labor. However, through the cupidity of their Spanish overlords and bureaucratic abuse, repartimiento swiftly turned into a system of forced labor.

Almost immediately following the Conquest, Mexico’s social, economic, and religious life were transformed; even the landscape suffered immense changes. The fate of the elite class that had ruled the old pre-Spanish cities was twofold: many of them disappeared altogether, and with them the elite culture that they had created, while others – perhaps more pliant – were given titles by the new regime and used as tribute and labor gatherers; it was these latter who were significant agents of acculturation, as they were converted to the new religion and learned the Castilian language.

The great native cities and towns of Mexico were leveled, along with thousands of pagan temples, to be replaced by urban settlements laid out on the grid pattern favored by the authorities in urban America. The old calpoltin became barrios, and the calpolli temples parish churches.

The economic transformation of Mexico began with the introduction of chickens, pigs, and the herd animals so important to life in the old country, cattle, horses, sheep and goats (the two latter contributing to the destruction of the landscape through overgrazing); iron tools and the plow; European fruit trees; and crops like wheat and chickpeas (the Spaniards initially spurned native foods such as maize and beans). The repartimiento system led to the growth of vast haciendas, at first dependent upon forced labor; after abolition in later centuries, this was transformed into debt bondage, a state of affairs that was to last until the Mexican Revolution. New Spain proved to be the Spanish empire’s richest source of silver, and hundreds of thousands of natives were put to work in the silver mines under the most terrible conditions.

In line with the doctrine promulgated by the papacy – that the New World natives had souls and thus must not be enslaved but converted to the True Faith – the conquistadores were truly serious about conversion. This task was placed in the hands of the mendicant orders, and twelve Franciscan friars duly arrived in the newly founded Mexico City (built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan); as they walked unshod and in patched robes through the city’s streets, the native population was truly awestruck by their poverty and sincerity. The Franciscans viewed the Indians with paternalistic kindliness, and saw them as raw material on which to fashion a new, Utopian world, free from the sins that were so apparent in the Spanish settlers. They quickly learned Nahuatl, and began early to instruct the sons of the native nobility in Christian values and learning. Naturally, they came into frequent conflict with the encomenderos. Other orders soon followed – Augustinians, Dominicans, and eventually the Jesuits.

Conversion, though, was often only skin deep and, later on in the sixteenth century, the secular and religious clergy came to recognize this. The basic similarity between many aspects of the Aztec religion and Spanish Catholicism has led to a syncretism between the two that persists today in the more indigenous parts of Mexico: there truly were (and often are) “idols behind altars.” The Church’s attempts to stamp out paganism, however, were hampered by the exemption that Indians had from the investigations of the Inquisition, and many old beliefs and practices flourished, particularly in the field of medicine.

Away from the mines and the great haciendas, many Indian communities preserved their self-sufficiency, and had their own lands. These were known as “Repúblicas de Indios,” and were organized on the Spanish cabildo system of town administration. On top was an elected governor, in early years often a native noble. Below him were alcaldes (judges for minor crimes or civil suits) and regidores (councillors who legislated laws for local matters). At first, all electors were from the nobility, but as this dwindled, the commoners or macehualtin took over. Under the friars’ tutelage, native communities had adopted the religious confraternities so important to Spanish life, and these became intertwined with the cabildo system: one advanced in this civil religious hiearchy through a series of cargos, or burdensome offices, that became more and more costly as one achieved ever higher rank and honor. One can see such a hierarchy in many indigenous communities today.


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