Conquest of Mexico (revised)
© 2001 Donald J. Mabry
By 1517, Cuba had become the most important Spanish settlement in America. It
was comparatively well-developed, cultivating European plants and livestock. It exported
its food surplus.
Governor Diego de Velásquez, who had replaced the Columbus family
as governor, sent expeditions to explore the western Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. In
1517, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba skirted the Yucatán peninsular and then probed
inland where the expedition saw the deserted Mayan cities of Chichén Itzá and Chichén
Viejo. In 1518, Juan de Grijalva sailed from Cozumel to north of present-day Vera Cruz and
heard rumors that there were lots of rich people in the interior. The Aztec emperor,
Moctezuma, sent men to find out who the Spanish were and what they were doing there.
Grijalva took gold back to Cuba. That got the Spanish excited! The Spanish decided to
ascertain whether the rumors of this wealth were true. In 1519, Velásquez named Hernán
Cortés to command a large expedition to Mexico.
Cortés was born in Estremadura, Castille in 1485 and went to
Hispaniola in 1504 at the age of nineteen. His connections got him an encomienda, a grant
of Amerinds. He served under Velásquez in 1511 when the latter conquered Cuba and was
rewarded with a second encomienda. He lived the life of a gentlemen and became alcalde of
Santiago de Cuba. The red-headed Cortés saw his chance to achieve fortune and fame.
Cortés organized the expedition but Velásquez decided that
Cortés couldn't be trusted and canceled the expedition. Cortés, however, sneaked out of
the harbor quickly on February 10, 1519. His orders were to explore and trade only; he was
not to conquer. His expedition consisted of 11 ships, 553 soldiers, 110 sailors, 16
horses, and 14 small cannons. Only 44 of the soldiers had guns; the rest had pikes and
swords. They carried large supplies of food, including pigs, and trinkets for trade.
In the Yucatán, they easily defeated some Mayas. Met Jerónimo de
Aguilar, a shipwrecked Spaniard who had learned the Maya language. Cortés had sought him
out. The expedition continued along the Tabasco coast. It fought some Tabascans and won.
Found Marina, an Indian woman who spoke both the Maya language and Nahuatl, the language
of the Aztecs. She served as his translator and mistress. (In modern Mexican history,
she became the symbol of collaborationism and betrayal of her own people). Aztecs scouts,
meanwhile, were reporting the progress of the expedition to Moctezuma. At Vera Cruz, Aztec
emissaries appeared and asked Cortés to go away. They brought Cortés valuable gifts to
bribe him to leave. that was a mistake, for now Cortés and his men could see that wealth
existed in the interior. He politely refused to leave, saying that he represented the
greatest king on earth and had come to pay a courtesy call. Cortés always meant to
accomplish something spectacular, something which would give him power, wealth, and fame.
The Aztec emissaries, not understanding how greedy and sinful
Europeans were, erred in giving them even a hint of how wealthy their society was. Cortés
now decided to oust Velásquez from any role and become a free agent. He persuaded the men
to unload all their supplies, strip their ships, and set fire to them. There would be no
turning back. Had himself elected governor by the town of Vera Cruz. Real justification in
the enterprises was what you accomplished. Creating a town gave the Crown a legal out if
it wanted one. Cortés was smart enough to understand this.
The march inland was quite an epic event. He discovered divisions
among the Amerinds and the fear of Moctezuma. He learned their legends. When he could, he
recruited Amerind groups as allies, sometimes having to defeat them first. They didn't
have a sense of cultural self-consciousness. They didn't see it as an Amerind-European
conflict. The Spanish were just another group of people to them. Cortés and his soldiers
had Amerind allies as some groups sought revenge on their enemies, especially the
Moctezuma was interested in accommodation with the Spanish.
Moctezuma was because of bad omens that had been happening for the last ten years of his
reign: volcanic eruptions, pillars of fire, sudden conflagrations and floods,
thunderbolts, waterspouts, two-headed men, and a bird with a mirror in his head! His
priests found bad omens wherever they looked. Then there was the coincidental appearance
of a comet. Perhaps he believed the legend of Quetzalcoatl, this half man-half God
who was to return in 1519. Cortés heard the legend and encouraged the Aztecs to believe
that he represented the return of Quetzalcoatl. Spanish were not interested in
accommodation; they wanted everything and as quickly as possible. Moctezuma tried to
appease Cortés with gifts as he marched to Tenochtitlán, trying to get him to reverse
Cortés defeated the Tlaxcalan people, who came close to beating
him, and convinced 5,000 of them to join with him. The Tlaxcala had never been defeated by
the Aztecs. They taught the Spanish the major and political strengths and weaknesses
of the Aztec. Cortés learned that Moctezuma's power was built on fear and that the Aztecs
were mostly interested in capturing enemies so they could enslave them or eat them. The
king of Texcoco warned Moctezuma that his empire would shortly be overthrown.
On the way to Tenochtitlán, the Spanish set up altars and held
religious services for they were devout Christians who had religion as one of their
primary motivations. They founded towns, usually on the sites of Amerind towns. Before he
reached Cholula, a holy Amerind market town, he learned that Moctezuma planned an ambush
there. Cortés pulled off his own ambush, sacking the town on a crowded market day. the
Spanish then built the city of Puebla nearby.
The Spanish, who appeared invincible, entered Tenochtitlán, the
island city of some 300,000 people, as the guest of Moctezuma. His soldiers explored the
city. The meeting of the Spanish and the Aztec was a very serious culture clash. The
Spanish were horrified at the Aztec religion with its polytheism, ritual executions, and
cannibalism. They captured Moctezuma and were safe as long as he was their captive.
Meanwhile, Pánfilo de Narváez expedition had been sent by
Velásquez to arrest Cortés and assume control. Cortés went to the coast, leaving Pedro
de Alvarado in charge in Tenochtitlán. Cortés convinced the 900 men in the Narváez
expedition to join him and returned to Tenochtitlán with these reinforcements.
While he had been gone, Pedro de Alvarado, appalled by the human
sacrifice, lost his nerve and attacked the populace. Both noblemen and religious men were
killed. Cortés arrived in the midst of this and the Aztec allowed Cortés and the
reinforcements to cross the causeways into the city. The Spanish conquistadores became
prisoners in the palace, secure only because they had Moctezuma. Cortés got Moctezuma to
appeal from the top of the roof but he was stoned to death. the Aztecs rallied around
Cuauhtémoc, who began planning the destruction of the Spanish.
On June 30, 1520 (La Noche Triste), Cortés and his mean began their
retreat to Tlaxcala. They had to fight their way off Tenochtitlán, crossing the Tacuba
causeway. They were carrying what gold and other loot they had acquired, which made the
retreat even more difficult. the Aztecs killed some 900 Spaniards and almost all of their
Amerind allies. The survivors rushed to Tlaxcala, where, surprisingly, they were aided by
Perhaps a lesser man would have given up but not Cortés; he
began planning a counterattack. He rested his men; received reinforcements, horses, and
supplies from Cuba; and reorganized his army. He decided that he needed a navy to aid in
the attack of the island city, so he sent ships' carpenters to the coast to retrieve the
tackle he had saved. On the banks of the lake in which Tenochtitlán sat, they constructed
In 1521, the fight began. The brigantines blockaded the city,
creating starvation and problems of waste disposal, for the city was fed from the shore
and sent its wastes ashore as well. The Aztecs were reduced to starvation. Worse,
epidemic disease brought by the Spaniards but to which the Amerinds had no resistance,
killed many of the defenders and weakened many of the rest before the Spanish launched
their attack. Still, it took two months of hand-to-hand fighting and the block-by-block
destruction of the city before the Spanish won. When they caught Cuauhtémoc, they
strangled him. The city was leveled.
After the fall of Tenochtitlán, the Aztecs and their subject people
no longer fought. Cortés was recognized as a god. He had defeated the greatest power in
the world, at least from a central Mexican perspective. He did have to fight frontier wars
against the chichimecas, the term given by the Aztec to the nomadic people north of
central Mexico but the Aztecs didn't know that.
Cortés promoted intermarriage between Spaniards and the Aztec
mobility in an effort to mitigate differences. Of course, conquering soldiers were given
"companionship" by Amerind women, for they had shown that they were more manly
than the Aztec soldiers; after all, the had won. Some conquistadores raped as soldiers
have always done. Cortés gave Marina (or Malinche), the mother of his son, to Pedro
de Alvarado. Cortés built the Ciudad de Mexico on the ruins of Tenochtitlán. He became
one of the richest men in the world.
He reluctantly permitted the developing colonial system and royal
authority to replace his personal control. He explored the Gulf of California and
Honduras. He went to Spain to try to increase his rewards but was disappointed. He
died in Seville in 1547. His sons didn't do well because they foolishly talked of revolt.
This expedition and the others were "private enterprise."
The Spanish crown was always in financial difficulty. It gave legal rights to private
individuals to explore and conquer. When the conquistador found something valuable, he was
rewarded. Cortés was made Marquis of Oaxaca and granted extensive lands and Amerinds by
the Crown. The Crown usually modified the contracts after the discoveries and
conquests. Crown allowed the conquerors material benefits from their conquests but
reduced their political power. Because Velásquez wouldn't be there, he got nothing.
f those who were in the conquest of Mexico, they were rewarded depending upon how much
they had contributed (or, at least, how much were able to convince people ) and on social
rank. Gentlemen received more than commoners, for example.
The conquest was rapid in central and southern Mexico. The conquest
to the north of central Mexico was slower because the Amerinds there resisted and the
terrain and climate was more difficult. However, they conquered and held those areas where
they found precious metals. The initial conquest and pacification of the Amerinds in the
north was through the mission and presidio (frontier fort) system. Didn't have rivals,
either Spanish or other Europeans, for a long time. Upper California to Texas were buffer
areas. There wasn't much there. South of central Mexico had competition for jurisdiction
from other Spaniards. Pedrarias and others tried to claim Mexico.
Guatemala City was founded in 1524 by Pedro de Alvarado (Cortés had
encouraged him to leave central Mexico). Guatemala had settled Amerinds who were
accustomed to working under direction. In other words, the Spanish found a labor force.
Guatemala was made a captaincy general. Although technically the officials there had to
report to the viceroy in Mexico City, the captaincy general was virtually independent.
Spanish America, that is where the Spaniards lived as opposed to the
Amerinds, was a series of loose connections between urban centers. boundaries usually
passed through thinly populated areas. Tremendous concentration of all kinds of power in
Yucatán conquest was in difficult territory against a very stubborn
population. The peninsula tended to be peripheral.
It was the success of the Cortés expedition that set off the
excitement about the New World. Cortés had found what any 16th century European would
have wanted: wealth and a docile labor force.
Some of Cortés' men sought their fortunes elsewhere. Ponce de
León and Pánfilo de Narváez explored Florida . Of the Narváez part, only four
survived. These, led by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, traveled for eight years along the
gulf coast and then through the interior until they found other Spaniards in northern
Mexico and finally reached Mexico City. They nothing anyone at the time would consider
valuable. Hernando de Soto with 600 men explored what is now the central United States and
died in 1541; his party also discovered nothing Europeans would consider valuable.
Alvarado went to Guatemala in the 1530s and joined Pizarro in Peru in 1534 but he was
overshadowed by the Pizza's and the Almagros.
You can read about other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading
Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry!
Click on the title to go to Llumina Press.