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Conquering of the Aztecs

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        In 1519, the Spanish conquistador Don Hernando Cortes and his men set foot on the New World. Eventually, they came across the great city of Mexico (Tenochtitlan), home to the Aztec people. After seeing the vast Aztec empire and it’s millions of inhabitants, Cortes and his men had one goal in mind, conquest. In 1521 they succeeded, but how so with only 600 men to begin with?[1] There were three main factors that aided Spain in their quest for victory: their military assets, spread of disease, and use of native allies.

        Cortes and his men gained valuable Indian allies on their march through central Mexico.  The first ally they made was the Tlacochcalcatl from Cempoala. He guided and advised the group of Spaniards by showing them the fastest and easiest routes. As the Spaniards made their way towards Tlaxcala, the chiefs of the city gathered to discuss a plan of action:

“The Otomi is a brave warrior, but he was helpless against them: they scorned him as a mere nothing! They destroyed the poor macehual with a look, with a glance of their eyes! We should go over to their side: we should make friends with them and be their allies. If not, they will destroy us too…”[2]

Thus an anti-Aztec alliance was formed. Tlaxcala gave the Spaniards strong support, a secure base, and valuable information about the Aztecs. The Huejotzincans also resisted the Aztec rule, so they were more than eager to join the Spanish fight. They claimed, “we helped not only in warfare, but also we gave them [the Spaniards] everything they needed.”[3] Cortes wisely used the native’s animosity towards the Aztecs to his advantage. When Cortes first arrived in Tenochtitlan 6,000 native allies marched behind him; however, at the final battle 200,000 natives had joined the Spanish forces.[4] The Spaniards also received help from Marina, from Teticpac. She was a gift from the Chontal Maya after the Spanish had destroyed their people in battle.[5] Jeronimo de Aguilar, a Spanish castaway who had been living on Conzumel Island. Over the years, Aguilar learned the Maya language. Marina could speak Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztecs.[6] Together, the two translators also served as recruiters because they were able to communicate how Cortes could help the Indians. Native allies proved to be a valuable asset to Cortes in his quest to conquer the Aztec Empire.

Disease ravaged the Aztec community during the Spanish invasion. Smallpox was the biggest contributor. The first mention of smallpox in central Mexico was recorded in a letter written to Charles V on August 30, 1520. In the letter, it explained that the disease was brought over by Cuban natives in the expedition of Licentiate Lucas Vazquez de Allyon. Francisco Lopez de Gomara gave a different account as to how smallpox reached Central Mexico from Cuba. He stated, “Among the men of Narvaez there was a Negro sick with the smallpox, and he infected the household in Cempoala where he was quartered; and it spread from one Indian to another, and they, being so numerous and eating and sleeping together, quickly infected the whole country.”[7]According to Francisco Lopez de Gomara, Cortes’s biographer, “The Indians called this sickness huitzahuatl, meaning the ‘great leprosy.”[8] This disease could cover all parts of the body and could become so painful that even drinking became difficult. Natives of Tlaxcalan described, “No one could move, not even be able to turn their heads…When they did move, they screamed in pain.”[9] Many accounts of the Natives emphasized that the smallpox epidemic was more memorable than military conquest.[10] Smallpox swept through the Aztec labor force. It got to the point where there was no one to take care of the afflicted. The disease also took the lives of many key Indian leaders, such as Cuitlahuac, Moctezuma’s successor. When Cortes and his men attacked Tenochtitlan for the second time they found countless amounts of dead bodies littering the streets.[11] It is quite evident that disease greatly aided the Spanish in their conquest of Mexico.

Another factor that aided in the Spanish conquest was their use of superior military assets. Around the time of the conquest, native cultures in North and South America were in between the Stone and Bronze Age when it came to weapons.[12] The use of metal was seldom in the Aztec kingdom so most of their weapons were constructed from wood and stone. Their most powerful weapon was the macana, a paddle-shaped wooden club with sharp pieces of obsidian. Other weapons such as spears, bows and arrows, lances, and even blowguns were commonly used as well. [13] Their shields were made of strong solid cane woven with double cotton. They were also decorated with feathers and plaques of gold. The Spaniards used similar shields back home, but only in dances and ceremonies.[14] 

The Spaniards on the other hand marched into the new world clad in iron. Metal was used in parts of Spanish shields, spears, swords, harquebus’s and bows.[15] The iron weaponry could do far more damage than the weapons of their opponents. Majority of the conquistadors wore full sets of armor which usually consisted of: a breastplate, arm and leg greaves, a metal skirt, and a gorget, which protected the neck and throat. In all the armor weighed around 60-80 pounds, but the weight was evenly distributed so it could be worn for long periods of time without having to worry about much fatigue.[16] With the help of the armor, a good amount of Aztec damage was reduced to bumps and bruises. [17] In addition, risk of injury for the Spaniards was much lower because they were protected from head to toe. Spanish crossbows could shoot twice as far as Aztec bows. They inflicted great damage and required very little training to use. A Spanish weapon that was foreign to the Aztecs was the cannon. A native described the weapon to Montecuhzoma:

“A thing like a ball of stone comes out of its entrails: it comes out shooting sparks and raining fire. The smoke that comes out with it has a pestilent odor, like that of rotten mud. This odor penetrates even to the brain and causes the greatest discomfort. If the cannon is aimed against a mountain, the mountain splits and cracks open. If it is aimed against a tree, it shatters the tree into splinters. This is a most unnatural sight, as if the tree had exploded from within.” [18]

The combination of crossbows and cannon fire would wipe out large chunks of Aztec warriors at a time. The artillery not only benefited the Spanish on the battlefield, but also psychologically. Spanish harquebus’s, a sort of musket, were used effectively to terrorize Aztec soldiers. The natives thought the Spanish could create thunder, but in actuality they were just firing their guns.[19] One can see why the Aztecs were terrified having never encountered technology like this before.



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