The Aztec Empire, the dominant power in Mesoamerica in the 15th and early 16th centuries, controlled a capital that was one of the largest in the world. Itzcoatl, appointed leader of the Aztec / Mexican people in 1427, negotiated what became the Triple Alliance – a powerful political union of the city-states of Mexico-Tenochtitlán, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopán. As this alliance grew stronger between 1428 and 1430, it strengthened the leadership of the Aztecs, making them the dominant Nahua group in a land mass that covered central Mexico and extended into modern Guatemala.
And yet Tenochtitlán was quickly conquered by the Spanish in 1521 – less than two years after Hernándo Cortés and the Spanish conquistadors set foot in the Aztec capital on November 8, 1519. How did Cortés overthrow the siege of Israel? Aztec Empire?
Tenochtitlán: a dominant imperial city
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Aztec Imperial City in 1519, Mexico-Tenochtitlán was ruled by Moctezuma II. The city had prospered and was estimated to have a population of between 200,000 and 300,000 inhabitants.
At first, the conquistadors described Tenochtitlán as the greatest city they had ever seen. It was located on an artificial island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. From its central location, Tenochtitlán served as a hub for Aztec commerce and politics. It featured gardens, palaces, temples, and elevated roads with bridges connecting the city to the mainland.
Other city-states have been forced to pay periodic tributes to Tenochtitlán’s public markets and its religious center, the Templo Mayor or “Great Temple”. Religious tributes sometimes took the form of human sacrifices. While the monetary and religious demands of the Aztecs gave power to the empire, they also aroused resentment among the surrounding city-states. Cortes would profit from these divisions later.
Hernándo Cortés aligns with local tribes
Hernándo Cortés was part of Spain’s initial colonization efforts in the Americas. While stationed in Cuba, he feared losing his promised mission to lead an expedition to Mexico. Cortés therefore disobeyed the orders of Cuban governor Diego Velázquez and organized his own crew of 100 sailors, 11 ships, 508 soldiers and 16 horses. He left Cuba on the morning of February 18, 1519 to begin an unauthorized expedition to Mesoamerica.
Arriving on the Yucatán coast, Cortés encountered indigenous peoples who told him about other Europeans who had been shipwrecked and captured by local Mayans. Cortes freed Jerónimo de Aguilar, a Franciscan friar from the Mayans, and made Aguilar part of his crew. Aguilar proved to be an invaluable asset to Cortes due to his ability to speak Chontal, the local Mayan language. With Aguilar by his side, Cortés and his conquistadors continued to roam the region, battling indigenous groups along the way.
A combat victory saw the Spaniards capture 20 enslaved Mayan women, including Malinalli, a Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast. Malinalli was baptized under the Christian name of Marina, and later known as La Malinche. La Malinche spoke both the Aztec language of Náhuatl and Chontal Maya and worked alongside the Spanish invaders, offering the conquistadors the opportunity to communicate with any indigenous groups they encountered.
With La Malinche and Aguilar in tow, the conquistadors headed for the island town of Tenochtitlán where they were initially greeted by Emperor Moctezuma II. But, when the opportunity arose, the conquistadors murdered 400 Aztec nobles at a ceremonial feast. The residents of Tenochtitlán demanded that the Spaniards be expelled from the city. The conquistadors apprehended Moctezuma II, and when he could no longer control the people of Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards allowed him to die in a skirmish in 1520 or killed him – according to various accounts.
Driven from the capital, the Spaniards then turned around with a small fleet of ships. Working in alliance with some 200,000 indigenous warriors from city-states like Tlaxcala and Cempoala (groups who resented the Aztecs / Mexicas for their brutal tactics and wanted to see them defeated), the Spanish conquistadors besieged Tenochtitlán from May 22 to August 13. , 1521 – 93 days in total.
Smallpox further weakens the Aztec
With Tenochtitlán surrounded, the conquistadors then relied on their indigenous allies for logistical support and launched attacks from local indigenous encampments. Meanwhile, another factor started to take its toll. Unbeknownst to the Spaniards, some of their ranks had been infected with smallpox when they left Europe. Once these men arrived in the Americas, the virus began to spread – both among their indigenous allies and the Aztecs.
The first known case is believed to have emerged in Cempoala – one of the city-states that had allied with the Spaniards – when a enslaved African caught the disease. The virus then spread. As the Spaniards and their allies later attacked Tenochtitlán, even when they lost battles, the smallpox virus infected Aztec. Aztec troops, members of the noble class, farmers and artisans have all fallen victim to the disease. While many Spaniards had acquired immunity to the disease, the virus was new to the Americas and few indigenous people understood it. The bodies of smallpox victims piled up in the streets of Tenochtitlán, and with the city under siege, there were few means available to dispose of the bodies.
The Spaniards and their allies were taken as prisoners (the Aztecs tended to hold captured prisoners to sacrifice them to the gods, rather than killing them in battle) and traces of the virus were left on clothing, hair and on the corpses of those who had had the disease. As the people of Tenochtitlán contracted smallpox, they had no place to ask for help. Aztec priests and doctors knew no cure, and the people of Tenochtitlán had little immunity.
The Spaniards carried advanced military weapons
The conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica with steel swords, muskets, cannons, pikes, crossbows, dogs, and horses. None of these assets had yet been used in combat in the Americas. The Aztecs fought the Spaniards with wooden swords, clubs, and spears with obsidian blade tips. But their weapons proved ineffective against the armor and metal shields of the conquistadors.
When the Spaniards arrived in the Americas, they came from a war-driven culture that had seen other European nations fight against other European nations for domination and against North Africans for sovereignty. The conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica with better guns and had been trained in tactical strategies. They deployed cavalry capable of hunting retreating warriors, dogs trained to stalk and surround enemies, and horses capable of trampling down opponents.
Faced with a large and diverse army, surrounded and cut off from the mainland, and with a population succumbing to an unknown and devastating virus, the Aztec Empire was unable to fight the invading Spanish conquistadors.
“Cada Uno En Su Bolsa Llevar Lo Que Cien Indios No Llevarían: Mexica Resistance and the Shape of Currency in New Spain, 1542-1552.” by Allison Caplan, American Journal of Numismatics (1989-), vol. 25, 2013, pp. 333 to 356. JSTOR.
“Jeronimo de Aguilar”, American Historical Association.
“Aztec Warfare Imperial Expansion and Political Control”, by Ross Hassig, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, p. 244.
“In Search of Nature’s Secrets The Life and Works of Dr. Francisco Hernández”, by Dora B. Weiner, Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 86.
“Viruses, Wounds, and Past, Present and Future History”, by Michael B. Oldstone, Oxford University Press, 2020, p. 46.
“So why were the Aztecs conquered and what were the broader implications? Testing military superiority as the cause of Europe’s pre-industrial colonial conquests ”, by George Raudzens. War in History, vol. 2, no. 1, 1995, pp. 87-104. JSTOR. Accessed May 18, 2021.