The Fall of Tenochtitlan

In 1485, Hernán Cortés was born in the small town of Medellín, Spain. He pursued law for a time until he became interested in colonization. One of his first experiences with colonization came when he embarked for Hispaniola in 1504.

In 1511, Cortés had another expedition where he was approved and provided twelve ships by Diego Velázques. It is unknown what happened, but Velázques desired his money back. Instead of returning the ships Cortés left for the New World and broke the law. Cortés wasn’t supposed to step foot in Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, he made his way inland with his mind set on conquest. He’s goal was to see that the city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, fell.

A conquest can be defined as the process of forcefully and violently taking something from other people. The Mesoamerican world Cortés entered were diverse, and the tributary chiefdoms practiced small-scale conquests because they were warring states. The Azteca Empire was the most warlike society during the 1500’s. The empire rivaled that of the Tlaxcala and the Tarascan states.

Comparatively, Cortés had 400 unskilled merchants and 16 horses under his belt. The resources he had was not enough to combat the natives of Mesoamerica. Cortés knew this, and he acquired aid from three key sources: Geronimo de Aguilar, Malintzin, and warriors from Tlaxcaltec and Cempoala. Aguilar and Malintzin were able to help Cortés with language barriers and supply knowledge of the region, while the warriors were the manpower with insider information on the Aztec Empire. The reason Cortés was able to overcome all of his daunting circumstances was that of technological and biological.

There were technological differences between the Spanish and the indigenous population. The differences in technology created a gap in warfare, which gave Cortés an edge. The Spanish used metal weapons, such as guns and swords, and had horses. Mesoamerica was advanced; however, metallurgy was not developed for war. Alloys, such as copper-silver, copper-arsenic, copper-tin, were used as utilitarian objects, individual objects designed for dress, and ritual objects. These metal items were either considered sacred or symbolic. Mesoamerican warriors had not used metal used in war amongst themselves, so they did not have metal weapons to use against their newest enemy. As for horses, Mesoamerica simply were not equestrians, because the continent’s horses fell into extinction during the last ice age.

Unfortunately, the indigenous peoples were at a disadvantage biologically too. Corte’s small band of merchantmen had the advantage of having a better immune system to diseases, like smallpox, that was transferred from the Old World to the New World. For the Spanish, this was a convenience and an unintentional advantage. The effect of this biological difference can be seen in the decreased number of indigenous people fighting once exposed to smallpox and other foreign ailments. The foreign germs devastated their immune systems because they did not have enough time to build up a natural antibody. The indigenous heath situation was much worse than those of Cortés’s men because Cortés’s men can recover faster and easier.

Despite these disadvantages pitted against the Aztec and many other tribal states, it is incredible how the Aztec were so resilient and fortified. In John E. Kicza’s book, The Spanish Conquest, Cortés and his men tore down bridges as the city experienced “disease and shortages of food and water, [yet] the defends of Tenochtitlan held out resolutely.” They were militarily able to hold Cortés off for two years. What is more astonishing is that the Spaniard’s first attempt to was a failure (Kicza).

When Cortés did overtake Tenochtitlan, he did it by entering the city by canoe, taking out bridges, dividing his men and resources into three units, then attacking in waves. Then he slowly made a progression into the city. A turning point was in 1521, when Cuauhtemoc, the ruler of Tenochtitlan, was killed during his escape to the mainland. From there, the Spanish continued their conquest outside Central México—to places like Oaxaca.