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© 2003 David Koeller.  All rights reserved.

The Conquest of the Aztecs

1521

The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1521, led by Hernando Cortes, was a landmark victory for the European settlers. Following the Spanish arrival in Mexico, a huge battle erupted between the army of Cortes and the Aztec people under the rule of Montezuma. The events that occurred were crucial to the development of the American lands and have been the subject of much historical debate in present years.

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The Spaniards landed on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico in 1519, where they found the advanced society of the Aztecs. The Aztec Empire stretched along the Valley of Mexico, and Tenochititlan was its capital. The Aztecs had substantial wealth from trading and heavy payments of tribute from conquered peoples. From 1200-1520 the Aztecs flourished and expanded their empire greatly. By the time Hernando Cortes landed in Mexico with his 600 soldiers, the Aztecs were in control of most of present-day Mexico. The expansion of the Aztecs, however, ended with the Spanish Conquest.

A major element of Aztec life was religion. A polytheistic people, they often practiced human sacrifice to please their gods. According to legend, the god Quetzalcoatl, characterized by light skin, red hair, and light eyes, was supposed to return to earth. This appearance is remarkably similar to European appearance, and may be why the Aztecs originally greeted the Spaniards with food, gold, and women.

The Spaniards, however, approached the Aztecs with an entirely different attitude. They had a strong sense of supremacy and intended to convert the natives to Christianity. But their ministering methods were radical. The Spaniards gathered the natives together and shouted the essentials of the Gospel, oblivious to the fact that the Aztecs did not understand their language. If the natives refused to fall to their knees and repent, the Spaniards assumed they were rejecting the word of God and killed or enslaved them.

Upon arrival in North America, Hernando Cortes founded the colony of New Spain in Mexico. On November 8, 1519, he challenged the native forces and entered Tenochititlan, taking the Aztec leader, Montezuma, hostage. This event led to an Aztec uprising that culminated in La Noche Triste. The Aztecs drove the Spaniards out of Tenochititlan in July of 1520. Men from both sides, as well as many Aztec treasures, were lost as a bridge collapsed during the desperate flight of the Spaniards. Nevertheless, Cortes survived, and led the final attacks on Tenochititlan. Throughout the warfare, the Spaniards were aided by the gruesome advantage of disease, for the Europeans brought ailments that the Aztecs had no immunity to. It is estimated that three-quarters of the native population died of violence or diseases like small pox and measles in just the first century of the conquest. Finally, the Aztec capital fell on August 13, 1521. After capturing Tenochititlan, the Spaniards destroyed the city, and built Mexico City on top of it. Just as Tenochititlan was destroyed, most of the Aztec civilization was destroyed with the European Conquest.

Aside from this negative aspect of the European discovery of the New World, the Spaniards had some positive effects on the native population. They introduced domestic animals like horses, sheep, cattle, and pigs to the American Continent. Furthermore, they brought sugar, and different kinds of grains and fruits with them. The discovery of the New World also had a significant impact on the European diet, as the Spaniards brought important products like potatoes, tomatoes, beans and maize back to Europe.

Despite these benefits, the Spanish defeat of the Aztecs has been criticized extensively for many years. It is the center of a huge historical debate focusing on the role of the conquerors. The Spaniards were harsh in their methods and motives, and many people argue that it was not their place at all to encounter new lands and demand control, much less force submission so cruelly. Moreover, virtually all of Aztec culture was carelessly destroyed in the conquest. Nevertheless, the Spaniards did conquer the Aztecs, and whether Western civilization is richer or poorer, this victory has had lasting effects for both native and European people.

Sources:

Matthews, Roy T. and F. DeWitt Platt. Western Humanities. (Mountain View, CA; Mayfield Publishing Co.,1995)

Sullivan, Richard E., Dennis Sherman and John B. Harrison. A Short History of Western Civilization. (Palatino, CA; McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994)

Wood, Michael. Legacy - The Search for Ancient Cultures. (New York; Sterling Publisher Co., 1994)


Edited by: Sara Bussema
Researched by: Erika Witowski
Written by: Turid Tangen
February 27, 1997

Text copyright 1998 by David W. Koeller.  All rights reserved.