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The Defeat Of The Aztec Empire

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Published: Thu, 04 May 2017

The explanation for this may imply several interconnected factors. In this essay we will expose which were the most important of these factors. Of course, technological superiority, but also the Aztec domination system that led to many Indians to see the Spaniards as their liberators, the spread of European diseases, the translation system that made Cortes able to establish relations with local peoples, the belief of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma that the Spanish were gods, and the alliances that Cortes engaged with Indian peoples such us the Tlaxcalans. The latter is probably the most important reason as it provided Cortes with thousands of soldiers, creating an army capable of defeat the Aztecs.

Spanish military superiority obviously helped them in the conquest of the Aztec Empire. They had huge advantages as their cavalry, firepower and steel outdid in every respect the Aztec’s military technology. Although Cortes arrived to continental America with only 508 people, the Aztecs and local tribes were frightened with European weapons, as they had never seen cannons or horses before. Spanish weapons consisted of pikes and swords made of hard steel from Toledo that was much stronger than any of the weapons of the locals. Another key advantage that Cortes’ men had over the Aztecs was the armour. Indian projectiles could do nothing against Spanish steel armours, which even weakened the hits from the obsidian swords of the Aztecs. With those armours Spanish faced much less risk of death, while the Indians, lacking any armour, were extremely vulnerable. European crossbows had around double the range of the Indian ones, as well as needing less training and being more powerful. The firearms of the moment, the harquebuses, did not have a very effective range, but they implied an extreme power. The combination of firepower and crossbows allowed the Spanish to fire to the Indians without armours with deadly effect. Aboard the Spanish ships there were falconets that were able to reach a maximum range of 2km. But the strong advantage held by the Spanish was not just the physical force of their weapons but also the psychological effects that European weapons caused on the Amerindians. The gunpowder of the falconets and harquebuses frightened the Indians as they had never seen that kind of things before. The cavalry also took part in this psychological disturbance. For example, at the Otumba battle a surprise charge of cavalry caused the scared Indians to run away in terror.

But the weaponry superiority, though it was a key factor, cannot explain just by itself the whole process of conquest. Some other subjects that may have had a role as significant, or even more important, as technology should be explored.

To begin with, the domination system of the Aztec empire was mainly based on a cruel tribute system that allowed Cortes to be seen as a liberator by some under the rule of the Aztecs. Human sacrifices were fairly common, and they were feared by many of the people. The Aztecs used to sacrifice between 10,000 and 50,000 people every year, trying to nourish the sun and all their gods. Most of those who were sacrificed were war prisoners who had fought against the Aztecs, but they were not the only ones who were sacrificed, as common people -both adults and children- were also sacrificed when needed. Cortes, as a catholic man, was disgusted at the fact of human sacrifice, which allowed him to find Indian allies and also respect among local tribes that opposed and feared the Aztecs. Many decided to follow Cortes as they had similar views on the ‘human sacrifice’ subject. For those, Cortes appeared as a liberator of the Aztec rule tyranny.

Secondly, another important cause for Cortes’ success was the fact of European diseases spreading quickly among the Aztecs. Although this may not seem a very significant reason, it actually benefited the Spanish due to the population reduction it comported. The Europeans were already immune to that kind of diseases, so it did not involve so much suffer to them. On the contrary, the Aztecs were more and more demoralized by a mysterious illness that led them to death but not the Spaniards, as if their enemy was provided with some kind of magic invincibility. In fact, smallpox was the main reason why the Aztecs had to stop pursuing the Spanish around Texcoco Lake after the ‘Noche Triste’. However, Cortes’ allied Indian forces also suffered from the disease, which implied important losses on his side too.

Thirdly, another reason that enabled the Spanish to defeat the Aztecs was surely their translators, Doña Marina -also known as ‘La Malinche’- and Geronimo de Aguilar. After a short period fighting against the Tabasco people, they exchanged gifts with the Spanish. One of the presents for the Spanish was a Tabasco girl, who would be baptized and named ‘Doña Marina’ by the Spanish. She was able to understand and speak some of the local Indian languages, including Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Geronimo de Aguilar also played an important role. He had been shipwrecked in the coast of Mexico in 1511 and, while he was in the region, he was able to learn some local dialects. Cortes found an extremely useful help in the combination of Marina and Aguilar. The translation process consisted of two phases. First, Marina translated the local language into some dialect that Aguilar was able to understand, and then Aguilar tried to translate the message into Spanish. Marina later learned Spanish herself. She had also a very important role when Cortes wanted to gain local allies, as she helped explaining Cortes what the Spanish could do for them. Doña Marina was for sure a key help for Cortes in the defeat of the Aztec Empire.

Fourthly, Moctezuma believed that Cortes was the great god Quetzalcoatl, who was finally returning to the Aztec land. This fact really benefited Cortes, as Moctezuma was overwhelmed by a huge confusion trying to elucidate whether Cortes was actually Quetzalcoatl or not. This state of perplexity gave Cortes extra time to act while Moctezuma was still thinking. Moctezuma considered that there were a lot of aspects that proved Cortes to be the god Quetzalcoatl. Moreover, the Spanish artillery may have represented to the eyes of the Aztecs the attributes of the god Quetzalcoatl, thunder and lightning.

On the other hand, Aztecs also started to find several aspects which showed that Cortes was not the god prophesised for so long. Cortes referred to a superior -King Carlos I-, and Quetzalcoatl would not have had any. Furthermore, Cortes was not able to speak Nahuatl, the Aztec language, which even Moctezuma found estrange, as it was not plausible for a god to forget his own language. The mental state of Moctezuma should have been of total confusion, and he probably had no idea about what he was supposed to do by then. Moctezuma was impressed about the dominance of the Spanish over the Tlaxcalans, a people whom the Aztecs had never achieved to defeat. He felt all the cosmological bases of his civilization collapsing, as the returned gods were destroying his people. Moctezuma’s confusion made easy for the Spanish to capture him and destroy his empire.

Finally, and probably the most important factor, Cortes was able to engage in alliance with local Indian peoples such as the Tlaxcalans, which actually composed much of Cortes forces. By using smart anti-Aztec policies, Cortes was able to put on his side many valuable local allies. The Tlaxcalans, for example, had spent almost a century fighting against the Aztecs. Thus, the Spanish represented the desired chance on breaking the political statu quo of the region and overthrow Aztec power. The Tlaxcalans provided Cortes with valuable detailed information about Tenochtitlan, especially regarding the causeways over the lake that led to the city. Cortes obtained the support of the whole Tlaxcalan state, which implied having an extremely vital ally. Around 50,000 Tlaxcalans, along with 25,000 Indian allies from other tribes, supported the Spanish in the recapture of Tenochtitlan. Those allies worked also in other ways than fighting. At the ‘Noche Triste’, they were responsible for carrying bridge building equipment and artillery. As we can see, if Cortes had not made profit from rivalries among locals, and incorporated much of them into his army, he would never have had the chance of defeating an empire as the Aztec, with a population of millions of people.

As we have seen above, the reasons of the defeat of the Aztecs are multiple and complex, and we cannot assume that technological superiority played a key role above the others. In fact, other Indian peoples adopted cavalry and firearms in the centuries after, and they were defeated as well. Of course, the shock that these new weapons may have produced on the Aztecs should be regarded, but the thought of just a few hundreds of Spanish defeating a whole civilization of millions of people just because of that may be naive. For sure, the main reason should be found in the alliance with the Tlaxcalans or the inability of Moctezuma to create an organized resistance. Without the technological factor it seems plausible for the Spanish to conquer the Aztecs with the support of other Indians and the impotence of Moctezuma. Without these factors, and having just the technological one, the expedition of Cortes would have never been successful.


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