What Impact did the Conquest have on Aztec Society?
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Published: Tue, 18 Jul 2017
The discovery of the ‘New World’ by Christopher Columbus in 1492 was the catalyst for change that had been long awaited in European society. After hundreds of years of living in Asia’s shadow, the sun was finally rising over Europe and their newly conquered land. But we mustn’t forget that the ‘New World’ was not necessarily ‘new’ to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. By the time Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico, the Aztecs had already established a society that had been successfully functioning for many years, complete with a teeming capital that rivaled European cities. However, the Spanish were able to decapitate their society and permanently change it. Simultaneously, they were able change the way society functioned in their homeland in Europe. But how did the Spanish accomplish the conquest of the Aztec Empire and what happened after they did? The discovery and conquest of the Aztec empire, while beneficial to European society in both the New and Old World, leaves Aztec society decapitated and virtually unrecognizable
The fall of the Aztec empire to Hernán Cortés and his army was the necessary first step in controlling this area of the Americas. Hernán Cortés, a Spaniard on an unsanctioned expedition landed on the coast of Mexico in early1519, was searching for the rumored gold and great cities of Mexico.  He arrived in the city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, later that year.  At this time in the early 16th century, Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world, boasting a population of over 200,000 people.  According to records, the Spanish were dazzled by the city and had never seen anything like it before.  The Aztec empire as a whole, run by an emperor named Montezuma, had authority over 5 million people in the area that is now known as Mexico.  Cortés’ first attempt to conquer the Aztecs failed miserably and he was quickly forced to retreat. However, he returned in 1521with indigenous allies from surrounding areas and was able to decapitate their society. He did this by exploiting cultural and political weaknesses of the empire. First of all, the Aztecs were not accustomed to traditional European warfare. Their fighting had always been ceremonial, not for bloodshed. The Europeans were merciless in their efforts to conquer the empire. Secondly, Cortés disrupts the political structure of the empire very quickly by defeating Montezuma. The Aztecs were highly dependent upon their hierarchal structure, and without an emperor, they were unable to effectively organize resistance.  They were left in a state of chaos and were finally forced to surrender to the conquistadors after 3 months of warfare.  For the Aztecs, this surrender to the Spanish meant the permanent loss of their political and cultural society.
The Spanish did not just deal a mortal blow to the political structure and culture of Tenochtitlan; they also wiped thousands of its residents off the face of the planet. This, however, was not intentional. The Aztecs had never been exposed to European diseases such as influenza and smallpox, and therefore were extremely susceptible to these illnesses. Smallpox was particularly contagious and deadly. Using the Spaniards as a vessel, it killed over 80 percent, which was approximately 11 million people, of the original population of Tenochtitlan.  It is difficult to fathom how the Aztecs felt as they watched millions of people die around them in an inexplicable manner. The psychological effect was inevitably devastating.  This demographic collapse further weakened the empire and left it more susceptible to European control and exploitation. If the destruction of the political structure had not been enough to conquer the Aztec Empire, such an overwhelming loss of the original population did.
The fall of the Aztec empire, while a devastation to its indigenous people, was a significant achievement for Hernán Cortés and his army of conquistadors. After bringing Tenochtitlan to the ground, the Europeans assumed the responsibility of power in the area, which meant they needed to construct a new legal framework. Spain’s new viceroyalty was appropriately named New Spain and its capital was called Mexico City.  The Spanish crown appointed Hernán Cortés governor and established a system much like feudalism that had been seen in earlier European society. In the encomienda system, conquistadors were given land and labor, and in return they had to house the indigenous people and provide them with a Christian education.  This system did not work as effectively as originally planned. Since the Spanish crown was across the ocean, it was not able to enforce the system. In many cases, the Spanish treated the Aztecs as slaves. In hopes of expanding European society into the area, the indigenous people ultimately lost their religion, their culture, their freedom, and their dignity under this system.
Promoting religion in the New World was not only a way for Europeans to legitimize their conquests, but it was a way for them to spread their ideas and exert control in the New World.  Former religious institutions of the Aztec Empire were considered blasphemy to the Spanish Christians, and by 1521 the Spanish had destroyed 600 temples and 20,000 idols. Outnumbered, the indigenous peoples adopted Christianity without much hesitation.  The Spanish did make efforts to incorporate Aztecan aspects into the new religious society. They allowed indigenous peoples to be a part of the administrative structure of the church. They also replaced traditional church costumes with Spanish garments.  Just like in Europe, Christianity became an integral part of society in New Spain.
Back in the ‘old world’, people heard stories of the magnificent conquest of Mexico and developed a desire to go to the New World. This was a good thing, especially following the depletion of 80% of the original population of Tenochtitlan (lecture).  This introduction of people from the old world created a society of new ethnic diversity. There were the two original groups of people: the Spanish and the indigenous Aztecs. From the earliest interactions between these groups, Spanish males and Aztecan women bred and created a new breed of people called the ‘mestizo’ (Darwin 64). The Spanish eventually introduced African slaves into society as a source of labor, and they bred with the Spanish and the Aztecs to and developed the ‘mulatto’ community (Darwin 64).  This interbreeding created a hierarchal society based upon race, with the Spanish whites, or ‘criolles’ on top. The new ‘creole’ society in New Spain was a direct consequence of the European conquest of Aztec society, for it never would have transpired without them.
The Spanish encountered a plethora of new resources in New Spain, but the one good they valued above all others was mineral wealth. The presence of gold and silver in the New World was one of the strongest factors that encouraged colonization (Darwin 63). The discovery of huge supplies of silver at Zacatecas in the Mexico area impacted the New World, the Old World, and beyond (Darwin 63).  Firstly, it allowed for the development of technologies. Silver has to be purified when it is mined, and the mercury required for purification came from Iberia and Croatia. The lighting in the silver mines is provided by candles made from the fat of cattle. Labor comes from the indigenous inhabitants. When the bullion is shipped over to Europe, it truly makes a huge impact on society. A radical increase in monetization is seen. (lecture)  . When Asians hear of this, they demand that they become a part of trade. It changed the way in which the Europeans interacted with the Asians. Prior to this, the Europeans tiptoed around the edges of the Asian continent and were seen as nothing but pests. (Darwin pg 59).  Silver becomes the first truly global commodity. The discovery of silver allows for European expansion into the east and the west, impacting the societies of Europe, Asia, and the Aztecs simultaneously.
We mustn’t forget how the conquest of the Aztec Empire influenced society across the Atlantic Ocean in the ‘Old World’. The discovery of the Americas as a whole challenged the worldviews of European society and exposed them to new natural history and geography. Maps played a major role in 16th century Europe. During this century we see the emergence of the Waldseemuller maps in 1507, which have become known as the “birth certificate” of America (exhibit).  Hernán Cortés also creates a map, this one of his conquered city of Tetnochtitlan. He sends it to Europe and it becomes the first depiction Europeans see of their newly acquired land. And, according to scholar Barbara E. Mundy, the map “assumed a symbolic function in supporting Cortés’s just conquest of the Amerindian empire.” (article)  In addition to maps, books and art became popular ways of depicting the New World for those who lived thousands of miles away. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, an infantry man of Cortés, wrote about his adventures in New Spain. He tells “the story of myself and my comrades, all true conquerors, who served His Majesty in the discovery, conquest, pacification, and settlementâ€¦of New Spain” (exhibit).  This collection of anecdotes is a classic, even today. The maps, books, and paintings that came from the Old World painted a picture of the New World for European society, enriching their knowledge and enhancing their worldviews.
In discussing the impact of the discovery and conquest of the Aztec empire on both American and European societies, one must understand that Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors ultimately destroyed a once flourishing and dazzling Aztec Empire in hopes of expanding that of the Europeans. This was very clearly a win-lose situation that favored the Europeans. The once great Aztec society was quickly robbed of its culture, religion, and a large majority of its indigenous peoples, and was left with no hope of regaining it. Ultimately, there was no Aztec society left after 1521. It was merely a new European society founded upon the skeleton of the former empire. After the decapitation of the Aztecs, the conquistadors brought in their religion and new political structure and imposed it upon the few remaining indigenous peoples. Tecnotichlan became virtually unrecognizable, both by name and by the new creole society. Back in Europe, the continent was benefitting from the knowledge and goods brought back from the New World. As tragic as the situation may sound for the Aztecs, discoveries and conquests like this happened quite frequently during this time period. It should not be forgotten that Europeans, while an emerging dominant world power during this time period, did not necessarily get there by honest and diplomatic means.
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