Why the Spanish could conquer the Aztecs?
Published 02 Jun 2017
It was in 1519 when a band of Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernan Cortes arrived at the Yucatan Peninsula. Together with a small army of 600 men, Cortes sought out to conquer the Aztec empire for their country. The Aztec empire was considered as the most advanced civilization in North America. They were in control of large cities and had complex social, religious, economic and political structure. Their empire controlled the area from the Valley of Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico and south of present day Guatemala. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital was located in present-day Mexico City. During Cortes’ conquest, the Aztecs were ruled by Montezuma II. The Aztecs themselves had conquered many neighboring tribes, suing the captives for their human sacrifices in their religious ceremonies and rituals in offering to their gods. Although they have conquered many tribes, they did not necessarily rule them.
But how could a powerful empire be conquered and destroyed by a small army which was that of Cortes? If the Aztec empire had established a complex religious and political structure, why were they not able to sustain a war against the Spanish conquistadors?
Even though the Spanish army was small in number, they had better strategies, better resources and weapons when they fought with the Aztecs. While Aztecs fought with wooden swords and weapons, the Spanish conquistadors fought with metal shields and swords. Although their wooden weapons can bring much damage, they were also easily broken and the Spaniards’ weapons were more durable. The Spanish could move faster because they also had horses which gave them an advantage as Aztec only fought on their foot. The conquistadors also used guns, which were easier to use and load than the stone slings that the Aztecs used.
Another factor that led to the conquest of the Aztec under the Spaniards was their religion. An important aspect of Aztec life was their religion. They were polytheists and one of their gods, Quetzalcoatl was described as having a fair skin, red hair and light eyes, having an unlikely similar appearance to that of the Europeans. As Cortes and his army arrived on the peninsula, they were welcomed by Montezuma (which Cortes would later hold as hostage) himself, thinking that he may be Quetzalcoatl. Montezuma really believed that Cortes was their god because their arrival matched with the year that Quetzalcoatl was predicted to arrive on their land. Because of this, the Aztec people generally greeted the Spaniards well, offering them with food, gold and other treasures.
Montezuma welcomed them as guests, with the knowledge that these conquistadors have already made an alliance with enemy tribes. By lavishing them with hospitality and gifts, Montezuma thought he could show how superior they were than their enemy tribes. Since they arrived as special guests, they used this to their advantage. They were allowed by the emperor Montezuma to enter their land and to establish a colony for his army. Many of the Aztec nobility also volunteered to show them around their empire.
The Spaniards brought with them the teachings of Christianity and wanted to convert the Aztecs. They also tried to get the favor of many Aztec people. Getting the favor of many Aztec people would prove to be useful in their conquest because these Aztecs would soon become their allies in further destroying the Aztec empire and would rebel against the great emperor Montezuma.
Cortes also sought the help of other tribes that the great emperor Montezuma had defeated. Before finally attacking Tenochtitlan, Cortes made an alliance with Tlaxcalteca, major enemies of the Aztecs. This clever strategy of Cortes helped him increase his army to fight the thousands of soldiers that the Aztec empire had. Many of those tribes hated Montezuma for using much of their prisoners during war as human sacrifices.
Even though the native people did not understand them, Cortes tried to force them into believing their teachings about Christianity and whoever did not listen, they would kill. After establishing his colony, Cortes challenged the natives and held Montezuma as hostage. The Aztec empire started to get weak at this point. This was probably one of the factors why the Spanish had easily conquered the Aztecs. Although the Aztecs were considered as a powerful empire, they had little contact with other people, thus they easily believed that Cortes was their god. They were oblivious to the fact that these foreigners would be a big threat and would lead to the downfall of their empire. Another mistake that the Aztecs may have done is the offering of the treasures to the Spanish conquistadors. Because of this, the Spaniards discovered how rich the Aztec empire really was and they even became more determined to conquer the land for they might discover more treasures upon conquering it. Finally, another huge factor that led to the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs was the diseases that they brought with them. The
Spanish conquistadors brought with them many diseases such as small pox and measles which they gotten during their long journey. Many of the Aztec people that they have enslaved and had contact with acquired the diseases and spread them with other natives, killing thousands. The natives being sick also could not find the remedy for these foreign diseases. These diseases brought about by the Spaniards were partially the reason for wiping out the empire because the Aztecs did not have natural immunity for those diseases.
- “History of the Aztecs.” History World.
- “The Conquest of the Aztecs.” 27 February 1997. WebChron, The Web Chronology Project.