The Conquest of Mesoamerica

On the 13th of August 1521, the most powerful leader in Mesoamerica, the Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc, surrendered to Hernán Cortés, thus marking the beginning of a colonial dominance in the region that would last for nearly 400 years. Yet, at the time of its surrender, the Aztec empire’s population consisted of c. 5,000,000 people whereas Cortés’ conquistadors numbered a meagre 500. How is it that David managed to bring down Goliath? Although notions of ‘cultural difference’ may seem somewhat innocuous I argue that they played a large role in the fall of an empire. However, it is essential to note that cultural difference is not the only, or even the dominant factor at play here. As with all history, no one factor can provide a total explanation and only by appreciating the existence of a web of causality can you fully understand this, or any other, historiography. Without doubt I would identify the ultimate contributor towards the conquest of Mexico to be biological exchange, which significantly weakened the indigenous population’s ability to retaliate to Spanish aggression. Additionally, we can see the impact of factors less crucial than cultural difference but which still contributed to the conquest, such as indigenous factionalism and technological difference.

Cultural difference, or more often, cultural ignorance, can account for why the Spanish and the Mesoamerican groups reacted to each other in ways which favoured the Spaniards over the indigenous. An explanation for why Cortés and his men were so turned against the indigenous, and thus less inclined to respect their landholdings, can be attributed to cultural shock at discovering the practice of human sacrifice. Cortés himself lays this viewpoint out in his ‘letters from Mexico’ or ‘Cartas de relación’. Although Cortés was there for looting, he wasn’t there initially for conquest, and if the indigenous had conformed to his own cultural norms he would likely have acted less aggressively towards them. Analogously, the Spaniards’ own forms of barbarism assisted their cause also. The indigenous peoples of the area practiced capture and control of areas they conquered, the Spanish displayed death and destruction. The burning of cities and the massacre of populations was not how warfare was conducted by Mesoamericans at that time, who preferred to take slaves whilst expanding and consolidating power. Had they been originally aware of this practice the indigenous would likely have been more defensive towards the Spanish. The most infamous example of destruction is the ‘massacre at Cholula’ of October 1519, which, through its brutality, had the additional effect of inciting fear into surrounding indigenous groups. Cultural ignorance might also be the factor behind Moctezuma II’s decision to allow Cortés and his men into Tenochtitlan in November of 1519 without hindrance. Even though he knew of the events in Cholula, Moctezuma may not have extrapolated the immediate danger to himself, being unfamiliar with the concept of oversees colonisation, living himself in a city-state society.

Though less crucial than the impact of cultural difference and biological exchange, the significance of factionalism within central America was still important to the conquest of Mexico. Cortés could exploit existing divisions between the various city-states to help him explore, exploit and conquer. However, it is also the case that from the position of groups that did ally with the Spanish it was they who were exploiting Cortés for their own gains, not the other way around. This is best seen in the actions of the Tlaxcala’s who initially fought and defeated the Spanish on the 1st of July 1520 at what the Spaniards called ‘la Noche Triste’ (The Sorrowful Night) but then unexpectedly allied with them. It is logical that they saw advantage in the alliance, that advantage being the fall of the Aztecs. The Tlaxcala’s have also been placed as the stimulant for the Cholula massacre, which may have started deliberately from a rumour spread by the Tlaxcaltec that the Cholulans were plotting against the Spanish. Charles Gibson has suggested that this factionalism may have been brought to the fore by Spanish intrusion, that it did not exist independently of the Spanish in the vicious form it took upon their arrival. It was the opportunity for dominance that Cortés’ blunderbusses represented which sparked such fierce rivalry. Therefore, I do not rank factionalism to be as important as biological exchange or cultural difference, because it was not an endemic problem, but an opportunistic one.

But it was not only blunderbusses that marked the gap in technology between the two civilisations, several innovations were important when it came down to the act of warfare. Although it would be incorrect to say that Mesoamerican civilisations were technologically illiterate, their tools of warfare were definitively less effective than those of the Spanish, who had “not only blunderbusses and powder, but also printing presses, steel blades and armo[u]r, crossbows, horses and riding equipment”. Douglas Daniel has put that the Spanish had a distinct tactical advantage over indigenous groups as well, their smaller numbers allowing them to be more flexible, adapting their formations to the circumstance and making use of the ‘tercio’ unit. Contrarily, the indigenous could not adapt their long-entrenched systems of battle that were not designed to cope with muskets and cavalry, which they had never encountered before. The open formations of units such as the Aztec ‘calpulli’ were easy to scatter and isolate. However, I do not consider technology and tactics as significant as the other factors I have listed in this article because of their limited applicability in a situation of being outnumbered by a factor of 10,000. They are certainly useful, but not decisive, a rifle and horse can only do so much.

However, horses were not the only creatures the Spanish brought with them to the shores of lake Texcoco, and were certainly not the deadliest. The primary factor towards understanding the conquest of Mexico is biological exchange and the most significant exchange was that of disease, specifically smallpox and typhus. J.D Hughes explains that, within 100 years of Cortés landing on the Yucatan peninsula in 1519, c. 90% of the indigenous populations of Mesoamerica had perished to it. Although the worst small pox and typhus epidemics came after the Aztec empire had already fallen, (1545–1548 and 1576–1581 respectively) the immediate impact was still devastating. Within two weeks one quarter of the Aztec empire had succumbed to their ailments. Hughes also points out the impact of rats, weeds, and domestic animals which all disturbed the balance of the native ecosystem alongside these diseases, further upsetting indigenous foodstuff production. All these factors were wholly beneficial to Europeans and wholly disadvantageous to the indigenous whose weak resistance to disease was a result of living with very few domesticated animals for thousands of years.

There are many other factors that could have been discussed herein, such as the impact of religion, or individuals like Doña Marina. But those I have listed were the most important in the conquest of Mexico, the most significant being biological exchange. This was the crucial factor in the conquest of Mexico because it had the greatest immediate and practical effect. Cultural difference can explain why certain actions were taken but biological exchange explains how they were achieved. Additionally, factionalism and technology were influential but not on the continent-wide scale of the biological impact.

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 09th of September 2017

Last Modified: 09th of September 2017

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