Cortes and the Conquering of the Great Aztec Empire
When Cortes heard of a vast and wealthy empire deep within the Mexican interior, the conquest of Mexico had already begun. The Aztec empire was what the ambitious Cortes had been looking for since his departure from Spain; he most certainly hoped that his wish to discover the empire would come true. The Aztecs, on the other hand, did not know Cortes. The empire was as it always had been; the Aztecs had no serious premonition of war. Cortes knew nothing of the size and power of the Aztec empire and if he did, his decision to bring only a few hundred men was certainly a gross misjudgment. The conquest of Mexico remains surprising for this reason: it seems puzzling that such a huge conflict could stem from two opposing forces, one of which was so terribly ill-prepared for war. As Inga Clendinnen states; "How was it that a motley bunch of Spanish adventurers, never numbering much more than four hundred or so, was able to defeat an Amerindian military power on its home ground in the space of two years?"
The victory of the Spaniards has typically been associated with Cortes' qualities as a leader, and in earlier accounts, with the idea that the culturally superior mental and moral qualities of the Spanish gave way to the defeat of the Aztecs. Moreover, the accounts of Cortes and Diaz point to a Spanish victory led by a God whose determination seemed to have been the eradication of an "empire which did so little to promote the happiness of its subjects, or the real interests of humanity." (2) It is remarkable that such an "uncivilized" civilization could impress the Spanish conquerors to the extent to which they did. The conquerors were, in a very real sense, in awe of the Aztec empire. They "beheld the evidence of a crowded and thriving population, exceeding all they had yet seen." (3) To explain the defeat of the Aztecs in terms of the ideas of manifest destiny purported by Cortes and Diaz is to ignore an important point: The Aztecs cannot have been swiftly defeated by a band of poorly equipped Spaniards simply for reasons of moral superiority.
Prescott's account paints a picture of Spanish forces greatly impressed by the hidden empire. Upon seeing the Tianguez (open market) of Mexico, the Spaniards saw the various evidences of mechanical skill, of domestic industry, the multiplied resources, within the compass of the natives. It could not fail to impress them with high ideas of the magnitude of these resources, as well as of the commercial activity and social support by which the whole community was knit together; and their admiration is further shown by the grandiosity found their descriptions.
It is unlikely that the Spaniards who held in such great esteem the feats of the Aztecs would be so confident of their own strength. Thus, it is reasonable to say that the theological and moral justifications of Cortez and Diaz played no factual role in the defeat. It is true that Cortes believed he was led "with the help of God and his Blessed Mother" (4), but it is equally true that the Mexicans were led by "the feared and venerated Brothers of Huitzilopochtli". (5) To attribute the success of the Spaniards to moral superiority is to argue an impossible argument. Both warring parties undoubtedly believed that their respective religious beliefs would lead them to safety.
The defeat of the Aztecs is the result of a series of more complicated circumstances: the nature an ambitious Cortes, native and Spanish opinion of Montezuma, differences in belief and attitude, and the Spanish use of the Tlaxcalan allies. Cortes' role in the conquest cannot be ignored. However, his qualities as a leader and his reputation as one of history's most notorious figures, plays a part in the outcome of the conquest. Because of the differences in languages, cultures, and religion between the Spanish and the Aztecs there were often errors in communication...
Bibliography: Clendinnen, Inga. "Fierce and Unnatural Cruelty: Cortes and the Conquest of Mexico" from Stephen Greenblatt ed. New World Encounters. University of California Press, 1993.
Cortes, Hernan. Anthony Pagden ed. Letters from Mexico. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986
Diaz, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain. London: Penguin Books, 1963.
Leon-Portilla, Miguel ed., The Broken Spears. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
Prescott, W. H. History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru. New York: Random House, 1936.
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