War and Social Upheaval: The Conquest of Mexico (1519-21)

conquest of Mexico
Figure 1.--Here is a scene as Cotez and the Conquistadores approach a Native American village. The villagers are gathering up their belongings and children and fleeing. THis illustration came from an account of the Conquest made just afterwards. "Relacuión de las ceremonias y ritos de los indios de la provincia de Michoacán".

Spain at the beginning of the 16th century was a rising, newly unified power in Europe. Although it had lost some of its power with the rise of important nation states, the papacy at the beginning of the 16th century still had unrivaled moral aithority. Sanish diplomacy and a new pope obtained papal blessing for a new Spanish empire, in effect spliting the worls between Spain and Portugal. Spain then colonized the Caribbean and then hearing rumors of a rich inland empire began to plan to colonize the mainland. The Aztec were a war-like people located in the central valley of Mexico and dominated much of southern Mexico during the 15th and early 16th centuries until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. Their capital Tenochtitlan was unknown to Europe, but was one of the great cities of the world. Diego Velasquez, Spanih Governor of Cuba, put a trusted soldier, Hernando Cortez, in charge of an expedition to the mainland. Hernando Cortés sailed from Cuba in 1519. He had only a small force, but it was equipped with horses, fire arms, and cannon. His men had steel body armor. Cortez confronted Indian armies that were vastly superior. He seized upon the strateguy of forming alliances with vassal Indian nations within the Aztec Empire that were willing to fight with him. The first alliance was with the Totonacs. Some of his soldiers, mostly Vlasquez loyalists planned to seize on of the ships and return to Cuba. Cortez took the dramatic action of sinking all but one of the shipps. He then made a dramatic appeal to the men, wining the support of mot of the expedition. Cortez's army left the Totonac capital (August 16, 1519). The expedition counted 400 soldiers, 15 horses, and 7 artillery pieces. With them were 1,300 Totonac warriors, and 1,000 porters. The Totonac force was small in comparison to the forces the Aztecs could marshall. Even so it was significant. Not only did it quadruple Cortez's force, but it provide allies which were familiar with local conditions. Without the Tononac alliance, Cortez's expedition may not have even reached Tenochtitlan. The tsory of the conquest is one of courage and audacity mingled with avarice, treachery, and crulty and stands in sharp contrast to that of North America where colonization was largely based on the desire for religious expression and land to farm. For Spain with it's poweful army, the gold and silver which began to flow from Mecico turned Spain for a century into a European super power.

The European Voyages of Discovery

The great European voyages of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries were fundamentally economic enterprises. They were conducted by the European countries of the Atlantic coasts to establish direct trade contacts with China and the Spice Islands (Indonesia) that was being blocked by Byzantium/Venice and the Arabs. At the time, trade in silk, porcelin, and spices from the East carried over the Silk Road had to pass through Turkish, Arab, Byzantine, and Italian middleman, making them enormously expensive. The crusaders failed to break the Islamic wall separating still primitive Europe from the riches of the East. Circumventing the land Silk Road and the sea Spice Route would have profound economic consequences for Europe and the world. The ballance of power would shift from Eastern to Western Europe and eventualkly to northern Europe. Two nations led the early explorarions in the 15th century--Spain and Portugal. These two countries pioneered the sea routes that would lead Europeans to Asia and the Americas, but the Dutch, English, and French were to follow in the 16th century.

Spain

Spain for most of European history has been a poor country, often a backwater located as it is in the Atlantic fringe. In Roman times it was espcially important for its mines. Much of the Iberian Peninsula is unsuitable for agriculture. Rain is sparse and the land heavily corrugated. At a time when agriculture was the primary producer of wealth, this left Spain and its people poor. Spain at the beginning of the 16th century, however, suddenly became the most powerful country in Europe. [Wells. p. 658.] Spain had finally after several centuries achieved the Reconquista. The Reconquista had sharpened Spain's martial skills. The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella had united the two major Spanish kingdoms. ith Europe's most powerful army, Spain desired to expand. There was, however, Muslim kingdoms to the south across the Straits of Gibralter and the French kingdom to the north across the Pyranes that were able to resist even the Spanish army. This left maritime expansion as the only realistic outlet for Spanish expansionsim. And this expansion brought Spain emense wealth in gold and silver, first from Mexico and then from Peru. The vast riche plundered from native American allowied Spain for a brief period to dominate Europe.

Papal Diplomacy

Although it had lost some of its power with the rise of important nation states, the papacy at the beginning of the 16th century still had unrivaled moral aithority. It was challenged only in Eastern Europe by Orthodox Christianity. Christian monarchs in the West often turned to the pope to resolve disputes as an alternative to war. This was complicated by the fact that the papacy was also a tempral power with territorial interests and depennding on the pope, family and dynastic interests. The papacy had granted sovereignty over new lands discovered outside Europe to the Portuguese who had lead the initial phases of the European voyages of discovery spured on by Prince Henry the Navigator, primarily by sailing south around Aftrica and than east to India and eventually China. Portugese diplomats had achieved considerable success in the Vatican . Papal bulls granted the Portuguese rights to lands "as far as the Indies" (1450s) [Gibson, p. 15.] This unintenionally gave the Portuguese the rights to America, although the existence of America was unknown at the time. Columbus' voyage radically changed this situation (1492). Spain now had lands to claim an exploit Although neither Columbus or the Spanish monarchy realized that the new land was the he Americas, but the Spanish wanted to establish their claim. The Spanish dispatched envoys to the Vatican (1493) and demanded rights to Columbus's discoveries, just as previous popes granted the Portuguese rights to Africa and lands tthey discovered in the east. The Spanish entrities received a favorablde hearing. A new pope had been elected in the same year as Columbus' voyage, Alexander VI (1492-1503). Alexander was a Spanish Borgia and thus poned to look on the Spanish claim favorably.He decided that "injustices" had been made and issued a series of four bulls which clearly placed the papacy in the Spanish camp. The first two papal bulls granted the Spanish title not only to Columbus's discoveries but other non-Christian western lands discovered provided they converted the native populations to Christianity. The third divided the Spanish and Portuguese lands by limiting the Spanish "western" area to lands beginning 100leagues west of the Portuguese Cape Verde and Azores islands. This bull was designed to give Spain claim to the far East by western circumnavigation, but was made with out any realistic understanding of the dimensions of the globe or the existance of the Americas--a still largly unknoen planet. The fourth bull (Dudum Siguidem) nullified the previous papal decissions that had so favored Portugal (.August 26, 1493).

Spanish Colonization of the Caribbean

The Spanish with papal authority and additional voyages by Columbus proceeded to make the Caribbean a Spanish lake. (English colonization would come much later.) Spain established colonies on (Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Cuba). Spanish rule was brutal. Columbus proved to be a failure as a colonial givernor and was retuned to Spain in chins. The islands were populated by the Carib and Arawak Indins at the time Columbus' voyages. Much of the native population was killed outright or enslaved under such condition that many more deaths occurred. The collapse of the Native American population was in large measure caused by deeadful epidemics resulting from the transmission od diseases like smallpox to which the natives had no immunity. The main goal of the Catholic Church was to convert the natives not to kill them. The Spanish monarchy as reuired by the pope sharied this goal, but had other objectives as ell. The Spanish colonits and Conquistadores had their own goals as well. The Spain wanted to enter the lucrative tradein spices and other commodities that the Portuguese had begun to circumvent the Arab control over the spice routes. A powerful enducement was gold. Europeand looked on the East as a place of great riches. Spanish colonists found some limited amount of gold on the Cariibbean islands, but the quantity was basically disapointing. Rumor bgan to circulate of a tremendosly rich Mexican (Aztec Empire). Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba's and Juan de Grijalba's conducted some limited explortion of coastal Mexico. Spanish officials and individual colonists began to look increasigly at the American mainland, especially nearby Mexico.

Charles V

Pizarro with the knowledge and information he had collected traveled to Spain to seek assistance an royal authorizaion (1528). Emperor Charles V granted Pizarro and his associates permission, but the arrangement meant that most of the profits of the enterprise would go to the royal treasury. Pizarro returned to Panama with a contract, a capitulacione. Charles named him the Governor of Peru, and ennobled 13 associates.
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Protestant Revolution (1519)

The Protestan Revolution was the religious struggle during the 16th and 17th century which began as an effort to reform the Catholic Church and ended with the splintering of the Western Christendom into the Catholic and Protestant churches. Combined with the Renaissance which preceeded it, the reformation marked the end of the Medieval world and the beginning of a modern world view. The French Revolution which followed the Reformation in the 18th century marked the beginning of our modern age. Conditions developing in Medieval Europe laid the groundwork for the Reformation. The Reformation began when a German monk, Martin Luthur nailed his 95 Thesis on the church door in ??? (1517). Luthur was offended by the papal sale of indulgences by which the Renaissance popes were fiancing the splendid new church of St. Peters in Rome. Luthur's concern with indulgences were soon mixed with a complex mix of doctrinal, political, economic, and cultural issues that would take Ruropean Church anfd temporal leaders nearly two centuries to partially resolve and several devestating wars, especially the 30 Years War in Germany. Western Christendom would be left permanently split and even the Cathloic Church profoundly changed. Changes in man's view og himself and the Church were to also affect his view relative to the state and many in Europe began to question royal absolutism and divinr right monarchy, a process keading to the French Revolution.

The Aztecs

The Aztec were a war-like people located in the central valley of Mexico and dominated much of southern Mexico during the 15th and early 16th centuries until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. There appear to have been a less civilized tribe than those they conquered. [Wells, p. 656.] Some writers romanticize the Incas and other native American peoples. Their achievments were remarkable, but they were a s neolithical civilization, perhaps 2-3 millenia behind the technology of Europe and Asia, comparable to pre-dynastic Egypt or the Simerians. [Wells, p. 656.] The interesting question is why the technology of native Americans was so retarded. We have never noted a fully satisfying assessment of this question. Surely a primary factor was the total isolation of the Americas. There was o Silk Road connecting America with Europe or Asia or even connecting the two great civilizations within the Americas. The Aztecs were a Nahua-speaking peoples. The Aztecs known to history and which the Spanish encountered were a tribe of the Mexica peoples--the Tenochca. The Mexica migrated south into the Valley of Mexico about the 12th century AD. They were a small group that eked out a meager existence in some of the least desirable land in the Central Valley. They gradually adopted the more advanced culture (Mixteca-Pueblo) that dominated the Central Valley and originated in the culture of Teotihuacán. The Tenocha who built Tenochititlan were at first a small tribal group surrounded by more powerful neighbors, but gradually developed more effective civil and military organizations. The Mexica by the 15th century had organized a military alliance with neighboring Nahua tribes known as the Aztec Confederation. The Confederation through wars of conquest came to dominate vitually all of the tribes of southern Mexico, from Rio Fuerte south to Guatemala. The Aztec Empire was not a centralized state, but rather composed of allies and tributary states that were not forced to adopt Aztec culture. Within the Aztec domains were tribes that resisted their rule, especially the Tlaxcalan tribe which was more than willing to fight with the Spanish. The Aztecs were notable archetects and astronomers. Their religion was, however, barabaric and involved mass human scarifices. A major goal in Aztec wars was the acquisition of victims for human sacrifice. Human sacrifice was practiced by many Native American cultures, but the Azztec are notable for the large numbers of sacrificial victims.

Hernando Cortez

Hernando Cortez was born in Medellin, Estramadura, in Spain (1485). His family was a member of the minor nobility. His father taught him martial skills like swordplay. He began to study law a few years after Columbus' first voyage at the University of Salamanca (1499). Cortez apparently had little interest in practicing law and studied only intermitently for 2 years. He was, however, among the ambitious men who would become the Conquistadores. He prepared for a Spanish military expedition in Italy, but after becoming sick was not able to participate. After recovering he decided to seek his fortune in the West Indies. He arrived in Hispaniola (1504). He fought in battles against the Arawak Indians. Diego Velazquez who was to become the future governor of Cuba launched a campaign to establish a Spanish colony in Cuba. Cortez fought the Indians as part of the campaign and Velasquez was impressed with him. He was awarded land and offices.

Preparing the Campaign

Governor Velazquez in Cuba began receiving reports of a fabulosly wealthy kingdom in the interior of Mexico. Coastal expeditions (Cordoba in 1517 and Grijalba in 1518) convinced Velasquez that there was in fact such an empire which had vast quantities of gold. It is not know precisely what motivated Velsquez, but gold, Cristian converts, and fame all seem to have been important. We do know that becaue of his asociation with Cortez, he chose Cortez to lead the lead the next expedition to the mainland. The two men needed each other. Cortez needed Velazquez, as the royal governor, to provide official sanction for the expedition. Velasquez needed Cortez to lead the expedition as Captain General. Velazquez chose Cortez because "[he] came of an ancient, respectable family; his courage and prowess won him favor with Velazquez as much as his good humor, cordial manners, and wit made him a favorite with the soldier."[Prescott, p. 13.] After Cuba Cortez increasingly wanted his own coomand and was delighted when Velasquez chose him. Cortez began collecting the needed funds. He ws not a rich man. His resources at the time were estates in Cuba which he mortgaged. Velazquez provided one-third of the funding. Captain General Cortez bought of six vessels and ammased a force of 110 sailors and 553 soldiers. The soldiers included 32 crossbowmen and 13arquebusiers (gunners). He acquired 200 Cuban (native) soldiers and a small number of Cuban women to cook and perform a variety of menial camp chores. Cortez knew from his campaigns in Hispaniola and Cuba that the Indians were uaware of guns and cannons and were terrified when experiencing them in battle. He thus acquired 14cannons (four light falconets and 10 heavier cannons) as well as 16 horses. Horses were not native to the Americans. (he horses subsequently cquired by the Plains Indians wre from wild heards which developed from animals that ran away from Spanish haciendas in Mexico.) Cortez's expedition almost came to an abrupt endeven before departing Cuna. Velazquez changed his mind about Cortez just as the expedetion ws about to depart. Various reasons have been suggests. Velasquez appears to have become convinced, that he would no longer be in control of Cortez and te expedition once Cortes reached Mexico. We are not sure just why Velazuez reached this conclusis at the time the expedition was about to leave. Various reasons have been suggests. One contemporary source blmes relatives. [Bernal, p. 51] Cortez refused to be stopped, however, and left for the Yucatan (the area of Mexico cloest to Cuba) before Velasquez could stop him (February 18, 1519).

The Campaign

Diego Velasquez, Spanish Governor of Cuba, put a trusted soldier, Hernando Cortez, in charge of an expedition to the mainland. Hernando Cortés sailed from Cuba in 1519. He had only a small force, but it was equipped with horses, fire arms, and cannon. His men had steel body armor. Cortez confronted Indian armies that were vastly superior. He seized upon the strateguy of forming alliances with vassal Indian nations within the Aztec Empire that were willing to fight with him. The first alliance was with the Totonacs. Some of his soldiers, mostly Vlasquez loyalists planned to seize on of the ships and return to Cuba. Cortez took the dramatic action of sinking all but one of the shipps. He then made a dramatic appeal to the men, wining the support of mot of the expedition. Cortez's army left the Totonac capital (August 16, 1519). The expedition counted 400 soldiers, 15 horses, and 7 artillery pieces. With them were 1,300 Totonac warriors, and 1,000 porters. The Totonac force was small in comparison to the forces the Aztecs could marshall. Even so it was significant. Not only did it quadruple Cortez's force, but it provide allies which were familiar with local conditions. Without the Tononac alliance, Cortez's expedition may not have even reached Tenochtitlan.

Las Casas

The natives were terribly abused by their new masters. There are many accounts of horendous cruelties. Some cautin is needed because in Europe religious wars had begun and the Spain had become a major supporter of the Catholic cause. The Protestants circulate accounts of Spanish cruelties, including both the inquisition and the treatment of the native Americans. The natives were, however, not without their defenders. The Dominicans became major defenders of the natives. The most notable defender was Spanish planter and slave owner in Cuba whose conscious led him to the Church and priesthood--Las Casas. [Wells, p. 658.]

Consequences

The story of the Conquest is one of the great historical epics. It is an account of courage and audacity mingled with avarice, treachery, loot, and crulty. It is an almost unbelievable story. It stands in sharp contrast to that of North America where colonization was largely based on the desire for religious expression and land to farm. The conquest and subsequent Spanish colonial regime completely destroyed the Aztec and other Native American civilizations. The Native Americans were essentially enslaved and a system akin to medieval serfdom developed. The Aztec pyramids in Tenochititlan were demolished. Over the foundation of the Templo Mayor on what is now known as the Mexico City Zocalo, a great cathedral was built to symbolize the victory of Chritianity. There in modern Mexico the excellent boys' choir of the Metropolitan Cathedral participates in the religious services, boys of both Spanish and Native American blood. The conquest also had a major impact on Europe. Spain became the major European power and used that power in an effort to smash the growing Protestabnt threat to Catholocism. The gold and silver bullion that flowed into Spain had a major impact on European economies, but ironically in the long run did not benefit Spain. They gold and silver also attracted another generation of Spanish Conquistadores who began not only the conquest of South America, but also the creation of a Mestizo culture.

Sources

Bernal, Ignacio. Mexico Before Cortez: Art, History, and Legend (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1963).

Gibson, Charles. Spain in America (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1966).

Prescott, William H. The Conquest of Mexico Beatrice Berler, ed. (San Antonio, Texas: Corona Publishing Company, 1988) . Precott was a blind Massacusetts historian. His studies of the conquest of Mexico and Peru are perhaps the two best written studies of the Cinquistadores. Although Precott did not have the benefit of modern scolarship, his studies are not only very well written but historically accurate.

Wells, H.G. The Outline of History: The Whole Story of Man (Doubleday: NewYork, 1971), 1103p.






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Created: January 15, 2004
Last updated: 8:31 AM 3/10/2013