Global History Since 1500
Cortéz: Luck or Skill
The Spanish Conquest of Mexico:
Assignment: The conquest of Mexico could have only been accomplished with the help of two diverse allies: Native people formerly subdued by the Mexica (Aztecs) and diseases to which the Europeans had developed immunity over the centuries. Furthermore, Cortéz and his lieutenants’ ruthlessness, their cunning and military superiority helped them overcome the well-organized Mexica military. Please explain the success of the conquest and give examples of the aspects mentioned above.
The timing of Hernán Cortéz visit to Tenochtitlan allowed him to use two diametrically opposed mechanisms to conquer the Aztecs, along with a third means, a coincidental perception made by the Nahua. They welcomed Cortéz a god or messenger from the gods; he made convenient and effective allegiance with the Nahua; and, unbeknownst to him, delivered a deadly disease almost guaranteeing his victory in New Spain. However, the introduction of foreign diseases was also deadly to his allies.
Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztec rulers, in particular Montezuma, brutally captured adversarial altepetl (communities or groups). The Aztecs would savagely sacrifice the captured people; indeterminate of gender, age and military involvement. This invasion and unrestrained, violent sacrifice, along with subrogation of other tribes produced a deeply held resentment between the Aztecs and other Amerindian cultures.
When Hernán Cortéz arrived, the Aztecs perceived the event as a fulfillment of prophecy made by ancient rulers and priests. In Stuart Schwartz’s Victors and Vanquished, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún recounts from the Florentine Codex, “And when he [Montezuma] heard what the messengers reported, he was greatly afraid…” (Schwartz 2000, 97). With this perceived divinity and long-held resentment, the subservient Nahua willingly joined in support of Cortéz’s military actions. Cortéz used the group’s submissiveness to manipulate dissenting segments of the Nahua to support the overthrow of Montezuma and to defeat the Aztecs. From the textbook (Voyages 2010, 442), the Spaniards possessed insufficient armaments and transportation to defeat the Aztecs, but they succeeded with the support of 100,000 indigenous troops.
Along with the learned military and recruitment skills of the Spaniards, they had another characteristic that helped determine the outcome of the combat. Europeans had long developed immunities to Smallpox. Scientists have credible evidence to suggest variations of Smallpox existed in Egypt and Europe as early as 1500 B.C. (Li, 2007, 15787). The generational exposure to the disease promoted development of immunities. However, no evidence has been revealed to suggest the disease spread into the Americas before 1500 A.D. with the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico. Once this disease began to spread among the Nahua, estimates say between thirty and ninety per cent of them were killed by the diseases carried by Europeans; including Smallpox, measles, and other common diseases.
By weakening and reducing the population through disease, and enlisting other indigenous people opposed to Montezuma and the Aztecs, Cortéz established an upper hand in the combat and control of Tenochtitlan and, eventually, Mexico. The coincidental or skillful orchestration of events – rampant spread of disease, deistic worship of Cortez, and Nahua disenchantment with Aztecs – allowed the Spaniards to conquer Mexico.
Schwartz, Stuart B. Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2000.
Hansen, Valerie and Kenneth Curtis. Voyages in World History, Volume 2 Since 1500. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010.
Li, Yu, and others. “On the Origin of Smallpox: Correlating Variola Phylogenics with Historical Smallpox Records.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104, No. 40 (2007), 15787-15792, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25449217, (accessed June 7, 2011).