The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the 16th century was one of the primary events on the establishment of the Spanish Empire, the first true global power in history and for several centuries the biggest on the world before it met its equally magnificent decline. It took the shape of a series of regional conflicts kickstarted by the arrival of ambitious Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who managed to gradually draw native states under his flag until achieving the takeover of the Mexica Empire, popularly and wrongly known in modern popular culture as the Aztec Empire, the resident power that previously held most of those tribes as its vassals. In the process, in a long and quite epic expedition that saw men and women of all colors pouring their blood on the jungles of Mesoamerica, it can be truly said that a new world was born.
The chronicles of those wars have reached us through the writings of several members of the expeditions, like Bernal Díaz del Castillo (author of the famous work The True History of the Conquest of Mexico quoted above) and Cortés himself, and not any less through the work of mestizo historians like Diego Muñoz Camargo or Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, as well as the occasional native remembrance like those recorded by Bernardino de Sahagún. Their recordings often contain awed attestations of the varied Mesoamerican cultures they found, both marvelous and terrifying, and the relationships they established with their inhabitants, be it on their battlefields, their palaces or their beds.
The historical complexity of the conquest might surprise, and hopefully fascinate, those that only know the Theme Park Version pictured by pop culture, which often prefers to paint a grossly distorted tale where waves of ironclad Spaniards exterminate defenseless natives out of sheer racial fury, maybe with some Spanish Inquisition thrown it for good measure (because nobody expects it). In modern times, several historians have seen fitter to call the conquest actually a tribal conflict, mostly contested between the Mexica Empire and its many enemies and subjects, in which Spaniards became fortuitously involved, giving as a result a complicated game of factionalism and self-interest. The truth, in any case, is out there.
BackgroundSince the 15th century, the Mexica or Aztec Empire had gradually established control over it neighbors until becoming the greatest power in Mesoamerica, allying itself with the nearby states of Texcoco and Tlacopan to form the Triple Alliance. Their only rival in the land was the Republic of Tlaxcala, a confederation of four states (Tepeticpac, Tizatlan, Ocotelulco and Quiahuiztlan) that had managed to repel their attempts of domination. However, the conquest of virtually everywhere else had left the Tlaxcaltecs effectively surrounded in a patch of map, around which the Mexica exerted a commercial embargo on them in the hope to win by attrition.
It has been unceasingly said, even in textbooks, that Cortés and his people were mistaken by prophesized gods, which supposedly eased the conquest. In reality, this was a later interpolation influenced by zealous missionary work that left religious interpretation muddled. Spaniards were initially seen as teules, meaning otherworldly beings, but any impression that they were anything but flesh and blood humans was dispelled pretty soon (Moctezuma can be quoted stating to Cortés that they are both just men). The natives did seem to believe the Spaniards might be emissaries or descendants of ancient forefathers who would return one day, but the true extent and influence of this factor are still hotly debated.
First contactsIn the 16th century, twenty years after the travels of Christopher Columbus, the rising Spanish Empire under King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, already owned lands in the New World, mostly focused on Cuba (back then also called Fernandina) and the islands of the Caribbean. Attracted by promises of richer territories and fabulous sources of gold, expeditions of exploration were sent to the nearby coast of Mexico under the orders of the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. With a bit of luck, they expected to find in the west a venture as profitable as that their Iberian neighbors, the Portuguese, had found in their own conquest of India at the east, where the great Afonso de Albuquerque had just carved a filthy rich trade network.
The first of those expeditions, led by in 1517 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, reached the Yucatán peninsula and entered contact with Mayan populations. Although things were initially peaceful, the expedition came under attack multiple times by natives who mistrusted the presence of foreigners, forcing the Spaniards to return home. Despite this apparent failure, the expedition brought valuable translators and info about what to expect in those lands, and the following year, Velázquez sent another commanded by his own nephew Juan de Grijalva. This expedition cut its way to the territories of the Totonac tribe, subjects of the mighty Mexica Empire.
Even before the second expedition returned, Velázquez had already thought of a third, larger one, and he chose his brother-in-law, a city mayor named Hernán Cortés, as its leader. At the last second, Velázquez repented his choice, realizing the ambitious Cortés would likely stop obeying him if he found success, but Cortés overruled his orders to stop and sailed away anyway in February 1519. He commanded around 550 conquistadores, some of them with experienced of the previous travels.note
Enter CortésCortés' fleet followed the route of its predecessors and entered contact with Mayan chieftains in Yucatán, where he became interested in meeting two Spanish castaways that had gone native. One of them was Jerónimo de Aguilar, who was overjoyed to reunite with his countrymen, while the other was Gonzalo Guerrero, who preferred to stay due to his native family and his high rank among the Mayans. The contingent would then fight their first battle in Centla, as a translator who had been captured back in the very first expedition betrayed them and encouraged the locals to attack the fleet. However, the Spanish cavalry terrified the Mayans, who believed them to be ravenous monsters, and the affair was quickly dispatched.
The battle became a turning point not because the victory, but because the war booty included an enslaved indigenous princess named Malinalli, named by the Spaniards Marina or La Malinche (the latter being actually a term meant for Cortés himself). As it was the custom for native noblewomen, who were not any less often politically involved than Spanish queens, Marina became Cortés' translator, adviser and right-hand woman, as well as his concubine and later mother of a son, Martín. It is believed, even since her own time, that without her enviable knowledge of the local language and culture, the conquest would have simply not been possible; some have even called her the true conquistadora of America.
The Spaniards and their allies finally reached Mexica territory in April. When Mexica emperor Moctezuma heard about white foreigners riding weird creatures and wielding shining weapons, he was understandably wary, so he told them kindly by messengers that they should just leave his lands. However, by this point Cortés and company had confirmed they were facing an immensely rich empire with many disgruntled subjects who could be easily turned into allies to pressure their lords - in other words, a potential new province, to King Charles V's glory and the conquistadores' enrichment. Therefore, getting ready for some big operations, he founded the city of Veracruz (back then, the Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz) and used it to invoke a legality that freed him from Velázquez's control.
Cortés had intended to leave Velázquez in the dark, but the latter found out anyway. Angry, Velázquez called this an act of treason and started gathering an army to seek and arrest Cortés. Back in Spain, Charles V was advised not to take action and instead wait to see what happened (mainly by Diego Columbus, Christopher's son, who opposed both Velázquez and Cortés and wanted the discovered land for himself). However, the king would get apparently pleased with the mission's course, so the whole legal friction would be ultimately set aside.
The conquest beginsThe Spaniards were secretly contacted by the Totonacs, vassals of the Mexica Empire ruled by a Big Fun chieftain named Xicomecoatl, who were probing for a possible alliance with the powerful foreigners. Cortés made this a reality by promising them intercession against Mexicas, not any less by implicating them into direct action, and at the same time he started his own negotiations with the empire, playing a double game. When Cortés and his new friends came back to Veracruz, a mutiny exploded, so Cortés quelled it and famously ordered the ships to be dismantled so there could not be any more defections in the future.
Cortés and company continued through Mexica territory, where the Totonacs advised them to ally with the greatest enemy of the Mexicas, the Republic of Tlaxcala. Unfortunately, the Tlaxcaltecs mistook the foreigners for Aztec allies, so they tried to fight them off. The subsequent three battles were bloody, threatening the Spaniards with a heavy attrition, but Cortés managed to rout the Tlaxcaltecs every time and never stopped sending envoys of peace, so the Tlaxcaltecs eventually realized and called the war off. The four great lords of the republic, Xicotencatl I, Maxixcatzin, Tlahuexolotzin and Citlapopocaitzin, understood that, supernatural or not, the foreigners could become invaluable allies against the Mexica Empire, so an alliance was forged, with the first two lords marrying off five of their princesses to Spanish lieutenants.note
Sending word to Moctezuma that he would necessarily visit him, Cortés decided to take the route of Cholula, subjects to the Mexicas and bitter enemies of Tlaxcala themselves. It's not clear what happened then: according to the Spaniards, Marina and the native allies discovered that Moctezuma had secretly ordered the Cholultecs to ambush and kill them all, while mestizo sources purport the Tlaxcaltecs actually engineered the whole thing to get revenge on their enemies, and some modern historians suspect Cortés and the Tlaxcaltecs had both their own reasons to make an example out of Cholula. In any case, the Cortesian army delivered a preemptive strike that became a massacre (after which they took the city's gold, of course, while the Totonacs and Tlaxcaltecs grabbed all the cotton, slaves and salt, much more precious to them).
Eventually, and against Moctezuma's diplomatic insistence, Cortés crossed the empire and reached its capital, the impressive lake-city Mexico-Tenochtitlan, larger than any city in the Old World except perhaps Constantinople. Accompanied by a symbolic escort of 2,000 Tlaxcaltecs, still few compared to the city's hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, the Spaniards entered Tenochtitlan in a great parade and met the emperor Moctezuma, who was still unsure of what he was facing. Friendly talks were held among them, and after knowing about a powerful king at the other side of the world, Moctezuma privately claimed to accept to become his vassal, although the next events would twist the course of things.
In the huracán's eyeThe Mexicas of the coast wondered why the Totonacs had stopped paying tributes, so they attacked them, and some men of the Veracruz garrison died trying to help repel the attacks, among them their captain Juan de Escalante. Angry, and likely worried that the Mexicas in Tenochtitlan would follow up, Cortés made Moctezuma a hostage in all but name, extracted a harsh punishment for the offense, and started bossing things around. People in the city started doubting of Moctezuma's leadership, especially after the Christian Spaniards angered the locals by doing the usual anti-pagan shenanigans, but things seemed still under Cortesian control with Moctezuma in their power. Cortés even claimed to concede to Moctezuma's petitions to leave soon.
Back in Cuba, and despite his superiors in the Spanish Empire had ultimately ordered him not to, Velázquez sent captain Pánfilo de Narváez, at the head of 1,300 soldiers, with orders to bring Cortés back dead or alive. When Narváez arrived and took over violently the Totonaca state, Moctezuma played his own double game and contacted him secretly to see whether he could free him from Cortés, but the latter found about it, which didn't help things between the two. Ultimately, after arguing back and forth with Narváez by messengers, Cortés marched against them with a part of his army and the help of spywork, bribes, and some indigenous allies from Chinanta. Despite his numerical superiority, the incompetent Narváez was captured with his entire army in Cempoala, where he lost an eye, and when his soldiers learned about Cortés' exploits, they abandoned him anyway and joined Cortés. Talk about a bad day.
The absence of Cortés, however, ruined everything for his side, as command in Tenochtitlan was held by the much less savvy Pedro de Alvarado, who became involved with a disastrous turmoil. The citizens had asked Alvarado permission to host a religious festival, which he allowed, but while they were in midst of the party, Alvarado ordered his men to massacre everybody, apparently under warning that the festival was a plan to revolt. Again, sources disagree on this, some assuring Alvarado was right, others claiming he went full Stupid Evil and only wanted to mug the participants, and others accusing again the Tlaxcaltecs of making up the whole revolt to get Alvarado to wreak havoc on their enemies. In any case, and predictably, the entire city rose against them, and the Spaniards and Tlaxcaltecs were forced to grab Moctezuma and his entourage and lock themselves in their palace.
When Cortés returned to the city, warned that things were completely out of hand, he tried to put down the riots with his new reinforcements, and upon failing, he put Moctezuma out to order the citizens to calm down, but the king was stoned in the balcony and died shortly after, possibly by suicide. After several days of urban warfare, and seeing the writing on the wall, the Cortesians gathered all the treasure they could and tried to quietly move out of the lake-city by night, but their column was spotted, and suddenly a massive army of angry Mexicas attacked them. No less than 800 Spaniards and several hundreds of Tlaxcaltecs (and some Aztec hostages) died right there, and a lot of their horses, weapons and treasure were lost as well. It was called the Noche Triste ("Sad Night"), and Cortés himself cried in his course for the scope of the tragedy and for having led so many of his men to such a pointless death.
The Mexicas were now led now by Moctezuma's brother Cuitlahuac, who ordered a giant army to ambush the Spaniards in Otumba before they escaped their lands. However, Cortés and company managed to improbably rout the ambushers by going Straight for the Commander, after which they finally could reach the allied territory of Tlaxcala. The Mexicas sent messengers with great promises for the Tlaxcaltecs if they broke their alliance with the Spaniards, but the Tlaxcaltecs remained loyal to Cortés, who much to their delight, prepared a new plan to conquer Tenochtitlan by force.
The fall of an empireUnknowingly to Cortés and the Tlaxcaltecs, a black slave originally brought among Narváez's men and left behind in Tenochtitlan, Francisco de Eguía, had caused a smallpox outbreak in the city. As this illness was unknown in the New World, the city was ravaged and Cuitlahuac himself died. His successor, Cuauhtemoc, worked to fix things and gather the highest number of allies possible for the oncoming war, but damage was still being done. The smallpox also jumped to Tlaxcala and killed one of its four lords, Maxixcatzin, although its effects were lesser there compared to the cramped Tenochtitlan.
Cortés did the same as Cuauhtemoc, calling reinforcements from Veracruz and sending men to buy equipment from the Spanish Empire, and started a campaign to deprive the Mexica Empire from its vassals, convincing them to go over to his side and punishing into submission those who refused. He did this methodically, even allowing his native warriors to sacrifice and cannibalize war prisoners by their customs (usually a no-no for any Christian), and succeeded to the point of attracting even one of the powerful states of the Triple Alliance, Texcoco, led by the ambitious and very anti-Mexica prince Ixtlilxochitl. He also assimilated nearby expeditions and ships unrelated to his own, and started a highly elaborate plan to besiege Tenochtitlan by sea and land that can be unironically compared to the Fall of Carthage.
When Cortés and his allied states, which also included Chalco, Cholula, Huejotzingo, Mixquic, and several others, were in control of all the populations and states that surrounded the lake Tenochtitlan, they closed off all bridges, cut the water supply and deployed brigantines in the lake to counter the enemy war canoes. Fights and skirmishes happened by day and night during months while the city slowly became hungry and desperate, and even Cortés himself, who fought in the front lines, was briefly seized at one point by the Mexicas and almost sacrificed. The Cortesian allies ran away at one point, and there was also a coup attempt in Tlaxcala, as Xicotencatl II, the chieftain's rebellious son, tried to overthrow his superiors and ally himself to the Mexicas before being captured and executed.
The siege also saw the full deployment of Cortés' Amazon Brigade, a cadre of conquistadoras led by the legendary María de Estrada who astonished their own husbands with their bravery and fighting skill. They also served as battlefield nurses, with their chief medic, Isabel Rodríguez, being one of the first officially recognized female doctors in western history.
Finally, after three long months of blood, sweat and strategies, the coalition managed to overpower Tenochtitlan's defenses and conquer the city district by district. Fighting in the streets reached new heights of bloodshed, as Cortés' native allies massacred and pillaged the Mexica population to get revenge for their old enmities, to the point Cortés himself tried to stop it and found himself powerless due to the thing's sheer scale. Ultimately, however, they captured Cuauhtemoc, who was trying to exit the city with his harem and some treasure, and Tenochtitlan was declared taken.
AftermathThe takeover of the Mexica Empire set the base for the Hispanicization of Mesoamerica. As the war had been grievously costly, Cortés sent out new expeditions through the continent, seeking to keep his underlings busy, separate and hopefully enriched in order to avoid unpleasant situations. The alliances with the natives remained, with the Mexicas now forcefully added to the list, although it was naturally Tlaxcala which received most of the privileges, being granted judicial power, exemption from some tributes, and their own coat of arms, among other things; their continued loyalty became the mainstay of Spain's future endeavors, to the point it would be Tlaxcalllan soldiers who executed the Conquest of the Philippines. However, Moctezuma's lineage was preserved, with his Christian daughter Isabel having children (with both Cortés and another conquistador, leaving bloodlines that continued until today) and transitioning successfully into the biggest landowning family in their former empire.
Another powerful northern state, the Purepecha Empire of Michoacan, became voluntary vassals of the Spaniards in exchange for autonomy, while other, more belligerent peoples like Chichimecs, Mazatecs, and Zacatecs, were conquered by force over the years, and a number of other tribes, like many of the Zapotecs, allied themselves with the Spaniards against ancestral enemies. Pedro de Alvarado would also spearhead the Spanish Conquest of the Maya, although another of Cortés' lieutenants, Cristóbal de Olid, betrayed him in favor of the governor Diego Velázquez and had to be put down. Cuauhtemoc, who had been tortured by overzealous officials in the search of gold, would be also executed by Cortés under suspicions of a rebellion, possibly fueled by another Aztec nobleman, Tlacotzin, who wanted to replace him.
Speaking of Velázquez, after years of political enmity with Cortés, the Hispanic Monarchy finally settled the matter in favor of the latter. They appointed Cortés Marchis of the Valley of Oaxaca and captain general of New Spain, the name for the conquered lands (albeit they still didn't give him back the charge of governor he initially had, which he lost for being declared missing in action in an expedition), and he passed the rest of his life exploring the Pacific coast before dying in Spain. In 1535, with the creation of the Viceroyalty of New Spain with Antonio de Mendoza as viceroy, the conquest of the main civilizations of Mesoamerica seemed concluded, although some more battles and treaties would happen, especially among the Mayans, until complete control centuries later.
- The backstory of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl features Cortés and the gold he extracted from the Aztecs before being cursed by their heathen gods, although the whole tone of the story, unsurprisingly, echoes more Pizarro and the conquest of the Inca Empire.
- Gold (2017) tells the story of a fictional Spanish expedition partially inspired on Cortés'.
- The documentary Spain, the first globalization mentions the conquest among its many points about Spanish history.
- The True History of the Conquest of Mexico is a chronicle written by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of Cortés' men, who lived through the entire affair.
- Spanish TV series Hernán, with Óscar Jaenada playing the title character, portrays part of the conquest (with some liberties).
- Another Spanish TV series, The Ministry of Time, has an episode set during Cortés' expedition's arrival to the Mayan lands (with even more liberties).
- Age of Empires II features the conquest of the Mexica Empire in its aptly named The Conquerors expansion pack.
- The Road to El Dorado is set during the conquest and features a sinister portrayal of Cortés as one of its villains.