What can historians learn about why the Spanish were successful in defeating the Aztecs? From sources of the time, historians can explain how Cortes was able to conquer the Aztecs for various reasons. In combination these reasons allowed him to have the upper hand in the conquest of Mexico. To begin with the Aztecs had a harsh tribute system that was not popular among the people of Mexico, and this tribute system allowed Cortes to befriend many tribes; meaning supplies were easily accessible. Furthermore, the Spanish brought diseases into South America that they were immune to but the Aztecs were not.
The spread of diseases such as small pox reduced the Aztec population and furthered Cortes’ success. There was also La Malinche; a tribal girl given as a gift to Cortes. She proved invaluable in translating local dialects in combination with Geronimo de Aguilar, went on to become Cortes’ mistress. An important aspect of the success was due to Montezuma’s belief that Cortes was Quetzalcoatl, a Mesoamerican deity, which made him wary of offending Cortes. Another predominant reason for the Spanish success was due to their weaponry such as their armour and firepower.
Finally, Cortes’ Indian allies such as the Tlaxcalans made up the majority of his combined army, and helped in battles. All these reasons worked together to allow Cortes, originally with 508 men, to conquer the Aztec Empire of millions of people. To begin with, the Aztec’s forced tribute system allowed Cortes to act as a liberator. The process of human sacrifice was extremely common and was feared by the majority of the common people. As the majority of those who were sacrificed were war captives who opposed the Aztecs, they obviously greatly feared the brutal tribute system.
Cortes was disgusted at the thought of human sacrifice, and this allowed him to gain Indian allies as well as gain respect among Mexican tribes that feared and opposed the Aztecs, Most of the local population feared the sacrifices, therefore making Cortes an appealing alternative. Because Cortes posed to eliminate the Aztecs it allowed him to appear as a liberator of the tyranny of the Aztec rule. A huge factor in Cortes’ success was the issue of disease among the Aztecs. This greatly benefited the Spanish in reducing the Aztec population, and severely weakening whoever remained.
The Spanish were immune to their diseases, so they posed little threat to Cortes’ own men. The Aztecs were demoralized by the mysterious illness that killed Indians and spared Spaniards, as if advertising the Spaniards’ invincibility. One negative aspect for Cortes however was that his Indian allies suffered from the disease to the same extent as the Aztecs, resulting in considerable losses. Smallpox stopped the Aztecs from pursuing the Spanish around the lake after the Noche Triste. When the Spanish landed in 1514, Mexico had a population of 25. 2 million.
Then 80 years later at the end of the sixteenth century the population of Mexico had dropped by 95% to just over one million; showing that disease played a significant unintentional role in contributing to Cortes’ success. Another reason that enabled him to conquer the empire was his translators, namely La Malinche and Geronimo de Aguilar. After a short warring period with the tabascans they exchanged gifts with one and other. One of these presents was a Mexican girl called Malinche who was a tremendous asset to the Spanish. Marina knew the language of Coatzacoalcos, which was the most common throughout Mexico.
She also knew the language of the Tabascans, and perhaps the most useful of all she knew Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs themselves. Another important role was that of Geronimo de Aguilar who had been shipwrecked there in Mexico in 1511. He was intelligent and well educated and picked up on much of the local dialects. In combination Malinche and Aguilar were extremely useful to Cortes. The translation process worked in two stages, firstly Malinche translated the local language into a form that Aguilar could understand, then secondly Aguilar translated it into Spanish for Cortes.
Malinche was very intelligent later learning Spanish herself as well as bearing one of Cortes’ children. She proved herself to be invaluable in helping Cortes recover from confrontations with the Aztecs and other opposing tribes. She also was important in helping Cortes gain Indian allies as she could explain what Cortes could do for them. Malinche greatly helped Cortes in his conquest of the Mexican Empire. Montezuma believed Cortes to be the great god Quetzalcoatl who was returning to take back the Aztec empire. What benefited Cortes in this case was the confusion surrounding Montezuma whether or not Cortes was really the great god.
This confusion gave Cortes time to act while Montezuma thought. This was of great benefit as it made Montezuma apprehensive when he was confronted with Cortes. Several aspects proved to Montezuma that Cortes was Quetzalcoatl. Cortes preached a religion of love, mercy and compassion, and he forbade human sacrifice and instituted bloodless offerings. Both these things helped to convince Montezuma as both Cortes and Quetzalcoatl housed these characteristics. Quetzalcoatl was also the god of thunder and lightning which was easily represented by the Spanish artillery.
On the other hand various aspects showed Cortes to not be the prophesised god. Cortes spoke of a superior (King Charles), in which Quetzalcoatl wouldn’t have. Furthermore Cortes himself couldn’t speak the language of Nahuatl, and Montezuma found it hard to believe that he could have forgotten his own language. The situation allowed Cortes to advance with his plans before Cortes had time to fully access the situation. Montezuma was intimidated as the Spanish defeated the tlaxcalans, whom the Aztec’s had never defeated, and then allied with them.
In addition, the Spanish military dominance greatly assisted them in their conquest of the Aztec Empire. This was a huge advantage as their cavalry, steel and firepower outdid the Aztec’s in every respect. Although the Spanish arrived with a mere 508 people, their weaponry frightened the Aztecs and local tribes with cavalry and Spanish cannon in which they had never seen. Spanish melee weaponry consisted of swords, and pikes, using hard Toledo steel that was far stronger and retained their edge far longer than any of their combatants.
The Spanish fought in a routine, regimented fashion with numerous back up units, directly in contrast with their combatants who trained in the Iberian tradition of individual fighting. Another major advantage that the Spanish had over the Aztecs was that they had armour. Spanish steel armour was effective against Indian projectiles, and it greatly weakened the blows from Aztec obsidian swords. Because wounds were limited to the limbs, face, and neck and other unarmoured regions, Spanish soldiers faced less risk of death, while the unarmoured Indians and Aztecs were extremely vulnerable.
A strong Spanish advantage was not just the physical strength of their weaponry but also the psychological effects it caused. The gunpowder in the rifles scared the Indians as they had never seen such things before and believed they may be associated with the gods. The Spanish cavalry also worked in this psychological disturbance. The Spanish arrived with few numbers but their extreme military dominance due to their advanced weaponry and armour allowed them to conquer the Aztec Empire of millions. Lastly, Cortes gained Indian allies such as the Tlaxcalans who made up an extremely large percentage of Cortes’ force.
Through his various anti-Aztec policies Cortes was able to gain many valuable Indian allies. The Tlaxcalans had been at war with the Aztecs for almost a century, and to the Tlaxcalans the Spanish represented their only hope of breaking the power of Mexico. They gave Cortes a great amount of detail about Tenochtitlan, telling him about the number of drawbridges on the causeways and even the depth of the water in the lake. Cortes now had the support of the entire tlaxcalan republic, who created an extremely vital ally. Cortes had many tlaxcalans backing him up for the reconquest of Tenochtitlan, as well as other Indians allies.
The allies were also put to work in many other ways than fighting. Without Cortes’ Indian allies he would have had no chance of defeating an enemy of such vast numbers Cortes was able to conquer the Aztec Empire for several reasons of varying importance. The Aztec’s cruel tribute system, La Malinche and Aguilar as translators, the Spanish military dominance, Cortes’ Indian allies, the Quetzalcoatl myth, and the smallpox epidemic all contributed in the Spanish success. In combination these reasons gave Cortes the upper hand in his eventual conquest of Mexico.
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