Last Updated 15 Apr 2020

Defeating the Aztec Empire

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Hernan Cortes, a fierce Spanish conquistador, landed at San Juan de Ulua, in April 1519. With him, Cortes had 508 soldiers, one hundred sailors, artillery cannons, eleven ships and sixteen horses. Cortes and his small army, marched through Mexico, forming alliances with Aztec rivals, until reaching the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan was the capital city of the massive Mexican empire known as the Aztecs or Mexica. It had a population of 200,000 people; almost three times that of the largest city of Spain, Seyville (Windschuttle, 43).

Within the next two years, Cortes and his men had triumphantly defeated the Aztecs and taken control of Tenochtitlan against all odds. (Daniel, 1992) So how, despite be hopelessly outnumbered, without the possibility of new supplies or reinforcements, fighting other native tribes and Spaniards, and the Aztecs on their own turf, did this tiny Spanish force defeat such a formidable army. Today, there are a number of reasons why the Spanish have believed to been able to overcome such odds.

A combination of poor Aztec military tactics against advance Spanish weaponry and strategy, a weak Aztec ruler, the spread of disease, Tenochtitlan’s poor governing over its populace, and the interconnectedness of Aztec military and religion ultimately led to the demise of its empire. The first phase of the Spanish invasion of Mexico took place in April 1519. In defiance of the Governor of Cuba and his expedition sponsor, Cortes took control over his forces and moved them inland.

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On the way, Cortes met resistance from other locals, who he eventually conquered and absolved into his army as allies. After reaching Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Capital, the Spaniards were initially greeted as foreign ambassadors. Other claims state that the Aztecs viewed Cortes as the god, Quetzalcoatl (Windschuttle, 50). The Spanish did not return the favor, eventually kidnapping Emperor Montezuma and, using him as a puppet, ran the country. The Governor of Cuba, angry with the defiant Cortes, sent a force under Panfilo Narvaez to end his exploration.

As the natives before him, Cortes defeated this force and had them join him in his conquest. In Cortes’ absence, the Spanish troops left behind had massacred Aztec nobles during a religious festival, a confrontation that also left emperor Moctezuma dead. The Spanish were forced to leave Tenochtitlan, ending the first phase of the conquest. For a year, the Spanish forces recuperated, gathering eight thousand native allies and new supplies, including three naval vessels. “To ay siege to a lake-girt city requiring the prefabrication of thirteen brigantines on the far side of the mountains, eight thousand carriers to transport the pieces, their reassembly in Texcoco, the digging of a canal and the deepening of the lake for their successful launching (Clendinenn, 72)” For a year, Cortes and his native allies lay siege to the city of Tenochtitlan. Using experience military tactics, against an Aztec force unprepared for them, Cortes and his troops captured the capital city, killing almost all inside. This would be the end of the Aztec empire.

Moctezuma II was the ninth ruler of Tenochtitlan and the first Aztec emperor to make contact with Europeans. Moctezuma’s poor leadership and unwillingness to deal with the invading Spaniards are regarded as large factors of the Aztec’s demise. He immediately assumed the foreigners to be foreign ambassadors and was blindly unable to see their true intent. At their first meeting, the two leaders exchanged gifts. Clendinnen stated that “Cortes interpreted Moctezoma’s first gifts as gestures of submission of naive attempts of bribery. To the Aztecs, Moctezuma gifts were most likely “statements of dominancy, superb gestures of wealth and liberality made the more glorious by the arrogant humility of their giving (Windshuttle, 40). ” After living months in Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards launched a coup, taking Moctezuma as a hostage. When he was taken hostage, he preferred to attempt to bribe the invaders rather than, although have the ability to, expel them from the city. Being heavily religious, Moctezuma would depend on his oracles for a plan of action, proving his indecisiveness and wasting valuable time.

Indecisiveness of the leader and inaction to deal with the invaders led to the demise of the Aztec empire (Windschuttle, 45). The Aztec’s authoritative rule over its different cities and populations allowed for Hernan Cortes to recruit thousands of native allies. Only recently rising to power, the Aztecs depended on governed regions and populations for taxing tribute that included food and other necessities. “They exacted tribute by threat of terror and retribution.

In fact, each year, the agricultural harvest heralded the onset of a six-month season of war, in which warriors from Tenochtitlan would go out to other settlements to challenge them to battle, to bring back captives for sacrifice, and to carry off women, children, and slaves (Windschuttle, 54). ” The capital city of Tenochtitlan’s use of murder, sacrifice, and firm rule over its lands caused other Aztec cities to desire them to be overthrown. The Aztec’s authoritative rule was heavily resented, and did poorly to attain any loyal sentiments among its far-reaching population.

Cortes was able to easily break these shaky alliances, and have these angered native populations join him in getting rid of the Aztecs. By the second siege of Tenochtitlan, Cortes had almost every other Aztec city fighting behind him. It was these native allies that led to the final massacre of the remaining Aztecs in Technoctitlan (Clendinenn, 91). Since the first contact between Europeans and American natives, diseases such as smallpox, measles, and yellow fever had spread like wildfire, killing millions of natives. The spread of disease to natives lacking immunity also contributed to the fall of the Aztecs.

During the second siege of Tenochtitlan, a Spanish soldier from the force sent by the Governor of Cuba, had brought the smallpox disease with him. This disease spread quickly and was very effective at killing the natives. “Smallpox was the biggest single cause of death in the Valley of Mexico and killed off many more Aztec warriors than did Spanish swords or guns (Windschuttle, 46). ” When the second siege of Tenochtitlan began, their population had dwindled so much that defeat was seemingly imminent. A major reason for the Spanish victory over the Aztecs was their experienced and trained military soldiers.

They had foot soldiers with pikes, swordsmen, muskets and artillery. Spanish forces, trained by numerous wars with the French, were comprised of tercios, or units of 250 men. Soldiers were well-trained and put through drills that stressed the importance of the unit working together. Cortes and his army, due to lack of men, had to adjust to follow Spanish military strategy. “During the siege of Tenochtitlan the force was reformed into nine companies of about fifty men each, grouped in turn into three “divisions,” each of three companies. This handling of troops was in keeping with Spanish practice of the period (Daniel, 189). Cortes’ sixteen horses also proved to be incredibly effective against the Aztec soldiers and a played a vital role in their victory. “At Cintla in Tabasco, early in the expedition, thirteen horseman route a huge enemy force engaged with the infantry. At Otumba the wounded and exhausted cavalry repeatedly broke through the overwhelming numbers of Aztec troops until they retreated (Daniel, 189). ” Without the help of rival native groups, such as the Tlaxcala and Texcoco, the Spanish would have been even more outnumbered by the Aztec forces. This tactical use of alliances was possibly the most important aspect of Cortes’ conquest of Mexico.

Overall, the use of infantry, cavalry, and allies seemed to be too much for the Aztecs. The tactical organization of the Aztec military was much different than that of the Spanish. The Aztec forces were comprised of every able man, who had little option, as opposed to the Spanish forces comprised of volunteers. Their forces were divided into four units of four hundred men, commanded by a councilor of the emperor. Most of these troops were low class commoners. There were also units of elite soldier fraternities, such as the Eagle and the Jaguar, that provided increased military skill to the Aztec army.

Typically, Aztec forces would use open formations and attempt to overcome their foe using flanking tactics (Daniel 120). The Aztecs and their fortified cities were also not used to siege warfare or the use of cannons. “European cities had over this time adapted their construction, supplies and defenses to the possibility of a siege. Moreover , at the time the Spaniards were departing from America, European fortifications were going through a rapid redesign because of the challenge presented by the invention of cannon.

In Tenochtitlan, however, Cortes found a people who had never even conceived of European-style siege warfare, let alone constructed defenses against it (Clendinenn, 56). ” The Aztec use of open formations and inability to defend against cavalry attacks led to a disadvantage on the battleground. The Spanish army’s closed sword-wielding formations were able to hold up well against the Aztecs, often breaking through their lines. The cavalry, time and time again, were able to break up the Aztec formations, causing them to retreat. An example of the overpowering Spanish army tactics was highlighted by the Battle of Otumba.

Here, a large Aztec army confronted exhausted Spanish forces. Cortes ordered his cavalry to attack the military leaders and the Aztec army’s flanks, breaking through their lines and causing confusion. The Spanish infantrymen engaged the Aztec foot soldiers, continuing to attack as the Aztec retreated. These tactics of Cortes and his men proved to too much even large Aztec force. Aside from military tactics, the military technologies utilized by the Spanish army were far more superior to the weapons of the Aztecs. Europeans were much more advanced in terms of weaponry, using weapons of steel and iron against the Aztec’s wood and stone.

As the Aztecs considered kills with long-distance weapons to shameful, their arrows and darts were only meant to injure their opponents. Aztec warriors carried wooden arrows, knives of flint stone and wooden clubs embedded with flakes of obsidian, a form of volcanic glass (Windschuttle, 45). ” These clubs with stone tips were the most effective weapons carried by the Aztecs. Spanish soldiers on the other hand carried “cutlasses, lances, arrowheads and armor all forged from iron and steel, plus hand guns, crossbows, and cannons (Windschuttle, 1997-45). Their lances and cutlasses were much more efficient in hand-to-hand combat, with the ability to kill opponents with one strike. The Spanish also brought with them armored cavalry, cannons, crossbows, brigantines (ships), and handguns. In the second siege of Tenochtitlan, the three brigantines lay waste to Aztec canoes fighting in defense of the city.

The Aztec military was seemingly outmatched and did not intimidate the invaders in the least. “Spanish soldiers, in fact, found Aztec weapons so inconsequential that they abandoned their own heavy metal armor in favor of quilted cotton (Windschuttle, 55). The Spanish weaponry was too much for the outdated weapons of the Aztecs to have a chance. One historian, Inga Clendinnen, argued that the biggest Aztec disadvantage was how they viewed military confrontations. As they did with the Spanish, the Aztecs would send food and gifts to an enemy viewed as inferior. The Aztecs felt that war and religion were interconnected. The Aztecs preferred hand-to-hand combat with the intention of using captives for sacrifices to the gods. They were opposed to killing opponents from a distance and viewed surprise ambushing as an unthinkable military tactic.

The Spanish army, however, cherished their long-ranged weapons, such as their muskets and crossbows. To make matters worse, Aztec warriors considered being killed by a long-distance weapon as an unworthy death. “Spaniards valued their crossbows and muskets for their capacity to pick off selected enemies well behind the line of engagement: as snipers, as we would say. The psychological demoralization attending those sudden, trivializing deaths of great men painted for war, but not yet engaged in combat, must have been formidable (Clendinnen, 80)” Cortes also launched numerous attacks in the orning, known as dawn raids, charging on unsuspecting villages and slaughtering men, women, and children. Cortes and the Spanish army learned to take advantage of the Aztecs’ religious military tactics. Spanish soldiers would pretend to retreat, tempting Aztec troops to pursue chases in the hopes of acquiring sacrificial captives. Cortes would then simultaneously have his troops turn around and slaughter the unsuspecting Aztecs (Windschuttle, 52-53).

Cortes states that “Sometimes, as we were thus withdrawing and they pursued us so eagerly, the horsemen would pretend to be fleeing, and then suddenly would turn on the,; we always took a dozen or so of the boldest. By these means and by the ambushed which we set for them, they were always much hurt; and certainly it was a remarkable sight for even when they well knew the harm they would receive from us as we withdrew, they still pursued us until we had left the city (Clendinenn, 80). ” The Spanish used siege warfare to ultimately bring down Tenochtitlan.

They constricted its perimeter, forcing other tribes to join them against the Aztecs, and cutting off supplies to the Tenochtitlan’s inhabitants. “Siege was the quintessential European strategy: an economical design to exert maximum pressure on whole populations with active engagement, delivering control over people and place at least cost (Clendinenn, 83). ” Aztecs detested this form of warfare, preferring the more honorable hand-to-hand combat. The Spanish, however, would avoid this type of warfare, sticking together in tight formations and using long-distance weapons and artillery.

In the end, despite being heavily outnumbered, outgunned, and malnourished the Aztecs followed their prideful ways and refused to surrender. “Again they encountered ghostly figures, of women and gaunt children, and saw the warriors still stationed on the rooftops, but silent now, and unarmed, close-wrapped in their cloaks. And still the fruitless pretense at negotiation, the dumb, obdurate resistance (Clendinnen, 91). ” Here Cortes seems to be dumbfounded by the resilience of the seemingly defeated Aztecs. In the coming day, Cortes and his army killed twelve thousand more Tenochtitlan inhabitants.

Cortes again tried to get them to surrender. “I said many things to persuade them to surrender but all to no avail, although we showed them more signs of peace that have ever been shown to a vanquished people for we, by the grade of our Lord, were now the victors (Clendinnen, 91). ” After two more days of Aztec refusal, Cortes released their native ally forces, which mercilessly murdered “forty-thousand” more Aztec civilians. Between the 15th and 16th centuries, the Aztec empire had been a thriving empire with far-reaching influence throughout Mexico.

The eventual demise befalling them would go blindly unknown as Hernan Cortes and his army of Spanish Conquistadors explored Mexico. Within two years of seeing Tenochtitlan and meeting its emperor Moctezuma II, the Spanish forces of roughly five hundred men had destroyed the Aztec city and killed off most of inhabitants. There are many reasons that contributed to this extremely unlikely scenario. Moctezuma made the first blunder by accepting the invaders as foreign ambassadors and basically allowing them to roam freely around the city. His eventual kidnapping at the hands of the Spanish seemed to be the beginning of the end.

After the initial siege of Tenochtitlan was unsuccessful, the Spanish were able to recuperate in a neighboring city of Texococo. Preying on weak ties between Technotitlan and the cities it cruelly and authoritatively ruled over, Cortes was able to combine a native ally army. In conjunction with the Spaniards’ advanced weaponry and military strategy, and using the poor religious-backed military tactics of the Aztecs to their advantage, the Aztecs fell within a year. The defeat of the Aztecs seemingly opened the door to European colonization of the Americas and the further destruction of the continents’ natives.

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