The most fundamental question to be asked of any study into the Spanish conquest of Mexico is how was there ever a conquest at all? Even by European standards of the period, the arrogance required for such a venture is almost comic in its scale and expectations. That a relative handful of Spanish sailors might engage an established civilization of millions and emerge victorious in the matter of 31 months makes the conquest of 1519 one of history’s greatest military feats. Historians have struggled to unravel the foundations of this overwhelming success.
This is primarily due to the lack of and inaccuracy of primary accounts. Those that survive, either Spanish or Native American, are invariably conflicting or biased in nature. It has been left to historians to piece together these divergent accounts. Although one definite conclusion may never be reached, it is possible to draw on this research to lay down the key factors of the conquest and thus form a judgement upon the significance of Hernan Cortes’ leadership. Although the role of Hernan Cortes is central to this question, other factors must be weighed in comparison.
Ross Hassig1 lays out nine key factors behind the collapse of the Aztecs, the personal characteristics of Cortes being just one. This is not to downplay Cortes’ role in the conquest. Indeed were it not for the characteristics of Cortes the 1519 voyage may never have been launched at all. Rather than for political or religious reasons, Spanish exploration during this period was used primarily as a means to economic expansion. The wealthy Governor Velasquez sponsored the 1519 voyage ostensibly for exploration but effectively to seek the almost mythical wealth of the Aztec civilisation.
Although Velasquez had initially placed Cortes in charge of the expedition, rumours concerning his “trustworthiness, ambitions and political manoeuvrings”2 persuaded him to review his leadership. Upon learning of his imminent downfall, the arrogant Cortes set sail early, determined to pick up supplies and troops in Trinidad and carry on regardless. Infuriated, Velasquez gave chase to Cortes’ fleet and issued a warrant for his arrest. Although never caught, the incident gives the historian a pivotal insight into the conquest and the role played by Cortes.
That a man such as Cortes should risk both honour and liberty in order to lead the campaign is testimony to his determination and drive. It is also vital to understand that Cortes was now stranded. With a price on his head, retreat was no longer an option. Unless success in Mexico was achieved, Cortes faced both arrest and possible execution. Although this account plays against the brave and fearless image of Cortes, it emphasises the importance of his role in the conquest. However, it was not to be Cortes’ skills as a warrior that brought about the Conquest of Mexico.
Such an achievement can only be attributed to his diplomacy and calculated manipulation of the natives, which has led many historians to describe him as more of an entrepreneur or businessman than a military leader. A good example of this may be given with the manner in which Cortes established himself in Mexico. When landing at San Juan de Ulua, Cortes instructed his men not to desecrate the Mesoamericans religious idols or loot riches from natives. Cortes had learnt from previous attempts upon Mexico that to engage the natives too early would be suicide.
Instead, Cortes engaged his time in learning about the native culture from a slave girl named Malinche. She was to be a translator for Cortes. He learnt much about the religion, social behaviour and war tactics of the Mesoamericans, factors that would be important in the conquest. This is again testimony to Cortes’ diplomacy and skill as a military thinker. With so few men, not even Cortes’ brand of arrogance could lead him to believe he could take on the entire force of the Aztec civilisation.
Re-enforcements were out of the question for Cortes, who still had both the King of Spain and Velasquez after his blood. His other option was to use his skills in manipulation to divide his enemies into factions. By separating his enemy into isolated groups, Cortes increased his chances of success as he could use his manpower and technological superiority to greater effect. In discovering that the Aztecs were a divided civilisation, Cortes set about his task. The Totonac Indians were a powerful tribe who were enemies with the Aztecs.
In return for freedom from both Aztecs and Spanish alike, the Indians agreed to help Cortes in his attempt to conquer the Tenochtitlan. Only at this point did Cortes bring his full plan into action. Under effective command of his powerful ally, the Totonac Indians, he ordered the Totonacs to take the Aztecs prisoner. Behind their backs he set captured Aztec tribute collectors free so it would appear to Moteuczoma that Cortes and his men were allies. The long awaited Aztec attack still didn’t come, again largely due to Cortes skill as a leader.
Using this tactic, Cortes was able to progress through Mexico largely unchallenged. Tribes that were encountered were either bought onto Cortes side by promises of freedom from Moteuczoma and the Aztecs, or crushed underfoot by the Spanish and their increasing number of allies. The best example of Cortes leadership using this tactic may be seen in the Spaniards first major clash with the Indians, the powerful Tlaxcaltecs. Although the Tlaxcaltecs were by no means allies with the Aztecs, they did not take kindly to the Spanish. The fighting was fierce and bloody, with Cortes sustaining heavy casualties.
Running low on food and ammunition and unable to retreat for fear of loosing the support of allies he had spent months forging, Cortes pulled of arguably his greatest tactical victory of the entire conquest. As Hassig comments, “That the Spaniards did not withdraw, as the Tlaxcaltecs could justifiable expect, was less a tribute to their skills than to their lack of alternatives. “3 In a meeting with the Tlaxcaltecs, Cortes put on a show of strength to the Indians in order to portray that both physically and logistically the Spanish were in much better condition than they really were.
The Tlaxcaltecs bought this and approached Cortes for peace. Not only had Cortes overcome his greatest and most dangerous obstacle since landing in Mexico, he had also gained an extremely powerful ally in the Tlaxcaltecs, an ally that would trouble the Aztecs greatly. Whether you accept that Cortes’ venture into Mexico was a conquest or not, the achievement of Cortes is remarkable. For a few hundred Spaniards to bring a civilisation of what is conservatively estimated to be 25 million to its knees in less than three years is hardly credible. Cortes undoubtedly must take credit from the achievement.
His skill and tenacity in dividing and turning the native peoples against one another whilst timing his offences perfectly contributed enormously to the Spanish success. However, to label Cortes as the sole reason for the victory is both nai??ve and inaccurate. Many factors contributed to the downfall of this long established civilisation. Although the Spanish were few in number and their resources strongly limited by their environment and the amount of travelling involved in the venture, the technology of the Spanish played a pivotal role in the conquest of Mexico.
The Spaniards confronted the Aztecs with never before seen weapons of war. “… including sailing ships, cannons, guns, crossbows, steel swords and lances, as well as horses and war dogs”4. Although the Spanish were so few in number, in initial conflicts the Spaniards technological superiority was used to great effect, particularly the cavalry charge which caused huge casualties amongst the natives. None of the natives had ever even seen a horse before, never mind fought one, resulting in considerable respect for the Spanish conquerors.
The modern steel armour worn by the Spaniards proved to be resilient against the relatively primitive weapons of the Aztecs, whilst Spanish canon and guns although few in number were used to devastating effect. Although this technological superiority cannot be said to have been decisive, the Aztecs quickly learning how to defend against these weapons, it certainly gave Cortes an edge in establishing himself in Mexico. It also explains how the Spaniards were able to inflict such damage upon the vastly superior numbers of the Aztecs.
Another factor, which played into the hands of Cortes, was the epidemic of smallpox, carried over from Europe by the Spanish, that broke out amongst the Indian population. Although historians such as Francis Brooks have questioned the extent or even the existence of the outbreak, it is a commonly held view amongst experts that the epidemic was a factor in the ease of Cortes’ passing. Although it will never be possible to know the exact extent of any outbreak, uncertainties caused by unreliable accounts of the events coupled with the unknown population of Mexico at the time, it is certain that any outbreak would have aided Cortes.
Even if the epidemic did not have a devastating mortality rate upon the Indians, it is highly probable that the ravages of an unknown disease amongst an army would have shattered moral and loosened the cohesion of the Aztec defence. Another important factor in Cortes’ success was the native belief that Cortes and his Spanish troops were Gods. By a mere chance, the arrival of Cortes in 1519 upon a never seen before modern sailing ship, corresponded with the prophesised arrival of an Aztec God. The technology of the Spanish backed this up.
The power of the Spanish guns would have been seen as magic compared with the primitive arrows and slings used by the Indians, whilst the heavily armoured Spanish cavalry riding strange wild beasts struck fear into the Aztec warriors. Many believed that the Spanish were immortal, a belief that the Spanish used to their advantage. “… and to preserve the belief that they were immortal, they ‘threw much earth over the top of the house, so that they should not smell the bodies. “5 Such beliefs would explain the lack of opposition in the early months of the conquest.
It might also explain the ease with which Cortes established allies in such an alien environment. This again played considerably into the hands of Cortes. One final factor might be attributed to the lack of preparation and lack of cohesion within the Aztec armies. Although cautious, Cortes progressed very rapidly through Mexico, his aggressive intent masked until just before his strike. Despite the vastly superior numerical advantage held by the Aztecs, there was no ready professional army as such. Such a force would have to be raised in advance, a lengthy and expensive process given the level of technology.
A complete fluke that Cortes arrived in Mexico right in the middle of a harvest period compounded this. The early attack expected by Cortes that never came would have overrun the Spanish and destroyed Cortes campaign before it had begun. By the time effective opposition had been organised, Cortes had established himself in Mexico and gained many allies. It was too little too late. The Spanish Conquest of Mexico in 1519 may go down in history as one of the greatest and most unlikely successes of all time.
To a large extent this success may be attributed to the personal qualities and characteristics of Hernan Cortes. Although his somewhat reckless and buccaneering attempt upon Mexico might have been to a large extent forced upon him, his tenacity and exploitation of the weaknesses in Aztec civilisation were pivotal in the remarkable Spanish success. Although many other factors played considerably into Spanish hands, technology, Aztec beliefs and disease to give examples, none can be said to be decisive. Whether you believe Cortes conquered Mexico or not, Spanish success can to a large extent be attributed to him.