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The Spanish Conquest

The Old World had begun to discover new regions. Portuguese navigators reached Madeira and the Azoresbetween 1416 and 1432 - the first step toward thediscovery of the New World. Other explorers crossed the Equator off the coast of Africa in about 1470, and in 1487 Bartolomew Diaz sailed as far as the Cape of Good Hope. Less than a decade later Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of America.

The "explosion" which spread Aztec rule and planted Aztec culture over vast regions was contemporaneous with another expansionist movement, and the latter, with superior weapons, techniques and tactics, proved much the more powerful. When the Old World and the Aztecsin the New World met face to face in November 1519, their attitudes toward each otherwere very different. The Aztecs, thought the strangers were Quetzalcoatl and other gods returning from over the sea, while the Spaniards - despite their amazement at the splendors of Tenochtitlan - considered the Aztecs barbarians and thought only of seizing their riches and of forcing them to become Christians and Spanish subjects.

From the beginning of the reign of Moctezuma II, Spanish navigators had been exploring the neighborhood of the Mexican coast and several had touched on the mainland of Yucatan and Campeche. Lured by stories of the riches of the Aztec, a Spanish adventurer, Hernán (sometimes referred to as Fernando or Hernando) Cortés, assembled a fleet of eleven ships, ammunition, and over 700 men and in 1519 set sail from Cuba to Mexico. The party landed near present-day Veracruz in eastern Mexico and started its march inland. Superior firepower, resentment against the Aztec by conquered tribes in eastern Mexico, and considerable luck all aided the Spanish in their conquest of the Aztec. Cortes set out with a small military force on his daring expedition to the uplands of Mexico. On the way he defeated the Tlaxcalans, an independent nation, and the Cholulans, who formed a semi-dependent province of the Aztec empire. From these he recruited a considerable native army, with which he continued his march to Mexico City.

The Aztec and their allies had never seen horses or guns, the Spanish had interpreters who could speak Spanish, Maya, and Náhuatl (the Aztec language), and perhaps what was most important, Cortés unwittingly had the advantage of the legend of Quetzalcóatl, in which the Aztec are said to have believed that a white god would arrive in ships from the east in 1519 and destroy the native civilizations.

The Aztecs were familiar with stories about Quetzalcoatl, a great ruler of the Toltec Indians, named after the god Quetzalcoatl. In this legend, the fair-skinned, bearded ruler was exiled, but he had promised to return. The Aztecs believed that this would occur in the year One Reed (which happened to be 1519) and that the god could take many forms, including that of a pale-skinned, bearded man. Quetzalcoatl was not a true Aztec deity, but seems rather to have been waiting to expand his influence until Huitzilopochtli had finished his work of making the Aztecs brave and hardy enough to defy all resistance. All historians agree in recording the universal native belief that the strange newcomers must be Quetzalcoatl and his followers.

As soon as Montezuma saw the Spaniard's helmets and compared it with that worn by Huitzilopochtli, he was convinced that the Spaniards were of the same lineage as himself and had come to rule over their land. The high priests or living representatives of the ancestral hero Huitzilopochtli bore as a title the name of Quetzalcoatl. Cortes from the first announced through his interpreters that he and his soldiers were but envoys and vassals of the greatest lord on earth, the emperor Charles V. Judging from recorded facts, the Mexicans seem to have reasoned that, as Cortes acknowledged a superior he could not be a deity, but as he and his followers wore the familiar insignia of their god he and they must be Quetzalcoas or high-priests, the living representatives of their own ancestral hero and totemic divinity Huitzilopochtli from whom the Spaniards likewise must have descended. Such a belief would explain why Montezuma charged his messengers to take to Cortes all the priestly insignia proper to him.

Unwilling to confront the mysterious arrival whom he considered a god, the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II (anglicized as Montezuma), initially welcomed the Spanish party to the capital in November 1519. Montezuma soon was arrested, and the Spanish took control of Tenochtitlán. The Aztec chieftains staged a revolt, however, and the Spanish were forced to retreat to the east. The Spanish recruited new troops while a smallpox epidemic raged through Tenochtitlán, killing much of the population.

Cortes finally succeeded in making a prisoner of Montezuma, who was killed a short time afterward (30 June 1520) either by the Spaniards or by the Mexicans themselves. When Montezuma died, his brother, Cuitlahuac, became chief of men; he soon died of smallpox. The presence of the Spaniards in the city, the death of the emperor and the profanation of the shrines of their deities enraged the Aztecs to such an extent that they rose against Cortes and he was forced to leave the city by night. In the retreat he lost his cavalry, artillery and most of his infantry.

By the summer of 1521, the Spanish were ready to assault the city. When Cortes with his enormous force appeared, the nephew of Montezuma, Cuauhtemoc, was in the position of Aztec leader. He was a young man of little more than twenty years; he was brave, wise, and patriotic. He had made preparations for the attack. Provisions had been brought together, strategic points fortified, the causeways had been cut, a great fleet of canoes had been prepared. Cuauhtemoc himself was in personal charge of the Aztec forces.

The Aztecs were at a great disadvantage in their idea of warfare; it had always been their practice to capture, not to kill, the enemy; the practice of the Spaniards of course was to destroy as many lives as possible. The most important aid, however, was the fact that Cortes found a country occupied by already warring and hostile tribes; if there had been a bond of union between the Mexican Indians, and they had made common cause against the Spaniards, of course the invaders would have stood no chance of victory. But the people of Tlaxcala were hostile to the Cholultecas, only a few miles distant from them; both quarrelled with Texcoco; between the Tlaxcalans and the Aztecs there were feuds of long duration. It was because of these petty tribal bickerings and difficulties that Cortes utilized tribe against tribe and won.

After recruiting a new army and obtaining additional war equipment, Cortes returned and laid siege to the City. The battle raged for three weeks, with the superior firepower of the Spanish eventually proving decisive. A brave defense was made. The army of Cortes made repeated attempts upon the city and were frequently repulsed with vigorous fighting and much loss. For a long time the struggle dragged on. Cortes found that he could make headway only by destroying all the houses and filling the canals with their debris. Little by little pursuing this policy, he made advance. The besieged Aztecs suffered frightfully, but repeatedly refused to surrender their city. Famine and disease afflicted them. At last their dwindling force was too sadly weakened to defend the city longer. After eighty days of formal siege, Tenochtitlan was surrendered. This took place on August 13, 1521.

The brave chieftain, Cuauhtemoc, was at first well treated. Cortes, on the surrender of the city, ordered the dead to be burned and the city cleaned. Later on, impelled by that heart-disease which only gold can cure, Cortes permitted Cuauhtemoc to be tortured in the hope that he would surrender the secret of the Aztec treasure which had disappeared. In the nineteenth century, the legend of Cuauhtémoc would be revived, and the last Aztec emperor would be considered a symbol of honor and courage, the first Mexican national hero.

This confrontation, vividly described both by the conquistadors and the natives, was something more than a meeting between two expanding nations; it was the meeting of two radically dissimilar cultures, two radically different modes of interpreting existence. Spain had recently brought the long wars of reconquest against the Moors to a triumphant conclusion and was now the greatest power in Europe. The Aztec state had also reached a climax, and its magnificence was evident in its capital city and its vigorous religious, social, economic and political structure.

After the fall of Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards' task was to settle and expand the new domains on the mainland of North and Central America that became known as New Spain. Cortés dispatched several expeditions to survey the areas beyond the Valley of Mexico and to establish political control over the land and its inhabitants. Once released from the central political control of Tenochtitlán, most towns surrendered to Cortés's men. As a symbol of political continuity, the capital of the new colony was to be built squarely atop the ruins of Tenochtitlán and was renamed Mexico after the Mexica tribe.

Hernán Cortés believed that a marriage between the eldest daughter of Moctezuma, called "Doña Isabel," and Spaniard Alonso Grado would benefit New Spain by bringing conqueror and conquered together as a new people. In this document, Cortés used Moctezuma's support during the conquest of Mexico to justify a substantial dowry containing lands, several ranches, and the labor of the Indians who lived there. Unhappily, Grado died the next year. Cortés then married Doña Isabel to another conquistador, with whom she had two children. Following her second husband's death, she married again and gave birth to five more children, continuing the Moctezuma line for many centuries.

Following the conquest of Mexico, Spanish explorers moved north. In 1539 the viceroy of New Spain sent out a small expedition, led by Father Marcos de Niza and Estévan de Dorantes to search for wealth. When Father de Niza reported that he, too, found the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola, Don Francisco Vásquez de Coronado organized his expedition. Francisco Vasques de Coronado led the first expedition into the Rio Grande Valley in 1540. But Coronado found pueblos of stone and mud. A secondary expedition led by Garcia Lopez de Cárdenas revealed the Grand Canyon; another group, led by Don Pedro de Tovar, found the Hopi mesas. Expeditions led by Francisco Sanchez Chumascado and Antonio de Espejo followed in 1581 and 1582. Permission to establish the first Spanish colony was given to Don Juan de Oñate, and in 1598 he brought the first colonists to San Gabriel (near present-day San Juan Pueblo). The provincial headquarters were moved to Santa Fe in 1610. In 1680, the Pueblo Indians revolted against the Spaniards and temporarily drove them from New Mexico. Don Antonio de Otermin attempted reconquest in the 1680s, but it was not until 1693 that Don Diego de Vargas retook Santa Fe. The Spanish system of government was established in New Mexico between 1693 and 1821.

In 1542, a scant 50 years after Columbus landed, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo had mapped part of the coast under a Spanish flag. Francis Drake, an Englishman, landed north of the San Francisco Bay in 1579 but stayed only to repair his ships and didn't discover the fog-shrouded entrance to San Francisco Bay. Others sighted, mapped and stopped briefly on the coast. Not until the 1760s did the Spanish move to occupy Alta (Upper) California. A combination of personal ambition and a perceived threat of Russian invasion led New Spain's Visitor-General Jose de Galvez to initiate a plan to consolidate and develop the northwest area of Spanish territory, including California.

Spain gave her colonies a strong government and one that was thoroughly understood by the mass of Indians and mestizos who composed the greater part of the population of Mexico, for it was much like the kind they had been accustomed to for centuries under their native rulers.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:01:04 ZULU