Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2017
© 2001 Donald J. Mabry
By 1517, Cuba had become the most important Spanish settlement in America. It was comparatively well-developed, cultivating European plants and livestock. It exported its food surplus.
Governor Diego de Velásquez, who had replaced the Columbus family as governor, sent expeditions to explore the western Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. In 1517, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba skirted the Yucatán peninsular and then probed inland where the expedition saw the deserted Mayan cities of Chichén Itzá and Chichén Viejo. In 1518, Juan de Grijalva sailed from Cozumel to north of present-day Vera Cruz and heard rumors that there were lots of rich people in the interior. The Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, sent men to find out who the Spanish were and what they were doing there. Grijalva took gold back to Cuba. That got the Spanish excited! The Spanish decided to ascertain whether the rumors of this wealth were true. In 1519, Velásquez named Hernán Cortés to command a large expedition to Mexico.
Cortés was born in Estremadura, Castille in 1485 and went to Hispaniola in 1504 at the age of nineteen. His connections got him an encomienda, a grant of Amerinds. He served under Velásquez in 1511 when the latter conquered Cuba and was rewarded with a second encomienda. He lived the life of a gentlemen and became alcalde of Santiago de Cuba. The red-headed Cortés saw his chance to achieve fortune and fame.
Cortés organized the expedition but Velásquez decided that Cortés couldn't be trusted and canceled the expedition. Cortés, however, sneaked out of the harbor quickly on February 10, 1519. His orders were to explore and trade only; he was not to conquer. His expedition consisted of 11 ships, 553 soldiers, 110 sailors, 16 horses, and 14 small cannons. Only 44 of the soldiers had guns; the rest had pikes and swords. They carried large supplies of food, including pigs, and trinkets for trade.
In the Yucatán, they easily defeated some Mayas. Met Jerónimo de Aguilar, a shipwrecked Spaniard who had learned the Maya language. Cortés had sought him out. The expedition continued along the Tabasco coast. It fought some Tabascans and won. Found Marina, an Indian woman who spoke both the Maya language and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. She served as his translator and mistress. (In modern Mexican history, she became the symbol of collaborationism and betrayal of her own people). Aztecs scouts, meanwhile, were reporting the progress of the expedition to Moctezuma. At Vera Cruz, Aztec emissaries appeared and asked Cortés to go away. They brought Cortés valuable gifts to bribe him to leave. that was a mistake, for now Cortés and his men could see that wealth existed in the interior. He politely refused to leave, saying that he represented the greatest king on earth and had come to pay a courtesy call. Cortés always meant to accomplish something spectacular, something which would give him power, wealth, and fame.
The Aztec emissaries, not understanding how greedy and sinful Europeans were, erred in giving them even a hint of how wealthy their society was. Cortés now decided to oust Velásquez from any role and become a free agent. He persuaded the men to unload all their supplies, strip their ships, and set fire to them. There would be no turning back. Had himself elected governor by the town of Vera Cruz. Real justification in the enterprises was what you accomplished. Creating a town gave the Crown a legal out if it wanted one. Cortés was smart enough to understand this.
The march inland was quite an epic event. He discovered divisions among the Amerinds and the fear of Moctezuma. He learned their legends. When he could, he recruited Amerind groups as allies, sometimes having to defeat them first. They didn't have a sense of cultural self-consciousness. They didn't see it as an Amerind-European conflict. The Spanish were just another group of people to them. Cortés and his soldiers had Amerind allies as some groups sought revenge on their enemies, especially the Aztecs.
Moctezuma was interested in accommodation with the Spanish. Moctezuma was because of bad omens that had been happening for the last ten years of his reign: volcanic eruptions, pillars of fire, sudden conflagrations and floods, thunderbolts, waterspouts, two-headed men, and a bird with a mirror in his head! His priests found bad omens wherever they looked. Then there was the coincidental appearance of a comet. Perhaps he believed the legend of Quetzalcoatl, this half man-half God who was to return in 1519. Cortés heard the legend and encouraged the Aztecs to believe that he represented the return of Quetzalcoatl. Spanish were not interested in accommodation; they wanted everything and as quickly as possible. Moctezuma tried to appease Cortés with gifts as he marched to Tenochtitlán, trying to get him to reverse course.
Cortés defeated the Tlaxcalan people, who came close to beating him, and convinced 5,000 of them to join with him. The Tlaxcala had never been defeated by the Aztecs. They taught the Spanish the major and political strengths and weaknesses of the Aztec. Cortés learned that Moctezuma's power was built on fear and that the Aztecs were mostly interested in capturing enemies so they could enslave them or eat them. The king of Texcoco warned Moctezuma that his empire would shortly be overthrown.
On the way to Tenochtitlán, the Spanish set up altars and held religious services for they were devout Christians who had religion as one of their primary motivations. They founded towns, usually on the sites of Amerind towns. Before he reached Cholula, a holy Amerind market town, he learned that Moctezuma planned an ambush there. Cortés pulled off his own ambush, sacking the town on a crowded market day. the Spanish then built the city of Puebla nearby.
The Spanish, who appeared invincible, entered Tenochtitlán, the island city of some 300,000 people, as the guest of Moctezuma. His soldiers explored the city. The meeting of the Spanish and the Aztec was a very serious culture clash. The Spanish were horrified at the Aztec religion with its polytheism, ritual executions, and cannibalism. They captured Moctezuma and were safe as long as he was their captive.
Meanwhile, Pánfilo de Narváez expedition had been sent by Velásquez to arrest Cortés and assume control. Cortés went to the coast, leaving Pedro de Alvarado in charge in Tenochtitlán. Cortés convinced the 900 men in the Narváez expedition to join him and returned to Tenochtitlán with these reinforcements.
While he had been gone, Pedro de Alvarado, appalled by the human sacrifice, lost his nerve and attacked the populace. Both noblemen and religious men were killed. Cortés arrived in the midst of this and the Aztec allowed Cortés and the reinforcements to cross the causeways into the city. The Spanish conquistadores became prisoners in the palace, secure only because they had Moctezuma. Cortés got Moctezuma to appeal from the top of the roof but he was stoned to death. the Aztecs rallied around Cuauhtémoc, who began planning the destruction of the Spanish.
On June 30, 1520 (La Noche Triste), Cortés and his mean began their retreat to Tlaxcala. They had to fight their way off Tenochtitlán, crossing the Tacuba causeway. They were carrying what gold and other loot they had acquired, which made the retreat even more difficult. the Aztecs killed some 900 Spaniards and almost all of their Amerind allies. The survivors rushed to Tlaxcala, where, surprisingly, they were aided by the Tlaxcalans.
Perhaps a lesser man would have given up but not Cortés; he began planning a counterattack. He rested his men; received reinforcements, horses, and supplies from Cuba; and reorganized his army. He decided that he needed a navy to aid in the attack of the island city, so he sent ships' carpenters to the coast to retrieve the tackle he had saved. On the banks of the lake in which Tenochtitlán sat, they constructed brigantines.
In 1521, the fight began. The brigantines blockaded the city, creating starvation and problems of waste disposal, for the city was fed from the shore and sent its wastes ashore as well. The Aztecs were reduced to starvation. Worse, epidemic disease brought by the Spaniards but to which the Amerinds had no resistance, killed many of the defenders and weakened many of the rest before the Spanish launched their attack. Still, it took two months of hand-to-hand fighting and the block-by-block destruction of the city before the Spanish won. When they caught Cuauhtémoc, they strangled him. The city was leveled.
After the fall of Tenochtitlán, the Aztecs and their subject people no longer fought. Cortés was recognized as a god. He had defeated the greatest power in the world, at least from a central Mexican perspective. He did have to fight frontier wars against the chichimecas, the term given by the Aztec to the nomadic people north of central Mexico but the Aztecs didn't know that.
Cortés promoted intermarriage between Spaniards and the Aztec mobility in an effort to mitigate differences. Of course, conquering soldiers were given "companionship" by Amerind women, for they had shown that they were more manly than the Aztec soldiers; after all, the had won. Some conquistadores raped as soldiers have always done. Cortés gave Marina (or Malinche), the mother of his son, to Pedro de Alvarado. Cortés built the Ciudad de Mexico on the ruins of Tenochtitlán. He became one of the richest men in the world.
He reluctantly permitted the developing colonial system and royal authority to replace his personal control. He explored the Gulf of California and Honduras. He went to Spain to try to increase his rewards but was disappointed. He died in Seville in 1547. His sons didn't do well because they foolishly talked of revolt.
This expedition and the others were "private enterprise." The Spanish crown was always in financial difficulty. It gave legal rights to private individuals to explore and conquer. When the conquistador found something valuable, he was rewarded. Cortés was made Marquis of Oaxaca and granted extensive lands and Amerinds by the Crown. The Crown usually modified the contracts after the discoveries and conquests. Crown allowed the conquerors material benefits from their conquests but reduced their political power. Because Velásquez wouldn't be there, he got nothing. f those who were in the conquest of Mexico, they were rewarded depending upon how much they had contributed (or, at least, how much were able to convince people ) and on social rank. Gentlemen received more than commoners, for example.
The conquest was rapid in central and southern Mexico. The conquest to the north of central Mexico was slower because the Amerinds there resisted and the terrain and climate was more difficult. However, they conquered and held those areas where they found precious metals. The initial conquest and pacification of the Amerinds in the north was through the mission and presidio (frontier fort) system. Didn't have rivals, either Spanish or other Europeans, for a long time. Upper California to Texas were buffer areas. There wasn't much there. South of central Mexico had competition for jurisdiction from other Spaniards. Pedrarias and others tried to claim Mexico.
Guatemala City was founded in 1524 by Pedro de Alvarado (Cortés had encouraged him to leave central Mexico). Guatemala had settled Amerinds who were accustomed to working under direction. In other words, the Spanish found a labor force. Guatemala was made a captaincy general. Although technically the officials there had to report to the viceroy in Mexico City, the captaincy general was virtually independent.
Spanish America, that is where the Spaniards lived as opposed to the Amerinds, was a series of loose connections between urban centers. boundaries usually passed through thinly populated areas. Tremendous concentration of all kinds of power in the capitals.
Yucatán conquest was in difficult territory against a very stubborn population. The peninsula tended to be peripheral.
It was the success of the Cortés expedition that set off the excitement about the New World. Cortés had found what any 16th century European would have wanted: wealth and a docile labor force.
Some of Cortés' men sought their fortunes elsewhere. Ponce de León and Pánfilo de Narváez explored Florida . Of the Narváez part, only four survived. These, led by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, traveled for eight years along the gulf coast and then through the interior until they found other Spaniards in northern Mexico and finally reached Mexico City. They nothing anyone at the time would consider valuable. Hernando de Soto with 600 men explored what is now the central United States and died in 1541; his party also discovered nothing Europeans would consider valuable. Alvarado went to Guatemala in the 1530s and joined Pizarro in Peru in 1534 but he was overshadowed by the Pizza's and the Almagros.
You can read about other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry!
Click on the title to go to Llumina Press.