The Aztecs Account of the Conquest of Mexico
The discovery of the New World was part of the remarkable European expansion. This expansion was possible due to the European’s technical skills in navigation, their economic status in maritime and military enterprise, their interest in spreading Christianity and their determination to gain new lands and wealth.
The Spaniards reached the New World in a conquest spirit. Spain’s exploration of the New World was driven by their interest in expansion of their empire and spread of Catholicism. Many of the dedicated missionaries who embarked on the explorations were consistent in their purpose to, as they put it, ” save the souls of the heathen Indians”. For the conquerors like Hernan Cortez and Fransisco Pizarro their motivation was no doubt more complex.
Hernan Cortez was born in Medillin, Spain in 1485. His Father fought against the Moors and his mother was an honest religious woman. After failing as a student Cortez came to the New World following in his father footsteps. He became involved in many expeditions and in 1518-1519 the governor of Cuba, Velazques motivated to acquire the riches of the land, wanted to make full contact with mainland, Mexico, and Cortez was appointed the leader of the expedition. Cortez narrowly managed to undertake the expedition and in 1519 he arrived in Mexico with only 500 men, 16 horses and several pieces of artillery.
Cortez landed near Villa Rica de Vera Cruz and immediately gain political control of the city. Soon the Spaniards started to trek inland and fought against the Tlaxcalan people who surrendered and became Cortez’s most faithful allies. By October 1519 this combine force reached the Aztec village of Choula where they slaughtered over 3000 citizens of Choula. At this point the ruler of Tenochtitlan, Motecuhzuma was very troubled but he believed that Cortez was actually the Aztec god Quetzacoatl. By November of 1519 Cortez arrived at Tenochtitlan and Motecuhzuma greeted him warmly. Cortez, however motivated by greed and power seized Motecuhzuma as a hostage hoping to gain wealth from a large ransom and to forestall an Aztec attack. Later on around April of 1520 Cortez left Tenochtitlan because he heard that an arresting party had landed in Mexico and was looking for him. Pedro de Alvardo, who was left in charge, was very cruel to the Aztecs and his actions caused a revolt to start. When Cortez returned he realized that he was greatly outnumbered and was facing heavy attack. Cortez then asked Motecuhzuma calm the people down. That however failed and Motecuhzuma was killed and the Spaniards along with several thousand Tlaxcalans retreated. That night became known as “Noche Triste”, sad night, because the Spaniards chased by Aztec warriors, lost more than half their men. It took Cortez almost a year to built up his forces and finally in May of 1521 he made hi final assault on the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. The Spanish attacks lasted till about August 13, 1521 and when it ended over 240,000 Aztecs were dead and the Aztec Empire destroyed.
In recent Mexican history, there have been efforts to glorify Mexico’s indigenous heritage and at the same time downplaying the achievements of the Spaniards. Today numerous parks, streets, bridges, statues, schools, sport teams bear the names Motecuhzuma and Cuauhtemoc. In contrast there exist the situation where a man, named Cortez, that exerted a profound influence on what Mexico is today is virtually unknown in the country. Why is this? Due to the manner in which the Spaniards conquered Mexico they have often been accused of violating international laws. Is Hernan Cortez guilty of 1) genocide, 2) crimes against peace, 3) war crimes, and 3) Crimes against humanity?
Genocide according to the United Nations means actions committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, national ethnical, racial or religious group. The killing of the Aztecs was not Cortez’s ultimate end but rather the means to obtain wealth. At first this blinded me but I quickly realize that Cortez was guilty of genocide against the Cholultecas. According to the Aztecs the Spanish were encouraged to destroy Cholula by their allies the Tlaxcaltecas. The Tlaxcaltecas told the Cortez that the Cholultecas were the Aztecs friends and were as brave as the Aztecs. Cortez feeling intimidated marched against the Cholultecas, and inside a closed courtyard slaughtered them. According to another account Cortez raised soldiers against the Cholultecas so as not to give them opportunity to form an alliance with the Tlaxcaltecas. Taking advantage of the situation they entered Cholula with the intent to destroy the city. And this they did as some 3000 Cholultecas were killed in a period of several days.
In the beginning of the conquest Cortez may not have had the intent to kill or wage war of aggression but he surely was prepared in the event there was a need. When the Motecuhzuma sent messengers laden with gifts of gold to meet Cortez he was very ungrateful as he ordered them to be chained by their feet and neck. Then he fired off his canon, which caused the messengers to lose their senses. This Cortez did to instill fear in the messengers who he knew would later report what they had seen. A clear example where the Spaniards are guilty of initiating and waging war was during the fiesta of Toxcatl. Cortez’s deputy, Pedro de Alvarado, who was paranoid of the Aztecs was seized with an urge to kill the celebrants. Closing the passages and gates to the place where the festival was being held the Spanish ran among the dancers and killed them. This action was the main cause of the revolt that led to the “Noche Triste” where Aztec warriors killed about half of Cortez’s men. Therefore it can be said that Cortez is guilty of Crimes against Peace.
The Aztecs were a warrior race but this is what led to their destruction. After the Spaniards were driven out of Tenochtitlan the Aztecs thought that the Spaniards would never return. However when they returned they were even more ruthless with the intent to attack Tenochtitlan and destroy it people. There were constant battles between the Spaniards and the Aztecs and in much case the Aztecs resistance was strong causing the Spaniards to retreat. The Spaniards quickly realized that the only way they could defeat the Aztecs was by destroying the city of Tenochtitlan. In a Battle in the Market place Spanish Calvary men killed many Aztecs and before the Spanish withdrew they burnt the Aztec temple to the ground. As accounted in the book ‘Broken Spears”, on the day that Tenochtitlan was taken, the Spaniards committed some of the most brutal acts ever inflicted upon the unfortunate people of the land. The air was filled with cries of women and children. By the end of the War when Tenochtitlan had surrendered the city was in ruins. This is an obvious example of War Crimes as the Spaniards plundered public property, wanton the destruction of the city and also they wasted no time in killing.
After the war ended one would think the inhumane acts would cease but crimes against humanity were still committed. When the war ended the city was totally destroyed and a great many Indians were dead. For the survivors the flight from the city began but for many it was not the end as the killing still occurred. As the Aztecs left their home Spanish soldiers stationed along the roads search for gold. The bravest and strongest warriors were separated and branded with hot irons either on their cheek or the lips. Cortez rounded up the lords that were alive. They were bounded and taken to Coyoacan and their feet were burnt. These are clear example to show that Cortez is guilty of Crimes against Humanity.
Cortez’s main motivation was gold and wealth. However, the extent of his actions was unacceptable. Cortez was peaceful greeted by the Aztecs. The freely gave him gold and gifts. This shows that the Aztecs did not intend to flight. However due to Cortez’s greed for more and more gold he went to the extreme destroying the great city of Tenochtitlan and killing more that 240,000 Aztecs.
Modern Latin American 4th edition
Thomas E. Skidmore
Peter H. smith
Open Veins of Latin America