Mexico Trek!   Trekkers DISPATCH: September 3 Shawn's Log

Reporting on The Conquest

The "New World," as the Spanish referred to the Americas, was in fact a land of ancient cultures and civilizations. Although the Aztecs, who were the dominant culture when the infamous Spaniard Hernan Cortez began his conquest in 1509, did not rise to power in central Mexico until the 13th century, much of their heritage and religion was rooted in past civilizations. This society was very sophisticated, their calendar was even more accurate than Europe's, and the Aztec Empire encompassed most of what is present-day Mexico.

Huaxtec people growing and preparing cornMany of the Aztec's rituals such as human sacrifice, however, would appall and alienate the Spanish Conquistadors so much so that they wasted no effort to destroy every trace of this vast and ancient civilization.

Cortez began his plundering career as a lieutenant in the conquest of Cuba, serving under Diego Velasquez who was named governor of Cuba. Cortez was far from content to live as a simple farmer and miner, and he must have been very pleased when he was asked by Velasquez to lead the invasion of the Mexican mainland. A natural leader with a lust for wealth and power, he was also a rogue who placed his own agenda above that of the Crown of Spain, a trait that would put him at odds with the Queen and nearly cost him everything. Almost immediately after naming him captain general, Velasquez began to believe that Cortez was too self-serving to lead the expedition, but in 1519 Hernan Cortez and 508 soldiers departed abruptly for the mainland before Velasquez had the opportunity to replace him.

A child of a Spanish father and Aztec motherAlthough bringing Christianity to the "barbarians of the New World" was a strong motivation for the conquest, the acquisition of silver and land were the chief factors. Cortez himself was religious, but not fanatically so, and never bowed to the demands of the clergy that accompanied him unless it served his own needs. It was common for the Conquistadors to take the native women, baptize them and make them mistresses, or even marry them. Cortez himself had several, including both the daughter of Moctezuma and a woman named Malintzin who knew both the Aztec and the Mayan languages, and proved critical in the difficult task of translating.

By the time Cortez established his first town, Veracruz, the Aztecs were well aware of the presence of the Spaniards and sent gifts of game, fruit, and a gift of two discs of gold and silver. The Tlaxcalans, mortal enemies of the Aztecs also knew of the Spaniards. The fastest route to Tenochtitlan was through the Tlaxcalan Empire. The Spaniards have their wayThis made the Tlaxcalans very nervous so they sent over 30,000 soldiers to stop the Spanish advance. However, the primitive arrows and spears of the Tlaxcalans were no match for the Spanish swords and muskets, and when the dust cleared the Spanish found themselves with a new ally in their march against the Aztecs.

The Spaniards first attacked the Aztecs at Cholula, and with the help of the Tlaxcalans more than 3,000 people were massacred. When they finally reached Tenochtitlan, the Spanish soldiers were in awe of the city whose towers and pyramids stood protected within the confines of several large lakes. Moctezuma, the Aztec Emperor invited the Spaniards into the city where they were treated like royal guests. Cortez was very nervous however, being surrounded by so many hostile warriors, and at the first opportunity, Moctezuma was taken hostage to play as puppet king for the new rulers.

This uneasy truce lasted for six months and Aztec animosity began to build steadily. Moctezuma warned the Spaniards to leave or face the wrath of his people. To further Cortez's predicament, the governor of Cuba had dispatched Panfilo de Narvaez and 800 men to bring him back in chains. Cortez proved himself to be a master diplomat, however,An Aztec about to be branded by the Spaniards by attacking Narvaez at night and convincing half his men to join him. Even with these additional forces, the Aztec forces were overwhelming and the Spaniards were forced to flee Tenochtitlan and lost half their forces in the battle that has become known as Noche Triste (Sad Night). The Spanish recount that Moctezuma was stoned to death by his own people for being the Spanish parrot, while Aztec accounts claim he was murdered by the Spanish when he had outlived his usefulness to them.

Unfortunately for the Aztecs, this victory was short-lived. Cortez received reinforcements in Veracruz and a new and very lethal ally came with them - Smallpox. Having no exposure or immunity to this disease, thousands of Natives were wiped out, and with the new guns and soldiers and the continued aid of the Tlaxcalans, the path was cleared for Cortez and a Spanish victory. In just a few months Cortez would once again march upon Tenochtitlan, this time making it his and leaving the proud Aztec people only ashes and ruins to remember it. The final chapter had been written in the history of a culture and a new book opened -- the history of Mexico.



Related Dispatches: 
Monica - Tlatelolco, the death of the Aztec Empire & the Birth of Mexico
Silvia - Meet Liliana, soccer player, Aztec expert, 14 years old!
Shawn - A Report from the Battlefield
Team - Three Conquest Stories - You decide how they end!

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