Spanish conquest of Mexico
The Spanish conquest of Mexico from 1519 to 1521 under Hernán Cortés led to the fall of the Aztec Empire and established the rule of the Spaniards over Mesoamerica . Decisive for the success of the Spaniards were their superior weapon technology, the susceptibility of the indigenous population to the diseases brought in by the conquerors, especially smallpox , measles and flu , which were previously unknown there, and the exploitation of domestic and foreign political weaknesses of the Aztec empire. After the conquest of the Aztec Empire, the Spaniards founded the viceroyalty of New Spain . As a result, many settlers from Spain came to central Mexico, while Aztec religion was supplanted by Christianity and local culture was largely wiped out.
A completely objective consideration of the conquest is no longer possible. There are only two reports from eyewitnesses from a Spanish point of view as well as the Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España , written by Aztec scribes in Nahuatl under the guidance of the Spanish Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún , which, among other things, describes the Aztec view of the conquest. Modern research can only partially compensate for this lack of eyewitness reports, also because the old pre-Columbian Tenochtitlán was almost completely destroyed after the defeat of the Aztecs.
The Mexico Basin was home to numerous city-states in the early 16th century. In the two centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, the Aztec Triple Alliance, a loose alliance of the three cities of Tenochtitlán , Texcoco and Tlacopán , had developed into the dominant power in the Valley of Mexico . This union of cities had defeated numerous competing states in the course of time, but they were not incorporated directly into the union, but rather subjected to a sophisticated tribute system. Of the cities of the Triple Alliance , Tenochtitlán, which was built on several islands in Lake Texcoco, was by far the most powerful, which is why its ruler also had military authority over Tlacopán and Texcoco, which otherwise governed themselves completely independently.
Since 1502 Tenochtitlán was ruled by Moctezuma II , who had been elected to his office. He had been the son of a previous ruler by the name of Axayacatl and had been high priest of the god Huitzilopochtli before his election . During his reign, social tensions intensified more and more as the gap between rich and poor widened noticeably. In addition, the reliability of Texcoco as an ally was in question since Moctezuma had openly intervened in a controversy for the succession in 1515 and a compromise between the two parties fighting for the throne could only be reached with difficulty. Yet the Triple Alliance was still the most powerful force in the Valley of Mexico . Only the empire of the Tarasken , west of the valley, in today's Mexican state of Michoacán , and a loose alliance of four cities east of the valley, the strongest member of which was the city of Tlaxcala , posed a greater threat . Compared to the cultures of the Eurasian continent, all the states of central Mexico were technologically far inferior; The processing of iron, elaborate writing and the use of the wheel for transport purposes, for example, were unknown to them.
After the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492 , the Spanish occupied several islands in the Caribbean. The first permanent settlement was La Isabela on Hispaniola Island , which was founded in 1493. After initially friendly relations, there was open fighting with the local Taíno , as the Spaniards more and more often robbed their wives and demanded gold. After their quick defeat and the killing of their chiefs, the Taíno were used by the Spaniards for forced labor, which many of them did not survive as the field work was neglected due to the labor shortage. In the first two decades of the 16th century, the Spaniards also gained control of the islands of Puerto Rico (1508), Jamaica (1509) and Cuba (1511), whose indigenous people, like the Taíno on Hispaniola, had to do forced labor. In addition, they founded a settlement in Darién in what is now Panama , where Christopher Columbus had already landed on his fourth voyage.
The Crown paid little attention to the colonies. As a result, the Spanish conquistadors largely had a free hand in their plans. Many of them were younger sons of Hidalgos who had been involved in the battles of the Reconquista . Since only the firstborn son could inherit the father's property, the younger sons were forced to find other means of subsistence. The economic crisis that prevailed in Spain at the beginning of the 16th century increased the pressure to emigrate, after the first news of gold discoveries had arrived in Spain. Another motivation was the Christian faith. In 1493, the papal bull Inter caetera was issued, which was based on an earlier bull agreed with Portugal and with which all newly discovered land west of a demarcation line that ran almost five hundred kilometers west of the Canary Islands, belonged to Spain is to be transferred. The Church in Spain was comparatively militant anyway, which resulted from the Reconquista. Since the crossings to America were hardly funded by the Spanish crown, there were probably only around 27,000 Spaniards in the colonies around 1520, the majority of them in Hispaniola .
As early as 1502, rumors were spreading in central Mexico about bearded, fair-skinned men who were ascribed great cruelty. In the following years these rumors came up several times. It is not certain where they came from. Possible sources include the expedition of Columbus, which explored the coast of the Central American mainland from Honduras to Panama in 1502 , the experience of the indigenous population with Spaniards in Darién and a canoe that was driven from Jamaica to Yucatán in 1512 with local inmates Question. In addition, there is a letter dated April 1514 from Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar , the conqueror and governor of Cuba at the time, which speaks of Indians who occasionally arrive in canoes and who have had "a journey of five or six days" behind them. which corresponds to the distance between the Yucatán peninsula and Cuba.
The first Spaniards to reach what is now the Mexican coast were members of the expedition under the command of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba , which set out from Santiago de Cuba on February 8, 1517 . Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar had given Hernández de Córdoba the task of discovering new lands and catching slaves. The expedition soon found the Yucatán peninsula and thus - without knowing it, of course - the Central American mainland, where Hernández de Córdoba encountered a tribe of the Maya and was only barely able to save his men from their attacks. The expedition sailed west to what is now the city of Champotón (south of Campeche ), where the Spaniards were ambushed and lost half of their men. Hernández de Córdoba, himself badly wounded, then ordered his return to Cuba, where he succumbed to the consequences of the wounds.
Based on the survivors' reports of a very rich people on the mainland, Velázquez de Cuéllar equipped another expedition. He appointed his nephew Juan de Grijalva to be in command . His exact commission is not recorded. Grijalva's ships left Santiago de Cuba at the end of January 1518 and, after several stopovers, reached the island of Cozumel off the coast of Yucatán at the end of May . After a few skirmishes with the locals, Grijalva sailed further south to a bay he named Bahia de la Ascensión ("Bay of the Assumption") to return to Cozumel and from there the route of the previous expedition to one Place near Champotón. Fighting broke out again there after the Spaniards had demanded gold from the locals, but Grijalva's men were able to hold their positions and drive past the mouth of the Río Grijalva , which was renamed after the expedition commander , to an island near present-day Veracruz , which they on Reached June 17th. The place of landing was called by them San Juan de Ulúa . There the Spaniards encountered the Totonak people, who owed tribute to the Aztecs . This was the first time they came into contact with indigenous cultural elements, including human sacrifice . After the Spaniards were welcomed by the Totonaks and bartered with them, the local envoy of the Moctezuma also contacted the Spaniards, who later reported to him. Later, Grijalva sent his subordinate Pedro de Alvarado back to Cuba with some men and the valuables he had previously traded before he sailed further north himself. However, bad wind conditions and damage to his ships soon forced him to return. At the beginning of October he returned to Cuba with his men; Alvarado had already arrived earlier.
The conquest of Mexico
Departure from Cuba
After Grijalva's return, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar gave the Alkalden (Mayor) of Santiago de Cuba , Hernán Cortés , the order for a third expedition. The means that Cortés put into the venture and his zeal worried Velázquez very much, because he feared that Cortés would not keep the agreed profit-sharing. He tried to remove him from his post as captain general, but Cortés quickly boarded the ships intended for the voyage with 400 to 600 men and set sail on February 10, 1519.
According to the chronicler Francisco López de Gómara , the Spaniards landed on the island of Cozumel off the coast of Yucatán on February 18 , where the locals told them about two Christians who had lived with the Maya for several years . One of the two, Gerónimo de Aguilar , was found after a brief search and enthusiastically joined them, but the other, Gonzalo Guerrero , had achieved high esteem among the Maya and steadfastly refused to leave his new home. Aguilar was of great importance to Cortés because he could communicate with the Maya in their mother tongue.
On March 12, 1519, a second landing took place near Potonchán on the Río Grijalva , where the Spaniards received twenty female slaves as a gift as a token of the respect of Tabscoob the Halach Huinik of Potonchán after a fight with the Chontal Maya resident there . Among them was a young woman who was called Doña Marina or Malinche by the Spanish . Malinche mastered not only the language of the Maya , but also that of the Aztecs ( Nahuatl ). This made her the most important interpreter for Cortés and made a major contribution to the success of the conquest. In addition to Malinche, who later became Cortés' lover, the language skills of Gerónimo de Aguilar were also useful for the Spaniards: he understood the Maya language into which Malinche translated what the Nahuatl-speaking indigenous people said to her, and he then translated it into Spanish. Malinche soon learned enough Spanish himself that Aguilar's translations could be dispensed with.
The March on Tenochtitlán
After his interlude with the Maya, Hernán Cortés found Juan de Grijalva's landing site and went ashore there with his men. Aztec ambassadors appeared soon after the landing, but Cortés refused to break off the camp despite the gifts brought by the Aztecs. After the envoys withdrew, the king of the Totonaks , an Aztec vassal people, made contact with the Spaniards and made an alliance with them. Although the mission of Viceroy Velázquez , namely to explore the area, was fulfilled with the landing, Cortés refused his soldiers to return to Cuba and instead founded the settlement of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz , only a few kilometers from the present-day city of Veracruz . Immediately he set up a city council himself, which appointed him captain general, as such placed directly under the crown and thus released him from his duties towards Velázquez. To win the crown for his cause, he sent a ship to Spain with all the gold the newcomers could find; He had all other ships rendered unseaworthy for fear of desertions . Then he marched inland with about 300 soldiers and a far larger number of Totonaks.
Soon afterwards, the Spaniards came near Tlaxcala , a powerful city at war with the Aztecs. The residents of the city attacked the invaders several times, the only saving the Spaniards from defeat by their superior weapons. Since they and their allies suffered heavy losses and they were slowly but surely running out of supplies, Cortés made the Tlaxcalteks several peace offers , which were finally accepted at the instigation of the Kaziken Xicoténcatl the Elder despite demands on the Tlaxcaltek side for a continuation of the fight . Both parties soon recognized the value of the other in the fight against the Aztecs. The city of Tlaxcala had too few soldiers in terms of numbers to decisively defeat the Aztecs. The firepower of the Spanish troops, however, gave them a decisive tactical advantage. For their part, the Spaniards realized that without the support of the Tlaxcalteks their venture was doomed to failure. Thus the two parties formed an alliance against the Aztecs.
After staying in Tlaxcala for sixteen days, the Spaniards moved on to Cholula . After they had eliminated a large part of the local leadership of the city at the Temple of Quetzalcoatl - presumably at the instigation of the Tlaxcalteks - they killed the king who had just terminated the alliance with the Tlaxcalteks. A loyal puppet king was then installed, who also allied with the Spanish. Thus, Hernán Cortés knew a large army of soldiers of native peoples behind him when he reached the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán on November 8, 1519 after a two-week march . The Spaniards were overwhelmed by the sight of the huge city, whose King Moctezuma II showered them with rich gifts. The fact that Moctezuma saw the god Quetzalcoatl in Cortés, whose return was announced in an Aztec prophecy, and formally handed over rule to him in a speech, is seen in recent research as a historical myth constructed by the Spaniards , with which they approached the king Charles I tried to justify.
Moctezuma II as a puppet of the Spaniards
Hernán Cortés recognized his situation within a week. Tenochtitlán was built on some islands in Lake Texcoco and was only connected to the mainland by three dams. If he had taken the wrong step, he and his men would have had no chance of escaping the city. However, Cortés noticed the importance of the Moctezuma for his subjects and concluded that empowering him was the only way to take power in the Aztec Empire. With the help of the subliminal threat that he generated by stationing a few soldiers in Moctezuma's palace, he persuaded the Aztec ruler to move into the same palace that the latter had recently made available to Cortés. In this way, Hernán Cortés ruled the Aztec empire through Moctezuma for the next eight months . First, Moctezuma gave the Spanish permission to build a small chapel in the city and gave them the treasure that was stored in his palace as a gift to the Spanish royal family. Soon after, Hernán Cortés drew the anger of the Aztec people when he had crosses and an image of the Virgin Mary erected on the platform of the Great Temple, even against the opposition of the Moctezuma , while the gold and jewels of the temple were being carried away.
In May 1520, news reached Cortés that Diego Velázquez had sent more than a thousand soldiers under Pánfilo de Narváez to Veracruz to hold him responsible for his machinations. Cortés appointed Pedro de Alvarado as his deputy in Tenochtitlán and marched with about 250 soldiers to the coast, where he defeated Narváez by a surprise attack and took him prisoner. Then he took over Narváez's soldiers and his entourage. On the way to Tenochtitlan the train was attacked by warriors from Texcoco . The approximately 550 prisoners were brought to Zultepec and there sacrificed to the gods.
Meanwhile, the 80 or so Spaniards who had stayed behind in Tenochtitlán became increasingly restless. Pedro de Alvarado was also known to the Spanish as a cruel man; in Tenochtitlán he had two local chiefs killed during Cortés' absence. This increased the unrest in the Aztec population, which was reflected in an increased military presence of the Aztecs at the city gates. On the day of the Aztec Spring Festival, a large number of nobles and priests - according to various sources at least six hundred, but possibly as many as eight to ten thousand people - gathered in the courtyard of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán. During the procession, the Spaniards posted themselves at the four entrances to the temple and killed all the Aztecs present, presumably due to a panic reaction by Pedro de Alvarado, which was triggered by the news of this meeting. What he would later specify as a preventive measure for an Aztec attack plan was the proverbial drop that broke the barrel. An angry mob killed seven Spaniards, drove the others to their quarters and besieged them there. Cortés hurried back into town as quickly as possible. He moved there with his men on June 24th, but when the Aztecs pulled up the drawbridges of their dams shortly after his arrival, he too was trapped.
La Noche Triste (June 30, 1520)
As the situation of the Spaniards became more and more hopeless and they ran out of supplies, Cortés had Moctezuma taken to the roof of the palace to calm the angry crowd. However, this move was unsuccessful; Moctezuma was attacked by throwing stones from his own subjects. He died a few days later, although due to the contradicting sources it remains unclear whether he succumbed to the injuries caused by the stones or whether he was killed by the sword of the Spaniards. After the death of Moctezuma II , the Spanish leader had wooden planks brought in to be able to escape over the gaps in the dam. The escape began shortly before midnight on June 30th and ended in disaster for the Spaniards. Almost three quarters of the Spaniards, some of whom were heavily laden with booty, and one thousand Tlaxcalteks were killed trying to leave the city, as they had been quickly discovered by the Aztecs. About 270 Spaniards who had been housed in another part of the city were picked up after Cortés' flight and sacrificed to the Aztec gods. This defeat of the Spaniards later went down in history as Noche triste ("the sad night" or "the night of tears").
With the ensuing Battle of Otumba on July 14, 1520, the Aztecs tried to stop Cortés and the allied Tlaxcalteks after fleeing from Tenochtitláns on the way to the coast, but suffered a defeat.
The political isolation of the Aztecs
Only around 440 Spaniards had survived the "sad night", including Cortés and Alvarado. They would hardly have had a chance to survive had it not been for a smallpox epidemic among the locals. This disease, which the Spaniards themselves unknowingly brought in, killed forty percent of the indigenous population within a year and also killed the new Aztec king Cuitláuac , who had ruled for only 80 days as his brother's successor. He was succeeded by his nephew Cuauhtémoc on the throne. This created a climate of political instability among the Aztecs, which gave the invaders time to recover from their severe defeat, especially since smallpox - a disease that has long been endemic in Europe - was far less damaging to their immune system. Cortés retired to Tlaxcala, where they arranged for carpentry work to build thirteen brigantines . When new Spanish soldiers had increased his army, he moved with them and about ten thousand Tlaxcalteks again to the Valley of Mexico , but this time to Texcoco . The individual parts of the brigatines were carried to the lake by Indian porters and the ships were assembled on the bank. Immediately after its completion, the siege and starvation of Tenochtitlán began.
Texcoco was one of the three cities in the Aztec Triple Alliance , which in addition to Tenochtitlán also included the people of Tlacopán . Since 1515 there had been disputes over the succession to the throne in Texcoco. The ruling King Cacama at the time was only able to become king thanks to the support of the Aztecs. There was also another man, Ixtlilxochitl , who also claimed the throne of Texcoco and who controlled an area north of the city at the time of the Spanish invasion. When the Spaniards appeared near Texcoco, Ixtlilxochitl took the opportunity to ally with the European invaders and drive out Cacama. This gave the Spaniards a good starting position for another attack on Tenochtitlán. However, by the time the wood for the ships needed to control Lake Texcoco had been brought from Tlaxcala to Texcoco - which happened in early February 1521 - and the construction of the brigantines could begin, Cortés conquered some of the Aztec tributary cities.
On April 28, 1521 the time had come: the thirteen brigantines were completed. From then on, they sealed Tenochtitlán from the outside world by means of a sea blockade, thereby interrupting the city's food supply. From mid-May, Pedro de Alvarado , Cristóbal de Olid and Gonzalo de Sandoval subjugated the cities on the shores of Lake Texcoco, including Tlacopán , thus completing the isolation of the Aztec capital. Eventually, the Spaniards began the piecemeal conquest of Tenochtitlán.
The case of Tenochtitlán
The Aztecs had previously erected barricades on the three dams that connected the city to the mainland and which the Spaniards now wanted to use for a direct attack. The Aztecs' combat tactics consisted of building barricades, destroying parts of the dams and creating openings in the dam bridges. As soon as the Spaniards crossed these gaps, they were immediately surrounded by the Aztecs. This tactic almost enabled them to kill Hernán Cortés on June 30, exactly one year to the day after La Noche Triste . They did not succeed thanks to the courageous intervention of Cristóbal de Olea , who paid for it with his life. In spite of the hopeless situation, the Aztecs defended themselves bitterly and gave the Spaniards a merciless house-to-house fight in the city itself.
Despite the bitter Aztec defense, the fall of Tenochtitlán was only a matter of time. On August 13, 1521, the Spaniards and their Tlaxcaltek allies broke through the Aztecs' last lines of defense in the Tlatelolco district , which had been an independent city decades earlier. The city of Tenochtitlán was then sacked for four days, killing thousands of its inhabitants.
Consolidation of rule
Cuauhtémoc , the last ruler of the Aztecs, was picked up and arrested on the day the city fell. He was initially left alive but executed on February 28, 1525 after he was accused of conspiracy against Hernán Cortés .
Soon after, a new settlement was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlán. The Spaniards had the old water pipes that led into the city repaired and cleaned up. After two months, the locals were allowed to return to some neighborhoods; however, the old center continued to be inhabited by the conquerors, who built their own new buildings from the remains of the old Aztec buildings. So the later palace of the viceroy was built on the site of the Aztec royal palace and Christian churches were built on the ruins of the temples. The Spaniards gradually drained Lake Texcoco over the decades. In 1535 Tenochtitlán was renamed Mexico City and became the administrative seat of the newly founded viceroyalty of New Spain .
In the years and decades after the fall of the native states, all other tribes and peoples of Mexico were also subjugated by the Spaniards. In addition, more and more Spanish settlers poured into the country. The surviving members of the local peoples were forcibly Christianized and forced to work; many of them suffered from diseases and hard physical labor brought in by the settlers. As the only indigenous tribe , however, the Tlaxcalteks enjoyed certain privileges over the other peoples that they had received from the Spaniards because of their support.
Some of the missionaries who came to the country tried to understand the culture of the local peoples and to learn Nahuatl in order to better convey Christianity to the population. Especially Bernardino de Sahagún (* around 1499, † October 23, 1590 in Mexico City, Mexico) is to be mentioned here that in 1529 came to Mexico and the Aztecs there taught Spanish and Latin, where he learned Nahuatl. The work Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España , which was written under his guidance by his Aztec students, gives, among other things, the Aztec view of the conquest. Another eyewitness account - from a Spanish point of view - was written by Bernal Díaz del Castillo , who himself was a soldier under Cortés. The True History of the Conquest of New Spain , Spanish Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España , was written by him 40 years after the end of the conquest and, along with Cortés' letters to King Charles V, is the only known surviving Spanish eyewitness account.
It is estimated that the population of the indigenous Mexican population fell from 25 million to 2.5 million between 1519 and 1565, mainly due to the diseases introduced by the Spaniards, the effects of which through forced labor on the Spanish latifundia working according to the encomienda system or in the Mexican ones Mines were reinforced. Native culture, however, has not been completely supplanted by Spanish culture. For example, the Aztec language, Nahuatl, is still very much alive. Today, the Aztec legacy is held high among the Mexican people in general.
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