The story of Hernando Cortez, who conquered the extraordinary Aztec peoples, is a story of many facets. Cortez is called the "Conqueror of Mexico." In some sense his story is indeed the story of a remarkable soldier and commander, one who conquered a new world against all odds. In another sense, his story is the story of Europe and its very mixed feelings about the Americas.
The Europeans struggled with their ambivalence about the new world of the Americas. Fantasies about Mesoamerican peoples were often invented -- they were viewed as heathen tribes, and history has told the story of the Aztec peoples with great bias at times, unwilling to embrace them as a complex society. "It was not easy or comfortable for Europeans to fit the incredible news of entirely unknown lands, peoples, empires, souls, gold, into their intellectual horizon. America became, for centuries, a 'strange new world' with different languages, customs, symbols, cuisines, philosophies, manners and landscapes." (Carrasco, p. 2). Some historians even feel that the discovery of the "New World" was one of the most calamitous events in human history. Whether or not this was true, there is no doubt that Cortez knew he was on a mission, not just for wealth, but to preserve the hegemony, both psychological and literal, of Europe.
Cortez journey began in February of 1519, the governor of Cuba, Diego Velasquez, received reports of a wealthy civilization somewhere in Mexico. It was about 27 years after Christopher Columbus first sighted the "new world," and the governor wanted to send Hernando Cortez, an explorer, a career soldier, and a conquistador, to investigate. The only military action he was expected to take was to free any Christian prisoners. At the very last minute, the governor changed his mind and forbade Cortez to sail, because he sensed that Cortez ambitions were far greater than he was comfortable with. But he set sail anyway, and landed in present-day Mexico with 400 soldiers, 100 sailors and about 20 horses.
Cortez landed near a place called Villa Rica de Vera Cruz, and soon took control of that city. He captured a princess named "Malinche," became his interpreter, and they fell in love. He renounced the governor's authority over him and declared himself supreme commander. He sent a letter to King Charles I of Spain, and presented himself as a Christian ambassador to the primitive, heathen peoples of Mexico. He mentioned the Aztecs' immense wealth, which certainly enticed Spain. The Spanish sent in ships with soldiers to help conquer the MesoAmericans, and when Cortez saw that his men might revolt, he burned the ships so that there was no recourse but to stay and conquer. Many of Cortez' actions -- from disobeying his governor, to soliciting Spain, to burning the ships, show a man who was both cunning and absolutely determined. There were many times Cortez could have been easily defeated, but his boldness and determination served him again and again -- and changed history forever.
Later the Spanish Governor sent troops to arrest Cortez, but he fought those 1400 soldiers and defeated them, then got the defeated soldiers to join his own. The tales of gold mountains and enormous wealth were enough to sway them. Leaving a small force on the coast, Cortez took the rest of his soldiers inland. The Tlaxcalan Indians attacked. There were about 300 Indians for every Spaniard, and they attacked, but after three battles the Indians decided to become allies of the Spaniards. Then he headed toward the Aztec capital.
The Aztec Indians who dwelled in that part of Mexico were known as fierce warriors. They had many more warriors than the Spanish did under the command of Hernando Cortez. And yet he conquered the entire Aztec Empire, a feat which has made him famous for the rest of history.
The Aztec culture was well developed; they had developed an agricultural system that fed a large population; had developed math that help[ed provide them with an accurate calendar; had built a system of water canals for crop irrigation; mined for gold, silver, tin and copper; and had created weapons such as clubs lined with volcanic glass called obsidian. These clubs could decapitate an animal with a single blow. They had developed cooking and eating utensils, and a system of trade and barter. They also had schools; they held slaves, and they practiced human sacrifice in religious ceremonies.
Cortez was armed with a few advantages. First, he had steel weapons that far surpassed those of the Aztecs. His troops had suits of armor and some of his men rode horses. The Aztecs had never seen armored soldiers on horseback. They may have even thought an armored soldier on a horse was some kind of mythical creature. But most importantly, he had the advantage of Aztec culture and religion -- a profound psychological advantage. They were a superstitious people, and they thought Cortez might be a god, and might have the gods on his side.
The Aztecs believed they were born in the bowels of the earth and had entered the world through seven caves. They first settled in a city called Aztlan, which is believed to have been somewhere along Mexico's northwest cost. In 11000 the headed south and by the 1300s reached the broad Valley of Mexico. They served as mercenaries for powerful tribes for over 50 years, harvesting algae into dried cakes that served as food. Eventually the Aztecs rebelled and seized power themselves. They built a city on an island in the middle of Lake Texacoco, acting on a tribal prophecy. That city soon became a vast empire boasting grand canals, market squares, and temples. There were priests, warriors, traders, and over 300,000 people in the city alone. The Aztecs were wealthy, violent, and superstitious. Apparently in 1487, for instance, they sacrificed 20,000 captives to dedicate a temple.
The Aztec Indians of Mexico worshipped more than one god, and there had long been a legend among them that one of their most important gods had been banished from the country. This god, Quetzalcoatl, was said to be tall with very light skin and a long beard. He had been put on a raft and set out to sea, but it was predicted that one day he would return. Many of the Aztecs thought that Cortez, who was tall with light skin and a beard, and who came from the sea in a "sea house," was the returning God. This psychological advantage probably won Cortez the war against this fierce warrior peoples. His 400 soldiers and a few thousand Indian allies, along with around 20 horses, were fighting hundreds of thousands of warriors. Cortez lacked radios, a compass, maps or charts, and did not speak the languages of the Aztecs. But he had a soldier's determination, a strategist's cunning, and the psychological advantage discussed above.
He drove his forces until they were in the central city of Tenochititlan, where Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, greeted him. Cortez later wrote that this city was more beautiful than anything he had ever seen in Spain. Today that city is Mexico city. Montezuma in particular was a very religious man and was convinced that Cortez was indeed the god Quetzacoatl. And Cortez arrival coincided with the exact year that a prophecy concerning Quetzacoatl was supposed to come true. Montezuma kissed Cortez hand when greeting him. Cortez lover, Malinche (also sometimes called Dona Marina) had joined the war party and translated for Cortez and Montezuma. Montezuma actually allowed the Spaniards to come into his city and establish a headquarters in a large building. But soon Montezuma began to suspect that Cortez was just a man and not a god. He decided to present Cortez with a large booty of gold and jewels, hoping it would convince Cortez to leave. Unfortunately, it incited Cortez' greed, and he seized Montezuma and forced him to surrender.
Cortez and his men were attacked by thousands of warriors. Cortez asked Montezuma to calm the Aztecs. Montezuma was brought out to pacify his people, but they were enraged and consider their former leader a traitor. They stoned him so violently that he died a few days later. He was succeeded by Cuitlahuac, who died several months later; finally Cuauhtemoc succeeded him. Cortez and his army were surrounded by warriors, but they managed to kill the chieftain of the Aztecs, which caused them to temporarily withdraw their forces in grief and confusion. It seemed to them a miracle, perhaps one wrought by their own gods, and they were defeated in spirit.
Cortez decided to retreat temporarily. On June 30, 1520, called "Noche Triste" or "sad night" by the Spanish, Cortez ordered a full retreat. The Spanish were chased by Aztec warriors and lost more than half their men. Cortez returned to his Tlaxcalan allies in July of 1520, and worked to build up his forces once again. He conquered every part of the Aztec empire except for Tenochititlan.