Europeans didn’t just “discover” the western hemisphere, beginning with Columbus’s famous voyage of 1492. Discovery alone could have resulted in trade relations with the inhabitants of the “new world,” cultural exchange, the diffusion of knowledge, or resumed separation. After all, the enormous fleets of Zheng He, the Ming Dynasty admiral, visited thirty countries of Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Africa in the early fifteenth century, enriching them with Chinese treasure without making them parts of a Chinese empire. Castilian contact with the Americas that began a few decades later, however, resulted in the conquest of advanced civilizations, the enrichment of Europe, and a major shift in the course of world history. In Mexico, Europeans destroyed the Aztec Empire, setting the stage for the conquest of the entire hemisphere.
As the story has usually been told, the Aztecs were conquered by a few hundred Spaniards, the conquistadors, under the ingenious leadership of Hernán Cortés and aided by native disunity. For example, the Conquista de México by Francisco López de Gómara, Cortés’s first biographer, is a celebration of the brilliance of the man who led a small band of Spaniards to topple an empire. Here is Richard Hakluyt, the sixteenth-century English geographer’s capsule on the subject: “Let the doughty deeds of Ferdinand Cortés, the Castilian, the stout conqueror of New Spain[…]resound ever in your ears.”i Writing his own history of the conquest in the seventeenth century to defend the glory of the conquistadors against foreign critics, Antonio de Solís depicted Cortés as the tool of God that dismantled the work of Satan. In A Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels (1744-1748), John Harris suggests that absent Cortés the Aztecs would have mastered European guns and driven the Spaniards from Mexico’s interior, holding the region on a permanent basis. Alfredo Chavero’s Historia Antigua y de la conquista (1886) contrasts the tremendous energy and shrewdness of Cortés to Moctezuma’s “incredible torpor.”ii For William H. Prescott, whose History of the Conquest of Mexico has become an American classic, “[t]he history of the conquest is necessarily that of the great man who achieved it.”iii The unprovoked conquest of one people by another becomes a thrilling story when cast as the work of an illustrious hero.
The tendency to reduce the conquest of Mexico to a contest between two leaders or a near-miraculous victory of European ingenuity and Western values–as personified by Hernán Cortés–over Indian superstition and savagery has also colored more recent accounts. The title of Henry Dwight Sedgwick’s 1926 book speaks for itself: Cortés the Conqueror: The Exploits of the Earliest and Greatest of the Gentleman Adventurers.iv The same can be said of Salvador de Madariaga’s Hernan Cortés: Conqueror of Mexico.v Fr. Ángel María Garibay Kintana, who pioneered the study of Nahuatl literary traditions, found Cortés to be “a man of marvelous genius, not only a conqueror but a builder.”vi John Manchip White writes that Spain would have conquered Mexico even without Cortés, but “[i]f Cortés had failed to reach his goal our world would be different.”vii For Tvestan Todorov, the key to Spanish conquest was Cortés’s “superior understanding” of the Aztec world–superior to Moctezuma’s of the Spaniards’–and his striking use of language as an instrument of manipulation.viii Even Hugh Thomas’s comprehensive Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico pits Cortés against the Aztec emperor, as announced by the title, and “tells how a small party of well-led adventurers fought against a large static monarchy.” With the fall of the Aztec capital, Thomas concludes, Cortés “had conquered an empire.”ix
Facilitating the amazing exploit of the conquistadors was a case of mistaken identity: the natives took the invaders for returning gods. Such an understanding exalts the boldness and ingenuity of the Europeans, enfeebles native intelligence, and diminishes all of the impersonal forces and cultural factors that made European conquest virtually inevitable. It reduces one of the most important conflicts in human history to a two-act drama in which, however cruelly, the forces of wisdom and light, as embodied in one man, prevail over error and ignorance, as represented by another. Henceforth, Cortés and Moctezuma, forever linked as conqueror and conquered. This literary gloss on history disserves the victims of what happened, as well as the truth. Nor were the Aztecs defeated because of cognitive limitations, lack of improvisational ability, or their commitment to a cyclical notion of time.
Geological and climatic changes of thousands of years ago established that the people of the earth’s eastern and western hemispheres–the Old and New Worlds–would undergo separate development. Not only would they develop in isolation, but the people of the Old World would accrue decisive advantages, such that by the end of the fifteenth century if not before, contact between them would prove destructive to the indigenous people of the Americas. The conquistadors were the beneficiaries of lethal advantages, and they arrived with them in the Caribbean.
Brought to the New World by the Spanish invaders were such Old World phenomena as (a) the steel sword; (b) the horse; (c) other large domestic animals, represented here by the pig; (d) deadly microbes, especially the smallpox virus; (e) the cross, representing an intolerant, proselytizing religion; (f) a determination to acquire precious metals, especially gold; (g) an aristocratic work ethic; (h) a willingness to engage in the indiscriminate slaughter of people deemed savages; and (i) a romanticized image of the heroic warrior with whom the conquistadors identified. All of these “fellow travelers” flourished in the New World as, presumably, had the earliest human invaders when they crossed the Beringian “land bridge” from Siberia thousands of years earlier and encountered herds of large, curious, approachable animals, the “megafauna” of the Western Hemisphere.
The fortunes of most of these Old World entities had gone into decline in Europe. For example, by the early sixteenth century the heroic warrior of the Middle Ages, the true knight, thrived mostly in the pages of chivalric novels. In fact, he was on the verge of becoming a literary joke. The armies of Roman Catholicism had shut down the last outposts of Islamic civilization in Iberia, but the Church would soon confront a Christian rival throughout much of Europe. The cannon and siege had largely superseded swordplay and the equestrian fighter in European warfare. Europe’s demand for gold and silver could not be satisfied by drawing on available sources. The aristocratic prejudice against work would become an anachronism with the decline of feudal relations and the rise of Protestantism. State and Church, for better or worse, were gaining control of Spain’s demons of indiscriminate violence by substituting the Inquisition for the pogrom and making vigilantism almost an arm of government. And the smallpox virus had about run out of victims.
In the New World, each of these items would become a lethal piece of the conquistadors’ “baggage”–their mental and physical equipment. Each would experience a revitalized career. Armed with superior weapons as well as religious and moral certainty, the Spanish adventurers of the Cortés expedition could plausibly identify with the romantic heroes of familiar chivalric novels. With military backing, the Church would face no rivals, and it would gain the opportunity to convert millions of pacified pagans. Spanish America would also become the source of the enormous flows of precious metals, especially silver, that would lift Europeans–some Europeans–from the economic periphery to commercial dominance of the Early Modern world. Meeting only cotton armor, the sword would once again separate enemy warriors from their limbs and heads, and the Spaniards’ propensity for unaccountable and unchecked violence would keep such weapons engaged. As the largest, strongest, and nearly the fastest animal that Indians had ever seen, the horse would become the decisive military asset it had been for Bronze Age warriors of the Eurasian steppes. In New Spain (or Mexico), any European might become a master, any Indian a slave. Following thousands of years of domestication, pigs and other barnyard animals would run wild in a lush new environment. And deadly Old World microbes would encounter a universe of vulnerable new hosts.
This list of contents of the conquistadors’ deadly baggage is far from exhaustive. For example, an indigenous description of the invaders in a post-conquest source uses the Nahuatl word for iron or metal–tepotzli–more than any other, referring not only to the Spaniards’ swords but to their knives, gear, and armor. The printing press made Europeans aware of the Cortés expedition as early as 1520, and books, going back to Marco Polo’s account of Asian wonders, inspired them to come to the New World.x The brigantines that the Spaniards and their native allies built for the siege of Tenochtitlán could be rowed, paddled, or sailed. They could carry cannons and up to seventy-five men. They easily outmatched Indian canoes.xi And without the larger oceangoing vessels that brought the conquistadors to the Western Hemisphere and the navigational equipment that guided them to the shores of Yucatan, there would have been no conquest, not in the early sixteenth century.
But what does it mean that key elements of the conquistadors’ deadly baggage were losing lethality (or had never been lethal) in their Old World setting? One implication is that earlier contact might have had the same deadly outcome. But was there an earlier point at which contact between Europeans and indigenous Americans might have been benign? I take up this question in Chapter 1. As underlined in Chapter 2, once Iberian mariners began to sail down the west coast of Africa, it was only a matter of time before prevailing winds blew someone to the coast of Brazil or an island in the Caribbean. As things turned out, contact was made in the late Middle Ages by representatives of a country, Castile, that was on a permanent war footing with Islamic forces. The Castilian noble or adventurer still carried a sword and rode a horse, if he could afford one. He lived in a world that was preoccupied with obtaining the precious ores needed to gain access to the highly-valued goods of South and East Asia. If one’s prospects were dull or uncertain, acquisition of gold or silver could transform them into a glittering future. As Columbus observed, with such precious metals one could do anything. For example, one might buy land to lease to peasants and enjoy the easy life of a rentier. Putting one’s gold and silver away in a chest no longer made sense, and anyone who had such a treasure trove would have made an unlikely candidate for invasion of the Americas. Meanwhile, one stood ready to help keep a check on the enemies of the Faith that remained in Spain–by joining others in collective violence, if need be. As for the epidemics that had killed so many people in the past, they seemed a thing of the past.
Discovery and colonization of the Indies, so-called, put a few young Castilian males of the kind I have insinuated here on a collision course with members of a distant civilization of which they were completely ignorant. The latter might have continued to live as their ancestors had, to develop or not as they would, without the interference of powerful invaders with intolerant beliefs, overweening desires, and destructive biota. But historical developments and impersonal forces had piled change on top of change, bringing European invasion and multifaceted destruction to indigenous Americans. Superior numbers and “home field advantage” could not offset native disunity and the Europeans’ accumulation of deadly baggage. Indians died of sword thrusts and gunshots, of fire and water, torture and overwork. Many were killed arbitrarily, and many died of Old World diseases without ever setting eyes on a European. In some cases, we don’t even know what people called themselves before they were wiped out.
Beginning with sixteenth-century Franciscan scholars, researchers have pieced together a considerable body of information about the Aztecs. Our knowledge of the conquest, however, is mainly based on the narratives of the conquerors, especially Cortés’s Cartas de Relación de la Conquista de Méjico (or Letters to the Crown, as these reports are usually called in English) and the Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (True History of the Conquest of New Spain) of Bernal Díaz. But these sources leave us with a paradox: although the Aztecs had been capable of consolidating all of the social, economic, and technical means required to build and maintain a splendid pre-industrial metropolis–one far more populous than any in Spain–they were incapable of defending it against the boldness and ingenuity of a few hundred Europeans and an aggregation of Indian allies that the Aztecs had dominated for decades. Yes, they were suffering from a smallpox epidemic, but so must have been the conquistadors’ native allies.
I think that these primary sources resolve this paradox by a distortion of the facts. As we will discover in Chapter 8, Díaz had reason to play up the heroism of the conquistadors and minimize the intelligence of the Indians. His popular narrative depicts the latter as savage and fearsome yet easily managed once subdued. Insofar as one identifies with the storyteller, the True History is a fascinating account. Not many readers will find their way to the indigenous take on the conquest, as primarily represented by Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, and those that do will be struck by its strangeness, precluding easy identification with the people who were sickened, besieged, and slaughtered. Cortés’s letters to the Crown are blatantly self-serving. On page after page, examples of his boldness are matched only by those of his cleverness and good judgment. The letters become a self-portrait of the indispensible conqueror. After all, he was writing to the only authority whose approval he needed to remain in command of the conquest and the colonization that followed.
For the reader who is unfamiliar with or forgetful of the story of that expedition that emerges from Cortés’s letters and Díaz’s narrative, the following is a bare-bones account:
After two earlier exploratory voyages to the Mexican mainland by others, Hernán Cortés led an expedition of around six hundred adventurers and sixteen horses that sailed from Cuba in February 1519, defying the wishes of the Cuban governor, Diego Valázquez, who tried to revoke his authorization for the voyage at the last minute. The Spaniards made land at various points along the Yucatan peninsula. Their use of horses, steel swords, and harquebuses proved decisive in early battles with Indians. Cortés further exceeded Velásquez’s mandate by establishing Vera Cruz as a permanent settlement and putting the expedition under the immediate authority of Charles V, the Hapsburg emperor and (as Charles I) King of Spain. He did this by reporting directly to that monarch.
It soon became clear that the conquistadors had arrived on the periphery of a vast empire, that the center was a place called Culua or Mexico, and that many of the people of Culua’s tributary states were unhappy with their imperial masters, the Mexica. At Cempoala, a city near the Gulf Coast, Cortés put on a bold display of cunning by persuading the Cempoalans to imprison a pair of imperial tax collectors, then secretly releasing them with a message to Moctezuma, the ruler of this Aztec Empire, that he sought his friendship. Accompanied by Cempoalans and shadowed by Aztec emissaries, the Spaniards proceeded toward Culua, the reported source of the gold that they sometimes observed as native jewelry, destroying idols and erecting crosses en route.
At Tlaxcala, an independent state surrounded by areas aligned with the Aztecs, the Spaniards fought ferocious battles to defend themselves, suffering heavy losses. Ultimately, the Tlaxcalans decided to ally themselves with the invaders, becoming the most numerous and faithful supporters of efforts to defeat the Aztecs, their traditional enemies. The conquistadors and their newfound allies soon committed a major massacre at the nearby holy city of Cholula.
Overcoming Aztec efforts to divert or destroy the expedition and ignoring the warnings of their native supporters, the Spaniards finally arrived at the island city of Tenochtitlán (identified with the ancient center of Culua), “capital” of the Aztec Empire. They were amazed by its size and magnificence. Moctezuma treated them as honored guests. According to his welcoming speech, he believed that they were representatives of an ancient ruler, come home to claim their birthright. In an act of unimaginable audacity, Cortés had the Aztec ruler put under the equivalent of house arrest. Then, instead of ordering their annihilation, the warrior-monarch attempted to conciliate his captors, even giving them the hoard of gold and precious gems they had discovered in their lodging.
In April 1520, while still in Tenochtitlán, Cortés learned that a large force of Spaniards under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez had arrived on the Gulf Coast. Leaving some of his followers under the command of one of his captains, Pedro de Alvarado, Cortés rushed east to confront this new expedition, rightly judging that Diego Velázquez had deployed it to bring the conquest under his control. Cortés planted dissension among Narváez’s men and then staged a surprise attack in which Narváez was badly wounded. Narváez’s men went over to Cortés, although some did so reluctantly.
Bad news arrived from Tenochtitlán. The conquistadors there had come under dire threat. In Cortés’s absence, Alvarado had conducted a massacre of many members of the Aztec nobility during a ceremonial dance. Re-entering Tenochtitlán, Cortés and his new followers also became entrapped. The hostage emperor was killed under disputed circumstances. Under constant attack, the Spaniards and their allies attempted the desperate expedient of a nocturnal escape. Detected, hundreds of them and thousands of their native allies were killed trying to flee the city, an event that became known as the Noche Triste (sad night).
The survivors retreated to Tlaxcala where they nursed their wounds and began to rehabilitate their campaign, starting in about July 1520. Meanwhile, Tenochtitlán was hit by a smallpox epidemic, its inhabitants suffering huge losses. The Spaniards slowly approached the city again, this time with the launches with which they would gain control of the lake. They were joined by a growing number of native allies, including the warriors of a member of the Triple Alliance that had ruled the Empire. Cortés lay siege to the city, having cut off its supply of fresh water and food. Fierce fighting on the causeways followed over several weeks. The Spaniards and their allies gradually gained the upper hand, destroying the city and capturing the last Aztec ruler.
Native resistance to the colonizers outlasted the fall of the Empire by many years, but its demise in August 1521 roughly marks the end of the setting for most of what follows.
I think that the above outline faithfully summarizes and perhaps even expands the popular understanding of the conquest of Mexico. But of all the ways of explaining the fall of the Aztec Empire, this is probably the most Eurocentric and prejudicial. In this telling, conquest relied mostly on one man, Hernán Cortés, whose guile and audacity are counterposed to native gullibility and superstition. The Europeans prevail in what the primary sources describe as a close and exciting military contest. A better understanding must identify the complex of impersonal and less personal forces that came into play in Mexico in those crucial years of the early sixteenth century. My intent is to show that Mexico was conquered and the Aztec Empire destroyed by a gestalt of forces that flourished in the New World. Had Cortés never left Cuba, other Europeans would have come to Mexico bearing the same constellation of deadly creatures, motives, weapons, and immoderation in their desire to impose their aims. This suite of baggage, together with native disunity, was sufficient to destroy a civilization.
Am I saying that the Pandora’s Box of obsessions, weapons, biota, and inhumanity was sufficient in itself to destroy a civilization? No, let’s give Cortés and the conquistadors their due. Their swords didn’t wield themselves. The earlier expeditions of Córdoba and Grijalva did not result in conquest. Until Old World pathogens could take effect, success of the venture needed the kind of boldness and luck that Cortés had in spades. It’s just that Cortés’s audacity, cleverness, and leadership are not the whole story or even its most important part. There is plenty more to it than that, as we will see.
A word on usage. The rulers of the Aztec Empire, the Tenocha and Tlatelolca people who lived in Tenochtitlán, called themselves the “Mexica.” The problem with calling them what they called themselves is that, for me, the adjectival form of the word–“Mexican”–evokes the people of today’s Mexico, the nation state that grew out of the Spanish colony. Thus, following popular usage, I refer to them as the “Aztecs.” Many scholars now refer to what I call the “Aztec Empire” as the “Triple Alliance.” For the sake of convenience, I often refer to the conquistadors as “the Spaniards,” although the expedition included Genoese, Portuguese, Neopolitans, a Frenchman, a few African slaves, and some Cuban natives. (The number of the latter varies considerably from one source to another.) According to Frances Berdan, a few Spanish women also came along.xii At least one of them participated in the fighting. Also, early colonization occurred under Castilian, not “Spanish” auspices. Spain was not yet a nation but a geographic and cultural entity. The name of the Aztec ruler has been variously rendered. “Moctezuma” is a compromise. I have not attempted to discuss the conquistadors’ invasion from the indigenous side, except for the analysis of Chapter 12. The chapters that follow are of uneven length as befits their subject matter.