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Spain against the Aztec Empire

A popular travel book by Sir John Mandeville, written in the fourteenth century, written in several languages and published in numerous editions, described people in remote places outside Christendom as half-human and half-monster. There was no science of biology that clearly identified humans, but into the early 1500s the Church claimed that people of the New World were indeed human and therefore worthy of conversion. Some among the Spanish viewed what they saw as the nakedness of native Americans as a sign of natural virtue, while others spoke of "a beastly lack of shame of nakedness" and considered the natives "as children of the devil whose indolence and ignorance justified their enslavement." (Joyce Appleby, Shores of Knowledge, p 18.)

The Spaniards were based on the island they called Hispaniola, and there they heard on rumors of gold in Cuba. A force led by Velázquez de Cuéllar invaded Cuba. People in Cuba who had fled from Hispaniola to get away from the Europeans resisted the invaders. Cuba was conquered and Spaniards swarmed there from Hispaniola.

The Aztecs

The Aztecs had been hunter-gatherers who in the 1200s drifted into what today is the region around Mexico City. Mayan civilization had declined, and the Toltecs who had arrived in central Mexico and established themselves there despised the Aztecs, forcing them to live on swampland.

Adversity forced the Aztecs to innovate. They build dikes, and on swamps they built float gardens. They developed a superior agriculture, prospered and increased in number. They traded and allied themselves with neighbors. They fought and defeated their former ally, the Tepanecs, and with violence built an empire.

Aztecs society had class divisions, with nobles and a priesthood. Warriors were ranked by the number of enemies they had captured, with the exceptionally successful given the privileges of nobles. At the bottom of society were those who had been unable to support themselves and had sold themselves as slaves to nobles. And there were those who had been put into slavery as punishment for a crime. Aztec kings were aligned with the nobles. Kings claimed they were chosen by the gods to rule and that their primary function was to serve the gods. Eventually they claimed they were descended from Toltec kings and described Toltec kings as having been semi-divine.

The Aztecs credited their success to their gods. They saw themselves as the chosen people of the war god, Huitzilopochtli, and they saw themselves as sustained their sun god, Tonatiuh. They sought to avoid punishment by pleasing by their gods. Each god had full-time priests to attend to its interests – priests who were mostly male, who attended sacred fires that burned in large braziers, priests who played music at ceremonies, burned incense and left food for their god.

Fundamental to Aztec religion was the belief that the gods had created the sun by throwing themselves into a huge fire, that the gods had spilled their own blood to create humankind and that humans were obliged to pay back their blood debt to the gods. Aztec priests scarred and mutilated their bodies in their constant bloodletting. Some priests appeared especially devout with their long, unwashed hair matted with dried blood. War was favored as a way of obtaining blood and men for sacrifices. Most people who were sacrificed to the gods were those captured in warfare. And warfare was encouraged to obtain such persons.

Archaeological evidence indicates that children were frequent and special targets for sacrifices. They were sacrificed to the rain god in hope of rainfall the following year, and the priests were joyful to see the tears of the children as they were being led away to their deaths, the priests believing the children's tears to be a sign of coming rain.

Spain Expands

One of Spain's magistrates on Cuba was a Hernán Cortés age 28, an owner of mines and cattle worked by enslaved Taino. In November 1518, Cortés led an expedition from Cuba to the continent where won a battle against a Mayan community and was presented with a slave girl, Milinali, who went on to become his interpreter and mistress. He moved inland toward the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan (Tenochtitlán). The Aztecs had made enemies when expanding their empire, and Cortes was mindful that to succeed against the Aztecs he could use as allies those who viewed the Aztecs as enemies. Cortes benefited from guns, light cannon, steel swords and horses. With his new allies, in September 1519 he fought the independent republic of Tlaxcala, who were also enemies of the Aztecs, and, after initial skirmishes, Tlaxcala became his ally.

In Tenochtitlan the king of the Aztecs, Moctezuma II (known also as Montezuma II) had heard that Cortés was on his way. The Aztecs were interpreting events as an activity of spirits. Moctezuma believed that Cortés was an incarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl returning to claim his people. In November 1519, Cortés arrived with his small force and around 1,000 Tlaxcatecs. He and his fellow Spaniards were astounded by the size and beauty of Tenochtitlan, a city surrounded by water. Crowds of Aztecs came in their canoes to see the gods and their supernatural animals. Moctezuma arrived in a sedan chair and treated the Spaniards as his guests. He gave them use of one of his castles and entertained them for a week. Cortés received from Moctezuma gold and other presents, men and women slaves.

While a guest of Moctezuma, Cortez and his men made their move of conquest by turning him into a hostage of him. Dealing with Moctezuma's subjects outside his castle was a more difficult challenge. Cortés began driving Aztec priests from their temples and replacing stone images with a cross and the image of the Virgin Mary. After the Spaniards had been in Tenochtitlan a few months, with Moctezuma still prisoner, one of Cortés' underlings led tried to break up a religious festival in the town's central square. Aztec nobles were killed. People were outraged, and to calm the anger the Spanish displayed Moctezuma on the palace roof. By now the Aztecs had a new vision of who the Spaniards were, and they saw Moctezuma as a traitor. Angry Aztecs managed to kill Moctezuma, and to escape the mobs Cortés and his 1300 men fought their way out of the city at night. About half of his force died, some of the Spaniards losing their life because they had overloaded themselves with precious metal.

Cortés and his force returned to their allies in Tlaxcala. Spanish reinforcements and supplies arrived to strengthen Cortés' force. From Tlaxcala, Cortés won domination over neighboring territory, and in August, 1521, Cortés with an enlarged army returned to Tenochtitlan. They surrounded the city and cut its outside supply of fresh water and food. They bombarded the city with cannon and fought block by block. The people of Tenochtitlan fought without guns, and they were suffering from smallpox, against which they had no immunity. Five-sixths of Tenochtitlan was destroyed. Surviving Aztecs abandoned the corpse-ridden and disease-infested city, and what was left of the city was burned. Cortés changed the city's name to Mexico (Mexico City), and Spanish men from the Caribbean began flocking to what would now be called New Spain.

CONTINUE READING: Spain against the Incan Empire

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