Monday, August 13, 2012

The Fall of Tenochtitlan

It was on this day in 1521 that the Spanish forces of Hernan Cortes occupied Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire in one of the great, historical turning points in the history of the Americas. This marked the beginning of the end of the city-state of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec domination of central Mexico. Given the fact that history is set in stone and cannot be changed, it can be somewhat amusing to see how the perception of this pivotal historical event has changed so dramatically over the centuries. Once upon a time it was viewed as a glorious triumph, the triumph of Hispanic civilization over native barbarism and the (eventual) conversion to Christianity of a backward, heathen people. Today the more common perception is one of cruel and greedy Europeans slaughtering and exploiting helpless native innocents, destroying their glorious culture and replacing it with one of rigid rules and hierarchy. As is usual with such dramatic swings in perception and opinion, both of these extremes are right to an extent and both are wrong to an extent. Relatively few today may disagree with the common view, but at least some disagreement remains and it can be a controversial subject. In the same way, the image of the two great men involved, the conquistador Hernan Cortes on the one side and Emperor Montezuma II on the other, also remain hotly debated.

The conquest of Tenochtitlan was, on a basic level, a glorious event in that it was a great victory for a very small Spanish force against a far mightier foe. It was a triumph for Hispanic civilization in that what had been the Aztec Empire became, eventually, the Viceroyalty of New Spain with Tenochtitlan, renamed Mexico City, as the capital. Likewise, it was a triumph for the Roman Catholic Church over the native Aztec religion with, ultimately, the Catholic Church gaining about as many new members as had been lost to the Protestant movement. What is untrue is that the Aztecs were a backward or ignorant people. At the time, Tenochtitlan was larger than any city in Europe, the inhabitants were sustained by a truly brilliant system of agriculture and we know from archaeological discoveries that the Aztecs had trade ties with other Native American civilizations as far away as the middle of North America and South America. It is true that the Aztecs lagged behind western countries in many areas but in many cases this was due not to any lack of creativity or understanding but in a lack of understanding how to utilize things. They built magnificent temples and palaces and huge pyramids but never utilized the wheel even though we know they understood the concept from things like toys for children which had wheels in place of legs. They kept records and were highly artistic, traded with other nations and had a bustling economy and yet they never produced a written language, they simply used more complicated methods (like hieroglyphics) to reach the same end.

The Aztecs then were neither backward primitives nor were they helpless. In fact, they were a warrior people who often depended on other conquered peoples for innovation while themselves further mastering the art of war. Compared to the Spanish their weapons were primitive yet they were extremely effective for all of that. Despite lacking steel blades, they had clubs studded with sharpened rocks that could disembowel a horse with a single blow. Their weapons were extremely deadly and extremely effective and, in fact, not terribly different as to their basic level of technology from what the Spanish used in vanquishing them. Firearms were very few in the Spanish army that landed with Cortes and they did most of their fighting with swords, lances and crossbows rather than the canon or the harquebus which would have been of significantly less value anyway given humid, jungle conditions they were operating in and the fact that they were so slow to fire the enemy would have been upon them before they could fire more than one or two shots. In any event, even if the Spanish had been armed with “futuristic” flintlock muskets the Aztecs should have been able to overwhelm them easily by sheer weight of numbers.

There were two basic reasons for the defeat of the Aztecs, one of which involves their culture and religion but the secondary one was not their weaponry but their tactics and strategy which were not as sophisticated as those of the Spanish. There was also the often-overlooked fact that the Spanish had large numbers of native allies who, despite being just as bewildered as anyone at the sudden appearance of these strange foreigners, quickly and enthusiastically allied with them to throw off the yoke of Aztec rule. This is where we are drawn into the overall Aztec religion and culture. Although most today would prefer not to emphasize this point, the religion of the Aztecs was based around regular human sacrifices. Because of this, when engaged in warfare against their neighbors, the Aztecs did not focus on killing their enemies as much as they did on capturing as many as possible as these captives were then offered as human sacrifices. Their military tactics were based on this and thus they were at a considerable disadvantage when confronted by the Spanish whose tactics were based around destroying the enemy rather than capturing them. The Aztec practice of enslaving subject peoples and offering captives as human sacrifices also meant that they were not the most popular people in the neighborhood and their subject peoples were eager to join with anyone, no matter how strange they might be, in overthrowing them.

There was, of course, much that was great and glorious about the Aztecs and their culture. The dispassionate observer could also point out that the Spanish could commit acts of cruelty on their own as any people are bound to but even the most irreligious and dispassionate observer would have to admit, I think, that the Aztec religion was horrific. Naturally, the Aztecs did not think this was so, this was simply their religion, however, those who wish to downplay this aspect of Aztec culture (usually in an effort to vilify the Spanish) do a disservice, not only to the truth, but to the Aztecs themselves by belittling what was, to them, the heart of the spiritual beliefs. It should be remembered that it was the Aztecs themselves who left behind the accounts which emphasized this and according to the Aztecs themselves, on certain special occasions, they might sacrifice tens of thousands of people every day on their numerous pyramids. Two wrongs, of course, do not make a right but this fact should not be forgotten or the horror of it shrugged off in an effort to portray the Aztecs as the innocent victims of Spanish cruelty. Again, they had many admirable qualities and accomplishments, but they were far from being as pure as the wind driven snow. The Spanish were horrified by this and even tried to convince Emperor Montezuma II of the barbarity of it, saying that such practices were unworthy of so great a man as he.

Of course, by the time Tenochtitlan fell, Montezuma II had long departed this world. That is another common misconception; that Montezuma II was the last Aztec Emperor. He was not, in fact he was not even the next to the last or the next to the next of the last. But that brings us to one of the last and most ridiculous claims about this historical episode which is the “hierarchical” Spanish imposing their own system on an otherwise simple and egalitarian native society. This is clearly ridiculous but it plays upon some popular stereotypes. The Spanish were Catholics after all and the Catholic Church is “very hierarchical” (a bizarre phrase if ever there was one) and many people do have the perception of all Native American peoples being nature-worshipping egalitarians. Honestly, some Native American groups were fairly egalitarian but these tended to be the least advanced and a civilization as large and powerful as the Aztecs could certainly never have been built without someone being in charge and making use of a strict chain of command.

In fact, if anything, the Aztecs might have been “more hierarchical” than the Spanish. The Aztec Emperor was treated with extreme reverence, as a semi-divine figure, the earthly representative of the gods and had the most exalted position. He had the best of everything, including women (Montezuma II reportedly had around 1,000 wives and concubines all to himself) and slaves carried him on a litter everywhere he went or spread fine mats in his path as he walked as his person was considered too sacred for his feet to even touch the ground. This was obviously a far different position from the politics of the monarchies of western Europe in the High Middle Ages in which dealings between monarchs, nobles and common people had more of a contractual style about them. And, aside from the Aztec Emperor there was also an aristocracy and a priestly class who held special privileges. There is nothing, of course, wrong with any of that, but it is, again, another aspect of the Aztec civilization that many today seem to prefer to leave out.
So, we should try to keep a more honest and realistic view of such a significant historical event. Certainly neither side was perfect, there was a great deal of destruction, plundering and viciousness that accompanied the fall of Tenochtitlan, however the changes also brought an end to the barbaric practice of human sacrifice and at least some relief for those subject peoples who had been enslaved by the Aztecs. The fall of Tenochtitlan was a turning point in the history of the Americas but it was also by no means “the end” of the Aztecs. In fact, for several decades there continued to be an Aztec Emperor, the last one passing away in 1565. However, it was the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one in the history of Mexico.


  1. Good article. You should cover the Inca as well!

  2. Great article, you really balance out everything comparing the 2 opposing civilizations. The brutal war was a stain in Mexican history, but should never be the main focus point. Mexicans of European descent should learn to have an appreciation for the Pre-Colombian roots of their nation and indigenous Mexicans should learn as well to appreciate the Hispanic roots of their nation. Both the Aztecs and Conquistadors were cruel and violent, so lets forgive both sides as Mexicans and enjoy the beautiful culture that came from this marriage of these to different worlds. I am proud of my Mestizo heritage and love my Queen of Mexico; Our Lady of Guadalupe.


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