I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone refer to the conquest of Mexico by a few hundred Spanish soldiers.
That’s not what happened. When Hernán Cortés arrived at the shores of lake Texcoco and the famous city of Tenochtilan in its center, his soldiers were accompanied by an indigenous army of mostly Tlaxcalan soldiers, led by Xicotencatl , one of history’s most ignored heroes, a man who disliked and distrusted Cortés, who had fought him earlier in a long battle which the Tlaxcalans might have won if the Tlaxacalan elders hadn’t agreed to a Spanish proposal that the two peoples make peace and join forces to defeat the Tlaxcalan’s long-time enemies, the Aztecs.
The ‘Aztecs’, by the way, never existed. The term is said to have been invented by a French anthropologist. The people who inhabited Tenochtitlan were the Mexica, who spoke Nahuatl, a language that is still spoken today in many parts of Mexico.
According to Mexican philosopher, poet and diplomat Octavio Paz, the name ‘Mexico’ itself refers to the island occupied by the Mexica in Lake Texcoco:
Mexico is a word composed of metzli (moon), xictli (navel) and co (place): the place in the navel of the moon; that is, in the navel of the lake of the moon, as the lake of Mexico was called.
(A Draft of Shadows, p. 186)
Since my own exploration of Mexico in 1968-’69, I have never stopped reading its history and I must say that the best and most accurate account of this (because it includes indigenous writing recorded by Spanish priests – the Indians had a lot to say), might be the one you’ll find on Wikipedia. The the story is told in fascinating detail, resulting in, I think, one of the finest productions yet from Wikipedia. Along with the accompanying accounts of the Spanish takeover of Yucatan and Chiapas, they’ve produced a full book I believe.
There is a more succinct account at Brittanica by Myles Hudson which I like too, with many delightful images, including the one above that they have courteously provided.
Tenochtitlan was built on islands in Lake Texcoco, which was created thousands of years ago as a glacial lake over 2,000 square kms in area. To give you an idea how sophisticated the Mexica and other people in the area were, consider this – because it had no outlet, the lake had over thousands of years become a salt lake. Divided into sections by the causeways (which also served as dams) leading to Tenochtitlan in the centre, they, the Mexica, had allowed the largest in-flowing river to force the salt water out of that section, creating a fresh water reservoir for their own use. The world has many salt lakes, but I’m not aware of another where this has been done.
The lake was still large when the Spanish arrived. Only when they cut down the forests around its shores, did it begin to shrink.
During the fighting for the city, the dams were destroyed and the Spanish never bothered to rebuild them. That’s partly why Mexico City would always suffer from frequent flooding, as it does today, something the Mexica/Aztecs apparently controlled. The ‘conquest’ of Mexico was not an example of progress.
However, to demonstrate that those few hundred Spanish soldiers did not conquer Mexico, or even Tenochtitlan, consider some of the events:
When Cortés and his Tlaxcalan allies first arrived at Tenochtitlan, they were accepted by the Mexica as a diplomatic mission, and treated as guests as the two sides assessed each other’s military capability.
Before any hostilities began, Cortés took part of his troops back to Veracruz to fight a Spanish rival who had just arrived, defeated him, acquired his rival’s troops and with these reinforcements, returned to Tenochtitlan with 1,300 Spanish troops. Added to those left behind, he must have had close to 2,000 Spanish soldiers at that point, not counting the Tlaxcalans.
While he was away his second-in-command, Pedro de Alvarado, had gotten into disputes with the Mexica and hostilities were breaking out as Cortés arrived. He and and Alvarado then attempted to kidnap the emperor Moctezuma, as a result of which they were attacked and driven out of the city with heavy casualties. The Mexica forces followed and beat the Spanish again at the battle of Otumba, forcing them back to Tlaxcalan territory.
While the Spanish were gone, the city of Tenochtitlan suffered through a 70 day epidemic of smallpox, significantly reducing its population. Some have argued that smallpox was the chief factor in the defeat of the Mexica.
When Cortés assembled his final assault on Tenochtitlan, one of his captains, Bernal Diaz (who wrote The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,) says their Tlaxcalan allies numbered 10,000. In addition, they were also joined then by forces from the Texcocan people who lived on the shores of the lake, and had previously been allies of the Mexica.
To carry out a siege of the city, Cortés built 13 ships (using Tlaxcalan labor) to block supplies entering the city.
Much has been said about the omens – meteors in the night sky, etc. – that supposedly demoralized the Mexica. In fact their effect wasn’t great. The Mexica fought tenaciously to the end. But the omens are interesting and Wikipedia looks at them in some depth.
The Spanish possession of guns, armor and other technology was not as important as people like to think either. In the case of armor, the Spanish often found it an impediment when fighting in the heat. Many of them switched to the heavy cotton armor used by the Indians.
And what Cortés had conquered – the Mexica/Aztec empire – was maybe 20% of what we know as Mexico today. Consider this :
The Tlaxcalans never considered themselves conquered. They would go on to dispute their rights repeatedly within the new government.
Yucatan, according to Wikipedia, took 170 years to acquire. In fact, throughout most of the nineteenth century a part of central Yucatan maintained its independence from Spain (the Indians there were supplied with guns and ammunition by the British in Belize, then British Honduras).
In the north of Mexico, in the area surrounding the city of Zacatecas today, the Chichimeca, offended by mining in their territory, inflicted heavy losses on the Spanish for 40 years.
During this long struggle for control of the country, 240,000 Spanish immigrants arrived. It took a lot more than a few hundred soldiers to suppress the inhabitants of Meso-America.
The people south of Mexico city known as the Zapotecs had never been conquered by the Mexica/Aztecs (though the Mexica tried), and there is no report of them in significant fighting with the Spanish. I expect that it was a diplomatic takeover. One of the most independent of all peoples in Mexico, the Zapotecs would demonstrate it repeatedly, most famously in the 1910-1920 revolution when, led by the famous Emiliano Zapata, they recovered much of the land that had been confiscated from them.
Chiapas, the large state on the south-western border of Guatemala where I travelled extensively in ’68-’69, is said to have required over a century to fully subdue. In fact, given the rebellion that began there in January 2000, when the Indian people in the highlands led by ‘Commander Marcos’, took over much of central Chiapas, and which is ongoing (the Indians now effectively operate an autonomous government with their own schools, hospitals, etc.), it is questionable whether Chiapas too has ever been conquered.
And so, let it be said, here at least – those few hundred Spanish soldiers who conquered Mexico are a complete fiction.
But I must apologize. Although my posts on shyness and autism are apparently more interesting to the followers of this site than those on history, science, etc, now and then I have to get these things off my chest. For anyone who would like to read more though, here are the Wikipedia and Britannica articles mentioned: