How Hernán Cortés Conquered the Aztec Empire

Tenochtitlán: A Dominant Imperial City

The Aztecs built an empire in central Mexico in the mid-1350s. When Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519, Mexico-Tenochtitlán was led by Moctezuma II. The city of Tenochtitlán sat on a human-made island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. It had between 200,000 and 300,000 residents and served as a hub for Aztec trade and politics. Other city-states were forced to pay tributes, included human sacrifices to Tenochtitlán. The other city-states were angered by these tributes.

Hernándo Cortés Makes Allies with Local Tribes

Hernándo Cortés was a Spaniard stationed in Cuba since 1511. In 1519 he led an expedition to Mexico. He wanted to acquire new land for the Spanish crown, convert Indigenous people to Christianity, and plunder the region for gold and riches,

Cortés and his conquistadors were welcomed by Emperor Moctezuma II when they arrived Tenochtitlán. Over time Cortés became concerned that Moctezuma's people would turn against his men. Cortés placed Moctezuma under house arrest while trying to rule through him.

When Cortés' left on a new mission, his representative killed hundreds of Aztec nobles during a ceremonial feast. Unrest grew among the Aztec people, who demanded the Spanish be removed from the city.

When the Moctezuma could no longer control Tenochtitlán’s residents, he was killed, either directly by the Spanish or by rivals while the Spanish stood by.

The Aztecs drove the Spanish from Tenochtitlán. The Spaniards returned with a small fleet of ships. Working in alliance with Indigenous warriors from neighboring city-states, the Spanish conquistadors held Tenochtitlán under siege for 93 days.

Disease Further Weakens the Aztec

Meanwhile, smallpox began to take its toll on the Aztecs and other indigenous peoples. The Spanish brought the disease with them when they departed Europe. Once in the Americas, the virus began to spread—both among the conquistadors’ indigenous allies and the Aztecs.

While many Spaniards had acquired immunity to the disease, the virus was new in the Americas and few Indigenous were immune. The bodies of smallpox victims piled up in the streets of Tenochtitlán.

The Spanish Wielded Better Weaponry

The Spanish came to the Americas from a war- oriented culture. They had military experience from wars against other European nations and against North Africans.. The conquistadors brought steel swords, muskets, cannons, pikes, crossbows, dogs and horses. The Aztec weapons proved ineffective against the conquistadors’ metal armor and shields.

The Aztec Empire found itself up against large armies of Spanish and indigenous forces, surrounded and cut off from the mainland, and with a population dying from a devastating virus. The Aztecs were unable to fight off the invading Spanish conquistadors. They were forced to accept life under Spanish rule.

Source: How Hernán Cortés Conquered the Aztec Empire
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