After Columbus' historic voyage in 1492, expeditions came to Aztec territory in search of gold and converts to Christianity. Within a generation, the Aztec and Inca Empires collapsed after campaigns lasting just a couple of years. How did they fall so fast?
Cannons vs. Clubs
The Spanish army was the mightiest military force on earth. The Spaniards had cannons and guns that terrified the American tribes. Horses, which the Aztecs had never encountered, gave the Spaniards greater mobility. And the Spanish sword could kill with a single thrust. The Aztec's primary weapons were wooden clubs studded with glass.
Wars were religious rituals to the Aztecs. The main goal was the capture of prisoners for sacrifice. During the siege of Tenochtitlan, Aztecs dragged captives up the steps of the Great Temple and ripped out their hearts. The Spanish viewed the Aztecs as savages.
Spaniards killed Aztec leaders whenever they could. With their deaths, ordinary soldiers became demoralized and fled.
Dissention and Disease
The Aztec Empire was a loose confederation of peoples who resented Aztec rule and the taxes they were forced to pay to the Aztecs. They saw the Spanish army as their saviors. Cortez got help from these tribes who hated the Aztec. In his final assault on Tenochtitlan, his band of 900 Spanish soldiers was joined by 150,000 natives.
The Europeans brought with them diseases such as measles and smallpox. The American tribes had no natural immunity against these diseases, which spread quickly, killing millions of people.
The Aztec leader Montezuma engaged in magic and superstition. Before Cortez landed at Vera Cruz in 1519, signs of doom appeared that scared Montezuma, such as a bright comet and a burning temple. He dreamed of a bird with a mirror strapped to its head, which Montezuma interpreted as a large number of soldiers approaching.
When spies brought tales of mountains floating upon the sea (huge Spanish ships), and men with "flesh very white...a long beard and hair to their ears," Montezuma thought Cortez was a god.
Ancient Civilizations Crumble
When Cortez marched on Tenochtitlan with a force of 500 Spanish soldiers and warriors he recruited along the way, Montezuma invited him in. Once inside the city, Cortez kidnapped Montezuma. Months later, Montezuma was killed.
Cortez later returned to Tenochtitlan with a huge army of Spaniards and native recruits. They set siege to Tenochtitlan, denying it food and fresh water. On August 13, 1521, Tenochtitlan fell to the Spaniards.
Source: Clash of Cultures: Two Worlds Collide
Copyright ©2008-2019 ushistory.org, owned by the Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia, founded 1942.