The Aztec Empire was formed through the unification of three city states. These city states had the power to govern, and control the empire. They were also in charge of Mexico Valley. “This coalition was composed of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, and they were commonly known as the Nuhua city states”.
Tenochtitlan acted as the capital of Aztec. It was from this city that the Aztec civilization flourished, and managed to control other Mexican tribes. “Within the alliance, Tenochtitlan became dominant among the other partners in the alliance”. Therefore, the ruling class in the Aztec Empire used Tenochtitlan as the main point of operation, and the other cities adopted subsidiary roles. The empire was managed this way until 1520, when the Spanish arrived.
The alliance expanded its frontiers through a series of military expeditions on their neighboring territories. The alliance also annexed a big portion of Mexico territory, and other distant territories.
The Aztec rule was conducted indirectly, and it was also hegemonic in nature. In this case, the Aztec rulers governed their conquered territories through the native rulers that were in charge of those territories before they annexed them. The Aztec empire practiced its hegemony through annual taxation of its colonies. Besides this, their territories also reinforced them through military support whenever they engaged in any serious battle.
The Journey to Tenochtitlan
Cortes was a popular magistrate in Cuba, and he mostly served in Santiago. In 519, Cortes together with an army explored Vera Cruz in Mexico. “Velazquez called for Cortes to lead an expedition into Mexico after reports from a few previous expeditions to Yucatan caught the interest of the Spanish in Cuba”.
However, Velazquez soon invalidated Cortes authority to lead the mission. After that, he instructed Narvaez who was accompanied by soldiers to go and monitor Cortes activities. Consequently, Cortes did not have power to accomplish his plans and this humiliated him.
As Cortes advanced into the interior, he encountered many tribes that detested Aztec governance. Cortes had conflicts with some communities that he encountered, and they also overwhelmed his army. His army was quite ineffective, but he continued advancing to Tenochtitlan. In November 1519, Cortes got close to Tenochtitlan city, but he organized his army before moving into Tenochtitlan city. He clustered his troops into various units that were comprised of foot soldiers and horsemen.
When Cortes finally arrived at Tenochtitlan city, he moved in through the causeway, covered with flowers, which was believed to be mainly used by the god Quetzalcoatl. Montezuma cordially welcomed him to the city. “Moctezuma was later taken hostage as a safety measure by the vastly outnumbered Spanish”. It is believed that this measure was adopted against him after he allegedly refused to quite the palace. Pedro de Alvarado was among the captains ordered to guard him. Apart from Moctezuma, the Spanish also incarcerated other Mexican lords.
Tension between Spaniards and Aztecs
Moctezuma cooperation and surrender to the Spaniards was quite unusual. He probably did this because he wanted to protect his rule, and he also wanted to avoid being killed by the Spaniard soldiers. Moctezuma may also have wanted to spy on the Spaniards before striking. Nonetheless, he did not execute any of the above mentioned plans, although he was advised to do so. Through the detention of Moctezuma, Cortes did not suspect any imminent attack. Besides this, Cortes also thought of using Moctezuma to govern Aztec.
This plan flopped since Cortes was ignorant of Aztec’s political governance. Moreover, Cortes over estimated the power and efficiency of Moctezuma. “Appointed to the throne was dependent on the king’s ability to rule decisively, and he could easily be replaced if he failed to do so”. This meant that any weakness demonstrated by the king could spark off rebellion. Moctezuma implemented Cortes despotic orders and this eroded peoples’ trust in him. After sometime, people rejected Moctezuma.
While Cortes was occupying Tenochtitlan city, Velazquez on the other hand, made military arrangements so that he could attack, and deport Cortes to Cuba. Velazquez was not amused by Cortes behavior because he did not respect his position. In 1520, Narvaez accompanied with other soldiers finally docked at Mexican coast in April.
When Cortes was informed about Narvaez arrival, his army went and assaulted Narvaez soldiers where they camped. Sources indicate that Cortes attack on Narvaez came at a time when he list expected since they were still negotiating. In addition, Cortes caused a division among Narvaez’s soldiers by telling them that they would get much wealth if they supported him. Cortes imprisoned Narvaez, and he also took his army equipment and soldiers.
Pedro de Alvarado together with other soldiers took charge of Tenochtitlan, during Cortes’s absence. “During this time, the Aztecs began to prepare for the annual festival of Toxcatl, which was celebrated in honor of the war god Huitzilopochtli”.
They were authorized by Moctezuma to conduct the festival, and they also claimed that the Spaniards were enthusiastic to learn some of their cultural practices. Alvarado allowed Aztecs to run their festival provided they did not attend the festival while armed. Many Aztecs turned up for the festival with dozens of gifts and offerings.
Several Aztec warriors also attended with the experienced ones being in the front part of the venue. Alvarado became weary of the Aztecs, and he suspected that they could be lynched by the Aztec warriors. Nonetheless, the warriors did not have battle gargets. The Spanish ambushed the Aztecs with various weapons while they celebrated, and they also closed all exists to the temple. Many people died while others escaped.
The Aztecs responded by alerting their warriors to come and attack the Spaniard soldiers that had ambushed them. The Aztec warriors responded very fast and they also lynched the Spaniards. “They managed to attack the Spaniards due to the fact that their military infrastructure had been severely damaged after the attack on the festival”.
Alvarado managed to inform Cortes about the events that had transpired in his absence. In June, Cortes and thirteen hundred troops moved back to Tenochtitlan. “Finally, Cortes reached his fortress unscathed, and the warriors from Aztec also planned to confront him”.
In order to frustrate the Spaniards, the Aztecs cut their logistical supplies to Cortes and the Spaniards. The Aztecs warned their people against any conspiracy or support to the Spaniards. In this case, any person who was caught trying to offer logistics support to the Spaniards could be killed. Besides this, the Aztecs blocked the Spaniards from exiting the palace, and they also suppressed Spanish attacks on them. Cortes did not fully understand the extent of the problem that occurred in his absence from Tenochtitlan.
The Spaniards actions during the festival had many ramifications on Cortes political profile. Cortes tried to reconcile with the Aztecs, but his attempt to appease them failed. Consequently, he instructed Moctezuma to go and negotiate with his subjects in order for them to stop rebelling. However, the Aztecs failed to stop rebelling against Cortes. The Spaniards stated that Aztecs killed Moctezuma when he tried to address them. On the other hand, the Aztecs also felt that their leader had been murdered.
Siege of Tenochtitlan
After Cortes had lost the battle against the Aztecs, he decided to relocate to Tlaxcalan. He also felt so much humiliated after his defeat, and army massacre. Since Cortes resided in the middle of Tenochtitlan city, it was not easy for him to escape because he could easily be attacked by the Aztec warriors who had surrounded him. In order to reach Tlaxcalan safely, Cortes had to use a suitable route. This is because he was vulnerable to numerous attacks from the communities that they could encounter along their journey to Tlaxcalan.
The dark nights and heavy rains facilitated the Spaniards secrete exit from Tenochtitlan. The Spanish managed to cross a few canals, but they were unfortunately discovered in the process of trying to cross the fourth canal. The Aztec warriors were alerted very fast, and they immediately attacked the fleeing Spaniards.
The Aztecs wounded and killed many Spaniards, and only a few of them managed to survive. The few Spaniards that escaped were also driven toward Tlaxcalan. Even though the Aztec warriors were many, Cortes managed to defeat them narrowly by murdering the Aztec general. The Spanish incurred many losses, but they finally emerged victorious. After that, the Aztecs retreated.
After Moctezuma’ death, Cuitlahuac became his successor. Cuitlahuac found it necessary to consolidate his power immediately in order to govern the Aztecs effectively. “Usually, the new king was would take his army on campaign before coronation; this demonstration would solidify necessary ties”. Nonetheless, he failed to do this because it was still time for harvesting. He instead forged a cordial relationship with the Spaniards.
The Aztec Empire remained fragile because the tributary states were prone to internal wrangles and this affected their cooporation. Cortes also found it important to form fresh alliances. “And as long as the Spaniards could protect new allies from the possibility of Aztec retribution, changing sides would not be too difficult for other tributaries”.
While Cortes was trying to reorganize his new territory, the Spaniards were struck by small pox. The disease started in Tenochtitlan, and later spread to Tlaxcalan. The disease claimed many Aztecs lives, and even Cuitlahuac was not spared.
He died of smallpox after serving for a week. The epidemic also killed many Aztec warriors, hence, affecting leadership in Aztec. The Aztecs did not bother to take action against the Spaniards after they had escaped because of the following reasons. First, Tenochtitlan was greatly disorganized after the Spaniards departure. Secondly, the small pox also interfered with the stability of the Aztecs warriors.
In order to recapture Tenochtitlan, Cortes skillfully formulated an attack against his rivals. “Cortes intended to do that by increasing his mobility on the lake, which was previously one of his main weaknesses”. In this regard, Cortes build ships, and also equipped his troops. The Spanish devised sophisticated tactics that enabled them to gain access to Tenochtitlan.
The Aztecs also advanced their strategies. Hence, Aztec warriors did not retreat during the battle with the Spanish. The Spanish sourced goods and equipment from Vera Cruz, and this enabled them to enter Tenochtitlan. “The Spanish fought through the city street by street, and were slowed, though not stopped, by fierce Aztec resistance”. As the battle ensued, Spanish prisoners who had been captured were sacrificed.
Finally, in 1521 the Aztecs formally admitted defeat on the thirteenth of August. Even after the Aztecs had surrendered, they were still attacked by Spanish soldiers. The Spanish destroyed massive property, and also killed many Aztecs. King Cuauhtemoc, who was now the new ruler of Aztec, also lost his life. The allies of Cortes contributed significantly to his success. “As there were several major allied groups, no one in particular was able to take power, and the person who benefited was Cortes”.
The decline of Tenochtitlan was a gradual process that took many years to accomplish. The Spaniards really struggled to subdue the Aztec warriors who could not retreat easily during any battle. The flourishing Aztec empire was ruined by many battles. The Spaniards lost many resources, and lives in the process of trying to fulfill their mission. However, they never gave up until they finally conquered Tenochtitlan in 1521. “It was the siege of Tenochtitlan that marked the end of the first phase of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire”.
Castillo, Bernal. The discovery and conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521. London: Grove Press, 1958.
Grunzinski, Serge. The Aztecs: Rise and Fall of an Empire. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992.
MacQuarrie, Kim. The Last Days of the Incas. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
Pagden, Anthony. Letters from Mexico. New York: Yale University Press, 1986.
Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico. London: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Castillo, Bernal. The discovery and conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521 (London: Grove Press, 1958), 12.
MacQuarrie, Kim. The Last Days of the Incas (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 23.
Pagden, Anthony. Letters from Mexico (New York: Yale University Press, 1986), 15.
Grunzinski, Serge. The Aztecs: Rise and Fall of an Empire (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992), 89.
Castillo, Bernal. The discovery and conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521 (London: Grove Press, 1958), 67.
MacQuarrie, Kim. The Last Days of the Incas (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 112.
Grunzinski, Serge. The Aztecs: Rise and Fall of an Empire (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992), 134.
Castillo, Bernal. The discovery and conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521 (London: Grove Press, 1958), 189.
Pagden, Anthony. Letters from Mexico (New York: Yale University Press, 1986), 189.
Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico (London: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 201.
Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico (London: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 190.
MacQuarrie, Kim. The Last Days of the Incas (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 214.
Castillo, Bernal. The discovery and conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521 (London: Grove Press, 1958), 198.
Grunzinski, Serge. The Aztecs: Rise and Fall of an Empire (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992), 234.