Hernan Cortes - Reasons for Success
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Why was Cortes with 508 soldiers able to conquer the Aztec Empire with millions of people?
Cortes was able to conquer the Aztecs for several very different reasons. In combination these reasons allowed him to have the upper hand in the conquest of Mexico. Arguably these reasons can be sorted into six different categories. The various causes for Cortes' success will be assessed in a climax pattern. To begin with the Aztecs had a harsh tribute system that was not popular among the people of Mexico. This cruel tribute system allowed Cortes to act as a liberator. Furthermore, with the Spanish brought several diseases into Mexico in witch they were immune to but the Aztecs were not. The spread of diseases such as small pox reduced the Aztec population and furthered Cortes' success unintentionally Also Marina was a tribal girl given as a gift to Cortes, she proved invaluable in translating local dialects in combination with Geronimo de Aguilar. Also an important aspect of his success was due to Montezuma's belief that Cortes was Quetzakoatl. A predominant reason for the Spanish success was due to their weaponry especially their armour and firepower. Perhaps the most important reason of all was that of Cortes' Indian allies such as the Tlaxcalans who made up the majority of his combined army. All these reasons worked together to allow Cortes, originally with 508 men to conquer the Aztec Empire of millions of people.
To begin with, the Aztec's cruel tribute system allowed Cortes to act as a liberator. The process of human sacrifice was extremely common and was feared by the majority of the common people. The Aztecs as a nourishment for the Sun and all other gods needed human sacrifice. The Aztecs sacrificed between 10,000 and 50,000 victims per year. As the majority of those who were sacrificed were war captives who opposed the Aztecs, they obviously greatly feared the brutal tribute system. However not only war captives were sacrifices, common adults and children were also sacrificed at times. Cortes himself was disgusted at the thought of human sacrifice, this allowed him to gain Indian allies as well as gain respect among Mexican tribes that feared and opposed the Aztecs. The majority of the population feared the process therefore making Cortes, whom despised the process, an appealing alternative. Many followed Cortes as they shared the same views on the 'human sacrifice' topic.
Because Cortes posed to eliminate the Aztecs it allowed him to appear as a liberator of the tyranny of the Aztec rule.
Secondly, a relatively minor cause for Cortes' success was the issue of disease among the Aztecs. Although this was a fairly feeble reason it actually greatly benefited the Spanish in reducing the Aztec population. The Spanish brought smallpox to Mexico, said to be linked to an infected slave arriving from Spanish Cuba, which caused great suffering to the Aztecs. The Spanish were immune to the disease so it posed no threat to Cortes' own men. The Aztecs were demoralized by the mysterious illness that killed Indians and spared Spaniards, as if advertising the Spaniards' invincibility. One negative aspect for Cortes however was that his Indian allies suffered from the disease to the same extent as the Aztecs, resulting in considerable losses. Smallpox stopped the Aztecs from pursuing the Spanish around the lake after the Noche Triste. Another example where disease benefited the Spanish was the fact that when they landed in 1514, Mexico had a population of 25.2 million. Then 80 years later at the end of the sixteenth century the population of Mexico had dropped by 95% to just over one million. As we can see disease played a small yet unintentionally effective role in contributing to Cortes' success.
Thirdly, another reason that enabled him to conquer the empire was his translators, namely Marina and Geronimo de Aguilar. After a short warring period with the tabascans they exchanged gifts with one and other. One of these presents was a Mexican girl called Marina (or Malinche) who was a tremendous asset to the Spanish. Marina knew the language of Coatzacoalcos, which was the most common throughout Mexico. She also knew the language of the Tabascans, and perhaps the most useful of all she knew Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs themselves. Another important role was that of Geronimo de Aguilar who had been shipwrecked there in Mexico in 1511. He was intelligent and well educated and picked up on much of the local dialects. In combination Marina and Aguilar were extremely useful to Cortes. The translation process worked in two stages, firstly Marina translated the local language into a form that Aguilar could understand, then secondly Aguilar translated it into Spanish for Cortes. Marina was very intelligent later learning Spanish herself as well as bearing one of Cortes' children. Marina proved herself to be invaluable in helping Cortes recover from confrontations with the Aztecs and other opposing tribes. She also was important in helping Cortes gain Indian allies as she could explain what Cortes could do for them. Marina greatly helped Cortes in his conquest of the Mexican Empire.
Fourthly, Montezuma believed Cortes to be the great god Quetzakoatl who was returning to take back the Aztec empire. What benefited Cortes in this case was the confusion surrounding Montezuma whether or not Cortes was really the great god. This confusion gave Cortes time to act while Montezuma thought. This was of great benefit as it made Montezuma apprehensive when he was confronted with Cortes. Several aspects proved to Montezuma that Cortes was Quetzakoatl. Cortes preached a religion of love, mercy and compassion, and he forbade human sacrifice and instituted bloodless offerings. Both these things helped to convince Montezuma as both Cortes and Quetzakoatl housed these characteristics. Quetzakoatl was also the god of thunder and lightning which was easily represented my the Spanish artillery. On the other hand various aspects showed Cortes to not be the prophesised god. Cortes spoke of a superior (King Charles), in which Quetzakoatl wouldn't have. Furthermore Cortes himself couldn't speak the language of Nahuatl, and Montezuma found it hard to believe that he could have forgotten his own language. I have illustrated just a few of the many points on each side of the argument, but it should give you an idea of the state of mind Montezuma was in at the time. Montezuma was extremely confused by the situation and wasn't certain what he should do. This situation allowed Cortes to advance with his plans before Cortes had time to fully access the situation. Montezuma was intimidated as the Spanish defeated the tlaxcalans, whom the Aztec's had never defeated, and then allied with them. Some of Montezuma's advisers opted for him to resist the Spanish, however he replied 'What good is resistance when the gods have declared against us?' Montezuma now felt the philosophical foundation of his empire collapsing. Montezuma's confused state allowed the Spanish to easily capture him and take over his empire.
In addition, the Spanish military dominance greatly assisted them in their conquest of the Aztec Empire. This was a huge advantage as their cavalry, steel and firepower outdid the Aztec's in every respect. Although the Spanish arrived with a mere 508 people, their weaponry frightened the Aztecs and local tribes with cavalry and Spanish cannon in which they had never seen before. Spanish mêlée weaponry consisted of swords, and pikes, using hard Toledo steel that was far stronger and retained their edge far longer than any of their combatants. The Spanish fought in a routine, regimented fashion with numerous back up units, directly in contrast with their combatants who trained in the Iberian tradition of individual fighting. An example of their dominance is shown in the battle of Otumba in 7th July 1520 when Spanish cavalry dominated against their Indian opponents. Another major advantage that the Spanish had over the Aztecs was that they had armour. Spanish steel armour was proof against Indian projectiles, and it greatly weakened the blows from Aztec obsidian swords. Because wounds were limited to the limbs, face, and neck and other unarmoured regions, Spanish soldiers faced less risk of death, while the unarmoured Indians and Aztecs were extremely vulnerable. A major reason for success was the Spanish's crossbows and harquebuses. Their crossbows had nearly double the range of the Indian bows, as well as being more powerful and needing less training. The harquebuses had a lesser effective range but had extreme power. The combination of crossbows and firepower allowed them to fire into unarmoured opponents with deadly effect. On the Spanish ships were falconets (breech loaded, rapid fire rate) that could reach a maximum range of 2km. The cavalry attacked with 4m lances and charged down enemies having the ability to disrupt formations. A strong Spanish advantage was not just the physical strength of their weaponry but also the psychological effects it caused. The gunpowder in the harquebuses and falconets scared the Indians as they had never seen such things before and believed they may be associated with the gods. The Spanish cavalry also worked in this psychological disturbance. At the battle of Otumba the surprise cavalry charge caused the frightened Indians to run in terror. The Spanish arrived with few numbers but their extreme military dominance due to their advances weaponry and armour allowed them to conquer the Aztec Empire of millions.
Lastly and most importantly, Cortes gained Indian allies such as the Tlaxcalans who made up and extremely large percentage of Cortes' force. Through his various anti-Aztec policies Cortes was able to gain many valuable Indian allies. The Tlaxcalans had been at war with the Aztecs for almost a century, and to the Tlaxcalans the Spanish represented their only hope of breaking the power of Mexico. They gave Cortes a great amount of detail about Tenochtitlan, telling him about the number of drawbridges on the causeways and even the depth of the water in the lake. Cortes now had the support of the entire tlaxcalan republic, who created an extremely vital ally. Cortes had 50,000 tlaxcalans backing him up for the reconquest of Tenochtitlan, as well as 25,000 combined other Indians allies. During the reconquest nearly 100,000 were brought up when the causeways were taken, the majority being Indian and Tlaxcalan reinforcements. 2,000 extra Indian allies were provided at the battle of Otumba. The allies were also put to work in many other ways than fighting. During the Noche Triste Cortes assigned 400 tlaxcalans to carry bridge building equipment, 200 to carry artillery, and 300 to guard prisoners. As we can see, without Cortes' Indian allies he would have had no chance of defeating an empire of millions.
Cortes was able to conquer the Aztec Empire of millions of people for several reasons of varying importance. The Aztec's cruel tribute system, Marina and Aguilar as translators, the Spanish military dominance, Cortes' Indian allies, the Quetzakoatl myth, and the smallpox epidemic all contributed in the Spanish success. In combination these reasons gave Cortes the upper hand in his conquest of Mexico.