Thoughts on the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire


Quite randomly, my son and his best friend Dylan Lohrstorfer asked me late this afternoon:
Question 1: What do you think about the Conquest of Mexico by the Conquistadores?
Answer 1: (I responded extemporaneously, without thinking…)

Question 1:

Mexico was not really conquered by Hernan Cortez and Pedro de Alvarado with Bernal Diaz del Castillo at all.  After they had spent a few months in Mexico City the first time, as honored guests of the Huey Tlatoani Moteuczoma (aka “Montezuma Xocoyotzin” = Montezuma the Younger, the elder being “Montezuma Ilhuicamina” “Archer to the Sky”) who received them as “Divine Guests” either being or Representing Quetzalcoatl, the “Conquistadors” were summarily “uninvited” and expelled on pain of certain death during what was called the “Sad Night” (“Noche Triste”).

Alvarado was among the last to escape, having been caught in bed with an Aztec princess or so the story goes, and not really wanting to leave…. so the Aztec royal guard blocked the bridges across the canal over which he had to escape and Alvarado famously leapt about 10 meters (30 feet) which should have been impossible….the site of Alvarado’s leap was marked by a tree which has survived these five hundred years (or been replaced in the same spot by a similar tree, I’m not sure), which is call the “Tree of the Sad Night” or “El Arbol de la Noche Triste.”

You have to learn (and remember) that Mexico City, when it was Aztec Tenochtitlan Mexico, was a large city of canals and artificial islands reclaimed from a Swamp much like Venice, with much less land than water overall.  The Aztec who saw it said it was bigger than any city in Europe, larger than any known to Europeans except some of the cities of China.   But the Spanish did not all get out of Tenochtitlan alive… one left behind was a sick Moor (soldier of Arab descent and coloring) who had fallen sick of the small pox.   And so, the real conquest of Mexico began.


Image source: Wikipedia. Aztec Empire on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest

After the battle and escape of the Noche Triste (“Sad Night”) this dying body of the Moor apparently managed to infect another host and within weeks, Small Pox was spreading like wildfire through the Aztec Capital.  Within a few months, the population of Mexico Tenochtitlan was worse than decimated, and may have declined by as much as 75%.  This is because, as bad as small pox plagues were in Europe, the people had some historical exposure and built up genetic resistance to small pox, whereas the Native Americans DID NOT.

So the conquistadores, effectively, only “Conquered” Mexico because of unintentional use of “biological weapons” (as Jenny Calendar pointed out once in BtVS).  Their (the Spanish) accidental introduction of the Bubonic Plague into Mexico in 1520 was repeated several times, notably by Hernando de Soto in what is now the American South.

Otherwise, the “Conquest of Mexico” would probably have been aborted on the Sad Night…. and either Cortez and his troops would have eventually left or been slaughtered.  there were very few of them, at first only about 120-130 if memory serves me.  They got reinforcements and a few Indian Allies, among them the Tlaxcaltecas and inhabitants of what are now the Mexican states of Puebla and Veracruz.  But the Spanish never quite understood (or recognized) how much stronger their bacteria were than their arms…. Spanish Cannon and Rifles in 1519-1521 were as likely to explode and kill or injure the user as the target… and Spanish horses were so few that their strategic advantages were almost nil.  So that’s the introductory “lecture” on the Spanish Conquest of Mexico (and Peru and North America also—the same story of accidental biological warfare was repeated several times).


Image Source: Wikipedia: Lake Texaco

Featured Image Source at top: Wikipedia “from the Conquest of México series.Representing the 1521 Fall of Tenochtitlan, in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.”

The only major reciprocity (the only real “Revenge” Montezuma’s people ever took against Europe, despite touristic jargon and lore about forms of dysentery) in the “Columbian Microbial Exchange” was kind of weak and inadequate:
Europeans had no resistance to syphilis which was apparently extremely common among the Native Americans…. who had developed a nearly complete immunity to it.  But during the 16th century, the introduction of syphilis into Europe was like a miniature plague—but since it could ONLY be passed along by sexual intercourse, its wasn’t nearly as widespread or fatal to the larger population as Small Pox Plagues (and other maladies including even that certain upper respiratory tract ailment which we call “the common cold”) were to the Aztec and other Native Americans.
Apologetic Disclaimer: My 25 year old son Charles Lincoln IV, B.A., J.D., LL.M. (who should know better), and his best friend Dylan Lorhstorfer published the above text and added the illustrations without my advance knowledge or consent, but I guess I’m approving it now and taking the blame for writing such drivel.  But I did give them access to my blog to maintain it and edit it…  I, myself, haven’t even looked at, much less read, the Wikipedia article on the Conquest of Mexico (and I don’t really want to—because I despise Wikipedia’s historical and political biases)—but I’m fairly sure it covers the smallpox epidemic in Tenochtitlan (and if it doesn’t—someone needs to add it.) I haven’t even referred back to my copies of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, William Hickling Prescott, Jacques Soustelle, Rudolf van Zantijck, Fray Bernaldino de Sahagun or any other book or standard source…. The history of this article and the one before (as well as ones that may follow)…. some friends who are still at university and continuing their education asked me questions and this was what I wrote…. but I AM a Ph.D. and the rank informality of it all has to be explained….
I originally wrote this text just as a long afternoon message answering a question from my overspecialized and only partially educated son (who is, regrettably, at least half crazy, and probably much worse—-much like his father in that regard) and his slightly undereducated best friend from Cedar Park, Texas, who has a healthy hunger for knowledge.  They are both (at best only) somewhat lazily pursuing their education by asking ME questions in the afternoon, and they just happened “Al Hazard” to ask me (via Facebook Messaging) about the conquest of Mexico. They then decided without my knowledge or consent to publish my response and edit it here…. but I guess it’s kind of cute.  If it strikes anyone as totally moronic, I can always edit it, take it down…. or submit it to the Holy Office of Inquisition for Imprimatur/Nihil Obstat.
Thus, most of the textual substance was really me (with my son’s and his friend’s minor changes and addition of all the illustrations, pirated from somewhere, I HOPE with permission), but the photos and combination–as well as the final impetus to publish this–is from Charlie Lincoln IV and his artistic friend Dylan… they both at least claim to be interested in my work and thinking…. and when they were small boys we had a lot of fun together out in Lago Vista and elsewhere….  But that was a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far away, when raccoons were under an attack….
If I were to bother to cite some sources or at least check them, this could be a lot better and more detailed.  But I wrote most of it in less than a half an hour, maybe twenty minutes, off the top of my head.  My son was impressed because he’s always asking me to write about things and I never get around to it.  I do have a Ph.D. from Harvard, you know, following an M.A. from Harvard, following a B.A. from Tulane, supplemented with 15 regular (and some highly irregular) field seasons in the Southwestern U.S., Mexico, Central America, and Colombia….

One response to “Thoughts on the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire

  1. I wish I had time to comment on this at length. There was a conquest of the Aztec in the military sense..the diseases came later. To call it a Spanish conquest is the fallacy. I don’t have time, nor am I in the house I’d need to be to get you the actual figures. There were only 517 Spaniards (+ or minus one or two — it’s been a while since I’ve looked at this stuff, as I mentioned). BUT–they had some 40,000 allies from Tlaxcala and something like 50,000 from Texcoco, plus a whole slew of others! The craftsmen in Texcoco ( I think) built them “ships”to carry in equipment , supplies, and men. This allowed for navigating Lake Texcoco and effective fighting when the Aztec removed some of their pontoon bridge causeways which would have effectively cut off the Spanish advances, these were not just the simple canoes the Aztec had, but a Spanish ship hybrid which could carry canons. Now, if the capital had 100,000 or even 120,000 at the bigger end of the estimates, then the combined Tlaxcalan and Texcocoan alone outnumbered the Tenochtitlan forces because their population was not just warriors like the Cortes allies were, that also included all of the women and children plus all the men who were tradesmen, craftsmen, etc.. yes, the Noche Trieste was a reversal, but the major fighting followed and succeeded. The epidemic diseases came later when the colonists came! The soldiers who were there were healthy enough to have sailed over and been in the islands before the conquest and were fit for sailing and fighting battles. These weren’t the ones carrying smallpox. Now VD diseases are another story. Some favor that the revenge of the Indians was that they gave syphilis to Europe. But, the “Cook’s Tale” in the Canterbury Tales clearly describes a person with syphilis a full one hundred years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. So nix that one

    I agree that Wikipedia sucks, not for its bias so much as any pseudo educated idiot can write an article for it. And then everyone reads it and thinks that that’s the truth. What garbage.

    If you read on the smallpox epidemic (typhus and hemorrhagic fever were there too), you’ll find it is after the military Conquest. Lots of Spaniards died from it too. Had it occurred at the time of the Conquest, Cortes would have lost his Indian allies to the plague and where would the conquest have been then??

    There is one of the scariest non-fiction books I’ve ever read on The Epidemic Diseases of Mexico City (I forget the dates and author) in the Colonial period. It is fabulous! I had to do a report on it for Dr. Greenleaf’s course on Colonial Mexico. I found it fascinating and I heartily recommend it to you!

    And no, I don’t want this stuff printed in your blog, since I don’t have my sources here to annotate it correctly. That’s why I didn’t post it there. Barbaratzin

    Sent from my iPad

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