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Jenks Snyder 11/14/2011 Dr.

Lehman The True Conquest of New Spain The Spanish conquistadors who undertook the conquest of the Aztecs were a company of armed entrepreneurs whose bravery, ingenuity, greed, and determination were unparalleled. They had come to the New World under the pretenses of Christianity and the Spanish Crown; but, in reality, they came in search of precious metals and, subsequently, increased social mobility. Though greatly outnumbered, the conquistadors were able to prevail over the Aztecs because of superior technological advantages, better battle tactics, luck, disease, and the exploitation of weaknesses within the Empire. Under the leadership of Hernando Cortez, the men that participated in this epic conquest were predominately lower level hidalgos and members of the lower class. Cortez was from Medellin, located in the poorer Spanish region of Extremadura, and was an integral figure in Spains acquisition of Cuba. Yet, even though Cortez was an alcayde in Santiago and owned a good encomienda of Indians, he was very poor and in debt1. Like Cortez, Bernal Diaz came to the New World in search of a better life. However, after taking part in the first unsuccessful expedition to the Yucatan, Diaz was reduced to poverty and forced to ask his relative and Governor of Cuba, Diego Velazquez, for help. The conquistadors who came to the New World were willing to endure hardships and possibly lose their lives in order to

Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain (New York: Penguin Classics, 1981), 47. 1

gain honour, and this fact in itself is a testament to the bravery of these soldiers of fortune2. Throughout the book, Diaz describes the hardships and many battles, in which the conquistadors were able to overcome seemingly impossible odds. The conquistadors had to deal with both facing the innumerable army of the Aztecs and surviving the harsh elements of nature within the unknown lands of the New World. Even before the conquistadors were able to face the Aztecs on the field of battle, they had to fight other indigenous tribes, which in some cases outnumbered the Spaniards three hundred to one.3 The Spaniards were victorious due to both the technological advantages of Spanish steel, guns, and horses and their ability to play off Indian omens and myths about them. Prior to the arrival of Cortez, the natives of the New World had never seen horses and had only been exposed to Spanish guns a couple of times. According to Diazs account, the natives actually believed that the horse and rider was one creature4 and that the Spanish cannon shot lightning5; similarly, accounts given by surviving Aztecs after the conquest suggest that the messengers of Montezuma believed the horses were deer that were as tall as the roof of a house and that Spanish cannon had the ability to destroy mountains6. Whether or not the natives actually believed these myths is debatable, but, certainly, these foreign weapons of Diaz, 26. Diaz, 75. 4 Diaz, 76. 5 Diaz, 151. 6 Lewis Hanke and Jane M. Rausch. "Section III." People and Issues in Latin American History. Sources and Interpretations. 3rd ed. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2006. 110-11.
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warfare must have been terrifying to the native warriors, which faced them in battle. Besides superior weapons, the Spaniards held an advantage over the Aztecs through the way in which they conducted warfare. The Aztecs fought battles in an attempt to maim and capture captives for sacrifice, whereas the Spaniards practiced Western warfare in which the goal was to destroy a hostile power and force an enemy to surrender. The Spanish conquistadors were products of the Reconquista and well schooled in the art of war and conquest. Driven partially by a sense of Christian mission, the conquistadors believed that God would protect them7 and used religion as a unifying tool. They created alliances with the enemies of the Aztecs either by conversion or by Christian marriage. However, creating these alliances would have been near impossible had the Spaniards not had the good fortune of finding Jeronimo de Aguilar and gaining the services of Dona Marina. Language played a vital role in the conquest and without the help of Aguilar and Malinche; one could argue that Cortezs conquest would have failed. Unlike Cortezs first translator Melchior, Aguilar, a shipwrecked Spaniard from Ecija, was loyal to Cortez and served both as a Mayan translator and initially acted as a middleman between Malinche, who spoke both Mayan and Nahuatl, and Cortez. Following the treachery of Melchior, Aguilar ensured the success of the initial landing on the Yucatan8; correspondingly, Malinche was able to warn Cortez about

An example of this belief can be found on pg. 159 of Diazs account, in which Cortez gives an inspiring speech in an attempt to raise the moral of a few soldiers that believed it was foolish to push on towards Mexico.
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Diaz, 73-74. 3

Montezumas trap in Cholula and prevent a catastrophic defeat9. Translators made it possible for Cortez to exploit the internal dissensions within the Empire through native alliances, and ultimately these allies would play a major role in Spanish victory. These alliances served a two-fold purpose in that they (1) made the Spanish a more formidable fighting force and (2) choked off the tribute that the Aztecs needed to survive during the siege of Tenochtitlan. Natives, like the Tlascalans, provided the Spaniards with a greater fighting force, supplies, and a wealth of information about the weaknesses of the Aztec Empire. This indigenous force made it possible for the Spaniards to pursue their conquest, but it would be a much more sinister and invisible force that would eventually cripple and defeat the Aztecs. Small pox would decimate the trapped population of the Aztecs within Tenochtitlan and force Guatemoc to surrender. When the conquistadors entered into the city, bodies were strewn all over the landscape and the stench was so bad that the conquistadors returned to their camp outside Tenochtitlan10. Yet, even after witnessing this horrific scene, the Spaniards would show their true colors by taking the daughters and wives of chiefs and torturing Guatemoc to find out where all the cities gold had gone11. The end of Diazs account depicts the Spaniards demanding a larger share of the treasure from the culpable Cortez and, thus, shows the true nature of the conquest12.

Diaz, 197. Diaz, 405-406. 11 Diaz, 408-410. 12 Diaz, 412.


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Bibliography (1) Diaz, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain. New York: Penguin Classics, 1981. (2) Hanke, Lewis, and Jane M. Rausch. "Section III." People and Issues in Latin American History. Sources and Interpretations. 3rd ed. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2006. 110-11.