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The Aztecs (Mexicas), ―people of the sun,‖
constructed a great pre-Columbian civilization that
rivaled those of the Old World.
As Nahuatl-speaking nomads from the north, the
Aztecs settled along Lake Texcoco in the Valley of
Mexico in the middle of the thirteenth century. After
suffering much persecution and hardship the Aztecs
became independent in 1428.
In less than a century, the Aztecs conquered a vast
empire stretching from the Gulf coast to the Pacific
and as far south as Guatemala.
Aztec rulers commanded an army of over 200,000
warriors, including those of the many tributary states
they dominated. It was the largest army anywhere in
the world at the time, and even today it would be
among the largest.
From Tenochtitlan, the Aztec heads of state launched
far-reaching campaigns for over 90 years straight.
They turned their adversaries into tributaries—
allowing them to keep their own governments, but
requiring the payment of tribute in the form of taxes
or other commodities.
To win control over the vast central and southern
areas of their land, the Aztecs created a militaristic
society in order to terrify their neighbors into
Fearing the growing power of the Aztecs,
neighboring city-states and peoples sealed treaties
with Tenochtitlan and paid tribute to ―the empire of
the sun.‖ By 1519 the Aztecs ruled over several
million people.
The Aztecs demanded heavy tribute from the vassal
kingdoms they conquered. The vassal states
maintained warehouses of food for the Aztec army
so that the force would not depend on the Valley of
Mexico for supplies and exhaust resources. If a
tributary rebelled and ignored or refused to pay its
taxes, it faced stern punishment by Aztec warriors
and then a doubling of its tax levy.
Boasted the Aztecs, ―The might of our powerful
arms and the spirit of our … hearts shall be felt.
With them we will conquer all nations, near and far,
rule over villages and cities from sea to sea, become
lords of gold and silver, jewels and precious stones,
feathers and tributes, we shall become lords over
them and their lands and over their sons and
daughters, who will serve as our subjects.‖
• The Aztecs, however,
could never defeat the
city-state of Tlaxcala,
which was located 50
miles to the east of
• The Tlaxcalans were an
enemy which—like the
prophecy of the return of
the god Quetzcoatl—
would haunt the Aztecs
Founded in 1325, Tenochtitlan (the Place of the
Cactus in the Rock) was built on a low-lying island
in the middle of Lake Texcoco.
Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, upon
encountering the Aztec capital, said he beheld such
wonders that it must have been from a dream.
Building and expanding upon the cultural traditions
established by other Mesoamerican civilizations,
the Aztecs erected magnificent temples, palaces,
plazas, causeways, bridges, canals, fortresses,
aqueducts, marketplaces, gardens, etc.
The population of the metropolis must have been at
least 250,000, home to fiestas, ritual sacrifices,
military exercises, trade, slave labor, etc.
Tenochtitlan was the largest city in Mesoamerica, if
not the world, in the 15th century.
Its ceremonial center boasted more than 25 major
pyramids dedicated to a pantheon of deities and
cultural heroes. Around the plazas and gardens that
lay between these shrines were numerous public
buildings in which officials administered the
empire’s affairs.
The city was divided into 60 residential wards, or
clan districts, called calpulli, each one represented
by a headman and containing the homes of all
members of a clan and their families.
Laws, codes of conduct, and social position
dictated nearly every aspect of Aztec life.
Nobles received education and rigorous training
to serve as government officials, scribes,
teachers, and military leaders. Nobles often
lived comfortable lives in a palace or on a huge
For commoners life was considerably less
comfortable. Commoners, such as farmers,
laborers, fishermen, loggers, or stonemasons,
might amass enough wealth to rival that of the
nobles, but could never change their class.
Commoners made up the bulk of the military
forces. Exceptional military service could
improve a man’s status, however.
Women of both classes learned to weave cloth
and were expected to take care of the
Tenochtitlan was a bustling metropolis, with
arsenals, monasteries, workshops, marketplaces,
plazas, temples, professional buildings, schools,
gardens, canals, storehouses, etc.
• The Aztecs possessed a mystical conception of
warfare, dedicating the Aztec people to the conquest
of other peoples to capture victims for ritual
sacrifice and to extend the power and influence of
• The Aztecs believed that the source of all life, the
sun, would perish unless replenished with a constant
supply of human blood. Huitzilopochtli—the sun—
was to be fed the most precious food of all—human
blood. Huitzilopochtli’s rise to greatness coincided
with that of the Aztecs themselves.
• The Aztecs engaged a perpetual state of war (for
largely ceremonial purposes) with its neighbors
instead of conquering them in order to gain a steady
supply of sacrifices.
• To the Aztecs, the offering of the human heart was
the supreme sacrifice to their gods, ensuring the
continued strength of the deities on whom the
people’s life and well being depended.
• Social classes:
– Pipiltin (nobles)
– Macehualtin (ordinary citizens)
– Mayeques (slaves or serfs, but not clearly distinguished from ordinary citizens)
– Tlamatinime (wise men of major cities, retained belief in single supreme god)
• Ceremonial attitudes toward war probably prevented the Aztecs from wiping out the
• Warrior’s first duty to obtain captives; trained from boyhood; weapons (macana,
atlatl, bow and arrow, blowgun, spear); gave enemy customary ritual warning
• Education compulsory for all males
• System of writing combination of pictographic, ideographic and partially phonetic
characters or glyphs, representing numerals, calendar signs, names of people, places,
• Calendars: year count (astronomical year, 18 groups of 20 days each, w/ remaining
period of unlucky 5 days; day count (20 months of 13 days each, calibrated to 52year ―century‖)
• Literature (religious, lyric, epic, dramatic poetry, prose history, legends, moral
teachings, etc.)
The conquistadors emerged from a ―society
organized for war‖ and embodied the crusading
spirit of the Reconquest. Spain, like the rest of
Europe, was for most people a land of violence,
squalor, pestilence, treachery, and intolerance.
The Spaniards viewed the Aztecs as barbarian
infidels and aimed at seizing their riches, converting
them to Christianity, and forcing them to become
Spanish subjects and slaves.
The Spaniards brilliantly applied divide and
conquer strategies to vanquish the Aztecs.
Rival groups of the Aztecs, especially the Tlaxcala,
chafing under heavy exactions of tribute and
sacrificial victims, saw in the Spaniards their
opportunity to revolt against Aztec hegemony and
to further their own interests. They also learned of
the several embassies Moctezuma sent to the
Spaniards and may have feared an Aztec plot.
Conquistadors invaded the New World for gold,
glory, and God. They sought to seize and possess
the land, conquer, subjugate, and exploit the
inhabitants, accumulate wealth and power, and to
civilize and Christianize the ―barbarian infidels.‖
Cortes was a remarkable general and cunning
He came from a poverty-stricken province in
Spain that offered few opportunities for
advancement. After spending two unsuccessful
years studying law, Cortes became a soldier of
fortune, hoping to gain fame and fortune.
In 1504, at the age of 19, Cortes journeyed to the
New World. In 1518 the governor of Cuba
chose Cortes to lead an expedition to explore
and trade, but not to colonize, Mexico. Cortes
and his followers gambled by disregarding
orders, hoping to overcome charges of disloyalty
by winning new riches and appealing directly to
King Charles I of Spain.
In 1519, at the age of 34, he landed at Vera Cruz
with about 600 men, a few horses, a few pieces
of artillery, and some guides with intentions of
conquering Mexico and finding treasure.
Cortes was an exploiter. Although he was
married, he fathered several children by
conquered Aztec women.
• Conquistadors such as Cortes as well
as their followers fervently believed
that right was on their side when they
encountered the brutal religious
practices of the Aztecs, and so saw
themselves freeing souls from
darkness by bringing them the graces
of Catholicism and civility.
• Europeans tended to envision Indians
as idolatrous, ferocious savages given
over to cannibalism and sodomy or
inferior natural slaves.
• Clearly the Spaniards believed that
God was on their side. They wanted
to spread Christianity as well as gain
wealth and power.
• Ironically, Spaniards at other times
marveled at the Aztecs’ stunning
achievements. Some, at times,
depicted them as ―models of natural
The Requirement attempted to provide moral justification
for invasion, conquest, and exploitation. The document said
that if the Indians refused or even delayed in their
acceptance of Spanish domination, the Spaniards vanquish,
subjugate, and enslave them in the name of God.
The Requirement read: ―But if you will not comply, or
maliciously delay to obey my injunction, then with the help
of God, I will enter your country by force, I will carry on
war against you with the utmost violence, I will subject you
to the yoke of obedience to the church and king, I will take
your wives and children, and will make them slaves, and sell
or dispose of them according to His Majesty’s pleasure; I
will seize your goods, and do you all the mischief in my
power, as rebellious subjects, who will not acknowledge or
submit to their lawful sovereign. And I protest that all the
bloodshed and calamities which shall follow are to be
imputed to you, and not to His Majesty, or to me, or the
gentlemen who serve under me;…‖
As Lewis Hanke argues, the Requirement ―was read to trees
and empty huts‖ as a formality and justification of conquest.
The Requirement said to the Indians, ―the deaths and losses
which shall accrue from this are your fault,…‖
• In his first letter to King Charles I of Spain,
Cortes stated that the sacrifices were
―horrible, and abominable, and deserving of
punishment.‖ He considered the Aztecs
instruments of the ―Devil‖ and ―sodomites.‖
Even if accurate, the death toll exacted by
sacrifices pales in comparison to the
hundreds of thousands of Indians that died
due to Spanish invasion and genocidal total
war against men, women, and children.
• Cortes also claimed it was the Spaniards’
duty to convert the Indians to Catholicism.
Those who resisted conversion were to be
―punished‖ as ―enemies‖ of the ―Holy
Catholic Faith.‖
In 1519, Moctezuma II, the 9th Aztec ruler,
was the most powerful man in North
America. From Tenochtitlan, he had
reigned as emperor since 1502 over the
lands of ten million Mesoamerican people.
For 90 years his nation had strengthened
the empire with its armies and become
wealthy from the tribute of defeated states.
But Moctezuma had been reading the
troubling signs and prophecies, which
warned of impending death and
Traders and ambassadors brought tales of
floating houses and armored monsters with
white skin and hair on their faces.
Aztec tradition held that it was their
destiny to rule the world. But the dark side
of that destiny was that the rule of the
empire would be followed by its
• A mysterious ―fiery signal‖ appeared
in the ―eastern sky.‖
• A fire that could not be extinguished
burned the temple of Huitzilopochtli
(sun god and god of war).
• A lightning bolt damaged the temple
of Xiuhtecuhtli (fire god) during a
light rain, causing a blaze that burned
the temple.
• ―… fire streamed through the sky
while the sun was still shining.‖ A
• ―The wind lashed the water until it
boiled,‖ causing flooding and
• The people heard a weeping woman
night after night. She cried, ―My
children, we must flee far away from
this city.‖ This may be a reference to
Cihuacoatl, an ancient earth goddess.
• A strange ―dark-feathered‖ bird
wearing a peculiar mirror on the crown
of its head was captured and brought to
Moctezuma, who was something of an
amateur wizard. At noon the Aztecs
could see three stars in the constellation
Taurus through the mirror. When
Moctezuma looked in the mirror a
second time he saw people riding
―animals resembling deer‖ and
―making war‖ on each other in a
―distant plain.‖ Moctezuma’s
magicians and wise men could not
make sense of the visions.
• ―Monstrous beings‖ appeared in the
streets‖ of Tenochtitlan. The creatures
were ―deformed men with two heads
but only one body.‖ They were taken
to Moctezuma, but they ―vanished‖ the
moment he saw them.
According to Fray Bernardino Sahagun’s indigenous
informants, the Aztecs and neighboring peoples
considered these omens portents of doom.
Sahagun’s Florentine Codex claims, ―To the natives,
these marvels augured their death and ruin,
signifying that the end of the world was coming and
that other peoples would be created to inhabit the
earth. They were so frightened and grief-stricken
that they could form no judgment about these things,
so new and strange and never before seen or
Not long before the first omen was seen,
Nezahualpilli told Moctezuma that, according to his
fortune-tellers, Mexico would soon be ruled by
strangers. Moctezuma replied that his own fortunetellers had predicted otherwise. Nezahualpilli then
suggested that they settle the matter by playing a
series of ritual games, with the outcome to decide
who was right. He then also offered to wager his
whole kingdom against three turkey cocks.
Moctezuma agreed and won the first two games, but
Nezahualpilli won the last three in succession.
Historian Miguel Leon-Portilla suggests that the, ―…
Nahuas tried to explain the coming of the Spaniards
by a projection of earlier ideas: they assumed that the
new arrivals were Quetzlcoatl and other deities.‖
According to the Florentine Codex, Moctezuma
consulted wise men to discern the meaning of the
omens, but received no answers. A poor common
man from the Gulf Coast city of Mictlancuauhtla
brought news of floating ―towers.‖ Another report
told of white men with beards. Moctezuma sent
messengers and gifts to the strangers, believing that
they might be Quetzcoatl and other deities returning
to Mexico to retake the throne, as the codices and
traditions promised they would. Moctezuma was
distressed and depressed over the news. Cortes
frightened the messengers—chaining them and then
firing a cannon. Indian descriptions of the Spaniards
were filled with awe and fear, particularly of the
Spanish cannon, armor and clothing, weapons,
horses, skin color, food, and dogs. The Florentine
Codex notes that Moctezuma was ―conquered by
despair.‖ Cortes, conversely, resolved to put the
fierce reputation of the Aztec warriors to the test.
• During the Spaniards ―irresistible march‖
inland, Moctezuma sent ambassadors bearing
gifts and treasure to Cortes, hoping to turn
him away from Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs
offered to pay Cortes tribute, but he would not
• Moctezuma next changed his strategy by
sending messengers to the caciques of
Cholula, urging them to annihilate the
strangers. Cortes discovered this conspiracy
and massacred the unwary Cholulans in the
courtyard of their temple to Quetzlcoatl. This
turn of events may have confirmed
Moctezuma’s suspicions that Cortes and his
men possessed supernatural powers. As
Cortes drew closer to Tenochtitlan, he may
have developed a sense of resignation.
When the Spanish conquistadors invaded
Mexico, Moctezuma was overwhelmed by the
fatalistic belief that the white men must be
Quetzalcoatl and other gods returning from
across the Gulf of Mexico to bring about the
demise of his reign.
The prophecy of the god-hero Quetzlcoatl, the
Feathered Serpent, said that in the One Reed
(1519) he would return to retake the Valley of
Quetzlcoatl lived in the hearts of the subjugated
Indians, who could view consider him a
Moctezuma viewed the invaders as a threat—
whether they were gods or men.
A new force could destroy his fragile empire of
conquered city states, which had already
showed signs of rebellion.
The prophecies indicated that Quetzlcoatl would
be the sacred color white.
Moctezuma decided to appease the invaders,
sending emissaries, gifts, and eventually
allowing the Spaniards to enter Tenochtitlan as
Both the Aztecs and the Spaniards were
aggressively expansionist.
Both had strong ideological motivations of
saving the world. The objectives of both sides
required much bloodshed.
Both sides wanted more land and laborers to
The Aztecs held a seemingly overwhelming
advantage in sheer numbers.
Cortes destroyed Aztec military power between
1519 and 1521, opening the continental
mainland to Spanish conquest.
Historian Francis Jennings contends that, ―…the
marvel is not that Spanish conquest was so
swift, but that it took so long.‖
Both sides experienced ambivalence and
division—Spanish (govt. and church) and the
Aztecs (some Mesoamerican cities joined the
Spaniards as well as internal disagreements)
According Jennings, the Spaniards had a
―visible advantage in technology and
social organization.‖
– Sea-going vessels
– The ability to reach out and exploit
divisions among Aztec subjects
– Superior weaponry—firearms, crossbows,
steel swords and lances, mail armor
– Horses (cavalry) and other domesticated
animals (food and work)
– Phonetic writing (coordinate strategy and
– Gold and silver (money, capital, credit,
wealth, supplies, etc.)
– Social and political structure that enabled
the Spanish crown to preoccupy itself with
power struggles in Europe while permitting
private conquest under charter at no
expense or trouble to the Spanish crown.
– Epidemic diseases fought and killed in
behalf of Europeans.
• Even though the Spaniards shared a
burning desire for wealth, Cortes faced
dissension among some of his men, who
wished to to abandon the expedition. To
prevent their sailing to Cuba, he scuttled
his ships, forcing the dissenters to remain
with him.
• A native woman of present-day Tabasco
named Malintzin (La Malinche or Dona
Marina) provided Cortes with invaluable
assistance as an interpreter and diplomat
as he marched inland, forming alliances
along the way with disaffected city states
of the Aztec empire.
• Many in the rebellious city states viewed
Cortes, at least initially, as some sort of
liberator. The most significant alliance
was made with Tlaxcala, a fiercely
independent city state and fearsome
enemy of the Aztecs.
• The peoples of Central Mexico had
long been accustomed to military
conquest. They labored on, paid tribute
to new masters, and the more things
changed, the more they continued as
before. Cortes initiated a different type
of conquest in Mexico that would
transform both the Old and New
worlds. As Jennings writes, ―Military
conquest was accomplished by familiar
European techniques of massacre,
devastation, terrorism, and resultant
demoralization of native peoples. It
was quintessentially the product of free
private enterprise by mercenary killers
whose functional identity lurks behind
the glorious mask of conquistador. The
crown contributed chartered
permission, and the church contributed
Aided by his Tlaxcalan allies, Cortes furiously
massacred over 6,000 Cholulans. According to Aztec
scribes, ―The there arose from the Spaniards a cry
summoning all the noblemen, lords, war leaders,
warriors, and common folk; and when they had
crowded into the temple courtyard, then the Spaniards
and their allies blocked the entrances and every exit.
There followed a butchery of stabbing, beating, killing
of unsuspecting Cholulans armed with no bows and
arrows protected by no shields … with no warning,
they were treacherously, deceitfully slain.‖
Moctezuma received news of the slaughter with utter
shock and was paralyzed with doubt.
Las Casas understood well the military value of
terrorism: ―This was their common custom that they
no sooner had set footing in any place, but they
committed immediate some notorious violence upon
the people, that the rest might stand in greater fear of
Cortes claimed that Moctezuma had organized an army
near Cholula in an attempted plot to destroy the
• Cortes tried to justify his actions to the crown:
―I decided to forestall an attack, and I sent for
some of the chiefs of the city, saying I wished
to speak with them. I put them in a room and
meanwhile warned our men to be prepared,
when a harquebus was fired, to fall on the
many Indians who were outside our quarters
and on those who were inside. And so it was
done, that after I had put the chiefs in the
room, I left them bound up and rode away and
had the harquebus fired, and we fought so hard
that in two hours more than three thousand
men were killed.‖
• Cortes claimed that he attacked the Aztecs
only after he learned of an Aztec plot to
destroy the Spaniards. Because he took the
Aztec chiefs prisoner and the people by
―surprise,‖ Cortes said the Aztecs ―were easily
overcome.‖ He repeatedly employed this same
tactic of terror, fully grasping the expediency.
Cortes arrived at gateway to Tenochtitlan on
Nov. 8, 1519. Spanish chronicler and
conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo expressed
the sense of awe that overcame the Spaniards
when they first gazed upon the imperial Aztec
capital: ―When we saw so many cities and
villages built in the water and other great towns
on dry land and that straight and level Causeway
going towards Mexico [Tenochtitlan], we were
amazed and said that it was like the
enchantments they tell of in the legend of
Amadis, on account of the great towers and cues
[pyramids] and buildings rising from the water,
and all built of masonry. And some of our
soldiers even asked whether the things we saw
were not a dream…. I do not know how to
describe it, seeing things as we did that had
never been heard of or seen before, not even
dreamed about.‖
Aztec scribes continually noted that the
Spaniards ―… hungered like pigs for that gold.‖
• According to Aztec accounts,
Cuitlahuac counseled Moctezuma not
to allow Cortes entrance, but the ruler
agreed with Cacama that the Spaniards
should be welcomed with gifts, else it
would be cowardly and dishonorable.
• Throngs of stunned and curious
viewed the strangers in awe and
• Moctezuma, riddled by fears, behaved
indecisively, which proved costly.
• Cortes turned upon his hosts and
seized Moctezuma as a hostage,
forcing him to lead the conquistadors
to the Aztec treasury. Aztec scribes
later related, ―They took all, seized
everything for themselves as if it were
theirs.‖ For six months the Spaniards
lived in splendor and pillaged the city.
The Aztecs eventually rose against Moctezuma largely
because he accepted Spanish soldiers who perpetrated
in Tenochtitlan the same sort of massacre that they
carried out against the Cholulans.
Cuitlauac, Moctezuma’s brother, formed a resistance
movement. The Spaniards, under the command of
Pedro de Alvarado, surrounded and attacked
Cuitlauac’s unarmed warriors and other citizens, who
had gathered for a religious observance. A fierce battle
ensued, and a peaceful city rose in rage.
One Aztec warrior saved his life by playing dead and
later described the scene: ―They charged the crowd
with their iron lances and hacked us with their iron
swords. They slashed the backs of some…. They
hacked the shoulders of others, splitting their bodies
open…. The blood of the young warriors ran like water;
it gathered in pools. And the Spaniards began to hunt
them out of the administrative area buildings … even
starting to take those buildings to pieces as they
searched. Great was the stench of the dead…. Your
grandfathers died, and with them died the son of the
king and his brothers and kinsmen. So it was that we
became orphans, O’ my sons! So we became when we
were young. All of us were thus. We were born to
• Cortes was absent from the city and had
returned to the coast to deal with a power
struggle. Cortes returned with
reinforcements, but eventually had to
make a strategic retreat from the city.
• The Aztecs forced the Spaniards to retreat
behind the walls of the great palace. In
an attempt to save his army, Cortes
brought Moctezuma out in chains to
convince the populace to stop fighting.
But the Aztecs soon lost faith in
Moctezuma, and Cuitlauac ascended to
the throne as the tenth Aztec emperor.
• Cuitlauac mobilized his army in the fall
of 1520 and led an uprising against the
• During the fighting, Moctezuma was
killed. Each side blamed the other for his
After 27 days besieged in the palace, almost
one year after their occupation of the city, the
desperate Spaniards attempted to escape under
cover of darkness using one of the main
From canoes, Aztec warriors pelted the fleeing
Spaniards with a barrage of arrows and spears.
Many weighted down with plunder, drowned.
An Aztec account of the ―Sad Night‖ says,
―The canal was filled, crammed with them.
Those who came along behind walked over on
men, on corpses…. And when the Spanish thus
disappeared, we thought they had gone for
good, nevermore to return.‖ For a short time,
Tenochtitlan was free of Europeans.
However, the long Spanish occupation had cost
the Aztecs the allegiance of numerous allies on
the mainlaind surrounding the lake.
Cortes lost perhaps as many as 2/3 of his
forces. The survivors found refuge in
Nevertheless, the Spaniards unwittingly brought
a devastating invisible weapon, a smallpox
epidemic that decimated the Aztecs in ghastly
fashion. The Aztec account narrates: ―But at
about the time that the Spaniards fled from
Mexico … there came a great sickness, a
pestilence, the smallpox … it spread over the
people with great destruction of men. It caused
great misery…. The brave Mexican warriors
were indeed weakened by it. It was after all this
had happened that the Spaniards came back.‖
Among the casualties was Cuitlauac.
Moctezuma’s nephew, Cuauhtemoc, a 25-yearold warrior, succeeded to the throne.
Meanwhile, Cortes rebuilt his army and made
new alliance. The Spaniards and 50,000
Tlaxcalan and other allied Indian soldiers
returned to set siege to Tenochtitlan.
Clearly, Cortes could not conquer the Aztecs
with his own resources unaided. He depended
on the aid of Indian allies seeking liberation
from Aztec tyranny.
The conquistadors and their allies laid siege
to the weakened city. Cuauhtemoc and his
warriors resisted the invasion with ferocity.
An Aztec account says, ―Fighting
continued, both sides took captives, on both
sides there were deaths. Nevertheless, great
became the suffering of the common folk.
There was hunger. Many died of famine.
There was no more good, pure water to
drink…. Many people died of it…. The
people ate anything—lizards, barn
swallows, corn leaves, saltgrass…. Never
had such suffering been seen…. The enemy
pressed about us like a wall … they herded
us…. The brave warriors were still
hopelessly resisting.‖
After 4 months of one of the longest
continuous battles in history, the Spaniards,
with their superior weaponry and numbers
of allies ended the resistance.
Cuautemoc was taken prisoner and exiled.
Tenochtitlan was leveled.
• An anonymous Aztec author
described the fate of Tenochtitlan:
And all these misfortunes befell us. We saw them and wondered
at them; we suffered this unhappy fate.
Broken spears lie in the roads;
we have torn our hair in our grief.
The houses are roofless now, and their walls
are red with blood….
We have pounded our hands in despair
against the adobe walls,
for our inheritance, our city, is lost and dead.
The shields of our warriors were its defense,
but they could not save it….
They set a price on all of us: on the young men, the priests, the
boys and girls. The price of a poor man was only two handfuls
of corn, or ten cakes made from mosses or twenty cakes of salty
couch-grass. Gold, jade, rich cloths, quetzal feathers—
everything that once was precious was now considered
The captains delivered several prisoners of war to Cuautemoc to
be sacrificed. He performed the sacrifices in person, cutting
them open with a stone knife.‖
• The Spaniards replaced Indian buildings
and institutions with their own.
• They enslaved countless Indians,
exploiting them for their labor and other
resources. Thousands died from
overwork, malnutrition, and disease
• They introduced the harsh encomienda
• The Mexican population declined from
25 million in 1519 to 1 to 2 million in
• In Mexico, one oppressor was replaced
with another.
• Despite all this, the Indians of Mexico
survived and persisted. Indian cultures
still profoundly influence the way of life,
art, and values in Mexico today.
Spanish conquest had two main
motivations, to acquire land and wealth
and to reduce the Indians to civility and
convert them to Christianity. This dual
motivation made conflict inevitable. They
were attempting mission impossible.
Spaniards sought imperial dominion,
prestige and revenue, while at the same
time trying to win voluntary Indian
converts. In order to achieve both
objectives, however, the Spaniards would
have to overthrow traditional Indian values
and disrupt or destroy Indian cultures.
The Spanish crown and the Catholic
Church wrestled with the conflict. A great
debate over Indian policy ensued. Was it
lawful for the king of Spain to wage war
on the Indians before preaching the ―true
faith‖ to them in order to subject them to
his rule, so that afterward they may be
more easily instructed in the faith?
Humanist scholar Juan Gines de Sepulveda
argued that it was both ―lawful and
expedient‖ to wage war against the natives
for four reasons—the idolatrous,
barbarous, and cruel religion of the
Indians, the Indians were subhuman and fit
only for slavery or extinction, conquest
would make it easier to convert the
Indians, and to protect the weak among the
Indians. Sepulveda asked: ―How can we
doubt that these people, so uncivilized, so
barbaric, so contaminated with many sins
and obscenities … have been justly
conquered by such an excellent, pious, and
most just king as was Ferdinand the
Catholic and is now Emperor Charles, and
by such a humane nation which is
excellent in every kind of virtue?‖
Sepulveda contended that there is much
difference between Spaniards and Indians
as there is ―between apes and men.‖
Although he participated in the conquest,
Dominican friar Bartolome de Las Cas later
became the greatest ―defender of the Indians.‖
Even though he often portrayed the Indians as
mere lambs, Las Casas called that conquest
and the encomienda system unjust and
altogether contrary to the Spaniards’profession
of wanting to convert the Indians to
Las Casas advocated conversion by peaceful
persuasion, contending that the Indians are
human beings deserving of natural rights.
Las Casas eventually persuaded the Spanish
court to forbid waging war in for the purpose
of forcibly converting Indians to Catholicism
and the enslavement of the Indians.
Las Casas argued that ―… all of the races of
the world are men….‖ He maintained, ― … the
entire human race is one; all men are alike with
respect to their creation and the things of
nature, and none is born already taught….‖
• One of the dominant
themes in human history
has been and continues to
be that the people who are
different—the others—are
the ones who are
• The concept of ―the other‖
too often has been used to
justify conquest and
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introduction by Miguel Leon-Portilla. Expanded and updated edition. Boston: Beacon
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Hanke, Lewis. The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949.
Jennings, Francis. The Founders of America. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.
Josephy, Alvin M. Jr. 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians. New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Stannard, David E. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1992
Wheeler, William Bruce and Susan D. Becker. Discovering the American Past: A Look at the
Evidence. Fifth Edition. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2002.
Witness: Writings of Bartolome de Las Casas. Edited and translated by George Sanderlin. New
York: Orbis Books, 1992 (1971).
1492--Discovery, Invasion, Encounter: Sources and Interpretations. Edited with an introduction
by Marvin Lunenfeld. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1991