A  Conquistador   mistaken

for a god

Hernan Cortes conquered the mighty Aztecs with just a tiny force of men, guns and horses - and a huge stroke of luck.

In about 950 AD, an early Mesoamerican king who was a priest of Quetzalcoatl, become known by the god's name. The king, described as bearded and fair-skinned, was exiled by his enemies - but vowed to return in a 'one reed' year of the Aztec 52-year calendar cycle. So when a bearded, fair-skinned stranger landed on the east coast of Mexico in 1519 during a 'one reed' year, the Aztecs believed him to be the returning Quetzalcoatl.

The arrival of Hernan Cortes was also preceded by several unsettling omens. An enormous comet had been seen in the night sky a fire had destroyed an important temple, a bolt of lightning had been sent by the god of fire

(Landing on the Mexican coast, Cortes sank 10 of his 11 ships. The surviving vessel was offered to any of his 100 or so compatriots who would rather go back to Cuba - thereby admitting that they had no stomach for the task ahead. No one took him up on the offer)

Xiuhtecuhtli and, according to scouts posted in neighbouring Mayan territory, 'mountains' had been seen moving on the ocean. These 'mountains' were in fact Cortes' flotilla of 11 ships.


During the 1500s, Spain and Portugal undertook a military and political conquest of large parts of the newly discovered Americas. European influence was spread through language, the imposition of government and taxes, the introduction of Christianity as well as further exploration and mapping of the continent. The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes aimed to exploit the situation and make his fortune.

Cortes was born in 1485 in southwestern Spain. At the age of 18, he left Spain for Hispaniola, an important island base for the Spanish in the West Indies. There, he worked as a farmer and trained as a soldier before sailing, under Diego Velazquez, in 1511 to conquer Cuba. By 1518, Velazquez was governor of Cuba and Cortes one of his most trusted friends, and he decided to commission Cortes to explore the Mexican coast. But something made Velazquez suspicious of Cortes' motives and, at the last minute, he changed his mind. Perhaps he wanted to prevent Cortes from taking all the glory or assuming governorship on the mainland for himself.

In January 1519 Cortes was about to embark when Velazquez arrived at the dock, determined to revoke his commission. But Cortes put to sea against orders. He was making himself technically a mutineer. A warrant was issued for his arrest but Cortes was not unduly worried. He had control of a fleet of 11 ships, carrying some 600 men, 16 horses and about 20 guns of various sizes, including a bronze cannon. They were headed for Mexico and the legendarily wealthy Aztec empire.

Cortes landed on the Yucatan Peninsula, a long way from the major Aztec centres. His troops stormed the Mayan town of Tabasco and freed Jeronimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest who had been shipwrecked several years earlier. Aguilar had learned to speak Mayan during his captivity and could now act as the force's interpreter. This allowed Cortes to glean valuable information about the customs and practices of the local Indian populations.

(A stone stele stands guard at the temple of Quetzalcoatl. The temple was a round building, a shape believed to please the god of fertility, the arts, and the wind, because it presented no sharp obstacles)


Cortes and his men then sailed up the Grijalba River where they came face to face with a large, native army. They fought back ferociously and won. The decisive victory owed much to the effect of horses and guns - neither of which the Amerindians had encountered before. They thought the cavalry was a kind of centaur, not understanding that the armour-plated horses and riders were actually two separate entities. They also feared that the invaders could control the weather, mistaking deafening discharges from the Spanish cannon for thunder. All of these misconceptions helped to bolster the widespread fear that Cortes was an avenging god.

To appease him, the Indians sent gifts including 20 Indian women. One of them, Malintzin, was Cortes's second stroke of luck. Malitzin spoke Mayan as well as Aztec and was able to translate from Aztec into Mayan - from which Jeronimo de Aguilar could then translate into Spanish. Malintzin also became Cortes' mistress and later bore him a son. (Some of Malintzin's own people used the Spanish term 'La Malinche' when referring to her. Later, this became a word meaning 'traitor to one's people'. Today, Mexicans dismiss as 'malinchista'- anyone mimicking the language and customs of another country.)

For a while, the Spanish remained on the coast but in mid 1519 the army advanced into the Mexican interior.

The next battles were with the Tlaxcala people. Despite initial stiff resistance, the Tlaxcaltecs were eventually defeated - a victory that would prove hugely significant to Cortes's success. The Tlaxcaltecs and the Aztecs were in a state of permanent conflict and, as far as the Tlaxcaltecs were concerned, any enemy of their hated neighbours was a friend of theirs. They willingly joined the Spanish cause - bolstering Cortes's small force with about 1000 of their own men. Once news of this allegiance reached the Aztec king, Montezuma, he realised that the Spanish invaders would be formidable adversaries, so rather than engaging them in battle he welcomed Cortes to Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City) as his guest. But Cortes did not return or respect Montezuma's hospitality - within a week he had put the Aztec ruler under house arrest, much to the fury of the king's subjects.

Cortes was not able to enjoy his triumph over Montezuma for long - in 1520 word reached him that a Spanish expedition had arrived from Cuba with a contract to capture him and relieve him of his riches. So Cortes and his troops marched back to the coast, leaving just 80 men behind to guard Tenochtitlan. Once he reached the coast, Cortes managed to defeat the rival expedition - after which most of the men who had been ordered to take him prisoner switched allegiance, swelling his ranks to 1300.


Amerindian civilisations

The Maya

Based on the Yucatan Peninsula, they were led by a priest-king. They had a calendrical system, extensive knowledge of astronomy and mathematics and a well-developed system of writing.

The Incas

The Incas lived on the west coast of South America. Their ruler was-venerated as the son of the Sun God. They had a highly advanced network of roads.

The Aztecs

The Aztecs lived in the south of modern Mexico. They were ruled by a warrior king. In 1500, there were around 250,000 people living in the capital city, Tenochtitlan.

Cortes headed back to Tenochtitlan at the head of this army - straight into the middle of an uprising. In his absence the garrison he had left in charge of Tenochtitlan had lost control of the city; they and King Montezuma were under seige. Cortes was acutely aware of the danger of the situation - the Spanish were vastly outnumbered - and he cajoled Montezuma into addressing the furious mob outside from a tower. But the attempt was futile - the crowd threw anything they could get their hands on at their king, and fatally wounded him.

Cortes's army was not strong enough to combat the furious Aztec rebellion and on July 10, 1520, under cover of darkness, the Spanish withdrew from Tenochtitlan. With a surviving force of only 440, most of whom were wounded, Cortes reached the coast once more.

But the Spaniards had unwittingly left behind them in Tenochtitlan an invisible and deadly ally - smallpox - against which the indigenous population had no immunity. The disease spread like wildfire, killing huge numbers and significantly weakening the Aztec army. Montezuma's successor Cuitlahuac died of the disease after a reign lasting just 80 days.

(Aztec rulers accumulated vast wealth. By the time Cortes arrived, the king, Montezuma, lived in a splendid palace. His crown was made from precious stones and feathers from a tropical bird, the quetzal. No one was allowed to look the king in the face, and even nobles had to go barefoot before him)

Cuitlahuac's successor, Cuauhtemoc, was to be the last Aztec ruler. On April 28, 1521 Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan. His army had been swelled by Cuban mercenaries and Tlaxcaltec

('All the walls are spattered with blood, and the water flows red as if someone had dyed it.'  -  from  the  Aztec Lament)

volunteers. For more than three months, the Spanish and their allies besieged Tenochtitlan, the city's inhabitants, both men and women, defending it to their deaths. Eventually, the Spanish were forced to take the city house by house, and Cuauhtemoc gave up. He tried to flee but was captured on August 13, 1521. The last Aztec king's name translates as the apt 'descending eagle' or 'setting sun'.

The Spanish settlers built Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan. The presidential palace now stands on the site of the palace of Montezuma, while the city's cathedral towers over the ruins of an Aztec temple.