Adorned with feathers and paint, the Aztec warriors whirled, dancing and stamping, their song rising in an intoxicating crescendo to honour the gods. As the long lines of celebrants wound into the temple precinct, the great drum played constantly, uniting their steps and their voices. Suddenly, among the sounds of worship, the screams of battle were heard and the drummer was abruptly silenced as a Spanish soldier sliced off his arms. Trapping the unarmed Aztecs, the conquistadors slaughtered them mercilessly until, according to the Nahuatl (Aztec language) chronicles, “the blood of the warriors flowed like water”.

In the 16,000 years after the end of the last Ice Age, societies in Eurasia and the Americas followed radically different trajectories. Here, an Aztec priest offers the heart taken from a living person to the god of war, Huitzilopochtli. (Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

This was the beginning of the battle for the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, an open declaration of hostility which turned careful strategy into outright warfare. About a month later, on 24 June 1520 the Spanish captain Hernán Cortés returned from the coast and was furious to find the Aztecs prepared for war and his comrades besieged and starving. Months of tactical manoeuvring were ended by this confrontation, and his careful plans for a peaceful victory had been ruined. A week later, more than half of the Spanish had been killed during their flight from the city on a single “Night of Tears” and Cortés stood surrounded by the remnants of his great expedition. Yet, only a year later, Cortés would secure his place in history as the commander of the conquest of Mexico.

This remarkable reversal of fortune is perhaps partly responsible for the “myth” of the conquest, in which the gallant adventurer Cortés and a few hundred plucky conquistadors overcame overwhelming odds to defeat the tremendous might of the Aztec empire. The reality is far more complex, but at the same time far more impressive. In only two years, Hernán Cortés brought about the downfall of an efficient military civilisation through a combination of diplomacy, warfare, tactics, luck and sheer force of personality. The conquest of the Aztecs is more complicated than the simple myth of European superiority, but it remains an incredible achievement in military history.

A coloured engraving from the 16th century depicting Walter Ralegh's arrival in Virginia. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

In the early 16th century, Spanish colonies were already well established in the Caribbean islands and they were turning their eyes westward. In 1519, Cortés was appointed to lead an expedition to the American mainland but, apparently realising the potential of the gathered force of “conquistadors”, as they came to be called, the governor of Cuba became suspicious and withdrew his permission for the expedition. Showing the relentless ambition which would lead him to success, Cortés defied the governor and sailed anyway, later justifying his actions by appeal to the Spanish Crown.

Having arrived in the Gulf of Mexico with the largest force yet seen in the New World, Cortés ordered that most of the 10 ships of his fleet be disabled, depriving the conquistadors and sailors of any choice but to follow him into the jungle.

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This grand gesture confirmed his intention, as he later declared, “that they would conquer and win the land, or die in the attempt”. Although his original instructions had been only to explore the region, Cortés hoped to achieve far greater gains. Rumours of a powerful kingdom in the interior had been confirmed by emissaries from the city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs. Bringing gifts of gold which roused the Spaniards’ greed, the messengers brought word from the Aztec tlatoani (speaker) Moctecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, the powerful ruler who became known to history as Montezuma.

Rags and riches: Enslaved people wash diamonds in Brazil, guarded by armed overseers, in a German engraving of 1828. Diamonds were discovered in Minas Gerais state in the late 17th century. (Picture by Alamy)

When he heard of Cortés’s arrival Montezuma refused to meet with the Spaniards, instead sending gifts, offering the tribute that frequently resolved disputes in Mesoamerican society. Much has been made of the Aztecs’ “superstitious” belief that Cortés was a god, and that Montezuma was paralysed with fear by a series of omens predicting the downfall of the city. Cortés’s deification appears to be a combination of mistranslation and later invention, however, and although it is very likely that some of the portents occurred – a comet, an eclipse, a deformed birth – it seems likely that, looking to explain their devastating defeat, the Aztecs retrospectively identified these omens as markers of their downfall. There is no real evidence that they were regarded as ominous premonitions before the conquest.

Exploiting internal hostilities

As the conquistadors marched toward Tenochtitlan they encountered the subjects and enemies of the Aztecs, and Cortés increasingly observed internal hostilities that he could exploit to his advantage. Through a combination of brutal force and diplomacy, he gradually convinced many groups to support him and openly defy the Aztecs. The people of Tlaxcala in particular had long been enemies of Tenochtitlan and, after first resisting the Spanish incursion ferociously, they accepted the military superiority of the Europeans and agreed to support them against Montezuma’s rule. With their red and white insignia, thousands of Tlaxcalans accompanied the Spanish when, in November 1519, the conquistadors caught their first sight of the island city of Tenochtitlan, which seemed to one like an “enchanted vision” rising out of the lake. Cortés immediately recognised the city’s value and hoped to present it intact to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Wanting to secure the city peacefully, Cortés negotiated his way into Tenochtitlan as an ambassador of Charles V and was magnificently received by Montezuma, who entertained the Spaniards and their allies lavishly. During their first few days in the city, the conquistadors were shown both the wonders and horrors of this new world. They marvelled at the towering temples, grand palaces, beautiful gardens and great markets, but were revolted by the terrible spectacle of human sacrifice. The conquistador Bernal Díaz, who wrote a famous history of the conquest, described it graphically: “The walls of that shrine were so splashed and caked with blood that they and the floor too were black… the stench was worse than that of any slaughterhouse in Spain”.

The Spanish revulsion at human sacrifice has often been described as nothing but a justification for their invasion, but the religious impetus to conquest should not be underestimated. Cortés was a devout Christian. His letters to Charles V show the profound belief that if the “evil practices” of the Aztecs could be stopped then they would “worship the true God with… fervour, faith and diligence” and his attitude is typical of many Catholics in this period. From his earliest days in the city, Cortés urged the Aztecs to renounce human sacrifice and replace their idols with images of the Virgin Mary.

The Spanish revulsion at human sacrifice has often been described as nothing but a justification for their invasion, but the religious impetus to conquest should not be underestimated

Surrounded by thousands of warriors in the Aztec capital, the conquistadors became increasingly aware of their precarious position and began to fear a trap. Withdrawal would have alienated their allies, who were receiving word of aggressive Aztec behaviour in the provinces, and so Cortés resolved on a bold course of action. He seized Montezuma, and for the next eight months ruled the city through him. Why and to what extent Montezuma cooperated remains unclear, but his cooperation certainly secured the temporary obedience of the people, albeit in an atmosphere of increasing resentment.

When Cortés was forced to leave the city to deal with a force sent by the governor of Cuba, the mounting antipathy between the Spanish and Aztecs finally exploded, and the Spanish were driven from the city. In the wake of this Night of Tears, Cortés showed remarkable fortitude, leadership and resourcefulness. Retreating to Tlaxcala, he marshalled his remaining forces and allies, not without difficulty, and determined to reverse their fortunes. The key to Cortés’s plan was the building of 12 brigantines that would allow him to command the lake and besiege Tenochtitlan. Constructed in Tlaxcala, the boats were carried in pieces to the lake by thousands of indigenous bearers in an incredible feat of dedication and skill.

After Christmas 1520, the conquistadors set out to return to Tenochtitlan. They had to face attacks in outlying regions, but the brigantines were finally launched late in April 1521 and, with forces besieging the city from every direction, the battle began in earnest. The siege was devastating for both sides. The skill and sheer number of the Aztec warriors caused massive casualties among the attackers, even while they themselves died in huge numbers from starvation and disease.

A joint Franco-Native Indian raid left 56 residents of Deerfield, a small township in north-western Massachusetts, dead. (Alamy)

Cortés repeatedly sought the Aztecs’ surrender, hoping to avoid the total destruction of the city, but it became clear that the Aztecs would fight to the death and the attackers were forced to close the lines of escape, no longer drawing back to their camps at night, but advancing all the time and destroying buildings to prevent their recapture. During the turbulent days before the Night of Tears, Montezuma was killed – a crime of which each side accused the other. Cuauhtemoc, a young and determined warrior, succeeded to the throne after Montezuma’s unfortunate successor died of the smallpox epidemic that was ravaging the city.

Combined with Spanish military technology, European diseases have often been accorded a major role in the conquest of the Aztecs; the “guns, germs and steel” theory made popular by Jared Diamond. The weapons and armour of the Spaniards were certainly formidable against the easily-shattered obsidian blades and arrows of the indigenous people, but the thousands of allies supporting the conquistadors should not be forgotten. Smallpox certainly added to the rigours of the siege and disrupted the Aztec chain of command, but it also affected other indigenous peoples, including Cortés’s allies.

This “germ warfare” profoundly impacted on the New World as a whole, as indigenous populations, lacking any natural resistance, were devastated by European diseases. On 13 August 1521, Cuauhtemoc was captured and the Aztecs admitted defeat. Tenochtitlan, Cortés’s great prize, and its inhabitants were decimated. Cortés had conquered the Aztecs, but at the expense of the beautiful city he hoped to secure.

This 'germ warfare' profoundly impacted on the New World as a whole, as indigenous populations, lacking any natural resistance, were devastated by European diseases

There is one final piece, or rather person, to this puzzle. Doña Marina, the indigenous translator who appears constantly at Cortés’s side in images of the conquest, and who eventually bore him a son, was critical to his ability to negotiate with indigenous people, which was central to the conquest. The figure of Marina epitomises the controversy of the conquest’s legacy. She has been seen alternately as the mother of the mestizo (people of mixed blood) nation or the ultimate traitor to her people, and this ambiguity underlies modern Mexican attitudes to their history.

In recent years, the Aztec past has been increasingly rediscovered and valued as a vital part of Mexican heritage, but Spanish, particularly Catholic, culture also underlies their way of life. Colonialism cannot be justified by the doubtful measure of progress but, for better or worse, conquistadors helped to create the global world in which we live. Transatlantic links drove forward the exchange of goods, information and people, beginning the process of conquest and colonisation which created our modern multicultural world.

Caroline Dodds is a lecturer at the University of Leicester specialising in Aztec and early modern Atlantic history. Her book Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle, and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2008

Hernán Cortés: a short biography

Hernán Cortés was born in Extremadura, Spain, in the mid-1480s of respectable but undistinguished hidalgo (minor noble) birth. In 1506, he sailed to the Indies where he helped in the conquest of Cuba and married a relative of its first governor. In 1518, dissatisfied with life as a landowner, administrator and politician, he set out on his expedition to the American mainland.

In 1522, after conquering the Aztecs, Cortés was appointed captain-general and governor of “New Spain” (Mexico), granting him great property and influence. In 1528, he sailed to Spain, where he was received and rewarded

by Charles V, who also blessed his second marriage. After returning to Mexico in 1530, Cortés spent much of his life struggling to assert his rights and preserve his reputation, having met with considerable political opposition and been accused of murdering his first wife (who died in 1522). After returning to Spain in 1540 to plead his cause, he died disillusioned in Seville in 1547. Despite his bitterness, he was a rich man, and left both wealth and status to his many children.

The Aztec empire: culture and sacrifice

Between about 1350 and the 1520s, the Aztecs flourished on the site of modern-day Mexico City. They rose from humble beginnings as migrants from the north through a combination of military and diplomatic tactics to become the dominant force in the region.

Originally founded on inhospitable marsh and small islands in Lake Texcoco, by the 16th century their great island capital of Tenochtitlan had grown into a spectacular metropolis, linked to the mainland by three tremendous causeways and the heart of a network of nearly 400 subject and allied cities. A huge marketplace drew thousands of people every day from all over this “empire” (as some historians have called it) and a ceremonial precinct lay at the centre of the city, from which the pyramid of the Great Temple towered over the grid of canals and streets.

The city was clean and well-ordered, with strong laws and political administration, but the Aztecs have often been regarded as a brutal and even evil people because they practised human sacrifice. The Aztec gods required human blood (let from living bodies, as well as through the death of sacrificial victims) to nourish them and sustain the world. It was believed that sacrifice led to a privileged afterlife and some Aztecs themselves became victims, but captives were most commonly used for this purpose.

It was believed that the gods had destined the Aztecs to be a warrior people, and they became increasingly focused on warfare and military achievement, even practising “flowery wars” specifically for the purpose of securing victims. The Aztecs were not dehumanised by this bloodshed, however. They were an expressive and sophisticated civilisation that valued poetry, art and family highly. They believed sacrifice was a privilege, and were able to accept that violent death was a necessary part of life.

Cortés’s route from Vera Cruz to Tenochtitlan

During his march to the Aztec capital, Cortés gathers valuable allies among enemies of Montezuma

8 August 1519: Beginning of the march to Tenochtitlan

Having skirmished their way along the coast, and met with Montezuma’s emissaries, Cortés and the conquistadors set out for Tenochtitlan from their settlement of Vera Cruz.

23 September 1519: Alliance is forged

After several weeks of outright confrontation, the conquistadors make peace with the Aztecs’ Tlaxcalan enemies and they enter the city of Tlaxcala, marking the beginning of the alliance between them.

8 November 1519, Cortés faces Montezuma

Cortés faces Montezuma on the great causeway leading to Tenochtitlan. Less than a week later, he seizes the Aztec ruler and takes control of the city.

30 June 1520: Spaniards flee Tenochtitlan

The Spaniards and their allies flee Tenochtitlan on the Night of Tears. Having lost more than half their company, they rally at Tlacopan before retreating to Tlaxcala.

28 April 1521: Start of the battle for Tenochtitlan

Having fought their way back to the lake, the conquistadors launch their brigantines, besiege the city, and the great battle for Tenochtitlan begins.

13 August 1521: Aztecs surrender

After months of fierce fighting, which leaves Tenochtitlan in ruins, the last tlatoani Cuauhtemoc is captured in a canoe on the lake and the Aztecs finally surrender.

Five key factors in the conquest

A combination of luck, allies and might have enabled Cortés to succeed

Hernán Cortés

The importance of his leadership has at times been overstated, but Cortés undoubtedly made critical and creative decisions at key moments in the conquest and provided effective and often inspirational leadership. A clear and ambitious tactician, he was devout, brave and single-minded in pursuit of his goals.

European weaponry

Guns, armour and steel weaponry would not alone have been sufficient to overcome the Aztecs’ numerical advantage, but they were certainly effective, particularly in skirmishing. Horses and war dogs were also new to the Aztecs, who quickly realised their tactical importance and began to target them in battle.

Indigenous allies

Alliances with the Aztecs’ enemies and disgruntled subjects ensured the conquistadors an almost unending supply of warriors, auxiliary support, food and other supplies. Links with individuals, particularly the interpreter Malinztin, also gave Cortés considerable tactical and diplomatic advantages and allowed him to negotiate directly with indigenous peoples.

European diseases

Lacking any natural immunity, the indigenous peoples were decimated by diseases brought by the conquistadors. Smallpox was particularly devastating during the conquest of Mexico and, in the following years, other illnesses such as measles, mumps, typhus, influenza and the plague brought many indigenous American populations to near extinction.

Aztec attitudes

The Aztecs’ practice of warfare disadvantaged them in some encounters as they fought to capture victims for human sacrifice rather than to kill. An earlier realisation of the extent of the conquistadors’ intentions might also have allowed the Aztecs to marshal resistance and move against them more effectively.


This article was first published in the November 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine