Hernán Cortés: The Fall of Tenochtitlan

In 1485, Hernán Cortés was born in the small town of Medellín, Spain. He pursued law for a time until he became interested in colonization. One of his first experiences with colonization came when he embarked for Hispaniola in 1504.

In 1511, Cortés had another expedition where he was approved and provided twelve ships by Diego Velázques. It is unknown what happened, but Velázques desired his money back. Instead of returning the ships Cortés left for the New World and broke the law. Cortés wasn’t supposed to step foot in Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, he made his way inland with his mind set on conquest. He’s goal was to see that the city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, fell.

A conquest can be defined as the process of forcefully and violently taking something from other people. The Mesoamerican world Cortés entered were diverse, and the tributary chiefdoms practiced small-scale conquests because they were warring states. The Azteca Empire was the most warlike society during the 1500’s. The empire rivaled that of the Tlaxcala and the Tarascan states.

Comparatively, Cortés had 400 unskilled merchants and 16 horses under his belt. The resources he had was not enough to combat the natives of Mesoamerica. Cortés knew this, and he acquired aid from three key sources: Geronimo de Aguilar, Malintzin, and warriors from Tlaxcaltec and Cempoala. Aguilar and Malintzin were able to help Cortés with language barriers and supply knowledge of the region, while the warriors were the manpower with insider information on the Aztec Empire. The reason Cortés was able to overcome all of his daunting circumstances was that of technological and biological.

There were technological differences between the Spanish and the indigenous population. The differences in technology created a gap in warfare, which gave Cortés an edge. The Spanish used metal weapons, such as guns and swords, and had horses. Mesoamerica was advanced; however, metallurgy was not developed for war. Alloys, such as copper-silver, copper-arsenic, copper-tin, were used as utilitarian objects, individual objects designed for dress, and ritual objects. These metal items were either considered sacred or symbolic. Mesoamerican warriors had not used metal used in war amongst themselves, so they did not have metal weapons to use against their newest enemy. As for horses, Mesoamerica simply were not equestrians, because the continent’s horses fell into extinction during the last ice age.

Unfortunately, the indigenous peoples were at a disadvantage biologically too. Corte’s small band of merchantmen had the advantage of having a better immune system to diseases, like smallpox, that was transferred from the Old World to the New World. For the Spanish, this was a convenience and an unintentional advantage. The effect of this biological difference can be seen in the decreased number of indigenous people fighting once exposed to smallpox and other foreign ailments. The foreign germs devastated their immune systems because they did not have enough time to build up a natural antibody. The indigenous heath situation was much worse than those of Cortés’s men because Cortés’s men can recover faster and easier.

Despite these disadvantages pitted against the Aztec and many other tribal states, it is incredible how the Aztec were so resilient and fortified. In John E. Kicza’s book, The Spanish Conquest, Cortés and his men tore down bridges as the city experienced “disease and shortages of food and water, [yet] the defends of Tenochtitlan held out resolutely.” They were militarily able to hold Cortés off for two years. What is more astonishing is that the Spaniard’s first attempt to was a failure (Kicza).

When Cortés did overtake Tenochtitlan, he did it by entering the city by canoe, taking out bridges, dividing his men and resources into three units, then attacking in waves. Then he slowly made a progression into the city. A turning point was in 1521, when Cuauhtemoc, the ruler of Tenochtitlan, was killed during his escape to the mainland. From there, the Spanish continued their conquest outside Central México—to places like Oaxaca.


Map of Mexica Empire in 1519

Map of Mexica Empire in 1519

The map above is a generalized representation of the Mexica, also commonly known as the Aztec, during the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1519. Montezuma sent messengers to Hernan Cortes commanding that he not continue through Cholula and into Tenochtitlan. However, Cortes ignored the messengers and sought to put the capital in ruins. The map gives an idea how large the Mexica empire was. However, it does not show how diverse the tributary states were. Though it does give an indication of how his allies were just located outside the Mexica Capital. | Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aztec_Empire_c_1519.png | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page



Tenochtitlan is the capital city within the Mexica Empire. During the time of the Spanish Conquest in the fifteenth century, the city itself was much like an island. It was surrounded by water and likely was a swampland. There were bridges that were used to connect the city to the mainland. The bridges could be used as a defense mechanism, in that they were able to be moved. The city itself had a grid system and use of canals. The city has hand constructed monumental buildings. All of which was build with stone, stone tools, and man power. Tenochtitlan a major location for trade and religious pilgrimages. In 1521 that Cortes defeated the Mexica and claimed the capital as his. | Source: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenochtitlan View File Details Page

Diego Velazquez de Cu�©llar

Diego Velazquez de Cu©llar

Diego Velazquez de Cu©llar was the one who originally backed Hernan Cortes's exposition to the New World, to Mexico. Cortes's trip was not the first to be supported by Velazquez. In 1513, he approved the use of the slave trade, Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba expedition to the Yucatan in 1517, and in 1518 Juan de Grijalva's expedition. Aside from approving expeditions, he did not approve of conquest. When he was made Governor of the west indies, he revoked his support for Cortes's trip to Mexico. However, the expedition was underway. As a result, Cort©s knowingly disobeyed Velazquez's orders to stay. He hoped that the credit would go to him instead of Velaquez. This dynamic is interesting when later, Cortes is asked to present an account to the court and justify his use of force on the natives. At this point, his entries were written later and with his own agenda. That agenda was to make himself look better, in the hopes of a less punishment. | Source: http://familypedia.wikia.com/wiki/Cuba | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Hernan Cortes

Hernan Cortes

Hernan Cortes was born in Spain. He moved to Cuba and for a time became a magistrate. Later he began his conquest in Mexico in 1519. He led an attack at Tenochtitlan that resulted in the fall of the Mexica Empire. He made it there through the aid of a translator and his military. Military was comprised of Spaniards and even natives. His military has an advantage militarily. Interestingly, Cortes was not supported by his Cuba governor. This portrait displays Cortes's youth and wealth. For instance, the lace was expensive to own during this time. His armor appears to be lined with some gold. Cortes was wealthy enough to funded half of his expedition. | Source: http://www.biography.com/people/hern%C3%A1n-cort%C3%A9s-9258320 View File Details Page

The City of Tenochtitlan

The City of Tenochtitlan

During 1521, this map of the Mexica City, Tenochtitlan, was gifted to the Spanish Courts. While it unknown as to who created this map, it is clearly from the perspective of a Spaniard. Some obvious indications include: a. The language appears to be an older version of Spanish. b. The conceptual artistic style is more European than Mexica. c. How the region seems to be unfinished, indicates this artist did not know the region of this world. This is a map that shows what the Spanish thought the New World looked like. The regions include: the Mexican Gulf Coast which would be from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Highlands of Mexico, and even a small portion of the southeast United States. | Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tenochtitlan_y_Golfo_de_Mexico_1524.jpg | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Savanah Nicole Burns , “Hernán Cortés: The Fall of Tenochtitlan,” HistoricalMX, accessed January 19, 2019, http://historicalmx.org/items/show/48.

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