We might begin our study of the conquest with a consideration of the very interesting issue of the eight ‘bad omens’ recorded by the Aztecs themselves (fully described in
The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico
which was edited by Miguel Leon-Portilla) that predicted the coming of the invaders.
Ten years before the arrival of the Spaniards a series of particular phenomena closely succeeded each other in occurrence and were witnessed by many Indians. First, a column of fire, described as a flaming ear of corn, was seen at midnight throughout a full year. Second, the temple of Huitzilpochtli was destroyed by a sudden fires while the third bad omen took the form of the temple of Xiuhtecuhtli being destroyed by lightning strangely unaccompanied by thunder. The fourth sign was the sighting by day of a comet, and for the fifth, sudden waves came up on the Lake of Taxcoco. When many people heard a woman crying night after night, “My children, we must flee far away from this city” and “My children, where shall I take you?” this was taken as a sixth omen. Perhaps most evil of all was the seventh omen in which a bird with a mirror on its head reflecting the heavens was discovered. It was said that when Montezuma, to whom this strange bird was brought, peered into the mirror for a second time, a party of armed men could be seen. The eighth sign took the form of monsters, two-headed men, who walked the city streets but when brought to Montezuma, disappeared as soon as he saw them.
These omens greatly affected the morale of the Aztec people and made them particularly receptive and susceptible to the rumors of coming invaders. According to White, the Aztecs, including their leader, Montezuma, felt a real terror of the Spanish invaders at their shores. Their actions were tempered by their expectation that some form of divine punishment was inevitably to befall them, and that their empire was now “overripe” and destined to fall (197).
In fact, the Aztecs regarded Cortés and his men as
as incarnations of Quetzalcoatl and other gods who were fulfilling an old vow to return from over the sea. The conquistadors with their fierce mastiffs, horses, canons, muskets and crossbows certainly must have presented quite a forbidding sight to the Aztecs, who had never seen such animals or weaponry before.
Despite all of their ‘supernatural’ advantages, it quickly became apparent that the Spaniards were vulnerable to Indian attacks. Both the soldiers and their strange animals could be injured and killed. What is remarkable is the fact that, later, even after showing themselves to be mortal, the Spaniards were still treated with extreme deference by the Aztecs, —especially Montezuma. This treatment is ably described by Vaillant, who explains how Montezuma tried on numerous occasions to be conciliatory with the Spanish, bribing them with gifts and asking them to leave and go back where they came from. The question is, then, —why did the Aztecs opt for this approach rather than descend upon their conquerors en masse and annihilate them? The conquistadors, Vaillant explains, were not themselves gods but were symbols of “unearthly forces bent on establishing a new social order” (244). It was the
quality of the Spanish which so affected the Aztecs’ attitude toward them.
Another factor working to the disadvantage of the Aztecs was their methods of attack warfare which proved so ineffective against the varied maneuverings of a Spanish force well-drilled in tried military tactics. Whereas the Aztecs waged war in a very ceremonial way, European tactics were founded on realistic calculations. As Frances F. Berdan in his book,
. describes, the Aztecs used only a small part of their forces to fight any given battle, seeking to capture enemies for later human sacrifice, thus often taking daring risks. The Spaniards, in contrast, amassed vast numbers that overwhelmed the Aztec forces, attacking without first parleying. Because their object was to defeat rather than capture, in fighting hand-to-hand the Spaniards struck to kill (98).
Also unfortunate for the Aztecs was the fact that Cortés and his men arrived on their shores at the end of the summer when the various tribes of Mexico were busy harvesting their crops and could not be concerned with military affairs. Food for survival was uppermost on their minds. To complicate this and to hinder them further, the Aztec theocracy consisted of numerous independent city-states with different languages and economies. Many were in continuous revolt and in mutual distrust. There was no political unity joining them together in a true empire. The allegiance of various vassal states was often in question and, in the event, Montezuma was unable to secure the help of even one ally in his fight against the Spaniards. Moreover, the king had to depend on the consensus of the various clans before taking any action. Often criticized by historians for appearing indecisive and taking on an appeaser’s role with the Spaniards, it must be remembered that Montezuma was not an absolute monarch, and had no way of enforcing long-range diplomatic policies. He was “a tribal leader devoid of the constitutional rights of a European sovereign” (White 264).
Descriptions of the Aztecs’ valiant efforts in their fight against the Spanish invaders are many. Their defense of the capital city, Tenochtitlan, under the leadership of the courageous Cuahtemoc, their new ruler, exemplifies “a heroic group action by individuals fighting for their lives” (Vaillant 264). But it was with the capture of Cuahtemoc that the Aztec resistance soon collapsed, and as an Aztec legend exclaims, on August 13, 1521, “the Mexicans were finished” (Vaillant 261).
It is interesting to note that the confrontation between the Spaniards and the Aztecs was one between two advanced and expansive cultures. Ironically, both nations had recently been unified and were confidently looking to extend their empires at the time of their fateful encounter.
The question often asked is how a meager force could have so completely subjugated some 25 million Aztec people. We have already mentioned the military advantage of using artillery, armor and horses, but they remain virtually insignificant when compared with the sheer numbers of warriors the Aztec empire had at its disposal. Stephan Thernstrom in his article entitled, “The Columbus Controversy” posits two factors playing a major role in the ultimate defeat of the Aztecs. One was the spread of such European diseases as smallpox, typhoid fever, mumps, measles and whooping cough, reaching epidemic proportions in the native population which had no hereditary immunity to these diseases. To their extreme dismay, their enemies, the white men, did not seem to be similarly affected. The second factor which worked in Cortés’s favor was the alliances he formed with such alienated tribes as the Tlaxcalans, who willingly took up arms against Montezuma’s forces and who viewed the Spaniards as “liberators who would free them from the chains of Aztec rule” (31). This expectation was, however, merely an illusion, as, later, all of the native Mexican tribes were to be subjugated to Spanish rule and suffer the same fate of permanently losing their ancient culture.
Mario Vargas Llosa in his article entitled, “Questions of Conquest”, offers another oft-cited explanation as to how such an advanced culture as the Aztec could be so decisively destroyed in the height of its apparent strength. According to this view, the pyramidal, ‘theocratic’ society of the Aztecs is essentially a totalitarian structure which demands that the individual serve unquestioningly in his prescribed role within the structure. Such “bee-hive” societies, Vargas Llosa argues could relatively easily be destroyed by depriving the people of their leaders, so that they are then left directionless, not knowing how to act (47).