Hey guys 🙂 Ready for another history lesson? I hope so, because today’s post is about the Spanish Conquest and the colonization of Mexico.
You may have often come across the Spanish word conquistadores (conquerors) in Mexican history books. Now meet the most prominent among them… Hernán Cortés!
The following information is sourced from my book: Mexico: The Country, Its History & The Maya World
You can read more about Mexican history in the abovementioned book as well as in my travel book : Discovering Mexico
Happy Reading 🙂
THE SPANISH CONQUEST
One of the first Europeans to explore the Americas, Christopher Columbus mistakenly referred to the natives of the Americas as Indians, thinking that he had arrived in India. Although he corrected himself subsequently, the natives continued to be called as ‘Indios’ or Indians. During the course of his third journey, Columbus came into contact with the Maya. In one of his earliest letters to the Queen of Spain, Christopher Columbus wrote: ‘Our European civilization will bring light to the natives in the darkness but for ourselves we will obtain gold and with gold we will be able to do what we want.’
For the Spaniards, Mexico was a new land to explore for gold and silver and also to spread Christianity. Their ardent lust for gold and the intense zeal to convert people to Catholicism led the Spanish to destroy the rich ancient civilizations of the Aztec, Maya and of the Inca in Peru. The barbarities perpetrated by the Spanish in the wake of their victories, including the inhuman torture publicly inflicted on the vanquished royalty, were rarely documented.
The Spanish expansion in the Americas began with the establishment of permanent settlements in the Caribbean Sea, including the city of Santo Domingo (now the capital of the Dominican Republic) and outposts on the island of Cuba. These settlements made it possible for the Spaniards to explore the Mexican mainland and return back to their island outposts.
One of the expeditions in the Gulf Coast encountered friendly Maya people who told them of a powerful empire to the west. The tales of a powerful and wealthy native Indian empire located in the interior of Mexico, were relayed to Cuba. This resulted in the sailing of the expedition commanded by the conquistador Hernán Cortés.
The conquest of Mexico, a great and tragic history, began on Good Friday, on the 22nd of April, 1519 when Cortés landed on the coast near present-day Veracruz City. His first move on landing, was to organize an independent government, renounce the authority of the Governor of Cuba and acknowledge only the supreme authority of the Spanish monarchy. In order to prevent any of his men from deserting because of these actions, Cortés destroyed his fleet. On the coast he met Malinche, a Spanish-speaking indigenous woman who soon became his lover and interpreter. She was soon to become one of the most important figures in the history of the Spanish Conquest.
Cortés set off on the 200 mile march inland towards the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán with around 500 men, a few horses, attack dogs and cannons. His single mission: to defeat the Aztec and take their gold.
Because of deep resentment against the Aztec rule, and internal strife within the far-flung Aztec Empire, the Spanish conquistadores were able to form alliances with a number of indigenous groups, the most important among them being the people from Tlaxcala, a city east of the Tenochtitlán.
The ruler of the Aztec Empire at the time of the Conquest, Moctezuma (or Montezuma), had received reports of the earlier Spanish explorations and battles with the natives. He could have easily destroyed the Spaniards on their arrival. Instead he ordered his subjects along the region to greet the foreigners, offer them a large feast and gifts of gold and jewellery, and then ask them to leave. He was heavily influenced by legends and religious omens predicting future destruction. The arrival of Cortés coincided with the predicted date for the return of the angry Quetzalcóatl, their sacred god who had vowed to return and exact his revenge by destroying his enemies.
Since the invaders were fair-skinned and bearded, as was Quetzalcóatl, and they had come from the east, where the deity had vanished, he thought that their God had arrived. He sent messengers bearing gifts of gold and jewels with the hope that they would leave, but the wealth further inflamed the greed of the Spanish.
In October 1519, the Spaniards and several thousand of their allies, marched into Cholula, an ancient city devoted to Quetzalcóatl. With the assistance of the Tlaxcala army, they massacred more than 3,000 of the city’s inhabitants.
When Cortés marched towards Tenochtitlán, his combined army of Spanish and native Indians was vastly outnumbered by the Aztec warriors. Nevertheless, Moctezuma chose not to fight them and instead invited them to the Aztec capital. On November 18, 1519, the Spaniards entered Tenochtitlán as Moctezuma’s guests. The Spanish soldiers were put up in a building and were allowed to wander through the city, where they found a lot of gold and other treasures in the city’s storehouses.
Despite the friendly reception given to the Spaniards, Cortés seized Moctezuma as a hostage, forced him to swear allegiance to the king of Spain, Carlos I, and demanded an enormous ransom in gold and jewels. Driven by lust for gold, they melted down irreplaceable works of art by the ton into gold slabs.
In April 1520, Cortés received news about the arrival of an expedition on the Gulf Coast to arrest and send him back to Cuba. Leaving 200 men at Tenochtitlán under the command of Pedro de Alvarado, Cortés marched with a small force to the coast. He entered the Spanish camp at night, captured the leader, and persuaded the majority of the Spaniards to join his army.
Meanwhile, in Tenochtitlán, a group of priests were killed by the Spaniards during a religious ceremony. This provoked their hosts beyond endurance and the soldiers were placed under siege in their quarters.
According to Spanish records, Moctezuma was stoned to death by his own people while attempting to appeal for peace. Cortés, with his reinforcements, fought his way back into the city but soon had to flee in the middle of the night. Fleeing across a causeway, the Spaniards were chased by Aztec warriors and attacked on both sides by the Aztec in canoes.
More than half the Spaniards were killed, all their cannons were lost, and most of the treasure they attempted to carry out was abandoned or lost in the lake and canals. The Aztec pursued the retreating Spanish troops, but the survivors managed to find refuge in Tlaxcala where they regrouped.
The final assault on Tenochtitlán began in January 1521, with more supplies and fresh troops, tens of thousands of whom were from Tlaxcala and other regions. Cortés then began his return to the capital, capturing Aztec outposts along the way and subduing Aztec settlements around Lake Texcoco. By May 1521, the island capital of Tenochtitlán was isolated and surrounded.
Artillery mounted on ships bombarded the city whose food and fresh water supplies had been cut. To make matters worse, the besieged city was ravaged by an epidemic of Smallpox brought by the Spaniards. The Aztec managed to hold out for three months under the command of the new king, Cuauhtémoc. On August 13, 1521, Tenochtitlán finally fell to the Spanish conquistadores.
THE POST-CONQUEST SCENARIO
In less than two hours, Cortés is said to have slaughtered six thousand people who had gathered in a temple patio. All the Aztec nobles and elite were put to death. On his entry into the conquered capital, Cortés later wrote: ‘You could not put down your foot without stepping on an Indian corpse.’ More than 40,000 decomposed bodies littered the destroyed city and bloated corpses floated in canals and the lake. Destruction of the other Aztec cities soon followed and it was so complete that almost everything lay in ruins. A fabulous city and its empire had come to a violent end.
If the history of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica is obscure, it is because immediately after the conquest, the first Bishop of New Spain (Mexico), Juan de Zumarraga, burned all the historical records which were deemed ‘the work of the Devil.’ Religious fanatics destroyed all the temples and statues. Zumarraga wrote to his superiors in 1531 that he alone had five hundred temples razed to the ground and twenty thousand idols destroyed.
The conquistadores not only destroyed almost all the records and literature of the Mesoamerican civilizations, but they also distorted its portrayal by focusing upon its bad features and magnifying them out of proportion. For instance, the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztec was repeatedly stressed without explaining its extenuating features. Human sacrifice was not unknown in Europe and Rome. The Spanish played this down or simply forgot to mention their own misdeeds and uncivilized inhuman behaviour against the indigenous people in Mesoamerica.
After the conquest, the first tasks for the Spaniards were of reconstruction, appeasement and conversion. Tenochtitlán was pillaged and burned to the ground and its people were driven out. In a deliberate policy of destroying all reminders of Aztec power, the remaining stones were used in the construction of the new city, Mexico City. Hundreds of towns were laid out according to a plan drawn up in Spain, with a plaza surrounded by a grid of streets. Catholic missionaries who had entered the country with the Spanish conquistadores immediately began the task of converting the native Indians to Christianity. Mass conversions became a daily occurrence. The missionaries built many monasteries and converted millions of people to Catholicism. Thousands of churches were built (by 1800, the count reached 12,000), often in areas that had been sacred to the Indians, on top of their pyramids or on the foundations of those destroyed.
When the Spaniards arrived, the native population of central Mexico was at least 25 million; by the beginning of the 19th century it dwindled to just six million and only half of these were pure-blooded natives. A majority of them died as a result of successive epidemics of diseases brought by the Spanish colonists against which the indigenous people had no natural immunity. With few survivors, the burden of labour placed on them kept increasing as the Spanish never did any manual labour themselves.
Although Cortés conquered the Aztec in a year, it took another 25 years to conquer the Maya of Yucatán Peninsula. After the conquest, the burning of religious manuscripts began and continued for decades.
The Maya library in Yucatán, which guarded invaluable ancient manuscripts, was reduced to ashes in 1562. In the same year, Fray Diego de Landa, a Franciscan monk made a huge bonfire of all Maya manuscripts and idols in the public squares of Mani in Yucatán. These books contained what would now be priceless information on ancient history, mythology, medicine, astronomy, science, religion, and philosophy. The destruction of icons and hieroglyphics obliterated the Maya language forever. Those who were unwilling to give up their faith even after tremendous torture were burned to death.
According to early accounts, Spanish eye witnesses reported that ‘De Landa hung Mayas with big stones tied to their feet and flogged them and if they still didn’t renounce their tin gods, they were showered with burning wax’. His barbarities resulted in his recall to Spain, but he managed to return and went on to become the first Bishop of Yucatán. After his return, he wrote Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (‘Details of Yucatán’) which gave a detailed account of the way of life of the Maya in Yucatán.
Book burning and human torture gained momentum with the formal introduction of the Spanish Inquisition in the New World (or New Spain) in 1571.
The Inquisition, a judicial institution established in Europe during the Middle Age, persecuted all those who held beliefs or opinions that disagreed with the official church doctrine. They were branded heretics and burned at the stake. The Inquisition also banned books that the church considered to be heretical. The Spaniards, through book burning and killings, successfully converted the Maya Indians leaving very little trace of their rich civilization.
They found pleasure in inventing all kinds of odd cruelties. A Spanish priest, Bartolome de las Casas in his book ‘The Devastation of the Indies’ gave an eyewitness account of how men, women and children were burned alive ‘thirteen at a time in memory of Our Redeemer and his twelve apostles.’ He described butcher shops that sold human flesh for dog food (‘Give me a quarter of that rascal there,’ one customer says, ‘until I can kill some more of my own’). He wrote: ‘Slave ship captains navigate without need of compass or charts, following instead the trail of floating corpses tossed overboard by the ship before them. Native kings are promised peace, and then slaughtered. Whole families hang themselves in despair. The papacy empowered the two crowns (Spanish and Portuguese) to conquer and even enslave pagans inimical to the name of Christ.’
The plight of the Maya Indians was miserable. They were moved into villages and forced to pay heavy taxes. Still, they showed themselves to be very resistant to the Spanish rule – and later the newly-independent Mexican State – by resorting to periodic rebellions.
An important aspect of the economy of colonial Mexico was the exploitation of the indigenous people who performed much of the farming, mining, and ranching work in the colony. Although Spain had decreed that the natives were free and entitled to wages, they were often treated little better than slaves. Their plight was initially the result of the encomienda (the predecessor to the hacienda) system, by which Spanish settlers were granted land and native Indians to convert them (the native labour) to Christianity and to work them on their large land holdings. Another system of forced labour was the repartimiento (division) which required indigenous communities to supply a quota of workers that would be available for hire by the Spanish settlers. The natives slaved in the ports of Veracruz and Acapulco, and in mines, factories, plantations, and sugar mills. Some worked as household servants in urban areas. Because of their forced dependence on the landowners, and zero resistance to foreign ailments, the Indians were riddled with debt and disease even after Spain abolished slavery in 1548.
Another characteristic of colonial Mexico was the position and power of the Catholic Church which affected virtually every aspect of life. Missionaries set up hospitals, monasteries, and schools in urban areas, and established missions all across the country. They expanded Spanish control over the natives, introducing Spanish culture and language while converting them to Christianity. In the beginning, the Church championed indigenous rights but later it grew more concerned with money. Any attempt to treat the natives as humans was, in any case, violently opposed by the Spanish landowners to whom they were less than machines. By the end of the colonial era, the Church owned more than half of all the land and wealth in the country. Although colonial Mexico was the wealthiest of all the Spanish colonies, its riches were confined to the local elite and the imperialists in Spain. Ruled directly from Spain, it was heavily taxed and permitted absolutely no autonomy. The social class consisted of a caste system with gachupines (those born in Spain but living in Mexico) at the top, the criollos (crioh-yoh) or creoles, born in Mexico of Spanish blood in the next level, followed by the mixed-race mestizo population. At the bottom were the mass of indios and people of African descent. All the political and administrative positions as well as those of the Church, were occupied by the gachupines.
Trade and industry were promoted with the philosophy of ‘what is good for Spain is good for Mexico.’ Infrastructure was inadequate and the only proper road in 1800 was the one that connected Acapulco with Mexico City and the port city of Veracruz. This made it easy to transport goods from the Spanish colonies in the Far East to Spain.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post. You can read everything about Mexico and my adventures across this beautiful ancient land, right here on my blog. Check out my three e-books on Mexico:
If you’re a fan of Mills & Boon novels or love reading romance novels, here’s one for you on this blog:
Thanks for stopping by, I hope to see you back 🙂
Hasta pronto, take care 🙂