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HISTORY OF MEXICO – The Spanish Conquest

by Ron Saunders

The Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire was one of the most important campaigns in the Spanish colonization of the Americas.

It was Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, Spanish overlord of Cuba, who first laid the foundation for the conquest of Mexico. In 1517 and 1518 he commissioned explorations of the Yucatán coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Those explorers returned with tales of great wealth in the area; tales that prompted Velázquez to outfit Hernán Cortés to a voyage of conquest.

However, Velázquez knew that whoever conquered the land for Spain would receive the fame and glory. Suspecting that Cortés would be disloyal, Velázquez went to the dock on the morning the ships were getting ready to sail to revoke Cortés’ commission. But Cortés quickly set sail for Mexico; beginning his journey with the legal status of mutineer.

Cortés landed in Mexico on April 21, 1519. Wasting no time in staking claim, Cortés founded the city of Vera Cruz and established a town council which, in turn, empowered him to conquer all of Mexico in the name of Charles I of Spain.

Conquering Mexico was no easy chore for Cortés, for he had not accounted for the might of Moctezuma, the feared Aztec lord who ruled over one of the most powerful forces in the Americas, as well as one of the most significant cultures in the history of civilization.

Moctezuma, uncertain about how to deal with the unwelcome strangers, sent Cortés a message warning him not to attempt the dangerous journey through deserts, mountains and enemy territories to reach the Aztec capital. Moctezuma also sent gifts of gold and other Aztec finery that he hoped would satisfy Cortez enough to make him leave Mexico. However, the gifts just whetted Cortez’s appetite for more riches.

Cortés, through his powers of persuasion, managed to forge an alliance with the Totonacs at Cempoala. Now, with his army of about 500 Europeans and thousands of Indian allies as soldiers and porters, Cortés pushed into central Mexico.

In an incredible campaign lasting more than two years, the conquistadors finally took the capital city of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) on August 13, 1521.

With the fall of the Aztec Empire, the Spaniards quickly defeated and subjugated most of the other Indian tribes in southern Mexico. The only area where effective Indian resistance was encountered was Yucatán, then inhabited by the Maya tribes. Francisco de Montejo y Alverez undertook the conquest of this region in 1526, though it was nearly 20 years before the Spaniards won control of the northern end of the Yucatán.

The occupation of northern Mexico, less populated and largely arid, took longer than that of central and southern Mexico, requiring intensive fighting with nomadic tribes. Some Indians living in the interior retained their independence for another century and a half.

Not being part of the Aztec Empire, it took more than 170 years for the Spanish to establish control over the Maya homelands (extending from northern Yucatán to the central lowlands of El Petén and the southern Guatemalan highlands).

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