When Europeans first arrived in Mexico, they set their sights upon the magnificent Aztec Empire.
The Aztec Empire
Europe and Asia were not the only continents with powerful, ravenous empires. At the same time that the Ottomans were rising to power in modern day Turkey, the Aztec Empire was taking shape almost a thousand miles away, in the part of the world now known as Mexico.
The Aztec capital was the magnificent city of Tenochtitlán, first established in approximately 1325 CE. This city was rich and powerful, with a sophisticated approach to agriculture, commerce, religion and warfare. In 1428 CE, the Aztecs began to conquer rival tribes, and by the start of the 16th century, they ruled an empire of 500 states, home to 6 million people. Some of these states were claimed through warfare, while others joined willingly.
The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice, which has given them a bloody reputation. However, their military conflicts were relatively bloodless. In what the Aztecs referred to as ‘The Song of Shields’, a warrior would try to capture the enemy instead of killing them. These prisoners were taken back to Tenochtitlán, where some were sacrificed, while others were absorbed into Aztec society.
For thousands of years, the people of Eurasia and the people of the Americas had no idea that the other existed. This changed in 1492 CE, when Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. This was an earth-shattering moment in human history, as extreme as finding alien life on a neighboring planet.
Over the following decades, thousands of Europeans traveled to the New World in search of riches, power and adventure. One of these men was Hernan Cortés, an ambitious young Spaniard who, according to his secretary, “had little wealth, but much honor.” He rode a ship to Cuba at the age of 19, where he took a job as a government administrator.
The Cuban natives told their Spanish conquerors about a wealthy nation to the west. Hernan Cortés – now at the age of 33 – was given the task of exploring the region and finding out whether these rumors were true. In 1519 CE, he set sail for Mexico with 11 ships and just over 500 men.
When Cortés and his men arrived in Mexico, the first people they encountered were not the Aztecs, but the Totonacas – one of the subject states of the Aztec Empire. The Totonacas were amazed by these strange arrivals, with their pale skins, explosive weapons and metal armor. The Spanish rode horses, an animal which the Totonacas had never seen before, and some of them believed that these riders were actually a single beast, half-man and half-horse.
The Spanish were introduced to Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish monk who had been shipwrecked in Mexico several years earlier, and managed to learn some of the native language. He helped Cortés to communicate with the Totonacas, and the two sides realized that they shared a common goal: to overthrow the Aztec Empire.
The Totonacas brought the Spanish to speak with the Tlaxcalans, a more powerful state who had so far resisted being absorbed into the Aztec Empire. A tentative alliance was agreed, and the 500 Spaniards traveled to Tenochtitlán with the support of 6000 Tlaxcalan warriors.
The Night of Sorrows
In November 1519, Hernan Cortés and his allied forces of Spaniards and Tlaxcalans arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlán. The reigning emperor, Moctezuma II, did not respond with hostility; instead, he welcomed the Spanish into the city as honored guests.
Spanish historians later explained that Moctezuma saw Cortés as a white-skinned god, but this detail is probably untrue. In reality, he probably saw the diplomatic potential of allying with the Spanish, and did not want to offend them. Whatever his reasons, his decision to invite the Spanish into the city was a grave mistake. The Spanish betrayed him, taking him hostage in his own palace, then demanding gold from his frightened subjects in return for the emperor’s life.
Aztec warriors laid siege to the palace, and Moctezuma was killed. The Spanish were forced to run from the city, carrying as much gold as they could carry. Weighed down by this treasure, hundreds of Spaniards were slain by the Aztecs in an event referred to as La Noche Triste, or ‘The Night of Sorrows’. Only Hernan Cortés, and a handful of others, managed to escape alive.
Fall of the Aztecs
Despite his abject defeat at ‘The Night of Sorrows’, Cortés refused to give up. He had tasted the riches of Tenochtitlán, and wanted to claim them as his own. He spent the next two years strengthening his alliance with the Tlaxcalans, as well as recruiting other states and tribes with personal vendettas against their Aztec rulers.
In 1521 CE, Cortés led an organized attack on the Aztec city, which later became known as the Battle of Tenochtitlán. His army consisted of almost a thousand Spaniards armed with cannons and explosives, plus tens of thousands of indigenous warriors. He cut off the city’s food and water, then launched attack after attack, wearing the Aztecs down.
After 93 days, the Aztec defense collapsed. The Spaniards surged into the city, destroying temples and burning districts, killing 3 million Aztecs along the way. The Spanish built a new city on the ruins of Tenochtitlán, which later became known as Mexico City. As for the native states who had supported the attack, they quickly found themselves dominated and enslaved by the Spanish state. They had simply swapped the control of one empire for another.
After the victory of the Spanish over the Aztec Empire, Europeans turned their attention to other parts of the Americas. In 1533 CE, a Spanish force led by Francisco Pizarro arrived in South America. Inspired by the tactics of Cortés, he destroyed the powerful Incan Empire, centered in modern day Peru, after assassinating the emperor and recruiting the support of local tribes. In the decades which followed, the Mayan civilization was dispatched in a similar way.
These newly acquired American territories were rich in natural resources, and became a source of great wealth for the Spanish Empire. Many of the native peoples were enslaved, while Christian missionaries engaged in a process of mass conversion, wiping away any native religions and instituting Catholicism in their place.
Other European countries took the same approach in North America, with the English and French taking vast swathes of land from the indigenous peoples, killing and indoctrinating millions of natives along the way. The modern Americas are the product of these changes, with countries all the way from Canada to Chile irrevocably changed by the touch of European hands.
What if the Aztecs had won?
If the Aztecs had defeated the allied forces of Hernan Cortés, so soon after the humiliation of ‘The Night of Sorrows’, the Europeans might have reevaluated their relationship with American civilizations. Rather than trying to conquer them by force, they might have taken a more cautious approach, trying to establish trade deals and build alliances.
As valuable trade partners to European nations, the American empires might have survived for hundreds of years, well into the modern age. Native cultures would have been allowed to endure, instead of being forcibly replaced by European alternatives. The most common language in Central America might have been Nahuatl, not Spanish, while the most common religion might have been Nahua, not Catholicism.
These native empires could have also played a role in major world events. For example, the Aztec Empire could have thrown their weight into World War One and World War Two, completely changing the course of these conflicts. All in all, the world would have been a very different place.
The first reports of the Battle of Tenochtitlán came from Cortés himself, who sent an account of his victory back to Spain. This report is comprehensive, but it probably digresses from the truth in a number of places, as he exaggerated his own contribution to the battle, while also glorifying some of his cruel behavior against Aztecs foes. Other Spaniards were similarly self-congratulatory.
But not all of them took this approach. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Christian priest, gave a very different account of this battle, as he sought to raise awareness of the atrocities committed by Spaniards like Cortés at the expense of native peoples: “What we committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and mankind.”
The natives also wrote their own accounts. Many of these were destroyed or amended by Spanish colonists, but a few survived. The Anales de Tlatelolco is a heartfelt recollection of the empire’s collapse compiled by anonymous Aztec authors. A poem about the battle describes how “Broken spears lie in the roads; we have torn our hair in grief. The houses are roofless now, and their walls are red with blood.”
The role of disease
There is another important factor to consider in relation to the fall of the Aztecs: the role of European diseases. When the first Spaniards arrived in the Americas, they brought foreign diseases like smallpox, mumps and measles, to which the native people lacked a natural immunity. In some places, more than 90% of the local people were killed by European disease.
Because of this, some historians have questioned the significance of the Spanish victory at Tenochtitlán. Even if the Aztecs had won, these insidious diseases would have eaten away at their numbers, and the empire would probably have collapsed anyway. In the words of Diego Muñoz Camargo, a contemporary Spanish historian: “There was no resisting.”
A single battle is capable of changing the course of history, but so are biological factors like plagues and diseases. If the Aztecs had been the ones carrying a devastating disease, and the Spanish had fallen victim to it, then the story of the Americas would have unfolded very differently.