Hernán Cortés and the Aztec Empire in Mexico
The Spaniards, like the Portuguese, moved quickly to exploit their late 15th-century/early 16th century discoveries. The settlement of Hispaniola started in 1493, partly in the hope of finding gold. However, the discovery of the Main coast opened alternative opportunities, for slaving and for acquiring pearls and gold trinkets by trade or plunder.
Differently from Ch. Columbus who was an explorer and later administrator, H. Cortés was a classic conquistador. He sailed to the New World discovered by Ch. Columbus for the focal reasons: 1) to make his fortune; and 2) to achieve fame. The starting point of his conquering trip was in Hispaniola. He took active participation in the occupation of Cuba together with the chief-commander of the Spanish army in the New World, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. The latter became the governor of Cuba. H. Cortés soon became a chief military officer of D. Velázguez who made Cortés a chief-commander of the Spanish expedition to explore and occupy the territory of the Aztec state that is today the interior of Mexico. For this expedition, H. Cortés had 11 ships, 500 soldiers, 13 horses, and 1 small cannon being ready to sail to Mexico but the personal relations with D. Velázquez became tremendously declined and H. Cortés lost his command position by the decision of the governor. Nevertheless, Cortés started the expedition and arrived at the coast of the Yucatán in April 1519. Here he claimed the land for the Spanish Crown following with the formal broking with D. Velázquez de Cuéllar. Near the coast of Vera Cruz (the first Spanish city) he destroyed the fleet for a reason to show the soldiers that there was no way back.
H. Cortés expressed his wish to meet with the ruler of the Aztec Empire Moctezuma in his capital Tenochtitlán (today’s Mexico City) surrounded by the lakes (the city at that time had c. 200.000 inhabitants) but was rejected. Not satisfied with Moctezuma’s gesture, H. Cortés with his army entered the inland of the Aztec Empire in the late summer of 1519. On the way, his army was reinforced by the coastal non-ethnic Aztec subjects who wanted freedom from Moctezuma. On his way to Tenochtitlán, H. Cortés responded to the tribes who resisted his incursion with terrible violence that he experienced in Hispaniola and Cuba – killing them in substantial numbers. The Spaniards, for instance, annihilated the tribe of Otomis of Tecoac, who were destroyed completely. The next people who opposed the Spaniards were Tlaxcalans and Cortés attacked them and burn their towns and villages, killing men, women, and children. The Spaniards’ leader sent deputies to the Tlaxcalan chiefs who threatened them with total elimination if they would not submit and join the Spanish military campaign against the Aztec capital. The Tlaxcalans accepted such an ultimatum and as a consequence joined the army of H. Cortés with some 5000 soldiers.
Now, between H. Cortés and Moctezuma was only the power city of Cholula. The Spanish conquistador tricked the chieftains of the Cholulan Indians into gathering in an assembly room for the talks. The Spaniards then under the guise of carrying out negotiations entered the city and killed some 10.000 locals by burning their houses and other buildings. That was up to that time the most terrible massacre committed by H. Cortés. Some women and children were spared and fled to the hills.
The Spanish army of H. Cortés by the time assembled a large group of Indian recruits. The Aztec ruler Moctezuma allowed the Spaniards to enter his capital for two reasons: 1) as a way to detect their intentions and weakness; and 2) to seize them if it would be necessary. However, it turned out to be his fatal mistake as h. Cortés moved first, surprising Moctezuma and taking him prisoner in his own royal palace, from which the Spaniards now ruled the city. The Iberian conquistadors have been very much impressed by the beauty and sophistication of the Aztec capital like, for instance, with Moctezuma’s zoological collection. However, the beauty of Tenochtitlán did not keep them from collecting the gold and precious stones by their control of the Aztec Emperor. One day when H. Cortés was absent from the city, the Spaniards massacred a group of Aztec aristocrats during their religious ceremony with the interpretation as a threat to the Spanish. The massacre inspired the dwellers’ rebellion against Moctezuma who was killed as blamed for the killing of their nobles. Consequently, H. Cortés became forced to leave the city.
In January 1521, H. Cortés started the siege of the Aztec capital and destroying all surrounding towns during the action. The Spaniards built bridges over the lakes and through them attacked the city. As in previous actions, the Spaniards and their American allies have been ruthless during the assault, killing around 6000 residents of the lakeside town of Ixtapalapa, before entering the city itself and laying waste to the population. H. Cortés barged the new Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc while the Aztec priests, according to the source, “have been given to the dogs”. All survived young women and boys were captured to slavery. Cortés started to rebuild the city for the Spaniards. He ordered the burning of books and records of the Aztec civilization and the Aztec monuments were destroyed like the idols in the temples. The buildings were cleaned and purged of the remains of sacrifices for the sake to prepare them to be the Roman Catholic churches.
The Spanish King Charles (and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire) appointed H. Cortés for the position of governor of New Spain of the Ocean Sea. A new governor started to develop his colonial domain by opening mines (in which the Indian slaves worked), supporting agriculture, and started with the first sugar plantation in the New World of the Americas. H. Cortés as well as used the system of forcibly bringing large numbers of local Indians to the estates as a free labor force for the Spanish lords followed by enslaving other Indians to work in the mines. The result of the Spaniard genocide in Mexico during and after H. Cortés was that around 1600 the local Indian population fell by as much as 85%, to as low as 1 million. Consequently, the slaves from Africa had to be brought to New Spain.
Pedro de Alvarado and the Mayan Kingdom in Guatemala
Not surprisingly, but it was a direct link between H. Cortés’ occupation of the Aztec Empire in Mexico with the Spanish incursion into Guatemala in terms of the personnel involved and the violent methods they used. On other hand, between the Aztec Empire in Mexico and the Mayan Kingdom in Guatemala (either in the highlands or the coastal regions of this Central American region) it was at least two focal differences: 1) The Mayans have been bitter rivals compared to the Aztecs; and 2) There was no Mayan central capital to occupy and, therefore, to conquer the state as it was in the case with the Aztec Empire. Pedro de Alvarado was sent to Guatemala in 1523 by the governor of New Spain in Mexico – the same person who led the killing of the Aztec aristocrats in H. Cortés’ absence from the Aztec capital. P. de Alvarado had an army of around 500 Spaniards assisted by large contingents of the Mexican non-Aztec Indians. One of the most relevant sources of the time about Spanish conquistadors in Central America, De Las Casas, openly was writing that Alvarado committed “holocaust” against the Mayan peoples of Guatemala.
Francisco Pizarro and the Empire of Incas in Peru
The military conquest of the Empire of Incas in Peru in South America was led by Francisco Pizarro who was a distant cousin of H. Cortés. F. Pizarro’s conquistadors showed clear technological superiority of the Spaniards over the much more numerous local Indians. In the case of Peru, the Spaniards attacked the well-developed and big Inca Empire and its ruler Emperor Atahualpa, who was at the same time both the secular ruler and a God to the Incas. F. Pizarro was attracted to the Inca civilization by the stories of gold and riches of Peru. He modeled his military tactics after those of H. Cortés in Mexico and started two short military campaigns in Peru in 1524 and 1526. The third campaign in 1530 he launched after receiving the approval of the Spanish King.
During the third campaign, F. Pizarro was accompanied by his two brothers Hernando and Pedro followed by Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto. The Spanish army of conquistadors (62 cavalrymen on horseback and 106 infantrymen) marched inland toward the Inca city of Cajamarca, where the Emperor’s army has been resting at nearby hot springs. F. Pizarro sent deputies to the Inca Emperor Atahualpa demanding him to submit his Empire to the Spanish Crown. However, the Emperor decisively refused to do so and F. Pizarro’s soldiers started to terrorize the local Indians to get information about the Emperor’s exact location at the nearby hot springs. His Indian army had up to 80.000 soldiers located in the foothills behind the city of Cajamarca. F. Pizzaro called the Emperor to come to his camp promising full protection of him and his deputies but, in fact, F. Pizarro planned an ambush to the Emperor what soon happened. The Emperor was transported on a splendorous gold-bedecked litter carried by 80 most important aristocrats followed by squadrons of unarmed Indians with crowns of gold and silver.
As the Emperor rejected to accept Christianity and to submit his Empire to the Spanish King, required by the Dominican friar Vicente de Valverde, F. Pizarro’s cannon fired at the huge crowd of Inca Indians and the Spaniard cavalry charged into the mass of Indians with swords and lances making Indians so filled with fear that they were climbing on top of one another, forming mounts, and suffocated each other. For the very reason that the Inca delegation was unarmed, the Spaniards were able to kill almost all of them (several thousand). All aristocrats who carried the Emperor’s litter have been cut to pieces by the Spanish conquistadors. The Spanish cavalry finally succeeded to knock the Emperor’s litter to the ground and arresting Atahualpa. The killing of the Indians did not stop till nightfall for the reason that the conquistadors pursued those Incas who aimed to escape, making sure to exterminate all the Inca aristocrats. It is counted based on the Spanish sources that during this battle of carnage around 7000 Incas were killed followed by many more who had their arms cut off and other wounds. All of those who have been transported in the litters and who carried them were killed.
This massacre happened on November 16th, 1532 and it was explained by F. Pizarro to the captured Inca Emperor as the inevitable consequence of God’s will in order to convince the Emperor to reject his bestial and diabolical life and to accept Christianity (the Roman Catholicism). F. Pizarro was trying to justify his monstrous greed by convincing the Emperor that his Indians would appreciate in the end what the Spaniards did to them when they arrived at their land and conquered them in the name of the King of Spain. Now, F. Pizarro demanded of the Emperor to purchase his life by filling a room (22x17x9 feet) by precious gems, gold, and silver. Nevertheless, when the Emperor finally managed to collect such huge treasure, F. Pizarro executed him on July 26th, 1533.
In the meantime, between the killing of the Incas of Cajamarca and the execution of the Emperor, the Spaniards gathered more troops in their camp and found allies among the Indians to assist F. Pizarro to occupy the administrative city of the Inca Empire – Cuzco, that happened later in 1533. The conquistadors have been impressed by the beauty and culture of Cuzco, but it did not stop them to plunder the city followed by tearing apart precious Inca works for the gold and silver encased in them.
Gold, silver, and genocide
After the occupation of Cuzco, all territories of the ex-Inca Empire fell now to the hands of the Spaniards. Spanish population in the New World was largely concentrated in towns and initially wholly parasitic upon Indian society around. However, the Spaniards soon developed characteristic economic activities, chiefly ranching and mining, employing Indian labor. The most important was that immensely productive silver mines were discovered, both in Mexico and in Peru, in the 1540s. We have to remember the real reason for the Spanish arrival to the Peruvian Empire of Incas: gold and silver. That is what they needed and found especially in the silver mines of Potosí in Bolivia. The Bolivian silver soon flooded Europe making Spain a rich and powerful Kingdom in the Old Continent what naturally came at the expense of the Native Americans as they have been forced to hard work in the mines in difficult and inhuman conditions. According to one Spanish source, every single peso coin that was minted in the mines of Potosí took the life of some ten local Indians. Potosí in Upper Peru became, and for a century remained, the biggest single source of silver in the world. By the 1560s silver had become the chief export to Spain, with cochineal, hides, tallow, and sugar a long way behind.
On the other hand, there is an opinion that the Spanish conquistadors and governors did not commit genocide in the Americas because the Spanish King and Queen did not intend to eliminate the local Indians of the Caribbean, Mexico, or South America. In other words, the mass killings of the Native Americans by the conquistadors and the high mortality from the diseases spread by the Spaniards cannot be counted as genocide. It has to be noticed that this argument is usually supported by the results of the so-called “Valladolid Disputation” of 1550−1551 when the Roman Catholic Church rejected the notions of Sepulveda that the American Indians deserved to be enslaved and deprived of their property. We can conclude that if Ch. Columbus, H. Cortés, or F. Pizarro killed in the name of the Spanish Crown and the Christian faith, as they, in fact, did so, the Roman Catholic Church now concluded, without the mandate of either.
However, as a matter of very historical truth, the Spanish conquistadors have been operating in the New World of both Americas within the political, ideological, and military framework that was set up by the Spanish Roman Catholic Crown. The readiness of the Spanish conquistadors to kill and even to exterminate entire towns and villages of the Native Americans followed by slaying men, women, elderly people, and the children is derived from their pathological conditions of mind when confronting the native peoples of New Spain. It is also true that the Spanish conquistadors have been far away from their home, i.e., from any moral constraints that their own (very Roman Catholic) society might force them to respect. In addition, there was no single Spanish woman to accompany the conquistadors and, therefore, they routinely seized wives and daughters of chiefs and rulers to be their mistresses. In fact, the Euro-Iberian Spaniards looked down on the local Indians of the Americas and considered them as inferior people, basically, as not real human beings. The Indian lives for the Spaniards meant nothing and their blood could be shed without any hesitation or moral restrain.
The Spanish conquistadors admired the towns and the cities built by both the Aztecs and the Incas as nothing even though they were in some cases even superior to those in Spain. In general, the American Indians have been treated to be despicable and not worth keeping alive except under slavery. The way the Spaniards terrorized and executed the Native Americans is a reflection of a deep-seated hostility to their victims’ very existence as humans. From one side, it came from their understanding of the meaning of the Roman Catholic Church and the alien character of all of those who have been not part of its covenant. Basically, the Spaniards have understood themselves as a kind of crusaders, although they did not need to liberate the Holy City of Jerusalem from the infidels. The Spaniards hacked and burned their way through the Americas, killing at will and with extraordinary cruelty, and, therefore, they clearly revealed the mentality of genocide. They have been quite ready to exterminate whole towns, cities, or villages tribes, or people to get what they wanted (the precious stones and the land). The Spanish conquistadors as well as have been governors being double empowered: 1) By the Spanish Crown to rule in its name; and 2) By their Roman Catholic priests to kill the supposed savages who refused to accept the Cross and to be baptized into the Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, mass killings of the Native Americans were committed by the Spaniards in the name of a better Spanish and Roman Catholic world for the local Indians, as the world in which they lived up to 1492 did not matter in the least to the conquistadors.