Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Tuesday 12th December 2017 | Manchester, UK

The Aztec Empire

The Aztec Empire was one of the most magnificent civilisations in the world, with their spectacular structures rivalling those of other great civilisations like the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians. The Aztec Empire stretched through most of Mexico and into what is now Guatemala, with its influence spreading further afield.

 

However, the Aztec Empire was to come to a quick and forceful end under the leadership of Hernan Cortes, a Spanish Conquistador who desecrated the last native civilisation in Central America. Tenochtitlan, the capital stronghold of the Aztecan Empire became the scene of a two-year siege.The Aztecs believed staunchly in a prophecy that said that a white bearded Godwas going to come and bring universal peace to the world. Cortes’ appearancematched that of the prophecy,so the Aztec leaderMontezuma came to trust Cortes, resulting in Montezuma’s imprisonment and execution in 1520.

 

In addition to the execution of the Aztec leader, Cortes had all the vital components to crush the Aztec empire. He had at his disposal a naval basis to attack Tenochtitlan from the sea, far superior weaponry and cavalry. Cortes’ omens looked good.However, this wasn’t to happen at Cortes’ first attempt. Montezuma’s brother and successor, Cuitlahuac, drove Cortes’ army back and remained as Aztec Emperor for eighty days, in which he tried to form a federation against the Spanish occupation of Central America. Due to divisions amongst tribes, this federation never occurred.

 

Cortes and his conquistadors returned with a vengeance. Theysubsequently besieged the city with the help of rival tribes of the Aztecs like the Texocans, Chalca and Tepanec who had all been brutally subdued at the hands of the Aztec Empire and forced to pay financial tribute to the Aztecs, of which they were understandably discontented about. Cortes used his political nuance to entice rival tribal groups onto his cause, which gained him invaluable knowledge of the land and possible Aztec weaknesses. However, it wasn’t Cortes’ military tactics that played the most vital role in the desecration of the Aztec Empire it was the spread of smallpox which caused havoc within Tenochtitlan,killing tens of thousands in its wake.

 

The introduction of the Spanish into Central America brought smallpox to the Aztecs and due to a lack of understanding of the disease and its subsequent cures, many fell victim to the epidemic. As a result the Aztecs were severely depleted both in terms of morale and soldiers. In addition to this, Cortes was also able to cut off food and water supplies into the city thus dealing another blow to the Aztecs who were already fighting the smallpox epidemic and the situation became dire.

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200,000 people are thought to have died in the two-year siege and with that the civilisation died too. Out of the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the conquistadors rebuilt the foundations of the city and renamed it Mexico City, with Cortes the Governor and Captain-General of New Spain. With the introduction of European Colonialism into the Central Americas, Christianity too became the main religion within New Spain, with the previous indigenous religion being thwarted from existence. Cortes was at the helm of an expansive colonial policy, whereby new cities were built and the population evangelised through the building of churches and other Christian institutions.

 

Thus the Spanish colonial mission into what we now know as Mexico had a profound impact. The native culture and existence came under threat and many aspects of Aztec life were desecrated like their capital, Tenochtitlan. Christianity took over via the installation of churches and cathedrals and the population became indoctrinated into a religion thatthey had never heard of.  Cortes also introduced sugar as a commodity into New Spain, and used the land to cultivate it for profit.

 

New Spain became a feeder for Spain’s imperial wealth, and thishad a catastrophic effect on the old Aztec way of life. Through the introduction of Spanish policies, the Aztec way of life died out. In addition to the cultural changes with colonialism and exploration brought about, Smallpox played a detrimental effect of the native population killing many Aztecs. Smallpox, therefore, played a crucial impact in the success of the Spanish colonial mission under Cortes. Finally, Spanish exploration was the catalyst for the Aztec’s downfall and due to the introduction of Spanish life onto the Central American continent; the world lost one of the most civilised and advanced civilisations of their time, the Aztecs.

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