This article features in Issue 34: Protest and Revolution (November 2019 )

It took one-hundred years to build but only two to be taken down; in its day, the Aztec Empire was the most powerful force in Mesoamerica. Now, despite the advances it made, its legacy has been almost entirely destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors. Hernán Cortés and his men rocked the Aztec Empire from its valleys to its peaks. Landmarks were destroyed, resources drained, and over half of the people exterminated by smallpox in two short years. Survivors were crammed into encomiendas, facing slave-like conditions which made even the Spanish monarchs grimace. Knowing their fate today, it’s hard to imagine why any ‘Indian’ would choose to ally with the Spanish. To these natives, however, alliance was opportunity. An opportunity to rise, fight, and snatch autonomy from the Aztec overlords they resented. 

Before 1519, the Aztecs firmly gripped Mesoamerica. The core of the empire was Tenochtitlan, the capital city which had dominated militarily and economically from the 14th century. A Triple Alliance had been the foundation of the empire, consisting of the states of Tenochtitlan, Tlacopan, and Tetzcoco. Gradually, Tenochtitlan expanded, absorbing the other two and consolidating power though tax and tyranny. Dramatic cultural differences between Central America and Renaissance Europe make it easy to forget that there are many similarities: Tenochtitlan was progressing to a similar degree to their European counterparts. They had constructed an artificial island around the city, dam systems to purify the saltwater for drinking and to prevent floods. Their art was complex, taking full advantage of the precious materials around them such as gold, silver, and turquoise in meticulous crafts and mosaics. 

However, the empire was not without its cracks. Tenochtitlan interfered relentlessly with Tetzcoco’s politics, significantly damaging the Triple Alliance which had brought them together. Moreover, the brutal foundations of the empire bled into every level of society. Activities now considered torturous were commonplace in every area, from religious ritual to military training. With human sacrifice an everyday occurrence , the Aztecs were a people stained with their own blood. Few tribes had the power to resist this brutality, but not all were helpless. The Tlaxcalans, followers of Camaxtil, god of war and hunting, were one of the Aztecs’ greatest challengers. When Cortés and the Spanish arrived in Tlaxcala in August 1519, the Tlaxcalans fought for two weeks before finally being subdued, despite the excessive weaponry the Spanish were initially equipped with. The Tlaxcalans proved themselves worthy warriors. Thus, Cortés’ proposed an alliance which had the power to throw off the hand of the Aztecs for good.

Although the Tlaxcalans were hesitant, an alliance with the Spanish was very desirable on the surface. As well as Cortés’ promises of tax exemption and preservation of their land – things the Aztecs had exploited them for mercilessly – they were presented with the opportunity to remove their main rival for good. They would gain autonomy and Spanish military technology would ensure it was maintained. Spain was, at the time, renowned for its military advancement. It bore powerful generals such as Gonzalo de Cordoba, developer of the highly efficient ‘tercio’ technique during the Italian wars. They had extensive weaponry, most notably the harquebus, which was an earlier version of the musket. Though somewhat inefficient, a gun was far superior to native weaponry. Alliance with Cortés also had a divine appeal. He was offered many gifts, as they believed him to be the god Quetzalcoatl. This became vital to the continuation of the alliance well after the fall of the Aztecs and, more significantly, in building trust with the Aztecs before ultimately taking them down. Some historians argue that the offerings the Aztecs themselves made to Cortés were actually a fearful incentive for him to leave them peacefully. Regardless, Cortés continued to drive his sword deeper into the empire. The Cholula Massacre of October 1519 is a grisly example of this. Though not a fundamental area, Cholula was one under Aztec influence. It was alleged to be plotting an ambush on the Spanish, so when Cortés – with aid from the Tlaxcalans – slaughtered thousands of Cholula’s scheming inhabitants, he was making a violent and powerful statement. This statement pacified Mesoamerica for the most part, but for the Aztecs, it was the spark of a two-year inferno of conflict with their new, dangerous rival.
As the battles blazed, the smoke spread across the New World. In exchange for the resources of the Native Americans, the Spanish repaid them with an epidemic of smallpox. They also destroyed most Aztec records, making it difficult to confirm the death toll. However, it is estimated that millions of natives fell. The more available records of the neighbouring Maya tribes indicate that around 50% of the region was wiped out. In carrying out the ‘Night of Sorrows’ on May 20th 1520 despite being so weakened, killing hundreds of Spanish in response to an unprovoked attack on a religious festival, the Aztecs sealed their fate. Through a barrage of merciless sieges, the Spanish and their native allies smothered the Aztec Empire, finally stamping it out on August 13th 1521, when Tenochtitlan was captured. The devastation left by the attacks, the epidemic, and the slave-like conditions many natives were subject to once the Spanish held dominance in Mesoamerica raise many questions of why the alliance was ever appealing to the natives. However, in an Empire which was brutally built upon the corpses of its predecessors, death was always overshadowed by dominance.