Cortés Conquers Aztecs in Mexico Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Cortés conquered the Aztecs of Mexico, giving Spain control over the region and launching a long-term Spanish conquest that would encompass most of the Americas.

Summary of Event

There is little dispute about the role of Hernán Cortés and the importance of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Nevertheless, the meaning of these events and the place of Cortés in the history of Mexico have undergone a profound transformation. For centuries, Cortés was seen as a bold adventurer who seized the initiative from a hesitant Montezuma and, with only a small number of Spanish, conquered a vast empire. Aztec Empire Cortés, Hernán Montezuma II Marina, Doña Cuauhtémoc Velázquez de Cuéllar, Diego Alvarado, Pedro de Córdoba, Hernandez de Grijalva, Juan de Velázquez de Cuéllar, Diego Marina, Doña Montezuma II Díaz del Castillo, Bernal Alvarado, Pedro de Cuauhtémoc Cortés, Hernán

Cortés’s troops ended an indigenous rebellion in Cholula just prior to the Spaniards’ sacking of Tenochtitlán and the fall of the Aztecs.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Since the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917, however, many have come to regard Cortés as a greedy murderer, who repaid courtesy with treachery and destroyed an entire nation. The conqueror and the conquest, regardless of the interpretation, have merged into one epic saga. Exploration and colonization;Spain of North America

Following the discovery of Hispaniola and other islands in the Caribbean, the Spanish began a systematic conquest of the Antilles and explored westward toward the mainland. Francisco Hernandez de Córdoba discovered the Yucatán in 1517, and Juan de Grijalva in 1518 found evidence of great wealth to the west. In 1519, Governor Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar of Cuba chose Hernán Cortés to lead a third expedition to the mainland to trade with indigenous peoples. Cortés put on such airs at his appointment that Velázquez attempted to replace Cortés, who sailed before new orders were received. He had eleven ships, six hundred men, and sixteen horses, along with some cannon.

Cortés repeatedly encountered good luck in this enterprise. He also demonstrated capable leadership, resourcefulness, and tenacity in the face of sometimes overwhelming obstacles. Off the coast of the Yucatán, Cortés heard that stranded Spanish sailors were living with the Maya. One of these was rescued and, knowing the indigenous peoples’ language, provided Cortés with a trusted translator from the very beginning. Later, after Cortés and his men defeated an attack and made peace with an indigenous tribe, they were offered twenty indigenous women. One, whom the Spanish called Doña Marina when she became Christian, but known to the Mexicans as La Malinche, spoke several indigenous languages and served Cortés as a spy as well as an interpreter.

In April of 1519, Cortés reached the region controlled by the Aztec Empire. To enhance his authority and justify disobeying the orders of the Cuban governor to trade and return, Cortés constructed a town he called Veracruz and had his men elect him as the king’s direct representative. Thus established, Cortés burned his boats, claiming they were unseaworthy, and initiated his march to the capital of the great Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlán.

The Aztec emperor, Montezuma II, ruled an enormous area that encompassed most of central Mexico and contained between twenty-five million and thirty million inhabitants. Spain, with only eight million people, was smaller in both size and population. The Aztecs, however, were not prepared to face Europeans who came with strange beasts and weapons, and who acted so differently. An old myth that predated the Aztecs told of a great god, Quetzalcóatl Quetzalcóatl (Aztec god) , the feathered serpent, who had once ruled in Mexico but had been driven out. He sailed eastward, claiming that one day he would return to claim his kingdom. Montezuma, remembering this story, fell victim to Cortés’s cunning, when the Spaniard, displaying cannons, mastiffs, and horses that terrified Montezuma’s envoys, claimed to be that deity. Torn between fear of the god’s wrath and the suspicion that Cortés was only a human enemy, Montezuma alternately plotted to ambush Cortés, offered him presents of gold, pleaded with him to go away, and demanded that his shamans destroy the Spaniard with a curse.

Meanwhile, Cortés was slowly marching his men up into the mountains toward the capital. After being attacked and nearly destroyed by a fierce tribe that detested the Aztecs, Cortés explained that he had come to free the people from their hated enemy, and he received them as allies. When Cortés heard from La Malinche that the people of the town of Cholula were preparing a trap for him and his men, Cortés massacred the leaders and allowed his indigenous allies to sack the city. Montezuma remained frozen with fear yet shocked at the Spanish invaders’ blatant disregard for Aztec rules of warfare.

On November 8, 1519, Montezuma finally met Cortés and invited him and his men into Tenochtitlán Tenochtitlán . One of Cortés’s soldiers, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, wrote that this fabulous city was grander than most in Europe and bigger than anything he had ever seen in Spain. It was an enormous city of more than 150,000 people, with great palaces and neighborhoods divided by grand canals. Cortés and his men had simply walked in and made themselves masters of the city.

Cortés’s control was tenuous, however, and he decided to seize Montezuma on the pretext that some of the men he had left behind at Veracruz had been killed. Montezuma was horrified when he was taken by the Spanish, who had betrayed his hospitality. In a dignified manner, the Aztec emperor explained to his people that he was not a prisoner, and he was permitted a degree of freedom. Nevertheless, many of the Aztec leaders were upset with Montezuma’s meekness and, when Cortés suddenly had to return to Veracruz to face a shipload of men sent by Cuba’s angry governor, his second in command, Pedro de Alvarado, feared an uprising. After giving the Aztec aristocrats permission to perform a religious ceremony, Alvarado thought they would use it as an excuse to attack, so he directed the Spanish to massacre the unarmed dancers. This led to a general uprising against the Spanish, in which Montezuma was killed.

When Cortés returned, he could only help his men fight their way out of the capital. On July 1, 1520, La noche triste Noche triste, La , or the night of sorrows, as the Spanish called it, Cortés and his men were nearly destroyed. They barely escaped with the assistance of their indigenous allies and spent nearly half a year recovering, planning, and building a fleet of boats to attack the Aztec capital from the waters of Lake Texcoco, which surrounded the city.


While the Spanish were recovering from their rout, the Aztecs were struck by smallpox Smallpox;Aztecs and , probably from a wounded soldier they had captured to sacrifice. The pestilence decimated the population of the city and left the Aztecs weakened. In spite of their debility, and the death by smallpox of Montezuma’s brother and emperor, Cuitláhuac, who had replaced Montezuma, the Aztecs fought bravely and effectively against the Spanish and their indigenous allies.

Under the leadership of Cuauhtémoc, the unrelenting Spanish attacks were pushed back, until Cortés ordered that the entire city be leveled. As ships surrounded the city and Spanish troops cut the water supply, the Aztecs courageously defended their city and their civilization.

Finally, on August 13, 1521, the last Aztec warriors were defeated and, with the city demolished, Emperor Cuauhtémoc was brought before Cortés. The young Aztec emperor begged to be killed, but Cortés refused and treated him with respect. He wanted to use this last symbol of authority to end Aztec control throughout Mexico. One empire had fallen, and another was about to be constructed on its ruins.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collis, Maurice. Cortés and Montezuma. New York: New Directions, 1999. Extensively researched, detailed, and highly accessible account of the meeting between Cortés and Montezuma. Includes illustrations, map, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cortés, Hernán. Letters from Mexico. Edited and translated by Anthony Pagden. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Nota Bene, 2001. Cortés wrote many letters to his king, Charles V, chronicling his deeds and forever proclaiming his loyal service. Provides the reader with an opportunity to see Cortés’s own description of his actions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521. Edited by Genaro García. Translated by A. P. Maudslay. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996. An account by a foot soldier under Cortés of the events of the conquest. Although written many years later, it manages to recapture the emotions of the Spanish conquistadores.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kandell, Jonathan. La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City. New York: Henry Holt, 1988. A lengthy and well-written story of the capital city of Mexico, from Tenochtitlán to Mexico City. Chapter 3 discusses Montezuma and chapter 5 examines the conquest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leon-Portilla, Miguel, ed. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Translated by Lysander Kemp. New ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. Presents the Aztec interpretation of the coming of the Europeans and the conquest. Gives insights into the Aztec mentality and provides critical perceptions of the Spanish.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyer, Michael C., William L. Sherman, and Susan M. Deeds. The Course of Mexican History. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Chapters 6 and 7 detail Cortés’s invasion and the fall of the Aztec Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prescott, William H. History of the Conquest of Mexico. Reprint. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Written in the 1840’, this is one of the first truly scholarly works on the history of Mexico in English. Prescott combines sometimes overwhelming detail with a sense of the dramatic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Touchstone, 1995. Thomas’s well-researched book focuses on the personal conflict between these two leaders and their widely disparate civilizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Jon Manchip. Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire. 2d ed. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1996. A psychological and analytical portrait of Cortés and Montezuma that places both leaders in their religious and cultural milieus.

1502-1520: Reign of Montezuma II

Beginning 1519: Smallpox Kills Thousands of Indigenous Americans

Aug., 1523: Franciscan Missionaries Arrive in Mexico

1527-1547: Maya Resist Spanish Incursions in Yucatán

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

1545-1548: Silver Is Discovered in Spanish America

1552: Las Casas Publishes The Tears of the Indians

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