As we look back into time we can see many different historic events that have made a great impact on societies and cultures around the world. It seems that during the late years of the 1400’s and the early years of the 1500’s, during the time of Europe’s domination over the whole world, that many cultures were influenced by their hunger to discover as much land as they could. During this time many new lands in the west such as the Americas were discovered and many new lands began to become the property of Kings and Queens that lived thousands and thousands of miles away in Europe.
What is pretty remarkable is that the lands were not discovered be the Europeans. The lands were already there. Huge masses of people were already living in these lands for thousands of years. Even though this is so the Europeans took credit for their discovery and therefore they felt that these lands that they landed on were to be taken over and governed by them. There were two main countries in Europe that were trying to discover as much land as possible in the area that we call South America. They were the Spanish and the Portuguese. The Spanish however were the more successful of the two. The Spanish, along with the help of a great explorer and conqueror Cortez, were highly successful in the take over of Mexico and the defeat of the great Aztec warriors. Two books that give a good account of this story are William H. Prescott’s The Conquest of Mexico and The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Diaz del Castillo.
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During the time of the explorations of Mexico, the Aztecs were the main tribe that lived in the area. The Aztecs originally lived north of the Valley of Mexico. There they lived under the control of the Toltec empire. During the time, the Aztecs were a farming group and the Toltecs were demanding huge tributes from the Aztecs so they were forced to move. They then moved themselves to a city called Tizapan, which is located in the center of Mexico where they came under the control of the Culhuacans. However, this arrangement didn’t last very long because like the Toltecs, the Culhuacans too wanted the Aztecs to pay tributes to their empire. Eventually the Aztecs formed a military alliance with the Texcoco and for the next years they spent their time under the rule of the Itzcoatl.
During the years of the great Aztec empire in the early 1500’s, the ruler was Montezuma II. He was also the last Aztec Emperor. During his time as Emperor the Spanish came to Mexico and defeated them all in a horrific battle. This was the end of the Aztecs.
Across the Atlantic Ocean there was another great empire that was looking to find some new land to conquer. This was the Spanish empire. The Spanish were very jealous of the credit that the Vatican was giving the Portuguese on their discovery of the Americas. In 1493, after Columbus’ first voyage, Spain sent letters to the pope that demanded that he gave them the rights to everything that Columbus had discovered. They had hopes that the pope would follow the trend of the past popes that gave the Portuguese the rights of Africa. The new pope, Alexander VI was sympathetic to the cries of the Spanish because he too was of Spanish descent.
This new ruling gave the Spanish the rights too much of the land discovered in the new lands in the west. This allowed the Spanish to sail out and begin to colonize the new lands in the Caribbean and the Gulf. During many of they colonial trips they often killed off many of the locals because of diseases or because they were not being cooperative. The Spanish problem was that even though they were planning to colonize the new lands, the only real reason that they were over in the new lands was because they had heard that they were full of gold, silver, and other valuable mineral deposits. During the past explorations of Cordoba and Grijalba there has been much talk of wealthy Mexican empires. This prompted the Spanish to send again another explorer by the name of Hernan Cortez to explore the continents inlands. This is written in both the Prescott and the Diaz books. Each of the two have an accurate depiction of the exploration of the previous two explorers and then of the exploration of Cortez.
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Cortez was born in Medellin, in Spain in 1485 to a family of nobility, but of not high ranking. Cortez was sent to study law at the University for two years, but soon left that to fight in a military expedition in Italy. In 1504 Cortez left the mainland of Europe to find his fortune in the West Indies. There he also fought in many battles with the Arawak. While in the Indies he became familiar with Diego Velazquez and joined him in his explorations and later his conquest of Cuba where Velazquez made himself governor. After Valazquez had heard of the explorations of Cordoba and Grijalba he decided that he wanted to gain fame and fortune for himself and his homeland country Spain. To do this he was going to explore the innards of Mexico and bring back the gold and silver that he had heard about. In order to do this, he decided that he was going to appoint Cortez the General of the fleet that was to take over Mexico and in return this would help them both gain fame and fortune back in their homeland countries.
According to Prescott’s History of the Conquest, Valazquez chose Cortez because “he came of an ancient, respectable family and his courage and prowess won him favor and respect with Valazquez as much as his good humor, cordial manners, and wit made him a favorite with a soldier” P.13. This also pleased Cortez because he had been waiting his whole life to do something like this. He had wanted nothing more then to gain fame and fortune for his homeland of Spain. He had been waiting a long time to prove himself as an independent explorer.
Cortez began to contribute all his cash resources to the project and mortgaged all of his estates in Cuba. Valazquez also agreed to help Cortez and contributed one-third of the funds needed for Cortez to make his journey. Cortez bought six vessels and commissioned 110 mariners and 553 soldiers to go along with him on the journey. He also brought along 200 Cuban soldiers and a few Cuban women to do the cooking and other menial jobs for the army. Because he knew that they would be able to scare the native that they encountered he also brought with him fourteen cannons and sixteen horses.
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Shortly before the mission was to be sent out, Valazquez had heard a rumor that if Cortez were to go on the mission that he would then become too powerful if he were successful and he would then betray Valazquez. This worried him so he tried to stop Cortez from going out. Cortez heard this and set out for his voyage anyways.
Shortly after the fleet set out they encountered a hurricane, which sent them far south of their destination to the island of Cozumel. Cortez’s ship was the last to land on the island and when he arrived he learned that one of his ships captains had raided a Cozumel temple and stolen gold articles from it. Cortez did not want to start any trouble so he publicly reprimanded the captain and explained the people of Cozumel that he was there only in peace. This allowed him to set up a trading relation with the people and this allowed him to trade a few trinkets for some of their gold ornaments.
While on Cozumel Cortez tried to convert the natives to Christianity. This plan however did not work out. He constructed a new alter in their temples with a statue of the Virgin and the Child on it, but they were too stubborn and still refused to convert.
The army then decided to move to the mainland where they were hoping to find the real riches of the continent. While there they encountered the Tabascans. This tribe was reluctant to welcome Cortez and his men openly. They began to have a battle. The only problem was that the Indians outnumbered the Spanish with 40,000 men. They also seemed not to fear the cannons at all and continued to charge the new visitors. It wasn’t until the soldiers on the horses began to ride over the Indians and kill them al will that the Spanish army gained an opening to charge the Indians all at once. As this began the Indians began to realize that they were no match for the artillery and the weaponry of the Spanish that they began to retreat.
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It was now that Cortez released two captured Chiefs and told the Cozumels that he was willing to forget the past if they were willing to enter into trade with him and his men. It was here that Cortez came across his Mistress Marina. She was a Mayan who also spoke Aztec. She also quickly picked up Castillian so she became a valuable asset to Cortez and his army because they now had an interpreter. It was from his new mistress Marina that Cortez first learned of the Aztec King Montezuma and all of his wealth.
When the ships fleet landed near the Aztecs they were met by a liaison who traded lavish gifts of gold and silver with the new arrivers. At the same time as the trade agreements Montezuma forbade the Spanish from coming any further towards their city. The Aztecs were scared of many omen that they had heard and were afraid that the Spanish were there only to do them harm and take their riches.
The two sides began to talk a little, but no advances had been made between the King and Cortez. Because of this Cortez moved north were he encountered some of the other tribes and exchanged battles with them. Still Cortez had not been as successful with his journey as he had wanted to. After hearing that some of his men had planned to desert and go back to Cuba, Cortez had all but one of the ships sunk.
Still discouraged Cortez again decided to try the meetings with Montezuma. On his arrival Montezuma met him at the gates and welcomed the Spanish in and allowed them to stay in the old army barracks. Because the tension between the two sides were so great Cortez took Montezuma hostage and kept him in the barracks with him and his men in order to keep the 30,000 Aztec troops from attacking them. Cortez then decided that it was time for him to go back to Cuba to regroup and figure out what to do with Montezuma.
Upon his return he realized that one of his Captains had gone on a rampage and cleaned out one of the Aztec temples and killed many of their men. This upset Cortez and he tried to urge Montezuma to stop the fighting. This did not work however and Cortez was then forced to retreat at night and t reassess the citation.
“When Cortez saw that he possessed such a goodly store of muskets and powder and crossbows and realized the strong desire of all of us, both Captains and Soldiers, again to attach the Great City of Mexico” (Diaz P338).
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Cortez, realizing that the Aztecs were not going to compromise with the peace, decided that he was going back to attack the city and take it over along with all of the gold and silver that he knew Montezuma had in his possession. It was still going to be a win for the Spanish because even if they were not able to convert the Aztecs, they were still going to take their riches back to Spain with them.
The Spanish moved in with thunder and unbelievably defeated the Aztecs with little to no problem. It was actually the diseases that the Spanish had brought with them that killed most of the Aztec soldiers. The Aztecs also seemed to be no match for the horses that were brought and the Spanish took an easy victory. Along with the victory came all the gold and the silver that Cortez was able to claim as his to bring back with him to his homeland of Spain.
The story of the Conquest that has just been told is readily available for you in both the Prescott and the Diaz books. Both tales of the conquest seemed to be remarkably accurate. I suppose that would be the case considering it happened hundreds of years ago and many people know the tale.
There was however some differences in the two books. The Diaz book was a great book because it gave a full description of the conquest while still staying interesting to the reader. As many history books are this one was not as dull. The books seemed to cover all the aspects of the Cortez conquest as well as the explorations of both Cordova and Grijalva. This was very interesting because it gave the book a little preamble to the main conquest.
On the other hand, the Prescott book had separate chapters set up that dealt specifically with the lives of the Aztecs. Prescott did a wonderful job on his book because instead of just telling of the Conquest of Mexico by Cortez, he took time aside to tell about the Aztecs. There was separate chapters set aside that I did not include because they did not pertain to the conquest. These chapters were used to give the reader some added information on the lives of those that were being taken over. I though this was great because it gave some background information on the religion on the Aztecs and many of their other customs.
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As a whole I thoroughly loved reviewing these two books because I feel that they are both excellent sources for the Conquest of Mexico. Both of these books were well written and fairly easy to read and follow along with as they told the story. I would highly recommend them both to anyone who wishes to study the Mexican Conquest.
Diaz del Castillo, Bernal. The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico. Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy. New York. 1956.
Prescott, William H. The Conquest of Mexico. The Modern Library. New York. 1843.