Cortes and the Aztec Conquest

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by Irwin R. Blacker, 1965. A book review.

I picked this book up from our local library. “Oh, I only know the outlines of this period of history. I need to know more.” Then I let it sit around for several weeks. As a history book, it is probably boring, right?


Honestly, I would not put any of this stuff in a novel, because no one would believe it. In the first few chapters, at least once per chapter there was an “I can’t believe that just happened” moment. In the second half of the book, there is such a moment every one or two pages.

This book doesn’t pick heroes or villains. It’s a fairly simple, straightforward account of what happened, from Cortez sailing from Cuba, until the fall of Tenochtitlan. Also, perhaps because this book was published in 1965, it does not go in for the excessively dry, boring writing that academic history sometimes strives for. The writing is matter-of-fact, not sensationalist, and moves along quickly.

History is Full of Surprises

I went in to this with certain pre-conceptions. The general impression I had received from my previous exposure to this topic was that Cortez was awful, and the Aztecs were awful, and they deserved each other. I expected to read a story populated by a bunch of scoundrels, and that was what I got. However, as the book progressed I found myself more and more sympathizing with Cortez, because he is the underdog for literally the entire book. (The harsh ruling and enslaving the Indians stuff came later.) In every battle (not just with the Aztecs, but with the Tabascans, and then the Tlaxcalans), he is outnumbered tens of thousands to hundreds. Many of the I can’t believe this moments were caused by How did the Spaniards not die? and by watching Indian lords and generals snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Here are a few of the things that surprised me, and might surprise you too:

  • Though the Spaniards had a very early version of a gun (the harquebus), a few light cannon designed for ships, and a handful of horses, these things did not allow them to just roll in and conquer Mexico through overwhelming force of technology. They had only about 16 guns and horses, and about the same number of cannons. The horses were surprising at first to the Indians, but they did lose their shock value. The horses and cannons were difficult to transport through the swamps and mountains, and in every battle, as I said, the Spaniards were outnumbered about 100 to 1. The Mexican armor, which was made of padded and starched cotton, was almost as effective as the Spanish armor, and much lighter and cooler. The Aztecs and the other groups were experienced, hardened warriors.
  • With literally every people group Cortez encountered (whether they were allied with Montezuma or not), Cortez initially tried to parley and trade, and they insisted on going to battle. This is not to say that Cortez was there only to trade, merely that this, his opening move, never got past the first step. As he progresses through Mexico toward Tenochtitlan, we see him again and again forced into battles. Finally, after he defeats the very persistent Tlaxcalan Indians, they ask him to ally with them against Montezuma.
  • As per human nature, both sides were internally divided. The Tlaxcalan army, which had been holding out for years against Montezuma, lost to Cortez because their military captains would not co-operate with each other. Cortez, meanwhile, had left on his expedition without the approval of Velasquez, the governor of Cuba. He had some of Velasquez’s relatives in his fighting force, and had to worry about them fomenting mutiny. At one point, he had to leave Tenochtitlan and go fight a battle against an army representing Velasquez that had landed on the coast. With constantly shifting alliances among both the Spaniards and the Indians, this book read like a spy novel.
  • Cortez did not immediately attack Tenochtitlan, Montezuma’s capital city. He first approached as a visitor, and there was a weird period of several weeks when the Spaniards stayed there as guests? Or prisoners? Montezuma, for his part, was divided in his mind. He was not as confident in his role as priest as he had been in his youth, as a warrior. He wasn’t sure what his gods wanted him to do. Thus, he kept giving Cortez evasive answers, but also ended up giving Cortez much more leeway than he should have. He missed many good opportunities to have the Spaniard killed.
  • The great city of Tenochtitlan makes an amazingly interesting setting for a battle. It was built out over the middle of a shallow, salt lake (deep enough to drown in, however), and was approached from other lakeside cities by four long causeways, each of which had bridges that could be taken up, leaving wide gaps that were impassable for an attacking or fleeing force. These tiled causeways were also slippery and disorienting for horses, and anyone caught on them could be attacked by war canoes. Inside the city, the sections were divided by canals which could also be used to seal off the different sections of the city. There were high rooftops, leading up to the temple at the top, from which defenders could spot approaching or fleeing attackers, rain down missiles, and sound the alarm with conch shells and drums.
  • When the Spaniards finally did destroy Tenochtitlan, it was their Tlaxcalan allies who wanted to commit atrocities on the civilians there. “The Spaniards were too few to control their allies” (page 142).
  • Cortez was accompanied throughout by a young woman whom the Spaniards called Dona Marina. “She was a young, highly intelligent princess who had been sold into slavery by her parents” (page 34) and given to Cortez by the Tabascans after he defeated them. Dona Marina spoke both coastal Mayan and Nahuatl (the Aztec language), and she served as an interpreter. Amazingly, Dona Marina survived the entire conquest.

A True First-Contact Story

For me, the overall impression is that what we have here is the meeting of an Ancient Near Eastern style culture, with city-states, bureaucracies, temples, human sacrifice, and a tyrannical priest-king, with a late medieval/early exploration-age Western European culture. This could not be a purer first contact story if Cortez had gotten hold of a time machine and attempted to loot Babylon.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in military history.

“Our gods are good”

Taking almost all his men and horses, Cortes rode out to meet his host at the great temple. When the Spaniards arrived, Montezuma was at the top of the temple making human sacrifices. Several Aztecs came forward to help Cortes to the top, but the Spanish captain general brushed them aside and mounted the 114 steps unaided.

At the top of the temple, Cortes and his companions were horrified to find the Aztec idols spattered with flesh and blood. The whole place reeked, and on the floor there was more blood, encrusted and black. Shocked and repelled by what he saw, Cortes tried to explain to the emperor-priest that these idols were no more than devils and that the sacrifice of humans was blasphemous.

The mighty Aztec, injured by the Spaniard’s remarks, said that his gods were good and that he regretted having allowed the Spaniards to visit the temple at all. Seeing that his host was angry, Cortes quickly made overtures to pacify the emperor and then departed.

Cortes and the Aztec Conquest, by Irwin R. Blacker, p. 68