Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire

The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, also known as the Conquest of Mexico or the Spanish-Aztec War (1519–21),[7] was one of the primary events in the Spanish colonization of the Americas. There are multiple 16th-century narratives of the events by Spanish conquistadors, their indigenous allies, and the defeated Aztecs. It was not solely a contest between a small contingent of Spaniards defeating the Aztec Empire but rather the creation of a coalition of Spanish invaders with tributaries to the Aztecs, and most especially the Aztecs' indigenous enemies and rivals. They combined forces to defeat the Mexica of Tenochtitlan over a two-year period. For the Spanish, the expedition to Mexico was part of a project of Spanish colonization of the New World after twenty-five years of permanent Spanish settlement and further exploration in the Caribbean.

Spanish conquest of Mexico
Part of the Spanish colonization of the Americas and Mexican Indian Wars

Conquest of Mexico by Cortés, oil on canvas[1]
Spanish: Conquista de México por Cortés
DateFebruary 1519 – 13 August 1521 against the Aztec Empire,
after 1522 – 17 February 1530 against the Tarascan state
Aztec Empire and other indigenous states, (modern-day Mexico)
Result Spaniard and indigenous allied victory
Annexation of the Aztec Empire, Tarascans, and others by Spanish Empire

[2] Spanish Empire

Indigenous allies:

Support or occasional alliesb:

Aztec Triple Alliance (1519–21)

Allied city-states:

Independent kingdoms and city-states:

Governorate of Cuba (1520, see)
Commanders and leaders

Spanish commanders:

Indigenous allies:

Aztec commanders:

  • Various local rulers and chieftains


Spaniards (total):

~80,000–200,000 Tlaxcaltecs
~10,000 Totonacs (~8,400 followed Cortés from Cempoala)
and high number of other indigenous allies

  • Unknown number of other natives

Casualties and losses

1,800 Spaniards dead[3]

  • 1,000 killed in battle[4]
  • 15+ cannons lost[5][6]
Tens of thousands of Tlaxcaltecs and indigenous allies dead[citation needed]

200,000 Aztecs dead (including civilians)[4]

  • 300 war canoes sunk[4]

Unknown casualties of other natives
5 Spaniards dead, many wounded at the Battle of Cempoala (1520)
  • ^ a. Formed an alliance with Pedro de Alvarado against Mixtecos.
^ b. Primarily military support against Tenochtitlan and joined the siege (1521).

Following an earlier expedition to Yucatán led by Juan de Grijalva in 1518, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés led an expedition (entrada) to Mexico. Two years later, in 1519, Cortés and his retinue set sail for Mexico.[8] The Spanish campaign against the Aztec Empire had its final victory on 13 August 1521, when a coalition army of Spanish forces and native Tlaxcalan warriors led by Cortés and Xicotencatl the Younger captured the emperor Cuauhtémoc and Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. The fall of Tenochtitlan marks the beginning of Spanish rule in central Mexico, and they established their capital of Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan.

Cortés made alliances with tributary city-states (altepetl) of the Aztec Empire as well as their political rivals, particularly the Tlaxcaltecs and Tetzcocans, a former partner in the Aztec Triple Alliance. Other city-states also joined, including Cempoala and Huejotzingo and polities bordering Lake Texcoco, the inland lake system of the Valley of Mexico. Particularly important to the Spanish success was a multilingual (Nahuatl, a Maya dialect, and Spanish) indigenous slave woman, known to the Spanish conquistadors as Doña Marina, and generally as La Malinche. After eight months of battles and negotiations, which overcame the diplomatic resistance of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II to his visit, Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan on 8 November 1519, where he took up residence with fellow Spaniards and their indigenous allies. When news reached Cortés of the death of several of his men during the Aztec attack on the Totonacs in Veracruz, Cortés claims that he took Motecuhzoma captive. Capturing the cacique or indigenous ruler was a standard operating procedure for Spaniards in their expansion in the Caribbean, so capturing Motecuhzoma had considerable precedent but modern scholars are skeptical that Cortés and his countrymen took Motecuhzoma captive at this time. They had great incentive to claim they did, owing to the laws of Spain at this time, but critical analysis of their personal writings suggest Motecuhzoma was not taken captive until a much later date.[9]

When Cortés left Tenochtitlan to return to the coast and deal with the threat of the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez, Cortés left Pedro de Alvarado in charge of Tenochtitlan. Cortés left with a small army to the coast with the plan of attacking during the night. After defeating Narváez's fleet, Cortés convinced most of his enemy's crew to go with him by promising great riches. Upon reaching Tenochtitlan, Cortés and the new enlarged force received the message that "the Aztec had risen against the Spanish garrison" during a religious celebration.[10] Alvarado ordered his army to attack the unarmed crowd; he later claims that the Aztecs had used the celebration to cover up a counterattack. Cortés realized that the defeat was imminent and decided to escape yet, the Aztecs attacked. The Massacre is most known as the Noche Triste (the sorrowful night) about "400 Spaniards, 4000 native allies and many horses [were killed] before reaching the mainland".[10] Moctezuma was killed, although the sources do not agree on who killed him.[11] According to one account, when Moctezuma, now seen by the population as a mere puppet of the invading Spaniards, attempted to calm the outraged populace, he was killed by a projectile.[12] According to an indigenous account, the Spanish killed Moctezuma.[13] Cortés had returned to Tenochtitlan and his men fled the capital city during the Noche Triste in June 1520. The Spanish, Tlaxcalans and reinforcements returned a year later on 13 August 1521 to a civilization that had been weakened by famine and smallpox. This made it easier to conquer the remaining Aztecs.[14] The Spaniards' victory is attributed to their technological advances and the Aztec empire's vulnerability due to the smallpox spread. As a result, the Aztec's tactics countering the Spaniard's advanced technology is understated. According to Hassig, "It is true that cannons, guns, crossbows, steel blades, horses and war dogs were advanced on the Aztecs' weaponry. But the advantage these gave a few hundred Spanish soldiers was not overwhelming."[15] In the words of Restall, "Spanish weapons were useful for breaking the offensive lines of waves of indigenous warriors, but this was no formula for conquest... rather, it was a formula for survival, until Spanish and indigenous reinforcements arrived."[7]

The integration of the indigenous allies, essentially, those from Tlaxcala and Texcoco, into the Spanish army played a crucial role in the conquest, yet other factors paved the path for the Spaniards' success. For instance, the Spaniards' timing of entry, the compelling ideologies of both groups, and the Spanish unfamiliarity with the Aztec Empire. Therefore, the Spaniards lacked a sense of danger and power structure within the empire. "A direct attack on a city as mighty as Tenochtitlan was unlikely and unexpected" from the enemy empires. As well, it was very uncommon that an attacking army would come unannounced.[15] In addition, aside from the infantry and the allies' role in the Spanish conquest, cavalry was the "arm of decision in the conquest" and "the key ingredient in the Spanish forces".[16]

Many of those on the Cortés expedition of 1519 had never seen combat before, including Cortés. A whole generation of Spaniards later participated in expeditions in the Caribbean and Tierra Firme (Central America), learning strategy and tactics of successful enterprises. The Spanish conquest of Mexico had antecedents with established practices.[17]

The fall of the Aztec Empire was the key event in the formation of the Spanish Empire overseas, with New Spain, which later became Mexico.