Danny Yee >> People >> Mike Salovesh
Date:         Tue, 25 Jan 2000 02:36:25 -0600
From:         Mike Salovesh <t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU>
Subject:      The Conquest of Mexico

Cortez did not conquer the Aztecs of the Triple Alliance from the Valley of Mexico because of firepower. Cortex fought his initial battles (or forays, or raids) as he worked his way up from Yucatan to the place where he established the port of Veracruz. His early opponents on the mainland might have reacted in fear and shock to the sound of gunfire or the sight of those strange creatures that looked like combinations of large deer and human-like beings, and such fear and shock might even have led to an occasional early victory. The cost, however, was that Cortez entirely lost the advantage of surprising his enemy with unknown and fearsome weapons. By the time Cortez landed at Veracruz, detailed and accurate reports of his ships, his weapons, the number of fighters in his party, and their tactics had already reached Tenochtitlan and the Tlatoani (First Speaker) Motekwtzumatzin we call "The Emperor Montezuma".

Cortez's weapons, though surprising (even shocking), simply were insufficient to the task of beating the Triple Alliance. Aztec body armor was more effective than the armor worn by the Spanish -- which is why Cortez's soldiers started wearing Aztec cotton armor in place of their own. The weapons Cortez used in the field -- arquebusses, cannon, crossbows, and horses -- were not nearly enough to even the odds between Cortez's five hundred men or so and the tens of thousands of warriors the Aztecs could put in the field. Let's take a closer look.

The arquebus was a noisy, but inaccurate, weapon with an extremely slow rate of fire. Even the most skilled arquebussier would take three to four minutes to reload and fire again. In action, those old Spanish blunderbusses were less accurate than a thrown rock, and almost as likely to hit friends as foes. Their effect on a battle was lessened further because the arquebussiers did not use the tactic of firing by rows. (That drill was invented for the set-piece, open field battles of later European wars. In execution, the front rank of riflemen fires at the enemy. Next, the rank immediately behind them walks through their line, aims, and fires. Ranks that have already fired reload in place so that they can then advance past their leading comrades and fire a combined volley as they become the front rank. Cortez's arquebussiers fired an opening volley, but after that their fire was scattered and scarcely effective.)

Spanish cannon reached farther, and were used with considerably more accuracy than the arquebus. Cortez didn't have a whole lot of cannon, however. Even if his entire army had consisted of cannoneer teams with plenty of cannon to go around, they could hardly have stood up against tens of thousands of of dedicated enemy warriors.

Cortez's crossbowmen certainly killed more Aztecs than the arquebussiers, and might even have done away with more of the enemy than Cortez's cannons. Cortez was accompanied by no more than a few skilled crossbowmen, and there just weren't enough of them. The crossbow (even in the relatively inefficient form carried on Cortez's expedition) was an extremely powerful weapon. A single bolt could kill several opponents if an enemy attacked en masse. The trouble was that the crossbow's mighty mechanical power came from an arduous cranking operation that was best done by a two-man team. The most skilled reloaders took more than a minute to get ready to fire a second time. That's enough time for a wave of enemies to overrun the crossbowman's position from a quarter of a mile away. So the tide of battle was not going to be decided by crossbowmen, any more than by arquebussiers: they'd both be done in by their slow rate of fire.

Cortez's other weapon, the horse, was effective against the Aztecs, who hadn't developed the defensive tactic of massing long spears facing points of possible horse attack. A sword-wielding horseman could cut a wide swath through the enemy. The problem was that Cortez just didn't have that many horses -- the initial party had, I believe, something on the order of thirty of them. Besides, the Aztecs were fast learners, and they quickly developed their own tactics to nullify some of the advantage the Spanish might have gotten from deploying a mobile cavalry.

How, then, did Cortez eventually defeat the Aztec Triple Alliance?

He didn't.

What happened was that Cortez sought out groups of local residents who were longtime enemies of the Triple Alliance. The city of Cempoala alone is said to have contributed some one hundred thousand warriors to the forces Cortez led against Tenochtitlan. Cortez used all his considerable skill as a diplomat to woo the Tlaxcalans, traditional enemies of the Triple Alliance. (The Aztecs fought many battles with the Tlaxcalans. Reports from around the time of the Conquest say that Tenochtitlan deliberately did not subjugate the rulers of Tlaxcala or occupy their city-center. To Aztec eyes, an independent Tlaxcala could serve as a permanent source of war captives, while an occupation of Tlaxcala would transfer responsibility to support and maintain that city to the Aztecs themselves.)

Once Cortez had lined up a formidable army of Mexican Indians, he still didn't beat the Aztecs in direct, face-to-face battle. Instead, he and his numerous allies subjected Tenochtitlan to an extended siege that lasted several months. Cortez and his allies cut the island nation off from its supply base. During the siege, the city's inhabitants were struck by an epidemic (probably of smallpox) that decimated them again and again. With no easy way to obtain food supplies, the people of the city found themselves in a war with starvation as well as a war with Cortez and his allies.

Eventually, the dual threat of disease and siege, combined with a fantasticly high death rate inside Tenochtitlan, so weakened the Aztecs opposing Cortez that they realized that they could not survive any longer in the city. In their reduced numbers, many of the defenders of Tenochtitlan tried a mass breakout by canoe. Most of the would-be escapees were picked up by Cortez's forces, who manned a small fleet of vessels Cortez had commissioned on Lake Texcoco.

One captured canoe was manned by two famed warriors accompanying the last Aztec "Emperor" in his escape attempt. The third man in the canoe was Cuahtemoksin, the last independent Tlatoani, himself. His capture marked the end of Cortez's war on Tenochtitlan.

So the speculation about Cortez that began here on Anthro-L was a pretty good guess about how Cortez succeeded. He didn't do it with a huge Spanish army, or by superior arms, or by access to any huge apparatus of supply lines. He did it, first of all, by establishing alliances with a whole slew of people who had their own reasons to fight against the Triple Alliance. He did it by choosing siege rather than open battle. He was greatly helped by the ravages of disease within the beleagured city. In the end, Cortez won his war by choosing not to engage in a direct battle.

I hope you'll forgive my curmudgeonly conviction that everybody should know all that I said here without needing me to repeat it.

-- mike salovesh <salovesh@niu.edu> PEACE !!!