Why Did Cortes Win?

By conquering Mexico, HemanCortes demonstrated that Co-lumbus had in fact discovered a New World of enormous value to the Old. But how did a few hundred Spaniards so far away from home defeat millions of Indians fighting on their home turf?

First, several military factors fa- vored the Spaniards. They possessed superior military technology, which partially offset the Mexica’s numeri- cal superiority. They fought with weapons of iron and steel against the Mexica’s stone, wood, and copper. They charged on horseback against Mexican warriors on foot. They ig- nited gunpowder to fire cannons and muskets toward attacking Mexica, whose only source of power was human muscle. But the Mexica’ 5 im- mense numerical superiority could overpower the Spaniards’ weaponry.

The Spaniards also possessed superior military organization, al~ though they were far from a highly disciplined, professional fighting force. Cortes’s army was composed of soldiers of fortune, young men who hoped to fight for God and king and get rich. The unsteady discipline among the Spaniards is suggested by Cortes’s decision to beach and dis- mantle the ships that had brought his small army to the Mexican main- land. After that, his men had no choice but to go forward.

The Spaniards were a well-oiled military machine compared with the Mexica, who tended to attack from ambush or in waves of frontal as- saults, showing great courage but little organization or discipline. The Mexica seldom sustained attacks, even when they had the Spaniards on the run. In the siege of Tenoch-

titlan, for example, the Mexica often paused to sacrifice Spanish soldiers they had captured, taking time to skin “their faces,” one Spaniard re- called, “which they afterward pre- pared like leather gloves, with their beards on./I Spanish leaders, in con- trast, concentrated their soldiers to magnify the effect of their firepower and to maintain communication during the thick of battle.

But perhaps the Spaniards’ most fundamental military advantage was their concept of war. The Mexican concept was shaped by the nature of the empire. The Mexica fought to impose their tribute system on others and to take captives for sacrifice. They believed that war would make their adversaries realize the high cost of continuing to fight and would give them a big incentive to surrender and pay tribute. To the Spaniards, war meant destroying the enemy’s ability to fight. In short, the Spaniards sought total victory; the Mexica sought surrender. All these military factors weakened the Mexica’ 5 resis- tance but were insufficient to explain Cortes’s victory.

Disease played a major part in the Mexica’s defeat. When the Mexica confronted Cortes, they were not at full strength. An epidemic of small- pox and measles had struck the Carib- bean in 1519, arrived in Mexico with Cortes and his men, and lasted through 1522. Thousands of Indians died, and many others became too sick to fight. When the Spaniards were regrouping in Tlaxcala after their disastrous evacuation of Tenoch- titlan, a great plague broke out in the Mexican capital. As one Mexica explained to a Spaniard shortly after the conquest, the plague lasted for

seventy days, “striking everywhere in the city and killing a vast number of our people. Sores erupted on our faces, our breasts, our bellies …. The illness was so dreadful that no one could walk or move …. They could not get up to search for food, and everybody else was too sick to care for them, so they starved to death in their beds.”

The sickness was not confined to Tenochtitlan. It also killed and weak- ened people in the areas surrounding the city, spreading back along the net- work of trade and tribute that fed the city, reducing its food supply and fur- ther weakening the survivors. While the Mexica were decimated by their first exposure to smallpox and measles, the Spaniards were for all practical purposes immune, having previously been exposed to the diseases. Euro- pean viruses probably played at least as large a role in the conquest as weapons and military tactics.

Religion also contributed to the Mexica’s defeat. Mexican religious doctrine led Montezuma to be hesi- tant and uncertain in confronting the Spaniards during the months when they were most vulnerable. While Cortes marched toward Tenochtitlan, the Indians thought that the Spaniards and their horses were immortal deities. Cortes worked hard to maintain the illusion, hiding Spaniards who died. But by the time Cortes retreated from Tenochtitlan, the Mexica knew that the Spaniards could be killed, and their resistance stiffened accordingly.

While the Mexica’s religion re- duced their initial resistance to the conquistadors, Christianity strength- ened the Spaniards. The Spaniards’ Christianity was a confident and mili- tant faith that commanded its fol- lowers to destroy idolatry, root out heresy, slay infidels, and subjugate nonbelievers. Their religious zeal had been honed for centuries in the battles

of the Reconquest. Christianity was as much a part of the conquistadors’ armory as swords and gunpowder.

Mexican military commanders often turned to their priests for mili- tary guidance. The Spaniards routinely celebrated mass and prayed before battles, but Cortes and his subordi- nates-tough, wily, practical men- made the military and diplomatic decisions. When the Spaniards suf- fered defeats, they did not worry that God had abandoned them. However, when the Mexica lost battles advised by their priests, they confronted the distressing fear that their gods no longer seemed to listen to them. The deadly sickness sweeping through the countryside also seemed to show that their gods had abandoned them. “Cut us loose,” one Mexica pleaded, “because the gods have died.”

Finally, political factors proved decisive in the Mexica’s defeat. Cortes shrewdly exploited the tensions be- tween the Mexica and the people they ruled in their empire. Cortes’s small army was reinforced by thousands of Indians who were eager to seek revenge against the Mexica. With skillful diplomacy, Cortes obtained cooperation from thousands of In- dian porters and food suppliers. Be- sides fighting alongside Cortes, the Spaniards’ Indian allies provided the invaders with a fairly secure base from which to maneuver against the Mexi- can stronghold. Hundreds of thousands of Indians helped the Spaniards by not contributing to the Mexica’s de- fense. These passive allies of the Spaniards prevented the Mexica from fully capitalizing on their over- whelming numerical superiority. In the end, although many factors con- tributed to the conquest, Cortes won because the Mexican empire was the source not only of the Mexica’s im- pressive wealth and power but also of their crippling weakness.

Mexican Warrior Warriors held the most exalted status in Mexican society. This sixteenth.century Mexicanpaintingof a warriorin fullbattle regalia illustratesthe Mexica’scareful attention to their magnificent, awe.inspiring costumes. The elaborate clothing and decorative adornments (notice the ornamental stone plug in the warrior’s lower lip) expressed the warriors’ high status; they also were intended to intimidate enemies whodared oppose the fearsomeMexiea.Spanishsoldiersdevelopeda healthyre- spect for the military skills of the Mexica but were not intimidated by the warriors’ costumes.Theydid not understandthe meaningthe costumeshad for the Mexiea- for example, the costumes’ evocation of supernatural support. In addition, although Mexicanwooden swordslinedwith sharp stones could inflictdeadlywounds,they provedno match for Spanishbodyarmor,steel swords,horses,and guns. Bibfiotheque Nationale de Fran<:e.