An Analysis of Cortez's Conquest of the Aztecs

Aaron Fung

The internet is a wonderful thing, the epitome of modern technology. It connects old friends through social networking and makes so much information available at the touch of a button that the very library at Alexandria appears pitiful by comparison. Some say the internet was invented by Al Gore: Al Gore has never made such a claim, but makes a good story. Rather, the internet was born out of Cold War fears of atomic annihilation the loss of vital military data: the internet was born in a concrete bunker into a world of fears and suspicion. It is strange how often advancement in military technology leads to advancement in the civilian sector. Indeed, advanced military technology has allowed our own relatively numerically small American military to dominate the world, for good or for ill. But it is not only fancy gadgets that allow our own American military to exert such influence: American officers study the theory and tactics of modern warfare, from von Clausewitz to Sun Tzu, in order to leverage their gadgets for maximum effect. And all this would be for nought were it not for America's key alliances that allow America to set up bases in key locations arounnd the world. But these keys to American military ability is not limited to modern times. Nearly five-hundred years earlier, Cortez's conquest of the Aztecs; a numerically small Spanish force facing a numerically superior Aztec force; was the result of superior military technology, superior military tactics, and the formation of key alliances with native tributary states.
The Spaniards were a modern military force who were facing a less militarily advanced Aztec troupe. Put more simply, while the Spaniards fought as an army, the Aztecs fought as a band of individuals. Indeed, Aztec warriors were "highly individualistic" who were "in direct competition with his peers, as he searched through the dust-haze and the mind-stunning shrieking and whistling to identify and engage with an enemy warrior of equal, or preferably just higher, status." (Joseph, 65) By contrast, the Spaniards fought as a unit, employing modern military tactics and formations that require cooperation amongst soldiers and a submission of the soldier to his superior officers. "Aztecs were not soldiers, at least not in the modern European sense...They had no organized 'army,' nor officers either." (Joseph, 64) The Aztecs fought like the Medieval European fighters, with emphasis placed on individual acts of courage and fighting prowess. And individualism and martial prowess are both very noble virtues. However, the old cliche about two heads are better than one applies to this situation. European military tactics had just recently transformed from an emphasis on the individual warrior to the fighting of groups of men fighting as a unit. This was in part due to advances in firearm technology. The formerly unreliable "handgun," which was more dangerous to the soldier firing the gun than his target, was replaced by the more reliable matchlock rifle. This was a technological advantage as it allowed a relatively untrained soldier to cause damage to the enemy: a major advantage over the longbow, which required training since childhood. Spain had few such archers, as the best archers tended to be English. The only other weapon of note is the crossbow, of which it is certain the Spaniards had a few. It is even more certain that the Aztecs had none. What is perhaps more important to this transformation in European military theory is the slow dissolution of feudalism and the rise of more centralized monarchical states. No longer were the relatively primitive, individualistic military strategies of the Middle Ages adequate to face the new, organized armies of these large kingdoms. The Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, the Vandals, indeed even the Vikings were Christianized and had given up their pillaging ways, making the system of feudalism obsolete; no longer was there a need for the privileged, military class to exact feudal oaths from serfs and vassals. Indeed, the farmhands of England had not been tied to the land for a long time, and were paid a wage based on their productivity.  Also, the dissolution of feudalism made the knight a near impossibility; knights were very expensive to equip and support. Indeed, much of the feudal system was in place to equip and support the knight, the individualistic knight, an individualism that a modern European soldier could not afford on the modern battlefield. Here is a description of the Aztec individualism in battle: "Certainly sentiment toward one's companions on the field of battle was firmly and officially discrouaged. To go to the aid of a threatened comrade would probably provoke a charge of having tried to steal his captive, and not only the false claiming of a captive, but the giving of one's captive to another, was punishable by death..."(Joseph, 65) Imagine that! For behavior that would be rewarded in an American army with a medal the Aztecs punished with death. This worked fine in the ritualistic warfare of the Mexican Indians, but against a modern European army with superior technology and military theory this is grossly inefficient and ineffective. Against a modern army whose objective is the annihilation of enemy forces, such vain egoism and callousness is suicide.
In modern times, the romantic image of the knight is of a knight in shining armor. Pure sentimental tripe, the stuff of bad romance novels, and yet this image holds the key to yet another technological advantage the Spaniards had over the Aztecs:
armor. The armor shown in the film, 500 Nations, had a protective breastplate, back, helmet, vambraces, and fully articulated gauntlets. One can safely assume there was leg armor as well. This, especially the articulated gauntlets, is very expensive and hard to make, as any metalworker can verify. This armor was created for the battlefields of Europe, where a soldier could expect to face sword, lance, spear, arrows, and even some blunt trauma from quarterstaff. One of the helmet shown was of a popular kind that would be the inspiration for the German stahlhelm that would become iconic of the World War II German Landser; the Germans had followed this design as providing the greatest protection for the head and neck possible. The Spanish had other designs for their helmets as well, the more cliche conquistador helmet probably being less protective, but still adequate. European armor had evolved over time, from the plate armor of the Romans, to the scale armor found at the Battle of Wisby and used by the Byzantines, to the chainmail armor that provided very good protection from cutting edges. It found its most advanced incarnation in the plate armor of the High Middle Ages, with plates curved and angled to deflect the power of blunt trauma and protect from cutting edges of various weapons. Indeed, in order to hurt a fully armored knight, a soldier had to get in close and stab at the weak points in the armor, protected only by chain mail (although the Flemish did well against the Normans with their Godendags, a crude club with scary spikes sticking out of its head). When fighting with swords, the opponent of a knight often had to do something called half-sword, in which the blade is gripped both at the handle and halfway up the blade for greater leverage with the objective of insertion into the armor's weak points (see Fiore dei Liberi's Medieval fechtbuch Flos Duellatorum for examples) as the armor was good enough to deflect the blows of a sword held at the handle. This plate armor had been perfected over centuries, and was carried into Mexico with Cortez's men. The Aztecs had few weapons that the Spaniards had not yet faced in Europe, and none that could not be suitably deflected by the Spanish plate armor. Indeed, the Aztecs were a little shocked and dismayed when their arrows bounced harmlessly off the Spanish armor. (500 Nations) The one disadvnatage of this armor is it is hardly suited to the hot, Mexican climate that makes it the perfect winter getaway for moneyed gringos with arthritus. The metal armor is hot enough, but in order for the armor to provide any protection from blunt trauma, the soldier had to wear a quilted gambeson. None of this sounds very comfortable to wear even in the Bay Area's Mediterranean climate, much less the deserts of Mexico. To add to this, these poor soldiers wore those heavy helmets that had to have thick lining to provide any protection from blunt trauma. As one who has worn a Medieval helmet before, the author does not envy the prospect of carrying ten pounds of metal on the head. And as one who has worn light boxing headgear in the San Francisco heat while facing a formidable modern Mexican armed with fists and gloves intent on causing some good-natured blunt trauma, the author relishes even less wearing anything on the head in the Mexican desert while there is a fellow with a spear intent on causing harm.
In addition to the individual weapon advantages that the average soldado accompanying Cortez had over any individual Mexica warrior, the Spaniards had cannons. "The Spaniards set up two cannons in the middle of the road and aimed them at the city." (Joseph, 110) Canons were state of the art military technology in Europe at this time. What they must have appeared like to the Aztecs of the Americas on can only imagine. They must have been awed; they had never seen anything on this earthly plain nearly resembling the cannon's destructive power. Even as late as the nineteenth century, when explorers ventured down the Congo river, when they fired guns the natives thought these explorers were gods firing lightning and thunder from their eyes. Sure Herman Melville can claim that men will charge at artillery but will shrink from facing the Sperm Whale; Melville had never had to actually face a cannon while half naked, and armed with only a spear while thinking it a supernatural force. What is important about the presence of the cannons is that it is a siege weapon, very good at knocking down fortifications. The Aztecs knew this; when they sent emissaries to meet with Cortez, he tied the emissaries up and had them watch the Spanish cannons level a tree. The emissaries hurried back to Tenochtitlan to tell Montezuma. (500 Nations) These cannons would eventually be useful in the eventual siege of Tenochtitlan. "They [Spaniards] also mounted a catapult on the temple platform."(Joseph, 112) Cannons in were designed to do just this, to lay siege to an entrenched and fortified enemy. This very weapon was instrumental in ending feudalism. With the cannon, the fortifications that had been the backbone of feudal power and foreign occupation were vulnerable. This was not absolute, as fortification technology advanced with siege technology. For example, it was found that a wall of sod was able to absorb the impact of a cannonball better than a wall of stone, both of which were often combined to create a more siege-proof wall. The Aztecs had no such cannon-proof walls, and probably never dreamed they would be facing such a foe. 
The Aztecs had a beautiful city, with beautiful building projects and aviaries. However, in the words of Kevin Costner, the Aztec empire was "built on the backs of tributary states."(500 Nations) These tributaries had been previously conquered and were forced to pay tribute and provide slaves and sacrificial victims to the Aztecs. In short, the Aztecs exploited their tributaries. Under such rulers as the Aztecs, it is no wonder that they would join Cortez in fighting the Aztecs. "See, the kings of Tlaxcala, Huexotzinco, Cholula, Chalco, Acolhuacan, Cuauhnahuac, Xochimilco, Mizquic, Cuitlahuac and Culhuacan are all her with me."(Joseph, 111) These kings saw in Cortez a hope of a better future; they saw Cortez as a liberator. The myths that Quetzalcoatl had returned to defeat Montezuma and rule over the Aztecs served as a story of hope to the oppressed tributaries, much like the Robin Hood ballads in Medieval England provided hope to the poor, or rumors of the return of the Wae Bonnie Prince Cherlie gave hope to Catholic Jacobites, that the true king would be restored to the throne and replace the "Wae German Lairdie."  Such is the shortsightedness of exploitation as a method of government; without these alliances, the Spaniards would not have had a chance at defeating the Aztecs. The Spaniards needed their allies who were familiar with the region and its custom and they needed their allies for reinforcements when three-quarters of Cortez's men drowned while trying to cross the channel to escape from Tenochtitlan, and it certainly helped the Spaniards lay siege on Tenochtitlan for two and one half months with 75 thousand Tlaxcala and other allied tribes. (500 Nations) Without these alliances to provide much needed manpower, it is doubtful that the Spaniards would have succeeded in their conquest of the Aztecs.

Exploitation often leads to the creation of new enemies. As such it is rarely an effective, long-term strategy for governing. Friends are better than enemies, and in this modern age of atom bombs and assault rifles friends are very valuable. These are scary times: the stock market continues to fall like a falling knife, weapons once secure behind the Iron Curtain are now being sold off to the highest bidder to prop up the failed Russian experiment in capitalism, and there exists two vials with a strain of smallpox immune to our vaccines; one in Russia and the other in some laboratory in the United States. This is the very same (well stronger) smallpox that decimated the Indians of the Americas. And though the smallpox epidemic was instrumental in the defeat of the Aztecs, it was not the main cause of their defeat. Rather, the Aztecs were defeated by the Spaniards' superior military technology, superior military tactics, and the formation of key alliances.

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