The Defeat of the Aztecs

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  • 0:08 The Clash of Empires
  • 0:25 The Meeting of Worlds
  • 3:00 Fall of the Aztec Empire
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the defeat of the powerful Aztec Empire, and then test your understanding about the Aztecs, the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and empires in Central America.

The Clash of Empires

In 1519, two of the greatest military empires in history collided in the Valley of Mexico. The defenders were the mighty Aztecs, the powerful empire in Central America, led by the Mexica people in their capital city Tenochtitlán. The invaders were the Spanish, fresh out of an 8-century long war with the Islamic Moors for the control of Spain.

The Meeting of Worlds

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And then he bumped into the Caribbean. Columbus' discovery set off a Spanish age of exploration, and soon the Gulf of Mexico was full of Spanish settlements. On the island of Cuba, there was a young man named Hernán Cortés, who wanted to improve his position in life. The quickest way to do that as a Spaniard in the 16th century was military conquest. Cortés asked the governor of Cuba for permission to explore the mainland of Mexico, which had not yet been done. The governor said no, and Cortés went anyway.

Cortés and his ships landed on the shore of Mexico in 1519. Cortés then proceeded to burn his ships, so that his soldiers could not back out and run back to Cuba, partly because Cortés had broken the law by disobeying the governor. The Spanish conquistadores, conquerors, soon heard about a rich empire in the heart of Mexico and started marching inland. By the end of the year, they reached the Valley of Mexico and the city of Tenochtitlán.

There is a famous myth that Cortés and a dozen Spaniards single-handedly took down the greatest empire in Central America. This is not true. The defeat of the Aztecs was due to several other factors. First was a woman named Malintzin, or Doña Marina in Spanish. Marina was a Nahua woman from the Yucatán Peninsula who was given to the Spanish as a sign of peace from one of the towns the Spanish entered. Marina spoke several languages and was the interpreter for the Spanish as they marched across the Aztec Empire. Without her negotiating treaties and alliances, the Spanish would not have gotten far.

A second factor were the new allies of the Spanish. As the Spanish crossed the Aztec Empire, they were not meeting with the Mexica. They were dealing with people who had been conquered by the Mexica. Most of these cities were not overly fond of being subjugated by the Aztec Empire, and Cortés developed a huge army of local warriors. To the literally thousands of native soldiers, the Spanish were just another mediocre power, but together they could defeat the Mexica and destroy the empire. The most important alliance was with the city of Tlaxcala. The Tlaxcalans were the ancient enemies of the Mexica and ruled a powerful kingdom. Without these soldiers, the Spanish would have faced an impossible task of fighting the Mexica.

The third important factor was disease. The Spanish unknowingly introduced smallpox into Mexico. The Spanish were resistant to it, but the people of Mexico, who had never been exposed to smallpox, were very susceptible. By some accounts, up to half the population of Tenochtitlán died of smallpox.

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