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Tenochtitlan and the Conquest of the Americas


Tenochtitlan and the Conquest of the Americas 

The International History Project

Date:  2003 


 During the first half of the sixteenth century, while Portugal was acquiring a commercial empire in Africa and Asia , its powerful neighbor and rival Spain was acquiring a very different but equally lucrative empire in the Americas . Spain 's colonial empire was organized around two great cities. In Spain itself, Seville , the Atlantic port on the river Guadalquivir , was given a monopoly of the American trade and rose as a consequence to be the fifth largest city in Europe , with a population by 1588 of one hundred and fifty thousand. In New Spain , the area roughly equivalent to modern Mexico , Guatemala , and the southern United States , Tenochtitlan , the capital city of the Aztec emperor Montezuma, was renamed Mexico and made the administrative center of the Spanish possessions. During the sixteenth century it had the astonishing population of over a hundred thousand. In comparison with these vast, flourishing cities, Madrid was a provincial backwater, favored by the monarchy only for the excellent hunting nearby and the stimulating weather of its dry uplands. Madrid became the capital of Spain , and consequently a boom town, in 1561, when the absolute monarch Philip 11 decided to move court and bureaucracy there permanently; and owing to its function as ceremonial and administrative capital, it soon became the cultural and more slowly the financial capital of Spain

The Voyages of Christopher Columbus

This new phase in Spain ís history began dramatically in 1492. King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile , whose marriage had unified most of Spain , had completed the re-conquest of the peninsula from the Moslems by capturing Granada in January. Three months later, they agreed to send Christopher Columbus, a Genoese sea captain, to sail westward across the Atlantic to "discover and acquire islands and mainland in the Ocean Sea ," by which they meant Japan and China . Their motives were mixed. If Columbus reached the East, they hoped to begin missionary work and to win new military aid in their continuing crusade against the Moslems. They would win control of the Asian spice trade before the Portuguese, and might well restore the financial stability of the monarchy. A large crusading army, keyed up with the intense fervor of the Granada campaign, was ready for a new Crusade and new spoils. Finally, the Spaniards had already acquired colonial experience in settling the Canaries, and were profiting from the production of sugar and wine by a subjugated native population. They were prepared to do the same in any new islands Columbus might discover. It was Caribbean islands and not the Asian mainland that Columbus did find when he made his first landfall on October 12, after thirty-three days of uneventful sailing from the Canary Islands . That exciting day, when Europeans first set eyes on America , is described in Columbus 's Journal: 

Thursday, October 11th He navigated to the west-southwest; they had a rougher sea than they had experienced during the whole voyage. They saw petrels and a green reed near the ship. Those in the caravel Pinta saw a cane and a stick, and they secured another small stick, carved, as it appeared, with iron, and a piece of cane, and other vegetation which grows on land, and a small board. Those in the caravel Nina also saw other indications of land and a stick loaded with barnacles. At these signs, all breathed again and rejoiced.... Two hours after midnight , land appeared, at a distance of about two leagues from them. They took in all sail ... and kept jogging, waiting for day, a Fri- day, on which they reached a small island of the Lucayos, which is called in the language of the Indians "Guanahani." Immediately they saw naked people, and the admiral went ashore in the armed boat. . . . When they had landed they saw very green frees and much water and fruit of various kinds. The admiral called the two Captains and the others who had landed ... and said that they should bear witness and testimony how he, before them all, took possession of the island, as in fact he did, for the King and Queen his Sovereigns.', 

Columbus made the best of what he found-the medicinal plants, the gold plugs the natives wore in their noses, the many unknown fruits, the tractability of the islanders-but pressed on to his real object, Japan, which he thought must be a nearby island. From the Bahamas , he moved to Cuba and Hispaniola ; but with his flagship wrecked, he was forced to return to Spain . He found a favoring wind to the north of his outward route and fought stormy weather to reach the Azores and Lisbon , before he was finally able to dock in Seville in March. He was convinced that he had found the Indies , and remained so until his death. Ferdinand and Isabella wisely decided to settle the islands at once; and they sent Columbus back the same year with seventeen ships and twelve hundred colonists. On his second trip, he explored the south coast of Cuba and discovered Jamaica ; but the settlement in Hispaniola was rebellious and mishandled by Columbus . On his third voyage in 1498, he found Trinidad and the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela ; but the Spanish monarchs had replaced him as governor, and he was sent home in irons by his successor. He was given one more expedition in 1502, in which he explored Costa Rica and the coast of Honduras ; but, dismissed from all governmental power and disappointed in his hope of finding the Spice Islands , Columbus withdrew to embittered but wealthy retirement.

By then, the Spaniards had concluded that he had found a new and extremely large continent, and that they ought to profit from what he had found rather than lament what he had not. Settlers were sent in large numbers to the West Indian islands, where they caused death to the natives by the introduction of infection and by overworking them. The little gold was soon exhausted; and the islands became a source of tropical products like sugar cane for Europe and a launching point for expeditions to the main- land. The most important settlement made was on the Isthmus of Panama , the town of Darien planted by Balboa. He was the first of the great Spanish conquerors, or conquistadores, and in 1513 led the exploring party that first sighted the Pacific Ocean . It had become clear that fortunes could be made from pearl-fishing, slavery, and gold; and Magellan's great voyage in 1519-1522 under Spanish sponsorship, which took him around Cape Horn and across the Pacific to the Moluccas , only served to discourage the Spanish from challenging the Portuguese monopoly in Asia . The Straits of Magellan, it was clear, could not be turned into a reliable trade route, since it took Magellan himself thirty-eight days to get through the towering seas of Cape Horn. 

Conquest of Mexico

 From 1519 to 1550, the Spanish concentrated on acquiring a land empire in Central America and South America . In 1519, Cortes led an expedition of six hundred men, with sixteen horses, a few cannon, and thirteen muskets from Cuba to the coast of the mainland 'at Vera Cruz. "We came here to serve God and the king, and also to get rich," wrote one of his foot soldiers. Their minds filled with the glamorous stories of the last chivalric novels, their ambition stimulated with the prospect of social advancement within the nobility of Spain, their greed whetted with the rumors of the riches of the inland empire of the Aztecs, Cort6s's men were ready to attack an empire of perhaps a million people. Cort6s led them from the steamy jungles of the Caribbean coast up the steep escarpment that protected the valley of Mexico . The villages appeared increasingly prosperous as they advanced, and the signs of wealth and civilization grew. Finally, they saw to their amazement the vast lake city of Tenochtitlan , as large as most of the great cities of Europe and in many ways more attractive. Four days after he had beguiled the emperor Montezuma into permitting him and his men to enter the city peacefully, Montezuma led him and his captains to the top of the city's central pyramid and, according to Cortes: 

. . . told him to look at the great city and all the other towns nearby on the lake and the many villages built on the dry land. . . . This great accursed temple was so high that from the top of it everything could be seen perfectly. And from up there we saw the three causeways that led into Mexico-the causeway of Iztapalapan, by which we had come four days earlier, the causeway of Tiacopan, by which we were later to flee, on the night of our great defeat . . . and that of Tepeyacac. We saw the aqueduct that comes from Chapultepec to supply the town with sweet water, and at intervals along the three causeways the bridges which let the water flow from one part of the lake to another. We saw a multitude of boats upon the great lake, some coming with provisions, and some going off loaded with merchandise ... and in these towns we saw temples and oratories shaped like towers and bastions, all shining white, a wonderful thing to behold. And we saw the terraced houses, and along the causeways other towers and chapels that looked like fortresses. So, having gazed at all this and reflected upon it, we turned our eyes to the great market-place and the host of people down there who were buying and selling: the hum and the murmur of their voices could have been heard for more than a league. And among us were soldiers who had been in many parts of the world, at Constantinople, all over Italy and at Rome; and they all said they had never seen a market so well ordered, so large and so crowded with people.

Pre-Colombian Civilization in the Americas

Cortes had found one of the world's great cities. For the preceding fifteen hundred years the Indians of America had been creating a high quality of civilization, without benefit of contact with Asia , from which they originated, or with Europe or Africa . They had created a food surplus by cultivating Native American plants, especially maize or corn, beans, squash, and potato. Cities had been built as elaborate ceremonial centers regulated by a large priestly group, who organized the peasant majority to carry out enormous manual tasks building temples and roads and irrigating the land.

In these cities, stone sculpture, metalworking, astronomy, and engineering were developed; and often a certain amount of commercial exchange took place. By the fifteenth century, the Mayan peoples of Yucatan and Guatemala , perhaps the most creative of all the Indians in science and art, had broken up into quarreling states, and their temple complexes had been abandoned for centuries. In Peru , the Incas had consolidated a large number of city-states into an integrated empire, linked by miraculous roads and governed despotically and bureaucratically by the Great Inca from his capital of Cuzco . Unlike the Incas, who used their troops to maintain the cohesion of their empire, the Aztecs in Mexico went to war primarily to seize human victims for sacrifice to their insatiable gods, especially the infamous Quetzalcoatl. They overran the highly advanced tribes of the valley of Mexico in the thirteenth century, finding there vast pyramids like those of the vanished Toltecs; and borrowing ideas like all successful conquerors, on the islands created by a series of swampy lakes, they raised great pyramids of a similar kind. 

The creation of the city was a task similar to that of building Venice in its lagoon. Land had to be created by dredging mud from the lake between lines of pilings; extra fields for food-growing were formed by piling sludge on floating platforms of reeds, as can be seen today in the floating gardens of Xochimilco; stone had to be brought in from a hostile countryside. But by 1519 they had created a beautiful, flourishing city. Its center was the great temple, where Mexico City 's main square is today, a terraced building up, which the captives were marched to the sacrificial stone to have their hearts cut out. Across from the temple was the vast imperial palace. Like the temple it was a complex of buildings, grouped around interior courts and broken by canals. "I went several times to the emperor's residence merely to look at it," one Spanish soldier remarked. "Each time I walked about until I was quite tired, but even so I never saw the whole of it." All these white-painted buildings, which housed hundreds of priests and visiting nobility, the law courts and public treasury, prisons, music school, and even a house of rare birds, were entwined with blossoming trees. For this conjunction of a priestly and warrior aristocracy, Tenochtitlan existed. Its third function, as marketplace, was satisfied by the canals and vast open squares, where merchandise from all over the valley was sold in carefully arranged aisles-gold and silver, feathers, slaves, shoes, foodstuffs, colors for dyeing, building materials, and medicines. And to facilitate communication, the whole city was laid out in regular rectangles, divided by broad, straight streets, one side of which was beaten earth, the other a canal. The countryside that supported this metropolis with food and sacrificial victims was exploited, receiving no benefits for the supplies exacted from it; and the Aztecs' neighbors were easily persuaded by Cort6s to aid him against their overlords 

The Construction of Mexico City

The beauty of Tenochtitlan survived the arrival of Cort6s for only two years. In an uprising provoked by the Spanish destruction of their temples, Montezuma was stoned to death by his own people; and Cort6s lost one- third of his men while fleeing by night across the causeways. He returned in 1521, besieged the city for three months, and finally destroyed it block by block. The debris of houses and temples was pushed into the lake and street-canals, and a larger number of natives perished from an epidemic of smallpox than fell victim to the Spaniards' other weapons. The next year, Cort6s decided to rebuild the city in the same location as the metropolitan center of the colony, "as the city was so renowned and was so important." An equally impressive Spanish city was soon erected, through the labor of thousands of Indians. One friar listed the city building as one of the ten plagues the Spanish had brought upon Mexico : "In the building of the great city of Mexico , more people worked during the first years than upon the Temple of Jerusalem .... The laborers curry everything on their backs; they drag great stones and beams with ropes; and in the absence of skill but abundance of hands, four hundred men are used to move the stone or beam when one hundred are necessary. It is their custom, when moving materials, that the crowds sing and shout, and these voices continued by night and day, with the great fervor of building the city in the early years."

On the site of the Aztec temple, a vast new cathedral was built, around which a European nucleus was formed. A gridiron plan for the streets gave an appearance of regularity and openness to the city that impressed English sailors brought there as captives: "The said City of Mexico," wrote one, "hath the streets made very broad, and right, that a man being in the high place, at the one end of the street, may see at the least a good mile forward." It was a city conceived according to the urban views of Italian theorists like Alberti and Filarete and carried out by the absolute Spanish administration in a way that was impossible in Italy-uniform street facades, municipal water supplies, paved streets, city-supervised slaughter- houses and granaries, and a state university. But Mexico City was only the beginning of the Spanish urbanization of Mexico . Like the Romans, they created an empire of cities. Large numbers of cities were built in-unsettled areas, with the deliberate purpose of segregating the Spanish settlers to avoid exploitation of the Indians. Others, like Vera Cruz on the Caribbean , were trading centers; many like Queretaro were for mining or manufacturing; and even more were missionary centers, founded by the mendicant friars to combine missionary work with economic development through Indian labor. This city building in sixteenth-century Mexico was the greatest example of successful urban planning between the time of the Roman Empire and the nineteenth century.

The Economy of the Spanish Colonial Empire

The economic basis of this new colonial empire was less sound than its ur- ban planning. By 1550, the Spaniards had conquered all Mexico , Central America , and through the expedition of Pizarro in 1530, the huge Inca empire of Peru . By 1550, all the conquistadores had been relieved of their governmental duties, and a centralized administration had been set up by order of the government in Spain . The soldiers were rewarded by the grant of tribute rights in specified districts, which meant goods and, at first, labor from the Indians living there. In a few years, large estates were organized by the original conquerors and the new settlers from Spain and even by Indian rulers. Many of the inland estates concentrated on animal rearing, especially of cattle, sheep, and horses; some supplied the larger towns with cereals. The tropical regions turned to sugar and tobacco plantations, using Negro slaves whenever they could afford them. Most Indians, however, continued to work their old lands as they had always done, supplying the new lords with tribute as they had supplied their previous Indian masters. The Spaniards were, however, interested most in gold and silver. "I have not come here for such reasons [as God and faith]," Pizarro told a friar. "I have come to take away their gold." The first shipments were of the booty of the Aztec and Inca empires; and only too often the intricate works of art were melted down for easy shipment: Then came the washing of surface gold from stream beds, which was soon exhausted. Finally, from 1530, mines were sunk to dig out silver; and in the 1540s "silver rushes" were precipitated by, the discovery of immensely rich veins of silver in central Mexico and of the fabulous mountain of silver at San Luis Potosi in Bolivia .

During the second half of the sixteenth century, the Spanish American colonies sent to Europe their tropical goods like sugar and tobacco, hides for the making of leather goods, and especially gold and silver. In return they were sent wine, oil, and flour, and manufactured goods like metal tools and cloth, and domestic animals. At the height of the trade in the middle of the century, 133 ships sailed from Seville for America in one year, a very large number by the standards of that time. This trade had enormous repercussions on Spain . The effects were most obvious in Seville , whose merchant guild enjoyed the monopoly of the trade. Many new harbor installations were constructed. The local nobility broke the tradition of its class by entering trade. Manufacturing of soap, china, and cloth was developed for export. The merchants grew wealthy by accepting commissions to act as intermediaries for merchants in other parts of Spain and for foreign merchants who wanted a share in the Indies trade, and they built themselves sumptuous palaces in Moorish style. From Seville , the economic stimulus was transmitted to inland Castile , where it magnified the volume of ex- change in the great fairs and the manufactures of a few of the towns. But Spain as a whole did not receive a great economic boost from the acquisition of empire, because after 1550 when the Americas were demanding vast quantities of manufactured goods, the Spanish economy-for reasons we shall consider-was not geared to such production. Moreover, the shipping of bullion, which was regarded in sixteenth-century economic theory as an ideal import, had very deleterious effects. The crown took one-fifth of all bullion imported into Spain , and regarded it as an inexhaustible source of income with which to pay for military adventures abroad. It failed to realize that the effect of the huge imports of silver into Spain and their subsequent expenditure in other parts of Europe was to raise the prices of the goods being bought and, in general, the cost of living not only in Spain but throughout Europe. During the sixteenth century, prices in Spain quadrupled, causing great suffering among the majority of the population who could neither understand the causes nor cope with the effects of the sudden fall in the value of money. At the same time, it discouraged productive enterprises when wealth could be made so easily from handling the bullion. While the Spanish crown obtained up to twenty percent of its revenues from the bullion trade, private citizens made two and a half times that amount. 

Unfavorable Results of Spanish Colonialism

Thus, in 1550, the Spaniards were mistakenly congratulating themselves on conquest and exploitation of an empire that would maintain their supremacy in Europe for an unlimited time. Yet the balance sheet was already un- favorable. In the West Indian islands and their mainland colonies, they had destroyed old civilizations, and had begun through disease and overwork to decimate the Indian population. Accurate figures are impossible to obtain, but it has been calculated that the native population of Mexico declined from about eleven million at the beginning of the Spanish conquest to 2.5 million in 1600. The end of human sacrifice, the more humane treatment brought about by the intervention with the crown of indignant friars like Las Casas, and the enforcement of justice were poor compensations for such tragedy. Nor did a large population of Spaniards emigrate to fill the vacant land, as happened in the United States . (Not more than one hundred thousand emigrated from Spain in the whole sixteenth century.) Rather, a colonial oligarchy had taken possession of vast lands, and was encouraged through government policy to embark on a misguided economic policy based on mining of silver. In Spain , the economy had been distorted by inflation, and the monarchy, had grown dangerously dependent on maintenance of its revenues from the Indies for payment of its creditors, upkeep of its armies, and construction of its fleets. Yet the flow of bullion could only be continued if sufficient Indians or Negroes were found to work the mines, if the annual treasure fleets could elude the privateers from England , France , and Holland , and if manufactured goods could be bought in the north of Europe to ship to the colonies in return for bullion. During its golden age, Spain was in actual fact living on borrowed money and borrowed time.