(SPAIN EXPANDS, to 1600 – continued)

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Cortez in Mexico

In 1519 a German priest, Martin Luther, was distributing his pamphlet explaining his conflict with the Vatican. It was in September that year that Spain sent Ferdinand Magellan and his five ships starting on an expedition heading west across the Atlantic and around South America heading for the spice islands of Indonesia, a voyage that in three years would circumnavigate the world. And, in November, Spain's authority in the Americas sent the 34-year-old former dropout from law school, Hernán Cortés, on a mission to Mexico, which they were to call New Spain. The governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, was no longer friendly with Cortés and didn't like Cortés' appointment. He had the expedition recalled at the last moment, but Cortés, already on his way to Mexico with a number of ships, 600 men, 17 horses and 12 cannon, ignored the order.

Cortés spent several months in Mexico, taking sides in conflicts between local societies. He won presents from local people, including twenty women, one of whom became his mistress and interpreter. He founded the town of Villa Rica de las Vera Cruz (Veracruz), and he was selected by its town council as its chief military and judicial officer, establishing his independence from Spanish authority on Santo Domingo. From Vera Cruz, Cortés moved inland, toward the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan (Tenochtitlán). He was mindful that success against the Aztecs depended on making allies with the enemies of the Aztecs. He benefited from guns, light cannon, steel swords and horses. With new allies he fought the independent republic of Tlaxcala, who were also enemies of the Aztecs, and, after initial skirmishes, Tlaxcala became his ally.

In Tenochtitlan the king of the Aztecs, Moctezuma II (known also as Montezuma II) had heard that Cortés was on his way. Moctezuma believed that Cortés was an incarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl returning to claim his people, and he planned to welcome Cortés and placate him with gifts – a common way of dealing with God.

Cortés arrived with his small force and around 1,000 Tlaxcatecs. He and his fellow Spaniards were astounded by the size and beauty of Tenochtitlan, a city surrounded by water. Crowds of Aztecs came in their canoes to see the white gods and their supernatural animals. Moctezuma arrived in a sedan chair and treated the Spaniards as his guests. He gave them use of one of his castles and entertained them for a week. Cortés in turn took Moctezuma hostage. He received from Moctezuma gold and other presents, men and women slaves and the passivity of the Aztec nation. Cortés was the master of Tenochtitlan and claiming that godly authority resided in Spain.

Offended by Aztec human sacrifices and paganism in general, Cortés disrupted the Aztec's theistic interpretation of events by encouraging his subordinates to attack Aztec worship. The Spanish began driving Aztec priests from their temples and replacing stone images with a cross and the image of the Virgin Mary. After the Spaniards had been in Tenochtitlan a few months, with Moctezuma still prisoner, one of Cortés' underlings led an attack against a crowd in Tenochtitlan central square, in an effort to break up a religious festival. Many Aztec nobles were killed. People were outraged, and to calm the anger the Spanish displayed Moctezuma on the palace roof. Apparently by now the Aztecs had acquired a new vision of Spaniards, and they saw Moctezuma as a traitor. They threw stones, and Moctezuma soon died of his wounds. To escape from the angry Aztecs, Cortés and his 1300 men fought their way out of the city at night. About half of his force died, some of the Spaniards losing their life because they had overloaded themselves with precious metal.

Cortés and his force returned to Tlaxcala where they were well received by people with a down-to-earth Machiavellian view. Aztec power having been challenged, various peoples whom the Aztecs had been ruling still saw opportunity in ridding themselves of Aztec domination, and they continued to side with Cortés and Tlaxcala.

Spanish reinforcements and supplies arrived to strengthen Cortés' force. From Tlaxcala, Cortés won domination over neighboring territory, and in August, 1521, Cortés with an enlarged army of Spaniards and Indians, returned to Tenochtitlan. They surrounded the city and cut its outside supply of fresh water and food. They attacked the city on rafts supporting cannon, and in the city they fought block by block.

The people of Tenochtitlan fought without guns, and they were suffering from smallpox, against which they had no immunity – unlike the Spaniards. Five-sixths of Tenochtitlan was destroyed. Moctezuma's nephew and heir, Cuautemoc (Cuauhtémoc), surrendered. Surviving Aztecs abandoned the corpse-ridden and disease-infested city, and what was left of the city was burned. Cuautemac would be executed in 1524, ending the line of Aztec kings.

Cortés changed the name of Tenochtitlan to Mexico (Mexico City). The lands that Columbus and Cortés had set foot upon were claimed for the Spanish crown, Emperor Charles V of the House of Habsburg, a devout Roman Catholic and the first to rule Castile, León, and Aragon simultaneously in his own right – the first King of Spain. He saw his authority as absolute and would be described as "Not greedy of territory but most greedy of peace and quiet." note14

Spanish men from the Caribbean had begun flocking to Mexico, and they took Indian mistresses, who begot children, beginning the mix of Spaniard and Indian. In letters to King Charles, Cortés asked His Majesty to ask His Holiness (the pope) that Franciscan and Dominican friars be sent to Mexico.

They should bring the most extensive powers Your Majesty is able to obtain, for, because these lands are so far from the Church of Rome, and we, the Christians who now reside here and shall do so in the future, are so far from the proper remedies of our consciences and, as we are human, so subject to sin, it is essential that His Holiness should be generous with us and grant to these persons most extensive powers, to be handed down to persons actually in residence here whether it be given to the general of each order or to his provincials. note15

Cortés returned to Spain in 1528, and speaking to King Charles he denied that he had held back gold from the crown. He argued that he had contributed more than the one-fifth of wealth gathered in Mexico that was required of him.

Cortés returned to Mexico in 1530, rewarded by Charles with a large estate and titles, but Charles put someone else in charge in Mexico. In 1535 Antonio de Mendoza was appointed as the first Viceroy of New Spain, which embittered Cortés.

Meanwhile, Spain was expanding in South America in a war fought in Charles' name.


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