Cortes: Spain’s Trojan Horse

One topic I find really interesting the the Spanish conquest of Mexican Peninsula, specifically the campaign of Cortes. The first European to arrive in the Mexican territory was Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, who  landed on the Yucatan Peninsula having sailed from Cuba with three ships and about 100 men in early 1517. The reports that Cordoba gave upon his return to Cuba prompted the Spanish governor there, Diego Velasquez, to send an evel larger force back to Mexico. This force was placed under the command of Hernan Cortes. In March of 1519, Cortes landed at the town of Tabasco, where he learned from the natives about the great Aztec civilization, then ruled by Montezuma II. Defying the authority of Velasquez, Cortes founded the city of Veracruz on the southeastern Mexican coast, where he stayed for some time while he trained his army into a disciplined fighting force. From there, Cortes and several hundred soldiers marched into Mexico. Their way was made with the help of a native woman who served as a translator (she would later be vilified by the natives as a betrayer of her people). Because of the somewhat instable structure within the Aztec empire, Cortes was able to form alliances with other native peoples, notably the Tlascalans, who were already at war with Montezuma.

In November of 1519, Cortes and his men arrived in Tenochtitlan, where Montezuma and his people greeted them as honored guests according to Aztec custom. There is also a case to be made that this was also partially due to Cortes’ physical resemblance to the light-skinned Quetzalcoatl. Cortes’ arrival apparently aligned with the prophesied coming of Quetzalcoatl according to aztec legend. Because the Aztecs did not immediately treat them as invaders, and Cortes was able to immediately take Montezuma and his entourage of lords hostage and gain control of Tenochtitla, despite the Aztecs having far superior numbers. The Spaniards then murdered thousands of Aztec nobles during a ritual dance ceremony, and Montezuma died under uncertain circumstances while in custody. Cuauhtemoc, his young nephew, took over as emperor, and the Aztecs drove the Spaniards from the city. With the help of the Aztecs’ native rivals, Cortes mounted an offensive against Tenochtitlan, finally defeating Cuauhtemoc’s resistance on August 13, 1521. In all, some 240,000 people were believed to have died in the city’s conquest, which effectively ended the Aztec civilization. After his victory, Cortes razed Tenochtitla and built Mexico City on its ruins; it quickly became the premier European center in the New World.

3 thoughts on “Cortes: Spain’s Trojan Horse

  1. obrie130

    I was really intrigued about how the Aztec’s thought Hernan Cortes was the god Quetzalcoatl. While this may seem foolish to modern man, their mistaken identification was actually supported by a lot of information. According to legend, Quetzalcoatl was the priest king of Tula, the capital of the Toltecs. He never sacrificed humans, only snakes, birds, and butterflies. This, apparently, was not enough to keep the powers of Tezcatlipoca, the god of the night sky, at bay, so Tezcatlipoca used black magic to banish the priest-king from Tula. Quetzalcoatl was then went east to the “Divine Water” (the Atlantic Ocean) and fashioned a raft made of serpents on which to sail away. It was believed that he would return one day from the east. The Aztecs thought that Cortes and his grand ships were the return of Quetzalcoatl from the divine waters of the east. Another reason why Cortes was believed to be Quetzalcoatl was his clothes. The feathered serpent was believed to have feathers similar to the Quetzal bird, a bird of paradise with colorful plumage. Cortes and his troops showed up in colorful tights that were misconceived to be feathers by the native peoples. Another part of Cortes’ appearance that made him seem divine was his facial hair. Quetzalcoatl is often depicted as a man with a beard and Cortes also had a beard. Finally, Aztec mythology states that Quetzalcoatl was supposed to return from the east on a One Reed year, the 13th of a 52 year cycle, and Cortes arrived on a One Reed year. Therefore, Cortes and his conquistadors lucked out and were able to use their believed divinity to capture Tenochtitlan.

  2. Richelle Valkema

    I was looking up more information before posting this response and I noticed a lot of information on Cortes that leads me to question your title of “Spain’s Trojan Horse.” First, I found several different sources that mentioned Cortes fighting other Spanish. Apparently there was suspicion among the Spanish in the Caribbean that Cortes needed to be babysat and so they sent another Spanish army up to Mexico in order to make sure that Cortes would follow orders. According to these articles, Cortes took his army to destroy the second army. If he was their “Trojan Horse” or secret weapon then surely he would have been less likely to slaughter his own people.

    It is also here in these articles where it says that it is believed that small pox was introduced to the Aztec native population. The article mentioned that it is likely that one of the soldiers for the second Spanish army that was killed by Cortes had the disease and that an Aztec person caught the disease while looting the body of the soldier. The disease quickly spread through the native population who were new to the disease and less immune so it killed rapidly. An estimate I found online said that approximately 25% of the native Aztec population died due to small pox.

    Another army is reported to have been sent either to help or check up on Cortes and like the last army to come check up on him, Cortes apparently killed this second army as well. While Cortes was greeted kindly by the native Aztec population, it is reported that he continuously used aggressive and intimidating behavior around them. In one article it mentions that Cortes intimidated the native population by immediately firing off his canons as soon as he arrived. So overall, I would say that Cortes is more of a rogue horse than a “Trojan Horse.”

  3. Medina Mathis

    I think that you broke down this subject very well. I do find it very interesting that Cortez was able to arrive in Tenochtitlan and blend it with everyone else that live there. I also find it interesting how he was able to plan a scheme that was so elaborate and hard to prepare for, that the Aztecs were totally unprepared for and even with the number on their side, was not able to defeat their enemies.

    I do wonder why Cortes let his nephew, Cuauhtemoc take over as Emperor when it seems like Cortes did all the planning, training of the army and hard work. Maybe his nephew played a bigger part in the picture that we may not know about but it has to be a reason.

    Now I know this may be a little off topic, but I wonder why the native woman decided to help Cortes and his army out. She must have known that there would be some type of punishment for what she had done.

    Now I may have missed this in the reading and if you could reply, why did Cortes want to take over the Aztec village so badly? Would it have been to just take control over the people? It does mention that they killed the nobles but I don’t think I saw anything about what happened to the people of the village. Other than that, I think you gave a clear version of the reading and it was very insightful.

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