8 julio, 2024

Conquest of Mexico: causes, stages, consequences and characters

We explain what the conquest of Mexico was, its causes, main stages, consequences and prominent figures

What was the conquest of Mexico?

The conquest of Mexico or conquest of Tenochtitlán It was the historical episode through which the Spanish crown subdued the Mexica Empire and took control of its territories. This warfare lasted from 1519 to 1521, when the Spanish conquered the capital of the Mexicas: Tenochtitlan.

At the head of the conquerors was Hernán Cortés, who had come from Cuba to the shores of the continent. After founding Villa Rica de Vera Cruz, Cortés entered the interior of present-day Mexico and managed to defeat various indigenous peoples on his way.

Historians usually divide the conquest into four different stages, which took place over a period of two years. Cortés and his men had the help of several towns in the area, eager to rid themselves of Mexica rule, in their march towards Tenochtitlán. These alliances, along with superior weapons, allowed the Spanish to emerge victorious.

The first consequence was the disappearance of the Mexica Empire. The war and the epidemics that followed one another caused great mortality among the Mexicas. Spain, for its part, continued its expansion throughout Mesoamerica until the formation of a viceroyalty.

Causes of the conquest

The main cause of the conquest of Mexico was the desire of the Spanish to control new territories. The crown of Castile was looking for new sources of income and, in addition, to expand the Catholic religion.

On the other hand, the defeat of the Mexicas was caused by various reasons, from military to psychological.

psychological causes

While the Spaniards arrived on American lands highly motivated by their desire to conquer new territories for the crown, find gold and evangelize the indigenous people, the Mexicas faced the fight with a different position.

The Mexica culture paid great attention to what its priests said and, at that time, the announced omens were not good. According to the chroniclers, Moctezuma himself was worried about them.

On the other hand, during the confrontation the morale of the two contenders was very different. The Spanish had no problems with their military commanders and Cortés proved to be a very tenacious leader.

However, the Mexicas had to change rulers several times. The removal of Moctezuma was a hard blow for them and the death of his successor, Cuitláhuac, who had defeated the Spanish on the Sad Night, only made the situation worse.

economic causes

The Mexica empire had based its economic prosperity on three pillars: agriculture, the tributes paid by the subject peoples, and trade. This became important when the Totonacs met the Spanish and complained about what they were forced to pay the Mexica.

That complaint, shared by other peoples, was one of the reasons that allowed the Spanish to have indigenous allies in the war.


The payment of tributes was not the only reason that led various indigenous peoples to ally with the Spanish.

Although the Mexica had conquered the peoples of the Valley of Mexico and the Yucatan, peace was never complete. Uprisings were frequent and Tenochtitlán was always seen as a conqueror.

Cortés took advantage of these circumstances to gain the support of the Mexica’s enemies. Among these, the Tlaxcalans and the Totonacs stood out, who wanted to get rid of Mexica domination.

European strategies and armament

Despite the alliances achieved by the Spanish, the Mexica numerical superiority was very notable. The conquistadors, however, had much more advanced weapons that managed to counter the greater number of Mexica soldiers.

The latter still had weapons made of stone, wood or bone. In addition, they preferred to capture their enemies alive to use them in human sacrifices.

The Spanish, for their part, used weapons made of steel, crossbows and, most importantly, firearms such as arquebuses. Despite the slowness of using the latter, the fear they caused was enough to destabilize their enemies. In addition, the use of the horse was an important factor in gaining an advantage in battles.

stages of conquest

Hernán Cortés reached the island of Hispaniola in 1504. He lived there for a few years, until he accompanied Diego de Velázquez to conquer Cuba in 1511. After the victory, he began working for the governor.

The Spanish began sending expeditions to the coast to prepare for future military missions. Diego de Velázquez, governor of Cuba at that time, was in charge of organizing the first two on the coast of Mexico, in 1517 and 1518 respectively.

Although relations between Velázquez and Cortés were not very good, the conquistador managed to lead the next advance party. The objective was the Yucatan coast. Already at those times, Cortés intended to find new territories and stop serving the governor of Cuba.

First stage

The first phase of the conquest of Mexico began at the moment in which Hernán Cortés left Cuba to go to the continental coasts. On February 18, 1519, the conquistador set out with eleven ships and 600 men.

Cortés was accompanied by some of the men who would later have an important role in the conquest of Mexico, such as Pedro de Alvarado, Francisco de Montejo or Bernal Díaz.

The expedition reached the coast of Yucatán, where it found Jerónimo de Aguilar and his men, members of one of the previous outposts. De Aguilar and his men, who had learned some local languages, joined Cortés’s troops.

Moctezuma, who had received the news about the arrival of the Spaniards, sent several young indigenous women to Cortés as a gift. Among them was Malinche, whose later role in the conquest was very important.

Second stage

As Cortés advanced with his men, some important changes related to America were taking place in Spain.

The Crown was not capable of facing all the military expenses caused by the conquest, so it had to promulgate a series of agreements called Capitulations. Thanks to these agreements, he obtained financing from individuals.

The Cortés expedition, for its part, had reached Tlaxcala. For the first time, the Spanish encountered strong resistance from the indigenous people. However, the superiority of European weapons decided the confrontation in their favor.

The defeated Tlaxcalans decided to sign an alliance with the Spanish. In this way they tried to get rid of the Mexica domination. His warriors joined Cortés’s soldiers on their way to Tenochtitlán.

Before reaching its destination, one of the bloodiest massacres of the conquest took place. More than 5,000 indigenous people were killed in Cholula, in what, for some historians, should have become a warning against any attempt at resistance.

After the so-called Cholula Massacre, Cortés had all the way clear to reach the capital of the empire.

third stage

The Spanish and their indigenous allies reached the Valley of Mexico. At first, Moctezuma received them as guests, partly because of the belief that they represented the god Quetzalcóatl.

Events caused that reception to change. On the Spanish side, Cortés had to face some movements against him. His leadership was not accepted by everyone and he had to leave the valley to face Pánfilo de Narváez, sent by the governor of Cuba to get rid of Cortés.

Pedro de Alvarado was designated as head of the men who stayed in the valley. Faced with the strategy of Cortés, more patient, Alvarado decided to attack the Mexicas while they were celebrating a religious ceremony, known as the Massacre of the Templo Mayor.

When Cortés returned, victorious, he attempted to appease the angry Mexica. However, he had no choice but to retreat. The maneuver, in which he lost half of his troops, was known as the Sad Night.

fourth stage

The last stage of the conquest meant the fall of Tenochtitlán, the end of the Mexica Empire and, later, the expansion of the Spaniards throughout all the interior territories of present-day Mexico.

The conquerors, after the Sad Night, needed a year to besiege Mexico – Tenochtitlán. The siege began on May 30, 1521 and the Spanish troops were accompanied by their Tlaxcalan allies.

At the head of the Mexicas was Cuauhtémoc, who had replaced Moctezuma and Cuitláhuac. Despite the resistance they presented, the technical superiority of the Spanish weapons ended up decanting the battle. On August 13, 1521, Tenochtitlán surrendered.

Consequences of the conquest

When the Spanish arrived in the area, Tenochtitlán was a large city of 200,000 inhabitants. The Mexicas dominated a territory that had a population of approximately five million people.

With the fall of Tenochtitlán, the empire disappeared, although its government structures were maintained for a time.

The rule of Spain begins

The Mexica Empire was replaced by the Spanish. After defeating Tenochtitlán, the Spanish continued their military campaigns until they had under their control all the lands that would later form part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

Colonization caused the disappearance of many indigenous cultures. The Spanish language began to prevail over the autochthonous languages, just as it happened with Catholicism against the beliefs of the native peoples.

Creation of a political-administrative unit led by Spain

The viceroyalty was organized under the same government and the same laws, being structured as follows:

The king: was seen as the supreme authority. Absolute power was concentrated in the crown, royal authority had no legal limits and was the supreme law.
The Council of the Indies: It was the highest category authority, after the King and was appointed by him. The decisions, sentences, laws and agreements of the Council represented the will of the King and, like him, he governed from Spain.
The audience: governed not only politically and administratively, but was also constituted as a superior court to deal with civil and criminal matters.
The Viceroy: represented the king in the colonies. His powers and faculties were very broad and he was the supreme local authority.
the visitors: they were envoys of the King, who went to the colonies when there were riots that disturbed the peace and public order or when there were suspicions of financial mismanagement.
Municipalities: as cities and towns were granted some independence, they had some employees who served as legal and administrative representatives. The councils were of local origin and represented and defended the interests of the…

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