What happened to the Aztecs?

What contributed to the fall of the Aztec Empire?

In 1519, when Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador (conqueror), first entered the interior of Mexico, he and his army were amazed at the size and magnificence of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. There were 350,000 inhabitants and 60,000 houses. A dyke, which was ten miles long, protected the city against flooding.

The Aztec king, Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, lived in a huge palace, which contained a hundred rooms, twenty entrances and a hall that could hold 3,000 people.  The walls were covered in marble and other rare materials. The ceilings were made of exquisitely carved pine and cedar. The palace was surrounded by well-irrigated gardens with trees and flowers. 

The Aztec Empire on the eve of the Spanish invasion

At its peak, the Aztec empire ruled over twelve million people and an area of 100,000 square miles. However, after two years of conflict with the Spanish, the empire fell to an expedition from the Spanish colony of Cuba with a fleet of 11 ships, 508 soldiers, 100 sailors, 16 horses and 14 cannons. How did this once powerful empire collapse in such a rapid fashion and what contributed to its fall?

(1) The Aztecs initially thought that the fair-skinned Spanish were their gods.

When Cortes first entered Tenochtitlan, he was greeted with much pomp and ceremony by King Moctezuma Xocoyotzin. After the exchange of gifts, Moctezuma bowed to Cortes and said, to Cortes' surprise, that the Aztec people welcomed his arrival and possession of the throne! Even the Spaniards' horses were regarded as heavenly creatures, which the Aztecs had prepared beds of flowers for them to sleep on.

Cortes soon realized what was happening. He knew of the old Aztec prophecy that the fair-skinned god Quetzalcoatl would return from the east and claim the Aztec empire. (The Spaniards were fair-skinned and had come from the east from Europe across the Atlantic Ocean.) Nonetheless, Cortes knew that he had to manage the situation carefully as he had only a small number of soldiers surrounded by tens of thousands of Aztecs in a foreign land. If the Aztecs discovered the truth, they would not hesitate to massacre the Spaniards.

Hence, Cortes decided to "imprison" Moctezuma in his palace, using him as his proxy to issue commands to the Aztec people. While the Moctezuma and his nobles eventually suspected that something was not quite right, this curious case of mistaken identity gave the Spanish an initial advantage in understanding the Aztec people, as well as undermining their system.

(As this account was mainly derived from Cortes' own recollections, some scholars have cast doubt on its veracity and Cortes' motives.)

(2) The spread of diseases.

It was said that one of Cortes' men had contracted smallpox, a highly contagious disease which the Aztec people had no natural immunity against. During a battle with the Spaniards, the Aztecs contracted smallpox, which subsequently spread rapidly among the population. Given that the Aztec people had no idea what the disease was and how to treat it, many people died. During the siege of Tenochtitlan in 1520 which lasted eight months, the population was not only starving but also dying of smallpox.  It was estimated that a quarter of the empire's population eventually died of smallpox. Even the Aztec emperor, Cuitlahuac, who succeeded Moctezuma in 1520, succumbed to smallpox, along with many of the military leaders. This greatly weakened the Aztec effort to resist the Spanish invasion.

(3) The Aztecs' poor relations with other tribes in Mexico.

Given the Aztecs' warlike reputation and horrifying human sacrificial practices, they were generally hated by the other tribes in Mexico. While these people might have been subjugated by the Aztec empire, they still harbored a desire for revenge. Hence, it was only inevitable that they would ally with the Spanish to bring down what they considered as an "evil" civilization. For example, the people of Tlaxcala, which was facing a commercial blockade by the Aztecs, readily worked with the Spanish to overthrow the Aztecs.

(4) The Aztec empire was already in a state of economic and social decline.

While the Aztec empire, on paper, controlled a large area and population, its internal system was already in a fragile state due to increasing social tensions (both within the Aztec society and between the Aztecs and their subjugated peoples) and economic troubles. Moctezuma also widened the existing social divisions within Aztec society by prohibiting commoners from working in the royal palaces. The economic system was essentially an extortionist regime that relied on force to extract tributes and taxes from the conquered tribes. As there were no benefits for the non-Aztec peoples, they were not inclined to contribute to the welfare of the state. 

(5) The Spanish adopted superior weapons and tactics.

Although the Spanish were outnumbered by the Aztecs, they had superior weapons such as guns, cannons, better armor and well-trained animals (like horses and dogs) to mitigate this disadvantage. Cortes also chose the harvest time to attack when he knew that the Aztec people were not well-prepared for war.

Aztec human sacrifice

(6) The unnecessary loss of human lives from the ritual sacrifices.

Notwithstanding the Aztec religious beliefs, the regular human sacrifices took a toll on the manpower supply in the empire, whether it is for economic or military purposes. Moreover, given that enemy captives were routinely sacrificed, this only motivated their opponents (the Spaniards and other tribes in Mexico) to fight harder, rather than face capture and certain death.

By 13 August 1521, the battle for Tenochtitlan was finally over. The last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtemoc, surrendered to Cortes, who ordered the Aztec temples and idols to be replaced by churches. The practice of human sacrifices was also banned.  From there, the Spanish began to establish the foundations of what would later become Mexico City. The Aztec social classes were disbanded and many of them became the serfs or slaves of their new Spanish masters. The surviving Aztec people were also forbidden to live in Tenochtitlan and its surroundings, thus many of them settled down in Tlatelolco instead.