Differences in Warfare between Aztecs and Spanish that Affected the Outcome of the War Essay

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Differences in Warfare between Aztecs and Spanish that Affected the Outcome of the War

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            The Pre-Columbian era of Central and South America refers to the era before the conquest by the Spanish.  Even though the term originates from the time span before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, it usually points to the time when civilizations existed before the invasion by the Europeans.  In addition, the term Pre-Columbian refer to the indigenous people who lived during that time: Mesoamerica with the Aztecs as well as the Maya, and the Andes with the Inca, Moche, and Chibcha.

  Between 1800 B.C. and 300 B.C., intricate cultures started appearing in Mesomarica.  Some of them, not all, came to form important groups like the Maya as well the Mexica (other name for Aztecs).  Their prosperity and peace ended with the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors who decimated their society, culture, and way of life.  The scope of this paper is to examine the differences in warfare between the Aztecs and the Spanish, leading to the defeat of these ancient cultures.

  The examination will cover the Aztec society, culture, and warfare as well as the Spanish society at the time of the invasion of Central and South America.  Finally, a comparison in their way of waging war will be made, at the end of which a conclusion will be reached based on the outcome of the conflict between the Mexica and the Spanish.

            The Aztecs resided in the Valley of Mexico, which is a highlands plateau in Central Mexico.  The valley of Mexico is surrounded by volcanoes as well as mountains.  The origin of the Aztecs came from the decline of the Toltec empire, brought down by political conflicts.  It is at this time that in the confusion of so many political ‘candidates’ for the Toltec throne that the Aztecs/Mexica came in, even though they were not part of the Toltec empire.  They felt that they were the true heirs of the Toltec throne despite their origins outside the Valley of Mexico from the desert.  After their migration into the Valley of Mexico, they changed their name from Mexica to Aztecs in honor of the ancestral place of the Nahua people, Aztlan: “Azteca” is the Nuatl word for people from Aztlan.  Moreover, the new Aztec empire, also called the Triple Alliance consisted of 3 city-states: Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. [1] By 1400, the Aztecs had control of Central Mexico and the Triple Alliance was in full power by 1428.  By the 1490s, they had succeeded in taking over most regional areas.  It is astonishing to consider that at the peak of the Aztec civilization, 300,000 Aztecs/Mexica were governing about 10 million people in their empire.  TheAztec Empire did not directly govern people, but the rulers expected to collect tributes from them.  In addition, the Empire did not interfere with local rulers in their territories as long as they would pay tributes.  In fact, after the Aztec conquest, these rulers were reinstituted in their position.  As a consequence of this arrangement, the empire was actually composed of city-states called alteptl.  Their economic system was based on trading with neighboring regions. [2] Trades could include bronze, jewelry with beads and stones, practical items like firewood, clothes, and food.  Their religion was based on a polytheist system, which recognized many gods and supernatural creatures in their religious beliefs. [3]

            The army was also an important component of the power of the Aztec Empire.  The forces consisted of multiple battalions overseen by appointed leaders, chosen among the nobility.  Each battalion was composed of several hundred warriors referred to as the Eagle warriors.  These warriors had a specific garb: a tough cotton amor soaked in a salty water with helmets lavishly decorated with painted multi-colored feathers and embroidered eagle eyes, which symbolized speed and acute vision.  The warriors actually believed that these eagle eyes gave them speed and ‘eagle vision.’  The Eagle warriors were extremely well-trained, composed the main infantry forces, and were allocated a specific living place in big cities, all funded by tax money.  Their training emphasized combat techniques that would help them fight alone most of the time.  Their force was populated by spearsmen, swordsmen, ,and archers.  In addition, these Eagle warriors were backed by other forces called Jaguar warriors.  Jaguars came from well-off families whose means could afford them to buy their own fighting equipment.  Their outward appearance of their ‘uniform’ was an armor with jaguar designs on it with helmets that had the shape of the heads of jaguars.  Interestingly, these Jaguar warriors were not necessarily used as first line soldiers.  In fact, they were often used to do reconnaissance in order to locate the weaknesses of the enemy.  They then reported their findings to the Eagle warriors with which they would launch a combined offensive.  Further, they would also serve the back attackers after the Eagle warriors coming in to destroy the fortress or the enemy dwellings.

  Nonetheless, another corps was also used: the citizens’ militia, which was not a professional army; the soldiers were recruited from among the common people.  Overall, the weaponry consisted of Atlatl, a long range weapon that shot darts or even small spears.  Thesoldiers would increase the deadly effect of these weapons by using the venom of certain animals like snakes, Quauhololli, a mace made out of a heavy hard stone ready to smash an enemy to pieces, especially the head.  Maquahuitl was another weapon designed with obsidian blades protuding from the side the weapon; they were used by the elite knight fighters.  It was reported that such a weapon struck a blow that could cut off the head of a big animal like a horse.  Moreover, a soldier needs a shield.  It was the “Xiuhichimalli” shield; a wicker framework with tough leather and animal-skin surfaces, it could absorb even heavy blows quite easily.  Tepoztopilli or the wooden lance with sharp obsidian stones in the top could be thrown with great accuracy by trained Eagle knights, and could lethaly penetrate flesh and bone within 150 yards.  Other weapons included an arrow quiver (Micomitl) and a shorter lance (Yoamitl) , used along with the Atatl. [4] In the Aztec society, taking plants with hallucinogenic properties were common since it was part of religious rituals for the most part.  The Aztec warriors were said to ingest peyotl or peyote, a cactus that grows only in certain parts of Mexico.  The Aztecs considered the peyotl plant a protective plant, especially in battle.  Specifically, it affects the senses with psychodelic visions and tremendous stimulating powers that the Aztec warriors may have used to their advantage to fight.  The alkaloid mescaline comes from this plant.  One particular thing the Aztecs did not have were horses.  All the roads they had built were designed for on-foot travel.  This will prove important in the following paragraphs.[5]

            The Europeans in the second half of the 15th century were starting to contemplate organizing travels around the world to colonize more areas to gain riches.  The most famous voyage was the ‘discovery’ of the Americas in 1492 by Christopher Columbus who originally was looking for a way to India going westward.  Sponsored by the Catholic monarchs of Spain, his success became the turning point of exploration of these continents by Spain at a time when economic growth was actively sought out.  The Spanish conquest of Mexico was led by Hernan Cortes who was sent by the Cuban governor Velasquez.  His instructions were to establish a trade relation with the local coastal people and tribes.  Velasquez was eager to lead the conquest of the inland part of Mexico and restricted Cortes to take control of the coast.  However, Cortes managed to legally get a clause in his contract that he could resort to emergency procedures if he deemed it necessary.  These procedures did not need prior approval by Velasquez.  His goal was to eventually take control of everything and become governor of Mexico.  In January 1519, Cortes left with a small army of sailors, soldiers, freedmen and slaves.  Overall, the success of Cortez relied on his excellent ability to convince and form alliances with different local tribes that would help him break apart the Aztecs.  His first stop was in Cempoala (modern day Veracruz) where he formed an alliance with the local Totonacs who subsequently aided the Spanish with their conquest plans along with the Tlaxcalans.  The first city where the first great conflict took place in Cholula where Cortes and his men massacred 3,000 people and burned the city.  Cholula was a sacred city with a very small army; the priest called on the god Quetzalcoatl[6] to kill the Spanish.  However, this type of thinking was not important to the Spaniards who just entered the city and destroyed it while the inhabitants waited for their god to deliver them from the Spaniards.  After 3 months, Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan ruled by Moctezuma II who received the Spaniards by offering them gifts of gold, at least at first.  Cortes was preceded by a reputation that induced fear. [7] Eventually, Cortes engaged in a fight with the Aztec Nobility at Tenochtitlan who felt that Moctezuma was too compliant.  The Spaniards were beat and they retreated to Tlaxcala.  Signing a treaty with the Tlaxcalans that he would never honor, Cortes gained their help to conquer the rest of the land either by arms or my diplomacy.  Cortes finally returned to Tenochtitlan and placed the city under siege for months.  In 1521, the city fell after almost complete destruction and Cortes proceeded to exact a tributeof gold to secure peace.

            The Spaniards started their conquest by using the intimidation factor.  When Cortes first encountered the Aztecs, he used the intimidation psychological strategy.  He had horses, guns, canons and gave them a ‘show’ when he ordered his soldiers to charge along the beach.  It is said that the Great King of Mexico had sent one of his stewarts and servants.  After they saw Cortes’ demonstration of power, they fell on the ground in fear. [8] They returned to the Emperor telling him of what they saw.  The immediate effect was to instill fear into the natives.  Cortes’second strategy was to ally himself with certain tribes who held resentment against the Aztecs and used their cooperation to weaken the Aztecs domination.  In addition, the horse played a highly important role in the Spanish tactics that were innovative and highly practical. The Aztecs on the other hand were excellent fighters against other tribes, but their tactics were inefficient and did not improve during the fighting with the Spanish.  Specifically, Hassig shows that the Aztec strategy was mainly one of demonstrating superior military power in order to extort tribute payments from local elites.  In fact, the Aztecs did not usually attempt to reorganize the societies they conquered, but preferred a “hegemonic” form of indirect rule as was brought out earlier.  Thus, the upholding of tax payments depended on the “perception of power” as much as on direct coercion.  Certainly though, the Aztecs were at a disadvantage from the beginning since their weaponry was not as powerful as the weaponry used by the invaders.  The Aztecs used the “duck shoot” strategy to isolate strong foes before conquering them.  This strategy consisted in getting rid of weaker potential adversaries one at a time until more challenging opponents are isolated.  Using the isolation factor, the Aztecs attacked these stronger opponents and destroyed their influence.  Again, their tactics worked well on other tribes, but not the Spaniards.  Their empire was still expanding when it was conquered by the Spaniards, although it had already reached the size at which additional successful conquests were becoming more damaging.  The limits of the expansion would have probably been reached by the end of the 16th century.  Since maintenance of centralized control in the Aztec system is based on the ability to keep providing additional riches obtained by conquest, a decentralized interstate system would surely have followed the limits of expansion.  [9]In particular, the Aztec Empire emerged within a world-system in which state-based accumulation became predominant.  The early state-based systems were also deeply dependent upon religion to legitimate state power, but the Aztec form of tributary accumulation through political/military terror placed extra emphasis on the importance of the state religion.  It is notable that complex chiefdoms and primary states engage in human sacrifice to a point not shared by either less layered or larger and more complex societies.   Therefore, the Spanish use of the cavalry and artillery, tactics and weaponry placed the Aztec in a vulnerable position in frontal assault on open terrain.  Moreover, the Aztecs were only fighting with the Spaniards for three years, a very short period for training, too short to come out with new military technique.

            The religion of the Aztecs was also very much an influence on their actions and their lives.  Notably, primary states engage in human sacrifice to an extent not shared by either less stratified or larger, and more complex societies.  The Aztec religion included the psychology of sacrifice is important in all moral orders, and human sacrifice on some scale is known to almost all societies including our own.  The Spanish attended such ceremonies and were horrified by the human sacrifices these people practiced and probably felt more justified to conquer them while bringing Christanity at the same time.  The Aztecs, however, intensified this aspect of Mesoamerican culture to a scale difficult to comprehend. Most scholars accept the estimate of 80,000 war captives sacrificed for a single temple dedication.  Rather such a religious hierarchy is an expanded instance of the symbolic demonstration of the power of the state to appropriate human life in a situation in which the logic of “the perception of power” is based on terror and intimidation. [10] Later states are just as objectively hierarchical but they do not rely so exclusively means to legitimate and enforce power relations.  It is ironic that moral order in the form of an extremely restricting state religion is more important for these early states than it is for more complex societies in which commodity economy, bureaucratic organization, and legal structures are the institutional forms which support inequality.

War captives were the main source of human sacrifices, which, according to Aztec ideology, were necessary to appease the gods and to keep the universe functioning.  Some argue that the conversion of the existing Mesoamerican ideology of human sacrifice into a “national” justification for continuous conquest and expansion represents the key innovation which made the Aztec success possible.  It may very well be that the Aztec intensification of sacrifice was simply part of the strategy of rule by intimidation.  It is interesting to see that the intimidation factor was also used by the Aztecs.  However, the human sacrifices witnessed by the Spanish did not bring any fear, but probably disgust. The military weapons and strategies used by the Aztecs were not significantly different from those of their opponents. The “rationality” and the cost-benefit logic of the Aztec strategies in terms of the goal of extracting tribute through the maintenance of the perception of superior military power works in conquest but not in the case in which the Aztecs were conquered.  In a system in which the perception of power was based largely on military skills and fear of extreme punishment, it is an advantage to have a reputation for brutality.  However, a strategy that the Aztecs did not use was to mimic the enemy’s tactics, which was the case for some other groups who actually were able to resist the invaders longer. (Mapuche)  By contrast, the Spaniards were very fast to adapt and made quick moves that surprised the enemy.  The Aztecs were formidable warriors, but at the same time, most of the Spaniards who were recruited by Cortes had been soldiers with a formal military training.  Most of these men were determined to amass riches since they had to pay for their own way, pay for their equipment, and pay the expedition surgeons when they needed medical treatment.  So, these men had sometimes gotten in debt and borrowed money for the expedition.  Their view of warfare was to be as rough as possible and to kill as many as possible.  If it meant fighting with treachery, they did it.  Finally, the last attack on the Aztecs and other tribes were the pandemic diseases that killed so many, for example, smallpox decimated the Aztecs at the siege of Tenochtitlan.  The Spaniards did not intentionally infect the Aztecs, but they brought with them a plague that helped them finish their conquest.  The integration of the Aztecs within the Spanish-run country was hard and very much in the detriment of their culture as a result.  That is how the Aztec Empire disappeared.

            In conclusion, the Spaniards had the advantage of more advanced weapons, quick adaptation to the enemy’s tactics, the intimidation factor, the formal military training, and the iron will to win.  By contrast, the Aztecs did not resist them in the beginning giving them a disadvantage of time, will, and organization that could helped them resist longer.

[1] Chase-Dunn, C. 1988 “Comparing world-systems: toward a theory of semiperipheral development,” 1988 , Comparative Civilizations Review 19:29-66
[2] Hassig, R.  Trade, Tribute, and Transportation: The Sixteenth Century Political Economy of the Valley of Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1985
[3] Conrad,G.W.,.Demarest, A.  Religion and Empire: The Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1984
[4] Smith, M.E. The Aztecs. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1996.
[5] Smith, M.E. “The Strategic Provinces,” in Frances F. Berdan et al., Aztec Imperial Strategies. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996, pp. 137-150.
[6] Leon-Portilla, L., Kemp, L. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the of Mexico. Beacon Press. 1992.
[7] Hassig, R. Aztec Warfare. University of Oklahoma Press. USA. 1988
[8] Prescott, W.H. History of the Conquest of Mexico, with a Preliminary View of Ancient Mexican Civilization, and the Life of the Conqueror, Hernando Cortes 1992.
[9] McKay, Hill, Buckler. “A History of World Societies”. Houghton Mifflin Company:Toronto, 1992.
[10] Townsend, Richard F. (2000) The Aztecs. revised ed. Thames and Hudson, New York.

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