The fall of the Nahua and Inca empires may be seen by some as an encounter with the Spanish, but it was actually a conquest where the Spanish brutally defeated and took over the indigenous cultures. This conquest was made possible by several advantages. Three key factors contributed to the successful conquest between the Spanish, also known as the Aztecs, Incas, and Nahuas. Firstly, the Spanish leaders had prior experience in forming alliances with indigenous people. Secondly, the Spanish possessed superior weaponry and military advantage, including steel, horses, and guns, which made their weapons stronger and more lethal.
Thirdly, the Spanish were able to interact with the indigenous people without succumbing to unknown diseases, which was not the case for the Nahuas and Incas who suffered greatly from diseases brought by the Spanish. In the conquest of Mexico, an influential factor that contributed to the triumph of the Spanish was the expertise of their leader, Hernan Cortes. Fortunately for the Spanish, Cortes had gained prior experience in cultivating alliances with indigenous groups over a span of fifteen years in Central and South America as well as Panama.
By forming partnerships with rival cities such as Totonacs, Cholulas, and Tlaxcalans, Hernan Cortes was able to overthrow the Nahua empire. Although some of these alliances began with battles, such as the ones with Cholula and Tlaxcala, Cortes successfully gained numerous allies. In the conquest of Mexico, Cortes had a significant advantage over the Mexica leaders, including Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor, as he had an understanding of the situation whereas they had no knowledge whatsoever about the identity or intentions of the Spaniards.
Like Hernan Cortes, Francisco Pizarro also utilized alliances, which benefited the Spanish in their conquest of Peru. In Born in Blood and Fire, Chasteen asserts that both the Incas and the Aztecs would not have been defeated without the support of the Spaniards’ native allies. Another major factor that contributed to the success of the conquests of the Nahua and Inca empires was the superior military technology of the Spanish. Horses, steel, and, to a lesser extent, gunpowder provided the invaders with a formidable advantage in terms of strength, particularly when facing warriors armed only with courage and stone weapons.
According to Stuart Schwartz, Spanish weaponry resulted in high casualties during the Conquest of Mexico. The Mexica, despite their war experience and numerical advantage over the Spaniards, were at a clear disadvantage due to their inferior military objectives, weapons, tactics, and experience in the face of Spanish steel. Although they quickly adapted their tactics, the Mexica were unable to match Spanish artillery, steel weapons, crossbows, and firearms. In a similar fashion to the events in Mexico, Pizarro utilized a familiar Spanish tactic by inviting Atahualpa’s followers into a square where hidden cannons were positioned. The cannons fired unexpectedly at close range, causing horrifying carnage. Furthermore, Spanish soldiers on horses charged into the crowd swinging their long steel blades, causing dismemberment which indigenous American weapons were incapable of achieving.
The success of the fall of both empires was greatly influenced by disease. Fortunately for the Spanish, they had previously encountered various viruses, rendering them immune to the highly contagious diseases. During the conquest of the Nahua empire, when Tenochtitlan was under siege, a smallpox outbreak devastated the Mexica population and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. By mid-1521, smallpox and assistance from indigenous allies had nearly decimated Tenochtitlan under Cortes’ command. Conversely, the Inca had already been ravaged by diseases before Pizarro’s arrival in Peru during the civil war between the two brothers, Atahualpa and Huascar.
The Spanish had several advantages that helped them overthrow the two empires in addition to indigenous allies, advanced weaponry, and rapid moving diseases. Coincidentally, in 1519, the year of the Spanish arrival in Mexico, the Nahua people were anticipating the return of Quetzalcoatl, an ancient god who was believed to reclaim his positions and lands. According to the Nahua perspective, Hernan Cortes could have possibly been Quetzalcoatl since the god was described as white and bearded. Being the first encounter of Europeans for the Nahua, these foreign, white, fully clothed beings were treated like gods and warmly welcomed.
By staying in Moctezuma’s palace in the powerful city of Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards gained another advantage. Without realizing it, Moctezuma placed Tenochtitlan in jeopardy and at a significant disadvantage. Cortes capitalized on the city’s hospitality to capture the susceptible Moctezuma and commence his two-year conquest. Similarly, Pizarro found himself in a favorable position when he and his men arrived in Peru amidst a civil war instigated by Atahualpa, the eventual Inca emperor, and his brother, Huascar. “The cunning Pizarro successfully manipulated both sides, ultimately securing victory for himself.”
Both sides in the Inca civil war perceived each other as their greatest menace, unaware that the Spanish leader, Pizarro, would ultimately pose the biggest threat. The civil war not only divided and weakened the Incas as a whole but also granted the Spaniards a significant advantage, as there was a lack of a established leader for the Incas. Similar to Cortes, Pizarro held the emperor captive and demanded an immense amount of gold. In return for the gold, Pizarro promised to release Atahualpa. However, after Atahualpa handed over the requested gold, he was unexpectedly strangled.
According to the Nahua point of view, their defeat was evident as Tenochtitlan had been a highly influential city during that period. Despite being trained in warfare from a young age and having superior numbers, the Nahua were no match for the Spanish due to their lack of experience and advanced weapons. Although the Spanish had numerous advantages and factors contributing to their triumph, the vulnerability of the Nahua’s remarkable civilization was heightened by their emperor Moctezuma welcoming the enemy into their territory, making the Nahua the weaker adversary.
Both the Nahua and the Incas experienced a sense of betrayal. The Nahua felt deceived by Cortes, whom they had believed to be the awaited Quetzalcoatl. This feeling intensified when Cortes triumphed over the Nahua, who had generously welcomed him and his men with gold and extravagant presents. Similarly, the Incas were also betrayed following their conquest in Peru, which began in Panama and gradually spread southward. The Incas suffered a brutal defeat due to their weakened society caused by internal conflict and the devastating impact of infectious diseases on their population.
Again, although the Spanish had many advantages that helped them succeed, the Incas were also a weaker opponent, similar to the Nahua. The Spanish saw the years 1519 through 1521 as a conquest and had many factors working in their favor. They had an experienced leader who helped them gain indigenous allies, advanced weaponry, immunity to viruses, a weaker opponent, and an invitation to overthrow the Nahua empire. As a result, the Spanish were able to defeat the Nahua and take pride in overthrowing the once most powerful civilization at that time.”
Like Cortes, Pizarro employed a similar deceptive strategy to manipulate Moctezuma, ultimately resulting in the Spanish conquering the Incas. However, the Spanish regarded the downfall of the Incan empire as a conquest, as Pizarro dethroned Atahualpa and achieved the main objective of their journey: acquiring gold. The documentation of history during this era varied amongst the Nahua, Inca, and Spanish communities, as well as the subjects they elected to chronicle.
While it may be difficult to establish precise facts, distinguishing similarities and differences between the conquest of the Nahua and the conquest of the Inca is relatively straightforward. Firstly, both expeditions by the Spanish sought power, land to conquer, and treasures in their encounters with the Nahua and Inca. Secondly, both Spanish leaders, Cortes and Pizarro, employed their skills in forming alliances and manipulative tactics. This included holding the emperors hostage to obtain the desired outcome: gold.
Despite the contributions of experienced leaders and indigenous alliances, the Spanish were clearly the dominant force in both conquests. The Nahua and Inca faced numerous disadvantages, including inferior weaponry and challenging circumstances caused by a civil war and misinterpretation of the arrival of a deity. Additionally, both conquests involved the imposition of Christianity by Cortes and Pizarro upon the Nahua and Inca populations. While there are several similarities between the two conquests, there are also some differences.
The conquest of the Inca and the Nahua differed in several ways. One major difference was the leadership situation. The Nahua had an established leader in Moctezuma, while the Incas were embroiled in a civil war and did not have a unified leader. This internal conflict within the Inca empire ultimately distracted them from recognizing the Spanish as their real enemy.
Another difference between the two conquests lies in the strategies employed by the Spanish conquerors, Cortes and Pizarro. Both had experience in forming alliances with indigenous peoples, but they approached it differently. Cortes formed alliances with neighboring rival cities, while Pizarro mainly turned the Incas against each other, although he also had a few allies.
Overall, these differences in leadership and alliance tactics contributed to distinct outcomes in the conquests of the Inca and Nahua civilizations.
Lastly, one difference between the two conquests is the contrasting bravery of Atahualpa and the cowardice of Moctezuma. The Spaniards observed that Atahualpa could not be easily manipulated like Moctezuma, making him a formidable opponent to negotiate with. These conquests of two immensely powerful empires left a significant impact on history and represented a major achievement in the colonization of the Americas. Nevertheless, these events represented merely the inception of Latin America’s historical journey.