Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hernando Cortes and the Conquest of Mexico

Hernando Cortes was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who landed on the coast of Mexico in 1519 in order to conquer it. Cortes description of the city ranges from its vibrant architecture to the horrible medieval customs and practices followed by the Aztecs.

He writes, “This great city of Tenochtitlan is built on the salt lake, and no matter by what road you travel there are two leagues from the main body of the city to the mainland. There are four artificial causeways leading to it, and each is as wide as two cavalry lances.” At the time, the city of Tenochtitlan, the erstwhile capital of Mexico was home to over 100,000 people and one of the largest cities in the world.

By the time Cortes arrived, the great market was attracting up to 60,000 people daily. Cortes’ description of this Aztec city was that of a well planned city with canals dug throughout the city for easy transportation of goods and people.

The Spaniards called this Aztec city, “the Venice of the New World”. Cortes admires the wide straight roads connected with canals that the Aztecs crossed paddling their canoes. After the fall of the Toltec civilization the Aztecs were forced to occupy marshy area around lake Texcoco.

The way they were able to convert their disadvantageous beginning into a powerful empire is a subject of Cortes’ admiration and surprise. The shallow lake bed was converted by the Aztecs into highly productive gardens formed by piling up mud from the lake bottom to make artificial islands.

Cortes praises the drainage system of the city and the ability of Aztecs to build bridges over canals and rivers. While Cortes focuses on the tall buildings in the city and magnificent temples he also focuses on the gory description of the terrible sight of human sacrifices that took place in those temples.

This, Hernando Cortes offered as a good justification for the conquest of Mexico. He said since the native people observed degrading and horrific customs, including human sacrifice, it was essential to conquer them and convert them to Christianity.

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