Spanish Conquest

Following Columbus' voyages of 1492-1504 the Spanish focused their attention on the Caribbean islands but were disappointed by the lack of gold and silver. In 1517 the demand for labour to replace the indigenous population, killed off by disease and ill treatment, led Diego Velázquez, Governor of Cuba, to send out an expedition which reached the Yucatán coast. The following year Velázquez commissioned Hernán Cortés to explore and conquer this new land. After landing on the island of Cozumel, Cortés founded the settlement of Veracruz and moved inland.

Reports reached Cortés of the powerful and wealthy Aztec Empire of Moctezuma, with its capital at Tenochtitlán, on an island on Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico, nearly 400 km inland. To discourage desertion among his men Cortés destroyed his boats and marched inland making contact with the Tlaxcalans, traditional opponents of Moctezuma. Reaching Tenochtitlán Cortés was treated hospitably, but hearing rumours that the Aztecs were planning to massacre the Spaniards, he kidnapped Moctezuma. Relations between Aztecs and Spaniards worsened and Moctezuma was killed as he attempted to call off an attack by a much larger Aztec army. Under cover of night the Spanish broke out of the city, using portable bridges to cross the causeways. With support from the Tlaxcalans, Cortés led a large force, equipped with heavy cannons and boats, back to storm the Aztec capital in a battle which lasted several weeks. By the end of the battle in April 1521, the city's fine buildings had been systematically destroyed by the Spanish to prevent the Aztecs using them as cover. The Spanish victory, the result of their superior weapons and armour, their use of horses, the spread of smallpox among the Aztecs and the support of the Tlaxcalans, gave the invaders control of central Mexico and Cortés ordered the building of a new city on the site of Tenochtitlán. In the following decade expeditions were sent into the surrounding areas to conquer the other indigenous peoples throughout present-day Mexico and also further south in Central America.

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