The Conquest of the Mexica
April 21, 1519 marked the opening of a short but decisive chapter in Mexico’s history. On that day a fleet of 11 Spanish galleons sailing along the eastern gulf coast dropped anchor just off the wind-swept beach on the island of San Juan de Ulua. Under the command of the wily, daring Herman Cortes, the vessels bore 550 Spanish soldiers and sailors, as well as 16 horses, the first of the species to tread the American continent.
The party disembarked to set up camp on the dunes behind the beach. In a friendly reception from the native Totonac Indians, greeting and gifts were exchanged. Cognizant of the existence of a great inland Empire, Cortes promptly dispatched a message requesting an audience with Aztec ruler Moctezuma II ( the term “Aztec” will be used throughout, although some historians prefer the familiar designation “Mexica” for the last of Mexico’s formidable pre-Hispanic civilizations.)
Runners had already carried word to the “Lord of Cuhua” in Tenochitlan, the capital city set on an island in Lake Texcoco some 200 hundred miles a way. They reported the arrival of fair-skinned, bearded strangers and fearsome “man-beasts” (cavalry) who had descended from “towers floating on the sea.”
Cortes wasted no time in staking a claim for God and King, ceremoniously founding a settlement on the coast that he christened Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, in reference to the fleet’s arrival on Good Friday to what he believed to be a vast land of plenty. The Spanish Conquest had begun.
All odds were against this tiny band of adventures who would soon venture into unknown territory to topple the mighty Aztec Empire. It could never have happened were it not for Cortes remarkable fortitude and cunning, coupled with an incredible series of coincidental prior events.
In the wake the “discovery” of the Western Hemisphere by Christopher Columbus (1492), Spanish and Portuguese explorers continued the quest for riches in the...