Cortés in Mexico

Conquistador Hernán Cortés landed on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula on this day in 1519, claiming the region for Spain. After an eight-month march, Cortés was welcomed into Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) by Montezuma, part of a greet-and-defeat strategy that would backfire in historic proportions:

Cortés's odyssey from the West Indies into the interior of the Aztec nation remains among the most astounding military campaigns ever waged, rivaled only by the epic expeditions of Alexander the Great. In just two years…Cortés vanquished the Aztecs and their ruler, [conquering a realm] which at fifteen million people was the largest empire in Mesoamerican history. For the Aztecs, the onslaught was so sudden as to be incomprehensible. No other great ancient civilization suffered such complete devastation and ruin in so short a time.

The above is excerpted from Buddy Levy's Conquistador: Hernan Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs (2008). Levy's account emphasizes the "two worlds" aspect of the momentous clash, the Spanish and Aztec empires having had no previous knowledge of each other. Cortés arrived as if from outer space, bearing crossbows, muzzle-loaded handguns, small artillery, warhorses, and war dogs (mastiffs and wolfhounds), his armored conquistadores accompanied by a "roguish, roughshod crew" of pirates, mercenaries, and Cuban and West African slaves. But it was the invaders' turn to be astonished upon their discovery, in central Mexico, of a "powerful and highly evolved civilization at its zenith":

The Aztecs possessed elaborate and accurate calendars, efficient irrigation systems for their myriad year-round crops, zoos and botanical gardens unrivalled in Europe, immaculate city streets with waste-management methods, astounding arts and jewelry, state-run education, sport in the form of a life-or-death ballgame, a devoted and organized military apparatus, and a vast trade and tribute network stretching the entirety of their immense empire.

And yet, says Levy, the two colliding worlds responsible for "the birth of modern history" were not entirely different:

Both were barbaric in their unique traditions. The Spaniards, fired and forged by the Crusades, would pillage and rape and kill in the name of God and country, subsuming indigenous cultures with little respect for their centuries of existence; the Aztecs used military force and violence to subjugate independent neighboring tribes and performed rites of human sacrifice and cannibalism. Neither could comprehend the other, and neither was willing to acquiesce.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at


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