Disease and the Spanish Conquest of Tenochtitlan - OoCities

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					        As about four hundred Spanish conquistadors prepared to conquer one of the most

powerful military states in the New World, they relied on several key factors: their „superior‟

iron weaponry, the powerful leadership of their commander Hernán Cortés, and the less violent

form of warfare practiced by Meso-American peoples. However, the most devastating tool of

destruction the Spaniards wielded against the Aztecs was something for which they did not even

know they were responsible – disease.        The smallpox epidemic in Tenochtitlan, by some

estimates, killed half the population and was compounded by the fact that the Spanish had allied

themselves with all surrounding cities, thus cutting off Tenochtitlan from outside food, water,

and medicine. Smallpox and famine left the Aztec population and fighting force weak and

unable to fight as effectively against a large enemy.

        Although the Spanish did have a substantial advantage because of their cavalry and

weaponry, the extraordinary leadership of Cortés, and the different culture of warfare of their

enemies, these factors were of less importance by the time of their final battle for Tenochtitlan in


        When Hernán Cortés and his group of conquistadors engaged in their first battles with

Meso-American armies on the edge of the Aztec state, their cavalry allowed them to defeat their

enemies decisively while only sustaining minor casualties. Because the object of battle in Meso-

America was to capture as many live enemies as possible, the Spanish found it quite easy to

massacre a large number of the opposition without having many of their own members killed. If

we are to believe the later reports of these early battles as recorded by Díaz and other Spaniards,

a few horsemen could quite effectively run right through a crowd of the opposition and “spear

[the enemy] as they chose.” (Díaz 60) The Spanish also noted the fear with which their enemies

often saw the horses: “The Indians thought that the horse and its rider was one animal, for they

had never seen horses up until this time.” (Díaz 60) Given the beliefs of most Meso-American

people about the interrelationship between reality and the supernatural world, it is possible that

they may have viewed the horsemen as gods come down to the earth, much like the feathered

serpent Quetzalcoatl or any other deity. However, there is no proof that this was a factor in the

way native forces fought the Spanish. What is apparent is that the use of cavalry played well

into the hands of the Spanish as they got closer and closer to Tenochtitlan.

       However, in the final battle of Tenochtitlan in 1521, the Spanish cavalry proved much

less effective than it had before for several reasons. The Aztecs had already fought the Spanish

once and had observed how the Spanish had used their horses. The battle took place in an urban

setting, which eliminated, in most cases, the ability of the Spanish horsemen to run through and

break up the enemy‟s formation. A problem described by many of the Spanish conquistadors

was that the horses had difficulty getting a solid footing on the causeways or on the stone streets,

which greatly reduced their effectiveness. The Spanish also found the Aztecs to be a much more

formidable opponent in battle than any other that they had faced. As Díaz described, “I have

already said before that the cavalry were of little use on the causeways... With these lances and

great showers of arrows and javelins shot from the lake, they wounded and killed the horses

before the horsemen could do damage to the enemy.” (Díaz 204) Although their cavalry aided

the Spanish in other battles, it was not nearly as effective in their final defeat of Tenochtitlan.

       Another point that is often made about the Spanish victory over the Aztecs was the

„superiority‟ of their iron weapons. However, as with horses, these weapons were only valuable

in certain types of battle. In hand to hand combat in open-field battles, when the enemy was

working to take live prisoners, iron weapons most likely would have worked well for the

Spanish. However, in the attack on Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs had changed many of their fighting

techniques. Although they still attempted to take as many captives as possible, the Aztecs

realized the urgency of driving the Spaniards away. (Florentine Codex 193-4)               Unlike in

situations they were used to, the Aztecs knew that the only way to rid themselves of the

Spaniards was to achieve total victory. There is no evidence of what the Aztec leadership was

planning, but the available Spanish accounts show that the Aztec resistance was the most

stubborn they had yet encountered and all attempts at negotiating a surrender were constantly

rejected. As Francisco de Aguilar described Cuauhtemoc‟s refusal to surrender, “He replied with

great conceit and little shame: „I do not care to give myself up, for I prefer to see you all killed.”

(Aguilar 199) Although the exact phrasing of the reply is most likely incorrect, it at least gives a

small indication of what the Spanish saw they were up against.

        In adjusting to the Spanish style of attack, the Aztecs used the top of buildings from

which to throw rocks and spears at the enemy. This proved extremely effective at dealing heavy

injuries to the Spanish. Although the Spanish could block some of this assault with their shields,

they could not defend themselves against all of it, and they had no means of inflicting damage on

these assailants with their iron weapons. Aguilar describes his frustration at this technique:

“...the Mexicans [had the advantage of] their rooftops and high buildings from which they

battered us, and by turns we were forced to retreat or were able to take the offensive.” (Aguilar

198) The problem the Spanish had with this technique was that as soon as they took any ground,

the Aztecs would re-occupy the buildings behind them and begin a new assault from the air. In

order to solve this problem, the Spaniards had their Tlaxcalan allies level all the buildings as they

went. This operation did not require the use of any sophisticated Spanish technology. (Lecture 4


       Among historians of the past, one of the most common explanations for the Spanish

victory over the Aztecs was Cortés‟s extraordinary leadership skills. Indeed, Cortés, from all

available accounts, was a master organizer and leader for the Spanish.             In several crucial

instances, his leadership saved his conquistadors from ruin, and bolstered their ultimate attempt

to subdue Mexico. One such incident occurred at the point which appeared might be the Cortés

expedition‟s last hour. While the Spanish were in Tenochtitlan for the first time and on friendly

terms with Moctezuma, the Aztec tlatoani, Cortés received word that the governor of Cuba,

Diego Valásquez, had sent an expedition out to bring Cortés back to be punished for disobeying

orders. This forced him to leave Mexico with some of his soldiers and head for the coast to fight

Valásquez‟s soldiers. Not only was he able to defeat this much larger force, but presumably

through extraordinary diplomacy, Cortés was able to convince the surviving opposition to join

his group and return with him to Mexico. (Lecture 4 Oct.) Although no one knows exactly how

he orchestrated this deal, it suggests that his leadership skills were extraordinary.

       Conventional wisdom holds that Cortés, with his excellent tactical skills, was able to

seize the opportunity to defeat a state that was left in disarray due to the deaths of Moctezuma

and his successor Cuitlahuac. Due to the lack of first-hand Aztec accounts, it is impossible to

know what the effect of these deaths was on the general populous of Tenochtitlan and, more

importantly, on the Aztec warriors. Many have presumed that these effects were disastrous on

Aztec coordination of defense against the Spanish. However, this opinion can only be based

upon two problematic sources. One reference is the writings of various Spanish conquistadors

who would not have known what the Aztecs were planning and who may not have understood

Aztec battle strategies. The second source is the various „native accounts‟ gathered by Spaniards

who arrived later on as colonists or missionaries. The Florentine Codex is the best known of

these sources, but it has several problems as an „authentic‟ text. The Codex was filtered through

a Spanish missionary, using information taken from Tlatelolcan, not Aztec, informants after they

had been converted to Christianity. Because these informants were Tlatelolcan, they tended to

exaggerate the heroics of their own members and characterize the Aztec warriors as cowardly

and disorganized. (Florentine Codex 190-196) These accounts would most likely show extreme

bias against what the Aztec leadership was planning. Because of these problems, there is no

reliable evidence of what leadership problems the Aztecs might have experienced in their

defense of Tenochtitlan.

       One of the aspects of the battle of Tenochtitlan that may have favored the Spanish, but is

perhaps the most difficult to prove, is the cultural differences between Europeans and the Aztecs.

In the picture of Nahuatl culture drawn by primarily European historians after the conquest up

until the present, the object of warfare was to capture as many live prisoners as possible. Battles

were pre-arranged usually in open areas, and the winner was declared when one side fled.

(Lecture 2 Oct.) When the Spanish had fought other Meso-American opponents, they had not

sustained many casualties. This could be due in part to the Spanish use of horses and iron

weapons, but if their rivals were not expecting this method of fighting, and were focusing on

capturing enemies instead of killing them, the Spanish would probably have had a substantial

advantage. Indeed, the fact that the Spanish only lost one battle (with the Tlaxcalans) on their

march to Mexico indicates that in each of the battles in which they engaged they had a

substantial advantage. One could argue that the very fact that the Spanish were outsiders

unexpectedly entering another people‟s territory gave them a serious advantage. European

weapons may have also played a major role in the Spanish victories. However, because the

Nahuatl societies which the Spaniards fought had never faced an army whose objective in battle

was to massacre the opponent, they may not have known how to react. Most likely, the reason

for the conquistadors‟ success is a combination of each of these factors. (Lecture 4 Oct.)

        Tenochtitlan was the center of information in Meso-America, and word of the Spanish

successes in battle poured in during the months leading up to their arrival. The leaders of

Tenochtitlan‟s military force would have been well aware of these reports, and would have heard

accounts such as this: “When [the Spaniards] reached Tecoac, which is in the land of the

Tlaxcalans, where the Otomis lived, the Otomis met them with hostilities and war. But they

annihilated the Otomis of Tecoac, who were destroyed completely. They lanced and stabbed

them, they shot them with guns, iron bolts, crossbows. Not just a few but a huge number of them

were destroyed.” (Florentine Codex 120) By the time the Spanish reached Tenochtitlan, the

Aztecs would have been aware of the Spaniards‟ fighting techniques. The massacre organized

by Alvarado would have also shown the Aztecs what Spanish methods were like. During the

Spanish escape during Noche Triste, the Aztecs killed most of the Spanish and Tlaxcalan

soldiers, indicating that they did not view battle with the Spanish as normal warfare. (Lecture 4


        Although the Aztecs were able to adapt to the new fighting techniques of the Spanish,

they could not adapt to Spanish diseases. In general, Old World diseases had disastrous effects

on New World populations, and smallpox was the worst of all. There are several reasons why

Old World diseases, smallpox in particular, were so successful in the Americas. Throughout the

New World, very few animals were domesticated, and therefore people were not exposed to as

many diseases to which they could acquire immunity. In Meso-America, there were no beasts of

burden or domesticated animals and people were relatively isolated from foreign diseases. The

Spaniards, on the other hand, lived in a society with many domesticated animals, such as horses

and pigs, which they brought with them to America and used for food, transportation, or other

purposes. Over time, their ancestors had acquired a degree of immunity to various diseases

brought by these animals. When the Spanish entered the New World, their immune systems

protected them from many common New World diseases, whereas the Mexicans had no defenses

against smallpox and other European diseases. (Lecture 18 Oct.)

       Smallpox is a highly contagious disease that can be spread through breath or

contaminated clothes. In Europe, the fatality rate was highest among children; for instance,

among children under five in 18th century Berlin, the case-fatality rate was 98 percent. (Smallpox

29 Oct.) Although children were most vulnerable to smallpox because they had not had time to

develop immunities, all people in Meso-America were extremely vulnerable to smallpox because

no one had ever been exposed to it. Therefore, strong warriors would not necessarily have much

of an advantage over the rest of the population at resisting the disease.

       There are no reliable figures about the death toll from the smallpox epidemic around

Tenochtitlan. The most commonly used figure is one half of the population, but there is little

evidence to back this up as the exact number. When a Spanish missionary asked a Nahuatl

survivor several years after the conquest how many people had died from it, his informant told

him that about half of the total population had perished. (Lecture 18 Oct.) The United States

Department of Health and Human Services estimates that the average case-fatality rate among all

world populations is between 20 and 60 percent. (Facts About Smallpox 29 Oct.) Because of the

Mexicans‟ lack of immunity to the disease, it is safe to estimate that the rate in the Tenochtitlan

epidemic was probably at the higher end of that scale. It also seems likely that the number of

people who contracted the disease would have been extremely high given the lack of food,

potable water, and sanitation during the siege. Those who did not die often were left blind or

with sores on their body which prevented them from physical activity.

        Although it is difficult to establish the exact timeframe of the epidemic, the Florentine

Codex offers a vague estimate. Native ways of recording time were much different from

European methods, and native accounts of history often pose difficulties for European historians

in determining the exact timeframe of events. However, in the Florentine Codex the native

explanation was interpreted and recorded by a European, Fray Bernadino De Sahagún. The

length of “the great rash”, as it was called, epidemic is estimated at sixty days in Tenochtitlan,

after which it spread to Chalco and then to Teotleco. (Florentine Codex 190)

        Determining the effects of the disease on the fight against the Spanish is a difficult task,

but some record is left in native accounts and Spanish observations. In the Florentine Codex,

“the great rash” is described like this:

        “The pustules that covered people caused great desolation; very many people died of them, and
        many just starved to death; starvation reigned, and no one took care of others any longer.... Some
        [people] lost an ear or were blinded.… The Mexica warriors were greatly weakened by it. And
        when things were in this state the Spaniards came,…” (Florentine Codex 190)

This description indicates that the population and the Mexica warriors were still reeling from the

effects of smallpox when the Spanish began their attack. The Spanish conquistador Aguilar

remarked, “We soldiers could scarcely get about the streets because of the Indians who were sick

from hunger, pestilence and smallpox. Also for these reasons, they began to slacken in their

fighting.” (Aguilar 198) This would indicate that smallpox reduced the Mexica warriors‟ ability

to fight effectively.

        Prior to the final battle, the Spanish had been systematically defeating or allying

themselves with the cities surrounding Tenochtitlan, which eventually led to a full-fledged siege

of the city. This caused widespread food, water, and medicine shortages. As Francisco de

Aguilar noted in his account, “great trouble was taken to cut off the fresh water supply” to

Tenochtitlan. (Aguilar 197) In addition to gaining more warriors from these surrounding cities,

the Spanish were methodically starving the Aztec population into submission.               In these

conditions, smallpox and other diseases could thrive.

       The relation between the siege and the smallpox epidemic is extremely important. Not

only were the Aztecs forced to cope with a disease to which they had no immunity, but they were

also cut off from outside food, water, and medical supplies. The combination of these two

factors would most likely have had catastrophic effects on the general population and just as

serious consequences for the warriors in charge of fighting against the Spanish. The siege of

Tenochtitlan had caused widespread famine, which added to the total number of deaths unrelated

to battle. One could reasonably estimate that the total number of Aztecs killed by disease and

famine was far greater than any killed directly by the Spanish in the battle of Tenochtitlan.

       According to Bernal Díaz, the fighting over Tenochtitlan lasted 93 days, which would

indicate that the Aztec forces were able to put up a substantial fight against the Spanish despite

all odds. They were facing an enemy with far more manpower than they had ever faced before,

with sophisticated weapons and war technology which they had never faced before, with a

masterful leader, and with an enormous force of Meso-American allies, yet the Aztecs still

resisted defeat for 93 days while starvation and smallpox ravaged the city. (Díaz 209)

       Had Tenochtitlan not lost any lives to smallpox before and during the battle, would their

resistance have been stronger? Would they have been able to expel the Spanish? It would

appear that the possibility would have been much higher had the entire population been at full

strength.   However, disease among Meso-Americans, as long as Europeans were in the

surrounding area, would have been inevitable even if they had expelled the Spanish from

Tenochtitlan. In a 67 year span, from 1518 to 1585, the population of Mexico fell by over 92

percent from 25.2 million to 1.9 million, mostly due to disease. Even if that percentage were

halved, the population of Meso-America and Tenochtitlan would have been devastated, making

it easier for any second conquest expedition. (Colonial 108)

       Other factors such as weapons, leadership, and cultural differences pale in comparison to

the devastation caused by disease. Smallpox allowed the Spanish to wage a total war on the

Aztec population without having to use a great deal of their resources or energy. In order to

achieve the amount of destruction that was caused by smallpox, the Spanish would have had to

consume much more of their resources and manpower, and it is left to speculation as to whether

the Spanish would have kept up their fight for a much longer time using many more resources.

Without the massive Aztec population decline caused by smallpox, it would have been much

more difficult for the Spanish to defeat one of the most powerful military states in the Western



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