As a Spanish student I remember that the times of Cristobal Colon and the Conquerors of Latin America were taught in school as national propaganda, proud and achievement. The conquest of Latin America by the Spanish “Conquistadores” was seen as an accomplishment done by astute, technical, organised and timely effective men who managed to conquer an area which covered from “Tierra del Fuego” in South Argentina until what we know now as California in a time record.
This achievement was explained on a way that seemed even greater, as apparently it was performed by no more than 1500 men. At that time, cities such as Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire, had more than 200,000 citizens. Obviously the Spanish proud was high by the accomplishment of such an achievement. But I guess one of the questions we should ask is whether just 1500 men were able to conquer on their own such a huge land and to defeat really organised nations as the Inca and Aztec Empires.
To respond the question simply, it seems that it wasn´t achieved only by them. The Spanish arrived to Mexico on a time in which the Aztecs had been feeding their Sun god “Huitzilopochtli” with blood obtained from sacrifices for many years. These human sacrifices were made because it was believed that the Sun God´s thirst had to be fulfilled in order to have him back every morning. These human sacrifices came from people that pertained to other areas. These areas were part of the Aztec Empire or were annexed by them. They were conquered by the Aztecs after wars, peace agreements and similar treaties.
For the people of Tenochtitlan, the sacrifices provably were generally accepted. They believed that these sacrifices had to be performed. It was essential for their existence. But for regions that belonged to the Empire and were not part of their religious system from the beginning it wasn´t so easy to understand. It was obviously a tough and difficult task to provide human flesh. They had to choose who to sent to Tenochtitlan. Besides, the human blood demand must have increased with time. Periods of drought and famine affected them. They interpreted these tough periods as connected to insufficient blood being offered to their God. Therefore they increased the amount of sacrifices offered to him. All of this must have brought a lot of dissatisfaction to their regional neighbours, who suffered the consequences of these sacrifices by losing members of their communities.
Let´s leave for a moment the Aztecs. If we are looking at the case of the Inca Empire, first of all it is necessary to say that at the arrival of Pizarro to Peruvian land the Incas had annexed all their territories no longer than 50 or 60 years before. The way the territories were conquered at the times of the Incas, were various. At times it was accomplished by war, other times by peace agreements which included reciprocity. Reciprocity involved the exchange between both territories. The Aztecs would bring structure, protection and gifts to their high ranks. In exchange, the Incas asked for manpower, which was mainly used to work on building, on producing food for the Empire or for the administration of the country. Most provably as the “Tahuantinsuyo” increased, the administration required more workforce. The number of high ranks also raised and that required more labour. The Inca aristocracy did not labour and some enjoyed luxury lives. These comfort was at the expense of labour of the working-class. Besides, the amount of wars in which they were engaged brought the need for more men. Annexed regions had to provide soldiers for battle for the different campaigns in which the Incas got involved. All of this added restraint on those regions which saw how their populations decreased, how their families had to migrate for long periods of time to harvest and work the land. These migrations transformed many regions, turning them into nations that lost part of their independence and freedom.
The Incas were tolerant in matters such as own traditions and religious beliefs. They only required from these regions recognition for the Incas main God. This could be seen as a positive strategy. The Incas may have thought that these initiatives would bring trust, loyalty and maintain peace within their territories. However, some nations such as the Chachapoyas for example joined the Spaniards in the fight against the Incas. Few other regions joined Pizarro and fought the Incas. Then loyalty was not accomplished always. At least not in many of the territories that were part of the “Tahuantinsuyo”.
Looking at the reasons behind this lack of cohesion within the Tahuantinsuyo, it may be that the Incas did not have enough time to built loyalty from their annexed regions. It is possible that the military campaigns, the migration movements to work Inca lands, or the harvesting periods in which men had to work for periods of months away from their homes did contribute to the unhappiness of the people. Maybe these regions would have never been loyal to the Incas as they would have always fought back.
People from Peru thought that the Spanish were Gods. Gods coming to free their people from the Incas. Some nations joined Pizarro and their men into the battles against the Incas. In some cases whole nations on their own, or with little help from the Spaniards, challenged and managed to defeat the Incas in battle. What I am trying to say is that the Incas were not defeated by the Spanish alone. In many cases Incas neighbours defeated them. The Spanish just took advantage of this.
Now going back to Mexico. Hernan Cortes also found many nations who were disappointed and unhappy about their Aztec leaders. Nations that decided to join the Conquerors to battle against the Aztecs.
The case of Mexico though was different from their southern neighbours. Religious beliefs played maybe a bigger role in Mexico than in the Inca war. The Aztecs believed that Quetzalcoatl, or “feathered serpent”, as its Nahuatl translation means, left after battling against other Gods, but promised to return. He was expected to return by sea.
The Spanish arrived by sea obviously, from the area that the Aztecs expected Quetzalcoatl to return. This brought a lot of confusion as the Aztecs really believed that Cortes was the returning God, and they continued to believe that Cortes was a God for a while. Cortes appearance even seemed similar to what Aztecs thought their God looked like. All of this gave time to Cortes, who was able to introduce his army on Aztec land and to move deep inside into their territory.
Cortes was astute to find and understand dissatisfaction in some of the Mexican regions and to turn this into allies that would support him in achieving his objectives. He basically increased his military power by convincing some of these groups to join him in war against Moctezuma II, King of the Aztec Empire. Most provably he promised to some of these regional leaders some land, freedom and a return to the times before Aztecs control.
What I am trying to explain is that even though the Spanish made great achievements in conquering Latin America in terms of organisation, planning and strategy, they also arrived in a context which helped them to reach their objectives. The peoples of many regions they encountered were willing to help and support them, thinking that the Conquerors will free them from Moctezuma II. They thought that the Spanish would save them from their annihilation.
All these regions were formed by groups of people under the rule of powerful neighbours that saw on the Spanish their opportunity to be free. They did defeat the Aztecs and the Incas. But freedom did not replace them. Instead, it was imposed a new system of exploitation by new European powers, who took ownership of their lands and lives, enforcing a system of inequality that lasted for centuries.