Conquest and Colonization of Mexico Essay

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Colonization and Mexico

The Conquest and Colonization of Mexico

Historians of colonial Mexico are continually faced with the dilemma of what to emphasize; the resilience of indigenous culture or the disruption and exploitation that the conquest represented. While it is true that significant aspects of indigenous culture survived the conquest, emphasizing the resilience of indigenous culture implies that the conquest had less of an impact of the indigenous people than it actually had. This tendency towards minimization may be due to the fact that the number of Spaniards was minimal when compared to the number of indigenous people. Therefore, while the actual atrocities of conquest, such as rape, murder, maiming, and abductions certainly occurred, they alone cannot be blamed for the disruption and exploitation that resulted from the conquest (Livi-Bacci). Instead, the real legacy of the conquest was due to several less direct factors, none of which reflect a resilient indigenous culture, but clearly demonstrate a horrible legacy of exploitation and disruption. These factors include the technological superiority of the Spaniards, the spread of disease in the New World, the push for assimilation in religious and political life, forced labor, the introduction of black slaves and freemen into the colonial caste-system, and the destruction of the Mexican environment.

At the time of the conquest, the Aztecs were the most advanced civilization in the New World. In 1519, the city of Tenochtitlan had about 200,000 inhabitants and was one of the largest cities in the entire world (Lecture 2).Get full Download Microsoft Word File access
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Essay on Conquest and Colonization of Mexico Assignment

Moreover, the Aztecs had a highly-developed social system, with rulers, nobility, traders, artisans, peasants, and slaves (Lecture 2). While the society was highly developed, in the early 16th century it was also entering into the beginning of a little ice age, and the temperature extremes associated with it, and the feast and famine cycles engendered by such changes helped contribute to an instable society, which featured lots of fighting between groups (lecture 12). In fact, many of the details of Aztec civilization get downplayed because they were considered a brutal society by Europeans, most significantly because they sacrificed humans to their gods. In fact, at times they engaged in mass sacrifices of 5,000 prisoners to the gods. (Lecture 2). This is a significant factor, not because it emphasizes that the Aztecs were heathens, but because it demonstrates that, just prior to conquest, the Aztecs had the military might to execute 5,000 prisoners, and the religious conviction to believe that their gods required such human sacrifice. In fact, these ceremonial performances served an important political purpose, because they reminded people of the advantages of "being inside rather than outside the Aztec polity" (Notes 9/9/2008). This military might was ingrained into the society; young men began training as warriors at ten or eleven years of age, and continued that training throughout their adolescence (Clendinnen).

While there is tremendous emphasis on the Aztecs and how they were impacted by colonization, it is important to keep in mind that they were only one of the indigenous groups in pre-colonial Mexico. The Maya were not as militaristic as the Aztec, but had a fully developed society and were actually very hospitable to the Spaniards. The Olmecs lacked the technological advances in weaponry that the Spaniards had, but were able to create tremendous buildings and developed a socio-political system that supported such building and the development of the arts (Schroeder). Given that, within years of the arrival of Spaniards on Mexican soil, none of the indigenous people would have the military might to be considered great warriors, or the self-direction to be considered fully developed societies, it seems clear that these native cultures were tremendously and negatively impacted by conquest and colonization.

Perhaps the primary myth about the colonization of Mexico is that the native Mexicans believed that the Spanish explorers were gods and welcomed them. While there was a native myth that Quetzalcoatl, a white god, would one day return, the myth is only poorly correlated to the arrival of Cortes, and does not show up in documentation until years after the conquest (Notes, 9/16/2008). However, this myth has served several purposes when explaining the apparent ease of the colonization, because it explains the conquest of the native Mexican races without implying that the natives were less intelligent than the Spanish and minimizes any atrocities committed by the Spanish. In reality, the fact that the Aztecs were less technologically developed than the Spaniards explains how a relatively small force of people could overtake a large and well-developed civilization without acquiescence by that civilization. This notion is reinforced by the conflicting reports regarding when Montezuma was arrested by Cortes, as well as the conditions of his capitulation to the Spaniards (Townsend). What this makes clear is that even the initial conquest was something that was probably fought by the indigenous people, a theory that is supported by Spanish reports of being met with hostility during earlier times of contact with natives.

One reason that the god-myth may have had such appeal is the fact that indigenous Mexicans seem to have readily acquiesced to Spanish control of the area, despite having an overwhelming population advantage. However, it is important to realize that not all dominance is rooted in violence. Hegemony refers to domination that is not based solely on the threat of force, but "on subtler, less spectacularly violent, yet more pervasive forms of social control" (Law and the Transformation of Aztec Culture). The Spaniards were able to use tremendous and previously unknown types of force against the indigenous people; after all, they had weapons that were technologically superior to those of the natives. However, they did not have to use those weapons on all of the people; instead, they could rely on the threat of the weaponry to make their point. Therefore, one can see how, "Hegemony develops not because people collaborate in their own subjugation but because a dominating power has been able to institute practices and beliefs that rational people choose to adhere to, often because of coercive threats, but that over time come to appear normal, even natural" (Law and the Transformation of Aztec Culture).

For example, one of the primary methods that the Spaniards used to attempt to assimilate the indigenous people was religious conversion to Catholicism. As a result, the Catholic missionaries tried to create a utopian society, with a carefully defined paradise that relied upon the indigenous people playing the role of perpetual children, who were docile, obedient, and powerless (Notes, 10/14/2008). However, one of the main conflicts between indigenous religion and Catholic beliefs was the idea of idolatry, and what constituted appropriate worship. Indigenous culture was irreparably harmed by the idea that it could be fatal to practice an indigenous religion. For example, Bishop Diego De Landa led inquisitional campaigns in the Mayan Yucatan Peninsula from 1551 through 1565. He was directly or indirectly responsible for the death by public burning of 158 natives during that time (Lecture 5).

Another tool of assimilation was protectionism linked to exploitation. Once the colony was established, the Spanish crown always ensured that the public granary was fully stocked, and, in times of crises, that granary could be used to feed the poor (Lecture 10). That represented a significant change from pre-colonial Mexico, where food was produced and consumed locally and a famine could mean death for the residents of a local area. Another tool used to subjugate the natives was immense taxation. Eventually, after the late 16th century, community tribute debts were treated as personal debts and the native officials who were unable to pay those debts were jailed as criminals and had their homes seized and sold to satisfy the debts (Notes, 10/7/2008).

In addition, this apparent acquiescence finds some of its roots in the fact that the Spaniards had become accomplished imperialists and warriors by the time that they entered Mexico. In fact, the Spanish had honed their fighting skills because of the constant jostling for power in Europe. Columbus had initially established a trading post in the Dominican Republic, but when he returned to Spain to report back on his success, the Spaniards left in the Dominican Republic were killed by the indigenous people. This was an important lesson for the Spaniards, who realized that the fragmented rule and technologically inferior weapons of the indigenous people left them vulnerable to Spanish conquest (Lecture 3). In fact, when Cortes arrived in Potonchan, the indigenous people initially met him with violent resistance, but capitulated to him when they realized that he had superior weaponry. At that point, Cortes was able to make allies with the Totonaca, which gave him a strategic advantage in later battles with other people. Although the indigenous people had long engaged in battles with one another, doing so when allied with the Spaniards gave those battles a context that they had never previously had. Moreover, while the Spaniards could not exercise military might and commit atrocities against many of the natives, the atrocities that they did commit made them… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Conquest and Colonization of Mexico.  (2009, February 27).  Retrieved January 26, 2021, from

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"Conquest and Colonization of Mexico."  27 February 2009.  Web.  26 January 2021. <>.

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"Conquest and Colonization of Mexico."  February 27, 2009.  Accessed January 26, 2021.