It is invariably difficult to assess certain events or epochs in history as having negative or positive effects simply because the events themselves are so enormous. Tides of human ambition have taken immense forms, to the extent that both good and bad consequences are inevitable. In plain terms, the founding or expansion of an empire is a greatly positive act for those poised to benefit from it, as it may often be inestimably harmful to the populations conquered or taken over in the process. Given these broad parameters, the negative and positive coexist in a sense. Nonetheless, an equally expansive view of humanity also demands that morality come into play, no matter how enormous or minimal the act, and this provides a lens to more correctly perceive an ultimate negative or positive force. In these terms, the Cortes conquest of Mexico must be seen as inescapably negative. An entire culture was sacrificed to the interests of foreign imperialism, and the world was deprived of a cultivated and vital civilization. No matter the benefits to Spain and the eventual creations of new societies in the Americas, the conquest of the Aztecs led by Hernan Cortes must stand as a paramount example of harm in human history.
In arguing that the Cortes conquest was essentially a negative force, it is helpful to actually present the Aztec culture in a realistic manner, and one not relying on ideas of a victimized civilization as more “evolved.” More exactly, the true harm of the Spanish conquest lies, not in the elimination of a finer society, but in the utterly unjustified motive of one nation perceiving itself as entitled to eradicate another. As Levy makes clear in the early part of his analysis, Montezuma and his people were by no means free of the savagery practiced by the Spanish. The Aztec faith insisted upon, among other things, human sacrifice, and cannibalism was not unknown to the people. Then, the complex and enormous Aztec culture was remarkably similar to modern nations in which an immense population of peasants serves the state. Montezuma presided over the Triple Alliance of the great cities of Tenochtitlan, Texcobo, and Tacuba, supported by harsh taxes and tithes demanded from all tribes (Levy 4-5). For the true meaning of the Cortes conquest to be revealed, then, it is necessary to comprehend that, as extreme and violent as the action was, it was no case of an “evil” empire subjugating a “good” one. The Spanish and the Aztecs were each vast nations in which all the components of human existence, including greed and barbarity, were evident.
Moreover, the ultimate negativity of the Cortes conquest does not reside in a neat trajectory of oppressor subjugating oppressed. As relatively rapid as the Spanish conquest of Mexico was, there were shifting processes within it of something near to cooperation. For example, the first foothold made by Cortes was the winning over of the Tlaxcalans, a population eager to embrace any force challenging Aztec supremacy. The Tlaxcalans converted to Christianity, so determined were they to support the new Spanish, whom they perceived as allies. Enabled to proceed, Cortes soon took the capital city of Tenochtitlan, placing Montezuma under arrest and essentially setting himself up as a Spanish governor over a population of 25 million (Lockard 495). Fresh arrivals of Spanish troops reinforced the new authority, and it is interesting to speculate that, at least for the bulk of the Aztec population, all that may have been occurring was a change in governing regime. More to the point, this was by no means an impossible scenario to achieve, and the Spanish empire might have absorbed the enormity of the Aztec world with no excess of subjugation or the destruction of its society.
That any such relatively peaceful merging of kingdoms did not occur powerfully emphasizes the inherent harm of the Spanish invasion. What evolved, not unexpectedly, was an increasingly violent clash between ideologies, the nationalistic variety being no less significant than the religious. Much has been written about the Christianity fueling Spanish motives in conquest, and the Spanish urgency to promote Catholicism as strong as the Spanish desire for acquiring wealth.
Similarly, the Aztecs were devoutly pantheistic and, if certain populations were willing to convert, the majority held to pagan worship. These factors, so potently creating the types of civilizations, then infused the cultural essences of them, and the conflict between Spain and the Aztecs was as much spiritual as it was material. This was a war of belief systems (Pohl, Robinson 9). and of kinds going to all forms of behavior. The Spanish, assured of the rightness of Catholicism, were notoriously arrogant, certainly not the only instance of a Christian force acting as entitled by virtue of its maintaining the true faith. The arrogance grew to the extent that Aztec mobs resisted Spanish rule, prompting Cortes to engineer the eventual destruction of the capital (Lockard 405). It is probable that each side, and at various points within the Spanish occupation, fiercely believed itself to be acting in accordance with what is right. Given the contrasting natures of the civilization’s belief systems and agendas, a violent conflict of unprecedented proportions was then inevitable. More to the point, the fact of the Spanish entry into the Aztec realm alone virtually assured a hostile and immense war. Elements of initial cooperation notwithstanding, there could be no such coming together of so large and diverse interests otherwise. As the Spanish instigated this course of events, the ultimate charge of creating a negative force lies with them.
In pragmatic terms, it is certainly possible to argue that the Cortes conquest was largely positive, and beyond Spanish interests. It essentially followed a global paradigm of human expansion; explorers discover, conquerors claim, and settlements and colonies arise which eventually reflect blendings of multiple cultures. Colonization may only occur after the land is in some way assumed or taken over, and the vast Spanish influences that have shaped South America could not have happened without the initial conquest. That these influences have certainly been beneficial is clear, if only due to the ongoing and largely successful nation/states that have emerged from them over the centuries Then, whatever good has arisen from the promulgation of Christianity in the Americas could not have occurred without the violent beginning (Cardoza-Orlandi, Gonzalez 142).. It must again be noted that, when arenas of this size are examined in regard to negative and positive outcomes, it is inevitable that some good is identified, if only due to the persistence of societies in evolving from turbulent conditions and actual conquests.
Benefits notwithstanding, however, there remains the inescapable fact that the Cortes conquest exists as a negative force. It is irrelevant that Aztec culture was less than ideal or exhibited barbarism, just as it is irrelevant that the invasion set the stage for multiple societies to develop. The core issue, and one in no way ameliorated by its being ordinary in the course of history, is that one empire arrogantly assumed authority over another, and through force. Spain violated its own precepts of Christian behavior in the process, emphasizing the essentially negative aspect of the action. If morality itself is subject to debate and differs from culture to culture, it is nonetheless accepted universally that conquest of this order is a wrong, and that no society has the right to subjugate another, no matter the spiritual or mercenary intent. The real negativity of the Cortes conquest lies, not in the actual circumstances or repercussions of it, but as a legacy of human arrogance of astounding proportions.
On a personal level, and as I seek to reconcile the Cortes history with the modern world both following and partially enabled by it, I find myself increasingly drawn to my major point. It is easy to rationalize great events of the past because they are so great; when humans engage in actions at this level, negative and positive seem almost abstract, or inapplicable, because the most fundamental human motivations are in play, and en masse. When this is sifted, however, the negativity become clear and the reality of blatantly unjust forces is seen for what it is. If cultures have arisen from the Aztec ashes, so too is it reasonable to project that the same processes would have followed an Aztec civilization not invaded, and no good may then be directly attributed to its destruction. No matter the immediate advantages to Spain at the time, or the subsequent development of new societies and cultures in the Americas, the conquest of the Aztecs by Hernan Cortes and the Spanish stands as a paramount example of harm in human history.
Cardoza-Orlandi, C. F., & Gonzalez, J. L. To All Nations from All Nations: A History of the Christian Missionary Movement. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013. Print.
Levy, B. Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.
Lockard, C. A. Societies, Networks, and Transitions: A Global History. Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2005. Print.
Pohl, J. M. D., & Robinson, C. M. Aztecs And Conquistadores: The Spanish Invasion And the Collapse of the Aztec Empire. New York: Osprey Publishing, 2005. Print.