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A Brief History of Colonial Mexico

The Spanish Conquest, carried out by Hernan Cortes and the small force under his command in the years 1519 to 1521, is one of the most dramatic episodes in Mexico's storied history.  At first glance it is difficult to see how if was possible for that small band of adventurers to overthrow the mighty Aztec Empire.  Yet it seems that all possible elements combined in favor of the invaders. 

Cortes himself was fearless and intelligent, a masterful organizer and a natural leader;  In apparent fulfillment of Aztec prophesies, Moctezuma believed that the interlopers were gods, a belief strengthened by the 16 horses, which the Aztecs had never seen, that accompanied them;  The Indian's bows and arrows, darts, lances, stones and manacas (heavy clubs with inset obsidian blades) were no match for the Spaniard's steel armor, knives and swords, muskets, crossbows and 10 pieces of artillery;  Long-smoldering resentment on the part of the Aztec's neighboring, tribute-paying city-states enabled Cortes to form alliances with various tribes, who saw these new invaders as a spearhead for rebellion - After many heated battles (and some defeats) these, and other, things eventually allowed Cortes to assault the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan where the remaining Aztec warriors had retreated.  

The Aztec, outnumbered and outmaneuvered, their food and drinking water supplies cut off and their ranks decimated by smallpox and other diseases introduced by the Spaniards,  nevertheless withstood a 90-day siege, capitulating only upon the capture of now dead Moctezuma's successor, Cuanhtemoc, on August 13, 1521.

The fall of the once proud and lovely Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan gave the Spaniards possession of the central provinces of Mexico.   Cortes, an able administrator as well as conqueror, began immediately to rebuild the city, requested the King of Spain to send friars to Christianize the natives, and dispatched his lieutenants to the east, west and south to conquer new tribes, explore the territory and discover, if possible, the sea route to Asia of which the Spaniards still dreamed.  In the next few years his expeditions had covered the landscape, from the Gulf of California to Guatemala, Yucatan and Honduras.

Conversion of the Indians began in earnest in 1524 with the arrival of the first group of Franciscan missionary friars.  After them came the Dominicans, the Augustinians and the Jesuits.  Armed with nothing more that faith and good will, these early missionaries set about the spiritual conquest of New Spain in a manner as daring and energetic as that of the physical conqueror, Cortes.  The 16th century churches and convents that adorn the Mexican landscape today were built by Indians under the direction of these missionary friars.  With at least 100,000 religious buildings constructed during the Colonial Era, one wonders how, with the primitive tools and techniques at their disposal, it was possible to create the architectural gems that continue to be some of Mexico's greatest artistic assets.

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