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The conquest of the Aztec Empire

This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of The Portuguese and Spanish Empires.

The Aztec Empire covered all of central Mexico. From the lakeside city of Tenochtitlan, it had subjugated several other tribal groups in this region.

Because the Aztec gods continually demanded human sacrifices, the priests used prisoners taken from these tribes.

For this reason, the Aztecs were both feared and detested.

Chosen by the Governor of Cuba to explore the coast of the American continent, Hernando Cortés lands in the region now known as Mexico with a few hundred men on 22 April 1519.

There, he met and made alliances with the Totonac Indians who told him about their hostility towards the Aztecs and the riches to be found in the city of Tenochtitlan.

After founding Veracruz, Cortés advanced further inland, taking a sinuous route in order to make alliances with other groups hostile to the Aztec Emperor Montezuma.

Along the way, he fought against the Tlaxcalans who, as enemies of the Aztecs, were ready to give their allegiance to Cortés. They provided him with several thousand men.

Cortés continued his route towards Cholula, where the natives welcomed him and his troops. However, fearing an ambush, the Spaniards and their Indian allies massacred several thousand people in the city. 

On 8 November, Cortés entered Tenochtitlan where he was welcomed as an honored guest by the Emperor Montezuma.

Nevertheless, both sides remained on their guard. Following a massacre by the Spanish, the Aztecs rose up against Cortés and laid a siege trapping him and his men in the city.  The Spanish managed to escape in dramatic conditions during the night of 30 June 1520, and finally arrived back in Tlaxcala.

On his return, Cortés gathered together his army drawn from many of the Aztecs’ Indian enemies and made preparations for a gradual encirclement of Tenochtitlan. The city was retaken and totally destroyed during a siege that lasted several weeks.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish took over the entire Aztec Empire from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast and systematically conquered the whole of Central America.

The conquest and exploitation of Mexico led to a substantial decrease in the indigenous population, due in part to the introduction of previously unknown diseases.