In the late 1400s and early 1500s a proficient military had been stimulated in Spain by the Reconquista, which drove the Muslim North African Moors from Iberia, and the Italian Wars (1494–1559) against France. This, combined with the impetus created by Columbus in the Caribbean, meant that Spain was on a collision course with the pre-Columbian civilisations in Central and South America.
Between 1499 and 1508 Spanish expeditions had been exploring the northern coast of South America. In the Caribbean, Hispaniola (Haiti) was secured as a base of operations against Cuba and the Antilles. Hernán Cortés arrived in Santo Domingo, on Hispaniola, in about 1504. Initially he had intended to fight in the Italian Wars like his father, but had drifted to the New World. Five years later, he joined Diego Velázquez in conquering Cuba. For his success Velázquez was rewarded with the governorship of the island and Cortés was appointed his secretary.
Then, in 1517, Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba landed on the Mexican Yucatán Peninsula. He received a mixed reception from the declining Mayan civilisation, which ended in twenty dead Spaniards. For the time being, the Maya were to be spared the rapacious Spanish. The following year an expedition sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, landing in what is now Tabasco. Juan de Grijalva, Velázquez’s nephew, made contact with the Totonac people who told him of the wonders of Tenochtitlan and, importantly, how they resented Aztec authority.
Meanwhile in Tenochtitlan, Montezuma’s spies reported on the progress of the strange visitors from across the sea. It seemed the legend of Quetzalcoatl was coming true and he hoped that he could conclude his reign before the transition of power. The emperor resolved to meet these visitors with the utmost hospitality. First gold and precious stones were sent to the Spanish, who returned with them to Cuba. Their greedy appetites wetted, they were not slow in returning.
Cortés set sail from Cuba with 550 soldiers, sixteen horses, ten brass cannon and four smaller ones on 18 February 1519. Most of the men were hardy Castilians from the dry tableland of central Spain. His lieutenant was one Pedro de Alvarado, who was from the same province as Cortés. However, Cortés nearly never left. At the last minute, Governor Velázquez, having appointed Cortés captain general of the expedition but fearing the success of Cortés’ preparations, tried to remove him; but it was too late, he had already sailed. Despite claims that this expedition in the New World was for the glory of God and Spain, the true motive was greed – greed for gold.
Cortés headed for Tabasco and once ashore his muskets and horses quickly defeated a Tabascan army of up to 12,000. Thus, at Potonchán on the mouth of the Tabasco River, Cortés experienced his first major victory when his European arms drove off the hostile Tabascans. His cavalry attacked the Indians from behind, taking them by surprise. The natives had never seen horses before, to them they were some sort of supernatural beast and many fled in abject terror.
The Spanish then sailed further up the coast, landing on 21 April 1519, not only the same year and same month as the Aztec prophecy, but the very day. Once on the mainland, Cortés founded Vera Cruz and a municipality answering direct to Spain and snubbing Velázquez’s Cuban authority. In a stroke of luck Cortés discovered a shipwrecked Spaniard who spoke Mayan, and an Indian woman, part of the spoils from the Battle of Tabasco, who could speak Aztec: the latter, Malinche, quickly learned Spanish and became his mistress.
Once again, Montezuma’s gifts, which were intended to persuade Quetzalcoatl to leave so that the Tlatoani could complete his reign, had the reverse effect. Cortés, defiantly sinking all but one of his ships, marched on Tenochtitlan. His army of some 400 men, fifteen horses and six cannon faced a journey of 200 miles. His forces also included some 3,000 Carib, Mayan, Tabascan and Totonac Indians. The Totonacs advised him to march via Tlaxcala and provided forty warriors and 200 porters. The forthcoming Tlaxcalan campaign, after the rehearsals with the Tabascans, was a taste of things to come and in hindsight proved crucial to Cortés’ overall success against the powerful Aztecs.
Extracted from The Killing Game: A Thousand Years of Warfare in Twenty Battles by Anthony Tucker-Jones