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Conquest of the Aztecs

Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) defeated the Aztecs in 1521. The Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus made several voyages to the Americas, taking him to the coast of mainland Central and South America. Amerigo Vespucci’s 1501–2 exploration of the east coast of South America seemed to confirm the lands were part of a new continent, which was named “America” after his first name. The Spanish crown then backed further expeditions to explore and conquer new territories in the Americas. The first campaigns were led by soldiers and adventurers who were in search of riches and fame: the conquistadores, one of whom, Hernán Cortés (1485–1547), set out to conquer the Aztec Empire (in modern Mexico).

Panorama of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán (a mural by Diego Rivera)

The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, was founded in 1325.

The Aztecs

The centre of the Aztec civilization was Tenochtitlán, their capital. Founded in 1325, the city was built on an island in Lake Texcoco. Its inhabitants were supplied with fresh water by a system of pipes and aqueducts. By the 1400s, the Aztecs controlled much of the land surrounding the city. Under their ruler Moctezuma I (ruled 1440–69), the Aztecs extended their empire across central Mexico, from coast to coast. At its height, at the beginnning of the 16th century, the Aztec Empire had a population of around 4 million.

Cortés arrives in Mexico

Spanish military power was too much for the Aztec soldiers, but a far greater peril the natives faced was disease. They had no resistance to the European diseases of smallpox and measles. By the end of the 16th century, the native population had declined by 93%.

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