How Mexico was Conquered and Converted to Christianity

The Attractions of Mexico

Foreign visitors to multiracial Mexico are bound to be fascinated by its historic cities of considerable gaiety and old world charm, its varied landscapes, famed pristine beach resorts, which have become favourite haunts of the international elites, and seemingly relaxing lifestyle. Above all, they will be impressed by its colourful, vibrant, hospitable and friendly people who will extend a warm welcome to foreign tourists. With a glorious history going back more than 3000 years, it has ancient monuments and artifacts which bear comparison with those in China, Egypt and Greece.

Over the years, my wife and I, together with some members of our family, had made several trips from California to this vast country, including its capital in Mexico City and the surrounding regions , the coastal towns and seaside resorts of the Mexican Rivera and Baja California. Needless to say, we had all enjoyed our times there and will be revisiting other parts of this exciting country in the not too distant future.

However, beneath the gay and pulsating exterior of this Spanish-speaking nation, it has had a turbulent past which many a casual visitor may not be acquainted with. I will begin with the Aztecs era, whose descendants constitute the majority population in this country. It succeeded the Toltecs as the new masters of Mexico in the 14th century, and built up the most powerful and prosperous empire in the American continent by subjugating other native tribes through their military prowess and a reign of relentless suppression. Unexpectedly, this formidable kingdom lasted only about two centuries. It was, in turn, brutally conquered by the Spaniards from the other end of the world in 1521, after two years of bloody war. The vanquished Aztecs were subjected to unimaginable sufferings and cruel treatment by their conquerors . They had to endure three centuries of harsh colonial rule, but ultimately fought and won its independence in 1824. Thus, modern Mexico came into being and became a republic.

Prelude to Conquest

When Christopher Columbus discovered the “New World” of America for Spain in 1492, the continent already possessed its own civilisations and cultures that were older and richer than many European countries. Columbus and his fellow Europeans did history a great disservice by erroneously calling the native Americans collectively as “Indians”, in the mistaken belief that they had reached the shores of the Indies (which included the Indian sub continent and South East Asia), which would lead them to the riches of China. Unfortunately for posterity, this misnomer has stood uncorrected since then.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the Mexican Empire under the Aztecs had an estimated population of 25 millions – three times that of Spain. It had virtually no contact with countries outside the American continent. Its capital, Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), was bigger and more established than most European cities. It had an unusually large population approaching 300,000. It boasted a sophisticated and vibrant city centre replete with palaces, elegant residences and imposing temples and pyramids, surrounded by a beautiful lake.

Spain and Portugal were then the leading maritime powers in Europe. It was the Age of Discovery as Europe emerged from the Dark Ages into the revitalising era of the Renaissance. At the urging of the Vatican and through its influence, the two contending powers settled their intense rivalry in their quest for terra incognito, unknown territories . With the blessings of the Pope, they agreed to divide up their spheres of exploration and colonisation within which the other power would not intrude.

In return for the papal endorsement of their respective territorial rights, they would support the aim of the Catholic Church to convert the inhabitants in the newly-acquired lands to Christianity. The underpinning impetuses for these Voyages of Discovery were threefold: to exploit these territories’ natural resources like gold and silver, empire-building and to glorify the Christian religion by converting the natives to it. Encouraged by the earlier successes of Columbus in colonising parts of America for the Spanish Crown, the stage was set for the historic collision between the Spanish and the Mexican Empires.

Conquest of Mexico

It was essentially a clash of arms and cultures between these two disparate empires who, nevertheless, shared some common traits. Both were accomplished, albeit in different fields, but extremely ruthless; and each took great prides in its own military prowess and as rulers of men. While the Aztecs were advanced in mathematics, astronomy, architecture and skilled in artistic endeavours, they were surprisingly backward in the physical laws of experimental sciences, the mastery of which had transformed Europe and Spain into a technologically far more advanced society than those in  the American continent.

Furthermore, the Aztecs were, by present day standards, a highly superstitious people who felt a surging need to offer human sacrifices to the gods as a means of averting natural calamities such as earthquakes and pestilences. While professing great admiration for the visible achievements of the Aztecs, the Spaniards were absolutely convinced of their own superiority, in the righteousness of their mission of conquest and in the spiritual uplifting that the Catholic faith would confer on the natives of Mexico. The Spanish conquest of Mexico and the subsequent speedy conversion of the natives to Roman Catholicism must surely rank as one of the greatest military and religious coups in the annals of history.

How is it that Spain, with only 1800 soldiers, could sustain and win a crushing victory against a formidable foe with superior resources and numerical fighting strength vastly exceeding theirs?
Even more astonishing, how did the Catholic Church manage the seemingly impossible task of converting 9-million heathens, with deeply-entrenched indigenous religions of their own, to its folds within such a short time of the conquest, especially as it had earlier failed to make any significant headway despite strenuous efforts to achieve this objective?

To begin with, the Spaniards were extremely fortunate to have had a brilliant but ruthless commander-in-chief, Hernan Cortes, who had already been fully-blooded in battles against the Indians elsewhere and knew their strengths and weaknesses. The first meeting between Cortes and the Mexican Emperor, Moctezuma, bordered on the comical. The Emperor recalled a foreboding dream that the arrival of the white man, with blue eyes and beard, would bring collapse to his kingdom. As Cortes fitted the picture perfectly, the hapless monarch truly believed that the Spaniard was the bringer of such doom.

The Emperor was ill-advised that the best way to deal with these unwelcome visitors would be to treat them hospitably, and to shower them with precious gifts such as gold and silver so that they would leave his domain happy and contented. This turned out to be a fatal mistake, as the sight of such rich treasures only titillated the Spaniards’ greed and reinforced their resolve for conquest. War inevitably erupted between them. Despite the Aztecs’ greater human resources and other built-in advantages, the invaders, with more effective leadership, technologically more devastating weaponry and tactical supremacy coupled with the help of a substantial auxiliary force of other Indians who hated the Aztecs, were able to convincingly trounce the static and poorly-led defenders.

After a 3-month siege of the Aztec capital, it fell to the Spaniards and brought the war to a close. The Spanish victory was achieved at the cost of tremendous loss of lives and untold sufferings of the defeated. The atrocities and wanton acts of destruction of their heritages committed by the victors and some of their Indian allies, if judged by modern yardsticks, would have made them war criminals deserving the most severe punishments. According to a Spanish eye-witness account, the capital was littered with countless decomposed bodies and the human stench was unbearable. There were hardly any houses left intact and food and drinking water was scarce. Women were raped and there was looting everywhere. A reliable estimate puts the Aztec troop losses at the siege at more than 100,000 dead, as against the negligible Spanish fatalities of about 100, not counting the numerous civilians killed. In totality, the invaders and their Indian allies had lost only 1000 soldiers during the two-year campaign.

What historical lesson can be drawn from the Spanish conquest of Mexico? It is that a blissfully isolated and standstill empire, largely cut off from the rest of the civilised world, was absolutely no match against a numerically smaller foe who were better-led and militarily and technologically more superior. The same lesson applied to the rapidly declining China of the 19th century, which had led the world in both power and wealth for a considerable period before that and whose closed-door policy and complacency had led to humiliations imposed on it by the foreign powers for close to a century when they blatantly usurped China’s sovereignty with impunity in pursuit of their Gunboat Policy.

Christianisation of Mexico

Following the conquest, the Church, with financial grants from the Spanish Crown, immediately set up an extensive network of monasteries, churches and parishes throughout the land. But the conversion of the natives was a slow and uphill process. Then, something quite extraordinary happened which irreversibly changed the course of Mexican history and civilisation. In 1531, the Virgin Mary, in the manifestation of an Indian woman, appeared before a poor Indian convert, Juan Diego, on several different occasions seeking his help to transmit a request to the Spanish Bishop of Mexico to build a church in her honour on Tepeyac Hill in Guadalupe, in the outskirts of the capital. Quite understandably, the bishop did not believe his story. It was only when Juan Diego produced the image of the Mother of God, miraculously emblazoned on his garment, that the bishop was convinced of his veracity. A church was duly built at the spot where the visions occurred. Almost 500 years later, Vatican finally recognised the unfailing devotion of Juan Diego, who had dedicated the remainder of his life to the service of the Catholic faith, and confirmed him a Mexican saint, a belated honour he truly deserves.

The fame of Virgin Mary, who became known as the Virgin of Guadalupe, after the name of a Marian shrine in Spain, spread like wildfire and countless number of Indians soon flocked to the church to gaze at “the Indian mother of the white man’s God”. This Indianisation of the Virgin paved the way for the massive conversion of the Mexicans to the Catholic faith. The initial trickle soon became a strong tidal wave, as it were, and, before 1540, an incredible and inconceivable 9-million new Catholics had been admitted into the Church, less than 9 years after the first appearance of the vision to Juan Diego. Today, pilgrims from all over the world flock to this Marian shrine to pay homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe who had helped  this nation to embrace Christianity.

This unprecedented feat came at a time when Europe was convulsed by the Reformation movement spearheaded by Martin Luther in the 1520s, which had gained adherents in many countries there, resulting in the defection of millions of Catholics to the new Protestant denomination. The Guadalupe shrine, together with the Marian shrine at Lourdes in France, are now the largest and the most popular Marian shrines in the world. Every year more than 20-million devotees from all over the world, including an increasing number of Singaporean Catholics, make their pilgrimages to Guadalupe for a spiritual experience, first unfolded to an impoverished Indian more than 470 years ago. The Lady of Guadalupe is the patron saint not only of Mexico, but also that of the rest of Latin America. She provides strength and comfort to their inhabitants in times of national crises or upheavals.

Impact of Conquest

How would one evaluate the consequences of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and its impact on the subsequent development of its civilisation? Historians are of the consensus that one of its greatest calamities was demographic in nature, which the conquerors could neither have anticipated nor taken any actions to remedy it. The Spaniards brought with them “the white man’s diseases” from Europe, such as smallpox and measles, to which the natives had no immunity and for which there were no panaceas. The catastrophic impact of these diseases was such that from a total population of 25-million before the coming of the invaders, it was decimated to about 2.5-million by the 1560s. Historians contend that, but for these plagues, the Mexican population should now have edged closer to that of India of one billion people, instead of its current estimated 109 million.

Another significant consequence is that the colonisers became acutely short of the hitherto abundance of cheap labour with the result that substitute slave workers had, perforce, to be imported from Africa, thus changing the racial character of the Mexican society forever. The Spaniards implemented measures which led to the systematic erosion of the traditional native civilisations and cultures, from which they had no prospects of a real recovery. The result was that the country was gradually and irreversibly being transformed into a Western and Christian society that it is to-day.

Be that as it may, despite what has already happened, the ghosts of the conquest have not yet been put to eternal rest. The majority of Mexicans are classified as Mestizos, who are mainly part Indian, part African and part Spanish, and they are immensely proud of their Indian heritage and perceive their Spanish forebears to be the villains as they recall the inhumanities accompanying the conquest. The continuing excavations and discoveries of many rare and hitherto unknown artifacts bringing to light further evidence of the glorious past of the Aztecs and their other native ancestors have strengthened their pride and aroused their interests in things indigenous. Hopefully, this could lead to a renaissance in native civilisations and cultures and restore them to their rightful place in the Mexican society.

Lam Pin Foo

17 thoughts on “How Mexico was Conquered and Converted to Christianity

  1. Pingback: Burn the Ships: Hernán Cortés and the Order that Changed the New World

  2. What about our Lady of Guadalupe , no mention of the apparitions in 1531? 100,000 Aztecs killed compared to 100 Spaniards is difficult to believe. How many Aztecs converted?

  3. May I just say what a comfort to find someone who genuinely knows what they’re discussing online.

    You certainly know how to bring a problem to light and
    make it important. More people have to check this out and understand
    this side of the story. I was surprised that you are not more popular because you surely have the gift.

  4. Many thanks for your comment and clarification.

    In the last paragraph of my article, I have stated that the overwhelming majority of the present day Mexicans are Mestizos, of mixed descent of the various native Indian races , Spanish and African, and not dominated by the Aztecs.

  5. Really god job but the majority of Mexicans arent Aztec,80% of Mexicans are mixed race, yes we look “indians”but phenotype isnt everything,besides mexico has 62 indigenous ethnic groups and depending the region people are Mayan,otomi,tarascan,European or African, the real Aztec died in 1521, most people don’t have any Aztec ancestry ,maybe Nahua but not Aztec

  6. Amazing essay you have written. You pratically summarized some of Mexico’s past in a single piece of work. I commend you on your efforts.

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