What role did Indigenous Americans play in the collapse of the Aztec and Inca Empires

The role of the Indigenous Americans in the demise of both the Aztec and Inca empires was one of division, in that the people acted in both support and opposition to the invading Spaniards, and so knowingly or ignorantly had a role in the fall of their Empires. The Aztec and Inca empires were both vast agricultural societies in the form of imperial states. 1 They were both sophisticated, powerful and highly organised, however during the early fifteenth century they both went through a highly divisive period resulting in not only civil war in the empire of the Incas but also the final fall of both empires, including the Aztec’s.

This can be seen as a significant contributing factor to the seemingly easy conquest by such a small band of Spaniards in each case. The fall of the Aztecs began with the arrival in Mexico in 1519 of the Conquistadores2 and what followed to be a noteworthy alliance with an Indigenous American named Dona Marina. Marina was able to speak both Nahuatl and Maya, the former the language of the majority of Aztecs, and the latter being the language of a coastal Chief. Dona was able then to speak to a fellow ship member of the Spaniards that spoke Maya.

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This advantage allowed Hernan Cortes, the leader of the Spaniards to collect intelligence of the land, but also diplomatic ties that would enable them to co-exist (at least in the beginning) in a peace. 3 Throughout Hernan Cortes’ conquest this dialogue also alerted Cortes of Aztec plans to foil the conquest, helped in alliance creating, negotiating and even more importantly in the success of the Spaniards mission Dona Marina helped in the creation of the New Mexico. The Spaniards might have avoided almost certain death with Marina at their sides. 4 However this was not the only reason for such a passive embrace of the Spaniards.

The King of the Aztecs, Moteczoma and more importantly the religion of which he and the state adhered to also played a role in the fall of the empire. Before the Spanish arrival there was a great omen that foretold the fall of Moteczoma, and that the Conquistadores were in fact Gods returning to exact their brutality on him. 5 To quell the Gods’ anger he established them in the town of Cempola, ordering every town to honour and treat the Spanish with respect. Although this made it considerably easier for the Spaniards to advance it also resulted in some Aztecs taking the role of opposition.

Tocpacxochiuh, leader of the Tecoac took such an opposition. This was the first bold step in resistance to the invading Spaniards. The massive numbers of Aztecs meant that the Spaniards had to flee until they captured the officials of the Tecoac army. While the siege had continued Moteczoma had been sending Cortes the supplies he needed. Cortes released the men and in doing so won the respect of the Tecoac people, who in turn stopped the siege and agreed to lead the Spaniards to the Capital. 6 Now many cities and people of the empire found themselves in allegiance with the Spaniards and in doing so found themselves helping the conquerors.

Opposition gathered as Cortes took advantage of the discord and often hatred of their ruler. Other peoples like the Tlaxcalans provided soldiers to the Spanish cause. They furthermore gave away the secret that Moteczoma in fact wished the Spanish dead. 7 Alliances sprang up such as of Texcoco, tired of the rule of the apparent tyrant Moteczoma the sovereign Don Fernando Ixtlclxochitl fought and killed so many of the Aztec people in the fight for the capital Tenochtitln his name created fear and subsequent victories for the Spanish. 8 By the time Cortes and his men had reached the Capital of Tenochtitln he had gained thousands of soldiers.

Taking the city was then made comparably easier for Cortes even though he would still have to face the opposition of Aztecs, especially with the unforced resignation of Moteczoma. The situation was also made simpler by Marina’s translation skills in this take over. Moteczoma’s own ignorance impeded further on the cause of the Aztecs when in captivity he called together the nobility of the empire under Cortes’ wishes, whence Cortes massacred the entire elite. However the Aztecs then came in abundance to revenge such a crime marking the beginnings of real opposition.

Although Cortes had crowned a new king named Cuauhtemoc, one he could manipulate it revealed the rift “ran too deep for the inhabitants to make common cause against the invader. “9 Cuauhtemoc gathered the soldiers into the city and fought for the empire. Again however it was not the Spanish that turned the battle but the error of the the Aztecs. An Aztec, Don Fernando Ixtlilxochitl ironically informed Cortes that food shortages would harm the Aztecs and create more success than fighting. 10 Cuauhtemoc had forgotten to store enough food for the city and with the enemy surrounding they slowly starved, fled and died. In this way the greatest enemy of the Aztecs was hunger”11 and inevitably themselves, falling on the 13th August 1521. The Spanish arrived in Peru lead by Francisco Pizarro in 1530.

The land of the Incas was enduring a civil war and like the fall of the Aztecs much can be explained through the role of the division within the empire, historians such as Nigel Davies even speculate as to if the Incas would have even survived without the Spanish invasion. 13 The civil war that was erupting when the Spanish arrived was due to lack of law surrounding the succession to the throne, the ‘Achilles heal’ of the Inca empire. 4 The ruler Huayna Capac had died, leaving it to his son Ninan Cuyochi. However the omens for his rule were so bad Huascar, another son, inherited the rule. Atauhuallpa, also his son declared himself emperor of Quito and so war prevailed. During the war the power base of the Incas fell, Tumibamba, revealing weakness even before the Spanish arrived. 15 The Incas had another similarity to the Aztecs other than internal crisis and that was ignorance based on theology. Religion, like that which Moteczumo had practiced again prevails in the early mistakes make by the Inca leaders.

Like the Aztecs the Incas mistook the Spaniards as Gods and so the usual hostility granted to a stranger again is put aside, resulting in advantages to the Spaniards. The Incas on the side of Huascar especially believed the Spanish were the legendary army of Ticci Viracocha16 and it became the main occupation of Huascar. It is said that before the fall of the great empire they became a devout religious people, turning to god instead of soldiers,17 forgetting the instability, neither side wanting to injure gods. This religious ‘passage’ however turned the Inca’s world upside down when they found they had no one to rule except conquerors.

Atauhuallpa, captured by the Spanish18 and convinced that the Spanish might put his brother on the throne had Huascar killed. The Spanish then had Atauhuallpa killed, destroying any possibility of returning to any kind of norm and creating a gap of power. Many joined the cause of the Spanish by putting up little defense or even fighting because they felt he was taking up their plight at the loss of Huascar which in fact Pizzarro wished to manipulate, while many came in opposition to deliver themselves from being conquered.

The battle for the capital Cuzco witnessed the mass of the Inca opposition in the role of defenders. The Spanish were aided largely by Aztec cities anti the rule of Quizquiz who had taken charge of the capital, under him many turned to the Spanish. “The relative freedom with which the invading Spaniards moved about in Tahuantinsuyo was a direct function of the disorganization and built in hostilities of the Inca people. 19 Furthermore the Incas took a scorched earth policy to prevent the Spaniards arrival in the Capital, although this had been seen as strategically clever it gave the Spanish even more allies as they also burned villagers. As a result the future struggle of the Spanish was aided by the support of many they past. 20 By the time they made it to Cuzco the Incas had unofficially and officially advantaged the Spanish and they entered in 1533 with little to hold them back, much to pillage and even as heroes. The last role of the Inca people was a facade of apparent power, hidden behind the manipulative power of the Spanish.

The Incas and the Spanish had rid the empire of any real authority, the people had little legitimacy and the cohesion fell apart. 21 Pizzarro recognised the importance of Incan administration, and so raised Topa Huallpa, son of Huayna Capac to ‘Capac apu’, similarly to the Aztec situation he played the role of a ‘puppet emperor’. 22 However after this emperor died the Inca Titu Atauchi, ally of Atauhuallpa and captain of an army in the Sallca turned and signed a treaty with the Spanish allowing for another Inca to take his place, Manco Capac. 3 In this way the Spanish could elevate themselves within the administration, while the Incas believed such a treaty to have started, the Spanish found no intention of completing the terms. So the Inca Empire fell in the hands of the Spanish. The role of the indigenous Americans, the Aztecs and the Incas was one benefiting the majesty of Spain. It is impossible to deny the link when considering that in both cases the Spaniards were few in number and yet were able to topple empires of millions.

Their success lay on the sentiments of the people, the beliefs of the people, and the ability to manipulate and use the lawless succession to power. However the role of the peoples of these great empires took also the role of antagonism and resistance. They fought and died in the thousands yet this proved not to be enough. Their religion and beliefs undermined their strategies and leadership and allowed the Spanish to gain free passage. Both empires fell as a result of these divisive roles, the “great end of time”24 for the indigenous Americans of Peru and Mexico.