Had Cristóbal de Olea not sacrificed his own life to save Cortés, he too would have been taken and sacrificed, and the defection of his Indian allies would likely have been permanent. The Spanish leader had three lieutenants but there was no clear second in command. Moreover, the Spaniards were never completely united, even behind Cortés. Repeatedly, he threatened and cajoled them and twice ordered Spaniards hanged for plotting to desert. And now with Cortés gone, Spanish unity would have disintegrated. The conquest would have been lost. What, then, would the Spaniards have done?
Exposed on the western shore of the lake without allies, the Spaniards alone could not long hold out against the Aztec assaults. And the factionalism that seethed just below the surface could not have been suppressed without Cortés since there was no single leader of equal determination and ruthlessness. Without overwhelming Indian support, there was no hope for the Spaniards and they faced three plausible choices. They could have continued the battle, but that offered only annihilation. They could have surrendered en masse but that meant death for most, if not all, of them, though isolated individuals might have slipped away with their erstwhile allies, perhaps to be hidden until the Aztecs spent their fury. Or they could have attempted an orderly withdrawal. But to where? They had been allowed to slip away during the flight from Tenochtitlán a year earlier and the Aztecs were unlikely to permit a repeat of that mistake. Moreover, then they had an ally in Tlaxcallan—who would now have abandoned them. So their only recourse was to abandon their heavy equipment and begin a 200-mile withdrawal to the gulf coast through hostile territory, a journey most were unlikely to complete. But given their fragmented loyalties and divided command, the Spaniards would probably have fallen apart and, the weakened remainder would have been vulnerable to the inevitable Aztec counterattack. The only question was how many Spaniards would have survived. Some may have reached the gulf coast and then sailed to Cuba, but most would have died in battles en route—though a lucky few may have survived capture or have been sheltered by former allies. The conquest would be over.
What would have been the probable Spanish response to this defeat? What the surviving Spaniards in Mexico thought is not of concern here, but the opinions of the Spaniards in the Indies and Spain is. Given the seasonal pattern of transatlantic sailings, word of Cortés’s defeat would probably not have reached Spain until late summer or fall of 1522 at the earliest, with any response arriving in the Indies no sooner than the following summer. New World conquests and colonization were backed by the Crown, but it was not a governmental enterprise underwritten by a national army, so a concerted military response was unlikely. Cortés’s death and the disaster that beset his men, however, would have made the repudiation of his expedition politically easy. Since Cortés had violated Governor Velázquez’s orders and authorization, he had also effectively gone against the king and, in light of his failure, royal support would now be solidly behind the governor.
Awareness of Mexican civilizations, lands, and wealth was too widespread in both Spain and the Indies to be ignored. But in light of the Crown’s support for Velázquez, its most likely response would be to adopt the governor’s original plan for trade rather than colonization. To justify his original plans and current political position, Velázquez would probably have tried to enforce his approach rigorously and with royal backing. Some degree of quarantine would be likely, with the probable emergence of a single trading center on the coast, much as Macao served Portuguese trade interests in China and Japan in the sixteenth century. It is doubtful that the Spaniards could long be held to commerce alone and the continuation of such a trading relationship may not have survived Velázquez’s death in 1524 unless some other strong patron managed to secure the Crown’s approval for a monopoly. But if there was to be another attempt to conquer Mexico, it would probably be some years off: Exploration elsewhere in the Caribbean was absorbing all available men and material. And the surviving Spanish adult male population of the Indies would require time to recover from the loss of some 2,000 men in Cortés’s ill-fated scheme. Moreover, the increased Spanish migration that actually followed the conquest of Mexico would probably not have materialized without increased opportunities in the New World. Thus, the Spaniards of the Indies were distracted, politically constrained, and militarily weakened. Perhaps their energies would have been absorbed by the conquest of the Incas that began in the late 1520s, where the way had been smoothed by an Inca civil war and by the devastating spread of smallpox into the Andes from Spanish settlements in Panama. Instead of Mexico, a conquered Peru would have drawn Spanish migrants, but the riches thus seized would doubtless have tempted the Spaniards to make another bid for the wealth of Mexico.
A Spanish reconquest was probably delayed rather than deterred, but the issue of the Aztec response to their victory over the Spaniards would have remained. Would they have simply lapsed back to the status quo? Not likely. Even with an Aztec victory, Mexico would have been profoundly changed by the Spanish presence. The smallpox epidemic of 1519 to 1520 had been devastating, but the deadly typhus epidemics of 1545 to 1548 and 1576 to 1581 would not have occurred without a major Spanish presence, or at least not that soon. The Aztec political landscape was significantly altered, not in the offices themselves, but in the personalities of those who replaced leaders lost to war or disease. The political infrastructure of neighboring cities and of the empire would have continued intact, but the way many rulers had switched sides during the conquest would certainly have led to retribution.
The political future of rulers in various cities who had taken their thrones with Spanish/Tlaxcaltec support was bleak and some would now be displaced as Aztec loyalists or political opportunists took advantage of the shift in power. Cities allied with Tlaxcallan would likely have defected to the Aztec side. Meanwhile, Tlaxcaltec factionalism would probably have led to the pro-Spanish ruler being deposed; his replacement would have allied with the Aztecs in an effort to forestall their own conquest. Thereafter, other defectors would have been dealt with easily, swiftly, and terminally. The Aztecs were smaller in population and weaker than before, but politically, they were stronger, having replaced rulers of dubious loyalties.
What would this have meant for a new Spanish invasion? During the first one, Cortés exploited the poorly integrated nature of the Aztec empire and the presence of a major enemy—Tlaxcallan—to secure allies. With Tlaxcallan no longer hostile, could the Aztecs cement their alliances to eliminate the rivalries Cortés had exploited? The Aztec empire was only loosely bound together. Roads and a system of porters were better developed within it than elsewhere, both basic and exotic goods flowed among its many markets, but no rigidly enforced political hierarchy bound it together. Instead, local rulers were left in power, which meant that as soon as the Aztecs showed weakness or incompetence, they might defect. Moreover, while general Mexican cultural practices were widely shared, there was no unifying religion or ideology. Intermarriage among rulers created some cross-cutting loyalties, but these took many years to form and, in the absence of an alternative way to integrate the empire more tightly, the Aztecs could not create a solid front that would be impenetrable to the returning Spaniards.
If they could not reorganize their empire, the Aztecs nevertheless had two major options open to them—they could take the offensive or they could adopt new military weapons and tactics. Since the Spaniards had built and sailed ships in the Valley of Mexico and may well have abandoned some at Vera Cruz in their flight, it is possible that the Aztecs could have launched a counteroffensive into the Indies. Though used on the Pacific coast of South America, sails were unknown in Mexico, and the Aztecs were generally ignorant of the existence or location of the Indies. So as appealing as the image is of Aztec soldiers storming Havana, it is improbable. Alternative routes for a return attack by the Spaniards were blocked from the south by other native states that were too small and too far away to materially assist them and from the north by an inhospitable desert that offered few allies, little food, and great dangers. So an Aztec offensive stance, at best, would have meant patrolling the gulf coast and waiting for a Spanish return before trying to push them back into the sea, though this costly effort would probably have flagged as the years passed uneventfully.
But Cortés’s attempt to conquer them unquestionably would have affected Aztec tactics. The primary Spanish technological introductions were horses (and mounted lancers), cannons, harquebuses, and crossbows. As they had done during their first flight from Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards probably abandoned their cannons, but this time the Aztecs might not have destroyed them as they did earlier. Some of the other weapons likely to have fallen into Aztec hands included swords, armor, crossbows, perhaps harquebuses, and maybe even horses. But what would any of this have meant to the Aztecs? They had used captured swords—some attached to poles as scythes against horses—and a cross-bow against Cortés, so even though the Aztecs did not work iron and so could neither repair nor replicate these arms, those they recovered could easily be integrated into their own forces. After all, the Aztecs already had their own broadswords, spears, bows, and armor. Indeed, since the Indians who had allied with Cortés had been taught to make excellent copper-headed bolts, there was a potentially inexhaustible supply of ammunition for the crossbows. Cannons and harquebuses required gunpowder, and while all of the ingredients were locally available, its concoction was unknown to the Aztecs, but horses might be mastered, offering the tantalizing possibility of Aztec cavalry such as Americans later encountered on the Great Plains. And if the Spaniards actually established a trade center at Vera Cruz, bladed weapons and perhaps even firearms would have flowed into Aztec hands, whether officially sanctioned or not. To make the most of these arms, however, actual instruction would be needed and, for that, there were probably surviving Spaniards.
Changing sides was not unprecedented. Gonzalo Guerrero, who had been shipwrecked off Yucatan in 1511, had risen to the rank of military leader among the Maya, led one of their attacks on Córdoba, and refused to rejoin the Spaniards despite Cortés’s entreaty. Moreover, Spain was a newly emerging entity whose king, Charles V, though the son of the rulers of Castile and Aragon, was raised in the Netherlands and was effectively a foreigner. Many Spaniards owed whatever loyalties they had to their cities or provinces rather than to “Spain” and some who participated in the conquest were Portuguese or Italian, so shifting loyalties from Cortés to Cuauhtemoc was imaginable, probable, and, in fact, indispensable if they did not wish to be sacrificed to the Aztec gods. But what could the Spaniards teach the Aztecs that they had not already learned in combat? Weapons use, certainly. For instance, Spanish swords were made of steel with both cutting edge and point and so could thrust as well as slash, whereas the Aztecs’ were oak broadswords edged with obsidian blades and could be used only to slash. And perhaps the Aztecs could even make gunpowder, since the three necessary ingredients were available in the Valley of Mexico, though whether they could use explosives is questionable. But new weapons aside, battle strategies and combat practices could certainly be improved as the Aztecs learned the full capabilities and limitations of the Spanish weapons and tactics.
Most of what the captured Spaniards could teach the Aztecs was refinement. They already understood the basics. And what was important was less how it affected their battlefield tactics than the political environment. The Tlaxcaltecs initially allied with the Spaniards because they recognized that those few soldiers could serve as shock troops to punch through and disrupt opposing formations in a way their own weapons and tactics could not. It had not been the presence of the Spaniards per se that had been important, but the decisive advantage they conveyed on the Tlaxcaltec army. With the surviving Spanish arms, however, this advantage was now also held by the Aztecs.
If and when the second conquest came, the various Aztec tributaries and allies would probably have been only marginally more tightly bound to the empire than before; yet even with cannons and harquebuses, the Spaniards were no longer offered the golden opportunity they had the first time. Yes, they could still perform a shock function, but any Indian group that might consider allying with them could not fully exploit it because the Aztecs, even with a limited number of Spanish arms, could also now employ shock tactics and disrupt their formations, and coupled with vastly larger armies, an Aztec victory was ultimately assured.
So, by the time the Spaniards subjugated the peoples of the Andes, leaving them crippled with deadly disease and exploitation, and they finally turned their attention back to Mexico, in the mid to late 1530s, their opportunity had passed. The allies of a returning Spanish force would have been few, their victories ephemeral, and the lucky ones would have been pushed back into the sea—the heads of the rest would have adorned the skullracks of Tenochtitlán. Any reconquest would have to await far larger numbers, more artillery, and more horses than were available in the Indies.
Time changed the situation on both sides. While there was no pan-Mexican ideology to unify the various groups, word of the inhabitants’ fate in the Indies and South America slowly made its way to Tenochtitlán and a sense of Indianness that had heretofore been absent emerged in opposition to the Spaniards and expressed itself militarily as well as politically.
Limited as the Spaniards were to more passive exploitation by trade and conversion, gold and silver still flowed into Spanish coffers made wealthy by the pillage of Peru, but Spanish innovations in tools and animals were rapidly adopted by the Aztec elite, and percolated down into the commoner ranks, establishing indigenous livestock and craft industries. Instead of becoming the center of Spanish industry, with lesser benefits falling to the Indians, these innovations were adopted by the natives, even if the nobility dominated, if not monopolized, major herding activities, but with benefits that flowed throughout their society. For instance, wool would have been quickly adopted by their thriving weaving industry, just as bronze and iron would have been added to the range of goods produced and repaired by native metalworkers. Moreover, the development of the native economy made possible by these innovations strengthened indigenous rulers and filled the vacuum into which Spanish colonists would otherwise have flowed.
Spanish intrusions would have been blunted, though not eliminated, and religious orders, obeying their missionizing imperative, would have gradually infiltrated the country ahead of potential settlers. But now, confronting a vigorous indigenous priesthood that enjoyed state support and a flourishing school system, conversion was far slower. The Spanish priests also brought literacy with the Latin alphabet to Mexico and if this spread to all classes, social turmoil would likely follow, so the indigenous elite would doubtless monopolize this knowledge to increase their political and administrative hold. But a more Christianized indigenous tradition would likely have emerged. Without the sword to force conversion, persuasion and example alone were available, resulting in some Christianization and, most likely, a cessation of human sacrifice. But continued personal religious bloodletting may have been reconceived, if not toward a monotheistic end, then toward one that blended the Christian God with one or more of the more important native gods in an elevated, if not exclusive, position above the native ones.
With the gradual emergence of a far stronger indigenous economy and the development of at least a tolerable approximation of Christianity, Mexico would have been far more difficult to conquer. Mexico could have continued as a regional power and survived the expansion of the European colonies in Central and North America, if their more limited exposure to Europeans dispersed the demographic shock of introduced diseases and they prevented Europeans from exploiting it. The nation that emerged may have been much like the Mexico of today, though perhaps limited to central Mexico, organized on strong indigenous lines, yet having undergone modern development from empire to constitutional monarchy. Had this been so, American expansion toward the West may have been halted far earlier than it was—perhaps at the Mississippi, for France, which sold the United States its rights, would have had no claim on the land to the West, and Mexico, whether freely or as the better of limited options, may have left the United States of today far smaller and bordering a nation of truly indigenous Americans.