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History, The Conquest

Champoton, Diego Velazquez, powerful empire, Aztec Empire, Grijalva

The Spanish assault on the Aztec Empire in 1519 represented the second major stage of Spanish expansion in the Americas. The first stage had established permanent settlements in the Caribbean Sea, including the city of Santo Domingo (now the capital of the Dominican Republic) and outposts on the island of Cuba. These settlements made it possible for the Spaniards to probe the mainland of Mexico and Central America knowing that they could quickly return to their island outposts.

The first governor of Cuba, Diego Velazquez, sponsored three expeditions in the early 1500s that sought to explore the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The first expedition, commanded by Spanish navigator and conqueror Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, set sail from Cuba in 1517 and explored uncharted territory along the Yucatan Peninsula. When Spanish soldiers went ashore to seek water and food they were often attacked by Maya warriors. The Spaniards and the Maya engaged in a major battle in Champoton, now a port in the modern state of Campeche. More than half the Spanish expedition was killed. While the expedition ended in failure, it provided the Spaniards with more detailed knowledge of the native inhabitants of the region and sparked new interest in Mexico.

In 1518 Governor Velazquez sponsored another expedition, this time under the command of his nephew, Juan de Grijalva. The Spaniards returned to Champoton, where they avenged the defeat of the previous expedition, forcing the Maya to retreat inland after three days of fierce fighting. The expedition continued exploring the Gulf Coast, eventually encountering friendly Mayan-speaking peoples who told the Spaniards of a powerful empire to the west. Although the Spaniards did not realize it, they had reached the outer limits of the Aztec Empire.

The ruler of the Aztec Empire at this time, Montezuma II, had received reports of the Spanish explorations, as well as the battles at Champoton. He ordered his subjects along the Gulf Coast to greet the foreigners, offer them a large feast and gifts of gold and jewelry, and then ask them to leave the region. Montezuma knew of the Aztec legends and omens predicting future destruction, and is reported to have wondered whether the arrival of the Europeans heralded the return of an angry Quetzalcoatl.

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