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IB Extended Essay – How where the Conquistadors able to defeat the Incan and Aztec Empires?

The Spanish conquistadors between the 16th and 17th centuries are often known to be the dominant world power of that time period. Two of their most significant conquests were that of the Aztec and Incan empires. How though were they able to assert such dominance? They were debatably known as the greatest naval power of the time along with Britain and also were equipped with the most modern and efficient artillery. They conquered these empires with this military, but not necessarily in the form of force. Of course, the Spanish used force to sack the Aztecs and Incas, but more than anything their primary and most destructive force was disease. The use of disease was not deliberate, but how they used disease in their favour stems primarily from the bubonic plague of Europe. The use of disease in conquest was extremely relevant in modern-day central Mexico where the Aztec Empire had at a time dominated and modern-day Peru where the Incan Empire once thrived.

In 1347 the Bubonic plague also known as the Black Death hit Europe. It is debatably the most devastating time period in at least the last thousand years of human history if not longer. The pandemic is often believed to have originated from China, and from there spread throughout Europe. The disease reached Spain by rats carrying the disease on merchant ships that travelled across the Mediterranean Sea by 1348. The disease causes swollen lymph nodes which mean “buboes” in Greek, hence the bubonic plague, and if infected one had less than a fifty per cent chance to live. The plague was so tragic that it is believed to have wiped out up to possibly even half of Europe’s total population, which was the most developed and populated continent on earth.

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The Black Death changed the world forever, and it took about a century and a half for Spain and the rest of Europe to regain dominance and prosperity. During the time of the disease, there was great unrest, people lost their religious beliefs, and there were social and political uprisings. Life in Europe most certainly declined before it began to rise again. Eventually, though the changes of the way of life by people as a whole transformed Europe, and prosperity stemmed from the Black Death, along with social and political changes which all led to one of the most highly developed countries of the time with an economy that was greatly improving.

The Black Death was an extreme epidemic that spread across Europe, but the Aztecs or Incas of the Americas had never had been exposed to disease which eventually spelt disaster for both empires because they had no immunity or resistance built up. Spain did not come into contact with the Americas until around a century and a half after the outbreak, which is roughly how long it took to recover and prosper after the initial outbreak of the plague. Over this time period with the rise in population, Spain along with the rest of Europe’s populations developed strong immune systems, stronger than any other than the rest of the world, because of their exposure and survival of the disease. This meant that the Spanish could resist disease such as smallpox and even carry the disease without getting sick. According to historian Josh Clark, “Having lived alongside livestock for millennia gave much of Europe immunity to the worst ravages of smallpox.”

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The Spanish first made contact with the “New World” in 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in the present-day Bahaman Islands, which he called San Salvador. This marked the beginning of the destructive conquest of the Spanish. Hernan Cortes was a triumphant Spanish conquistador of the early 16th century and is credited with the conquest of the great Aztec empire. Nearly 30 years after Columbus first landed in the New World in 1492 C.E Hernan Cortes began his conquest of the Aztec empire in 1519 C.E. Fernando Pizarro, another Spanish conquistador is credited with the victory over the Incan Empire, beginning his conquest in 1528 C.E, less than 10 years after Cortes defeated the Aztecs.

Cortes was a Spaniard and he was the leader on a voyage to Mexico that eventually defeated the Aztecs. The Aztec empire was located in the heart of Mexico, and over the centuries prior to the Spanish invasion, the Aztecs expanded their empire. From the 14th to the early 16th century the Aztecs were the most dominant force in Central America. They were made up of three main states; Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan, these made up the empire and were spread across Mexico from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Tenochtitlan was the central and head state of the Aztec Empire where the emperor resided, and along with the other two main states that made up the Aztec Empire they conquered and fought other surrounding tribes to grow and expand its empire. Some of the Aztec traditions included human sacrifice, this drove them to expansion, but also lead them to be vulnerable when the Spanish had arrived. The Aztecs would take prisoners from the groups of people or villages they found and conquered and used them for sacrifice to the gods. As they spread they became weaker internally and once their empire reached from coast to coast it was harder to retrieve prisoners for their human sacrifice rituals.

Although the Aztecs began to become weaker they were still wealthy and determined to be a strong force even after the arrival of Hernan Cortes and his Spanish conquistadors. When Cortes was made aware of the great Aztec Empire after landing in Mexico in 1519 he began to make his voyage to the heart of the Aztec Empire; Tenochtitlan. Through his travels, he came across a variety of native tribes that were enemies or at least not a part of the Aztec Empire, and they joined him in his march, and therefore his support and army grew into large numbers. Upon arrival to Tenochtitlan, Cortes was greeted supposedly by the emperor Montezuma II warmingly.

Soon after though, Cortes learned of Aztec uprisings against the Spanish armies and he took Montezuma II hostage. Montezuma II is believed by many historians to have been murdered by his own Aztec people, the Spanish having him hostage and under their control demanded he and his people give up to the Spanish forces. It is highly speculated that he addressed his people and some of the Aztecs felt he betrayed them and so therefore they took his life, but also there is much speculation that possibly it could have been the Spanish that killed him.

Although their Emperor had just died, the Aztec people proved that they were not going to be demanded and ordered by Cortes and the Spanish like Montezuma II had done. Meanwhile, Cortes had to deal with forces sent by a personal enemy by the name of Velasquez to stop and take out Cortes. Cortes defeated the forces that were sent to defeat him despite the fact that he was outnumbered. After his victory, he returned to Tenochtitlan only to arrive at the same time that Montezuma II was murdered, and his successor Cuitahuac took the people of Tenochtitlan against the Spaniards. Cortes and his men fled as the native Aztecs ran them out, Cortes barely escaped, but in the process lost nearly all of his material possessions including much of his troops’ artillery. This made the conquest much more difficult for Cortes.

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Despite the strong uprising of the Aztecs, Cortes and his men had brought the city of Tenochtitlan the great epidemic of smallpox. It wiped out an enormous percentage of the population, and it was at a rapid pace. The newly crowned emperor Cuitahuac died of the disease just 80 days after he took the throne from Montezuma II. Cortes was able to gather enough troops together and easily wipe out a weak, depleted, and sick Aztec Empire. Hernan Cort�s’s sack of the Aztec Empire lasted not even two years stretching from late 1519 through August of 1521 C.E once they captured the following successor Cuauhtemoc. From this, the Aztec Empire officially perished and present-day Tenochtitlan is now known as Mexico City and became under Spanish rule. Less than 10 years later Pizarro conquered the Incas with the same type of force.

Although Francisco Pizarro was the individual who took most if not all of the credit for conquering the Inca Empire, there is no doubt that the diseases his men brought over rather than their war expertise were his greatest aids to victory. Before the arrival of the Spanish, smallpox and other European-originated diseases were not epidemics experienced by the Incas. Thus, they did not have the same levels of immunity as did the Spanish settlers. In the early sixteenth century, their population of over 16 million people made it the largest empire in the New World. However, the rapid spread of diseases like smallpox soon destroyed one of the most well-acclaimed Native American civilizations in recorded history.

Unfortunately, one of the greatest networks developed by the Incas was one of its greatest enemies. This great network was its vast road system that had expanded over time due to the expansion of the Inca Empire across several regions in the Americas. Prior to the Spaniards coming over, the Inca road system was ideal for fast communication and travel to various villages from Quito, Ecuador all the way to Santiago, Chile. The bridges, trails, and roads made it the most advanced transportation system of its time in the New World. However, the convenient road system was something the Spanish settlers were able to easily exploit.

Easy travel from village to village meant fewer deaths among the Spanish. Thus, more of them survived to carry along their European diseases such as “smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, and bubonic plague” (Diamond 122).In 1528; Francisco Pizarro arrived at the borders of the Inca Empire with 168 “conquistadors.” How was this limited amount of Spaniards able to have such a negative effect on the Inca Empire if they could not possibly reach every village? Spanish settlers did not even have to come into contact with the Inca people directly to spread their diseases. Inca soldiers used the road system frequently to either fight or communicate with other settlements. Thus, when Pizarro’s men gave their diseases to one village, many more were going to be affected. Undoubtedly, the once-beneficial Inca road system proved to be the downfall to the Inca Empire because it allowed both Spaniards and Incas to unknowingly spread the sicknesses across the continent.

A negative turning point for the Inca Empire was the Inca Civil War that escalated between two sons of the Inca emperor, Huayna Capac. Capac died in 1527 of a disease unknown to the Inca people. This disease was smallpox. The suddenness of smallpox that took over him and his eldest son created a conflict because neither was able to designate an heir to the Inca Empire before their deaths. The two remaining sons, Hu�scar and Atahualpa, had an extreme disliking of each other since they came from different mothers. Hu�scar believed he should gain succession to the throne because of his royal blood and his firm control of Cuzco, the capital of the Incan Empire.

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Atahualpa believed he should gain succession to the throne because he had greater control of the army and military insight. As a result, the two sides clashed from 1529 to 1532 in what is known as the Inca Civil War, bringing death to thousands and thousands of Incas. The war ended with Atahualpa’s army defeating Hu�scar’s; however, Pizarro captured and executed Atahualpa before he ever ruled the empire. While warfare did indeed cause a large number of deaths, it was a disease that was a much more deadly factor in diminishing the Incan population during the war. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the Inca road system made it easy for soldiers to travel from place to place.

Therefore, the outbreak of war caused almost every region to be reached by the soldiers who had contracted the diseases for which the Inca people had no immunity. European diseases, mainly smallpox, went on to have a greatly negative effect on the Inca population. “The disease killed over 94% of the Inca population of about 16 million. During this bloody civil war, many more diseases came about from the Europeans and killed many more” (Scholar). Warfare killed thousands of Incas. The disease killed millions. And it was a disease that killed the Sapa Inca (Only Emporor) Huayna Capac that originated a need for a civil war in the first place. Not to say Francisco Pizarro’s strategic command and military tactics did not play a role in the decline of the Inca Empire, because they certainly did. However, 168 Spanish men would not have been able to conquer the Inca Empire of 16 million people without the primary assistance of diseases, such as smallpox, typhus, and the bubonic plague, that dispersed across the South American continent.

The Aztecs and the Incas were two of the greatest civilizations in the world but were destroyed by the Spanish. It was something of an inevitable fact though due to the disease that brutally transformed Europe into the strongest continent in the world physically. Also, their common exposure to livestock further strengthened Europe’s immunity to disease. The Incan and Aztec Empires never made global connections and never had been around European livestock. Thus, when Spain touched down in the Americas it didn’t matter what their military strengths were because these lost, destroyed, and forgotten civilizations began dying as soon as the Spanish stepped foot in the “New World”.

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IB Extended Essay - How where the Conquistadors able to defeat the Incan and Aztec Empires?. (2021, Apr 20). Retrieved September 30, 2022, from