The conquistadors followed in the footsteps of Columbus. Puerto Rico was subjugated during 1508-1509 by Juan Ponce de Leon (ca. 1460-1521), who, according to partially credible legend, had come to the New World in search of the fabled Fountain of Youth. (He didn’t find youth, but death: Ponce de Leon was mortally wounded by an Indian arrow in Florida.) Next, Jamaica and Cuba fell easily to the Spaniards in 1510 and 1511.
Far more spectacular was the battle for Mexico. It was led by Hernan Cortes, a minor nobleman who had rejected a university education to become an adventurer in the New World. In 1519, Cortes led an expedition into the present-day region of Tabasco, defeating the Tabascan Indians on March 25. By September 5, he moved against the Tlascalas as well. After triumphing over the Tlascalas, he made them allies in his campaign against their traditional enemies, the powerful Aztecs, who dominated Mexico.
Surprisingly, when Cortes landed at what is today Veracruz, he was met not with hostility, but cordially and humbly greeted by ambassadors of Montezuma II, the Aztec emperor. This fact has mystified generations of historians. Some have concluded that, unlike the ruthlessly brilliant warrior kings who had preceded him, Montezuma II was indecisive and possessed of a weak character. Others have speculated that the Aztecs, having never before seen men mounted on horseback—strange and strangely attired men at that—thought the Spaniards were incarnations of their gods. Some have suggested that Cortes deliberately posed as Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec “plumed serpent” deity. Still other scholars believe that Montezuma II hoped to appease the intruders with gifts of great beauty and value—gems and gold—in the hope that, satisfied, they would simply depart.
If that was Montezuma’s hope, it was a tragic misjudgment. Receiving the gifts, Cortes remarked: “Send me some more of it, because I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold.” After an embittered battle, the Aztecs surrendered on August 13, 1521, and the Aztec Mexican empire fell to Hernan Cortes.