In his letter to Charles V, Hernan Cortes states that

it was only necessary to threaten to return them [the natives] to their native masters in order to make them serve the Spaniards very willingly.

(source: "The Encomienda in New Spain: The Beginning of Spanish Mexico", pp. 61).

Is there evidence (other than Cortes' own view, which is obviously biased) to suggest that some Native Americans did in fact prefer Spanish rulers?

  • 2
    Like what kind of evidence? Apr 16, 2015 at 18:03
  • There are only two sources I know of for the Mexican conquest: Cortez's letters and Bernal Diaz's journal (Diaz was one of Cortez's lieutenants). So, those are your two options for information. Apr 16, 2015 at 18:15
  • @Tyler Durden: I understand this question broader than Cortes conquest of Mexico. And there are many sources, Las Casas, for example.
    – Alex
    Apr 16, 2015 at 20:59
  • @Alex Chances of finding such a statement in Las Casas: 0%. But you probably know that as well as I do. Apr 16, 2015 at 22:21
  • @Felix Goldberg: yes I know, but there were several other writers who described the conditions of the Indians on plantations.
    – Alex
    Apr 17, 2015 at 3:59

6 Answers 6


You need to distinguish their opinion of the Spanish prior to the defeat of the Aztecs and after. When the Spanish first arrived, they had guns and horses but were small in number. The native americans had yet to suffer the full depravities of not only the Spanish but also the deadly diseases to come, and they were strong both in population numbers and in military prowess; they considered themselves allied to Cortes, not under his rule. That was certainly a better position than being under the Aztecs' heels. I suspect your quote comes from this period.

Indeed, it took Cortes a fair bit of campaigning (and a major near defeat) to secure military victory over the Aztecs. It helped that he had help in the form of reinforcements, indian allies, and smallpox. Eventually he defeated the Aztecs, banished them from Tenochtitlan, destroyed the temples, and rebuilt it into Mexico City.

With Mexico City as their base, the Spanish essentially just inserted themselves into the power structure the Aztecs had created and occupied. This worked because the "Aztec empire" was not a unified empire in the sense of say the Roman empire, but was more like a loose feudal collection of city states that cooperated out of fear of retribution; the Aztecs weren't "rulers" of these polities any more than the Chicago mafia were "employers" of the shopkeepers they shook down or the police they bribed. So, the Spanish conquistadors could simply break a few legs and become the new boss, same as the old boss. In fact even after Cortes, fighting ("pacification") continued for 60 years.

The Spanish colonists recognized the indigenous nobility, with privileges, education, and even titles. So in a lot of places, the powers that had been, continued to be, and life went on as before. Even the infamous Spanish slavery was essentially a continuation of long established forced labor practices, just taken up a few notches. This was justified with the belief that the Spanish were providing protection and Christian education to the natives.

As well, we should probably distinguish between the different groups of Native Americans, they weren't all the same. We can imagine that groups that fought WITH the Spanish were treated better than ones that fought against them. But regardless, all bets were off if silver mines were discovered near you; the Spanish tapped tribes pretty intently to work their mines.

So, did some Native Americans prefer Spanish rulers to the Aztecs? If you were in the nobility, had supported Cortes in battle, and didn't have any silver deposits near you, the Spanish probably weren't too bad. Maybe you'd get to learn to read.

For a lot of Native Americans, though, life under the Spanish was not much different than under the Aztecs. A lot less human sacrifice, a lot more forced labor, and plenty of smallpox.

  • 4
    I doubt the mexicans put the blame of smallpox on Spaniards. They would think it was a punishment of the gods - and by then I mean both Mexicas and Spandiards, since neither knew about germ theory.
    – Rekesoft
    Mar 5, 2021 at 11:58
  • The comment "Even the infamous Spanish slavery was essentially a continuation of long established forced labor practices, just taken up a few notches." is the exact opposite of the truth. The primary purpose of Aztec enslavement of other tribes was for the ritual sacrifice of their young, particularly women, ensuring they could never regain sufficient population to challenge the Aztec in battle. However rough Spanish enslavement was or wasn't - it never remotely compared to Aztec enslavement. Feb 10, 2023 at 1:16
  • Interesting answer, I suppose we could compare the Aztec empire with the Holy Roman Empire Feb 18, 2023 at 21:22

Two words: "Human Sacrifice":

Because the objective of Aztec warfare was to capture victims alive for human sacrifice, battle tactics were designed primarily to injure the enemy rather than kill him. After towns were conquered their inhabitants were no longer candidates for human sacrifice, only liable to regular tribute. Slaves also could be used for human sacrifice, but only if the slave was considered lazy and had been resold three times.

Aztecs did that, Spanish did not.

PS. No, the Spanish were no fluffy little bunnies handing out sweets. However, in general, they did not kill for no good reason those who served them, unlike the Aztecs.

  • 5
    Nevertheless, the Spanish were nobody's inferior in the business of indiscriminate slaughter. Apr 16, 2015 at 22:16
  • Point taken - the upvote had been mine, anyway. Apr 16, 2015 at 22:19
  • 2
    Thanks for your input. While you present a very strong argument, I am cautious to accept you answer as I am afraid your logic might be true under today's standards. It wouldn't hold true if human sacrifice was seen as a desirable part of societal life (as weird as it may sound). In fact, the wiki article that you share says "virtually all child sacrifices were locals of noble lineage, offered by their own parents". Which is why I have doubts that natives actually proffered the Spanish. Apr 17, 2015 at 8:44
  • 5
    @Nikolay Nenov: I'd suggest that one's attitude towards human sacrifice might be considerably different, depending on whether or not you're the one being sacrificed.
    – jamesqf
    Apr 17, 2015 at 20:15
  • 1
    better beheaded by a Spanish than have the heart cut out of your living body by an Aztec...
    – jwenting
    Dec 4, 2018 at 4:59

There was one group of Native Americans in Mexico, the Tlaxcala, who allied with the Spanish against the "Aztec" cities of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. The Tlaxcala formed the backbone (other than the Spanish) of the anti-Aztec coalition.

When Cortes was in retreat, the Aztecs asked the Tlaxcalans to "turn over" Cortes to them. One of the younger chiefs agreed, but he was vetoed (and later killed) by his elders.

After they defeated the Aztecs together, the Tlaxcalans were allowed by the Spanish to participate in the conquest of Guatemala, and were generally treated by them as "favored" Native Americans compared to the defeated Aztecs. But the losses they suffered supporting the Spanish (and from diseases, etc.) caused them to die out.

For the Tlaxcalans, at least, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."


I think a bit of context might help. The natives Cortes is talking about had been subject tribes of the Aztecs who took the opprotunity to rise against them and to ally themselves with the Spanish.

What Cortes was doing, then, was browbeating his allies into submission by the threat of turning them over to their erstwhile masters. A somewhat underhanded technique, of course.

This has nothing to do, as far as I can tell, with the comparative advantages of Spanish or Aztec rule, just a bit of power play on Cortes's part.

  • 1
    So, you're saying it might not be the case that they preferred one or the other - they might have been afraid that if they were returned to the Aztec, the repercussions would be worse than staying with the Spanish. Do I understand you correctly? Apr 17, 2015 at 8:59
  • Yes, that׳s what I meant. @NikolayNenov Apr 17, 2015 at 19:20

I like that thought of "regional bullies" vs. exotic bullies. But control and establishment of a country or empire requires Power: to establish leadership or government. Resources: to sustain economy and prosperity: and Religious Ideology: to create (Mores)-(moral) laws consistent with higher concepts/goals of right and wrong. Thus the nomadic groups of any region would be doomed to falter because they could not be united on these principles. Similar to the Mayans who aided in their own demise through human sacrifices and polytheism practices. That is why countries built on a constitution, and an ideal of human rights and freedoms is the only chance for continuity, protection, and opportunity.

  • 1
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    – Community Bot
    Dec 5, 2023 at 6:05

The answer...may be a bit paradoxical.

The Spanish Empire, was still.....an Empire, in the classic definition of the word; that is to say, a stronger power/country ruling over two or more weaker foreign countries-(who are in close and/or in distant proximity to the stronger power/ country). For approximately 300 years, Mexico, was essentially, a colonized country whereby the local population had to adhere to policies and laws that were largely inconsistent with their indigenous practices and values-(which again, is fairly commonplace in the story of empires and their colonized subjects).

However, while Spanish colonial rule over Mexico did not necessarily benefit the indigenous population-(in terms of economic wealth, coupled with the lack of national self-determination), one could still credit the Spanish with their official discontinuation and ending of Aztecan based human sacrificing with their simultaneous introduction of Roman Catholic Christianity into colonial Mexico.

(Of course, the Spanish did also introduce the bullfight into Mexico, which can also be seen, as a rather gruesome spectacle for the sacrificed bull. And of course, one should be very wary of crediting early Modern Spanish Roman Catholicism and the discontinuation of Aztecan human sacrifice, since this was the same Spanish Roman Catholicism that was the Epicenter for some of the cruelest acts committed by the Vatican's notorious Office of the Inquisition against Spain's religious minority groups).

While much of Mexico never really benefitted from the 300 year Spanish imperial presence, the Roman Catholic Christian faith did also introduce Mexico to a newer (and perhaps more spiritually promising?) religion whereby their National Patron Saint would become Guadalupe-("Our Lady of Guadalupe"/the Virgin Mary). With that said, Catholic Mexico, would eventually join the list of Marian apparition countries, such as Spain proper, as well as neighboring Portugal and would emerge as a major Center for Global Roman Catholicism which lasts into the present-day. None of this would have probably ever happened, had it not been for the arrival of the Spanish or perhaps a similar Roman Catholic imperial power arriving on Aztecan Mexican shores centuries ago.

But despite the major changes to Mexico's religious character, culture and temperament, "at the end of the day", ethnic, as well as ethno-racial kinship(s), tends to prevail. The Spaniards were a different, indeed a foreign race of Caucasian Europeans entering into a land that (before the arrival of Hernan Cortes), never saw a single Caucasian European. The regional conflicts and infighting among the Aztecs and neighboring ("Indian") peoples within greater Mexico-(including the subordinated Mayans living in the Yucatan region), is not necessarily so different than regional conflicts and infighting among various other countries and peoples worldwide. This does not automatically assume that the peoples of Mexico "preferred" the Aztecs over the Spanish, though it does underscore the visceral kinship that one country may have towards neighboring countries, as well as the diplomatic relations they have with each other-(even if such diplomatic relations were historically mercurial).

The best phrase I could use to describe as to whether or not Mexico "preferred" Aztecan over Spanish colonial rule is.....

"It is a problem....but it is our problem", meaning, that there are regional bullies who may seek neighboring domination and subordination-(such as the Aztecs over much of Mexico proper centuries ago). But they are still....."regional bullies".....and not.....distantly exotic bullies.

  • Why the negative votes?
    – Alex
    Feb 9, 2023 at 18:39

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