Cortes Entered Aztec Capital - History

Cortes Entered Aztec Capital - History

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Cortes Enters Aztec Capital

Cortes' advanced into the heart of the Aztec Empire was helped by the belief of Montezuma, that a pale-skinned god, by the name of Quetzalcoatl, would come and take control of the empire. Montezuma sent sacks of gold to Cortes hoping to convince him to turn back.The gold had the opposite effect, spurring the Spanish forward. Montezuma seemed unsure what to make of Cortes when he arrived. He welcomed Cortes and gave him luxurious quarters. Montezuma offered to make Cortes emperor of his empire. Cortes sensed that Montezuma feared him, but also understood that he and his men were very vulnerable- being surrounded by thousands of Aztec warriors, inside a city surrounded by water. Cortes decided to seize Montezuma and hold him as a hostage. Montezuma was held as hostage for many months. During this time the Spanish looted the gold in the city, melting down jewelry to make gold bars.


Cortes Entered Aztec Capital - History

Hernan Cortes
Hernan Cortes was born in 1485 in a town called Medellin in Extremadura. It talks about little of his child hood and little about his young life except that he studied law at the University of Salamanca. His law school years were cut short in 1501 when he decided to try his luck in the New World. He sailed from Santo Domingo in the Spring of 1504. After he had got there in 1511 he joined he Spanish Soldier and Administrator Diego Velasquez in the conquest of Cuba, and there he became alcalde or mayor of Santiago de Cuba. In 1518 he persuaded Velasquez to give him command to the expedition of Mexico. Juan de Grijalva, nephew of Velasquez, had discovered the mainland the year before by the Spanish soldier and explorer Fernandez de Cobia and.

On February 19, 1519 Cortes set sail west from Cuba even though Velasquez cancelled his pay because of suspicion that Cortes would find himself independent and refuse to take order. Cortes took with him about 600 men, less than 20 horses, and 10 field pieces. Cortes sailed along the east coast of Yucatan and in March 1519 landed in Mexico. Cortes neutralized the town of Tabasco. The artillery, the ships, and especially the horses awed the natives. From these people of Tabasco Cortes learned about the Aztecs and their ruler Montezuma II.

Cortes took lots of captives one of which they baptized and renamed Marina. She became his lover and out of loyalty to him became his interpreter, Translator, Guide, and Counselor. Finding a better harbor a little North of San Juan they established a town called La Villa Rica De La Vera Cruz, which literally translates to The Rich Village Of The Vera Cruz. This was later called just Varacruz. Cortes did what Velasquez that he would do, and abandoned the authority of everybody except the king and queen. Cortes was a strategical thinker and destroyed his group of vessels in order to prevent small forces from opposing him and returning to Cuba to tell Velasquez.

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At about this time Cortes started his famous march inland even after negotiations with Montezuma. Montezuma tried to persuade Cortes not to enter the capital city of Tenochtitlan but Cortes was good at not following directions. Cortes overcame the native tribe Tlascalans. This tribe quickly became an alliance to the Spanish because they were enemies to the Aztecs. As the conquest went on this tribe continued to be the most important alliance of the Spaniards.

Montezuma pursued an insecure policy during Cortes’s march, and he finally determined not to oppose the Spanish Invaders but to await their arrival at the Aztec capital and to learn more about their purposes. On November8, 1519, Cotes and his small force and with another 600 native allies entered the city and established headquarters in one of its communal dwellings. There was an Aztec prophecy about the return of Quetzalcoatl, a legendary god-king who was light skinned and bearded. Because of this prophecy Cortes was believed to be a god and was received with honor. The Spanish soldiers were allowed to wander throughout the city at there digression. They found mounds of gold in stalk houses. Despite the friendly reception giving to the Spanish, Cortes….. had reason to believe that there would be attempts to drive them out of the city. To safeguard his position he took Montezuma as a hostage and forced him to swear allegiance to Charles I, king of Spain and to provide ransom of an enormous sum in gold and jewels. While Cortes was doing this Velasquez dispatched an expedition under the Spanish soldier Panfilo de Narveas to Mexico.
In April 1520 Cortes received word that Narveaz had arrived on the coast. Leaving 200 men at Tenochtitlan under the command of Pedro de Alvarado. Cortes marched with a small force toward the shore entered the Spanish camp at night and captured Narveas and persuaded the majority of the Spaniards to join his force.

While Cortes was at work with this Alvarados harsh rule had aroused the Aztecs in the capital. An Aztec revolt against the Spaniards and even their imprisoned ruler was under way when Cortes reentered the capital. He was allowed to enter with his followers and he was allowed to join Alvarado but was immediately surrounded and attacked. At Cortess request, Montezuma tried to calm the revolt. Montezuma was stoned, and he died three days later. A Group of Aztecs led by Montezumas nephew Guatamatzin drove the Spanish and their allies. This was done on a dark rainy night called noche triste, which translates to sad night on June 30, 1520. The Aztecs pursued the Spaniards but at Otumba, on July 1520 Cotes defeated a large number of Aztecs and finally reached Tlaxcala. In this town he reorganized his force with the aid of some reinforcements at Vera Cruz. After this Cortes went back to the capital capturing every Aztec outpost along the way. On August 13, 1521 after a siege of three months the new emperor fell and so did Tenochtiltlan.
After this battle Cortes had the capital demolished and he built Mexico City on its ruins. After he had built Mexico City many Spaniards came and this city became of European importance. The confederation built by Cortes did not happen without cruelty to the natives. Cortes became very popular due to his conquests and riches he sent back to Spain. He was named governor and Captain-General of New Spain.

After this in 1524-1526 happened Cortes went on an expedition to Honduras. While this was happening the king sent people to investigate Cortes’s actions. In 1528 Cortes was asked to quit and return to Spain. There he appialed to the king and was created marquis of the valley of Oaxica. There he was reappointed Captian-General but he was not returned to the civil government of Mexico. He married the daughter of the count of Aguilar and in 1530 he returned to Spain. In Spain he was constantly checked on his activities, all his stuff was confiscated, his rights contested with, and his popularity decaying.

In 1536 Cortes found the peninsula of Baja California. In 1539 Francisco would not let Cortes search the seven cities that were there. He went back to Spain to co0mplain about tyhis in court. In 1541 Cortes went on the expedition to Algiers. This was unsuccessful and there he was shipwrecked. After this expedition the court neglected Cortes and he retired in a small estate near Seville till his death in 1547. He died at the age of 62.


The road to Tenochtitlan Edit

In April 1519 Hernán Cortés, a ruthlessly ambitious nobleman recently landed in Cuba, and the leader of the third Spanish expedition to the coast of Mexico, landed as directed by the survivors of the previous two expeditions at San Juan de Ulúa, a good harbour on Mexico's east coast, with 508 soldiers, 100 sailors, and 14 small cannons. Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, the Governor of Cuba, called for Cortés to lead an expedition into Mexico after favourable reports from two previous expeditions to Yucatán caught the interest of the Spanish in Cuba. [10] Under the pressure of his relatives who had a different leader in mind, Velázquez regretted his decision and revoked Cortés' mandate to lead the expedition even before Cortés left Cuba. Thus Cortés had to fight for his survival as a leader while still in Cuba twice messengers from Velázquez arrived to depose him, and twice they were spoken to with honeyed words and dissuaded from executing their mission. After Cortés sailed, Velázquez sent an army led by Pánfilo de Narváez to take him into custody. [ citation needed ]

But Cortés used the same legal tactic used by Governor Velázquez when he invaded Cuba years before: he created a local government and had himself elected as the magistrate, thus (in theory) making him responsible only to the King of Spain. Cortés followed this tactic when he and his men established the city of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, also known as Veracruz, seven miles from the harbour of San Juan de Ulúa. An inquiry into Cortés' action was conducted in Spain in 1529 and no action was taken against him. [ citation needed ]

Cortés chanced to land at the borders of Cempoala, a recently Aztec-subdued vassal state with many grievances against them. Coming into contact with a number of polities who resented Aztec rule, Cortés claimed he has arrived on the orders of his Emperor to put things in order, abolish human sacrifices, teach the locals the true faith and "stop them from robbing each other", and was successful in enforcing excellent behaviour of his army when among potential allies. Cortés clashed with some of these polities, among them the Totonacs and Tlaxcalans. The latter gave him two good day battles and one night battle, and kept up a strong defence, holding off his army on a hilltop for two weeks. His numerically inferior force finally triumphed when the minds of Tlaxcalans opened up to consideration of his ceaseless offers of peace, notably Xicotencatl the Elder and his wish to form an alliance with the Spaniards against the Aztecs which was the proffered aim of Cortés as well. [ citation needed ]

It once was widely believed that the Aztecs first thought Cortés was Quetzalcoatl, a mythical god prophesied to return to Mexico—coincidentally in the same year Cortés landed and from the same direction he came. This is now believed [ when? ] to be an invention of the conquerors, and perhaps natives who wished to rationalize the actions of the Aztec tlatoani, Moctezuma II. Most scholars [ who? ] agree that the Aztecs, especially the inner circle around Moctezuma, were well convinced that Cortés was not a god in any shape or form. [11] Messages between Cortés and Moctezuma, however, frequently allude to the legend, which was widely known across the Aztec dominions to both Aztecs and their subjects, and strongly influenced them, as Bernal Díaz del Castillo repeatedly mentions. [ citation needed ]

Moctezuma sent a group of noblemen and other emissaries to meet Cortés at Quauhtechcac. These emissaries brought golden jewelry as a gift, which greatly pleased the Spaniards. [12] According to the Florentine Codex, Lib. 12, f.6r., Moctezuma also ordered that his messengers carry the highly symbolic penacho (headdress) of Quetzalcoatl de Tula to Cortés and place it on his person. As news about the strangers reached the capital city, Moctezuma became increasingly fearful and considered fleeing the city but resigned himself to what he considered to be the fate of his people. [13]

Cortés continued on his march towards Tenochtitlan. Before entering the city, on November 8, 1519, Cortés and his troops prepared themselves for battle, armoring themselves and their horses, and arranging themselves in proper military rank. Four horsemen were at the lead of the procession. Behind these horsemen were five more contingents: foot soldiers with iron swords and wooden or leather shields horsemen in cuirasses, armed with iron lances, swords, and wooden shields crossbowmen more horsemen soldiers armed with arquebuses lastly, native peoples from Tlaxcalan, Tliliuhquitepec, and Huexotzinco. The indigenous soldiers wore cotton armor and were armed with shields and crossbows many carried provisions in baskets or bundles while others escorted the cannons on wooden carts. [ citation needed ]

Cortés' army entered the city on the flower-covered causeway from Iztapalapa, associated with the god Quetzalcoatl. Cortés was amicably received by Moctezuma. The captive woman Malinalli Tenépal, also known as Doña Marina, translated from Nahuatl to Chontal Maya the Spaniard Gerónimo de Aguilar translated from Chontal Maya to Spanish. [ citation needed ]

Moctezuma was soon taken hostage on November 14, 1519, as a safety measure by the vastly outnumbered Spanish. Another reason for his sudden capture was news that Moctezuma received from one of his messengers. It was reported to Moctezuma that at least eight hundred more Spaniards in thirteen great ships had arrived on the coast. Moctezuma received this information a few days before Cortés did. Cortés had been communicating to the crown that he had the entire situation under control and was practically running the city of Tenochtitlan. With the vast new Spanish ships forces on the horizon, sent by his enemy Diego Velázquez, they could only revoke his commission and recall him, thus ending his campaign in Mexico and probably dooming the Spanish attempt for a lightning conquest, as no other Spanish leader could wield authority as effectively both among the natives and the Spaniards. Therefore, Cortés made the decision to abruptly abduct the tlatoani only with a knife to his throat could Cortés ensure his cooperation. [14] According to all eyewitness accounts, Moctezuma initially refused to leave his palace but after a series of threats from and debates with the Spanish captains, and assurances from Doña Marina, he agreed to move to the Axayáctal palace with his retinue. The first captain assigned to guard him was Pedro de Alvarado. Other Aztec lords were also detained by the Spanish, when they started questioning their captive tlatoani's authority. [12] The palace was surrounded by over 100 Spanish soldiers in order to prevent any attempt at rescue. [15]

Tensions mount between Aztecs and Spaniards Edit

It is uncertain why Moctezuma cooperated so readily with the Spaniards. It is possible he feared losing his life or political power however, one of the effective threats wielded by Cortés was the destruction of his beautiful city in the case of fighting between Spaniards and Aztecs (which ultimately came to pass). This Moctezuma at all costs wanted to avoid, vacillating and deferring the rupture until this policy claimed his life. It was clear from the beginning that he was ambivalent about who Cortés and his men really were, whether they be gods, descendants of a god, ambassadors from a greater king, or just barbaric invaders. From the perspective of the tlatoani, the Spaniards might have been assigned some decisive role by fate. It could also have been a tactical move: Moctezuma may have wanted to gather more information on the Spaniards, or to wait for the end of the agricultural season and strike at the beginning of the war season. [ clarification needed ] However, he did not carry out either of these actions even though high-ranking military leaders such as his brother Cuitlahuac and nephew Cacamatzin urged him to do so. [2] [ page needed ]

With Moctezuma captive, Cortés did not need to worry about being cut off from supplies or being attacked, although some of his captains had such concerns. He also assumed that he could control the Aztecs through Moctezuma. However, Cortés had little knowledge of the ruling system of the Aztecs Moctezuma was not all-powerful as Cortés imagined. Being appointed to and maintaining the position of tlatoani was based on the ability to rule decisively he could be replaced by another noble if he failed to do so. At any sign of weakness, Aztec nobles within Tenochtitlan and in other Aztec tributaries were liable to rebel. As Moctezuma complied with orders issued by Cortés, such as commanding tribute to be gathered and given to the Spaniards, his authority was slipping, and quickly his people began to turn against him. [2] [ page needed ]

Cortés and his army were permitted to stay in the Palace of Axayacatl, and tensions continued to grow. While the Spaniards were in Tenochtitlan, Velázquez assembled a force of nineteen ships, more than 1400 soldiers with twenty cannons, eighty horsemen, one-hundred and twenty crossbowmen, and eighty arquebusiers under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez to capture Cortés and return him to Cuba. Velázquez felt that Cortés had exceeded his authority, and had been aware of Cortés's misconduct for nearly a year. He had to wait for favorable winds, though, and was unable to send any forces until spring. Narváez's troops landed at San Juan de Ulúa on the Gulf of Mexico coast around April 20, 1520. [16]

After Cortés became aware of their arrival, he left Pedro de Alvarado in charge in Tenochtitlan with 80 soldiers, and brought all his forces (about two hundred and forty men) by quick marches to Narváez's camp in Cempohuallan on May 27. Several negotiations between the two Spaniards took place on the way, in which Cortés was able to persuade many persons of weight in Narváez's camp to incline to his side. Cortés attacked Narváez's camp late at night his men, much superior in experience and organization, wounded Narváez in the eye and took him as a hostage quickly also taken were his principal adherents, de Salvatierra and Diego Velasquez (the nephew of the Governor of Cuba). Evidence suggests that the two were in the midst of negotiations at the time, and Narváez was not expecting an attack. Cortés then completed winning over Narváez's captains with promises of the vast wealth in Tenochtitlan, inducing them to follow him back to the Aztec capital. Narváez was imprisoned in Vera Cruz, and his army was integrated into Cortés's forces. [2] [ page needed ]

Arrival in Mexico

In 1519, Cortés' ships reached the Mexican coast at Yucatan. Mexico had

been discovered by the Spanish just a year prior, and they were eager to settle it. Cortés was also interested in converting natives to Christianity. "His view on the indigenous people was similar to the majority of Europeans of that day &mdash they were inferior culturally, technologically, and religiously," said Cosme. "While in Cozumel, he was astounded to learn of the gruesome rituals, including human sacrifice, of the natives to their many gods … He and his men removed and destroyed the pagan idols, and replaced them with crosses and figures of the Virgin Mary."

At Tabasco, Cortés was met with resistance from natives. He quickly overpowered them, and the natives surrendered. They provided the Europeans with food, supplies and 20 women, including an interpreter called Malintzin (also known as La Malinche or Doña Marina). La Malinche became an important figure in Cortés' life and legacy.

"She became bilingual, speaking Aztec and Mayan languages, which made her very useful to Cortés," said Cosme. "She eventually learned Spanish, and became Cortés' personal interpreter, guide and mistress. She actually had a pretty high status for both a woman and a native during this time and place among the Spaniards."

Cortés and La Malinche had a child together named Martin, who is sometimes called "El Mestizo." He was one of the first children of mixed indigenous and Spanish heritage. Eventually, Cortés' Spanish wife came to Mexico. After her arrival, historians are unsure if Cortés continued to acknowledge La Malinche or Martin, said Cosme. "It would seem his desire to maintain his reputation and standing among the Spanish community was stronger than his need to be a husband and father to Malinche and Martin."

After a few months in Yucatan, Cortés headed west. On the southeastern coast he founded Veracruz, where he dismissed the authority of Velasquez and declared himself under orders from King Charles I of Spain. He disciplined his men and trained them to act as a cohesive unit of soldiers. He also burned his ships to make retreat impossible.

Hernan Cortes Attacks the Aztecs from Veracruz, Mexico

After a few months in the Yucatan, Cortes continued his journey westward, and founded the settlement of La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (modern-day Veracruz). Cortes got himself elected as captain-general of the new settlement, which freed him from the authority of Velazquez. It was from this settlement that Cortes began his campaign to conquer the Aztec Empire. Initially, the Aztecs did not see the Spanish as a threat. In fact, their ruler, Moctezuma II sent emissaries to present gifts to these foreign strangers. This, however, did little to change the minds of the Spanish. As a matter of fact, Cortes had all but one of his ships scuttled, which meant that he and his men would either conquer the Aztecs Empire or die trying.

As Cortes marched towards Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, he made alliances with the local tribes, one of the first being the Tlaxcalans, who were bitter enemies of the Aztecs. Following the Massacre of Cholula in 1519, more tribes decided to submit to the Spanish, fearing that they would suffer the same fate as the Cholulans if they refused.

In any event, when Cortes and his men arrived in Tenochtitlan, he was warmly welcomed by Moctezuma. It seems that the emperor intended to learn more about the Spanish, especially their weaknesses, so that he could crush them later. Cortes, however, found out about Moctezuma’s plot, and took the emperor hostage, believing that this would stop the Aztecs from attacking him and his men.

In the meantime, an expedition under Panfilo de Narvaez was sent in 1520 by Velazquez to relieve Cortes of his command, capture the renegade conquistador, and bring him back to Cuba to be tried. When he heard of the expedition, Cortes took some of his men, and launched a surprise night attack on de Narvaez’s much larger army, thereby defeating it.

After this victory, he hurried back to Tenochtitlan, as the situation there was quite tense as well. During Cortes’ absence, the Spanish in the city had killed many Aztec nobles during a religious festival, which led to them being besieged in Moctezuma’s palace. When Cortes returned, he decided that the best course of action was to retreat from Tenochtitlan.

The decision to retreat was in part caused by the death of Moctezuma. According to one version of the story, Moctezuma was killed by the Spanish after they realized he had outlived his usefulness. According to another account, the emperor was pelted with stones when he tried to speak to his subjects from a balcony and died of his wounds.

Whilst the Cortes were crossing the causeway to the mainland, his rear guard was attacked by the Aztecs, and he lost many men. This episode became known as La Noche Triste, or “The Night of Sorrows.”

Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, as he must have looked towards the end of his life by an unknown artist. (Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando / Public domain )

Cortes Captures the Aztec Capital

This series has four easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Amid the Ruins.

As we pick up the story, Montezuma, the Aztec Emperor is dead another one reigned for just 80 days now it’s Guatemotzin. Cortes and his band have been driven out of the capital, loosing half of his men but not before leaving the city in ruins. After nursing his losses, Cortes attacks again. This is the final days of that attack.

Apart from the cruelty and the ruthlessness of the Spanish conquistadors, the very fact that a few of them could conquer empires so swiftly and completely shows the relative power of the civilizations of Europe and the native Americans. The Aztecs equaled the Spanish in cruelty and ruthlessness. What they lacked was the technology of war. Conquests like this should not have been only immoral and illegal they should also have been impossible.

That a warlike civilization like this one could collapse so swiftly and so completely was a signal event in world history. European civilization would expand its power throughout the world.

This selection is from History of the Conquest of Mexico by William H. Prescott published in 1844. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.

William H. Prescott (1796-1859) was a US historian who pioneered research in the two major Spanish conquests.

Time: August 1521
Place: Tenochtitlan (Mexico City)

Last Night of Tenochtitlan
Public domain image from Wikipedia

There was no occasion to resort to artificial means to precipitate the ruin of the Azecs. It was accelerated every hour by causes more potent than those arising from mere human agency. There they were, pent up in their close and suffocating quarters, nobles, commoners, and slaves, men, women, and children, some in houses, more frequently in hovels, for this part of the city was not the best, others in the open air in canoes, or in the streets, shivering in the cold rains of night, and scorched by the burning heat of day. The ordinary means of sustaining life were long since gone. They wandered about in search of anything, however unwholesome or revolting, that might mitigate the fierce gnawings of hunger. Some hunted for insects and worms on the borders of the lake, or gathered the salt weeds and moss from its bottom, while at times they might be seen casting a wistful look at the hills beyond, which many of them had left to share the fate of their brethren in the capital.

To their credit, it is said by the Spanish writers, that they were not driven in their extremity to violate the laws of nature by feeding on one another. But unhappily this is contradicted by the Indian authorities, who state that many a mother, in her agony, devoured the offspring which she had no longer the means of supporting. This is recorded of more than one siege in history and it is the more probable here, where the sensibilities must have been blunted by familiarity with the brutal practices of the national superstition.

But all was not sufficient, and hundreds of famished wretches died every day from extremity of suffering. Some dragged themselves into the houses, and drew their last breath alone, and in silence. Others sank down in the public streets. Wherever they died, there they were left. There was no one to bury or to remove them. Familiarity with the spectacle made men indifferent to it. They looked on in dumb despair, waiting for their own turn. There was no complaint, no lamentation, but deep, unutterable woe.

If in other quarters of the town the corpses might be seen scattered over the streets, here they were gathered in heaps. “They lay so thick,” says Bernal Diaz, “that one could not tread except among the bodies.” “A man could not set his foot down,” says Cortes, yet more strongly, “unless on the corpse of an Indian!” They were piled one upon another, the living mingled with the dead. They stretched themselves on the bodies of their friends, and lay down to sleep there. Death was everywhere. The city was a vast charnel-house, in which all was hastening to decay and decomposition. A poisonous steam arose from the mass of putrefaction, under the action of alternate rain and heat, which so tainted the whole atmosphere, that the Spaniards, including the general himself, in their brief visits to the quarter, were made ill by it, and it bred a pestilence that swept off even greater numbers than the famine.

In the midst of these awful scenes, the young emperor of the Aztecs remained, according to all accounts, calm and courageous. With his fair capital laid in ruins before his eyes, his nobles and faithful subjects dying around him, his territory rent away, foot by foot, till scarce enough remained for him to stand on, he rejected every invitation to capitulate, and showed the same indomitable spirit as at the commencement of the siege. When Cortes, in the hope that the extremities of the besieged would incline them to listen to an accommodation, persuaded a noble prisoner to bear to Guatemozin his proposals to that effect, the fierce young monarch, according to the general, ordered him at once to be sacrificed. It is a Spaniard, we must remember, who tells the story.

Cortes, who had suspended hostilities for several days, in the vain hope that the distresses of the Mexicans would bend them to submission, now determined to drive them to it by a general assault. Cooped up, as they were, within a narrow quarter of the city, their position favored such an attempt. He commanded Alvarado to hold himself in readiness, and directed Sandoval-who, besides the causeway, had charge of the fleet, which lay off the Tlatelolcan district, to support the attack by a cannonade on the houses near the water. He then led his forces into the city, or rather across the horrid waste that now encircled it.

On entering the Indian precincts, he was met by several of the chiefs, who, stretching forth their emaciated arms, exclaimed, “You are the children of the Sun. But the Sun is swift in his course. Why are you, then, so tardy? Why do you delay so long to put an end to our miseries? Rather kill us at once, that we may go to our god Huitzilopochtli, who waits for us in heaven to give us rest from our sufferings!”
Cortes was moved by their piteous appeal, and answered, that he desired not their death, but their submission. “Why does your master refuse to treat with me,” he said, “when a single hour will suffice for me to crush him and all his people?” He then urged them to request Guatemozin to confer with him, with the assurance that he might do it in safety, as his person should not be molested.
The nobles, after some persuasion, undertook the mission and it was received by the young monarch in a manner which showed- if the anecdote before related of him be true- that misfortune had, at length, asserted some power over his haughty spirit. He consented to the interview, though not to have it take place on that day, but the following, in the great square of Tlatelolco. Cortes, well satisfied, immediately withdrew from the city, and resumed his position on the causeway.

The next morning he presented himself at the place appointed, having previously stationed Alvarado there with a strong corps of infantry to guard against treachery. The stone platform in the center of the square was covered with mats and carpets, and a banquet was prepared to refresh the famished monarch and his nobles. Having made these arrangements, he awaited the hour of the interview.

Cortes’ bloody road to power

While in the city he learned that some of his men left by the coast had been killed by locals, and used this as a pretext to suddenly seize the Emperor in his own palace and declare him to be a hostage. With this powerful pawn in his hands, Cortes then effectively ruled the city and its Empire for the next few months with little opposition.

This relative calm did not last long. Velazquez had not given up on finding his old enemy and dispatched a force which arrived in Mexico in April 1520. Despite being outnumbered, Cortes rode out of Tenochtitlan to meet them and incorporated the survivors into his own men after winning the ensuing battle.

In a vengeful mood, he then marched back to Tenochtitlan – in his absence, his second-in-command, Alvarado, had ordered the killing of hundreds of Aztec people after they attempted to perform a ritual human sacrifice as part of their celebrations for the festival of Toxcatl. Shortly after Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma was killed. Despite claiming that it had happened in an uncontrollable riot, historians have suspected foul play ever since.

A depiction of the founding of Tenochtitlan taken from the Codex Mendoza, a 16th century Aztec codex. Image credit: Public Domain.

As the situation in the city escalated terribly, Cortes had to flee for his life with a few of his men on what is now known as La Noche Triste: in his confidence, he had underestimated the Aztecs, failed to understand their tactics and overestimated the ability of his own troops. He lost 870 men, a significant percentage of the Spanish forces in Mexico, as a result.

After forming alliances with local rivals, Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan and besieged the city, almost razing it to the ground, and claiming it for Spain under the name of Mexico City. With no one to tell him otherwise, he then ruled as the self-styled governor of all Mexico from 1521-1524.

To begin to develop a sense of how complicated the history of the conquest of Mexico is, look at some of what some popular textbooks have to say. Make a list of what these authors agree upon. Note where they disagree with each other. How do the primary sources included here on-line help you to decide which interpretation you think is best? Make a note of which interpretation you think is best before starting the project. Do you still agree with what you thought after reading the primary sources?

Note: All of the passages below are quoted verbatim.

Bentley and Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, vol. 2 (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000), 596&ndash97

Spanish interest soon shifted from the Caribbean to the American mainland, where settlers hoped to find more resources to exploit. During the early sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors (&ldquoconquerors&ldquo) pressed beyond the Caribbean islands, moving west into Mexico and south into Panama and Peru. Between 1519 and 1521 Hernán Cortés and a small band of men brought down the Aztec empire in Mexico, and between 1532 and 1533 Francisco Pizarro and his followers toppled the Inca empire in Peru. These conquests laid the foundations for colonial regimes that would transform the Americas.

The conquest of Mexico began with an expedition to search for gold on the American mainland. In 1519 Cortés led about 450 men to Mexico and made his way from Veracruz on the Gulf Coast to the island city of Tenochtitlan, the stunningly beautiful Aztec capital situated in Lake Texcoco. They seized the emperor Motecuzoma II, who died in 1520 during a skirmish between Spanish forces and residents of Tenochtitlan. Aztec forces soon drove the conquistadors from the capital, but Cortés built a small fleet of ships, placed Tenochtitlan under siege, and in 1521 starved the city into surrender.

Steel swords, muskets, cannons, and horses offered Cortés and his men some advantage over the forces they met and help to account for the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. Yet weaponry alone clearly would not enable Cortés&rsquos tiny force to overcome a large, densely populated society of about twenty-one million. Quite apart from military technology, Cortés &rsquos expedition benefited from divisions among the indigenous peoples of Mexico. With the aid of Doña Marina, the conquistadors forged alliances with peoples who resented domination by the Mexicas, the leaders of the Aztec empire, and who reinforced the small Spanish army with thousands of veteran warriors. Native allies also provided Spanish forces with logistical support and secure bases in friendly territory.

Brummett, Edgar, Hackett, Jewsbury, Taylor, Bailkey, Lewis, and Wallbank, Civilization: Past and Present, vol. 2, 9th ed. (New York: Longman, 2000), 430&ndash31.

In Mexico the Spaniards profited from internal problems within the Aztec Empire. In the early 1500s unrest ran rampant among many recently subdued tribes, who were forced to pay tribute and furnish sacrificial victims for their Aztec overlords. Montezuma II, the Aztec emperor, professed a fear that the Spaniards were followers of the white-skinned and bearded Teotihuacán god, Quetzalcoatl, who had been exiled by the Toltecs because he forbade human sacrifice and had promised a return from across the sea to enforce his law. Whether this was Montezuma&rsquos true belief or not, the legend probably added to the widespread resentment already verging on rebellion.

In 1519 Hernando Cortés (1485-1574) arrived from Cuba with 11 ships, 600 fighting men, 200 servants, 16 horses, 32 crossbows, 13 muskets, and 14 mobile cannons. Before marching against the Aztec capital, he destroyed his ships to prevent his men from turning back. In a few battles the Spanish horses, firearms, steel armor, and tactics produced decisive victories. Exploiting the Quetzalcoatl legend and the Aztec policy of taking sacrificial victims, Cortés was able to enlist Amerindian allies. As the little army marched inland, its members were welcomed, feasted, and given Amerindian women, including daughters of chiefs, whom Cortés distributed among his men. One woman, Malinche, later christened Doña Marina, became a valuable interpreter as well as Cortés &rsquos mistress and bore him a son. She helped save him from a secret ambush at Cholula it had been instigated by Montezuma, who otherwise delayed direct action as Cortés approached Tenochitlán, accompanied by thousands of Amerindian warriors.

In that city of more than 150,000 people, Cortés became a guest of Montezuma, surrounded by a host of armed Aztecs. Undaunted Cortés implemented his preconceived plan and seized the Amerindian ruler in the man&rsquos own palace. Malinche then informed Montezuma, as if in confidence, that he must cooperate or die. The bold scheme worked temporarily, but soon the Aztecs rebelled, renounced their emperor as a traitor, stoned and killed him when he tried to pacify them, and ultimately drove a battered band of terrified Spaniards from the city in the narrowest of escapes. Later, having regrouped and gained new Amerindian allies, Cortés wore down the Aztecs in a long and bloody siege during which some Spanish prisoners were sacrificed in full view of their comrades. Finally, after fearful slaughter, some 60,000 exhausted and half-starved defenders surrendered. Most tribes in Central Mexico then accepted Spanish rule many who resisted were enslaved.

Bulliet, Crossley, Headrick, Hirsch, Johnson, and Northrup, The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History, Vol. 2 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997), 505&ndash06.

The most audacious expedition to the mainland was led by an ambitious and ruthless nobleman, Hernándo Cortés (1485-1547). He left Cuba in 1519 with six hundred fighting men and most of the island&rsquos stock of weapons to assault the rich Aztec Empire in central Mexico, bringing the exploitation and conquest that had begun in the Greater Antilles to the American mainland on a massive scale.

Like the Caribbean Indians, the people of Mexico had no precedent by which to judge these strange visitors. Later accounts suggest that some Indians believed Cortés to be the legendary ruler Quetzalcoatl, whose return to earth had been prophesied, and treated him with great deference. Other Indians saw the Spaniards as powerful human allies against the Aztecs, who had imposed their rule during the previous century.

From his glorious capital city Tenochtitlan, the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II (c. 1502-1520) sent messengers to greet Cortés and to try to figure out whether he was god or man, friend or foe. Cortés advanced steadily toward the capital, overcoming Aztec opposition with cavalry charges and steel swords and gaining the support of thousands of Amerindian allies from among the Aztecs unhappy subjects.. When they were near, the emperor went out in a great procession, dressed in all his finery, to welcome Cortés with gifts and flower garlands.

Despite Cortés &rsquos initial promise that he came in friendship, Moctezuma quickly found himself a prisoner in his own palace, his treasury looted, and its gold melted down. Soon a major battle was raging in and about the capital between the Spaniards and the supporters of the Aztecs. At one point the Aztecs gained the upper hand, destroying half the Spanish force and four thousand of their Amerindian allies and offering their gods a sacrifice of fifty-three Spaniards and four horses, their severed heads displayed in rows on pikes. Reinforced by new troops from Cuba, Cortés was able to regain the advantage by means of Spanish Cannon and clever battle strategies. The capture of Tenochtitlan was also greatly facilitated by the spread of smallpox from the Antilles, which weakened and killed many of the city&rsquos defenders. When the capital fell, the conquistadors overcame other parts of Mexico.

Craig, Graham, Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, The Heritage of World Civilizations, combined vol., 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000), 522.

In 1519 Hernan Cortés (1485-1547) landed in Mexico with about five hundred men and a few horses. He opened communication with nearby communities and then with Moctezuma II (1466-1520), the Aztec emperor. Moctezuma may initially have believed Cortés to be the god Quezalcoatl, who, according to legend, had been driven away centuries earlier but had promised to return. Whatever the reason, Moctezuma hesitated to confront Cortés, attempting at first to appease him with gifts of gold that only whetted Spanish appetites. Cortés succeeded in forging alliances with some subject peoples and, most importantly, with Tlaxcala, an independent state and traditional enemy of the Aztecs. His forces then marched on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City), where Moctezuma welcomed him. Cortés soon seized Moctezuma, making him a prisoner in his own capital. Moctezuma died in unexplained circumstances, and the Aztec&rsquos wary acceptance to the Spaniards turned to open hostility. The Spaniards were driven out of Tenochtitlan and nearly wiped out, but they ultimately returned and laid siege to the city. The Aztecs, under their last ruler, Cuauhtémoc (c. 1495-1525), resisted fiercely but were finally defeated in late 1521. Cortés razed Tenochtitlan, building his own capital over its ruins, and proclaimed the Aztec Empire to be New Spain.

Goucher, Leguin, and Walton, In the Balance: Themes in Global History, vol. 2 (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998), 502&ndash03

Soon after the Spanish colonization of Cuba in 1519, a small army led by Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) conquered Mexico from the Aztecs. Cortés first attacked and then made allies of towns. Particularly strategic were communities which had been subject to the Aztecs, who had heavily taxed the people and practiced human sacrifice.

Many within the Aztec Empire came to believe that Cortés was Quetzalcoatl the god who would return to overthrow the god Tezcatlipoca, who demanded human sacrifice. Cortés was aided by an Indian woman La Malinche or Malintzin, who became an invaluable interpreter for and mistress and confidant of Cortés. What happened next is unclear. The Spaniards claimed that the Aztec king Moctezuma was stoned to death by his own people and the Aztecs claimed that Cortés &rsquos second in command attacked priests, chiefs, and warriors during a celebration and strangled Moctezuma. After heavy losses, Cortés was forced to flee. He returned with thousands of Indian allies, who opposed the Aztecs. After a four month siege, during which time Aztec defenders succumbed as much to disease and starvation as to the force of arms, the new Aztec king Cuautemoc surrendered. By 1535, most of central Mexico was integrated under Spanish control in the kingdom of New Spain.

McKay, Hill, Buckler, and Ebrey, A History of World Societies, vol. 2, 5th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 506&ndash08.

The strange end of the Aztec nation remains one of the most fascinating events in the annals of human societies. The Spanish adventurer Hernando Cortés (1485-1547) landed at Veracruz in February 1519. In November he entered Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) and soon had the emperor Montezuma II (r. 1502-1520) in custody. In less than two years, Cortés destroyed the monarchy, gained complete control of the Mexica capital and extended his influence over much of the Aztec Empire. Why did a strong people defending its own territory succumb so quickly to a handful of Spaniards fighting in dangerous and completely unfamiliar circumstances? How indeed, since Montezuma&rsquos scouts sent him detailed reports of the Spaniards' movements? The answers to these questions lie in the fact that at the time of the Spanish arrival, the Aztec and Inca Empires faced grave internal difficulties brought on by their religious ideologies by the Spaniards' boldness, timing, and technology and by Aztec and Inca psychology and attitudes toward war.

The Spaniards arrived in late summer, when the Aztecs were preoccupied with harvesting their crops and not thinking of war. From the Spaniards' perspective, their timing was ideal. A series of natural phenomena, signs, and portents seemed to augur disaster for the Aztecs. A comet was seen in daytime, a column of fire had appeared every midnight for a year, and two temples were suddenly destroyed, one by lightning unaccompanied by thunder. These and other apparently inexplicable events seemed to presage the return of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and had an unnerving effect on the Aztecs. They looked on the Europeans riding "wild beasts" as extraterrestrial forces coming to establish a new social order. Defeatism swept the nation and paralyzed its will.

The Aztec state religion, the sacred cult of Huitzilopochtli, necessitated constant warfare against neighboring peoples to secure captives for religious sacrifice and laborers for agricultural and infrastructure work. Lacking an effective method of governing subject peoples, the Aztecs controlled thirty-eight provinces in central Mexico through terror. When Cortés landed, the provinces were being crushed under a cycle of imperial oppression: increases in tribute provoked revolt, which led to reconquest, retribution, and demands for higher tribute, which in turn sparked greater resentment and fresh revolt. When the Spaniards appeared, the Totonacs greeted them as liberators, and other subject peoples joined them against the Aztecs. Even before the coming of the Spaniards, Montezuma&rsquos attempts to resolve the problem of constant warfare by freezing social positions--thereby ending the social mobility that war provoked--aroused the resentment of his elite, mercantile, and lowborn classes. Montezuma faced terrible external and internal difficulties.

Montezuma refrained from attacking the Spaniards as they advanced toward his capital and welcomed Cortés and his men into Tenochtitlan. Historians have often condemned the Aztec ruler for vacillation and weakness. But he relied on the advice of his state council, itself divided, and on the dubious loyalty of tributary communities. When Cortés--with incredible boldness--took Montezuma hostage, the emperor&rsquos influence over his people crumbled.

The major explanation for the collapse of the Aztec Empire to six hundred Spaniards lies in the Aztecs' notion of warfare and their level of technology. Forced to leave Tenochtitlan to settle a conflict elsewhere, Cortés placed his lieutenant, Alvarado, in charge. Alvarado&rsquos harsh rule drove the Aztecs to revolt, and they almost succeeded in destroying the Spanish garrison. When Cortés returned just in time, the Aztecs allowed his reinforcements to join Alvarado&rsquos besieged force. No threatened European or Asian state would have conceived of doing such a thing: dividing an enemy&rsquos army and destroying the separate parts was basic to their military tactics. But for the Aztecs, warfare was a ceremonial act in which "divide and conquer" had no place.

Having allowed the Spanish forces to reunite, the entire population of Tenochitlán attacked the invaders. The Aztecs killed many Spaniards. In retaliation, the Spaniards executed Montezuma. The Spaniards escaped from the city and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Aztec army at Otumba near Lake Texcoco on July 7, 1520. The Spaniards won because "the simple Indian methods of mass warfare were of little avail against the maneuvering of a well-drilled force." Aztec weapons proved no match for the terrifyingly noisy and lethal Spanish cannon, muskets, crossbows, and steel swords. European technology decided the battle. Cortés began the systematic conquest of Mexico.

Hernan Cortes and the Aztec Empire

Cortes finally sailed for the cost of Yucatan on February 18, 1519 with 11 ships, 508 soldiers from surrounding Cuban ports, 100 sailors and 16 horses. In March 1519 he landed in Tabasco where he built up an intelligence base in order to gain knowledge of the local Indians. The Indians were won over by Cortes and favoured him with gifts of gold, cloth and women (similar to Grijalva’s experience with the natives in 1518). One of the native women, Marina “Malinche”, became Cortes interpreter and mistress.

“This present, however, was worth nothing in comparison with the twenty

women that were given us, among them one very excellent woman called Doña

Marina, for so she was named when she became a Christian. Cortés received this

present with pleasure and went aside with all the Caciques, and with Aguilar, the

interpreter, to hold converse, and he told them that he gave them thanks for what they

had brought with them, but there was one thing that he must ask of them, namely, that

they should re-occupy the town with all their people, women and children, and he

wished to see it repeopled within two days”- Bernard Diaz del Castillo

Cortes shortly departed from Tabasco and landed further south than intended in a Port he soon labelled, Vera Cruz. Through this initiative Cortes denounced Velasquez authority and was made Chief Administrative Officer by the town’s council. He then set fire to his fleet of ships, encouraging those under his command to accept his authority, Cortes now relied on conquering Aztec territory in order to survive.

He then continued to journey inland, relying entirely on amity with the Indian Natives. The source of Cortes success lay in the political crisis within the Aztec Empire. The higher order Aztecs were resented by the subjects who had to pay tribute to them. The state of Tlaxcala was at constant war with Montezuma II and, in hope of overthrowing the ruler, became Cortes closest allies. Cortes requested, from a local tribe of Totonac Indians, an audience with Montezuma II before marching inland towards the capital of Tenochtitlan with an army of over 1,500 soldiers (including his Spanish army). Cortes entered the city on November 8 th , 1519. Montezuma received him with great honour in stark contrast to his reception and initial denial of an audience. The Aztecs believed Cortés to be the descendent of the white-skinned god Quetzalcoatl of Aztec prophesy. This prophesy stated that Quetzalcoatl had left Mexico in the tenth century but would return from the east to reclaim his authority over the Aztecs. The Aztec Emperor, Montezuma, saw Cortés' arrival as the fulfilment of this prophecy and welcomed the party warmly, presenting the Spaniards with lavish gifts . In this excerpt from a letter Cortes addressed to Charles V, he describes his first impressions of the great capital of Tenochtitlan:

“This great city of Temixtitlan [Mexico] is situated in this salt lake, and from the main land to the denser parts of it, by whichever route one chooses to enter, the distance is two leagues. There are four avenues or entrances to the city, all of which are formed by artificial causeways, two spears' length in width. The city is as large as Seville or Cordova its streets, I speak of the principal ones, are very wide and straight some of these, and all the inferior ones, are half land and half water, and are navigated by canoes. All the streets at intervals have openings, through which the water flows, crossing from one street to another and at these openings, some of which are very wide, there are also very wide bridges, composed of large pieces of timber, of great strength and well put together on many of these bridges ten horses can go abreast”

“The following morning, they came out of the city to greet me with many trumpets

and drums, including many persons whom they regard as priests in their temples,

dressed in traditional vestments and singing after their fashion, as they do in the temples.”

After initial meetings with Montezuma, Cortes began to fear that his company would become the next human sacrifices at the Tenochtitlan Temple. From this, the Spanish-Indian relations deteriorated rapidly with coastal tribes plundering Vera Cruz. Cortes seized Montezuma and made him prisoner thus initiating a submission of the Aztecs and an offering of Gold as a ransom for Montezuma’s life. During this time Velasquez sent a fleet to subdue the rebellious Captain to which Cortes blatantly defeated with an army of 1000 men and enlisted Velasquez army of 1400 to his cause in Tenochtitlan. Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan to find that his Spanish troops had massacred an unarmed crowd at a religious ceremony, provoking a massive popular uprising. Following the conquest Las Casas writes:

“Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits. It should be kept in mind that their insatiable greed and ambition, the greatest ever seen in the world, is the cause of their villainies. And also, those lands are so rich and felicitous, the native peoples so meek and patient, so easy to subject, that our Spaniards have no more consideration for them than beasts.”

Montezuma was shortly stoned to death after the return of Cortes and his newly instated army. Cortes only option following this attack remained to retreat to Tlaxcala. The Aztecs opposed this retreat as they had enforced such a detriment upon their populace. They engaged in a short-lived battle during which Cortes suffered a dramatic loss to his army and with 500 soldiers left, on July 20 th , 1520 Cortes retreated to Tlaxcala (his Indian allies). Cortes rebuilt his army soliciting Velasquez to supply him with 1000 men to storm the capital once again. In 1521, Cortes and his army returned to Tenochtitlan and blockaded the city, denying food and water. An outbreak of smallpox soon engulfed the city at which point the new Aztec Emperor, Guatemoc, surrendered and Cortes stormed the city once more and demolished it so as to eradicate all traces of a once peaceful civilisation. This was the end of the great Aztec Empire.

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