In the decade before the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Aztec Emperor Montezuma II and his people were filled with a sense of foreboding. A series of evil omens had foretold of calamities to come. A fiery comet crossed the sky. The temple of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, burst into flames. The Lake of Mexico boiled and rose, flooding into houses. Montezuma looked into the mirror and saw a distant plain, with people making war against each other and riding on the backs of animals resembling deer.
An agitated Montezuma demanded that his priests explain the meaning of these dire signs and was told that they predicted the destruction of his kingdom. In fact, Montezuma had reason to be fearful - the Spanish were making their way toward his empire.
The Spanish had made several expeditions to the nearby Yucatan in 1517 and had returned with wondrous tales of a high-cultured Mayan civilization and gold riches. The news of these discoveries made quite an impression on the Spanish colonists in Cuba. Among these was Hernán Cortés. The Spanish governor of Cuba, Diego de Velásquez, told Cortés that he would provide two or three ships if Cortés would find the rest of the money and lead the army. Cortés agreed and on October 23, 1518, Velásquez appointed him "captain-general" of a new expedition to the Yucatan.
February 1519 Cortés Defies the Governor
The Spanish colonies of the sixteenth century had gold fever and in a short time Cortés had three ships and 300 men. Velásquez became concerned about the amount of Cortés' preparations and sent orders to relieve Cortés of his command. Alerted to Velásquez' plans, Cortés now moved fast. After seizing all the meat supplies in Santiago, he set sail at daybreak on February 18, 1519.
The crossing from Cuba to the Yucatan is only 120 miles, and Cortés coasted down to Cozumel, where, for the first time, he saw the Mayan pyramids. Almost immediately, he had an incredible stroke of luck. The people of the island told him that there were Christians who had been carried there a long time ago in a boat. One of those men was Geronimo de Aguilar, who had been shipwrecked near Jamaica in 1511. Cortés now had a translator who could speak the local Mayan tongue.
Cortés continued round the tip of the Yucatan and disembarked at Potonchan, where the natives gave him small offerings of food and a gold mask, but then asked the Spanish to go: ''We wish neither war nor trade,'' they told Cortés. ''We have no more gold - you will be killed if you do not leave.'' Ultimately, the conversation ended in a battle in which 400 Indian warriors were driven off with heavy losses. The Indians submitted and gave the Spanish gifts, including 20 women. Cortés discovered that one of these women, named Malinche, spoke both Mayan and Nahuatl, the Aztec language. Now, through Geronimo de Aguilar, he would be able to talk to Malinche in Mayan, and then through her speak with the Mexicans in Nahuatl.
April 20,1519 A Display of Force
Several days later, the messenger of the great king of Mexico, Montezuma, arrived. The messenger’s name was Teudile, and Montezuma had instructed his messenger to supply and feed his guests, and to offer them gifts of precious stones.
Cortés presented himself as the ambassador of a king who ruled "the greater part of the world." Cortés asked for Montezuma. Teudile replied he would send a message to Montezuma to find out his wishes. Cortés then gave the Aztecs a demonstration of his guns and horses. His cavalry charged along the beach at full tilt with swords flashing and bells tinkling. If that were not intimidating enough, the big cannon were fired, at which Teudile and his men literally fell to the ground in fear.
Cortés Burns His Boats
Montezuma's messengers returned to the emperor with the terrifying reports of their encounter with the Spainards: their guns, horses, dogs and their lust for gold. Montezuma was paralyzed by their tales, and by the possibility that Cortés was the returning Quetzalcoatl, "the feathered serpent," an exiled deity who vowed to return one day to claim his kingdom.
Cortés, meanwhile, weighed his options. He had not yet seen the magical city of Tenochtitlán, but he knew it was there, 200 miles away. He faced imprisonment or death if he returned to Cuba. His only alternative was to conquer and settle part of the land. Those of his men still loyal to the Governor of Cuba planned to seize a ship and escape to Cuba, but Cortés moved swiftly to quash their plans. To make sure such a mutiny did not happen again, he decided to sink his ships, on the pretext that they were not seaworthy.
His ships sunk, Cortés marched into the interior, to the territory of the Tlaxcalans. They were enemies of Mexico and Cortés thought they might join him in a military alliance against the Aztecs. After a long debate, the Tlaxcalans decided to fight Cortés instead, and they suffered terrible losses. Eventually they sued for peace and agreed to go with Cortés to Mexico. Cortés marched on with the Tlaxcalan warriors to Cholula, 20 miles from Tlaxcala. A story spread from the Tlaxcalans to Malinche that the Cholulans were planning to trap Cortés inside the city and massacre his army. When the Cholulan leadership and many of their warriors gathered, unarmed, in a great enclosure by the pyramid temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Spanish and the Tlaxcalans killed them. The massacre had a chilling effect, provoking other kingdoms and cities in Montezuma's empire to submit to Cortés' demands.
November 1519: The Most Beautiful Thing in the World
When Cortés and his men reached Tenochtitlán they were stunned. This, indeed, was a City of Dreams.
On November 8, 1519, the Spaniards marched along the causeway leading into the city. The towers, temples and canoes were thick with crowds who gathered to gape at the men and their horses.
The two processions met at the entrance to Tenochtitlán. Montezuma was in a litter draped with fine cotton mantles and borne on the shoulders of the lords. He emerged from the litter and placed necklaces of gold and precious stones round Cortés' neck. Cortés placed a necklace of pearls and cut glass around the neck of Montezuma, but was held back by two lords when he tried to embrace the emperor.
The Aztecs led the Spaniards into the heart of the city where Montezuma showered them with more gifts and then quartered them in very nice apartments. The Aztecs knew about the massacre in Cholula and believed that the Spaniards could be very cruel. It was as Tenochtitlán had given shelter to a monster.
November, 1519 Montezuma Arrested
In the days that followed, Cortés and his men marveled at the treasures of Tenochtitlán - the strange foods, the "wondrous artifacts" - and were horrified by the Aztec religious rites of human sacrifice.
Cortés was also uneasy. The Spaniards were vastly outnumbered and he feared that Montezuma could be plotting to destroy them. Thus, on November 16, Cortés placed the Aztec emperor under house arrest and attempted to rule the Aztecs through the emperor. However, the Aztecs grew ever more resentful of the Spaniards' attacks on their religion and their relentless demands for gold.
Cortés next installed Christian images on the great pyramid, and set in motion the first attempts to destroy the Aztec idols. Still trying to be reasonable, Montezuma suggested an astonishing compromise: the placing of his gods on one side, the Christians on the other.
April 1520 Velasquez Sends an Arrest Party
Cortés was scrambling to subdue the Aztecs when he received news that a large Spanish force had arrived. It was an arrest party sent by the governor of Cuba. Cortés left Tenochtitlán in the hands of a man named Alvarado. With Montezuma in chains, he rushed out to meet the forces of Narvaez. Cortés surprised Narvaez on the coast, attacking and defeating him at night. For Cortés, the outcome was better than he could have hoped. Narvaez’s surviving troops reinforced Cortés who returned to Tenochtitlán with greater numbers.
June 1520 Massacre at Tenochtitlán
While Cortés was fighting Narvaez, Alvarado ordered a massacre during the great Aztec spring festival of Huizilopochtli. Cortés returned on June 25,1520 and by June 30 the situation was desperate. Cortés forced Montezuma to try and pacify to people from the rooftop, but the emperor was forced to retreat under a hail of stones and arrows.
The Spanish later claimed that Montezuma was wounded and died of his injuries. But, hurt or not, when he was taken back to the palace, it seems clear that the "great speaker" was now understood by Cortés to have lost all his power, and was of no further use to the Spanish.
News of the killing of Montezuma spread, and soon there was uproar in the city. The Spaniards tried to flee unnoticed, but they were caught. A call went out and canoes began to close in on all sides. The Spanish tried to press forward, and in the confusion hundreds of men fell into the canal.
More than 600 Spanish conquistadors were killed (some estimates ran to over 1,000). Many drowned and were weighed down by the gold they were carrying. Several thousand Tlaxcalans were probably lost, too. Cortés retreated back to Tlaxcala. The elemental horror of that night was never forgotten. It is still called "the night of tears" (noche triste).
December 1520 Siege, Starvation & Smallpox
At Tlaxcala Cortés rebuilt his military force. The key to victory, he believed, was the lake and he set out to build a fleet of boats. Meanwhile, the Aztecs thought the Spaniards were gone for good. They elected a new king, Cuautemoc, "The Fallen Eagle." He was in his mid-20s, the son of Montezuma's uncle and was an experienced leader.
The Aztecs cleaned the temple courtyards and again celebrated their fiestas in the traditional way. But by the end of September, people started to die of a mysterious and alien illness that had horrifying symptoms of "racking coughs and painful burning sores." The disease, smallpox, spread soon crossed the causeways into Tenochtitlán. It lasted 70 days and killed a vast number of people.
At the end of December 1520, Cortés' army moved toward Tenochtitlán; the boats followed later. The early stage of the siege saw the surrender of towns all around the lake. It must have been plain that Tenochtitlán was doomed. Still the Aztecs would not surrender, even when only the city on the island was left.
The Last Stand: An Aztec Iliad
Cortés and his allies landed their forces in the south of the island and fought their way through the city, street by street, and house by house. Though better armed, the Spanish still suffered losses. Gradually, the whole southern part of the island fell to the Spanish. The Aztec defenders, who were estimated at 300,000, became concentrated in the northern part of island, where they fought for 80 days.
When a guiding omen confirmed that defeat was inevitable, the Aztec leaders gathered to discuss what to do, how best to surrender, and "what tribute to pay." Cuatemoc was led to Cortés. "Cortés stared at him for a moment and then patted him on the head." The meaning of this apparently demeaning gesture seems to be revealed in the account of Alva Ixtilxochitl, a descendant of one of the allied kings who fought for Cortés. "Cortés received him with all the respect due to a king. Cuautemoc then asked Cortés to kill him: 'For you have already destroyed my city and killed my people.'" The same day as the surrender, the Spanish looted the city while their native allies ran amok, taking revenge against their ancient tormentors. Many people fled to the mainland by canoe in daytime, most by night, "crashing into each other in their haste."