Conquistador Hernan Cortes and his Spanish troops did not conquer the Aztec Empire on their own. They had allies, with the Tlaxcalans being among the most important. Learn how this alliance developed and how their support was crucial to Cortes’ success.
In 1519, as conquistador Hernan Cortes was making his way inland from the coast on his audacious conquest of the Mexica (Aztec) Empire, he had to pass through the lands of the fiercely independent Tlaxcalans, who were the mortal enemies of the Mexica.
At first, the Tlaxcalans fought the conquistadors viciously, but after repeated defeats, they decided to make peace with the Spanish and ally with them against their traditional enemies. The aid provided by the Tlaxcalans would eventually prove crucial for Cortes in his campaign.
Tlaxcala and the Aztec Empire in 1519
From 1420 or so to 1519, the mighty Mexica culture had come to dominate most of central Mexico. One by one, the Mexica had conquered and subjugated dozens of neighboring cultures and city-states, turning them into strategic allies or resentful vassals. By 1519, only a few isolated holdouts remained. Chief among them were the fiercely independent Tlaxcalans, whose territory was located to the east of Tenochtitlan. The area controlled by the Tlaxcalans comprised some 200 semi-autonomous villages united by their hatred of the Mexica. The people were from three main ethnic groups: the Pinomes, Otomí, and Tlaxcalans, who were descended from warlike Chichimecs who had relocated to the region centuries before.
The Aztecs tried repeatedly to conquer and subjugate them but always failed. Emperor Montezuma II himself had most recently tried to defeat them in 1515. The Tlaxcalans’ hatred of the Mexica ran very deep.
Diplomacy and Skirmish
In August of 1519, the Spanish were making their way to Tenochtitlan. They occupied the small town of Zautla and pondered their next move.
They had brought with them thousands of Cempoalan allies and porters, led by a nobleman named Mamexi. Mamexi counseled going through Tlaxcala and possibly making allies of them. From Zautla, Cortes sent four Cempoalan envoys to Tlaxcala, offering to talk about a possible alliance, and moved to the town of Ixtaquimaxtitlan. When the envoys did not return, Cortes and his men moved out and entered Tlaxcalan territory anyway. They had not gone far when they came across Tlaxcalan scouts, who retreated and came back with a larger army. The Tlaxcalans attacked but the Spanish drove them off with a concerted cavalry charge, losing two horses in the process.
Diplomacy and War
Meanwhile, the Tlaxcalans were trying to decide what to do about the Spanish. A Tlaxcalan prince, Xicotencatl the Younger, came up with a clever plan. The Tlaxcalans would supposedly welcome the Spanish but would send their Otomí allies to attack them. Two of the Cempoalan emissaries were allowed to escape and report to Cortes. For two weeks, the Spanish made little headway. They remained camped out on a hilltop. During the day, the Tlaxcalans and their Otomi allies would attack, only to be driven off by the Spanish. During lulls in the fighting, Cortes and his men would launch punitive attacks and food raids against local towns and villages.
Although the Spanish were weakening, the Tlaxcalans were dismayed to see that they were not gaining the upper hand, even with their superior numbers and fierce fighting. Meanwhile, envoys from Mexica Emperor Montezuma showed up, encouraging the Spanish to keep fighting the Tlaxcalans and to not trust anything they said.
Peace and Alliance
After two weeks of bloody fighting, Tlaxcalan leaders convinced the military and civil leadership of Tlaxcala to sue for peace. Hotheaded Prince Xicotencatl the Younger was sent personally to Cortes to ask for peace and an alliance. After sending messages back and forth for a few days with not only the elders of Tlaxcala but also Emperor Montezuma, Cortes decided to go to Tlaxcala. Cortes and his men entered the city of Tlaxcala on September 18, 1519.
Rest and Allies
Cortes and his men would remain in Tlaxcala for 20 days.
It was a very productive time for Cortes and his men. One important aspect of their extended stay was that they could rest, heal their wounds, tend to their horses and equipment and basically get ready for the next step of their journey. Although the Tlaxcalans had little wealth—they were effectively isolated and blockaded by their Mexica enemies—they shared what little they had. Three hundred Tlaxcalan girls were given to the conquistadors, including some of noble birth for the officers. Pedro de Alvarado was given one of the daughters of Xicotencatl the elder named Tecuelhuatzín, who was later christened Doña Maria Luisa.
But the most important thing the Spanish gained in their stay in Tlaxcala was an ally. Even after two weeks of constantly battling the Spanish, the Tlaxcalans still had thousands of warriors, fierce men who were loyal to their elders (and the alliance their elders made) and who despised the Mexica. Cortes secured this alliance by meeting regularly with Xicotencatl the Elder and Maxixcatzin, the two great lords of Tlaxcala, giving them gifts and promising to free them from the hated Mexica.
The only sticking point between the two cultures seemed to be Cortes’ insistence that the Tlaxcalans embrace Christianity, something they were reluctant to do. In the end, Cortes did not make it a condition of their alliance, but he continued to pressure the Tlaxcalans to convert and abandon their previous “idolatrous” practices.
A Crucial Alliance
For the next two years, the Tlaxcalans honored their alliance with Cortes.
Thousands of fierce Tlaxcalan warriors would fight alongside the conquistadors for the duration of the conquest. The contributions of the Tlaxcalans to the conquest are many, but here are some of the more important ones:
- In Cholula, the Tlaxcalans warned Cortes of a possible ambush: they participated in the ensuing Cholula Massacre, capturing many Cholulans and bringing them back to Tlaxcala as slaves and sacrifices.
- When Cortes was forced to return to the Gulf Coast to face conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez and a host of Spanish soldiers sent by governor Diego Velazquez of Cuba to take command of the expedition, Tlaxcalan warriors accompanied him and fought at the Battle of Cempoala.
- When Pedro de Alvarado ordered the Massacre at the Festival of Toxcatl, Tlaxcalan warriors helped the Spanish and protected them until Cortes could return.
- During the Night of Sorrows, Tlaxcalan warriors helped the Spanish escape by night from Tenochtitlan.
- After the Spanish fled Tenochtitlan, they retreated to Tlaxcala to rest and regroup. New Aztec Tlatoani Cuitláhuac sent emissaries to the Tlaxcalans urging them to unite against the Spanish; the Tlaxcalans refused.
- When the Spanish re-conquered Tenochtitlan in 1521, thousands of Tlaxcalan soldiers joined them.
Legacy of the Spanish-Tlaxcalan Alliance
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Cortes would not have defeated the Mexica without the Tlaxcalans. Thousands of warriors and a safe base of support only days away from Tenochtitlan proved invaluable to Cortes and his war effort.
Eventually, the Tlaxcalans saw that the Spanish were a greater threat than the Mexica (and had been so all along). Xicotencatl the Younger, who had been leery of the Spanish all along, tried to openly break with them in 1521 and was ordered publicly hanged by Cortes; it was a poor repayment to the young Prince’s father, Xicotencatl the Elder, whose support of Cortes had been so crucial. But by the time the Tlaxcalan leadership began to have second thoughts about their alliance, it was too late: two years of constant warring had left them far too weak to defeat the Spanish, something they had not accomplished even when at their full might in 1519.
Ever since the conquest, some Mexicans have considered Tlaxcalans to be “traitors” who, like Cortes’ interpreter and mistress Doña Marina (better known as “Malinche”) aided the Spanish in the destruction of native culture. This stigma persists today, albeit in a weakened form. Were the Tlaxcalans traitors? They fought the Spanish and then, when offered an alliance by these formidable foreign warriors against their traditional enemies, decided that “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Later events proved that perhaps this alliance was a mistake, but the worst thing the Tlaxcalans can be accused of is lack of foresight.