The Spaniards reached the Iztapalapa road that led to Tenochtitlán on the morning of November 8th 1519. Cortés was leading the group with some of his captains on horses and Malintzin at his side. They were followed by the footsoldiers, then came the large contingent of allied native soldiers and the women that helped them, and finally by natives pulling the cannons. On this road, just before reaching the city, in the small islet of Xolo, Moctezuma and Cortés met. The emperor of the Aztecs was wearing a large plumed crown, rich clothes and golden sandals, while his companions were bare footed but also lavishly dressed. The Aztecs kneeled and put their hand on the ground and then to their lips in a saluting gesture; Cortés approached them and tried to hug Moctezuma, but he was stopped by one of the Aztec nobles. No one could touch the emperor of Tenochtitlán.
The story of the journey of the Conquistadors to Central Mexico is fascinating; the facts narrated by various witnesses reveal a new and exotic world that kept the Spaniards in awe with every step. From here on their adventure continues from scouring the city and wondering at the marvelous palaces, to the rushed escape from the city, then laying siege to it and finally by destroying it to conquer it.
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.
Cortés’ army entered the city on the flower-covered causeway (Iztapalapa) associated with the god Quetzalcoatl. Cortés was amicably received by Moctezuma. The captive woman Malinalli Tenépal, also known as La Malinche or Doña Marina, translated from Nahuatl to Chontal Maya; the Spaniard Jerónimo de Aguilar translated from Chontal Maya to Spanish.
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 which Cortés was present for. It was reported to Moctezuma that at least eight hundred more Spaniards in thirteen great ships had arrived on the coast. Eye witnesses at the time report Cortés as visibly shaken. Cortés had been communicating with the crown that he had the entire situation under control and was practically running the city of Tenochtitlan. When these new Spanish ships had arrived, they would clearly be able to tell that he had in fact not been running the city and as a result would be thrown in prison, ending his campaign in Mexico. Therefore, Cortés made the decision to abruptly abduct the warrior king. Only with a knife to his throat could Cortés ensure his cooperation. 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 La Malinche, 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. The palace was surrounded by over 100 Spanish soldiers to prevent any attempt at rescue.
It is uncertain why Moctezuma cooperated so readily with the Spaniards. It is possible he feared losing his life or political power. It was clear from the beginning that he was ambivalent about who Cortés and his men really were: 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. 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.
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.
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 800 soldiers, 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 Mexican coast around April 20, 1520.
After Cortés became aware of their arrival, he brought a small force of about two hundred and forty to Narváez’s camp in Cempohuallan on May 27. Cortés attacked Narváez’s camp late at night. His men wounded Narváez and took him as a hostage quickly. Evidence suggests that the two were in the midst of negotiations at the time, and Narváez was not expecting an attack. Cortés had also won 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 Veracruz, and his army was integrated into Cortés’s forces
During Cortés’s absence, Pedro de Alvarado was left in command in Tenochtitlan with 120 soldiers.
Now, the Aztecs began to prepare for the annual festival of Toxcatl in early May, in honor of Tezcatlipoca, otherwise known as the Smoking Mirror or the Omnipotent Power. They honored this god during the onset of the dry season so that the god would fill dry streambeds and cause rain to fall on crops. Moctezuma secured the consent of Cortés to hold the festival, and again confirmed permission with Alvarado.
Alvarado agreed to allow the festival on the condition that there would be no human sacrifice but the Toxcatl festival had featured human sacrifice as the main part of its climactic rituals. The sacrifice involved the killing of a young man who had been impersonating the god Toxcatl deity for a full year. Thus, prohibiting human sacrifice during this festival was an untenable proposition for the Aztecs.
Before the festival, Alvarado encountered a group of women building a statue of Huitzilopochtli and the image unsettled him, and he became suspicious about the eventuality of human sacrifice. He tortured priests and nobles and discovered that the Aztecs were planning a revolt. Unable to assert control over events, he sequestered Moctezuma and increased the guards around the tlatoani.
By the day of the festival, the Aztecs had gathered on the Patio of Dances. Alvarado had sixty of his men as well as many of his Tlaxcalan allies into positions around the patio. The Aztecs initiated the Serpent Dance. The euphoric dancing as well as the accompanying flute and drum playing disturbed Alvarado about the potential for revolt. He ordered the gates closed and initiated the killing of many thousands of Aztec nobles, warriors and priests.
Alvarado, the conquistadors and the Tlaxcalans retreated to their base in the Palace of Axayacatl and secured the entrances. Alvarado ordered his men to shoot their cannons, crossbows and arquebuses into the gathering crowd. The Aztec revolt became more widespread as a result. Alvarado forced Moctezuma to appeal to the crowd outside the Palace and this appeal temporarily calmed them.
The massacre had the result of resolutely turning all the Aztecs against the Spanish and completely undermining Moctezuma’s authority.
When it became clearer what was happening to the Aztecs outside the Temple, the alarm was sounded. Aztec warriors came running, and fired darts and launched spears at the Spanish forces. This may have been since their military infrastructure was severely damaged after the attack on the festival, as the most elite seasoned warriors were killed.
Alvarado sent for word to Cortés of the events, and Cortés hurried back to Tenochtitlan on June 24 with 1,300 soldiers, 96 horses, 80 crossbowmen, and 80 arquebusiers. Cortés also came with 2,000 Tlaxcalan warriors on the journey. Cortés entered the palace unscathed, although the Aztecs had probably planned to ambush him. The Aztecs had already stopped sending food and supplies to the Spaniards. They became suspicious and watched for people trying to sneak supplies to them; many innocent people were slaughtered because they were suspected of helping them. The roads were shut and the causeway bridges were raised. The Aztecs halted any Spanish attacks or attempts to leave the palace. Every Spanish soldier that was not killed was wounded.
Cortés failed to grasp the full extent of the situation, as the attack on the festival was the last straw for the Aztecs, who now were completely against Moctezuma and the Spanish. Thus, the military gains of the attack also had a serious political cost for Cortés.
Cortés attempted to parley with the Aztecs, and after this failed he sent Moctezuma to tell his people to stop fighting. However, the Aztecs refused. The Spanish asserted that Moctezuma was stoned to death by his own people as he attempted to speak with them. The Aztecs later claimed that Moctezuma had been murdered by the Spanish. Two other local rulers were found strangled as well. Moctezuma’s younger brother Cuitláhuac, who had been ruler of Ixtlapalapan until then, was chosen as the new Tlatoani Emperor.
This Aztec victory is still remembered as “La Noche Triste,” The Night of Sorrows. Popular tales say that Cortés wept under a tree the night of the massacre of his troops at the hands of the Aztecs.
Though a flight from the city would make Cortés appear weak before his indigenous allies, it was this or death for the Spanish forces. Cortés and his men were in the center of the city, and would most likely have to fight their way out no matter what direction they took. Cortés wanted to flee to Tlaxcala, so a path directly east would have been most favorable. Nevertheless, this would require hundreds of canoes to move all of Cortés’s people and supplies, which he was unable to procure in his position.
Thus, Cortés had to choose among three land routes: north to Tlatelolco, which was the least dangerous path but required the longest trip through the city; south to Coyohuacan and Ixtlapalapan, two towns that would not welcome the Spanish; or west to Tlacopan, which required the shortest trip through Tenochtitlan, though they would not be welcome there either. Cortés decided on the west causeway to Tlacopan, needing the quickest route out of Tenochtitlan with all his provisions and people.
Heavy rains and a moonless night provided some cover for the escaping Spanish. On that “Sad Night,” July 1, 1520, the Spanish forces exited the palace first with their indigenous allies close behind, bringing as much treasure as possible. Cortés had hoped to go undetected by muffling the horses’ hooves and carrying wooden boards to cross the canals. The Spanish forces were able to pass through the first three canals, the Tecpantzinco, Tzapotlan, and Atenchicalco.
However, they were discovered on the fourth canal at Mixcoatechialtitlan. One account says a woman fetching water saw them and alerted the city, another says it was a sentry. Some Aztecs set out in canoes, others by road to Nonchualco then Tlacopan to cut the Spanish off. The Aztecs attacked the fleeing Spanish on the Tlacopan causeway from canoes, shooting arrows at them. The Spanish fired their crossbows and arquebuses, but were unable to see their attackers or get into formation. Many Spaniards leaped into the water and drowned, weighed down by armor and booty.
When faced with a gap in the causeway, Alvarado made the famous “leap of Alvarado” using a spear to get to the other side. Approximately a third of the Spaniards succeeding in reaching the mainland, while the remaining ones died in battle or were captured and later sacrificed on Aztec altars. After crossing over the bridge, the surviving Spanish had little reprieve before the Aztecs appeared to attack and chase them towards Tlacopan. When they arrived at Tlacopan, a good number of Spanish had been killed, as well as most of the indigenous warriors, and some of the horses; all of the cannons and most of the crossbows were lost. The Spanish finally found refuge in Otancalpolco, where they were aided by the Teocalhueyacans. The morning after, the Aztecs returned to recover the spoils from the canals.
To reach Tlaxcala, Cortés had to bring his troops around Lake Texcoco. Though the Spanish were under attack the entire trip, because Cortés took his troops through the northern towns, they were at an advantage. The northern valley was less populous, travel was difficult, and it was still the agricultural season, so the attacks on Cortés’s forces were not very heavy. As Cortés arrived in more densely inhabited areas east of the lake, the attacks were more forceful.
Before reaching Tlaxcala, the scanty Spanish forces arrived at the plain of Otumba Valley (Otompan), where they were met by a vast Aztec army intent on their destruction. The Aztecs intended to cut short the Spanish retreat from Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs had underestimated the shock value of the Spanish caballeros because all they had seen was the horses traveling on the wet paved streets of Tenochtitlan. They had never seen them used in open battle on the plains.
Despite the overwhelming numbers of Aztecs and the generally poor condition of the Spanish survivors, Cortés snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when he spotted the Aztec commander in his ornate and colourful feather costume, and immediately charged him with several horsemen, killing the Aztec commander. The Spanish suffered heavy losses, but were eventually victorious over the Aztecs, who then retreated.
When Cortés finally reached Tlaxcala five days after fleeing Tenochtitlan, he had lost over 860 Spanish soldiers, over a thousand Tlaxcalans, as well as Spanish women who had accompanied Narváez’s troops. Cortés claimed only 15 Spaniards were lost along with 2,000 native allies. Cano, another primary source, gives 1150 Spaniards dead, though this figure was most likely more than the total number of Spanish. Francisco López de Gómara, Cortés’ chaplain, estimated 450 Spaniards and 4,000 allies had died. Other sources estimate that nearly half of the Spanish and almost all of the natives were killed or wounded.
The women survivors included Cortés’s translator and lover La Malinche, María Estrada, and two of Moctezuma’s daughters who had been given to Cortés, including the emperor’s favorite and reportedly most beautiful daughter, Tecuichpotzin (later Doña Isabel Moctezuma). A third daughter died, leaving behind her infant by Cortés, the mysterious second “María” named in his final will.
Cortes would eventually conquer Tenochtitlan, helped by his cunning, his will and the incredible fortune who favored him against all odds. The fall of Tenochtitlan marks the end of an ancient and alien Civilization much of which remained a mystery, until now…