This is part 3 in a series on the fall of the Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan. Parts 1 and 2 will get you up to speed if you haven’t heard them assuming you wanna listen chronologically. Whatever the case, here’s… part 3 of The Fall of Tenochtitlan.
Looking up at the Aztec command center on top of a pyramid, Cortes knew he needed to win the position. The Spanish had, by now, rebuilt the mantas and they deployed them for a second time – again getting hammered with boulders. They made it to the base of the pyramid, but the mantas had taken tremendous damage.
The Aztecs clashed with the Spanish on the stairs, trying to keep them from reaching the top. Again they threw rocks and spears down at the iron-clad soldiers. They even threw tree trunks in the hope of protecting their command center.
They succeeded in knocking 3 or 4 Spaniards down the steps to their deaths, but after a difficult battle, Cortes and a group of his soldiers reached the summit, where the fighting continued.
Soon another group of Spanish and Tlaxcalan soldiers joined them. The melee lasted about 3 hours. At one point Cortes was grabbed and nearly tossed to his death, but he somehow escaped and his men managed to throw numerous Aztec priests down the high narrow stairs, and they took 2 of them prisoner.
The Spanish ran into the shrine and found that the Christian idols they had placed there earlier were gone, so they picked up the Aztec statues and threw them down the stairs as well. Then they set the shrine on fire and retreated to the palace, clashing with the enemy and igniting houses on the way.
For the Spanish, the battle resulted in only death, cuts, bruises… and boosted morale. Although the victory only held symbolic value, they had nonetheless achieved their objective.
Cortes, always calculating, had looked down upon the city while standing on top of the pyramid. All the causeways except one were destroyed. Therefore the only way out of the city was that bridge – the Tacuba Causeway.
Among the soldiers was a man named Botello, who was also a respected astrologer. He had spent the last few nights reading the stars and he told Cortes that they would all be killed if they did not leave the city that night. So Cortes and his captains made up their minds. They would leave the city at midnight along the Tacuba Causeway. (It seems ridiculous now that they would put so much faith in an astrologer, but that’s how it went.
Of course, the reason they had come to Tenochtitlan in the first place was for the gold. They knew they couldn’t carry all of it – there were 8 tons in the treasury – so they divided it strategically. They took the royal fifth and loaded up horses and about 80 Tlaxcalans to carry it. Cortes chose his most trusted men to guard the quinta real, then they loaded up Cortes’s own fifth. He told his men they could take as much gold for themselves as they could carry.
Narvaez’s men did just that, but the others had been hardened through their journey with Cortes and they knew the challenges ahead of them. They took less. The Tlaxcalans were uninterested in gold, so instead they took the green feathers of the quetzal bird – the same type of feathers that made up Moctezuma’s impressive headdress.
The men then constructed a massive makeshift bridge by stripping wood from the ceilings of the palace. 40 Tlaxcalans were ordered to carry it. They, along with about 150 others, would carry it in shifts. 150 Spanish soldiers would cover their flanks. Another 200 would cover from behind along with over 20 cavalrymen.
Several people were to be heavily guarded, including Malinche, Fathers Olmedo and Diaz, two 2 daughters and a son of Moctezuma, and other prisoners and dignitaries.
On midnight of July first, 1520, they heard mass and set out. It was foggy and raining. The city was silent except for the rains and the quiet sounds of the fleeing army. They made it to the first breach in the Tacuba causeway when a woman’s voice rang out. “Our enemies are escaping,” she yelled. “They’re crossing the canal.”
There’s debate about whether a woman would have been out gathering water so late at night, but many of the histories put it exactly that way.
Another voice called, “follow them in your boats. Cut them off and destroy them.” Drums pounded and conch shells howled.
The Spanish set down the bridge on the first demolished section of the causeway. Some crossed it, but the combined weight of the soldiers and horses had wedged it into place and they were unable to pick it back up. They had crossed the first broken section, but there were more ahead. The Spanish and Tlaxcalans were trapped.
The first canoes arrived, bearing Aztec soldiers. Bernal Diaz writes
“A great crowd charged down on us to remove the bridge and kill and wound our men, who could not help one another. And since misfortune is cruel at such times, one disaster followed another. Because of the rain two horses slipped and fell in the lake. Just as we saw this, I and some others of Cortes’s detachment struggled to the other side of the bridge, but we were borne down by so many warriors that, hard though we fought, no further use could be made of it. The channel was soon fulled up with dead horses, Indians of both sexes, servants, bundles, and boxes.”
Cortes’s vanguard made it to another breach in the causeway and had to swim across. Once they were safely away from the fighting, Cortes put a few of his men in charge of guarding Malinche and the other noncombatants. He and several officers then jumped back into the water and rejoined the fight.
Two Aztec soldiers saw Cortes fall in the lake. They pulled him out, most likely intending to sacrifice him later, but he was saved by two of his own warriors.
The rearguard got hit the hardest. They were pursued from behind and besieged on both sides. Many of them took arrows to the chest and died. Others were beaten with clubs. Still others were dragged off alive, to be sacrificed. Most of them were Narvaez’s men, weighed down by the gold they had looted.
An Aztec account says so many people drowned there that a human bridge was formed.
“The canal was soon choked with the bodies of men and horses; they filled the gap in the causeway with their own drowned bodies. Those who followed crossed to the other side by walking on the corpses.”
When you consider that the final assault on Tenochtitlan would involve, according to one prominent Conquest historian, 200,000 native allies of the Spanish, you can get a sense for the sheer numbers being thrown around.
Alvarado offered to stay at the rear while Cortes and the forward section escaped. They arrived to the city of Tacuba just before dawn. The Spanish would come to call the night La Noche Triste or the sad or sorrowful night.
The citizens of Tenochtitlan saw it in a more positive light. For them, it was a measured victory. They had wanted to smash the brutal army, but it appeared the invaders had finally left, and that must have seemed good enough.
The night ended with around 4000 Tlaxcalans dead, and 600 Spanish. Aztec casualties are unknown. Narvaez’s men comprised the majority of the European deaths. Also lost was most of the gunpowder, all of the canons, and almost all the gold. The king’s fifth had plunged into the waters of Lake Texcoco, as had Cortes’s fifth.
Realizing the enormity of his losses, Cortes stood under a cypress tree (called ahuehuete in the Aztec language) and sobbed.
That tree still exists today – barely. It’s dead, nothing but an enormous trunk held up by concrete stakes. It was destroyed by several fires in the intervening centuries, but if you go to Mexico City you can take the subway to Popotla Station. It’s right outside.
During the fighting some of the soldiers in the rearguard saw that they couldn’t move advance, so they retreated back INTO the city and hid in the palace they had just left. It’s also possible that nearly 300 soldiers were never informed of the planned midnight escape. They were staying in a nearby temple and apparently the man who was supposed to tell them forgot. They were found and sacrificed, as were the men from the rearguard who retreated to the palace.
The Spanish took stock of their situation. Among the dead were Moctezuma’s son and one of his daughters. The astrologer, Botello, had also died. All of the horses were injured, and many had drowned. The governor of Teotihuacan was killed along with 2 sons and several daughters of the king of Texcoco.
During the fighting some of the soldiers in the rearguard saw that they couldn’t move advance, so they retreated back INTO the city and hid in the palace they had just left. It’s also possible that nearly 300 soldiers were never informed of the planned midnight escape. They were staying in a nearby temple and apparently the man who was supposed to tell them… forGOT. They were found and sacrificed, as were the men from the rearguard who retreated to the palace.
In that ruined condition, they set out for the city of Tlaxcala, more than 50 miles away. Diaz writes:
“We decided to leave the place as quickly as possible, and 5 Tlaxcalans, who found a path without following the road, guided us until we reached some small houses built on a hill, beside them a fortress-like temple that was their shrine.”
That night they had nothing to eat. They were at their weakest, but the Aztecs had stopped attacking. That would turn out to be the biggest mistake of the war.
NOT SO TRISTE
They attacked in small, disorganized groups, just to be a nuisance rather than to kill them all. They thought the Spaniards had fled their city forever.
The citizens began to reorder the causeway and canals. They stripped the corpses, collecting swords, rifles, and other weapons as well as clothing, armor, gold, jade, saddles, and horse armor. The men who took captives prepared to sacrifice them. They painted their own faces red, dabbed yellow at their temples, put on orange cloaks, and held obsidian daggers.
The dead Tlaxcalans were taken farther out in the lake and tossed overboard. They cannibalized some of the dead and threw other corpses to the zoo animals.
Cuitlahuac distributed food among the citizens, since usually the end of July was a time of food shortages. The charity was also meant to display power and dominance through generosity.
There were likely victory dances as well.
The sacrifice victims would have their hearts cut out, their heads cut off, and their bodies thrown down the temple stairs. And this is where I HAVE to quote Hugh Thomas’s book Conquest because the sacrifice rituals were, astonishing. Quote
“It is far from clear whether the capture of the Castilians was considered a great triumph, as the capture of the Tlaxcalans was; or whether they were classified with the lowly Huaxtecs of the coast. The latter seems probable. In that case, the victims might not have been offered any of the ‘obsidian wine’ (called pulque) or hallucinogens in order to soothe their brains before death.
“Nor is there any certainty that these Castilians ‘died like a flower’ as the Mexica (meaning Aztecs) spoke of those who met death gallantly. The silence among the chroniclers on these things suggests that, after this battle, some of the traditional rites affecting prisoners may have been forgotten. For example, a captor in the past had looked on himself as the prisoner’s father. He it was who would hand him over to the ‘prisoner’s hall,’ a cellar of the royal palace, before sacrifice. There, prisoners would be treated in luxury until the hour came for the fatal ceremony. Perhaps these things, in the heat of the moment, were waived. Were these prisoners longitudinally painted with red and white streaks, as was normal for victims? Were they persuaded to carry little paper flags to identify themselves as candidates for the block? And were they dragged up the steps by their hair since surely they did not make the ascent willingly? One must assume that afterwards, as was always the case, the hearts of these men, Spanish and Indian alike were placed in the stone [so-called] ‘eagle bowl,’ and that the captor dined off one of the thighs, while the other was eaten in the palace. If there were several captors, the bodies of the captives were divided. The first of the captors took the right thigh. The second captor took the left. The third took the right upper arm. The fourth took the left one. [Etc]. Probably the torsos were either handed over to the animals in the zoo or taken for consumption by vultures on a remote part of the lake. Their heads, and the captured horses’ heads too, would of course be displayed on the skull rack.
“The Mexica would not have pitied these Castilians. They had, by dying on the sacrificial stone, become ‘companions of the eagle’, who would normally for four years sit in attendance on the sun itself, singing war songs and enacting mock battles, before being reincarnated as humming birds. But these privileges may not have been allocated to the prisoners of the Noche Triste.”
During this time there would also have been feasting and celebrating, described in detail by many books but quite honestly ritual sacrifice is one of the most interesting aspects of their whole civilization, at least to me. The complexities and reasons and mythology surrounding it is captivating in a way that feasts and fire dances just can never be. I’ll do a series in the future with a more detailed view of Aztec society though, so maybe you wanna consider that digression a teaser, an appetizer.
Meanwhile, Cortes and the survivors organized themselves into defensive ranks. The Tlaxcalans and least injured Spanish soldiers led the way, doing battle with small Aztec raiding parties. The wounded stayed at the center of the formation. Those in the most serious conditions were placed on horseback or carried by Tlaxcalans.
One night they looked in a box kept by the dead astrologer, Botello. Diaz describes the contents:
“After we got to safety some papers, bound together like a book, were found in this box, marked with figures, lines, notes, and symbols; and beside them were the words: “Whether I shall die in this wretched war, murdered by the Indians.” And further on there were other lines, beside which it said “You will die.” But beside it others said “you will not die.” In another place were the words “Whether they will kill my horse,” and a little further on it said “they will kill him.”
On the night of June the second, they stopped at a town called Teocalhueycan. The people there had been under Aztec domination since the 1430s (so, about 100 years) and they were glad to provide assistance to the enemies of Tenochtitlan. They offered water and food, and they fed the horses. Cortes spent the night there and the following day his army continued their northward march.
They came to a town called Tepoztlan. It was deserted when they got there. Everyone had fled to nearby villages. The Spanish looted what little food and water they could find, spent the night in the abandoned palace, and set out again.
They got to a city called Cacamulco and met resistance. They were attacked on all sides. Cortes was hit hard twice by stones to the head. He was badly injured, but bandaged immediately. They managed to escape, and that night they killed and ate one of their horses.
Later they passed near another city called Teotihuacan, which had been abandoned since before the Aztecs had arrived. They couldn’t see it beyond the trees, but the ruins of that city are still largely intact today.
At Otumba, they got terrifying news: A large Aztec army was waiting for them nearby. They realized that the raiding parties they had faced during the last week had been leading them toward this spot.
Cuitlahuac had sent his brother, Matlatzincatzin, to lead the army and smash the Spanish and Tlaxcalans. Matlatzincatzin bore the standard, which organized the soldiers and gave them information during the battle, telling them where to go.
Cortes, who was prone to exaggeration, said “there came to meet us such a multitude of indians that the fields all around were so full of them that nothing else could be seen.”
He commanded the horsemen to charge while infantry engaged the enemy hand to hand. They battled from early morning until noon, every cavalry charge disrupting the Aztec formations a little more and a little more. That, combined with the war dogs, caused some of the Otomi to flee. Cortes ordered his captains to attack Matlatzincatzin. Cortes knocked him down. Juan de Salamanca, riding behind Cortes, aimed his lance at the Aztec leader and impaled him, scooping up the headdress and standard, which he offered to Cortes.
Cortes declined, and (as a side note) 15 years later the king of Spain would allow Salamanca to use the standard as the model for his coat of arms.
The loss of the standard caused confusion and disorder among the Aztec army. Many lost their morale and retreated. As they fled, Cortes sent the cavalry and dogs after them.
Cuitlahuac had been so close to annihilating the enemy, but his soldiers were defeated by a force with greater defensive discipline and armor, not to mention the warhorses. In Europe at that time, armies had developed tactics for dealing with cavalry charges, but horses had gone extinct in the Americas about 8 to 10,000 earlier. They had no idea how to deal with the charging animals.
After Otumba, the political classes of Tenochtitlan split into 2 factions. One group took a hard stance against the Spanish and their allies. It seems they won the debate. Several of Moctezuma’s family and friends were executed. With that issue more or less settled, the city made preparations for yet another annual festival.
Three days later, Cortes arrived at Tlaxcala. His hand was crushed, his skull was fractured, and his knee was swollen. He was taken to the home of a Tlaxcalan chief, where according to some sources, he fell into a week long coma.
During Cortes’s stay in Tlaxcala, he issued a proclamation: all of the gold his soldiers had smuggled out of the Aztec capital had to be surrendered to him. Those who didn’t surrender their gold would be hanged. There’s shaky evidence regarding what happened next. A few years later someone alleged that 45,000 pesos were taken and that Cortes pocketed all of it. Someone else said a few people were hanged for not giving up the money. Regardless, the proclamation sparked more talk of mutiny. The Aztecs sent emissaries urging Tlaxcala not to assist the Spanish. A man called Xicotencatl (Xicotenga) the Younger agreed, but the rest of the council did not, including Xicotencatl the Elder. The Aztecs had been brutal to the Tlaxcalans. The council decided to continue their allegiance with the foreign army in hopes of destroying the empire that had terrorized them for centuries.
NEW ALLIANCES AND OLD HATREDS
Those long-dead Tlaxcalans have gotten a lot of scorn over the years for allying with the Spanish and helping to bring about Cortes’s horrifying pillage of Mexico, but they couldn’t have known what they were unleashing. They didn’t realize that, by uniting with the Europeans, they would be dooming themselves to subjugation by an even more savage empire.
Cortes was, by all honest accounts, a terrorist. He burned people alive, he fed people to dogs, he gladly took slaves, he massacred whole villages. There have been attempts by apologists to paint both the Spanish and Aztec empires as much more peaceful than they actually were, but all sides engaged in terrorism before and after the war for Tenochtitlan.
So, after sending away the emissaries of a brutal empire that demanded regular payments in the form of food and slaves (and that was now begging Tlaxcala to ally with them), the city leaders wanted to renegotiate their alliance with Spain. They wanted assurances that they would never have to send another young man or woman to be sacrificed by whoever ruled Tenochtitlan in the future. Furthermore, if Cortes managed to sack the city, they wanted a share of the wealth – in addition to control of regions surrounding their own, including Cholula and Tepeaca. They also wanted a fort in the capital.
Cortes had no choice but to agree. He relied on the tribe to feed and care for his soldiers, and he knew he could not take Tenochtitlan without their warriors. The Spanish were at their weakest. Without an alliance they almost definitely could have been defeated. The Tlaxcalans knew he needed them and they drove a hard bargain.
When that deal was done and the Tlaxcalans were happy, Cortes had legal papers drawn up. He then sent for reinforcements from Veracruz. Fewer than 10 came, sickly and complaining of liver ailments. Cortes was less than thrilled about this, but he had bigger problems.
A force of 250 Spanish and Tlaxcalans, including Juan Yuste, carrying about 16,000 pesos worth of gold had been ambushed and killed or captured near a village to the north. Worse, some of his soldiers had been planning desertion. They wanted to go back to Cuba.
In fact, they had composed a letter. I’ll paraphrase it,
“Very magnificent sir, the captains and soldiers of this army appear before you and say to you that the deaths, damages, and losses which we have suffered while in the city of Tenochtitlan are well known to you. Most of our men and horses are dead. The artillery is lost, our ammunition is exhausted, and we are lacking is everything with which to carry on the war. In addition, in this city where we seem on the surface to have been given a good reception, we have found for certain that they are trying to reassure us with pretended words in order to lull us into a state of false security. And then, when we least expect it, they will attack us and finish us off. We cannot believe their promises. They will unite with their enemies and destroy us. Besides, we see that your excellency, our leader and general, is badly wounded. The surgeons fear that you may not survive. All these things afford good reasons for us to abandon this city. If you continue the war it will lead to our destruction. We therefore ask and beg your excellency and, if necessary, demand that you set off for Veracruz.”
Cortes was not about to give in to them. He wanted the fame and power and wealth that would surely accompany subjugating the tribes of Mexico in the name of god and king. So he prepared a rousing speech that appealed to the soldiers’ greed, courage, faith, patriotism, and pride. He later composed a letter to the King of Spain where he further laid out his case for continuing the conquest, and recalled the speech he gave.
“To show the natives that we lack courage would turn them against us. Fortune always favors the brave. We are Christians who trust in the great goodness of god, who will not let us perish utterly nor allow us to lose such a great and noble land. I would not abandon this land. Apart from being shameful to myself and dangerous to all, it would be a great treason to Your Majesty.”
He also may have added a few parts years later for posterity’s sake. He claimed to have said things like “what nation which had ruled the world had not at least once been defeated?” and “What famous captain went home because he had lost a battle?” and “Is there not one among you who would not take it as an insult to be told that he had turned his back?”
Cuitlahuac’s offer had been rejected by the Tlaxcalans, so he looked for allies in other places. His emissaries went to the region of Tarasca and spoke with the leader. They told him:
“Our lord of Mexico sends us to report to our brother about the strange people who have taken us by surprise. We have met them in battle and killed some 200 of those who came riding deer (the speaker is referring to the horses). Those deer wore coats of mail. They carried something which sounded like clouds which, making a great thundering, kills all those whom it meets. They are accompanied by people from Tlaxcala.”
The speaker called Cuitlahuac ‘the lord of Mexico,’ which was true, but perhaps not in the way you might be thinking. The word Mexico then, referred to the valley surrounding Tenochtitlan. There was no country called Mexico that stretched from Texas and California down to Guatemala and Belize. “Mexico” meant the Valley of Mexico. And the leader of the Aztecs controlled most of that valley as well as vast swaths of land in all directions, none of which was called Mexico.
The leader of Tarasca spoke with his advisers in private. He told them:
“What shall we do? This message which they have brought me is serious. We never used to know that other peoples existed. Yet what purpose would I have in sending my soldiers to help Mexico? We have always been at war with them. And there is rancor between us. The Mexicans are very astute when they talk and very artful with the truth. We must take care lest it be a trick. They may want to have vengeance on us by killing us through treachery.”
They needed more time and information before deciding, so their response was to send the messengers away with gifts of plates, blankets, and clothes.
Later the Tarascans spoke with the people from Otumba, who said that there indeed had been a great battle in Tenochtitlan. The city smelled of death.
Tarasca sent messengers to Cuitlahuac, whose advisers proposed moving against the Spanish in a pincer move. But the leader of the Tarascans was still unsure. He said:
“We might go only to die, and we know what they would say afterwards. Perhaps the Mexica (again, meaning Aztecs) would betray us to these new people, and be responsible for having us killed. Let the Mexica do their own killing, let the strangers kill the Mexica, because, for many years, they have lived in the wrong way.”
Ultimately, they denied Cuitlahuac his alliance. So the Aztec leader made just a pitiful plea for assistance from the surrounding regions. Any town that killed the Spanish or expelled them from their cities would get an exemption from sending tributes (or taxes) to the Aztecs for… wait for it… a whole year. The tribes must have fainted at the generosity being offered. This is kind of a bad example, but imagine the guy who robs you every day saying “Hey, man. You gotta help me out. That guy over there is gonna kill me. If you help me I won’t rob you tomorrow.” Except in this case, the other guy is coming to burn down your city and steal your home and kill your family. But you don’t know that at the time. In this instance, you just want to be free of the petty criminal.
On August 1, 1520, the Spanish left for Tepeaca. The battle would serve several purposes. It would help boost their morale while damaging Aztec morale, it would open the most efficient route between Tenochtitlan and Veracruz, and it would send a message to Cuitlahuac and the Aztec nation – a message of dominance and fearlessness.
They marched with 450 Spanish soldiers, 17 horses, 6 crossbowmen, and 2 thousand Tlaxcalans. On the way, Cortes sent a message to Tepeaca, telling them to submit or face severe punishment. The rulers of Tepeaca responded that they were low on sacrifice victims, and the Spanish would do nicely.
Hearing the reply, Cortes declared that the Aztecs were rebelling against the Spanish crown and that anyone captured would be forced into slavery. At the end of the first day, 400 Tepeacans were dead. All of the Spanish survived.
The Tepeacans saw their temples ignited and their religious statues destroyed by an army claiming to represent some sort of “one true god.”
Cortes then took the city and ordered his men to raid all nearby villages where Spaniards had been killed. The people in those cities – men, women, and children – were force marched to Tepeaca. Cortes was waiting in the town square with a branding iron shaped into the letter G for guerra – meaning war in Spanish.
Every one of them was held down as the iron heated up on the coals. When it was bright red, the metal was pressed against their faces.
Remember when I said Cortes was a terrorist? This is what terrorists do. Cortes’s reign of terror was just starting to warm up: for 3 weeks they ravaged cities across the region. Those who resisted had to face the armored war dogs.
In the city of Quechula, they told the people not to resist, or they would all be killed. The men complied, laying down their arms. The entire population was taken back to Cortes at Tepeaca. ALL the men, about 2,000 were killed. All the women and children, about 4,000 were branded and enslaved.
In the region as a whole, they might have killed between 15 and 20,000. The Tlaxcalans sacrificed roughly the same number. The historian Hugh Thomas says those numbers are exaggerated, and that might be the case, but the true figure can’t be far off, considering that maybe 5 other towns suffered a similar fate.
By September 4, 1520, they had – in some ways – destroyed the entire region. Cortes founded a new city called, basically, Border Security and he looked back toward Tenochtitlan. He knew taking it by force was nearly impossible. So he gave instructions to his shipbuilder Martin Lopez. Lopez was to take 3 skilled carpenters and as many Tlaxcalan laborers as he needed. He was to set out for a nearby forest where he would cut timber, pine, and oak trees – and shape them into the pieces needed for 13 warships. Tenochtitlan was surrounded by a lake – and that lake would be the city’s downfall… or at least a large part of it, because Cortes had an unknown ally: an invisible army that had already invaded Tenochtitlan and was beginning a slaughter.
Smallpox had begun to spread in the Aztec capital city, and it would climb to the very top of the empire. END
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