Transcript for MHR 004 Fall of Tenochtitlan 3

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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.

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.

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

Before we go, I have a couple things to mention. The transcript for this episode will be available on It’s free, but if you want to make a small donation for it, a paypal link will be included. Speaking of donations, I wanna say thank you to Chris Barba who sent in the first donation a few days ago. You can check him out on twitter, he’s @chrisbarba, so that’s Chris, b-a-r-b-a. Maybe you already know this, Chris, but the word barba means beard in spanish. Your name is all too appropriate for this first series of episodes. You have the reference to Christ in your first name, and beard in your last name… and the Spanish were mostly Catholics with beards. So, getting the first donation from a guy called Chris Barba is one of the best ways this podcast could possibly start out.
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MHR 003 Fall of Tenochtitlan 2 (transcript)

While Cortes was at Veracruz fighting Narvaez, the people of Tenochtitlan held a festival called Toxcatl. Since their city was more or less under Spanish occupation, the emperor Moctezuma asked the Spanish commanding officer, Pedro de Alvarado’s permission to hold the festival. He was given permission.
To describe the festival, I’ll take from Miguel Leon-Portilla’s The Broken Spears, which is a translated collection of Aztec documents describing events leading up to the arrival of the Spanish and ending soon after the fall of Tenochtitlan. Quote
“All the young warriors were eager for the festival to begin. They had sworn to dance and sing with all their hearts so that the Spanish would marvel at the beauty of the rituals. The celebrants filed into the temple patio to dance the Dance of the Serpent. Those who had fasted for 20 days and those who had fasted for a year were in command of the others; they kept the dancers in file with wands made of pine. If anyone wished to urinate, he did not stop dancing, but simply opened his clothing at the hips and separated his cluster of heron feathers. If anyone disobeyed the leaders or was not in his proper place they struck him on the hips and shoulders. Then they drove him out of the patio, beating him and shoving him from behind. No one dared to say a word about this punishment, for those who had fasted during the year were feared and venerated; they had earned the exclusive title ‘Brothers of Huitzilopochtli.’”
Huitzilopochtli was the Aztec god of sun and war. And this festival took place in the temple dedicated to him. PAUSE
Alvarado split his men into 2 groups. One group would keep Moctezuma under guard and kill his attendant lords. The second group, consisting of about 60 men, would enter the temple and begin a slaughter.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened next. But of course, there are conflicting accounts regarding most of what occurred since the Spanish first arrived in Mexico in 1517, and most of the indigenous books and scrolls were destroyed by the Spanish. (History is written by whoever destroys his opponent’s narrative.) But some Aztec codices (as they’re called) still exist.
An account by the Aztecs says the Spaniards were overwhelmed by the gold the Aztec dancers wore. Pedro de Alvarado, the man Cortes left in charge, said he heard there would be sacrifices after the dance, and after the sacrifices the Aztecs would attack the Spanish. You might say Alvarado was trying to claim preemptive defense, if I may be allowed an Orwellian term here. Regardless of the motive, the following events are described everywhere as, a massacre. Again, I’ll quote Leon-Portilla, quote
“The Spaniards were seized with an urge to kill the celebrants. They all ran forward, armed as if for battle. They closed the entrances and passageways. They posted guards so that no one could escape. They came on foot, carrying their swords and their wooden or metal shields. They ran in among the dancers and attacked the man who was drumming and cut off his arms. Then they cut off his head, and it rolled across the floor. They attacked all the celebrants, stabbing them, spearing them, striking them with their swords. They attacked some from behind, and these fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out. Others they beheaded or split their heads to pieces. They struck others in the shoulders, and their arms were torn from their bodies. They slashed others in the abdomen, and their entrails spilled to the ground. Some attempted to run away, but their intestines dragged as they ran; they seemed to tangle their feet in their own entrails. No matter how they tried to save themselves, they could find no escape. Some of the Aztecs attempted to force their way out, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates. Others climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. The blood of the warriors flowed like water and gathered into pools. The pools widened, and the stench of blood and entrails filled the air. The Spaniards ran into the communal houses to kill those who were hiding. They searched everywhere, they invaded every room, hunting and killing.”
The date of the massacre was May 20th, 1520. At one point the Spanish hacked off the nose on the stone effigy of the god Huitzilopochtli. Alvarado, during the fighting, yelled to his men something along the lines of “already 2 or 3 thousand indians have died.”
The men guarding Moctezuma had killed Cacama, the king of Texcoco. Alvarado, wounded and bleeding, approached Moctezuma. He said “look what you’re people have done to me.” The emperor gave the obvious reply… y’know, basically “well what do you expect? You started it.”
A likely explanation for Alvarado’s paranoia before the massacre can perhaps be found in Tlaxcala’s history. In prior years their people had been sacrificed by the Aztecs for Toxcatl. Maybe they wanted blood for blood, and so they made the Spanish think they’d be sacrificed after the festival. What’s the real explanation? Was Alvarado’s lust for gold inflamed watching the dancers? (Probably not). Were the Aztecs actually planning an attack, as the Tlaxcalans alleged? Were the Tlaxcalans looking for blood? We may never know the real reasons, but in my own estimation, I’d bet that the Spanish were ALREADY on edge due to being in a strange and, somewhat scary, new city and separated from their leader. And their allies were probably telling them about the enemy’s plan to kill them. Maybe the Aztecs WERE actually planning to kill the Spanish. What better time, right? There were only 120 foreign soldiers in their city (plus the Tlaxcalans).

Whatever the case, after the massacre, the Aztecs retaliated. The Spanish took refuge in Moctezuma’s palace, and placed the emperor in chains. At sunset, Moctezuma sent one of his men to the palace roof to communicate with the citizens. He implored them not to fight, saying they could not defeat the Spanish, and the king had been taken hostage.
They shouted insults at him, yelling quote “Who is Moctezuma to give us orders? We are no longer his slaves.” Unquote. They shot arrows at the roofs.
Then they placed guards outside the palace to make sure nobody brought food to the Spanish. The tactic was to make them die of hunger. Anyone suspected of bringing food or news to the Spanish was killed. One of the Aztec codices said nobody could leave their house without being arrested and accused of helping the enemy; and many people were killed for crimes they never committed.
The Aztecs attacked the palace for seven days, and stopped the Spanish soldiers’ attempts to break out for 23 days. They tore down bridges, built barricades, and closed all the roads. Eighty days of mourning had been declared. No more food was brought to the Spanish. At night the ritualistic cries of women and children filled the air.
Cortes got word of the situation and led his men, by forced marches, back to the city. He again promised Narvaez’s men wealth and land (as well as a chance to serve god and king) in case any of them still felt conflicted. Bernal Diaz says the conquistador was so persuasive that every one of the soldiers offered to join him, but that if they had known the strength of the Aztecs, not one of them would have volunteered.
Cortes’s army now swelled to 13hundred soldiers, with 96 horses, 80 crossbowmen, and 80 musketeers. Along the way they gained an additional 2thousand soldiers from local chiefs who were enemies of the Aztecs.
When they got to Texcoco, a city just across the lake from Tenochtitlan, nobody greeted them except a man called Ixtlilxochitl, a nobleman who considered himself Cortes’s ally. The men spoke, and Cortes sent a messenger to his men in the capital. But before the messenger could have arrived, a canoe came bearing news. Nearly all of Alvarado’s men were still alive, minus 5 or 6 (though Bernal Diaz puts the number at 7). But they were surrounded and running out of food.

Cortes crossed the causeway and re-entered the city on June 24th, 1520. It was silent. I’m gonna quote from Buddy Levy’s book Conquistador. When the Spanish entered the city, quote
“No throngs of civilians lined the way to gape at the clomp of horse hooves or hear the clank and jangle of metal armor. Even the waters were spookily quiet, devoid of canoes. Behind a mask of desert dust, Cortes scanned for trouble, but the caravan rode into the city unencumbered. The streets were entirely empty, save for a few children playing and the odd clusters of citizens hauling goods. The creosote smell of cook fires came from the low houses. Most residents stayed shut inside their homes, peering out warily from doorways. It should have been a time of great celebration, but the slaughter of Toxcatl had imposed eighty days of mourning. Even the famous market of Tlatelolco was shut down.
“Cortes rode into a ghost city. On his arrival, Alvarado rose, shaken and war-weary, his emaciated men gaunt from lack of food and shriveled by thirst; recently they had been forced to scratch holes in the earth of the courtyard, over which they knelt to slurp from brackish seeps.”
Moctezuma tried to speak with Cortes, but the Spaniard was angry and refused to talk to him. Later, the emperor sent a message. Cortes said he would only respond for 20,000 castellanos.
Instead, he wanted to talk to Alvarado. He demanded to know the reason for the Aztec revolt. Alvarado’s men said that Moctezuma had not ordered the reprisals, and that if he had, all the Spanish would have died. In fact, they said, Moctezuma had PACified the city and stopped the violence.
Alvarado said the Aztecs attacked in order to free Moctezuma and because the war god Huitzilopochtli was angry. He gave other reasons for the revolt as well. Narvaez had been sending messages to Moctezuma saying he was coming to capture Cortes and release the emperor. This turned out not to be true, as did Cortes’s promise to Moctezuma that he and his soldiers would leave as soon as they had ships. The Aztecs saw that not only were the Spanish not leaving, but many more were coming.
Then Cortes asked why Alvarado told his men to massacre the people celebrating Toxcatl. Alvarado said he thought the Spanish would have been attacked after the festival. Bernal Diaz writes that Cortes became very angry at this, saying Alvarado had made a great mistake. Then he refused to say any more on the topic.
Earlier, during the forced marches back to the city, Cortes had boasted to Narvaez’s men, saying that he enjoyed great respect and authority among the Aztecs who would come out onto the streets and offer him gifts of gold. Now, however, the markets had all been closed and the Aztecs no longer even brought food to the Spanish. This angered Cortes, who sent a message to Moctezuma. He ordered the king to open the markets at once, or else Cortes could not be held responsible for the consequences.

The emperor responded, Malinche, that he no longer commanded the respect of his people. Moctezuma had lost his authority in the eyes of the Aztecs. So he had chosen a new lord to speak with the vendors of the market. He chose a man called Cuitlahuac, his brother. Moctezuma said the city would listen to the new emperor, and Cortes agreed, so Cuitlahuac was unchained and set free.
He began plotting the overthrow of the Spanish right away. He met with the Aztec lords who had survived the Toxcatl massacre. Speaking out against his brother, he and the lords agreed that Moctezuma had lost his credibility by appeasing the invaders. They realized that Moctezuma’s attempts at diplomacy had yielded nothing. They would therefore kill the Spanish or force them to flee.
The day Cuitlahuac was freed, several Spanish soldiers reported being attacked in the streets One soldier arrived, severely wounded. He had been escorting some of the women Moctezuma had given to Cortes… when he was attacked in the street. A messenger Cortes had sent to Veracruz came back only half an hour later. He, too, had been attacked. Cortes ordered 400 soldiers, led by Diego de Ordaz, to check out the situation… And then it became clear why the Aztecs had let the Spanish enter the city unimpeded after the Toxcatl massacre: Cortes, and all his men, had walked into a trap.
The 400 men investigating the attack on the soldier were ambushed. Eight soldiers died in the fighting. The rest were forced to retreat, and another was killed on the way back after doing quote “Valiant deeds with his broadsword” unquote.
While this was going on, Cortes and his men looked upon a city that had decided to rid themselves of the invading army. They beheld a sea of people in the streets, and in canoes on the lake, heading their way. They heard war drums beating steadily. Cortes writes, quote, “there came upon us from all sides such a multitude that neither the streets nor the roofs of the houses could be seen. They came with the most fearful cries imaginable, and so many were the stones they hurled at us that it seemed they were raining from the sky.”
Ordaz was badly wounded in the onslaught, and he ordered a retreat, but the streets were filled with Aztecs closing in upon them. The Spanish were forced into hand-to-hand combat as they made their way back to the palace compound.
Bernal Diaz recounts the battle vividly and I’ll quote him at length. Quote:
“While many bands were attacking, even more came to our quarters and discharged so many javelins and sling-stones and arrows that in a single attack they wounded 46 of our men, 12 of whom died of their wounds. So many warriors assailed us that Diego de Ordaz was unable to retire into our quarters because of the fierce attacks made on him from front and rear and from the rooftops. Our cannon, muskets, crossbows, and lances were of little use; our stout sword-thrusts and our brave fighting were in vain. Though we killed and wounded many of them, they pushed forward over the points of our swords and lances and, closing their ranks, continued to fight as bravely as before. We could not drive them off.”
Unquote. Diaz tells us at the beginning of his book that he was a soldier, not a writer, but his accounts of the battles he fought in are better than a lot of the books written long after he died by people who DID call themselves writers. As a soldier, he had a warrior’s appreciation for the enemy. He rePEATedly remarks on the Aztecs’ tenacity and bravery and vigor. Diaz continues, quote:
“At last, thanks to our cannon, muskets, and crossbows and the damage we did them with our swords, Ordaz was able to enter our quarters. Still many bands continued to attack us, crying that we were like women, and calling us rogues and other abusive names, and the damage they had done us till then was as nothing to what was to come. They were so bold that, attacking from different directions, they forced a way into our quarters and set them on fire.”
When Ordaz returned, he found that Cortes’s hand had been smashed by a war club. About 80 more soldiers were injured.
Cortes ordered his men to attack from the roof. They hauled up their projectile weapons, but the Aztecs they killed with their muskets, crossbows, falconets, and cannons were immediately replaced by more.
The Aztecs under Cuitlahuac fired back with flaming arrows that ignited the several parts of the palace compound. The Spanish army scrambled to put out the fires and repair the sections of walls that were damaged. They threw mud and dirt on the flames and eventually they were able to control them.
The fighting in and around the palace lasted for a little less than a week. At night, the routine was to care for the wounded and repair the walls. At dawn they tried to clear nearby buildings so that the Aztecs couldn’t stand on the roofs and launch projectiles at them.

Another set of nightly occurrences were chants and taunts from outside. The Aztecs called them cowards and women. They swore to kill them all and sacrifice their blood and hearts to the gods. They shouted that they would eat their arms and legs, and throw the rest of their bodies to the animals in the zoo (who were starved for just that purpose). It was both a threat and terrifying psychological warfare, another aspect of which was to send sorcerers and wizards to conjure grotesque images. Those inside the palace claimed to have seen heads floating with no bodies attached, cadavers rolling on the ground as if they had come back to life, and severed limbs walking around, again, no bodies attached. Some of the soldiers even said they saw their own heads staring back at them.
Another apparition in the night was a ghost called Night Axe. He apparently wandered headless around the palace. His chest would snap open and shut with an awful noise.
This brings us to the obvious question: what was Night Axe? What were floating corpses in the streets? Was is all just a collective hallucination? Had some of the Spanish been drugged? Are the tales just fanciful inventions by historians with overactive imaginations? Did the Aztecs rig up corpses on strings? Whatever the case, it’s some pretty effective psychological warfare.
They didn’t sleep much, as you can imagine, and they didn’t know whether the images were real, or just delusions. Either way, the Aztecs had succeeded in haunting their minds.

The Spanish soon had an idea. They would build mobile towers and place crossbowmen and musketeers inside. The engines, or mantas as they called them, would be pulled with ropes by unshielded Tlaxcalan warriors. They were wooden war machines, precursors to tanks. Such siege engines had been used before in European wars, so the Spanish were familiar with the concept.
With the mantas, they could shoot their way out of the palace and, at the demolished causeways separating the different islands that made up the city, they could use debris to build bridges.
Cortes asked Moctezuma, through Malinche, to climb to the roof and speak to the Aztecs outside. The former king responded by saying he no longer wished to live and that his people wouldn’t listen to him OR to Spanish lies. He added that his people had raised up another lord and Cortes would certainly be killed in the city with his men. Cortes told his soldiers to force Moctezuma to the roof, which they did. They told him to speak, and this is what Diaz recalls, quote:
“He began to speak very lovingly to his people, telling them that if they stopped their attacks we would leave Mexico. Many of the Mexican captains ordered their people to be silent and shoot no more darts, stones, or arrows. Four of them came to a place where Moctezuma could speak to them and they addressed him in tears: Our great lord, we are indeed sorry for your misfortune and the disaster that has overtaken you and your family. But we must tell you that we have chosen a kinsman of yours as our new lord.
“They said moreover that the war must be carried on, and that they had promised their gods not to give up until we were all dead. Barely was the speech finished when a sudden shower of stones and darts descended. Moctezuma was hit by three stones, PAUSE
Four mantas were constructed in just a few days. When they were deployed, the Aztecs ran in fear. The sight must have looked monstrous to them; they had never seen siege towers before. The mantas were large moving mechanisms spitting smoke and thunder.
The plan, however, proved less than perfect. Before long the Tlaxcalans had trouble pulling the towers over the uneven ground. Seeing this, the Aztecs were emboldened. They climbed to the roofs of buildings, hauling boulders. They hurled them down, smashing the towers.
The men inside climbed out, briefly fighting in close quarters and trying to set fire to houses, but the flames did not spread from house to house as they had hoped. They were quickly overwhelmed and forced to retreat to the palace, dragging debris from the towers behind them. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Tlaxcalans lay dead in the streets.
The Spanish preferred distance combat, but they were stuck in close-quarters urban warfare. Their cannons and muskets were devastating at range, but were nearly useless in Tenochtitlan. Even their cavalry proved ineffective. The Aztecs unhorsed the charging soldiers with long lances. They built roadblocks to slow or trap them.

Just a few days later, on June 30th, 1520, the great Montezuma, as Bernal Diaz almost always called him, died. One of the Aztec accounts says quote “It is said that an Indian killed him with a stone from his sling, but the palace servants declared that the Spaniards put him to death by stabbing him in the abdomen with their swords.”
Unquote. To put his death into the context of the tactics used by Spain during the Conquest of the Americas, Matthew Restall says the Spanish method of capturing and terrorizing populations was to take the leader prisoner (as they had done several times before) and dispose of him if he outlived his usefulness. If you take that into account it seems a little more likely that the Spanish did indeed kill Moctezuma.
Either way, the man who ruled the Aztec empire for 17 years died more or less in shame.
Usually after the death of an emperor there was a large ceremony followed by 80 days of mourning… Moctezuma received NONE of that. His body was cremated in a temple on a pyramid, and the remaining Aztec nobility gave him the, BARE minimum: the smoke carried his soul up to the gods, but that was it. He had lost his credibility.
After confirming his death, Cortes ordered all the Aztec lords still in custody – about 30 of them – to be killed. PAUSE
And now we have to consider the freeing of Cuitlahuac. Why had Moctezuma chosen him specifically? The man is called a “warlord” in some sources (though that may be just… yet another way of exoticising the scary, savage Aztecs, if you follow me. Maybe it’s a way to punch up the drama of the narrative). PAUSE
Did Moctezuma free him as a military tactic? Did he hope his brother would smash the foreign army? And maybe even rescue him?
Regardless, very little went according to plan for Moctezuma, Cuitlahuac, OR Cortes. The brothers wanted the Spanish dead or gone. And Cortes, by letting Cuitlahuac go free, was hoping to re-open the markets and, eventually, impose a master-slave relationship between Spanish and Aztec without risking a series of devastating battles.
By now Cuitlahuac had rallied the people. They set up a command center at the top of a pyramid to look down upon the city and monitor the Cortes’s activities. From there they had an advantage over the enemy.
Looking up, the Spanish realized the same thing… and they knew they needed to remove the advantage.

In part 3 of The Fall of Tenochtitlan, things get a lot worse for the invading Spanish. They’ll try to escape the city and Cortes will just barely manage to avoid a mutiny as he gains allies in nearby regions. We will, also, get a glimpse at Aztec sacrifice rituals.
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Transcript for MHR 002 Fall of Tenochtitlan 1


An, invading force had taken hostage the emperor of one of the largest cities in the world in 1520. The leader of the group had recently arrested 17 men and charged them with the crime of killing Spaniards. The 17 men were tied to poles and brought in front of the Great Temple, where large pyres were built using wooden weapons like javelins, bows, and arrows as kindling. The leader accused the emperor of sanctioning the Spaniards’ deaths. The emperor was placed in chains and forced to watch as the 17 men were burned at the stake. The crowd observed all this in stunned silence.

A few months later, several lords of the region devised a plan to drive the invaders out of the city, or kill them all. But the plot was leaked, and the leader arrested them, too.

Not long after that, the leader sent some of his men to start building ships back at the coastal city of Veracruz, as there was yet more talk of insurgency. And the army (for lack of a better word) had discovered unbelievable quantities of gold which, of course, was the primary purpose of their expedition.

Then they got news that would put them in an even more precarious position: 18 Spanish warships were anchored at Veracruz. But these were not reinforcements. The leader’s own superior had sent an armada, against him.



This is a podcast about the history of Mexico; thus, it must at times also be a history of other nations. In this case, Spain. As you know, in 1492 Columbus went looking for India and… missed the mark. He stumbled across what we sometimes call the new world. When word of his quote unquote discovery got to Spain, it was on. Expeditions were financed, mercenaries and freelancers were sent, colonies were built (against the wishes of most of the people who already lived there) and everybody was ordered to send a fifth of all riches plundered back to the king of Spain. (This was called the royal fifth – la quinta real.) And, of course, an enormous portion of the wealth of modern Europe can be traced directly back to that era.

Between 1492 and 1519 (the year our story picks up) Queen Isabella of Spain had revoked Christopher Columbus’s authority in the new world, (basically on charges of incompetence and tyranny) and colonies were founded in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, and Veracruz, Mexico, as well as in several other places throughout the Caribbean. By 1508 there were about 10,000 Spaniards living in the Americas.

Right now we’re in 1519, the bleeding edge, the avante garde of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Both Columbus and Queen Isabella have died, and we’re about to see the total destruction of a gigantic city, one that the Spanish soldiers themselves described as bigger, cleaner, and more beautiful that any city in Europe at the time. Some of them, when they first saw the metropolis, asked out loud whether they weren’t stepping into a dream.

Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city, was an island on a lake (called Texcoco). It was accessible only by a few long, narrow causeways, parts of which could be removed, cutting off enemy armies from the city itself. It was the kind of impenetrable, unsinkable marvel that the Titanic was.

The imprisoned king mentioned earlier is Moctezuma, the ninth ruler of the Aztec Empire. Tenochtitlan is, today, destroyed and buried under modern Mexico City. And the invaders are portrayed almost everywhere as a Spanish army. That portrayal isn’t entirely true. The leader of this particular expedition was Hernan Cortes. Cortes was not a soldier, he was a lawyer. The crews of conquistadors who sailed the Caribbean were basically seaborne multinational corporations, comprised of merchants, blacksmiths, tailors, lawyers, slaves from Africa and the Caribbean, farmers, sailors, and some soldiers.

The conquistadors weren’t even mostly Spanish. In almost every battle leading up to the fall of Tenochtitlan, the conquistadors were heavily outnumbered by indigenous allies. The people of Mexico were not all members of the same tribe, and the conquistadors found this out quickly. One tribe in particular, the Tlaxcalans, were eager to use the invading forces to their advantage. The Aztec Empire was in many ways a brutal one, and Tlaxcala was fed up with paying taxes to their neighbor. These taxes included food, money, and victims to be sacrificed. In a lot of ways the Spanish were a sword in the hands of Tlaxcala, a political tool with which the tribe could free themselves from domination by a nearby rogue state.

So this leaves us with the question: what do you call the invaders? I could go in a radical direction and refer to them as the pawns of Tlaxcala. I could make your ears bleed by using the word “invaders” 700 times in this episode.

Sometimes I’ll refer to Cortes’s men, or the soldiers, or the invaders, or the conquistadors, or the Spanish, or the Spanish and Tlaxcalans. Mexico’s history is loosely based on a true story, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the history of the Conquest. You can’t always trust every word of a history book.



In November 1519, Cortes’s Spanish expedition had been greeted on one of the causeways and invited into the city as guests of honor. It was the prototypical meeting of two alien civilizations. Neither side could really believe what they were seeing. Some of the conquistadors sat on giant armored animals the Aztecs described as deer. And the Spanish were about to enter a city unlike anything they had ever seen.

Cortes, for his part, began plotting to capture the place from the moment he saw it. He wanted to deliver the jewel intact to the king of Spain.

About a week after the meeting on the causeway, Cortes took Moctezuma prisoner, accusing him of having taken part in an attack on Spanish soldiers. But the arrest was made in private and would be kept secret from the Aztecs. (Although some sources say he wasn’t imprisoned until months later.)

The emperor would continue to govern his empire, but Cortes would be in charge of him. Any actions taken against the Spanish would result in Moctezuma’s execution. He had no choice but to agree, and the 2 men entered into a strange and fascinating relationship of enmity and, friendship and mutual distrust, and eventually Stockholm Syndrome. (Some historians say that Moctezuma began to identify and sympathize with his captors over the next few months, which helps to explain some of his actions near the end of his life.)



Getting back to where we left off at the very beginning of this episode, a few months after the meeting Moctezuma on the causeway, Cortes got the news that his superior, Diego Velazquez (the self-appointed governor of Cuba), wanted him dead or in jail. Cortes had disobeyed direct orders: his mission was supposed to be one of trade. His orders were only to find gold, kidnap indigenous people, and force them into slavery in the mines beneath Cuba. But Cortes had no intention of keeping himself confined to that limited set of instructions. He wanted wealth. He wanted power. He was ambitious, scheming, manipulative, and calculating; and he had found lots and lots of gold at Tenochtitlan. Now, however, Velazquez was threatening to take it all away.

Cortes held a meeting with some of his captains-in-arms, who all agreed that he should risk leaving the Aztec capital, heading to Veracruz, and confronting the officer in charge of the armada, who was called Panfilo de Narvaez.

Narvaez had sent men ashore at Veracruz to speak with Cortes’s highest ranking officer who, upon hearing the men call Cortes a traitor, had his soldiers throw nets over them and take them to Tenochtitlan, where his leader would decide their fate. Cortes got word of this and met the prisoners outside the enormous Aztec city. He ordered his men to release them from the nets and put them on horses. He apologized for the treatment they had received in Veracruz, and they entered Tenochtitlan in royal fashion. He made sure they were well-fed and taken care of. The three men stayed for a few days, during which time Cortes plied them with bribes and flattery. They told him that, with gold, they might be able to convince some of Narvaez’s men to join him.

They were released and sent back to the armada, where they began to do just that. Some of Narvaez’s men deserted the armada and went to Veracruz.

Narvaez took part of his host and began the march to Tenochtitlan.

During this time according to a memoir written by one of the Spanish soldiers, Bernal Diaz, two Aztec gods spoke to Moctezuma’s priests. The gods wanted to leave Mexico because of the treatment they had received at the hands of the Spanish. (And that’s true: the gods had been very poorly treated by the Spanish. In every city, before coming to Tenochtitlan, Cortes would march up to the top of the temple and begin smashing idols and replacing them with crucifixes and images of the Virgin Mary, and just generally being insufferable. So the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca, had had enough.) They would leave Mexico unless the Spanish were killed.

If you’ve studied more religious history than I have it may not surprise you to hear that soldiers on one side of a crusade might actually have believed in the existence of their enemies’ gods. If Bernal Diaz had written his memoir today he probably would have said something like “Moctezuma reported that his priests had received word from their gods,” etc, etc; thereby placing the exIStence of the Aztec gods behind several layers of “he said, she said.” But no, he just comes out and says it: their gods are mad and they want to leave Mexico.

Moctezuma relayed this message to Cortes, telling him it would be best if the Spanish left at once. But here’s the thing: several months before, Cortes had ordered his ships destroyed, to show his men that they would not be returning to Cuba or Spain anytime soon. When Moctezuma gave him this message Cortes ordered ships to be built on the coast and asked the Aztec emperor to keep his captains from attacking.

Unbeknownst to Cortes, Moctezuma and Narvaez had been secretly exchanging messages and gifts. Moctezuma saw an opportunity to get rid of the Spanish. Narvaez was telling him that he had come to help the Aztecs and kill Cortes.

The mood among the Spanish was tense. Bernal Diaz writes that they never took off their armor during this time, not even to sleep, and they always had their weapons close by. Even the horses were saddled and kept ready for battle or escape at a moment’s notice. Diaz got so used to this that later on in life, on his estate in Guatemala, he slept in his clothes and without a bed. He would only use his bed when important visitors came.

Cortes got word that Narvaez was marching on him. He embraced Moctezuma, who looked sad, though he offered to send 100,000 of his warriors – ostensibly – to help smash Narvaez. His real motive was probably to unite his Aztec soldiers with Narvaez’s men in order to get rid of Cortes’s army. Or maybe he hoped to end ALL the Spaniards – Narvaez included – right there on the coast. No one really knows.

Later on Malinche would tell Cortes that the emperor’s sadness was likely false. It seems pretty clear, now, that she was right.

Malinche, like the Tlaxcalans, was vital to Cortes’s mission in Mexico. Spain’s conquest model always involved the use (willing or unwilling) of native interpreters, and that’s the role Malinche filled. She deserves an episode or two all to herself, and I fully intend to give her that, because what little we know about her makes her even MORE fascinating. For this series of episodes, what you need to know is that EVERY time Cortes and Moctezuma spoke – it was through Malinche. She may have, for unknown reasons, held a grudge against the Aztecs and there are debates about to what degree she played the two men against each other and used them for her own purposes (maybe by intentionally mistranslating some things). She was young (about 19 or 20), she might have been sold into slavery by her parents, and eventually she gave birth to one of Cortes’s sons. And although it’s inconceivable that their son, Martin, was actually the first child between a Spaniard and a native Mexican, she is nonetheless sometimes called the mother of modern Mexico.



The conquistador split up his forces. He left about 120 men in Tenochtitlan and took roughly the same number with him. The march brought them quickly to a city called Cholula, where they waited to be joined by 260 men stationed at Veracruz. They left Cholula.

Narvaez was now moving north to a city called Cempoala, where Cortes had made friends with the chief a year before – on his march to the Aztec capital. Cortes had given gifts to the chief, which Narvaez confiscated. His men were surprised that Cortes had acquired fame here, since he was considered pretty insignificant back in Cuba.

About 2 days after leaving Cholula, Cortes came upon a group of Spaniards who told him that Narvaez and Moctezuma had exchanged presents and that Narvaez seemed to wanna conquer Mexico for himself.

Always calculating, Cortes distributed about 15,000 pesos worth of gold among the men who marched with him. And… this is an important detail: some historians have given the impression that the Spanish soldiers were fighting without the promise of pay, but that’s just not the case. They were there to get rich. Now… they didn’t get paid up front (and some of them, in the end, never got paid at all) but they had all been promised land, titles, power, slaves, and gold.

Along the way Cortes and Narvaez sent messages back and forth, at times getting mad and arresting the messengers. At one point Narvaez suggested a meeting, but somebody warned Cortes against it. It was an ambush. The plan was to hide some cavalrymen men (led by a man called Juan Yuste) behind a hill. During negotiations, the cavalry would attack, hopefully killing or capturing Cortes.

There was a lot of politics and infighting during the march, but the end result was that the 2 men were unable to reach an agreement. A skirmish was therefore inevitable.

Cortes divided his soldiers into 5 groups. His cousin, Diego Pizarro, led 60 men whose job was to seize the enemy’s artillery. Sandoval led 80 who would arrest Narvaez, or kill him if he resisted. A 3rd division was led by a cousin to one of Narvaez’s men. The cousins had recently quarreled, so the job for this division was to subdue the cousin and his men. Another division was to arrest one of Narvaez’s captains. Cortes would lead the 5th division and deploy those men wherever they were most needed.

He promised 1,000 castellanos to the man who captured Narvaez. Actually, it was for the first person who “laid their hands” on him. The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th would also get hundreds of castellanos. (What’s a castellano? Well, it was equal to 485 maravedis. What’s a maravedi? It was a copper coin equal to a 96th of a Spanish gold mark. A gold mark was about 230 grams. Got all that?)

Cortes knew the value of well placed bribes, and as the 2 armies got closer, several of Narvaez’s men had already been seduced by the gifts of gold sent by their leader’s enemy.

I say “enemy” but that’s not quite the case. The 2 men had been allies. They had gone together on previous expeditions in the Caribbean. One of Narvaez’s men even said that Narvaez saw Cortes sort of like a son and didn’t want to fight him. But the so-called, self-styled governor of Cuba – their superior Diego Velazquez – had given him orders.

Nonetheless, 2,000 pesos were offered to the man who killed Cortes or Sandoval, if they attacked.



On May 27th Cortes came to the outskirts Cempoala. They found two sentries, one of whom escaped. The other they captured and… let’s say extracted information from. He said most of the cavalry and arms were outside the city, while Narvaez and his men were camped out near the temple.

The escaped sentry ran back to Narvaez and warned him about the attack, but before the men could prepare themselves adequately, a few of Cortes’s soldiers had sneaked to the top of the pyramid and attacked. They pushed past the guards easily and were soon fighting in the dark of Narvaez’s quarters. Narvaez himself swung a two-handed broadsword, but didn’t do much damage.

Sandoval shouted at his men to burn the building down. The fire burned Narvaez’s feet. He lost an eye to one of Sandoval’s pikemen and surrendered. Five of his men were dead. He and a few of his captains were placed in chains while fighting continued outside.

Some of his men had holed up in a church, where they refused to surrender. Cortes pointed artillery at the building and fired. (This was an unbelievable act, and people did not soon forget it.)

When word got around that Narvaez had surrendered, his men finally gave up. The final death toll was 15 on Narvaez’s side and 2 on Cortes’s.

“You must think it a great thing to have captured me,” he said to Cortes, who responded to the contrary: it was one of the easiest things he had done while in Mexico. And, considering everything they had gone through up to that point (almost none of which I’ve even mentioned in this episode) it was probably true.

Historians point to several factors that led to the outcome. Certainly bribes swayed a lot of people, but Cortes also struck at night (a few hours before Narvaez expected them) giving him the element of surprise. Narvaez thought he would be attacked at dawn, so he was unprepared. His men might have been lulled into a false sense of security due to their greater numbers. It had rained earlier, dampening some of Narvaez’s gunpowder. And, crucially, Narvaez was not well-loved by his men, whereas Cortes had won his men’s respect and loyalty through leadership and promises of wealth.

After the battle Cortes offered land and gold to many of the defeated soldiers, who quickly joined him. He told them about the gold he had found back in the Aztec capital. They set off for Tenochtitlan, and one of the men had a disease called smallpox.


Paddling furiously

Howdy. Welcome to the first installment of 3rd Grade Book Reviews. I’ve been wondering about how one can include a bibliography for a podcast, and this is what I came up with. One option is to include notes and references in a separate episode of the podcast. Another option is to do some quick write ups on books related to a given topic.

Let’s get started.


The genre “narrative nonfiction” has some advantages over the standard dry accounts that litter library shelves. The principal advantage is that they engage the reader in ways that, for example, a 9,000 page tome just can’t. They’re short, focused works meant principally as something a couple steps above infotainment.

The disadvantages are obvious: narrative fiction often sacrifices nuance and depth for immediacy. The works can be great introductions to a subject, but not much more.

Levy’s Conquistador is narrative nonfiction, with all it’s ups and downs. There’s a questionable sentence at the beginning of a chapter stating that Cortes “could feel his pulse quicken,” when he found out so and so blah blah. The words “furiously” and “furious” are used liberally; on several occasions, people are seen “paddling furiously” or “digging furiously” or “paddling furiously” or “paddling furiously.” There’s enough furious paddling in this book to fill a trilogy of poorly written softcore erotica.

Yes, that’s a 50 Shades joke. No, I won’t apologize.

If you’re in the market for a quick intro to Mexico’s history in general or the fall of Tenochtitlan in particular, Conquistador is a fine place to start. You’ll groan at the depictions of Aztec warriors as the typical savage other that dominates nearly all modern accounts of everything that ever happened ever ever (think teeming hordes and savage warlords), but you’ll be sucked into the grand drama of a real clash of civilizations. And then you’ll remember the name Samuel P Huntington and you’ll roll your eyes and curse the gods for bringing that poor, ignorant soul back into your consciousness.

Then you’ll get hungry and buy a sandwich. That’s my review of Buddy Levy’s book. I give it a Sandwich out of 10.

Check it out on Amazon or on Goodreads.

And follow my tweetings. Your brain will be happy and will convulse with joy.