In 1519 when the Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernando Cortes, reached the capital city of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan, they gaped in astonishment at its magnificent temples, palaces, and gardens. The Aztec state had reached a climax of development that matched the achievement of Spain, now the greatest power in Europe after the triumphant conclusion of the reconquest.
Aztec prophecies had long foretold the return of Quetzalcoatl and other gods from the sea, so the Aztecs at first assumed the strangers were their long-lost gods. The Spaniards considered the Aztecs barbarians in spite of their vigorous political, religious, and socio-economic structures, wanted their gold, and tried to Christianize and subject them.
The Empire of Mexico, Sixteenth Century
We Spanish suffer from a strange disease of the heart for which the only known remedy is gold.
William Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico, 3:217-218
Cortes left Cuba with 617 men, eighteen horses, and a small supply of armaments, on his way to subdue the most powerful state on the continents of America.
This was the empire of Mexico; rich, powerful, and inhabited by million of Indians, passionately fond of war, and then headed by Montezuma, whose fame in arms struck terror in the neighboring nations.
The empire of Mexico had existed for ages. Its inhabitants were not a rude and barbarous, but a polished and intelligent, people. Mexico, the capital of the empire, situated in the middle of a spacious lake, was the noblest monument of American industry. It communicated to the continent by immense causeways, which were carried through the lake. The city was admired for its buildings, all of stone, its squares, and market-places; the shops which glittered with gold and silver; and the sumptuous palaces of Montezuma, some erected on columns of jasper, and containing whatever was most rare, curious, and useful.
Cortes, in his march along the coast of Mexico, experienced by little opposition. The natives were terrified at the appearance of the warlike animals, on which the Spanish officers were mounted. The artificial thunder which issued from their hands, and the wooden castles which had wafted them over the ocean, struck a panic, from which they did not recover till their ruin was unavoidable. Wherever the Spaniards marched, they spared neither age nor sex, nothing sacred or profane.
John Britten, Sheridan and Kotzebue, 6-7
Survival of Stories
Bernadino de Sahagun
Although the conquistadors burned almost all Aztec writings and destroyed their centers of education, a few missionaries (including Bernadino de Sahagun and Diego de Duran) were able to save some indigenous literature. They transcribed stories and songs memorized and retold by natives into the Latin alphabet so they could record texts in the original words. Because of their efforts, the story of the conquest from the point of view of the victims remains fairly intact.
Reports of the Messengers
Page from Diego de Duran’s book on the Aztecs
We only came to sleep
We only came to dream
It is not true, no, it is not true
That we came to live on the earth.
We are changed into the grass of springtime
Our hearts will group green again
And they will open their petals.
But our body is like a rose tree:
It puts forth flowers and then withers.
Aztec hymn in William Brandon, The Last Americans, 109
Thanks to the efforts of dedicated priests, we now have direct reports from natives who survived the massacres and told their stories.
For a long time people had noticed omens and signs of the coming of strangers. King Montezuma sent emissaries to the spot where reports indicated something very unusual was happening. When the emissaries returned they went directly to the king’s palace and spoke to him with all due reverence and humility, describing the light-skinned, bearded strangers who fished from a small boat and then climbed back into their two towers.
The king sent gifts to the person he presumed to be the god Quetzalcoatl, and the messengers dressed Cortes in all the finery: a mask with golden earrings, a vest decorated with feathers from the quetzal bird, a collar with a disk of gold in its center, a blue cloak known as “the ringing bell,” a mirror with little bells. In his hand they placed the shield with its fringe and pendant of quetzal feathers, its ornaments of gold and mother-of-pearl. Finally they set before him black sandals of fine soft rubber and laid out many other objects of divine finery for him to see.
The Captain asked them: “And is this all? Is this your gift of welcome? Is this how you greet people?”….
Then the Captain gave orders, and the messengers were chained by the feet and by the neck. When this had been done, the great cannon was fired off. The messengers lost their senses and fainted away. They fell down side by side and lay where they had fallen.
Later they paddled furiously to get back to their city. Some of them even paddled with their hands, so fierce was the anxiety burning in their souls. They told the king about the cannon:
A thing like a ball of stone comes out of its entrails: it comes out shooting sparks and raining fire….If the cannon is aimed against a mountain, the mountain splits and cracks open. If it is aimed against a tree, it shatters the tree into splinters.
The messengers also said: ‘Their trappings and arms are all made of iron. They dress in iron and wear iron casques on their heads. Their swords are iron; their bows are iron; their shields are iron; their spears are iron. Their deer carry them on their backs wherever they wish to go. These deer, our lord, are as tall as the roof of a house.’
The strangers’ bodies are completely covered, so that only their faces can be seen. Their skin is white, as if it were made of lime. They have yellow hair, though some of them have black. Their beards are long and yellow. Their hair is curly, with very fine strands.
Their dogs are enormous, with flat ears and long, dangling tongues. The color of their eyes is a burning yellow; their eyes flash fire and shoot off sparks. Their bellies are hollow, their flanks long and narrow. They are tireless and very powerful. They bound here and there, panting, with their tongues hanging out. And they are spotted like an ocelot.
When Montezuma heard this report, he was filled with terror. It was as if his heart had fainted, as if it had shriveled. It was as if he were conquered by despair.
Miguel Leon-Portillo, The Broken Spears, 26, 30-31
Spanish battle the Aztecs
As the Spaniards marched across land to the capital city, they attacked towns and villages mercilessly; other native groups joined them out of fear and also because of longstanding hostility toward the Aztecs, whose own patterns of conquest and enslavement had oppressed their neighbors for decades. The Aztec leader Montezuma heard all the reports of massacres and battles, debated how to receive the conquistadors, and decided a peaceful welcome would be best.
The Lady Malinche
Malinche depicted in a Mexico mural in Tabasco
In addition to horses and cannons, Cortes had another significant advantage: the former slave, highly valued as a translator, who became his mistress, the lady Malinche. A brilliant linguist, theoretician, and diplomat, Malinche paved the way for Cortes’s troops with her speeches, which combined persuasion and threat and benefited from her understanding of the history and culture of the various nations of the region. She was so clever and valuable that “some historians are almost tempted to think of her as the real conqueror of Mexico” (Brandon, 100).
When the invaders reached Tenochtitlan, Montezuma had them quartered in the palace of his father, an immense house with many rooms and walls of sculptured stone. Several days of polite visits between the Aztec leader and the Spaniards followed, until the guests took the host prisoner. Malinche spent a couple of hours convincing Montezuma it would be to his advantage to come along quietly, and from then on he was in the custody of the Spaniards, still administering the affairs of the kingdom and treated with respect, but giving them enormous quantities of gold and ordering his subjects to follow their bidding. For several months the natives, overawed by the Spaniards’ ferocity and their amazing greed for gold, housed and fed their guests.
Pedro de Alvarado
But in the spring, while Cortes was away battling with another conquistador, Panfillo de Narvaez, the Spaniards left behind under the direction of Pedro de Alvarado murdered celebrants at the fiesta of Toxcatl.
Outraged Aztec citizens immediately retaliated with javelins, arrows, and spears. The Spaniards took refuge in the palace, where they shackled Montezuma in chains. The Aztecs, who had been so generous with food and supplies under orders from their king, now refused to feed the Spanish and waited for them to die of hunger.
Cortes returned with extra troops and the battle raged for four days. When Cortes forced Montezuma to try to calm his furious subjects, the grieving king said, “what more does Malinche want from me?’ (Brandon, 107). In the attempt Montezuma was killed, by either the angry Aztecs or the desperate Spaniards. After losing three-fourths of their troops, the Spanish retreated; Cortes and Malinche escaped.
Massacre at the Fiesta of Taxcatl
Illustration from the Codex Florentine depicting the Massacre at the Fiesta of Taxcatl
At a moment in the fiesta, when the dance was loveliest and then song was linked to song, the Spaniards ran forward, armed as if for battle. They closed all the entrances and passageways, posted guards so no one could escape, and began to slaughter all the people.
They ran in among the dancers, forcing their way to the place where the drums were played. They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off his arms. Then they cut of 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 of them from behind, and these fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out. Others they beheaded: they cut off their heads, or split their heads to pieces.
They struck others in the shoulders, and their arms were torn from their bodies. They wounded some in the thigh and some in the calf. They slashed others in the abdomen, and their entrails all 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 attempted to force their way out, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates. Others climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. Those who ran into the communal houses were safe there for a while; so were those who lay down among the victims and pretended to be dead. But if they stood up again, the Spaniards saw them and killed them.
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.
Miguel Leon-Portillo, The Broken Spears, 75-76
The Final Conquest
Meeting between Cortés and Montezuma as depicted in the Codex Durán
A period of relative normalcy followed. But disease, the second line of assault against natives, this time in the form of a smallpox epidemic, decimated the population. A second onslaught from the Spanish was not far behind. Long, devastating battles kept the capital under siege for eighty days. Finally the Spanish were successful in vanquishing the natives. It is estimated that almost half a million people lost their lives in the war: 240,000 Aztecs and 170,000 Spaniards, plus 30,000 members of other tribes who fought with the Spanish.