“Who could conquer Tenochtitlan?

Who could shake the foundation of heaven…?”


It is the winter of 1519 and there is much ado in Old Worlds and New: the Roman Papacy, led by Leo X is doing its best to suppress a renegade heretic named Martin Luther from spreading his blasphemies; Ferdinand Magellan is outfitting a crew of sailors in Seville with plans to circumnavigate the world; Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor has died, setting off arrangements to coronate his grandson, King Charles of Spain, as heir; meanwhile thousands of miles across the great seas, a little-known conquistador named Hernán Cortés lands in the Yucatan peninsula with eleven ships, 500 men, thirteen horses, and some cannon, dreaming of wealth and glory.

"Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico" (Simon & Schuster, 1993) by Hugh Thomas

"Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico" (Simon & Schuster, 1993) by Hugh Thomas

Hugh Thomas’ history of the adventures of Cortés, appropriately titled Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico (Simon & Schuster, 1993) is an enormous undertaking. Thoroughly researched and meticulously told, as much biography as it is history, Thomas describes a force of personality so intelligent, cunning, and audacious, as to be a nearly mythical figure of history. It was one thing for the Europeans to dominate an archipelago of scattered, benign tribes— wholly another for them to subdue an enormous empire run with an efficiency as sophisticated as its cousin kingdoms on the European continent. Cortés succeeds by utilizing leadership, diplomacy, strength of character and some Machiavellian technique. But this is not a hagiography— contemporary historical hindsight does not take kindly to what in the end became wholesale destruction of a flourishing, vibrant culture.

Empire Folly

Conquest is a massive book difficult to summarize even in a long essay, so interesting and detailed is the story. At the back end more than 160 pages are devoted to chapter notes and sources, while the appendices include a glossary of the Nahuatl language, a summary of Montezuma’s tribute, Mexican calendars, a table of Spanish currency, a list of Cores’ mistresses, and genealogical diagrams of the emperors of Mexico, the Imperial Spanish family, Cortés’ ancestry, and the transformation of the post-conquest Mexican imperial family. This is preceded by well over six hundred pages of text that reads alternately academic and the best of adventure narrative.

The story begins in Tenochtitlan, where the Mexica (pronounced Mesheeka) ruled a vast empire (Thomas disavows the word “Aztec,” a malapropism popularized in the 18th century). They had a centralized government similar to feudal Europe. Also like Europe was Mexico’s pyramidal social structure, divided between nobles, craftsmen, peasants, and slaves. This was no garden of eden but a complex hierarchy uninterested in the issue of inequity. Priests, as ambassadors to the gods, were highly influential and whom emperors turned to for all divine guidance. Montezuma, the Mexican emperor in 1519, was particularly superstitious and susceptible to portents.

Because of elaborate pomp and ritual, the Mexica required enormous quantities of tribute from the provinces it ruled (some examples from the appendix: loads of lime: 16,800; gold-mounted crystal lip plugs: forty; live eagles: two). Tax collectors roamed the valleys to the coasts collecting for the emperor, causing considerable resentment among the smaller tribes. Moreover, the Mexica often staged phony wars with rivals in order to guarantee prisoners for human sacrifice.

Dressed in ostentatious costumes mimicking the wardrobe of gods and given peyote or mushrooms or even pulque (the mother of tequila) to quell anxieties, captives were led to the top of the great pyramids, where, “the normal procedure was for the victim to be held down on a stone block by four priests. His heart would be plucked out professionally by a chief priest or even the monarch…the heart would be burned in a brazier. The head would be cut off and held up. The limbs would be ritually eaten, with maize or chili, by noblemen…the torso would be thrown away, or given to animals in one of the zoos.”

It sounds gruesome but according to Mexican belief, death by “the obsidian knife” entailed a beautiful afterlife in “the paradise of the sun.” In the end, human sacrifice would be the most important argument for Spain’s superior civilization (never mind the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition!) But to the Mexica, if they did not sacrifice to Huitzilopochtili, the sun would not shine and if they did not give to Tlaloc, the rain would not come and maize, the staple of their diet, would not grow.

Montezuma, Cortes, Malinche Meeting in Tenochtitlan (Mexican National Archive)

Mural of Montezuma greeting Cortes upon his arrival to Tenochtitlan, with La Malinche acting as translator (Mexican National Archive)

Who were these Spanish adventurers confronting a society with such unpronounceable gods? Mostly they were men “of an experience as long as their reputation was dubious.” The first tide of explorers originally came to the New World with Columbus’ second expedition in 1493, a “company of gentlemen” descended from powerful Castilian families (the historian is forgiven for his occasionally tedious layouts of pedigree). They established great encomiendas (agricultural estates tended by Indian slaves) in Hispaniola, Cuba, and Jamaica. Explorations were privately funded, which meant they needed to return profit on their (costly) investment. They weren’t interested in Christianizing (and therefore humanizing) the natives, whom they needed as a labor force. The Spanish did not play fair: entering a new land and subduing resistance, the Requerimiento was read out in an unfamiliar language affirming that the territory was now in Royal Spanish hands. The tipping point for European arrogance was Alexander VI’s Papal Bull formally dividing the New World between the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms, to which effrontery the Cenu Indians suggested, “The pope must be drunk.”

Once the first generation of settlers arrived, the Caribbean experienced a demographic crisis: there was no longer enough indigenous to operate the encomiendas since many had died from overwork looking for gold or malnutrition after the introduction of wild cattle devastated crop yield. Something had to be done about this labor shortage.

Enter Hernán Cortés. Like many conquistadores he came of age in a golden age of violence and glory. In the late 15th Century, the Moors were expelled from Spain and many Jews forced into conversion (and those that didn’t were handled by Torquemada and his inquisitors). Between religious cleansing, Columbus’ discoveries and the unification of the Spanish crown, much opportunity existed for ambitious, courageous men.

Cortés, of a minor noble family in Medellín, Extremadura, arrived in Cuba via Salamanca and Seville, when he was eighteen. Displaying wit, foresight, and intelligence, he became a favorite of Diego Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, working up the ranks as a notary, secretary, treasurer, and magistrate, then as an encomienda lord and mine baron. He could read and quote Latin as well as popular ballads. A physical, intellectual, and engaging presence, Cortés rose to power on the strength of his Renaissance Man qualities, which is why Governor Valesquez named him caudillo of a commercial expedition to the Yucatan.

But it quickly became clear to the Governor that the caudillo was exceeding his authority. In bringing horses and cannon it seemed to all Cortés had long-term plans to establish a colony. A messenger sent to relieve Cortés of authority was murdered en route and all of a certain port city’s meat taken by Cortés at gunpoint. This flagrant disrespect made a lifelong enemy out of Valesquez.

Cortés’ was the not first fleet captained to explore what was beginning to be called New Spain: Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba and Juan de Grijalva had made exploratory maneuvers the year before, antagonizing the Mayans, who now challenged Cortés upon arrival. Attack dogs and artillery took care of the first wave of Indians and cannon and horses (the Mayans mistook the equine for dragons) took care of the second. The Mayans were slaughtered because their swords were made from obsidian rather than metal—built to wound, not kill (the Mexica would have the same problem). The Spanish reliance on artillery was anathema to the Indians, who believed it dishonorable to strike from a distance. Thus both technology and the playbook were to the Spanish advantage.

Slowly, Cortés and his men moved up the coast, reading out the Requerimiento to perplexed audiences, building settlements and demanding gold (which they received when available in exchange for beads, looking glasses, pins, needles, and scissors— obviously the events at hand antecede the concept of fair trade).

Mexica Solar Calendar Circa15th century by Unknown Pre-Colombian Artists

Mexica Solar Calendar Circa15th century by Unknown Pre-Colombian Artists

Meanwhile, Cortés’ troublemaking was beginning to freak out the Mexican emperor, Montezuma. It was bad enough that this foreign army had cannon that “deafened the Indians and made trees vanish,” as well as “‘deer’ which bore the visitors on their backs” and dogs with “great hanging jowls and blazing yellow eyes.” The worst of it was the possibility the visitor might have been an “immortal… sent from heaven.” This foreign leader dressed in black resembled Quetzalcoatl, a bearded god, “the warrior of the dawn,” a morning star, the one deity philosophically opposed to human sacrifice. The fact that that year in the Mexican calendar, “I-Reed,” Quetzalcoatl was ascendant, suggested a very bad portent indeed.

Nevertheless, unlike many conquistadores, Cortés was not out for blood. War exhausted his men, caused casualties and desertions, and depleted his harquebusier’s gunpowder and his crossbow men’s arrows. Cortés preferred allies to enemies and was able to make friends via his interpreters (Geronimo de Aguilar, who had shipwrecked on the coast ten years earlier spoke Spanish and Mayan, while a concubine Cortés received in the victors’ spoils, La Malinche (who would be Cortés’ mistress and give birth to one of the first mestizos), spoke Mayan and Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the Valley of Mexico). Cortés learned early on that while his army intimidated the locals, they seemed to hate the Mexica more than the Spanish. The native kings fed Cortés’ men and, crucially, supplied him with porters and guides.

But not all Indians were so accommodating, as the journey to Tenochtitlan became a Spanish Heart of Darkness. Some testified later, “The Castilians perpetrated many unnecessary cruelties, such as cutting off noses, ears, arms, feet and testicles, as well as throwing priests down from the tops of the temples” and that “arms were weary from killing Indians.” Sixteenth century shock and awe entailed wholesale massacres and pillaging, tactics Cortés might have learned from previous pacification programs in Cuba.

In spite of a first encounter battle, the rogue kingdom of Tlaxcala offered hospitality to Cortés and his men. Later, the Tlaxcalans would prove more instrumental than any other tribe in defeating the hated Mexica and bringing down the traditional culture preceding Cortés’ invasion. They would even exceed the Castilians in their savage destruction of rivals, soon proving themselves “good vassals of King Charles” in a confrontation at the kingdom of Cholula, a tribe sympathetic to the Mexica and refusing hospitality to the Spanish. The slaughter was horrendous. The town was sacked with “much stabbing, slaying, and beating.” As was the pattern in the Caudillo’s conquests, temples were whitewashed and pagan idolatry was replaced with crosses and pictures of the Virgin.

Tailing the expedition now were emissaries from Montezuma, who were beginning to doubt that Cortés could be Quetzalcoatl— for one thing, Cholula was dedicated to this deity; for another, it was doubtful a god— any god— could be so murderous. The Mexican emissaries showered Cortés with many gifts, begging him not to come to Tenochtitlan. However, after the massacre at Cholula, Cortés and his forces were able to march into the capitol unopposed on November 9th.

This is an historic event of two powerful cultures coming into contact for the first time and should be described with some detail: “The Castilian expedition made an immense impression… the horses kept turning, moving back and forth, their riders looking at everything on every side with the greatest attention… great dogs ran ahead, panting… the standard-bearer walked by himself, waving his banner back and forth… The Mexica were much impressed by the steel swords and lances, both of which flashed brightly. The crossbowmen and harquebusiers were wielding their weapons and making as if to test them. Behind Cortés, the Indian allies made noises as if preparing for war, shrieking, hitting their mouths with their hands, whistling, and shouting…”

"Tenochtitlan" at the National Palace by Diego Rivera

"Tenochtitlan" at the National Palace by Diego Rivera

The Castilians were equally in awe, for at the time only Constantinople rivaled Tenochtitlan in size. The city of Tenochtitlan was on a lake connected by four causeways. Vast numbers of canoes made from hollowed tree trunks approached the Castilians to observe these strange white, dirty, bearded men from the water. The pyramids of the city emerged as “castellated fortresses, splendid monuments… glorious heights!” Happy to have arrived in the capitol without incident, the harquebusiers fired volleys into the air, the thunder of which astonished the Mexica.

Receiving an audience with Montezuma was just as dazzling: “None of the Castilians would have admired the polished stone labret with on it the blue figure of a humming bird which the Emperor wore on his lower lip. Nor would they have approved his large earplugs and turquoise nose-ornament. But they could not fail to have been awed by the fine feather headdresses which both the Emperor and the nobles wore, as by the jaguar costumes of the senior warriors, with the animals’ heads over their own.”

Montezuma and Cortés greeted each other with a hug and then Montezuma escorted the Castilians to their lodgings at the Palace of Axayacatl. What happened later that night set the tone for what Cortés believed became his legal authority over the Mexican people. Montezuma, as is custom with good hospitality, probably expressed his obedience to King Charles in meaningless but polite language germane to the formal occasion, which Cortés assumed to mean that Montezuma had ceded authority to the European monarch. This meant that any defiance on the part of the Mexica could now be construed as rebellion, a treason punishable by death.

It’s hard to know for certain what happened— his words were doubly translated, from Nahuatl to Mayan to Spanish— omissions and enhancements might have been made in the process and nuance lost. Montezuma was both intimidated and curious of the caudillo but it’s unlikely he could begin to contemplate the duplicity and avarice of European conquerors. Right away he was taken into “custody” by the Spanish, a strategic coup for Cortés , as it amounted to severing the head of a very hierarchical society.

At first, nothing much happened and life in Tenochtitlan went on as before. For the conquistadores, the marketplace was inevitably a place of fascination: “All goods were sold by number and size rather than weight—for weights were unknown in old Mexico: gold dust, for example, was sold in goose quills. Many sections of the market provided services, like haircutting. There was another department where slaves were sold, tied to poles by collars…prices varied: if the slave was not highly skilled as a dancer, his price was thirty large cloaks; but if he danced well his price was forty. Canoes full of human excrement were disposed of to tan skins. The market at Tlatelolco, like most great markets, was a haunt of prostitutes and gamblers.”

But as time passed and the Mexicans grew weary of feeding a motley crew of gold-diggers, Montezuma’s cooperative imprisonment was beginning to adversely affect the structure of Mexican life. The emperor was “the heart of the city,” whose words were “precious jades,” and who spoke on behalf of the gods, of whom he was “the seat, the flute, the jaws, the ears,” who not only governed Mexico but kept alive the universe itself. His helplessness was all the more magnified when Cortés took violent reprisals against rebels, executing them in an auto de fe. Montezuma was compelled to reaffirm his vassalage to King Charles, which he did, weeping. Of course, it wasn’t enough Cortés had Montezuma’s state— he had to have his soul too: “Believe in our God who made heaven and earth, and, by His works, you will know who the Master is.”

Meanwhile, conditions in the Caribbean had deteriorated the past year when a smallpox epidemic wiped out whatever Indians not yet fatally claimed from overwork. Governor Valesquez, incensed at the rumors of Cortés’ success, commissioned a large force, headed by Pánfilo de Narváez, who was charged with relieving Cortés of his command. But shortly after the flotilla arrived on the coast, Cortés, utilizing diplomacy, bribery, and a bold nighttime ambush, captured Narváez, put him in chains and conscripted Valesquez’ police force into his own ranks.

While Cortés was at the coast, in Tenochtitlan there was a festival with much music and dance. Dance, integral to Mexican spiritual culture, was not just amusement but a religious rite, a service of gods, “calling upon them with one’s whole body,” to provide with peace, children, health, and wisdom. In command of Tenochtitlan during Cortés’ absence, his favorite lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, exercised remarkably bad temper. Feeling threatened by the communality of the festival, Alvarado and his men slaughtered the participants in mid-celebration: “They surrounded those who danced… struck off the arms of the one who beat the drums… his neck and his head flew off… They pierced them all with their iron lances… Of some they slashed open the back and there their entrails fell out. Of some, they split the head, they hacked their heads to pieces…” And so on.

The Causeway across Lake Texcoco to Tenochtitlan

The Causeway across Lake Texcoco to Tenochtitlan

This bloodbath was the breaking point. When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan he found it under siege. For all of Cortés’ shortcomings, he did not want a war. He ordered Montezuma to reestablish normalcy but by now Montezuma was a groveling wreck. It seems that he might have been a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. When an insurgency finally took shape under the leadership of his brother, Cuitlahuac, Montezuma pled with his countrymen to make peace with the occupiers. During one such overture to his subjects, he was assaulted with stones, dying from injuries shortly thereafter.

Montezuma’s disgrace in death is one of the great tragedies in a tale built with tears. Had he been more decisive, he might have defeated the Spanish. As stated before, an emperor’s leadership is everything, so his passiveness infected Mexican society, enabling the Castilians to gain the decisive upper hand.

However, at that point, nothing yet was inevitable. Now determined to fight, the Mexica cut off all access to food and water in the palace. Cortés decided to lead his men out of the city on the night of June 30th, remembered now as La Noche Triste (“The Night of Sorrows”). The Mexica overwhelmed the Castilians on the causeway— two thirds of Cortés’ men were lost as well as most of the horses and nearly all the gold. Many were captured, sacrificed and later eaten. Cortés retreated across the mountains to Tlaxcala where he was given sanctuary.

I should note that although this reader knew the outcome of this story, it was impossible not to root for the Mexica. The arrogance, avarice, prejudice, and ruthlessness of the Castilians was despicable. This is not 20/20 hindsight: many in Cortés’ time were horrified at the treatment of the Indians, including members of the Crown and the Church. Had the authorities understood the atrocities being perpetrated in their name, they would have been ashamed. Territory claimed and souls saved— the ends don’t always justify the means.

La Noche Triste was a turning point in the campaign. From then on the conflict became total war. Unfortunately for the Mexica, they were unable to secure any alliances. Either out of a desire for revenge, a fear of the Spanish, or sense that the empire was experiencing a paradigm shift, tens of thousands of natives allied themselves with the Spanish, feeding them, carrying their equipment, and killing for them. Those that didn’t fall in line were “pacified.” Worse, smallpox had arrived in New Spain with the Narváez expedition, decimating the indigenous population. Only the Spanish proved immune, further demoralizing the Mexica who interpreted the disease as divine punishment. There weren’t enough people to harvest and ground the maize. Famine ensued.

The situation for the Mexica continued to worsen. Spanish reinforcements with troops, horses, artillery and foodstuffs arrived from the coast. Cuitlahuac perished in the epidemic, succeeded by his cousin, Cuauhtémoc, Unfortunate for superstitious types, Cuauhtémoc’s name translated as “Setting Sun.”

Nothing so well demonstrates the different martial methodology of the two war parties than the weeks leading to the final confrontation. Cortés was preparing to siege Tenochtitlan by constructing thirteen brigantines that would give him control of the lake. Doing so, he could totally isolate the Mexica from access to food and water. While full-scale construction of the ships was underway, across the lake the Mexica were celebrating the festival of Etzalqualiztli. Priests would bathe continuously in the lake, the spiritual leader announcing: “This is the place of the serpents’ anger, the flight of the wild duck, the murmur of the white rushes.” Priests leapt, splashed and cavorted in the water mimicking birdsong: “some spoke like ducks babbling…some imitated water ravens… some like kingfishers.”

Nevertheless, when Cortés finally attacked, the Mexica gave everything they had to save their civilization. Though his brigantines and divisions cut off the Mexica at the causeways, in the war of attrition the Mexica fought bravely with obsidian knives and stones against artillery, crossbows, and Toledo steel. In spite of the superiority in technology and tactics, taking Tenochtitlan was a game of inches, not dissimilar to urban house-to-house fighting witnessed in Stalingrad in the last century. It had been Cortés’ desire to hand a jeweled city to his King but by the time the Spanish took the capitol it was a pile of smoking rubble. Cortés had won a pyrrhic victory.

Though Cortés had promised to treat the fallen monarch with dignity, Cuauhtémoc was tortured into providing the whereabouts of more gold. Natives throughout the land quickly learned they had made a deal with the devil once it became clear Spanish demands for tribute would exceed the Mexica. Whatever beautifully crafted work was recovered was burned down to make gold bars, the better for distribution. However, the conquistadores, who had suffered so many privations over the past two years, were astonished when Cortés paid them a pittance. They reacted to this injustice by perpetuating it on the natives in more expeditions to the frontier. Amazed by Spanish gold lust, the chief of the Tarascans concluded “they must eat it if they like it so much.” Inevitably most indigenous became human chattel in encomiendas partitioned by the new foreign government. Not long after, Franciscan and Dominican orders arrived, baptizing millions. The gods were the last to go of the old ways.

Portrait of Hernán Cortés

Portrait of Hernán Cortés

Cortés succeeded an improbable victory by improvising against numerous calamities. A creative leader, he’d organized a complex siege, inspired the brigantines, and forged a unique alliance with rival tribes. Against tens of thousands of Indians killed, he had experienced modest losses. The Crown eventually recognized him for his achievements, naming him Captain-General of New Spain. It was the apex of his career. Twenty years and some unsuccessful exploratory trips later he died in his homeland, in debt and disregarded by a new generation of forward-thinking adventurers.

Five centuries onward, we struggle for an appropriate moral for this story. We can draw some conclusions. It’s arguable that the Mexican empire fell to the Spanish not because of the latter’s edge in ruthlessness or aggression but because of these same faults in themselves. The other tribes in the Valley of Mexico should have sided against the Spanish: with the Mexica they shared the same language and religion, yet for all this shared culture, they committed their fate with the invaders— a caveat for contemporary empires who misappraise the extent of their power and influence.

It’s so easy to see inevitabilities when looking back at history. If not Cortés, then some other conquistador… But in disagreeing, the historian, Thomas, makes a fascinating assertion: “The conquest required Cortés’ capacity and determination to win over the Indians. Had it not been for their help, as porters, as quartermasters, and in providing a sanctuary, the expedition would have foundered. Had that occurred, who is to say that the Mexica under Cuauhtémoc might not have acquired the use of Spanish weapons, and perhaps learned to use horses? Even allowing for the onslaught of smallpox, they might have maintained a determined opposition until Spain became weary of conquering. Perhaps they would have embarked upon their own version of the Meiji era in Japan.”

Though there is a certain delight in revisionist speculation, that pleasure remains the property of fictionists. The historian’s role is to make sense of the past. Whether you respect or loathe his accomplishments, you must acknowledge Cortés is one of the godfathers of our modern world, begetting us his proselytizing spirit, adventurous bravery, and hypocritical violence. The more things change, the more they stay the same.