Aztec Apocalypse, 1519–1521
Summary and Keywords
The Conquest of Mexico is typically explained in terms of European military superiority, and although this offered an advantage to the forces arrayed against the Aztecs, it was merely part of a broader picture required to understand their downfall. Indigenous political circumstances played the key role in the Conquest, which can best be understood as an Indian victory over other Indians. The Spaniards represented less a conquering force, with which other native groups opportunistically allied, than an opportunity for groups opposed to the Aztecs to employ the relatively minor Spanish forces to multiply their own superior military strength. The Spaniards recognized their own pivotal role and shifted much of the timing of the conquest to sustain it. Other circumstances of the Spanish arrival, including the massive population loss from the accompanying smallpox, did play a role, but one that was primarily understood and used against the Aztecs by the allied Indians. So ultimately, the Conquest can be best understood as an Indian victory over other Indians, but with the Spaniards manipulating the outcome to ultimately win the peace.
The study of the Conquest of Mexico, in 1519–1521, benefits greatly by the survival of a handful of accounts by first-hand participants. At the same time, the resulting assessments have skewed its interpretation because all those accounts were written by the Spaniards. The first Indian accounts were not written (or at least did not survive) until the latter half of the 16th century, largely toward the end of that century and into the next.
The Spanish conquest of Mexico is not merely another instance of history being written by the victors, but one in which the sole firsthand accounts were theirs, inexorably channeling our understanding along the contours they first plotted. Yet the conquistadors’ accounts were written for patently political purposes: to justify their actions, to conform to Spanish understandings of legitimate conquest, to secure the support of the king of Spain, and to receive lands and wealth as rewards for their deeds. Thus, much of what is claimed is dubious and must be reassessed in light of Indian practices to be made intelligible.
Spain’s expansion into Mexico was a logical and inevitable extension of its exploration and colonization of the Indies. Authorized by Governor Diego Velásquez de Cuellos, the first expedition, under Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, sailed from Cuba on February 8, 1517, with three ships and 110 men. Reaching Cape Catoche, Yucatan, three weeks later, Córdoba saw native cities and sophisticated civilizations for the first time. But Spanish claims of ownership under the king of Spain clashed with those of indigenous rulers, and the heavily armed Spaniards soon found themselves engaged in combat. Despite losing two men killed and suffering many wounded, the Spaniards prevailed and looted the gold from the town once the inhabitants fled. Córdoba then quickly sailed, skirting the Yucatan coast, although lack of food forced him to land frequently. The rapid depletion of his drinking water also forced him ashore, where the porous limestone slab of Yucatan absorbs the abundant rainfall, and the only fresh water available was from cenotes [natural wells]. With no visible streams carrying water into the ocean, the Spaniards quickly learned that cenotes could be found whenever they saw Mayas cities. Sometimes, as at Campeche, the Mayas allowed the Spaniards to take water, but other times they resisted. Spanish expeditions along the Yucatan coast all clashed with the Indians over water.
At Chanpoton [Champotón], Córdoba’s superior arms enabled the Spaniards to fight off the surrounding Mayas, but fifty of Córdoba’s men were killed, two captured, and all but one were wounded. Córdoba then sailed back to Cuba, reaching it on April 20 where he, too, died. Nevertheless Córdoba’s expedition alerted the Spaniards to the wealth of this newly discovered land.
Governor Velásquez accordingly dispatched a second expedition, under Juan de Grijalva, with 200 men, which reached Cozumel on May 3, 1518. A cautious man, Grijalva primarily reconnoitered the coast, keeping off shore and avoiding battle with the Mayas, though when attacked—often while attempting to secure supplies—he defended himself, this time with the aid of artillery. Avoiding further hostile attack, Grijalva sailed along the coast as far as central Veracruz, where he landed and, for the first time, encountered non-Maya societies. He then departed, retracing his route and returning to Cuba on April 20, 1519.
Neither Córdoba nor Grijalva appear to have caused much long-term or fundamental change in the groups they encountered. But Grijalva’s expedition did make the first direct contact with Aztecs in Veracruz, and word of his arrival reached King Moteuczoma Xocoyotl (the historic Montezuma) in his capital of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). This arrival was thoroughly discussed by the king and his advisors, who decided to send watchers to the coast but to take no direct action. This decision was far from unanimous, and among the dissidents was the king’s brother, Cuitlahua.
The Aztecs drew on their own background to interpret the Spanish arrival in a meaningful way. Because the Spaniards were unlike any people they had seen before, and because they possessed what seemed like godlike technological capabilities (cannons, harquebusiers, sailing ships, metal armor), a supernatural origin for them had to be considered; but that they were thought to be the god Quetzalcoatl is almost certainly an ex post facto rationalization of events. Nevertheless, this interpretation and many other equally implausible ones have been embraced to make sense of the Spanish version of events rather than recognizing how and why these accounts systematically aggrandized their own roles and minimized those of the Indians. Whether the invaders were gods or men, there was little the Aztecs could do. Unlike land armies, whose timing and probable avenues of approach could be predicted, the Spanish ships offered little warning and could arrive anywhere along hundreds of miles of coast, making it impossible to defend the entire coastline.
Even before Grijalva returned to Cuba, Governor Velásquez appointed Hernan Cortés to lead a third expedition to Mexico. A controversial choice for commander, Cortés owed his selection in large part to judicious lobbying by the governor’s secretary, Andrés de Duero, and the king’s accountant, Amador de Lares, both of whom were his secret allies.
More than 350 men had been recruited for Cortés’s expedition when rumors about his intentions not to adhere to Velásquez’s orders turned the governor against him. Forewarned of Velásquez’s plans to remove him from command, Cortés hurriedly left Santiago de Cuba and sailed first to the port of Trinidad, then to Havana, where he secured more men and supplies. Though Velásquez ordered the local authorities to seize and imprison him, Cortés’s force was too formidable to resist, and he sailed for Yucatan on February 10, 1519. Cortés arrived at Yucatan with eleven ships, as many as 450 soldiers (including thirteen harquebusiers and thirty-two crossbowmen), four small cannons (falconets), ten brass cannons, and sixteen horses, which were the first to reach Mexico. Landing at Cozumel, where Grijalva’s expedition had gone ashore, Cortés made one of a series of fateful decisions that would crucially influence the outcome of his expedition.
First, he dispatched a ship to hunt for Spaniards rumored to be held among the Mayas. Of eighteen Spaniards shipwrecked off the Yucatan coast in 1511, two remained alive. One, Gonzalo Guerrero, reportedly now bore native tattoos, was married to an Indian woman, had raised a family, and had risen to high rank in Maya society. Thus assimilated, he refused to return. But the other, Gerónimo de Aguilar, joined Cortés and was to serve as a Maya translator throughout the Conquest. Cortés then sailed along the coast of Yucatan to Potonchan, where he landed. Met by armed warriors, Cortés demanded that they recognize the authority of the church, pope, and king, on penalty of subjugation, by having Aguilar read the requerimiento [summons] in Maya to the opposing forces. This act may have satisfied Spanish legalities, but would have been thoroughly mystifying to the Maya. Nevertheless, Cortés’s forces routed the Indians in battle and took possession of the town. After a subsequent battle in which more than thirty-five Spaniards were lost, the Mayas pledged fealty and gave them gifts, including twenty women. Among these was one from the Coatzacoalco [Coatzacualcos] region of the southern Gulf Coast who has become known as La Malinche, or Marina, as she was baptized by the Spaniards. Marina, who spoke both Maya and Nahuatl, is often credited in her role as Cortés’s translator with playing a key role in the Conquest. However, her importance as interpreter has been considerably overstated. First, there were many Maya and Nahuatl speakers on the southern Gulf Coast where these two languages abutted, any one of whom could have served as translators as easily as Marina. Second, at least two Spaniards—Orteguilla and Juan Pérez de Artiaga—learned Nahuatl at some point before the fall of Tenochtitlan, thereby reducing the importance of Marina’s presence. And third, as useful as a translator of Maya and Nahuatl was, the truly crucial linguistic leap was not between two indigenous languages but rather between a European and an indigenous one. This connection was achieved not by Marina but by Gerónimo de Aguilar, who spoke both Spanish and Maya and accompanied her throughout the Conquest. Marina’s role in the Conquest, passed over in virtual silence in Cortés’s accounts, which were written during and soon after the events chronicled, became greatly enlarged in accounts written decades after the Conquest when, as Doña Marina, she was prominent as Cortés’s consort and the mother of his son.
Having defeated the Mayas at Potonchan, Cortés removed the statues of their gods there and replaced them with a cross, setting a pattern of nominal conversion to Christianity only after subordination that he was to follow thereafter throughout the Conquest. Staying near Potonchan, the Spaniards tended their wounded for five days before sailing on to Mexico, which the Maya had identified as the source of their gold and jewels. On April 21, Cortés reached San Juan de Ulúa, which Grijalva had made his harbor on the central Veracruz coast. Cortés’ ships were met by canoes full of Indians sent by the Aztec governor of the region, Tentlil. After receiving food and trade goods, the Indians departed and Cortés landed his men, artillery, and horses, and fortified a camp. The following day, Tentlil and 4,000 men arrived from Cuetlachtlan [Cotaxtla] laden with food and gifts, including many gold objects, which, for the Spaniards, confirmed the Maya reports. But the Aztecs’ real purpose was to gather information for Moteuczoma, and the accompanying Aztec artists drew pictures of everything they saw. In what was probably an attempt at psychological one-upmanship, the Spaniards demonstrated their weapons, charged their horses, and fired their cannons. While awaiting Moteuczoma’s response, the Aztecs encamped near the Spaniards and provided them with food, and, incidentally, preventing close contact with the local Totonac Indians. A week later, Tentlil returned with still more lavish gifts from Moteuczoma and a request that the Spaniards remain on the coast and not come to Tenochtitlan. The king also asked that the Spaniards move their camp to a village six or seven leagues away. Cortés refused both requests, making it clear that he was not settling comfortably into a recognized, limited relationship with the Aztecs. Left uncertain about who the Spaniards were and how they related to the Aztecs, Moteuczoma did not challenge them directly. But his Aztecs did decamp on May 12, leaving the Spaniards equally uncertain and fearful of attack.
Once Moteuczoma’s conditions had been so thoroughly rejected by the Spaniards, for him to continue to feed, house, and support them would have been, in effect, an acknowledgment of his own subordination to them. Politically, Moteuczoma had little choice, but in breaking off contact, he also relinquished control of the situation. By keeping watch for the Spaniards and immediately sending envoys, the Aztecs had ensured that they alone would have contact, because their presence had effectively kept the Totonacs at bay. But once the failure of their political negotiations forced the Aztecs to withdraw, nothing prevented other groups from making contact. Within three days, the Totonacs visited the Spaniards, giving Cortés his first hint that the Aztecs had adversaries. Just as important as establishing ties to local disaffected Indians, however, was consolidation of Cortés’s support among the Spaniards. Many of his men wanted to return to Cuba, especially those loyal to Velásquez. But by legal sleight of hand, Cortés established the town of Villa Rica de la Veracruz, complete with a city council, which then claimed authority directly from King Charles V. This legal fiction bypassed the governor, at least in legal fiction, allowing the handpicked town council to reappoint Cortés captain under the king’s authority rather than Velásquez’s, thus freeing him from the restraints imposed by governor.
Leaders in the New World were accustomed to considerable autonomy, because inquiries to the Crown typically required at least a full year for a response, as a result of the distance and the limited number of favorable sailing times. Cortés used this delay to his own advantage. Before he could be stopped, either by force or by unchallengeable, direct royal edicts, he would either have conquered Mexico or failed, and his own actions would have decided his fate. Failure meant a likely charge of treason against the Crown and its officials, but success meant land, wealth, and the king’s support, regardless of Velásquez’s objections. Cortés’s legal maneuver was therefore not intended to legitimize his actions as much as it was to delay complying with Velásquez’s orders, to provide a pretext for his own actions, and to permit future legitimization if he succeeded.
Nevertheless, Velásquez’s supporters protested when they saw what Cortés had done, so he mollified them by saying that anyone could return to Cuba if they wished. He never had to keep this promise—and probably never intended to—because he eventually won over Velásquez’s supporters by promising to increase their share of the booty. Having thus solidified his standing among the Spaniards, at least temporarily, Cortés now turned to the matter of Indian support. He marched to nearby Cempohuallan [Zempoala], from which the Totonacs had come, reaching the town on June 3, where he was greeted with gifts of food and lodging. There the local ruler expressed his displeasure with the Aztecs, to whom he paid tribute, and indicated his desire to ally himself with the Spaniards, although how much of this was divulged freely and how much was prompted by Cortés is unclear.
This offer of an alliance was the first evidence Cortés had that there were significant disaffections and political cleavages among the Aztec tributaries, which he exploited quickly. Cortés may, in fact, have been led somewhat astray by the Totonacs’ expression of disaffection. In Europe, such outspoken opposition by a vassal was considerably more serious than in Mexico, because of the deep differences that underlay the superficial similarities in the Aztec and Spanish empires.
Instead of conquering new areas and consolidating their hold over them so they could extract large quantities of tribute (though at a high administrative cost in replacing local rulers and maintaining troops in the European fashion), the Aztecs conquered cities but left the local regimes intact. This hegemonic approach produced less tribute than the European imperial system because it exerted less control, but it also cost less and freed soldiers for further expansion. What kept such an indirectly ruled system operating was simply power—the perception that the Aztecs could enforce their goals—rather than force—with direct physical action. Aztec tributaries therefore effectively policed themselves, but the success of the overall system depended on having a strong king, because the empire was vulnerable to tributary disaffection and the loss of tribute upon which the Aztecs depended if the king was weak or indecisive. Thus, the king’s military prowess was not simply a matter of ideology or honor, but was essential to sustain the empire. The death of a king could disrupt the system if a strong successor was not chosen. Therefore, while the Totonacs were tributaries of the Aztecs and owed them fealty and tribute, their own political system and functionaries remained otherwise intact. The appearance of the Spaniards altered the political equation on which the Totonacs based their compliance, just as their emerging alliance altered the power balance for the Spaniards.
There was no possibility that Cortés could conquer the Aztec empire, regardless of any technological superiority he might possess. The Spaniards were so few that they could be overwhelmed and destroyed by sheer numbers, and enlisting more Spanish troops from the Indies was only marginally feasible, given Cortés’s political situation. The alternative was to divide the Indians, which was the course of action Cortés followed throughout the Conquest. He began by promising to aid the Totonacs against the Aztecs. During the weeks he stayed with the Totonacs, Cortés found other cities with similar complaints against the Aztecs. These cities, too, he promised to help. When five Aztec tribute collectors reached Cempohuallan, Cortés ordered the Totonacs to seize them and refuse to pay any more tribute or to obey Moteuczoma. The Totonacs did so, though it is unclear whether Cortés actually planned this or merely took credit for it in his account to the king. In any event, the Totonacs seized the tribute collectors, although by his own account, Cortés later pleaded ignorance of this action to the tribute collectors and released two of them to assure Moteuczoma that the Spaniards remained his friends. When the Totonacs were understandably upset, Cortés feigned outrage that the two collectors had “escaped”; yet he subsequently (and secretly) freed the remaining three Aztecs as well. Cortés was certainly capable of duplicity, and his own account of these events, written some three years later in 1522, presents these actions as deliberate, which they may have been. But there is reason to believe otherwise. First, Cortés could not have fully understood the political situation, because he did not grasp the powers and limitations of either the local kings or the Aztec emperor. Second, he did not know the size of the forces arrayed against him. Third, he did not understand their military potential, inasmuch as his only battles thus far had been against the less organized Mayas. And fourth, if his role in seizing and then releasing the five Aztecs and subsequently denying this to the Totonacs was a knowing one, it indicates a level of duplicity unmatched in his relations with any subsequent native allies. If, in fact, he did as he claimed, his actions might have been born of an ignorance that his subsequent experiences tempered. But the potential for misunderstanding between the Spaniards and the Totonacs was so great that Cortés gained the Totonacs’ fealty without yet breaking with the Aztecs. Cortés may have placed little faith in his own pledge of fealty to the Aztecs, but the same was likely true of the Totonacs, in that realpolitik dominated the region’s political ties. If their alliance with Cortés proved ineffectual, the Totonacs would have quickly had to resubmit themselves to the Aztecs. But given the potential consequences of shifting one’s allegiance, the Totonacs must have seen the Spaniards as powerful, however much the seizure of the tribute collectors, regardless of who instigated it, forced the situation.
Forging alliances was crucial to the Spaniards. Once they had secured allies, however, the Spaniards began building and fortifying the city of Villa Rica de la Veracruz. During this period, Cortés had contact with Aztec emissaries, which must have made his Totonac allies wary. So, with their request that he help assault an Aztec garrison at Tizapantzinco, Cortés was placed in the awkward position of not wanting to alienate the Aztecs but needing Totonac support either to march inland or even to stay where he was. Totonac support being a crucial need, he dispatched virtually his entire force of 400 soldiers to accompany the 4,000 Indian warriors. However, the Aztecs had already left Tizapantzinco when the joint army arrived, something the Totonacs surely knew, so their request to Cortés may have been a test of his loyalty to their alliance. In any case, Cortés’s compliance with their request for help demonstrated his commitment to them. With this overt action cementing Cortés’s alliance, the Totonacs gave him eight of their women, all daughters of kings and nobles.
Intermarriage between the ruling families of allied towns was a common way of strengthening political ties in Mesoamerica. Even if this significance was lost on the Spaniards, it was important to the Cempohualtecs. The Totonac rulers may have thought they were tying the Spaniards to them, but Cortés now more telling bound Cempohuallan’s rulers to him through religious conversion, which was done less for religious reasons than for political ones.
Some religious motivation may have underlain Cortés’s attempt at converting the Cempohualtecs, because he had sought the release of slaves being held for ritual sacrifice when he had first reached Cempohuallan. But when he was rebuffed in this, he subordinated any religious concerns to the more immediate political ones of forging alliances. Only after his political alliance was relatively secure did Cortés impose his religion and destroy the Totonac idols. The placing of Christian objects in the temples of Cempohuallan was vigorously opposed by the native commoners as well as by the native priests, and any conversions must have been superficial at best. But deferring the conversions until the local rulers could be made politically dependent on the Spaniards suggests an underlying political purpose, both in justifying Cortés’s own actions to the Spanish throne and in forcing Cempohuallan’s leaders to accept the destruction of their old gods and the introduction of new ones or risk losing Spanish support, which would invite Aztec retribution.
Although the story of the Conquest is often presented as that of a determined leader with a small band of followers subjugating a vast empire, as we have seen, the groundwork for Cortés had already been laid by two previous expeditions (plus the shipwrecked Aguilar), and throughout the duration of the Conquest, other Spanish ships and men continued to reach Mexico. One such ship arrived at this point, bringing news that King Charles had authorized Velásquez to trade with and establish settlements in Mexico. Having this to bolster his own claim, Cortés dispatched a ship to Spain on July 6, with not just the king’s royal fifth but all the gold collected thus far, mostly in gifts from Moteuczoma. But when, against his orders, the ship he dispatched to Spain first stopped in Cuba, word of Cortés’s perfidy reached Velásquez, prompting the governor to ready an expedition to capture and return him to Cuba.
At this point, Cortés again had problems with some of his men, perhaps because they were now having second thoughts, or because he had sent all their booty to the king, or because they now had a fuller appreciation of their precarious position. Therefore, claiming that Velásquez loyalists had conspired to seize a ship and sail to Cuba, Cortés arrested them, ordered the two principal conspirators hanged, the pilot’s feet cut off, and the others given 200 lashes each, though not all of these sentences were actually carried out. Whether or not there actually was such a plot, Cortés used it to justify secretly stripping the ten remaining ships and sinking them, leaving his men no way to escape.
Having secured his rear, Cortés then forged ahead with his plan to march inland, leaving Juan de Escalante in command of Veracruz with 60 to 150 soldiers. With forty or fifty warriors and 200 porters he solicited from the Totonacs, Cortés left Cempohuallan on August 16 with 300 Spanish soldiers.
The Aztecs did not react to these events in any overt way, though Moteuczoma could not have remained ignorant of them. He had been consulting with his advisors about how the Spaniards should be treated ever since Grijalva had landed, and once the decision had been made to take no action in the face of opposing opinions, any change, even by the king, could have undermined the political consensus upon which his support depended. So Cortés’s force was allowed to proceed unmolested by the Aztecs.
Following the advice of the Cempohualtecs, Cortés marched toward Tlaxcallan [Tlaxcala], which was hostile to the Aztecs, even though the latter had thus far been helpful and friendly. The Tlaxcaltecs must have known of the Spaniards’ landing, of their trek inland, and that they were accompanied by loyal Aztec tributaries as well as Totonacs, and they must have been aware that they had been lodged and fed along the way in towns allied with the Aztecs. Thus, they had every reason to believe the Spaniards hostile. As they approached the border of Tlaxcallan, the Spaniards saw a small party of armed Indians, whom they tried to capture. But they were resisted, and several horses and riders were wounded in the fray. When the Spaniards pursued the fleeing Indians, they were drawn into an ambush and only narrowly escaped with additional wounded and one dead.
The Tlaxcaltec army—well-trained and battle-hardened, protected by quilted cotton armor and shields, armed with wooden broadswords and thrusting spears edged with obsidian blades and atlatls [spear throwers] and darts, and supported by archers and slingers—was far superior to any Cortés had thus far encountered thus far in Mesoamerica, and he had seriously underestimated their threat, though the danger was as much political as military. If Cortés were defeated or even repulsed, his allies would see him as weak, withdraw their support, and, most likely, turn on him. Whether he fully realized it or not, Cortés had gambled that he could overcome all adversaries. The possible consequences for his alliances thus prevented him from following the most prudent military course—withdrawal. Indeed, the Tlaxcaltec battles were perhaps the most crucial of the Conquest. Another battle began the next day, despite Cortés’s entreaties. If he could not negotiate a way out of the situation, Cortés would eventually lose, regardless of his technological advantages, because his enemies’ numbers were just too overwhelming. In the short term, the Spaniards could keep the Tlaxcaltecs at bay with cannon, harquebus, and crossbow fire, which had longer range and greater penetrating power than Indian arms, but they were too hard pressed to take effective offensive action. The Spanish firepower finally drove the tightly massed Tlaxcaltecs back, but the Spaniards’ position remained precarious, as they could not allow the battle to degenerate into a war of attrition that they would inevitably lose. Accordingly, they directed their offensive at nearby towns in hopes of replenishing their food, but they found none, thanks to the Tlaxcaltecs’ “scorched earth” tactics.
The Spaniards had only a few days’ supplies remaining, so they once again offered peace, though no more successfully than before. The next day saw another attack, which Cortés beat back only by dividing his men so that some could reload their crossbows and harquebuses while others fired, to concentrate the effect of the weapons against the Tlaxcaltecs’ formations. The standard Mesoamerican tactics were by now proving costly to the Tlaxcaltecs as well, so they next launched a night attack.
Communications and military formations are difficult to maintain in the dark, so the use of a night attack suggests that a heavy toll was taken by the Spaniards’ cannons, harquebuses, and crossbows, all of which had greater effect and longer ranges than did the Indians’ weapons. When the Tlaxcaltecs eventually closed for hand-to-hand combat, they did so through a lethal field of Spanish fire that extended much farther than could their own. But the night attack reduced this Spanish advantage by concealing their targets in the darkness. The Tlaxcaltecs’ attack was led by General Xicotencatl, who, in Spanish eyes, was to gain a reputation as a duplicitous traitor. Archers, slingers, and atlatls attacked the hemmed-in Spaniards on three sides, while Tlaxcaltec swordsmen quickly rushed across the killing zone to engage them hand to hand. These tactics minimized the Spanish advantage in firepower, but mounted lancers managed to disrupt the Tlaxcaltec lines and, unable to reassemble in the dark, the Indians withdrew. Since leaving Veracruz, more than forty-five Spaniards had been killed, another dozen were ill, most of the rest were wounded, several of the sixteen horses had been slain, and their food supplies were dwindling, as were their bolts, shot, and powder.
Once again Cortés sent messages of peace, coupled with threats of impending destruction, though he knew these were beyond his ability to carry out. Both sides made every effort to conceal the extent of their losses, and neither had a completely accurate picture of the others’ capabilities, but it had become clear that the Tlaxcaltecs could defeat these strangers, albeit at a huge cost to themselves. Given their losses, diminishing supplies, and likely annihilation, Cortés’s men were near mutiny, though he managed to persuade them to stay through cajoling and more promises. Once again, Cortés took the offensive, sacking a couple of minor towns nearby. But by this time his forces were reduced to approximately 250 Spaniards (not all fit), ten horses (all wounded), 200 noncombatant porters, and fewer than 100 allied Indian warriors.
Only the number of casualties among the Tlaxcaltecs remained in doubt, not the ultimate outcome. But the Tlaxcaltecs, too, were reconsidering their position. Some of this rethinking doubtless arose from the results of the battles thus far, but much of it emerged from Tlaxcallan’s complex political situation. Tlaxcallan did not have one paramount ruler who could make authoritative decisions about war but was instead ruled by four confederated provinces, each with its own king. The provinces of Quiyahuiztlan, Tepeticpac, Ocotelolco, and Tizatlan were ruled, respectively, by Citlalpopocatl, Tlehuexolotl, Maxixcatl, and Xicotencatl the Elder. The lines of succession to the specific provincial thrones were flexible, and while legitimate succession was the usual pattern, the history of the kingships of Tlaxcallan was also marked by discord, assassinations, usurpation, and fluctuating power relations among the provinces.
By the time Cortés arrived, the two most powerful provinces were Ocotelolco and Tizatlan. The competition seen throughout the Conquest between their respective rulers, Maxixcatl and Xicotencatl the Elder, reflected a struggle for dominance. Xicotencatl was old and blind, and the younger, more vigorous Maxixcatl’s position was growing stronger, but Xicotencatl had essentially ceded the leadership of the province to his son, Xicotencatl the Younger [(Xicotencatl Axayacatl)], who was also the commanding general of the Tlaxcaltec army. Once Xicotencatl the Younger formally assumed the throne, he would likely dominate Maxixcatl and the entire confederacy. Both Xicotencatls supported fighting the Spaniards, which became the Tlaxcaltec policy, though the records are unclear on the positions of the other three rulers. But when Xicotencatl the Younger failed to win quickly, a split developed among the rulers, perhaps based on the merits of the competing actions but certainly along the lines of the preexisting political cleavages. In any case, a major consequence, if not an objective, of shifting the policy was to weaken Xicotencatl the Younger internally, because the forces allied with Maxixcatl had already abandoned him in the field, as had those from the allied city-state of Huexotzinco.
Tlaxcallan decided to seek peace with the Spaniards. They could have continued the battle until decisively defeating the Spaniards, which was certainly within their power; they could have stopped fighting in hopes that the Spaniards would simply go away; or they could have sought an alliance with them. Although this decision reflected longstanding political realities, making peace was in fact in Tlaxcallan’s interests.
The Tlaxcaltecs had been at war with the Aztecs for decades. But now, completely encircled by Aztec tributaries, their defeat was only a matter of time. At this point the Spaniards presented a means to shift the balance of power. Spanish cannons, harquebuses, crossbows, and horsemen could all disrupt enemy formations much more easily than could the usual Mesoamerican arms, and though the Spaniards were too few to exploit these breaches by themselves, in conjunction with large Indian armies they could, wreaking havoc on the enemy. Intimately familiar with the other Mesoamerican armies and their tactics, the Tlaxcaltecs would have readily seen the advantage of using the Spaniards as shock troops for their own vastly larger Indian forces. Whether the Spaniards also recognized these advantages as quickly is unimportant, because the decision to ally one force with another lay with the Tlaxcaltecs. They could have defeated the Spaniards or simply withdrawn. The decision to seek an alliance was a deliberate choice, and it was theirs alone. This decision was the consensus of the three other rulers, but Xicotencatl the Younger opposed it. Despite being ordered by the rulers to stop fighting, he refused. Only by their ordering his subordinates not to obey him and after sending their demands to him three times did he desist. The Tlaxcaltecs then sent four nobles to the Spanish camp, claiming that they believed the Spaniards were allied with the Aztecs, and arguing that the initial fighting had been started by the Otomies [Otomí], unbeknownst to the Tlaxcaltecs. These allegations, which were at least partly true, offered a diplomatic smokescreen that allowed the Tlaxcaltecs to offer, and Cortés to accept, a peace between nominal equals.
The Aztec emissaries who were accompanying Cortés asked him to wait for word from Moteuczoma before proceeding, and he agreed. The Spanish accounts claim that Moteuczoma asked Cortés not to go to Tlaxcallan and offered to become his vassal and pay him tribute, but given subsequent events this was doubtless a greatly inflated interpretation. Nevertheless, any Spanish agreement with the Aztecs would put the Tlaxcaltecs in a dangerous position, so some of their kings traveled to the Spaniards’ camp to negotiate with them. On the following day, September 23, Cortés entered the city of Tlaxcallan.
Here, as elsewhere, Cortés portrays himself as the initiator of all actions, typically recording that rulers, here as elsewhere, surrendered to him and pledged fealty to him and the Spanish king. But these claims often ring hollow. Some things likely did happen more or less as recorded. For instance, when the Spaniards reached the city, Cortés was given one of Xicotencatl’s daughters, though he passed her on to Pedro de Alvarado. Maxixcatl’s daughter was given to Juan Velásquez de León, and other nobles gave daughters to the various Spaniards, reportedly more than 300 women in all. Whether or not the fact that Cortés gave Xicotencatl’s daughter to Alvarado suggested any alignment, the Spaniards were housed at Maxixcatl’s Ocotelolco rather than Xicotencatl’s Tizatlan, reflecting Maxixcatl’s now greater prominence as leader of the pro-Spanish faction. But Cortés’s claim that Tlaxcallan submitted to him is belied by his own account.
Elsewhere, as at Zempoallan, he had destroyed native idols and placed crosses in their temples, but here, he was powerless to do so. He was allowed to erect a cross and an image of the Virgin in one of the temples, but he had neither power nor influence to alter Tlaxcaltec religious practices otherwise. They also let him baptize the daughters of the rulers, which was less a sign of religious conversion than a response to the fact that the Spaniards were nominally not permitted to have sexual intercourse with native women until they became Christians, and the ritual was almost certainly not understood by the Tlaxcaltecs. In Tlaxcallan, Cortés was told about the power of the Aztecs, their army, and Tenochtitlan and its defenses. But since Moteuczoma had not conquered Tlaxcallan despite years of war, Cortés probably believed that the Tlaxcaltecs were therefore roughly comparable in power to the Aztecs. What he did not realize was that the Tlaxcaltecs were engaged not in a conventional war but in a “flower war.”
The goal of a flower war was to pin down strong opponents, then encircle them slowly and strangle them. Thus, outright conquest was not sought, even though a flower war against Tlaxcallan had been under way for decades. Once the Aztecs had Tlaxcallan completely isolated, it would be crushed, an event that, barring the unanticipated, would soon occur. But Cortés’s assessment failed to recognize this crucial distinction in types of wars, and he was, accordingly, wrong, though he must have been encouraged in this view by Moteuczoma’s continued gift giving and failure to attack.
Gifts were given to acknowledge vassalage, and the Aztecs had brought the Spaniards gifts from the outset. But those of the Aztecs were offered to strange people with uncertain goals, perhaps even gods, not in political vassalage. The fact that the Aztecs had failed to attack them suggested to the Spaniards that they were correct in their assumption that the Aztecs saw themselves as vassals, even though it was other considerations that actually kept them from attacking. For one thing, Moteuczoma was still uncertain about the Spaniards’ intentions. For another, the Spaniards landing on the coast and their march inland served to diminish Moteuczoma’s political support from that area. And finally, this was September, and the Aztecs generally waged war only during the dry season—which in the central highlands was October through May–and after the autumn harvest, when more men were available, food was plentiful, dirt roads were passable, and streams were fordable. Thus, Aztec wars typically began in December and could continue into April. But Moteuczoma’s failure to attack before the December-to-April war season was misinterpreted as weakness by the Spaniards. Cortés left Tlaxcallan after seventeen days and marched to Cholollan [Cholula], allegedly to gather supplies, a claim belied by the fact that this detour to the south did not advance the Spaniards on their westward trek toward Tenochtitlan and ignored the supplies available from towns allied to Tlaxcallan that were farther along the line of march. When Cortés demanded entry to their city, the Chololtecs reluctantly invited the Spaniards in, accompanied as they were by between 5,000 and 6,000 Tlaxcaltec warriors. Cortés’s actual reasons for going to Cholollan were in fact not logistical, but strictly political and military, and going there was a test of their loyalty by the Tlaxcaltecs.
Cholollan had traditionally been allied with Tlaxcallan and Huexotzinco but had recently joined the Aztec camp. Thus, whatever the Tlaxcaltecs told Cortés about Cholollan was doubtless tinged with hostility about their perceived betrayal. Cortés was not primarily interested in fighting the Indians’ battles, but there were sound military reasons to want to conquer Cholollan, which he did through treachery. Cortés covered most of the five leagues to Cholollan before making camp for the night, where nobles welcomed him by bringing food. At the request of the Chololtecs, the accompanying Tlaxcaltecs remained in camp and the Spaniards entered Cholollan the next morning, accompanied only by the Cempohualtecs and those Tlaxcaltecs who carried his cannons. There they were well housed and fed for two days before the food inexplicably stopped arriving. According to Spanish accounts, the translator Marina learned of a Chololtec plot to massacre the Spaniards, aided by a hidden Aztec army, variously reported to be from 20,000 to 30,000 or even 50,000 men strong. Thus alerted, Cortés acted first. He assembled the Chololtecs in the main courtyard, placed armed Spaniards at every entrance, then massacred the enclosed and unarmed Indians. Despite nearly unanimous Spanish support for this account of the Cholollan massacre, it simply does not ring true. In the first place, there was almost certainly no Aztec army, because it is unlikely that Moteuczoma had tens of thousands of soldiers available to send to Cholollan prior to the war season. And even if the soldiers had been available, only three days elapsed between Cortés’s arrival in Cholollan and the alleged reports of the appearance of that army—barely enough time for a message to be sent to Tenochtitlan, much less enough to raise, arm, supply, and dispatch an army to march that same distance. Thus, an armed Aztec threat does not seem credible, although Cortés may well have accused Moteuczoma of sending one to keep him on the defensive. Moreover, the Spaniards claimed to have been alerted by the presence of barricades and stones piled atop houses in the city and of concealed pits with sharpened stakes outside the town. The former are entirely to be expected, since nearby Tlaxcallan was now its enemy, but the latter is almost certainly a Spanish projection or misinterpretation. Concealed pits are relatively ineffectual against infantry but were the standard European counter to cavalry. So while the mounted Spaniards might have expected to encounter such pits, their use is otherwise unattested in the historical sources, and they would have been entirely alien to Mexico, where there were no horses before the Conquest. There was indeed a massacre—of the Chololtecs. As for the improbable warning by Marina that allegedly prompted Cortés to initiate the massacre, that hung on a number of unlikely circumstances—there bring an actual plot, a Chololtec woman learning of it, then her telling a foreigner, Marina, about it on the pretext of wishing her to marry her son—but that version of events gave just enough legitimacy to justify the massacre under Spanish notions of legitimate conquest when they later appealed to the king for rewards. In short, there was no sound logistical reason to go to Cholollan and no plausible internal reasonable for the massacre. But the animus that had built up between that city and his new ally Tlaxcallan threatened Cortés’s plans. Thus, the decision to go to Cholollan can best be understood as political, but cannot be seen in terms of Cortés’s own immediate interests. He had no firsthand knowledge of the Chololtecs and no compelling need to attack them for his own purposes, but the attack may well have been orchestrated by the Tlaxcaltecs as a litmus test of Spanish loyalty. If they attacked the Chololtecs, they would prove themselves by undermining a now despised enemy. Also, such an assault would also be one on an Aztec ally, so it would put the Spaniards in opposition to Moteuczoma, a position from which they could not easily withdraw. This conundrum forced the Spaniards to demonstrate their loyalty to the Tlaxcaltecs at a point when the latter had risked nothing. The attack thus cemented Cortés’s relationship with the Tlaxcaltecs and was probably instigated in retribution for Cholollan’s recent shift in allegiances. In a single stroke Cortés killed the king, much of the political leadership, and the cream of the Chololtec army. After the massacre, he claimed to have appointed a new king, which doubtless was engineered by the Tlaxcaltecs who now forged a new alliance with Cholollan. At the same time, he laid the blame for the massacre on Moteuczoma.
Even though the Spaniards described themselves as the motivating force behind the events of the Conquest, it is highly improbable that Cortés understood the situation well enough to have known the weak points in the system and to have exploited them. The most significant of these features was the practice of royal succession. As we have seen, in Mesoamerica, kingship was not typically locked into a strict hereditary succession system such as by male primogeniture. Kings came from among the upper nobility—often but not invariably the king’s sons—but who was chosen depended on the political support from both that city and its allies. Even after a candidate for king was selected, there were still other contenders for the throne. Such divisions were probably strongly felt in Cholollan, which had shifted its fundamental alliance away from the Tlaxacaltecs to the Aztecs, which deeply divided the nobles. The Chololtec king must have been the primary supporter and beneficiary of this switch, but there were doubtless other nobles with political and kin ties to Tlaxcallan, many of whom were legitimate contenders for the throne. Cortés also could not have known how the institution of kingship operated in Mesoamerica or who among the Chololtecs fell into what camps, but the Tlaxcaltecs did. When Cortés claimed to have chosen a new ruler, he may have thought himself a kingmaker, but it is likelier that he was serving as a pawn in Tlaxcaltec and Chololtec factional politics. Killing the king and many of his noble supporters left the field clear for a successor with pro-Tlaxcallan sympathies and political support, one who might have actually played a role in preceding events. Cholollan’s shift in allegiance was not the agonizing movement of a monolith from one position to its opposite, but a subtle shift that allowed an existing faction to take power, one with kin ties to Maxixcatl. In this coup, a Spanish hand was on the sword but Indian minds guided it, for only they understood the distribution of power in Cholollan and knew who would support the insurgents’ position.
Moteuczoma must have been thoroughly dismayed at this attack on, and wanton destruction of, his allies, who had peacefully received the Spaniards. It can only have reinforced his reluctance to have Cortés come to Tenochtitlan. So when Moteuczoma dispatched a delegation of nobles to greet Cortés and learn his true intentions, he also sent soothsayers and magicians to stop him supernaturally. When their supernatural efforts proved ineffectual, and having exhausted both diplomacy and magic, Moteuczoma reportedly ordered the main road from Cholollan to Tenochtitlan to be planted with magueys (century plants). This traditional means of sealing off roads and signaling a breach in relations was a last-ditch effort to deter the Spaniards. But such plantings were not a major physical barrier, only a sign of opposition in the Mesoamerican context whose meaning would have been lost of the Spaniards.
After two weeks, Cortés left Cholollan and chose to march to Tenochtitlan by the more southerly of the two routes. He supposedly made that choice after being warned that the Aztecs had set up ambushes along the northerly one. This explanation seems unlikely because the route Cortés followed was narrower and more tortuous, and could more easily conceal an ambush than the original one. The advantage of the southern route was that it led to the Chalca city-states which, though tributaries, were deeply hostile to the Aztecs, whereas the northern route led to Tetzcoco [(Texcoco)], ruled by a strongly pro-Aztec king. In any event, the Spaniards marched through the Chalca area, crossed the Cuitlahuac causeway, passed through Ixtlapalapan [(Iztapalapa)], and, on November 8, entered the island-city of Tenochtitlan, where they were greeted by Moteuczoma.
Some 300 Spaniards and a few thousand Indian allies walked unhindered into the capital of the most powerful empire in Mesoamerica. Moteuczoma allowed them to enter because he knew about the events at Cholollan, and his own city was politically divided, harboring factions divided over the king’s accommodation of the Spaniards. He feared that opposing Cortés might encourage these groups and lessen his own support. Moreover, as it was not the war season, Moteuczoma’s forces were not yet mobilized, but once Cortés was inside Tenochtitlan, he would be effectively surrounded and vulnerable. Cortés may have been emboldened by his success thus far, but he had doubtless miscalculated the strength of Tenochtitlan, which was far larger than any city he had seen previously in Mexico or, for that matter, in Europe. Tenochtitlan had at least 200,000 inhabitants and was the center of a valleywide population of between 1.2 and 2.65 million people. But once he entered the Valley of Mexico, Cortés could not retreat, as he was almost entirely dependent on Indian supplies, labor, and troops. If he faltered, his allies would abandon him. So whether by plan or miscalculation, the Spaniards found themselves in Tenochtitlan, where Moteuczoma gave them gifts and food, and housed them in the palace of King Axayacatl (1468–1481), which he likely controlled as Axayacatl’s son. Perhaps he wanted Cortés inside Tenochtitlan, where Cortés could more readily be seized and killed, or he may have been waiting until he could again raise a large army. Whatever his motives, publicly he embraced Cortés.
Tenochtitlan was an enormous island-city connected to the mainland by three major causeways, all cut by removable bridges. The danger of the Spaniards’ position quickly became apparent. Most of the Tlaxcaltecs had remained outside the city, and the few hundred Spaniards within it could easily be overwhelmed and destroyed. Within days of Cortés’s arrival in Tenochtitlan, word reached him that Aztecs had attacked the Totonacs on the Gulf Coast, and although the Spaniards at Veracruz had come to their aid, the Aztecs had been victorious. Because Cortés could not leave Tenochtitlan, whether in reaction or as a pretext, he seized Moteuczoma. Now the Aztecs could be controlled, and Cortés held the king captive for the remaining eight months he was in Tenochtitlan, effectively ruling through him. Why Moteuczoma accepted this situation is uncertain, although his personal safety may well have been one concern. Another is that refusing to cooperate with Cortés would have paralyzed the government and encouraged the Aztecs who had opposed admitting the Spaniards, in the end perhaps even costing him his throne.
The degree of Moteuczoma’s co-optation was immediately evident when he ordered the leader of the Aztec army that had attacked the Totonacs to be brought to Tenochtitlan. When the captain denied that Moteuczoma had ordered the attack, the king had him burned to death, at Cortés’s insistence. Although Moteuczoma did Cortés’s bidding, his acquiescing while being held in obvious captivity made the king appear weak and eroded his control. Furthermore, his acting contrary to the interests of the state did not affect him alone but also struck at the interests of the nobles who depended on the steady flow of tribute that would stop if the king failed to respond decisively. The first to rebel was King Cacama of Tetzcoco who, along with the kings of Coyohuacan [Coyoacán], Tlacopan [Tacuba], Ixtlapalapan [Iztapalapa], and Matlatzinco, plotted to attack the Spaniards. When word of the plan reached Moteuczoma, he told Cortés. Moteuczoma then sent to Tetzcoco six loyal nobles who were able to capture Cacama, thanks to help from Tetzcoca dissidents, and had him brought to Tenochtitlan. The rulers of Coyohuacan, Ixtlapalapan, and Tlacopan were also seized. Nevertheless, Moteuczoma’s support among both the Aztec people and the nobility was declining, though it is unclear if Cortés knew or appreciated this.
Meanwhile, Cuba’s Governor Velásquez had assembled a fleet of nineteen ships with crews, more than 800 soldiers, twenty cannons, eighty horsemen, 120 crossbowmen, and eighty harquebusiers, under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez, which he dispatched to Mexico with orders to capture Cortés and return him to Cuba. Narváez reached the Veracruz coast and landed at San Juan de Ulúa around April 20, 1520. When Cortés learned of this from Aztec messengers, he moved to counter him. Leaving Pedro de Alvarado in charge of eighty soldiers in Tenochtitlan, Cortés and 266 Spaniards marched to the coast, reaching Narváez’s camp at Cempohuallan about May 27. By Cortés’s account he launched a surprise midnight attack, captured Narváez, and forced the surrender of his men. This feat appears to owe more to treachery than to military skill, however. Indeed, Cortés had never intended to confront Narváez militarily, or he would not have marched to the coast with so few men, no horses, no cannons, and, most importantly, no Indian allies. He could easily have brought a superior allied force against Narváez, but that would have meant revealing to the Indians the existence of factions among the Spaniards, and would probably have revealed the best way to attack and defeat Spanish forces. Instead, Cortés resorted to treachery and began negotiating a peaceful settlement with Narváez, who was thus not expecting an attack. When the attack did come, many of the defenders failed to fight and no cannons were fired, because Cortés had also paid bribes to and sown dissension within Narváez’s camp. Once Narváez was imprisoned in Veracruz, his men joined Cortés.
Back in Tenochtitlan, Alvarado led a massacre of thousands of Aztec nobles during the festival of Toxcatl, which the Spaniards had already given permission to hold. He maintained that the Aztecs were plotting an attack on the Spaniards, but this was almost certainly untrue. The festival of Toxcatl, the most important of eighteen monthly celebrations, was held in the courtyard of the Great Temple, which was accessible through only four entrances. While the festival was under way, Alvarado blocked these access points, entered with his fully armed Spaniards, and began slaughtering the celebratory unarmed Aztecs. How many died is uncertain, though the 16th-century priest Diego Durán estimated that most of the 8,000 to 10,000 participating nobles were killed. As the populace learned of the massacre, they gathered their arms and counter-attacked the Spaniards, killing seven, wounding many others, and driving the rest back to their quarters, where their artillery held the attackers at bay.
Alvarado’s actions were either a complete misunderstanding on his part, that initiated a tragic sequence of events, or they were deliberate. If the latter, Alvarado was unlikely to have undertaken so drastic an action on his own and was probably following Cortés’s instructions. Bearing many striking parallels to the Cholollan massacre, the Toxcatl massacre was likely Cortés’s attempt to achieve a similar result, a coup de main that would put friendly factions in power. Not understanding the circumstances of the Cholollan massacre, the Toxcatl massacre was a blind strike that maimed and enraged Aztec leadership rather than toppling it. The strike had been timed to occur in his absence so Cortés could return and claim innocence. But the Spaniards remaining in Tenochtitlan found themselves besieged in the aftermath of the massacre, and sent two Tlaxcaltecs to tell Cortés what had happened.
The Spaniards’ relations with the Aztecs had taken a decided turn for the worse; the massacre had decimated the Aztecs’ seasoned veterans and noble warriors who had participated in the festival and destroyed much of the army’s command structure. Under siege, even the Spaniards’ superior firepower could not prevail against the Aztecs, but they were still protected from being overrun by Moteuczoma’s presence. However, each time he acted on behalf of the Spaniards he lost more support among the Aztecs, the Toxcatl massacre being the ultimate outrage. When Cortés learned of these events, he began the march back from Veracruz. With 1,300 Spaniards, ninety-six horses, eighty crossbowmen, eighty harquebusiers, and joined by 2,000 Tlaxcaltec warriors en route, he reached Tenochtitlan on June 24, entering the city unopposed. Whether intentionally or not, Tenochtitlan’s streets were completely deserted, perhaps to show the Aztecs’ opposition and displeasure, as they later claimed, but allowing Cortés back into the city had military implications, too. Outside he could move about at will, but once inside Tenochtitlan, Cortés could no longer do so, or use his horses effectively, or receive military and logistical support from his allies. He must have recognized this, yet he continued to pin his hopes on Moteuczoma’s intervention.
Once inside the city, Cortés and his men were besieged. Every Spanish sally was driven back with serious losses. In desperation, Cortés built three war machines: large movable towers from which twenty to twenty-five men could fire in relative safety. But these machines were quickly destroyed in battle, and the Spanish attempts to burn the city were frustrated by the many canals that subdivided it. With few military options left, Cortés took Moteuczoma up onto the roof to speak to his own people. Spanish accounts claim that Moteuczoma was struck by stones thrown from below, while pleading with his people to stop the attacks. Aztec accounts claim he was killed by the Spaniards. Both versions are plausible. On the one hand, ineffectual Aztec kings had been killed by their people before, although not so openly and not by crowds of commoners. On the other, Moteuczoma had become a liability to the Spaniards in that his captivity could still inspire Aztec attacks and his release might unite the Aztecs against the Spaniards. The Aztec account of Spanish dagger wounds in the bodies of the imprisoned nobles, who were now major liabilities and who were killed and left behind, seems far more probable.
Running short of food, water, and gunpowder, the Spaniards had to escape from Tenochtitlan or face annihilation. Besieged as they were in the center of the city, the Spaniards would have to fight their way out in whatever direction they chose to flee. The causeway that ran west to Tlacopan was the shortest and thus offered the least chance of detection. The Aztecs had removed the causeway bridges to keep the Spaniards bottled up, so Cortés had a portable wooden bridge built. Just before midnight on June 30, in a heavy rainstorm, the Spaniards began their escape. But at the second breach they were seen, an alarm was raised, and they had to abandon their portable bridge. Attacked on all sides, one group of Spaniards, including Cortés, fled. This forward element finally reached Tlacopan. Suspiciously, all of their noble prisoners were killed, along with most of Narváez’s men, the Tlaxcaltecs, and the Huexotzincas. Indeed, the Spanish story, that they were seen by a woman who was getting water and raised the alarm, causing them to be attacked, is implausible on its face. Why would an Aztec woman be awake at that hour, why would she leave her home in a downpour, why would she be fetching water at that hour, especially from the canal, where it would be brackish and likely otherwise dirty rather than simply collecting fresh runoff from the rain at her own house?
Cut off and unable to flee, the rear-guard Spaniards retreated to their quarters, where they were besieged for some days before being killed. The escaping Spaniards had to go around the area’s lakes to reach Tlaxcallan, so Cortés marched north, where the land was more arid and the populations were smaller. Although the Spaniards suffered some assaults throughout their flight, the fighting was relatively light during most of the transit around the northern lakes, perhaps because of the prescribed four days of mourning that had to be observed for the nobles killed during Cortés’s flight, including Cacama and the sons and daughters of Moteuczoma. But the fighting may also have been light because the Aztecs were not equipped to dispatch and support large forces during what was now well into the agricultural season. Thus, most of the soldiers the Spaniards fought were drawn from the cities they passed, which were few and small in the north. But once the Spanish reached the eastern side of the valley, the attacks grew more ferocious, culminating in a battle at Otompan [Otumba], which the Spaniards narrowly survived. The next day they reached the territory of Tlaxcallan. Seriously weakened by the loss of more than 860 Spanish soldiers, five Spanish women who had arrived with Narváez, and 1,000 Tlaxcaltecs, they were anxious about their reception.
Having fled in the face of certain defeat, Cortés found his alliances now unsure, because his military superiority had been decisively undermined. Acutely aware of his precarious political position, Cortés ordered his men not to seize anything from the people along their route, despite their desperate need. They entered Tlaxcaltec territory and reached the Otomí town of Huei-Otlipan Hueyotipa], where they were received and fed but had to pay for it—signaling an ominous shift in the Spaniards’ relationship with the Tlaxcaltecs. Opinion regarding the Spaniards was divided in Tlaxcallan, as in Tenochtitlan. General Xicotencatl the Younger had always opposed the Spaniards and was even more opposed now that they had been forced to flee Tenochtitlan.
Had Tlaxcallan been a defecting Aztec ally, they would probably have shifted their allegiance back, but they were an independent enemy state and thus had few options. Their own political position had been eroding long before Cortés arrived. Short of becoming an Aztec ally—likely a subservient one—their best course of action was to continue their support of the Spaniards. After deliberating for several days, the rulers of Tlaxcallan and Huexotzinco went to Huei-Otlipan and re-cemented that alliance. But Cortés was now in a weaker position than he had been when the first alliance was created and the Tlaxcaltecs now demanded greater concessions from Cortés for their continued help should he defeat the Aztecs. Among their demands were the receipt of Cholollan, Huexotzinco, and Tepeyacac [(Tepeaca)] as tributaries, command of a fortress to be built in Tenochtitlan, half of the spoils received from all the towns and provinces conquered, and permanent freedom from tribute themselves. In short, these new conditions reflected not just a harder bargain to continue the same support as before but a commitment by Tlaxcallan to support the conquest of Tenochtitlan, and seemingly, a recognition that this endeavor promised more than just the removal of an Aztec threat. Now, far greater gains were possible, involving a significant enlargement of their own kingdom, and potentially, a vast tributary base.
Cortés reached Tlaxcallan on July 11, with 440 Spaniards, twenty horses, twelve crossbowmen, and seven harquebusiers, all his cannons having been lost as they fled. Everyone was wounded, but they could rest and mend there in safety. Dispirited, some argued for returning to Veracruz, but once again Cortés cajoled them into staying. Tenochtitlan was in chaos, as Moteuczoma and many other rulers were dead. Cuitlahua, Moteuczoma Xocoyotl’s brother, was selected as king.
Before the Aztecs became an empire, royal succession was from father to son, though not necessarily to the eldest son. But once they became an empire, royal succession shifted to election by and among the upper nobles. Ties to these various nobles became crucial for elevation, so royal descent alone was insufficient. Instead, kings were chosen from among and with the help of related groups of noble kin, or cohorts.
A collateral kin of Moteuczoma, Cuitlahua was selected not as the king’s direct heir, but as a member of a cohort of elite nobles who were tied by blood or marriage to the their father, King Axayacatl. As the historical accounts conflict, the previous series of rulers, including Axayacatl, were members of the noble cohort descended from King Moteuczoma Ilhuicamina (1440–1468) or, alternatively, from both his daughter and the son of King Itzcoatl (1428–1440). But as that cohort aged, a younger one tracing its heritage just to Axayacatl emerged and, following the mysterious death of the third ruler from that cohort, King Ahuitzotl (1486–1502), put one of its own on the throne. Thereafter followed a realignment of allegiances and new elevations to power not only in Tenochtitlan but also in many of the Valley of Mexico cites, by those with ties to the new regime. Thus, when King Moteuczoma Xocoyotl (1502–1520) was killed, the alliance structure throughout the valley favored another member of the Axayacatl cohort, Cuitlahua, who emerged as king, despite (or perhaps because of) having opposed his predecessor’s conciliatory attitude toward the Spaniards.
As one of the dissidents who had argued against allowing the Spaniards to land at Veracruz, Cuitlahua’s selection signaled a recognition of the shift in Aztec relations with the Spaniards that the Toxcatl massacre had begun. However, before Cuitlahua could be crowned, he had to consolidate his position. Because rulers of tributary provinces were typically left in place as long as they fulfilled their new obligations of paying tribute, their allegiance to Tenochtitlan depended on their perception of the Aztecs’ ability to enforce their will. And while established kings were rarely challenged, new rulers had to prove themselves. Thus, each Aztec king-elect normally led his army on a campaign prior to his coronation for the ostensible purpose of securing victims to sacrifice at the investiture. But the underlying reason was to demonstrate his military prowess. An effective show of force would ensure that all the tributary kings would attend the coronation and re-pledge their fealty, thus eliminating the need to re-conquer them all. But the events in Tenochtitlan and the fact that it was not yet the war season prevented Cuitlahua from immediately demonstrating this prowess. At the same time, Tlaxcallan and the Spaniards offered a powerful alternative alliance partner, especially for cities toward the east, and even many allied with the Aztecs whose rulers had been killed by Cortés, were in political turmoil and remained on the sidelines. So the empire Cuitlahua inherited, whose cohesion had not been reaffirmed after his selection, was losing cohesion.
Cortés’s attempt to control Tenochtitlan from within had been a failure and was unrepeatable, now that there was no longer a compliant king on the throne. If Tenochtitlan were to fall, it would have to be assaulted from outside, which meant that a future attack would require the reestablishment of Indian alliances and the securing of a reliable source of food, which had previously been provided by Moteuczoma. Dangerously low on men and equipment, Cortés sent to Veracruz for more. While the coast was to prove a good, if episodic, supplier of both, at this point only seven men were available to join his forces. Although Cortés could muster only modest forces, Spanish numbers had never been the issue. With large Tlaxcaltec forces, the allied armies were significant. Then, less than three weeks after returning to Tlaxcallan, Cortés attacked and conquered Tepeyacac to the east. The Spanish accounts claim that the Aztecs dispatched troops to the Tlaxcaltec region, but because Cortés’s attack on that area had taken place so soon after his flight from Tenochtitlan, and it was still well before harvest; given the relative distances involved, it is unlikely any soldiers were sent. In any event, around the first of August, Cortés marched against Tepeyacac with 420 Spaniards, seventeen horses, six crossbowmen, and 2,000 Tlaxcaltecs. Cortés camped three leagues from the town and sent it a message demanding surrender. When it was rejected, he engaged Tepeyacac’s army and routed it with no Spanish losses.
How serious the battle with the Tepeyacacs actually was is uncertain. It was still the rainy season, so neither side would have been well prepared or able to field a full army. But, more telling, Tepeyacac had been allied with Tlaxcallan until they were conquered by the Aztecs as recently as 1467, and various ties, including kinship, that might have favored a re-alliance with Tlaxcallan may have persisted, and in light of the political uncertainty in Tenochtitlan and Tepeyacac’s location east of Tlaxcallan and farther from the Aztecs, the battle may have been more for show than for effect.
There were several reasons Tepeyacac may have been targeted. During the siege in Tenochtitlan, Tepeyacac had attacked and killed a party of Spaniards from Veracruz, so conquering it may have been retribution but so doing also helped to clear the road to the coast. As over 80 percent of the attacking forces were Tlaxcaltecs, the strike was likely another test of Cortés’s loyalty as they eliminated another Aztec tributary and expanded Tlaxcallan’s sphere of dominance.
Cortés, characteristically, records the rulers of Tepeyacac as pledging fealty to him, which is unlikely, as the city was in Tlaxcallan’s traditional area of influence. Further conquests followed in the ensuing weeks, all in Tlaxcallan’s traditional sphere of dominance, and Tepeyacac was fortified to secure the region. Following these conquests, more men and supplies arrived from Veracruz—fourteen men and two horses from one ship, and nine men and one horse from another one eight days later. In an effort to thwart further Spanish expansion, Cuitlahua sent troops to Cuauhquecholan [Huaquechula] and Itzyocan [Izucar] to block the main pass from Cholollan into Morelos and thence into the Valley of Mexico. But Cortés sent out a counterforce that, with the help of the rulers of Cuauhquecholan, routed the Aztecs. The Aztecs fell back to Itzyocan, but again the Spanish forces prevailed. This time Cortés replaced the unrepentant rulers of both towns with new kings loyal to him.
Cortés repeatedly claimed that these rulers pledged their loyalty to him, which is improbable and glosses over a larger reality. In this particular campaign Cortés had, although by no means atypically, 200 Spanish infantry and thirteen horsemen plus 30,000 Indian allies. Thus, important as the Spaniards were, they represented less than 1 percent of the total force, so any pledge of fealty would have been to the Tlaxcaltecs, though Cortés probably participated in any ceremony (which he most likely did not understand). Shortly after these victories, three more Spanish ships reached Veracruz in rapid succession, adding 145 men and nineteen horses to Cortés’s forces.
At this time, Mexico suffered a devastating epidemic. One member of Narváez’s forces was infected with smallpox, which was unknown in Mexico, and exposure to it proved devastating to the Indians. Two factors resulted in a particularly deadly outbreak: The Indians had not been exposed to it previously, so they lacked any immunity to the disease, and the degree of genetic variation among the Mesoamericans was relatively small, so while the first infections were bad enough, the smallpox virus adapted itself to the hosts’ genetic structure, which made subsequent infections significantly deadlier. The smallpox plague reached the Valley of Mexico after mid-October, lasted sixty days in Tenochtitlan, and ended by early December. Some 40 percent of the indigenous population of central Mexico died in less than a year, including Cuitlahua, who died in early December, having ruled only eighty days. Moreover, the disease’s pathology would have ensured that he would have been incapacitated for the previous two weeks, leaving the empire in effect leaderless during the crucial period when the Aztecs would normally be preparing for war.
Smallpox did in fact affect the course of the Conquest, but not simply through massive Aztec deaths. Groups friendly to the Spaniards were also devastated, so the numbers were reduced on both sides, but smallpox’s effect on the Aztec leadership was greater. New leaders emerged, but they were less experienced than their predecessors and needed yet more time to solidify their positions. Some pro-Spanish rulers were also lost, but the Spaniards, having greater immunity, survived, and their leadership remained intact.
Following the death of Cuitlahua, and in light of the deaths of the forty nobles and rulers kept by Cortés, the ranks of eligible successors in the Axayacatl cohort were markedly thinned and the lords who made the choice had been similarly thinned with new lords taking their places. The successor chosen, Cuauhtemoc, who was the son of King Ahuitzotl, marked the end of the Axayacatl cohort’s dominance, already weakened by the losses inflicted by Cortés and the shifts of rulers in the surrounding towns. Although young, he was already the ruler of Tlatelolco, which had been forcibly annexed by Tenochtitlan in 1473, and thus he was from within greater capital. His selection would have occurred soon after his predecessor’s death, but his formal coronation did not take place until February 1521, more than two months later. Again the empire had been without a ruler, and once more, Cuauhtemoc had had no time to consolidate his rule. However able Cuauhtemoc may have been, the shift to a leader from another cohort inevitably meant his selection undermined the allegiance of cities with closer ties to the preceding cohort. The new king gave lavish gifts to some rulers and remitted the tribute of others, as had Cuitlahua, but this failure to shore up his domain may even have been perceived as weakness.
The political turmoil in the valley, the smallpox epidemic, plus the fact that the harvest kept most of the surviving men in the fields and unprepared for war, would seem to have created the ideal opportunity for Cortés to return, especially following his successful consolidation east of Tlaxcallan. But he did not, because the time before which any military move could be launched was dictated by the Tlaxcaltecs, and they were bound by the same seasonal constraints as the Aztecs. Besides, neither Cuitlahua nor Cuauhtemoc took direct action against the badly mauled Spaniards after their flight, which demanded an immediate response. Much of this may have been the result of the political turmoil in Tenochtitlan, the smallpox epidemic, and Cuitlahua’s illness and subsequent death, though the Aztecs may have believed the Spaniards would not return. But there were also sound military reasons for these leaders to remain in the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs could muster an enormous defensive army in and around the valley, as it did not require the preparations demanded by a distant offensive campaign, so remaining there left them in their most powerful position. But marching elsewhere would have been extremely costly. If procuring local supplies could not be ensured, as indeed it could not in enemy territory, all foodstuffs would have had to be carried with the army by human porters at a rate of about fifty pounds per porter. At the most favorable ratio recorded of one porter for every two soldiers, this would have meant being able to carry only eight days’ worth of food. Such logistical constraints kept the Aztecs from dispatching all but a portion of their army for any appreciable distance, so they might not have been able to send a large enough force to Tlaxcallan to defeat virtually the entire adult male population of that region. Remaining in Tenochtitlan, however, reversed this situation, leaving Cuauhtemoc all his soldiers while forcing his enemies to bear the manpower reductions involved in coming to him. Moreover, remaining in and around Tenochtitlan allowed the Aztecs to use canoes and thus enjoy greater mobility and shorter interior lines of communication within the valley, whereas the Spaniards would be forced to march around the valley along the shore. Canoes also allowed the Aztecs to mobilize, concentrate, and support troops anywhere in the valley, depriving the Spaniards of a secure rear area and forcing them to defend themselves everywhere at once. Furthermore, a lake-centered defense minimized the effectiveness of the Spanish horses. Any land assault would have to be channeled along one or more of the three major causeways, where there was little room to maneuver, and the Spaniards could more easily be hemmed in and pummeled. Such a plan also minimized the number of Cortés’s allied troops that could be used. In retrospect, while the Aztec defensive posture might seem foolish, it did minimize Cortés’s main advantages and force him to take greater risks.
During the first battle for Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards had been trapped inside the city, cut off from outside support, and assailed from all sides. Cortés’s goal now was to reverse that situation by cutting the Aztecs off from outside support. Well before he marched back into the Valley of Mexico, Cortés had ordered the construction of thirteen brigantines in Tlaxcallan. The anchors, sails, and rigging for them were supplied by his scuttled ships from Veracruz, which he had stripped and carried to Tlaxallan. Cortés was joined there by Spanish blacksmiths, more arms, three horses, and thirteen additional soldiers from yet another newly arrived ship. When Cortés began his return march to Tenochtitlan on December 28, 1520, well into the war season, he had eight or nine cannons, forty horsemen, 550 Spanish soldiers (eighty of whom were crossbowmen or harquebusiers), and 10,000 Tlaxcaltec soldiers. The Spaniards thus comprised only 6 percent of the force; but most importantly, the army was accompanied by a Tetzcocan noble, Ixtililxochitl.
When Ixtlilxochitl’s father, Tetzcoco’s King Nezahualpilli, died in 1515, he left numerous sons who could legitimately have succeeded him, including Coanacoch and Ixtlilxochitl. But Moteuczoma used his enormous influence to place another of Nezahualpilli’s sons (and his own nephew), Cacama, on the throne. Ixtlilxochitl rebelled, raised an army, and fought a civil war that resulted in the de facto partition of Tetzcoco’s territory, leaving him in control of the north at Acolman, and Cacama ruilng the south from Tetzcoco. The Spanish arrival offered Ixtilixochitl an opportunity to win that struggle, and he took it. And in addition to his own following in the Valley of Mexico, he brought insights into the political and social situation and players that the Tlaxcaltecs lacked, and close connections to rulers in other cities.
Despite meeting, and defeating, an enemy force en route to the Valley of Mexico, Cortés reached Coatepec, near Tetzcoco, only two days after leaving Tlaxcallan. The next morning, nobles from Tetzcoco invited the Spaniards into the city in peace. Tetzcoco was the second most important city in the empire, in whose wealth it jointly, though not dominantly, shared, and it should have been a staunch Aztec ally, but the loyalties of its nobles were divided. When Cacama was killed during Cortés’s flight from Tenochtitlan, he was succeeded by Coanacoch, although the details of his accession are unclear, and Cortés’s arrival, or more precisely, Ixtlilxochitl’s, shifted the balance of power against him. Coanacoch did welcome the Spaniards into Tetzcoco, but he was merely buying time for himself and his followers to flee by canoe to Tenochtitlan. And when he did, another of King Nezahualpilli’s sons, Tecocol, became the new ruler.
As the head of the Spanish-backed faction Tecocol ordered the city armed and fortified. Despite Cortés’s claims that he installed various kings throughout central Mexico, he lacked the knowledge or power to do so. Instead, existing factions seized on the combined Spanish-Tlaxcaltec presence to shift the local political balance and take power for themselves. Whether Ixtlilxochitl was involved in Tecocol’s ascent, when that king died around the first of February, Ixtlilxochitl ascended to the throne of Tetzcoco. These political machinations placed Tetzcoco squarely in Spanish hands, giving Cortés a local base of operations and eliminating the logistical problem of supporting his troops locally and for long periods. Now that Tetzcoco was allied with Cortés, the kings of Tetzcoco’s dependencies pledged their loyalties as well.
Cortés then began his assault on the valley. His first thrust was directly into the heart of the valley itself. Supported now by more than 7,000 Tlaxcaltecs and twenty nobles from Tetzcoco, Cortés next marched against Ixtlapalapan; but en route, he was attacked simultaneously from the lake and the land. Though assailed on all sides, he managed to break through their lines and enter the city. Whether this attack was a Spanish victory or an Aztec feint, Cortés’s forces had unwittingly placed themselves in a vulnerable position. Built out into the lake, much of Ixtlapalapan was actually below water level, protected by dikes. So once Cortés’s forces were inside the city, the Aztecs broke the dikes and flooded it, forcing the Spaniards to flee for their lives. Some drowned, but most escaped to higher ground and the Spanish force finally withdrew to Tetzcoco.
On his return to Tetzcoco after this debacle, several Spaniards from Narváez’s party allegedly plotted to assassinate Cortés and then leave Mexico. Because many important people were implicated in the plot, Cortés could not afford to precipitate an open breach, so he seized and hanged only the leader, Antonio de Villafaña. Although there was continued unrest, Cortés kept it under control while seeking to divide his enemies.
The mere presence of a Spanish-Tlaxcaltec force in the Valley of Mexico warped local politics, which were already in flux from the loss of established leaders killed by the Spaniards or dead from smallpox. Some kings sought Spanish support to bolster their domestic positions; others resisted. But the latter were often ousted by challengers who did seek Spanish support.
The Valley of Mexico was politically fragmented throughout the Conquest, largely by location, into waxing and waning spheres of influence. But historical affinities and animosities also played a part, as with the Chalca cities. Rarely used Aztec governors had replaced the Chalca kings for decades before their own leaders were allowed to return to power, albeit still as tributaries. These governors had kept the people under control, but the Chalcas bore the Aztecs no affection and were ready candidates for political realignment. More than simply another group of disaffected tributaries, the Chalcas controlled the best route south and east out of the valley. In a battle at Chalco, fifteen to twenty horsemen, 200 Spanish soldiers, and all of the Tlaxcaltecs defeated the Aztecs, whereupon the Chalcas switched their support to the Spaniards. Initially, the political circumstances in the Valley of Mexico favored Cortés in that there were many Aztec towns and too few soldiers to defend them all simultaneously from a determined Spanish-Tlaxcaltec assault. But as more towns shifted their allegiance to the Spaniards, Cortés’s success gave rise to the same liabilities among his own allies. The Aztecs could still strike throughout the valley by canoe, but now Cortés could not defend all of his allies simultaneously either. So, like the Aztecs, he kept his forces in one place—Tetzcoco—and dispatched them as needed. But his inherently defensive strategy meant that the Spanish response came after the damage had been done. The Aztecs’ reprisals were thus eroding the internal political support of the pro-Spanish kings, endangering their positions and the loyalty of their cities.
Cortés soon realized that he had to take the offensive and strike directly at Tenochtitlan. To this end, he fetched timber from Tlaxcallan for the ships. It took four days for the men and material to reach Tetzcoco. Around the first of February, with the construction of the brigantines under way, Cortés undertook the first of two major incursions into solidly Aztec territory. On February 3, Cortés marched north against the island city of Xaltocan. Although it was reinforced from Tenochtitlan, Xaltocan offered no significant threat to the Spaniards beyond small-scale canoe attacks, which did not depend on the city’s continued freedom. Thus, the Spaniards could easily have bypassed it, but Xaltocan offered obstacles like those in Tenochtitlan and may have served as a test of Spanish tactics. Word came to the Spaniards that the causeway to Xaltocan had been destroyed. They exchanged fire with the Indians’ canoes, but these were armored with thick wooden bulwarks that made the Spanish weapons ineffectual against them. The city fell only after enemies of Xaltocan told Cortés that the causeway had not actually been destroyed but had merely been allowed to be covered by water. The Spaniards crossed the causeway on foot and entered the city, defeating Xaltocan, despite the water obstacles, which had proven effective. Without controlling the lakes, the Spaniards had little hope of conquering Tenochtitlan. Cortés continued this northern incursion around the lakes to Cuauhtitlan, Tenanyocan [Tenayuca], and Azcapotzalco. Too few in number to fend off the Spaniards, the cities’ inhabitants withdrew to Tlacopan. Cortés, met by a large army and barricades, nevertheless forced the defenders to retreat and then sacked the city. When Aztec reinforcements crossed the causeway from Tenochtitlan, Cortés attacked these as well, but once on the causeway, the Aztecs counterattacked, supported by canoe-borne troops on both sides. Able to engage only those directly in front of them on the causeway, the Spaniards were forced to retreat, suffering several dead and many wounded. After five or six days under constant attack, Cortés withdrew from Tlacopan and returned to Tetzcoco on February 18.
More towns switched to the Spanish side, but these defections were not effortless. Many, including the Chalca cities, remained under Aztec attack. Political considerations demanded that the Spaniards react, so Cortés sent a force of Spaniards with a few Tlaxcaltecs and a company of Tetzcocas, who had not taken part in the northern campaign, to Chalco. This army, led by Gonzalo de Sandoval, pushed the Aztecs back to Huaxtepec [Oaxtepec], where they were defeated, then marched on and defeated Yacapitztlan [Yecapiztla] before returning to Tetzcoco. Once the Spaniards withdrew from Chalco, the Aztecs attacked that city by canoe, but its defenders, aided by the Huexotzincas, repulsed them.
On February 24, more ships landed at Veracruz, and the men and arms made their way to Cortés. The road to Veracruz remained a vital supply line for the Spaniards, so Cortés determined to secure the area by marching to Yauhtepec, which he defeated before moving on to conquer Cuauhnahuac [Cuernavaca] on April 13. The next day Cortés marched back toward the Valley of Mexico, reaching the city of Xochimilco on April 16. This large city, a major supplier of foodstuffs to Tenochtitlan, dominated the southwest corner of the valley. The Spaniards could have reached Xochimilco overland by going directly west from Chalco, but this would have required marching for miles along the southern lakeshore, continuously vulnerable to Aztec canoe assaults long before reaching the city’s heavy fortifications. The advance through Yauhtepec and Cuauhnahuac, south of the mountains, shielded the Spaniards from direct Aztec assault until they could reenter the valley at Xochimilco’s rear. Nevertheless, Cortés’s troops were badly mauled at Xochimilco, and he was finally forced to withdraw. When Aztec reinforcements arrived on April 15, Cortés marched to Coyohuacan, which was deserted, then toward Tlacopan, passing the deserted cities of Azcapotzalco, Tenanyocan, and Cuauhtitlan under continuous attack from lingering Aztec and allied armies. Retracing the route he had taken during the northern incursion, Cortés reached Tetzcoco on April 22.
Despite its significant casualties, this campaign south of the Valley of Mexico created a cordon of towns, now nominally loyal to the Spaniards, that screened them from possible attack by tributaries farther south. Because most of the fighting was between Aztec armies and the comparably armed Indian forces allied with the Spaniards, the land battles were largely slugfests, with both sides free to maneuver, engage, disengage, and otherwise control the degree of their own involvement. The balance would have tipped on the water and in confined spaces, however. Control of the lakes was crucial. By the end of February, Cortés’s ships had been under construction for several weeks. The assembly site was situated half a league from the lakeshore, which largely thwarted repeated Aztec canoe attacks. Twelve of the one- and two-masted ships were just over forty feet long and eight to nine feet wide, the thirteenth being almost fifty feet long. Each ship held twelve oarsmen, twelve crossbowmen and harquebusiers, and a captain, plus artillerymen for the bow-mounted cannon.
The ships were launched on April 28 into a canal dug over a seven-week period by some 40,000 Tetzcocas. To coordinate this launching with the main offensive, Cortés had sent to Tlaxcallan for 20,000 more warriors and requested soldiers from his allies within the valley. The Tlaxcaltec forces were led to Tetzcoco by Xicotencatl the Younger and by Chichimecateuctli, a Tlaxcaltec general allied with Maxixcatl’s faction and therefore hostile to the Xicotencatl. But Xicotencatl left Tetzcoco—in one version because he was in love with a woman in Tlaxcallan—and Cortés had him seized and hanged for treason. The Spanish explanation for this punishment is weak. Other native leaders left combat, often with their troops, and no action was taken against them, nor were the majority of disaffected Spaniards harshly disciplined. The Spanish account satisfied a certain legalistic reasoning, but the larger context suggests that a political purpose was behind Xicotencatl’s execution.
When Cortés had first reached Tlaxcallan, power in the four provinces rested with the rulers of only two, and of those two more power rested with Tizatlan, ruled by Xicotencatl the Elder. When his son and heir expectant, Xicotencatl the Younger, led the Tlaxcaltec army against the Spaniards, Maxixcatl, the ruler of the competing province of Ocotelolco, took the counter position and opposed the use of force. When the Spaniards were not quickly dispatched, support shifted to Maxixcagtl’s side, and he assumed greater importance in the eventual coalition, while the fortunes of Xicotencatl waned. This political situation was upset when Maxixcatl died of smallpox in December 1520, after Cortés left Tlaxcallan, and he was succeeded by his son, who was only twelve or thirteen. Cortés’s alliance with Tlaxcallan was strongest with Maxixatl’s province, Ocoteloloco, and weakest with Xicotencatl’s, Tizatlan. But Ocotelolco now had a young and inexperienced ruler, and the link Maxixcatl had sought to create with the Spaniards by giving one of his daughters to Juan Velásquez came to naught when the Spaniard and the Tlaxcaltec princess were both killed during the flight from Tenochtitlan. As a consequence, the fortunes of Xicotencatl the Younger were now significantly improved, while those of Cortés worsened. Had this happened earlier, it could well have proven fatal to the entire Spanish enterprise, but now even though Xicotencatl’s domestic position was strengthened, other events—notably Cortés’s alliance with Ixtilixochitl—lessened Tlaxcallan’s external importance. Nevertheless, Xicotencatl the Younger was now a greater threat to Cortés, suggesting that his death was likely a calculated Spanish effort to eliminate a hostile ruler in Tlaxcallan and improve the positions of those with closer ties to Cortés, notably General Chichimecateuctli of Ocotelolco.
Another reason Xicotencatl may have returned to Tlaxcallan was the time of year. With the beginning of the agricultural season, tending the fields was crucial. That being so, why did the siege of Tenochtitlan continue? Fighting through the agricultural season hurt the Aztecs as much as their enemies, even more since their fields were in the theater of operations, while those of the Spanish allies were more removed and could have been tended in safety. The real answer lies in a shift in importance among the allied forces. Although Tlaxcallan had been crucial in mounting the attack on the Aztecs, once in the valley, Ixtlilxochitl’s forces were probably as numerous, and with those of other defecting cities, even larger. Moreover, being local, they provided better intelligence and political connections that the Tlaxcaltecs could not, in addition to such vital resources as food, canoes, and artisans to make and mend weapons. Tlaxcallan may have wished for a cessation of hostilities until the next war season, but Ixtlilxochitl would not have. Had the allied forces withdrawn for the agricultural season, the Aztecs would have retaliated on Tetzcoco immediately, as well as any other valley cities that had gone over to the enemy side. The only way Ixtlilxochitl could avoid massive reprisals was to continue the fighting. Thus, while it appears that the Tlaxcaltecs were the Spaniards’ primary allies, once in the Valley of Mexico, Ixtlilxochitl’s faction took precedence, and the war consequently continued. For Ixtlilxochitl and his followers, there could be no cessation, no going back.
The war was to continue well into the agricultural season. In fact, although it largely overlapped the traditional war season, its fit was far from perfect, suggesting other considerations outweighed the practical interests of the Indians. These interests were not Ixtlilxochitl’s, but Cortés’s. The Tlaxcaltecs could not go to war before December 1820, when the traditional post-harvest war season began. But rather than marching back into the Valley of Mexico in early December, when the war season traditionally began, and which would permit operations throughout its normal four-month duration, the combined Spanish/Tlaxcaltec army delayed until the end of December. (In fact, it was in early January 1521, but all dates then in use and employed here are in the Julian calendar, which was not shifted to the Gregorian until 1582, so it lagged behind the solar year by approximately ten days.) Equally diverging from Mesoamerican practice, the war continued well past the end of the war season and into the agricultural season, almost certainly at Cortés’s insistence. The late start and continuation into the agricultural season did not fit the traditional Mesoamerican war season, but it fit with another pattern well known to the Spaniards: the hurricane season.
Both Spaniards and Aztecs were well aware of the annual hurricane season, but only the Spaniards realized its impact beyond Mesoamerica. The hurricane season in the Caribbean is from June through November, during which shipping is imperiled. While a few ships did reach Mexico during this period, most of the arms, gunpowder, cannons, horses, and men needed to launch a new campaign against Tenochtitlan were resupplied by ships arriving in November, after the hurricanes. These ships necessarily brought more horses, virtually all of the cannons and gunpowder, which had been lost in the Spaniards’ flight, and more than double the number of men who had straggled back to Tlaxcallan. Thus, the late advance by Cortés into the Valley of Mexico was almost certainly the result of his delay awaiting these crucial resupplies and reinforcements. The extension of the war into the agricultural season occurred because Cortés could not cease and wait for the next resupply, and risk the Aztecs recuperating and attacking him before the following year’s resupply reached him. In fact, he was continuing to receive supplies from abroad at least until early summer and could thus continue the fight past the end of the war season.
Having settled his internal political concerns, Cortés now divided the remaining Spaniards into three armies. Pedro de Alvarado was sent to Tlacopan with thirty horsemen, eighteen crossbowmen and harquebusiers, 150 Spanish foot soldiers, and 25,000 Tlaxcaltecs. Cortés sent Cristóbal de Olid to Coyohuacan with twenty crossbowmen and harquebusiers, 175 Spanish foot soldiers, and 20,000 Indian allies. Gonzalo de Sandoval was dispatched to Ixtlapalapan with twenty-four horsemen, fourteen harquebusiers, thirteen crossbowmen, 150 Spanish foot soldiers, and more than 30,000 Huexotzincas, Chololtecs, and Chalcas. The Spanish accounts minimize the Indians’ participation, but the sheer disparity in numbers makes it clear that they must have played the pivotal role. Spanish arms were important in penetrating Aztec lines, but it was the large allied armies that exploited them, as is readily apparent since the Spaniards comprised no more than 1 percent of the total allied forces. Moreover, the existing linguistic barriers made the role of the native leaders crucial in commanding these troops and ensuring their cooperation. The three targets for Alvarado, Olid, and Sandoval were neither the largest nor the politically most important cities, but each was the terminus of one of Tenochtitlan’s three major causeways. Severing them would thus constrict the flow of men and material into Tenochtitlan and would bottle up the Aztecs inside. The armies left Tetzcoco on May 22, 1521, with Alvarado and Olid marching north together around the lakes to Tlacopan. They then marched to Chapoltepec [Chapultepec], routed its defenders, and severed the double aqueduct that brought fresh water into Tenochtitlan. As an island city in a brackish lake, Tenochtitlan got most of its food and water from outside, and it was these lifelines that Cortés sought to cut. But Tenochtitlan’s location did allow it to take advantage of the most efficient form of transportation available in Mesoamerica—canoes. Whereas land transportation depended on porters who could carry on average a fifty-pound load, a single canoeist could easily pole forty times that weight at the same speed. So while blocking some of the causeways and cutting the aqueduct disrupted those avenues of entry, canoes easily took up the slack.
Sieges were uncommon in Mesoamerica. The lack of wheels and draft animals meant that all supplies had to be carried by porters, so armies could not be sustained in enemy territory for long periods—far shorter than usually required to starve out even the most ill-prepared city. So Cortés’s strategy likely caught the Aztecs unaware. Alvarado and Olid returned to Tlacopan and began their assault on the causeway to Tenochtitlan. Normally in Mesoamerica, limiting the battlefront—whether to a causeway or a pass—favored the defenders, because it limited the number of soldiers who could be brought to bear at one time, minimized the attackers’ numerical advantage, prolonged the fight, and meant the attacker would ultimately be forced to withdraw because of logistical constraints. This constriction affected the Spaniards as well, but with different consequences. For instance, in Alvarado’s force there were more than 100 Indian soldiers for every Spaniard, yet the major causeways were approximately twenty-two feet wide, or enough to accommodate up to seven horsemen abreast at a walk, though only three or four at a charge. In this case the constriction did not simply limit the number of soldiers who could be brought to bear at any one time; it allowed a shift in the composition of those forces as well. A much higher proportion of Spaniards, with their far more effective arms, could thus be employed. Even though the Aztecs had a greater depth of combatants, fighting on the causeways prevented them from expanding their front and using their numbers to greatest advantage. Moreover, fighting on the causeways forced the Aztecs to mass their forces, creating ideal targets for Spanish projectiles, even though relatively slow rates of fire meant that most combat was hand to hand. Despite their technological superiority, the Spaniards were nevertheless threatened by their opponent’s sheer numbers, a constant Spanish concern thus having been to remain mobile to avoid being trapped and crushed. The Aztecs were forced to adjust to the more advanced Spanish weaponry. They soon learned that the cannons fired in straight lines and therefore began dodging from side to side instead of marching in straight lines, and started to duck when the cannons fired rather than remaining erect. The most effective Aztec tactic was the naval assault. In this maneuver canoe-borne soldiers attacked the Spaniards on the causeways, firing arrows, darts, and slinging stones from armored canoes into the Spaniards’ flanks while remaining beyond the reach of the Spanish swords and pikes. In this way, Olid and Alvarado were repulsed, with heavy losses, and the two armies then separated, with Olid marching south to Coyohuacan and Alvarado remaining on the causeway. Apart, neither army was strong enough to take the offensive, so both remained in their own camps, fighting only to ward off Aztec attacks. Sandoval began his march on May 30, going south to Ixtlapalapan, which he attacked and burned. At the same time, Cortés launched his brigantines and sailed to Tepepolco, a fortified island near Tenochtitlan. He captured the island but was forced off by an Aztec counterattack. On the water, the Spanish brigantines proved convincingly superior, sailing through and overturning the Aztec canoes until they fled into canals that were too narrow for the ships to follow. Cortés then sailed his fleet to Coyohuacan, where he landed a small force and seized a portion of the Ixtlapalapan causeway. Reaching Coyohuacan the next day, Cortés’s ships proved equally effective against the attacking canoes; he then breached the causeway and sailed through. Although Cortés’s small navy was manned exclusively by Spaniards, scant credit is given in the accounts to the thousands of allied canoes that accompanied his fleet. With their aid, Cortés’s brigantines quickly destroyed or dispersed the Aztec fleet, allowing Sandoval’s forces to march on to Mexicatzinco. But an Aztec fleet prevented him from linking up with Olid. Where the causeways merged, only one force could be used effectively. Accordingly, Sandoval’s army was sent to Tepeyacac [Tepeyac] to block the still-open northern causeway. In response, the Aztecs built traps, digging pits in the bottoms of the relatively shallow lakes to drown Spaniards who fell or were pushed off the causeway. Here, heavy iron armor was a liability, and even in combat, it offered less advantage than it would appear.
Focusing on captures more than killings to gain promotions, at least by those who had not yet attained high honors, much of the hand-to-hand combat concentrated on avoiding armored areas, with native cotton armor being just as effective as Spanish iron armor against native arms. So the fundamental strategy was to attack the unarmored legs. With right-handed fighters, the left leg is advanced in preparation for striking an opponent, and at that point, it is most exposed to a counter-blow, with the likely result, not of severing the leg, as the macuahuitl’s obsidian blades do not cut through bone nearly as efficiently as through flesh. But the impact would likely break the fibula, the smallest leg bone and the most exposed in that stance, bringing down the opponent. Thus, the advantages of iron armor were more apparent than real as they protected areas that Aztec tactics already avoided.
The Aztecs also planted sharpened stakes in the lake floor to impale Spanish ships. Protected by their brigantines, the Spaniards advanced along the causeways, but they were unable to consolidate their gains, because the Aztecs re-occupied positions as soon as they were abandoned for the night. To prevent this, instead of withdrawing for the night, the Spaniards began moving their camp along the causeways as they advanced and posting guards to prevent Aztec reoccupation.
As the land battles wore on, the Spaniards intensified their efforts to close off Tenochtitlan from all supplies. Shipments of food and water could no longer reach the city by foot, and now the naval blockade kept canoe traffic to a minimum during the day. In this, the brigantines played the same role for thousands of allied canoes as the few hundred Spanish soldiers did for tens of thousands of Indian allies, serving as an indispensable, though distinctly small, shock element. Without the support of the allied canoes, the brigantines could break up Aztec fleets but could not exploit their gains, and they risked being overcome by swarms of Aztec canoes when they could not outrun them. With favorable winds the brigantines were faster than the Indian canoes, but Tenochtitlan had too much shoreline to be cordoned off by only thirteen of them. Moreover, few brigantines would sail after dark, the ships faced risks from stakes hidden in the water, and they drew too much water to enter many of the shallows, so the allied canoes were crucial to the blockade of Tenochtitlan.
The struggle for the causeways continued, but anyone who charged ahead or otherwise became separated from the main force was easily captured. The Aztecs became adept at enticing the Spaniards forward across breaks in the causeways, then turning and pushing them against the breaches, where they were unable to maneuver. So Cortés ordered that all the breaches be filled in before his forces advanced. So the armed battle became as much an engineering one, with the Spaniards’ allies repairing the causeway breaches by day and the Aztecs digging new ones by night. When the horses were brought forward on the causeways, the Aztecs adapted well by using extra-long lances to spear them before they reached the front lines and by moving the fighting away from open areas to broken terrain where the horses could not charge, as well as by placing barricades and boulders in open plazas. Nevertheless, the Spaniards and their allies pressed inexorably forward.
As went the fortunes of war, so, too, did the allegiances of the surrounding towns. Each Spanish victory shook the loyalty of the Aztec towns. Eventually, Xochimilco and Cuitlahuac turned against the Aztecs, though there were reprisals, and Ixtlapalapan, Huitzilopochco [Churubusco], Colhuacan [Culhuacan], and Mizquic [Mixquic] intercepted supplies bound for Tenochtitlan, provided laborers, and brought food to the Spaniards.
Cuauhtemoc now ordered two simultaneous night attacks on all three Spanish camps. Though a number of Spaniards were killed, they were not dislodged. He then decided to concentrate all his forces against a single camp: Alvarado’s at Tlacopan. Since this attack occurred during daylight, however, the Spaniards were able to use their brigantines effectively to repulse the Aztecs.
Perhaps the worst Spanish setback occurred on June 30. When the Aztecs feigned a withdrawal, Cortés pursued them across an unfilled breach, whereupon the Aztecs cut him off by sending war canoes into the breach, catching him between their land and their naval forces. Cortés escaped, wounded, but many others did not, including sixty-eight Spaniards and eight horses that were captured. Ten of these soldiers were immediately sacrificed at the Great Temple and their severed heads taken back to the battle and thrown at the Spaniards. The rest of the captives had their hearts cut out and their flayed faces tanned and sent to allied towns as proof of the Spaniards’ mortality and as a warning against betrayal.
Buoyed by this success, the Aztecs attacked each of the Spanish camps throughout the next four days. The tide of battle seeming to have turned, many of Cortés’s Indian allies deserted. Only token forces remained from Tlaxcallan, Cholollan, Huexotzinco, Tetzcoco, Chalco, and Tlalmanalco as most of the allied fighters returned home. But the Spaniards were not in fact dislodged. With the help of their brigantines, and after two weeks of attacks, the Spaniards repulsed the Aztecs.
When the Aztecs failed to destroy the Spaniards, their allies began returning from Tetzcoco, Tlaxcallan, Huexotzinco, and Cholollan. The Spanish forces advanced again on the city. Both sides were being worn down, but now, with their agricultural season disrupted and the previous year’s supplies nearing exhaustion, Tenochtitlan was running low on food and water. The Aztecs’ combat losses were not being replaced, but more Spanish ships continued to reach Veracruz, and fresh supplies of arms and soldiers still made their way to Tenochtitlan.
When Cortés finally entered Tenochtitlan, he began to raze the city to deprive the Aztecs of cover from which to attack his flanks. As the Spaniards entered the city from the south, the Aztecs withdrew north to Tlatelolco. Nevertheless, the Spanish advance continued, reaching the great market of Tlatelolco around August 1. When Ixtlilxochitl captured his brother, Coanacoch, the Tetzcocas loyal to his faction switched sides, further depriving the Aztecs of soldiers. But even at this late date, as famine gripped the city and hope waned, the superiority of the Aztecs over the Indians allied with Cortés was so striking that they were still able to cut off and kill many enemy Indians when there was no Spanish support. To deter this, if not prevent it, Spaniards sometimes disguised themselves as Indians and marched in the middle of their allies to entice the Aztecs into attacking an apparently all-Indian force.
Firearms, especially artillery, were crucial to the Spanish role in combat, but as the battle wore on, their gunpowder was nearing exhaustion. Without firearms, they would lose whatever importance they had. In an effort to compensate, they constructed a catapult, which proved a failure, and the battle continued with the Spaniards’ dwindling supplies. In a last-ditch effort, Cuauhtemoc dressed the elite warrior who would lead the attack in the attire of King Ahuitzotl, ruler of the Aztec empire from 1486 to 1502, and his father, but on August 13, the Spaniards broke through the last Aztec defenses.
In the final, decisive act, one Spanish brigantine overtook the canoe containing Cuauhtemoc. The king, captured along with his wife and about thirty nobles including the king of Tlacopan, asked to be taken to Cortés, to whom he reportedly surrendered. Despite this claim of surrender, if surrender it was, subsequent actions indicate it was not. The allied Indian soldiers continued to attack the Aztecs, killing thousands and looting for four more days. Only then did the surrender occur in fact. Though unrecorded by the Spaniards, submission to the Indian leader, probably Ixtilixochitl, would have marked a recognized surrender.
With Tenochtitlan in ruins after the three-month battle, Cortés ordered the aqueduct repaired and the dead removed and buried. He and his surviving Spanish force of 900 men took credit for the Conquest, but the pivotal role had been played by the allied Indians, who had supplied more than 200 men for every Spaniard who participated. Thus, the conquest of Mexico was not the victory of a Spanish juggernaut. Cortés did supply new and effective military technologies, but what made the conquest of Mexico possible were the hundreds of thousands of Indian allies who exploited the breaches caused by these arms, because it was they who truly made them effective. There would have been no Conquest without the Indians who recognized and seized the opportunity afforded by the Spanish presence to bring the Aztecs down.
Discussion of the Literature
Traditionally, histories of the conquest of Mexico have been written from the Spanish perspective. This is largely the result of most of the accounts of that event having been written by the Spaniards, and especially by the conquistadors themselves. Indian accounts, even though filtered through many years of Spanish enculturation, do not begin appearing until many decades after the Conquest. And to see through the intervening years of Hispanicized versions requires considerable study of the indigenous cultures. As a result, I have listed only two contemporary works among the suggested readings, Aztec Warfare, which is the only extensive analysis of military practices in English, and Mexico and the Spanish Conquest, a longer, more detailed version of the present article, and one of the few works that attempts to give the natives their due.1
The other books suggested are all translations of accounts by the conquistadors, which I have included to encourage the readers to see what was, and was not, included. Unfortunately for objectivity, not only did the Spaniards not understand what they were seeing, and thus frequently misinterpret it, they had a further agenda. As conquerors, they aspired to rewards from the king for the lands they subdued and brought under the Spanish crown. So the odds they faced and the deeds they performed, were often exaggerated with an eye toward that end.
Numerous other works on the Conquest are available in virtually any public library. But as they generally follow the conquistadors’ versions, they distort events toward the European perspective, however inadvertently, and downplay or dismiss the native roles, which are far more difficult to discern and understand.
Cortés, Hernán. Letters from Mexico. Translated by Anthony Pagden. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1971.Find this resource:
De Fuentes, Patricia. The Conquistadors: First-Person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.Find this resource:
Denevan, William M. The Native Population of the Americas in 1492. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.Find this resource:
Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. The True History of the Conquest of New Spain. Translated by Alfred Percival Maudslay. 5 vols. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1908–1916. (One may choose or any of a number of abridged versions currently available).Find this resource:
Durán, Diego. The History of the Indies of New Spain. Translated by Doris Heyden. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.Find this resource:
Hassig, Ross. Aztec Warfare. Norman: University of Osklahoma Press, 1988.Find this resource:
Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest (2d ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.Find this resource:
Lockhart, James. We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.Find this resource:
López de Gómara, Francisco. Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror. Translated by Lesley Byrd Simpson. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1964.Find this resource:
Sahagún, Bernardino de. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Book 12—: The Conquest of Mexico. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1975.Find this resource:
Sahagún, Bernardino de. Conquest of New Spain: 1585 Revision. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1989.Find this resource:
(1.) Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988); Ross Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006).