Hernan Cortes – Conquistador of the Aztecs Documentary
The man known to history as Hernan Cortes was born in 1485, in the village of Medellin, in the Kingdom of Castile, his father was Martin Cortes, a low-ranking ‘gentleman’, of the Spanish social strata and a former infantry captain, and his mother was Dona Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. Hernan Cortes began his studies at university in Salamanca at the age of 14, although soon tired of this, and returned home after only a couple of years, his canny attitude and talent for politics, law and Latin all noted by his peers. The New World was the subject of myth and legend in the ‘old country’; Spanish children learned with wonder of the land in which gold was said to flow like water, with endless opportunities for wealth and splendour presented to all brave enough to venture there, a land to which Cortes travelled as an unremarkable man in the early 16th century. Upon his arrival in the city of Santo Domingo, Cortes sought out a wealthy gentleman named Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, who had arrived with Columbus’ second wave, and soon became one of the city’s most trusted lieutenants, and before long, an agreement was struck between the two men, which would see Cortes instructed to go on a trade mission to Cozumel, an island located just off Mexico’s east coast, in 1519. Cortes and his party travelled first to Cuba in order to gather a larger body of men to accompany them on their voyage, and then set sail to the West, heading for the small island which lay a short way off the mainland coast of Yucatan (modern-day Mexico).
Cortes landed on the island on the last vessel in his convoy, and found it deserted – the Islanders having retreated into the jungles which covered its surface; the reason for this, Cortes later learned, was that the captain of the first vessel had gone ashore and immediately pillaged and seized possessions and sacred icons from the locals, leading them to abandon those settlements which lay near the coastline. Islanders, initially shocked at the arrival of Cortes, soon approached and excitedly informed him that two other Spaniards had arrived on the island and had been imprisoned on the mainland, Yucatan, which lay to the East, whereupon Cortes subsequently dispatched his own reconnaissance team to the mainland. Cortes had a statute of the Virgin Mary and a cross erected at the site and held a mass, after which he ordered that the villagers make candles and decorate the altar with fresh flowers, following which, he and his party made preparations to leave; their expedition to Yucatan had returned with no information of any use, and they wished to make stops at other islands before their return to Santo Domingo. However, the expedition’s departure was halted after one of the vessels began to take on water, and the convoy returned to Cozumel, where repairs were soon made, and Cortes decided to hold a final mass before their second departure, after which they readied to re-board their vessels; stopped in their progress by the arrival of a canoe on the shoreline, rowed by several men in loincloths. The canoe approached the shore and its compliment disembarked, they approached Cortes and asked if he was a Christian, to which the latter replied in the affirmative; the man from the canoe sank to his feet, and informed Cortes and his men that he was Jerónimo de Aguilar, a Christian priest who had travelled from the mainland alongside his comrades, a crew who had been shipwrecked in 1511 and washed ashore on Yucatan. Cortes was shocked and intrigued by this story, especially after de Aguilar’s mention of gold in the land of Mexico, and once the repairs were completed, the band set out from Cozumel once more, and charted a course for the mainland of Yucatan, in search of civilisation there.
The fleet sailed north and then west around the nose of the mainland, eventually anchoring at the mouth of the Tabasco River in March 1519, near a native settlement named Pontonchan, where the crew disembarked into smaller boats, and made some progress up the mouth of the watercourse, surrounded on all sides by vast trees and mangrove swamps, the air tainted by a putrid scent. Cortes cautiously proceeded up the river and landed near the bustling settlement of Pontochan, ordering de Aguilar to inform the Tabascan people there, that he meant them no harm, and merely wished to trade water and food; a lie, as in reality he wished to hunt for gold. Cortes had to tread carefully; the town was home to 25,000 inhabitants and the Spanish were vastly outnumbered – although he continued to negotiate and eventually determined to meet the Tabascans in the centre of town the following morning, although, fearing that he would be attacked upon entering the next day, he sent a detachment of his men to the outskirts of the settlement, under the cover of darkness with the intention of providing assistance should this happen. This was a sage move on Cortes’ part, as the Tabascans were also readying themselves for combat, erecting barricades and evacuating women and children from the town over the course of the same night, and the next day, Cortes fought the first battle of his conquest, the Tabascans rushing to the side of the river to meet the Spaniards who disembarked from their boats, leading to hand-to-hand combat in waist-high water. The Spanish had the upper hand in this due to their armour and steel swords, managing to push the Tabascans back from the river’s edge and up the embankment, orders being issued to the native army that Cortes must be seized and killed.
Cortes’ planning of the previous night paid off, when he was joined by the flanking force which he had positioned outside of the town, allowing the Spanish to open a second front; attacking with canon and firearms, as well as with pikes and swords, technologies which gave them a definitive strategic and psychological advantage over the enemy, eventually leading to their retreat, the Spaniards assembling in the town square, victorious. Cortes proclaimed his victory by slashing the sacred ceiba tree three times with his sword and shouting that the town had been taken in the name of the King of Spain; a significant victory with only a few wounded, and none killed, taking prisoners and slaves to aid the army. Cortes and his men camped that night on the steps of the town’s temple, awaking the next morning to find that their interpreter, Melchior, had fled and joined the Tabascans during the night, a move which angered Cortes.
On Palm Sunday, 1519, Cortes and his army began their journey to the north in search of Mexico, and the gold which they hoped to find there, the fleet setting off from Pontonchan and heading to the north west, hugging the coastline and progressing toward what is now the modern-day port of Veracruz. Cortes anchored near a town which the expeditioner Juan de Grijalva had named San Juan de Ulua, and observed the coastline at a safe distance from the shore, making sure that his fleet raised the Spanish royal standard from their masts. Cortes awoke the next morning, Good Friday, and sent ashore two hundred men, almost half of his force, which he set to form an encampment on the shoreline, where they were plagued by the heat, and swarms of mosquitoes.
Another mass was held at a hastily erected chapel in honour of Good Friday, and soon emissaries began to arrive in order to communicate and negotiate with Cortes and his army, where the first utterance of the name ‘Montezuma’ was made. Montezuma was hailed the proud and powerful ruler of the Mexica – an alliance formed between three city states: Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tacuba, which was located in the Valley of Mexico. Tendile, one of Montezuma’s lieutenants, was afraid and impressed at the strength and prowess of Cortes’ army, even going so far as to comment that Cortes’ helmet was similar to that worn by the Gods of War, Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl.
Tendile soon after departed and promised to have the Spanish force send food and supplies, leaving behind him some two thousand servants who had been issued orders to make the Spanish huts and shelters; Cortes was pleased at this gift, but remaining fearful that this was also a ploy designed to allow Tendile to spy on his ‘visitors’. Montezuma, meanwhile, had received further information about the Spanish force from his spies, who informed him that Cortes had destroyed temples and idols, and had erected his own in their place, and that they made great use of horses and heavy armour, giving rise to a fear within the Aztec King that Cortes represented the end of a prophesy, as his arrival had coincided with a date the Aztecs believed would signal the return of Quetzalcoatl, a serpent God who was an ancestor of Montezuma’s own line. Over the course of the following night, the entire workforce aiding the Spaniards disappeared, along with all local villagers who had previously traded with and sustained Cortes and his men, leaving them isolated and forced to fend for themselves. Cortes was eager to meet Montezuma, although realised that he would have to mediate the factions which had formed amongst his own ranks, in order to affect this, subsequently calling a meeting with representatives of the various blocs amongst his men, telling them that he understood their reservations, as well as their desire to return home, but promising that if they remained with him, then they would be enriched beyond their wildest dreams. Cortes’ plan worked, and the men he had with him agreed to remain by his side, Cortes renounced his subservience to Diego de Velazquez and declared that their settlement was now a formal township: Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz or the Rich Town of the True Cross.
Cortes formalised the new settlement with the additional provision of documents which declared this a colony of the Spanish state, forming his own colonial government from a number of his friends and most trusted officers, which included town councillors, constables and magistrates. Cortes left the tent in which his new government had been forged, in order that they ‘elect’ him governor, chief justice and captain-general, a demonstration of his significant cunning and legal talents; his renunciation of subservience to de Velazquez ensured that Cortes was superior to all except Charles V of Spain in this new territory, a fact which Cortes demonstrated through the vast number of letters which he sent to the King, recounting his experiences in conquest over this new crown colony. In mid-August 1519, Cortes gathered his men and made a speech to them, informing them that they were Holy warriors about to embark on their own crusade, a message which roused and enthused them to greater heights as they continued on their conquest through the foothills and dense jungle.
The going became progressively harder as Cortes and his army climbed successive mountains in the stifling heat, plagued by mosquitoes and gnats, but still they nonetheless had the opportunity to appreciate the sheer beauty of the landscape in which they found themselves, the green forests stretching as far as one could see, and a snow-capped mountain in the distance. The group eventually reached the other side of the range and began their descent, welcoming the warmth which every step down the mountain brought with it, swinging to the north and passing by a massive salt lake. The situation had become more serious by this stage, as the party had begun to deplete its supplies of food and fresh water, although salvation was mercifully delivered in the form of an Aztec settlement: the town of Xocotlán, the leader of which welcomed Cortes and his men, and provided shelter and food to the Spaniards. Cortes summoned Malinche, his translator, whom he instructed to enquire as to whether or not this was a village under the control of Montezuma, to which the chief, Olintetl, replied in the affirmative, reporting that Montezuma was in command of over thirty kingdoms, and had soldiers in the hundreds of thousands.
The Aztecs had formulated a careful plan: they would allow the Spanish force to enter their land, welcome them, and then spring a trap on them when the time was ripe, in the hope that Cortes’ false sense of security would make his military response sluggish, allowing them to overwhelm him. Cortes and his men continued along their path, until their way was blocked by a high stone wall, demarking the border between Aztec and of Tlaxcalan territory, which Cortes deliberated over crossing, eventually deciding that he would. After a day of fighting with the Tlaxcalans, the Spanish had made great advances into the region, and the king of Tlaxcala, Xicotenga I, arrived to make peace with the Spanish, lamenting that their tribal livelihood had been impeded by the Aztecs, and offering to make an alliance with Cortes to fight against Montezuma – to which Cortes agreed, now in command of an army great enough to fight Montezuma and end his reign in the Valley of Mexico. The Spanish force remained in Tlaxcala for three weeks, enjoying high standards of comfort, desperately needed by the Spanish army, some of whom were suffering from hypothermia, others from malaria, and all from exhaustion, although Cortes remained vigilant, and regardless instructed that his men remained armed in their sleep in case of attack, although this was not required – the Spanish were treated as royalty for the duration of their stay in the city, and communicated with officials and military commanders from the Tlaxcalan government. From them, Cortes learned that the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, had remained fortified and defended beyond any other city known to them, and that to attack the city would be wholly unprecedented; although despite their reticence over an assault, the Tlaxcalans had nonetheless gained a great deal of intelligence on the city, discovering for instance that their water supply came from a single source. Then, on the 10th of October 1519, Cortes departed the city of Tlaxcala with his own army of Spanish and Totonac men, as well as 6,000 Tlaxcalan troops bestowed by Xicotenga to bolster his army, the train of soldiers stretching for miles behind his lead.
They headed for the city of Quetzalcoatl and camped after the first day on an open plain, greeted by Cholula representatives who brought maize and turkey with them as gifts, allowing them to remain in peace on this patch of their territory. Unknown to Cortes, Montezuma had received an oracle who claimed to have had a vision that Cortes and his men would be defeated in Cholula, which had almost certainly prompted him to make aggressive moves in the hope that this prophesy was true. It was Cortes’ translator, Malinche, who eventually discovered the plot against them, when an unknowing Cholulan women approached her and warned that the Cholulans had massed just outside of the city, with orders from Montezuma to attack and destroy the Spanish force, a plot which she immediately relayed to Cortes. Cortes invited the Cholulan commanders back into his private quarters, whereupon he bolted the door and threatened the chiefs with his sword, revealing that he knew of their contact with Montezuma. The subsequent events cannot be called anything over than a massacre; priests and traders were killed alongside soldiers, with many running up the steps of the temple in order to escape the Spanish soldiers, only to fall to their deaths either by accident, or as a means of suicide.
Cortes decided to make this a total act of annihilation and set the temple alight as a means of striking fear into the hearts of the Cholulan and Aztec population – an act made even more significant as the temple was the heart of the pilgrimage site of Quetzalcoatl. Cortes then allowed the Tlaxcalans free reign of the city, which they used as an opportunity to completely destroy the home of their enemies: burning houses, looting shrines and stores and slaughtering many of the residents they discovered; by the time the attack was over, five thousand lay dead in the streets of the city of Cholula. The massacre at Cholula sent shockwaves around the whole region, and afforded Cortes great control over a vast swathe of land which had previously belonged to the Cholulan government, a significant victory but one gained through the most horrendous means.
Cortes remained at the city of Cholula for a time and after a week or so was intrigued to see Aztec messengers coming toward his position bearing cloth, gold and fine food – asking to see the Spanish leader; whom they informed had been granted an audience with Montezuma at long last. Cortes and his men departed soon after this, and continued on their trek westward, his massive army stretching out for a considerable distance behind him and forming an imposing image. The Totonacs requested that they be permitted to return to the coast: many had malaria and suffered with the altitude, and a grateful Cortes granted their request, ladening them with many gifts as a means of showing his thanks for their support in his conquest so far. The remaining force consisted mainly of the original Spanish entourage and the Tlaxcalans, who suffered in the freezing temperatures and the steep inclines, over which they had to drag their heavy artillery and cannon balls. The city of Iztapalapa was eventually reached, Cortes proclaiming that it was greater and grander than anything which existed in Spain, with his men invited to spend the night barracked in the various palaces and mansions which adorned its streets, the scene set to the sound of the streams and fountains of fresh water which filled the blue pools in the city’s courtyards. The next morning, the 8th of November 1519, saw Cortes and his men adorn themselves in their finest battle armour: both a show of force and an insurance measure, as they feared that they might be attacked from all sides once they had entered Tenochtitlán proper, which he later called the ‘City of Dreams’.
Not long after, a procession arrived, the grandest the Spanish had yet seen, bedecked with gold and other riches, from which Montezuma emerged, his aides casting fabric to the ground so that his feet would not be dirtied; the Aztec King had a striking appearance: he was perhaps five years older than Cortes, with tight cropped hair, startling eyes and a lower lip pierced with jade, his cloak adorned with other precious stones which glittered alongside Cortes’ armour in the sun. Montezuma instructed Cortes and his men to rest after their travels, after which the Spanish were led away to a grand compound which had formerly been the home of Montezuma’s father, where they were invited to reside; the grandeur such that even the horses were given beds of flowers upon which they could sleep. Despite this apparently warm welcome, Cortes immediately ordered that the compound be secured, with artillery positions erected on each side of the structure’s walls, and guards posted along all entryways, after which he took an even more brazen move, and ordered his men to parade and fire their weapons in the town centre as a show of force, sending townspeople running from their abodes in fear. Cortes’ wish for a new Church remained strong, and after a few days’ hunting, he finally decided to found a chapel in his own quarters at the Palace of Axayactl, which Montezuma approved against all expectations, marking the establishment of a place of worship to the Christian God in the political and spiritual capital of the Aztec world, a massive advance in the soft power of the Spanish force in Mexico. Despite this however, Cortes and his captains grew ever-more concerned: they were a small force surrounded and outnumbered in the heart of the nation which they sought to conquer, and despite their fine treatment, they felt increasingly uneasy. This feeling was pervasive throughout Cortes’ army, and a number of captains approached him citing the same concerns, leading the Spanish force to call a meeting of its leaders to discuss the matter.
The situation was muddied when news reached Cortes through his Tlaxcalan messengers that his men posted at the fortress at Vera Cruz had been killed by a local warlord, Qualpopoca, a subordinate of Montezuma who had demanded that the local Totonac population pay their tax, only to be refused, locals claiming that they were now under the rule of the Spanish. After this dispute between locals and Qualpopoca, the latter invited the Spanish under false pretences to a meeting, suggesting that an alliance be forged between them, only to attack the Spaniards on sight, killing two and finishing off the remaining force at a later battle, taking one for human sacrifice and delivering his head to Montezuma as a prize, although this terrified the King and he had the head sent away from the city. Despite his demeanour of affability with Montezuma, Cortes had schemed for his overthrow since he had arrived at Tenochtitlán, and now had the pretext to engage in a conflict with the Aztec ruler, and challenge him for the seat of power in the City of Dreams. With the letter bearing news from Vera Cruz tucked in his pocket, Cortes went to see Montezuma at his palace, exchanging gifts with him as usual, and, unfolding the letter, he informed Montezuma of the attack, making clear that the account he had heard held Montezuma ultimately responsible for the incident at Vera Cruz.
Cortes stressed that he did not wish for conflict over the matter, ordering that Montezuma come back to his own quarters at the Palace of Axayactl without any fuss or commotion – threatening him with immediate death at the hands of his captains. Montezuma was shocked and pleaded that he had no knowledge of the attack, promising to send an investigative party to the coast to ascertain what had happened, to which Cortes agreed – still insisting that Montezuma come to his quarters all the same, where he was arrested. To the outside world, little had changed – the King had unexpectedly moved into new quarters but remained in power, ruling from a small office in his father’s former palace; but in reality, Cortes checked every single person with whom the King met, and kept him under watch twenty-four hours a day. Three weeks later, Montezuma’s fact-finding mission returned from the coast, and admitted that the Spaniards had been killed under the King’s ultimate authority, although, the party stressed, the Spanish had been killed without the prior knowledge or approval of Montezuma, leading Cortes to order that a number of Aztecs be burned at the stake in punishment, including Montezuma’s son, Qualpopoca, a harsh punishment, and one which was designed to send a clear message to the Aztec nobility: the Spanish force were not to be crossed. Cortes had pyres built in the town centre, and had both those condemned to the stake, as well as Montezuma himself bound in chains, led to the square in which the pyres had been erected, and forced to watch the scene as his own son was burned alive. Montezuma was led back to Cortes’ palace, released from his chains and informed that he was free to leave, Cortes suggesting that the two rule the kingdom with one another; the King was silent, broken by what he had seen, and the manner in which he had been treated.
Montezuma eventually spoke and thanked Cortes for freeing him, although he feared that the sight of him in chains before his own son’s execution, would signal to his nobles that he was powerless, and feared an uprising if he left the security of the palace alongside the Spanish, who at this time paradoxically offered him protection. Life in Tenochtitlán remained effectively normal, festivals continued, and the King held banquets, meetings and religious events in his quarters, the population too, were able to return to a sense of stability after the dramatic but clandestine kidnapping of their King. Soon, Cortes decided that it was time to firmly establish his authority and ordered Montezuma to summon his men to his Palace, where he intended to proclaim the city and the kingdom under the control of the Spanish monarchy, as a new colony. The crowd assembled, and Montezuma spoke to them, breaking down in tears as he informed them that he had ceased to be their leader, and begging them to remember his good works over the eighteen years in which he had been in power, after which he composed himself, and stated that the ruler of the Kingdom was Charles V of Spain – ceding his authority and making Cortes the de facto ruler of the Aztec Kingdom; on paper. Cortes, his power now legally defined, set about extracting as many resources as he could from the Kingdom, explaining to Montezuma that the Spanish king required vast amounts of gold in order to keep him content. It was at this time that Cortes was informed of some incredible news: Spanish vessels were already anchored off the coast, sent by Diego Velazquez with the purpose of coming for Cortes, such was his insubordination at the beginning of the expedition, leading Cortes to hastily disembark for the coast to deal with the matter, his party headed by a priest, and carrying a letter which encouraged mutual support towards congenial relations for the two sides.
The situation in Tenochtitlán became volatile after Cortes had departed for the coast, with some claiming that he was not to return, leading to a series of suspicious events which aroused the concern of the Spaniards who remained in the capital, such as when the Aztecs stopped bringing food to the Spanish soldiers barracked in the palace. The mood of the town had heightened with the coming of the Festival of Toxcatl, a period of three weeks in May when the Aztecs performed rituals and prayers for the coming of rain, a means of safeguarding the harvest of that year. The Spanish contingent in the city grew ever-more concerned at the sight of preparations for the festival, with stakes erected in the town square which, they feared, were to be used for their own sacrifice, a concern which was heightened by the Tlaxcalans, who warned the Spanish that they were to be the victims of sacrifice in that year’s event. The Spanish leader in Tenochtitlán, Pedro de Alvarado, saw who he thought to be prisoners awaiting sacrifice, and such was his fear, that he brought forth two of Montezuma’s close relatives and began to torture them, until they revealed to him that a rebellion had indeed been planned, and that the Spaniards were to be taken prisoner and sacrificed.
Alvarado watched the festival as it began with nerves, leaving 60 of his men to guard Montezuma, and arranging the remainder of his force around the city in key tactical points in the event that trouble should be incurred. During a particularly energetic part of the festivities, Alvarado’s nerves got the better of him and he gave the order to fire, following which the Spanish force fired their muskets into the group of civilians who had thronged the square and hacked away at the unarmed dancers with their swords, causing the population to flee, terrified, for their lives. This was a massacre of terrible proportions, with blood flowing down the streets once lined with happy festival goers, and the Spanish pressing their advance into the homes and shops which lined the main street, murdering whomever they found huddled there. By this time, the wider population had realised that these events were taking place, and hurried to the scene, grabbing whatever weapons they had to hand and chasing after the Spanish, who effected a hasty retreat back to their compound, Alvarado being struck on the head with a rock which caused him quite some injury. The guards who had remained with Montezuma in the barracks had executed a number of nobles, but had kept Montezuma himself alive, the Palace door now being shut and bolted to defend against the mass of enraged and stunned Aztecs who had surrounded the compound.
News of this insurrection hit Cortes hard, and he called together all of his men before departing for Tenochtitlán, riding at the head of a significant and elite force, which sped toward the City of Dreams, totally unaware of what state they would discover it in. Cortes scoped out the landscape with his army before venturing over to the city itself on the 24th of June 1520, to find the streets deserted and the houses quiet – an eerie sight which unnerved the Spanish force even further as they ventured toward the centre of the city. He and his army were greeted with joy when they returned to the Palace – Alvarado and his men had not eaten for days, and were overcome by the sight of reinforcements, although Alvarado was demoted, with relatively little reprimand other than this, following which Cortes raged at Montezuma’s aides for failing to give his men food and water in his absence, stating that if he did not open the markets immediately, then there would be serious consequences. Montezuma stated that he lacked the power to order that the markets be reopened, leading Cortes to demand that he select an intermediary – his brother, Cuitláhuac, who would become a great player in the struggle against Cortes and his occupation.
Cuitláhuac subsequently arranged a meeting between himself and the remainder of the Aztec nobles, arguing that Montezuma had been placed under a spell by Cortes, and hence required aid in the rightful defence of his city and empire; the council listened and agreed, appointing Cuitláhuac the new tlatoani of the Aztec empire – a new emperor. Cuitláhuac went into action immediately, and began an attack on the Spanish position, ensuring that Cortes’ worst fears were realised: the bridges were up, their vessels burned, and their position under siege, and now without the trump card of holding the emperor prisoner. The siege continued for an entire week, the Spanish being subjected to hails of rocks, darts and arrows, all the while being taunted by their Aztec opponents, sending shaman into the front line to perform spells against Cortes’ force, leading some to report seeing the dead walk, and severed limbs clambering around the compound. Cortes eventually approached Montezuma and asked if he could talk to the Aztec army, which he refused, having no interest in aiding his Spanish companions, and stated that he cared for nothing but death, having learned that Cuitláhuac had replaced him as King. Montezuma was nonetheless manhandled to the roof and ordered to call off the attack, although as soon as he was exposed on the roof, a shower of stones and arrows fell on him, causing him great injury, and, the following day, death. The ruler of the Aztec empire was killed at the hands of his own people, over whom he had ruled for 17 years with much success and enterprise, on the 30th June 1520 – a tragic end to a massively influential and successful life.
The Spanish realised that they could not beat the Aztecs, and planned to evacuate the city via the Tacuban causeway; Cortes ordering his carpenters to smash the wooden ceilings and supports of the Palace compound to be used in the construction of a portable, makeshift bridge – eventually requiring the strength of 200 men to lift, guarded by 150 soldiers and a dozen cavalrymen. On the night of the 1st of July 1520, Cortes and his men staged their breakout from the City of Dreams – fleeing in the dense fog which had descended upon the metropolis, reaching as far as the beginning of the Tacuban pass, before the alarm was raised, and the Aztec army began to advance toward the escaping Spanish and Tlaxcalan force. This area was known as the Toltec Canal, and became the site of a desperate defence for the Spanish, with the battle turning into a free for all as the Aztec lines poured into those hastily formed by the Spanish, Cortes himself being dragged into the water by two Aztecs, mercifully freed by his own men who hacked him free with their swords. The men tasked with carrying the now-stuck fast bridge had remained at the rear of the Spanish line, intending to pick it up after the vanguard had advanced over, although found themselves at the sharp end of the merciless Aztec attack, leading to a high number of Spanish and Tlaxcalan casualties. The night would become known to the Spanish as ‘La Noche Triste’ – ‘The Night of Sorrows’; six hundred Spanish soldiers had perished, alongside over four thousand Tlaxcalans – a brutal night of immense loss and dreadful fighting; all battle conventions abandoned in the desperate and instinctive fight for life which had taken place. Many of his men were injured and Cortes, the man famed for remaining calm in even the most pressing situations, reflected with anguish the night of his fall – leading his men forward on the 50-mile march to Tlaxcalan territory to the North.
The party staggered on to the north, eventually reaching Otumba, a small settlement near the Apam Plains, where they rested, soon disturbed by the news that a massive Aztec army had assembled to combat them on their exodus from Cuitláhuac’s army. Cortes regardless believed that his time had come, and that he was about to enter the last battle of his life – a prospect which weighed on his mind as he prepared his men for battle, pulling together their pikes, bows and muskets, before forming his lines and ordering his cavalry to charge at the enemy line in order to smash its formation. His cavalry screamed toward the Aztec line, and the subsequent melee split the air with another deafening cacophony of sound: screams, crashes and the crack of muskets, providing the soundtrack to the heavy fighting which had engulfed the two sides; although their numerical disadvantage threatened the Spaniards over the course of the day, the Aztec lines pressing every single attack, even after the Spanish cavalry had pushed back yet another wave of Aztec troops.
Cortes, mounted on his horse, noted that an opening had formed in the Aztec line, giving him a straight flight toward the leader of the Aztec army, the brother of Cuitláhuac himself; and ordered three of his captains to ride with him, charging straight for the Aztec commander. Cortes knocked the commander from his horse, causing him and his banner to smash to the ground, with Cortes’ captain, Juan de Salamanca, impaling the doomed Aztec on his lance, his war helmet and sun-standard swept into the hands of the Spanish and held aloft. The standard had fallen, and the Aztecs, now unaware of the location of their command nucleus were vulnerable to the disruption caused by the Spanish cavalry, causing their lines to fall apart, and disarray to set in to the sizable Aztec force which remained, leading them to effect a hasty retreat. Cortes sent his war hounds and cavalry after the retreating force, ending the battle which has come to be cited as Cortes’ greatest military achievement: his use of cavalry and disruptive movements, as well as his personal bravery in attacking the heart of the Aztec line remain revered from a military perspective all over the world. Three days later, Cortes and his men reached Tlaxcalan territory, and slumped down to the ground, weary after days of marching and fighting, finally confident that they had reached an area with some degree of security. Tepeaca lay forty miles south west of the position in which Cortes and his men had recovered from their exodus from Tenochtitlán, and it was in this direction that they marched in the summer of 1520, bringing 450 Spanish soldiers, two dozens horses and nearly 2,000 Tlaxcalan warriors.
Tepeaca was a city of size, located at the top of an elevated plateau and well defended – easier to conquer than Tenochtitlán but regardless a challenge for Cortes and his men, who, upon reaching a location near to the city, dispatched a messenger with an order to immediately surrender or else be attacked. The Tepeacan authorities refused to surrender, leading Cortes to affect a massive attack on them, winning the city with no casualties, after which Cortes smashed idols and temples, a cultural scorched earth campaign, accompanied with a series of highly unpleasant public events, when letters were branded onto the faces of men, women and children accused of working to undermine the new Spanish administration. This was a region subjected to Cortes’ new war of terror – a war designed to break the local population rather than to work partially alongside them; an approach which he maintained over the whole Tepeacan campaign until he had captured the entire region. Stories of Cortes’ atrocities increased as the year progressed – tales of mass executions; men, women and children lined up, branded and enslaved in public squares, became commonplace, and by early September, the entire region had fallen under his control.
Cortes founded a new town, Segura de la Frontera or Security of the Frontier and developed a new fortress there, from which he could control his territory, which despite the failure at Tenochtitlán, still included almost half of Mexico. Buoyed by his power and the success of the campaign , Cortes recovered his health, and communicated with his carpenter in order to determine how they could attack the City of Dreams once again. Land attacks would be impossible, and hence a new approach would be required, an approach which Cortes mapped out with his shipbuilders – a naval attack on the City of Tenochtitlán, one which he hoped the Aztecs had never seriously anticipated.
Cortes was to be aided in his future campaign by a brutal force which had invaded the mainland – smallpox - which had arrived alongside European settlers and killed the native population in droves, a horrendous by-product of the colonial campaigns of leaders such as Cortes, in this instance arriving in Cempoala via the person of Francisco de Eugia, a Spanish porter with Narvaez. By December 1520, Cuitláhuac was dead from the disease, as were many of his generals and a number of Cortes’ own allies, including his greatest confidante in Tlaxcala – Maxixacatzin; the death of these leaders allowed Cortes to choose new ones in those regions which he controlled, ensuring that he could call on their support when the time came for the attack on Tenochtitlán. Martin Lopez, Cortes’ shipbuilder, soon informed his commander that several of the vessels he had dismantled had been transported over the mountains and toward the lake upon which Tenochtitlán sat, in preparation for their naval attack on the city.
This was an impressive feat, the transportation of entire warships over the merciless mountain paths leading into the Valley of Mexico – and a process which would allow Cortes to perform the largest landlocked naval assault of all time. The region remained without a ruler after the death of Cuitláhuac, until a new prince was appointed a couple of months later, named Cuauhtemoc, a nephew to both Montezuma and Cuitláhuac; some whispered that he had thrown the stone which had killed Montezuma; a strong, hotheaded leader with a desire for action – a disposition which would make him troublesome for Cortes. Cortes had by this time had assembled his army – with 40 cavalrymen, 550 foot soldiers, alongside artillery teams and sharpshooters, a formidable second force which remained well-equipped for battle, and was also joined by a number of local tribes who had been engaged in alliances – the Tlaxcalan leader, Xicotenga the Elder, offered Cortes 80,000 Tlaxcalan soldiers for his campaign.
By the 31st of December 1520, Cortes and his men had reached the city of Texcoco, a large metropolis of 30,000 citizens, finding it deserted; Cortes grew angry when he learned that the King, alongside his people, had travelled to Tenochtitlán to ally with Cuauhtemoc. Cortes set up camp in the deserted palace of Texcoco, and was visited by representatives of nearby villages who offered to help him staff and populate the city, to which he once again agreed. Texcoco was now his and provided an excellent base from which Cortes could plan an attack on the City of Dreams, recuperating from the march and finalising preparations for a massive attack on the Aztec capital.
The beginning of 1521, saw both sides move their forces into positions to attack and defend the City of Dreams – Cortes making an attempt to effect a peaceful transition by sending some prisoners back to the capital with an offering of compromise, to which he received no response. Cortes led a massive operation in advance of his attack on Tenochtitlan– thousands of Tlaxcalans prepared meals, whilst thousands more carried the bulk of the materials required by the vessels reconstructed by Lopez at the lake’s edge; thousands more watched on and prepared themselves for the battle which was to come. The caravan was set in motion, and marched for four days, a breathtaking site in the forests and foothills of the Valley of Mexico – estimated by one that it would have taken a man six hours to walk from one end of the column to the other. The march eventually bore the army to the shores of the lake upon which Tenochtitlán rested – a massive force resplendent in their finest robes and armour, weapons glinting, and dust kicked up for miles around in their wake. Work now began on the construction of a channel in part of the lake, designed to increase the depth of the water in order to accommodate the high draft of Cortes’ vessels, which were being constructed by the side of the lake at the same time.
Militarily, Cuauhtémoc was at a disadvantage, not only were his men affected by smallpox, but they were also busily engaged in harvesting the crops upon which Tenochtitlán heavily relied, meaning that the standing Aztec army was weak. Cortes planned to launch his ships at a massive festival, a show of force to the Aztecs, and called for neighbouring tribes to supply arrowheads for his archers, which they did in great numbers – many chiefs backed Cortes as the most likely force to overthrow the Aztecs, the Tlaxcalans sending over 20,000 men to aid the Spanish army. Cortes’ vessels were launched in late April 1521, his own, La Capitana, was the largest, and carried iron canon, the others pushed into the lake with a great fanfare, with a mass performed by the Spanish priest, Father Olmedo. The plans for the attack on the City of Dreams were in place: Cortes’ army would attack key points in the city – the causeways, water supplies and bridges, in order to sever the connections between the city and the outside world, whilst two groups of the army would attack both north and south of the city via the causeways at the head and the base of the metropolis, led by Sandoval, Pedro de Alvarado and Cristóbal de Olid. Cortes gave one more speech to his men, and informed them of the rules of war, their objectives, and the divine work which they were fulfilling with their operation, following which Pedro de Alvarado and Cristóbal de Olid set off with their troops to the city of Tacuba.
On the 1st of June 1521, Cortes manned his flagship and led his fleet of warships onto the open waters of the lake, supported by thousands of Tlaxcalan troops in canoes, pushing toward Xoloc, where he had first met Montezuma, he then unloaded three canon from his ship, which he intended to use as field guns – the force surrounded on all sides by Aztecs in canoes and on foot, at whom the Spanish proceeded to fire with their artillery. Cortes was watchful as night fell, desperately searching for a way to get new powder for the canon and keeping his ships ready for an evacuation – finding himself struck with fear at the sight and sound of hundreds of Aztec warriors coming toward their position in the darkness, moving round in the inky blackness of night. The Spanish put up a valiant defence and managed to secure their position, although they were not to realise that the Aztecs had only just begun their fight for the defence of their capital city, with the fight over the causeways into the city a focal point for both sides, the Spanish attacking causeways and the Aztecs building their defences overnight in a process which continued in earnest for a great period of time. The Aztec defenders had erected various traps and barriers for the Spanish ships which continued to provide fire support for ground troops, although the captains employed by Cortes were talented and managed to evade all obstacles put in their way.
Cortes soon found that he faced a dilemma when he learned that a causeway north of the city was being used to transport food and supplies in and out of Tenochtitlán, a causeway which he had intentionally left open as a trap, hoping that the Aztecs would flee the city via their single escape route, where they could be mown down by Spanish cavalry units stationed there. Cortes now knew that he had to slam this corridor shut, and send Sandoval, who had recently been lanced in the foot, to lead the force to the north, with the intention of sealing the causeway and thus the entire city; Cortes also ordering that his men adopt a scorched earth policy, although it was one which troubled him, as he had hoped to take the grand city intact. On the 10th of June, Cortes ordered an attack into the centre of the city, and took Olid, as well as a great number of Spanish, Tlaxcalan and Chalcan soldiers along one of the causeways, flanked on both sides by his brigantines.
The causeway was pitted with holes and ravines as a consequence of the heavy fighting between the Spanish and the Aztecs, and took much of the day to repair, although at long last, the main force reached the end of the route and stood below the Gate of the Eagle, which afforded them access to the city itself. Tenochtitlán remained intact, bridges and canals in working order, as the Aztecs had not expected the Spanish to breach their walls in such a short space of time, dragging a canon with them and placing it atop the central sacrificial stone. Cortes had his canon fire directly into the lines of Aztec warriors who began to flock toward the force and caused a great deal of damage – although found that priests at the temple had sounded drums which alerted the entire city to the presence of the relatively small Spanish force. Cortes ordered a hasty retreat, leaving the canon where it lay and rushing out of the Gate through which they had entered, alongside the remainder of his force – the Aztecs seizing the canon and casting it into the lake. The incursion into the city had shown Cortes the importance of burning buildings, as well as the lay of the land inside the walls of Tenochtitlán itself – and had the added effect of convincing many other tribes to join Cortes in his war against Cuauhtémoc, the Chalco and Xochimilco tribes joining the ranks of the Spanish army, bringing food, supplies and shelter with them. By the 15th of June, Cortes’ army had increased by over 50,000 men, and he determined to lead another attack on the city, in a manner which followed the same basic pattern as the first attack.
Seeing the stiff resistance of the Aztecs, he decided against another attack on the Great Temple, and instead settled to use the opportunity to reinforce the causeway, making it suitable for cavalry and the transportation of guns. Cortes was angered that in light of the Aztec defence, he would have to destroy the entire city, along with all of its riches – burning the city which would have been the grandest in all the lands controlled by Spain. He repeated the same line of attack up and down the causeway for many days, returning always to Xoloc at night due to its relative safety, a move which was credited when news reached him that Alvarado had lost a great number of men overnight when they had been positioned well up the causeway, attacked and then surrounded, unable to be assisted by their cavalry. Alvarado was disciplined by a vexed Cortes, who despite his mistakes, was congratulated on his great advance up the causeway, the two men planning another push into the city toward the Tlatelolco market.
The three-pronged siege seemed to be working in favour the Spanish, who nonetheless felt the toll of the attack – spending many sleepless nights fearing attack, and living on bland maize cakes. Attacks from within the city would be hard for the Spanish – they would lack the fire power of the brigantines and would have to face the Aztecs in close quarters; an environment which far better suited the defenders, as they had knowledge of the layout of the city. Cortes eventually decided that he would launch a major offensive on the city regardless of his concerns, a decision which pleased his men, who had been yearning for an attack since they had arrived.
Sandoval was to leave his position with a small army, bait for the remainder of his force who were to attack the Aztecs who went after the decoy force, aided by the brigantines and Alvarado’s men. Cortes and his army in the meantime was to move up the southern causeway, and once inside the city, would split into three sections, attacking the three roads which led into the market. The assault was launched on the 30th June 1521, and went according to plan, until Cortes was actually inside the city, which he struggled to remember, and found his progress inhibited by the Aztecs, who launched ambushes on the invading force. Cortes’ other two divisions which had split off to take the other two roads came under heavy attack, forcing Cortes to abandon his plan and aid his fellows, who he found had been chased into the canals by the Aztecs, who fought more viciously than ever before.
This was a devastating defeat for Cortes, who’s grand army had been debased, threatening the advance of Alvarado and Sandoval, who continued to advance from the north into the city centre. The northern group encountered an unhindered Aztec army, spurred on by bloodlust at their defeat of Cortes, and engaged in heavy fighting – leading to Alvarado’s call for a general retreat of the northern force as well. Despite their defeat of the Spanish attack, the tide was definitely turning against Cuauhtémoc , who had lost many regional allies over the course of the year, since it was becoming ever more widely believed that the Aztecs could not survive their encounter with Cortes, a fear evidenced further by their inability to defeat the Spaniards definitively in battle.
Cuauhtémoc’s army had entered an ever more desperate position, with the bodies of the dead piled up inside the city wall, and civilians dressed as soldiers to make it appear as if the Aztec army remained strong, when in fact it had been decimated by hunger and thirst, along with the rest of the city. Cortes, knowing that his opponents were weak, submitted a request for a peace negotiation, which Cuauhtémoc seriously considered, before ultimately deciding to hold out – making the battle of Tenochtitlán one of life or death for his people. Cortes was running out of options and wishing not to continue the siege, took the decision to raze the city to the ground – a massive demolition operation which would reduce the City of Dreams to a pile of rubble. In order to complete the plan, Cortes had to gain the last redoubt of Aztec control in the city, the marketplace, which he did, by luring the enemy from their positions via a decoy party of 10 cavalrymen, who attracted the attention of the Aztecs and encouraged a large number of them take up the chase, leading them out of the market.
30 cavalrymen charged on the small remaining force in the marketplace, killing many of them and wounding others, whilst Alvarado led a ground assault on the market, attacking Aztec lines with great ferocity, whilst the Tlaxcalans burned and maimed both Aztec warriors and their buildings. The lack of water, food and supplies to the Aztec population had rendered them desperate and starving, ensuring that periods of ‘fighting’ as described by the Spanish were little more than massacres, fighting enemies who were already half dead and with little tactical influence. The Tlaxcalans remained a mechanism of atrocity, their actions so ferocious and bitter that even Cortes noted the degrees to which they performed acts of violence in a seemingly indifferently manner, and the occupation of the city remained in much the same manner as before, Cuauhtémoc continuing to refuse all requests of a compromise or meeting. The city was a nightmarish place by this time – ruinous, covered in smoke and home to huddles of crying, emaciated civilians, a dark and hellish corner of a settlement once hailed as the City of Dreams. In early August, the crew of a Spanish brigantine spotted a single canoe heading toward the shore, and were preparing to fire upon it, when it was realised that the canoe contained the leader of the Aztec people, Cuauhtémoc himself. Garci Holguin was the captain of the vessel which made the arrest, a great honour in his eyes – and bore Cuauhtémoc to Cortes, who received him atop the Great Temple under a canopy.
Cuauhtémoc approached Cortes, an elegant and delicate man, and congratulated him on the success of his attack, and requesting that he too be killed, his city and empire having been destroyed in the process. The city fell to the Spanish on the 13th of August 1521, a fact which was little celebrated, as negotiations between Cortes and Cuauhtémoc remained in full swing - the former demanding that he be given all the gold which was lost on La Noche Triste, which had in fact been sunken in the lake, leaving little for Cortes and his men. The Battle for Tenochtitlán had been one of the bloodiest in history, and it is estimated that over the course of the siege and fighting, 200,000 Aztecs were killed, alongside 30,000 Tlaxcalans, leaving the land smouldering for many miles around the former City of Dreams. Cortes now had the command of all Central America, from Vera Cruz on the Eastern Coast to the Pacific Ocean, and the land which now makes up modern-day Guatemala, a massive area of land, greater than that controlled any other Spanish commander. The new king of Mexico had a wish to rebuild Tenochtitlán in his own image and commenced the construction of the New Mexico City in 1522, employing Aztec workers which included one of Montezuma’s sons. Cortes had his own palace constructed on the site of Montezuma’s, completed in a Spanish style, alongside many new churches as well as new canals, which the Spanish could not complete to the same standard as the Aztecs.
Religion would soon become a massive issue in the region, with the increasing migration of Dominican and wandering friars, leading to the destruction of many temples as well as those who tended and ran them. 1522 also saw the birth of Cortes’ son to Malinche, his native wife, whom he called Martin in honour of his father – growing up in the palatial buildings which Cortes had erected on the site of the former city of Tenochtitlán. In 1523, Cortes received documents from the King which formally instituted him as the captain-general of Mexico, which he later stated was the greatest honour of his life, a formal recognition of the status which he had operated under for the previous three years. Cortes went on to gain immense wealth, and continued his adventurous lifestyle, discovering the Baja California, as well as the Gulf of California, although his career was markedly less successful when he attempted attacks on Guatemala, Honduras and Algiers. The Spanish people hailed Cortes as the grand conquistador, and he remained an immensely popular figure amongst the Spanish elite – offered titles and knighthoods, many of which he chose to decline.
His final days were spent in Spain, where he died on the 2nd December, 1547, just before his planned trip to Mexico had been scheduled to leave, and he is buried at the Hospital de Jesús Nazareno in Mexico City, the place where he and Montezuma had supposedly first met one another, and the site of a hospital for Aztec soldiers which Cortes had erected during the assault on Tenochtitlán. Hernan Cortes is remembered as one of history’s most controversial men – undoubtedly a brave soldier, incredible tactician and loyal subject to the King, although a man who performed acts of atrocity, massacre and who undertook immense violence in order to fulfil his innate desire for conquest. In his wake, Cortes left a people about to have their memory destroyed, their religion, lifestyle and culture all threatened by the conquering Spanish force, who had also subjected them to the bloodiest single land battle in history, as well a plague of smallpox, which killed entire communities in horrific scenes of agony. Cortes was a problem gambler, a military genius, a barbarian and a leader – a combination of characteristics which allowed him to pull off one of the most daring and audacious military campaigns of all time and he will be remembered for good or for ill far into the future. What do you think of Hernan Cortes? Was he a grand commander of a force well ahead of its time, or was he a conquering tyrant who subjected entire populations to immense violence as a means of fulfilling his own desire for power? Please let us know in the comments below, and in the meantime, thank you very much for watching.