You need Adobe Flash Player to view this content.
Click here to download Adobe Flash Player
General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 17 Aug 2017/1 Flower
Text Size:

Search the Site (type in white box):

Article suitable for older students

Aztec gold pieces, Templo Mayor Museum

How much gold did the Spanish take from the Aztecs?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Andy Allison: How much gold (in value) did the Spanish steal from the Aztecs? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Moctezuma’s messengers give first gifts to Cortés, Florentine Codex Book 12
Moctezuma’s messengers give first gifts to Cortés, Florentine Codex Book 12  (Click on image to enlarge)

No-one knows! The vast majority of gold items taken by the Spanish were melted down either in Mexico itself after the Conquest or here in Europe. That said, a good stack of it probably found its way over to England, having been plundered by (English) pirates that attacked Spanish booty ships en route for Spain. Cast a quick glance at that gold ring on your (or my) finger: it could have minute traces of Aztec gold in it...!

Ask any Mexican how much gold the Spanish took from the Aztecs and they’ll probably reply ‘¡un (l)ingo(te)!’...
Ask any Mexican how much gold the Spanish took from the Aztecs and they’ll probably reply ‘¡un (l)ingo(te)!’... (Click on image to enlarge)

We tried to set this question into some sort of context: first we consulted Dr. Leonardo López Luján (member of our Panel of Experts) on this. He reminded us to begin with that Mexico is a country that’s relatively poor in gold deposits (compared, for instance, with Alaska, California, the north-east of South America...). He writes: ‘that means that the Mexica obtained relatively little gold, compared with the ancient societies of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Our [Mexico’s] archaeological collection amounts to a mere 500 or so pieces of gold, all pretty tiny. And that’s in three decades of excavations...’ Warwick Bray, another of our experts, has written much on pre-Columbian gold: some years ago he told us that if you gathered together all the ceremonial gold artefacts from the Aztec capital that have survived today, you could quite easily fit them into your cupped hands.

One of the many modern editions of the Letters from Cortés to Charles V
One of the many modern editions of the Letters from Cortés to Charles V

Quite how much the Spanish succeeded in taking (well, the first and most spectacular batch of gold artefacts were actually GIVEN to them by the envoys of Moctezuma, in 1519) from the Aztecs we can only make rough calculations about. In his first Relación (letter, written in July 1519) to the Spanish king, Hernán Cortés lists out the treasures that he was sending back to Charles V as part of the booty tax he was obliged to pay to the Spanish Crown. The list contains many golden treasures (note that he doesn’t admit the items are gifts from Moctezuma, he simply calls them ‘gold, jewels, stones, featherworks that have [always] been here...’!), the most spectacular of which was a ‘large wheel of gold’ decorated with glyphs, in the shape of the Sun (god?). Cortés valued it at ‘3,800 gold pesos [something close to “pieces of eight”]’. His companion Bernal Díaz de Castillo reckoned it was worth more like 10,000 pesos and was ‘as big as a cartwheel’.

Gold necklaces featured strongly in the list of treasures given to Cortés by Moctezuma soon after the Spanish landed in Mexico. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Gold necklaces featured strongly in the list of treasures given to Cortés by Moctezuma soon after the Spanish landed in Mexico. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

A smaller (silver) wheel accompanied the gold one - probably a representation of the Moon. The list contained in total some 50 gold items, alongside many pieces of Aztec featherwork, clothing, jewellery, headdresses, animal skins, - even two codices. In amongst the gold items was a Spanish helmet that the Aztecs had - at Cortés’s request - filled with gold dust.
As Leonardo pointed out to us, Cortés sent to Charles V a quinto real (20%) of what the Spaniards had actually received. So, very roughly, Cortés and his men got away with some 200 gold objects - a large booty, but perhaps nothing like what some have imagined over the centuries. Of course they then went on (in 1520) to raid Moctezuma’s treasure stores within Tenochtitlan itself - only to lose most of it while trying to escape the city just days later during the Noche Triste. But that’s another story...

Picture sources:-
• Gold pieces, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Image from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Photos of gold ingot and jewellery by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

Gold ingot melted by the Spanish

Gold pendant

Gold disc

Comment button

Here's what others have said: