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What happened straight after Moctezuma’s death?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Jack Legg, pupil at Larkswood Primary School, Chingford, E. London: What did the Spanish do immediately after Moctezuma was killed and did they stay in Tenochtitlan for long? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

The Aztecs remove Moctezuma’s body, Florentine Codex Book XII
The Aztecs remove Moctezuma’s body, Florentine Codex Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

The best person to have asked might have been Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the Conquistadors, whose epic account of the Spanish Conquest, ‘The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico’ has been called ‘The most complete and trustworthy of the chronicles of the Conquest’. Certainly his book is one of the main sources for the conqust story, even though he didn’t even begin to write it till some 35 years after the Conquest was over, when he was 60 years old!

Moctezuma’s stoning, illustration by Keith Henderson in ‘Montezuma, Lord of the Aztecs’ by Cottie Burland
Moctezuma’s stoning, illustration by Keith Henderson in ‘Montezuma, Lord of the Aztecs’ by Cottie Burland (Click on image to enlarge)

By all accounts, including that of Díaz del Castillo, the situation of the Spanish encamped in one of Tenochtitlan’s palaces at the time of Moctezuma’s death (June 1520) was fast approaching critical, with the Aztecs laying siege to the encampment, seeking revenge for the massacre during the Toxcatl festival the previous month, when Cortés had left the city and his trigger-happy captain Alvarado in command. When Cortés returned, with reinforcements, on June 24th., he found the position of the Spanish to be desperate. Even with Tlaxcalteca supporters, the Spanish force was in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Aztec soldiers, out for their blood. By this time almost every Spanish soldier had been wounded in some way, and the Aztec court had decided to elect a new emperor, Cuitláhuac, in favour of the disgraced Moctezuma.

The bodies of Moctezuma II and a relative are disposed of by the Spanish, Florentine Codex Book XII
The bodies of Moctezuma II and a relative are disposed of by the Spanish, Florentine Codex Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

You may already know that there’s a lot of doubt about how exactly Moctezuma II died. It seems clear that he was stoned and wounded in the head by a large Aztec crowd when he appeared on the parapet of the Great Temple wall to try - at the request of the Spanish - to calm the crowd down. But there are conflicting reports - from both sides of the equation - of what happened next. The Spanish say that he died three days later from the wounds, refusing all food and medical treatment. The Aztecs, however, later accused the Spanish of murdering their Great Speaker after they realised just how much of a liability he had become.

An Aztec woman fetching water raises the alarm on seeing the fleeing Spanish forces, Florentine Codex, Book XII
An Aztec woman fetching water raises the alarm on seeing the fleeing Spanish forces, Florentine Codex, Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

Cortés made a vain attempt to persuade Cuitláhuac (who was later to die of smallpox) to allow the Spanish to leave the city undisturbed, threatening to raze the city to the ground. Cuitláhuac refused, and the next day the Spanish, rather in desperation, launched a determined attack, killing, wounding and capturing many warriors. They burned down some twenty houses and took possession of a bridge, making for dry land. But it was hopeless, and the sheer numbers of Aztecs opposing them forced them eventually to retreat back to their encampment.

Scenes from ‘The Sad Night’ in the Florentine Codex, Book XII
Scenes from ‘The Sad Night’ in the Florentine Codex, Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

The Spanish now had to act quickly: six days into the Aztec siege of their base, even Cortés’s own comrades were on the point of mutineering, so desperate were they to escape from the Aztec capital. Cortés ordered all the treasures he had amassed in the great store house within the palace - some 8 tons of gold, silver and precious stones! - to be broken open and distributed amongst his men. Cortés then made one final attempt to trick his way out - requesting the Aztec leaders to allow the Spanish to withdraw ‘within one week’, at the end of which the Spanish ‘would return’ (!) all the treasure they had in their possession to the Aztecs. The plan almost worked: while the Aztecs deliberated, Cortés planned his escape...

The Sad Night has inspired many books, and school projects...
The Sad Night has inspired many books, and school projects... (Click on image to enlarge)

Carpenters were ordered to tear out wooden beams from the palace to assemble a makeshift portable bridge to be placed over the gaps in the causeway, and the decision was made to sneak out of the great city that same night (June 30th 1520), along the shortest causeway to Tacuba (on the mainland). The Tlaxcalan forces would carry the temporary bridge with them at the front of the column, the horses hooves were muffled with sacks to quieten the sound, fires were left burning in the palace to confuse the Aztecs, and, laden down with treasure, the Conquistador forces tried to slip out of Tenochtitlan at night, when the Aztecs by custom did not fight.

According to legend, the Spanish might have escaped unscathed had it not been for a watchful Aztec woman out gathering water (some sources say it was a sentry) who spotted the human traffic and raised the alarm. Within minutes trumpets and a great temple war drum sounded, and Aztec warriors swarmed - on foot and by canoe - to the causeway. Such was their loathing of the Spanish that they seemed to resort to outright killing rather than their customary capturing-for-later-sacrifice tactics.

According to Professor John Pohl: ‘Modern authorities estimate Spanish losses to be at least 600, the bulk of the army, along with most of their horses and all their cannon. The Tlaxtaltecan loss was several thousand. The night of June 30/July 1, 1520 is known in Mexican history as La Noche Triste, “The Sad Night”.’ It was to be the Aztecs’ last major victory...

Sources:-
• ’Aztecs & Conquistadores’ by John Pohl and Charles M Robinson III, Osprey Publishing Ltd. 2005
• ’The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico’ by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Da Capo Press 2003
• ’The Conquest of Mexico’ by Fernando Orozco L, Panorama Editorial 1980
• ’Montezuma, Lord of the Aztecs’ by Cottie Burland, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972

An excellent resource on ‘The Sad Night’

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Amazing these details! Just shows how lucky as well as shrewd the Spanish were in so many ways...
Mexicolore replies: They certainly knew the Spanish had arrived (back) and this time they weren’t so hesitant: they’d seen how brutally the Spanish had acted before so, far from hiding, they attacked the Spanish every day in their encampment. As you can see, Cortés and (a few of) his men only got out by the skin of their teeth...