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Why did Alvarado massacre the Aztecs?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Gustav H. Mose: Why did Pedro de Alvarado disallow human sacrifice at the festival of Tóxcatl? And why did it lead to a massacre? (Answered/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Alvarado asks to see the festival of Toxcatl; Florentine Codex Book XII
Pic 1: Alvarado asks to see the festival of Toxcatl; Florentine Codex Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

Many writers have told the story of this tragic massacre in May 1520, which led directly to the death of the Mexica emperor Motecuhzoma and to the flight of the Spanish forces from Tenochtitlan during the ‘Sad Night’. We’ve decided to borrow here the description given by John Pohl (on our Panel of Experts) and Charles M. Robinson III in their book Aztecs & Conquistadors (Osprey Publishing, 2005). They directly answer your questions...

Pic 2: Preparations for the festival of Huitzilopochtli (Toxcatl); Florentine Codex Book XII
Pic 2: Preparations for the festival of Huitzilopochtli (Toxcatl); Florentine Codex Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

While Cortés was dealing with Narváez [leader of a rival Spanish expedition to Mexico], Alvarado had problems of his own back in Mexico. May, which the Aztecs called Toxcatl, was sacred to Huitzilopochtli, and the occasion of great festivals, during which a proxy for the god was sacrificed. Alvarado gave permission for the celebration on condition that the Christian symbols in the temple were not disturbed, and there would be no sacrifices. A few days before the ceremony was to begin, however, he inspected the temple, found fresh sacrifices, and slaves awaiting their turn. Freeing the slaves, he arrested several priests who, on interrogation, admitted arms were stored in the temple precincts, and confessed that on the completion of the ceremony, the Spanish guards would be overwhelmed and the cross thrown down as the signal for an uprising. It would be all the easier because the city was filled with pilgrims who were outraged at the sight of the cross on the temple and by its foreign guards.

Pic 3: The massacre; Florentine Codex Book XII
Pic 3: The massacre; Florentine Codex Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

Alvarado waited for the ceremony to begin on May 18, then, leaving part of his troops in the palace, he took the rest into the temple compound, pushing his way through the crowd. The procession of priests parted to reveal armed warriors, but Alvarado was expecting this, and his men charged. Ignoring the rank and file, they went for the nobles and warlords, slaughtering the leadership and leaving the masses of warriors in confusion. Meanwhile, about 1,000 Tlaxcalteca surrounded the temple court and held off reinforcements. Together Alvarado and the Tlaxcalteca fought their way back to the palace, leaving the compound littered with corpses and drenched in blood...

Pic 4: Pedro de Alvarado; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Pic 4: Pedro de Alvarado; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

Another writer, Miguel Gómez, adds this comment in his book The Conquest of Mexico (Andrea Press, Madrid, 2007):-
Why did they [massacre the Aztecs]? Alvarado swore to Cortés that he had clear indications that a conspiracy was being prepared and that it was the only way to prevent it. However, many attributed the misfortune to Alvarado’s violent nature. For such a delicate mission, he was the least appropriate captain to remain behind considering that the Mexicas were already angry when Cortés left the city for his encounter with Narváez.

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1-3: Images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 4: Image scanned from our own copy of The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521 by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Limited Editions Club, 1942.

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Mexicolore replies: Here’s another perspective, from the entry on Pedro de Alvarado written by Paul Sullivan in the Encyclopedia of Mexico (1997):-
’Alvarado’s critics could point as well to the burning of the Quiché capital of Utatlán, his seemingly senseless destruction of countless other Indian settlements, his torture and execution of Indian lords, and his relentless exploitation of pacified Indians in labor on works that Alvarado designated. There was surely some logic to Alvarado’s harshness. In the lands that he conquered, Alvarado came not to rule, build or colonize, but to enrich himself. The effort and expense of peaceful administration detracted from the single-minded devotion of resources toward each next expedition. So Alvarado killed Indian lords who might later organize resistance against him, and used terror liberally in order to secure indigenous compliance...’