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what reply Cortés got from the first Aztec envoys when he asked them what Moctezuma looked like?
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Painting showing the meeting between Cortés and Moctezuma

The Aztecs and the Spanish Conquest for GCSE (II)

This is Part 2 of the full version of our resource for the Historical Association. Visit the HA website (link below) for a shortened ‘Briefing Guide for Students’ (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Cempoala, scene of the meeting with the Aztec tax collectors
Pic 1: Cempoala, scene of the meeting with the Aztec tax collectors (Click on image to enlarge)

Moving inland to the Totonac town of Cempoala, Cortés heard of other unhappy tribes subject to the Aztecs. Indeed, he witnessed the resentment first hand: a group of 5 Aztec tax collectors arrived in Cempoala and Cortés shrewdly had them seized, encouraging the Totonacs not to pay up - an act of open rebellion. Unknown to the Totonacs, though, he secretly released the Aztec party, in a move designed to maintain ‘friendly’ terms with Moctezuma. Crucially, the emperor did nothing, and Cortés marched on, with Totonac support, to the state of Tlaxcala. In the fierce battles that followed, he almost lost, but divisions within the Tlaxcalan kingdoms led to their decision to make peace, planning to ally with Cortés and to use his strange new weaponry as shock tactics against the Aztecs. Ironically, the Aztecs in turn tried - unsuccessfully - to become allies with Cortés against their old enemy. On September 23rd. (1519) his force entered the Tlaxcalan capital.

Pic 2: War in Tlaxcala – illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Pic 2: War in Tlaxcala – illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

These dates have extra significance: September in Mexico is still the rainy season, and the Aztecs by tradition only waged war in the dry season (December to April). Good timing, Cortés! From Tlaxcala he advanced to Cholula (bitter enemies of the Tlaxcalans) and proceeded - alerted by Marina to a possible attack on his soldiers, and with the full support of Tlaxcalan warriors - to massacre some 3,000 innocent inhabitants of the city, one of the most notorious acts of cruelty of his campaign. Now with his rear secured, and unimpressed by a band of magicians sent by Moctezuma to confuse and stop him, Cortés left Cholula a fortnight later and headed through the mountains towards Tenochtitlan, choosing carefully to pass through zones inhabited by enemies of the Aztecs. On November 8th. he entered the Aztec capital...

Pic 3: The meeting between Moctezuma II and Cortés: screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río
Pic 3: The meeting between Moctezuma II and Cortés: screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río (Click on image to enlarge)

SECTION 4: Conquest 1519-21

A) The Spanish in Tenochtitlan and the relationship between Cortés and Moctezuma
To this day we gasp at the simple fact that some 300 Spanish soldiers with a few thousand allies walked into the heart of the Aztec empire without a shot being fired or a (broad)sword being raised in anger! OK, it still wasn’t the Aztec war season, but... Perhaps Moctezuma wanted Cortés inside his lair, so that he would be more easily watched and controlled - and understood. Most of Cortés’s allies decided to remain outside, for good reasons, and his entry into the city was without a doubt a bold, risky and highly dangerous move.
The emperor, troubled by divisions amongst his allies and by deep uncertainty, lavished gifts and every possible comfort on Cortés and his men, housing them in one of the city’s largest palaces, and treating them to extended guided tours. This was all a big mistake: barely a week after arriving, and in his boldest move yet, Cortés kidnapped Moctezuma and held him captive for 8 months, draining him slowly of power.

Pic 4: Moctezuma is shackled by the Spaniards; Florentine Codex Book 12
Pic 4: Moctezuma is shackled by the Spaniards; Florentine Codex Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

Strangely, they forged a kind of friendship: the Spanish treated him with appropriate respect, allowing him to enjoy most of the lifestyle to which he was accustomed. Cortés and Moctezuma often played the Aztec board game totoloque together. The Spaniard even persuaded Moctezuma to surrender his allegiance to the Spanish emperor Carlos V. In name at least, he had transferred control over his empire at a stroke! Both men were, at this stage, operating totally in the dark. Inevitably the stand-off didn’t last...
Once again Cortés found himself in danger from his patron Velázquez, who sent a huge force of soldiers under Pánfilo de Narváez to capture and return Cortés to Cuba to face charges. They arrived in San Juan de Ulúa in April 1520. Alarmed, Cortés left his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado in charge of Tenochtitlan with just 80 men, marched to Cempoala, tricked and then attacked Narváez, bribed his soldiers to join him, returned to the Aztec capital and entered it, unopposed, on June 24th. However something was different: the streets were deserted and an air of menace hung over the city...

Pic 5: The massacre of musicians celebrating the Toxcatl festival, May 1520 –  Florentine Codex, Book 12
Pic 5: The massacre of musicians celebrating the Toxcatl festival, May 1520 – Florentine Codex, Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

B) Hostilities: the capture and death of Moctezuma, and the Spanish flight from the city on 1 July 1520
Whilst he had been away, Alvarado had lost his nerve: on the eve of the all-important annual Tóxcatl festival dedicated to one of the top Aztec gods of all, Tezcatlipoca, Alvarado suspected a plot to attack his men in their quarters: taking no chances, he planned his own pre-emptive slaughter. During the festival itself, on May 18th., he led fully armed Spanish soldiers into the middle of the religious festivities, and deliberately went for the ‘top brass’, massacring hundreds of the Aztec elite, all unarmed at the time - in a single blow effectively decimating Moctezuma’s command structure.

Pic 6: Moctezuma addresses a crowd – and appears to be strangled by his Spanish captor; Codex Moctezuma, detail
Pic 6: Moctezuma addresses a crowd – and appears to be strangled by his Spanish captor; Codex Moctezuma, detail (Click on image to enlarge)

With the help of Tlaxcalan warriors covering him, he fought his way back into the palace, ‘safe’ for the moment alongside the hostage Moctezuma. Known for his violent and ruthless approach to problems, Alvarado was far from Cortés’s best choice to keep the peace in his absence. In this explosive atmosphere Cortés returned to the city. Surrounded by a hostile and angry enemy, short of food, water and gunpowder, there was nothing for it but to try to escape. Moctezuma had by now lost the respect of his own people. After a final, futile attempt to get him to calm his enraged citizens from a palace parapet, Cortés realised the emperor’s number was up: following a stoning from his own people, the Spanish almost certainly finished him off themselves, in order to release his body for ritual cremation and so to cause a distraction for long enough to give the trapped Spaniards a chance to escape the same night and flee the city.

Pic 7: An Aztec woman fetching water raises the alarm as the Spanish flee… Florentine Codex Book 12
Pic 7: An Aztec woman fetching water raises the alarm as the Spanish flee… Florentine Codex Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

At midnight on 30th June, during a heavy rainstorm, the besieged force headed stealthily for the shortest route out, the western causeway to Tlacopan. Planned down to the last detail - Cortés had even had a portable bridge constructed secretly to be used on the causeway where the local bridges were routinely removed at night to defend the city - they almost made it.
What Cortés hadn’t planned for, however, were two things: the greed of his own soldiers, who tried to stuff their armour with gold and other treasures that rattled and jingled in the darkness (and weighed them down), and an old Aztec woman who, while collecting water, heard the men as they reached the causeway. She screamed, raised the alarm, and within minutes the city rose up to attack.

Pic 8: One of the lost gold ingots recently recovered at the site of the conflict
Pic 8: One of the lost gold ingots recently recovered at the site of the conflict (Click on image to enlarge)

Forced to abandon the portable bridge and attacked from all sides, the Spaniards split up. One small group, including Cortés, managed finally to reach Tlacopan and escape. The larger rearguard force were all killed, many of them drowning - treasure and all - in the lake. The Spanish dubbed the night La Noche Triste, the Sad Night.

Pic 9: Map showing Cortés’ route both into and out of Tenochtitlan in the first phase of the invasion
Pic 9: Map showing Cortés’ route both into and out of Tenochtitlan in the first phase of the invasion (Click on image to enlarge)

It was a near thing. Aided by their flight from Tenochtitlan taking place in the rainy season, the fighting as they hurried back to Tlaxcala and safety was relatively light, though they had another narrow escape at Otompan. Bitter in their defeat, the Tlaxcalans demanded heavier concessions from Cortés, but the alliance held. The next few months were spent recovering, re-arming, attacking other city-states, forming new alliances, and securing their supply route between Cholula and Veracruz. Further reinforcements, and a crucial new ‘weapon’, arrived by ship...

Pic 10: The Aztecs die in their thousands from smallpox; Florentine Codex Book 12
Pic 10: The Aztecs die in their thousands from smallpox; Florentine Codex Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

C) The siege of Tenochtitlan and reasons for the Spanish victory
A single member of Narváez’ force - an African porter - had reached Mexico earlier suffering from smallpox, against which the native Americans had no protection. Over the next 60 days the disease spread like wildfire through Tenochtitlan, only weakening in December 1520. Within a year, a horrifyingly large 40% of the native population of central Mexico had died a slow, painful death from smallpox. Critically, it also killed the newly elected Aztec emperor Cuitláhuac, who had led the attack on Cortés. Whilst the Spanish leadership remained intact, the Aztecs fell leaderless just at the time when they would normally be preparing for the war season.

Pic 11: Map showing the course of the final siege on Tenochtitlan
Pic 11: Map showing the course of the final siege on Tenochtitlan (Click on image to enlarge)

Stronger in their own territory, the Aztecs had fatally failed to pursue the Spanish force when they were at their weakest. The resulting stand-off gave Cortés time to prepare the final siege of Tenochtitlan. To counter the Aztec use of large canoes filled with warriors to defend the island city, he had built at Tlaxcala 13 brigantines - speedy and maneuverable war vessels that were the favourites of Mediterranean pirates. In the end though, far more valuable in blockading the city were to prove the thousands of allied canoes. In the run-up to the siege, though support for Cortés from allied tribes went down as well as up as alliances shifted, his chances of success increased dramatically when the key city-state of Tezcoco sued for peace, giving him a key strategic base near to Tenochtitlan.

Pic 12: Fighting on the causeways – illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Pic 12: Fighting on the causeways – illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

For the siege itself, which began on May 22nd 1521 and lasted 3 months, Cortés split his force into 3 armies, each of which was to attack one of the main causeways leading to the city.
In a sense, by then everything was against the Aztecs: far from being a well supplied fortress, Tenochtitlan was vulnerable to blockades of all kinds. Once the lakeside town of Chapultepec had been captured, the attackers could cut off fresh water that flowed along the aqueduct. Weakened by lack of fresh water (remember, Lake Texcoco was a salty-water lake) and of food, and by smallpox, the Aztecs could gradually be starved to death, constantly attacked by enemies intent solely on killing (the Aztecs, by tradition, fought to capture warriors alive, to be sacrificed later - on several occasions Spaniards were successfully rescued from their captors by their comrades). At this stage European weaponry - cannons, guns, horses, attack dogs etc - were of marginal extra value. The numbers speak for themselves: for every Spanish soldier there were over 200 men fighting with them from allied tribes - an overwhelming force.

Pic 13: Cuauhtémoc, Florentine Codex Book 12; statue to him in Mexico City today
Pic 13: Cuauhtémoc, Florentine Codex Book 12; statue to him in Mexico City today (Click on image to enlarge)

By August 1st the invaders had reached the great market at Tlatelolco, and by the 13th., with the capture of the final, and by all accounts, heroic Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc, it was all over. (Cuauhtémoc was to be cruelly tortured and killed 3 years later).
For four days after the defeat, the killing and looting raged, homes and palaces were plundered, and thousands were massacred. A special death was reserved for Aztec priests, who were torn apart physically by dogs - and ‘dogs’ was how the Spanish came to call the native people. Perhaps all this cruelty was the inevitable violent consequence of ‘the longest continuous battle in history’…

Pic 14: Spanish cruelty to indigenous people; Codex Kingsborough (British Museum)
Pic 14: Spanish cruelty to indigenous people; Codex Kingsborough (British Museum) (Click on image to enlarge)

SECTION 5: Birth of New Spain

A) The nature and impact of Spanish rule, including the Encomienda and the reorganisation of the tribute system
The violence though didn’t end there. Within ten years most of Mesoamerica had fallen to the Spanish. As a result of deliberate killing, cruelty, disease and the despair of enslavement, the population of ‘New Spain’ (as Spain’s vast new colony was then called in an attempt to mirror the kingdom of Castile - a name that was to last 300 years) collapsed by a staggering 90% - from 25 million to 1.5 million - in the century following the invasion. Worse, as Cortés himself said, the Spanish had come for gold and glory, not ‘to till the soil as peasants’. Spain proceeded to suck the region dry not only of precious metals such as silver and gold but of other valuable products: Mexico was the world’s leading source of cochineal (squashed cactus beetle dye that went into colouring the Red Coats of the English army, and that today goes into Coca Cola...).

Pic 15: Spanish conquistadors standing on Indian heads: façade of the Montejo Palace, Mérida, Mexico
Pic 15: Spanish conquistadors standing on Indian heads: façade of the Montejo Palace, Mérida, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Spain had literally ‘struck it rich’, even though the country lost large amounts of treasure to French and English pirates and ‘privateers’, who began to harry the Spanish barely two years after the Conquest. Little wonder that the chaplain to Cortés, Francisco López de Gómara (who we quoted at the start) called the ‘discovery’ of the Americas one of the three most important events in human history (after God’s Creation and the life of Jesus).
Spain imposed a feudal system on its colonies: the encomienda was a large landholding worked by Indian labour and given to a Spanish lifetime ‘trustee’ to supervise - further, he was free to ‘use the personal services of’ the King’s vassals, ie the Indians. For many of the 1,500 odd Spanish men who had survived the conquest, the expected booty never featured: ‘there was no reward for them but Indians, and Indians they must and would have’. The Aztec capital was largely razed to the ground, and symbolically a huge Catholic cathedral was built on top of the ruins, in the very centre of Mexico City - to fit the Spanish ideal model.

Pic 16: Silver mine at Pachuca – from Appletons’ Guide to Mexico, 1895
Pic 16: Silver mine at Pachuca – from Appletons’ Guide to Mexico, 1895 (Click on image to enlarge)

It wasn’t all destruction: dozens of new Spanish-modelled towns like Veracruz and Puebla were built, all centered on an open plaza in the style of ancient Rome, new technologies, foods, ideas and work animals introduced (from steel machetes to mules, from coffee to sugar, from stringed instruments to spinning wheels...). It suited the Spanish not to tamper with the local tribute/market system nor with local city-state governments and rulers but simply to use and control them. Production of goods previously unknown in Europe was increased - from volcanic glass obsidian blades to cocoa beans, which continued to be used as a form of money throughout Mesoamerica - even in some cases - as an ‘inferior coin’ - as late as the 19th century! Unlike English colonists in the USA, the Spanish remained uninterested in working and developing the land themselves: as soon as silver was found in the state of Zacatecas, the Spanish Crown switched priorities from the encomienda to chanelling revenues from the silver mines - by the end of the 16th century the encomienda was a dead duck.

Pic 17: Oil painting of Seville, late 16th century; attributed to Sánchez Coello, Museo de América, Madrid
Pic 17: Oil painting of Seville, late 16th century; attributed to Sánchez Coello, Museo de América, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

In any case it had been controversial from the start: when King Carlos V tried to abolish it (the encomienda had been a failure in the Caribbean, and the Crown wanted to give Indians, at least, legally, the status of ‘free men’) Cortés followed the old feudal Spanish adage Obedezco pero no cumplo (‘I obey, but I do not fulfill’). And Seville was a 6-8 week voyage away from Veracruz...! Though he acted in the name of the King, many in Spain felt he had too much power - even popularity - in New Spain.

Pic 18: Oil painting of Antonio de Mendoza, National Museum of History, Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City
Pic 18: Oil painting of Antonio de Mendoza, National Museum of History, Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

B) The role and conduct of the Church
To try to bring the region under more direct control of the Spanish Crown, a Council of the Indies was set up in 1524 but this suffered from trying to be ‘all things to all men’ and it wasn’t till a decade later, in 1535, that Spain decided to establish the Kingdom of New Spain as a viceroyalty, headed by an officer directly representing the King himself - ‘Viceroy’ means ‘Deputy King’. The first person to hold this position was Antonio de Mendoza (of Codex Mendoza fame). Cortés, no doubt envious and frustrated, surrendered most of his power and influence and retired to his palace at Cuernavaca. One thing the Council of Indies succeeded in doing was to call a conference of Catholic leaders and scholars in Barcelona in 1529 to discuss whether free Indians could be used in forced labour. Having played a key role in the Reconquista, the Roman Catholic Church was named by the Pope as the official arm of the Spanish government, with tremendous influence and power. But it was split badly between pro- and anti-Indian factions.

Pic 19: Detail from a 1951 mural by Diego Rivera in the National Palace, Mexico City depicting Spanish slavery in Mexico
Pic 19: Detail from a 1951 mural by Diego Rivera in the National Palace, Mexico City depicting Spanish slavery in Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

It was the start of several decades of debate and fierce argument, led by the Church, concerning the rights of indigenous peoples: in 1542 Spain hosted the first debate in the world on whether one nation had the moral right to enslave another - it led to the ‘New Laws’ and to the official abolition of native slavery. On the ground, however, it was another story. Without slaves the wealth of the silver mines could not be extracted - they were in high demand. And Indians who rebelled, or who were deemed to be ‘cannibals’ or non-Christians could still legally be enslaved. Spanish friars noted the stark contrast between the way Spaniards treated their Indian slaves (‘like dogs’) and the respect and rights that the Aztecs had afforded to slaves before the Conquest.

Pic 20: The arrival of the ’Twelve Franciscan Apostles (Diego Muñoz Camargo, ‘Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala’, Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 242, folio 239v (detail)
Pic 20: The arrival of the ’Twelve Franciscan Apostles (Diego Muñoz Camargo, ‘Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala’, Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 242, folio 239v (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

No sooner had Tenochtitlan fallen to the Spanish than a major campaign aimed at destroying Aztec religion and replacing it with Roman Catholicism was set in place. To great fanfare it launched officially in 1524 with the arrival of 12 apostle-like missionaries from Spain. Cortés arranged a special escort for them, all the way from Veracruz to Mexico City, to impress the locals as representatives of a triumphant new religion. But dressed in their plain, humble Franciscan garb, they must have seemed the direct opposite of Aztec deity-impersonators who dressed to the hilt and were carried through the streets on decorated litters. The surviving Aztec priests who received the Franciscans, after welcoming the strangers in the age-old reverential way, proudly and fiercely defended their beliefs: ‘You say that our gods are not original. That’s news to us... for our ancestors came to earth and they spoke quite differently... They gave us our supper and our breakfast... and we beg them for Thunder-Rain and Water.’ They were right to protest: who had entered whose history? Mesoamerican creation beliefs were thousands of years older than the Christian Creation story.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture & pix 3, 6, 8, 13(r), 14, 15 & 17: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 1: photo by and courtesy of John Harrison/Cloudroad.co.uk
• Pix 2 & 12: Illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias scanned from The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521 by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, with illustrations by Covarrubias, Limited Editions Club, 1942
• Pix 4, 5, 7, 10, 13(l): images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the 3-volume facsimile edition published by the Club Internacional del Libro (Madrid, 1994)
• Pix 9 & 11: maps created for Mexicolore by Tomás Filsinger
• Pic 16: illustration scanned from Appletons’ Guide to Mexico by Alfred R. Conkling, 5th Ed., New York, 1895
• Pic 18: image from Wikimedia Commons; source - Bicentenario México
• Pic 19: photo by and thanks to Mary Ann Sullivan, from -
https://www.bluffton.edu/homepages/facstaff/sullivanm/mexico/mexicocity/rivera/cortez.html
• Pic 20: Image courtesy and by permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 17th 2017

Read Part One...

Historical Association website: ‘The Aztecs & Spanish Conquest for GCSE’ Briefing Pack
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