General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Jul 2019/13 Alligator
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Cortés meets Moctezuma: illustration by Keith Henderson for W H Prescott’s classic ‘The Conquest of Mexico’

Encounters* Countdown: our guide to the quincentennial of the Spanish invasion of Mexico...

From February 2019 through to August 2021 we will be uploading a month-by-month itinerary commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Spanish-Aztec War, in partnership with Professor Matthew Restall (on our Panel of Experts), closely following the timeline published in his highly recommended book When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History (Harper Collins, 2018). We’re sincerely grateful to Professor Restall for providing this scholarly and timely running commentary... *Why ‘Encounters’? As Restall says, ‘History IS encounter... the sum of all the narratives of encounters that have brought people together.’
(Illustration by Keith Henderson, ‘The Conquest of Mexico’, W H Prescott, 1922)

Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

Feb. 10th. The invasion company under the nominal leadership of Hernando Cortés leaves Cuba for Yucatan and Mexico, following the route taken by Juan de Grijalva’s expedition the year before and by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba the year before that. They set sail with 11 ships, 450 soldiers, 14 cannon, 16 horses and a few ferocious mastiffs (large attack dogs trained to kill). The Mayas had seen Spanish ships off the coasts before, but would soon have their first up-close contact with horses, guns and huge, fierce, armour-plated hounds, their saliva (a sign of anger) ‘dripping from their jaws’.

Painting ‘The Arrival of Cortés in Mexico’ by Vicente Alanís
Painting ‘The Arrival of Cortés in Mexico’ by Vicente Alanís (Click on image to enlarge)

Mar. 4th. (some sources claim it was as late as March 13th.) The Cortés-led expedition leaves the island of Cozumel, with the shipwreck survivor (and thus Mayan speaker) Gerónimo de Aguilar on board. For the next month, they will follow the Yucatec and Gulf of Mexico coast, engaging Mayas (some Spaniards are killed, dozens wounded), and acquiring indigenous slaves - including the young Nahua who became Malintzin, the interpreter. The Spanish called her Malinche, and she was to play a pivotal role in the unfolding of the invasion (note her early presence alongside Cortés in the illustration from the Florentine Codex for the April entry, below...)

Aztec envoys present gifts to Cortés; Florentine Codex Book 12
Aztec envoys present gifts to Cortés; Florentine Codex Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

Apr. 22nd. The expedition led by Cortés and his fellow captains lands at what they would name San Juan de Ulúa, on the coast of what they would call Veracruz - named after the “true cross,” because in 1519 the date was Good Friday. They now set foot for the first time within the tribute-paying imperial territory of the Aztecs, who were not in the least surprised by the arrival of the foreigners. Indeed, the Aztecs had been tracking the fleet as it sailed along the coast, and on Easter Sunday an elaborate embassy greeted the Spaniards (see picture), offering them food, fresh water, numerous gifts, and an invitation to visit the imperial capital of Tenochtitlan. The Aztec embassy also, of course, gathered as much information as they could about the newcomers.

Spanish galleons visible on the horizon; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Spanish galleons visible on the horizon; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

May. Early in the month, a conquistador group headed by Francisco de Montejo sails up and down the coast north of Ulúa, while another, lead by Pedro de Alvarado, explores the area immediately inland. Later in May, the first of three towns named Vera Cruz is founded on the coast by the captains of the company. They appoint Cortés as their leading captain. During their four months in the environs of Vera Cruz, from late April to mid-August, the Spanish invaders will make numerous expeditions along the coast, found but not build towns, and engage in constant factional conflict. At least one Spaniard will be executed by rivals, others will die from wounds, some will sail to Spain, and some seventy more from Cuba will join the company. Repeated efforts are made to engage, understand, and manipulate the local Totonacs and Nahuas.

Cempohuallan (Cempoala); photo by/©/courtesy of/thanks to John Harrison
Cempohuallan (Cempoala); photo by/©/courtesy of/thanks to John Harrison (Click on image to enlarge)

Jun. 20th. The dominant faction of captains composes a petition to the king, refounding Vera Cruz at Ulúa, naming themselves as its councillors. Some four hundred Spaniards sign it (318 signatures survive on this true “First Letter”*). The invasion company then moves from the coast into Cempohuallan, which the Spaniards attempt to rename Sevilla. Located slightly north and inland from their mosquito-infested camp at the first Vera Cruz, Cempohuallan is the attractive capital of the Totonacs - whose city-state pays tribute to the Aztecs. The Spaniards base themselves there for the next two months, later claiming that Cortés skillfully convinced the Totonac leadership to switch sides. But Aztec officials were in Cempohuallan throughout these months, and subsequent events show that more likely the Aztecs and Totonacs worked together to lead the invaders into a deadly trap.
* NOTE: Learn more about this from The First Letter from New Spain by John Schwaller and Helen Nader (Uni of Texas Press, 2014). It provides full analysis of the first few months of the invasion, with thumbnail biographies of all the signatories of the Vera Cruz petition of June 20, 1519. Link below...

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 25th 2019

‘The First Letter from New Spain: The Lost Petition of Cortes and His Company, June 20, 1519’
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