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Cortés meets Moctezuma: illustration by Keith Henderson for W H Prescott’s classic ‘The Conquest of Mexico’

Encounters* Countdown (1): 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 over a month, 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...

View of Seville, 1650-1670. Coloured engraving on stone with burin by Dutch painter Rombout van den Hoeye. Archivo General de las Indias, Seville
View of Seville, 1650-1670. Coloured engraving on stone with burin by Dutch painter Rombout van den Hoeye. Archivo General de las Indias, Seville (Click on image to enlarge)

Jul. 26th. Cortés and the other leading captains dispatch a ship to Spain. On July 1st, a ship from Cuba had reached Vera Cruz, bringing word that the island’s governor, Diego de Velázquez, had been granted the adelantado license to conquer, settle, and govern whatever lay inland. This news had provoked further squabbles and two more letters, written on July 6th and 10th in the town of Quiahuiztlan (renamed Vera Cruz) - the second of these documents would become erroneously known as Cortés’s First Letter to the King. More petitions, all anti-Velázquez in content, were added to the gold, jewellery, featherworks, and other luxury goods that had been given to the Spaniards by Aztec envoys and other indigenous leaders; and it all sailed to Spain on the 26th in the charge of Montejo and Alonso de Puertocarrero. The political battle in Spain had begun before the invasion of the Aztec realm was really underway.

The route from Veracruz. Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
The route from Veracruz. Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

Aug. 16th. The march to Tenochtitlan begins. After three more weeks of infighting - including some violent settling of scores, and the controversial removal of rigging and fittings from all but one of the slowly rotting Spanish ships (later mythologized as a ship burning or sinking) - a combined Spanish-indigenous invasion force begins its advance inland. The Spaniards are accompanied by Tainós, Mayas, and Nahuas, and outnumbered by Totonacs. Their Totonac and Aztec guides lead them directly into the territory of Tlaxcallan, a city-state independent of Aztec control. They reach the eastern defensive wall of the Tlaxcalteca at month’s end.

‘They advanced with their plumes and banners, above which floated the white heron of Tlaxcala’ - ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ (Prescott/Henderson)
‘They advanced with their plumes and banners, above which floated the white heron of Tlaxcala’ - ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ (Prescott/Henderson) (Click on image to enlarge)

Sep. 2nd. A bloody eighteen-day war between Tlaxcalteca defenders and Spanish invaders begins. When the Spanish captains are offered a peace treaty, they quickly accept, encouraged to do so by Aztec emissaries. They are also exhausted, undernourished, and most of them nursing wounds; a fifth had died or would soon die of wound infections. The war’s death toll on the defending Tlaxcalteca, and on the attacking indigenous warriors and support personnel, was significant - thousands may have died. On September 23rd., the surviving invasion force enters Tlaxcallan (Tlaxcala), where they spent three weeks of recuperation. Spanish accounts would soon rewrite this episode as a victory; much later, Tlaxcalteca accounts would rewrite it as their enthusiastic embrace of Christianity.

The massacre at Cholula; Lienzo de Tlaxcala
The massacre at Cholula; Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Click on image to enlarge)

Oct. 10th. The conquistador invasion force, now bolstered by Tlaxcalteca warriors who outnumber the Spaniards roughly 6000 to 250, marches to neighbouring Cholollan (Cholula). The Chololteca, who had recently shifted their allegiance from the Tlaxcalteca to the Aztecs, welcome the visitors into their city - a beautiful and ancient pilgrimage site. On October 14th., a massacre of the Chololteca citizens begins in the city’s great plaza; it continues, as armed Spaniards and Tlaxcalteca go street by street, plundering, raping, branding, and slaughtering, until the 18th. Again, thousands die. Spanish and Tlaxcalteca accounts later justify the massacre as a pre-emptive strike following the discovery of a plot to ambush them; the Nahua historian Alva Ixtlilxochitl was likely correct in describing the plot as “an invention of the Tlaxcalteca and some of the Spaniards.” In the final week of the month, the Spanish-Tlaxcalteca force sets out for Tenochtitlán.

November 8th. 1519: the meeting between Montezuma and Cortés; folding screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río (1976) - detail
November 8th. 1519: the meeting between Montezuma and Cortés; folding screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río (1976) - detail (Click on image to enlarge)

Nov. 8th. One of the most momentous meetings in human history takes place, at the entrance to the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. Cortés and his fellow Spanish captains exchange greetings with the huey tlahtoani (emperor) Montezuma (Moteuctzomatzin) and his entourage. Some ten thousand warriors and camp followers - of whom Spanish conquistadors make up a mere 5% - had descended into the Valley of Mexico at the beginning of the month. The Spaniards and a minority of their indigenous allies will remain in Tenochtitlan for 235 days. Cortés will later claim that on November 14, he ordered Montezuma to be taken captive. This was a lie (as I argue in When Montezuma Met Cortés); for the next seven months the Spaniards were Montezuma’s “guests,” not the other way around.

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

Follow the story in Part Two...

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