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Model encounter between Aztec warrior and Spanish conquistador

Encounters* Countdown (2): our guide to the quincentennial of the Spanish invasion of Mexico...

This is the second part of our 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... (Photo: Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

‘The ruler’s animals’, Florentine Codex, Book VIII
‘The ruler’s animals’, Florentine Codex, Book VIII (Click on image to enlarge)

Dec. 14th. According to a later claim by Cortés, Montezuma has now been a willing captive of the conquistadors for a month. Furthermore, early in December the great speaker of the Aztecs supposedly reiterated his surrender to the invaders before a Spanish notary and an audience of weeping nobles. If we believe such a story, which was repeated by Spanish chroniclers and others for centuries, then we are accepting that for a period of roughly 235 days - beginning with that momentous first meeting on November 8 - the great realm of the Aztecs was ruled by a handful of Spanish captains through an imprisoned emperor. The story is, of course, preposterous. Evidence suggests the opposite: the invaders were guests of an emperor who passionately loved hunting and collecting; they had been hunted and were now part of his collection.

‘Taking Cortés by the hand, Montezuma pointed out the localities of the neighbourhood’; ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ (Prescott/Henderson)
‘Taking Cortés by the hand, Montezuma pointed out the localities of the neighbourhood’; ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ (Prescott/Henderson) (Click on image to enlarge)

January. We have almost no specific dates for events in Tenochtitlan during these early months of 1520. Neither Spaniards nor Aztecs appear to have kept records at the time. Cortés and the few conquistadors who survived both their months as Montezuma’s guests and the year of warfare that followed later claimed that the emperor freely revealed “the secrets of his lands.” What secrets? As a proud and powerful ruler, Montezuma seems to have enjoyed giving his guests extended tours of the city and the valleys around it. Conversations about his empire also gave him a chance to better understand the invaders. The emperor’s extensive zoos, gardens, and collections were a way to display the bounty of his empire - and also to learn about everything in it, including these strange newcomers.

Montezuma leads Cortés to his treasure house; Florentine Codex, Book XII
Montezuma leads Cortés to his treasure house; Florentine Codex, Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

February. Conquistador lore surrounding their six months in Tenochtitlan as the emperor’s guests - or, as they later claimed, his captors - included an intense friendship between Montezuma and Cortés. They supposedly developed great mutual affection, constantly in each other’s company, sharing stories, hunting, and playing games. In some versions of the story, all the Spaniards luxuriated in the emperor’s hospitality, enjoying gifts of women and precious objects, savouring feasts and excursions to palaces and hunting grounds. Cortés taught Montezuma how to use a crossbow. Spanish craftsmen built four forty-foot brigantines for the emperor, who used them to hunt on the vast lakes that surrounded the city. The conquistadors learned to play totoloque, an Aztec game similar to boules, and Montezuma laughed over the regularity with which Pedro de Alvarado cheated.

The burning of Qualpopoca; ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ (Prescott/Henderson)
The burning of Qualpopoca; ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ (Prescott/Henderson) (Click on image to enlarge)

March. The Spanish invasion destabilized the Aztec Empire. The extended sojourn of the invaders in Tenochtitlan created great uncertainty. Although there was no open warfare during the early months of 1520, there was political conflict, sometimes violent, among both Aztec and Spanish leaders. For example, around this time Qualpopoca, the ruler of an Aztec town in the empire’s east, was brought to Tenochtitlan to answer to the emperor. He may have ordered Spaniards on the coast to be killed, as Cortés later claimed. Whatever Qualpopoca’s crime, Montezuma let the Spanish captains execute him by setting mastiffs on him and then burning him alive. Not long after, the ruler of Tetzcoco, the second most important city in the empire, was deposed by Montezuma - who replaced one of his nephews with another one. It is unclear why Montezuma did this, partly because Cortés later insisted that he made all the decisions, in this case installing a ruler more friendly to him.

Pánfilo de Narváez (Wikipedia)
Pánfilo de Narváez (Wikipedia) (Click on image to enlarge)

April 20th. The surviving company of some 250 Spaniards had now enjoyed imperial hospitality in Tenochtitlan for five months. Most would not live to see the war end in 1521, but of those, dozens claimed to have been Montezuma’s principal or personal guard, while Cortés asserted that he governed the Aztec realm through its captive emperor. Before long, this lie would become accepted as fact. But testimony recorded soon after the war reveals the truth: based on details provided by the conquistadors themselves, including Cortés, Montezuma freely traveled his territories with entourages of thousands of warriors and servants; he received ambassadors and tributary lords; and he presided over his ruling councils and the religious festivals that traditionally marked the passing of each Aztec month. But it would all soon end: near the end of April (possibly as early as the 20th), a company of over a thousand Spaniards, assembled in Cuba by Pánfilo de Narváez, landed on the Gulf coast.

The massacre of Mexica celebrants in the Templo Mayor during the festival of Toxcatl; Codex Durán fol. 29a
The massacre of Mexica celebrants in the Templo Mayor during the festival of Toxcatl; Codex Durán fol. 29a (Click on image to enlarge)

May 16th. On this day, after six months of relatively peaceful coexistence, war broke out in Tenochtitlan between the Aztec inhabitants and their Spanish guests. Early in May, Cortés - with an Aztec contingent and most of the Spaniards who had been living in Tenochtitlan - journeyed to the coast to confront the Narváez invasion company. Meanwhile, Aztecs began to celebrate Toxcatl, the ninth monthly festival to be held in the city since Spaniards had arrived there. On or near the 16th, a paranoid Alvarado, now in charge of less than a hundred conquistadors, attacked unarmed celebrants in the city square. The massacre provoked a counterattack, trapping the Spaniards in the palace where they had been living. They remained under siege for weeks, at some point managing to seize trusting Aztec lords, including Montezuma - who now, finally, became a captive. At month’s end, the Cortés loyalists reached the coast and persuaded the new invaders through violence and negotiation to join them.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Dec 15th 2019

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