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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... *Why ‘Encounters’? As Restall says, ‘History IS encounter... the sum of all the narratives of encounters that have brought people together.’
(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.

‘La Noche Triste’ - anonymous oil painting, C17, from the Kislak Foundation (Wikipedia)
‘La Noche Triste’ - anonymous oil painting, C17, from the Kislak Foundation (Wikipedia) (Click on image to enlarge)

June 24th. The small group of conquistadors under Alvarado had been under siege in a palace in Tenochtitlan for over a month when reinforcements arrived on the 24th. But it was a trap: the Aztecs let the Cortés-Narváez company of over twelve hundred men, accompanied by thousands of Tlaxcalteca warriors, into the city in order to finish them off. The besieged invaders, suffering heavy casualties from the onslaught, murdered Montezuma* and the other tlatoque (rulers or kings of the Triple Alliance of the Aztec Empire) on the 29th (give or take a day). The following night (or the night of July 1st at the latest), the surviving Spanish-Tlaxcalteca force tried to break out of the city under cover of darkness. By dawn, almost a thousand Spaniards had died from the siege and the attempted escape (later dubbed La Noche Triste, the Tragic Night). The few hundred who lived only did so because of the presence of the Tlaxcalteca, who themselves lost well over a thousand warriors.
* NOTE: Learn more about the murder of Montezuma in Matthew Restall’s extended post - follow the link below...

The Battle of Otumba - C19 painting by Manuel Rodríguez de Guzmán, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Wikipedia)
The Battle of Otumba - C19 painting by Manuel Rodríguez de Guzmán, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Wikipedia) (Click on image to enlarge)

July 12th. The invasion force of Spanish conquistadors and allied Tlaxcalteca warriors finally reach the safe refuge of the city of Tlaxcallan. Thousands of them had been killed at the start of the month, as they fled Tenochtitlan that rainy “Tragic Night.” More still died over the next ten days, as the survivors were driven and harried by Aztec warriors north around the top of the great lake. The invaders had fled west along the causeway from the city to the lakeshore, but Tlaxcallan lay to the east, in another valley the far side of the volcanoes. With little chance of food or sleep, they thus had to walk for twelve days, almost all of them wounded, watching their numbers fall as the Aztecs picked off men to be executed in Tenochtitlan. The ordeal culminated near Otompan on July 9th or 10th, in a full-scale engagement later called the Battle of Otumba. Assuming that the Aztecs aimed to massacre them, the few hundred surviving Spaniards claimed their victory was a miracle, and some said they saw St. James appear on his white horse, slashing at Aztec warriors with his shining sword. More likely the battle was as much a victory for the Aztecs, part of their successful strategy of weakening the invaders while ensuring they left Aztec territory.

Brutal and bestial Spanish revenge in Tepeaca; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Brutal and bestial Spanish revenge in Tepeaca; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

August 1st. Had the Aztecs finished off the invaders at Otumba, they would surely have lost many more of their own men, without changing the ultimate outcome. For more Spaniards were now coming from the Caribbean, arriving almost weekly. All were told the same lie: Montezuma had surrendered his empire to Spain the previous year, but Aztec rebels had risen up and killed him and most of the Spaniards who were peaceably governing the new kingdom. Their deaths must be avenged, and the kingdom recovered for His Majesty and for the True Faith. Inspired by such simple and powerful rhetoric, their numbers reinforced by new arrivals, the conquistadors recuperated for little more than a fortnight in Tlaxcallan before attacking a nearby Nahua town. Tepeyacac (Tepeaca) was within territory of the Aztec Empire, but otherwise posed no immediate threat to Spaniards. No matter: after recent events, the invaders needed a victory and some spoils of war; and their leaders were keen to make a display of violence that would show the enemy how they meant to win. A Spanish-Tlaxcalteca force killed four hundred Tepeacan defenders outside the town, before rampaging for days through its streets, butchering families in their homes, throwing them off rooftops, watching their mastiffs tear them apart. Every Tepeacan, to the smallest child, was either slaughtered or branded on the face and enslaved. Enthused by the experience, the “victors” spent the rest of the month sacking one Nahua town after another - perhaps as many as forty - turning thousands of women and children into slaves of the new conquerors.

Statue to Cuitlahuac, Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City; from regeneració
Statue to Cuitlahuac, Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City; from regeneració (Click on image to enlarge)

September 15th. Back in Tenochtitlan, the Mexica and other peoples of the Aztec Empire had little opportunity to savour their victory. Their rulers had been murdered as a parting gesture of violence by the Spaniards who had fled at the start of July. The invaders had also brought epidemic disease, which brought more death as the summer passed. Meanwhile, Aztec towns in the east were being devastated; this part of the empire, and its resources, seemed to be lost. Around the mid-point of the month, a new emperor - or huey tlahtoani, “Great Speaker” - was crowned in Tenochtitlan. Aztec custom was for the rulership to pass among eligible members of a generation until that generation aged and the throne passed to the next generation. A brother of Montezuma, Cuitlahua, was chosen as the tenth huey tlahtoani; he would prove to be the last emperor of his generation.

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

Read Matthew Restall’s feature on the murder of Montezuma (Noticonquista)
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