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Screen mural of the meeting between Moctezuma and Cortés in 1519

Encounters* Countdown (3): our guide to the quincentennial of the Spanish invasion of Mexico...

This is the third 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.’
(Detail from screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río, photo: Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Smallpox epidemic, Florentine Codex Book XII
Smallpox epidemic, Florentine Codex Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

October. With Tenochtitlan’s grip on the eastern portions of the empire loosened, Tlaxcala consolidated its control over its surrounding valleys and plains; it was now firmly at the head of an eastern triple alliance, dominating the two other major city-states of the region, Huexotzinco and Cholollan. However, the alliance’s bright future was clouded by the persistent presence, and growing numbers, of demanding and disrespectful Spanish men; and by the gradually worsening impact of new diseases. Meanwhile, around the middle of the month, waves of epidemic disease that started earlier in the year appeared to worsen considerably in Tenochtitlan. It seems probable that the sudden increase in the mortality rate in the lacustrine city was due to the arrival of smallpox. According to later claims, smallpox killed as much as half the population of Tenochtitlan during the war. It is more likely that the slaughter of the coming siege, combined with epidemic outbreaks during and for many years after the war, caused such losses. Nonetheless, witnessing family members suffer painful deaths made this a harrowing month - a harrowing autumn - for the Mexica.

The death of a Tarascan ‘cazonci’ or leader; Relación de Michoacán, pl. XXXVI (detail)
The death of a Tarascan ‘cazonci’ or leader; Relación de Michoacán, pl. XXXVI (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

November. The smallpox epidemic continued to rage all across central Mexico. We know the names of some of the rulers who perished - Maxixcatzin of Tlaxcala had died of it in the summer, for example, and it now took the tlahtoani of Tlacopan (the third city-state of the Aztec Empire’s Triple Alliance) as well as the ruler (cazonci) of the Tarascans. The small Tarascan empire to the west of Aztec territory had thus far resisted conquest, and its people would fight hard (if ultimately in vain) to keep out the Spaniards, but they could not fend off smallpox. Yet for every ruler whose name and death have been recorded, tens of thousands of Nahuas, Tarascans, and other Mesoamericans whose names we will never know endured a dire end. Meanwhile, the bearded foreigners continued to arrive from the Caribbean islands, one small ship after another adding hundreds of men to the company gathering in Tlaxcala. The veterans of the war in Mexico resented the newcomers, calling them los de las albardillas (referring to the small saddle or cushion that went behind a horseman’s saddle, when a perch was needed for a woman, servant, or child). Derided they may have been, but they brought with them relative immunity from diseases such as smallpox, as well as a willingness to wield their swords without mercy against “the Indians.”

Ixtlilxochitl - ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ (Prescott/Henderson)
Ixtlilxochitl - ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ (Prescott/Henderson)  (Click on image to enlarge)

December. On the 4th of this month, smallpox claimed its highest ranked victim in the Mexica city, as the emperor Cuitlahua succumbed to the grim disease. Word of his death soon reached Tlaxcala, where victims of the epidemic were also still being mourned. So too did envoys from Tetzcoco. Their conversations with Tlaxcalteca and Spanish leaders have not been preserved, but the events that followed are suggestive. On Christmas Day, a Spanish-Tlaxcalteca force began its march towards the Valley of Mexico, which neither group had entered since early July. The conquistadors, warriors, and many support personnel were met at the valley’s edge on the 28th by Ixtlilxochitl, the tlahtoani of Tetzcoco. The following day, the invaders entered the valley, and on the last day of the year they entered Tetzcoco itself. Spaniards later described that week as a straightforward surrender by Ixtlilxochitl, in his capacity as ruler of the Aztec Empire’s second city; and they thus proclaimed it a resounding diplomatic victory. In fact, the strategist was Ixtlilxochitl, who was using the invaders to take control of Tetzcoco - whose territory had been divided among three competing brothers for the previous five years - and then to take control of the whole empire.

Portrait of Cuauhtemoc by Lynd Ward (‘The Mexican Story’, 1953)
Portrait of Cuauhtemoc by Lynd Ward (‘The Mexican Story’, 1953) (Click on image to enlarge)

January 30th. Montezuma and brother Cuitlahua were the only two of their generation to rule the empire. But war and disease had torn through the population, and so the position of huey tlahtoani passed to the next generation. The jostling and selection of eligible candidates was a complex process, made all the more so by the war, which had been brought back to the very waters that surrounded Tenochtitlan by an expanded alliance of enemies - the foreign invaders joined not only by Tlaxcalteca but by their own brethren, the Tetzcoca. It thus took almost two months for the succession to be settled, but by the end of this month (perhaps very early in the next), a nephew of Montezuma and Cuiltahua named Cuauhtemoc became the eleventh huey tlahtoani. His rule would prove to be the most ill-fated in Aztec history.

Spanish forces with indigenous allies; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Spanish forces with indigenous allies; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

February 3rd. A combined force of Tetzcoca warriors, Tlaxcalteca warriors, and Spanish conquistadors conduct a short campaign to the northern part of Lake Tetzcoco and then around it to the western part of the Valley of Mexico. Spanish accounts predictably styled this as a crucial part of Cortés’s plan to encircle Tenochtitlan and besiege it. But it is more revealing to see it as an effort by Tetzcoco - where the campaign began and ended - to consolidate its position as the dominant altepetl (city-state) in the reconfigured Aztec Triple Alliance. The combined Tetzcoca-led force set out on the 3rd, first marching north to Xaltocan, forcing it to recognize Tetzcoco’s newly established primacy as the empire’s new dominant altepetl. Then, more significantly, the third altepetl in the Triple Alliance, Tlacopan, was attacked, defeated, and sacked, theoretically forcing it to acknowledge the Aztec new order (or, in conquistador minds, the Spanish new order). The victorious company was back in Tetzcoco by February 18th, where Tetzcoca, Tlaxcalteca, and Spaniards alike congratulated themselves on the success of the alliance that each thought was primarily to their advantage. However, their efforts to hold on to Tlacopan had failed, following a week of constant attacks from Tenochtitlan, while a brief foray onto the causeway to the great city was a costly failure. The February campaign made it clear that defeating Tenochtitlan would take many months and many lives.

Ixtlilxochitl II of Tetzcoco, as depicted in the ‘Lienzo de Tlaxcala’, fol. 41 (detail)
Ixtlilxochitl II of Tetzcoco, as depicted in the ‘Lienzo de Tlaxcala’, fol. 41 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

March 1st. A week following the campaign to subdue Xaltocan and Tlacopan under the new Tetzcoco-helmed empire, another Spanish ship landed at Veracruz. It brought more men and arms, who reached Tetzcoco at the beginning of March. There, emboldened by the steadily expanding forces, the Spanish captains and Tetzcoca leadership planned their next step. The campaign that would take up most of the following month was to go down in the history books as the achievement of Cortés, along with every other success in the war. But that was because it was Cortés himself, his biographer, and his supporters who determined how the story was to be told. In fact, it was Ixtlilxochitl and his advisors who understood how the Aztec Empire functioned and what remaining imperial territories Tenochtitlan relied upon for support. The balance of power in the Valley of Mexico had begun to shift from the island-city to the eastern shores of the lake. While battling a smallpox epidemic, Ixtlilxochitl planned how to extend the control of the Tetzcoca-Tlaxcalteca-Spanish alliance into the region south of the valley.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 16th 2020