General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 24 Jan 2021/9 Vulture
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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.

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