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Essential Histories

The Spanish Invasion

of Mexico 1 5 I 9 - 1 5 2 I

Charles M Robinson III

a native of Texas, is a history
instructor at South Texas
Community College and
the author of twelve books,
primarily on the American West.
His most recent book, General
Crook and the American Frontier,
was released by the University
of Oklahoma Press in October
2002. His book, Bad Hand:
A Biography of General Ranald
S Mackenzie, won the Texas
State Historical Commission's
prestigious T. R. Fehrenback
Award, and was honored by
a resolution from the Texas
House of Representatives.


AO D.PHIL. (Oxon), Hon D.
Litt.(ANU), FASSA, Fr Hist S,
is the Series Editor of the Essential
Histories. His wealth of knowledge
and expertise shapes the series
content and provides up-to-the-
minute research and theory. Born
in 1936 an Australian citizen,
he served in the Australian army
(1955-68) and has held a number
of eminent positions in history
circles, including the Chichele
Professorship of the History
of War at All Souls College,
University of Oxford, 1987-2001,
and the Chairmanship of the
Board of the Imperial War
Museum and the Council
of the International Institute
for Strategic Studies, London.
He is the author of many books
including works on the German
Army and the Nazi party, and
the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Now based in Australia on his
retirement from Oxford he is
the Chairman of the Council
of the Australian Strategic
Policy Institute.
Essential Histories

The Spanish Invasion

of Mexico 1 5 I 9 - 1 5 2 I
Essential Histories

The Spanish Invasion

of Mexico 1 5 I 9 - 1 5 2 I

Charles M Robinson III

First published in Great Britain in 2004 by Osprey Publishing, Author's N o t e
Elms Court, Chapel Way, Botley, Oxford OX2 9LP, UK. Unlike the various Maya dialects, the Nahuatl language of Aztec
Email: Mexico was first written down by Spanish priests following the
Conquest.The early conquistadors either took the words down
© 2004 Osprey Publishing Limited as they heard them, or depended on the translations of the
native girl known to history as dona Marina, who spoke a
All rights reserved. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose
different dialect to that used in Mexico proper Consequently,
of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under
many Nahuatl words and names were misspelled. Among others,
the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, no part of this
Motecuhcoma eventually came to be rendered as Montezuma,
publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
and Cuauhtemoc became Guatemoc or Guatemotzin (the suffix
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrical,
-tzin meaning "lord"). Except for direct quotes, I have used the
chemical, mechanical, optical, photocopying, recording or
spellings preferred in modern Mexico.
otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright
owner Enquiries should be addressed to the Publishers. At the time of the Conquest, the terms "Mexico" and "Mexican"
pertained exclusively to the region under immediate Aztec
Every attempt has been made by the publisher to secure the
suzerainty, which is to say the modern Federal District (Mexico
appropriate permissions for material reproduced in this book. If
City and environs) and the adjacent State of Mexico (a separate
there has been any oversight we will be happy to rectify the
state within the Mexican Republic), rather than the area of the
situation and written submission should be made to the
present Mexican Republic. The word "Aztec" was obsolete by
1519, was not resurrected until the 18th century, and was
ISBN I 84176 563 5 probably not in common usage until the publication of William
Hickling Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British
Consequently, the contemporary accounts use "Mexico" and
"Mexican", the Castilians not having heard "Aztec."
Editor: Judith Millidge
Most of the men in Cortes's army were from Castile, the
Design: Ken Vail Graphic Design, Cambridge, UK
dominant kingdom of Spain. They were divided into those
Cartography by The Map Studio
from Castile proper and those from the outlying province of
Index by Alan Thatcher
Extremadura, the homeland of Cortes. For simplicity, the soldiers
Picture research by Image Select International
of Cortes's original band will be referred to collectively as they
Origination by Grasmere Digital Imaging, Leeds, UK
generally referred to themselves, as Castilians.
Printed and bound in China by L Rex Printing Company Ltd.
In the decades following Christopher Columbus's first voyage,
04 05 06 07 08 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 I
West Indian words worked their way into common usage
For a complete list of titles available among the Spaniards living in the Indies, and were included
in the conversations and writings of the Europeans about the
from Osprey Publishing please contact:
Conquest. Therefore, in primary Spanish sources, one often finds
Osprey Direct UK, PO Box 140, the Cuban cue (temple) and cacique (lord or chief), rather than
Wellingborough, Northants, N N 8 2FA, UK. their Castilian or Nahuatl equivalents.

Osprey Direct USA, c/o MBI Publishing, PO Box I,

729 Prospect Ave, Osceola, Wl 54020, USA.

Introduction 7

Chronology 8

Background to war

Spain and Mexico in the 16th century 10

Warring sides
A war between gods 20


Divide and conquer 30

The fighting

Disaster; then triumph 45

Portrait of a soldier

Bernal Diaz del Castillo, chronicler of the Conquest 62

The world around war

Habsburg and Valois rivalry 65

Portrait of a civilian
Dona Marina 71

How the war ended

Rebuilding and rebellion 74

Conclusion and consequences

New Spain and new legacies 78

Glossary of native personalities 91

Further reading 92

Index 94

In the spring of 1519, some 600 a question for the philosophers. The fact is
adventurers led by Hernan Cortes, a failed that it did happen, and now, some 500 years
law student-turned planter and speculator, later, a western hemisphere nation is the
embarked on the conquest of a ruthless and dominant power in the world. And while
predatory empire with an army numbering the United States may be the cultural heir
in the tens of thousands. The Spanish to Great Britain, to a large extent it has
conquest of Mexico was the greatest military inherited civilizing influences from Spain,
expedition in history, and in achieving it, too: fully one-third of the nation was once a
Cortes proved himself one of the foremost part of "New Spain", as the Spaniards came
generals of all time. to call Mexico. San Antonio, Texas, Santa Fe,
The Conquest completely changed the New Mexico, and Monterey, California, were
history of the world. The establishment of a all seats of Spanish government until 1821,
European power on the mainland of the and of Mexican government until even later,
western hemisphere opened the door for a and Spanish and English are spoken side by
complete European hegemony, ultimately side throughout the American southwest.
leading to the establishment of independent This is the legacy of Hernan Cortes and his
states. Whether this was for better or worse is conquistadors.

In studying the Conquest, one finds different fitting out at Trinidad and San Cristobal de
dates for the same events, depending on the la Habana.
publication. The conquistadors themselves
used the Julian calendar which, among other 1519
things, assigned additional days to February. February 10 Cortes sails for Mexico, arriving
By the early 16th century, it was about ten a few days later in Cozumel.
days behind the modern calendar. Thus the March 14 Departure from Cozumel.
date of Cuauhtemoc's surrender, given as March 22-23 After sailing around Yucatan,
August 13 1519, actually would have been Cortes lands in Tabasco, meeting resistance
August 23. Roman Catholic countries, from the natives.
such as Spain, adopted the more accurate March 25 Annunciation Day. Cortes takes
Gregorian calendar in 1582, but the old the town of Potonchan. dona Marina joins
accounts were not updated. Consequently, the expedition.
while many modern authors continue to April 18 Palm Sunday. Expedition departs
use the dates recorded by the conquistadors, from Tabasco.
others try to convert them. For the sake of April 21 Maundy Thursday. Fleet arrives
simplicity, and to conform with the majority off San Juan Ulua, outside modern harbor
of works, I have stayed with the Julian of Veracruz. Castilians found Villa Rica de la
system. Occasionally, there are discrepancies. Vera Cruz.
For example, Bernal Diaz, writing from Good Friday Cortes goes ashore.
memory in old age, dates the launching of July 10 Members of the expedition petition
the brigantines to blockade the city to the Crown for recognition as a separate
May 26 1521, while Cortes, writing within colony.
months of the event, places it on April 28. August 16 Cortes departs from Cempoala
In such cases, I have used the source written for the Mexican interior.
nearest to the event. August-September War in Tlaxcala; alliance
formed with Tlaxcalans.
1517 October Castilians, Totonacs, and Tlaxcalans
February-April Francisco Hernandez de arrive in Cholula.
Cordoba explores Yucatan and Campeche, October 18 Advised by dona Marina of a
suffering heavy losses in battle with the trap, Cortes massacres the Cholulans.
organized Indian kingdoms. November 8 Cortes enters the city of
Mexico and meets Moctezuma.
1518 Late November Uprising against Castilians
January-October Juan de Grijalva explores on the coast; Moctezuma arrested as hostage.
the Yucatan and Mexican coasts, trades December The instigator of the uprising,
with local city-states, and learns of the Cualpopoca, is burned at the stake in Mexico
Aztec empire. by the Castilians.
October 23 Cuban governor Diego
Velasquez commissions Hernan Cortes to 1520
lead a third expedition. Winter Cacama and Cuitlahuac plan
November 18 Cortes sails from Santiago de uprising; Cacama arrested.
Cuba, in defiance of the governor. Finishes April Charles V receives the petition for
Chronology 9

recognition of the Cortes expedition as a August-September Cortes prepares for

separate colonial venture. return to Mexico. Segura de la Frontera
April 20 An expeditionary force from Cuba founded at Tepeac as a base.
under Panfilo Narvaez lands with orders to December 26 Cortes begins advance toward
arrest Cortes and break up his expedition; Mexico from Segura.
Cortes leaves Mexico to confront Narvaez,
leaving Pedro de Alvarado in command. 1521
May 16 Alvarado fires on the crowds during April 28 Thirteen brigantines launched
the Toxcatl celebration in the Temple Square. on Lake Texcoco. City of Mexico put
May 27 Cortes defeats Narvaez near under blockade.
Cempoala. May 31 Gonzalo de Sandoval moves toward
June 24 Cortes returns to Mexico. Castilians Iztapalapa, beginning the siege of Mexico.
under siege. May-August Siege continues.
June Moctezuma deposed. Cuitlahuac elected August 13 Cuauhtemoc surrenders; Aztec
emperor. Moctezuma dies, probably of injuries empire ends.
received from stoning by angry crowds.
June 30 Noche Triste. Cortes leads his expedition 1522
out of Mexico. Caught on the causeway, many October 15 Charles V names Cortes
are slaughtered by the Mexicans. governor and captain general of New Spain
Summer-autumn Smallpox epidemic breaks (Mexico).
out. Cuitlahuac dies. Cuauhtemoc
elected emperor. 1535
June 30-July 10 Retreat from Mexico Conquistadors displaced by bureaucrats.
to Tlaxcala. Antonio de Mendoza becomes first viceroy of
July 7 Battle of Otumba. Castilian cavalry New Spain, inaugurating an administrative
saves expedition from complete annihilation. system that lasts until 1821.
Spain and Mexico in the
16th century
Spain The first to fall was Granada, which
surrendered in January 1492. This event, and
At the beginning of the 16th century Spain the successful first voyage of Christopher
had only recently emerged from almost eight Columbus of 1492-93, created a new sense
centuries of civil wars collectively called the of optimism, nationalism, and religious
Reconquista (Reconquest) or the Moorish xenophobia. The Spaniards now saw
Wars, when the northern kingdoms of the themselves on a great national adventure
Iberian peninsula, Castile and Aragon, fought tinged with religious evangelism. Patriotism
to recover the land conquered by the Moors and religious fervor were spurred ever onward
in the 8th century. In 1492 Granada, the last by the promise of wealth. The first generation
bastion of Islamic rule, was recovered and in of voyagers - Columbus and his companions
the same year Spain's Jewish population faced - were followed by an even more eager
the choice between expulsion or conversion second generation. Between 1506 and 1518
to Christianity. Although the Reconquista some 200 ships made the passage from Spain
was regarded by Christian Spaniards as the to the Indies in search of new lands.
expulsion of foreigners, the Moors had There were other, more tangible, motives.
become such an integral part of Spanish The leaders of expeditions of discovery and
society that they could no longer be called conquest often were members of the minor
foreign. The same could be said of the nobility, men with more pedigree than
nation's extensive Jewish population, which money or influence, who hoped to establish
had made substantial contributions to themselves both financially and politically
philosophy, science, and economics. by venturing to the Indies. The rank and file
During the final years of the Reconquest, emigrated because farming in Castile had
the idea of Spain as a unified nation was a been replaced by the less labor-intensive
concept rather than a fact. The Iberian stock raising. Many ordinary Castilians of
peninsula was essentially divided between the early 1500s faced poverty and hunger.
three dominant kingdoms: Portugal to the Finally, there was the desire to be free, not
west, Castile down the center, and Aragon to only of the established hierarchy of Church
the east. Of the three, Portugal was the and nobility, but of the growing new state
wealthiest and most powerful, but the least bureaucracy as well.
interested in Iberian affairs, being preoccupied For all the optimism and adventure,
with the developing African empire that was however, the discovery of what rapidly came
the source of its wealth and power. The to be called the New World was a traumatic
others, Castile and Aragon, had managed to event, not only for the Indians about to
swallow most of the lesser kingdoms, leaving encounter European domination, but for the
only two - Christian Navarre to the north, Europeans as well. Although the Renaissance
and Muslim Granada to the south - brought an advance of culture and classical
maintaining a precarious independence. A learning, the Europeans were totally
dynastic marriage between Queen Isabel of unprepared for the discovery of new
Castile and Crown Prince Ferdinand of continents and their people. When their
Aragon in 1469 spelled the end of these two history, science, and philosophy could not
minor kingdoms and the conception, if not explain the New World or its people, they
the birth, of a united Spain. turned to religion for answers to the
Background to war 11I

unanswerable. It took centuries to truly Jamaica, and Cuba as well. Slaving

understand what had happened, if, indeed, expeditions had ventured into the islands of
it is even yet understood. Faced with native the Gulf of Honduras, and along the coasts
peoples unlike any humans they had ever of Nicaragua and Florida. The western Gulf
encountered, the Europeans were unsure of Mexico and northwestern Caribbean,
whether they were of God or of the Devil. however, were a void. To fill that void, the
Did they have souls? Were they even human governor of Cuba, don Diego Velasquez,
or merely a higher species of animal? The commissioned two expeditions, one under
fact that the Indians themselves had, over Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, in 1517,
thousands of years, developed a culture
isolated from the rest of humanity and A veteran of Columbus's second expedition in 1493,
therefore alien to any conventional don Diego Velasquez (1464-1524) arrived in Cuba in
1511 to become the colony's first governor Although
understanding, only aggravated the questions.
he commissioned Cortes to explore the Mexican
By 1517 Spaniards had established hinterland, he distrusted him, regarding him as a rival for
themselves not only in their initial foothold the riches waiting to be exploited in the new colonies.
in Santo Domingo, but in Darien (Panama), (Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico)
12 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

and a second under the governor's nephew,

Juan de Grijalva, in 1518, to investigate
the region.
Hernandez de Cordoba and Grijalva
explored the coasts of Yucatan and
Campeche, formally taking possession on
behalf of the Crown. Despite losses to Indian
resistance, the two expeditions brought back
reports of organized, well-populated cities,
with a highly developed architecture.
Governor Velasquez, who had applied to
Spain for proconsulship of the newly
discovered regions, decided a third
expedition was in order, this one to be
commanded by Hernan Cortes. Although
Velasquez distrusted Cortes, and the latter's
military experience was limited to the
relatively simple conquest of Cuba, he was
nevertheless a powerfully wealthy force in
Cuban politics, and a shrewd judge of men.
He had money and credit to risk, while the
governor was loathe to risk his own. It is
doubtful anyone envisioned that his
appointment would change the history of
the world - except, perhaps, Cortes himself.
This remarkable man was born in Medellin
in 1485, the son of don Martin Cortes de
Monroy, and his wife, dona Catalina Pizarro
de Altamirano, both members of minor
nobility. As a youth, he was sickly, and nearly
died several times. In the religiously charged
atmosphere of the era, his survival was Hernan Cortes (1485-1547). Ruthless, single-minded and
attributed to St. Peter, whom he invoked on ambitious, Cortes's determination and bravery established
the Spanish hegemony in the New World, and destroyed
any great undertaking in later life. At 14 he
the Aztec civilization. His intelligence and ability to work
was sent to the university at Salamanca, with the Indians meant his expedition succeeded where
where he studied law, and, although capable, others had failed. (Ann Ronan Picture Library)
was bored and indifferent. After two years he
used lack of funds and chronic illness as an
excuse to drop out and return home. After By 1511 Cortes was a successful planter
that he wandered aimlessly about Spain for a in Santo Domingo. Nevertheless, he
year, no doubt hearing stories of the Indies accompanied Velasquez in the conquest of
from sailors and adventurers in the country's Cuba, serving as clerk to the treasurer. He
southern ports. In 1504 he set sail for Santo received a grant of Indians which he shared
Domingo, where he obtained a grant of land with Juan Juarez, whose sister, Catalina, he
and Indians. Through a family friendship married. Cortes's position soon brought him
with the governor, don Nicolas de Ovando, into conflict with Velasquez. Both were
Cortes also was appointed notary of the town strong willed, and each was determined to be
council of Azua, a position with actual legal the dominant force in Cuban affairs. Cortes
power when compared to its English or headed a faction that quietly worked to
American counterparts. undermine Velasquez, and the shrewd
Background to war 13

governor was fully aware of it. Neither, waves, among which were the Culhua, or
however, was strong enough to subvert the Toltecs, whose civilization Mexico adopted
other, and an uneasy alliance ensued, and supplanted, and the Tlaxcalans, who
occasionally punctuated by open feuding. later became Hernan Cortes's most valuable
This was one of the considerations that allies. Fra Diego Duran, a Dominican who
prompted Velasquez to place Cortes in compiled their history in the 16th century,
charge of the expedition to Mexico; he believed the emergence, which is to say the
had a competent man in charge, while at migrations, began about AD 820. It
the same time rid himself of a nuisance. continued over a period of many years, until,
He little realized that he was letting the by 1064, the Aztecs themselves, the last and
jinni out of the bottle. most beloved of the gods (according to their
legends), emerged.
Over the ensuing centuries, the Aztecs
Mexico wandered throughout much of western
Mexico, driven by a prophecy from their god,
The Aztecs, or Mexicans as they preferred Huitzilopochtli, that they were a chosen
to be called, were the latest and mightiest of people, and he would lead them to a
a chain of civilizations that had dominated promised land. In every new region they
the central plateau of Mexico for over established settlements, usually having to
1,500 years. They were not an empire in the fight the indigenous peoples. Always, their
modern sense of a central imperial authority god uprooted them and drove them onward.
which, through its own officials, holds direct About 1168, they arrived at Tula, capital of
suzerainty over its dominions; rather, there the now declining Toltec Empire, where they
was a tributary overlordship vested in the seem to have settled for a while, and began
city of Mexico. The adjacent city-states were acquiring a veneer of the local culture.
bound to Mexico by treaty. Beyond were Nevertheless, they again uprooted themselves,
numerous vassal states, internally forced onward by the ancient prophecy.
self-governing, but forced by a highly By 1299 the Aztecs appear to have
developed policy of terror to acknowledge reached the Valley of Mexico with its four
Mexico's supremacy, pay it tribute, and vast, interconnected lakes, Xaltocan (or
submit to its demands. Zumpango) in the north, Texcoco, the
The Aztecs were not indigenous to central largest, in the center, Xochimilco to the
Mexico, having arrived only a few centuries south, and Chalco to the southeast. The
earlier from some vague and remote region lakes were surrounded by city-states which
to the northwest. Their origins are shrouded were the remnants of the old Toltec
in myth, confused even more by the fact domains. Here, on a mud-flat in the middle
that as they grew from obscurity to of Lake Texcoco, the Aztecs saw a vision of
dominance, they reinvented their history to an eagle resting on a tenochca or nopal
suit their rising status. They appear to have cactus, fulfilling the prophecy of their
been the last of several waves of alien promised land. This pivotal event,
peoples of the Nahua language group, who traditionally dated at 1325, marks the
entered the region in the centuries following founding of the city of Mexico, then
the decline of the great city-state of known as Tenochtitlan.
Teotihuacan, the ruins of which are some 30 By the late 14th century, the city
miles northeast of Mexico City. According to maintained a precarious independence
their own early accounts, they came from a as a vassal to the more powerful Tepanecs,
place called Aztlan, hence the name "Aztec" whose seat was the city of Tlacopan. Slowly,
(people of Aztlan). Aztlan was the site of the however, the Aztecs worked to build both
Seven Caves of Chicomoztoc, from which their population and their prestige. In a
the Nahua people emerged in seven separate region where pedigree determined status,
14 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

they began to create a heritage for "great spokesman [for the empire];"
themselves, much as the Romans in Europeans translated it as "emperor." Eager
similar circumstances recast themselves as to legitimize his position and that of his city,
descendants of the Trojans of Aeneas. In he ordered the destruction of old codices
1376 they chose as their ruler Acampichtli, that recorded the Aztecs' nomadic past.
the son of an Aztec warrior and a princess Where Toltec legends held that the earth's
from the city of Culhuacan. Through his existence had been marked by four great ages
grandfather, the Culhua king Nauhyotl, or "suns," the Aztecs added a fifth - their
Acampichtli could claim decent from the own. Even the term "Aztec," a reminder of
ancient Toltec rulers, and he strengthened their humble origins in Aztlan, was
the claim by marrying some 20 princesses of suppressed. Henceforth, they were the
surrounding cities, all descendants of Toltec Culhua-Mexica, or Mexicans. Nevertheless,
royalty. Although Acampichtli remained a to the very end, they were self-conscious of
vassal of the Tepanecs, he nevertheless the fact that they were foreigners. In the
founded the royal line that ended with recesses of their minds, they believed that
the Conquest in 1521. just as they had conquered and subjugated
In 1428 Acampichtli's son, Itzcoatl, the natives, so others might conquer and
ascended to power. (He was the fourth subjugate them.
king of Tenochtitlan and succeeded his Over the ensuing decades, the might of the
half-brother Huitzihuitl.) One of his first acts empire grew. Aside from the conquest of
was to form an alliance with Nezahualcoyotl, tributary states, a trading network covered
head of the extraordinarily gifted dynasty much of Middle America. The city of Mexico,
that ruled the city of Texcoco. (The dynasty as Tenochtitlan was now called, became
that ruled Texcoco was ancient, known for wealthy and powerful, and the successive
the wisdom of its rulers, who were gifted emperors - Moctezuma I, Axayacatl, Tizoc,
diplomats, philosophers, and poets, all of and Ahuitzotl - were as renowned in their
whom were very highly regarded.) Together, world as the Caesars were in theirs.
they waged a victorious war against With the accession of Moctezuma II in
Tlacopan, gaining complete independence about 1503, the empire reached its height.
for Tenochtitlan. Rather than subjugating A competent general, Moctezuma put down
the Tepanecs, however, they invited them rebellions in the provinces, and conquered
to join their entente, inaugurating what new ones. The only parts of the country that
became known at the Triple Alliance, which were able to resist Mexican rule were the
dominated affairs in central Mexico for powerful Tarascan empire of the west, in
almost a century thereafter. Each of the modern Jalisco and Michoacan, and the
three city-states remained independent, small, militant republic of Tlaxcala in the
with Tenochtitlan ruling over the area
populated by the Aztecs, Texcoco over the The founding and expansion of the city of Tenochtitlan,
Aculhua-Chichimecs, and Tlacopan (later Mexico from the Codex Mendoza. The eagle on the
known as Tacuba) over the Tepanecs. cactus represents the founding of the city, while the
Together, they extended their realm beyond shield over a bundle of arrows (symbolizing war),
decorated with seven balls (representing power),
the valley, dividing the conquered towns and
represents the city itself. Immediately in front of the eagle
cities equally but with all tribute paid to the is the symbol of a tzompantli or skull rack. The figures
Triple Alliance as a whole. In this way, the surrounding it are the tribal leaders who founded the
Aztecs of Tenochtitlan rose to dominance, city. The symbols on the bottom represent the Aztec
with Texcoco and Tlacopan existing as conquest of the adjacent cities of Culhuacan (left) and
semi-client states. Tenayuca (right), which subsequently became tributary
vassals. The whole is framed in the names of the years of
The Triple Alliance marked the birth of the Aztec calendar such as 13 reed, 12 rabbit, 11 house,
the Aztec Empire, and Itzcoatl became the 10 knife, etc., to chronicle the first calendar cycle of the
first huey tlatoani, a title literally meaning city's existence. (Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Background to war 15
16 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

east. The Mexicans tended to leave the The tzompantli altar at the Templo Mayor (Great Temple)
Tarascans alone, because the Tarascan Empire, in Mexico. (Topham Picturepoint)
while less developed, was powerful enough to
RIGHT The elaborate costumes of Mexican warriors
fight it to a standstill and inflict severe were designed as much to intimidate their opponents as
damage. However, a state of cold war existed to protect the combatants themselves. (Codex Mendoza,
with Tlaxcala and its allies, and frequently it Folio 67r; Bodleian Library, Oxford)
broke into open fighting. When enemy
prisoners were captured, they were offered up
as sacrifices to the Mexican gods. The same Mexican religious beliefs
happened to Mexican soldiers who were
taken by their enemies. In either case, the Human sacrifice was paramount in Mexican
victims were considered beloved of the gods, religion, and the Mexicans took it to the
and, it was believed, would go directly to extreme. Countless people - slaves, captives,
paradise. After one defeat, Moctezuma was human levies of tribute from the provinces,
informed of the sacrifice of Mexican prisoners children of the poor - died on the temples
by the victorious people of Huexotzingo. "For each year. Their blood was shed to postpone
this fate we have been born," he observed, the inevitable death of the fifth sun, the sun
"for this we go into battle, and death in this of the Mexicans. They believed it would be the
manner is fortunate. That is the blessed death last sun, and when it died, the world would
that our ancestors extolled." rise no more. Gods had given their own blood
Background to war 17
18 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521
Background to war 19

A Castilian stirrup of the Conquest period, cast from

heavy iron filigree in the form of a cross. As much
weapon as horse furniture, it could be slammed into the
head of a foot soldier in close combat. (Enrique E.
Guerra Collection)

to create this sun, and without blood, it would

die. The blood of the gods themselves had to
be replenished, or they, too, would die. In
short, their religion offered no hope, only
doom. Despite their outward ostentation and
arrogance, subconsciously the Mexicans
prepared for the worst.
Toward the end of the first decade of the
16th century, the appearance of a comet set
off a chain of omens that appeared over the
ensuing years and foretold the end of the
empire. The comet was followed by a fire
that destroyed the Temple of Huitzilopochtli,
and the destruction of a second temple by a
bolt of lightning, both signs of defeat and
conquest. On a calm, still day, the waters of
Lake Texcoco rose and flooded the city,
destroying many houses. Then, a phantom
woman appeared in the night, wailing,
"O my beloved sons, now we are at the that affected them. Thus, it was easy for their
point of going! My beloved sons, whither imaginations to make the jump from reality
shall I take you?" (This particular phantom to fantasy, just as it was easy for the New
has passed into modern Mexican folklore as England Puritans, more than a century later,
"the llorona," the weeping woman, who is to regard natural occurrences as signs of
used to frighten children.) Other omens and God's pleasure or wrath.
visions appeared, including one of armed As high priest of a fatalistic religion,
men riding on large animals that appeared Moctezuma could only surmise that the sun
to be deer. of the Aztecs was nearing its end. In 1519,
Some of these events have rational when couriers from the east coast brought
explanations and were simply natural word of newcomers mounted on strange
phenomena: comets appear, lightning beasts, he appears to have expected it. He
strikes, and buildings burn. Geologically, was aware of the Castilian presence in the
Mexico is extremely unstable, and a distant Gulf of Mexico and Central America; the
earthquake easily could have caused the lake Mexican trade network was extensive, and so
to overflow. Yet for all their architecture, was its intelligence capabilities. In fact, the
organizational ability, and military skill, the arrival of Europeans in the region had
Mexicans (like their European counterparts) already worked its way into the latest round
simply did not understand the natural forces of religion and prophecy.
The Spanish soldier and the battleground where the two forces
so often clashed. A high, bleak plateau of
In his pioneering History of Mexico, Hubert windswept plains, large tracts of tough,
Howe Bancroft described the 16th-century gnarled oaks, and an overabundance of
conquistador as being "of different material fortresses, it has always bred a hard, lonely,
from the soldier of the present day." self-reliant people.
Apparently, "He was not a mere machine; The terrain was only part of the force that
he was a great dealer in destiny. He would forged the regional character. There was also
willingly adventure his life. If he lost, it was a culture of war, a centuries-old crusading
well; if he won, it was better. A hundred did spirit against the infidel, a feeling of
lose where one gained, and this each might righteousness in the cause of Christianity.
have known to be the risk had he taken the The end of the Moorish Wars in 1492
trouble to make a computation. His life was removed one infidel threat from the scene,
but one continuous game of hazard; but, if but the void would be filled as the voyages
successful, he expected wealth and glory as a of Christopher Columbus and his successors
just reward." provided new ones. Extremadura was more
In short, he was not a soldier in the than ready to provide the great captains of
conventional sense. Although many of the Conquest, who then enlisted fellow
those who accompanied Cortes did have Extremadurans to form the core of the
formal military backgrounds in the Italian invasion forces.
campaigns and elsewhere, they were The backbone of this army was the
essentially a company of adventurers. They ordinary infantryman, who was invariably a
paid their own way, often contributing to swordsman. Additionally, Bernal Diaz, the
the overall cost of the expedition, and many conquistador whose memoirs provide the
had to take out loans in order to meet their most detailed account of the Cortes
expenses. Even Cortes himself borrowed expedition, listed various specialists,
heavily from the merchants of Cuba, offering including 15 horsemen, as well as
his estates and Indian chattels as security. crossbowmen and musketeers. These men
Their reward, if any, would be shares in the incurred further expenses in weaponry and
spoils of what they hoped would be a mounts. Besides their food and equipment,
successful and lucrative expedition. all soldiers paid what they considered
War and adventure were in their blood. exorbitant fees to the expedition surgeons
A large percentage was not simply from who treated their wounds and tropical
Spain, but from Castile, the country that for fevers, and to the apothecaries who provided
centuries had been at the forefront of the the medicines.
wars against the Moors. Narrowing it down The cannon was the first practical firearm,
even further, the two greatest conquerors, and six were carried on the Cortes expedition.
Cortes of Mexico and his very distant cousin, One, a crude Lombard, is on display in the
Francisco Pizarro of Peru, were from the Conquest Hall at the National Museum of
Castilian province of Extremadura. Literally History in Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City.
translated as "Hard Extreme," Extremadura Smaller weapons evolved from the cannon
was also the extremity on the frontier until, by the mid-15th century, a practical
between Christian Spain and Muslim Spain, shoulder arm had been developed in the form
Warring sides 21

ABOVE The casque helmet, which was hammered

and riveted together; was much simpler and less ornate
than the morion, and would have been used by the
ordinary soldier who had the means to buy it.
(Enrique E. Guerra Collection)

RIGHT This Castilian broadsword, discovered recently

in Mexico City, may well be an actual relic of the
Conquest. It was recovered from the site of an ancient
canal on Cortes's line of retreat during the Noche Triste.
(Enrique E. Guerra Collection)

of the matchlock musket, such as that carried

by the harquebusiers or musketeers of the
Conquest. The matchlock was a heavy-caliber
muzzle-loading weapon, with a long barrel
fastened to a shoulder stock. The firing
mechanism consisted of a long cotton cord or
"match" soaked in a saltpeter solution and
allowed to dry. It was inserted into a
hammer-like mechanism and set alight,
providing a slow burn. When the trigger was
pulled, the mechanism brought the glowing
tip of the match down onto a priming charge
that ignited the powder inside the barrel.
These weapons were heavy and clumsy, and
22 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

BELOW The morion helmet and upper body armor quilted cotton armor of the Aztecs, which
were expensive in the early 16th century, and would was light, allowed freedom of movement,
have been worn by officers and other men of means on
the expedition. The ordinary soldier generally was less
and provided reasonable protection against
well protected, and often adopted the indigenous quilted the darts and sling stones of the natives. The
armor (Enrique E. Guerra Collection) soldiers also carried shields, often of wood
covered by rawhide.

The Mexican soldier

The Mexican army, whether Aztec proper or

from one of the surrounding principalities,
was one of the very few instances in the
New World where Europeans encountered
members of a formal, organized military
establishment, rather than tribal warriors.
A Spaniard known to history only as the
"Anonymous Conquistador," wrote: "It is
one of the most beautiful sights in the world
to see them in their battle array because they
keep formation wonderfully and are very
handsome. . . Anyone facing them for the
first time can be terrified by their screams
and their ferocity. In warfare they are the
most cruel people to be found, for they
spare neither brothers, relatives, friends, nor
women even if they are beautiful; they kill
them all and eat them. When they cannot
take the enemy plunder and booty with
them, they burn everything."
By killing and eating, the conquistador
undoubtedly meant capturing victims for
sacrifice. Taking captives for sacrifice was the
great testimony to the warrior's prowess in
battle. The novice soldier's designation as a
captor, particularly if he acted alone, was an
occasion of great ceremony. As the number
of his captives rose, so did his prestige, until
he, too, became a seasoned warrior and a
the musketeer had to support the forward part master of trainees in the schools.
of the gun on a shooting stick. A sudden gust Depending on family background and
of wind, or drizzling rain extinguished the social status, boys were sent to one of two
match, rendering the weapon useless under schools, the telpochcalli for commoners, or
many conditions. Thus, despite the the calmecac for the children of nobles. These
development of firearms, the archer or schools offered training in a variety of fields,
crossbowman continued to be essential for including the military. The sons of nobles
fighting at a distance. and soldiers were most likely to take up the
The captains and cavalry wore steel armor.
The men, few of whom could afford RIGHT Examples of tribute paid to Mexico by its vassals.
European armor, very early adopted the (Codex Mendoza, Folio 20r; Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Warring sides 23
24 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

As heavy armor began to prove unsuitable for the terrain army, the Aztec soldier was not a member of
and methods of combat in Mexico, conquistadors a large, monolithic force as is understood
sometimes carved a piece from their cuirasses, covered today. His loyalty was severally and variously
the sharp edges with rawhide, and wore them over the
tied to his ward or district in the city, the
chest area. Much lighter than the full breastplate, it allowed
the soldier more freedom of movement, but was heavy headman of that ward, the emperor, the
enough to ward off most native weapons. This example is state, and other interests. In this sense, he
decorated with a cross. (Enrique E. Guerra Collection) might be compared to the volunteer soldier
of the Union Army during the American
warrior's profession themselves. They were Civil War, who had divided loyalties to
turned over to war captains, training officers, entities such as his county, state, and to the
and veteran warriors, who trained the boys in federal government.
archery, dart throwing from an atlatl (a Considering that they were essentially a
throwing stick that gave extra leverage to a primitive people, Mexican warriors were well
spear or dart), swordsmanship, and use of the armed for combat by the standards of the
shield in combat. When the veterans went to 16th century. Although they did not have
war, they often took boy trainees along to metal weapons or firearms, they were experts
handle their weapons, much as the knights of in bow and arrow, lance, blowgun, dart, and
medieval Europe employed a squire. sling. They also carried a tepoztopilli, a
Although there was a hierarchy with a thrusting spear similar to that used by the
ranking system comparable to a modern Zulus in the 19th century. But whereas the
Warring sides 25

Aztec atlotl or dart thrower (Museo Nacional de large totemic animal, like a jaguar, wolf, or
Antropologia, Mexico) puma, the actual head of the animal might
be mounted over a frame of wood or a
Zulu blade was steel, the Mexican blade was quilted cotton liner, with the warrior looking
wood, edged with razor-sharp pieces of through the animal's mouth. Besides being
obsidian, and could slash as well as thrust. defensive, these war suits and helmets were
The grip also was substantially longer. Slings designed for psychological impact, to terrify
were among the most effective weapons, and an enemy. Warriors carried shields of hide or
the Castilians regarded them with a healthy woven plant fibers, often backed by quilting.
respect. A large shower of stones unleashed Ceremonial shields, such as those sent to
and smashing into an enemy simultaneously Europe by Cortes, were highly decorated
caused substantial casualties, and even with gold, precious stones, and featherwork.
heavily armored Europeans suffered serious Even the war shields, however, had a
injuries. One of the most vicious weapons feathered fringe hanging down from the
was the macauhuitl, a one-piece wooden bottom that could deflect an arrow or dart
sword with a blade edged on both sides by and protect the legs. Surviving examples may
obsidian. These came in one- or two-handed be seen in Vienna, Stuttgart, and
versions, and when wielded by well-trained Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City.
warriors were deadly. As well as wars of conquest and
Mexican armor was of quilted cotton, and subjugation, the Mexicans engaged in events
was so thick it could resist an arrow or a known as "flower wars." These wars were
dart. For that reason, the Castilians also fought by prearrangement with a selected
found it practical. The Mexicans wore it enemy for the sole purpose of providing the
under a war suit which, though not quilted, blood of captive warriors for the altars on
afforded some overall protection to the body. the temples in the Mexican capital. Besides
Suits were decorated, with fine featherwork bringing in new sacrificial victims, it also
being reserved for the ranking warriors.
Nobles wore war suits of animal skins. OVERLEAF A view of the Plumed Serpent Temple
Helmets took the form of eagles, jaguars, at Teotihuacan with the carved heads of the
Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent god, and Tlaloc,
or other symbols that could designate rank
the goggle-eyed god of rain. This building was built
or military order. Often they were made of centuries before the arrival of the Aztecs, who adopted
wood and bone, heavily decorated with these and many other native gods into their own
featherwork. When a military order had a pantheon. (©Philip Baird
26 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521
Warring sides 27
28 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

Shield decorated with a panel of feather mosaic forming Fra Duran described one scene in 1487, in
the name-glyph of King Ahuitzotl. Probably obtained by which 80,400 captives were sacrificed at the
Cortes from Moctezuma. (Ann Ronan Picture Library).
dedication of the Great Temple, the victims
lined up on the causeways according to
gave practical combat experience to young which allied army captured them.
warriors newly emerged from training. Thus, as the Aztec Empire's power
Companies were organized to assure a expanded over more of the region, war
suitable mixing of new recruits with became less of a practical art and more
seasoned veterans. The arrangements made, of a ritual used to gain tribute and feed
the armies of Mexico and its allies would the gods. Meanwhile, hatred smoldered
march on the enemy. Every effort would be in the tributary states, which provided not
made to avoid killing enemy warriors in only treasure for the empire but victims
order that they could be captured and for its sacrifices, and in 1519 Cortes had
returned to Mexico as offerings to the gods. remarkably little trouble recruiting them as
Warring sides 29

allies and auxiliaries. When confronted into place. Yet they would hold out and fight
by a grim, determined enemy, fighting a until the end, because they were warriors
European war by European tactics and for who accepted the decisions of their gods
European goals, and when that enemy was without question.
supported by hordes of local auxiliaries, the On the Spanish side, Cortes's men fought
Aztec military mentality was unable to with grim desperation, when the object was
adjust. Even in the final desperate days of no longer riches, nor even their lives, but
their national existence, they took captives the fate of their souls. They knew full well
rather than trying to destroy their enemies that if captured, they would be dragged to
on the spot. the tops of the temples and offered up as
The Conquest was not simply a war sacrifices to idols that they literally believed
between soldiers, but a confrontation were manifestations of Satan and his
between civilizations and especially between demons. They had seen these monstrous
gods. The Aztecs' own fatalism and obsession idols covered in blood, described as demons
with ritual played a major part in their by Old Testament prophets in the Revelation
downfall. They knew that their gods were of St. John and by a thousand years of
demanding and capricious, who could give Christianity. Yet they also knew, through
or withhold their beneficence on a whim. the teachings of Christ, that in the end
They believed that the world had been they must triumph. In their own lifetimes
destroyed four times before. It would be they had witnessed the end of eight
destroyed again. The Aztecs themselves were centuries of Islam in Spain. And in
foreigners who had displaced the native overthrowing the idols and conquering
peoples of the valley and beyond, and they, the idolaters they believed they were
too, would be displaced. There had been carrying Christ's mandate to take His word
prophecies of doom, and there had been to all the world. If they died, sword in hand,
omens. Now, it seemed as though all the fighting against these demon gods, their
elements of their destruction were falling salvation was assured.

Divide and conquer

The arrangement between Diego Velasquez decked ships, and the rest open brigantines.
and Hernan Cortes called for the governor There were 530 Europeans, several hundred
to provide two or three ships, with Cortes West Indian natives and Africans, as well as
funding the balance of the expedition. about eight European women. Livestock
Cortes moved rapidly, assembling his own included 16 horses, an animal never before
group of captains, including Pedro de seen on the American mainland, and a large
Alvarado, who would serve more or less as number of war dogs, large wolfhounds and
his right hand throughout the Conquest. mastiffs, used in Europe to attack the enemy
Alvarado was ruthless and rash, often and tear him apart.
prone to acting without considering the Arms included crossbows, harquebuses,
consequences; but he was a man who would and artillery, as well as flags. Cortes's own
be loyal to Cortes until the end. Others, standard was blue and white with a red cross
likewise, could be counted on to support in the center. Emblazoned on it was a motto
Cortes in any showdown, among them reminiscent of Constantine the Great, Amici,
Cristobal de Olid and Gonzalo Sandoval. As sequamor crucem, et si nos fidem habemus, vere
for the men, the lure of shares in any profit in hoc signo vicemus ("Friends, let us follow
was enough to draw ample recruits from the the cross, and if we have faith, truly by this
rootless young adventurers in Cuba, among sign we shall conquer"). Cortes dedicated the
them a Castilian of good family and little expedition itself to St. Peter, who he believed
means named Bernal Diaz del Castillo, took a special interest in his safety.
whose later account would become one of
the greatest sources of information on
the Conquest. The initial landing
Watching the preparations in Santiago de
Cuba, Velasquez became alarmed at their In the Yucatan Channel heavy weather
speed and thoroughness, and feared (with scattered the fleet and, according to a
good reason as it turned out) that Cortes prearranged plan, the ships rendezvoused at
might have his own agenda. For his part, Cozumel, off the west coast of the Yucatan
Cortes began to suspect that the governor Peninsula, an island already well known to
would grab the wealth and glory of a Spanish pilots. About one-third of his men
successful expedition, and redoubled his had already been there with Grijalva. Here,
efforts to retain control. Finally, Velasquez Cortes was at his best, treating the locals in
forced the issue, and sent orders removing such a friendly manner that he had little
Cortes from command and detaining the trouble establishing contact. Communication
expedition. But Cortes had second-guessed was through the broken Castilian of "Old
him and, on November 18, 1518, ordered the Melchor," a Maya who had been taken to
expedition to sail from Santiago, putting in Cuba on the Cordoba expedition of 1517.
first at Trinidad and, later, San Cristobal de la Soon, however, they received an unexpected
Habana to complete fitting out. (On the bonus in the person of Jeronimo de Aguilar,
southern coast of Cuba; modern Havana was an Andalusian cleric who had been
known as Puerto de Carenas.) Altogether, the shipwrecked on the island in 1511, and who
fleet that left San Cristobal on February 10, now spoke fluent Chontol Maya. One of two
1519 consisted of 11 vessels, four of them survivors of the wreck, he readily joined the
Outbreak 31

expedition. His companion, Gonzalo The large numbers of native warriors and
Guerrero, however, had married into the their tough resistance convinced Cortes that
local nobility with a high position, and force would not be enough to subjugate the
ignored letters inviting him to be repatriated. mainland peoples, as it had been with the
The stay in Cozumel gave Cortes time to islands of the Indies. The key would be
plan his next move, and to accustom his diplomacy, to overawe with words, and
band of mercenaries and adventurers to with display, and to look for and exploit
working together as a cohesive, disciplined weaknesses and factionalism.
unit. Sailing from Cozumel, the fleet touched Summoning the chiefs, he told them that
at nearby Isla Mujeres, then continued on if they became vassals of the Spanish Crown,
around the Yucatan Peninsula to Tabasco, in as were the Castilians themselves, he would
the Gulf of Mexico. On March 22 they protect them. Otherwise, he said the artillery
entered the waterway now known as the (which he represented as living creatures),
Rio Grijalva, where Cortes, through Aguilar, would jump up and kill them. That was the
attempted a parley with natives from the signal for one of the gunners to fire his
nearby town of Potonchan. The locals, piece. At the same moment, one of the
however, were hostile and, the following day, more assertive stallions was allowed to scent
he forced his way ashore. The decisive fight a mare that had recently foaled, and he
came on Annunciation Day, March 25. began to paw and buck. The terrified chiefs
Whipped up by Old Melchor, who had immediately submitted and the following
escaped and joined them, the Indians fought morning brought gifts of gold, fine cloth,
fiercely, but the landing of the horses, and along with 20 women to serve the Castilians
the new experience of a cavalry charge sent as "wives." Asked where the gold originated,
them fleeing in panic. they answered "Culhua," referring to the
32 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

Valley of Mexico, and "Mexico", referring to Teuhtlilli departed, returning again in a

the Aztec capital itself. few days with even greater treasures, among
Cortes and his men now determined to them a gigantic, beautifully decorated golden
visit Mexico to see for themselves the source disc representing the sun, and a slightly
of this wealth. The most important gift from smaller one representing the moon. Before
the chiefs of Potonchan suddenly became one leaving, he had borrowed a European helmet,
of the women, a girl in her late teens named and now returned it filled to the top with
Malinalli. Renamed dona Marina, she spoke gold dust. A meeting between Cortes and the
both Nahuatl and Chontol, so she could emperor, however, was apparently impossible.
communicate with the Mexicans and with Moctezuma's reasons for offering these
Aguilar, and thus became Cortes's ears and great treasures have been debated for almost
mouthpiece. Years later in his account of the five centuries. Was he trying to bribe the
Conquest, Bernal Diaz would write, "Dona Castilians into leaving? Or was he
Marina in all the wars of New Spain and attempting, as often was done in the Orient,
Tlaxcala and Mexico was a most excellent to overawe these foreigners with his wealth
woman and good interpreter . . . [and] in this and power? Whatever the motive, it only
capacity she always accompanied Cortes." excited the Castilians, and made them more
Almost as an afterthought, he added she also determined to visit the source of such
became Cortes's mistress and bore him a son. wealth. The problem was that the camp was
Getting under way again, the fleet sailed divided into two factions: the supporters of
for four days, arriving at the island of San Diego Velasquez, who wanted to take what
Juan de Ulua, at the entrance to the modern had been gained so far and depart for Cuba,
harbor of Veracruz, on Maundy Thursday. and the rank and file, who saw little
Although this was the country of the advantage in supporting the governor but
Totonacs, a people subject to Mexico, the unlimited opportunities in moving ahead.
dignitaries who came out in canoes appear Cortes's position was simple. He had to
to have been Mexican. Inviting them on conquer or die. If he returned to Cuba, he
board his ship for dinner, Cortes told them faced imprisonment or death for sailing in
through Aguilar and dona Marina that he defiance of the governor. To advance on his
came as a friend to trade and explore. The own would make him a traitor to the
following day, he led his men ashore, setting Crown - unless he were backed by a legally
up camp with an altar to celebrate Good constituted authority. His brief training in
Friday Mass. All the while, more dignitaries law had prepared him for this day. He
were arriving, culminating on Easter Sunday resigned the commission given him by
with a visit from Teuhtlilli, a sort of governor Velasquez, thus absolving him of all
apparently charged with overseeing Mexican allegiance to the governor, persuaded the
affairs in the province and keeping the men to form a municipal government,
Totonacs in line. designated Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz
Cortes explained his mission, and said he ("Rich Town of the True Cross"1), and
looked forward to meeting Moctezuma. petitioned the king to recognize it as a
Teuhtlilli replied that this was impossible. colony, with Cortes as captain and chief
However, the emperor had sent magnificent justice. The treasure accumulated to date
gifts of gold, cloth, and featherwork. Cortes was inventoried and loaded aboard ship to
responded by giving European goods accompany Cortes's representatives, Alonso
unfamiliar in the New World, such as glass Hernandez Puertocarrero and Francisco de
beads and a finely carved chair. His men Montejo, back to Spain. This, technically,
demonstrated their horsemanship skills and was a pledge of good faith, but in fact was a
mastery of artillery before the governor. bribe to the avaricious King Charles.

1 Villa Rica was subsequently moved 40 miles north up the coast, where the Castilians established
the first permanent town, now a ruin.
Outbreak 33

The landing of the Castilians, from the Florentine Codex, extensive human sacrifice on the
Plate I. (American Museum of Natural History) blood-soaked temples.
The Totonacs apparently were on the
While camped on the coast, the Castilians verge of rebellion, and Cortes played this to
were visited by a delegation from the his advantage. By lucky coincidence, the
principal Totonac city of Cempoala, whose Mexican tribute gatherers arrived in the
primary mission seemed to have been to Totonac towns. Angry that the Castilians had
assess the potential of these strangers as been received without permission, they
allies against their Mexican overlords. Taking demanded, in addition to the usual tribute,
the bulk of his force, Cortes marched inland 20 men and women for sacrifice. Cortes
to the city, which had been wealthy and convinced the Totonacs to arrest them,
powerful in its own right, although was now saying the Spanish Crown intended to end
a tributary to Mexico. Here, the Castilians such abuses. The proud officials were
saw the first examples of the magnificent dragged through the streets in halters, and
architecture and large populations they one was flogged. That night, however, they
would increasingly encounter as they moved were permitted to escape, and returned to
inland. They also saw very real indications of Mexico with the news of a rebellion. Then,
34 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

in an even more daring move, Cortes everything of any possible use, he scuttled
ordered the idols thrown down from the his fleet. Like their leader, the men were now
Totonac temples, smashed to pieces and faced with two options: conquer or die.
burned. When the people tried to stop it, On August 16, Cortes left Cempoala for
their chiefs and priests were surrounded, and the interior. Passing through the town of
Cortes said they would be killed on the first Zautla, he heard, for the first time, a detailed
show of hostility. Having defied their description of the city of Mexico, which
overlords, and with their religion destroyed, filled the men with both excitement and
the Totonacs were now committed to the fear. Continuing on up through the Valley of
Castilian cause beyond any possibility of Zautla, they reached a wall built across the
turning back. western mouth which, they were told,
There remained one last piece of marked the territory of Tlaxcala, a loose
unfinished business: a growing rebellion in confederation of four cities centered around
the Velasquez faction, whose members the city of Tlaxcala itself. Locals advised him
planned to seize one of the ships and return to stay clear of the country, because the
to Cuba. Moving swiftly, Cortes hanged one Tlaxcalans were mortal enemies of the
of their leaders. Then, having removed Mexicans; if they knew the Castilians were
going to Mexico, they would attack. The
The square at Cempoala was the scene of pivotal events Totonacs, however, advised continuing
of the Conquest, including the first alliance with native
because Tlaxcala would be a useful ally.
states, the first overthrow of the native idols, and
Cortes's defeat of a rival expedition sent from Cuba
Sending six cavalrymen ahead as scouts,
under Panfilo de Narvaez. (Instituto Nacional de Cortes marched into the country. After about
Antropologia e Historia, Mexico) ten miles, the scouts ran into an advance
Outbreak 35

party of about 15 warriors who attacked with Tlaxcala, the Castilians learned, was
spears, killing two horses, and wounding bounded on all sides by Mexico and its allies.
three others, as well as two horsemen. These Indeed Moctezuma later told Andres Tapia
were soon joined by some 4-5,000 warriors. (a conquistador who wrote an account of the
The cavalry moved in and "did them some conquest in 1545) that the only reason he
damage," and as soon as the infantry arrived, tolerated the country's existence was that it
the Tlaxcalans withdrew. served as a convenient training ground for
After an uneasy night, fighting began young warriors in the "flower wars" that
again the next morning. This time, Cortes brought enemy captives to Mexico for
estimated there were as many as 100,000 sacrifice. Economically it was also at the
warriors, who were held off by artillery, mercy of Mexico, because it had few
crossbows, musket fire, and cavalry until resources and produced little, and was
about an hour before sunset, when the therefore reduced to bartering with its more
Tlaxcalans again broke off. The Castilians powerful neighbor. Nevertheless, its warriors
retreated to a small hill, fortifying the temple were numerous and well organized.
they found on top. At dawn the next day Recognizing its potential as an ally, Cortes
Cortes led a raid that burned several small was careful to emphasize Castilian friendship.
villages and brought their inhabitants back Arriving at the city of Tlaxcala, he quartered
as prisoners. The Tlaxcalans responded by his men and staked out a sort of military
assaulting the hill with a force that Cortes reservation, the limits of which the soldiers
estimated at about 149,000 men. Some were not to cross without permission.
managed to break the line, and the fighting The Tlaxcalan alliance proved to be a
turned to hand-to-hand combat, Toledo steel turning point in the Conquest, for without
ranged against the razor-like stone weapons their massive military power, it is doubtful
of the natives. Cortes continued with his that a handful of Europeans and Totonac
dawn raids against the villages. This, auxiliaries could have defeated Mexico.
together with the Castilian determination to Tlaxcala remained faithful to the end, and
hold the fort at any cost, was a new concept throughout the colonial period was described
of war, and the Tlaxcalans were unsettled. in Spanish sources as "most loyal." This has
Ultimately they sued for peace, explaining earned the modern city and state the disdain
that they had attacked on the presumption of other parts of Mexico, particularly Mexico
that Cortes was allied with Mexico. City, where citizens contend that the
36 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

The temple at Cempoala, just one example of the miles to Cholula, a wealthy, populous
spectacular architecture that amazed the conquistadors. trading city allied with Mexico. There, they
(©Philip Baird told him, he could wait and learn whether or
not Moctezuma would receive him. The
country was betrayed by Tlaxcala. Modern Tlaxcalans were against the idea, claiming it
Tlaxcalans, however, are equally touchy was a trap. Moctezuma, they told him, had
about their reasons for siding with Cortes, withdrawn troops from their own borders to
and are quick to point out all the grievances strengthen the garrison at Cholula. The main
their country had with Aztec Mexico. road had been closed, and an alternative
By Cortes's own account, he spent 20 days path had been constructed, full of pitfalls
in Tlaxcala, when the Mexican emissaries with sharpened stakes, to neutralize the
suggested he continue on another 30 or so cavalry. They also pointed out that no
Outbreak 37

neared Cholula, he sent most of the auxiliaries

home, keeping only 5-6,000 men who were
ordered to remain outside of the city, at the
request of the Cholulans.
Cholula was a place of pilgrimage. At the
time of the Conquest, it had 365 temples,
one for each day of the Aztec year, and
afterwards churches were said to have
been built on each of them. Whether the
church-to-temple ratio is entirely accurate
is debatable, but modern Cholula must
certainly have one of the highest densities of
churches in relation to available real estate of
any city in Mexico. Then and now, the city
was dominated by the Tepanapa, a great
temple that remains the largest single
free-standing structure on earth.
The Cholulans welcomed the expedition
with great ceremony, and provided
comfortable quarters. Nevertheless, Cortes
was suspicious because en route he had
verified much of what the Tlaxcalans had
told him. The attitude of the Cholulans,
likewise, cooled. Over the next three days,
food gradually worsened until, on the third
day, it was stopped entirely. Visits by the
local dignitaries became less frequent, until
they also ceased. Crowds outside the quarters
began to jeer and taunt the Castilians. The
ever-vigilant dona Marina had struck up
friendships among the noblewomen, and
learned that a massacre was being prepared.
This was confirmed by runners from the
Tlaxcalans, who, from their camp, had
observed events with growing uneasiness.
Cortes summoned the Cholulan leaders
and, after hinting that he knew of the plot,
said he wanted men as bearers for the trip
delegation from Cholula had come to visit, into Mexico. When the bearers arrived, they
whereas those of more distant cities had. were heavily armed and were, in fact, the
Cortes, however, remained adamant. He elite of the warriors. Now convinced beyond
later admitted to the king that part of his all doubt, Cortes again assembled the
determination was to impress the Tlaxcalans Cholulans and deployed his men, telling
themselves, fearing that any hesitancy might them that when they heard a musket shot,
show weakness; he was determined to they were to fall on the Cholulans outside
convince all potential enemies and allies of the quarters. When the leaders arrived, they
Castilian invincibility. When the Tlaxcalans were taken into a courtyard and surrounded.
saw Cortes could not be dissuaded, they Several were interrogated and confessed to
insisted on sending 100,000 well-armed the trap. The signal was given and the
warriors. Cortes assented, although, as his force slaughter began. Having dispatched those
38 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

around their quarters, the Castilians and the

Totonac auxiliaries moved out into the city
from house to house, hunting down and
killing any warrior or potential warrior they
could find. Several priests fled to the top of
the Tepanapa, but died when the Castilians
set the temple ablaze. Cortes estimated about
3,000 men were killed in the first two hours.
With the city in complete chaos, he now
brought in their ancient enemies, the
Tlaxcalans, and allowed them two days of
pillage and slaughter. The inhabitants who
survived the initial assault fled into the
countryside. After several days, they came
wandering back into Cholula, begging for
mercy. Having made an example of anyone
else who might oppose him, Cortes now
relented and allowed them to return,
promising his protection henceforth.
That Castilian account is different from
that of the Mexicans. Sahagun's informants
contend that the massacre was instigated by
the Tlaxcalans, and make no mention of a
plot by the Cholulans. This is unlikely,
however, given Cortes's basic preference for
diplomacy, with armed conflict as a last
resort. Whatever the case, the news of the
massacre shocked Moctezuma and his court; it
was the exact opposite of what they had
expected. He had intended for the Cholulans
to finish the Castilians, but Cortes anticipated
this, and hit first. Once more, the emperor
sent emissaries with gifts, this time, however,
with a double who would pass himself off as
the emperor in a meeting with Cortes.
While the court worried, Cortes prepared
for the final thrust to the city of Mexico. The
skyline over Cholula is dominated by two
giant volcanoes, Popocatepetl and
Ixtacihuatl, each more than 17,000 feet tall,
rising above the mountains to the west. summit by the winds, tremors, clouds of ash,
Popocatepetl, which began a new surge of and glaciers. Nevertheless, they brought back
eruptions in the late 1990s, likewise was samples of ice and snow to prove that it
active in 1519, and Cortes sent a detachment existed in a tropical climate.
of soldiers to investigate. At 13,000 feet, they Departing Cholula, the expedition was
discovered a pass between the mountains met by more ambassadors who offered to
and determined from local Indians that a lead the way into Mexico by a different road
good road led from the pass into the Valley than the one between the mountains. The
of Mexico. They attempted to climb the Tlaxcalans, however, were suspicious,
mountain, but were forced back short of the because the proposed route was through
Outbreak 39

rough country, ideally suited for ambush. The massacre at Cholula, illustrated in a 19th-century
Going into camp, Cortes sent a detachment history of Mexico. (Author's collection)
of soldiers with the ambassadors to scout
that route, and Diego Ordaz with the of large cities and towers, and a sea, and in
Tlaxcalans to scout beyond the pass. The first that sea a very large city, which indeed
group returned with news that the route was seemed frightening and awesome." This was
impassable. A day later, Ordaz and the the wealthy, powerful Aztec capital, situated
Tlaxcalans returned with an incredible story. on its island in Lake Texcoco.
The conquistador Alonso de Aguilar later Descending down onto the plain, they
recalled Ordaz "had seen another new world passed through various tributary provinces,
40 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

whose leaders almost universally complained around and look at Mexico, and what will
of Mexican oppression. Ambassadors were happen to her before many days have
sent ahead to the various cities and passed!" Obeying, they turned and saw the
provinces on the route, and alliances were city in flames. As they attempted to answer,
formed. It became increasingly obvious that the stranger disappeared. They now realized
these foreigners were seen as liberators, not that he was Tezcatlipoca, paramount of the
necessarily benign, but at least the lesser of gods. Knowing they and their city were
evils. The Aztec Empire was falling apart, as doomed, they abandoned their mission.
the years of ruinous tribute and cruelty that Listening to their report, Moctezuma knew
had made it the greatest power in North his gods had abandoned him, and he was
America now worked against it. In completely alone. He began preparations to
Huexotzingo, the leaders warned Cortes that receive the Castilians in the capital itself.
Moctezuma would allow them to enter the At Ayotzingo, the Castilians were met by
city, then, having trapped them inside, Moctezuma's distant cousin, Cacama, king of
would massacre them. Similar warnings were Texcoco.2 He arrived in the splendor befitting a
given in Amecameca and elsewhere. ruler of the Triple Alliance, carried on a litter
En route, they were met by the embassy borne by eight lords of subordinate cities.
that included Moctezuma's double and which When he met Cortes, he announced that he
brought 3,000 pesos in gold. The double had been sent to personally conduct the
(whom Cortes identified as a brother of the expedition to the city of Mexico. Gifts were
emperor), represented himself as Moctezuma, exchanged, and the prince, his entourage, the
but, after consulting with the Tlaxcalans and Castilians, and their auxiliaries began the
Totonacs, Cortes informed him that he knew march, crossing the great Cuitlahuac Causeway
better. He told the representatives that his that separates Lake Chalco from Lake
own king in Spain had personally dispatched Xochimilco, and on to Itzapalapa, on the
him to visit the capital, meet with shores of Lake Texcoco itself. Here, the lords of
Moctezuma, and report back, and that he Itzapalapa and Coyoacan, met them with
could not disobey. The march continued, tribute. After spending the night, they marched
while the embassy returned shamefaced, to out onto the Iztapalapa Causeway, that led into
report to their emperor. the capital. Bernal Diaz recalled the scene:
Sahagun's Mexican informants told a tale
illustrating how devastating the chain of "We went ahead on our causeway which is
events had become for Mexican morale. In eight paces wide and goes directly to the city of
one, last, desperate attempt to forestall the Mexico without deviation. The whole width was so
inevitable, Moctezuma sent necromancers full of people that there was hardly room, some
and sorcerers out to try to ward off the were going to Mexico, and others were leaving.
Castilians by enchantment. En route, We could hardly get through because the Indians
however, they met a traveler who seemed who came to see us filled the towers and cues
almost berserk with rage. "What does [temples] and came in canoes from every part of
Moctezuma pretend to accomplish with your the lake. And it was not surprising because they
remedies against the Spaniards? He has had never seen horses, nor men like us. And when
realized late that they are determined to take we saw such wonderful things we did not know
his kingdom, whatever he possesses, and what to say or whether what we saw before us
even his honor, because of the great was real. On the land there were great cities, and
tyrannies he has committed against his on the lake many more. We saw the whole lake
vassals! He hasn't reigned as a lord, but as a was filled with canoes, and at intervals on the
tyrant and a traitor!" The terrified sorcerers causeway there were many bridges. Before us was
listened as the man continued to rant. "Turn the great city of Mexico. We had barely 400

2 The old accounts say "Cacamatzin," which means Lord Cacama.

Outbreak 41

soldiers, and we remembered the words and himself arrived on a litter with his brother,
advice given us by the people of Guaxocinco Cuitlahuac, prince of Iztapalapa, and Cacama
[Huexotingo] and Tlaxcala and Tamanalco, and on either side. Two hundred other princes
many others that we should beware of entering formed the entourage, all of whom averted
Mexico, because they would kill us once they had their eyes for they were forbidden to look at
us inside." (Historia Verdadera) Moctezuma's face. A carpet was rolled out
and Moctezuma stepped down on it, the two
Cacama and the other princes had gone
ahead to prepare for the meeting between Moctezuma. Illustration from a 19th-century history of
Cortes and Moctezuma. The emperor Mexico. (Author's collection)
42 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

princes holding up his hands, while emperor opened. It contained a necklace

attendants swept in front of him so that dust made of red snail shells, interspersed with
would not touch his feet. Cortes started to golden shrimp, which the emperor personally
embrace him, but the princes indicated that place around Cortes's neck, to the
this was impossible. They did, however, allow astonishment of his retainers. After an
him to take a necklace from his own neck, exchange of pleasantries, Moctezuma ordered
made of glass beads scented with musk, Cacama and the prince of Iztapalapa to show
interspersed with pearls, and put it around the Castilians to their quarters.
the emperor's. Moctezuma summoned a The Itzapalapa Causeway led into the very
servant, who brought a packet which the center of the city which - then and now - is
Outbreak 43

the administrative and spiritual center. It were the temple precincts, now partly
opened out onto a great plaza, now known covered by the Metropolitan Cathedral,
as the Zocalo where crowds still gather for across from which are the ruins of the Great
events and festivities of national importance. Temple itself. The Castilians were quartered
To the immediate east of the plaza was the in the palace of Moctezuma's father,
palace of Moctezuma himself, now the site Axayacatl, the site of which is to the
of the National Palace. North of the plaza immediate west of the Cathedral, and the
44 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

immediate north of the modern Monte de will, for you shall be obeyed; and for all that
Piedad (National Pawn Shop). Just north of we own is for you to dispose of as you
this palace was the Tlacopan or Tacuba choose," he said. He also mentioned that he
Causeway, which was to figure prominently knew the stories about him that the
in subsequent events. Tlaxcalans, Totonacs, and others had told,
Moctezuma was waiting in Axayacatl's and cautioned Cortes not to take them too
palace when the Castilians arrived. Taking seriously. After telling the Castilians to make
Cortes by the hand, the emperor led him to themselves at home, he departed.
a throne, then took another next to it. Gifts The Castilians immediately set about
of gold, silver, featherwork, and fine cotton organizing company quarters, siting their
garments were brought in. Then Moctezuma artillery, and assigning posts for infantry
began to explain Mexican history, admitting and cavalry. Once that was completed,
to the fact that the Aztecs themselves were they found the Mexicans had prepared a
foreigners who had been brought to the sumptuous banquet, and they ate it
region by a great chieftain. When that immediately. "And this," Bernal Diaz
chieftain wanted to move on, however, the wrote, "was our daring and auspicious
Aztecs had refused. The chieftain left for the entrance into the great city of Tenustitan
east, but the Aztecs had always known that [Tenochititlan] Mexico, on the eighth day
his descendants would return to rule over of the month of November, in the year of
them. Now, it appeared the prophecy had Our Savior Jesus Christ one thousand five
been fulfilled. "And in all the land that lies hundred and nineteen. Thanks to Our Lord
in my domain, you may command as you Jesus Christ for it all."
The fighting

Disaster, then triumph

Acclimatization made of skulls mortared together. Visiting

the tzompantli, Tapia and Gonzalo de Umbria
For the next week, the Castilians were did some idle counting and multiplication,
tourists. They were well housed and well fed, and determined there were 136,000 skulls
acquiring a taste for strange new things, such on the beams themselves, not including
as chocolate (derived from the Nahuatl word those in the towers.
xocolatl) whipped to a froth, corn tortillas, On the fourth day, Moctezuma invited
and chillis. Often they dined with the the Castilians to accompany him to
emperor, who entertained them with Tlatelolco, the commercial center of the
dancers, jugglers, and jesters, and introduced empire. Although Mexican, Tlatelolco had
them to smoking after dinner. They saw the established its independence early in the
menagerie, with strange native animals such Aztec era, and remained separate until 1473,
as the beautiful quetzal bird, whose long when Moctezuma's father, the Emperor
plumes adorned the headdresses of royalty, Axyacatl, conquered it and made it into a
jaguars, and coyotes (which Bernal Diaz borough of Mexico proper. Nevertheless,
thought were jackals). Particularly repulsive Tlatelolco maintained control of commerce,
to the European mind was a type of snake and had its own Great Temple complex,
"that had on its tail something that sounds rivaling that of Mexico.
like bells," their first introduction to the The vast market square, which virtually
rattlesnake. Writing of the menagerie with every Castilian chronicler agreed was more
particular disgust, Diaz contended these than double the size of the great square of
animals were fed with the hearts and flesh Salamanca, was surrounded by a portico
of sacrificial victims. (the whole area was roughly 500 ft square).
They also saw the Great Temple, a Everyday, at least 20,000 people were
massive pyramid surmounted by twin trading, and on the main market day, every
sanctuaries, dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the fifth day, this number more than doubled.
peculiarly Aztec war god, and Tlaloc, the Each type of trade had its own area with the
hideous, multi-fanged, goggle-eyed god of gold merchants in one, featherworkers in
rain, passed down through millennia from another, stoneworkers in another, slave
one Mesoamerican culture to the next. dealers, traders in cotton, produce, game
These gods survived on the blood of animals, medicinal roots, and every other
sacrificial victims, who were bent backwards imaginable item in its own area. Currency
over small stones so that their chests were was feather quills filled with gold dust of a
thrust upward, and their still-beating hearts specific weight, or cacao beans. Some of the
ripped out by knife-wielding priests. Inside Castilian veterans, who had traveled as far as
the dark, filthy sanctuaries were the idols Constantinople, said they had never seen so
which, according to Andres Tapia, were large a market, nor one so well regulated.
smeared with blood to the depth of two or Looming over the market was the Great
three fingers. Temple of Tlatelolco. Bernal Diaz counted
In front of the Temple was the tzompantli, 114 steps up the pyramid, from the top of
the great rack where the heads of sacrificial which, they could see the entire city. There
victims were threaded on beams set between were three causeways into the city from the
towers. The towers themselves also were mainland, with bridges at regular intervals.
46 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

There was an aqueduct that brought in fresh Tezcatlipoca, the paramount god, and Xipe
water from springs at Chapultepec. The city Totec, the flayed god of harvest. Diaz noted
itself was divided by canals traversed by that, "All the walls of that oratory were
drawbridge or canoe. In view of later events, bathed and black with encrusted blood,
one may surmise that Cortes noted and the floors were the same, and it stank
everything, and committed it all to memory. dreadfully, to which the butchers of Castile
At Cortes's request, Moctezuma led them could not compare. And there had they
inside the sanctuary, dominated by an image offered five hearts sacrificed that day ... They
of Huitzilopochtli, along with statues of had a drum great in dimension, that when
The fighting 47

A contemporary depiction of the Templo Mayor (Great

Temple) and the tzompantli (skull rack).The Spaniards
found the temple imposing and regarded the sacrificial
practices as repugnant. (John Carter Brown Museum)

had been burned to fumigate those idols,

and the whole was such that I curse it, and it
was clotted with blood, and stank like a
slaughterhouse, and we could not wait until
we left that stink and that horrible sight."
Turning to the emperor, Cortes said he
could not understand how such a great and
wise prince could not have realized that
these were not gods but demons. In order
that he and his priests might truly
understand the nature of the idols, he asked
to place a cross on top of the sanctuary, and
inside, a statue of the Virgin "so that you
may see the fear the idols have of her."
As this was translated, two priests glared
malevolently, and Moctezuma angrily replied,
"Lord Malinche, if I had believed that you
would speak with such dishonor to my gods,
I would not have brought you here. We have
them because they are good, and they give us
health, and rains, and good plantings and
seasons, and victories when we want them,
and we are required to worship and to
sacrifice. And we pray that you do not say
further words in their dishonor."
Smiling, Cortes suggested it was time to
leave. Moctezuma agreed, but replied that he
would have to stay, and pray and make
sacrifices to ask pardon of the gods for
bringing the Castilians. Cortes then said,
"I ask my lord's pardon if this be so."
The emperor, however, was less intractable
with regard to how the Castilians worshiped
among themselves, and gave permission to
set up a chapel in their quarters. As a room
was being surveyed, the carpenter noticed a
they beat it, it had a mournful sound of the doorway that had recently been bricked up
style they say one hears from an instrument and plastered over. Cortes ordered the door
of the infernal regions, and one can hear it forced open. Inside was a vast chamber
from two leagues distant; they say the containing the accumulated wealth of
drumheads are made from the skins of conquest and empire. After a quick
great serpents. conference between Cortes and the men
And in that place they had various things present, it was decided to seal the door
diabolical to see: bugles and trumpets and again, so that Moctezuma would not realize
sacrificial knives, and many hearts of Indians it had been discovered.
48 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

Imprisonment of Moctezuma Alliance. Initially, he had urged Moctezuma

to resist the Castilians, and when it became
Cortes, and some of the more experienced obvious he would not, he decided the time
captains and soldiers were worried. Fabulous had come to seize power and expel the
as it was, the treasure had impressed them foreigners. He was joined in the conspiracy
with the might and power of the Aztec by Moctezuma's brother, Cuitlahuac, prince
empire. They were beginning to see the city of Itzapalapa, and several of the other more
as a trap. Moctezuma could stop their food important vassal states in the Valley of
and water, raise the bridges, then set hordes Mexico. Moctezuma learned of the plot,
of warriors on them. Their fears seemed and by now completely in thrall to Cortes,
confirmed when runners from the coast arranged for some of the still-loyal nobles
brought word of a rebellion, instigated by to seize Cacama and bring him to Mexico,
the Mexicans, against the garrison at Villa where he was turned over to the Castilians
Rica. The Tlaxcalans also reported that and placed under arrest. Cortes deposed him,
Moctezuma planned to raise the bridges in replacing him as king of Texcoco with his
the city. Cortes decided the time had come brother, Coanacoch.
to act. Taking a squad of armed soldiers, he So far, Cortes had managed the
called on the emperor, accused him of expedition without a single serious error.
treachery, and placed him under arrest. Now, however, he overreached himself.
Moctezuma argued for an hour but, Wily and sophisticated as he was, he was
overpowered by the personality of Cortes, nevertheless driven partly by his religious
and with a not-too-veiled threat from dona convictions and believed that the time had
Marina, he acquiesced, and was conveyed come to throw down the idols of Mexico,
back to the Castilian quarters in Axayacatl's end the sacrifices and impose the rule of the
palace. The population was given to Catholic Church. With a hand-picked squad
understand that Moctezuma had taken up he crossed the compound to the Great
residence there, and Cortes allowed the Temple of Mexico, and climbed the steps of
usual functions of government to continue, the pyramid. Reaching the platform, the
but under guard and with dona Marina soldiers drew their swords and slashed
always listening. through a heavy curtain decorated with bells
On the summons of Moctezuma, that hid the sanctuary. The racket brought
Cualpopoca, the Mexican governor of the the priests running and found Cortes inside,
Panuco region, who had instigated the looking at the blood-soaked idols and
uprising, was summoned to Mexico. muttering "Oh God! Why do You permit
Arriving about mid-December on a rich such great honor paid the Devil in this
litter attended by his sons and 15 nobles, land? Look with favor, Lord, upon our
Cualpopoca was arrested, and together with service to You here."
his entourage, was handed over to Cortes, Turning to the priests, he told them the
who ordered them interrogated under gods would be replaced by a statue of the
torture. They confessed, and implicated Virgin and Child and the walls would be
Moctezuma. They were burned at the stake whitewashed. They laughed and replied that
in the great square, where Lopez de Gomara these were gods not only of the city, but of
wrote that the local population watched the entire empire. The people were willing to
silently, too terrified to interfere. Cortes die for them, and upon seeing the Castilians
ordered Moctezuma chained. mount the pyramid, some already began
It was increasingly obvious that preparations for a rebellion. Angered, Cortes
Moctezuma was completely cowed by the sent one of the men back to the palace to
Castilians. Others, however, were not. Chief strengthen the guard around Moctezuma
among them was Cacama, king of Texcoco, and send a detail of 30 or 40 men to the
the second partner in the Mexican Triple Temple. Then, as Andres Tapia recalled:
The fighting 49

"On my faith as a gentleman I swear by God Cuba, where Governor Velasquez had
that, as I recall it now, the marques [Cortes] learned of his plans when the shipload of
leaped supernaturally, and, balancing himself tribute had put in to reprovision for the trip
by gripping the bar in the middle, he back to Spain. He also knew that before
reached as high as the idol's eyes and thus Cualpopoca had instigated the uprising in
tore down the gold masks, saying: the Panuco, he had already expelled another
'Something we must venture for the Lord'." expedition by Francisco de Garay, the
Moctezuma suspected what was about to governor of Jamaica.
happen, and demanded to be taken to the
temple, where he confronted Cortes. Now
it was the emperor's turn for subtlety, and Arrival of the Narvaez
he suggested that the Castilians leave the expedition
idols undisturbed, and erect a cross and the
religious statues next to the Mexican gods. The new expedition to Mexico was
Cortes, meanwhile, had overcome his commanded by Panfilo de Narvaez, who had
initial outrage and agreed, saying the idols encountered one of Cortes's scouting parties,
were nothing but stone and therefore and learned of the situation in Mexico.
unimportant. However, he demanded the Unable to occupy Villa Rica, where the
temple be cleansed and whitewashed, and tough, defiant captain Gonzalo Sandoval dug
the sacrifices end. in for a siege, Narvaez bypassed the town
The violation of their gods was more and continued on to Cempoala, where he
than the people were willing to tolerate. was now quartered with his troops. Sandoval
The priests, seeing a threat to their massive had also arrested three of Narvaez's envoys
power, spread the word that the two great and sent them under guard to Mexico, where
gods, Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca, Cortes learned of his adversary's strength.
would abandon Mexico unless Christian Letters from Narvaez, calling Cortes's men
symbols were removed from the temple, and "bandits" and "traitors," and threatening
the Castilians themselves destroyed. Cortes's them with death, were read out to the
page, Orteguilla, who had quickly learned Castilians in Mexico to stir them up against
Nahuatl, and to whom Moctezuma had the newcomers. Then the envoys were
taken a liking, reported that the emperor was sent back to Narvaez, loaded with gifts
quietly conferring with his generals. The and stories of the wealth and grandeur
Tlaxcalans and dona Marina also warned of that Cortes offered, compared to their
an impending revolt. Even Moctezuma told own lack of prospects with Narvaez. Finally,
Cortes that unless he evacuated his men and Cortes set out for the coast with 250 picked
left the country, they would be destroyed. men, leaving Pedro de Alvarado in command
Cortes now realized his diplomacy was of the city.
spent, and he would have to hold the There can be little doubt that the new
country by sheer force. He sent secret orders arrivals were swayed by the gifts of gold and
to the carpenters in Villa Rica to begin the talk of riches. Yet one must also remember
construction of three ships to sail to the that they had only recently arrived from the
immediate Indies for reinforcements. comparative luxury of Cuba. No doubt they
Meanwhile, he stalled, telling Moctezuma also would have noticed the lean, leathery
that he and his men would like to return countenances of Cortes's men, and their
home, but were unable because they had battered armor, and realized they would be
no way of leaving the country. One day, facing battle-hardened veterans. The Narvaez
however, Moctezuma advised him that expedition was effectively defeated even
he could now leave, because a fleet had before it fought.
anchored at Villa Rica. Cortes correctly The battle itself occurred at Cempoala on
surmised that this expedition came from May 27, 1520. Cortes moved in before dawn
50 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

in a driving rain, which his own men, they can impart their accumulated wisdom.
accustomed to hardship, barely noticed, but The priests, philosophers, and political
which drove Narvaez's men under cover. The leaders die, taking with them their belief
veterans quickly seized the artillery and structure, knowledge, and governmental
unhorsed the cavalry, and rushed into the institutions. Craftsmen, farmers, and warriors
city. Much of the resistance came from the die. Children are orphaned. Often the dead
main temple, where Narvaez fortified himself outnumber the living, and the streets are
with crossbowmen and musketeers. They filled with decaying corpses, exacerbating the
mounted a counterattack, but at that crisis. Society quite simply collapses. As much
moment, Sandoval arrived with a as any other factor, this new and unknown
detachment from the coast, and the plague would decide the outcome of the
combined forces pushed them back. Then Conquest.
the roof of the temple was set on fire,
driving Narvaez's men out. Narvaez himself,
badly wounded and having lost an eye in the The Toxcatl massacre
fighting, was sent back to the coast as a
prisoner. A detachment was sent to Villa Rica While Cortes was dealing with Narvaez,
to remove the rudders, compasses, and sails Alvarado had problems of his own back in
of the ships, so they could not escape to Mexico. May, which the Aztecs called
Cuba. The bulk of Narvaez's men, having Toxcatl, was sacred to Tezcatlipoca, and the
accepted a pardon from Cortes, were rearmed occasion of great festivals, during which a
and incorporated into the army. proxy for the god was sacrificed. Alvarado
As he prepared to return to Mexico, Cortes gave permission for the celebration on
little realized he was leaving behind an condition that the Christian symbols in the
unexpected and invisible ally that would have temple were not disturbed, and there would
devastating consequences for the native be no sacrifices. A few days before the
people. An African slave attached to Narvaez's ceremony was to begin, however, he
men had smallpox, and infected the inspected the temple, found fresh sacrifices,
household where he was quartered in and slaves awaiting their turn. Freeing the
Cempoala. As Lopez de Gomara noted, "it slaves, he arrested several priests who, on
spread from one Indian to another, and they, interrogation, admitted arms were stored in
being so numerous and eating and sleeping the temple precincts, and confessed that on
together, quickly infected the whole country." the completion of the ceremony, the
The people of the Old World, over Castilian guards would be overwhelmed and
hundreds of generations and perhaps the cross thrown down as the signal for an
millions of deaths, had built a resistance to uprising. It would be all the easier because
the disease. The genetically weak died off; the the city was filled with pilgrims who were
genetically strong recovered and procreated outraged at the sight of the cross on the
descendants with enhanced immune systems. temple and by its foreign guards.
The people of the New World had never Alvarado waited for the ceremony to
experienced smallpox and had no inherited begin on May 18, then, leaving part of his
immunity. It is estimated that as much as 90 troops in the palace, he took the rest into
percent of the entire native population of the the temple compound, pushing his way
New World ultimately died of diseases through the crowd. The procession of priests
introduced after Columbus.
In modern times, the science of
Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541). Headstrong and
microbiology has diminished the impact of
impulsive, Alvarado may have provoked the uprising in
disease and it is impossible for the 21st the city of Mexico by overreacting. Nevertheless, in any
century imagination to truly comprehend the crisis, he was valiant, decisive, and loyal to the end.
impact of a pandemic. The elders die before (Topham Picturepoint)
The fighting 51
52 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

parted to reveal armed warriors, but Alvarado Almost every soldier was wounded in some
was expecting this, and his men charged. way. In the midst of the fighting, the
Ignoring the rank and file, they went for the Mexican electors deposed Moctezuma, and
nobles and warlords, slaughtering the named Cuitlahuac emperor.
leadership and leaving the masses of warriors Late in the siege Moctezuma died, although
in confusion. Meanwhile, about 1,000 the exact cause will never be known. Cortes
Tlaxcalans surrounded the temple court and contended that the former emperor went out
held off reinforcements. Together, Alvarado to address the crowd in an effort to end the
and the Tlaxcalans fought their way back to fighting. When he reached a breastworks he
the palace, leaving the compound littered was struck on the head by a stone, and died of
with corpses and drenched in blood. the injury three days later. The Mexicans,
Couriers brought word to Cortes that the however, told a different story. Duran's
city was in rebellion, Alvarado was under informants said the wound from the stone
siege, and by now in danger of collapse. He had healed, and that he was murdered by the
rushed his newly strengthened army back Castilians. Sahagun was told that Moctezuma
through Tlaxcala, picking up several thousand did address the crowd, which only infuriated
more auxiliaries. The closer he came to the them more. After that, Cortes decided he was
capital, the more signs he saw of rebellion. a liability, and ordered him garroted along
There were no welcoming delegations and the with several other nobles, and the bodies
people were sullen. A quiet reigned over the thrown down from the roof of the palace.
city as the force arrived on the evening of The native version of events, that the
June 24. There were accusations and emperor was murdered by the Castilians,
counter-accusations between Alvarado and tends to be accepted by historians of the
Moctezuma. Cortes tended to believe modern, post-colonial era. Yet the fact is that
Moctezuma's account, and Alvarado received virtually every conquistador account upholds
a thorough dressing-down. Nevertheless, Cortes, and some of these soldiers-turned-
Moctezuma also received his share of wrath, writers had no particular reason for doing so
because Cortes had learned the emperor had unless it was the truth. The two most
been conspiring secretly with Narvaez. convincing are Alonso de Aguilar, and Bernal
The arguments quickly became academic Diaz. When Aguilar wrote his memoir, he
because the Mexicans renewed the siege. was past 80, and living in menial servitude
Hordes of warriors rushed the palace, their as a Dominican under the religious name of
sheer numbers rendering artillery, musket Fra Francisco, in an apparent effort to atone
fire, and crossbows ineffective. Dozens for his own atrocities during the Conquest.
dropped with every charge, but still more He stated that Moctezuma died of the head
came, forcing their way into the palace and injury, although he admits that Cortes had
setting it on fire in several places. Finally, the other prisoners murdered. Diaz, who
they were pushed back by sword point. The admired Moctezuma, wrote that after he was
Castilians next built siege towers in an effort stoned by the crowd, the emperor became
to capture some of the surrounding buildings despondent, refusing food and medical
that Mexican slingers and archers were using treatment. Considering that Moctezuma had
as vantage points. When these failed, Cortes been assaulted by a population which only
led a raiding party that captured and burned recently had considered him a demigod,
the temple, although the Christian images Diaz's scenario is most believable, although
had already been removed by the Mexicans his remark that the Castilians wept over his
themselves. After that he began leading death is, at the very least, an exaggeration.
parties out into the city to burn the By June 30, with the siege six days old, the
surrounding buildings. Nevertheless, it was leading captains and the rank and file realized
becoming obvious that ultimately the their position in the city was untenable. If
Mexicans would prevail by sheer numbers. they remained, they would be massacred.
The fighting 53

When Cortes demurred, the captains, draw water, saw them, and gave the alarm.
including the normally loyal Alvarado According to others, it was a sentry. Either
brothers, came as close to mutiny as they ever way, within minutes, the great temple drum
would during the Conquest, informing him sounded, stirring the city to action. Warriors
that he could either lead them out or stay swarmed onto the causeway, and more came
behind. Accepting the inevitable, Cortes agreed up alongside in canoes. The Mexicans'
and began laying plans for a retreat that would loathing of the Castilians was so strong that
commence at midnight that very night. they seem to have ignored their usual mode
of war, and attempted to kill rather than
capture their enemies. In his own
Breakout and retreat picturesque style, Bernal Diaz recalled them
shouting, "Oh, villains, do you still live?"
It was at this point that Aguilar reports "Here many Spaniards fell," Aguilar wrote,
Moctezuma's death, and Cortes ordered the "some dead and some wounded, and others
slaughter of the remaining chiefs. Then, with without any injury who fainted away from
nothing more to gain by concealment, the fright. And since all of us were fleeing, there
great treasure room was broken open, and was not a man who would lift a hand to
about eight tons of gold, silver, and gems help his companion or even his own father,
parceled out. One-fifth went to the Crown, nor a brother his own brother."
according to law, and one-fifth to Cortes Muskets and crossbows, useless in close
himself, according to the old agreement back quarters, were thrown aside as men relied on
in Villa Rica, by which he "accepted" the sword thrusts to get through. A rearguard
position to which the men "appointed" him. with the baggage was cut off, and the men
The bulk of this was melted down and turned retreated up the steps of the temple for a last
into ingots for ease of transportation. Seven stand, where they were finally overpowered.
wounded war horses and a mare, along with Many of the Mexicans fell to plundering the
80 Tlaxcalan bearers were provided for the baggage train, giving the remnants of the
king's share. Once these formalities were army a breather as it made its way across the
completed, the rest was turned over to the lake to the safety of the mainland.
men in a free-for-all. The bulk of it was Modern authorities estimate Spanish
grabbed by the Narvaez men, while most of losses to be at least 600, the bulk of the
Cortes's veterans contented themselves with army. The Tlaxcalan loss was several
small, light gemstones or other trinkets that thousand. The night of June 30/July 1, 1520
weighed little. Unlike the newcomers, they is known in Mexican history as the Noche
knew what they were up against, and that, Triste, the "Sad Night."
with or without treasure, they would be very
lucky to come out alive. Bales of quetzal
feathers, priceless to the Indians, were The battle of Otumba
distributed among the Tlaxcalans.
Carpenters ripped out beams from the The battered, beaten Castilians dragged their
palace, and put together a portable bridge to way back toward Tlaxcala, more or less
throw over the gaps in the causeway. At constantly harassed by skirmishers. Finally,
midnight, the long line of Spaniards and the Mexicans decided to destroy them
Indian auxiliaries filed out along the Tacuba completely and finish the war. The place
Causeway. The weather turned ugly and a picked for the final blow was the plain of
rainstorm broke, driving many of the Otumba, near the sacred ruins of
Mexican sentries under cover. Then came Teotihuacan where, it was presumed, their
one of those freak occurrences that so often massed infantry would overwhelm the
change the course of events. According to remnants of Cortes's army. In choosing this
some sources, a woman left her home to ground they committed a fatal error. Their
54 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

firsthand experience with the great presented Cortes with the perfect situation
Andalusian war horses was within the city for cavalry.
and on the bridges, where the horses' The battle, which was fought on July 7,
iron-shod hooves slipped on the pavement, was very close. According to Alonso de
and their mobility was restricted. They had Aguilar, Cortes was in tears as he exhorted
completely underestimated them, and now the men for one final effort. Recounting the
The fighting 55

Mexican warriors defending the Great Temple. One has

a captured Spanish standard. From the Codex Azcatitlan,
Plate 24. (Ann Ronan Picture Library)

we were exhausted and nearly all of us

wounded and weak from hunger." Finally,
Cortes spotted the group of warlords
directing the battle and, lining up his
lancers, led a mounted charge through the
massed warriors, the horses breaking through
the mass of warriors to the warlords. The
senior chief was impaled on a lance and the
Mexicans, on the verge of victory, lost their
morale and began to retreat.
The army was saved, but was in no
condition to do anything but continue on to
Tlaxcala. Bernal Diaz estimated that besides
the European losses on the Noche Triste,
another 72 had died in the fighting since,
along with five Spanish women who had
come with Narvaez. The heaviest losses, in
fact, were among the Narvaez people, who
were unaccustomed to the life-or-death
nature of the war, and to the discipline
necessary to stay alive, and who had been
weighted down with treasure on the bridges.
The Mexicans had already approached the
Tlaxcalans and asked them to put aside the
old grievances and unite against the
foreigners, and one faction in Tlaxcala was
amenable. The senior lords, however, quelled
this movement at its inception, determined to
remain steadfast to Cortes, and warned of dire
consequences against whoever sided with
Mexico. Thus, when the exhausted, battered
Spaniards arrived in Tlaxcala on July 10, they
were greeted with the words, "This is your
home, where you may rest and find pleasure
after the hardships you have suffered."

The Conquest revived

Despite his defeat, Cortes was determined to

struggle for King Charles, Cortes himself go back, finish with Mexico, and subjugate
wrote, "We could hardly distinguish between the entire country. In this, he was backed by
ourselves and them, so fiercely and closely his old veterans. After sending to Villa Rica
did they fight with us. Certainly we believed for more powder and arms, resting his men,
that it was our last day, for the Indians were and allowing them to recuperate from their
very strong and we could resist but feebly, as wounds, he sent an expeditionary force of
56 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

The Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan, seen here from a hardliners, hanging one of their ringleaders.
ceremonial complex known as "the Citadel," was already Sailors and carpenters had been summoned
ancient when the Aztecs first arrived in the Valley of
from Villa Rica with the equipment from the
Mexico as semi-barbaric nomads. They made this temple
the center of their world and the mythical point of their destroyed fleet. They began building 13
origin. (©Philip Baird brigantines that would be disassembled, hauled
in pieces overland, and reassembled on the
Spaniards and Tlaxcalans to subjugate the lake. Cortes was leaving nothing to chance.
city of Tepeaca, where the Mexican garrison The old luck was returning. Two ships put
met him on a plain and, as at Otumba, was in from Cuba, unaware of the turn of events,
cut to pieces by the cavalry. With this boost bringing arms, powder and equipment for
to morale, and with the discipline it instilled Narvaez. Cortes requisitioned them, and
in the Narvaez contingent, he moved again appropriated the men and equipment from
against various other Mexican towns, two ships sent from Jamaica to reprovision
sacking some and frightening others Governor Garay's ill-fated ventures. He sent
into submission. four ships to Hispaniola to bring horses and
Having subjugated the entire province, men. Having determined that swordsmanship
Cortes founded the city Segura de la alone was not enough, he procured horses,
Frontera, to use as a base against Mexico. A firearms, crossbows, and powder from Santo
complete administration was established, Domingo. Finally, the bribe sent to the king
and buildings and fortifications erected in a in the earliest days of the expedition began to
remarkably short time. The site was chosen pay off, as arms, equipment, and men began
not only for its strategic position, but arriving from Spain itself.
because the countryside was ideally suited As he prepared for the advance, Cortes
for future settlement. As ever, Cortes was promulgated a series of orders:
looking ahead. Some of his men were less
enthusiastic, and he had to quell a potential • No one should blaspheme Christ, the
mutiny among some of the Narvaez Virgin Mary, the Apostles, or the Saints.
The fighting 57

• No soldier should mistreat or rob the garrisons. Occasionally, they would skirmish
Indian auxiliaries. with Mexican troops. After one particularly
• No soldier should depart from camp for fierce fight, Xochimilco fell, and once again
any reason. Cortes stood on the shores of the lake with
• All soldiers should wear good armor (the the city of Mexico visible in the distance.
native armor that many had adopted was To avoid a protracted siege, Cortes sent
to be well quilted), and should wear a peace overtures to Cuauhtemoc. When these
neck guard, helmet, and leggings, and were refused, he subjugated the towns
carry a shield. around the lake to secure the mainland for a
• No soldier should gamble over a horse blockade. A company under Gonzalo de
or arms. Sandoval captured a dependency of Texcoco
• Unless sick or wounded, all soldiers were where they found the flayed faces of two
to sleep fully armed and shod, and ready Spaniards, captured during the Noche Triste
for battle, in case of night attack. and sacrificed in the temple. The skin was
• Sleeping on guard duty, or leaving a post tanned with the beards intact. Other
was punishable by death. offerings included four horsehides, complete
• Going from one camp to another without with hooves and shoes, and the clothing of
permission was punishable by death. the Spaniards who had been sacrificed. In
• Desertion in battle was punishable one of the cages where the victims were held
by death. while they waited the knife, a member of the
Narvaez expedition, Juan Yuste, had
Meanwhile, the city of Mexico was scratched his name.
suffering a different scourge. Smallpox had On April 28, the brigantines were
worked its way over the mountains and launched on Lake Texcoco. Messengers were
entered the valley through Chalco, sent to Tlaxcala, Cholula, Huexotzingo, and
devastating the capital for 60 days. Among other allied states, and within a week the
the dead was the Emperor Cuitlahuac, who auxiliaries began arriving in Texcoco. Fifty
was succeeded by a cousin, Cuauhtemoc. thousand came from Tlaxcala alone, parading
Although only 25, his resistance in the final into the city with their battle standards, and
days of the empire would elevate him in the shouting, "Castile! Castile! Tlaxcala!
Mexican mind as the greatest of all the Tlaxcala!" With the city of Mexico blockaded,
emperors and, in modern times, as a symbol Cortes finalized his plans. Alvarado would
of nationalism and independence. lead 30 cavalrymen, 18 crossbowmen, 150
infantry, and 25,000 Tlaxcalans from Tacuba.
Olid would attack from Coyoacan with 33
The siege of Mexico, 1521 cavalry, 18 crossbowmen, 160 infantry, and
20,000 native auxiliaries. Sandoval would
On December 26, 1520 Cortes marched out lead 24 cavalrymen, four musketeers, 13
of Segura de la Frontera. Besides the crossbowmen, 150 infantry, and 30,000
well-equipped, reinforced European auxiliaries from Itzapalapa. Cortes himself
contingent, he had 10,000 Tlaxcalan would command the fleet, with each ship
auxiliaries, and the leaders of Tlaxcala carrying a captain, six crossbowmen or
promised more as needed. They crossed the musketeers, and 12 oarsmen. The aqueduct
mountains and entered Texcoco unopposed, carrying fresh water from Chapultepec was
where they established quarters, and cut, and the city was now isolated.
smashed the idols in the temples. Cortes and his captains began an
Expeditionary forces were sent to the inspection of the causeways. They ordered
surrounding towns, and many surrendered. some broken sections to be filled so that
Representatives of other towns said they cavalry might pass, but ahead they saw more
would surrender except for the Mexican breaks and barricades.
58 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

On May 31, 1521 Sandoval started out for covered by a broad avenue called Puente de
Itzapalapa to secure the causeway and begin Alvarado (Alvarado's Bridge), Alvarado rashly
attacking the city. Cortes boarded one of the made a dash to capture the temple precincts.
brigantines and began moving to support The Mexicans retreated, leaving behind a gap
Sandoval from the lake. After securing a in the causeway of about 60 feet. Alvarado
fortified hill that commanded the water, he and the cavalry rode into the water and came
turned the ships toward Mexico, where he up on the other side of the break, while the
encountered about 500 canoes loaded with infantry began filling in the gap. Suddenly,
warriors. A fresh breeze blew in from the canoes swarmed into it, closing a carefully
mainland, the sails filled, and the Castilian prepared ambush. The brigantines rushed to
fleet smashed through the canoes, wrecking help, but were wedged up against a barrier of
many and drowning the warriors, and stakes driven into the lake bed just below the
driving the rest back to the city. The siege of surface. Alvarado managed to fight his way
Mexico had begun. back, but five men had been taken alive.
The next 80 days were desperate. The Capture meant sacrifice. Often in the
Castilians fought their way yard by yard distance, the Castilians heard the mournful
along the causeways, only to be pushed back sound of the great temple drum, the conch
and forced to retake the same ground. On the shell trumpets, and other horns signifying
Tacuba Causeway, the site of which is now the brutal sacrifice of their comrades. As they
The fighting 59

Cortes and the Tlaxcalans battle their way along a ten weeks, and the allied states were
causeway into the city of Mexico. The scene shows becoming unnerved at the Mexican tenacity.
the desperate fighting that occurred in gaps in the
The uneasiness increased as couriers from
bridge. From the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, Plate 18.
Mexico slipped through the blockade and
(American Museum of Natural History)
displayed European body parts as trophies of
battle and sacrifice. Castilian troops had to
pushed farther into the city, and closer to be detached from the main body, and sent
the temple, they could actually see the around to the allied cities to suitably impress
ceremony on the great platform atop the their leaders and keep them in line. The
pyramid, but could do nothing but pray. The point was made, and when Cortes renewed
soldiers adopted the habit of closing each the offensive in late July, he had 150,000
day of battle with the prayer, "Oh, thanks be Indian auxiliaries. He now began a policy of
to God that they did not carry me off today devastation. As each block of the city was
for sacrifice." As more and more of their secured, he demolished the buildings and
companions were dragged to the stones and used them to fill the canals and gaps in the
slaughtered, their hatred of the Mexicans causeways to provide a level field for his
increased. Just as no quarter was expected, soldiers and horses. To make matters worse,
none was given. the people of Xochimilco, Cuitlahuac, and
In battle the Mexicans tried to demoralize Itzapalapa now were making raids of their
the Tlaxcalans and other auxiliaries by own, crossing the lake in canoes, plundering
throwing the stewed limbs of sacrificial and carrying off women and children.
victims into their ranks, shouting, "Eat the Although Cuauhtemoc managed to stop it,
flesh of these tueles [gods - a reference to the the division of his forces between these
near divine status in which the Castilians pirate raids and the Castilian assault
were first held] and of your brothers, because seriously hampered his defense.
we are sated with it . . ." The city itself was a shambles, and the
Cortes now ordered a temporary halt, people were suffering. Already weakened by
sending small details into the city to the recent smallpox epidemic, and with food
maintain the semblance of an offensive. His and water cut off by the blockade, they were
men had been fighting almost constantly for dying in great numbers. Alonso de Aguilar
60 Essential Histories The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

Detail showing the intricate carved and gilt design on they might prevent our allies from killing those
the back of a wooden spear-thrower (Ann Ronan wretched people, whose number was uncountable.
Picture Library)
I also told the captains of our allies that on no
account should any of those people be slain; but
wrote, "[T]here was a great pestilence in the there were so many that we could not prevent
city because there were so many people there, more than fifteen thousand being killed and
especially women, and they had nothing more sacrificed [by the Tlaxcalans] that day."
to eat. We soldiers could scarcely get about the
streets because of the Indians who were sick By August the resistance had been
from hunger, pestilence and smallpox." Many pushed into a single corner of Tlatelolco.
noncombatants were coming to the Spanish The brigantines began moving into the
lines to give themselves up. canals, their gunners firing into the houses.
Whatever the atrocities for which the Realizing the situation was hopeless,
Castilians may be blamed in the five Cuauhtemoc loaded his family and retainers
centuries since the Conquest, their acts paled into canoes and attempted to escape to the
in comparison to those of their Tlaxcalan mainland. The lake was covered with canoes
allies. Centuries of hate and the basic as people fled the city. When Cortes realized
viciousness of Mesoamerican warfare what had happened he ordered the
combined in a violence that appalled even brigantines out into the lake to find the
Cortes himself. As he later wrote to the king: emperor. The crew of one ship recognized
the imperial awnings, overtook the canoe,
"[W]e had more trouble in preventing our allies and forced it to surrender. Taken before
from killing with such cruelty than we had in Cortes, Cuauhtemoc said, "Lord Malinche,
fighting the enemy. For no race, however savage, I have kept my obligation in the defense of
has ever practiced such fierce and unnatural my city and vassals, and I can do no more,
cruelty as the natives of these parts. Our allies also and I am brought by force and impressment
took many spoils that day, which we were unable into your presence and power. Take that
to prevent, as they numbered more than 150,000 dagger in your belt and kill me."
and we Spaniards were only some nine hundred. Cortes responded graciously, praising the
Neither our precautions nor our warnings could beleaguered emperor for his valiant defense.
stop their looting, though we did all we could . . Although he regretted the destruction of the
I had posted Spaniards in every street, so that city and the deaths of so many people, he
when the people began to come out [to surrender] said it was now passed and could not be
The fighting 61

changed. As for Cuauhtemoc and his

Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor of Mexico, on a
followers, their lives would be spared. 20th-century Mexican five peso coin. (Author's collection)
The great siege was over. With the
Conquest of Mexico, one age in the history of
the world ended, and a new one was of the Honorable St. Hipolite, in the year of
beginning. In the simple, but soaring words of one thousand five hundred twenty-one.
Bernal Diaz del Castillo, "Cuauhtemoc and his Thanks to Our Lord Jesus Christ, and to Our
captains were apprehended on the thirteenth Lady, the Holy Virgin Mary, His blessed
of August, at the hour of vespers, on the day mother. Amen."
Portrait of a soldier

Bernal Diaz del Castillo,

chronicler of the Conquest
"Bernal Diaz del Castillo, citizen and del Campo. The records of his early life are
magistrate of the most loyal city of Santiago sketchy. The date of his birth is given as
de Guatemala, one of the first discoverers either 1492 or 1496. By his own account, he
and conquerors of New Spain and its was the son of Francisco Diaz del Castillo,
provinces ..." called "El galan" (the gallant or the
With these words, written some handsome), a regidor or magistrate, and
30 years after the Conquest, a crusty, vain, member of a quasi-noble class of squires
honest old veteran began one of the greatest known as hidalgos, or "people of substance."
war memoirs of all time. Bernal Diaz del This position, while not one of great wealth,
Castillo's True History of the Conquest of New at least allowed Bernal an above-average
Spain is just that - a true history. Whatever education that is reflected in the True History.
flaws or slips of memory it might contain There are no authentic portraits, but Diaz
(and there are remarkably few), it is not only claimed to have been nicknamed El galan
one of the most accurate accounts of the like his father, and in his own case he most
Conquest, but also of the Aztec Empire at certainly meant "the handsome." He was
the height of its glory. No subsequent work said to have been a bon vivant who tended
on the Conquest or on Aztec Mexico can be to live beyond his means, an excellent
written without it. conversationalist, and highly opinionated.
Like most Spaniards in Cortes's original He was an opportunist, open to any new
band, Diaz was a Castilian, born in Medina ideas by which he might benefit, and
touchy on what he felt was his just due.
He was also a linguist. While in Cuba he
learned the local language, appears to have
picked up a basic proficiency in Nahuatl in
Mexico, and, after eventually settling in
Guatemala, spoke the Cakchiquel language
of his Indian retainers there.
Diaz's story was typical of most of the
soldiers who joined Cortes, having first tried
their luck elsewhere in the New World. He
left Spain in 1514 as part of the entourage of
Pedro Arias de Avila, who was sent to rule
over the newly conquered province of
Darien (now known as Panama). Disputes
broke out between the brutal, iron-fisted
Arias and his son-in-law, Vasco Nunez de
Balboa, resulting in Balboa's execution. That,
together with illness and a series of revolts
against Arias's rule, left Diaz disillusioned,

Carved stone head of an Eagle knight, showing the

determination of the warriors who faced Cortes.
(Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico)
Portrait of a soldier 63

and he departed for the recently conquered gold, and I will order that you be given
island of Cuba, where the governor, Diego today a fine lady-in-waiting; treat her well,
Velasquez was his distant cousin. for she is the daughter of a lord; and I will
By 1517, Diaz had spent three years in also give you gold and mantles." To that,
Panama and Cuba without accomplishing Diaz knelt, kissed his hands, and asked
anything of importance. Determined to do God's protection over him. When this
better, he joined a group of Spaniards in the was translated, Moctezuma purportedly
same situation, and together they took out remarked, "It seems to me that Bernal Diaz
loans and joined the expedition under is a noble man."
Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba. This first Diaz's writings convey an unabashed
exposure to the North American mainland, respect for Moctezuma. Whenever he
while disappointing, convinced him that it encountered the emperor, he always
held opportunities, and he subsequently respectfully removed his helmet. For his part,
joined Juan de Grijalva's expedition. By Moctezuma was impressed to learn that Diaz
1519, when the Cortes expedition was had served on the Cordoba and Grijalva
organizing, he was as close to being a expeditions, of which he was well aware. The
seasoned expert on the Mexican coast one point of contention was the matter of
as was possible in that era. sacrifices which Moctezuma was required to
Diaz was a romantic, and can perhaps be offer as high priest of the state religion.
forgiven for allowing a certain amount of Cortes attempted to dissuade him, and when
romanticism to work its way into his the emperor promised not to kill human
reminiscences. He had, after all, known a beings, agreed to allow him to go to the
world that no European had imagined, and temple. A detachment of four captains, 150
that few would ever see. He was also soldiers, and one of the chaplains, Father de
influenced by Amadis de Gaula, a romantic la Merced, accompanied him. Despite his
novel written in medieval times and printed promises, Moctezuma killed several men and
for the first time in 1508. It quickly became boys, and Diaz and the other guards could
the most popular printed book in Spain, and only turn away and pretend they had not
most members of the Cortes expedition who seen it. On returning to their quarters,
were literate had read it. Diaz certainly had, however, their feelings were assuaged rather
because he compares the approach to the easily by Moctezuma's gift of gold jewelry.
city of Mexico with "the enchantments that The surrender of the city brought
are told in the book of Amadis." Amadis also disappointment. Much of the treasure had
worked its way into his impressions of dona disappeared, lost in the fighting that began
Marina because, writing in old age, he on the Noche Triste. Discouraged, Diaz joined
inadvertently drew parallels between her life an expedition led by Gonzalo Sandoval that
and that of the fictional hero. ventured south into the Valley of Oaxaca,
Like many soldiers of his era, he was both then across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to
devout and worldly. He praised God for any Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf of Mexico, where
outstanding turn of events in the Conquest. Diaz was given three land grants with large
In battle, he believed that Christ had taken a numbers of Indian tributaries.
personal interest in his survival, because In 1524 Cortes decreed that all married
otherwise he might not have lived to tell the soldiers had 18 months to bring their wives
tale. Yet for all his religious devotion, he was to the country, and bachelors must marry, or
not above avarice and lust. Posted to guard forfeit their property. Diaz appears to have
Moctezuma, he asked a page to beg that complied by entering into a common-law
Moctezuma "give me a beautiful Indian arrangement with an Indian woman with
woman." Moctezuma summoned him, and whom he was living at the time. Always
said, "Bernal Diaz del Castillo, it has come to restless, however, he joined Cortes's ill-fated
me that you have substantial garments and expedition to Honduras that same year
64 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

(see page 80), and in 1526, accompanied children and descendants, other than this
Pedro de Alvarado into Guatemala, passing my true and wonderful story ..."
through the region of the present city of This appears to have been the final of
Antigua, where ultimately he would make three prefaces he drafted, for he was already
his home. Perhaps the thought already at work on his manuscript in the early
crossed his mind for, despite the fact that he 1550s, when he would have been in his late
was only in his late 20s or early 30s, illness 50s or early 60s. The work itself occupied the
and years of battle had left him feeling old rest of his very long life. For all his pleas of
and tired. Additionally, in the 1530s the poverty, Diaz was a prominent citizen of
king-emperor sent a cadre of bureaucrats to Guatemala, an extensive landholder, and
administer the new domains to the benefit member of the ruling council. His public
of the Crown. Soldiers like Diaz, who had duties and business interests occupied much
won the empire by their swords, lost their of his time, and he put aside the memoir for
great landholdings at the stroke of a pen. months at a time. He even abandoned the
In 1539, armed with recommendations manuscript for a while, following the
from Cortes and the viceroy, Antonio de publication of Francisco Lopez de Gomara's
Mendoza, Diaz went to Spain to defend his Cronica de la Nueva Espana in 1552, feeling
claims. Eventually he received compensation that Lopez de Gomara had rendered his own
for the estates he had lost and confirmation of work redundant. Diaz was angered, however,
those he retained, and in 1541 he moved to that Lopez de Gomara gave all the credit to
Guatemala. There he received new estates and Cortes when he believed the success of the
married Teresa Becerra de Duran, a well-to-do Conquest was due to the efforts of ordinary
Spanish widow whose father, Bartolome soldiers such as himself. He resumed his
Becerra, had been one of the conquerors of work, completed it, then continued rewriting
Guatemala, and whose first husband, Juan and refining it until his death in his late 80s,
Duran, was an early settler. Thus, he settled to at the beginning of 1584.
the life of a wealthy planter, participating in Whatever Diaz's indignation at Lopez de
local affairs, raising his children by Teresa, and Gomara's hagiography, the figure of Cortes
securing legacies for those he had with various dominates the True History. Diaz is aware of
Indian mistresses. his deviousness and self-interest, yet there is
Diaz was keenly aware that he had no question that he admires him.
participated in events that changed the Throughout the narrative, Diaz refers to him
world, and that he himself had witnessed a as "Our Cortes" or "Our Captain," and was
civilization that was gone forever. In the obviously prepared to follow him anywhere.
preface to the True History he wrote: "That Despite its antiquity, True History is
which I myself saw, and what I myself did in timeless. It is an old soldier's reminiscences,
the fighting, as a good eye witness I will devoid of any theories, political causes, or
write, with the help of God, very simply, petitions for honor, and has a ring to it that
without twisting one part or another ... I am would be recognized by soldiers of any era.
more than eighty-four years old and have Bernal Diaz del Castillo would find himself
lost my sight and hearing, and by my efforts among comrades at any veterans' gathering
I have no other wealth to leave to my of the 21st century.
The world around war

Habsburg and Valois rivalry

A united Spain barely existed when Cortes compared to the great wealth Portugal
embarked on the Conquest. At the dawn of gleaned from its African and East Indian
the 16th century King Ferdinand ruled over trade. Even these possessions were of little
an independent Aragon, while his wife, interest to the new king. In early 1519, he
Isabella, reigned separately as queen of learned that his grandfather Maximilian had
Castile. At the time of her death in 1504, died, initiating a scramble for the vacant
they had two surviving children, Juana, imperial throne of the Holy Roman Empire
who ascended to the Castilian throne, and (and by now essentially German). Among
Catherine who became the first of Henry the chief contenders were his uncle by
VIII's six wives. The pathetic Queen Juana, marriage, Henry VIII, and Francis I of France.
known in Spanish history as la loca (the Determined to win at all costs, Charles
crazy), was mentally deranged, and the bribed the electors on an unprecedented
regency of Castile fell to her husband, scale and won the crown, although this
Philip of Burgundy, son of the Holy Roman created huge debts that Spain was expected
Emperor Maximilian I. Philip, however, died to help absorb. Charles I of Spain was now
two years later, and Ferdinand assumed the Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, and as
regency. In the meantime, he had remarried, such, he would be known to history.
hoping to provide a male heir for Aragon. In Henceforth there would be long periods of
this, he was no more successful than he had absentee rule while the king-emperor tended
been with the first marriage, and with his to his German holdings. For the next tw6
death in 1516, both the Aragonese crown centuries the interests of Spain would often
and the Castilian regency passed to Juana's be subordinated to the interests of the
eldest son, a 16-year-old-boy named Charles. Habsburg family in central Europe. Spain,
Charles was born in Flanders, where he however, would shoulder the economic
had remained when his parents moved to burden, frittering away much of the vast
Spain. Arriving with his Flemish entourage, riches won by Cortes and others.
in a country he had never seen, whose In the fall of 1519, Charles toured his
customs he did not understand, and whose Spanish dominions, which were now on the
various languages he could not speak, he verge of rebellion. Grievances included the
insisted not simply upon being the regent unanticipated debt, the consolidation of the
for Castile, but to share its crown. Thus, the monarchy, ignorance of Spanish customs and
first king of a united Spain was a foreigner traditions by the king-emperor's Flemish
who inaugurated the Spanish branch of an appointees, and Charles's determination to
Austrian dynasty, the Habsburgs. depart for Germany the following year to
The first Charles, accustomed to the accept the imperial crown. Amid this internal
wealth and splendor of Flanders, found in turmoil, Francisco de Montejo and Alonso
Spain, a country eking out a subsistence Hernandez de Puertocarrero arrived in Seville
living, and a somber, austere court. Although to press Hernan Cortes's case, bringing with
this austerity bred the conquistadors, who them the first shipload of treasure from
ultimately would win him an empire beyond Mexico, and the delegation of Totonac
imagination, the sole imperial resources at Indians. Their ship and funds were
this point were a few islands in the West impounded, and the treasure was deposited
Indies that brought virtually nothing with the Casa de Contratacion, the royal
66 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

Charles V (1500-58) inherited his Spanish throne at the

age of 16 and became Holy Roman Emperor in 1520.
This enormous realm, with its numerous religious and
political problems, was his primary focus of interest, but
he was quick to see the advantages of investing in
exploration in the New World. (Museo Nacional de
Historia , Mexico)

Church's activities came at a time of growing

nationalism in northern and central Europe.
The German princes were tired of the
meddling by an avaricious Italian papacy,
and many people were demanding access to
the Bible and liturgy in their own languages
rather than Latin. The authority of the
Roman Catholic Church, so long the
bulwark of western European civilization,
was being questioned for the first time.
Nevertheless, as Charles hurried through
Spain travelling to the port of Corunna on
the north coast and thence to Germany, he
found time to invite Cortes's ambassadors
Montejo and Puertocarrero to court.
It took time to locate the king on his
peregrinations, but when they did, they
presented him with a petition calling for
the recognition of the Cortes expedition as
an official expedition of conquest, for
release of its funds and ship, and for the
supplies so urgently needed. On March 3,
1521, the treasures were displayed in court,
and the Totonacs presented to the king and
the Cortes the Castilian parliament.(The
Spanish word Cortes, without the accented
"e" means court; Cortes translates as
"courteous"). Charles was particularly
appraisal office that was responsible for the fascinated with the Indians, whom he
Indies, from whence Charles ordered it turned ordered treated with extreme consideration.
over to the keeper of the crown jewels. Montejo and Puertocarrero were not the
Charles was anxious to leave Spain. only representatives of the New World at
Stung by the resentment of his Spanish court. En route back to Seville, they had
subjects, he was even more concerned that stopped to reprovision in Cuba, where
his newly won suzerainty over Germany Diego Velasquez learned (probably through
was crumbling. Two years earlier, a young Montejo, who had divided loyalties) of
professor of theology at the University of the vast treasure on board the ship. The
Wittenberg, Dr Martin Luther, had posted governor was furious. In April 1519, his
"Ninety-five Theses Upon Indulgences." deputy, Panfilo de Narvaez, had returned
calling for debate on the ecclesiastical from Spain with a license for Velasquez
practice of offering remittance from Divine himself to conquer Yucatan and what was
punishment in exchange for a financial dimly understood to be Mexico. Now, he
contribution. His public questioning of the learned that Cortes had beaten him to the
The world around war 67

Albrecht Durer's plan of the City of Tenochtitlan/Mexico, more than a pirate and traitor. It was a
attributed to Cortes, and first published in Nuremberg in wasted effort. Swayed, no doubt, by the
l524.This is an example of how European curiosity
regarding the events in the New World spread across
treasure, the Cortes agreed to postpone any
Europe, especially the Habsburg dominions of Charles V. final decision between the two until both
(American Museum of Natural History) could be heard (and, no doubt, to wait and
see whether Cortes succeeded or failed). The
punch, as it were. Aside from dispatching councilors even went so far as to suggest that
Narvaez on his ill-fated mission to end the Velasquez might do better by bringing a civil
Cortes expedition, he held hearings, suit. Even more important, the ship was
assembled evidence, and dispatched deputies released, along with the money from Mexico
to Spain to present his case. for use as the Cortes adherents saw fit,
Velasquez's representatives countered specifically to purchase the necessary
Montejo and Puertocarrero arguing that, far supplies. A few days later, the king departed
from being a loyal subject, Cortes was little for Germany. The Totonacs, who were
68 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

beginning to suffer from the climate of remembering his mother, questioned his
northern Spain, were sent back to Seville. mental capabilities, although his Burgundian
One died and the others ultimately were sent heritage made him more urbane and
back to the Americas, although it appears sophisticated than his Spanish subjects. In
they got no further than Cuba. short, he was a far cry from the rugged
The Cortes expedition was not the only warrior kings that had dominated Castilian
overseas venture on the king's mind. He had history and that Spaniards almost demanded.
been persuaded to sponsor an expedition Francis, on the other hand, was an
under Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese in outdoorsman, a skilled hunter, an excellent
Spanish service, which departed Spain in rider, and an accomplished wrestler. Well
1519 with five ships in an effort to fulfill developed mentally as well as physically, he
Columbus's vision of reaching the East Indies was the epitome of style and sophistication
by sailing west. Magellan discovered a in a country that increasingly viewed itself as
passage around South America, sailed across the center of cultural patronage and
the Pacific, arriving in the Philippines in refinement. What France might lack, Francis
1521. Here he was killed in a fight with the provided by importing artistic geniuses like
natives, and the voyage continued by his Leonardo da Vinci and Benvenuto Cellini.
lieutenant, Juan Sebastian del Cano, who His portraits, the most famous of which is
arrived back in Spain with one ship and 18 the oversized masterpiece by Jean Clouet
men in September 1522. Although del Cano now hanging in the Louvre, show a
was awarded a coat of arms and a pension handsome, shrewd, self-confident man with
for becoming the first man to sail around the a trace of smugness. Titian would paint both
world, Charles V barely recovered his costs, Francis and Charles in their later years:
further dampening his already marginal Francis is elegantly dressed in velvet, a
interest in exploration and conquest. worldly and totally commanding figure,
In fact, Charles's main goal was not while Charles appears grim and careworn,
overseas expansion, but to gain supremacy his face surrounded by armor. His cares
throughout Europe and lead a great crusade began early. By 1521 when he finally
that would crush the Ottoman Turks, who declared Martin Luther an outlaw, the
now controlled much of the eastern question had become academic. Already,
Mediterranean. Luther and the Reformers many of the German princes had rallied
were not the only threat to his dream. His around Luther, and Francis had allied
chief rival was Francis I of France. Like himself with the Ottoman Empire in a war
Charles, Francis was young - barely out of against Charles's domains.
his teens - and the first of a new dynasty. Even in the Indies, there was no peace.
But where Charles's interest in Spain and Following Columbus's first voyage, the papacy
the Indies was secondary compared to his had brokered a series of treaties aimed at
concern over Germany, Francis was entirely quelling the rivalry between the Spaniards
devoted to French aggrandizement. He and Portuguese as to who should control the
aspired to control the rich mercantile region Indies trade. By the Treaty of Tordesillas in
of northern Italy, splitting Charles's domains 1494 Portugal was given dominion over all
in half, and making France the dominant territory east of the treaty line (sited some
power in Europe. 370 miles west of the Azores), and the
Physically no two men could have been Spaniards received everything to the west. The
more dissimilar. Charles was short and pale. overseas commerce of other nations, such as
No portrait, however flattering, could conceal England and France, was negligible, and the
the long jaw and protruding lower lip that possibility that they might involve themselves
came to define the Habsburgs. Even in never occurred to anyone. With the accession
languages he knew, his speech was so slow of Francis to the French throne, however, this
as to be almost incoherent, and some, changed. Resenting Spain's claim to
The world around war 69

Francis I (1494-1547), King of France and the chief rival trading with settlers in violation of Spain's
to Spanish pretensions of supremacy in Europe. Francis royal monopoly. When Charles complained
also regarded the nascent Spanish empire in the
to the pope, Francis countered, 'The sun
Americas with interest and some jealousy, licensing the
earliest of what became a long tradition of privateer
shines for me as for the Spaniard."
attacks on the Spanish "treasure fleets" sailing back to It seemed that Charles could never escape
Spain from the Caribbean. (Heritage Images Partnership) the changes that the New World unleashed
on his own inflexible world. Columbus's
monopoly in the New World, he was discoveries had brought into question
determined to get his share. thousands of years of accumulated
In 1523, with Mexico firmly in Spanish knowledge. Not only had he found an
hands, a fleet departed for Seville loaded unknown continent, but that continent
with treasure, New World produce, and contained people. Columbus, envisioning
exotic animals, the first major payoff of the himself as Christopher, the Bearer of
Conquest. Approaching Cape St. Vincent, Christ, had expected to encounter Asians,
the ships were waylaid by French corsairs recognized as humans with immortal souls
who seized almost 700 lb of pearls, 500 lb of and therefore candidates for salvation. The
gold dust, and cases of gold and silver ingots. Indians of the New World, however, had
The French had sailed under royal patronage, been isolated for millennia from the
and Francis received ample share of the mainstream of world affairs. They had
plunder. Henceforth, the French not only developed entirely differently, and were
waylaid homebound Spanish ships (the unlike anyone known by the people of the
so-called "Treasure Fleets"), but also began Old World; regardless of nation, tribe, or
cruising the Indies, attacking commerce, and culture, they were unique. This raised the
70 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

question of whether they were even human, authorized the establishment of Indian
or instead some highly developed species of Utopian communities on the Venezuelan
animal, capable of profound mimicry, coast. This plan failed and las Casas retreated
architecture, and manual skill. For the early to Santo Domingo, where he began work on
explorers and settlers of the West Indies, the a vast treatise, part history, part prophecy,
question was hardly worth consideration. and part fabrication. Entitled Brevisimia
Assuming they were human (which many relation de la destruction de las Indias
Europeans were unwilling to concede), some (A Very Brief Account of the Destruction
conquistadors regarded them as a subspecies, of the Indies), it saw wide circulation
incapable of civilization or salvation. throughout Europe. Translated (with
Therefore, in the view of the settlers, they embellishments) into English and Dutch, it
were open to exploitation and abuse. formed the basis of the infamous "Black
Yet there were those who insisted the Legend" of Spanish atrocities that haunts
Indians were children of God and must be relations between the English-speaking and
treated as such. Among the most militant of Spanish-speaking worlds to this day.
these was Bartolome de las Casas. Las Casas On trips to Spain over the ensuing years,
had come to the Indies in 1502, the classic las Casas would continue to advise Charles.
adventurer-speculator, acquiring mines and His discussion with the king-emperor got
estates where he relentlessly worked his Indian an additional boost in 1537, when
slaves. He was an enthusiastic participant in Pope Paul III issued the bull Sublimis Deus,
the vicious conquest of Cuba, and was which proclaimed Indians to be children
rewarded with more estates and slaves. In of God worthy of salvation. Charles's
about 1512 he took religious orders, but even contribution was a legal code known as
then retained his estates and remained the New Laws that regulated conquest and
indifferent to the Indians. In 1514, however, colonization, tempered subjugation with
the 40-year-old las Casas experienced a salvation, and attempted to end exploitation
profound revelation concerning the atrocities by, among other things the abolition of
he and his countrymen were inflicting on the the encomiendas, an effort that was only
Indians, and he devoted the remainder of his partially successful. Nevertheless, las Casas is
92 years to being their champion. still respected throughout Central America,
Returning to Spain, las Casas met with and is one of the very few Spaniards honored
Charles V, who, persuaded by his arguments, in Mexico, as the "Apostle of the Indies."
Portrait of a civilian

Dona Marina

By the very nature of the Conquest, virtually Medellin. When Puertocarrero returned
everyone whose name is known to history to Spain to press Cortes's case, Marina
was, in some form or another, a combatant. remained. Undoubtedly it would have been
If there was a civilian, then it is one of the embarrassing for Puertocarrero in Spain with
most important but least understood figures a mistress whose very humanity was not yet
of those events - the mysterious Indian girl established in the Spanish mind. Likewise, it
known to history as dona Marina. Although was essential for her to remain in Mexico
her existence and her pivotal role are well as interpreter.
documented, details of her life are sparse, Most of the information concerning dona
conflicting, and shrouded in legend. The Marina comes from Bernal Diaz, who was the
Mexican view of her is schizophrenic. On only contemporary writer to give a woman a
the one hand, she is La Malinche, a female significant role in the great events of the age.
Quisling or Benedict Arnold who betrayed Certainly, Cortes, Alonso de Aguilar, and
her people. Yet as the mother of Cortes's others mention her, but in Diaz's True History,
son Martin, the first recorded mestizo or she holds an honored position almost equal
mixed-blood that makes up the bulk of the to Cortes himself. Diaz, who was not writing
modern Mexican population, she is the with the hope of any serious personal gain,
mother of the nation. This ambiguity, no appears to have recognized (or at least
doubt, stems to a large degree from her admitted) more than the others that without
importance. In assuming her decisive dona Marina, there would have been no
position, willingly or otherwise, she went Conquest. His account of her life is that
against the established norm of female generally accepted in Mexico.
nonentity expected in both Castilian and So far so good. But as Diaz's writing
Aztec society, a status that combined and progressed, he unwittingly helped create a
carried over into the traditional Mexican legend surrounding her origin. Evidence
view of women. indicates she was born in what is now the
Even her origins are shrouded in State of Tabasco, on the southeastern marches
contradiction. At the time she was acquired of the Aztec Empire, either in 1502 or 1505.
by the Castilians she was perhaps 17, but Her birth occurred on the day of Malinal, in
possibly younger. It is almost certain her the 12th month of the Mexican year, and for
name was Malinalli, Hispanicized to Marina. that reason she was named Malinalli. The
Bernal Diaz invariably appended "dona" as a accepted version of her life, based largely on
title of respect, possibly for her position as Diaz, indicates her father was lord of the
interpreter, or possibly for her position as village of Painala, about 25 miles from
Cortes's mistress, or both. He called her a Coatzacoalcos, and her mother, the ruler of
"great chieftainess and daughter of great the nearby village of Xaltipan. After her
chieftains and mistress over vassals, and one father's death, her mother married another
could see this by her carriage." He added local ruler and produced a son, whom the
that when the women of Potonchan were parents wanted to inherit all three fiefdoms,
distributed, Cortes initially gave her to including that of Marina's father which was
Alonso Hernandez de Puertocarrero, an old rightfully hers. Consequently, Marina was
friend from his hometown of Medellin who sold to traveling merchants, and sold again,
also happened to be a cousin to the Count of until she ended up in Potonchan.
72 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

Cortes makes peace with the Tlaxcalans. The artist with her parents, strongly reminiscent of a
probably saw dona Marina, and the likenesses in the similar reconciliation of the fictional hero
Lienzo are as good as any. From the Lienzo de Tlaxcala,
Amadis. In both cases, their conversion to
Plate 4. (American Museum of Natural History)
Christianity prompts them to forgive those
who have wronged them, explaining that
Francisco Lopez de Gomara, who drew his their misfortunes ultimately led to their
information from Cortes, tells essentially the conversions to the True Faith. It also brings
same story, differing only in detail. In his to mind the biblical story of Joseph, betrayed
version, Marina's parents were wealthy - but and sold by his blood kin, only to rise to
not necessarily noble - citizens in the village power among the alien people of Egypt.
of Viluta (correctly rendered Olutla), likewise Lopez de Gomara downplayed dona
near Coatzacoalcos. Rather than being sold Marina's role as much as Diaz played it up,
to merchants, Marina was kidnapped by and of the two, Diaz is the more believable.
them. The result is the same: eventual arrival Her true role was probably somewhere
in Potonchan, where she encounters the between that of servant-concubine and
Castilians. In his account, she is less a conquistadora. It is doubtful that Cortes
working partner to Cortes than a loyal would have accomplished so much - if
servant and concubine. indeed he could have accomplished anything
Now, however, the parallels end, as Diaz at all - without her help. As much as a feat of
begins to blend her story in with other, more arms, the Conquest of Mexico was a triumph
familiar tales. He tells of a reconciliation of diplomacy, in recognizing and exploiting
Portrait of a civilian 73

the divisions and hatreds between the various understood her role. The name by which
Indian states. Dona Marina was essential to they called Cortes, Malinche (probably
the Spaniards' understanding of all the Malintzin, transliterated by Diaz and Aguilar
implications of local rivalries. Given the as Malinche) signified his role as "Marina's
strong, almost inseparable bond that existed Captain" or "Marina's Lord," although in
between Marina and Cortes during the modern Mexico the term is applied to dona
Conquest, there can be little doubt that Marina herself.
Marina's loyalty was based on love and In 1522, Marina gave birth to Martin
admiration as much as servitude. For his part, Cortes, the conqueror's eldest son. Two years
Cortes seemed to view women in general as a later, during the expedition to Honduras,
means of pleasure or policy, but if he was Cortes married her off to Juan Jaramillo, by
capable of love, his attention toward Marina whom she had a daughter. She also received
is some indication. estates in Tabasco, where she apparently
Cortes on campaign, however, was not spent most of her time until her death in
the same as Cortes projecting his image to 1551. According to the 19th-century
the Spanish court and to posterity. Barring historian William Hickling Prescott, Martin
the possibility of some mention in his now became a prominent citizen of New Spain,
lost First Letter, Marina appears only twice in and knight companion of the Order of
his correspondence, once in the Second Santiago. In 1568, however, he and his
Letter, in which he referred to her as "my legitimate half-brother, also named Martin
interpreter, who is an Indian woman from were suspected of treason, and tortured.
Putunchan," and in the Fifth, written from They remained incarcerated until 1574.
Honduras more than four years later, where The Conquest was the great event of
he called her "Marina, who traveled always dona Marina's life. Aside from the scant
in my company after she had been given me information about her estates and her
as a present with twenty other women." marriage to Jaramillo, she gradually faded
Through the pen of Lopez de Gomara, Cortes from history. Even so, her essential role in
acknowledged his illegitimate children by Cortes's success cannot be disputed. Prescott,
Marina and others, and Lopez de Gomara a product of New England Puritanism with
allowed himself a veiled disapproval of his all its prejudices towards women as the
patron's relationships with the native "weaker vessel," and whose account of the
women. Nevertheless, the relationship itself Conquest is as much literature as history,
is carefully skirted. Whatever Cortes might nevertheless paid her homage when he
have felt for Marina, he could not expect to wrote: "That remarkable woman had
present himself at court as the harbinger of attracted general admiration by the
civilization and champion of Christianity constancy and cheerfulness with which she
while having an intense and history-making endured all the privations of the camp. Far
affair with an Indian girl. from betraying the weakness and timidity of
Yet, reading between the lines, there is no her sex, she had shrunk from no hardship
question that he depended on her. The herself, and had done much to fortify the
Second Letter describes how "the Indian drooping spirits of the soldiers; while her
woman" uncovered the massacre plot in sympathies, whenever occasion offered, had
Cholula. The Fifth Letter tells of how she been actively exerted in mitigating the
recited the deeds of the Castilians to calamities of her Indian countrymen."
Honduran chiefs, reinforcing stories they had Prescott did not exaggerate. For three
already heard from the Tabascan Indians. years, this teenager who changed history was
The Mexicans themselves thoroughly the most important woman in the world.
How the war ended

Once the Castilians had conquered the out as plunder, these were sent in toto to the
Mexican capital, their immediate thoughts less than appreciative king-emperor, who
were centered on spoils of war. For three had the gold melted down. Much of the
years they had fought and suffered against featherwork eventually ended up in Vienna,
incredible odds. They had seen their where, if one searches diligently enough, one
comrades dragged to the temples for may see it in the Kunsthistorische Museum.
sacrifice, and had been powerless to The amount of plunder proved
intervene. They had recovered identifiable disappointing. The great treasure found in
body parts which had been offered to the the palace and then lost on the Noche Triste
pagan gods. Now it was time for payment. was gone. As previously noted, the men had
The day of the surrender, they raged through served on their own account, and now that
the city looking for gold. Meanwhile, their the war was over, their accumulated debts
Tlaxcalan allies continued their hideous orgy had to be paid. Some were so substantial that
of blood, slaughtering any Mexican they arbitrators were called in to determine just
found. The city itself was completely ruined. amounts, and those without the money to
About 100,000 men, women, and children pay were given a two-year grace period.
had died during the 80-day siege, and With the constant fear and stress of the war
thousands of corpses lay unburied. Most of behind them, the soldiers began to consider
the remaining population streamed out their positions and, for the first time, began
along the causeways where the Spaniards set to mutter against their commander, believing
up checkpoints to search for concealed he had amassed a great personal fortune at
treasure. Noblewomen covered themselves their expense. The royal auditors, likewise,
with mud and dressed in rags to hide their accused him of withholding treasure that
status, but the rapacious Castilians subjected rightfully belonged to the Crown. They
them all to body searches. little realized that they were dealing not only
Once a substantial amount of gold with the losses of war, but with the highly
was collected, it was taken to Cortes's developed private enterprise system of Aztec
headquarters in Coyoacan, where he and Mexico; much of the wealth they had seen
the Crown auditors agreed to have it melted throughout the city on their arrival two
down and assayed. The total came to more years earlier belonged not to the state, but to
than 130,000 castellanos.3 This and all other the city's powerful merchant class. These
plunder, including slaves, was tabulated. merchants, naturally, had fled with all they
One-fifth of the total was allocated to the could carry.
Crown in accordance with the law. The His back to the wall, Cortes summoned
balance was distributed to the army Cuauhtemoc and the other lords to explain
according to rank, with Cortes and his the loss. They argued among themselves, but
captains naturally getting the lion's share. could add little. The royal auditor, Julian
Additionally, there was a substantial amount Aldrete, demanded that Cuauhtemoc and
of gold ornaments, featherwork, and other Tetlepanquetzal, the king of Tacuba, be
objects that the sophisticated Cortes tortured. Cortes assented, probably with
recognized as art. Rather than being parceled fewer qualms than he later pretended.

3 A castellano was 42.29 g of pure silver. There were 450 copper maravedis to the peso and 485 maravedis to the castellano.
How the war ended 75

Their feet were dipped in oil and set ablaze. The most remarkable aspect of these
Finally, Cuauhtemoc said the treasure had expeditions was the number of native
been thrown into the lake, but Castilian auxiliaries under their own chieftains and
divers found little that was substantial. lords, many of whom had recently been
Ultimately, this brutality, which left both enemies. Besides Tlaxcalans, they included
men permanently lamed, yielded only an Texcocans, and even some 15,000 Mexicans
additional 200,000 pesos. Once the Crown, provided by Cuauhtemoc and commanded
the royal bureaucrats, Cortes, and the by one of his cousins. The reason for the
captains got their shares, the average soldier turnabout was really quite simple: their
may have had about 160 pesos for three religion had long foretold the destruction of
years of suffering. To put this in perspective, their world, and now it had come to pass.
a reasonable sword cost about 50 pesos at There was nothing further to do but to assist
the time. those who had overthrown that world.
Although large regions of Mesoamerica Thus, with the help of the defeated Aztecs,
remained to be subdued, the Conquest was virtually all of what is now Mexico came
essentially completed with the surrender of firmly under Spanish rule within a decade or
Cuauhtemoc. The destruction of the greatest so. Such resistance as did occur came largely
power on the continent had a profound from some Maya-controlled areas of
effect on the surrounding states. The only Yucatan, which managed to hold out for
other power capable of serious and another century, and in some coastal and
prolonged opposition was the Tarascan desert areas of the far north, to which the
empire, to the northwest in Michoacan. Spaniards did not attach any immediate
When word of the Mexican surrender importance. As Cortes noted in his third
reached the Tarascans, they sent emissaries letter to Charles V, written only nine
to Cortes asking to be accepted as vassals. months after Cuauhtemoc's surrender,
"I replied that we were, in truth, all Your "Your Majesty's farms and estates have been
Majesty's vassals," he reported to Charles V, established in the cities and provinces which
"and that their lord had been wise in seem the best and most suitable."
wishing to become one also, for we were Interestingly enough, Cortes also worried
obliged to make war on those who did not." about the fate of the Indians. Although he
Nevertheless, he sent several expeditions to was the instrument of its destruction, he
Michoacan, culminating with a reasonably admired much of their civilization, and
large force (considering the resources) under believed them capable of going about their
Cristobal de Olid in the summer of 1522. As business unmolested by their new rulers.
an example, Olid plundered the region, He was growing particularly uneasy at the
throwing down the temples, and sent the thought of enslaving them. Discussing the
Tarascan monarch to Mexico. There, Cortes problem in one of his letters to the emperor,
received him with the full dignity of a ruler, he contended they were of too high a caliber
and he returned to Michoacan duly impressed to be relegated to slavery and oppressed to
and subdued. Olid, meanwhile, moved farther destruction, as was happening in the West
north to Colima, which he quickly pacified. Indies. Realistically, however, if they were
Elsewhere, expeditions reached the Pacific. not enslaved, who would work the estates
Cortes himself led an expedition to subdue that the conquistadors were establishing?
the Panuco region, in order to head off Additionally, entire regions had served as
another colonization attempt by Governor allies during the war and, far from being
Garay. In one of the towns, they found the enslaved, their leaders expected to share in
flayed facial skin of Castilians from Garay's the spoils. To avoid outright slavery, yet
first expedition. Nevertheless, the Panuco was maintain the economy, he recommended the
subjugated, adding a great agricultural region establishment of an encomienda, a system
to the growing empire. already existing in the West Indies, by which
76 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

The grim visage of Xipe Totec, the flayed god of spring plant agricultural produce, which led to the
and the harvest, grins through a mask of his own skin introduction of European food crops into
in a small clay representation from Tlatelolco. Those New Spain.
sacrificed to Xipe Totec were flayed, and their skins worn
In practice it was much easier for the
as ceremonial costumes by the priests. Almost every god
and goddess in the Mexican pantheon demanded human encomendero to require the payment of
lives as sacrifice, the difference being only in the detail of produce comparable to the specified labor,
the death. (Author's collection) rather than to go out and attempt to keep a
tally on who was working where and when.
a conquistador or settler would be granted a Consequently the system developed into a
fixed amount of labor from the Indians tribute, not radically different from that
living on a specified area of land. The maintained by the Aztecs before the
encomendero as the grantee was called, was Conquest. With the encomendero essentially
expected to serve as a guardian of the assuming the role previously held by the
Indians, to Christianize them, and have native princes, it required little serious
them ready for military service if called adjustment. Although technically the
upon. Cortes required that every encomendero encomienda was abolished under the New
How the war ended 77

Laws and other royal edicts, in reality it and well in charge of the natives, who will
remained in one form or another, be unable to harm them in any way."
establishing a serfdom that lasted well into Initially, the job of rebuilding fell to
the 19th century; some contend that in parts Alvarado. The native auxiliaries, now more a
of Mexico it continues. hindrance than an asset, were given ample
As more of the country fell to the share of the plunder, and their leaders
Castilians, Cortes realized it needed an reconfirmed as lords of the provinces under
administrative center. Although the ruined the new order. Those not necessary to
and pestilential city of Mexico had been cleaning and rebuilding the city were sent
abandoned after the surrender, he realized home. Alvarado's tenure as supervisor of
the psychological hold it had over the reconstruction was shortlived. Early in 1522
country. Perhaps, also, he did not want the he was given the task of subduing Oaxaca,
ruins to become a place of pilgrimage for the where he remained over a year, collecting
defeated peoples, and a possible inspiration substantial treasure. He was en route back to
for rebellion. In late 1521, he decided to Mexico when he received word from Cortes
rebuild the city. Town lots were distributed that the treasure was to be forwarded on to
to all who wanted them, and the city was the capital to replace that captured by the
divided into districts governed by various French corsairs of Francis I. Alvarado's men,
officials according to Spanish custom. While who had imagined themselves wealthy from
the reconstruction took place, the future the plunder, were outraged, and several
population continued to reside in Coyoacan. hatched a plot to murder him and his
Nevertheless, by May 1522, he was able to brothers. Getting wind of it, he arrested the
write to the king, "In the four or five months plotters. Two ringleaders were hanged, and
that we have been rebuilding the city it is the local chief, also part of the conspiracy,
already most beautiful ... each day it grows was imprisoned, where he died two weeks
more noble, so that just as before it was the later. This plot was an early indication of
capital and center of all these provinces so it the growing discontent that would plague
shall be henceforth. And it is being so built Cortes and his captains as the Conquest
that the Spaniards will be strong and secure drew to a close.
Conclusion and consequences

If Balboa's expedition to Panama was the first The questions must then be raised: would any
European toehold on the mainland of the European besides Cortes have grasped and
western hemisphere, the Conquest of Mexico exploited the differences between the various
was the first squeeze of a vise-like grip that Indian people? Given the record of most of
kept more than half of the New World in his contemporaries, who tended to regard all
Spanish hands for some three centuries. As Indians as beneath contempt, it is highly
with Columbus before him, the full import of unlikely, and these political and tribal
Cortes's achievement was not understood for differences were essential to a Castilian
several decades. Yet Columbus, with his victory. Could any other leader have been so
discovery of a continent previously unknown profoundly lucky, and then be blessed with
in Europe, and Cortes, with the conquest of a the good sense to realize it? Could any other
powerful and equally unknown empire, had leader have kept such an absolute hold over
proven that the unimaginable was possible. an army that was largely composed of unruly
They set the stage for expeditions of Francisco adventurers? Not until the city of Mexico had
Pizarro and others in South America, and for actually fallen, and the Aztec Empire was
Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and Hernando relegated to history did Cortes's own men
de Soto in what is now the United States. In seriously question his leadership. One must
view of the accomplishments of Columbus particularly admire his ability to maintain the
and Cortes, the search for El Dorado, or for loyalty of his Indian allies in the critical
seven golden cities made perfect sense. period before the final advance, when the
Meanwhile, Mexico became the centerpiece Noche Triste had demonstrated how truly
of a vast viceregency designated "New Spain" vulnerable the Castilians were.
that extended from the modern American What would have happened had the
states of Utah and California, south to the Conquest failed? Again, Thomas makes a
Costa Rica-Panama border, and from Puerto good case that possibly Spain would have had
Rico in the east across half the world to the second thoughts before another attempt at
Philippines. The administrative seat was the conquest, and that Mexico, like Japan, might
city of Mexico, which rose like a phoenix from then have gone its own way, remaining
the ashes of the Aztec capital. New Spain was culturally isolated only to reemerge into
the first of a series of viceregencies that European consciousness in a later era.
extended southward across the hemisphere as This, however, is speculation. As Cortes
Spanish power itself expanded. Next came worked with the real problems of
Peru, which administered western South consolidating the newly won empire and
America; New Granada, northern South rebuilding its capital, an entirely new
America; and finally La Plata, southeastern complication arose. His wife, dona Catalina,
South America. Only Brazil, firmly in the arrived uninvited and unexpected from Cuba,
hands of Portugal, escaped Spanish rule. bringing with her a retinue suitable for her
It is questionable whether any man besides presumed position as the new vicereine. At the
Cortes could have conquered Mexico. Some time, Cortes had several mistresses, Indian and
argue that if he had not, someone else would Castilian, and was preparing for the birth of
have. But as Hugh Thomas notes in his his son by dona Marina. The pair argued and
magnificent history of the Conquest, this is that, combined with the 7,500-foot altitude of
totally conjecture and cannot be established. Mexico City, no doubt aggravated dona
Conclusion and consequences 79

Catalina's already weak heart. She died under Don Antonio de Mendoza (1490-1552), who became
viceroy of New Spain in 1535, was the first of a long line
mysterious circumstances, and he was accused
of bureaucrats who replaced the original conquerors in
of murdering her. Most likely, however, they administering the new domains. (Museo Nacional de
argued, and this brought on a fatal heart attack. Historia, Mexico)
80 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

Equally suspicious was the death of career as explorer and conqueror.

Francisco de Garay, who was brought back to Subjugating Guatemala, he was appointed
Mexico after his failed second expedition to governor of that province and of Honduras,
Panuco. After dining with Cortes on but, as restless as his old commander, he
Christmas Day, 1523, Garay died of an could not resist new adventures. In 1541 he
unspecified stomach complaint. was assisting the acting governor of Jalisco,
By now, the old restlessness was setting in. Cristobal de Onate, in besieging a native
Cortes had dispatched Cristobal de Olid to town. He was on foot in full armor when a
Honduras, and in 1524 received word that horse slipped and fell on him. Crushed
Olid had rebelled. Using this as a pretext (and under the weight of horse and armor, he
unaware that Olid had already been defeated died about an hour later. Even in death,
and executed by Cortes's supporters), he set he was not safe from the bureaucrats, and
off with several thousand Spaniards and within a year, his widow had lost many of
native auxiliaries, and all the retinue of a his estates to the Crown.
court; he even took in tow the nominal In the end, it might be argued that the
emperor Cuauhtemoc. The expedition was a ordinary soldiers, like crusty old Bernal Diaz
fiasco, beset by starvation, disease, and reminiscing on his Guatemalan estates,
rumors of mutiny. When it returned to gained the most. They, after all, had learned
Mexico two years later, there were less than to expect the least. Diaz complained of
100 survivors. Cuauhtemoc was not among poverty, but poverty is relative. Compared to
them; exhausted, paranoid, and suspecting what might have been, he was, indeed, poor.
the emperor was conspiring against him, But by the standards of his era or ours, he
Cortes ordered him hanged in what is now ended his days a wealthy man.
the state of Guerrero, in southern Mexico. The Conquest inaugurated a bitter history
The remainder of Cortes's life was of foreign intervention in Mexico. After Spain
anticlimactic. He and all the others who had came military invasions by the United States
fought so hard, and with such high hopes of and France, followed by the economic
fame, wealth, and glory, found themselves colonialism of Great Britain, the Netherlands,
displaced by paper-shuffling bureaucrats Germany, and, once again, the United States.
sent by Charles V to administer the newly This has left Mexico with a particularly
conquered kingdom. The rest of Cortes's xenophobic nationalism. Although the
life was divided between his estates in average Mexican takes a kindly and gracious
Mexico and in presenting his case to view of foreigners as individuals, he does not
the king-emperor. He was named necessarily feel the same toward the nations
Marques del Valle de Oaxaca, confirmed as of which they are citizens.
captain-general, and given large estates, but The uneasiness toward foreigners began
he was denied the right to rule his conquests. toward the end of the colonial period, as the
That would be left to the civil servants, and winds of the Enlightenment, and the full
in the early years, Mexico was governed by implications of U.S. independence from
some remarkably good ones. Nevertheless, Great Britain drifted into Mexico, creating a
whispering campaigns, prompted largely by sense of nationhood. Spain, by then in
envy, prevented Cortes from receiving his full irreversible decline, could do little to
due, and in the end he was treated shabbily. maintain Mexican loyalty. In fact, there had
He died on December 2, 1547, bitter, broken, been little during the entire colonial period
and forgotten. His body was later returned to to inspire allegiance. Although the people of
Mexico City, where it was buried in the the New World dominions were technically
Hospital of Jesus, which he had founded at Spanish subjects, and the New World
the height of his power and prestige. provinces themselves were designated as
The fiery Pedro de Alvarado used the "kingdoms" rather than colonies, the
Conquest as the stepping stone to his own relationship was one of master and serf, and
Conclusion and consequences 81

a foreign master at that. Civil administration who was among the least cruel in an
was in the hands of Peninsulares, people born age when cruelty reigned. Conversely,
in Spain, or European-born foreigners in Cuauhtemoc is a national hero, and his
Spanish service, for whom Mexico was little name and presumed likeness appear
more than a career assignment. They were everywhere. Perhaps the final expression
forbidden by law to own estates, livestock, of national indifference was Mexico's refusal
or interest in mines in the areas of their to establish diplomatic relations with the
jurisdiction. This law was designed to avoid Franco regime in Spain.
corruption and conflicts of interest, but on The chaos of Mexico in the mid-19th
those rare occasions when it was enforced, it century produced one of those ironies that
only increased the sense of estrangement so delight historians. During the French
between ruler and subject. intervention of 1862-67, Napoleon III
Below the Peninsulares were the Creoles, convinced the Habsburg Archduke
Spaniards of pure European descent but born Maximilian to accept the Mexican throne.
in the New World, who made up the landed He reigned for three years, struggling against
gentry and the officer corps of the colonial an opposition Republican government led by
armies, but by-and-large were prohibited Benito Juarez, a full-blooded Zapotec Indian.
from participating in civic affairs. The third When French support was withdrawn, the
class was the Mestizo, the mixed bloods, who empire collapsed, and Maximilian surrendered
were mainly small merchants, artisans, and to the Republicans. More than three centuries
craftsmen. At the bottom were the native earlier, a Castilian adventurer had conquered
Indians, whose sole purpose was to serve as Indian Mexico on behalf of a Habsburg
laborers. Such a caste system effectively prince. Now Juarez, the Mexican Indian,
stifled any effort at advancement by ordered the death of a Habsburg prince.
Mexicans of whatever ancestry, and when Regardless of how the Mexicans might
the Spanish regime collapsed in 1821, the feel, the Conquest did occur, and the Spanish
country was ill-prepared for self-government. imprint on Mexican life and culture is
The first decades of independence were everywhere. Every Mexican city and town
largely a history of military dictatorships, as that existed prior to the 20th century has its
the Creole generals were the only ones with colonial monuments. The churches copy
any sort of administrative experience. those of Spain, many of which were
Even independence did not completely influenced by or converted from the
remove Spain from the scene. For several mosques of Spanish Islam. The houses of the
years afterwards, the Spaniards continued to well-to-do, plain and drab on the outside and
hold the fortress of San Juan de Ulua, luxurious inside, can likewise be traced to
guarding the entrance to Veracruz, and in Muslim Spain. Aside from the Spanish Islamic
1829 Spain actually made a futile attempt to influence, one also sees majestic Renaissance
reoccupy the country, which resulted in its and Baroque colonial mansions and public
final expulsion. As late as the 1840s, buildings. The great city of Guanajuato, a
however, Mexican monarchists conspired cradle of Mexican independence, is
with Spanish representatives to place a nevertheless entirely European, a center of
Spanish prince on the now defunct Castilian culture in the New World, with its
Mexican throne. modern statues of don Quixote de la Mancha
This long heritage of ill-feeling has and the faithful Sancho Panza, and an annual
produced a Mexican attitude toward Spain Cervantes festival.
that is, at best, ambiguous. While other Yet the Castilian influence goes beyond
nations in Latin America honor the old art, literature, and architecture. It permeates
discoverers and conquerors on coins, the daily lives of the Mexican people. They
monuments, and with street names, and the speak a Mexicanized form of Castilian
like, there is scarcely a mention of Cortes, which, in Mexico, is referred to simply as
82 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

"Spanish." They use Napoleonic law, and which tradition states appeared to a humble
their social attitudes historically have Indian, Juan Diego, at Tepeyac in 1531.
reflected those of Spain. Interestingly enough, Tepeyac was sacred to
Most remarkable, however, is the the goddess Tonantzin, who was also viewed
blending that has occurred. Over the as a sort of mother figure.
centuries Mexicans have taken the best Ironically, the founders of this new faith
(and sometimes the worst) aspects of both were the earliest Spanish friars, who did not
cultures, to create a new one that fits their study the old beliefs, and therefore did not
conjoined national personality. The most recognize the continuing practice of ancient
obvious sign is on the faces of the people ways under the guise of Christianity. The
themselves. Martin Cortes might have been first missionary to realize this was the
the first Mexican of mixed blood, but the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagun
European-Indian mix now accounts for at (1499-1590), who spent the latter
least 70 percent of the nation. In the far two-thirds of his long life in Mexico, and
north, around the states of Nuevo Leon and was the first to apply what we now would
Coahuila, and in the Bajio region of west call anthropological field work to studying
central Mexico, between the cities of virtually every aspect of pre-Conquest
Guanajuato and Morelia, European origins Mexico. Sahagun's monumental Historia
predominate. And only in the rural areas general de las cosas de la Nueva Espana
does one see people who are predominantly ("General History of the Things of New
Indian. The rest of the country's uncountable Spain"), more popularly known as the
millions show the physical heritage of both Florentine Codex, is a detailed study of
races. At times, the mixed ancestry appears virtually every aspect of pre-Conquest
in individual families, with some siblings life in Mexico, from history, religion, and
pale and European, others dark philosophy, to trade and economics.
reddish-brown with high cheeks, and yet There is no question that Sahagun's
others having the characteristics of both. motivation was to understand Mexican beliefs
The Spanish desire for gold was equaled so that he could combat idolatry. Yet as the
only by their zeal to impose their own work progressed, it almost took on a life of its
religion. Interestingly enough, Christianity own. Working through his Mexican students,
took root with remarkable ease. To the who had supplemented their own Nahuatl
people, the destruction of the Aztec language with Castilian and Latin, Sahagun
civilization meant their own gods had met with native elders and scholars, studying
deserted them, creating a spiritual void. their pictorial records, and listening to their
Additionally, the Mexican concept of gods accounts of their now vanished world. The
shedding their own blood, and the blood linguistic aspect fascinated him. Although
offerings in their temples meant that little Nahuatl was devoid of a formal style of
mental adjustment was required to accept writing, the Mexicans nevertheless used
the notion of a god-king offering His blood pictographs to express an idea. Many of
for the benefit of the world, or the symbolic these were reproduced in the General History
"drinking of blood" in the Christian together with the Nahuatl record written
Communion. In fact, there were enough in the Roman alphabet, and its Castilian
parallels that the distinction between native paraphrase and commentary. Sahagun studied
belief and Christianity became blurred, Aztec monuments, and found much to
creating a uniquely Mexican form of admire in their history and culture. The basic
Catholicism. Ancient rituals are celebrated work, compiled from about 1558 to 1580, was
on Christian holidays, and many of the old organized, European style, into 12 books
gods have been transposed onto Christian categorized according to subject, with the text
saints with similar characteristics. Perhaps divided into chapters and paragraphs. The
the most famous is the Virgin of Guadalupe, 12th book, a history of the Conquest itself,
Conclusion and consequences 83

was expanded into a much more extensive The banner of the Conquest. Most of the conquistadors
account in 1585, based on subsequent believed their survival was entirely due to the protection
research with allowances for changes in of Christ and the saints, and this ensured that their
religious observances were regular and fervent.
Sahagun's own perspectives. When
(Topham Picturepoint)
completed, the General History was so
comprehensive, and the main body so
dispassionate, that it must serve as the basis of native scribes working under friars, at the
any modern work on the Aztec civilization. instigation of Charles V, who wanted to know
Another important account of ancient more about his overseas dominions. Because
Mexico originated with an equally unlikely the imperial commission for the manuscript
source, the Spanish Crown. There exists apparently came from the viceroy, don
today in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, an Antonio de Mendoza, it carries his name.
earlier manuscript than either Sahagun or The text of the Codex Mendoza combines
Duran, known as the Codex Mendoza. It was the Mexican glyphs with written explanations
compiled in Mexico City about 1541 by in Castilian and Nahuatl. As such, it serves, in
84 Essential Histories The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521
Conclusion and consequences 85

LEFT A detail from the Florentine Codex, showing a comprehensive visual image of the
Bernardino de Sahagun (1499-1590),the Spanish Aztec empire.
missionary who chronicled the languages, customs and
The inspiration for much of this work
habits of the peoples of the New World in minute detail.
(American Museum of Natural History)
came from Juan de Zumarraga, the first
Bishop of Mexico, who initially arrived in the
ABOVE The Atlantes Temple and colonnade was part of country in 1528. Like the early settler
the ceremonial center of the Toltec capital at Tula, some Bartolome de las Casas, Zumarraga saw
60 miles north of Mexico City. The Aztecs viewed
himself as a protector of the Indians. His
themselves as heirs to the Toltecs, and used the lingering
Toltec mystique to establish their own legitimacy.
methods, however, were far more subtle
(Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico) than those of las Casas. For that reason, plus
the fact that he also served as apostolic
inquisitor, history often pillories him as a
the words of one scholar, as "a kind of Rosetta guardian of the conquering status quo. Yet,
stone." The glyphs and illustrations portray despite his zeal in protecting and expanding
virtually every aspect of Mexican society, the faith, Zumarraga promoted learning and
including tributary kingdoms, lists of tribute, was open to different ideas. He believed that
illustrations of textiles, arms and armor, the Mexicans were capable of acquiring the
costumes, foods, and even the thread of daily best of Castilian culture, and also that
life for citizens of various classes. As such, it is (religion aside) their own culture contained
Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

much that was admirable. The schools that he purportedly interviewed Juan Diego
founded or sponsored paved the way for the concerning his vision of the Virgin of
Nahua-Castilian scholars who were Guadalupe. Although the validity of the
indispensable to men like Sahagun and apparition, and even the actual existence of
Duran. It was Zumarraga, also, who Juan Diego has been questioned by both
Conclusion and consequences 87

Roman Catholic and non-Roman Catholic The Atlantes Temple, was an important Toltec center but
scholars, Pope John Paul II nevertheless was slightly overshadowed by its rivals Teotihuacan and
Cholula. (©Philip Baird
canonized Juan Diego as a saint of the Church
during his Episcopal visit to Mexico in the fall
of 2001.
88 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

A modern reconstruction shows the precinct of the covers the nation since 1519. The Museum
Great Temple of Mexico as it appeared about 1519. The of Anthropology displays many examples of
Temple itself, surmounted by the twin sanctuaries of
Aztec art including the most famous of all,
Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc is on the left. Immediately in
front is the round platform for gladiatorial sacrifices, and the great Calendar Stone. But examining the
the round temple of Quetzalcoatl. To the right is the statues, paintings, and dioramas, one cannot
Great Tzompantli, the rack displaying the heads of escape the all-pervading feeling of violence
sacrificial victims, and immediately in front, the ball court. and death.
(Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico)
Chapultepec Castle crowns the hill that
gives the structure and surrounding district
Today, vestiges of Aztec might are their names (Chapultepec means ''hill of the
everywhere. The modern city of Mexico, grasshoppers"). The hill rises from a cypress
built directly on top of the Aztec capital, is a grove that was already ancient when the
treasure house of the pre-Conquest. Virtually Aztec rulers used the area as a summer
any public works project uncovers some retreat and hunting park. At the base of
aspect of the original city. The construction the hill are the springs that provided water
of the great metro system in the late 1960s to the city, not only in Aztec times, but
and early 1970s, and even something so throughout the entire colonial period,
mundane as sewer line repairs, have led to and the remains of the baths of the Aztec
important new discoveries. Before visiting overlords. The castle itself preserves relics of
these sites, one would do best to orient the Conquest, including one of the banners
oneself by seeing the two great museums of Hernan Cortes, a replica of which was
in Chapultepec. The modernistic National featured in the 1948 film Captain From
Museum of Anthropology chronicles Castile. An adjacent hall displays portraits of
Mexico's past prior to the Conquest. Across all the Spanish viceroys from Mendoza in
the great boulevard of the Reforma, the 1535 to Juan O'Donoju in 1821.
National Museum of History in the old One of the most significant modern
viceregal residence at Chapultepec Castle, projects was the recovery of the Great
itself a witness to much of Mexico's past, Temple, which began in earnest in 1978. The
Conclusion and consequences 89

site had long been known, and once the The now overgrown Teponapa, or Great Temple of
decision was made, several blocks of colonial Cholula, is the world's largest single-massed man-made
structure. A church stands on the platform atop the
buildings of no particular historical or
pyramid on the site of the ancient sanctuaries. Here
architectural importance were condemned Cortes averted a massacre by perpetrating one of his
and leveled, to clear the area for excavation. own. (©Philip Baird
Today the visitor can walk on elevated ramps
through the vast ruin, which includes not modern roads do not follow the route of the
only the temple itself, but ceremonial halls. Cortes expedition, but do lead to many
Yet this is only a portion of the complex important sites that the Castilians visited
recorded by Cortes and his men; the en route to the Mexican capital. Cholula is
remainder lies under colonial structures still dominated by the Tepanapa, now
that are themselves deemed irreplaceable overgrown and appearing like a terraced
monuments and therefore cannot hill surmounted by a Spanish church.
be removed. Nevertheless, a portion of the complex
In Coyoacan, one may still see the around its base has been excavated and
mansion that Cortes built for dona restored, and the visitor may take a tour of
Marina (nearby is the mansion of a more some of the tunnels within the pyramid,
recent female celebrity, Dolores del Rio). showing various stages of its construction.
A 30-mile drive south of Mexico City leads The modern state of Tlaxcala more or less
to Cuernavaca, where Cortes's own mansion occupies the same area as the old republic
now houses the legislative assembly of the that was so essential to Cortes's success. The
State of Morelos. One of the features of this city of Tlaxcala itself is the state capital, but
building is a magnificent mural by Diego retains the flavor of a provincial colonial
Rivera, illustrating the history of Morelos, town. Near the coast, in Veracruz state,
including vivid scenes of the Conquest. The Cempoala is in ruins, but its remarkable state
90 Essential Histories • The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521

of preservation requires little imagination to culture. Immediately behind is the

see the Castilians throwing down the idols college-convent of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco,
from the temples. founded in 1536 by Bishop Zumarraga, and
Perhaps the most poignant site is representing the colonial culture. Beyond
Tlatelolco, excavated in the early 1960s to that, devastated by the great earthquake and
become part of a government showpiece subsequently rebuilt, are the steel and glass
known as the "Plaza of the Three Cultures." high-rises of the modern culture. To the rear
Immediately south of the broad avenue of of the temple complex is a stele with the
San Juan de Letran is the great temple inscription: "On August 13, 1521, after a
compound, including the base of the 114 heroic defense by Cuauhtemoc, Tlatelolco
steps described by Bernal Diaz. Indeed, his fell to the power of Hernan Cortes. This was
narrative is so complete that, using his book neither a triumph nor a defeat, but rather
as a guide, the visitor can still identify many the painful birth of the Mestizo nation that
of the ruins. This represents the ancient is the Mexico of today."
Glossary of native
The following is a list of native princes and Chiapas in 1525, during Cortes's
officials who figured prominently in the Honduras expedition. Now a national
Conquest. Mexican succession was by hero and symbol of Mexican resistance to
tanastry, which is to say the throne passed foreign influence.
through all the brothers of one generation Cuitlahuac (d. 1520): seventh emperor, son
before going to the next. of Axayacatl and brother of Moctezuma,
whom he succeeded after his deposition.
Axayacatl (r. 1469-81): third emperor and Reigned for a few months until his death
father of the emperors Moctezuma and of smallpox.
Cuitlahuac. Cortes was quartered in Dona Marina (c. 1502-51) native name
his palace. Malinalli, also known as la Malinche:
Cacama, King of Texcoco (r. 1515-20) Indian girl given to the Castilians at
(also called Cacamatzin): distant cousin Potonchan. Speaking both Chontol
of Moctezuma. His father was the great Maya and Nahutl, she became Cortes's
Texcocoan king and statesman interpreter and, to a certain extent,
Nezahualpilli (r. 1472-1515). Cacama confidante, adviser, and spy. She also bore
met Cortes en route to Mexico and led him a son. Married after the Conquest to
him to the city. Died under mysterious Juan Jaramillo, she lived quietly on her
circumstances during the Noche Triste, estates until her death.
probably murdered on Cortes's orders. Moctezuma (c. 1468-1520) correctly
Coanacoch (r. 1520-21): brother of Cacama, Motecuhcoma, also known at
placed on the Texcocoan throne in 1520 Montezuma: sixth emperor of Mexico,
after the latter's arrest by Cortes. Reigned and second of that name. Reigned
one year. 1502-20. Son of Axayacatl. Deposed and
Cualpopoca (d. 1520): Mexican governor of died under mysterious circumstances
the Panuco and instigator of an uprising (probably stoned by a mob) while a
against the Castilians on the coast. Burned prisoner of the Castilians.
at the stake toward the end of 1520. Tetlepanquetzal, King of Tacuba (Tlacopan)
Cuauhtemoc (c. 1496-1525) (also called tortured with Cuauhtemoc.
Guatemoc, Guatemotzin): eighth and last Teuhtlilli (also called Teudile or Tendile).
emperor. Reigned 1520-21. Son of Mexican diplomat and-administrator over
Ahuitzotl, fifth emperor (r. 1486-1502), the Totonac vassalage, who first met
and a cousin of Moctezuma. Surrendered Cortes on the coast. Vanishes from history
to Cortes on August 13, 1521. Hanged in after Cortes moves into the interior.
Further reading

Primary Sources Leon-Portilla, Miguel, ed. The Broken Spears:

The Aztec Account of the Conquest of
For direct quotes from Bernal Diaz del Mexico, Constable and Company, Ltd.,
Castillo's True History of the Discovery and London, 1962.
Conquest of New Spain, I have translated from Sahagun, Bernardino de (comp.), The
a Castilian edition published in two volumes Conquest of New Spain (1585 Revision),
in Mexico City by Editorial Porrua in 1960. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake
The standard English translation by A.P. City, 1989.
Maudsley was published in two volumes by Sahagun, Bernardino de (comp.), Florentine
the Hakluyt Society in 1908. Maudsley Codex: General History of the Things of New
participated in an excellent abridgement, Spain, trans, by Arthur J.O. Anderson and
supplemented by extracts from Hernan Charles E. Dibble (12 vols), School of
Cortes's letters, which was published under American Research, Santa Fe, 1950-82.
the title The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico
by Farrar, Straus, Cudahy of New York in
1956. I have used Howard F. Cline's English Secondary Sources
translation of Fra Bernardino de Sahagun's
Conquest of New Spain (1585 Revision), Atkinson, William C, A History of Spain and
which contains both the Castilian text Portuga, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 1960.
and English translation. Bancroft, Hubert Howe, History of Mexico.
Vol. 2, from The Works of Hubert Howe
Berdan, Frances E, and Patricia Rieff Bancroft (39 vols.), A.L. Bancroft & Co.,
Anawalt, eds., The Essential Codex San Francisco, 1883.
Mendoza, University of California Press, Boorstin, Daniel, The Discoverers, Random
Berkeley, 1997. House, New York, 1983.
Cortes, Hernan, Letters from Mexico, trans. Bridges, Toby, ed. Black Powder Gun Digest,
and ed. by A.R. Pagden, Grossman Follett Publishing Company, Chicago, 1972.
Publishers, New York, 1971. Carrasco, Pedro, The Tenochca Empire of Ancient
Diaz del Castillo, Bernal, Historia Verdadera de Mexico: The Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan,
la Conquista de la Nueva Espana, 5th ed. Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan. University of
Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Porrua, S.A., 1960. Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1999.
Diaz del Castillo, Bernal, The Discovery and Cerwin, Herbert, Bernal Diaz, Historian of the
Conquest of Mexico, trans, by A.P. Conquest, University of Oklahoma Press,
Maudsley, Farrar, Straus, Cudahy, New Norman, 1963.
York, 1956. Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuantzin, Domingo de
Duran, Diego (comp),. The History of the San Anton Munon, Codex Chimalpahin:
Indies of New Spain, trans, and annot. by Society and Politics in Mexico Tenochtitlan,
Doris Heyden. University of Oklahoma Tlatelolco, Texcoco, Culhaucan, and Other
Press, Norman, 1994. Nahua Atlepetl in Central Mexico: The
Fuentes, Patricia, ed. and trans. The Nahuatl and Spanish Annals and Accounts
Conquistadors: First-person Accounts of the Collected and Recorded by don Domingo de San
Conquest of Mexico, The Orion Press, New Anton Munon Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuantzin,
York, 1963. ed. and trans, by Arthur J.O. Anderson and
Further reading 93

Susan Schroeder, University of Oklahoma Prescott, William Hickling, History of the

Press, Norman, 1997. Conquest of Mexico, 1843. (Reprinted by
Cypess, Sandra Messinger, La Malinche in the Modern Library, New York, 1998.)
Mexican Literature From History to Myth, Stewart, Desmond, et al, The Alhambra,
University of Texas Press, Austin, 1991. Newsweek, New York, 1974.
(Reprinted 2000.) Thomas, Hugh, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes,
Hassig, Ross, Aztec Warfare: Imperial and the Fall of Old Mexico, Simon &
Expansion and Political Control, University Schuster, New York, 1993.
of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1988. Time-Life Books, Editors, Gods of Sun and
(Reprinted 1995.) Sacrifice: Aztec & Maya Myth, in Myth and
Humble, Richard, et al, The Explorers, from Mankind Series, Time-Life Books BV,
The Seafarers Series, Time-Life Books, Amsterdam, 1997.
Alexandria, Va.,1978. Wood, Michael, Conquistadors, University of
Innes, Hammond, The Conquistadors, Alfred California Press, Berkeley, 2000.
A. Knopf, New York, 1969. Wood, Peter et al, The Spanish Main, from
Kelly, John Eoghan, Pedro de Alvarado, The Seafarers Series, Time-Life Books,
Conquistador, Princeton University Press, Alexandria, Va, 1979.
Princeton, N.J., 1932.
Leon-Portilla, Miguel, Bernardino de Sahagun,
First Anthropologist, Mauricio J. Mixco, Articles
trans. University of Oklahoma Press,
Norman,2002. Hillenbrand, Hans J., 'The Reforming Spirit,"
Lopez de Gomara, Francisco, Cortes: The Life Merle Severy, ed., Great Religions of the
of the Conqueror by His Secretary, University World, National Geographic Society,
of California Press, Berkeley, 1964. Washington, 1971.
Miller, Hubert J. Juan de Zumarraga, First Kendall, Paul Murray, "The World of Francis
Bishop of Mexico, Edinburg, Tex., 1973 I," The Renaissance, Maker of Modem Man,
Miller, Lee, Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the National Geographic Society,
Lost Colony, Penguin Books, New York, 2002. Washington, 1970.

References to illustrations are shown in bold. and the Narvaez expedition 49-50
orders 56-57
Acampichtli 14 route from Cuba to Mexico 31
acclimatization 45-47 and rule of "New Spain" 78, 80
Aguilar, Alonso de 39, 52, 53, 54, 59-60 standard 30
Aguilar, Jeronimo de 30-31 at Tlatelolco sanctuary 47, 48
Aldrete, Julian 74 Tlaxcalans, makes peace with 35-36, 72
Alvarado, Pedro de 30, 49, 50, 51, 52, 57, 58, 64, 11, 80 and the Totonacs 33-34
Amadis de Gaula 63 and Toxcatl massacre 52, 53
"Anonymous Conquistador" 22 Cortes, Martin 71, 73, 82
Aragon 10, 65 Cortes de Monroy, don Martin 12
Arias de Avila, Pedro 62 Cozumel 30, 31
armor 22, 22, 24, 25 see also helmets; war suits, Mexican Creoles 81
auxiliaries, local 28-29, 37, 59, 75, 11 see also Cualpopoca 48
Tlaxcalans Cuauhtemoc 57, 59, 60, 61, 61, 74-75, 80, 81
Axyacatl, Emperor 43-44, 45, 48 Cuba 12, 49, 63, 66, 70
Ayotzingo 40 Cuernavaca 89
Aztec Empire 14, 28, 40, 78 Cuitlahuac, prince of Itzapalapa 41-42, 48, 52, 57
Aztecs 13-14, 44, 85 see also Mexicans Culhua people 13
Aztlan 13
Diaz del Castillo, Bernal 20, 30, 45, 52, 53, 55, 62-64,
Balboa, Vasco Nunez de 62, 78 71, 72, 80 see also True History of the Conquest
Brevisima relation de la destruction de las Indias 70 of New Spain
Diaz del Castillo, Francisco 62
Cacama, king of Texcoco 40, 41-42, 48 Diego, Juan 86-87
calendars, Gregorian and Julian 8 diseases, introduction of 50, 57
Cano, Juan Sebastian del 68 dogs, war 30
Cape St. Vincent 69 Duran, Fra Diego 13, 28
Casas, Bartolome de las 70 Duran, Juan 64
Castile 10, 20, 65 Duran, Teresa Becerra de 64
Castilians see also Spanish footholds in the New World
landing of 30-33, 33 Europeans, and discovery of new continents and their
in Mexico City 45 people 10-11
retreat after Noche Triste 53-55, 58 expedition preparations 30
Catherine of Castile 65 expeditions of discovery and conquest 10-11, 20
Cempoala 33-34, 49-50, 89-90 Extremadura 20
square 34
temple 36-37 Ferdinand, Crown Prince of Aragon 10, 65
Charles I, King of Spain (later Charles V of Florentine Codex 33, 82-83, 84
the Holy Roman Empire) 65, 66, 66, 68, 69, 70, France 68
80, 83 Francis I, King of France 68-69, 69
Chicomoztoc, Seven Caves of 13 French fleet 69
Cholula 36-38
massacre at 37-38, 38-39, 73 Garay, Governor Francisco de 49, 56, 75, 80
Tepanapa temple 37, 38, 89, 89 Gomara, Francisco Lopez de 48, 50, 64, 72, 73
Cholulans 37 Granada 10
civilian, portrait of 71-73 Grijalva, Juan de 11-12, 63
Coanacoch, king of Texcoco 48 Guanajuato 81
Coatzacoalcos 63 Guatemala 64, 80
Codex Azcatitlan 54-55 Guerrero, Gonzalo 31
Codex Mendoza 15, 17, 23, 83, 85
Columbus, Christopher 10, 20, 69, 78 helmets 21, 22, 25
comet, appearance of 19 Hernandez de Cordoba, Francisco 11-12, 63
conquistadors see "Anonymous Conquistador"; soldier, History of Mexico 20
the Spanish Honduras expedition 63-64, 80
Cortes, dona Catalina 78-79 Huexotzingo 16, 40
Cortes, Hernan 7, 12, 12-13, 20, 28-29, 30, 48, 63, Huitzilopochtli 49 see also Mexico City, Huitzilopochtli
64, 75 sanctuary
and battle of Otumba 54-55
and Charles V 66, 67 Iberian peninsula 10
Cholula massacre 37-38 Indian culture 11
Conquest, revival of 55-57 Indians, New World 69-70, 75-76, 81
death of 80 Isabella, Queen of Castile 10, 65
and dona Marina 71, 72, 73 Itzapalapa 40
initial landing 31-32 Itzapalapa Causeway 40-41, 42
and loss of Mexican treasure 74-75 Itzcoatl 14
meets Moctezuma II 41, 42, 44 Ixtacihuatl 38
Mexico, only man able to conquer 78
Mexico City, advance on 39, 40 Jaramillo, Juan 73
Mexico City, siege of 57, 58, 59, 59, 60-61 Jewish population in Spain 10
move inland 34-37 John Paul II, Pope 87
Index 95

Juana, Queen of Castile 65 Portugal 10, 65, 68

Juarez, Benito 81 Potonchan 31, 32, 72
Juarez, Juan 12 Prescott, William Hickling 73
prisoners, sacrifice of 16 see also sacrifice, human
knight, Eagle 62 Puertocarrero, Alonso Hernandez de 32, 65, 66, 67, 71
landing, initial 30-33, 33 religious beliefs, Mexican 16, 19, 49, 82
language, Mexican 81-82 religious beliefs, Spanish 29, 72, 82, 83, 85
Lienzo de Tlaxcala 59, 72 Renaissance 10
Luther, Dr Martin 66, 68 Rio Grijalva 31
Magellan, Ferdinand 68 sacrifice, human 16, 19, 22, 25, 28, 29, 45, 59
Marina, dona (Malinalli) 32, 37, 48, 49, 63, 71-73, 72, 89 Sahagun, Bernardino de 38, 40, 52, 82-83, 84
Maximilian, Archduke 81 San Cristobal de la Habana 30
Mendoza, don Antonio de 79, 83 San Juan de Ulua 32, 81
Merced, Father de la 63 Sandoval, Gonzalo 30, 49, 50, 57, 58, 63
Mestizo 81 Santo Domingo 11,12
Mexicans 13-14 see also Aztec Empire; Aztecs schools, Mexican 22, 24, 86
Mexico 7 Segura de la Frontera 56, 57
in the 16th century 13-14, 16 settlers, Spanish (encomenderos) 75-77
civil administration 81 shields, Mexican 25, 28
collapse of Spanish regime 81 slaving expeditions 11
legacy of the Conquest 80-82 soldier, the Mexican 22, 24-25, 28-29
mixed origins of present population 82 soldier, the Spanish 20-22
Spanish rule of 75-77 see also "New Spain" Spain, internal turmoil in 1519: 65
tribute paid by its vassals 23 Spain in the 16th century 10-13
Mexico, Valley of 13, 18, 31-32, 38 Spanish footholds in the New World 11 see also
Mexico City (Tenochtitlan) 13, 14, 18, 19, 42, 67 Castilians
Castilians' advance into 35, 40-43, 59 Spanish rule of Mexico 75-77 see also "New Spain"
Castilians' breakout and retreat 53 stirrup, Castilian 19
Chapultepec Castle 88
Coyoacan 89 Tacuba Causeway 44, 53, 58, 59
Huitzilopochtli sanctuary 19, 45, 88 Tapia, Andres 35, 45, 48-49
modern city 88 Tarascan Empire 16
museums 88 Tarascans 16, 75
palace of Axayacatl 43-44, 48 Tenochtitlan see Mexico City
rebuilding of 77, 78 Teotihuacan 13
siege of 57-61, 59 Plumed Serpent Temple 26-27
smallpox outbreak 57 Temple of the Sun 56
surrender of 74 Tepanecs 13, 14
Tacuba Causeway 44, 53, 58, 59 Tepeaca 56
Templo Mayor (Great Temple) 28, 45, 46-47, 48, Teuhtlilli 32
54-55, 88, 88-89 Texcoco 14, 57
precinct 43, 43 Texcoco, Lake 13, 18, 19, 39, 57
tzompantli altar 16, 45, 46-47, 88 Tezcatlipoca 40, 49, 50
Toxcatl massacre 50, 52-53 Thomas, Hugh 78
Michoacan 75 Tlacopan (later Tacuba) 14 see also Tacuba Causeway
Moctezuma II 14, 16, 19, 32, 35, 36, 38, 40, 41, 52 Tlatelolco 45-47, 60, 90
and Bernal Diaz del Castillo 63 Tlaxcala 14, 16, 34, 35, 36, 55, 89
death of 52 Tlaxcalan alliance 35-36, 72
double 40 Tlaxcalans 13, 34-36, 37, 38, 48, 49, 52, 53, 55, 57, 59, 59
imprisonment 48-49 Toltecs 13, 14, 85
meeting with Hernan Cortes 41-42, 44 Tordesillas, Treaty of 68
at Tlatelolco sanctuary 46, 47 Totonacs 33, 34, 65, 66, 67-68
Montejo, Francisco de 32, 65, 66, 67 Toxcatl massacre 50, 52-53
Moorish Wars (Reconquista (Reconquest)) 10, 20 treasure, Aztec 47, 48, 53, 65-66, 69, 74-75, 77
Moors 10 Triple Alliance, Mexican 14, 48
True History of the Conquest of New Spain 32, 40-41, 44, 46,
Nahua language group 13 61, 62, 64, 71, 90 see also Diaz del Castillo, Bernal
Narvaez, Panfilo 49, 50, 66, 67 Tula 13
expedition 49-50, 55, 56, 67 Atlantes Temple 85, 86-87
Navarre 10
"New Spain" 78 Umbria, Gonzalo de 45
New World, discovery of 10-11 United States 7, 78, 80
Nezahualcoyotl 14
Noche Triste ("Sad Night") 42, 53, 57, 78 Velasquez, don Diego 11, 11, 12-13, 30, 32, 49, 63, 66, 67
faction rebellion 34
"Old Melchor" 30, 31 Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz 32, 48, 49, 55
Olid, Cristobal de 30, 57, 75, 80
omens, chain of 19, 29 war suits, Mexican 25
Ordaz, Diego 39 warriors, Mexican 17, 54-55 see also knight, Eagle
Orteguilla 49 "wars, flower" 25, 28, 35
Ottoman Turks 68 weapons see also shields, Mexican; stirrup, Castilian
Otumba, battle of 53-55 Mexican 24-25, 25, 60-61
Ovando, don Nicolas de 12 Spanish 20-22, 21, 30
West Indies 70
Panuco region 75
Paul III, Pope 70 Xipe Totec 76
Peninsulares 81
Philip of Burgundy 65 Yuste, Juan 57
Pizarro, Francisco 20, 78
Pizarro de Altamirano, dona Catalina 12 Zautla, Valley of 34
Popocatepetl 38 Zumarraga, Juan de, Bishop of Mexico 85-86, 90
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27 1 84176 357 8 The Peloponnesian War 431-404 BC Philip de Souza

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57 1 84176 523 6 Ghengis Khan & the Mongol Conquests Stephen Turnbull
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46 184176 480 9 War in Japan 1467-1615 Stephen Turnbull
60 1 84176 563 5 The Spanish Invasion of Mexico Charles M
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59 1 84176 521 X The Plains Wars 1757-1900 Charles M
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45 1 84176 343 8 The American Revolution 1774-1783 Daniel Marston
7 1 84176 283 0 The French Revolutionary Wars Gregory
Written by leading historians from Fremont-Barnes
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Introduction - Chronology - Background 41 1 84176 466 3 The War of 1812 Carl Benn
25 184176 472 8 The Mexican War 1846-1848 Douglas V Meed
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1861-May 1863
- The world around war - Portrait 10 1 84176 240 7 The American Civil War (2) The war in the West Stephen D Engle
of a civilian - How the war ended 1861-July 1863
5 1 84176 241 5 The American Civil War (3) The war in the East Robert K Krick
- Conclusion and consequences - Index 1863-1865
11 184176 242 3 The American Civil War (4) The war in the West Joseph T
1863-1865 Glatthaar

Praise for Essential Histories 51

1 84176 421 3
1 84176 612 7
The Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871
The Zulu War 1879
Stephen Badsey
Ian Knight
52 184176 396 9 The Boer War 1899-1902 Gregory
'if you want a full narrative of the high politics that Fremont-Barnes
31 1 84176 446 9 The Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905 Geoffrey Jukes
led to the Norman invasion, or the details of William's 13 1 84176 342 X The First World War (1) The Eastern Front 1914-1918 Geoffrey Jukes
campaigns in England after Hastings, then this is the 14 1 84176 347 0 The First World War (2) The Western Front 1914-1916 Peter Simkins
p l a c e to COme.' (Essential Histories: Campaigns of the 22 1 84176 348 9 The First World War (3) The Western Front 1916-1918 Peter Simkins
23 1 84176 373 X The First World War (4) The Mediterranean Front Michael Hickey
Norman Conquest) Times Educational Supplement
37 1 84176 369 1 The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 Frances Lannon
' ... these volumes provide a lucid and concise
18 1 84176 229 6 The Second World War (1) The Pacific David Horner
narrative of the campaigns ... as well as penetrating 35 1 84176 447 7 The Second World War (2) Europe 1939-1943 Robin Havers
analyses of strategies and leadership. Ideal for 30 184176 397 7 The Second World War (3) The war at sea Alastair Finlan et al
classroom use or fireside reading.'James M McPherson, 48 1 84176 539 2 The Second World War (4) The Mediterranean Paul Collier
Pulitzer Prize winner, commenting on the American 24 1 84176 391 8 The Second World War (5) The Eastern Front Geoffrey Jukes
Civil War books 1941-1945
32 1 84176 384 5 The Second World War (6) North west Europe Stephen Hart &
clear and concise' History Today 1944_1945 Russell Hart
28 1 84176 372 1 The Arab-Israeli Conflict - The Palestine War 1948 Efraim Karsh
an excellent series' Military Illustrated 61 1 84176 671 2 The Chinese Civil War 1945-1949 (January 2005) Arthur Waldron
8 1 84176 282 2 The Korean War Carter Malkasian
•very useful, factual and educational' Reference Reviews 49 1 8 4 1 7 6 418 3 The Suez Crisis 1956 Derek Varble
38 1 84176 419 1 The Vietnam War 1956-1975 Andrew Wiest
accessible and well illustrated...' Daily Express
20 1 84176 371 3 The Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988 Efraim Karsh
'they make the perfect starting point for readers 15 184176 422 1 The Falklands War 1982 Duncan Anderson
55 1 84176 574 0 The Gulf War 1991 Alastair Finlan
of any age' Daily Mail 63 184176 805 7 The Collapse of Yugoslavia 1991-1999 (November 2004) Alastair Finlan
64 1 84176 734 4 Russia's War with Chechnya 1994-2003 (November 2004 ) Michael Orr

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