The Aztec Empire was one founded in bloody warfare. Having traveled south, the Aztecs made a living as indentured warriors for the tribes in the area before carving out their own niche and founding the city of Tenochtitlan in 1325, one hundred years later. From that one center of power, they expanded outward for two hundred years before they encountered something they've never seen before, something that would prove more powerful than the Aztecs could handle. That something was a Spaniard by the name of Hernán Cortés. Exactly how a man who never controlled more than 1,200 of his own troops laid siege to the most powerful American empire, at the time, and won is still somewhat of a mystery. The Aztecs were a powerful nation, having conquered several nearby smaller nations with their unique fighting style. They were also very caught up in their religious fundamentalism, a mixed blessing, as it would ultimately lead to their downfall. Cortés, a traitorous military tactician, would take every advantage necessary for his own gain and to increase Spain's, and his own, plunder. While he had advantages such as technology and the never seen before Horse, Cortés would also need his fair share of luck.
Cortés was born in Medellín in southwestern Spain during the year 1488. His father was a nobleman, and when Cortés reached the age of 14, was sent off to university in Salamanca by his father. There, young Cortés studied law, but would leave his studies before he received his law degree, which was a common practice up through the 1700's. He would go on to a semi-successful law practice. Hernán was quickly enticed by the recently conquered land of Hispanola. Before he reached the age of 20, Cortés convinced his father to fund his travel out to the island. Due to his law background, Cortés was quickly appointed to a low position in the local government. He stayed in Hispanola for seven years. Now 26 years old, Hernán caught wind of a new Spanish plan to conquer the neighboring island of Cuba. Cortés quickly worked his way into Diego Velázquez's raiding party. During the raids, Cortés showed skill as a soldier. After Spain usurped Cuba, Cortés stayed behind to help enforce the Spanish presence. He ended up staying in Cuba for 8 years. During his time there he found a wife, a Spanish woman named Catalina Xuárez. He also worked his way up until he was the Magistrate of Santiago. Along with Velázquez, Harnán worked himself to become one of the most important people in Cuba. During 1518, explorer Juan de Grijalva set sail to the west, and discovered Mexico. Grijalva returned to Cuba later in the year with gold, silver and some gems, given as gifts by the indigenous peoples.
Cortés, money-hungry and greedy like many other nobles at the time, wanted in on the action. Velázquez, wanting to launch the Spanish conquistadors on the newly discovered land, began his search for a leader he deemed acceptable. At first, his eyes were not on Hernán Cortés, however, Cortés knew how the system worked. He quickly sought out Vleázquez's favorites, his accountant and his secretary. Through sweet-talk, charm, and bribery, Cortés was able to persuade both favorites to mention to Velázquez what a good leader Cortés would be. Under constant assurances from his secretary and accountant, Velázquez gave Cortés written instruction on what he should do. Not trusting Cortés, Velázquez also hired several partisans to enlist with Cortés and keep an eye on him for Velazquez.
Cortés immediately set out to round up troops for his mission. Right from the start, Cortés let them know that he was not planning to make a simple reconnaissance mission. To fund such an expedition, Cortés sold his estate and continued to amass troops and arms. Velázquez soon became worried as to Cortés and his intentions. Cortés caught wind of Velázquez's second-guessing and decided to move quickly. In the middle of the night, he began preparations. When the sun rose, he set sail and left Cuba, even though he wasn't three-quarters of the way prepared. Velázquez saw Cortés sail out of the port of Santiago, and became enraged.
Cortés sailed to Trinidad in order to continue his preparations. Immediately, Velázquez sent out messenger ships to all the nearby magistrates with orders to apprehend Cortés as soon as possible. However, Cortés got the Magistrate of Trinidad before Velázquez's messengers could, and sweet-talked his way out of trouble. On the island, he finished his preparations. He finally left with 11 ships, 508 swordsmen, 100 sailors, 32 crossbowmen, 13 musketeers, 10 brass cannon, 4 small cannon and 16 horses. Cortés followed a similar path as Grijalva did previously.
He landed on the mainland at am indigenous town called Cozumel. There he discovered a Spaniard by the name of Aguilar who was caught up in a shipwreck. Aguilar would prove to be an invaluable addition to Cortés's group of adventurers. Aguilar was well versed in the Mayan language, and was able to translate between Cortés and the Mayan cities that he came to. He soon departed the town of Cozumel without incident.
He landed next on the other side of the Yucatan Peninsula, outside the city of Tabasco. When greeted by Mayans, Cortés made no mention of the previous expedition by Grijalva, nor did he mention Velázquez. He only claimed that he was an emissary of King Charles V. Cortés then sent soldiers north, to the Cape of Palms. There they did not receive anywhere near as warm a reception as they did near Tabasco. Aguilar parlayed with the natives, but all of his efforts were rebuffed. Cortés decided to turn to violence. He prepared a frontal assault on Tabasco, consisting of his foot soldiers and cannons. He coupled this frontal invasion with his cavalry, all ten of them, flanking down a jungle path, coming up behind the Tabascans. The natives had never seen horses, let alone men on horseback. Many thought that the rider and horse were one giant creature, all thought they were strong spirits. The Tabascan army fled into the woods, defeated by Cortés's cavalry.
The following day, Tabascan leaders stepped out in order to negotiate a peace with Cortés. As part of the compromise, the Spaniards received 20 women. The women were baptized as Catholics and given names, all starting with Doña. One woman would prove as invaluable as Aguilar did. Doña Marina was the daughter of a nobleman, who died while she was young. Her mother re-married and never grew fond of Marina. Being the daughter of a noble, Marina was well educated for the time. She was versed in the Mexican language spoken by the Aztecs to the northwest, as well as her native Mayan language. With Aguilar and Doña Marina, Cortés could now communicate with almost the entire Mexican region. Marina, offered to Cortés as part of the settlement, would quickly gain Cortés's trust and provide insight into the Aztec people.
While Cortés now had the means of communication with all the indigenous people, and had the majority of his army intact, he stayed put for three whole months. From May 15th to August 15th, 1519, Cortez solidified his ranks. He weeded out Velázquez's partisans and won them over to his side. On August 15th, Cortés ordered that the ships he sailed over on be scuttled, and turned into the settlement of Vera Cruz. By scuttling his ships, Cortés not only cut off his only means of retreat, but made his soldiers fight harder and without care, as they could no longer make it home anyway. This also meant that the sailors could not escape to the sea and return to Cuba and Diego Velázquez.
Cortés first met with Aztecs in the city of Totonac. The Totonac warmly welcomed Cortés to their city, believing him to be the God, Quetzalcoatl. There are several reasons as to why the Aztecs believed Cortés to be Quetzalcoatl. When Quetzalcoatl was defeated by Tezcatlipoca, he was exiled to the east. However, Quetzalcoatl swore he would return to the lands. When he did return, he was believed to be in the form of a pale man with a pointed beard, a characterization which Cortés fit perfectly. Quetzalcoatl was also believed to return during a 'One Reed Year,' which the year of 1519 was. Cortés also appeared on the day the court astrologers had predicted, August 22nd. Even though he had landed and captured land before that date, the Totonacs did not notice him until that date.
Cortés took advantage of his standing as a God on earth and began to lay down decrees to the Totonac people. He first proclaimed that the Catholic God was the only true God and sent his soldiers up to the temple in town to throw down the statues of the Aztec's pagan Gods. This action almost cut Cortés's inward journey short as the Totonac archers had arrows cocked and ready to fire, however the Lord of the town feared the consequences of attacking a god on earth, and sent the archers home.
When word of Cortés, his horses, dogs, cannons and appearance reached Montezuma, Montezuma sent gifts to him in order to placate him and make him feel welcomed. However, Montezuma was also afraid. He knew that Quetzalcoatl had returned in order to reclaim control of the Aztec's lands, and was deathly afraid of Cortés actually reaching the city of Tenochtitlan.
Cortés pushed ever eastward, claiming riches and conquering towns and cities along the way. The city of Xocotla treated his appearance with hostility, and was unwelcoming of him at first. It was not until the Totocans convinced the Xocotlans of his Godhood was he welcomed in earnest. Cortés continued his inland push. His travels would be moderately easy, until he reached the land of Tlaxcala.
The Governing body of Tlaxcala, a council of four elders, perceived Cortés's presence as a ruse from Montezuma, and did not believe him to be a God, let alone the returning Quetzalcoatl. After crossing through a stone gate, Cortés's men were attacked by an ambush party of 3,000 men. Vastly outnumbered, Cortés's army killed 17 Aztecs while only suffering 3 casualties and one fatality. The following day, Cortés came face to face with an army twice as large as the ambush party. The battlefield was not as beneficial to Cortés's regiment as the previous ones. He could not place his cannon effectively, nor could the cavalry be of much use on the rocky ground. However, Cortés still came out victorious. He set up camp in an abandoned temple, and set a watch, not knowing that the custom of the area was to fight only during the day.
The next day, and the day after, Cortés and his men sallied forth, until they met with the entire Tlaxcalan army of ~60,000 troops. By this time, the elders were evenly split about Cortés, two believed him to be the god Quetzalcoatl. By the time the Soldiers were called upon to charge, only half of the Tlaxcalans charged Cortés's meager, yet technologically advanced, army. Cortés and his crew again beat the odds and defeated the much larger Tlaxcalan infantry. On September 20th, a general from the Tlaxcalan army came to Cortez, explaining how they thought that Cortés was a ruse thought up by Montezuma, and instead he discovered that Cortés is very real. The Tlaxcalans would prove to be Cortés"s greatest ally in the coming battle with Montezuma.
When Montezuma heard of Cortés's victory over the mighty Tlaxcalans, he knew he was in for a difficult time. Due to his deep belief in Cortés being the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl, he felt that he could not directly attack him without angering at least one in his pantheon of Gods. While he could not attack physically, he did his best to stop Cortés. He continually offered extravagant bribes if Cortés would leave Mexico and return to where he came from. Montezuma was unaware that Cortés had come on boats, and did not know that they had all been scrapped. Though with the fall of Tlaxcala to Cortés, Montezuma knew that Cortés would not be leaving anytime soon.
Hernán Cortés knew more riches awaited him after hearing the stories of Tenochtitlan and the power of the Aztecs. He had to press forward. The next town in Cortés"s sights was a nearby capital city of Cholula. Cortés took a large band of Tlaxcalan warriors to the gates of the city, while the remainder waited out of sight. Cortés entered the city and was immediately on guard. He saw no women and children present and rocks stacked upon the flat roofs of the homes. The Tlaxcalans also informed Cortés that the Cholulans had recently made sacrifices to the war Gods, a tip that they were preparing for battle. This was also reinforced by Doña Marina, as she claimed to have been tipped off by a wife of a high ranking official. Cortés was walking into a trap.
Before the Cholulans could attack, Cortés called together all the high-ranking officials. When they came before him, he tied them up and unleashed his fury upon the city, slaughtering the men that came with the leaders, and then setting upon the people remaining in the town. Cortés called out to the 6,000 Tlaxcalans waiting outside the city and began to slaughter the Cholulans. Cortés, his conquistadors, and the Tlaxcalan army killed 3,000 men, and he wasn't done yet.
Montezuma wanted to know who this Cortés was, and not wanting to see him siege the great city of Tenochtitlan, sent out a messenger to let Cortez know that Montezuma wished to speak with him. The Tlaxcalans were wary about Montezuma, and offered 10,000 of their troops to accompany Cortés. Cortés only took 1,000 laborers and porters. This led the Tlaxcalans to proclaim his god-hood, as they knew he would be victorious no matter what.
On November 1st, Cortés crossed the volcanoes of Popocatapetl and Iztacciutatl. Popocatapetl was still active, and constantly belching forth smoke from its large crater. On that day, Cortés was met by the first of three messengers sent by Montezuma. This messenger was a body-double of Montezuma. He was sent to cast a spell on Cortés which failed, and in hopes that if a spell were to be cast on Montezuma, it would be cast on him instead, sparing the Aztec First Speaker. However, Cortés simply sent him away when he realized that this was not the real Montezuma. The second set of messengers came and tried to bribe Cortés with gold for a final time. They offered him 800 pounds of gold, plus fifty pounds for each one of his captains. Cortés declined the offer, but did not decline to meet with Montezuma. The second messengers left to tell this news to Montezuma. A third set appeared later, giving Cortés Montezuma's acceptance of a proposal to meet face to face.
He traveled down the mountainside to the city of Ayotzinco. Outside of the city he was warmly greeted by Montezuma's nephew, Cacamatzin. Cacamatzin apologized that Montezuma could not be there in person to greet Cortés, but offered to guide him across the causeways to Tenochtitlan. Cortés was in awe as he approached the city. Towers reached up to the heavens, and he could make out great, white temples five miles away from the city. As he got closer though, he was disgusted to find that what he thought were beautiful temples had the blood of fresh human sacrifices running down the sides.
He was greeted outside the city by Montezuma, who led Cortés to his father's old palace. Once there, Montezuma brought them a great feast and left the Spaniards alone to eat. He returned when they had finished dining and began to converse with Cortés, through his translators. Montezuma was very blunt, and told Cortés that he thought he was the God Quetzalcoatl. Cortés avoided the topic when he answered, saying he served King Charles V. He then begged Montezuma to convert to the Catholic religion, something he would never get Montezuma to do. Montezuma declined, and said they made enough speech for one day, and departed the company of Spaniards, leaving more gold, gems, and plumed headdresses as a gift.
Cortés stayed in Tenochtitlan until November 14th, when he had gotten wind of an attack on Vera Cruz by an Aztec chieftain near there. Montezuma claimed that he had nothing to do with this, and immediately sent messengers to the chieftain in order to make reparations. This was not good enough for Cortés, he asked, rather forcefully, that Montezuma stay within Cortés's palace. Montezuma declined until he could decline no more, and was eventually taken away. While inside Cortés's temporary residence, Montezuma told him that the Gods have told him to make war with Cortés, and that his people would do such a thing. He told Cortés that it would be the best to leave the city, which he did. However, Cortés left behind a small regiment of men, in the hands of Alvarado, one of his captains. Cortés traveled back to the ocean, in order to construct new ships to take his loot back to Spain. However, word had reached Cuba, and more importantly, Diego Velázquez, of Cortés's actions on the mainland. Velázquez sent a large regiment of troops to deal with Cortés, most of who switched sides and joined Cortés's army. While this was a great bounty for Cortés, things would soon get ugly.
Cortés had received word that Alvarado had acted brashly. Alvarado had received word that the Aztecs were going to attack after a religious ceremony, and instead struck first. He attacked several young men and women while they danced during the ceremony. This riled and infuriated the Aztecs, who quickly armed themselves and set upon the palace. Only Montezuma was able to placate the crowd. None of the Spaniards set foot outside of the palace for fear of what the Aztecs would do to them.
Cortés set out with his army on several long forced marches, making it back to the city of Tenochtitlan faster than before. He entered the city without incidence and went to Montezuma right away. While the two tried to find a way to settle down the now rambunctious Aztecs, the cities surrounded the lakes, and the causeways, had met together in secret. They had overthrown the authority of Montezuma, and placed a new First Speaker into power.
On June 25, 1520 Cortés sent out a soldier to escort one of Montezuma's two daughters to his palace. The soldier, when he tried to return with the daughter found that his way had been blocked by Aztec soldiers. A skirmish ensued and the soldier left the woman behind in order to get word to Cortés. Unhappy that such a thing had happened, Cortés sent another one of his captians, Dé Ordás, and 400 men, mostly crossbowmen and musketeers down to the causeway to see what the problem was. Just as the company made it to the main road, they were ambushed by Mexicans. Dé Ordás"s squadron retreated to the palace.
After five days of bloody warfare, Cortés knew that his troops would only last so much longer unless he quickly left the city. He went to Montezuma and begged him to talk to his people, to see if they would let Cortés go peacefully. Montezuma put on his most regal outfit and painted his face before facing his people. He spoke eloquently, asking his people if they could somehow let Cortés and all the Spaniards leave if they never returned. When it appeared that the people had calmed, and might have accepted this idea, the soldiers by Montezuma lowered their shields. At that moment a hail of stones were launched at them. Three struck Montezuma, and one hit him in the head. Montezuma went into shock, not just from the trauma of the hurled stone, but because his own people had done this to him. He died later that day, June 29th, 1520. When the Aztecs discovered that Montezuma had been killed, they went wild with bloodlust. They swore that Cortés would not live after two days time.
Trapped and surrounded, Cortés had little option. An astrologer in his company, a man named Botello, told Cortés that luck would be on their side if they made their escape that night, once it was the 30th of June. Cortés instantly set about gathering his men, supplies and most importantly gold, together in order to flesh out a marching order. When midnight fell upon Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards hurried out of the palace and headed towards freedom. They had brought with them portable bridges in order to cross the gaps in the streets and the causeways. However, by the time half of his company was across the first gap, they were besieged by the Aztecs, the alarm had sounded. Franticly, Cortés saw very little option. He fashioned a battering ram out of his cavalry and led a suicidal charge to escape. More than half of his company was left behind, including all of his cannons and much of the King's share of gold and treasure. When he turned back to check for survivors, he found only Alvarado and a handful of men. Their story was grim, as they said no one else was living or not captured. Cortés marched back to Tlaxcala to lick his wounds and plan his return.
Less than a full year following his escape, Cortés had rebuilt his army and trained the Tlaxcalans to complement his regiment of troops. He made his way towards the lakes surrounding Tenochtitlan. He began by taking out the major cities around the lake, most importantly those that housed entrances to the causeways that led to the city. As he went around the lake, Cortés burned and razed the cities he could not control, while keeping a grasp of the rest. While he did not hold every entrance to the city, Cortés had a strong gasp on the outskirts of the city.
While Cortés had setup his blockade around the city, he began work on building several sloops with which to control the waters of the lake. On April 28th, 1521, his preparations were complete. Cortés placed Alvarado, De Olid and Sandoval in charge of three regiments of troops. These three groups would simultaneously travel up the causeways, blocking off all land routes to Tenochtitlan, save one. Cortés had decided to leave the north causeway open so the Aztecs could retreat if they wanted to. He believed battle on land would be more advantageous to him than on the city built on water. Cortés setup command on one of the sloops, from which he could easily scan the entire battlefield and still have much room to maneuver. His sloops had decimated the Aztecs canoe battalion and his troops marched onward, until they reached the walls of the city. Cortés sent Sandoval around the lake with 200 men to put an end to use of the northern causeway as a supply line. Tenochtitlan was now surrounded, and completely at siege by Cortés.
Around the 10th of June, Cortés decided to push into the heart of the city. He built a pontoon bridge in order to gain entrance to the gate. Once the giant door was demolished, Cortés and his ~70,000 indigenous allies charged into the city. Cortés rushed to the giant temple of the Smoking Mirror, Tezcatlipoca's main temple in the city. He set fire to the building and toppled the idols on top, showing his might and his destructive power. Cortés's army pushed the Aztec's back until they only had one third of the city left under their control. The First Speaker, a man called Cuauhtemoc, attempted to escape via boat, but he was spotted by Sandoval and captured. Cuauhtemoc was brought before Cortés, who showed him nothing but the courtesy that a ruler had deserved. Then again, there was no reason why Cortés should not have been kind, he did, after all, just win control of the Aztec empire.
Cortés, while he suffered many setbacks, quickly conquered the most powerful empire in the Americas. He gained another jewel for the Spanish crown, along with many gems and a large quantity of gold. His conquest was much more than a simple run to increase bankroll however. Cortés's invasion puts him with the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolf Hitler as men who have conquered a large amount of territory in a short amount of time. Hernán Cortés had several advantages over both Hitler and Napoleon. No one would ever mistake Hitler for a god, nor did Napoleon have such a distinct technological advantage over the Germans or Austrians. Cortés's acts of tyranny and slaughter place him alongside both of those historical figures, however the one main difference is that Spain was able to hold on to their captured territories for longer than Cortés's lifespan. The Aztec's strong belief in their religion, combined with Montezuma's unwillingness to send soldiers against Cortés was the true defeat of the Aztec peoples. All of his astrology could not predict the tragic end of Montezuma"s life, nor the fall of the pearl of Mexico, Tenochtitlan.
Collis, Maurice, 1952 Cortés and Montezuma. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company
De Madariaga, Salvador, 1941, Hernán Cortés: Conqueror of Mexico. New York: The Macmillan Company
Durán, Diego, 1964 The Aztecs. New York: Orion Press
Thomas, Hugh, 1993 Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico. London: Hutchinson.
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