Tenochtitlán, June 30, 1521

One of the central episodes of the 1520s was, of course, the taking of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán—today’s Mexico City—by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés. The question most asked is how so few men could topple an entire kingdom. One answer is that the Spanish force, perhaps 900 men in all, was joined by nearly 100,000 Indian allies, all eager to destroy their hated Aztec oppressors. Disease has never been a respecter of historical odds. Smallpox, which the Spanish brought with them, killed off 40 percent of the population of Mexico in a year, including one Aztec king. But Cortés, who was undoubtedly a remarkable soldier and a born opportunist, was also extraordinarily lucky. As Ross Hassig points out, “There are no shortage of plausible turning points for the Conquest.” Several times the Spanish could have been stopped or annihilated in battle. Like Alexander the Great, Cortés himself missed death only because of the intervention of one of his men—who was killed as he managed to save his leader. Had Cortés been captured, he would have been sacrificed soon after, and the conquest would have crumbled. Once again we are reminded of the heavy-handed role of time and chance.

The question that is almost never asked is: What would have happened if Cortés had been killed or if his expedition had failed? Would the Spanish, as Theodore K. Rabb suggested in the previous chapter, have turned their acquisitive instincts elsewhere—North Africa, for instance? Would another attempt at conquest have been more successful? Would Christianity have been able to make inroads, even if the soldiers of Spain could not? What about the practice of human sacrifice? What sort of nation would have evolved from the Aztec Kingdom? And down the road, what effect would a large and totally Native American nation have had on the growth of the United States?

Cortés and his men leapt across the breach in the causeway to pursue the fleeing Aztecs, only to see them turn and attack. Drawn into the trap, Cortés and sixty-eight other Spaniards were captured and dragged off, leaving scores of others dead on the road. Ten captives were killed immediately and their severed heads were thrown back over the front lines, sowing consternation among the disheartened Spaniards. The remaining fifty-eight were taken to the towering Great Temple, which could plainly be seen from the Spaniards’ camps, made to dance before the statue of the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli, and then, one by one, they were sacrificed. Their hearts were torn out and their faces and hands flayed so they could be tanned and sent among the wavering towns as a warning. Cortés escaped this fate only through the intervention of Cristóbal de Olea, who sprang to his defense, killed the four Aztecs who were dragging him off, and freed his leader at the cost of his own life. The very conquest of Mexico hung on this single act.

The final military event in the conquest of Mexico was the Aztec surrender on August 13, 1521, after the Spaniards broke through the last defenses and fought their way into the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. The city lay in ruins and, for four days, the Spaniards’ Indian allies continued to attack the defeated Aztecs, looting the houses and killing thousands. But the events of the Spanish conquest did not have to unfold as they did. There were many points when decisive actions by various individuals, misadventure, or poor decisions could have drastically altered the outcome of the conquest as we know it.

Mesoamerica was discovered by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who landed in Yucatan in 1517, where he clashed with the Maya and was ultimately repulsed with devastating losses. This expedition was followed by a second in 1518, under Juan de Grijalva, who also clashed with the Maya but who sailed beyond Yucatan and up the gulf coast to central Veracruz, where he encountered the Aztecs. Even before Grijalva’s return, Governor Velázquez of Cuba authorized a third expedition under Hernán Cortés, but when he later tried to relieve him, Cortés abruptly set sail and reached Yucatan in early 1519 with as many as 450 men. If Governor Velázquez had succeeded in removing Cortés from command before the expedition’s departure, the conquest would have been stillborn.

But having slipped out of Velázquez’s grasp, Cortés followed the route of the first two expeditions until he reached Grijalva’s anchorage on the central Veracruz coast. There, Cortés was greeted by Aztec officials bearing food and gifts, but when the Spaniards refused to accede to Aztec requests to move their camp, the emissaries left. Had the Aztecs met the Spaniards with massive force, again the conquest would have been aborted or forestalled. But they did not, and once they abandoned the Spaniards on the coast, the local tribe, called the Totonacs, established contact and eventually allied with them. The Totonac king could do this because the Aztec empire relied on conquest or intimidation to subdue opponents, and left the local rulers in place. No imperial offices or officeholders were imposed to hold the system together, so this system was also vulnerable to shifts in the local power balance that could quickly and easily alter allegiances. The Spanish arrival was such a change and the Totonacs seized on it.

Having achieved the goals of exploration, contact, and trade, as authorized by Governor Velázquez, many of Cortés’s men wanted to return to Cuba. Had they left, Cortés would have had too few men to continue and, once again, the conquest would have failed. However, Cortés founded the town of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz a few miles north of present-day Veracruz, appointed a city council under the claimed authority of King Charles V of Spain, which then declared that Velázquez’s authority had lapsed, and elected Cortés as captain directly under the king; he was now free from the governor’s constraints. To gain royal support, Cortés dispatched a ship to Spain with all the gold they had gathered thus far as a gift to the king. To keep his men from deserting, he scuttled the ten remaining ships, giving his men little option but to follow him. Leaving 60 to 150 men in the fort at Vera Cruz, Cortés marched inland with 300 Spanish soldiers, 40 to 50 Totonacs, and 200 porters.

En route to Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards neared the province of Tlaxcallan (Tlaxcala), where they advanced to capture a small party of armed Indians. But they were drawn into an ambush and were saved only by their superior firepower. Attacked repeatedly in the days that followed, the Spaniards suffered many wounded; their supplies were running low. Recognizing that he faced an overwhelming hostile force, Cortés sent repeated peace entreaties to the Tlaxcaltecs. The two sides eventually forged an alliance. The Tlaxcaltecs could have defeated the Spaniards, and had they continued the battle, as their commander wanted, Cortés’s adventure would have ended. But the Tlaxcaltecs had their own reasons for allying with the Spaniards. They had been engaged in a long-term war with the Aztecs and, completely encircled and cut off, their defeat was only a matter of time. The coming of the Spanish offered them an unforeseen way to win. A major tactic in Mesoamerican battles was to breach the opposing lines and turn the enemies’ flanks, which was very difficult to do. But Spanish cannons, the matchlock muskets called harquebuses, crossbows, and horsemen could disrupt enemy lines and, though the Spaniards were too few to exploit these breaches, the Tlaxcaltecs were not. Spanish arms greatly multiplied the effectiveness of the Tlaxcaltec army.

The Spaniards stayed in Tlaxcallan for seventeen days before marching to the province of Cholollan (Cholula). Though welcomed by the Chololtecs, Cortés claimed he learned of a plot to attack him with Aztec help: He assembled the nobles in the main courtyard and massacred them. His reason does not ring true. Cholollan had recently switched their allegiance from Tlaxcallan to the Aztecs, so a Spanish attack was a way to resolve a political problem. A new king was chosen and Cholollan re-allied with Tlaxcallan. Two weeks later, Cortés marched into the Valley of Mexico and reached Tenochtitlán on November 8. He was greeted by Moteuczoma (Montezuma) and housed in the palace of his deceased father, Axayacatl, who had been the king from 1468 to 1481.

An enormous island-city of at least 200,000, Tenochtitlán was connected to the mainland by three major causeways that could be quickly severed. Recognizing the precariousness of his position, Cortés seized Moteuczoma within a week of his arrival, held him captive, and ruled through him for the next eight months.

When Governor Velázquez learned of Cortés’s perfidy, he dispatched Pánfilo de Narváez with a fleet of nineteen ships and over eight hundred soldiers to Vera Cruz to capture him. But on learning of his arrival, Cortés marched to the coast with 266 men in late May and, aided by duplicity and judicious bribery, defeated Narváez.

Meanwhile, Pedro de Alvarado, who had been left in Tenochtitlán with eighty soldiers, claimed he had learned of an Aztec plot to attack them, placed artillery at the four entrances of the walled courtyard of the Great Temple, and then massacred an estimated eight to ten thousand unarmed Aztec nobles trapped inside. Word of the massacre spread throughout the city, the populace attacked, killed seven Spaniards, wounded many others, and besieged them in their quarters. When Cortés learned of the uprising, he began the return march with a force now numbering over 1,300 Spaniards and 2,000 Tlaxcaltecs, and reached Tenochtitlán on June 24.

Once he was inside the city, the Aztecs raised the causeway bridges and the Spaniards were apparently trapped. With their supplies dwindling and unable to fight or negotiate their way out, Cortés took Moteuczoma onto the roof to order his people to stop the attack, but to no avail, and the king was ultimately killed, either by stones thrown from the Indian throng or by his Spanish captors.

Cortés ordered portable wooden spans built to bridge the gaps in the causeways and, during a heavy rainstorm just before midnight on June 30, the Spaniards began their escape. They were quickly discovered, and only a third of the force got away. Cortés reached Tlaxcallan, but not until he had lost over 865 Spaniards and more than a thousand Tlaxcaltecs. Had the Aztecs assailed the fleeing Spaniards immediately and continuously, few if any would have survived. The 440 surviving Spaniards rested for three weeks and then, in early August, marched again and conquered nearby Aztec tributary cities.

The Indians now faced a new, nonmilitary threat. Smallpox arrived with Narváez’s expedition and swept though central Mexico, killing some 40 percent of the population of Mexico in a year, including Moteuczoma’s successor, King Cuitlahua, who ruled for only eighty days. Because the epidemic devastated both the Aztecs and their Indian opponents, depopulation does not, of itself, account for the conquest. But it did produce political disruption: The death of Cuitlahua meant that with the accession of his successor, Cuauhtemoc, the Aztecs had three kings in less than six months.

The first time Cortés entered Tenochtitlán, he had been trapped inside; now he sought to reverse that situation and ordered the construction of thirteen brigantines in Tlaxcallan, using the rigging salvaged from the ships he sank at Vera Cruz. There was an intermittent influx of arrivals from the coast throughout the conquest, and Cortés’s forces had grown to 40 horsemen and 550 Spanish foot soldiers. Accompanied by 10,000 Tlaxcaltec soldiers, Cortés began his return march to the Valley of Mexico.

But Cortés’s first major victory there was political. Since 1515, Tetzcoco, the second most important city of the empire, had been politically divided over who should succeed to the throne. Cacama took the throne with strong Aztec support, but another contender, Ixtlilxochitl, fought a civil war, conquered the area north of Tetzcoco, which he then ruled in an uneasy accommodation with Tenochtitlán. When Cortés entered the valley, Ixtlilxochitl seized the opportunity to ally with him, and the reigning king of Tetzcoco fled. Ixtlilxochitl’s support gave the Spaniards a strong foothold for their attack and provided a secure logistical base. Cortés won the allegiance of disaffected cities in the valley and fought a series of battles with the Aztecs. But since Tenochtitlán was supplied by canoe, Cortés had to control the lake. When the timbers being cut in Tlaxcallan reached Tetzcoco around the first of February, the Spaniards began assembling the brigantines. On April 28, 1521, Cortés launched his ships—each over forty feet long, with twelve oarsmen, twelve crossbowmen or harquebusiers, a captain, and an artilleryman for its bow-mounted cannon. Supported by thousands of Indian canoes, they barricaded Tenochtitlán and cut off its flow of food and water.

The Spaniards now numbered just over 900, and those not on the brigantines were divided into three armies of fewer than 200 Spaniards each and “supported” by 20,000 to 30,000 Indian troops each. On May 22, Pedro de Alvarado led one army to Tlacopan, while Cristóbal de Olid marched to Coyohuacan, and Gonzalo de Sandoval went to Ixtlapalapan. Cutting off three of the major routes into Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards attacked along the causeways, whose narrowness allowed them to concentrate their firepower. The Aztecs responded by building barricades and assaulting the Spaniards on both sides from canoes. But Cortés then breached the causeways, sailed his ships through, and drove off the enemy canoes. In response, the Aztecs limited the ships’ movements by planting sharpened stakes in the lake floor to impale them.

There is no shortage of plausible turning points for the conquest and the examples are far from exhausted by those already suggested. But the likeliest such point, involving the fewest alterations in historical events, took place on June 30, 1521. The Spaniards and their Indian allies had been assaulting the causeways that linked Tenochtitlán to the shore for more than a month. The battles were back-and-forth struggles during which the Aztecs built barricades, removed bridge spans, and destroyed portions of the causeway, both to delay the Spanish advance and as tactical ploys. When the Spaniards crossed these breaches, the Aztecs often redoubled their efforts and trapped them when they could neither easily retreat nor be reinforced. To avoid this, Cortés ordered that no breaches were to be crossed until they had been filled. But, on June 30, when the Aztec defenses seemed to crumble in the heat of battle, the Spaniards crossed an unfilled breech on the Tlacopan causeway. Their ploy having succeeded, the Aztecs turned, trapped the attackers against the breach, took sixty-eight Spaniards captive and killed many more. The captives were all sacrificed and, fearing a shift in the tide of war, most of Cortés’s allies left. Though the Spaniards ultimately survived this reversal and their allies eventually returned, it could easily have been otherwise.


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