The Tlaxcalans

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Tlaxcalan conquistadors. This scene from the pictorial conquest account called the Lienzo de Tlaxcala depicts Tlaxcalan warriors fighting in the 1522 campaign into Michoacán in western Mexico. The expedition’s leader, Nuño de Guzmán, is shown along with one other Spaniard and a Spanish mastiff, outnumbered by four Tlaxcalans in full battle plumage wielding obsidian-tipped war clubs. The charge is led not by Guzmán but the Tlaxcalan captain. The Purépecha enemy are shown resisting the invasion, but their war regalia is less impressive than that of the Tlaxcalans, and the three warriors in the frame are off set by images of fellow Purépecha being hanged and dismembered.

One of the best examples of native conquistadors in the second category—those who conquered and settled abroad—are the Nahuas, or Nahuatl-speaking natives of central Mexico. Tlaxcala was (and still is) an important Nahua town, whose inhabitants—the Tlaxcalans—became famous for having resisted first Aztec and then Spanish domination. They then made an alliance with the Spanish invaders in order to help destroy the Aztec Empire, going on—ironically—to become core members of Spanish-Nahua campaigns to reconquer and extend the old empire in its new guise.

The Tlaxcalans, who had always resisted the Aztec Empire that surrounded their city and its lands, likewise cut out the hearts of prisoners of war. Tlaxcala remained independent, but its life was overshadowed in numerous ways by the existence of Aztec hegemony across central Mexico, breeding generations of resentment that would prove crucial to the outcome of the Spanish invasion.

The Spanish-Tlaxcala alliance took the form of a marital alliance between the Alvarado family and the royal dynasty of Xicotencatl; Pedro de Alvarado married the Tlaxcalan princess doña Luisa Xicotencatl, with whom he had two children, and Jorge de Alvarado married her sister, doña Lucía. The Alvarados took their Tlaxcalan wives, and thousands of Tlaxcalan warriors and their retinues, on their campaigns into Guatemala. Bernal Díaz remarked that “Jorge de Alvarado brought on the road with him over two hundred Indians from Tlaxcala, and [others] from Cholula, Mexicans, and from Guacachula [Quauhquechollan], and from other provinces, and they helped him in the war.” The Nahua warriors also came from Xochimilco, Texcoco, and other towns in Central Mexico, and other ethnic groups were represented as well, such as the Mixtecs and Zapotecs of Oaxaca.

The Spanish-Tlaxcala alliance took the form of a marital alliance between the Alvarado family and the royal dynasty of Xicotencatl; Pedro de Alvarado married the Tlaxcalan princess doña Luisa Xicotencatl, with whom he had two children, and Jorge de Alvarado married her sister, doña Lucía. The Alvarados took their Tlaxcalan wives, and thousands of Tlaxcalan warriors and their retinues, on their campaigns into Guatemala. Bernal Díaz remarked that “Jorge de Alvarado brought on the road with him over two hundred Indians from Tlaxcala, and [others] from Cholula, Mexicans, and from Guacachula [Quauhquechollan], and from other provinces, and they helped him in the war.”

Indigenous polities contended for Spanish friendship, offering gifts of food and women, and engaging in restrained forms of trial by combat to test their prowess and evaluate them as allies. Most notably the Tlaxcalans—the Aztecs´ principal rivals and foes—tested the conquistadors in battle and then appropriated them as allies, using them to assist in the massacre of hated neighbors in the city of Cholula.

Cortés thus found common ground with local lords. The Spaniards wanted to move on to the Valley of Mexico to confront the Aztec emperor with as many native allies as possible. Native rulers were eager to see the Spaniards leave their communities and were willing to hedge their bets on the possibility of the collapse of the Aztec Empire. Some, like the Totonacs, were subject to the Aztec Empire and quick to rebel against it. Others, like the Tlaxcalans, had resisted Aztec expansion and were eventually persuaded to take a chance on destroying their old enemies. The initiative in forging the alliance that eventually overthrew Aztec hegemony did not—could not—come from Cortés, who knew nothing of indigenous politics and could not speak any indigenous language. He relied on the native woman who acted as his interpreter, called doña Marina by Spaniards and Malinche by Nahuas. In native accounts of the conquest, she occupies a central role, at the very least a guiding and often a commanding one.

A combined force, in which Tlaxcalans and their own allies accompanied Spaniards, advanced toward Tenochtitlán. In November 1519 they entered the city as guests of Moctezuma. Conversing through Cortés’s interpreter, the emperor delivered a welcoming speech to Cortés that the latter claimed to interpret (in a letter to the king) as a speech of surrender. Intrigued by these foreigners who had disrupted a corner of his empire, Moctezuma sought to display his majesty through hospitality. But the Spaniards, outnumbered and fearful, soon resorted to treachery and terror; in what was effectively a coup d´état, Cortés seized and imprisoned Moctezuma and ordered that anyone who so much as raised a hand against the Spanish and their allies be publicly cut to pieces and fed to the dogs. These were stock tactics developed by conquistadors in the course of their decades of Caribbean slave raiding, tactics that proved even more effective against mainland imperial peoples who depended on their divinely sanctioned kings. The use of terror was not only a workable strategy, it was also a psychological necessity for the tiny, beleaguered band of conquistadors, surrounded by unfamiliar perils and cut off from all hope of help from home.

Over the next eight months the Spanish and Tlaxcalan invaders, partially contained within the center of the city, survived, precariously and increasingly restively. Cortés continued to use displays of defiance and bravado to good effect. He ordered that images of the Virgin Mary be placed atop Aztec temples to assert the power of the invaders’ god. He also took a contingent of Spaniards and native allies back to the Gulf Coast to confront a company of Velázquez supporters that had sailed from Cuba to challenge Cortés; they were defeated, and most joined Cortés, who returned to Tenochtitlán to find that the stalemate had shifted in favor of the Aztecs. Led by Pedro de Alvarado, the Spaniards were under siege.

The desperate Spaniards exhibited Moctezuma to the people. The gesture failed. The monarch died, murdered by the Spaniards or perhaps, as they later claimed, stoned to death by the mob. On the night of June 30, 1520, the invaders attempted to flee the city undetected. But Aztec warriors were waiting, and they killed about half the Spaniards and thousands of Tlaxcalan and other native allies. Cortés and his bedraggled Spanish forces eventually regrouped with Tlaxcalan assistance, but it would be more than a year before Tenochtitlán and its twin city of Tlatelolco fell. Cut off from the mainland, the Aztecs faced disease and starvation, then attack by land and water. Boats, built on the shores of Lake Texcoco and armed with cannon, policed the lake and helped pound remaining Aztec warrior contingents in canoes. The city was taken and pillaged, block by block, revealing not gold but piles of bodies, victims of sickness, starvation, and siege warfare. Even then, Cortés did not feel strong enough to proclaim the end of the Aztec world, but he tried to reassure incumbent elites, seeking a basis of accommodation with them and confirming Moctezuma’s heir in the role of paramount. In and around the empire, however, people realized that the old days were over. In outlying areas, communities formerly cowed by the Aztecs resumed old rivalries and conflicts. The effect was to increase the Spaniards´ power, since, as strangers uninvolved in traditional politics, they were much in demand as the arbitrators of disputes.

By the end of 1521, the old Aztec Empire was destroyed. But its framework of trade routes, tribute lists, and diplomatic relations between ruling families remained in place. Spaniards immediately sought to make use of that framework and convert it into an elemental part of the structure of their own empire in Mesoamerica—which they renamed the Kingdom of New Spain. In most communities, the Spaniards came to an understanding with existing elites, without any need for violence—a fact the historiographical tradition has ignored or suppressed, perhaps because of the conquistadors’ misleading focus on their own prowess. The Aztecs had themselves employed a chain of conquest in the region. The Spaniards used that chain—and even used Aztec warriors, survivors of the war who joined other Nahua allies—to expand the frontiers of New Spain. In the 1520s, just as Mexico City began to rise, reconstructed with a fresh look in a new, Spanish-inspired style, from the rubble of Tenochtitlán, so did a new Spanish-Mexican empire spring from the ashes of the old empire of the Mexica.

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