Dean SibrizziHistory 2630
Research Paper on Hernan Cortes’ conquest of Tenochtitlan
Hernan Cortes departed from Cuba with a small company of soldiers in February of 1519. His intention was to become rich, and to gain personal glory by conquering the newly discovered lands of Mexico. Cortes and those in his company used every resource available to them to accomplish their task. They took advantage of their European tactics in battle, along with their superior technology to survive. During the conquest, they also used the native’s fear of horses and fire arms to hold huge armies of natives back on several occasions. The conquerors’ greatest weapon was Cortes’ mind, and his determination to become a great conqueror. He never lost the initiative in battle, and he manipulated the natives to help him achieve his objective on countless occasions. Cortes’ goals were clear from the beginning, he wanted to become rich and famous. This was Cortes’ main motivation. He did however have a sense of duty for his country and the Catholic faith. Cortes was the perfect man for the task. He was able to befriend certain natives and use them against others in order to complete his conquest. Even though Cortes did not give his soldiers their fair share of spoils on several occasions, his troops became very loyal to him, because he knew how best to keep them alive.
Cortes organized his company to explore and trade under the authority of the governor of Cuba, Diego Velazquez. Just before Cortes was scheduled to leave, he received word that Velazquez had ordered the expedition terminated. Cortes hastened to load his eleven ships and set sail before Velazquez could stop him. Nothing except death could have ever stopped the drive Cortes’ ambition installed in him. Cortes’ fleet stopped in Trinidad, and Havana to acquire more troops and supplies. In both ports Velazquez’s orders had reached the authorities, but the orders were ignored, because the officials there favored Cortes’ cause. Cortes then set out for Cozumel with eleven ships, five-hundred soldiers, sixteen horsemen, and a few cannons. The fact that Cortes continued with the expedition against orders goes to show that his main motivation was to gain personal glory and wealth. His sense of duty could not have been his driving force.
Cortes’ fleet arrived at Cozumel in March of 1519. The Spanish found that the natives on the coast had abandoned their villages. They did meet a friar named Geronimo de Aguilar. He had been shipwrecked in Mexico seven years before, and had been made a slave of the natives. Aguilar could speak the native language, Nahuatl, and proved to be invaluable to the expedition. From the very beginning Cortes was forced to rely on help outside his of company. Cortes relied on much more substantial help in the months and years to come. The Spanish set up camp, and started to explore the land. The first natives they encountered were the people of Tabasco.
These people were hostile towards the Spanish, and they gathered their forces from the surrounding villages to destroy the Spanish company. Cortes used Aguilar to attempt to tell the natives that his party came in peace, but to no avail. The next day Cortes sent out Pedro de Alvarado and Francisco de Lugo with a hundred men each to scout ahead. Both of these companies were attacked by a great multitude of natives but they did not break formation, although the party under Alvarado had to come to the rescue of Lugo’s company. The combined companies retreated in good order back to their camp, but the natives followed close behind.
When the natives reached the edge of the camp they were dispersed by the cannon fire, but two natives were taken prisoner. These native prisoners informed Cortes that the Tabascan force was fully gathered (fifteen thousand warriors) and they planned to surround the camp the next day. Cortes’ fear for his own or his men’s lives never was a part of his decision making. It was not an option to him to have his troops embark on their ships and leave. Again Cortes’ motivation was his own glory. Had he been concerned about the mission and the lives of those in his company Cortes would have boarded the ships and left.
Aguilar advised Cortes to free these natives so that they could tell their chiefs that the Spanish desired peace. The advise paid off because the next day thirty chieftains arrived and agreed to make peace, and to become vassals of the Emperor of Spain. (Emperor Don Carlos) Cortes also convinced the people of Tabasco to abandon human sacrifices and their Idols, and to convert to Catholicism. An altar was constructed in their town and an image of The Virgin Mary was placed under a large cross. The natives gave the Spanish twenty native women. The woman that Cortes was given was baptized and given the name Dona Marina. She later became the main translator for the Spanish, and she bore Cotes a son. These actions were taken more to cement the friendship of the natives, than to save their souls. Cortes did not spend most of his time with these task the friars in his party did. Cortes made alliances with these natives because he knew he would need help. Also the conversions that took place were most likely to gain King Charles’ favor. The victory at Tabasco did not come without a price. Seventy Spaniards were wounded , thirty of them would die of their wounds.
The Spanish then departed with their women, and sailed down the coast. They weighed anchor and waded ashore at the place that would become Vera Cruz on Good Friday, April 22, 1519. Not a week had passed when messengers of Montezuma arrived with many gifts and questions. Cortes lied to the messengers when he told them that the Spanish only came to the land to put an end to human sacrifice, and to trade. Cortes, to frighten the messengers, ordered the cannon to be fired in front of the messengers, and he ordered the horsemen to gallop near them. Montezuma’s messengers drew everything they witnessed and returned to Mexico.
Now that the Spanish heard so many natives speak of the power of Mexico, and after they saw how far Montezuma’s influence reached. The Spanish decided that their most important goal would be to make the Mexicans Spanish subjects. At this time Cortes sent his first letter back to King Charles. In this letter he described the exploits of the Spanish, the news about the wealth of Mexico, and he begged the king to strip Diego Velazquez of his governorship and his authority over the expedition. Cortes was well aware that Velazquez would not take Cortes’ disrespect lying down. Cortes would use every resource he could to become a great conqueror, and live to tell the tale. Cortes also sent a sample of the country’s gold to the King. Cortes sent the gold, because he believed it would enrich the King’s interest in the expedition. He needed the Kings help with Velazquez. Cortes did not send the gold because he felt it was his duty.
After Cortes sent his first letter, he continued on his mission to convince more towns to become King Charles’ subjects. In order to impress the King and to gain glory. At this point, discontent among Cortes’ company grew. Many of the soldiers were angry that Cortes was attempting to settle the country. They knew that Diego Velazquez had ordered Cortes not to settle, but only to trade with the natives. A group of the mutineers asked Bernal Diaz del Castillo to join them in a mutiny against Cortes, but he refused. Castillo told them that he believed the land needed to be settled. Like Cortes, Castillo’s main goal was to become rich. He on the other hand had no need to lie as much in his history, because he did not have glory on his mind as much as Cortes did.
The first town near Vera Cruz, that became Spanish vassals was Cempoala. This was a coastal village that had recently come under Montezuma’s rule. The Cempoalans despised Montezuma and the Mexicans, so they agreed to help Cortes usurp Montezuma. To show his gratitude Cortes imprisoned Montezuma’s tax gatherers (in Cempoala). When the Cempoalans saw his daring they sent messengers to the surrounding provinces. These messengers informed the other natives that taxes should no longer be paid to Montezuma. In this way Cortes showed the natives that he was a greater authority than Montezuma. This action also gained Cortes more native allies and popularity among the natives.
At this point many towns in the area renounced their allegiance to Montezuma and refused to pay him tribute. Once this goal was accomplished Cortes freed two of Montezuma’s tax gatherers from Cempoala. Montezuma then made the bad mistake of sending the Spanish gold as a thanks for releasing his tax gatherers. Montezuma also sent the message as Castillo wrote, “that we were those whom his ancestors had foretold were to come to their country, and therefore must be of his lineage.”Cortes now knew that he was closer to his objective than before. Montezuma’s kingdom was obviously rich, and Montezuma had fear and respect for the Spanish.
After the messengers departed Cortes left a hundred soldiers at Villa Rica (Vera Cruz), and marched further inland, where he peacefully made the people of Cingapacinga and the surrounding villages Spanish clients. Over the next month the Spanish successfully (though forcefully) converted Cingapacinga and Cempoala to Christianity. It was not very Christian of Cortes to be so forceful in the conversion. At this point Cortes believed that his expedition would gave favor if it produced religious results. They also gathered supplies from the surrounding villages, so that they could soon start the journey to meet Montezuma.
When Cortes sent his best ship with his best pilots to sail back to Spain with gold, other precious stones, and the letter for King Charles, the mutineers decided to steal a ship. The mutineers set sail for Cuba. On their arrival they informed Diego Velazquez of Cortes’ ship full of gold and other presents for the King. Diego Velazquez immediately dispatched a ship to intercept Cortes’ messenger ship, but Velazquez’s ship failed to capture Cortes’ ship. At this point Cortes knew that there was extreme discontent amongst many of his soldiers. This discontent was caused by a fear for their lives, and the fact that many of them came with Cortes with the understanding that the expedition was purely for trading purposes. During the expedition Cortes lied to his own troops. He lied to the King in his letters. He would stop at nothing to achieve his object.
Cortes now took counsel with his most trusted soldiers (including Castillo), and they decided to run the ships aground. This action, they hoped would force the soldiers to be fully committed to conquering Mexico. In this way Cortes brought more of his soldiers closer to his state of mind. Cortes made the decision to begin the march further inland. He left two horses and a hundred and fifty men at the new fort of Vera Cruz, and Cortes took fifteen horses and three-hundred foot soldiers into the interior. During the entire expedition Cortes had not received orders. He decided to march to Montezuma’s city to gain glory by bringing Spain new subjects and wealth. It is important to keep in mind that Cortes’ actions were not from a sense of duty to obey the King’s wishes, but to further his own interest.
The Cempoalans informed the Spanish that the people of Tlaxcala were the greatest enemies of Montezuma. Along with this fact, Tlaxcala was on the way to Mexico. This information caused the Spanish to decide to march from Cempoala to Tlaxcala on August 16, 1519. They passed through the various mountains and desert flatlands of central-eastern Mexico. The Spaniards reached the edge of Tlaxcala on August 31, 1519.They were not welcomed by the people of Tlaxcala.
The same day that the Spanish crossed into the territory of Tlaxcala they were attacked. A force of three-thousand Tlaxcallan warriors ambushed them on an open plain. They fought until the sun began to set, then the warriors of Tlaxcala retreated.The Spaniards sent their Campoalan guides to ask the Tlaxcalans for peace. The Tlaxcallans answered when they attacked with an army of forty-thousand. The Spanish again held out. The Tlaxcallans attacked two more times before peace was finally made once the Tlaxcallans understood that the Spanish wanted an alliance against Mexico. The tactics and technology of the Spaniards kept them alive against otherwise impossible odds.
News of the Spaniard’s victory reached Montezuma, and he became very frightened. Once the Spanish reached the capital of Tlaxcala, Montezuma sent messengers to them. These messengers brought gold, and the message that Montezuma wanted to become a vassal of the Spanish emperor. Montezuma even offered to pay tribute, given that the Spanish did not come to Tenochtitlan. Cotes thanked the messengers for the gifts, but he insisted on coming to see Montezuma. The messengers returned to Tenochtitlan with Cortes’ decision. Once again Montezuma’s message and gifts only made Cortes want to come to Tenochtitlan more.
To finalize the peace with Tlaxcala, the nobles of Tlaxcala gave the Spaniards their daughters. This was the most significant alliance Cortes made. He definitely could not have accomplished his goals without the Tlacallans. The Spanish demanded that the Tlaxcalans stop human sacrifice. The Tlaxcalans promised to stop the sacrifices. The Spanish released the natives doomed for sacrifice from their prisons, but as soon as the Spaniards left the Tlaxcalans restarted the sacrifices. Against the will of their new Tlaxcalan allies, the Spanish began to march towards Mexico. The Tlaxcalans offered to send their entire army with the Spaniards, but Cortes only wanted a thousand to come. Cortes did not want to be seen as an invading army, but as a friendly delegation.
The Spanish and their native allies marched along the road to Mexico until they reached Cholula. This was a relatively large client state of Montezuma, and therefore, they were great enemies of the Tlaxcalans. The Cholulans refused to allow the Tlaxcalans to enter their city. Cortes understood their demand, so he only brought the Spaniards into the city.The first two days the Spanish were in the city, the Cholulans brought them food and water. On the third day they ceased, and no people from the city would dare to approach the Spaniards. The suspicious behavior on the part of the Cholulans forced the Spaniards to detain some of their priest for questioning. The priest replied that they did not know the reason for their people’s strange behavior, but they promised to find out.
Before the Cholulan priest returned to Cortes, Cortes’ Cempoalan and Tlaxcalan scouts informed him that the Cholulans were making preparations for war. Then the priest of Cholula returned, and Cortes confronted them about their planned attack. The priest admitted the truth, that the Cholulans planned to attack the next day. However they lied to Cortes, and claimed that Montezuma ordered the attack. Furthermore, Montezuma had sent twenty-thousand warriors to ambush the Spanish. The Spaniards’ allies saved the expedition. The Cholulan ambush would have caused incredible casualties.
The Spaniards kept the priest of Cholula as prisoners through the night, as they planned to attack the Cholulans the next morning. The Spanish did not believe that Montezuma would commit such deceitful actions. Therefore they decided to attack the Cholulans to make an example of them. This would assure that other tribes would not attempt to deceive them in the future. The next morning, the Cholulan chiefs and over two-thousand experienced Cholulan warriors came into the court where the Spanish were camped. They told the Spanish that they would escort them to Mexico. Cortes confronted them about their plot, they were speechless. Then the Spanish and Tlaxcalan warriors rushed into the court from all sides and slaughtered the Cholulans.
The Spanish then began to make preparations for the march to Mexico. They brought a thousand of their native allies with them. After they had marched towards Mexico for three days, more of Montezuma’s messengers met them. They claimed that they should not come to Tenochtitlan, because there was not enough food for them to eat. Cortes ignored this claim and informed the messengers that it was his duty to come and meet Montezuma. At this point Cortes had not received any order to meet Montezuma. He wanted to meet Montezuma and make him a Spanish vassal in order to gain wealth and glory. This initiative made him the greatest Spanish conqueror of the new world.(rivaled only by Francisco Pizarro) The Spaniards marched for another day until they reached the great lake in the Valley of Mexico. They camped in a town called Iztapalapa, where chieftains of Montezuma came to meet them. The next day the chieftains led them across the causeway into Tenochtitlan.
On November 8, 1519 Cortes and Montezuma met. As Cortes wrote, “When at last I came to speak to Mutezuma himself I took of a necklace of pearls and cut glass that I was wearing and placed it round his neck;” . After Cortes and Montezuma made their initial greetings, the Spaniards were shown to their quarters in Montezuma’s palace. Along the way, the Spanish looked on in wonder at the most beautiful city that any of them had ever be held.Montezuma came to the Spaniards quarters soon after they were settled.
He claimed that he was very happy they were there, as Castillo wrote Montezuma said, “That it must indeed be true that we were those of whom his ancestors in years long past had spoken, saying that men would come from where the sun rose to rule over these lands, and that we must be those men.” The next day Cortes went to Montezuma’s palace to try to convey the message of Catholicism. Montezuma refused to believe in Catholicism as he could not accept anything other than the religion his people had always practiced. This was only disappointing to Cortes in that he could not write King Charles about his success in converting the Mexicans. Cortes’ true objective was to usurp Montezuma.
The Spaniards then were given a tour of the great market (which many claimed was the largest in the world), and the great temple of Huichilobos (main Aztec God of War). The Spaniards stayed in their quarters for the most part as Montezuma’s servants brought them whatever they needed. After a week had passed, one of the soldiers noticed that a wall in their quarters had been recently plastered. The curious Spaniards removed the plaster and found the most abundant treasure hall in the world. Cortes began to melt down some of the golden artwork into bars. In this way it was more simple to transport the wealth Cortes’ company had long desired and now found.
On that same day Cortes’ most trusted soldiers (including Castillo) explained their fear of being in the city. The Spaniards knew they were hopelessly outnumbered, and they did not trust that Montezuma was willing to become a vassal of the Emperor. They were afraid that soon Montezuma would have them all killed. Cortes agreed, so the decision was made to capture Montezuma.Cortes found a good reason to carry out his action when the Spaniards received news that the towns near Villa Rica (Vera Cruz) were in violent revolt.
The next day Cortes went to Montezuma’s palace and accused him of ordering the revolt. As Castillo wrote Cortes said, “I am willing to forgive it all, if silently and without raising any disturbance you will come with us to our quarters.” Montezuma obeyed Cortes’ wishes, and he remained a prisoner of the Spaniards for the rest of his life. Montezuma?s relatives and chieftains were dismayed at their King?s imprisonment. On several occasions, they told Montezuma that they could assault the Spaniard?s quarters in order to free him. Montezuma always refused these offers out of fear for his life. Many days passed this way in the Spanish quarters. As time went on the Spaniards became more frightened that the Aztecs may attack. Although fear gripped the Spanish Cortes never allowed his fear to deter him from his objective to gain wealth and glory by the conquest of Mexico.
The situation was changed greatly when Panfilo de Narvaez arrived with,” nineteen ships, fourteen-hundred soldiers, and they brought with them over twenty cannon and much powder and all sorts of stores of stones and balls, and two gunner, eighty horsemen and ninety crossbowmen and seventy musketeers.” Narvaez was sent by Diego Velazquez to kill or capture Cortes. Narvaez also wanted to kill Cortes? entire company when he heard about all the gold they had acquired in Mexico. Like Cortes, Narvaez’s main goals were wealth and glory.
When Cortes heard of Narvaez?s arrival, and the disorder it had caused all over the country, he decided to take most of his force out of Mexico to face Narvaez. He left Pedro de Alvarado in charge of Mexico. Cortes marched out of Mexico to Vera Cruz with a hundred and fifty men. Cortes wrote many letters to Narvaez, in which he asked for peace, but Narvaez refused every time. Cortes wanted to avoid a fight against a stronger enemy force, but when he was forced into battle he refused to lose the initiative. Cortes and his troops used the heavy woodlands around Vera Cruz and the night to draw as close to Narvaez?s camp as possible. Cortes planned for his force to quickly take the enemy artillery, and then to climb the large tower Narvaez was quartered and capture him.
Cortes? plan worked perfectly. Narvaez?s forces did not know that Cortes’ company was there until seconds before Cortes’ men were upon them. Narvaez?s cannons were taken instantly, and Narvaez?s tower was scaled. Narvaez was captured after being stabbed in the eye. The rest of Narvaez soldiers surrendered, and many declared their loyalty to Cortes after Cortes promised to make them rich. Sadly, most of these men would die before the year was out. Cortes did not inform these men of the true danger, but he showed them some of the gold in order to sway them. This would help him survive to gain wealth and prestige. Cortes was not concerned about anything or anyone else. His only concern was to become a wealthy and famous man. As Castillo wrote, “and so many speeches did he (Cortes) make to them that one and all offered themselves to him to go with us, and if they had known the power of Mexico, it is certain not one of them would have gone.”
Cortes? men did not get much time to rejoice about their victory, because the day after they had won it they received word that Pedro de Alvarado was besieged in Tenochtitlan. Cortes decided to march with his now enlarged force of thirteen-hundred to Tlaxcala. On the road three Mexican messengers came to Cortes with tears in their eyes. They to Cortes that Pedro de Alvarado had slaughtered hundreds of them during their largest festival. Cortes could not understand the reason for Alvarado’s attack, and he was very distraught. On their march to Tlaxcala, the Spanish also began to notice many natives infected with small pox. This disease more than any other factor would help Cortes conquer Mexico.
When Cortes arrived at Tlaxcala, the natives told him that the Mexicans had stopped attacking Alvarado once they heard of Narvaez?s defeat. Still the Spaniards there were in dire straits because they had no food or water. Cortes took his thirteen-hundred soldiers along with two-thousand Tlaxcalans on a forced march to Mexico. On his arrival he questioned Alvarado about the massacre during the festival. Alvarado claimed that he was sure that the Mexicans would have attacked soon, so he wanted to kill as many of their experienced warriors as possible before they did.
The next day the Mexicans resumed their attack. They besieged the Spanish with close to a hundred-thousand warriors. They wounded almost half the Spanish and killed a small number in the first day. The next day the Spanish ventured out of their quarters in hope that they could kill many Mexicans, but as Castillo wrote, ?even if ten-thousand Trojan Hectors and as many more Roldans had been there, they would not have been able to break through them.? The Spaniards retired that day and decided to make a new strategy. The Spanish built large towers to use as cover, and to climb on to the roofs of the most dangerous houses the Mexicans used. In this way the Spanish were able to improve their position each day. Once again superior Spanish weapons and tactics kept them alive against the overwhelming multitude of Mexicans.
It eventually became clear to the Spanish that they could not survive long in Tenochtitlan, because it was very difficult for them to find food or water. They decided to have Montezuma climb to the roof of their quarters and attempt to calm his people. As soon as Montezuma was on the roof he was struck with at least one stone to the head from a Mexican sling. He was brought back into the quarters but he died days later.
At this point the Spanish resolved that they would escape Tenochtitlan at night or die trying. Cortes still did not solely care for survival. He devised ways to transport the stolen gold. Cortes’ decision to bring the gold would cost some of his soldiers their lives, but it would make Cortes rich and that was his main desire. The Spaniards began to build bridges in their quarters as quickly as possible. They needed these bridges, because the Mexicans had destroyed the three causeways leading from Tenochtitlan to the mainland. When the Spanish had finished constructing the bridges they set out at night and attempted to escape. They had their Tlaxcalan allies carry most of the gold and baggage. As soon as they had put the first bridge in place they were discovered and every warrior in the city rushed to kill them. Chaos ensued as natives attacked the Spanish from the land and from their canoes. Cortes and the other horsemen abandoned the Spaniards on foot. Once again Cortes proved that he cared about his own well-being, wealth, and glory much more than anything else. This night became known as the infamous La Noche Triste.(Night of Sorrows)
The Spaniards who survived regrouped in the courtyard of Tacuba. Most of the gold had been lost along with more than half the Spaniards and Tlaxcallans. The few Tlaxcallans that remained guided the Spanish back to Tlaxcala without using the main roads. Still they were attacked by Mexicans every day until they returned to Tlaxcala.
The Spanish rested and healed as more and more ships arrived at Vera Cruz from other Spanish colonies. These ships brought men and much needed supplies. Cortes gathered his Spanish forces and native allies and began preparations to invade Mexico. Cortes asked for materials for ship building from Vera Cruz. The Spanish there salvaged the ships that Cortes had ran aground over a year before, and sent the materials to Tlaxcala. Even after he lost over half his force Cortes was sill determined to gain honor and more wealth by the conquest of Mexico. Nothing but death could have stopped him from achieving his goals.
Close to ten-thousand natives were put to work to build thirteen brigantines. Cortes believed that the brigantines would be the key to victory on Lake Texcoco.(the lake surrounding Tenochtitlan) The Spanish marched into the valley of Mexico with over ten-thousand native allies. Their first objective was to take the city of Texcoco. The natives from Tenochtitlan and Texcoco met the Spanish army in battle about a mile away from Texcoco. The Spanish were victorious over the warriors of Tenochtitlan and Texcoco. The next day the main chieftains of Texcoco came to Cortes, and asked to be accepted as Spanish vassals.
This was the Spaniards first victory over a city in the on the Lake of Texcoco. It came easily for them. The reason for this was that half the warriors that they had faced when besieged in Tenochtitlan were dead. Their killer was the small pox that Cortes’ company carried into the city when they arrived on November 8, 1519. This disease hurt the Mexicans more than any other people at that time. The reasons for this were, the large amount of Spanish that stayed there for an extended period, and the large population density in Tenochtitlan.
After the battle of Texcoco Cortes’ native ally’s numbers swelled. The feeling among the many of the natives was in favor of the Spanish. Most of the natives saw the Spanish conquest as an opportunity to destroy their oppressors. In a short period of time the Spanish army had brought the vast majority of the cities on the Lake of Texcoco under the Spanish banner. Most of these cities came to the Spanish willingly. During this time Cortes’ over saw the construction of the brigantines. Cortes knew that in order for Tenochtitlan to be defeated the Spanish needed to be masters of the lake.
Once the brigantines were completed Cortes’ first order was to cut Tenochtitlan’s aqueducts, and break the dyke that separated the fresh water in the lake from the salt water. In this way the city was cut off from its main sources of fresh water. The Spanish army then split into three groups. Each group camped in a town near one of the three causeways. One group was commanded by Pedro de Alvarado. He had about thirty-thousand warriors and three brigantines. Another group was led by Gonzalo de Sandoval with another thirty-thousand warriors and three brigantines. The last contingent was led by Hernan Cortes. It had all the remaining warriors, close to forty-thousand, and seven brigantines. The Mexican force was commanded by their new King, Guatemoc. During the siege of Tenochtitlan less than one tenth of Cortes’ army was Spanish. The alliances he made, and the way he exploited the native’s hatred of the Mexicans enabled him to conquer Tenochtitlan.
The Spanish made daily attacks across the three causeways. Each day they destroyed the Mexican barricades on the causeways, and reached the edge of the city. The brigantines would sail on the lake every day. They destroyed hundreds of canoes, and they were able to fire cannons, muskets, and crossbows into the Mexican’s flanks. Tenochtitlan was a very difficult city to assault. The only places the Spanish could assault were along the three causeways. Although the Spanish took these causeways every day, they could not hold the ground they gained, because it was impossible for them to camp inside Tenochtitlan.
On the twenty first day the Spaniards suffered their most significant setback of the siege. The company under Pedro de Alvarado had advanced too quickly, and forgot to fill in a broken spot of the causeway. The Mexicans launched a large counterattack against them (either by chance or plan) and forced them to retreat. Cortes rushed to Alvarado’s aid, and he was almost captured. The Spanish army could not traverse over the broken part of the causeway until it was filled with bodies and weapons. It is unknown how many native allies the Spanish lost that day, (most likely one to two thousand) but they lost fifty Spaniards. Most of these Spaniards were sacrificed on top of the large temple of Huichilobos. This temple was so tall that all of the Spanish and their native allies witnessed their comrade’s demise. This defeat demoralized the entire army, and many native allies began to leave Cortes. Cortes still never thought to break the siege. He believed it was his destiny to become a great conqueror and no one could stop him.
This reversal of fortune caused Cortes to devise a new strategy to ensure his glory was achieved. For the remaining days of the siege the Spaniards fully filled in all breaks in the bridges. Furthermore, the Spanish destroyed every house they came to capture. This was a decision that weighed on Cortes’ heart, “We were at a loss to know how to free ourselves from the dangers and hardships we were enduring without totally destroying their city, for it is the most beautiful city in the world.” The Spanish used their native allies well to accomplish this task of construction and destruction. Without the natives the brigantines would have never been built, and no one would be available to provide the labor for Cortes’ new plan. Also the brigantines began to land where the most dangerous structures were. The crew would set fire to the structures, then quickly embark. Finally the Spanish began to set ambushes when they would retire for the day. These ambushes caused such great casualties among the Mexicans, that they would eventually not give chase to retreating Spanish.
A month passed by in this way. Eventually the Mexicans had lost so many people from hunger, thirst, and battle that the Spanish were able to seize and hold the main plaza. At this point Cortes commanded a hundred and fifty thousand warriors, while the Mexicans could not have had more than thirty-thousand. The great multitude of Cortes? army reflected the passion the natives felt to be free of the Mexican?s oppression. Despite the overwhelming odds, the Mexicans kept fighting fiercely with the Spanish army every day. The thought of surrender had never crossed any of the Mexican warrior?s minds. Cortes was saddened by this, he knew that if he could preserve the city and its population his honor would be enhanced.
By the time the Spanish had secured the market place on July 26, 1521 they had control of seven eighths of the city. There were over forty-thousand Mexican warriors and civilians still confined in the last eighth of the city.All of these people had suffered from hunger and thirst for over eighty days. Cortes ordered to stop the advance, and he begged Guatemoc for peace. The Mexicans pretended to consider the Spaniards offer, but they just bought time. Three days later they made an all out assault on Cortes? position, but the Spanish army held its ground.
Less than a week passed when the Spanish made their final assault on the Mexicans. The thirteen brigantines sailed around behind the Mexican position and attacked it from the rear. At the same time over a hundred and fifty-thousand warriors charged into the Mexicans. Close to forty-thousand Mexicans were slaughtered. The Spaniards attempted to control their native allies but the hatred the allies felt was too deep. The native allies massacred any Mexican they came in reach of. King Guatemoc and his family attempted to escape in a large canoe but they were captured by a brigantine. Cotes confronted Guatemoc, and told him he would still have rule over Mexico. Guatemoc and Montezuma’s line would serve as puppet rulers for the Spanish for years to come. The scene was one of the most tragic in history. As one Mexican survivor wrote, ?Broken spears lie on the roads; we have torn our hair in grief. The houses are roofless now and their walls are red with blood.? After the battle was over Cortes and his men tortured Guatemoc until he gave them the location of the gold lost during The Night of Sorrows.
Cortes’ conquest of Mexico was a brutal destruction of a very advanced civilization. One cannot believe that Cortes, or most of his comrades truly cared for the fate of the native’s souls. One must also be skeptical to trust that they conquered for the Spanish Empire. Cortes’ men wanted wealth, and Cortes desired wealth and fame. He saw the opportunity to go down in history as the conqueror of large native lands and he took it. His strategy for the completion of his goals was as close to flawless as possible. Cortes understood that the greatest threat to the conquest was the Mexican Empire, and its ability to unify the country against the Spanish. Cortes began to realize this in Tabasco, and he fully understood it after Montezuma’s messengers met him at the coast. Unknowingly Montezuma sealed his empire’s fate by sending these messengers.
All the messengers showed Cortes was that Montezuma possessed an empire that stretched from far inland to the coast.(about two hundred miles from Tenochtitlan to Veracruz) They also showed Cortes that their city contained great wealth when they brought him gold. Cortes realized that he needed to undermine Montezuma, which explains why he took Montezuma’s tax gatherers prisoner in Cempoala. This was the first action where he showed the natives that he could slap Montezuma in the face and get away with it. This was the first among many actions taken by Cortes to cause discontent among the Mexican client states. Cortes saw his plan work brilliantly when the client state’s animosity drove them to help the Spanish destroy Tenochtitlan.
As for the first hand accounts of the conquest one must be very interpretative. In Cortes’ letters to King Charles, he obviously said anything he could to convince him that the conquest was in the empire’s best interest. For example Cortes constantly understated battle casualties, the greatest understatement was the claim that one hundred Spaniards died on the night of sorrows, when close to eight hundred had perished. He believed that such high causalities would cause Charles the V to abandon the conquest, which would destroy Cortes’ hopes for wealth and fame.
He also didn’t even mention Alvarado’s massacre in the temple. Perhaps he believed the king would punish him for allowing such a cruel act. Castillo was much more frank although he did not tell the whole truth either. He admitted that the Spanish were in Mexico to get rich, but on some occasions it seemed that he did not want to tell the most unpleasant side of the conquest. One can assume that most native prisoners were tortured before they gave up their comrades plans (many times their lives) given the ferocity of their devotion to their communities. Also the native account (Broken Spears) claimed that Guatemoc was tortured until he gave up the whereabouts of the Aztec’s stores of gold.
One cannot believe that the Spaniards would have survived had it not been for the help of their native allies, the fear most natives had of them, inferior Mexican battle tactics, and the plague that ravaged the country after their arrival. Also the Aztec prophecy that, “Men would come from the direction of the rising sun to rule the land.” was extremely helpful. The facts that mattered were that the Spanish were now rulers of Mexico, great wealth was gained for their empire from this conquest, and Cortes was rich and famous.