Tensions were beginning to increase between the two sides, and they went further when Cortes left to return to Veracruz with 266 of the Spaniards. The governor of Cuba had sent soldiers under Panfilo de Narvaez to arrest the Captain-General for insubordination. Cortes then left his troops under the control of Captain Pedro de Alvarado and this was soon to be a huge error that others noticed.
Cortes and his army defeated Narvaez in battle. Since Narvaez had three times the amount of troops than the Captain-General's. After their defeat, most of Narvaez's troops joined Cortes who promised them a share of the spoils when Tenochtitlan was brought under Spanish control.
The army then returned
back to the Aztec capital to find the city in arms. Alvarado had
massacred 600 Aztecs during the Feast of Huitzilopochtli and seized
all the gold in the city. Fights quickly broke out all over the
day after Cortes returned, and the number of the Aztec army overwhelmed
the Captain-General's army, which numbered only 1,250 Spaniards
and 8,000 Mexican warriors. His army was then forced to relocate
back into the barracks but set hundreds of homes on fire before
The next day Cortes brought out Moctezuma to speak to his people, telling them to end the fighting; but the Aztecs then made fun of him for his weakness. In the middle of all this Moctezuma was killed, and the accounts of his death vary. They say he may have died from sling wounds inflicted by his own people or that he may have been assassinated by the Spaniards. The body was delivered to the people of Tenochtitlan and mourned over. That night the fighting started once again, and the Spaniards managed to destroy the temple of Huitzilopochtli and around 300 homes during a brief period in which they held the advantage. But this did not hurt the Aztecs, and they forced the Spaniards and their allies back into the barracks.
Realizing the hopelessness of their situation, Cortes tried to retreat on the night of July 1, 1520. While he was crossing the bridge leaving the city, the Aztecs fell upon the army and inflicted heavy damage. In the disorder, Spanish soldiers who had been too greedy and filled their pockets with gold were pushed into Lake Texcoco and drowned. The army managed to attain a place of relative safety on a hill past the nearby town of Tlacopan making sure that they wouldn't lose any of their soldiers.
Return To Tenochtitlan
Plagued by hunger, disease,
and the pursuing Aztecs, Cortes's army
fled to Tlascala to obtain reinforcements. On the 8th of July, the
army came upon a legion of nearly 200,000 Aztecs sent by
Cuitlahuac, Moctezuma's brother and successor. There, at the
battle of Otumba, the Spanish managed a smashing victory that
dissuaded the Aztecs from pursuing the Spaniards and their allies
any farther. In Tlascala, Cortes gained great power over the
council and began to form a huge new army to attack Tenochtitlan
once again. Reinforcements arrived from Vera Cruz to assist in the
campaign. With his army of 600 Spanish soldiers and between
110,000 and 150,000 Mexican warriors, Cortes intended to occupy
the city of Texcoco and blockade Tenochtitlan from there. With the
city sufficiently weakened, his army would cross the lake on
thirteen brigantines constructed for this purpose by the
army left Tlascala in late December of 1520
on its march to the Aztec capital. The occupation of Texcoco was
done without conflict, and from there the army destroyed the town
of Iztapalapan and massacred its residents, which sent shockwaves
throughout the surrounding area. Many of the formerly opposed
caciques joined their forces with Cortes's army.
Beginning in the spring
of the next year, and for the next few
weeks afterwards, the army systematically conquered most of the
Aztec-inhabited towns around the river, all the while receiving
more reinforcements from both the Mexican side and from Villa
Rica. At the time of the assault on Tenochtitlan, Cortes had
gained an additional 200 Spanish soldiers and 50,000 Tlascalans.
At the same time in the
Aztec capital, a smallpox epidemic began
that killed Cuitlahuac and immobilized much of the population. To
replace the king, the caciques of Tenochtitlan chose Cuahtemoc, a
nephew of Moctezuma and a brilliant military leader who fiercely
believed that his Aztec army, with the help of Huitzilopochtli,
could defeat the invaders.
The Assault On The City
In preparation for the
attack, the Captain-General destroyed the
aqueducts that supplied water to the capital with only ineffectual
Aztec resistance. Two of the three divisions of the army attempted
to attack the city across the causeway but met strong Aztec forces
and were forced back. The third division, under Cortes, boarded
the brigantines and patrolled the water, completely overwhelming
the Aztecs' canoes and temporarily gaining control of Lake
The fighting raged back
and forth as the Spaniards and their
allies (now joined by 50,000 Texcocoans and later 150,000 of the
Aztecs themselves) attempted to break the Aztec defense from both
land and sea. They did so a few times but were steadily pushed
back by the now starving inhabitants of Tenochtitlan. Cortes was
increasingly distressed at his army's inability to break the Aztec
After nearly three months
of such fighting, the Captain-General
ordered a full-scale assault on Tenochtitlan. All three divisions
crossed the causeway backed up by the brigantines and a fleet of
Mexican canoes. Each division marched down one of the principal
boulevards that all converged in Tlatelolco Square. They steadily
pushed the Aztecs backwards; and when the Aztec king sounded the
retreat, the captains pushed on towards their fleeing prey. When
Cuahtemoc's horn sounded again, the Aztecs turned around and fell
on the Spaniards, capturing sixty-two of them and sacrificing them
in front of the Spaniards in an attempt to destroy their morale.
Cortes ordered the retreat.
Five days passed, and
famine and disease had devastated the
Aztecs. Cortes knew this and appealed to Cuahtemoc to surrender,
but the king felt that dying for one's country would be better
than being enslaved by the Spaniards. He answered in the form of
an attack on the entrenched army. The Aztecs charged from the
walls of the city to meet their enemy, but were quickly forced
into a retreat by the firing of artillery and musketry. Cortes's
army charged after the Aztecs, forcing them back, until the
Spaniards and their allies controlled around three-quarters of the
city. Everywhere they went they left a trail of
destruction--burned or pulled-down homes and temples--regardless
of whether or not there were wounded men, women, or children
Still, the Aztec king
refused to surrender. Cortes proposed a
banquet at which the two sides could meet to negotiate, but the
king sent his nobles and didn't come himself.
The next morning, Cuahtemoc
agreed to meet the Captain-General at
the marketplace; but when Cortes and his entourage arrived, they
found the Aztec soldiers waiting for them. An enormous battle
ensued; and both sides took heavy losses, the total number of
deaths in that individual battle numbering more than 40,000.
The Last Battle
The next morning, August
13, 1521, Cortes's army once again
marched into the city. Another battle began, similar in scale to
the one the day before, but Cortes ordered a cease-fire as three
canoes were sighted fleeing across the lake. Cuahtemoc, who was
riding in one of the canoes, was apprehended and brought to the
Captain-General. Upon meeting his enemy, he said, "Lord Malinche,
I have assuredly done my duty in the defense of my city and my
vassals, and I can do no more. I am brought by force as a prisoner
into your presence and beneath your power. Take the dagger that
you have in your belt, and strike me dead immediately."
Cortes, admiring the king's valor and dignity, pardoned Cuahtemoc.
What he did not realize was that Cuahtemoc was, as a prisoner of
war, demanding to be sacrificed as the Aztec custom demanded (and
Cuahtemoc lived on afterwards in shame for this insult).
This lack of understanding
for each other's culture is one sign
that there would have been no way for the two empires to have an
equal existence. The Spaniards' disgust with the "barbaric" rites
of the Aztecs gave them an excuse to force the Aztecs (and later
the rest of the Mexicans) down into the lowest echelons of the new
Hispanic society. But it should be considered that while human
sacrifice is surely barbaric, enslaving peoples is hardly a sign
of being civilized.
The conquerors banished
the Aztecs from their city and began to
clear the city. According to Prescott, between 120,000 and 240,000
may have lain dead in the streets. The Aztec homes, now in
shambles, were torn down and new homes for the conquistadors were
built by reluctant Mexican laborers. It is ironic that very little
gold was found in the city as compared to what was expected.
Over the next four years,
Hernan Cortes was appointed Governor,
Captain-General, and Chief Justice of the province of New Spain.
He passed his time presiding over the reconstruction of
Tenochtitlan, which he renamed Mexico (later Mexico City in the
present-day country of Mexico), and bringing colonists from Spain
to make their homes there.
The key to the Spanish
conquest of Mexico was the dissension among
the different peoples of the Aztecs' empire. The Indian overlords
made no attempts to assimilate the other cultures to their own and
thus provided the basis for a full scale revolt against them which
Cortes incited. While the Aztecs were really unable to unify their
empire, the Spanish managed to succeed where their predecessors in
the area had failed. With diligent work by missionaries and Cortes
himself, the Spaniards tried to bring together the people of
present-day Mexico and the southwestern United States by
converting them to Christianity. The resulting extension of the
Spanish empire, New Spain, was the most strongly united of the
American empires for years to come.