Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The Conquest of Mexico

August, 1521

The Aztecs thundered this proclamation far and wide. The Christians laughed at it, but more and more the Indians trembled. Suppose it were true; suppose they had offended the war god by helping the white men; was Xicotencatl right when he had said that only evil could come to Anahuac from these strangers? Emperor and priests and war gods were willing now to overlook the past, if their vassals returned to their duty. Should they lose their chance of pardon by still helping the invaders?

Cortes soon saw the result of such reasoning. Every night some of his allies deserted and stole away in the darkness to their own homes. First those who lived nearest went; the Tepeacans followed, and the Cholulans, and finally—though Ixtlilzochitl, lord of Tezcuco, and Chichemecatl, leader of the Tlascalan levies, remained loyal to Cortes—even the Tezcucans and Tlascalans stole away. With dismay the Spaniards saw their huge army of allies melt like snow in April, leaving the white men almost alone to blockade Mexico.

Cortes did not lose his cheerful courage. He laughed at the proclamation and sent messengers after the withdrawing allies to advise them to camp on their way until the eight days were over and the prediction should be proved false. Some were wise enough to take this advice and to halt where they were, but the rest kept on home.

Of course this defection stopped the supply which had been coming in so plentifully from the surrounding country. The Spaniards must now not only do their own foraging for provisions, but at the same time keep untiring watch against an unfriendly country behind them and a deadly foe in front. Their guns commanded each of the three causeways leading into the City of Mexico and their brigantines still controlled the lake, so their position was strong as long as they could hold it. Lack of food and lack of ammunition alone could drive them out. Unfortunately their ammunition was getting low.

The Spaniards waited with what patience they might through the eight days. On the ninth day the sun rose, passed across the heavens and set in the west, while all Mexico, hour after hour, looked eagerly for the prophecy to be fulfilled. Nothing happened.

The priests would have been wiser to set their time at eight weeks instead of eight days. In that interval the allies might have returned definitely to Aztec rule, and the Spaniards would surely have run short of food and ammunition of which they had only a small supply. As it was, they had easily maintained themselves a week, and at the end of it, a ship sailing into Vera Cruz brought more ammunition and military stores, which were at once sent to Xoloc. The deserting allies, too, had loitered on the road to see what would happen, and when Ixtlilzochitl and Chichemecatl sent after them, they came back with all speed to the Christians' camp, ashamed to have been deceived by the priests and glad enough to be so easily forgiven by Cortes for their desertion. Gradually all the other tribes came back to beg Cortes' forgiveness and to return to their loyalty. Guatemozin's power over them was gone forever. Instead of hurting Cortes by his scheme, he had increased Cortes' power.

Cortes knew that now the time had come to push his way into Tenochtitlan, although sadly he was aware that that meant the city's ruin; the fortress-houses must come down and the canals be filled up; on this advance there was to be left absolutely no danger of obstacle between himself and the mainland.

"Every breach in the causeway, every canal in the streets was to be filled up in so solid a manner, that the work should not again be disturbed. The materials for this were to be furnished by the buildings, every one of which, as the army advanced, whether public or private, hut, temple or palace, was to be demolished. Not a building in their path was to be spared. They were all indiscriminately to be leveled, until, in the Conqueror's own language, 'the water should be converted into dry land,' and a smooth and open ground be afforded for the maneuvers of the cavalry and artillery." [Prescott's Conquest of Mexico]

Cortes had tried over and over, with no success, to arrange with Guatemozin for a capitulation. Nothing was left him now but to destroy the city that was to Cortes "the most beautiful thing in the world." The Indian allies, glad to prove their goodwill after their disloyalty, brought their hoes and other tools and fell to work filling up the gaps in the causeways, while others pushed on into the outskirts of the city and, in spite of Aztec arrows, pulled down the houses and with the debris filled in the city canals, until Tenochtitlan was no longer an Indian Venice but only a bare, flat plain over which the Spanish cavalry could sweep at will.

Before the work was accomplished, Cortes sent three Aztec nobles as another embassy to Guatemozin.

"All has now been done," he said, "that brave men could do in defense of their country. There remains no hope, no chance of escape, for the Mexicans. Your provisions are exhausted; your communications are cut off; your vassals have deserted you; even your gods have betrayed you. You stand alone, with the nations of Anahuac banded against you. There is no hope but in immediate surrender. I beseech you to take compassion on your brave subjects, who are daily perishing before your eyes; and on the fair city, whose stately buildings are fast crumbling into ruins. Return to the allegiance that you once proffered to the sovereign of Castile. The past shall be forgotten. The persons and property, in short all the rights of the Aztecs shall be respected. You shall be confirmed in your authority, and Spain will once more take your city under her protection."

Guatemozin heard the messengers with anger, but nevertheless he called a council of priests' and warriors to debate it. The priests were against peace, for they knew that the establishment of Christianity meant their downfall.

"Better," they said, "to trust in the promises of our own gods, who have so long watched over the nation. Better, if need be, give up our lives at once for our country, than drag them out in slavery and suffering among the false strangers."

"Since it is so," Guatemozin answered proudly, "let us think only of supplying the wants of the people. Let no man, henceforth, who values his life, talk of surrender. We can at least die like warriors."

For two days Cortes waited for an answer to his words of peace. It came finally, not by the envoys, but in a simultaneous assault on all the Christian camps over the causeways. Much as the numbers of Aztecs had been reduced by famine, and weak as were the warriors who remained, they came with tremendous fury. But, raked by the Spanish guns from the forts and from the vessels, the Indian hordes rolled suddenly back to their capital, having accomplished nothing.

After this fruitless effort for peace, Cortes pushed on his work of destruction, until the clearing in the city extended to the point where the Avenue of Tlacopan entered the central square. Montezuma's palace—now occupied by Guatemozin—was destroyed, and the Mexicans, driven out of the heart of Tenochtitlan, fell back to Tlatelolco, the market-place, which they occupied. They had left to them now only about one-eighth of their city, and as they were cut off from supplies, they might as well have been on a desert island. There was nothing before them but surrender or starvation.

The weeks went on, each one seeing the Aztecs a little weaker, and Cortes on his side, and Alvarado on his, a little nearer the market-place. At last only one broad canal lay between Cortes and Tlatelolco; he had no way of finding out how far Alvarado had come.

All the strength left to the Aztecs was gathered in the market-place to guard the canal which was their last defense. The Spaniards, on the other side, made camp for the night.

Suddenly through the darkness flames leaped up from a temple in the northern part of Tlatelolco. The Christians, watching, shuddered, thinking it meant human sacrifice and the suffering of some of their unfortunate comrades. But as the flames leaped higher, someone caught at the truth, for it was the temple itself that was burning.

"Alvarado has taken the temple; he is in the city," he shouted.

It was true. Alvarado, pushing along the Tlacopan dyke, and filling up the breaches as he came with the stones from the houses he destroyed, had at last reached the temple in the market-place. It was defended by a band of fierce priests and warriors, who rushed down she steps on the Christians and almost overwhelmed them. The Spaniards pushed them back and drove them up the stairs again to the temple area where, in mid-air, a battle was fought like that which had been carried on in the storming of the great temple. Here again the white men were victorious.

In the sanctuaries before the grinning idols the Spaniards found the heads of some of their companions taken by the Aztecs in battle. They were removed for Christian burial and the Spaniards, maddened at the sight, set fire to the sanctuaries with all their abominations. The flames rose as a beacon to the whole valley, telling both friend and foe of the progress of the Christian arms.

Cortes, seeing that Alvarado had come so far, determined to push across the canal to join him in the market-place. At once, in spite of Indian arrows from the other side, Cortes set his allies vigorously at work filling up the canal. When it was done, the cavalry charged across, swept the enemy out of their path, and pressed on to meet Alvarado's men.

It was the first time the two divisions had come together since the siege began. When the first glad welcomes were over, Cortes, with a small band, rode into the market-place which he had seen with such interest on his first visit to Mexico. Then it was filled with throngs of prosperous traffickers; now the stalls were empty and the few people on the housetops were too weak with hunger to offer resistance. After a sad survey, Cortes sent the Spaniards back to their camps on the causeways.

For several days he kept the Spaniards in camp and suspended hostilities, hoping that one of his embassies would come back with Guatemozin's submission. Cortes, while he waited, went often into the city. One day he met several chiefs, who stretched out their arms imploringly.

"You are children of the Sun," they said. "But the Sun is swift in his course. Why are you, then, so tardy? Why do you delay so long to put an end to our miseries? Rather kill us at once, that we may go to our god Huitzilopochtli, who waits for us in heaven to give us rest from our sufferings."

"I desire not your death, only your submission," answered Cortes pityingly. "Why does your master refuse to treat with me when a single hour will suffice for me to crush him and all his people? Implore your Emperor to confer with me. I promise you he shall be safe."

The nobles carried the message to Guatemozin, and at last he consented to a meeting the next day in the market-place.

Cortes arranged a banquet to do honor to the monarch, and was at the market-place at the time named. But, in place of Guatemozin, came some of his nobles, saying their master was ill. Cortes covered his disappointment, fed the nobles, sent some provisions to their friends, and dismissed them, telling them to beg Guatemozin to meet him.

"He will surely come," he said to the envoys, "when he sees that I suffer you to go and come unharmed, you who have been my steady enemies, no less than himself, throughout the war. He has nothing to fear from me."

Guatemozin set the time for his coming at noon the following day. Again Cortes was at the place, but Guatemozin did not appear. Cortes waited in vain three hours, and then he heard that the Aztecs were taking the time to prepare to defend Tlatelolco. At that Cortes lost patience.

He gave immediate orders for a general attack on the Aztec position. Alvarado was to advance along the Tlacopan dyke from the west; Sandoval was to come down from the north over the causeway of Tepejacac, while Cortes himself would march from Xoloc. He ordered that quarter should be given to the Aztecs whenever asked.

The Aztecs had no strength to withstand such a general attack, although they met it bravely with showers of arrows. The Spaniards were merciful, but the Tlascalans thought only of revenge on a hated foe. Everyone who came within their reach was killed, until even they finally grew weary of their own cruelty, and darkness ended the carnage.

Perfect silence fell over Tlatelolco. Alvarado on his side, and Cortes on his, held their positions, while in the market-place those Aztecs who were left sat hopelessly waiting for what morning might bring them. They had lost home and wealth and friends. Life—all that remained to them—they would sell dearly.

Morning dawned on the 13th of August, 1521; two years almost to a day since Cortes had marched from Cempoalla with his first army of invasion, and a year since he had fled from Tenochtitlan on "the melancholy night."

Cortes had made his plans. To Sandoval and his captains was given the task of preventing the escape of Guatemozin by land or by sea, while Cortes and Alvarado, from opposite sides, swept clear the market-place. Their signal was to be the discharge of a gun.

Then for the last time Cortes sent envoys to Guatemozin to promise pardon if he would yield.

"Guatemozin is ready to die where he is," was the reply that the envoy brought back, "but he will hold no interview with the Spanish general. It is for you to work your pleasure."

"Go, then," Cortes answered sternly. "Prepare your countrymen for death. Their hour is come."

Still he did not give the sign for attack—for he hoped against hope that Guatemozin would surrender. Finally word came to him that Guatemozin was making his preparations to escape. Cortes could wait no longer; if Guatemozin got away, the war might last for months.

The musket was fired. Cortes and Alvarado charged, each from his side of the square.

At the same moment the brigantines engaged the fleet of Aztec canoes on the lake. Their canvas out-sailed the canoes and their guns shattered them; only a few got away and under the smoke from the guns made for shore.

Garci Holguin, one of Sandoval's captains, commanded the fastest brigantine in the fleet. As he peered through the smoke at the fleeing canoes he decided that Guatemozin was in one of them, racing for the mainland. Immediately he gave chase.

There was plenty of wind and Holguin soon over-hauled the canoe, whose men were pulling with the wildness of despair. At the first shot from the brigantine the rowers threw up their hands.

"We carry the Emperor," they cried.

[Illustration] from The Boys' Prescott by Helen Ward Banks


As they spoke, Guatemozin, armed, his head proudly erect, rose in the canoe.

"I am Guatemozin," he exclaimed. "Lead me to Malinche. I am his prisoner; but let no harm come to my wife and my followers."

They took him aboard the brigantine with his wife, who was the daughter of Montezuma. Holguin delivered his prisoners to Sandoval, who prepared to escort them to Cortes. As soon as the news spread that the Emperor was taken, all resistance ceased on both sea and land.

Cortes made ready properly to receive his royal prisoner. He covered with crimson cloth a terrace in the market-place and ordered a banquet prepared. The Emperor was escorted to the spot by a company of Spanish infantry, and Cortes received him with great ceremony.

Guatemozin spoke. "I have done all I could do to defend myself and my people. I am now reduced to this state. You will deal with me, Malinche, as you list." He touched Cortes' dagger. "Better dispatch me with this and rid me of life at once."

"Fear not," Cortes answered, filled with admiration of Guatemozin's bravery. "You shall be treated with all honor. You have defended your, capital like a brave warrior. A Spaniard knows how to respect valor even in an enemy."

It was sunset when Guatemozin surrendered. Before the banquet was finished it was night and the rain began to fall. After the ceremonies were ended Cortes sent Guatemozin and the princess, his wife, to Cojohuacan to be under Olid's care.

The escort moved away. The Spaniards obeyed their orders that each division should fall back to its former camp on the causeways. Tenochtitlan was left to its ghastly quiet.

We may be sure that Cortes did not sleep. His thoughts, doubtless, went back a year when, in the rain, at midnight, he had led his beaten army out of Tenochtitlan; they probably went forward, too, to the time ahead when his quarrel with Velasquez should be over and Charles V should reward his achievement with princely rights in Anahauc; when he should rebuild the city he had laid in ruins and make it again "the most beautiful thing in the world."

And then, as he paced back and forth in his apartment, from the past and the future, his mind would come back to the present. Sad as he was for all the misery he had caused, his heart yet swelled in triumph for what he had accomplished. Years ago he had seen his vision and without faltering had followed it, through evil report and good report, through joy and through sorrow, for three long years. And now it was no longer a dream but a reality. Tenochtitlan had fallen. Guatemozin had surrendered. Cortes had conquered Mexico.