Short History of Mexico - Arthur H. Noll

The Conquest of Mexico

It was on the morning of Good Friday, April 21, 1519, that Hernando Cortes landed at San Juan de Ulua, now the fortified island off the coast from Vera Cruz. He had left the Island of Cuba under stress of circumstances on the 10th of February, with a force composed of 553 infantry, 16 horsemen with their horses, 110 sailors, and 200 Cuban Indians, all in eleven ships, none of them large. They had in their possession ten cannons and four falconets. The small fleet had touched at the Island of Acuzamil (Cozumel). Here Pedro de Alvarado, the lieutenant of Cortes, who had been a member of Grijalva's expedition, with characteristic impulsiveness, sacked the temples and houses of the Indians. Cortes, with equally characteristic policy, restored to the Indians their property, and then sent messengers to secure the aid of certain Spaniards who had fallen into the hands of the Indians. Though unsuccessful in this attempt, he accidentally secured the services, as an interpreter, of one Geronimo de Aguilar, a Spaniard who had been shipwrecked on that coast several years before.

Re-embarking, Cortes and his followers reached on the 12th of March the Rio de Tabasco, and with his smaller crafts explored the river, disembarking in sight of an Indian town. The natives at first fled, but afterwards collected themselves and gave battle. Cortes, after being repulsed twice, overcame them, and upon closer acquaintance, secured the invaluable services of Malintzin, a beautiful Indian woman, born in Jalisco, but early made a captive among the Tabascan Indians, and thus acquainted with both the Nahuatl language and the dialect spoken by the coast Indians. She was thus able to interpret for Cortes, through Aguilar, until she acquired the Spanish tongue, which she soon did. She was, with a dozen or twenty girls, presented to the Spaniards by the Tabascans, as one of the terms of the peace established between them after the triumph of the arms of Cortes. Malintzin was baptized into the Christian faith, and received the name Marina. She became the trusted companion of Cortes throughout his Mexican campaigns, and was also the mother of one of his two sons, bearing the name Martin.

It was thus equipped with interpreters and some knowledge of the land and its inhabitants, that Cortes reached the island since named San Juan de Ulua on the 21st of April. The next day he landed his troops at Chalchihuecan, the spot where now stands the city of Vera Cruz. Raising the standard selected for his expedition (a black banner bearing the arms of his Emperor,—the Austrian Eagle with the castles and lions of Castile and Leon, with the further device of a crimson cross in clouds of blue and white, and the motto, "Amici, sequamur crucem et si nos fidetn habemus vere in hoc signo vincemus"), he here organized his army. He named an ayuntamiento, and was by this board invested with the title of Captain General. He subsequently founded a city in that locality, bestowing upon it, apparently with prophetic vision, the name of La Villa Rica de la Santa Vera Cruz  ("the rich  city of the Holy True Cross"). The city has been thrice removed, but in the year 1600, in pursuance of orders from Spain, was re-established where first planted and where it now remains.

The Captain-General at once began traffic with the natives, who out of curiosity were drawn to him. He traded off glass beads and other trifles for gold, gems, and articles of curious workmanship. Meanwhile he made a careful study of political affairs in the country, and learned that the natives around him had been subjected to occasional raids by the armies of the Aztecs, and having been beaten by them, were compelled to pay tribute, besides having had to give up their young men as captives for sacrifice; that the Aztecs occupied a high table-land at considerable distance from the coast, and entirely surrounded by mountains. At the same time reports were being forwarded to the Aztec Tlaca-tecuhtli, of the arrival of the strangers, giving minute descriptions of them and of their equipment. Cortes set out with his army to visit what he supposed to be the capital of a rich and powerful monarch. At an Indian town called Cempoalla (Zempoala) he found other tributaries of the Aztecs, who were inclined to establish friendly relations with the Europeans, and strengthen themselves to oppose the claims of the Aztecs to tribute. He learned also of the existence of the Tlaxcalans, a tribe maintaining themselves in the mountains, and hitherto holding out against all efforts on the part of the Aztecs to compel them to pay tribute. He resolved to act at once upon the knowledge thus gained, and (though meeting with opposition in the ranks of his followers, and having to resort to extreme measures in dealing with some Spanish conspirators whom he detected in his camp, and destroying the ships that had brought his troops to Mexico, in order that all possibility of return to Cuba might be given up) on the 16th of August set out from Cempoalla, by a route not readily traceable by modern landmarks (but probably passing through Jalapa, Socochima, Colotlan and Xalatzingo), arriving in due time at the frontier of Tlaxcala. Here he had an opportunity to learn of what stuff the Tlaxcalans were made, and why it was that they had so long withstood the advancing power of the Aztecs. An immense army under the command of a young chief, Xicotencatl, prevented for some time his entering the mountain walls which formed the natural fortifications to Tlaxcala. This was on the 5th of September. But by the superiority of arms and of discipline,—the cannons of the Spaniards sending death and terror into the ranks of the Tlaxcalans,—Cortes succeeded in gaining a complete victory, and afterwards made a treaty of peace, and was on the 22nd received by the Tlaxcalans with distinguished honors.

By one of the terms of the treaty the Tlaxcalans furnished a body of troops to aid Cortes in his operations against the Aztecs. With these he proceeded to Cholula, whither he was unwillingly invited by the Cholultecas after they had for some time ignored him. In Cholula he discovered that a conspiracy had been formed to accomplish the total destruction of the Spaniards. This treachery he summarily punished. Assembling the principal Cholultecas in the patio of one of the buildings, he accused them of treachery, and then made an indiscriminate slaughter of three thousand Cholultecas, from whom the Tlaxcalan auxiliaries received a rich booty, and some of them retired to their own land. Cortes remained two weeks in Cholula and then continued his journey to Tenochtitlan, passing between the two mountains Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl. Some of his soldiers made the ascent of the first-named mountain, much to the astonishment of the Indians, who were thereby strengthened in their belief in the super-human character of the Spaniards. The route pursued by the Spaniards between Cholula and Tenochtitlan is that known to-day by the name of San Nicolas de los Ranchos, through Amecameca.

From the time of receiving the first advices of the approach of the Spaniards, Moteczuma had pursued a vacillating policy,—not knowing whether to oppose them as human enemies or to invite them as gods, whom to oppose would be worse than folly. He did in fact invite; and when Cortes finally reached the pueblo of Tenochtitlan by way of Ixtapalapan, on the 8th of November, 1519, Moteczuma went forward to meet him, with all the ceremony belonging to his high position in his tribe. The meeting took place upon the street now known as Calle de Hospital de Jesus,—a continuation of the southern causeway,—at a point now marked by an inscribed stone in the walls of the hospital. The Spaniards were conducted to the tecpan  built in the time of the Tlaca-tecuhtli Axayacatl, occupying the site of the block now fronting on the street called Santa Teresa la Antigua,—the block now occupied by buildings, formerly a convent, bearing that name.

The first care of the ever-cautious Spanish commander was to examine the pueblo in which he found himself and his soldiers honored guests, but where he might, without due precautions, find himself and them close prisoners. What he found has been already briefly described. The pueblo could not have been more than a fourth of the size of the present City of Mexico, though a population nearly as great, or even greater, has been claimed for it

The Spanish Captain-General set out upon a shrewd policy for the conquest of the territory, whose wealth and civilization appeared dazzling. He was not precipitate, however, but enjoyed the hospitality of Tenochtitlan so long as it lasted, thereby gaining time for laying his plans for the conquest of the land. Meanwhile he urged upon Moteczuma the adoption of the Christian religion; and representing himself as the ambassador of a powerful European king actually claiming jurisdiction over that entire country, he urged Moteczuma to acknowledge himself the vassal of that king. That Moteczuma acknowledged his allegiance to the Spanish king was made the ground of the subsequent treatment of the Aztecs as rebellious subjects. But Moteczuma's acknowledgments must have been somewhat qualified, and he refused to adopt Christianity, and continued to vacillate in his opinions regarding the true character of the Spaniards. The populace, however, decided the point promptly, fully, and, it may be added, correctly. They chafed under the pusillanimity of the chief and the overbearing conduct of the white visitors, whom they knew to be but men.

The incautiously haughty bearing of the white men towards the natives and their religion served to foment constant feuds, Cortes, conscious of the perilous position in which he was thereby placed,—almost in the hands of a powerful race, every man thereof a soldier,—sought to terrorize him whom he mistook for the king or emperor, and who really was the most influential of the Aztecs, and so hold the people in check. In company with Velasquez de Leon, Gonzalo de Sandoval, Pedro de Alvarado, and other lieutenants, he went to the tecpan  occupied by the Tlaca-tecuhtli, where now stands the National Palace. There he charged the warrior with perfidy in some of his transactions with the Spaniards, and demanded that in proof of his good-will towards the white men, and of his dealing with them in good faith, he should surrender to them his person. He was to be the guest of the Spaniards, relinquishing naught of his of official position in the army and government of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. Naturally the War-Chief was astonished by such a bold demand. He demurred; but finally, intimidated by the menaces of Sandoval and Leon, he acquiesced, and accompanied the Spaniards to their quarters, where apartments were prepared for his own occupancy and for a few of the minor chiefs who followed him. For a time Cortes ruled Mexico-Tenochtitlan by means of the imprisoned warrior.

But a new difficulty arose. Word was brought to the Spanish Captain-General that Panfilo de Narvaez, a Cuban, with six hundred followers, had landed at Vera Cruz, with the intention of superseding Cortes and his expedition, in the Conquest. They were acting under the orders of an old enemy of Cortes, the Governor of Cuba. Cortes was therefore forced to withdraw from Tenochtitlan with a small body of troops, leaving the affairs of the Aztec city in the hands of the hot-headed, reckless Pedro de Alvarado. Narvaez was surprised in his quarters at Cempoalla, defeated, and after a parley his six hundred men were added to the troops of Cortes, and with these reinforcements the Captain-General returned to Tenochtitlan.

His return was very opportune; for during his absence the hot-headed Alvarado had become restive and anxious to fight the Indian infidels, for whom he could not conceal his contempt An Indian feast-day, in the month of May, 1520, presented an opportunity for him to visit his cruelties upon them. He had granted them permission to assemble in the great teocalli, on condition that they would come unarmed. At midnight, while the ceremonies and religious dances were at their height, Alvarado, with fifty soldiers, entered, and slaughtered every one of them.

The effect of this act of perfidy was precisely what was to be expected. The whole populace arose and besieged the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans in the tecpan  of Axayacatl. Daily sorties were made, and great loss was inflicted upon the Indians; but it was always with some loss to the Spaniards, who felt the death of one man far more than the Indians felt the loss of a hundred. The situation was becoming very critical, when Cortes returned with the reinforcements secured from the expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez.

The Mexicans were thoroughly aroused, and gathered from the neighboring pueblos for the defense of Tenochtitlan, and to drive out the hated intruders. In vain Cortes applied his military genius to the questions daily presenting themselves. He constructed, movable towers to be filled with soldiers, so as to sweep the housetops as they passed along the streets. Daily attacks were made to keep the way clear out of the city; but the drawbridges over the sluices through the causeway were withdrawn, and just so often as the Spaniards labored hard all day in the faces of the enraged Aztec warriors to fill up these sluices and to level the barricades erected to annoy them, they found the next day their work to do over again.

The populace was especially enraged at the pusillanimity of their chief warrior, Moteczuma, who, instead of retaining his place at the head of the armies of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, and aiding in driving out the hated invaders, had allowed himself to be made the prisoner of the Spaniards. Having defaulted in his duty to his tribe and race, steps were taken to depose him and elect his successor. The choice fell upon Citlahuatzin, the brother of Moteczuma; and he at once placed himself at the head of the Aztec warriors, and pushed forward the measures against the Europeans, and besieged them in the old tecpan.

Cortes, miscalculating the extent of Moteczuma's power over the Aztecs, and probably unaware that he had been deposed and that the Aztec warriors owed their allegiance to another Tlaca-tecuhtli, made one more effort to use him in controlling the surging masses filling the streets in the neighborhood of the quarters of the Europeans. He took the captive to the top of the tecpan  in which he was lodged, that he might address his people. He did address them, commanding them to throw down their arms and disperse, and promising that if quiet were restored to the city the Spaniards would retire from the land. His people listened in silence to the words of their once brave war-chief; but when he had finished, an arrow was shot that struck Moteczuma in the head, and he fell senseless in the arms of his attendants. He was borne off to his apartments, and the strife was renewed. In a few days the deposed and wounded Tlaca-tecuhtli died, either from the effect of his wound, or as some say from cruelties received from the hands of the Spaniards, or (and this is most likely of all) of a broken heart (June 29 or 30, 1520).

With the blow that fell upon the head of Moteczuma, Cortes saw that there was no further hope of his maintaining his position in Tenochtitlan. Calling his lieutenants to a council of war, he announced his intention to abandon the place. Preparations were made as secretly as possible, that the plans of the Spaniards might not be divulged to the enemy, who seemed at the time more quiet than usual. And on the night of the 1st of July, 1520, the Spanish army, with the Tlaxcalan allies, proceeded from the Axayacatl tecpan  and along the street leading to the Tlacopan causeway,—the route being now marked by the streets of Santa Teresa, Escalarillas, Tacuba, Santa Clara, and San Andres. It was at the western end of what is now the street of San Andres that the head of the column encountered the first sluiceway or canal, beyond which lay the causeway. A portable bridge had been provided by the forethought of Cortes, and was thrown across the canal, and the head of the column passed safely over to the causeway and on to the second sluiceway, in front of where now stands the Church of San Hipolito. It was in the midst of the rainy season, the darkness was intense, and the rain was falling in torrents.

The Spaniards were about to congratulate themselves that their movements were unsuspected by the Aztecs, when suddenly on all sides the dreaded war cries were heard, and almost as if by magic they found themselves completely surrounded by the natives. The lake was covered with canoes, each containing warriors. The air was filled with flying missiles. The Aztecs climbed upon the causeway, and engaged in hand-to-hand fights with the Spaniards. Both parties fought in the darkness with the fury of desperation. The rear of the column of retreating Spaniards and Tlaxcalan allies had not yet reached the portable bridge, while the head of the column could advance no farther, on account of the second sluice. When at last the rear had passed over the portable bridge, the bridge was found to be so tightly wedged into the masonry of the causeway that to move it was impossible. A terrible scene ensued. Needless to attempt to describe it. Suffice it to say that the night is known in history as La Noche Triste—the melancholy night.

Cortes dashed into the canal and safely crossed. Others followed him, and thus fought their way, step by step opposed by the infuriated Aztecs, to the mainland. It was at the third canal (the middle of the block beyond the Plaza de San Fernando, now known as Puente de Alvarado), that Pedro de Alvarado, dismounted and sorely pressed by the enemy, placed the end of his pike upon the bodies partially filling the chasm, and vaulted over to the other side, and made his escape.

The shattered remnants of the army of Cortes finally succeeded in gaining the mainland. There in the town of Tlacopan (Tacuba) the Captain-General sat down upon a stone under a spreading ahuehuetl(cypress), and collecting about him the survivors of the terrible conflict, wept over the loss he had sustained of many of his noble companions in arms. The losses attending this disastrous retreat from the city have been estimated at four hundred and fifty Europeans, twenty-six horses, and four thousand Indian allies. The losses of the Aztecs were beyond computation; but the native population of the Mexican Valley and the tributary regions far and near was still ample to keep an opposing force in the field against the Europeans, for every man in all that vast region was a warrior.

The tourist may now follow the track of the retreating Spaniards—by street-car, if he will—out past San Cosme on the Caneria de San Cosme, past Tlaxpana to the village of Popotla ("the place of the broom"), the highway occupying the line of the old causeway. And between the villages of Popotla and Tacuba still stands the arbol de Noche Triste,—the tree under whose branches Cortes summed up the terrible losses he had sustained, and yet in the midst of his bitter reflections resolved to regain the wealthy pueblo that had been once within his grasp.

Seeking a place of shelter from the storm and of rest after the terrible conflict, Cortes discovered a teocalli  upon the hill of Otoncalpolco, twelve miles from Tenochtitlan, near the town Atzcapotzalco ("the ant-hill," the former seat of the Tecpanecas, then the slave-market of the Aztecs, and now an unimportant Indian town). The teocalli  was well fortified and defended by natives. But despite the wounds and fatigues of the Spaniards, an assault was made, and the place was wrested from the enemy. There the Spaniards recuperated. There also the great Captain-General laid definite plans for recruiting his army, capturing Tenochtitlan, and subjugating all Mexico to the crown of Spain.

The now deserted sanctuary of Los Remedios marks the site of this Aztec temple. It was in 1535 that an image of the Blessed Virgin was found there, that had been hidden by a soldier who had brought the same from Spain, and had set it up by the permission of Moteczuma in the great teocalli  of Tenochtitlan. He had not suffered it to remain behind in the retreat from the pueblo. A chapel was built for this image, and it became the great patron-saint of the Spaniards through-out the three centuries of Spanish rule in Mexico. It was brought into the City of Mexico with great solemnity in the time of the Revolution (1810-1821), and was made the generala  of the Spanish armies in their fights with the native revolutionists. Our Lady of the Remedies has always been a bitter opponent of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose sway over the Mexican natives was subsequently fully established.

Setting out from the temple of Otoncalpolco, and leaving the Valley of Mexico by a northern route leading through Cuauhtitlan and around Lake Zumpango, annoyed the whole distance by the natives, short of provisions and subsisting on horseflesh and even worse fare, the Spaniards, at the end of seven days after leaving Tenochtitlan, encountered at Otumpan (Otumba—thirty-five miles from the capital, easterly, by the present line of railway travel) a large body of Aztecs, who gave battle. It was the final ambush, characteristic of their mode of warfare. The Spaniards were in a sorry plight to assume even the defensive, and the battle must have resulted in their complete annihilation, had not Cortes, Sandoval, Olid, and Alvarado concentrated their attention upon one who seemed to be the principal chief of the combatants. By an heroic effort they caused his fall, and then the Spaniards were masters of the field. The Aztecs fled, and the battle of Otumba was won.

Cortes and the remnant of his army continued on their way to Tlaxcala, where they were well received, notwithstanding the disasters which had overtaken the Tlaxcalans who had accompanied the expedition. Taking time to heal the wounds received in the campaign, and devoting some attention to the relief of the slender garrison at Vera Cruz and to various expeditions against hostile Indians, the Spaniards managed to enter into a firm treaty with the Tlaxcalans, by which further resources were obtained for the final subjugation of the Aztecs. As good fortune would have it, reinforcements arrived from Spain, from Cuba, and from Santo Domingo. On Christmas Eve, 1520, Cortes was able to set out against the Aztecs at the head of an army composed of seven hundred infantry, one hundred and eighteen arquebusiers, all well supplied with ammunition, eighty-six horses, and about one hundred and fifty thousand Tlaxcalan allies. Going by way of Rio Frio and Buena Vista (near Lake Chalco), and securing the allegiance of Ixtlilxochitl, the military chief of Tenayucan, or, as we must now call it, Texcoco, the Captain-General reached that place, and lodged in the tecpan  of Netzahualpilli.

By Spanish historians Texcoco has been described as a kingdom, of which Ixtlilxochitl was the lawful king, but he had been supplanted by his cousin Cacamatzin, the eleventh in a line of monarchs. Precisely what was the title and authority of Cacamatzin, it would be unnecessary to decide. He was certainly not a king, for Texcoco was not a kingdom. He was probably a war-chief, and as such was, under the confederacy, subject to the Tlaca-tecuhtli of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. In the quarrel between Cacamatzin and Ixtlilxochitl, Moteczuma had taken the part of the former, which made Ixtlilxochitl willing to espouse the cause of the Spaniards as against the Aztecs. Cortes established a sort of protectorate in Tenayucan, and maintained Ixtlilxochitl in his position,—making use of him and his followers, however, for his own purposes.

In Texcoco the army of Cortes was thoroughly reorganized, the same being increased by fifty thousand Texcucans, Cholultecas, and Huexotzincas. Some brigantines, constructed in sections by the direction of Cortes in Tlaxcala, were brought hither, put together and launched upon the waters of Lake Texcoco. With these and sixteen thousand Texcucan canoes, Cortes was prepared to attack Tenochtitlan from the lake side.

While these events were in progress another change had taken place in the office of Tlaca-tecuhtli of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. Citlahuatzin had not long survived his election. He had conducted the assault on the Melancholy Night, and had planned the attack at Otumba, but had within a short time thereafter succumbed to the small-pox,—a disease brought to Mexico by a negro in the army of Narvaez, and which had already carried off thousands of the natives. Citlahuatzin was succeeded by Cuauhtemoc, or Gautemotzin, the son of Ahuitzotzin, a Tlatelolcan.

Cuauhtemoc, the last Tlaca-tecuhtli of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, was the most popular warrior of his race, and threw his whole soul into the cause of the people. And he still has a firm hold upon the affections of the Mexican people. A bust of him—its pedestal containing inscriptions on one side in the Nahuatl tongue, on the other in Spanish, reciting his "heroic defense of the city of Tenochtitlan"—adorns the banks of the Viga at a point a short distance from the Mexican capital; and a beautiful monument has been erected, in the Paseo de la Reforms, to him who is generally regarded as the last monarch of the Aztec empire. Mexicans even to-day contemplate his memory with enthusiastic admiration; and aver that if he had earlier been elevated to the chieftaincy, in the place of the pusillanimous Moteczuma, the Spaniards would never have succeeded in making the conquest of the country, the history of three centuries of Spanish rule in Mexico would never have been written, and the Aztecs would still be working out their own proper destiny among the great nations of the earth.

All things being in readiness, Cortes instituted a formal siege of Tenochtitlan. The first division of his army was under the command of Pedro de Alvarado, and was stationed at Tlacopan. The second division, under the command of Olid, was stationed at Cuyuacan, the terminus of one of the branches of the southern causeway. Tepeyacac ( Guadalupe) was the position taken up by the third division, under Gonzalo de Sandoval, The Captain-General reserved to himself the command of the brigantines. Ixtlilxochitl assisted in the command of the allied troops.

Cuauhtemoc was not idle. He strengthened his fortifications, increased the number of his canoes, supplied himself with provisions and cut off the causeways,—not admirable military proceedings, but a siege was unknown to Indian warfare, and Cuauhtemoc did the best that could be done under the system of war known to the Aztecs. He established his headquarters in Tlatelolco, where the deserted church of Santiago-Tlatelolco, with its adjoining ex-convent (now a military prison), remain the most conspicuous buildings in the northern portion of the city of Mexico.

The movements of the besieging army were necessarily slow. The fresh water supply from Chapultepec was first cut off. Thus thirst aided hunger among the Aztecs to win the battles of the Spaniards. By daily attacks, demolishing everything that opposed them, the Spaniards gradually hemmed the Aztecs into smaller and smaller quarters. The canals were filled up with debris, and the daily number of Indians killed was beyond computation. Still they fought with the desperation of men taking advantage of their last chance.

The great feat of the brigantines was the capture of Penon Viejo. What is now a conical hill some little distance from Lake Texcoco was then an occupied island in the lake. The brigantines bombarded it, and the forces under Cortes reduced it. The brigantines also destroyed all the canoes of the Aztecs and drove the enemy from the lake.

All offers of peace were rejected by the Aztecs. Starving and shrunken by disease, breathing the foul air from the bodies festering in the sun throughout the long summer of 1521, seeing their pueblo with its temples and houses disappear under the destructive hands of the Spaniards, and of their ancient enemies, the Tlaxcalans,—the Aztecs obeyed every word of their Chief-Warrior, and fought to the end. Tenochtitlan was in ruins, and only Tlatelolco remained. The whole campaign had lasted eight months, the formal siege eighty days, when on the 13th of August, 1521,—San Hipolito day,—a canoe was seen to leave Tlatelolco and start across the lake northerly. Chase was given by Garcia de Holguin in a brigantine, and the canoe being captured was found to contain Cuauhtemoc, his wife (a daughter of Moteczuma II.), and some of his principal warriors. They were all taken before Cortes, and were at first treated with the respect due to their high position, and the bravery with which they had withstood the attacks of the Spanish.

Thus was accomplished what is usually termed the Conquest of Mexico. It amounted to no more, however, than the occupation of a single pueblo, and the subjugation of the chief tribes in the land. It left other tribes to be conquered, though it placed in the hands of Cortes valuable strategic point whence the whole territory could be ruled.