The angry historians see one side of the question. The calm historians see nothing at all, not even the question itself. — G. K. Chesterton

Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober




The Destruction of the City

The very day after he had become firmly fixed in his position, Cortez himself made an assault upon the city, Alvarado and Sandoval approaching it from their respective camps. Eighty thousand allies assisted them, yet they barely succeeded in penetrating to the great square, where they were attacked by such numbers of Mexicans that they fell back in confusion, leaving a cannon in possession of the enemy. The forces of their allies daily increased, until they soon amounted to above two hundred and forty thousand. The King of Tezcoco at last joined forces with Cortez, sending him an army of fifty thousand men. Day by day, the surrounding tribes sent in their allegiance to Cortez, until at last the intrepid Mexicans were left alone to struggle single-handed against the common enemy of their country. When he felt that he had his troops well in hand Cortez made another attack upon the city, penetrating again—though over ditches and entrenchments valiantly defended—to the square. Ten thousand of the allies busied themselves in filling up the ditches in the causeway, while others destroyed the houses bordering it. Among the buildings demolished on that day were several temples, the great palace of Axayacatl (in which the Spaniards had been quartered on their first entry), and Montezuma's aviary, or house of birds. At this time was commenced that systematic tearing down of the structures of the city and the filling of the canals with the debris, that continued during the siege, and left little remaining of the splendid Aztec capital. A retreat to camp was with great difficulty effected, the Tlascallans carrying off the arms and legs of many Mexicans, which, we are told, they ate that night for their supper. It was impossible for Cortez to keep a garrison in the city to hold what he each day gained, owing to the fury of its defenders, so he instituted this system of daily advances from the outside posts, demolishing the buildings on the outskirts and laying waste as far as he went. Notwithstanding all his efforts to fill the ditches in the causeway, the Mexicans kept them open, removing everything at night that had been thrown into them during the day, and thus making them a great obstacle to a successful advance, and especially to a swift retreat.

The first to seriously feel the disastrous effect of an advance into the city, with open canals in the rear, were the troops of Alvarado, who, in the heat of pursuit, penetrated as far as the market-place. When they had drawn them far enough the Mexicans turned upon them in such numbers that they fled in confusion. In passing one of the ditches, nearly fifty feet in width, several Spaniards were taken, and at once hurried to the great temple and sacrificed. As this terrible scene was enacted in sight of the army, it had a most depressing effect upon the soldiers, and taught them to act more cautiously. In spite of this dreadful warning, however, the zeal of the allies, and the impatience of the soldiers to get the treasures of the city into their hands, overcame their prudence. After twenty days of constant skirmishing, in which the gains, though slight, were sure, the Spaniards, wearied of their slow progress, pressed Cortez for a general assault. A council of war was held; it was decided to advance, from the three different posts occupied by Cortez, Sandoval, and Alvarado, upon the city, with the object of meeting in the great square of the temple. All the Spanish forces, with over one hundred thousand of the allies, marched along the causeways, the brigantines and more than three thousand canoes protecting them on the flanks. Unknown to the Spaniards, the Mexicans had made elaborate preparations for their defeat. They had deepened the principal ditch, narrowed the causeway, and had posted a multitude of canoes in ambush near this difficult pass to sally out at a given signal to the attack. Induced by feigned retreats and the apparent cowardice of the Mexicans, the Spaniards eagerly pursued them as far as the great square, closely followed by their allies, wedged in dense masses upon the causeway. This was the moment for the wily Mexicans. Suddenly the sound of a trumpet issued from the temple of their war god. Inspired by this sound, the last call of the priests and nobles to arms, the Mexican troops burst forth from their places of concealment with incredible fury. The Spaniards and their allies could not resist this attack, and were at once thrown into confusion. At this fatal moment they saw the error they had committed, in allowing themselves to be drawn into the city without filling all the ditches that intersected the great causeway. Their allies only served to detain them in their retreat, and the Mexicans now slaughtered them without mercy. The canoes came out and fell upon their flank and rear, dragging the soldiers into the water, and hastening with them to the temple of sacrifice. Eighty were carried off in this manner, shrieking and vainly struggling in the clutches of their exulting foes. In the narrowest part of the pass Cortez was caught, was wounded in the leg, dragged from his horse, and came near being made a victim for sacrifice. If the enemy had not been so anxious to preserve him alive for an offering to their gods, but had only killed him when they had him in their power, the siege of Mexico might have ended then and there. But while they were dragging him away, a brave soldier flew to his defence. With one stroke of his sword he cut off the arm of one of the captors, and killed four others, falling at last while gallantly fighting. A valiant Tlascallan, named Temacatzin, so ably seconded the efforts of De Oli that Cortez was rescued, placed upon a horse and hurried away towards his camp, his major-domo, Cristoval de Guzman, falling into the hands of the enemy in his endeavor to save him.

With the shattered remains of his army the wounded and dejected general finally reached his quarters on the causeway at Xoloc, pursued by the infuriated Mexicans to the very gates of the fortress. More than a thousand of the allies and eighty or one hundred of the Spaniards were killed, and several boats, a piece of artillery, and seven horses were lost.

Alvarado and Sandoval had not attacked so briskly as Cortez, and the Mexican troops that had defeated the latter turned upon them before they reached the centre of the city. As they neared them they threw down five bleeding heads, telling them they were those of Cortez and his officers; then they attacked the discomfited Spaniards so desperately that they fell back in disorder. It was usual, in case of retreat, for the Spaniards to clear the causeway of their allies to prevent confusion; but at this time, says the old historian, it was not necessary, "the sight of the bloody heads had done it effectually, nor did one of them remain on the causeway to impede our retreat." Exulting in such a glorious victory, the Mexicans cleared their city entirely of the last enemy; they repaired their defences, and passed eight succeeding days in feastings and rejoicings. They threw into the camp of Cortez other fresh and bleeding heads, telling him they were those of Alvarado and Sandoval, which caused him great sorrow until he had ascertained by messengers that they were yet living.

The cause of this defeat was the same that had conduced to that former one of Alvarado—the neglect to fill up the canals as they advanced. Cortez sought to throw the blame upon one of his officers, though it undoubtedly lay at his own door. Now, in distress, with meagre food, and suffering from wounds, the Spaniards were obliged to rest upon their arms. The Mexicans carried on the sacrifices of their prisoners day after day, and the horrid sight was in full view of the whole army. We cannot do better than quote the relation of an eye-witness of those scenes, brave vernal Diaz. He was in the detachment commanded by Alvarado, which was the last attacked, and the nearest to the great pyramid on which the prisoners were sacrificed. "Before we arrived at our quarters, and while the enemy were pursuing us, we heard their shrill timbals and the dismal sound of the great drum, from the top of the principal temple of the god of war, which overlooked the city. Its mournful music was such as may be imagined is that of the infernal gods, and it might be heard at the distance of almost three leagues. They were then sacrificing the hearts of ten of our companions to their idols. Shortly after this the King of Mexico's horn was blown, giving notice to his captains that they were then to take their enemies prisoners, or die in the attempt. It is impossible to describe the fury with which they closed upon us when they heard this signal. Though all is as perfect to my recollection as if passing before my eyes, it is utterly beyond my power to describe; all I can say is, it was God's will that we should escape from their hands and get back in safety to our post. Praised be He for his mercies, now and at all other times!"

At another time, as the soldiers were sitting at rest, engaged in relating the events that had happened, their attention was attracted by the sound of the great war-drum, and looking up to the temple-pyramid they saw a procession of their unfortunate countrymen being driven up the winding stairs, with cuffs and blows. Their white skins served to distinguish them from the Indians, and they saw them, after being subjected to every insult, thrown upon the sacrificial stone, their hearts torn out and their bodies thrown clown the steps to the greedy people in waiting below. Their heads, arms, and legs were sent as trophies of Mexican valor to every tribe throughout Anahuac, with a warning to them to return to their allegiance unless they wished to be served in a similar manner. This so terrified the allies that they nearly all forsook Cortez and returned to their homes, all except a few of the bravest of the Tlascallan and Tezcocan nobles. At the suggestion of Prince Ixtlilxochitl, Cortez now changed his tactics, and came to the resolution to destroy the Mexicans by famine, rather than waste away his troops in fruitless attacks. The Mexican priests committed the great error of predicting the total destruction of the Spaniards within a certain number of days. Their gods had told them that within eight days they were to feast upon their flesh. But in this case the priests had assumed too much, they had made one prediction too many. They should not have assigned a limit to the time; for when Cortez heard of it he merely drew off his soldiers and rested during the entire period. As it expired, he caused the allies to be informed of it, and they came back, no longer having faith in Mexican forewarnings. Directly and indirectly (as we have seen) the priests were the cause of Mexico's downfall, even as they caused her repeated disaster in the centuries following her capture by the Spaniards.

Had not famine come to the aid of the besiegers it is doubtful if they would have so soon marched through the streets of Mexico as they did. Boats and brigantines kept constant watch about the doomed capital, preventing access to water and provisions. The Mexicans were fully as well versed as their foes in the mysteries of stratagem; they were their equals in bravery, superior to them even in the reckless disregard of their lives in defence of their homes. Had their weapons of defence been equal to those of the Spaniards, the history of Mexico would to-day be a different one from what it is. They early displayed their talent for the laying of ambuscades, into which the Spanish troops often fell, greatly to their loss. They now prepared a successful ambuscade for the brigantines, those large vessels which annoyed them so much on the lake, along the causeways, and around the borders of the city. They constructed some very large canoes, called periaguas, covered with thick plank. These they filled with fighting-men and concealed among the floating gardens in a portion of the lake where the Spanish vessels were cruising to intercept canoes coming from the mainland with provisions. In front of their ambuscade they drove large stakes, deep enough beneath the surface to be out of sight, and yet forming an obstruction upon which the brigantines would founder or stick fast. They then sent out small canoes as decoys, and when the brigantines pursued them they soon ran afoul of these sunken stakes; then, when they were in this helpless condition, the periaguas sallied out and did great mischief. They killed the captains of two vessels and wounded nearly all the crew before they could be extricated and the cannon on hoard brought into play. Attempting this again soon after, they were themselves drawn into ambush and many of their canoes destroyed.

The intelligence that guided their operations seems to have been one superior to that which guided the Spaniards. With troops similar in number and equipment, Guatemotzin would have been more than a match for Cortez. If we read of any brilliant movement or piece of strategy executed by the Spaniards, we shall find upon examination that it was suggested by their observation of the superior skill of the Mexicans.

Among the prisoners captured at the second attack of the canoes were several nobles, who were sent by Cortez to Guatemotzin with a message of peace. They undertook this commission unwillingly, declaring that the fierce king would have them instantly put to death; but, though much enraged at them for bringing him such proposals, he spared their lives, and sent them back to Cortez with a message of defiance.

About this time news came from Cuernavaca and other frontier towns that the Malinalchese, instigated by the messengers of the Mexicans who had been sent to them with the heads of the Spaniards, were marching upon the besiegers with a large army. These were met and defeated by two detachments, and thus the last hope of the Mexicans of aid from without was taken from them. Their condition was most deplorable; they were now "forsaken by all their friends, surrounded by enemies, and oppressed by famine." Not only the Spaniards were arrayed against them, but nearly every native kingdom and republic lying between the sea and the gulf. Still they were undismayed, and to the overtures of peace sent them by the Spaniards returned only answers breathing defiance and threatenings of the vengeance they would take upon them when their gods should have delivered them into their hands.

The Tlascallan chief, Chichimecatl, made restless by the delay of the Spaniards to attack, one day entered the city with his own troops, carefully guarding the great ditch by his archers, and after a protracted fight, made good his retreat, covered with glory, to the Spanish camp. The Mexicans revenged themselves for this insult by a night attack upon Alvarado, which, however, was repulsed with little loss. Just at this time, when their powder was running low, a ship arrived at Vera Cruz with a fresh supply, and, thus recruited, Cortez again commenced an advance into the city.

As he advanced he destroyed every building, leaving not one behind him. One hundred and fifty thousand allies accompanied him and performed this work of destruction. As these misguided wretches were employed at this work of demolition, the Mexicans taunted them: "Demolish, ye traitors," they shouted, "lay those houses in ruin, for afterwards you will have the labor of rebuilding them." And, in truth, they did; though the Spaniards conquered, upon the allies who so faithfully assisted them fell the labor of reconstruction. Early were they made to feel the weight of the chains they were unwittingly forging for their own limbs!

On the twenty-fourth day of July the Spaniards obtained possession of the great road passing through the city from Iztapalapa to Tacuba, and three-fourths of the city was now in their hands. A few days later Cortez joined with Alvarado and Sandoval, as they came in from the other sides, and had the inexpressible satisfaction of completing this junction of forces, which he had so often attempted in vain. A great canal separated them from the district of Tlaltelolco, to which the besieged were now confined. In one of the temples, destroyed in the progress of the march, they discovered the heads of many of their soldiers, the hair and beards of which, says an old veteran, were much grown since placed in position on the beams of the Place of Skulls.

Repeated demands were made of the Mexicans to surrender, but they as often replied that they would continue the defence so long as one of them remained alive. Four days passed, during which crowds of wretched men, women, and children, emaciated and dying of hunger, came to the Spaniards and gave themselves up. The warriors were still unsubdued; by night and by day they made their assaults, but they were so exhausted by hunger that they accomplished little harm. At last Cortez gave the signal for a general assault, by the firing of a musket, and the eager troops and ferocious Indian allies fell upon the unarmed and half starved wretches so fiercely that in one day twelve thousand, and in another forty thousand, perished. The common people were ready to surrender, though thousands of them were butchered as they fell into the hands of their enemies; but the priests and nobles, headed by their indomitable king, refused to submit. They prayed for death; "If you are the child of the sun," said they to Cortez, "why are you so slow in delivering us from our calamities by death? "

Cortez sent to Guatemotzin an embassy with a present of provisions, and asking for a conference, but though returning assuring answers, that wily monarch was unwilling to trust his person within reach of one who had always hated him, and who had caused the murder of his uncle, Montezuma, though professedly his friend. Cortez promised him plenitude of power and honors if he would but surrender and thus terminate the bloody siege; but Guatemotzin only retreated farther into the fortified portion of his diminished capital, and stubbornly refused to listen to his words. Artillery was then brought up and trained upon the defenceless people crowded in the streets and beneath the porticoes of the buildings, and the allies again glutted their rage upon helpless men and women, who threw themselves into the canals, which became purple with the blood of the slain. In misery and woe they were perishing by thousands, when it became known that the emperor, Guatemotzin, had escaped. The Mexican nobles had prepared canoes in which to flee, as a last resort, but Cortez had anticipated such a measure, and had ordered Sandoval, in command of the lake forces, to seize these boats and watch sharply for the royal barge itself. At the last moment, when defence was no longer possible, after he had exhausted every resource his ingenuity could suggest in resistance, the emperor, Guatemotzin, allowed himself to be led into a periagua, which, in company with about fifty others, set sail for the main land. Notice was at once conveyed to Sandoval, who was actively engaged in tearing down the houses, and who immediately despatched his swiftest vessel in pursuit. It soon came up with the royal barge, which was distinguished by its awnings and structure, and its captain, Garcia de Holguin, received the surrender of the ill-fated Emperor of the Aztecs. Guatemotzin had with him the King of Tacuba, Coanoctzin, the deposed King of Tezcoco, and other persons of rank, together with his wife and children. Entreating for them the consideration of the Spaniards, he took his queen by the hand and entered the brigantine.

From the terrace of a temple Cortez had witnessed the flight, the pursuit, and the capture. He awaited anxiously the arrival of the monarch, and as he came before him embraced him with the greatest show of affection. The unhappy emperor, laying his hand upon a dagger that Cortez wore at his girdle, begged him to deprive him of the life which he should have lost in defence of his people, and which was no longer of value to him; "I have done, Malintzin, that which was my duty in the defence of my kingdom and my people; my efforts have been of no avail, and now, being brought by force to you a prisoner, draw that poniard from your belt and stab me to the heart." This he said with tears in his eyes and baring his breast to receive the fatal thrust. Cortez tried to reassure him, promising him his liberty in due season and a return of all the greatness which he had lost. Better had it been for the great-hearted emperor had his wish been carried into effect at that time, for he was reserved for torture and a disgraceful death by hanging, at the hands of this same deceitful captor! What he would not ask for himself he begged for his people, entreating Cortez that he would put a stop to the slaughter still going on. This he did, and when the bloodthirsty allies had been restrained, the miserable remnant of Mexico's once-numerous population was allowed to file out of the plague-smitten city into the country.

[A. D. 1521.] With the fall of Guatemotzin fell the capital, and the little resistance until then offered ceased. It was at the hour of vespers, on the thirteenth of August, 1521, that this was effected, and the Spaniards found themselves in possession of the prize for which they had so long and so desperately striven. That night, the soldiers fell back to their old posts, on the outskirts of the city, which they had occupied during the seventy-five days of the siege. Many thousands of the allies had been killed, and of their own number above one hundred had been killed and sacrificed. An immense number of the Mexicans perished, according to the best authorities, not less than one hundred thousand, and of the survivors there were few that were not afflicted with wounds and disease, the result of pestilence and famine. "I have read," says the soldier-historian, Diaz, "of the destruction of Jerusalem, but I cannot conceive that the mortality there exceeded this of Mexico; for all the people from the distant provinces which belonged to this empire had concentrated themselves here, where they mostly died. The streets, the squares, the houses and the courts of Tlaltelolco were covered with dead bodies; we could not step without treading on them; the lake and canals were filled with them, and the stench was intolerable. For this reason, our troops, immediately after the capture of the royal family, retired to their quarters."

In order to cleanse the city the inhabitants were ordered into the country, the decaying corpses were buried, and great fires were kindled to purify the air. "For three days and nights the causeways were full, from one end to the other, of men, women, and children so weak and sickly, squalid and dirty and pestilential, that it was misery to behold them. Some miserable wretches were creeping about in a famished condition through the deserted streets; the ground was all broken up to get at the roots of such vegetation as it afforded, the very trees were stripped of their bark, and there was no water in the town. . . . During all their distress, however, though their constant practice was to feast on such as they took prisoners, no instance occurred of their having preyed upon each other; yet certainly there never existed since the creation a people which suffered so much from hunger, thirst, and warfare."

"Thus," says another historian, "did Providence, in conducting the Spaniards, a polished nation of Europe, to overturn the rude monarchy of the Mexicans, in America, punish the latter for the injustice, cruelty, and superstition of their ancestors. But there the victors, in one year of merciless massacre, sacrificed more human victims to avarice and ambition than the Indians during the existence of their empire had devoted in worship to their native gods. There the legislative art of Europe corrected the bloody policy of American tribes, and introduced the ministry of justice, by despoiling Indian caciques of their territories and tributes, torturing them for gold and enslaving their posterity. There the mild parental voice of the Christian religion was suborned to terrify confounded savages with the malice of a strange, and by them unprovoked, God and her gentle arm in violence lifted up, to raze their temples and hospitable habitations, to ruin every fond relic and revered monument of their ancestry and origin, and divorce them in anguish from the bosom of their country."

The plunder obtained did not come up to the expectations of the conquerors, and as the best part of the gold and treasure was sent to the King of Spain, the poor soldiers came out of this long and trying siege with nothing but wounds and sickness as their reward. The allies were dismissed well laden with plunder of garments and feathers, and with magnificent promises from Cortez of what he would later do for them. What he did  do was to compel them to rebuild the city and labor for his enrichment!

At the quarters in Coyoacan a great feast was held, at which the soldiers "swore they would buy horses with golden harness, and the cross-bow men would use none but golden arrows." This was while they were under the influence of wine; but when they returned to their senses they discovered that their condition was but little better than that of their allies. When the revel was ended "the crucifixes and the image of Our Lady were borne in solemn procession, with drums and standards; the litany was sung during the ceremony; Fra. Bartholome preached and administered the sacrament, and we returned thanks to God for our victory." In this manner was the divine blessing invoked upon the destruction of a nation and the murder of millions.