Maya and Aztec

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations

Conquest of the Aztecs

Category: Aztec

Cortes First March to Tenochtitlan

Aztec calendarUpon arrival, Cortes founded a town and called it Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. At about the same time he had all ten of his ships scuttled and sank so that his followers could not escape Emperor Montezuma’s ambassaders eventually appeared in the Spanish camp. They brought with them some incredible gifts. On Cortes’ face they placed a ser­pent mask that was representative of the god Quetzalcoatl. It was made with inlaid turquoise, precious jewels with a gold disk m the center, and on his chest they fastened a vest of quetzal feathers. They placed a cloak with red bor­ders on his shoulders and placed a shield in his hands made out of gold and mother of pearl. Cortes is said to have replied, “This is all?”.

Soon, Cortes learned of the great discontent of Aztec rule by some of the other tribes. The Aztecs were overextended and their empire was rife with revolt. First, Cortes had the Totonac Indians begin imprisoning Moctezuma’s tax collec­tors. Next, he fought and defeated the Tlaxacalan Indians. The Tlaxacalans were aligned with the Tarascans of Michoacan and all were all bitter enemies of the Aztecs. After defeating the Tlaxacalans with superior weapons, they joined Cortes by sending him 20.000 Indian recruits. Together they marched toward the Valley of Mexico. As they moved towards the town of Cholulan, large crowds began to swell off the sides of the roads No one had ever seen horses or bearded white men before. They fought and defeated the Cholulans. Then, they climbed between the snow capped volcanoes of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl before sweeping down on Tenochtitlan.

As they moved down the Great Causeway between Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco. Cortes’ men could hardly believe their eyes. Many cities were built both on water and dry land. Beautiful stone mason towers and build­ings appeared to rise out of the water. After they arrived at the town of Iztapalapa they were given lodging. The Spaniards could not believe the beauty of the palaces. They were built of beautiful stone work, cedar wood, and other scented trees. There were beautiful courtyards, and great rooms covered with awnings of cotton cloth. Here, for the first time they saw a variety of previously unknown trees, flowers, and birds. Canoes could enter the garden from the lake by way of an opening that had been carved. The next day they boldy continued their march down the Great Causeway. Now, the streets were so crowded they could hardly pass, but Cortes knew no fear. Bravely, he contin­ued, and soon Montezuma’s Caciques (lords) rode out to meet them. Finally, Montezuma appeared seated on a litter adorned in a rich canopy of green Quetzal feathers, and gold anad silver embroidery, with pearls, emeralds, and other stones suspended from the bordering. The soles of his sandals were made of gold, and the upper part was adorn in precious jewels. The Great Montezuma took Cortes by hand and led him to the apartment where he would be lodged. Then he placed a beautiful necklace of golden crabs around Cortes’ neck. Montezuma quickly pledged submission, and embraced the Catholic faith


Aztec warriorsCortes and his men found Tenochtitlan to be an amazing city. Everything was well made and cemented Gardens were full of flowers and scented trees. Full time gardeners worked to make sure everything was well maintained. An aviary was maintained for breeding purposes so that the feathers would be available at all times. They had birds in every color and size, including eagles, flamingos, and parrots. Some had as many as five brilliant colors. Quetzal feathers were the most prized, and they were reserved for royalty. When the time was right, the workers would pluck the feathers and they would grow new ones. In another house they maintained a zoo of carnivorous beasts of prey.

The tigers, jaguars, and jackals made so much noise that it bothered the conquistadors The Spanish marveled at the great marketplace called Tlatelolco and could not believe the number of people and the quantity of merchandise. Cortes found merchants selling gold, silver, precious stones, embroi­dery, lumber, animal skins, fruits and vegetables, tobacco, dyes for textiles, and feather work. Slaves, both men and women were for sale in large numbers. They were brought in on long poles with collars around their necks so that they couldn’t escape.

Even more incredible were the temples of worship. The Great Cue or Templo Mayor as it is now called, was the site of mass human sacrifices It was also the highest point in the city. 114 steps to the top. At the top. there was a small plaza with as­sortment of large stones on which they placed the Indians for sacrifice. When Cortes and his men arrived here for the first time a great number of sacrifices had just occured. Then, when Montezuma took him into a hall to see his gods they found hearts burning in braziers with incense. There were two very large altars, and on each alter were two giant figures that were both very tall and fat One was of Huichilobos, their god of war. Huichilobos had a very broad face, monstrous eyes, and it was covered in precious jewels, gold, and pearls Another was the brother of Huichilobos called Tezcatepuca. Tezcatepuca was the god of Hell. He had a face like a bear and eyes made of mirrors. They had a very large drum in the middle of the chambers that beat continually. All of the Cues or Temples in the city were manned by priests in robes of long black cloth and long hoods. The hair of the priests was very long and matted, and their eyes scarified. These priests wielded enor­mous influence over the people. Priests were believed to have received special powers from the gods. They were called on to intervene in almost every crisis big or small. Idols filled most of the temples, other temples contained bones, still others were where the great princes were buried, all were of full blood and smoke, and smelled horribly. The smoke came from both incense (copal) and the burning of the sacrificial hearts

Since their arrival, Christian Spaniards had held daily Mass. but did not have a permanent place. They asked Montezuma if they could build a church and he agreed. It was during this process that one of his men named Alonzo Yanes discovered a doorway that had been plastered over. The Spaniards had heard a rumor that the building contained the great treasures of Montezuma’s father Axayaca. Secretly, Cortes had the door opened. Cortes and some of his Captains entered first and they couldn’t believe their eyes. They found slabs and plated of gold, emeralds, and other jewels in great number. None of them had ever before seen such great riches. Very soon afterward, two TIaxcalan In­dians arrived with letters from the Villa Rica. Six soldiers had been killed and the Mexicans were rebelling. The letters continued, “They no longer believed them to be Idols or Teules sent by Quetzatcoatal”.

It was at this time that the Spaniards decided to come up with a plan. They were highly outnumbered and totally sur­rounded They decided to kidnap Montezuma Cortes sent word that they were coming for a visit because Cortes was upset about what had happened at Villa Rica. After Cortes kidnapped Montezuma, they kept him captive m the Spanish quarters and allowed him to keep his women. Also, he was to be treated with respect Twenty of his chiefs were allowed to stay in his company and hold their offices tending to government business Later. Montezuma was caught plotting the Spanish overthrow. They threw him in chains, burning some of his favorite captains to death. Montezuma roared in anger.

Cortes’ captains insisted that the treasures of Axayaca be divided up immediately. The gold alone was valued over 600.000 pesos. First, they took out the royal fifth for His Majesty the King, then Cortes insisted on a fifth plus the expenses of the expedition. Captains, soldiers with horses, musketeers, and crossbow-men received double shares. Cortes also included his seventy men stationed in Villa Rica. Some of the lowest people only received a hundred pesos. By the time it was all divided up, many of the soldiers felt like Cortes had it all.

Cortes was forced to leave for the coast and meet an expedition sent by Gover­nor Velazquez that was coming to arrest him. In his absence, his lieutenant Pedro de Atvarado ordered an unprovoked attack on a group of chiefs who were singing and dancing at a religious festival honoring Huitzilopochtli. Soon afterwards, the Spaniards came under ferocious attacks from the Aztecs. The Aztecs were so thick that single gun shots killed as many as ten. They hurled darts, stones, arrows, and attacked with long lances. When Cortes returned, he and his men set fire to the Templo Mayor and the chamber that contained the brother gods Huichilobos and Tezcatepuc. Finally, as a last resort, he took Mon­tezuma to a rooftop and had him tell his people that if they would stop fighting then the Spanairds would leave Mexico. They responded by telling Montezuma that they were sorry, but they had already appointed his replacement, his nephew, and that the war must be carried through. They had hardly finished speaking when a shower of darts and stones were thrown. Montezuma was hit by three stones, one in the head, one in the arm. and the other in the leg He was dead. The Spanairds waited for the cover of night, and then fled Tenochtitlan, leaving a trail of dead bodies behind them. At least eighty TIaxcalans who were hauling Cortes’ gold and treasure made it out alive.

Strengthened by Spanish reinforcements from Cuba, and thousands of Indians determined to destroy their old master the Aztecs. Cortes returned again in December, 1520. This time he was again repelled. Next, Cortes had thirteen launches constructed out of new lumber and metal parts of the boats he had scuttled. This task required a tremen­dous amount of labor (8.000 TIaxcalans). Then he received the news that he needed to hear, a boat had arrived filled with merchandise, muskets, powder, crossbows and crossbow strings. Quickly, he sent his men to buy everything from the owner Juan de Burgos. Again, Cortes asked his friends the Tlaxcalans for help. This time he asked for 10,000 warriors and he was told he could have them and more if he wished.

As they descended into the Valley of Mexico, they could see large smoke signals. A little farther down the road, they came across squadrons of Mexican and Texcocan warriors. They were soon defeated by the Spaniards. Cortes set up his headquarters in Texcoco. For each launch he assigned twelve crossbow-men and musketeers, twelve rowers (six on each side), a captain, and a artilleryman with a cannon. He also loaded the boats with gunpowder, guns and falconets. All men were dressed in quilted armour, with neck guards, head pieces, and leggings and shields to protect them against the javelins, stones, arrows, and lances. Each ship captain was matched with a land captain. There were so many Tlaxcalans that their entry into Texcoco took three hours. They were waving banners, and car­ried bows and arrows, spear throwers, javelins, and two handed swords. As they marched, drums pounded and they chanted. “Castile, Castile, Tlaxcala, Tlaxcala and Long live the Emperor our Master.” All were adorn in feathered head-dresses. They were seeking justice for their friends and family members who had been killed by the Aztecs.

CuauhtemocThe first thing that Cortes did was cut off the city’s supply of water that flowed from Lake Chapultepec. The Aztecs were waiting for him. At once, they came under a heavy rain of arrows from canoes that were filled with warriors. Next, they took off in the launches and attacked Iztapalapa. Smoke signals went up everywhere warning the other vil­lages on the lake. After defeating the people of Iztapalapa, they burned the city to the ground. With the help the launches they were able to pass where the Aztecs had removed the bridges and continued toward Tenochtitlan.

Cortes and his men fought for four months, burning everything in their sights. Soon, the Aztecs started becoming discouraged. Then, people began to fill the streets of Tenochtitlan dying of hunger. They began scavenging for food, roots, and firewood. They eventually ate all the bark off of the trees. Finally, Montezuma’s nephew Cuauhtemoc surren­dered on August 13, 1521. For a brief time Cortes was master of the Aztec Empire, which he renamed the Kingdom of New Spain. The Crown rewarded Cortes by making him the Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, and the tribute of 23.000 vassals. He lived like a king. Then in 1539, he returned to Spain to live in seclusion to Seville. He died in 1547, some say as a bitter, poor man. His money gone from poor in­vestments and constant litigation.

Due to disease, only a third of the people of Tenochtitlan survived the first year. In the first hundred years of Spanish rule, only a tenth of the population remained. They died from diseases introduced to them by the Europeans. Among the diseases were measles, small pox, pneu­monia, and mumps. In return, as early as Columbus’ second voyage the conquistadors were introduced to syphilis, which was said to have wiped out entire armies in Europe.

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