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A Brief History of Mexico
Part Two: The Conquest
By Steven Alexander
In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the “New World” and promptly claimed all of it in the name of God and the king and queen of Spain. The Spanish built a home base in Cuba from which to explore their new lands and, in 1517, an expedition of three ships was sent to the Yucatan Peninsula.
Upon landing, the leader of that first expedition to Mexico read a copy of a royal proclamation called the Requirement of 1513 to the local Mayan natives…in Spanish. In summary, the requirements were these: Our God is the one true God; you will accept him and renounce all others. The king and queen of Spain are your rulers; you will obey their every command.
The requirement went on to state:
But if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their highnesses; we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him: and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.
The Mayans were unimpressed. They killed all the Spaniards who ventured ashore. Only a handful of sailors managed to make the journey home to Cuba.
One year later, a larger and more well-armed expedition was sent to the Yucatan. They mapped the western side of the Yucatan Peninsula and established a beachhead safely north of Mayan territory, in an area that later became the port city of Veracruz. They made friends with the local Nahua people, left a few missionaries behind and sailed back to Cuba to report tales of a fabulously rich civilization that lay inland, less than two hundred miles from the coast.
The third expedition was that of Hernan Cortes, a 34-year-old Spanish adventurer, who sailed to Mexico in 1519. Cortes was a nobleman by birth, a dilettante and a ne’er-do-well with an engaging and charming personality. He had come to the New World looking for a little adventure and a chance to make his fortune. Cortes and the governor of Cuba were initially partners in this enterprise of exploration but, at the last moment, the governor had misgivings about Cortes and ordered him to stay in port. Cortes sailed anyway, with a fleet of 11 ships, an army of 500 men, 15 horses and 15 cannons.
Cortes was warmly received in Veracruz and presented with a gift of 20 slave girls, one of whom particularly caught his attention. She was a beautiful young Nahua woman named Malintzi, who had been born to noble parents but sold into slavery at a young age. Malintzi spoke both Nahuatl and Mayan and, with Cortes’ guidance, became an eager student of Spanish. She became Cortes’ inseparable companion and, eventually, the mother of his son, Martin. Cortes spoke to the natives through her and counseled her advice. Her hatred for her own people, who had deprived her of her birthright and sold her into slavery, may have led to some of the vengeful cruelties perpetrated by the Spanish against the Aztecs. In Mexican lore, she became known as “La Malinche.” The term is still used to refer to a treacherous woman or a native woman who takes up with a European man
With La Malinche at his side, Cortes marched off into the mainland in search of the fabled city of Tenochitlan, the Aztec capital. Before leaving Veracruz, Cortes had his fleet of ships sunk. There would be no turning back.
In order to get to Tenochtitlan, Cortes had to pass through Tlaxcala. The Tlaxcalans were a warlike and fiercely independent people who had never been conquered by the Aztecs. They attacked the Spaniards and put a pretty good fight for a while. But bows and arrows, darts and spears were no match for the rifles and cannons that Cortes had at his disposal. Following a series of skirmishes over a two-week period, the Tlaxcalans surrendered and joined forces with the Spaniards.
Cortes pushed ahead on his journey to Tenochtitlan. As his small army approached the Aztec ceremonial city of Cholula, Malintzi learned of a plot by their Cholulan hosts to capture and kill Cortes. Of course, she told him about it. In response to this threat, Cortes decided to make the city an example of his power for all the Aztecs to see. He marched his army of Spaniards and Tlaxcalans into the central plaza during a celebration…and opened fire. Thousands of unarmed Cholulans were killed, including women and children. The city was burned and ransacked and the temples were destroyed by cannon fire.
Cortes invited the Cholulan survivors to join him. Many did. And as the march continued, more natives joined along the way. By the time they reached the shores of Lake Tezcoco, where Tenochtitlan was located, Cortes’ force of 500 Spaniards was bolstered by a 3000-man native army eager to take revenge on their Aztec oppressors.
The Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, had been aware of the Spanish within days of their arrival on the coast. Runners had brought the news to him at Tenochtitlan. They had trouble describing what they had seen: strange-looking men with white skin and bearded faces, houses that floated on the water, weapons that shot lightning, soldiers riding the backs of creatures that looked like deer. Moctezuma consulted with his priests and advisors. Some told Moctezuma to kill the strangers, while others suggested they were gods from the east, whose arrival had long been predicted. With an army of 10,000 men at his disposal, Moctezuma could have easily overwhelmed the Cortes expedition. Instead, Moctezuma had decided to do nothing and see what happened. Now he had an army of invaders on his doorstep.
While the natives camped on the shores of Lake Tezcoco, Cortes and the Spaniards met Moctezuma on a causeway leading to the city, which was built on islands in the lake. According to the historical accounts of their meeting, Moctezuma gave Cortes some gold trinkets and politely asked him to leave, while Cortes replied that he wanted more gold. This demand was quite perplexing to the Aztecs, who considered gold to be little more than a novelty item, something they used as a paint to adorn wood carvings. To them, cocoa beans were a much more valued commodity. They really didn’t have much gold.
Since the Spanish weren’t going to leave, Moctezuma invited them to be his guests in Tenochtitlan. He was a good host. The Spaniards were accommodated in a lavish palace and given a grand tour of the city, including the twin temples where the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice on a massive scale. Although the Spaniards came from a place and time in which the Inquisition was raging -- where people were routinely burned alive -- they were appalled at the sight of a beating heart being ripped from the body of a sacrificial victim.
Moctezuma and Cortes were playing a game much like chess. The Spaniards found themselves virtual prisoners, cut off from their native army and surrounded by a city of 250,000 Aztecs. While Moctezuma and his advisors plotted to capture and disarm the Spanish, Cortes plotted the kidnapping of the Aztec emperor. The Spanish acted first. They entered the emperor’s palace and took him captive. Check and mate…just like that.
With the emperor under threat of death, the general population of Tenochtitlan was subdued. Cortes set about to fulfill his primary objective and obsession…to find the gold of the Aztecs. But there was a new complication. Word had reached Cortes that a new expedition from Cuba had landed at Veracruz. The new expedition included about 1000 soldiers, horses, cannons and gunpowder. They also had a warrant from the governor of Cuba for Cortes’ arrest. Cortes took most of his men and headed for the coast to deal with the situation, leaving one of his officers, Alvarez, in charge of a small garrison of less than 100 soldiers to maintain guard over Moctezuma and the city.
In Veracruz, Cortes actually attacked the larger force that had arrived from Cuba. It was a sneak attack at night. Following a short skirmish, Cortes captured the leader of the expedition, the man who had come to arrest him. They talked things over and agreed to join forces to solidify Cortes’ hold on the Aztec capital.
Meanwhile, back in Tenochtitlan, Alvarez had really botched things. The more sympathetic historical accounts say he was determined to stop human sacrifice and enraged the general population when he attacked a sacrificial ceremony. The less sympathetic accounts say he enraged the citizenry by foraging throughout the city, looking for gold. In either case, the natives were indeed restless. Cortes and his newly reinforced army of Spaniards arrived back in Tenochtitlan to find a city descending into chaos. Cortes brought forth the emperor to speak to the masses and quell the disorder. As Moctezuma pleaded for peace, he was greeted by a volley of stones thrown from the crowd. He died a few days later…and all hell broke loose.
With nothing but a dead emperor to hold as hostage, the Spaniards found themselves in an untenable position. Retreat was their only option. Cortes and his men attempted to make their escape from Tenochtitlan under cover of darkness but they were discovered and had to fight their way out of town. Half the Spaniards were killed. When the survivors finally stopped to rest, Cortes is said to have sat under a tree and cried. This is known as the “La Noche Triste” (The Sad Night) in Mexican history, although few Mexicans actually have much sympathy for Hernan Cortes.
The Spaniards took refuge in Tlaxcala and made plans to attack Tenochtitlan. Cortes decided they would lay siege to the city. In order to do this, they would have to control not only the three causeways that led to the city but the many waterways as well. So they built a fleet of 13 brigantines, each one capable of holding 25 men with firearms and a single cannon. It took three months to build the ships. When they were finished, they loaded the brigantines onto log rollers and hauled them over a mountain range and then down the other side to the shores of Lake Tezcoco.
In May of 1521, the siege began. The aqueducts that supplied fresh water to the city were destroyed. The brigantines were launched to patrol the lake and prevent supplies from coming in by the water. The Spaniards occupied the causeways and slowly fought their way toward the city.
The siege lasted 80 days. In that time, half the population of Tenochtitlan died. Although some died in the fight and some died by starvation, most died from the diseases that the Spanish had brought with them to the New World. The native people had no resistance to these foreign diseases and, with the city locked down tight, epidemic waves of smallpox, influenza, measles and whooping cough spread rampantly through the general population of Tenochtitlan.
On August 13, 1521, Tenochtitlan surrendered. The new emperor, Cuauhtemoc, was captured while trying to flee in a canoe. Cortes had Cuautemoc tortured in order to make him convert to Christianity…and to tell where the gold was hidden. Although his captors literally held his feet to the fire, the 18-year-old Cuautemoc bravely resisted all attempts to make him convert or to tell where the gold was stashed. He protested that there was no gold. He was later hung. Today, Cuauhtemoc is considered one of Mexico’s great heroic figures, revered for his resistance to the Spanish conquerors.
Tenochtitlan was leveled. Its fabulous temples, palaces, villas and gardens were reduced to rubble. Mexico City was built right on top of the remains of the Aztec capital. The Metropolitan Cathedral was erected on the exact site of the twin temples.
Once the Aztecs were defeated, Cortes was considered a hero and back in the good graces of both the king of Spain and the governor of Cuba. He was appointed the first governor of New Spain and presided over the colony’s rapid expansion. The native tribes to the north, who were mostly Nahua people, put up little resistance to the Spanish. But in the jungles and highlands to the south, the Mayans fought a guerrilla war against the Spanish invaders that lasted for 170 years. Some would say that war continues to this day.
Next Month: Part Three: Independence
Steven Alexander is a former journalist and award-winning sports writer. He is retired and lives in Ajijic.