There is thy gold, worse poison to men’s souls,
Doing more murder in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
When Cortés took Vera Cruz, he dismissed the authority of the Governor of Cuba and placed himself directly under the orders of King Charles of Spain. Leaving a hundred men in Vera Cruz, he then marched to the city-state of Tlaxcala where he thought the Tlaxcalans, as enemies of Mexico, would join him. Instead, they decided to fight Cortés and in doing so suffered significant losses. They agreed to join Cortés.
By mid-August of 1519 Cortès had begun the march on Tenochtitlan with 600 men, 15 horsemen, 15 cannon, and hundreds of indigenous warriors as well as about 3,000 Tlaxcalans.
Cholula, the second largest city in central Mexico, was Cortés next objective. In October La Malinche learned that the Cholulans planned to massacre Cortés army. When the Cholulan leadership and many of their warriors gathered, unarmed, in a great enclosure by the pyramid temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Spanish and the Tlaxcalans massacred thousands of the nobility, then partially burned the city. The massacre had a chilling effect, provoking other kingdoms and cities in Montezuma’s empire to submit to Cortés’ demands. Cortés would later claim that he wished to make an example of the Cholulans when he feared their treachery.
On November 8, 1519, Montezuma deliberately let the Spaniards march along the causeway leading into the City of Dreams, the island city of Tenochtitlán. Crowds gathered to gape at the Europeans and their horses. Montezuma was in a litter draped with fine cotton mantles and borne on the shoulders of the lords. He emerged from the litter and placed necklaces of gold and precious stones round Cortés’ neck. Cortés placed a necklace of pearls and cut glass around the neck of Montezuma, but was held back by two lords when he tried to embrace the emperor.
The Aztecs led the Spaniards into the heart of the city where Montezuma showered them with more gifts and then quartered them in sumptous apartments. The Aztecs knew about the massacre in Cholula and believed that the Spaniards could be irrationally and unpredictably cruel.
The gifts excited the Spaniards’ ambitions for plunder. They were also horrified by the Aztec rites of human sacrifice.
In his letters to King Charles, Cortés claimed to have learned the Aztecs considered him to be either an emissary of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl or Quetzalcoatl himself (this has been contested by some modern historians). Cortès had learned that on the coast the Aztecs had killed several Spaniards who had supported the Totonacs. At Tenochtitlán the Spaniards were vastly outnumbered and Cortès feared Montezuma was plotting to destroy them. He decided to take Montezuma hostage in his own palace and rule Tenochtitlán indirectly through him.
On November 16 Cortés placed the Aztec emperor under house arrest. Cortés was likely unaware that the Aztec king was losing power among his people. The Aztecs grew ever more resentful of the Spaniards’ attacks on their religion (such as putting Christian images on the great pyramid and attempting to destroy the Mexican idols) and their relentless demands for gold. Cortés held a ceremony to formalize Montezuma’s submission to the King of Spain.
Velázquez sent an expedition, led by Pánfilo de Narváez, to oppose Cortés. They arrived in Mexico in April 1520 with 1,100 men. Cortés surprised Narvaez on the coast, attacked his forces at night and defeated Narváez despite having been outnumbered. Cortés then convinced the remaining troops to join his in Tenochtitlán.
While Cortés was fighting Narvaez, the soldier he left in charge of the Tenochtitlán troops imprisoned two important Aztec leaders and killed several others and then ordered a massacre during the great Aztec spring festival of Huizilopochtli. Cortés returned in late June and within a few days the Aztecs cut the causeways and removed the bridges. The Spanish had no food supplies and there was an acute shortage of drinking water. Cortés forced Montezuma to try and pacify the Aztecs; Cortés was unaware that Montezuma had little credibility left among his people and the Spaniards were forced to protect Montezuma and his aide Itzquauhtzin from a barrage of stones and arrows.
The night of June 30-July 1 would become known among the Spanish as “the night of tears” (noche triste). Montezuma died on July 1 and the Spaniards threw the dead bodies of Montezuma and Itzquauhtzin out of the palace. The Aztecs took their leader’s body and burned it, berating it as they did so. The Spanish claimed Montezuma died of injuries as a result of the stoning. Others claim he was murdered once Cortés realized the Aztec leader had lost command of his people and was of no further use. When the Aztecs learned of the death of Montezuma and their other great lords, they closed in on the Spaniards, who attempted to flee across Tlacopan causeway. The Spanish column tried to press forward, their back guard was attacked. More than 600 Spanish were killed (some estimates ran to over 1,000). Many, probably, struggled under the weight of the gold they carried; several thousand Tlaxcalans were lost, too. There is a theory that the Aztecs did not completely destroy the Spanish army because they wanted more people to sacrifice.
Cortés retreated (without his artillery) north over the mountains to Tlaxcala.where he pacified his Indian allies and rebuilt his military force. The key to victory, he believed, was the lake and he set out to build a fleet of prefabricated boats that would be assembled at the lake. Cortés wrote a long letter to the King of Spain reassuring Charles that he would stop at nothing until he recouped His Majesty’s losses:
Meanwhile, the Aztecs cleaned the temple courtyards and again celebrated their fiestas. They elected a new king, Cuautemoc, an experienced leader in his mid-20s and the son of Montezuma’s uncle. The Aztecs thought the Spaniards were gone.
By the end of September, Aztecs started to die of smallpox, an unknown disease to them until then. The epidemic lasted 70 days, until late November, and killed thousands. It’s thought the disease came to Mexico via one of the Spaniard’s Cuban slaves; the soldier caught the disease from the slave and when the soldier was killed, an Aztec caught the disease while looting the soldier’s body. The Aztecs had no resistance and had no cure for it: an estimated 25 per cent of the Aztec population died.
At the end of December 1520 Cortés’ army laid siege to Tenochtitlán. Cortés began a policy of attrition, cutting off supplies and subduing the Aztecs’ allied cities. Still the Aztecs would not surrender and Cortés landed his forces in the south of the island and drove the 300,000 Aztecs to the northern part of city where they fought for 80 days.
The day Cuautemoc surrendered, the Spanish looted the city while their native allies took revenge against the Aztecs. Many people fled to the mainland by canoe.
With the capture of the last Aztec emperor in August 1521, the Aztec Empire disappeared. Renaming Tenochtitlán Mexico City, Cortés claimed it for Spain.
Today an estimated 1.5 million people speak at least one of the dialects of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.