Hernán Cortés, who led arguably the most fascinating, most consequential, and most harrowing special operations campaign in history, was born in Medellin, Spain, seven years before the first New World voyage of Christopher Columbus. As seems to be common for historical figures renowned for their military accomplishments in later life, he is often described as having been small and weak as a boy. When he was 14, his father, a retired infantry officer, sent him off to a live with an uncle, study Latin, and prepare for a career as a notary and lawyer.
But he was apparently a restless young man, and after a couple of years during which he actually did learn enough law to be of use later in his career as a conquistador (with a need to legally defend his actions), he went back to Medellin, where he soaked up stories of the New World and decided to go there. His family helped him make arrangements to sail with a relative, but young Hernando injured himself while hastily escaping from the window of a married woman he’d been, uh, visiting, and his departure was postponed. After a year of wandering and hanging out and probably getting in more trouble, he finally departed for Hispaniola in 1504. He did well in the capital of the Hispaniola colony as a landowner, and he served as a notary. But Cortés had a restless nature and a desire for action, and when expeditions were raised to conquer the rest of Hispaniola, and then Cuba, Cortés was among those eager for the fight.
It was during the conquest of Cuba that Cortés began his rocky relationship with Diego Velazquez, who became governor of the newly conquered country. In Hispaniola and Cuba, Cortés had greatly impressed Velazquez, and he was well rewarded with land grants and slaves, as well as a high position for a man in his mid twenties. Cortés had it made. The colony was sure to grow and as an early colonist, he’d prosper as the colony grew. Velazquez appointed Cortés his secretary and Cortés also became a municipal magistrate and labor contractor for his slaves. He prospered and gained power and influence, and learned how to manage people and affairs. He also flirted with political trouble, which made Governor Velazquez nervous about his popularity. And Cortés was still flirting with the ladies—including a couple of the governor’s sisters-in-law.
In the spring of 1518, Juan de Grijalva, a relative of Velazquez and friend of Cortés, led an expedition along the eastern coast and islands of Mexico. This was the second exploration party to venture forth from Cuba. The first expedition, under command of Francisco Hernandez, was not a total disaster, but it was a terrible ordeal filled with costly clashes with warlike locals and a lack of fresh water. In both of the early expeditions, the Spanish were surprised to find a material culture far more developed than could be found in Hispaniola and Cuba, and they were deeply shocked by the evidence of cannibalism and human sacrifice almost everywhere that there were people.
While Grijalva was exploring, Cortés lived in his house. After the expedition, when Velazquez decided to appoint Cortés to lead another exploration and colonizing expedition—this time into the interior of Mexico—Cortés used Grijalva’s house as a recruiting center, where he enlisted some of the men who had been with Grijalva on the previous expedition. Among the veterans of the Hernandez and Grijalva expeditions who signed on with Cortés was Bernal Diaz, a stalwart soldier who would eventually write the classic firsthand account of this amazing campaign, “The Conquest of New Spain.”
Cortés, recently married to one of Valazquez’s sisters-in-law, Catalina, went into debt preparing for this command. He was diligent and popular, with a good martial reputation stemming from the conquests of Hispaniola and Cuba, and a gift for persuasion. Sua sponte, volunteers flocked to him. Ships and crews were made ready. Supplies and soldiers, carpenters, priests, and a few cannons were embarked. There were only a few horses—most sources say 12 or 13—but there were plenty of willing horsemen. Charts and maps, food and water, weapons, powder, and medicine were shipped. Two captive young Maya men that the Hernandez expedition had kidnapped, adopted, and taught some Spanish were brought aboard to serve as interpreters. These interpreters didn’t exactly work out as planned. Ungrateful and disloyal wretches, one of them would die and the other would abscond as soon as he was on land where people spoke his own language. Kidnapped people can often be so ungrateful.
Cortés was preparing to cast off and join the rest of the fleet at another Cuban port when word came that old jealousies had risen up in Governor Velazquez, and that he had decided to rescind the commission he’d granted Cortés. Velazquez was eager to gain the most coveted status symbol a colonial governor of that era could attain—a terra firma mainland colony to add to his wealth and prestige. There was already a terra firma Spanish colony on the mainland, in Panama, and Bernal Diaz and his buddies had lived there before going to Cuba. Governor Velazquez wanted such a colony, but he did not want to give Cortés any share of the glory. When he learned that the governor was no longer supporting him, Cortés did the sensible thing: He mutinied. After uniting his little fleet, he put to sea and headed for Mexican waters.
Cortés left Cuba with 11 ships, approximately 600 men (including crews for the ships), a few small cannons, an unknown number of matchlock firearms that weren’t usable in rain or high humidity, 12 or 13 horses, and plenty of crossbows, pikes, and swords. Both horses and guns were initially very useful for the purpose of instilling “shock and awe” in opponents, but those opponents—and even the allies of the Spanish started out as opponents—soon learned the limits of the guns, and discovered that, in the right hands, the wooden Mexican sword edged with obsidian was capable of decapitating that fearsome new animal, the horse. At this stage of Old World weapons technology, crossbows were still more reliable and accurate than guns.
The Cortés expedition initially retraced parts of the previous Hernandez and Grijalva expeditions. Stopping at an island where the Hernandez expedition had been forced to leave behind a prized greyhound bitch when attacked by an overwhelming force while trying to fill their water barrels, the men were delighted to be happily greeted by that dog, who had apparently not just survived, but actually thrived. They made a landing in Mayan lands on Cozumel Island, which had been visited by the Grijalva expedition, and there they learned of two Spaniards who had survived a shipwreck years before and had not been sacrificed and eaten along with their fellow shipwreck survivors.
Cortés had cooperative local people deliver letters to the two men, telling them that their countrymen were here to rescue them. One of the two had gone native, started a family, submitted to facial tattooing, and established himself as the military leader of the people who had taken him in. Seeing no future for himself in Spanish society, he refused rescue. The other survivor, Franciscan priest Geronimo de Aguilar, had apparently been not been sacrificed and eaten because the locals recognized him as a holy man. Aquilar had become fluent in the local Mayan language, and would prove extremely valuable to the expedition. Here, too, Cortés severely reprimanded some of his men, including the valiant but impetuous captain, Pedro Alvarado, for looting and abusing the local people. His policy was clear: Except when engaged in combat, local people were to be treated honestly and with respect.
After leaving Cozumel, the expedition landed on the Yucatan mainland near Tabasco, where the people had previously befriended the Grijalva expedition, and then been mocked for it by their neighbors. This time, vast numbers of the local soldiers, adorned with colorful shields and feathered head dresses, attacked the Spanish, and fought with what Bernal Diaz later remembered as great bravery. This was the first of many many battles the Spanish under Cortés fought on the Mexican mainland, and in this battle, the Spanish soldiers learned a crucial lesson about fighting Mexican Indians. Because the Indians used a two-handed wooden sword edged with obsidian (the macana) and tended to raise the sword overhead to strike, the Spanish soldiers stopped them with direct thrusts to the exposed body with their own steel swords. This was also the first time the horses were used. None of the local people had ever seen a horse before, and their intervention in the battle was decisive.
Despite being seriously outnumbered, the Spanish prevailed. Always the cunning diplomat, Cortés made peace with the vanquished locals, and the Indian leaders responded by giving the Spanish a feast and the gift of 20 young slave girls. Among these slave girls was La Malinche (aka Malintzin aka Dona Marina), who was fluent in both the local Mayan language and the Nahuatl language of the Aztec empire. Through Aguilar and Malinche, Cortés was now able to communicate with the people he met and their rulers. Malinche was quick to learn Spanish, and she soon became interpreter, advisor, and mistress to Cortés. She stayed by his side throughout the conquest. Though political correctness in present day Mexico casts her as traitorous whore, she was widely respected among Cortés’s army for her good sense, endurance, and courage, and she must surely be considered one of the most historically important women of her age.
But let’s pause and consider the situation. The land that we call Mexico had been been home to various cultures and civilizations for thousands of years. One of mankind’s greatest early accomplishments, the multi-generational project to turn an inedible grass into the staple grain maize, took place in Mexico as early as seven thousand years ago. Mexico must surely be considered one of the birthplaces of human civilization, but when the Spanish arrived in 1519, both the Mayan and the Nahuatl (Aztec and Tlaxcalan) civilizations were like no others on Earth.
The level of material culture, the arts, public works, and social organization was as sophisticated and advanced as any in the world at that time. They were extremely religious civilizations, but the religion was uniquely cruel and bloody, dependent on mass human sacrifice, and both ritual and nutritional cannibalism was common (though present scholars debate how common) and widely accepted—this in a country at least as blessed with foodstuffs as any other. The Nahuatl of central Mexico and the 16th-century Spanish were probably the world’s most warlike and combat-experienced people. With human sacrifice being such an important element in Nahuatl religion, most—though not all—wars among the tribes and nations of Mexico were “Flowery Wars,” in which the emphasis was more on taking captives for sacrifice than killing the enemy.
A generation before the arrival of the Spanish, Montezuma I, the uncle of then emperor (tlatoani—literally “speaker”), Montezuma II, greatly expanded the power and reach of the empire, and presided over the 1487 re-consecration of the Grand Pyramid of Tenochtitlan (the Aztec capital, now Mexico City). Between 10,000 and 80,400 people were sacrificed in four days of celebration. A generation before the invasion and conquest of Mexico, the Spanish overthrew the centuries-long Moorish occupation of Iberia, expelled all Jews and Muslims who would not convert to Catholicism, instituted the Inquisition to make sure the conversions were sincere, participated in wars in Italy and North Africa, and discovered the New World. When it came to bellicosity, bloody religious fervor, and a tendency toward internal political intrigue, the Spanish and the Mexican Indian nations and tribes had more than a little bit in common.
Around Easter, 1519, after a leisurely sail close enough to the beach to see the people and dwellings there and get the impression that here was a peaceful population, Cortés had the ships drop anchor and he and his men disembarked. This was the place that Cortés would name Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. It may have been at Vera Cruz that Cortés first heard that some Indians thought he might be the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, who had supposedly left Mexico long before but promised to return from the east. Here, the Spanish had a peaceful meeting with an embassy from Montezuma II. Gifts were exchanged, artists accompanying the embassy drew pictures of the Spanish to take back for Montezuma, and Cortés gave the Aztec emissaries an exhibition of cannon and horse that impressed them tremendously. The presence of gold among the gifts the Aztecs brought deeply impressed and inspired the Spanish. When Cortés said that he hoped to represent his own king in a meeting with Montezuma, the Aztec emissaries told him it could not be done. Cortés did not think it all that impossible.
It was at Vera Cruz that Cortés further rebelled against Governor Velazquez by establishing the settlement as a direct possession of the Spanish king, not the Cuban governor. Here, too, he ordered his fleet to be scuttled to make retreat impossible. But first he made sure that all the irreplaceable hardware, rigging, tackle, anchors, chains, and sails were saved for later use. After establishing what we might consider a mission support site at Vera Cruz, Cortés led about 500 of his men on the arduous journey inland, over the mountains toward the distant Aztec capital.
Cortés had already discovered that many of the local people suffered under and resented their distant Aztec overlords, and when he left Vera Cruz, his expedition already had many Totonac Indian allies from a city near Vera Cruz accompanying it. The allies warned the Spanish about the strong and hostile nations they would have to traverse, and Cortés took note of the fact that these nations—and especially the strongest of them, Tlaxcala—were enemies of the Aztec who had an annoying habit of denying them access to salt and demanding tribute from them that included young people to be sacrificed on the Grand Pyramid in Tenochtitlan. Cortés had studied Latin, and being Spanish, his native language was a dialect of Latin. He may not have ever seen the motto De Oppresso Liber, but he clearly understood the practical value of making that a policy when dealing with the Tlaxcalans and other Nahautl nations who saw the Aztecs as enemies.
But this was Mexico, and the Spanish were strange, invading aliens. The Spanish knew they would have to fight the people they hoped to make allies. In early September, 1519, the Spanish and the allies they’d brought from the coast fought a series of battles first with the Otomis, and then the Tlaxcalans. Tlaxcala was a strong and populous nation, able to deploy thousands of soldiers against the Spanish and their considerably less military coastal allies. It was Cortés’s policy to treat prisoners very well, and release them and send them back with pleas for peace. Such valiant men with a common enemy in the Aztecs (or so the Spanish identified themselves to the Tlaxcalans) should be fighting side by side instead of against each other.
There was a truce while the Tlaxcalan leadership debated back and forth, and the majority went for the alliance with the Spanish. The new allies had pretty much the same language as the Aztecs, the same religious beliefs and rituals, and the same familiar ease with the idea of humans eating human flesh. Cortés’s chaplains did their brave best, but they probably didn’t immediately win too many Tlaxcalan soldiers to renounce their old sinful ways and come to Jesus, and they damn sure must’ve made enemies among the Tlaxcalan priestly caste. But the chaplains, with their concern for the troops, and their frequent prayers and masses, kept the Spanish soldiers close to the church.
Imagine life in and around Tlaxcala as the easygoing indigenous people from the tropical coast, some of them probably as fluent in Mayan as Nahuatl, mixed with the stern and hardy indigenous people of the mountain tribes, the handful of Cuban and Hispaniola Indians who had come to Mexico with the Spanish, and those rough exotic Spanish soldiers and adventurers, some of them pale as death and some of them almost as black as obsidian. Although at this point, after fighting the Spanish, few of the Indians still thought that Cortés was the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl returned.
But with their horses and dogs, their hairy faces, and their exotic and seemingly incoherent religion with its promise of salvation to all the people of the world except for those who continued to worship the old gods who they so adamantly and undiplomatically condemned as mere demons, the Spanish must’ve seemed extremely strange. It was an amazing army shaping up, an unlikely alliance, this multicultural, multicolorful, multilingual foot army. The sights and sounds and smells of that place and that time must have been fascinating. It was an exciting time and place, and this expedition was turning into far more of an adventure than even Cortés had ever expected it would be.
Surely every tribal faction in this clearly irregular army must have been constantly suspicious of every other tribal faction, at least when initially setting out toward the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, which was then the great megalopolis of 16th-century North America. Along the road between Tlaxcala and that megalopolis, there was a major city by the name of Cholula. At that time, Cholula was the second most populous city in Mexico and perhaps the whole continent. Along the road, people begin to hear rumors that the Cholulans, known to be at least nominally loyal to the Aztecs, were planning to separate the tribal elements of the army as they entered the city, ambush and kill them, and then eat them.
Malinche heard various warnings and told Cortés, and Cortés warned his captains. The Tlaxcalans almost certainly already knew of, and maybe they were the source of, the rumors and warnings. You know that Cholula brand hot sauce in homes, restaurants, and grocery stores? Well, next time you see a bottle, remember that in 1519, the Spanish and the Tlaxcalans did an atrocious job on the city and its people, cutting them down and stacking them up in the many thousands. Perhaps it was just a safety measure. Maybe it was intended as a lesson and a warning. And maybe it was the Tlaxcalans settling old scores. Regardless, it was an atrocity. But now Cholula is famous for its excellent hot sauce.
Setting out from Cholula, the combined army moved with tactical discipline. Along the way they were warned not to continue toward Tenochtitlan because it was very strong and full of many warriors. But the effect of the warnings was to heighten the situational awareness of the soldiers. At one point they came to a fork in the road. One path had been cleaned and swept, and the other was rugged and promised to be more difficult to travel. Cortés sent out scouts, and the scouts confirmed his suspicion that the cleared path led into ambushes and trenches manned by Aztec soldiers. The army proceeded along the more difficult stretch of road.
When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about. Of all these wonders that I then beheld, today all is overthrown and lost, nothing left standing.— Bernal Díaz del Castillo, “The Conquest of New Spain“
Finally, the Spanish looked down on the great city—probably larger and more populous than any city in Europe. Montezuma himself came in great pomp to meet Cortés. The Spanish and their Indian allies were led across the causeway into Tenochtitlan. This must’ve been a very tense occasion for all, but the Spanish tension was mixed with awe and wonder at the gleaming white buildings, the canals and lush gardens, the teeming plazas and bountiful markets, the palaces, the pyramids, and the huge trophy racks containing thousands of skulls.
The Spanish set up in a palace where they posted security, and then they began to explore. In their exploration of the palace, they found a treasure room like nothing they had ever imagined. Cortés is said to have told the Aztecs that the Spanish suffered from a disease of the heart that only gold could cure. Personal greed was certainly strong, but to the early 16th-century Spanish, the gold was necessary for another purpose. The expulsion of the Moors from Iberia was not the end of the Crusades, but an opening for a new and final crusade against Islam. There was more than enough gold in that treasure room to finance a small crusader army.
As the Spanish explored Tenochtitlan, they saw that the difference between the classes in clothing and in dwelling seemed to be more stratified than in Spain, but they were impressed by the cleanliness of the people and the city itself. Bernal Diaz was especially impressed by the public latrines, many of which were canoes with tents or huts on them, moored here and there along the canals, ready to pole away with the waste—probably off to fertilize the floating gardens. But reminders of human sacrifice were hard to ignore.
Carefree tourism was hardly carefree in Tenochtitlan, even in this relatively peaceful period. From the Spanish point of view, things seemed to be going well. Not only had they occupied Tenochtitlan without a battle, but they had been welcomed—though their Indian allies were probably not made to feel all that welcome. Almost certainly without any clear idea what he was doing, Montezuma had sworn fealty to the Spanish king, and chances are that at least some of the Spanish took it at face value. But surely there must have been considerable worry that this peace would not last. And when word came from the coast that a number of Spanish soldiers supporting the Totonacs near Vera Cruz had been killed by the Aztecs, illusions of trust and friendship dissipated. With great courtesy and amazing gall, and despite Montezuma’s protestations, the Aztec king was taken hostage and moved into the part of the palace occupied by the Spanish.
Someday, if humanity ever makes contact with an alien intelligence, there will probably be a culture clash even more dramatic than that between Spain and Mexico in the first half of the 16th century. But the meeting of the “Old World” and the “New World” was a meeting among human beings with much in common, despite their differences. When reading first- and secondhand accounts of this tumultuous period in history, it is often surprising to what extent the mutual befuddlement, fear, religious repulsion, and enmity between European and Native American people is balanced by curiosity and an often grudging mutual admiration. It is not really all that surprising that, as they learned snatches of each other’s languages, Spanish soldiers and their Mexican allies may have developed certain bonds of comradeship despite the vast cultural and religious gap between them. What is somewhat more surprising is the friendly feelings that seemed to develop between Montezuma and his captors.
Although under constant Spanish surveillance, and although there must have been plenty of rumors and discontent in the city, Montezuma continued to rule his empire. While confined to the palace, he even expanded his empire with a few minor conquests of his own. In April, 1520, Montezuma summoned Cortés and showed him drawings on a cloth mantel showing 18 ships, five of them wrecked and beached on their sides. These were the ships of an armada carrying more than a 1,000 men under command of Panfilo Narvaez, sent by Governor Velazquez. Cortés immediately decided to attack.
Leaving 50 men under Pedro Alvarado to guard Montezuma and hold down the fort in Tenochtitlan, and taking a couple hundred soldiers and some of Montezuma’s nobles as hostages, Cortés led his men on a forced march back to the coast. Moving ahead of the main body was a reconnaissance element. When they arrived at the coast, Cortés moved into an Indian village near the enemy encampment, while the recon men stripped naked, stained their skin to a darker shade, and, blending in with Indians who had been press-ganged into supplying Narvaez’s troops, infiltrated the enemy camp to hear and see what they were up to and observe how and where they had set up their defenses. Narvaez’s interpreter had told the Indians that they had come to rescue Montezuma, kill Cortés, and take his men away.
The recon men also reported that the men with Narvaez were laughing at the thought that a small force under Cortés would dare to attack them. Cortés dispatched a few of his men to negotiate with the new arrivals. A compromise that would lead to Cortés and Narvaez sharing power was proposed, but Cortés did not trust Narvaez nor Governor Velazquez. Cortés made a counter-proposal, which was rejected, and the brief truce was over. Stealthily, Cortés led his men to a launch site closer to Narvaez and his army, and sent his recon men out to cut the saddle cinches of the horses Narvaez had posted at ready so any riders would fall off when they mounted.
It began to rain heavily, and the artillery men with Narvaez put wax in the touchholes of their cannons. Cortés sent an 80-man strike force forward and sounded his own call to arms at the moment Narvaez became aware of the attack and sounded his call to arms. In the rain and night and confusion and combat, Narvaez lost an eye and Cortés’s men gained another victory. A few days after the battle, those of Narvaez’s men who were willing to swear loyalty to Cortés had their weapons returned to them, and were enlisted into Cortés’s army.
“Fortune spins her wheel and, to great happiness, much sadness succeeds.”—Bernal Diaz
The return to Tenochtitlan with a much-enlarged force should have been triumphant, but the city was sullen and hostile. While the others had been away, Pedro Alvarado had panicked at a ceremony that the young Aztec noblemen were celebrating, and he and his men had massacred them. After once again tearing Alvarado a new asshole for his impetuosity, Cortés and his captains—and no doubt his Indian allies, too—considered the situation and discussed their course of action. No more sightseeing for the Spanish; they were under siege. Faced with rising discontent, Montezuma was sent out to try to calm an angry mob that had gathered in front of the palace, and he was met by a volley of stones and other tossed missiles that knocked him off his feet. His Spanish bodyguards were able to drag him back into the palace, but he died soon afterward. To this day there is debate over whether it was his own people or the Spanish who killed Montezuma, but the Spanish put the blame on the Aztec crowd.
The palace was surrounded by angry and heavily armed mobs. There was no choice but to try to escape. This was going to be difficult because Tenochtitlan was on an island in the middle of a large lake, and the causeways leading to the mainland were cut with channels to allow for traffic on the water. Normally, these gaps in the causeways were covered by wooden bridges, but those bridges could be easily removed, cutting off passage. The Spanish carpenters went to work making portable wooden bridges that they could take with them. Soldiers prepared their armor and their weapons and tried to calm their fears with prayer. What horses remained were packed with supplies and with what was considered the King of Spain’s share of the treasure. Many of the new recruits were so taken by the wealth of gold in the palace that they weighed themselves down with what they could grab, while the veterans warned them that they were making a serious mistake.
A soft rain was falling on the night of June 30/July 1, 1520, when the Spanish soldiers and their allies silently sneaked out of the palace. The Aztecs had apparently not expected them to escape in the night, but as they began to move out onto the causeway, a woman fetching water saw them and sounded the alarm, and soon the alarm was being sounded by drums from the blood-clotted temple atop the Grand Pyramid. In the thousands, Aztec men grabbed their weapons, jumped in their canoes, and hurried to the attack. Soon, the retreating army was swarmed on all sides. Courage and skill at arms was not enough to save anyone—only courage and skill at arms combined with luck could do that. The cuts in the causeway quickly filled up with bodies, and it was only on those bodies that they could be crossed.
At one point, Cortés himself fell into the water and would have been captured and hauled off by Aztec swimmers for gleeful sacrifice had two of his companions not rescued him. The one Spanish woman with the expedition, Maria de Estrada, from Pedro Alvarado’s company, who had earlier confused Indians who mistook her for the same Mother of God in the pictures of the virgin that the Spanish carried, showed unusual skill with a sword along with her desperate courage. By all accounts, Malinche was also both brave and ferocious in battle. One of the expedition priests later remembered that “no one at that moment was concerned with anything except saving his own skin.”
It was a horrible, costly battle on this Noche Triste (sad night), and it was truly a sad night for all. The best reckoning of Spanish dead was around 600. Another couple hundred had not made it out of the palace, and another group had turned back from the causeway to make a last stand on dry land. All these were killed or captured and later sacrificed. It was not just the Spanish who suffered grievous losses. So did the Tlaxcalans and other Indian allies. Their losses may have been in the thousands. Large numbers of the victorious Aztecs—both soldiers attacking the foreigners and those fleeing with the foreigners—were killed. Among those never to be seen again was the horse laden with the king’s share of the gold and its groom, Alonso de Escobar. The highest casualty rate was among the men formerly with Narvarez, especially those who had weighed themselves down with gold.
Those who survived and made it across the causeway regrouped not far from the lakeside. Cortés never showed any sign of weakness, kept up his resolve, and with his talent for persuasion and inspirational rhetoric, he kept the morale of his people from an absolute crash and restored in them confidence and courage. Most of those upon whom he most depended had survived, though almost no one had escaped without wounds. On learning that Martin Lopez, a skillful carpenter and shipbuilder by trade, had survived, Cortés said, “Vamos, que nada nos falta”—”Let’s go then, for we lack nothing.” Bold and confident words that must have done much to lift the spirits of his battered and much reduced command. As always, Cortés had a plan.
Defeated, decimated, wounded, sick, and hungry, the Spanish/Tlaxcalan army regrouped and began to slowly make its way to Tlaxcala, fighting harassing Aztecs and Aztec allies all the way. The Aztecs had been busy celebrating their victory in what they called the “Battle of the Bridges,” and had not initially made any concentrated effort to finish off their enemies, but at a place called Otumba, near Teotihuacan (then just ruins overgrown with grass and trees), the Aztecs attacked in mass. The new emperor, Cuitlahuac, did not personally command this force of many thousands, leaving that to high-ranking and experienced officers.
Cortés’s forces were severely outnumbered and outmatched, but the Aztecs were fighting in the traditions of the “Flowery Wars.” Captains and commanders were gaudily festooned with elaborately feathered headdresses that served as battle standards and made them very visible, but hindered their movement. Soldiers fought more to capture for later sacrifice than to kill on the battlefield. The Spanish and their battered allies took advantage. With five horseman and lances, Cortés charged through the battle directly toward the Aztec officers and killed them, sowing confusion throughout the Aztec ranks.
With lance in hand, Maria de Estrada again fought as ferociously and effectively as any man, and Bernal Diaz later gave great credit to the war dogs that had been unleashed against the Aztecs. With desperate courage, better discipline, and superior teamwork than their opponents, and with the help of a valiant woman and valiant animals, the mixed forces under Cortés managed to turn the tide of battle, continuing their progress cross a bleak landscape toward Tlaxcala, and what they hoped would be a friendly and healing refuge.
Within the governing councils of Tlaxcala, there was heated debate over whether to honor their alliance or to kill the Spaniards. The decision was to honor the alliance. Meanwhile, Aztec emissaries and military units were very active trying to gain the support of the many conquered peoples of their empire, but they found more memory of Aztec abuses than sympathy. The Aztecs sent ambassadors to Tlaxcala, citing the shared ties of language, culture, and religion that argued for a united front against the foreigners, but except for a small minority among the Tlaxacalan nobility, the Aztecs found no friends in Tlaxcala. The Tlaxcala elders did, however make a few conditions for continued military support to the Spanish.
They demanded that the Spanish support Tlaxcalan claims to Cholula. They demanded that after they finally defeated the Aztecs, Tlaxcala would be allowed to build and man a fortress on the island of Tenochtitlan. And they demanded that all the Aztec loot and booty be equally shared between them and the Spanish. According to some historians, the Tlaxcalans thought they were pushing a hard bargain, but the Spanish found the conditions perfectly reasonable. And for most of the coming centuries of Spanish rule, Tlaxcala was, indeed, especially privileged.
Now began the preparations for a final assault on Tenochtitlan. Communications between Tlaxcala and Vera Cruz were improved and made more secure. This opened the possibility of outside reinforcements and supplies. Some of the Spaniards, especially among those who had come with Narvaez, petitioned Cortés to retreat from Tlaxcala back to Vera Cruz, and from there back to Cuba. Making full use of his persuasive powers, Cortés appealed to the courage and self-respect of the petitioners, reminding them that they were Christians and Spaniards and should never show such cowardice before their valiant Indian allies—or worse, their Aztec enemies. It is unlikely that he persuaded everyone, but he did stifle the discontent before it became a rebellion.
And now a main part of Cortés’s plan to take Tenochtitlan became clear. The hardware, rigging, tackle, sails, and other vital equipment that had been saved from the scuttled fleet were brought to Tlaxcala. The shipbuilder, Martin Lopez, began the formidable task of training Indian allies and Spanish soldiers in turning trees into lumber, and turning that lumber into swift, maneuverable, shallow-draft boats that could be used to establish superiority on the lake and in the canals of Tenochtitlan and its neighboring cities. This was centuries before the U.S. Navy established its Special Boat units, but many of the principles and tactics currently practiced by these elite crews are likely to be similar to those used on Lake Texcoco.
There was also a new emphasis on tactics and training for street-by-street urban warfare. And perhaps it was around this time that another of the decisive elements in the fall of Tenochtitlan and the overthrow of the Aztec empire—smallpox—began to assert itself. According to both legend and some historical sources, a free black conquistador who was with Cortés from the beginning had the foresight to bring seeds for wheat with him to Mexico and later made himself a very wealthy man and gave the world the flour tortilla. Another black man, an African slave named Francisco de Eguia, who’d arrived with Narvaez, brought smallpox to the New World, where the native peoples had little or no resistance to such Old World plagues.
By late 1520, smallpox had already appeared in Hispaniola, Cuba, and Yucatan, but the earliest traces of it in Central Mexico lead to Eguia. The epidemic spread quickly through Cortés’s Indian allies. His first allies, the Totonac people, were hit very hard. This disease was new and strange, and the Indians had no immunity or resistance to it, and no treatment of it that didn’t make it worse. By September, 1520, it had spread among the Tlaxcalans, and as far as Tenochtitlan and its neighboring cities.
The Spanish, for the most part, had immunity, but the effect of smallpox among the native population was reminiscent of the “Black Death” bubonic plagues that had swept through Africa, Asia, and Europe in the 14th century. Maxixcatzin, one of the most important leaders of the Tlaxcalans, died of it, as did Montezuma’s successor, Cuitlahuac. It was impossible for the Indians not to notice that the disease did not seem to be killing Spaniards, and this led many to wonder how they had offended their gods. (Some modern epidemiologists now suspect that the plague had not been smallbox but an indigenous form of hemorrhagic fever)
Cortés’s forces began to receive help from Jamaica and Puerto Rico, as well as Cuba. Most of this help had come in blindly, some of it hoping to supply Narvaez, but all promptly joined Cortés. A large ship came from Spain via the Canary Islands. This ship was so well supplied with weapons, powder, crossbow bolts, soldiers, and horses, it was received as a godsend. But there was, of course, resentment on the part of the surviving members of Cortés’s original force against those who had come with Narvaez, and those who had come with Narvaez, rightfully now considering themselves veterans, resented these newest arrivals.
Cortés also sent ships to Hispaniola and Jamaica to purchase more horses and other supplies. But Cortés did not allow communication with Cuba. With the Aztecs still trying to rally allies to their side, Cortés sent various expeditions out with the same purpose. These expeditions were more successful than not, but they clashed with Aztec garrisons, at the cost of eight wounded and three horses killed in action. These expeditions also rescued a “great spoil of women and boys” who had been kidnapped and branded as slaves, and returned them to their homes. These victories raised morale, but there were still some, primarily captains who had come with Narvaez, who chafed under Cortés’s command. Cortés, swelling with renewed confidence, gave them and some of his friends permission to return to Cuba, though like any military force, the old principle of hurrying up to wait was in effect, and they had to wait for months before sailing.
Back in Tenochtitlan, there was a young and capable new emperor of impeccable royal lineage, Cuauhtemoc. He had an exemplary battle record and his leadership was the best hope that the Aztecs had. But it was not going to be enough. Again the Spanish and their allies—now tens of thousands of them—returned to the Lake Texcoco area, and the final battle was on. It was a terrible battle, under horrible conditions. Tenochtitlan and its neighboring cities had been hard hit by the epidemic, and the disease was still present. Cortés originally had high hopes of taking the city intact and presenting this wonder to the King of Spain, and he’d planned to do so by siege and blockade. But that did not work out as he’d planned.
He was forced to invade via the causeways, and the ferocity of fighting was so destructive that the city could not be taken without being destroyed. It was bloody brutal work, with terrible casualties on all sides. The Spanish boats were able to cut the two main islands on which Tenochtitlan sat off from resupply, and the population, already weakened by disease, was now dealing with sickness, starvation, and a diminishing supply of fresh water. But the Aztecs fought on with unquenchable determination and spirit.
The Spanish and their allies slowly fought their way down the causeways to the city. It seemed like every advance was only temporary, and all that was gained had to be fought over and taken again the next day. Small raiding parties were sometimes deployed from the boats, and the boats battled Aztec canoes. There were violent clashes all along the banks of Lake Texcoco, and great turmoil and suffering throughout the world of the Nahuatl Mexican people of all sides followed. Spanish soldiers had the horrible experience of watching, helplessly, as many of their comrades, captured in combat and then gaudily painted, were driven up the torch-lit steps of the Grand Pyramid to have their beating hearts ripped out by Aztec priests. What made it worse was that many of the captives had been given psychotropic drugs and seemed to be merrily dancing to the Aztec drums and fifes and whistles.
Finally, the great city of Tenochtitlan was taken. On August 13, 1521, Cuauhtemoc was captured, and the Aztec Empire was no more. Tenochtitlan was eventually rebuilt after a European fashion, and renamed Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico City). It had been one of the world’s great cities before the Spanish ever saw it, and is still one of the world’s great cities. The Mayan and Nahuatl regions that the Hernandez, Grijalva, and Cortés expeditions touched, and places far to the north and west, were united as the modern nation of Mexico. Cuauhtemoc, though admired by his Spanish captors, was mistreated and eventually killed under the Spanish. Hernando Cortes, Pedro Alvarado, Bernal Diaz, and many other veterans of this, the most fascinating and consequential special operations campaign in human history, went on to conquer what is now Honduras and Guatemala.
The son that Malinche bore Cortés, Martin Cortés, was the first known member of a proud new race: the mestizo people of Mexico. That just might make him the very first true son of this new nation made from this collision of the Old World and the new.
And a daughter of Montezuma II, Tecuichpoch Ixcaxochitzin, later Dona Isabel Moctezuma (an alternative spelling of Montezuma), who as a child had been formally married to and widowed by both Cuitlahuac and Cuauhtemoc, later bore another of Cortés’s out-of-wedlock sons, and her sons were to blend into Spanish society and establish one of the most noble lineages of the Spanish aristocracy.
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The above narrative is a bare-bones account of a much larger, much more eventful, complicated, colorful, exciting, and fascinating piece of history. For readers who want to know more (and to correct any mistakes I may have made in the telling), I strongly recommend three books on the subject:
- William H. Prescott’s “The History of the Conquest of Mexico,” first published in 1843, just in time for the Americans who fought in the Mexican-American War to carry with them on deployment, is a somewhat dated but eminently enjoyable classic. It is a historical coincidence that both William Prescott and the great Bernal Diaz wrote their books while partially blind.
- Hugh Thomas’s “Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico” is by far the most comprehensive account of this history that I know of, and I strongly recommend it. If you buy a copy, don’t do what I did and lend it out, then forget who has it, because you will want to reread it from time to time.
- But the book that I would most enthusiastically recommend to any military veteran interested in this campaign has to be “The Conquest of New Spain” by Bernal Diaz, the tough foot soldier who was a participant, observer, and narrator who served in all three of the first Mexican expeditions, as well as being one helluva smart old war dog who wrote his memoirs while losing his sight in old age, and whose account of this strange and important campaign is the most deeply respected and trusted source of much that we know of the overthrow of the Aztec Empire. If combat veterans who write books about their war have a patron saint, it must surely be tough old Bernie Diaz.
(Featured image courtesy of americanyawp.com)