The Conquest of Mexico

I do not expect anyone to read this. I wrote it as one of my coursework/exam pieces at University – it took me over a year to read a lot of fascinating books – none of which I can remember, and I don’t seem to have retained a bibliography (though Prescott loomed large) , which is a pity. I remember spending hours in Kensington Library looking for sources, but I am no historian – I read everything as “story” and recreated it as such. It got a good mark, I seem to remember, (1974 or 5) but universities were more benign in those days, I think.

I have just re-read some of it myself – even I can’t bear to take on the whole thing, and what strikes me again are the wonderfully romantic names. Not the most intellectual response to events, I know, but there you are.



The beginning of the sixteenth century saw the beginning of a new era for the world. Europe was preparing to find and conquer the new continents, and the new world was having to reconcile itself to its encounter with the ‘gods of the East’.
Montezuma, the Great Speaker, absolutely supreme ruler of the tiny Venice-like city of Mexico, and its massive suburbs and outlying areas, was intensely conscious of his own power and the imminent threat to it. A priest, warrior and king, a man of honour and dignity, he rules this immense area by inducing fear and respect, firmly believing in his vocation.
His destiny was tragic – fore-ordained by his gods, Montezuma knew he had to succumb to their will. Chief of these gods, Tezcatlipoca, or Huitzilopochtli (Blue Hummingbird), the Lord of Fate, had let it be known that the power of the ninth great speaker of Tenochtitlan (Cactus Rock), the Aztec settlement of Mexico, would be overcome by the reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl, the Lord of the Air, and Huitzilopochtli’s ethereal rival. Quetzalcoatl (Nine Winds) had been the first lord of Tula in pre-Mexican times, and had been summarily evicted by Huitzilopochtli – but he was to return from the East, or the Rising Sun, to which he had fled.
At first, Montezuma fought against his end. He used all his might to obtain external symbols of power and pre-eminence amongst the people. Inwardly he prayed and offered horrendous bloody sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli that the god might avert his fate. Meanwhile, in the East, that is Europe, and even as near as the island of Cuba, preparations were going on, unwittingly fulfilling the Aztec prophecies. America as such had been discovered, but not fully investigated. Legends and stories about riches, especially gold, were rampant, as were strange tales of the inhabitants who had originally found and worked these treasures. Neither were ready to throw up all their worldly goods, in the hope of finding more.
Diego Velasquez, already governor of Cuba in 1517, was such a one, though his greed for power even exceeded his avarice for gold and lust for adventure. For his nephew, Bernal Diaz, adventure was the core of existence, though he, like Hernan Cortes, under whom he eventually sailed, would never have turned away from that most precious of metals, the ‘excrement of the gods’, as it was known by the Aztecs.
In the first expedition to the Mexican mainland, led by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, in 1517, from Spain via Cuba, the most important event was the capture of two Indians, who were baptised Julian and Melchior, and became very useful as interpreters, in future expeditions of conquest and conversion.
This first one, however, only went so far as Champoton, in the Yucatan. Not all the Indians had been friendly and submissive en route, and after several battles, with many Spaniards, including Hernandez, wounded, they eventually decided to return to Cuba via Florida, naming the last scene of battle La Costa de Mala Pelea, so miserable had been the outcome.
The next year, Hernandez having died of his wounds and Velasquez deciding to stay in Cuba, Bernal Diaz agreed to set out again, this time under Juan de Grijalva. This time, conversion of the natives to Christianity was considered almost on a par with the search for gold, and in April 1518, four ships, together with about 240 Spaniards, plus Julian and Melchior, travelled along the coastline, stopping here and there, to see and trade, and eventually sailing a short way up the River Tabasco, or the Rio de Grijalva, as the leader of the expedition would have liked! In Champoton there had been another battle, not as severe as the first, but the Indians had fled, Julian and Melchior having succeeded neither in making peace nor in converting their brethren to the new religion.
Further attempts were made at conversion, mostly unsuccessful, as the Indians saw no value in strange ideas, considering that they had a perfectly adequate religion of their own. Negotiations were far more worthwhile when accompanied by Spanish glass beads, in appearance similar to a valuable jewel of their own, and extraordinary in themselves, as manufactured glass was totally unknown to the aboriginal civilisation. Any gold was delightedly received by the Spaniards as signs of peace and favour in between battles and conversions. Some of the gold was sent by envoys of Montezuma, who had heard of these strange creatures in water houses, by means of a vast, perfectly organised messenger system. It began to occur to him that these strange beings, with their white skin and varying shades of hair, might be sent by Quetzalcoatl as a prelude to his own coming. Yet he hoped to dissuade them from penetrating the interior, having ascertained their love of gold, by the means of copious gifts. Unfortunately this plan was not to succeed. More fighting ensued for the present, but original supplies of the Spaniards were running short, and new ones were difficult to obtain, so after reaching the Sierra de Tuxpan and the Rio de Canoas, Crijalva decided to sail back to Cuba.
Within the next few months Velasquez had begun to organise preparations for a third expedition into the mainland – and this was to be the most decisive one. The passion for gold had overcome sufficient Spaniards for them to give up their present worldly possessions in the hope of gaining more. The person who did this the most wholeheartedly was probably Hernan Cortes. He was chosen by Velasquez as leader of the expedition, primarily on account of his young wife, who would naturally remain behind. The spirit of adventure and greed of gold made him accept his position cheerfully and he even sold most of his estate so that he could help finance the expedition more adequately, obtaining provisions to induce even more men. A resourceful, determined man, Cortes was not personally liked by Velasquez, and the two men sincerely distrusted one another. Velasquez placed a spy, Diego de Ordaz, amongst the crew of Cortes’ ship, but Cortes, equally suspicious, soon found him out, had him transferred to a different ship, and eventually won him over to his side. Cortes seemed to have a winning capacity of persuasion to his cause, and he made full use of it, for in the following two years he was to be harassed by mutinous hungry men, disappointed in their share of the spoils and suspicious of the practices of their leader. Yet his austere personality, single-mindedness, willingness to listen and apparent self-denial in times of necessity eventually gained him their constant respect and support.
The main point of the expedition, as before, was gold, but this time the reason was more fully couched in terms of the supreme importance of settlement colonisation and conversion to Christianity, though the actual warrants for the second purpose became difficult to obtain. For Cortes, it was to become a type of Crusade, an all-embracing work for God and King. He would be the one to provide his sovereign with new lands and therefore more subjects and riches, and his God would no longer be insulted by his creatures worshipping heathen idols. And so a priest joined the expedition, Father Olmedo.
He was to do much to help the cause of real conversion, toning down Cortes’ bombast and force, restraining his religious impetuosity, and withholding his outward disapproval of the Indian bloodthirsty and cannibalistic customs. Cortes’ methods were more dramatic and immediately satisfying, with bass baptisms, whitewashing of blood-soaked temples, and the putting up of crosses and statues to replace those that had been fervently torn down. But Olmedo advised a more subtle approach, since there could be no understanding if matters took such a speedy course. Christian fervour would last a little while, but ancient custom would soon prevail, and human sacrifice would once more become the accepted and most effective form of prayer. After all, to native eyes it was far less sacrilegious to eat a fellow human being and sinner, than Almighty God himself, albeit in communion.
During the first few months of the expedition three important events occurred. The first of these was the discovery of some Spaniards who had lived for some time as native Indians and had thus learned the language. Two of them did not want to join the expedition, because they had embraced local custom and had married Indian women, whom they did not wish to leave. The third had been a priest, Aguilar, so had remained single, and he and Cortes saw that he could be of great use, both as converter and interpreter. Soon after his discovery, one of the original interpreters, Melchior, went back to his old way of life.
The second occurrence was the gift of Dona Marina to Cortes. Travelling along the coast and seeking suitable bays in which to disembark and venture further inland, Cortes and his men did not always find it easy to negotiate with the indigenous population. Battles were fought, and despite the terrifying inequality of numbers, the minute numbers of Spaniards were always victorious over the thousands of natives. This was primarily because the Indians had never before seen covered ships with sails and rigging, nor white men, nor horses, nor anything made of iron, especially things so thunderous and frightening as cannon and guns. They were therefore hailed as Teules, the gods from the East – Montezuma was not the only one to be away of the prophecy, and the phenomenon was enhanced by the fact that Cortes was similar in physical appearance to what they expected of Quetzalcoatl. It was during one of these skirmishes that Doña Marina had been given to Cortes. She had been brought up in trying circumstances, since her birth had portended destruction to the Mexican state and so she had been sentenced to death as soon as she was born. Her mother, however, had exchanged her for a dead child of one of the servants, and the living child was sent away. Now she was to become the Spaniards’ constant companion, being baptised and eventually learning enough Spanish to help Aguilar with the arduous task of interpreting and conversion. She was to take advantage of all her Mexican knowledge to bring about the destruction of her peoples – not necessarily through malice; perhaps she was in love with Cortes, as has frequently been suggested. It was probably she who persuaded Cortes to wear black whenever stepping on Mexican territory, and prized hummingbird feathers in his headdress – external signs understood by Aztecs to mean that this man was the reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl, or at least a very close contact.
Cortes himself must have had little idea of this. His main wish was to enter the interior, and having heard of Montezuma, and trying to conjecture what kind of a man he was, he kept on sending gifts and messages, begging permission and then threatening to enter the city. Montezuma persistently refused, each time sending gifts of his own, thus making Cortes become even more determined.
He considered it expedient to start settlement and colonisation there and then. The Villa Rica de Vera Cruz was established on the coast, and this constituted the third and most important event of the first part of the expedition. It became a very important town, since it furnished possibilities of getting fresh supplies, both of men and food, from Cuba, to which it was relatively near. It was also perfectly situated for conducting inland campaigns since the Indians surrounding it, once subdued, became friendly hospitable allies in the common cause against the exactions of Montezuma.
Throughout the two years of the conquest, Cortes’ success could be indebted to his ‘divide and rule’ policy. He played off one set of Indians against another, stirring up the tribes, yet keeping sovereign hold over them. This could be seen immediately after he began his march from Vera Cruz, first north to the city of Cempoala, where major battles were fought, and Cortes’ reputation for invincibility took serious hold. From Cempoala the way was for westwards, through the territory of the Totonacs, who were soon incited against Montezuma. Totonac bearers and carriers thus largely swelled the minuscule Spanish force. Thence progress was slow but sure, through the mountainous area of Jalapa, south to Xico Viejo, and west again through Ixhuacan, northwest to Xocotlan, southwest to Ixtacmaxtitlan, Atalaya, Tzompantzinco, and after such uneven, irregular passage, the Spaniards with their Totonac support finally reached Tlascala, where graver troubles ensued.
The Tlascalans seemed to be a race particular to themselves – against absolutely everyone, but especially Montezuma and his Aztec tribute collectors, they would not at first hear of alliance with the Spaniards. Spanish logic was unable to prevail against the isolationist policy of the elders, especially Xicotencatl. Only bitter warfare – unsuccessful – against the Spaniards convinced the Tlascalans and henceforth they became some of Cortes’ most faithful allies against the dreaded chocolate-drinking, man-eating emperor.
The increased forces marched south then to Cholula. This was the holy city of Quetzalcoatl, and thus their entry had a special significance for Montezuma, though he was rapidly realising that these strange creatures from the East were not exactly gods, though something almost equally dangerous. On entering the city, Cortes was surprised to be greeted neither by welcome nor by open attack, and was beginning to be complacent, when his companion, Doña Marina, discovered from an old woman who had taken pity on her youth and beauty that the priests had planned a secret attack, by night – a very rare form of battle for the Indians. The priests were searched for and seized; the Indians seemed unable to fight without leaders; thus Cortes remained a little while longer invincible!
The march moved west and stopped for a while near the active volcano of Popocatepetl. A few intrepid soldiers were granted permission to climb and look inside the crater. Their discoveries were to prove invaluable, for inside there was sulphur, which could be excavated, albeit laboriously, and could then be ground for use as gunpowder.
But Mexico had not yet been reached, and Cortes sent increasing embassies to Montezuma, demanding to meet him in person. After refusing several times, he eventually realised that Cortes was adamant, and agreed to meet him in Ixtapalapan. Together they went to Tenochtitlan, escorted by hundreds of deferential Indians. The Tlacopans and Tezcucans especially had advised Montezuma to invite the Spaniards inside the city – and like the Trojan horse, this was the spark that ignited their undoing.
Cortes and his followers finally found themselves inside the city of Mexico. Amazed and aghast at the splendour of the architecture and the horrendous practices for which the temples were used, Cortes wanted to immediately burn everything in sight and order the Indians to be converted to Christianity. Father Olmedo did his utmost to keep Cortes’ passion at bay – and he had to content himself for the time being with just having a room in the chief temple whitewashed and transformed into a church, with altar, cross and Madonna.
He kept his men armed at all times of day and night, that they might be prepared for any eventuality. His own energies were directed towards making friends with Montezuma, through the interpreting powers of Doña Marina.
She was nicknamed Malintze by the Aztecs, which meant doom and evil portent. This was ironical, because astrologically her birth meant that she was dedicated to the goddess Tlazolcteotl, devourer of filth, who could also devour sin. In a way, good was to come out of evil, but only after much suffering. Significantly, Cortes, by his attachment to her, was known to the Indians by the title of Malintzin, Prince of Suffering. He was both to inflict and bear it in the months to come.
While conversing with Montezuma, he discovered that some Mexicans were planning an attack on Vera Cruz, thus trying to cut off all Spanish communication with Cuba and the East. Cortes was furious, and the knowledge provided him with a pretext for insisting that Montezuma move from his accustomed abode to the very same palace where Cortes and his men were quartered. Montezuma had to agree to this invitation, and reluctantly joined the Spaniards. He was allowed to hold court as before, though not allowed to offer sacrifice. He was watched continuously. Accused of propagating the attack on Vera Cruz, he had to submit to the indignity of watching some of his warrior chiefs burn at the stake, while bound in chains himself. But this was the only time that the great Mexican emperor was personally molested by the Spaniards. Generally he was chivalrously treated by the soldiers, and he even made a close friend of one of them, Orteguilla, a page, who quickly managed a working knowledge of Nahuatl, and did his best to convert the Aztec priest to Christianity.
However, this friendship of Montezuma’s with his captives was resentfully looked upon by the Tezcucans and the Aztecs. The ire of Cacama, Montezuma’s nephew and a warrior chief, rose to such an extent that he threatened Cortes – but Montezuma successfully pacified him, for a while. To prove his friendship further, he even offered one of his daughters to Cortes, who had to refuse, but returned the friendship on his side by looking after all the royal daughters in future times of stress.
Meanwhile more ships had arrived in Vera Cruz, and again it was through Montezuma that Cortes learnt this. He realised that Velasquez must have sent them against him, so he left a third of his men in Tenochtitlan, and went with the rest to subdue Narvaez and his men, and win them over to his cause.
Alvarado, named Tonatiuh by the Mexicans because of his smiling face and fair hair, remained in charge in Tenochtitlan. He also kept everyone in arms, which generally caused no concern to the Indians. However, it happened that Alvarado was even more impetuous than Cortes, and when the Indians started to celebrate the great feast of Huitzilopochtli, he was convinced that it was an uproarious uprising against the remaining Spaniards. He insisted on attack, and hundreds of Indians were killed, though not before seriously crippling the Spanish forces. Cortes was furious when he found out about this totally unnecessary battle, since he needed peaceful conditions with which to welcome Narvaez and his men, who were on the search for massive quantities of gold, without the desire to fight or endure unnecessary hardship.
This battle also made Montezuma more and more miserable as he saw that an ignominious death was imminent. He had his family evacuated and held court rarely. Cortes was actually still in Vera Cruz when he heard of this battle, and decided to immediately rush back to Lake Tezcuco. He had been fortunate in succeeding to subdue Narvaez’ men, by the natural aid of a thunderstorm, and then he had made them burn all their ships, saving only the ironwork and rigging, thus ensuring no fast return. It took these increased forces only a fortnight to reach Tenochtitlan – they encountered no difficulties – but equally no food.
On 24th June 1520 Cortes entered Mexico for the second time – almost two years after first setting foot on the Mexican mainland. This time no canoes or people were to be seen. The two brigantines that had been left on the lake had been burnt. The Indians were in ambush preparing to attack and Montezuma was in absolute despair. His younger brother, Cuitlahuac, despising the remains of his authority, openly attacked the Spaniards who were still inside Tenochtitlan and from a distance Cortes and his new recruits could see seven or eight Spaniards dragged up to the temples and sacrificed to the Mexican gods.
Montezuma felt himself suddenly powerless – and four days later he died, the direct result of despair after a stone had been thrown at him by one of his subjects, as he showed himself publicly, in order to appeal to them. The Spaniards were horrified and decided to leave at dead of night, but their plans were intercepted and the Indians attacked. A bloody battle ensued on the causeways, where many were wounded and drowned, and the remaining Spaniards fled – their first serious defeat, later to be known as the Noche Triste.
After four days’ march they were attacked again, but with the help of the loyal Tlascalans they regained their reputation of almost total invincibility, despite the hugely unequal numbers. They continued the march northeast towards Tlascala and Otumba, where the people continued to be friendly, though they had little to offer them. More ships arrived from Cuba, meanwhile, in order to discover what Cortes and Narvaez were doing, but their crews too were persuaded to join the expedition.
But during this temporary retreat, Tenochtitlan was attacked by another force, more vicious than the human one. Smallpox was rife and managed to carry of Montezuma’s successor. Cuitlahuac’s reign had been active, but short. He was succeeded by one of Montezuma’s nephews, Cuauhtemoctzin, another fine prince of royal blood, who unfortunately was to see his country absolutely ravished and transformed.
Cortes’ new plan was not to invade Mexico from one or two angles but to encircle it completely, thus constructing a full-scale siege, in the hope of starving out the Indians to surrender, without refraining from active battle if necessary.
Ships were built in Tlascala, under the direction of a master shipwright who was among the expedition, who made full use of the ironwork and rigging left after the previous burning of the ships. Once more the Tlascalans proved themselves very adaptable and loyal, first building the thirteen brigantines and then carrying them for many miles on their backs across the hilly land. Now Cortes aimed to get possession and support of Tezcuco and its inhabitants, strategically the most important suburb of Tenochtitlan. Again inner dissent was to help the Spaniards. At first they were invited into the city by Cuitlahuac’s chief and treacherously ambushed by the people, but there were still many supporters of Ixtlilxochitzl, the exiled prince. He helped the Spaniards since he believed in Montezuma’s friendship for them. He and many of his followers were baptised, which was a great source of satisfaction for Cortes and Father Olmedo and Father Aguilar. The Christian forces, together with the Tlascalans, eventually subdued the remaining Tezcucans.
Though many men were lost, the Spanish numbers having diminished to about two-thirds, ranks were still somehow retained, and spirits kept high. The planned siege was taking shape at last and the inhabitants of the cramped little island were beginning to suffer severely. Most envoys sent for food were intercepted, and even those which passed returned with very little or nothing, since the ancient animosity of the previous vassals was finally taking courage and refusing to give anything to the Aztecs. The Spaniards were not putting on weight either, and twice they sued for peace, but the Aztecs had reached such a pitch, despite the starvation and smallpox, that they fought heroically at every opportunity, for their honour and their gods. Every Spaniard captured occasioned a scene of great rejoicing and sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli. But even so, their doom was inevitable, and they knew it.
The final attack was planned across the three main causeways which led to the central square of Tenochtitlan. The three lines were to be led by Cortes, Alvarado (Tonatiuh) and Sandoval, and the aim was to get to the central square as fast as possible, not forgetting to block up the canals with rubble, so as to ensure a means of eventually getting out again and to block the path of Indian canoes. The three columns raced, and Alvarado’s reached the goal first, incurring Cortes’ annoyance because of his inadequate filling of the causeway, which Cortes’ own men had to do after him. However, once all the Spaniards were inside, the Aztecs realised that all was lost and Cuauhtemoctzin reluctantly agreed to speak to Cortes. He was not permitted to die, as he wished, for the Spaniards promised to treat him generously.
Cortes also kept his promise to Montezuma, and found noble husbands for all the daughters that had survived – but unfortunately the conquest of Mexico did not end there. Temples continued to be burnt down, thousands were lying around dead and dying of disease and starvation, and the rest were trying to leave Tenochtitlan for the suburbs.
The fourteenth of August, 1521, was officially the date of the fall of Mexico, where nearly a quarter of a million Aztecs died after eighty days of heroic resistance against less than four hundred Spaniards.
Superior in matters of warfare and the use of machines, the Spaniards let themselves down by their greed. The remaining number of Cortes’ pioneers and Narvaez’ adventurers were increasingly hungry for gold, and there seemed little to be found. Cortes was accused of keeping it for himself, in addition to the fifth appropriated for the King, and to clear himself he was persuaded to have Cuauhtemoctzin tortured so that they could find out where it was. This was to be Cortes’ most ignominious and cowardly deed – and to no avail, since most of the gold, if there really had been that much in the first place, had either been melted down, or irretrievably thrown into the canals.
Cuauhtemoctzin survived for a while, though not long enough to see his city completely rebuilt. Cortes insisted that everything tainted with the heathen religion should be totally destroyed – which in effect meant that the whole city was razed to the ground. Cortes was recalled to Cuba and to Spain, where his great feats, together with a handful of men, were not for a long time fully appreciated. Eventually he gained permission to colonise on an appropriate scale, and create with the help of Tlascalan slave labour (thus they were repaid!) a baroque European city, enforcing the language and the customs of his native land. He did his best, believing sincerely that he was more religious and humane than his Indian contemporaries, but one wonders whether the architectural introduction of the arch, the use of iron, and the praying at Catholic altars is not too great a price to pay for the loss of a civilisation which was equally fervent, loved gold for the aesthetic pleasure it afforded, and not for its monetary value, had a state system which looked after all its inhabitants. True, human sacrifice is revolting, and excessive taxation cruel, but was it not more cruel to have thousands killed, rather than one or two, who considered it an honour anyway, to be given to the gods. However, the prophecy was fulfilled.

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