Conquest of the Aztec Empire Part II

Foul play and blatant lies


While Cortez had promised to help liberate the totonacs at the same time he sent messages to Montezuma in Tenochtitlan, promising to help him subjugate the rebels. While he persuaded the totonacs to stop paying their tributes to the Mexica and imprisoning their tax collector, he then managed to convince the totonacs that he was on their side, and the collectors that it was he who had liberated them so it would reach Montezuma's ears.

Montezuma's second embassy arrived a few days later, bearing gifts and thanking Cortez for helping keep the rebels in line. He then spoke secretly to the totonac chief and told him he could consider himself and his people free from the Aztecs. The chief liberated the other three tax collectors that remained prisoners and the Aztec ambassadors returned to Tenochtitlan with them.

And to what end?

Well, an Aztec settlement organized to force the totonacs to continue paying the tributes they had interrupted. When the confrontation took place the Spaniards helped the totonacs with the cavalry and beat them faster than they natives had thought possible. At that immense display of power some 30 totonac clans decided to ally themselves to Cortez and his men, contributing with over 1,300 soldiers for the conquest of Tenochtitlan campaign.

The march to Tenochtitlan

From the coast to Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City now stands, with important temples such as Teotihuacan) there were several hundred miles. In those times the only transport available was through means of horses, and their journey was not carried out in a straight line, but rather detouring north and south to stop at different settlements and convince more peoples to join their quest, while at the same time, spreading the Spanish language. The natives that hosted them were friendly, but most of them refused to stop paying tribute to the aztec for fear of retaliation. Cortez's men experience was similar to those of a Spanish summer camp.


However the Tlaxcaltecas took a different approach. Unlike many clans one of the senators of Tlaxca doubted the Spaniards' status of semi-gods, since their greed, the destruction of temples, looting of small towns and settlements and the contempt they showed for ancestral laws reflected the behavior of human beings, not deities. After a meeting of the senate the decision was to attack the Spanish. If they triumphed, they'd take the credit, if they were defeated they would blame one of the other ethnics that dwelled with them of disobeying the senate's orders and sign an alliance with the foreigners.

The first Spanish immersion in war was favourable for Cortez, but he realized for the first time that there was a good chance that they could be annihilated. They had horses and superior weapons, but they were massively outnumbered. He sent a message of peace, but the replies were further threats. The tlaxcaltecas continued to attack, but in a disorganized manner and the Spaniards scored further victories, though at great cost, until they decided to reevaluate the situation and sign a peace agreement. They would prove fundamental in the conquest of Tenochtitlan.

The Prelude is Over. Montezuma befriends Cortez

In the meanwhile Montezuma tried through several means to dissuade the Spanish to advance into Tenochtitlan. He sent gifts, ambassadors and messages, but to no avail. An army of 400 Spaniards, 4000 tlaxcaltecas and 16 horses enters the city of Tenochtitlan, built on an island of the Texcoco lake, connected to the mainland by three causeways.

They were received by a large committee, which included Montezuma himself and several tlatoani (governors). There was an exchange of gifts and the Spaniards were lodged in the Axayacátyl palace, near the sacred site of the city.

Despite the fact that Montezuma was an experienced warlord, superstition was deeply rooted in his beliefs, and in his mind there was still a chance that this white bearded men were semi-gods. In a private interview between Cortez and Montezuma, he declared himself vassal of the Spanish king, Charles I. But at the same time other events were taking place.

Cortez y Montezuma

While Cortez was guest in Tenochtitlan, the totonacs, following his advise, stopped paying tributes. The Mexica took actions and there was a confrontation between them. The Spanish soldiers came to their aid, with a casualty of 7. The news quickly reached Tenochtitlan, along with the severed head of Juan de Escalante, sent to the Montezuma as proof that these were men and not gods.

However the tlatoani were terrified; forbade more military actions and kept the news secret. It was unknown to him that Cortez himself was informed by totonac messengers. He took this as an excuse to arrest Montezuma and demanded punishment for the perpetrators. Montezuma was surprised and swore he didn't order the attacks. Nevertheless the tloani was surrounded by a Spanish escort day and night.

Under intensive Spanish custody, Montezuma carried on with his life. He showed Cortez the city and its surroundings. Cortez -remember how religious the Spanish were- asked the tlaotani to give up his gods and forbid human sacrifices. To the Mexica priests' horror and disgust their religious statues were toppled down, to be replaced with Christian images and a Catholic mass was performed in their sacred temple.

The Spaniards discovered the origins of the gold and Montezuma gave Cortez all he wanted, hoping that once they received all the treasures they desired they would finally leave and let them be. When the conquistador requested that tribute of gold be collected from all the Aztec colonies, Montezuma once more accepted.

After an ugly episode when of the Aztec guides was hanged, because he was suspected of treason, his brother rebelled and there were deaths and torture. When Montezuma found out he asked Cortez to leave, but the Spanish refused, under the excuse that he had no ships -which was true, only because he sank them himself to avoid his men defecting the expedition- and stayed in the capital of the Aztec empire.

Right now what Montezuma most feared was a military confrontation and he tried to avoid it at all costs. At a request from Cortez he gave a speech to his people, letting them know that he was a vassal of the Spanish king and asked them to render obedience to the Spaniards. Cortez ordered a few of his men to the coast to build ships where the Aztecs could see them, but in secret he told them to do it as slowly as they possibly could.

The Spanish against the Spanish

The fact remains that Cortez had gone on the expedition against the orders of his superiors. While he founded cities and lodged in palaces, his enemies were not idle.They took their chance, writing an account to be sent to the king in Spain. They received no reply, prompting an expedition commanded by Pánfilo Narváez to set sail. They disembarked in one of the settlements founded by Cortez, Villa Rica de la Veracruz. Narváez' objective was to either arrest or kill Hernán Cortez and there was some secret correspondence between the newcomer and Montezuma.

However Hernán Cortez found out nevertheless, and after some messages sent back and forth he decided to attack. He sent a small battalion of some 70 men under the command of Diego Pizarro, who were victorious partly because their element of surprise because gave them a strategic advantage: Narváez only realized they were under attack when Cortez's men were almost upon them. What's more, Bartolomé de Usagre, Narváez's artillery chieftain had been bribed and put wax in the cannons, whilst Cortez' men had cut the saddle girths. The gunpowder had also got wet and to top it all the men were not at their posts.

Unfortunately for Montezuma, a messenger from Tenochtitlan reached and informed Cortez not only that he'd been in communication with Narváez, but also that there had been a rebellion in the city and his men had been ambushed and were now being besieged. This was the result of the Massacre in the Main Temple.

If you want to continue reading about the Conquest of the Aztec Empire, go to part III or Part I if you want to find out what happened before