Gateway to the Classics: Hernando Cortes Conqueror of Mexico by Frederick A. Ober
Hernando Cortes Conqueror of Mexico by  Frederick A. Ober

Montezuma's City Destroyed


At a grand review of his army, held in Tezcoco the first week in May, CortÚs found himself in command of nearly 900 soldiers, including 90 cavalry, 100 musketeers and cross-bowmen, and 700 infantry armed with lance and sword. His allies, at the outset, numbered 70,000, but during the siege, at times, they increased to more than 200,000.

He had three large cannon, fifteen brass field-pieces, and a good supply of bullets, but only l000 pounds of powder, most of which had been manufactured with sulphur taken from the crater of Popocatapetl. A crew of twenty-five men was assigned to each brigantine, which also carried a cannon in the bow; and almost at the very start the Mexicans were to receive a lesson as to the destructiveness of this winged flotilla armed with artillery. CortÚs himself commanded the naval armament, and upon setting out was confronted with an immense fleet of war-canoes, assembled by the king of Mexico to oppose his progress. The sea was smooth, a morning calm prevailed, and while the vessels lay inert the war-canoes swept forward with powerful strokes of the paddles, their crews yelling loudly in anticipation of victory. Suddenly the wind sprang up, the cannon, double-shotted, poured into the fleet their volleys of death, and the heavy brigantines ploughed through the canoes, overturning and crushing all in their way. The surface of the lake was tinged with blood and covered with mangled remains, while very few of the Aztec canoes returned to the island city from which they had emerged.

Another occurrence about that time which impressed the Indians deeply, was the execution of that fierce and warlike Tlascalan, Xicotencatl, who, taking advantage of the confusion attendant upon embarkation, deserted his command and set out for his home. Speedily learning of this defection, CortÚs sent an alguacil  and several cavalrymen in pursuit, with orders to overtake and "hang him on the spot." They obeyed their orders to the letter, and thus CortÚs was rid of a formidable enemy, by whose death he came into possession of rare jewels and a hoard of gold; for he immediately appropriated all the private fortune of the chief as well as his family.

This was done in the face of the fact that CortÚs was going forth to fight a foe by no means unprepared, and supported by allies whose racial and religious ties bound them closely to his enemies. During the months in which the Spaniards had been preparing for the siege, the Mexicans had put their city in a posture of defence. Cuitlahuatzin, Montezuma's successor, had perished of the small-pox, which had been introduced into Mexico by a negro who came with the army of Narvaez. The pestilence had spread over the country at an alarming rate, and had numbered thousands among its victims, including some of the Tlascalan nobles.

The throne vacated by the death of Cuitlahuatzin was filled by a son-in-law of Montezuma, named Guatemo, or Guatemotzin, who proved himself a worthy successor to the great monarchs who had preceded him. He was only twenty-three years old, but had received his training under the most valiant war chiefs, and entered into the defence of the city with spirit and energy. Wherever the Spaniards attacked, there they found hordes of Aztecs, massed in front or around them, always ready for defence and eager for an engagement. While himself invisible to the besiegers, Guatemotzin directed every movement with the practised eye of a veteran to whom all strategy seemed familiar.

In disposing of his forces for investment, CortÚs assigned Alvarado, with 200 soldiers, 20,000 Tlascalans, and two cannon, to Tacuba, west of the city; Olid and Sandoval, each with an equal force, went to Coyoacan and Iztapalapan, at the south, to which place last named CortÚs himself proceeded by water in the brigantines. Combining with Sandoval, he attacked the city fiercely and carried it by storm, after which, in conjunction with Olid, an advance was made upon the small fortress of Xoloc (Ho-Ioc), much nearer the capital, at the junction of the two southern causeways. Xoloc fell before the combined attack by land and lake, the garrison was slaughtered, and the situation seized by CortÚs as the site of his headquarters, where he maintained himself during the ninety days of the siege.

At Xoloc CortÚs established what he called the "Camp of the Causeways," where, being at the junction of the two stone roads from Iztapalapan and Coyoacan (whence they continued as one highway to the capital), he held a strategic position superior to any other that could have been chosen. He could draw upon both Sandoval and Olid for troops, in an emergency, and he had also the support of the brigantines, which he divided into three small fleets.



The Spaniards had no sooner fixed their camps than they began assaults upon the city along the respective causeways. The distance that separated Alvarado from Sandoval, CortÚs, and Olid was less than two leagues; or from Xoloc to Tacuba it was perhaps not more than four miles. There was, then, great rivalry as to which force should be the first to penetrate to the great square in the centre of the city, and this led to disaster. For, lying in wait for them, like a fierce spider in his web, was Guatemotzin, ready to pounce upon and slay as many as could be drawn within his ambush.

From a military point of view, the operations of CortÚs up to a certain point, were faultless. If he had adhered to his original plan, which was to fill all the canals in front of the troops as fast as an advance was made, and destroy every building between the besiegers and the enemy, he might have saved many a life which was needlessly lost; but he was influenced by the pleadings of his captains and soldiers, and consented to an advance before the ground had been sufficiently cleared for the purpose. Every morning, at dawn, the Spaniards sallied forth preceded by thousands of the allies, who filled the canals and razed the structures impeding their progress. This was slow work for the impatient veterans, who wished CortÚs to follow the method pursued by Alvarado, which was to post a guard at the most advanced point gained by the day's fight, and return to it the next morning, thus constantly advancing. In one of the raids by CortÚs's soldiers the great square was reached, and, among other structures destroyed was the palace of Axayacatl, as well as Montezuma's aviary, which latter, being mostly of wood, went up in smoke and flames that were visible throughout the valley.

The allies of the Aztecs now began to show signs of yielding, and the beacon-fires and signal-smokes, with which they had communicated with Guatemotzin, were less frequently seen, while their embassies to CortÚs, with offers of allegiance, arrived every day at the Camp of the Causeways. The Spanish army was thus greatly augmented, while the Aztecs were correspondingly weakened; but as an offset the Mexicans gained, by stratagem, one of the brigantines, in a naval fight, in which the gallant Pedro Barba, captain of the cross-bowmen, lost his life.

Strengthened as he was by the accessions from without, and spurred on by the rapid advances of Alvarado, CortÚs finally consented to a concerted attack by all the forces, from Tacuba, Xoloc, and Tepajacac, converging upon the great square of the city as a common centre. Nearly twenty days had then gone by, and though they had been filled with constant fighting, the gains had been too slight to satisfy the soldiers. They clamored for an advance in force, and, yielding to their importunities, CortÚs gave the fatal order. Accompanying the detachments in their march along the causeways was a fleet of nearly 3000 canoes filled with allies, and the brigantines, while 60,000 savages poured over the stone roadways, in anticipation of victims for their cannibal feasts.

There was feasting that night upon human flesh, but not to any great extent by the Indian allies, for the Mexicans, unknown to the Spaniards, had made every preparation for their defeat, and secured many a victim by their strategy. During the preceding night they had deepened the broadest canal across the main causeway, erected barricades, and posted thousands of their warriors in ambush, not only in canoes, but in the lateral streets and alleys. As the Spaniards and their hosts advanced, they feigned a retreat so skilfully as to draw their enemies into the great plaza, where they were wedged in dense masses by the crowding forward of the undisciplined allies, and then were entirely at Guatemotzin's mercy.

"Suddenly the king of Mexico's great horn was blown, giving notice to his captains that they were then to take their enemies prisoners or die in the attempt." The trumpet-call of Guatemotzin was the last appeal of the priests and nobles to their followers, and, inspired by the sound, the Aztecs burst from their places of ambush with a fury incredible. The Spaniards were thrown into confusion, and attempted to retreat, but were at first prevented by the masses of their allies, between them and the Camp of the Causeway. They were slaughtered by scores and by hundreds, their ears were assailed by a din of hideous war-cries, which prevented all orders from being heard, and into the canoes that fell upon their flanks more than seventy soldiers were dragged, despite their shrieks and struggles, and hurried away to the war-god's hideous temple. CortÚs had remained with the rear-guard, but when he heard the tumult of retreat he hurried forward, though only in time to be caught in the press and himself seized by savage warriors, who dragged him from his horse and towards a canoe. He was disabled by a blow from a war-club, but while lying unconscious on the ground was rescued by two of his faithful followers, Olea and Lerma, assisted by a Tlascalan chief, who killed five of his assailants and bore him to safety; but when it was reached the gallant Olea, who had been mortally wounded, fell dead by his commander's side. A prolonged howl of rage went up at the escape of CortÚs, who was well known to all the caciques, and who was the real object of attack in this ferocious onset. If the Aztecs had not been so anxious to capture him alive, they might have ended the siege of Mexico by a stroke of the sword when they had CortÚs in their power. He escaped, thankful for his life, and withdrew with his shattered army to Xoloc, whither he was pursued by the Mexicans to the very gates.

Meanwhile, the same bloody scenes had been enacted in front of the troops commanded by Alvarado and Sandoval. Guatemotzin proved himself a great general on this day, if he had never been counted one before, for, from the teocalli  summit, he directed the movements of three vast bodies of his warriors, and guided them all to victory.

After defeating CortÚs, the Aztec chiefs who had driven him to his camp turned upon Alvarado and Sandoval, throwing in front of them five freshly severed and bleed-heads, telling them they were those of their commander-in-chief and his officers. That turned the tide of battle instantly, for, though it was usually necessary for the Spaniards to clear the causeway of the allies preceding a retreat (to prevent confusion), on this occasion it was not, for, says the old historian, "the sight of the bloody heads had done it effectually; nor did one of them remain on the causeway to impede our retreat!"

The same subterfuge was practised on CortÚs, also, for the Mexicans returned to Xoloc, and cast down before the walls other heads of Spaniards. And, as in the previous instance, they had exclaimed: "Malintzin! Malintzin!" so now they gleefully shouted: "Tonatiuh!  Sandoval!" They hoped thereby to discourage the commanders and induce them to retreat; but they did not fully fathom those stern natures, which, though distressed beyond measure at the probable fate of their comrades in arms, remained stanch and inflexible. All their courage was demanded, however, when, in the evening of that dreadful day, they beheld a scene calculated to drive them to despair, and which should be described in the words of an eye-witness. In dire distress, nearly all of them suffering from wounds, with hardly any shelter, and meagrely supplied with food, the Spaniards were compelled to rest upon their arms.

"Before we arrived at our quarters," says brave Bernal Diaz (who was with Alvarado at Tacuba), "and while the enemy were still in pursuit, on a sudden we heard their shrill timbrels, and the horrific sound of the great serpent-drum in the temple of the war-god. We all directed our eyes thither, and, shocking to relate! saw our unfortunate countrymen driven by force, cuffs, and bastinadoes to the place where they were to be sacrificed, which bloody ceremony was accompanied by the mournful sounds of all the instruments of the temple.

"We perceived that when they had brought the unfortunate victims to the flat summit of the temple, where were the adoratories, they put plumes on their heads, and fans in their hands, and made them dance before their accursed idols. When they had done this they laid them upon their backs, on the stone used for this purpose [the Sacrificial Stone], where they cut out their hearts, alive, and having presented them, yet palpitating, to their gods, they threw the victims down the steps by the feet, where they were taken by others of their priests."

Although the Tlascalans and others of the allies were wont to feast upon the limbs of Aztecs they had slain, and bore back to their camps every evening these gory evidences of their prowess, they were intimidated by this display of Mexican ferocity. And when Guatemotzin sent around the heads of horses and human captives, with the message that they must forsake the Spaniards, unless they too would share their doom, one cohort after another slunk away, until CortÚs had few left besides a faithful remnant of Tlascalans, and Prince Ixtlilxochitl's 50,000.

But for an error of the Aztec priests, who (barbarians that they were), erred on the side of superstition, he might have been deserted by all his allies, and left to continue the siege unassisted. That he would  continue, he had resolved; and never faltered, even when his men were all but terror-stricken at the horrid sights on the teocalli. But, in their arrogance, the priests ventured upon prophecy, and gave out that their gods had promised victory for the Mexicans within eight days of the last assault. When CortÚs learned of it, he merely rested his soldiers (contenting himself with repelling the Aztec assaults, which were as fierce as ever), and did not make another advance into the capital until after the time had expired.

Then he reminded his former allies of the false predictions, promising to overlook their desertion and richly reward them if they would rejoin him. Having, meanwhile, sent an army of relief to the Cuernavacans and Otomies, and thus shown himself willing and able to assist those who were faithful, he was soon overwhelmed with hordes of Indians, to the number (the old historians say), of above 200,000. The Aztecs were now "forsaken by all their former friends and vassals, surrounded by their enemies, and oppressed by famine," yet they would not for a moment entertain the thought of surrender. Famine, which had been their ally in reducing the Spaniards to terms on their former visit to the capital, was now the active instrument of their own destruction.

Realizing their pitiful condition, CortÚs availed himself of the presence in his camp of some Mexican nobles, who had been captured, and despatched them to Guatemotzin with overtures of peace; but the Aztecs returned a defiant message, breathing the vengeance and slaughter, which, they declared, would soon be theirs to inflict, in the name of their gods. Then CortÚs ordered a general advance, in pursuance of his original scheme, destroying all the buildings in front of him, and filling the gaps in the causeways with their debris. A horde of allies went with the Spaniards to perform the work of destruction, while the Mexicans taunted them by shouting: "Demolish, demolish, ye traitors! Lay the houses in ruin, which ye will have the labor of rebuilding afterwards!"

It grieved even the hard-hearted CortÚs to destroy this city, which he called the "most beautiful thing in the world "; but by its destruction only could he bring the obdurate Mexicans to terms. They were entirely blockaded, and their supplies of water and food completely cut off. Reduced to the necessity of eating the bark of trees, roots, lizards, vermin of all sorts in their extremity (it has been asserted, as well as denied), they devoured human flesh other than that furnished the favored few from the captives sacrificed on the teocallis.

Again and again CortÚs sent to Guatemotzin his proposals for surrender; but they were rejected with scorn, and the last unfortunate noble who bore them was sent by the enraged king to be sacrificed. The assaults and advances of the Spaniards were but a repetition of their former exploits; so, also, were the frequent sacrifices of victims seized by the Aztecs but loathsome scenes which had been enacted before, and they do not demand further description.

The day arrived, at last, July 24th, when the Spaniards held three-fourths of the city in their grasp, and the forces that had so long and persistently fought their way from the opposite points of Tacuba and Iztapalapan met and fraternized in the central plaza. CortÚs mounted the great teocalli  in order that all might see him and to "vex the Aztecs," from that elevated situation there-after directing the movements of the armies.

In one of the temples, which in turn was taken by assault and destroyed, the Spaniards found the heads of many of their soldiers, the hair and beard on which had grown very long since they were placed there, on beams in the "Room of Skulls." Tears came to the eyes of those stern veterans, and they sorrowed for their friends; but they did not make any direct reprisals upon the common people.

It was among the wretched populace in general—the innocent women and children, emaciated by famine and dying by degrees, thousands of them herded in a space sufficient for hundreds only—that the carnage was greatest, though the inexorable warriors perished by thousands. At a signal given by the firing of a musket, CortÚs let loose the ferocious allies, who slaughtered in one day 8000 of these half-starved and defenceless wretches, and in another, 40,000. All who would have surrendered were butchered by the allies, while the warriors fought, to a man, until the heaps of slain were so high that the attacking savages could scarce see over them. Thus it went on, day after day: blood flowing in streams, precious lives going out in agony, while the stubborn, indomitable king and his nobles retreated still farther into the corner of the city remaining to them, which had now become their prison, and might be their tomb.

By his own evidence shall CortÚs be judged. Nearly a year after the siege was ended he wrote to Charles V. a letter describing the closing scenes, and telling with brutal frankness what he did:

"As soon as it was day, I caused our whole force to be in readiness, and the heavy guns to be brought out . . . . Being all assembled, and the brigantines drawn up ready for action, I directed that when they heard the discharge of an arquebuse, the land force should enter the small part of the city that yet remained to be taken, and drive the enemy towards the water, where the vessels lay. I enjoined much upon them to look for Guatemotzin, and endeavor to take him alive, as in that case the war would cease. I then ascended a terrace, and, before the combat began, addressed some of the nobles whom I knew, asking them why their sovereign refused to come to me, adding that there was no good reason why they should all perish, and that they should go to call him and have no fears.

"Two of them went to call the emperor, and after a short time they returned and said that he would by no means come into my presence, preferring rather to die; that his determination grieved them much, but that I must do whatever I desired. Seeing that this was his settled purpose, I told the nobles to return, then, and prepare for the renewal of the war, which I was resolved to continue until their destruction was complete! More than five hours had been thus spent, during which time many of the inhabitants were crowded together upon piles of the dead. Indeed, so excessive were the sufferings of the people, that no one can imagine how they were able to sustain them; and an immense multitude of men, women, and children, in their eagerness to reach us, threw themselves into the water and were drowned among the mass of dead bodies. It appeared that the number of them who had perished, from drinking the salt water, from famine or pestilence, amounted to more than fifty thousand souls!  . . . In those streets where they had perished we found heaps of dead so frequently that a person passing could not avoid stepping upon them, and when the people of the city flocked towards us I caused sentinels to be stationed to prevent our allies from destroying the wretched persons who came out in such multitudes. I also charged the captains of our allies to forbid, by all means in their power, the slaughter of these fugitives; yet all my precautions were insufficient to prevent it, and that day more than fifteen thousand lost their lives! . . . As the evening approached and no sign of their surrender appeared, I ordered two pieces of ordnance to be levelled and discharged; but they suffered greater injury when full license was given to the allies to attack them than from the cannon, although the latter did them some mischief. . . . As this was of little avail, I ordered the musketry to be fired, when a certain angular space, where they were gathered together, was gained, and those that remained there yielded themselves without a struggle. . . .

"In the meantime, the brigantines suddenly entered that part of the lake, and broke through the fleet of canoes, the warriors who were in them not daring to make any resistance. It pleased God that the captain of a brigantine, named Garci Holguin, came up behind a canoe in which there seemed to be persons of distinction, and when the archers who were stationed in the bow of the brigantine took aim at those in the canoe, they made a signal that the emperor was there, that the men might not discharge their arrows. Instantly our people leaped into the canoe, and seized in it Guatemotzin and the lord of Tacuba, together with other distinguished persons.

"Immediately after this occurrence, Garci Holguin, the captain, delivered to me, on a terrace adjoining the lake, where I was standing, Emperor Guatemotzin, with other noble prisoners. As I, without any asperity of manner, bade him sit down, he came up to me and said, in his own tongue, that he had done all that he could in defence of himself and his people, until he was reduced to his present condition; that now I might do with him as I pleased. He then laid his hand on a poniard that I wore, telling me to strike him to the heart.

"I spoke encouragingly to him, and bade him have no fears. Thus the emperor being taken a prisoner, the war ceased at this point, which it pleased God, our Lord, to bring to a conclusion on Tuesday, August 13, 1521. So that from the day in which the city was first invested May 30th, in that year], until it was taken, seventy-five days had elapsed, during which time your majesty will see what labors, dangers, and calamities your subjects endured; and their deeds afford the best evidence how much they exposed their lives."

This letter from CortÚs to his sovereign was sent from the city of Coyoacan, May 15, 1522, and is of great value, not only as the testimony of the principal character in the siege and conquest of Mexico, but on account of having been written so soon after the events transpired. Another eye-witness of all those scenes, the veteran Diaz, writing more than forty years later, after CortÚs and nearly all the conquerors had passed away, says the siege really lasted ninety-three days.

"In the night after Guatemotzin was made prisoner, there was the greatest tempest of rain, thunder, and lightning, that ever was known; but all our soldiers were as deaf as if they had been for hours in a steeple, with the bells ringing about their ears. This was owing to the constant noise of the enemy for ninety-three days: shouting, whistling, calling, as signals to attack us on the causeways, from the temples of their accursed idols. The timbals, and horns, and the mournful sound of their great drum, and other dismal noises, were incessantly assailing our ears, so that day or night we could hardly hear each other speak."

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