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How Cortés’s band of hidalgos destroyed the Mexica Empire.

It had been an amazing triumph, an unprecedented journey to the top of the wheel of fortune. It was May 1520, and Cortés and his little army—about 400 Spanish warriors and 100 Indian allies, the Tlaxcalans—were living in a palace in Tenochtitlán, the great capital of the Mexica set in the middle of Lake Texcoco. It was a beautiful city, bigger than any in Europe and more sumptuous than Venice.

The Mexica weren’t sure whether Cortés was the incarnation of the priest-god, Quetzalcóatl, who had vanished long ago to the east, promising to return someday to take back his own; the year Cortés appeared—One Reed in the Mexica calendar—was after all the year Quetzalcóatl had said he would return. While the confusion lasted, and while the Spanish behaved themselves, it looked as if Cortés had won Tenochtitlán, and all of Mexico, without a fight.

The Spanish who came to Mexico were far from the gods the Mexica (European chroniclers called them the Aztecs) suspected them to be. For the most part, they were hidalgos, the sons of minor Spanish nobility with not much money in their pockets but a great desire for it in their hearts. Spain was overstocked with these men, who found in the newly discovered Indies a golden opportunity to raise their station and enrich themselves and in the process to live out the fantasy life that had charmed so many of them in the chivalric romances then popular. During the long nights at sea on the way to America, one of the more literate men on board would read these romances aloud to his fellow adventurers.

The hope of ennoblement was a driving force for the aspiring hidalgos. They had the example of Christopher Columbus before them. The son of a Genoese wool weaver, he had been named Admiral of the Ocean Sea by the Spanish monarchy. But even common soldiers could take a share of the loot recovered in the conquests—usually enough to set them up with their own farms in Spanish America and their own Indians to work the land.

They were an enterprising class, these conquistadores. Hernán Cortés was atypical in the magnitude of his success but very much of the type. Born about 1484 in the village of Medellín, in the region of Spain known as Extremadura, he was the son of a hidalgo who had been too poor to buy a horse when he was called to war. Cortés grew up during the last stages of the wars that drove the Moors out of Spain. Violence was a way of life then. Nobles fought among themselves, large extended families fought each other or fought with other family members. Inside the cities, brawls, insults, killings were common events, while outside, according to one historian, “everything was robbery and murder.”

Like most young men of his time, Cortés was a brawler. In his teens he kicked around Spain for a year or two, acquired learning in Salamanca and women wherever he went. He worked in a notary’s office and could speak Latin at a time when others of his class would not have been able to read. He was ambitious; he aspired, says Hugh Thomas, the foremost modern historian of Cortés’s conquest, “not simply to be rich, but to live as a king, to give away presents like a bishop, to have a title, to be known as ‘Don,’ a then rare distinction granted to few noblemen.” To achieve his goals he left for the West Indies in 1506 at age 22, intending to mine for gold.

He spent his first years on the island of Hispaniola, where he was made notary in a small town on the southern coast. He acquired an interest in a sugar mill and a name as a dissolute gallant and brawler. In 1511 he joined Diego Velázquez, who seems to have liked him, in the conquest of Cuba. Velázquez became governor and Cortés Cuba’s first notary and the first to own cattle on the island. But he still cared most for gold, and in 1512 he found it, using the Indians he owned to pan for it in the streams around Cuvanacan on the eastern side of the island. For the next six years he mined gold, bought land, quarreled with Velázquez then made up with him, had a child by an Indian woman, and married a Spanish woman. By 1518 he had amassed a fortune large enough to pay for half the ships, men, and supplies necessary to mount an expedition with Velázquez to the “island” of Yucatán and up the coast of what appeared to be a mainland. Just over 500 men came with him, venturing their lives to make their fortunes. Two previous expeditions had already scouted the area and learned of a large, rich civilization deeper inland, “beyond the mountains.”

Velázquez himself was not going on this trip, so he gave very specific instructions for a limited expedition, but Cortés’s behavior and attitude indicated that he never took the instructions seriously. A man who wants to live like a king has to act like a king. To make the point to his men that he meant to stay and conquer, Cortés scuttled his ships shortly after he had made his way along the coast from the Yucatán to the Mexica Empire. In the Yucatán he had made a lucky find: a captured Spanish friar who had learned to speak Mayan, and a young native woman who spoke Nahuatl. When Cortés encountered the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica, he could communicate with them, Spanish to Mayan to Nahuatl and back again. It was awkward, but it worked. The young woman eventually learned Spanish herself, was baptized, and became Cortés’s mistress—and his “Sacagawea.” He called her Marina; without her, the conquest might not have been possible.

Nor would it have been possible without Indian allies, and the Spanish were helped in forming those alliances by the Mexica themselves. As regional overlords, the Mexica were harsh masters, demanding more and more tribute every year from the tribes that occupied the area between Tenochtitlán and the coast; they also took the offspring of some of the noblest of the other tribes’ families for human sacrifice. Cortés used the other tribes’ hostility to the Mexica to his advantage. The coastal Totonacs were friendly to Cortés from the day he showed up. Nearly a thousand of them acted as bearers and guides during his long trek to Tenochtitlán, dragging the Spanish guns overland in the conquistadores’ wheeled carts—wheels (except on children’s toys) were unknown in the New World. The inland Tlaxcalans hated the Mexica and were one of the only tribes that had remained independent of them, and they did not submit readily to the Spanish. Once they understood, however, that Cortés intended to subdue the Mexica, they became allies and remained loyal thereafter.

Allies were not what got Cortés and his little army into the beautiful city of Tenochtitlán— and they did not have to fight their way in. It was that question in the minds of the Mexica: Were these the gods coming from across the sea that their myths had predicted would return? Was Cortés the great Quetzalcóatl? He certainly fought like a god. Along their route to Tenochtitlán, the Spanish had anticipated the ambushes that the Mexica laid for them, and they had come out more or less unscathed in the skirmishes they fought. Maybe the emperor, Moctezuma II, thought it was pointless to fight. In any case, he welcomed the Spanish into his glorious city, laced with canals and connected to the mainland only by narrow causeways across Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlán’s centerpiece, the pyramidal Great Temple, was one of the largest masonry structures in the world—ranking with the Egyptian pyramids of Giza.

Moctezuma established the Spanish in a palace, fed them, gave them women, precious jewels, the feather cloaks the Mexica prized more than gold, and gold, an astonishing amount of gold—the Spanish appetite for it was insatiable. Moctezuma even gave Cortés his own daughter and agreed to become a vassal of the king of Spain, Charles V, far across the sea.

It all seemed so easy. True, the Mexica were at a disadvantage technically. They had only macuahuitls, wooden clubs with brittle obsidian blades attached to them, which could slash but not pierce; they had bows and arrows, stones and wooden throwing sticks, or atlatls, with which to throw the stones—primitive, but effective in trained hands. They did, however, have a huge advantage in numbers: thousands upon thousands of warriors trained from childhood to fight. Yet in battle they did not try to kill, only to capture. They wanted prisoners they could sacrifice to their gods—200 major and 1,600 minor ones. They were a deeply religious people, who believed that nothing lasted long, including empires; they had laws against cruelty and thought it a privilege to die under the sacrificial knife. Human blood kept the sun rising, the crops germinating.

The two cultures could not have been more different. The Spanish wanted wealth and conquest. They had body armor, long lances, muzzle-loaded harquebuses, artillery, crossbows, dogs—mastiffs trained to fight and quite capable of tearing a man apart. They had lances that pierced the native cotton armor; they had artillery that took out scores of the enemy at a time; they had Toledo-steel swords that were devastating. And they had horses, though not very many of them. Horses were not native to the Americas, and when the Mexica first saw them, some thought the horses and the men riding them were one being, like a centaur. As to the men themselves, were they human? Some of Moctezuma’s advisers thought so, seeing the Spanish as mere men come to steal and conquer. But other advisers thought that the prophecies of bearded men coming from the ocean and a returning Quetzalcóatl were being fulfilled. Moctezuma himself seemed to have believed the latter, because when he had first heard of these strange men appearing, he initially retreated, panicked, to a cave in the city to contemplate his fate.

After only a short time in Tenochtitlán, Cortés, in one of those unpredictable moves that he was known for, took Moctezuma hostage and kept him prisoner in his quarters. Mexica society was steeply hierarchical; all orders came from above and the Mexica would not fight without orders from their emperor. Cortés now had good reason to believe that the Mexica Empire was close to being his. He had taken the capital city without violence and would give it to his sovereign, Charles, intact.

That was the situation when news came from the coast that a new Spanish fleet had arrived whose leader, Pánfilo de Narváez, had orders to arrest Cortés for treason and bring him back to Cuba for trial. Without question, Cortés had exceeded his authority. Diego Velázquez had not ordered Cortés to establish a colony, but that was the first thing Cortés had done, planting one on the coast near what is now Veracruz. Then Cortés had ventured into the interior.

This looked like treason to a Spanish society obsessed with legality, but Cortés had no intention of being arrested. When he learned that Narváez was on his way, Cortés gathered the bulk of his men and made for the coast and Narváez, leaving about 120 men and a young captain—his favorite, Pedro de Alvarado—in charge of Tenochtitlán during his absence.

Alvarado was brave but rash and impetuous. Some of the Tlaxcalans told him that the Mexica nobles were planning to attack the Spaniards while Cortés was gone and kill them all. If the Mexica were plotting against him, Alvarado decided, he would plot against them. A major Mexica religious festival was approaching, so Alvarado concocted a plan: He would close the exits to the plaza in front of the Great Temple, where the cream of Mexica society would be dancing prior to the offering of a human sacrifice on the temple altar. He and his men would kill the 400 unsuspecting, unarmed nobles and military leaders and their families.

And so it was done. “The blood of the chieftains,” wrote one early historian, “ran like water, it spread out slippery and a foul odor rose from it.” The massacre then moved beyond the plaza; when it was over Alvarado claimed that 2,000 to 3,000 were dead. But the Spanish now had to fight their way back to the palace. Suddenly, everything changed.

Cortés in the meantime had taken the small Spanish force sent to arrest him by surprise. He had wounded Pánfilo de Narváez badly, blinding him in one eye and taking him prisoner. Cortés then converted most of the rest of Narváez’s men to his own cause and set out on the return trip to Tenochtitlán with his augmented force of about 1,000 men.

He arrived to find a sullen, hostile populace and the Spanish barricaded inside their palace. Their food and water supplies had been cut off, and they were vulnerable to attack if they ventured out into the city. Then the attacks on the palace began. Day after day, relentlessly, Mexica forces tried to burn down the palace, attacked anyone who left it, threw stones from nearby rooftops, hammered holes in the walls, rained arrows and javelins down on the soldiers inside. The Spanish might kill a hundred Mexica, but 200 would instantly take their places. Few Spaniards died but many were wounded. In late June Moctezuma was taken to the roof of the palace and instructed to ask his people to stop the attacks. They only threw more stones. Three of them hit the emperor. Disheartened, Moctezuma lost the will to live. Just days later, on the morning of June 30, 1520, the Mexica ruler died of his wounds.

The next day Cortés decided, reluctantly but on good advice—even his bravest men thought it was time—to leave. At once. The Spanish spent the day getting ready, building wooden structures to cross the points on the causeway to the west, where the Mexica had dismantled the bridges. The conquistadores packed up gold and other treasures—Cortés had already sent a fortune to Spain—and at midnight opened the gate and slipped into the rainy dark, hoping not to be detected. But, according to one source, a woman out fetching water saw them and raised the alarm.

It’s impossible to say how many Mexica attacked the column, but it was surely as many thousands as could maneuver their canoes near the causeway or crowd onto it. The carnage was massive. Only the first soldiers in the column made it across the makeshift Spanish bridge; after that the water beneath the bridge filled “with dead horses, Indian men and women, servants, baggage and boxes,” wrote Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the foot soldier who chronicled these events. The soldiers who had packed gold on their persons were most apt to die. The gold weighed them down—if they fell in the water, they could not swim, and even on dry land, the weight reduced their ability to fight. All the cannons had to be abandoned and most of the horses were killed.

Historian Hugh Thomas says that of the 1,100 Spanish then in Tenochtitlán, only about 500 survived the night. Most of those had been in the vanguard. Among the few others who got out was Pedro de Alvarado. His horse was killed under him and he was badly wounded, but he emerged from the chaos carrying a spear.

The Spanish who were captured would soon be sacrificed on the bloody altars of the Mexica gods—their limbs cut off, cooked, and eaten by the priests; their hearts thrown into the pit devoted to the god of the earth. Bernal Díaz called this devastating retreat la noche triste. The night of sorrows. The night of tears.

Cortés and his surviving force fled to the Tlaxcalans, fighting skirmishes with pursuing Mexica most of the way. As wounded and exhausted as almost all of the conquistadores were, their weapons and fighting style could still hold off much more numerous forces, and in an open field, they always had the advantage. On a plain near Otumba, the Mexica mounted a major attack, and the fighting went on for hours, hand to hand. Cortés still had some horses, and when he saw a group of Mexica chiefs in the distance, identifiable by their splendid feather outfits, he and five other horsemen galloped straight through the Mexica ranks and lanced the chiefs through. Without their leaders, the Mexica lost all discipline and retired in disorder. The Battle of Otumba was one of Cortés’s greatest victories. Soon after, he and his men found safety with the Tlaxcalans and spent the next few weeks tending their wounds. But if the Mexica thought they were done with the Spanish, they were wrong. In fact the real war had only just begun.

Even before the surviving Spanish had recovered, Cortés made it clear that they were not going home. They were going back to Tenochtitlán. That prize was going to be theirs or they would die trying to achieve it. He knew how to appeal to the Spanish sense of honor, how to use for his own purposes the chivalric ideals infused by the medieval romances into the culture—that it was better to die gloriously than to retreat.

Word had reached the Caribbean by this time that Cortés was involved in a great adventure on the mainland, an adventure yielding riches and spoils in abundance, and that was enough to forgive his earlier overreach. Reinforcements from Spanish possessions in the West Indies began to join Cortés. He had also sent to Spain for more men, weapons, and horses, and they, too, began to reach his base among the Tlaxcalans. He had another factor in his favor: smallpox. The natives of the New World had no natural immunity to European diseases, and they succumbed in droves. The Mexica noble who became emperor after the death of Moctezuma died of smallpox within months of la noche triste. Such deaths in 1521 were just the beginning of a catastrophic demographic collapse. In the West Indies whole peoples had already begun to disappear.

To defeat the Mexica, Cortés knew he would first have to defeat the smaller city-states that lined Lake Texcoco and were allied to the Mexica. He began to ravage the countryside, attacking the city of Texcoco on the eastern shore of the lake and forcing its people into submission. He took his time. For a year, as his forces recovered their strength and more reinforcements arrived, Cortés took over city after city in the Valley of Mexico, reducing the supply of food and tribute the Mexica were used to receiving, and gradually encircling them on their island. The Mexica sent out forces to defend the outlying cities, and some cities defended themselves, but inexorably Cortés reeled them in one by one, always with Tlaxcalan support.

In Tlaxcala, meanwhile, he was building brigantines some 40 feet long—13 of them—to take charge of the lake. He had them built in pieces then carried to the eastern shore of Texcoco and assembled there. The ships were designed to hold 25 to 30 men, some with small artillery pieces. Cortés now had 140 horsemen, 700 foot soldiers, more than 100 crossbowmen, and men expert in firing harquebuses. How many Indian allies he had is difficult to gauge. Cortés himself said 50,000; other contemporary sources say more. What is clear is that the native forces constituted a real force, capable of operating on their own and winning victories over the Mexica.

The siege began at the end of May 1521 with attacks up the causeways leading to Tenochtitlán. The brigantines bottled up the thousands of Mexica canoes in the city, rendering them ineffective. The ships were also used as bridges, enabling horses and soldiers to make it across the breaks in the causeways that the Mexica dug every night. The fighting went on for months. Once or twice, the Spanish penetrated too far into the city and lost men, who were promptly sacrificed within view, at the altar atop the Great Temple. Several times Cortés himself was almost captured. To neutralize the effectiveness of the Mexica defenders, who often attacked from houses lining the causeways, the Spanish systematically destroyed homes; they continued this as they penetrated deeper into the city in successive attacks, destroying all the buildings along the main roads.

No matter how many Mexica the Spanish killed, there were always more. The Spanish cut off the city’s food and water supply, but the Mexica fought on, and fiercely. Cortés did not want to destroy Tenochtitlán; he wanted to preserve it for his king, Charles, now Holy Roman Emperor, as a kind of extravagant gift. Yet the Mexica would not yield, although Cortés proposed surrender to them again and again. Save yourselves, he would tell them; I will treat you with respect.

It was not to be. More Spanish reinforcements arrived, while the Mexica finally ran low on manpower and could not replenish their forces. But they would not quit. By mid-­July the Spanish were masters of most of the city and had cornered the now starving Mexica in a northern suburb. The fighting went on. “The enormity of what was happening,” wrote Hugh Thomas, “the prospect of complete defeat, the suspicion that the end of their history as long predicted might be upon them, seems to have frozen them into a kind of courageous folly.”

On August 13 the folly came to an end. The last of the Mexica were driven into the lake, and the Tlaxcalans who pursued them engaged in an orgy of killing. Cuauhtémoc, the Mexica emperor, was brought before Cortés, who treated him relatively kindly. All around the two men, the city of Tenochtitlán lay in ruins. The most beautiful city in the world was gone.


Anthony Brandt has written for many national magazines and is the editor of the National Geographic Society’s edition of the journals of Lewis and Clark. His most recent book is The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage.

Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.