It is common knowledge that those manuscripts that escaped destruction by the Conquistadors were gathered up under the direction of the first Archbishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumarrga, and reduced to ashes. In “The Conquest of Mexico,” which remains the classic account of the event in English, William H. Prescott writes: “None of the Aztec compositions have survived.” He does mention the name Sahagun and says that he is aware that some of his translations of Aztec prose still exist, but does not pursue the matter.
Writing in 1843, before Aztec hieroglyphics had been deciphered, Prescott did not know that in 1962, a Mexican historian, Dr.Angel Maria Garibay, was to discover that Fra.Bernardino de Sahugun, whom Prescott had mentioned, and other Spanish priests had preserved numerous original Aztec documents by devising a way to write the Nahuatal language of the Aztecs in the Latin alphabet. This enabled eyewitnesses to the Conquest to record an Aztec account of the entire invasion. Here is a sample of the Aztec prose that has survived.
“The ‘stags’ came forward, carrying soldiers on their backs. The soldiers wore cotton armor. They bore their leather shields and their iron spears in their hands, but their swords hung down from the necks of the stags. The animals wear many little bells. When they run, the bells make a loud clamor, ringing and reverberating. These animals snort and bellow. They sweat a great deal and the sweat pours from their bodies in streams. Foam from their muzzles drips onto the ground in fat drops, like a lather of amole (soap) When they run, they make a loud noise, as if stones were raining on the earth. Then the earth is pitted and cracked open wherever their hooves have touched it.”
This description of the Conquistadors and their horses, slightly edited, is from the Aztec account of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico as reconstructed by de Sahugun. Called the Codex Florentino, it can be found in the Laurenzian Library in Florence, Italy. First recorded in Nahuatal, under his supervision, using the Latin alphabet, he later translated it into Spanish, then prepared a second version in the original language. This is the one that survives. Never having seen a horse before, the Aztecs mistook it for a large deer. Despite being terror-stricken, their description of these new animals and their riders is very vivid and is an example of the Aztec ability to record accurate images, even of things they did not understand.
Other documents have been preserved in the National Library of France and the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Fra. Diego de Duran, another priest, also reproduced other Codices, based on oral renditions by Aztec historians. Too, he collected records of picture writing, another Aztec method of recording history.
Additionally a few of the old Codices had been hidden away and emerged years after the Conquest. Finally, Fray Toribio de Benavente, known as Motolinia, a Franciscan monk, who arrived in Nueva Espagna in 1524, only three years after the fall of the Aztec capital, recognized that the Aztecs had their own records of the Conquest. His Historia de los Indios de Nueva Espagna is based on original descriptions of events that he was able to have translated into Spanish. Thus, original words, written or dictated by Aztecs, still survive. In 1962 Dr.Angel Maria Garibay K, counted more than 40 manuscripts containing original Aztec records. Now, Aztec hieroglyphics could be read. His studies of these documents was translated into English and published under the title, “The Broken Spears.”
While the Aztec account of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico does not basically change the facts we are already familiar with, it does detail brutality and massacres on the part of the Spaniards that historians have simply glossed over. Rather than bewailing the Spanish atrocities, we must accept that the way the Conquistadors conducted warfare was normal in the 1500’s and earlier centuries. We have but to read the accounts of battles as revealed in the Old Testament, The Illiad of Homer, or Greek and Roman History, to recognize that the Spaniards were relatively merciful.
What the Aztec records do is give us an insight into their mind-set. They explain why they were unable to defeat the comparatively few invaders. Even with their Indian allies the Conquistadors never numbered more that 25,000 armed men in their initial move toward the Aztec Capital. Approximately 500 Spaniards with only 16 horses, plus their Indian Allies, engaged armies that outnumbered them at least ten to one. The Aztec account of the Conquest reveals a philosophy of war that explains this.
What is most remarkable is that the Aztec account of the Conquest, is almost completely non-judgmental. Although they describe Spanish atrocities in gory detail, it is done factually, with little emotion. Additionally, they give Cortes credit for attempting to negotiate peace with the various tribes he met en-route to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec Capital. Even in Cholula, the single city in which the Spaniards actually massacred most of the inhabitants, the Aztec report of the event includes the possibility that it may have been provoked by falsehoods spread by the Tlaxcalan allies of the Conquistadors. Nowhere in the Aztec accounts of the Conquest do we find any effort to paint the Spaniards as monsters. Actually, these records reveal more about the Aztecs themselves than about the Spaniards. They explain the way the Aztecs viewed the invaders and how their rulers attempted to handle them. We see Moctezuma himself and his people living in fear of the future and the very Gods they worshiped. In the end, perhaps their fears were justified.
Both the Spaniards who first encountered them and latter historians, describe the Aztecs as highly skilled craftsmen, with a well organized system of government. They had a written as well as an oral language, compulsory education, even a health care system. According to Bernal Diaz, himself a Conquistador, at their first glimpses of Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards were awe struck. They saw a city with canals, bridges, a fresh water supply, floating markets, towering Temples and large paved plazas. Estimates of its population vary between 300,000 and 500,000 people. Few cities in Europe were as large or as clean. Despite this, the Spaniards still considered them barbarians, largely because human sacrifice and aspects of cannibalism were part of the Aztec religion. William Prescott persists in this, always referring to the Aztecs as barbarians and comparing them to semi-civilized Tarters.
All historians recognize that in addition to seeking gold and new territory for Spain, the Conquistadors were strongly committed to spreading Christianity. The Codices reveal that the Aztecs were equally committed to spreading the realm of their own Gods, particularly the blood thirsty Huitzilopochtli. Thus, fanatic Christians met an equally fanatic Aztec priesthood. Ultimately, it was the clash of the two religions that led to the destruction of the Aztec Empire.
Although historians portray Moctezuma as the absolute ruler of a vast empire, (Map of the Empire) the Aztec account of the conquest reveals him as insecure, indecisive and superstitious.. Largely dependent on magicians and sooth-sayers to interpret omens and guide them, he vacillated on how to deal with the invaders. The records also reveal that the Aztecs were captives of their own legends, principally the one about a great god/leader, Quetzalcoatal, who the Toltecs, the people who proceeded the Aztecs as rulers of the Valley of Mexico, credited with bringing them civilization. Described as fair skinned and red haired, he had departed eastward and embarked on the ocean, promising to return someday.
To understand how a Toltec legend was to affect the Aztecs, we must take a quick look at their history. The Aztecs had entered the Valley of Mexico from the north in about 1325 A.D. By 1440 they had built an empire. Once this was done, they decided to re-write their own tribal history, Seeking respectability they now claimed to be descended from the Toltec nobility. With this new identity came the legend of Quetzalcoatl. Thus in the beginning, the invading Spaniards were mistaken for the returning God and these doubts lingered long enough to enable the Conquistadors to gain a foothold and enlist allies before being attacked in force by the Aztec armies. Also the Aztecs raised their own war god, the blood-thirsty Huitzilopochtli, to an exalted status and abandoned the more benevolent gods of the Toltecs, who had not required human sacrifice. Identified with the Sun, their “giver of life,” their fear that it would not return, led to the daily ripping out of human hearts, to placate him.
This dogma that Huitzilopochtli demanded a steady stream of blood led to constant warfare, since they believed he preferred the blood of a brave warrior, captured in battle. Soon, human sacrifice to the rest of their gods became the rule. Thus, the Aztec concept of war after their empire was established was not the total defeat of an enemy, but rather a short skirmish to capture warriors to sacrifice to their Gods. Much of it was ceremonial, with well-established rules that minimized bloodshed. For example they constantly raided the Tlaxcalans, their bravest foe, never seeking to conquer them, but preserving them as a source for sacrificial material. This constant culling of Tlaxcalan warriors to be sacrificed, led to the alliance between Cortes and the Tlaxcalans. The Aztec perception of them as valiant warriors was correct. Without them as allies, it is very unlikely that the Spaniards could have succeeded. Additionally, the Aztec tactics of quick raids, seizing prisoners, and then withdrawing, left them unprepared to fight an enemy like the Conquistadors. Also, human sacrifice had led to cannibalism based on the theory that eating the body of a brave warrior would increase their own prowess in battle.
This above all else incited the Spaniards to use violence to destroy the Aztec religion, which in turn infuriated the fanatical clergy and destroyed all chances of a peaceful settlement that might have satisfied the invaders. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, they had witnessed a series of events that they interpreted as bad omens. With no scientific understanding of natural phenomenon, living in the shadow of an and in an area that to this day is earthquake prone, they lived in constant terror of nature. We will detail these omens and their consequences, in the second part of this series.
Perhaps the most startling thing revealed by the Aztec account of the Conquest of Mexico, is that unknowingly, the Conquistadors had invaded the country at a perfect time. Superstition had produced self-doubt and smallpox was already in the incubation stage. In a sense, the victory of the Spaniards was a self-fulfilling prophecy based on omens and legends. Additionally, the bad omens had resulted in an increase in human sacrifice by the Aztecs in an effort to forestall these predictions of their doom. Thus, both the Cempoalans and the Tlaxcalans, tribes from whom they obtained victims, became willing allies of the Spaniards.
Largely responsible for this was the reigning monarch. Named Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, he has gone down in history as Moctezuma II. The Aztec monarchy was hereditary only in the sense that the ruler was selected from descendants of their very first King, Acamapichtli. A Toltec nobleman, they had elected him when proclaiming their false descent from the highly civilized Toltec rulers of the Valley of Mexico. Moctezuma had succeeded an uncle, Ahuitzol, who had become king after the death of his brother, Moctezuma’s father. Elected monarch in 1502, Moctezuma II had been a warrior but then became a priest, an unusual background for the leader of a warlike people. When the Spaniards arrived, he was about 40 years old. Bernal Diaz describes him as “being of good height, well proportioned, slender and spare of flesh. He was not very dark, wore his hair just over his ears and had a short black beard, well shaped but thin.”
Although the Conquistadors and Prescott describe him as an absolute monarch, the Aztec account of the Conquest reveals that he was more a chief executive, responsible to an Executive Council made up of clan chiefs, soothsayers and high priests. This description of his powers is confirmed because, after being imprisoned by the Spaniards, he was removed from office by this same Council. This was to have dire consequences for both the Emperor and the Conquistadors.
Moctezuma’s first news of the invasion came from a common man, who took it upon himself to report directly to the emperor. As reported by the Aztecs, he said:
“Our lord and king, forgive my boldness. When I went to the shores of the great sea, there was a mountain range or small mountain floating in the midst of the water, moving here and there without touching the shore.”
Moctezuma immediately sent a trusted envoy, who returned and reported that there were indeed two towers or mountains floating on the waves. Here is an abridged version of his report to the emperor:
“It is true that strange people have come to the shores of the great sea. They were fishing from a small boat. They fished until late and then went back to their two great towers and climbed up into them. There were about fifteen of these people, some with blue jackets, others with red, some with black or green. They have very light skin, much lighter than ours. They all have beards, and their hair is fair and comes only to their ears.”
The Codice continues. ‘Moctezuma hung his head and did not speak a word.’ He appeared terrified. Surely these were Gods. The legend of Quetzalcoatl filled his mind and the bad omens of the past few years seemed about to be fulfilled.
We have two slightly different versions of these omens. Perhaps some may have been natural phenomena but others can only be attributed to superstition. They come from reports dictated to Bernardino de Sahagun and collected by Diego Munoz Camargo, a Conquistador who had married into the nobility of Tlaxcala. I quote the Aztec words.
“The first omen was a great light that appeared each night at about midnight and moved across the sky, shooting flames. This lasted almost a year.”
Second omen: “A temple of Huitzilopochtli burst into flames. Water poured on the blaze did not put it out and the temple burned to the ground.”
Third bad omen: “A bolt of lightning that came with neither flash nor thunder in only a light rain and destroyed a temple.”
Fourth bad omen: A stream of comets, visible in the daytime, that raced from west to east, shooting off sparks of fire with such long tails, they filled the sky.”
Fifth: “The lake that surrounded Tenochtitlan rose when there was no wind. It boiled and rose to great heights and destroyed almost half the houses in the city.”
Sixth: Every night people heard the voice of a weeping woman who cried, “Oh my sons, we are lost ” and at other times, “Oh my sons, where can I hide you.”
Finally, reports circulated about “two headed men roaming the city, who appeared and disappeared at will.”
The people were terrified and grief stricken, thinking that these omens signified that the end of the world was coming.
Moctezuma himself had looked into a mirror and seen people moving across a plain, armed for war, and riding on what looked like strange deer.
Having had confirmation that strangers were indeed invading his kingdom, Moctezuma now decided that this was indeed the return of Quetzalcoatl. According to the Aztec documents, he said, “He has appeared. He has come back. He will come here, to the place of his throne and canopy, for that is what he promised when he departed.”
Now, the Emperor had valuable gifts of turquoise and gold prepared and sent a delegation to pay homage to the returning Gods. His final words to his messengers were, “Go now without delay. Do reverence to our lord the god. Say to him, “Your deputy Moctezuma, has sent us to you. Here are the presents with which he welcomes you home to Mexico.”
These words are a combination of fear and hope. It appears that Moctezuma thinks that Quetzalcoatl will replace him on the throne. While he accepts this possibility, his statement that he is the deputy of the returning God indicates hope that he may be able to retain some power. Throughout the Conquest, this ambivalence becomes more and more apparent. Once Cortes realized that he was being welcomed as a god, he went out of his way to frighten the messengers by firing off a cannon and ordering them to engage each other in hand to hand combat to prove their bravery. Here are some of the words in which they reported to the emperor when they finally returned to the court:
“The cannon roared. It caused us to faint and grow deaf. A thing like a ball of stone comes out of its entrails: it comes out shooting sparks and raining fire. If it is aimed against a mountain, the mountain splits and cracks open. It can cause a tree to shatter into splinters as if it had exploded from within.” Then follows another description of the “gods.”
“Their trappings and arms are all made of iron. They dress in iron and wear iron casques on their heads. Their swords are of iron, their bows are of iron, their shields are of iron, their spears are iron: their deer carry them on their backs wherever they wish to go. These deer, our Lord, are as tall as the roof of a house. Their skin is white like lime, they have yellow hair, though some have black. Their beards are long and yellow and their mustaches are also yellow. Their hair is fine and curly.” The Aztecs were further terrified by the messenger’s description of the dogs the Spaniards had brought with them.
“Their dogs are enormous with flat ears and long, dangling tongues. The color of their eyes is a burning yellow; their eyes flash fire and shoot off sparks. They are tireless and very powerful. They bound here and there, panting, with their tongues hanging out.”
Though exaggerated, the Aztecs almost always combined accuracy with imagination reporting new things they did not understand. Now they describe the effects of the reports on Moctezuma.:
“He was filled with terror. It was as if his heart had fainted: as if it had shriveled. It was as if he were conquered by despair.” His subsequent actions prove their accuracy.
As the Spaniards advanced toward his capital, Moctezuma was informed that the “gods” wished to see him face to face. Now Aztec documents reveal that he thought of escaping, hiding. They also reveal that he had many counselors who were not faint hearted but in their own words, still “firm and resolute.” The final description of their emperor at this stage of the invasion gives us a preview of coming events. It recognizes Moctezuma’s weakness and foreshadows the loss of respect and power that ultimately led to his death. Immobilized by the Quetzalcoatl legend, his failures led to the destruction of his empire.
“He had lost his strength and spirit and could do nothing. He was too weak and listless and too uncertain to make a decision. He did nothing but resign himself and wait for them to come.”
The fact that the Spaniards did not recognize any of this, led directly to the “Sorrowful Night.” They concentrated all their attention on trying to influence the emperor to persuade his people to give up human sacrifice and accept Christianity, not realizing that he had lost his authority.
Here is the Aztec version of what happened. It had started when Moctezuma met with his nephew Cacama, his brother Cuitlahuac and other lords to decide how to welcome the Christians when they arrived. They had learned that in nearby Texcoco, Prince Ixtlilxochitl, the brother of Cacama, had welcomed the invaders and had accepted Christianity. Cuitlahuac recommended that they not be welcomed in any manner. Cacama disagreed saying they should be welcomed.
“If their demands displease Moctezuma,” he said, ” he can punish them by sending his hosts of brave warriors against them.”
Moctezuma immediately announced that he agreed with his nephew.
Aztec documents report these final words from Cuitlahuac. “I pray to our gods that you will not let the strangers into your house. They will cast you out of it and overthrow your rule. When you try to recover what you have lost, it will be too late.” Although the rest of those present agreed with those words, Moctezuma had decided to welcome the Conquistadors as friends. With this decision, the fate of the Aztecs was sealed.
In part three we will examine the last act of this tragedy.
Quetzalcoatl was coming. Moctezuma had already sent wizards, magicians and seers, to cast spells that would destroy or at least deter the Spaniards from continuing toward his capital. Their failure had re-confirmed the emperor’s opinion that these were indeed the gods of the legend. He had also sent ambassadors with gold and other treasures to beg the strangers not to continue on towards Tenochtitlan . Reasons for his apprehension about the legendary god’s return are not clear. Perhaps it was fear of being deposed or being punished for the human sacrifices in which the Aztecs indulged since, Quetzalcoatl disapproved of human sacrifice. Despite his fears, Moctezuma now surrendered to the inevitable and prepared to welcome the strangers.
There is some evidence that during his visit to Cempoala, Cortes realized that the Conquistadors had been mistaken for supernatural beings but it appears that he had never heard the Aztec legend of the return of Quetzalcoatl. He did understand that ambassadors were treated with respect. Thus in every contact with Moctezuma, he presented himself as an envoy of the king of Spain and in his own words, “the true faith.” Furthermore, he sent messages to the Aztec monarch assuring him that he had come in peace but was obligated to present his message in a face-to-face meeting. Aztec accounts of the Conquest make it clear that the combination of the Quetzalcoatl legend and the bad omens all worked in favor of the Spaniards. Also, the Aztecs resorted to violence only to capture prisoners for sacrifice to their gods. The concept of warfare to annihilate an enemy was alien to them.
Enroute to the Aztec capital, the Spaniards had stopped at Cholula. There they had destroyed a temple and an idol and massacred many Cholulans. Strangely, both the Spanish and Aztec versions of the causes of this bloodletting seem to indicate that the Conquistadors were provoked. Bernal Diaz and Prescott say that the Cholulans, instigated by Moctezuma, were preparing to attack the visitors whom they had welcomed warmly just days before. Both claim that an old woman had sought to protect Donna Marina, the Christian name of the woman called La Malinche, by warning her of the impending attack. She in turn warned the Spaniards. The Aztec version denies Moctezuma’s involvement and claims that the Tlaxcalan allies of Cortes instigated the massacre. They report that an ambassador sent from Tlaxcala, seeking to insure a peaceful passage through Cholulan controlled territory, had his face and arms flayed and was otherwise crippled. As already noted, traditionally, ambassadors were always treated with respect.
Everything that the Aztecs themselves report about the state of mind of Moctezuma, his indecision and conviction that he was dealing with returning gods, make it unlikely he planned to attack them. Thus the theory about Tlaxcalan responsibility for the whole thing is at least credible.
The approach of the Conquistadors to Tenochtitlan as reported by the Aztecs themselves to Fra Bernardino de Sahugun after the Conquest and recorded in the Codex Florentino, is factual and vivid. Here is how they describe it:
“Four stags (horses) came in front like leaders. They prance, turn, look backwards, then from side to side. Then come dogs, their noses to the ground. At the very front, there is only the banner. The bearer carries it on his shoulders. He waves it from side to side. Following him are those with unsheathed swords shining and glittering. They carry their shields on their shoulders. Now come stags with riders on their backs These riders wear cotton armor, carry shields covered with leather. Swords hang from the necks of the animals. Then come crossbowmen, musketeers and finally their Indian allies.” Reading this description of a “show in force” it is easy to understand Aztec unease.
Just outside the city, the Aztec Emperor and four of his most important advisors met the Conquistadors. Again, we turn to the Codex Florentino to confirm the sincerity of Moctezuma’s belief that he was meeting supernatural people. Here is a condensed version of the meeting.
After receiving gold necklaces and other gifts, Cortes spoke first: “Are you Moctezuma? Are you the king? Is it true that you are the king, Moctezuma?”
The king replied: “Yes, I am Moctezuma.” Standing up, he came forward, bowed his head low, and said, “Our lord, you are weary, the journey has tired you, but now you have arrived on the earth. You have come to your city, Mexico. You have come here to sit on your throne, to sit under its canopy.” The speech by Moctezuma was a long one. He finished up by saying, ” This was foretold by the kings who governed your city, and now it has taken place. You have come back to us; you have come down from the sky. Rest now, and take possession of your royal houses. Welcome to your land, my lord.”
It was only after the speech was finished that La Malinche translated it to Cortes.
Perhaps she had omitted the constant references to the invaders as ‘gods”. She knew full well that these were mortals. This possibility gains some credence from the reply to the speech. All Cortes is quoted as saying is: “Tell Moctezuma that we are his friends. There is nothing to fear. We have wanted to see him for a long time. And now we have seen him and heard his words. We have to come to your house in Mexico as friends.” There is no reference to having been called a god. Thus on November 8th, 1519. the Conquistadors entered Tenochtitlan. At this point the Spanish and Aztec version of events begins to differ.
According to Bernal Diaz, after the first meeting with Cortes, the Aztec Emperor and his escort returned to the city, leaving two of his nephews to escort the party to their quarters where Moctezuma waited to greet them. Diaz claims that for four days Cortes visited the emperor daily, explaining Christianity, asking him to end human sacrifice and cannibalism, destroy the idols the Aztecs worshiped and finally to permit the erection of a cross and a church on the site of the Temple of Huitzilopochtli. Too, Diaz wrote that Cortes explained to Moctezuma that he and his men were not gods, but rather servants of a great emperor and had come only to warn him about the evils of their ways of worship. Of course Moctezuma refused these requests, but did grant permission for the erection of a Cross and the construction of a church in the plaza in front of the palace in which the visitors were lodged.
The Aztec version of these same days is different. They say, “When the Spaniards entered the Royal House, they placed Moctezuma under guard.” There are no mentions of daily visits or the efforts to persuade the emperor to embrace Christianity. Nor do they mention the revelation by Cortes that he was an ordinary mortal. The Aztec account says that almost immediately the Conquistadors demanded gold. Moctezuma was forced to open both his private and the national treasure houses. Both were looted. He was also persuaded to permit the Spaniards access to the main temple of Huitzilopochtli, a place out of bounds to all but priests.
Although the Aztecs were unhappy about the detention of Moctezuma, all remained peaceful until the Spaniards, now commanded by Pedro de Alvarado while Cortes went to fight an army sent by the Governor of Cuba to arrest him, massacred Aztecs peacefully celebrating the Fiesta of Toxcatl. They had asked for and received permission for the celebration, held in honor of Huitzilopochtli. Here is the Aztec report, somewhat condensed, taken from the Codex Aubin:
“On the eve before the festival they built a statue of Huitzilopochtli, dressed it in feathers, clipped on earrings of turquoise and fashioned a nose of gold and fine stones. A “magic” feather headdress, a cloak with pictures of skulls and bones and a vest, decorated with pictures of dismembered human parts, completed the costume. The next day unarmed Aztec warriors filed into the temple courtyard and started the “Dance of the Serpent.” At the very height of the Fiesta, the Spaniards attacked. They came on foot, sealed off all escape routes. They ran among the dancers, stabbing them, spearing them. They attacked the man playing the drum, cut off his arms and beheaded him. The blood of the dancers flowed like water. The stench of blood and entrails filled the air.”
Once word of the massacre spread, a great cry went up. “Mexicanos, bring your spears and shields! The strangers have murdered our warriors.” Attacked, the Spaniard retreated to their palace and began to shoot at the Mexicans with crossbows, cannons and arquebuses. Now they were besieged in the palace.
Bernal Diaz, who was with Cortes, says the massacre was a warning to head off a future insurrection. Prescott too, half apologizes for Alvardo, by claiming he feared an attack on the Spaniards who were watching the event. Cortes had defeated the expedition sent to arrest them and persuaded the new arrivals to join him. Hearing about the fighting, he rejoined the besieged garrison. However, he took no action against Alvarado other than to scold him. According to Bernal Diaz, Cortes led a final sally, hoping to cow the attackers. They did destroy the temple and the idol of Huitzilopochtli, but suffered heavy losses. That night Moctezuma, attempted to end the fighting by addressing the attackers. The reply to this by the Aztecs was:
“Who is Moctezuma to give us orders? We are no longer his slaves.” They then loosed arrows and stones at the emperor.
The attack continued for 7 days and then a siege continued for 23 more days. According to Bernal Diaz, Moctezuma made one last attempt to make peace. Attempting to address the attackers, he was greeted with a barrage of stones, was fatally injured, and died a few days later. Strangely, Aztec records make no mention of the destruction of their temple or this second appeal but say that the Spaniards stabbed Moctezuma to death as they prepared to flee.
We are all familiar with the Spanish retreat on “The Sorrowful Night.” The Aztec version is very similar to the one that we know but gives bloody details that non-Aztec historians have glossed over. In part four we will finish the story and attempt to evaluate the revelations of the Aztec account of the Conquest.
The Spanish returned.
With Cuitlahuac, the brother of Moctezuma who had advised against welcoming the Conquistadors, now elected as their king, the Aztecs were confident that any attempted return would be met by force and repelled. For some eight Aztec months (a month was 20 days and 18 made a year) all went well. The temple was rebuilt and things returned to normal. But in the thirteenth month, disaster struck The Aztecs report reads:
“A great plague broke out in Tenochtitlan. It lasted for seventy days, striking every where in the city and killed vast numbers of people. Sores erupted on our faces, our breasts, our bellies.”
Even the new king who they had counted on to keep them free, ultimately fell victim to the plague. It was Smallpox, brought by the invaders.
The story of the final capture of Tenochtitlan is too well known to repeat. Although the Aztec report on the Conquest of Mexico contains many vivid, detailed accounts of each and every battle, in the final analysis, the real value of their point of view lies not in the reporting of day-to-day events, but rather in what it reveals about the Aztecs themselves. Their strengths and their weaknesses, and their own evaluation of Moctezuma give valuable insight into how a comparative handful of Spaniards, outnumbered at least ten to one in almost every engagement, were able to destroy a nation that had built an Empire reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific with perhaps as many as 5,000,000 subjects.
Additionally, the Aztec account of the Conquest reveals a side of their culture at which no historian has ever done more than hint. The Spaniards came with the dual mission of seeking wealth and spreading Christianity. Horrified by human sacrifice and cannibalism, they totally ignored other aspects of the culture. To them, the Aztecs were barbaric savages. Basically, later historians have done the same. With the fighting done and the Spaniards in control, the Aztecs account of the final phases of the conquest are partly in poetry that can only be described as “epic.” When we read this, the bloodlust of their Gods slips into the background and human beings emerge.
Here is one description of the final days of the Conquest:
Broken spears lie in the roads;
We have torn our hair in our grief
The houses are roofless now, and their walls
Are red with blood.
Worms are swarming in the streets and plazas,
And the walks are spattered with gore
The water has turned red, as if it were dyed
And when we drink it,
It has the taste of brine
We have pounded our hands in despair
Against the adobe walls,
For our inheritance, our city, is lost and dead
The shields of our warriors were its defense.
But they could not save it.
We have chewed dry twigs and salt grasses:
We have filled our mouths with dust and bits of adobe.
We have eaten lizards, rats and worms
When we had meat, we ate it almost raw.
Almost biblical in tone, it pictures a people more sensitive than the reports stigmatizing them as blood thirsty savages. Here is their description of the fall of Tenochtitlan as taken from Cantares Mexicanos in the National Library of Mexico, probably written in 1523. They are truly elegies that reveal feelings that to this day are part of the character of the surviving indigenous people.
The Fall of Tenochtitlan
Our cries of grief rise up
And our tears rain down
for Tlatelolco is lost.
The Aztecs are fleeing across the lake
They are running away like women
How can we save our homes, my people
The Aztecs are deserting the city
The city is in flames and all
is darkness and destruction
Weep my people
Know that with these disasters
We have lost the Mexican nation
The water has turned bitter
Our food is bitter
These are the acts of the Giver of Life.
What is most interesting about this particular poem is that is seems that the poet is distancing himself from the “Aztecs” who he accuses of abandoning the city and the people. Then he refers to the whole matter being an act of the “Giver of Life.” It has been recorded that the Aztecs did recognize a single supreme God, addressed by that title, but he was not worshiped. Instead it was the bloody Huitzilopochtli, to whom they paid tribute. Is it possible that he had been forced on the common people by a fanatical priesthood and that the worship of the “giver of life” persisted, perhaps secretly? Let me quote from one more short poem that lends some credence to the possibility, that some secret worship of the “giver of life” did persist.
Flowers and Songs of Sorrow
We know it is true
That we must perish
For we are mortal men
You, the Giver of Life,
You have ordained it
We wander here
and there in our desolate poverty
We are mortal men
We have seen bloodshed and pain
Where once we saw beauty and valor
We are crushed to the ground
We lie in ruins
In Mexico and Tlatelolco
Where once we saw beauty and valor
Have you grown weary of your servants
Are you angry with your servants
Oh Giver of Life.
At the very least, these post-conquest poems seem to indicate that the survivors of the conquest had become disillusioned with their old religion and were likely candidates for conversion to Christianity.
Equally noteworthy is that nowhere in the Aztec Story of the Conquest, are the Conquistadors berated for their brutality. At times it seems the reports come from impartial observers who simply report the facts. This is equally true of the descriptions of Moctezuma. Although he is often described as being indecisive, weak, frightened, superstitious and almost psychotically depressed, there is no hint of any organized movement to have him replaced until his ultimate few efforts on the behalf of the Spaniards to calm the uprising against them
In the final analysis, the Aztec Story of the Conquest of Mexico, while it reveals some interesting factual material, gives more insight into the character of both themselves and their conquerors than it does to the actual history of the event. It reveals a people so steeped in superstition and self-deception, that they were no match for a man like Cortes.
Reading the Aztec History of the Conquest of Mexico, we find that the seeds of the destruction of their Empire had been planted long before the arrival of the Spaniards. They succumbed as much to a self-fulfilling prophecy as to an invading army.