The city of Tenochtitlan, together with her neighbour Tlatelolco, counted with more than 60,000 houses and had a population over 300 000 inhabitants; in other words, it had a size 5 times bigger than London in the times of Henry VIII.
In the lapse of over five years, the beautiful city and its enormous population were destroyed. And this astonishing destruction was carried out by an army of under six hundred spaniards, with the help of their numerous indian allies.
HernÃ¡n CortÃ©s was born in 1485 in Medellin, a Spanish provincial city. His first biographer, Francisco LÃ³pez de Gomara, describes him as “bustling, proud, mischievous, friend of weapons”. CortÃ©s had aquired certain air of affability, but was always arrogant and agresive when someone dared to challenge his authority.
After Fernando and Isabel united, in the year of 1479, the kingdoms of AragÃ³n and Castilla, Spain turned into the most impresive military force of all Europe. The Muslims, who had been the most hated enemies of Spain for centuries, were driven out of their last stronghold – the city of Granada – in the year of 1492. The Spanish nation, mostly catholic and very much expansionist, looked with great greed towards the new lands that Columbus had discovered.
In the year of 1511, the Spaniards invaded and subjugated the island of Cuba. CortÃ©s was among these conquerors. That is where he married and built his new residence. When Fernando and Isabel died, the throne of Spain passed on to Carlos V, who later reined also as emperor of Austria, Germany, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, and part of Borgona.
Educated as a squanderer Habsburg, Carlos was always looking for new fund sources to satisfy his extravagant pleasures and the Western Hemisphere facinated him with its leyends of endless riches.
CortÃ©s saw his oportunity and lost no time in voluntering to conduct an expedition to look for riches. He was named commander of such expedition by the governor of Cuba, Diego Velazquez, just as ambitious of a man as CortÃ©s and did not trust the young commander of such an independent and enterprising spirit.
That is why with great precaution, he authorized CortÃ©s to explore but not to conquest. The instructions of the governor, though, included a clause by which CortÃ©s, in cases of trouble, could take the actions that would best suit to the “service of Our Lord God and his Highness the king”.
The clever CortÃ©s later interpreted these words in his own way, adapting them to his own purposes, and like this he aquired a doubtful legality to what came to be his brilliant act of insubordination before the authority of the governor Diego Velazquez.
When CortÃ©s disembarked on the coast of MÃ©xico in february of 1519, his fleet counted with eleven ships and about five hundred soldiers, one hundred sailors, numerous servants, and sixteen horses.
Eight months later he had already reached the heart of the Aztec world – the great city of Tenochtitlan -, where he had been received as a guest of honor. Absolutely nothing in the militaty sense was done to prevent Cortes from penetrating into MÃ©xico, even though the Aztecs and their allies were an enormous and fierce military force.
The march of CortÃ©s through Mexican lands can be explained mainly, according to Laurette Sejourne, by the undoubtful talent that CortÃ©s had for intrigue and betrayal, what allowed him to rapidly orient himself in the laberint of Mexican politics, “little after his arrival, he discovered that resentment and rebellion were very much present among the tribes that were subyugated to the domination of Moctezuma, and immediately formed military alliences that made posible his astonishing victories. And an unbreakable will, that did not stop before murders or mass killings, he accomplished everything else”.(Burning Water).
In his first disembarkment, in Cozumel, CortÃ©s had found a shipwrecked compatriot who was called Jeronimo de Aguilar, and who had lived among the indians for about eight years and had learned their language.
While he was among the people of Tabasco, CortÃ©s had obtained the services of a second interpreter and colaborator gifted with just as much astuteness as himself. She was called Ce Malinalli, or Mrs. Maria (Malinche) after being baptized, a young indian who spoke nahuatl as well as the language of Yucatan which Aguilar understood. Ce Malinalli took little time to learn spanish from the lips of Aguilar and in making herself Hernan Cortes’ faithful companion.
Making use of Ce Malinalli’s exeptional habilities to get the most out of the religious faith of the Mexican people, aswell as from the political discontent that reigned in the country, the Spanish commander was able to establish the despotism of Spain in the vast territory of Mexico by passing as a liberator of the tribes oppresed by the supreme Aztec chiefs.
CortÃ©s also had the advantage of his fanatic catholic misionary zeal that served his as a justification to exploit the Mexicans, suported mainly on the Aztec customs of performing human sacrifices and practicing canibalism. These customs offend the sensiblities of the XXth century, but have a different impact when they were comited in Europe at the time when CortÃ©s invaded MÃ©xico.
The inquisition, that functioned in Southern Europe since 1237 until 1834, is notorious for its extense use of torture and for its horrendous violations of human dignity in the name of the “true faith”.
Spain was then the scene of one of the most atrocious acts ever commited in the name of God. The expulsion of the jews and the prolonged war against the Muslims brought some of the most vile cruelties and acts of inhumanity. Even though Cortes and his soldiers tried to get the most out of their horror and constenation from the human sacrifices, it must be remembered that in Cholula the Spanish commander ordered the killing of hundreds of indefence religious celebrants.
And a man who is capable of ordering his soldiers to slash six thousand troats in less than two hours, surely must enjoy a reputation of bloodthirsty nothing short from the Aztec priests’ in charge of the human sacrifices.
At this point, CortÃ©s gave his most daring punch: the destruction of his vessels, with which he would prevent any uprising by any of his soldiers who remained loyal to the governor Velazquez. This act was followed by CortÃ©s’ army marching inland.
On august 31, 1519, CortÃ©s and his troops reached the land of the Tlaxcaltecas, a people who hated the Aztecs and had fought against them a long time. This precarious situation between Tenochtitlan and Tlaxcala was advantageus for the religious sistem of the mexicans, because the so called “florid wars” served to provide both cities with prisoners for their sacrifices.
CortÃ©s easily obtained the alliance of Tlaxcala against Moctezuma and like this he obtained the enormous and indespensable forces for the subyugation of all MÃ©xico. The horses, cannons, and harquebuses together with the European military techniques, were undoubtfully of great help to the Spaniards in their conquest of MÃ©xico; but without the fierce adhesion of the indian enemies of Moctezuma, it is highly improbable that CortÃ©s would have ever accomplished his ambition of subyugating the vast and powerful kingdom of Moctezuma II.
Nobody will ever know with certainty what motivated Moctezuma to allow the Spaniards march across Mexico, go in the capital and walk around the city without putting up any resistance.
The only thing that we do know is that, for some misterious reasons, the great lord of Tenochtitlan, who showed himself absolutely inflexible in his political aggressions against other indian cities, did not offer the white foreigners almost any oposition. Later, though, the killing by Spanish soldiers, of young men, infuriated the Aztecs, who expelled the Spaniards from Tenochtitlan then.
During this time, CortÃ©s had had to leave Tenochtitlan to fight his own compatriots. He sent his troops to attack the forces sent by the governor Velazquez to aprehend him for his insubordination, in other words, for behaving like he was the Monarq of MÃ©xico.
CortÃ©s defeated these Spaniard soldiers and later, through promises of gold, he managed to get the most part of Velazquez’ army to pass on to his own side.
After the Aztecs had expelled the Spaniards from their city, CortÃ©s had several ships built and trasported by land, in sections, to the lake where the “floating” capital of MÃ©xico was located. The Spaniards took almost a year in preparing the attack on Tenochtitlan.
According to their rigid military ethic, the Aztec warrior chiefs were convinced that, once beaten, the humiliated white foreigners would part to their own country and would never return to MÃ©xico again. But CortÃ©s did not know the rules of war of the Aztecs and, surely, did not want to accept as final the defeat of the “Sad Night”.
Taking with him the ships he needed to attack Tenochtitlan from the lake, CortÃ©s came back with his army to the capital. The terrible siege lasted seventy five days (eighty according to the indian narrations). Its temples had been reduced to rubble. Its magnifecent works of religious art had been destroyed. Its treasures had been stolen and turned into gold bars. And the population had been decimated.
IN THE YEAR OF 1525, THE AZTEC WORLD HAD ITS END.