A synopsis of the final phase of the Spanish conquest of New Spain, which culminated in the destruction of the most sophisticated civilization of the New World.
Entering the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan on the 8th of November 1519, in what would be one of the most seminal meetings between two cultures in history, the Spanish conquerors found themselves gazing at a vast city built upon water, with great causeways, huge pyramids, and a multitude of activity. Many felt as though they were in a dream, while others struggled to find a city from the old world which could compare to the one that confronted them on that day.
For the Spanish eye witness and future historian Bernal Diaz, it was an encounter so inconceivable and sublime that he finds it difficult adequately to express in words, and states: ‘It is not surprising I should write in this vein…It was so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.’ (Diaz 214)
A Second Troy
Looking down into the fertile basin of Mexico, it is not surprising the conquistadors found it difficult to decide which European city most closely resembled the one before them – eventually settling on Venice and Constantinople as the nearest rivals. In fact, Tenochtitlan far superseded most European cities of the middle ages in terms of its sanitation, its architecture, and advanced method of agriculture, through which the Aztecs had created the so called floating gardens.
However for all these wonders and achievements, the Indian’s Utopian capital stood the brink of annihilation. Like the epic heroes of antiquity entering a second Troy, the Spanish conquerors were soon to embark on one of the most brutal and devastating wars in colonial history.
Fear and Provocation
The Mexicans had initially welcomed the strange men who they described as borne by deer and dressed in iron into their city. They provided lodgings, food, gifts of woman and gold, and even carried their cannons. However, over the coming days as both sides eyed each other with growing suspicion, it was the Spanish who were first to break the uneasy peace.
Fearful and small in number, they thought it wise to strike the Indians first – or so they argued, it is worth noting that the Spanish had just discovered a horde of hidden gold – and seized the emperor Montezuma hostage. Perhaps fearful, or perhaps realizing the significance of the Spanish arrival, Montezuma forbade his warriors to make war.
Even the burning alive of several rebellious Indian chiefs in front the palace was not sufficient provocation, and it was only after the butchering of hundreds of Aztec nobles by Pedro Alvarado – nicknamed ‘Sun’ because of his golden hair – that the Mexicans disregarded the pleas of their emperor and descended upon the Spanish.
La Noche Triste
Trapped by the removal of the canal causeways, the Spanish attempted to escape by night using a bridge they had assembled, but were thwarted at the crossing by multitudes of Aztec soldiers. In desperation, some threw themselves into the water and succumbed to an ironic fate as they were dragged to their deaths by the gold stuffed into their armor. With only a handful reaching safety, and eight hundred dead, the night would later become known as ‘La Noche Triste’, the Night of Sorrows.
Regrouping his men, and seizing new supplies, Hernan Cortes once again marched on the city. An interesting innovation was the building of twelve warships which were carried across land in separate pieces and then reassembled, equipped with cannons, and deployed into the lake surrounding Tenochtitlan.
Defeat for the Mexicans was now inevitable, as the Spanish broke their fresh water aqueduct and slowly advanced, tearing down the city block by block, and filling in the canals with the debris. To the Indian people of the city, hemmed in and contained as their buildings were reduced to rubble, their gods overthrown and their people ravaged by strange new diseases, it must have seemed like the great apocalypse prophesied by their mythology had finally descended. ‘It was as if the Earth quivered – as if the surface [ of the land] circled in tumult. There was terror.’(Florentine Codex 12.30)