My tablet is experiencing technical difficulties, and doesn't want to save the proper title, which is "A View of Panama City, Panama at night". Took the picture last night. :)
The Conquest of Mexico, Part Three
April 1521. After seventy days of death, the city of Tenochtitlan was devastated. Their leader, Moctezuma, was dead; and disease had run rampant through the city, killing the next Aztec ruler, Cuitlahuac. Cuahtémoc, Moctezuma's cousin, was the ruler of whatever was left.
Meanwhile, Cortes and his men, who had barely escaped Tenochtitlan with their lives, were ready to make a comeback. When all was set, he sent a division of men led by Alvarado to a city called Cuyoacan and another division to Tacuba. He sent a third division of men to Iztapalapa, a nearby city next to the lake, to attack it. He then boarded one of the brigantines and set sail towards Iztapalapa. Natives of that city spotted the ships as they neared from their high temples and immediately began making smoke signals to warn everyone around the lake. Cortes and his men went on shore along a steep hill, taking over trenches and killing everyone they saw except women and children.
A mass of over five-hundred canoes then began to enter the lake. Cortes saw this and immediately boarded his ship, but ordered this crew to wait for the canoes to come to them. Before they got too close though, the canoes stopped. I'm picturing a tense stand off moment where the two sides stare each other down. Then Cortes felt the direction of the wind change. The change was to his advantage, so he ordered his men to break through the lines and to chase down the canoes. His letters describe what happened next:
"As the wind was fair, we bore down upon the midst of them, and although they fled as fast as possible, we broke an immense number of canoes, and destroyed many of the enemy in a style worthy of admiration. In the chase we followed them full three long leagues, till they were locked up amongst the houses of the city; and thus it pleased our Lord to grant us a greater and more complete victory than we had ventured to ask or desire."
Upon seeing the ships crush the canoes, some of Alvarado's division soon began to march to Tenochtitlan to enter the city but were fought back. Night fell, so as they rested, Cortes and Alvarado made plans to siege the city again in the morning. This time, they would use the cannons.
The next day, Cortes and his men marched to Tenochtitlan with the intention of taking the city back. They fought through more ditches guarded by men before they made it to the causeway, fighting through with the help of the brigantines, and eventually to the city entrance. From the Florentine Codex:
"and when they had prepared the canons, they fired at the wall. The wall cracked and broke open. And the Second time it was hit, the wall fell to the ground, destroyed... the great warriors in vain took refuge behind the stone columns... None of them would come out into the open."
Then the men from the ships started to disembark for the siege. As canon smoke fulled the air, blocking the Spaniard's view, many Aztec warriors fled into the city to get more help. Help came, and the two forces clashed. Stones and arrows flew, swords swung, horses charged. When the Aztecs came in their canoes, they now had to contend with the ships that were now on the attack. It got too intense though and both sides retreated. Cortes claims he could have entered the city, but there were too many Aztecs on buildings and roofs who kept lobbing arrows and rocks at them. Since they had the advantage of height, Cortes decided at this point that if he's going to take the city, he's going to have to burn those buildings to the ground.
Over the next few weeks there were more skirmishes in the streets of the city. The Spanish would spend the day taking the trenches and causeways and burning the city, then retreat back to camp for the night, while the ships patrolled the waters. The Aztecs would then take back the city, causeway and trenches at night and the next morning, the Spanish would return and everyone would do it again. Patrolling the waters of Lake Texcoco prevented the dying Aztecs from leaving the island to get help or supplies. They were now dying of disease and hunger and becoming more desperate.
Alverado took a different strategy. He set up sentries (guards) to keep the causeways and bridges under his control at night. He made it into the market place, but before he could get his horsemen in, the Aztecs overwhelmed them and forced them to retreat. Still, he took so much territory that Cortes arrived and was impressed by how far he had gotten. While inspecting the causeways, an group of Aztecs attacked them. In this attack, Cortes seemed to have a moment of shell shock as he described the deaths of some of the men who tried to protect him as he tried to save a few of his men from drowning. Here is an extensive excerpt from his letters:
"As this affair was so sudden and I saw them killing our men, I resolved to remain there, and perish in the fight... Several Indians of the enemy already advanced to seize me, and would have borne me off had it not been for a captain of fifty men whom I always had with me and a youth in his company, to whom God I owed my life; and in saving mine, like a valiant man, he lost his own... The captain who was with me, Antonio de Quinones, said to me, "Let us leave, this place and save your life..."...we began to retreat... at this moment there came up a servant of mine on horseback, and made a little room; but presently he received a blow in his threat from a lance thrown from a low terrace that brought him to the ground... I mounted the horse, but not to fight... two mares on which two of my servants rode fell on the causeway into the water; one of them was killed by the Indians, but the other was saved by some of the infantry. Another servant of mine, Cristobal de Guzman, rode a horse they gave him at the little island to bring to me, on which I might make my escape; but the enemy killed both him and the horse before he reached me... some of the enemy threw in the way two or three heads of Christian men from the upper part of an entrenchment where they were fighting..."
In the retreat, they left one of their canons and some Aztecs captured it and dragged it into the water. The Spanish also lost their "standard" in the retreat, which is basically the flag they carried into battle. The Aztecs had also captured some Spaniards, horses and Tlaxcalans and dragged them back to their temple, where they were sacrificed one by one. They then cut the heads off of the Spaniards and their horses, putting the heads on steaks. That night, the Aztecs celebrated. The message was clear: Tenochtitlan would not fall willingly.
As a way to intimidate the Spaniards, the Aztecs sent messengers with horse heads telling the Spanish that their heads would be next. This didn't stop them from besieging the city daily, except now, Cortes decided that as he took the city block by block, he would burn the buildings on both sides to prevent anybody from attacking them from above. Eventually, he took the market back.
At one point, the Aztecs called out for peace. Cortes asked the men to bring their sovereign to make it official, then waited for him to come. In reality, there was no intention of peace. The Aztecs had scattered rocks all over the square and began hurling them at the Spaniards, so they charged the square, but the rocks made it hard for the horses to navigate. However, this didn't stop the Spanish from advancing and burning more buildings. The next day, they got so far, that they made it to the square of their grand temple and ascended to the top:
"I ascended the highest tower that the Indians might know me, as I was sensible that it would disturb them much to see me in that place."
From the tower, Cortes was able to see the whole city and determined that he had destroyed about 7/8ths of it. Understanding that it was only a matter of time before the last eighth was taken, Cortes decided to sue for peace. However, at this point, nothing was going to stop what remained of the Aztecs from fighting to the death. Later, the Spanish got creative and set up a catapult to throw rocks over the remaining walls, but they couldn't get the aim right and ended up fighting each other.
After three months, with many of their people dead from either war, disease, or starvation, the Aztecs were feeling pretty helpless. Then this happened:
"When night had fallen, it rained and sprinkled off and on Then in the deepest darkness of the night there appeared in the heavens what was like a fire. It looked and appeared as if it was coming from the sky, like a whirlwind; it went spinning around and revolving. The blazing, turning ember seemed to explode; it was as if embers burst out of it--some very large, some very small, some like sparks. It rose up like a coppery wind; it arose, crackling, snapping, and exploding loudly. Then it circled the walls at the water, heading toward Coyonacazco, then it went into the midst of the lake and disappeared there No one struck his hand against his mouth; no one uttered a word."
This seemed to have startled both sides, for there was no fighting the next morning, August 13, 1521. Instead, there was a meeting of Aztec nobles, including Cuahtémoc. They took the event the previous night as an omen and discussed what they should do next. Cortes had asked to see Cuahtémoc, but Cuahtémoc preferred to die than to deal with Cortes. However, this time Cuahtémoc decided that it was time for him to surrender, so he got on a boat with a couple of servants and was rowed out towards the Spanish.
A brigantine spotted a canoe and prepared to attack it until the people inside signaled who was in the canoe. When they made it to land, Cuahtémoc was captured and brought to Cortes. Cortes asked Cuahtémoc to sit, but Cuahtémoc refused and asked Cortes to strike him dead with a dagger. Cortes had no need to kill Cuahtémoc... yet. The important thing was that he had him, and he knew where all that gold went.
They then proceeded to bombard the city with more canon fire. Finally, the Aztecs had had enough and began to flee the city. Since the causeways were blocked, people either took canoes or waded in the waters of Lake Texcoco, some neck deep. Some had to carry their children over their heads. The Spanish and their native allies then went on a rampage, robbing fleeing residents of their gold and women. To avoid being captured and raped, women covered themselves in mud, but it was no use. The leadership of Tenochtitlan was gone, its buildings and temples destroyed, and its people either dead or deserted. The city was now in the hands of Cortes and his men. The battle of Tenochtitlan was over.
Somehow, out of crazy luck and smooth talking, Cortes had beaten some incredible odds. His first act was to ban human sacrifice and replaced all of the idols with crosses and such. He let Cuahtémoc live until 1525. The surviving Aztecs were moved to a nearby town, while the city was cleaned up. In time, the ashes would blow away, the blood wiped clean and in the footprint of Tenochtitlan, a new city would rise named in honor the Aztecs, otherwise known as the Mexicas. Tenochtitlan would now forever be known as Mexico City.
Come back for Background History, Part Eight, coming January 1, 2015
Wikipedia Article - https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/classroom-content/teaching-and-learning-in-the-digital-age/the-conquest-of-mexico/florentine-codex
Florentine Codex - https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/classroom-content/teaching-and-learning-in-the-digital-age/the-conquest-of-mexico/florentine-codex
Letters from Cortes - https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/classroom-content/teaching-and-learning-in-the-digital-age/the-conquest-of-mexico/letters-from-hernan-cortes
TTC Course: Maya to Aztec Ancient Mesoamerica revealed - http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/maya-to-aztec-ancient-mesoamerica-revealed.html