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Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Return of the White Gods (Part 2)

Here is Part 2 of a new series by our contributing writer Michal Pawlus, describing in more detail the conquests of the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas.

If you’d like to read the full series, you will find all 5 articles linked at the bottom of this page.

Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Return of the White Gods (Part 2 of 5)

The expansion of the Spanish sphere of influence in the 16th century was impressive in terms of the technological conditions and resources of the conquistadors.

The first serious opponent of the Conquistadors was the Aztec Empire. This empire was a federation of city-states with highly developed culture, science, architecture, and a large indigenous population.

The spaces between Eurasia and the Americas were a factor that previously prevented permanent contacts between the Civilizations of Eurasia and Africa with the Civilizations of the Americas.

This article begins the series Crusade to Tenochtitlan (the capital and core city of the Aztecs). It will focus on the conquest of the State of Moctezuma (last before the arrival of the Spanish) Tlatoani (ruler of the Aztecs) by the Spanish Conquistadors.

The Crusade to Tenochtitlan is a Pentalogy that has the following five parts:

1. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Arrhythmic Worlds (Read article)

2. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Return of the White Gods (We are here)

3. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Among the Cactus Rocks

4. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Storm over Realm of Sacrifice

5. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Templo Mayor Has Fallen

This Series of Articles ends with the capture of Tenochtitlan event, which is a symbolic collapse of Aztec hegemony over the surrounding Indian peoples.

First contact

The first exploratory expedition to reach the Yucatan was 3 ships with a crew of 110, led by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba (a Spanish conquistador from the 16th century, known to history mainly due to an unsuccessful expedition to the Yucatan).

In the Yucatan, they saw an organized urban community clad and more technically advanced than the earlier Native Americans they had known before. It is likely that the Maya had heard of the Spaniards earlier than the Caribbean people who were treated bitterly by the Spaniards.

These Mayans had more knowledge about alien visitors, therefore they provoked the Spaniards to abandon the ships and began fighting with them.

The Spaniards were armed with crossbows and arquebuses. Crossbows had a weight of 6 kilograms and fired 1.5 to 3 ounce wooden bolts with metalheads for a distance of more than 320 meters in an arc, or 64 meters point-blank, in comparison with a probable maximum range of 180 meters for native American bows. The crossbow fired one bolt per minute compared to six or ten arrows at the same time.

The arquebuses had a length of 1 to 1.5 meters, the weight of 8 to 9 kilograms, and a range of up to 137 meters, the overloading lasted one and a half minutes. There were about a hundred attacking native Americans, after killing fifteen of them they retreated. The Spaniards returned to their ships and on March 29 they reached the town of Campeche. The missionary population asked the Spaniards if they were not Castilians (a historic land in central Spain, which is proof that they had heard of the Spanish before).

The journey took too long, and Cordoba (Spanish conquistador) needed water and food supplies. Each man needed 1.9 litres of water per day, so the expedition in its original set needed 208 litres of water per day. At Campeche, they filled the water and sailed for the next ten days to the city of Chanpoton, where a skirmish with the indigenous peoples was killed, and Cordoba was forced to retreat and return to Cuba.

Governor Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar (Spanish conquistador, Governor of Cuba) organized a second expedition, led by Juan de Grijalva with 4 ships and 200 men at his disposal (Spanish conquistador, he was one of the early explorers of the Mexican coastline).

On May 3, 1518, he reached Cozumel (island and municipality in the Caribbean Sea off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán), then continued on to Campeche, where he fought a battle, but this time the expedition had greater military power, thanks to which he managed to repel several attacks of native Americans.

Unlike Cordoba, Grijalva had falconet guns.

Falconets (a small 16th and 17th-century cannon, placed on the side of the ship) were 1 to 1.6 meters long and 6 to 6 centimetres in calibre. Their average weight was 225 kilograms. Bullets weighing 1.7 to 5.5 kilograms fired at a distance of 140 meters point blank but could reach a maximum distance of 2000 meters.

The falconets could be fired twice as fast as other cannons and harquebuses because they loaded the slide: each cannon was equipped with two or three removable chambers that were loaded and then placed in the lock, stiffened and fired. By comparison, the gun-firers fired slower because they had to be erased after each shot and then reloaded in the same barrel. However, the higher rate of fire of the breech-loading guns was achieved at the cost of a much lower muzzle velocity. The chambers fit poorly into the barrel, the gas was leaking and created much more wind than the barrel-loaded guns.

Still, it was a minor drawback for opponents who lacked comparable weapons, and the Falconets wreaked havoc on native American formations. Their one significant drawback was the lack of mobility. They were not mounted on wheeled wagons and had to be moved to the right place, so rapidly changing tactical situations often meant they could not be moved in battle, limiting their use.

On May 31, the Grijalva will reach Laguna de Terminos, where they have traded with Native Americans. Arriving at Coatzacualco on June 11, Grijalva did not want to establish a colony as he only wanted to do the exploration task that was entrusted to him. From Coatzacualco, they will sail again to Chanpoton, where they were attacked by native Americans, but managed to defend themselves and replenish their supplies for the return journey to Cuba.

The Grijalva expedition brought news about foreigners to the Aztecs.

Governor Velasquez decided to prepare and finance the third expedition.

He chose Hernan Cortes as his leader, believing that less influential and experienced, he would follow all Velasquez’s orders. The governor was wrong. As soon as Cortes left, he found out about his ambitions and he sent letters with an arrest warrant to the Spanish colonies where Cortes was to stay.

Cortes had 11 ships and 450 soldiers. Thirteen marksmen, thirty-two crossbowmen, 4 falconets, 10 brass cannons, 16 horses. The expedition began the journey along the same route as the other two expeditions. When Cortes reached Cozumel, he sent two ships to find the missing conquistadors Geronimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, who stayed with the Maya and they could be translators for the Spanish.

The Expedition then arrived at Potonchan.

12,000 warriors came out against the conquistadors. Cortes quickly entered the city and prepared the defense by making barricades. Cortes split his forces to counterattack from land and sea against Native American forces.

The next day, Native Americans brought gifts to the Spaniards in exchange for leaving the city.

Then they reached the city of Centella where the situation repeated itself. Native Americans gave the Spaniards food, gold, clothes, and 20 women among whom was La Malinche, who, knowing the Mayan language and Nahuatl (the language of central and northern Mexico), became the translator and concubine of Cortes.

The expeditions gave the Spaniard’s knowledge and experience on how to effectively wage war with the natives using crossbows and arquebuses, and what resistance they can experience in the cities.

Aztec Lands

On April 21, 1519, Cortes reached the bay off the coast of Veracruz.

These were the lands of the Totonacs, under the control of the Aztecs.

On the news of the arrival of the foreigners, the Aztec Governor set off to meet Cortes in order to learn as much as possible about the Foreigners, so that he could report this information to Emperor Moctezuma.

The Spaniards were treated kindly by Native Americans who gave them food and helped build the camp.

At that time, the Spaniards began to learn about the organizational structure of the Aztec state and learn about their wealth.

Cortes quickly found allies among the native Totonacs who did not have the best opinion of the Aztecs.

But before Cortes could deal with the internal politics of the Aztec Empire, he had to deal with the members of his own expedition and his current enemy, Governor Velasquez. Members of the expedition loyal to the Governor were not sympathetic to Cortes and wanted to return to Cuba, because the purpose of the expedition was exploration, not colonization or conquest.

Velasquez wanted to organize an expedition to capture Cortes.

In order to legalize his rights to continue the expedition, Cortes established the first Spanish town in Mexico, Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. The town was a political entity under the authority of the King of Spain. The city council announced that Velasquez was no longer their superior, and Cortes was elected Captain. Thanks to this, Cortes was legally independent of Velasquez.

So the expedition that was supposed to be exploratory was starting to take on a conquest character.

Cortes, to protect their alliance with the Totonacs, began to expand Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, building a fort, a wooden wall, a watchtower, a barbican. Moctezuma (Aztec Emperor) learned of the rebel Totonac, sent a message to the Cortes that he was proposing the Totonac rebellion.

In response, the Aztecs heard that the Totonacs were now vassals of the King of Spain. Cortes knew that an alliance with indigenous peoples who were not loyal to the Aztecs was key to success. Totonacs offered food and manpower. That is why Cortes gained a lot by declaring to his allies his will to fight against the Aztecs.

Cortes did not forget about the main justification of the conquests, i.e. the Christianization of the indigenous people, it was probably a political matter for him. By converting indigenous peoples he strengthened his impression of the king and the church, but the indigenous peoples were very religious, so at first, he was concerned about his alliances with the Totonacs. After the Totonacs sided with the Spaniards and became their vassals, Cortes proceeded to Christianize the Totonacs by threatening them and using force. The Totonacs elite sided with the Spaniards, believing that they are now the sole guarantor of their rule.

On June 26, 1519, Cortes sent a ship of gold to the King of Spain to strengthen his position, after learning that Velasquez had been authorized to trade and establish colonies.

At that time, Velasquez planned to organize an expedition to capture Cortes.

Cortes, fearing his own subordinates who might demand to return to Cuba, secretly destroyed 10 of his ships. Cortes’ men were now completely dependent on him, while Cortes’ only chance to avoid the consequences of his disobedience to Velasquez was to achieve the independent success that would overshadow his misdemeanors.

At this point, Cortes gave his soldiers a clear message, not to step back. After the Cortes made the decision to rebel against Velasquez’s orders, he did not fight for gold and influence, he risked his entire future, and fought for everything to survive and a better future for him that he would not have gotten in Spain without great achievements, but in Mexico a future he had to fight.

Most of the time the Aztecs did not act against the conquistadors.

Cortes decided to go with his allies towards Tenochtitlan.

Cortes had two routes to choose from, through the lands of Chololtecs and through the Tlaxcaltecs (Tlaxcallan confederation composed of four provinces, Quiyahu, Iztlan, Tepeticpac, Titzatlam, Ocoteloco).

He chose the latter because the Tlaxcaltecs were hostile to the Aztecs. When he came to their land, he sent Native American messengers to offer peace. The Tlaxcaltecs did not respond.

Spaniards noticed the Tlaxcaltec reconnaissance during the march. The Spaniards followed and fell into a trap set by 3,000 Tlaxcoltecs. There was a battle, from which the Spaniards were saved by artillery, arquebuses and crossbows, but this time they faced a professional, experienced army that differed from those with whom they had dealt so far.

The conflict with the Tlaxcaltecs was a serious threat to Cortes’ plans.

A day later, on 2 September, 6,000 Tlaxcaltecs warriors marched against the Spaniards. Cortes sent prisoners to the Tlaxcaltecs with an offer of peace, as the Spaniards had always done in similar situations, but received no reply. There was a battle, and like the previous artillery, it helped the Spaniards in defence.

The next day the Tlaxcaltecs attacked twice in the afternoon and night. They had a bigger advantage over the Spaniards at night, but still, the Spaniards were not defeated. The conquistadors lost most of their horses and had food problems. Cortes only had supplies for 8 days. 45 Spaniards had been killed since the start of the march. Cortes had probably 250 soldiers left.

Most crossbow bolts were probably not recovered after the battle, one shot per hour of the hour cost sixty bolts weighing 2.2 to 4.1 kg per crossbow, that is, for all thirty-two crossbows. Each arquebus could fire as fast as once every minute and a half, spending forty 47 grams of bullets per hour and another weight of gunpowder for a total of 3.7 kilograms per arquebus, 49 kilograms for all thirteen arquebuses per hour. Each of the four falcons fired pellets weighing 0.28 to 0.93 kg with a book of gunpowder weight, at least as fast as harquebuses, for a total hourly cost of 22 to 75 kilograms. Such a fierce hour due to the hour of crossbows, arquebuses and falconets consumed 150 to 260 kilograms of weapons that were irretrievable.

The Tlaxcaltecs did not use the circle tactic and destroy them because in Mesoamerica it was not used due to logistical constraints. Therefore, the armies, if they were defeated, usually retreated.

The Tlaxcaltecs did not defeat the Spaniards or lose to them, but they got to know their war technology, due to their reluctance to the Aztecs, they finally decided to make an alliance with Cortes, becoming one of the most important allies.

On September 23, 1519, just five months after arriving in Veracruz, the Spaniards reached Tlaxcallan.

Throughout this time Moctezuma’s position towards the Spaniards was ambiguous, he did not undertake any specific military actions against foreigners, he immediately sent them gifts and conducted diplomacy with the Cortes.

Moctezuma could not mobilize an army at this time, because only in the dry season after harvest were large numbers of men available for such service, adequate food supplies to keep them on the way, roads, and streams through which large armies could cross.

Therefore, the Aztec wars were fought mainly from December to April. During the summer rainy season, most of the commoners were engaged in agriculture and related activities and could not be diverted without harming the economy. Moctezuma had several thousand elite soldiers but this was not enough to attack the Spaniards and their allies in distant Tlaxcallan.

Cortes was aware of these advantages, which worked to his advantage, and after fighting the Tlaxcaltecs they changed their tactics and were more prepared to fight the professional Moctezuma’s army.


This is the end of Part Two in the Crusade to Tenochtitlan series.

Thank you for reading this article, I encourage you to comment and share your own thoughts on the issues raised in this article.

Please read the next article in this series, Among the Cactus Rocks, the chapters in this article are On the Way to Tenochtitlan, The Capital, and The Coupe. Below are a few introductory sentences.

After seventeen days in Tlaxcallan, Cortes decided to march to Tenochtitlan. He chose the road leading through Cholollan, he justified this choice with a good place to supply their army. The city was an ally of the Aztecs, but a year earlier they were allied with Tlaxcallan. For Tlaxcallan, the Cholollan were traitors because they had abandoned their alliance with Tlaxcallan for an alliance with the Aztecs who were hegemon in the Mexico Valley. The population of the city, which in 1519 could contribute 30,000-50,000, was divided into pro Aztec factions and pro Talaxcallan factions. Cholollan grew from a very small village to a regional center between 600 ce. and 700 ce. During this period, Cholula was a major center contemporaneous with Teotihuacan and seems to have avoided, at least partially, that city’s fate of violent destruction at the end of the Mesoamerican Classic period…….

Best regards for all readers,

If you have specific questions on this topic, you are also welcome to email me.

Michal Pawlus - Contributing Writer

All articles in this Crusade to Tenochtitlan series:

Part 1: Arrhythmic Worlds

Part 2: Return of the White Gods

Part 3: Among the Cactus Rocks

Part 4: Storm over Realm of Sacrifice

Part 5: Templo Mayor Has Fallen

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