Here is Part 4 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: Among the Cactus Rocks (Part 4 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 (Read article)
3. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Among the Cactus Rocks (Read article)
4. Crusade to Tenochtitlan: Storm over Realm of Sacrifice (We are here)
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.
The first Spanish rule in Tenochtitlan ended in defeat.
The Spaniards were driven out of the city and suffered heavy losses in people and equipment, lost cannons, many crossbows, and a few horses, their food supplies were running out and alliances with the local kingdoms could change at any moment as it was the greatest defeat of Cortes since when he came to the valley of Mexico.
Conquistadors ruled indirectly in the Aztec capital for eight months, most of that time the status quo was maintained, the Aztecs were still an empire with tributaries and military elite, Cortes was the leader of the Aztec enemies, Moctezuma was under his influence but many Aztec leaders, priests, and warriors with a huge authority still remained in the city, they could organize resistance against their enemies.
Until the expulsion of the Spaniards from Tenochtitlan between the Aztecs and the Spaniards, there was a period of the Cold War in which both sides did not decide on total war, they used their vassals for this.
If Cortes wanted to conquer the Aztec Empire, an escalation of the conflict was inevitable, being in Tenochtitlan he had the opportunity to get rid of the king and the Aztec elite, hitting the backbone of their empire.
Perhaps Cortes thought that the demonstration of the strength of the greater Spanish army he would bring from Vera Cruz would scare the Aztecs and they would not take action against him, but it did not. Cortes lost the cannons and soldiers, but it was not so severe as the possibility of losing native allies. If the local alliances proved to be permanent, the situation of the Anti-Aztec coalition was in a stronger position. Cortes was determined to conquer the Aztecs, it was the only way for him to survive because if he returned to Cuba or to Spain he would be put on trial as a rebel for not following Valesquez’s orders. It all depended on how much the Aztec tributaries hated them.
After escaping Tenochtitlan, Cortes marched towards Tlaxcallan.
The Aztecs could not organize a large offensive army, due to logistical constraints, they did not have sufficient food supplies this time of the year. Cortes stayed in the city of Huei-Otlipan, the Lords of Tlaxcallan and Huexotzinco came to the city to greet Cortés and discuss the future of the alliance.
The Tlaxcaltecs demanded major concessions from Cortés for further assistance in the event of the defeat of the Aztecs. These included the right to tribute from Cholollan, Huexotzinco, and Tepeyacac (all of whom were former Aztec tributaries), the order to build a fortress in Tenochtitlan, equal loot freedom, and eternal freedom from tribute. Then the parties marched together to the capital, which they reached on July 11, 1520. 440 Spaniards of Cortés, twenty horses, twelve crossbowmen, and seven marksmen were injured and they rested there and dressed their wounds for about three weeks.
Chaos reigned in the Aztec Empire.
The Aztecs, conquering the local city-states, left their local rulers behind if they followed the Aztec’s orders, but now the loyalty of all of them was questionable. The Aztecs kept their empire in decline by showing off their military strength. The new king of Cuitlahua, who was elected after the expulsion of the Spaniards from the capital, had no capacity to wage large-scale hostilities far from Tenochtitlan. At that time, a smallpox epidemic brought in by Narvaez’s soldiers began to reign in the valley of Mexico. About 40% of central Mexico’s population died within a year. The smallpox plague reached the Valley of Mexico after mid-October, lasted sixty days in Tenochtitlan, and burned out in early December. Among her victims was Cuitlahua, who died on December 4, 1520, reigning for only eighty days.
Smallpox was unknown in indigenous Mesoamerica, and indigenous populations that had not been previously exposed and thus immune were destroyed by the disease.
Initial infection is followed by an incubation period of approximately twelve days during which there are no obvious symptoms. This is followed by a three to five day period of fever, headache, backache, bowing, and vomiting, followed by a smallpox rash.
At this point, it seems that the worst symptoms are resolving, but also signals the beginning of the infectious phase. The rash lasts for about eight days, then crusts form and fall off six days later. After five days of the rash, the fever returns. The disease runs its course without infection, to recover in approximately twenty-six days, endowing survivors with permanent immunity. Death, if it occurs, usually occurs at the end of the disease cycle in the last four or five days.
Cortes decided to conduct offensive actions that strengthened his position among his allies and weakened the Aztecs.
Cortés then asked Tlaxcaltec’s help in conquering the cities of Tepeyacac, Quecholac and Tecamachalco.
Around August 1, Cortés marched against Tepeyacac with 420 Spaniards, seventeen horses, six crossbowmen, and two thousand Tlaxcalteks, but without cannons and harquebuses. The Temiast was near Tlaxcallan, so supplies could be dispatched quickly or their forces could return.
It was the rainy season when the people of Tepeyacac were engaged in agriculture and were not prepared to fight. A show of Cortes’ force sent Tepeyacac a surrender message which was rejected.
The Spaniards defeated Tepeyacac’s armies without casualties.
The rulers of Tepeyacaca then swore allegiance to the Spaniards, after which Cortés founded and fortified the city of La Villa de Segura de la Frontera in Tepeyacac, from which military operations could be carried out to secure Spanish interests in the region.
Then he continued to conquer the region. Cortés controlled most of the major cities on the main route from Cholollan to Ahuilizapan, through which the route led to Vera Curz.
As Cortés pacified the region, he received word that a supply ship for Narváez had come from Cuba and was captured, the ship’s captain was Pedro Barba, a friend of Cortés.
The Aztec King Cuitlahua tried to take action against Spanish expansion in the region by sending troops to Cuauhquecholan and Itzyocan, south of Cholollan.
The Aztec show of strength at that time was necessary if they were to save the remnants of their empire. In response, Cortés sent thirteen horsemen, two hundred soldiers, and thirty thousand allies of Tlaxcaltec to fight the Aztecs.
They arrived near the city of Huexotzinco, which Cortes would take because the Tlaxcaltecs wanted to take over the city, there was also a fear that the city would support the Aztecs, whose great forces were the day’s march from the city. In Cuauhquecholan, local rulers met with them and revealed how the positions of the Aztec Army helped him defeat them. At the time, Cortes learned that Vera Cruz had been reached by two more ships sent by the Governor of Cuba.
Cortes’ forces were now strengthened by 145 men and nineteen horses.
Cortes now waged a regular war with the cities loyal to the Aztecs.
While there was no stable rule in Tenochtitlan, the successor of Moctezuma, King Cuitlahua, died on December 4, 1520, after him Moctezuma’s cousin. Cuauhtémoc became King of Tenochtitlan in February 1521. The policy he pursued to keep allies and vassals resisted in giving gifts and even paying tribute to subordinate cities to keep them. This is how the politics showed the severity of the ruler, and his empire was a colossus on clay legs, all vassals could revolt overnight.
Black pox was the greatest asset for the Spaniards and the greatest curse for the natives.
The military initiative was on the side of Cortes, he now had the capacity and strength to strike Tenochtitlan once more.
Offensive on Texcoco Lake
The main strategy of the Aztecs against the Spaniards and Tlaxcaltec coalitions was defensive.
What was the reason for the empire to make such a decision? The time in which the war was fought and the model of the empire functioning.
The Aztecs were a “vassal” power.
Their influence was far-reaching, while almost everything outside of Tenochtitlan was dependent territories, not integrated parts of the country.
Therefore, during the war, they could not send a large army far away and take over on many fronts. Even if it was possible (at that time it was not for logistical reasons, it was harvest time), because by sending a large army out of town, their country (Tenochtitlan) to their enemies, and far from Lake Texcoco, they were not sure of any of their vassals, as most of them joined the Spaniards and Tlaxcalteks.
So before they could fortify themselves they would attack their enemies who had good support and burns in the region and if defeats less to lose (eg the Spaniards) compared to the Aztecs who fought for their entire Nation and Religions.
While waiting for the enemy in Tenochtitlan, they could fight on their territory, using their great army, protecting the core of their empire, they could hope that if they managed to win the Battle of Tenochtitlan, the rebellious vassals would return to their spheres of influence, but if they did not defeat their enemies they will lose everything.
The city of Tenochtitlan was what the Aztecs saw Israel for the Jews and Jerusalem for the Crusaders.
The area around Lake Texcoco was for them the promised land to which their god Huitzilopochtli led the Aztecs, and the city itself became the center of their religious life and sacrifices to the gods. While there were occasional revolts within their vassal empire, they were able to deal with and pacify the rebels.
Meanwhile, when the Spaniards arrived, there was a domino effect that was not difficult to produce. The greatest advantage of the Spaniards was not military technology, but their otherness in the continent where there was not as much multicultural diversity as in Eurasia. This ‘breath of freshness’ gave the opponents of the Aztecs faith and courage that they could free themselves from them, and each month this situation emphasized the weakness of the foundations on which the Aztec state was based.
The most powerful empire in the new world was like a piece of red fabric from which everyone wanted to cut something for themselves, and Cortes decided to cut enough to make him enough for a “coat”.
A good example of a ruler who decided to do this was the Ixtlilxochitl King of Texcoco. He was a close ally of the Aztecs who decided to ally himself with Cortes who at the beginning of 1521 would start building 13 brigantines that he wanted to use for warfare on lake Texcoco, they were built in Tlaxwiccallan with kotwicallan.
The sails and rigging they would remove from their ships also had eight or nine cannons, forty horsemen and 550 Spanish soldiers, 80 crossbowmen or harquebusiers, and ten thousand allied Tlaxcaltec.
Texcoco is one of the most important cities in the region, and therefore joining the anti-Aztec coalition was a big deal for Cortes.
Texcoco offered provision, accommodation, labor, and support for Texcoco vassal towns.
Thanks to this, the allies of Cortes could begin operations around Lake Texcoco. Cortes marched against the city of Ixtlapalapan. It was Cortes’ first major battle after he returned to the valley of Mexico. Cortes was the self-proclaimed leader and representative of the Kingdom of Spain after refusing to obey Velazquez. His authority among the soldiers was as great as his successes. He had to perpetuate his constantly and his followers listened to him by choice and not by duty, they knew that Cortes could be considered a traitor. The battle was fought near Ixtlapalapan.
The Aztecs attacked the Spaniards simultaneously from land and canoes, but Cortés forced them to return to the city.
Breaking through their lines, he entered and took them.
Whether it was a Spanish victory or an Aztec feint, Cortés’s forces were now unconsciously in a difficult position. Much of the Ixtlapalapan was built into the lake, and although the city was protected by dikes, it was actually below the water level. While Cortés’s forces were stationed inside, the Aztecs broke the dikes and flooded the city. The flash flood forced Cortés’s army to flee, and some people drowned, although most fled to higher lands.
All the gunpowder was ruined, and the Spaniards eventually retreated to Texzcoco under the constant attack of the Aztecs, who landed in canoes along the line of march. Secluded on a peninsula with only one avenue of attack or retreat, the Spaniards were exposed to constant attacks by Aztec forces.
Cortés’ first major battle since re-entering the Valley of Mexico had ended in defeat.
After the lost battle, some of the Cortes soldiers were ready to swim to Spain.
Most of the conspirators against Cortes were among the former people of Narvaez, who betrayed their captain, and the first battle they fought alongside Cortes was the escape from Tenochtitlan. Cortes discovered the plot, but he did not want to escalate the situation by carrying out the purges, focused on the conspiracy leader Antonio de Villafaña, hanged him instead of punishing the other conspirators, using Villafaña’s execution to keep them in check.
Cortes maintained a relative discipline in his troops, which allowed him to continue his campaign against the Aztecs.
He sent one of his lieutenants, Gonzalo de Sandoval, with fifteen to twenty horsemen, two hundred Spanish troops, and all the Tlaxcalteks to Chalco, but the Aztecs attacked the Tlaxcaltec from the rear and inflicted heavy casualties before they were driven out.
In the main clash at Chalco, the Aztecs used long spears against the horses, but the battle was fought on a level plain where horses could be used for the greatest purposes, and the Spaniards won but enlarging their sphere of influence without having enough manpower and equipment to support it. Cities that passed over to Cortes and offered him loyalty demanded protection from him. Cortes could not distract his army because it would be a war of exhaustion for him that he could not win against the Aztecs with his small forces. Therefore, he did not have to attack Tenochtitlan as soon as possible, because the further expansion of Spain only aggravated the problems and this led to a rebellion among his allies.
On February 3, 1521, Cortés marched against a city which was similar to Tenochtitla, called Xaltocan.
This city was built on an island, cut by canals, and connected to the mainland by a causeway. Xaltocan presented the same problems in miniature that Cortés faced in Tenochtitlan.
Since he had rallied two to four times the force he had sent against any of the more significant and formidable towns in the southern part of the valley, an assault was likely undertaken to test his forces and tactics, Xaltocan was reinforced from Tenochtitlan, and these troops attacked Spanish forces from canoes in the channels. The shores of the lake near Xaltocan were crossed by streams and canals, making the horses almost useless. Because the road leading to the city has been destroyed.
Cortes wanted to withdraw when two Indians who were enemies of Xaltocan told him that most of the road had not been destroyed, but rather that it had been covered with water. Upon learning of this, the Spaniards found a causeway, rode into Xaltocan, and conquered the city.
From Xaltocan Cortés he marched around the lakes to Cuauhtitlan, Tenanyocan, and Azcapotzalco, all of which were abandoned.
None of these cities were large enough to defend themselves against the Spaniards, so instead of putting up a costly and ultimately futile resistance, their inhabitants retreated to Tlacopan, concentrating their forces there.
In the eastern valley, such cities often capitulated to Spanish attack because they were beyond the effective aid of the Aztecs and had closer ties to centers such as Tetzcoco. But in the west, the Aztecs were able to implement a coordinated strategy, drawing smaller populations to larger centers where they could defend themselves, limiting the number of places Tenochtitlan had to defend, and complicating Cortés’s situation by depopulating mists that could be used as a supply in hostilities.
At Tlacopan, Cortés encountered a large army and newly built barricades and ditches.
The Spaniards entered the misata, but the Aztec tactics of canoe attacks constantly harassed the Spaniards, which prevented them from staying in one place and led to the loss of life and exhaustion.
Cortes returned to Texcoco after fifteen days on February 18. The next hostilities took place in Chalco, the city was constantly harassed by the Aztecs.
There were skirmishes in Chimalhuacan, Huaxtepec, Yacapitztlan, which the Spaniards won.
Then the Cortes marched south of Yacapitzalan. On April 11, after a long shelling, he took two fortresses, and on April 13 he conquered Cuauhnahuac. On April 16, he reached Xochimilco, where he was forced into a retreat by Aztec troops. He returned to Texcoco, passing the villages of Coyohuacan, Tenanyocan, Cuauhtitlan, and returned to Texcoco on April 22.
The main goal of this army raid was reconnaissance and increasing the number of potential allies.
The Spaniards had many allies within Lake Texcoco, the increased activity of the Aztecs and their mobility due to the use of canoes made the war dull and time was on the Aztecs’ side. For Cortes, it was crucial to control the Lake, a key asset in the defense and attack of the Aztecs.
This is the end of Part 4 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, Templo Mayor Has Fallen. Below are a few introductory sentences.
The arrival of the Spaniards in America was like a spark for gunpowder. This gave a long-awaited impulse that can be compared to an earthquake occurring in nature, and also to the Aztec sign of the day in the tonalpohualli calendar whose name is Olin which means an earthquake, vibration or sudden impulse that can turn a difficult situation into the greatest triumph or greatest triumph in the most difficult situation depending on the man who controls it. The year 1521 itself represented a time in the world that was to play an important role not only for Mesoamerica. 1521 AD in the Aztec Calendar it is the year of the 3 Calli (3 House), the general meaning of which is home affairs, planning, instruction, communication in “domestic” matters….
Best regards for all readers,
If you have specific questions on this topic, you are also welcome to email me.
All articles in this Crusade to Tenochtitlan series:
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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