Although a generation had elapsed since Columbus founded Spain’s West Indian colonies, returns had been meager. Scarcity of gold and of native workers, most of whom had fallen victim to European diseases, turned adventurous Spanish eyes westward once again, toward rumored riches beyond the setting sun.
Preliminary excursions piqued Spanish interest, and Hernán Cortés was commissioned by the Spanish governor, Diego Velázquez, to explore further.
Cortés, then only 34, had left his base of Cuba in February 1519 with an expedition of 11 small ships, 550 men, 16 horses, and a few small cannon. By the time he landed in Mexico, he was burdened by a rebellious crew. His men, mostly soldiers of fortune hearing stories of the great Aztec empire west beyond the mountains, had realized the impossible odds they faced and become restive.
Cortés, however, cut short any thoughts of mutiny by burning his ships. As he led his grumbling but resigned band of adventurers toward the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, Cortés played Quetzalcoatl to the hilt, awing local chiefs. Coaxed by Doña Marina, Cortés’s native translator and mistress, local chiefs began to add their warrior-armies to Cortés’s march against their Aztec overlords.
Moctezuma, Lord of Tenochtitlán
Once inside the walls of Tenochtitlán, the Aztecs’ Venicelike island-city, the Spaniards were dazzled by gardens of animals, gold, and palaces, and a great pyramid-enclosed square where tens of thousands of people bartered goods gathered from all over the empire. Tenochtitlán, with perhaps a quarter of a million people, was the grand capital of an empire more than equal to any in Europe at the time.
However, Moctezuma, the lord of that empire, was frozen by fear and foreboding, unsure if these figures truly represented the return of Quetzalcoatl. He quickly found himself hostage to Cortés, and then died a few months later, during a riot against Spanish greed and brutality. On July 1, 1520, on what came to be called noche triste (the sad night), the besieged Cortés and his men broke out, fleeing for their lives along a lake causeway from Tenochtitlán, carrying Moctezuma’s treasure. Many of them drowned beneath their burdens of gold booty, while the survivors hacked a bloody retreat through thousands of screaming Aztec warriors to safety on the lakeshore.
A year later, reinforced by a small fleet of armed sailboats and 100,000 Indian allies, Cortés retook Tenochtitlán. The stubborn defenders, led by Cuauhtémoc, Moctezuma’s nephew, fell by the tens of thousands beneath a smoking hail of Spanish grapeshot. The Aztecs refused to surrender, forcing Cortés to destroy the city to take it.
The triumphant conquistador soon rebuilt Tenochtitlán in the Spanish image; Cortés’s cathedral and main public buildings—the present zócalo or central square of Mexico City—still rest upon the foundations of Moctezuma’s pyramids.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Puerto Vallarta, 7th edition