The Fall of Tenochtitlan

Part Two

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Part 1 is here.


While Cortes was at Veracruz fighting Narvaez, the people of Tenochtitlan held a festival called Toxcatl. Since their city was more or less under Spanish occupation, the emperor Moctezuma asked the Spanish commanding officer, Pedro de Alvarado’s permission to hold the festival. He was given permission.

To describe the festival, I’ll take from Miguel Leon-Portilla’s The Broken Spears, which is a translated collection of Aztec documents describing events leading up to the arrival of the Spanish and ending soon after the fall of Tenochtitlan.

“All the young warriors were eager for the festival to begin. They had sworn to dance and sing with all their hearts so that the Spanish would marvel at the beauty of the rituals. The celebrants filed into the temple patio to dance the Dance of the Serpent.
Those who had fasted for 20 days and those who had fasted for a year were in command of the others; they kept the dancers in file with wands made of pine. If anyone wished to urinate, he did not stop dancing, but simply opened his clothing at the hips and separated his cluster of heron feathers. If anyone disobeyed the leaders or was not in his proper place they struck him on the hips and shoulders.
Then they drove him out of the patio, beating him and shoving him from behind. No one dared to say a word about this punishment, for those who had fasted during the year were feared and venerated; they had earned the exclusive title ‘Brothers of Huitzilopochtli.’”

Huitzilopochtli was the Aztec god of sun and war. And this festival took place in the temple dedicated to him.

Alvarado split his men into 2 groups. One group would keep Moctezuma under guard and kill his attendant lords. The second group, consisting of about 60 men, would enter the temple and begin a slaughter.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened next. But of course, there are conflicting accounts regarding most of what occurred since the Spanish first arrived in Mexico in 1517, and most of the indigenous books and scrolls were destroyed by the Spanish. (History is written by whoever destroys his opponent’s narrative.) But some Aztec codices (as they’re called) still exist.

An account by the Aztecs says the Spaniards were overwhelmed by the gold the Aztec dancers wore. Pedro de Alvarado, the man Cortes left in charge, said he heard there would be sacrifices after the dance, and after the sacrifices the Aztecs would attack the Spanish. You might say Alvarado was trying to claim preemptive defense, if I may be allowed an Orwellian term here. Regardless of the motive, the following events are described everywhere as, a massacre. Again, I’ll quote Leon-Portilla,

“The Spaniards were seized with an urge to kill the celebrants. They all ran forward, armed as if for battle. They closed the entrances and passageways. They posted guards so that no one could escape. They came on foot, carrying their swords and their wooden or metal shields. They ran in among the dancers and attacked the man who was drumming and cut off his arms. Then they cut off his head, and it rolled across the floor.
They attacked all the celebrants, stabbing them, spearing them, striking them with their swords. They attacked some from behind, and these fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out. Others they beheaded or split their heads to pieces. They struck others in the shoulders, and their arms were torn from their bodies. They slashed others in the abdomen, and their entrails spilled to the ground. Some attempted to run away, but their intestines dragged as they ran; they seemed to tangle their feet in their own entrails.
No matter how they tried to save themselves, they could find no escape. Some of the Aztecs attempted to force their way out, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates. Others climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. The blood of the warriors flowed like water and gathered into pools. The pools widened, and the stench of blood and entrails filled the air. The Spaniards ran into the communal houses to kill those who were hiding. They searched everywhere, they invaded every room, hunting and killing.”

The date of the massacre was May 20th, 1520. At one point the Spanish hacked off the nose on the stone effigy of the god Huitzilopochtli. Alvarado, during the fighting, yelled to his men something along the lines of “already 2 or 3 thousand indians have died.”

The men guarding Moctezuma had killed Cacama, the king of Texcoco. Alvarado, wounded and bleeding, approached Moctezuma. He said “look what you’re people have done to me.” The emperor gave the obvious reply… y’know, basically “well what do you expect? You started it.”

A likely explanation for Alvarado’s paranoia before the massacre can perhaps be found in Tlaxcala’s history. In prior years their people had been sacrificed by the Aztecs for Toxcatl. Maybe they wanted blood for blood, and so they made the Spanish think they’d be sacrificed after the festival. What’s the real explanation? Was Alvarado’s lust for gold inflamed watching the dancers? (Probably not).

Were the Aztecs actually planning an attack, as the Tlaxcalans alleged? Were the Tlaxcalans looking for blood? We may never know the real reasons, but in my own estimation, I’d bet that the Spanish were ALREADY on edge due to being in a strange and, somewhat scary, new city and separated from their leader. And their allies were probably telling them about the enemy’s plan to kill them. Maybe the Aztecs WERE actually planning to kill the Spanish. What better time, right? There were only 120 foreign soldiers in their city, plus the Tlaxcalans.


Whatever the case, after the massacre, the Aztecs retaliated. The Spanish took refuge in Moctezuma’s palace, and placed the emperor in chains. At sunset, Moctezuma sent one of his men to the palace roof to communicate with the citizens. He implored them not to fight, saying they could not defeat the Spanish, and the king had been taken hostage.

They shouted insults at him, yelling

“Who is Moctezuma to give us orders? We are no longer his slaves.”

They shot arrows at the roofs.

Then they placed guards outside the palace to make sure nobody brought food to the Spanish. The tactic was to make them die of hunger. Anyone suspected of bringing food or news to the Spanish was killed. One of the Aztec codices said nobody could leave their house without being arrested and accused of helping the enemy; and many people were killed for crimes they never committed.

The Aztecs attacked the palace for seven days, and stopped the Spanish soldiers’ attempts to break out for 23 days. They tore down bridges, built barricades, and closed all the roads. Eighty days of mourning had been declared. No more food was brought to the Spanish. At night the ritualistic cries of women and children filled the air.

Cortes got word of the situation and led his men, by forced marches, back to the city. He again promised Narvaez’s men wealth and land (as well as a chance to serve god and king) in case any of them still felt conflicted. Bernal Diaz says the conquistador was so persuasive that every one of the soldiers offered to join him, but that if they had known the strength of the Aztecs, not one of them would have volunteered.

Cortes’s army now swelled to 13hundred soldiers, with 96 horses, 80 crossbowmen, and 80 musketeers. Along the way they gained an additional 2,000 soldiers from local chiefs who were enemies of the Aztecs.

When they got to Texcoco, a city just across the lake from Tenochtitlan, nobody greeted them except a man called Ixtlilxochitl, a nobleman who considered himself Cortes’s ally. The men spoke, and Cortes sent a messenger to his men in the capital. But before the messenger could have arrived, a canoe came bearing news. Nearly all of Alvarado’s men were still alive, minus 5 or 6 (though Bernal Diaz puts the number at 7). But they were surrounded and running out of food.


Cortes crossed the causeway and re-entered the city on June 24th, 1520. It was silent. I’m gonna quote from Buddy Levy’s book Conquistador. When the Spanish entered the city, quote

“No throngs of civilians lined the way to gape at the clomp of horse hooves or hear the clank and jangle of metal armor. Even the waters were spookily quiet, devoid of canoes. Behind a mask of desert dust, Cortes scanned for trouble, but the caravan rode into the city unencumbered. The streets were entirely empty, save for a few children playing and the odd clusters of citizens hauling goods.
The creosote smell of cook fires came from the low houses. Most residents stayed shut inside their homes, peering out warily from doorways. It should have been a time of great celebration, but the slaughter of Toxcatl had imposed eighty days of mourning. Even the famous market of Tlatelolco was shut down. Cortes rode into a ghost city.
On his arrival, Alvarado rose, shaken and war-weary, his emaciated men gaunt from lack of food and shriveled by thirst; recently they had been forced to scratch holes in the earth of the courtyard, over which they knelt to slurp from brackish seeps.”

Moctezuma tried to speak with Cortes, but the Spaniard was angry and refused to talk to him. Later, the emperor sent a message. Cortes said he would only respond for 20,000 castellanos.

Instead, he wanted to talk to Alvarado. He demanded to know the reason for the Aztec revolt. Alvarado’s men said that Moctezuma had not ordered the reprisals, and that if he had, all the Spanish would have died. In fact, they said, Moctezuma had actually pacified the city and stopped the violence.

Alvarado said the Aztecs attacked in order to free Moctezuma and because the war god Huitzilopochtli was angry. He gave other reasons for the revolt as well. Narvaez had been sending messages to Moctezuma saying he was coming to capture Cortes and release the emperor. This turned out not to be true, as did Cortes’s promise to Moctezuma that he and his soldiers would leave as soon as they had ships. The Aztecs saw that not only were the Spanish not leaving, but many more were coming.

Then Cortes asked why Alvarado told his men to massacre the people celebrating Toxcatl. Alvarado said he thought the Spanish would have been attacked after the festival. Bernal Diaz writes that Cortes became very angry at this, saying Alvarado had made a great mistake. Then he refused to say any more on the topic.

Earlier, during the forced marches back to the city, Cortes had boasted to Narvaez’s men, saying that he enjoyed great respect and authority among the Aztecs who would come out onto the streets and offer him gifts of gold. Now, however, the markets had all been closed and the Aztecs no longer even brought food to the Spanish. This angered Cortes, who sent a message to Moctezuma. He ordered the king to open the markets at once, or else Cortes could not be held responsible for the consequences.


The emperor responded, Malinche, that he no longer commanded the respect of his people. Moctezuma had lost his authority in the eyes of the Aztecs. So he had chosen a new lord to speak with the vendors of the market. He chose a man called Cuitlahuac, his brother. Moctezuma said the city would listen to the new emperor, and Cortes agreed, so Cuitlahuac was unchained and set free.

He began plotting the overthrow of the Spanish right away. He met with the Aztec lords who had survived the Toxcatl massacre. Speaking out against his brother, he and the lords agreed that Moctezuma had lost his credibility by appeasing the invaders. They realized that Moctezuma’s attempts at diplomacy had yielded nothing. They would therefore kill the Spanish or force them to flee.

The day Cuitlahuac was freed, several Spanish soldiers reported being attacked in the streets One soldier arrived, severely wounded. He had been escorting some of the women Moctezuma had given to Cortes… when he was attacked in the street. A messenger Cortes had sent to Veracruz came back only half an hour later. He, too, had been attacked. Cortes ordered 400 soldiers, led by Diego de Ordaz, to check out the situation… And then it became clear why the Aztecs had let the Spanish enter the city unimpeded after the Toxcatl massacre: Cortes, and all his men, had walked into a trap. The 400 men investigating the attack on the soldier were ambushed. Eight soldiers died in the fighting. The rest were forced to retreat, and another was killed on the way back after doing “Valiant deeds with his broadsword”

While this was going on, Cortes and his men looked upon a city that had decided to rid themselves of the invading army. They beheld a sea of people in the streets, and in canoes on the lake, heading their way. They heard war drums beating steadily. Cortes writes,

“there came upon us from all sides such a multitude that neither the streets nor the roofs of the houses could be seen. They came with the most fearful cries imaginable, and so many were the stones they hurled at us that it seemed they were raining from the sky.”

Ordaz was badly wounded in the onslaught, and he ordered a retreat, but the streets were filled with Aztecs closing in upon them. The Spanish were forced into hand-to-hand combat as they made their way back to the palace compound.

Bernal Diaz recounts the battle vividly and I’ll quote him at length:

“While many bands were attacking, even more came to our quarters and discharged so many javelins and sling-stones and arrows that in a single attack they wounded 46 of our men, 12 of whom died of their wounds. So many warriors assailed us that Diego de Ordaz was unable to retire into our quarters because of the fierce attacks made on him from front and rear and from the rooftops. Our cannon, muskets, crossbows, and lances were of little use; our stout sword-thrusts and our brave fighting were in vain. Though we killed and wounded many of them, they pushed forward over the points of our swords and lances and, closing their ranks, continued to fight as bravely as before. We could not drive them off.”

Diaz tells us at the beginning of his book that he was a soldier, not a writer, but his accounts of the battles he fought in are better than a lot of the books written long after he died by people who did call themselves writers. As a soldier, he had a warrior’s appreciation for the enemy. He repeatedly remarks on the Aztecs’ tenacity, bravery, and vigor. Diaz continues:

“At last, thanks to our cannon, muskets, and crossbows and the damage we did them with our swords, Ordaz was able to enter our quarters. Still many bands continued to attack us, crying that we were like women, and calling us rogues and other abusive names, and the damage they had done us till then was as nothing to what was to come. They were so bold that, attacking from different directions, they forced a way into our quarters and set them on fire.”

When Ordaz returned, he found that Cortes’s hand had been smashed by a war club. About 80 more soldiers were injured.

Cortes ordered his men to attack from the roof. They hauled up their projectile weapons, but the Aztecs they killed with their muskets, crossbows, falconets, and cannons were immediately replaced by more.

The Aztecs under Cuitlahuac fired back with flaming arrows that ignited the several parts of the palace compound. The Spanish army scrambled to put out the fires and repair the sections of walls that were damaged. They threw mud and dirt on the flames and eventually they were able to control them.

The fighting in and around the palace lasted for a little less than a week. At night, the routine was to care for the wounded and repair the walls. At dawn they tried to clear nearby buildings so that the Aztecs couldn’t stand on the roofs and launch projectiles at them.


Another set of nightly occurrences were chants and taunts from outside. The Aztecs called them cowards and women. They swore to kill them all and sacrifice their blood and hearts to the gods. They shouted that they would eat their arms and legs, and throw the rest of their bodies to the animals in the zoo (who were starved for just that purpose).

It was both a threat and terrifying psychological warfare, another aspect of which was to send sorcerers and wizards to conjure grotesque images. Those inside the palace claimed to have seen heads floating with no bodies attached, cadavers rolling on the ground as if they had come back to life, and severed limbs walking around, again, no bodies attached. Some of the soldiers even said they saw their own heads staring back at them.

Another apparition in the night was a ghost called Night Axe. He apparently wandered headless around the palace. His chest would snap open and shut with an awful noise.

This brings us to the obvious question: what was Night Axe? What were floating corpses in the streets? Was is all just a collective hallucination? Had some of the Spanish been drugged? Are the tales just fanciful inventions by historians with overactive imaginations? Did the Aztecs rig up corpses on strings? Whatever the case, it’s some pretty effective psychological warfare.

They didn’t sleep much, as you can imagine, and they didn’t know whether the images were real, or just delusions. Either way, the Aztecs had succeeded in haunting their minds.


The Spanish soon had an idea. They would build mobile towers and place crossbowmen and musketeers inside. The engines, or mantas as they called them, would be pulled with ropes by unshielded Tlaxcalan warriors. They were wooden war machines, precursors to tanks. Such siege engines had been used before in European wars, so the Spanish were familiar with the concept.

With the mantas, they could shoot their way out of the palace and, at the demolished causeways separating the different islands that made up the city, they could use debris to build bridges.

Cortes asked Moctezuma, through Malinche, to climb to the roof and speak to the Aztecs outside. The former king responded by saying he no longer wished to live and that his people wouldn’t listen to him OR to Spanish lies. He added that his people had raised up another lord and Cortes would certainly be killed in the city with his men. Cortes told his soldiers to force Moctezuma to the roof, which they did. They told him to speak, and this is what Diaz recalls:

“He began to speak very lovingly to his people, telling them that if they stopped their attacks we would leave Mexico. Many of the Mexican captains ordered their people to be silent and shoot no more darts, stones, or arrows. Four of them came to a place where Moctezuma could speak to them and they addressed him in tears: Our great lord, we are indeed sorry for your misfortune and the disaster that has overtaken you and your family. But we must tell you that we have chosen a kinsman of yours as our new lord.
They said moreover that the war must be carried on, and that they had promised their gods not to give up until we were all dead. Barely was the speech finished when a sudden shower of stones and darts descended. Moctezuma was hit by three stones.”

Four mantas were constructed in just a few days. When they were deployed, the Aztecs ran in fear. The sight must have looked monstrous to them; they had never seen siege towers before. The mantas were large moving mechanisms spitting smoke and thunder.

The plan, however, proved less than perfect. Before long the Tlaxcalans had trouble pulling the towers over the uneven ground. Seeing this, the Aztecs were emboldened. They climbed to the roofs of buildings, hauling boulders. They hurled them down, smashing the towers.

The men inside climbed out, briefly fighting in close quarters and trying to set fire to houses, but the flames did not spread from house to house as they had hoped. They were quickly overwhelmed and forced to retreat to the palace, dragging debris from the towers behind them. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Tlaxcalans lay dead in the streets.

The Spanish preferred distance combat, but they were stuck in close-quarters urban warfare. Their cannons and muskets were devastating at range, but were nearly useless in Tenochtitlan. Even their cavalry proved ineffective. The Aztecs unhorsed the charging soldiers with long lances. They built roadblocks to slow or trap them.


Just a few days later, on June 30th, 1520, the great Montezuma, as Bernal Diaz almost always called him, died. One of the Aztec accounts says:

“It is said that an Indian killed him with a stone from his sling, but the palace servants declared that the Spaniards put him to death by stabbing him in the abdomen with their swords.”

To put his death into the context of the tactics used by Spain during the Conquest of the Americas, Matthew Restall says the Spanish method of capturing and terrorizing populations was to take the leader prisoner (as they had done several times before) and dispose of him if he outlived his usefulness.

If you take that into account it seems a little more likely that the Spanish did indeed kill Moctezuma. Either way, the man who ruled the Aztec empire for 17 years died more or less in shame.

Usually after the death of an emperor there was a large ceremony followed by 80 days of mourning. Moctezuma received none of that. His body was cremated in a temple on a pyramid, and the remaining Aztec nobility gave him the, bare minimum: the smoke carried his soul up to the gods, but that was it. He had lost his credibility.

After confirming his death, Cortes ordered all the Aztec lords still in custody — about 30 of them — to be killed.

And now we have to consider the freeing of Cuitlahuac. Why had Moctezuma chosen him specifically? The man is called a “warlord” in some sources, though that may be just another way of exoticising the scary, savage Aztecs, if you follow me. Maybe it’s a way to punch up the drama of the narrative.

Did Moctezuma free him as a military tactic? Did he hope his brother would smash the foreign army and maybe even rescue him?

Regardless, very little went according to plan for Moctezuma, Cuitlahuac, or even Cortes. The brothers wanted the Spanish dead or gone. And Cortes, by letting Cuitlahuac go free, was hoping to re-open the markets and, eventually, impose a master-slave relationship between Spanish and Aztec without risking a series of devastating battles.

By now Cuitlahuac had rallied the people. They set up a command center at the top of a pyramid to look down upon the city and monitor the Cortes’s activities. From there they had an advantage over the enemy.

Looking up, the Spanish realized the same thing, and they knew they needed to remove the advantage.

Part 1 is here.