Cortes’ March to Tenochtitlan II


Digital reconstruction of Tenochtitlan and its environs

JULY 1, 1519. Once more back in Villa Rica, Cortés hastens its fortification and is reinforced by the arrival of a single caravel from Santiago de Cuba under Francisco de Saucedo or Salceda, bearing 60 more soldiers and nine horses. More importantly, this officer brings word that Velazquez has now been authorized from Spain to take possession of any new lands discovered west of his Caribbean colony. This news prompts Cortés to send the flagship Santa Maria de la Concepcion and two caravels directly across the Atlantic with messages and gifts for the king, in hopes of winning approval for his independent campaign. These vessels set sail on July 26, under Cortés’s emissaries Alonso Hernandez Portocarrero and Francisco de Montejo. (They will reach the northwestern shores of Cuba by August 1 and refresh their provisions from August 23 to 26 at Mariel, where Montejo owns an estate, before standing out into the open ocean via the “Bahama Channel” or modern Straits of Florida.)

Certain disgruntled elements within Cortés’s army, still displaying vestiges of loyalty to the Cuban governor, are also put down shortly thereafter by means of a few arrests and the executions of a pair of ringleaders. Finally, to discourage any further talk about turning back, Cortés persuades the masters of the other nine ships anchored in the harbor to beach and disassemble their craft, incorporating their sailors into his dismayed army’s ranks.

AUGUST 8, 1519. Having completed Villa Rica’s defenses and installed a 150-man Spanish garrison under Capt. Pedro de Ircio, Cortés begins marching inland for Cempoala at the head of 300 soldiers, 40 crossbowmen, 20 harquebusiers, 15 horsemen, 150 Cuban servants, 800 Cempoalan auxiliaries, and many war dogs. Shortly after reaching Cempoala, though, news overtakes him that four Spanish vessels have been sighted off the coast, so Cortés returns hastily with 100 men.

Joining Ircio’s patrols along the shoreline, Cortés meets three disembarked Spaniards, who inform him that the vessels are under the command of Alonso Alvarez de Pineda and have been sent by Francisco de Garay, governor of Jamaica, to stake a claim over Mexico. Cortés therefore arrests this trio and lures another four men ashore into an ambush the next day, after which this rival flotilla stands away.

AUGUST 16, 1519. Having rejoined his army, thrown down Cempoala’s pagan temples, and renamed this city as Nueva Sevilla, Cortés resumes his advance inland. Most Indian tribes prove hospitable to the 400 Spaniards, 15 horsemen, and 300 auxiliaries, so during the next couple of weeks they march uncontested through Jalapa, Xicochimalco (modern Xico Viejo), Ixhuacan, Zautla, and Ixtacamaxtitlan.

AUGUST 31, 1519. Tlaxcala Battles. Cortés’s small army penetrates into the territory of the hostile Tlaxcaltecans, an engagement immediately erupting between his mounted vanguard and 15 brave Tlaxcaltecan scouts, who kill two horses and wound three others with their obsidian-tipped swords, javelins, and arrows before these few natives are slain. The conquistadores carefully conceal their horses’ bodies so that they cannot be examined.

Pushing deeper the next day, Cortés is confronted by 1,000 warriors, who emerge from over a low hilltop and engage his army in hand-to-hand combat, slowly retreating through a maze of ravines where more warriors are waiting, until the Spaniards finally fight their way out onto an open plain and scatter their enemies with cavalry charges and artillery blasts at sundown. The Indians suffer many fatalities, as opposed to only injuries among the Spanish ranks. Cortés also remains in possession of the battlefield and camps overnight at Teocatcingo, leading half his army on the morning of September 2 on a punitive sweep through half-a-dozen surrounding villages and seizing 400 captives before being chased back into his fortified encampment.

The next dawn, a huge Tlaxcaltecan army under the main command of Xicoténcatl the Younger appears in battle array, well-armed and with their faces painted red, “which gave them the look of devils.” They send provisions in to the Spaniards to fatten them up for human sacrifice, then launch repeated assaults across the camp’s encircling ravine, all of which are repelled with heavy losses until the Tlaxcaltecans withdraw at nightfall. Cortés makes another sweep with half of his troops on September 4, burning 10 nearby towns and sacking a large, half-empty city before regaining his encampment at noon and bloodily repulsing yet more Tlaxcaltecan assaults. Two days afterward, he orders the hands of 50 Tlaxcaltecan visitors cut off, believing that they are spies, then chases away a nocturnal probe by Xicoténcatl.

A delegation of six Aztec noblemen visits the Spaniards’ camp and witnesses how daily assaults by the Tlaxcaltecan enemies are gradually losing impetus due to the many hundreds-perhaps even thousands- of casualties caused by the invaders’ superior weaponry. Finally, Tlaxcala’s leadership sues for terms, Xicoténcatl entering Cortés’s camp on September 12 to symbolically ask forgiveness for his attacks. The Spaniards are duly propitiated, and their entire army is welcomed six days afterward into the capital of Tlaxcala amid great festivities.

OCTOBER 12, 1519. Having refreshed his troops (and sent his lieutenants Pedro de Alvarado and Bernardino Vazquez de Tapia to make an unobtrusive visit to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan), Cortés resumes his march inland, reinforced by several thousand Tlaxcaltecans. A couple of days later, his army enters the large city of Cholula, a major Aztec satellite.

OCTOBER 18, 1519. Cholula Massacre. Convinced that the Cholultecans are plotting in secret concert with Moctezuma to attack the Spaniards within their streets, Cortés feigns a departure. Thousands of Cholultecan porters duly assemble at dawn, and the Spanish leader summons 30 of their chieftains into his quarters. He accuses them of treachery and has them murdered before fi ring a gun that signals to his men to butcher the porters. More than 6,000 people are slaughtered, after which Cholula is cruelly pillaged over the next two days.

The Aztec emperor sends propitiatory messages to Cortés, denying any knowledge of projected perfidy by his subjects and renewing his invitation for the Spaniards to visit his capital-while at the same time secretly arranging for other obstacles to be created to hinder the Spaniards’ advance.

NOVEMBER 1, 1519. Cortés’s army departs devastated Cholula for Huejotzingo, still determined to reach the Aztec capital. Although their Cempoalan auxiliaries retire at this point toward the coast, they are replaced by perhaps 1,000 Tlaxcaltecans, for a total of 6,000 native auxiliaries assisting the 400 Spaniards.

Hearing rumors that an Aztec ambush may be planned along the main highway leading into Tenochtitlan, Cortés instead veers up into the mountains, passing through the 13,000-foot-high gap between the snow-capped volcanoes of Ixtaccihuatl and Popocatepetl (still today called the Paso de Cortés or “Cortés’s Pass”), so as to descend into the Valley of Mexico and behold the Aztec capital set upon its lake, described as being “the fi nest spectacle in the world.”

NOVEMBER 8, 1519. After being well received at Amecameca and Ixtapalapa, the Spanish army reaches the shores of Lake Texcoco and marches along a six-mile causeway toward the Aztec capital, being personally welcomed into Tenochtitlan (population: approximately 200,000) by the reluctant Moctezuma, who leads a procession of hundreds of his most noble retainers to house the visitors in the home of his deceased father, the former emperor Axayacatl.

NOVEMBER 14, 1519. Having been dazzled by the wonders of the Aztec capital, Cortés receives a message from Captain de Ircio of a clash between his garrison left behind at Villa Rica (Veracruz) and an Aztec contingent stationed farther north of that port at Nautla, under General Cualpopoca. Nine Spaniards and many Cempoalans having been killed, Cortés seizes upon this incident as a convenient excuse to confront Moctezuma, visiting the emperor in his palace that same evening and launching into a complaint. The next morning, he returns with about 30 armed men and insists that the chief shift into the Spaniards’ quarters. After a lengthy discussion, Moctezuma agrees, creating a sensation among his people, despite being allowed to perform his usual daily activities accompanied by a few Spanish guards.

Summoned by the emperor, Cualpopoca arrives from the coast 20 days afterward, along with his son and 15 other offending officers. On Cortés’s orders, they are tortured and then burned alive in the main square of Tenochtitlan, while Moctezuma is placed in irons. The Spaniards then spend the next several months living uneasily in the wary Aztec capital, learning everything about its empire, receiving vast amounts of tribute, reconnoitering outlying provinces, and even convincing the captive emperor to help them build four brigantines on the lake. The headstrong young lord Cacama of Texcoco threatens to raise a rebellion, free his captive uncle Moctezuma, and drive out the foreigners, yet he, too, is seized through treachery and imprisoned by Cortés.

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