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Part 18 Part 20

The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (19)

The Fall of Tenochtítlan

Dramatis Personae


photo by DKJ
Juan Rodrtiguez Cabrillo, credited with the Spanish discovery of San Diego, was part of a force sent from Cuba to attack and arrest Cortés on charges of insubordination. When his force was defeated, he joined Cortés, who assigned him to oversee the building of a new fleet. The picture here, from Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, bears the following text: "Cabrillo used many local Tlaxcalan Colucans and Huexotzinco Indians to help construct Cortés' fleet. These people allied themselves with the Spanish because of long-standing hatred of the Aztecs."

The Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés landed on the Veracruz coast in 1519, where, after some initial shock and a number of false starts on both sides, he ended up in an alliance with the Huastec and Totonac populations of the region, both quite willing to have Spanish assistance in throwing off the yoke of Aztec overlordship. Perhaps his most important ally was the Nahua population of Tlaxcállan, the ever beleaguered but never conquered enemy in the heart of the Nahua lands. These alliances rapidly multiplied into a general rebellion against Aztec hegemony. Western accounts tend to portray events as the conquest of Mexico "by the Spanish" (even though they numbered only about 400 to 600 men —and 16 horses— and did not speak Nahuatl). In contrast, native accounts tend to represent the Spanish as convenient, if unpredictable, tools suddenly available to help overthrow an oppressive domination.

Sarah Cline, an historian specializing in early Colonial Mexico, notes the eagerness of heads (tlahtóhqueh) of conquered towns to be rid of the Aztecs. She stresses, however, that they were not motivated by a desire for a different kind of political system, so much as for a different position in the tributary scheme that was the only political arrangement they knew (Cline 1993: 20-21):

The integrity of these altepetl [town] units, even when incorporated into an imperial structure, and their desire for political autonomy rather than subordination, had a great deal to do with the speed of the conquest of central Mexico, for tlatoque seeking independence from the Triple Alliance readily allied themselves with the Spaniards. The structure of the various altepetl with their ruler tlatoque was kept in place after the conquest, becoming the initial basis for the encomienda [royal land grant system]. Although the tlatoque had hoped for independence from overlordship, they were accustomed to such arrangements. Thus the encomienda system with its Spanish (and occasionally Indian) encomenderos functioned with tlatoque as major intermediaries.

The “Spanish conquest” of Mexico is a fascinating story, and few historical documents are more compelling than the diary of Cortés himself. He was, like Tlatahélel, a thoughtful, shrewd, and remarkably daring leader. The story is of little importance, however, in understanding how the Aztec régime arose or how it worked. Perhaps the main lesson of its fall was how much it was hated, both by a great many Nahua themselves and by the countless non-Nahua who were also its victims. Like the famous 9-foot-high statue of Coatlícue, an ancient goddess redefined as Huitzilo-póchtli's mother, who was dressed in snakes and wore a belt of human hands and hearts, the Aztec polity was both magnificent and terrifying.

Figure in Tijuana Wax Museum
Aztec emperor Moteuczoma II, as represented in the Tijuana Wax Museum. He wears the imperial ceremonial crown of feathers, and a cotton garment, all materials closely controlled by sumptuary laws.

Briefly, Moteuczóma II (Emperor 9), troubled by omens and rumors, was slow to recognize the risk that he faced, was apparently baffled by the rebellion of his empire, and was inclined to imagine that the whole risk lay with the Spanish. The Spanish, for their part, were cocky and high handed, and such bad guests in the capital that they were driven from the city in 1520. Moteuczóma died later that year, as did his brother and successor, Cuitláhuac ("dung spreader," Emperor 10), who succumbed to the wave of smallpox that the Spanish had accidentally introduced because there was a carrier among their number. Like any Aztec imperial succession, both of these deaths provoked political crises, magnifying the ongoing rebellion.

The years 1520 to 1522 were the reign of Cuauhtemoc ("descending eagle," Emperor 11), a son of Emperor 8. It was he who witnessed the destruction in 1521 of his city by an alliance of rebellious states, accompanied (or, according to themselves, led) by the Spanish. He was then forced to abdicate. He died three years later. In prison.

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