ConquistadorsThe Fall of the Aztecs



Cabeza de Vaca
Aztec EmpireCortés' ExpeditionMontezuma's Messengers
From Explore to ConquerSpaniards in TenochtitlánCortés Seizes Power
War Breaks OutSiege of TenochtitlánFall of the Aztecs
More on Cortés in the Learning Adventure

Stunned AztecsLust for GoldQuetzalcoatl

Cortés Burns His Boats

Montezuma's messengers returned to the emperor with the terrifying reports of their encounter with the Spainards: their guns, horses, dogs and their lust for gold. Montezuma was paralyzed by their tales, and by the possibility that Cortés was the returning Quetzalcoatl, "the feathered serpent," an exiled deity who vowed to return one day to claim his kingdom

Cortés, meanwhile, weighed his options. He had not yet seen the magical city of Tenochtitlán, but he knew it was there, 200 miles away. He faced imprisonment or death for defying the governor if he returned to Cuba. His only alternative was to conquer and settle part of the land. To do this, he prompted his supporters to install a municipal and resigned from the post conferred on him by Velásquez. The legally-constituted "town council of Villa Rica" then offered him the post of captain-general. He accepted the post and severed his connection with Velásquez. Those of his men still loyal to the Governor of Cuba conspired to seize a ship and escape to Cuba, but Cortés moved swiftly to quash their plans. To make sure such a mutiny did not happen again, he decided to sink his ships, on the pretext that they were not seaworthy.

His ships sunk, Cortés marched into the interior, to the territory of the Tlaxcalans. They were resolute enemies of Mexico and Cortés thought they might join him in a military alliance against the Aztecs. After a long debate, the Tlaxcalans decided to fight Cortés instead, and they suffered terrible losses. Eventually they sued for peace and agreed to go with Cortés to Mexico. Cortés marched on with the Tlaxcalan warriors to Cholula, 20 miles from Tlaxcala. A story spread from the Tlaxcalans to Malinche that the Cholulans were planning to trap Cortés inside the city and massacre his army. When the Cholulan leadership and many of their warriors gathered, unarmed, in a great enclosure by the pyramid temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Spanish and the Tlaxcalans killed them. The massacre had a chilling effect, provoking other kingdoms and cities in Montezuma's empire to submit to Cortés' demands.

Aztec Scroll Feature
The Mexicans Weep
Montezuma and the Mexicans weep on hearing of the power of the Spaniards.

The Tlaxcallans Greet the Spaniards
The rulers of Tlaxcalla went to meet the Spaniards with food offerings of turkey, eggs, fine white tortillas.

Montezuma Sent Noblemen to Meet Cortés
Montezuma sent a company of noblemen, with magicians, wizards, sorcerors, soothsayers and priests to meet Cortés.
Credit: "General History of the Things of New Spain" (Florentine Codex), Books I-IX and XII, translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Santa Fe, New Mexico and Salt Lake City: The School of American Research and the University of Utah Press. Used courtesy of the University of Utah Press.
Montezuma's Messenger Spaniards in Tenochtitlán

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