This edited article about Hernan Cortes originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 729 published on 3 January 1976.
Hernan Cortes was welcomed with open arms by the Aztec Indians of Mexico because they thought he was a god. But Cortes soon showed them that his treatment of them was to be far from godlike
Hernan Cortes felt excitement surge through him as he listened to the Mexican Indian. Before he had set out from Cuba in mid-February, 1519 to explore the strange, unknown land of Mexico, Cortes had known that it contained enormous wealth in gold, jewels and silver. The Indian standing before him was evidence of that, with his gold ear-rings, gold bangles and the breastplate of gold that hung from his neck.
“Our masters, the Aztecs, have a great empire here in Mexico,” the Indian said. “The Aztec king, Montezuma, lives in a magnificent city built on a lake high in the mountains. It is called Tenochtitlan, and you will find much gold and silver there and many temples and palaces.”
Like all the Spanish conquistadors of the sixteenth century, Hernan Cortes longed not only for wealth, but for the glory of conquering territory in the New World of America. Already, by 1519, the Spaniards had colonised lands in the West Indies, Brazil and Panama, but now Hernan Cortes had the chance to grasp the most magnificent prize of all – a huge rich empire, containing untold treasures.
To do so, however, he had first to get to Tenochtitlan, and that meant a difficult, dangerous trek through mountains which were, in places, over 18,000 feet (5,500 metres) high.
In mid-August, 1519, he set out with his small force of four hundred men and soon they were struggling through the mountain passes, chilled to the bone by icy, piercing winds.
There was not enough oxygen in the air and the Spaniards stumbled along, gasping and dizzy, hardly able to breathe. Hostile Indians attacked them with boulders and stones and showers of poisoned arrows. Cortes would not hear of giving up, and at last, on November 8, after a harrowing 11-week journey, he led his men along the great stone causeway that led into Tenochtitlan.
Aztecs crammed the streets, all gawping at the tired, dusty white-skinned strangers. Suddenly, Cortes saw a magnificent litter approaching. Inside sat Montezuma, dressed in sumptuous robes. The litter came to a halt and Montezuma stepped out. As he walked towards Cortes, four Aztec nobles held over his head a bejewelled canopy of green feathers.
Montezuma bowed low before Cortes and told him: “Lord, you have arrived to take possession of your throne.”
Montezuma had mistaken Cortes for the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, whom priests had recently foretold would soon return to Earth and claim the Aztec empire.
Cortes had to protect himself against the risk that the Aztecs might suddenly discover their mistake. This was why Cortes arrested Montezuma soon after his arrival in Tenochtitlan. With Montezuma his prisoner, Cortes could tell him what commands to give to his subjects.
Cortes demanded that the Aztecs should swear loyalty to the Spanish king, Charles, and early in December, Montezuma ordered his chieftains and nobles to do so.
The story of Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec empire might have ended there, as the easiest take-over in history, had it not been for the dire news that reached Tenochtitlan early in May, 1520.
A powerful force of 1,400 Spaniards, led by Cortes’s old enemy, Panfilo de Narvaez, had arrived in Mexico with orders from the Spanish Governor of Cuba, who also hated Cortes, to seize the conquistador and end his activities.
Cortes was forced to leave Tenochtitlan to deal with this new danger. By June 24, he was back in the Aztec capital, having driven de Narvaez away. Cortes’s absence, however, had proved disastrous. The Spaniards he had left in Tenochtitlan had demolished the Aztec’s idols, robbed their temples and forcibly converted them to Christianity.
As a result, the Aztecs were in a murderous mood. Soon after Cortes returned, they mounted a violent onslaught on the Spaniards, killed one third of them and drove the rest out of Tenochtitlan. Montezuma was killed when he tried to stop the fighting, and Cortes was twice wounded in the head by sling-stones.
Cortes was furious. The Aztec empire had so nearly come within his grasp. Now he would have to fight for it. Cortes made his preparations carefully. He ordered ships to be built so that they could bombard Tenochtitlan from its surrounding lake. Realising that the Aztecs were detested by other Indian tribes whom they had conquered, Cortes made allies of these tribes and encouraged them to join with the Spaniards: 100,000 Indians did so.
By the end of 1520, all was ready. On December 27, Cortes led his army towards Tenochtitlan.
The long and bloody siege that followed destroyed most of the beautiful Aztec city of fine roads and magnificent buildings, and killed thousands of its inhabitants. As Cortes’s soldiers pushed their way deeper and deeper into Tenochtitlan, killing and destroying as they went, the Aztecs fought back ferociously. Even the women, boys and old men joined in the struggle, and soon the streets were piled high with the rubble of wrecked homes, temples and other buildings and with the bodies of the dead.
High above, there hung a choking cloud of smoke from the Spanish guns and arquebuses which fired shot after shot into the crumbling city. At last, on August 13, 1521, it was all over: Tenochtitlan – or rather its blood-stained ruins – had fallen into Spanish hands.
The fall of Tenochtitlan saw the end of the Aztec empire and the start of three centuries of Spanish rule in Mexico. It also rocketed Hernan Cortes to the fame, wealth and honour he had so craved. King Charles created him Marquis of Valle de Oaxaca, a rich area south-east of Tenochtitlan, and so made Cortes Spain’s richest landowner as well as the most famous and most successful of her conquistadors.
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