This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.
From Cholula, the Spaniards climbed to higher elevations. After passing between two great volcanoes, Popocatepetl (“the hill that smokes”) and Ixtaccihuatl (“white woman”), they gained their first sight of the valley of Mexico. Below them stretched the great lake, with Tenochtitlán in its midst; and far away on the northeast bank, rose the city of Texcuco. One of the soldiers, Bernal Díaz, wrote he had never seen a sight as lordly and beautiful as Tenochtitlán. “And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things we saw were not a dream,” he later wrote. So beautiful was Montezuma’s city, with its great buildings and temples, that fear filled the hearts of Cortés’ men. But buoyed by their commander’s confident spirit, they recovered their courage and proceeded onward toward the city. Marching across the great causeways that connected Tenochtitlán with land, the 400 Spaniards with their 6,400 Indian allies beheld beautiful floating gardens and the vast population surrounding the lake and swarming on its waters in innumerable canoes. It was, as Díaz had said, a dream city, pulled into life from the romantic tales of chivalry so beloved to the stern soldiers of the Crown of Spain.
Montezuma welcomed Cortés and his men into the city and and showed them every hospitality. He allowed the Spaniards to visit the marketplace and the great teocalli. In the last place Cortés and his men saw signs of human sacrifice — hearts of victims, some still warm, set on the altars of the gods. Montezuma, whose religious sensibilities were more eclectic than those of the Spaniards, allowed the Spaniards to have a chapel in their quarters where Mass could be offered.
Though Montezuma appeared gracious and kind, Cortés doubted his sincerity. The Spanish general also worried that his own men and their Tlaxcalan allies might do something to provoke the Aztecs. At last, to secure his position, Cortés decided on a daring plan. He would kidnap Montezuma. Using as a pretext a report he had received from Villa Rica, where he had left a contingent of troops under Juan de Escalante, Cortés put his bold plan into action.
At an audience with Montezuma, Cortés relayed what he had learned to the king. Escalante had reported that an Aztec cacique, who had come ostensibly to give his obedience to the Spanish crown, had treacherously killed two Spanish soldiers. Subsequently, Escalante had set out with 50 Spanish soldiers and 1,000 Indians to punish the cacique. In the ensuing battle, the Spaniards were victorious, though seven or eight of them were slain, including Escalante. Indian prisoners had claimed that Montezuma was responsible for the treachery.
Why this treachery? Cortés demanded of Montezuma. The Aztec king replied that he was not responsible for the attack. Cortés refused to believe him and demanded that the king accompany the Spaniards to their quarters and punish the guilty cacique. Montezuma agreed to the demand. What else could he do, surrounded as he was by 25 to 30 armed Spaniards?
Now Cortés’ captive, the humiliated Montezuma, with his nobles, swore allegiance to the Spanish crown, and he divided up his treasures among the Spanish soldiers. Montezuma allowed Cortés to take a temple on the great teocalli and convert it into a chapel for Christian worship.
However, a new problem soon faced Cortés. Diego Velásquez, angry over reports of Cortés’ doings in Mexico, had sent against him an armada of 18 ships with 900 men and 1,000 Indians under the command of Pánfilo de Narvaez. The ships arrived at Villa Rica in the spring of 1520. Undaunted, Cortés again acted boldly. Leaving two-thirds of his force, 140 men, in Mexico, he led only 70 men to the coast to meet Narvaez. Receiving reinforcements from Juan Velásquez de León (whom Cortés had sent out earlier to found another settlement) and from Gonzalo de Sandoval, Cortés arrived at Villa Rica on a stormy night. Though outnumbered 900 to 250, Cortés and his men fell on Narvaez’s troops and, in a surprise attack, defeated them. Following the battle, Cortés with soaring eloquence persuaded the defeated soldiers to abandon Narvaez and follow his standard.
Cortés would soon find he was in sore need of the reinforcements.
While Cortés was fighting Narvaez, disaster struck the Spanish troops in Tenochtitlán. Pedro de Alvarado, who was commander in Cortés’ absence, had feared the Aztecs were plotting an attack. To forestall it, he led an assault on a large company of unarmed Aztecs gathered near the Spanish quarters to celebrate the May festival to Huitzilopochtli. Spanish swords cut down the flower of the Aztec nobility. Spurred to wrath, the Aztecs then assaulted the Spanish quarters. Only the appearance of the captured Montezuma, who addressed his people from the Spanish quarters, convinced them at last to withdraw.
Meanwhile, Cortés with a combined force of 1,000 foot soldiers, 100 horse, and 2,000 Tlaxcalan allies was marching to Mexico. He entered the city unmolested; but on all sides he saw the streets filled and the rooftops covered with armed Aztecs. Bloody fighting erupted. Once again hoping to stop the violence, Montezuma, clad in his royal robes and bearing the wand of authority, climbed to the central turret of the Spanish quarters. He pleaded with his people to withdraw and let the Spaniards depart from Tenochtitlán in peace; but this time a volley of stones from the street cut short his speech. Struck several times, Montezuma was removed to safety. Sorely wounded, shorn of his ancient glory and, it seemed, spurned by his own people, the Aztec king died shortly thereafter, on June 30, 1520.
Meanwhile, the Spaniards had not been idle. Leading a contingent of soldiers, Cortés drove the Aztecs from the great teocalli and there destroyed the image and temple of Huitzilopochtli. That same night, the Spaniards burned down 300 houses adjacent to their quarters.
The Spaniards’ position, however, soon proved desperate, and Cortés saw that he had no choice but to retreat from the city. The attempt, planned for the night of June 30–July 1, was perilous; the Spaniards, with their artillery and horses, along with their Indian allies, had to pass through a hostile city and over a long causeway. Flanked on two sides by water, they would be exposed to Indian assaults from the lake. Moreover, because the causeway was broken at intervals, and the bridges that normally closed the gaps had been removed, the Spaniards could easily be surrounded and slaughtered as they attempted the crossing.
The Spaniards later named this night of crossing, la noche triste, “the sorrowful night.” Getting wind of the Spaniards’ retreat, some Aztecs had alerted the city. The beating of drums and shells sounded from the great teocalli as the Spaniards moved onto the causeway. Soon, thousands of Aztecs set off in canoes on the lake and swarmed from the city onto the land bridge. Cortés’ army passed the first gap in the causeway over a bridge they had constructed for the purpose. But when they arrived at the second gap they were in trouble — they had been unable to extricate their makeshift bridge from the mud of the first gap. Soon, they were surrounded. As the Aztecs poured onto the causeway, the Spaniards lost all order — some men and women (for some wives had accompanied their husbands) were slaughtered, while others were taken alive as sacrifices to Huitzilopochtli at the great teocalli.
Wagons and the bodies of horses and men at last bridged the second gap, and the remaining Spanish force moved forward. Cortés, discovering a ford through the lake, led his men to the shore, but he returned to the causeway to defend the rearguard, commanded by Alvarado, which was halted at the third and widest gap. Charging on the Aztecs who pressed upon the rearguard, Cortés could make no headway but was driven back to the lake. At last the rearguard broke, and Alvarado, placing his long lance into the wreckage in the canal, vaulted across the breach to the other side.
The Spanish and allied Indian losses that night were heavy. Many of the men (mostly from Narvaez’s command) were drowned, pulled down to the lake’s bottom by the weight of the gold they had hidden under their clothing. All told, 450 Spaniards and 4,000 Tlaxcalans had been killed. The Spaniards had lost most of the treasure Montezuma had given them, along with all the artillery and guns they had brought with them.
The journey from Mexico was beset with danger. Seven days after la noche triste, overwhelming numbers attacked the army at Otumba. Though Cortés was able after several hours to rout the Indians, it was with a broken and discouraged army that he, a few days later, marched into Tlaxcala.
A Spanish Mass for the Dead
This Missa Pro Defunctis (Mass for the Dead) was composed by the Spanish composer, Cristóbal de Morales, who was born about the year 1500 and died in 1553.