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Hernán Cortés Conquers Mexico: August 13, 1521

This text comes from our book, All Ye Lands.

The news of Cortés’s landing at Vera Cruz filled Montezuma with fear—could the Spaniard be Quetzalcoatl returned from over the sea? The strangers were white-skinned and bearded, as Quetzalcoatl supposedly had been. What’s more, whatever Indian cities the strangers entered, they freed the people who were to be sacrificed. Uncertain what to do, Montezuma invited Cortés to come to Tenochtitlán.

Engraved portrait of Hernán Cortés
Engraved portrait of Hernán Cortés

As the Spaniards approached the Aztec capital, they were joined by the Tlaxcalan Indians who were enemies of the Aztecs. When Cortés and his men at last climbed the mountains surrounding Tenochtitlán, they saw below them the great Aztec city, with its towering temples. It was so beautiful that the Spaniards were in awe and felt great fear. Only a very powerful people, they thought, could build a city like that! It was Cortés’s courageous spirit that encouraged his men to conquer their fear and move forward into the city.

Montezuma treated Cortés and his troops with hospitality. But though Montezuma was kind, Cortés did not trust him. Finally, fearing for his own safety, Cortés and his men seized Montezuma in his own palace. The Aztec king thus became Cortés’s prisoner, though he continued to act as the king of Mexico.

The capture of their king was humiliating to the proud Aztecs. At last they rose up against the Spaniards. The streets and rooftops of Tenochtitlán were filled with armed Aztecs. Bloody fighting erupted, in the course of which, Montezuma himself was killed by his own people. The Aztec king died on June 30, 1520.

Portrait of Montezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs
Portrait of Montezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs

Because of the uprising, the Spaniards faced certain death if they remained in the city. On the night of July 1, 1520, Cortés led his men and their Tlaxcalan allies in a retreat from Tenochtitlán. The Spaniards later named this night La Noche Triste—“the sorrowful night.” The Aztecs in great numbers surrounded and attacked the fleeing Spaniards, taking some of them prisoner to sacrifice to the war god. Both the Spanish and the Tlaxcalans lost many men that night; all told, 450 Spaniards and 4,000 natives were killed. A few days later, a broken and discouraged army marched into Tlaxcala.

But though he had suffered defeat, Cortés was not discouraged. He immediately began making plans to return to Tenochtitlán. Though he at first did not know it, this time he had another ally to help him in his conquest—a disease called smallpox, which struck the Aztecs. Having no immunity against the disease, the Aztecs died in great numbers.

At Tlaxcala, Cortés ordered 15 small ships, called brigantines, to be constructed so that he could assault Tenochtitlán by the waters of the lake as well as by land. His total force consisted of 818 Spaniards, together with 87 cavalry and 25,000 Indian allies. The assault on the city began on April 28, 1521. It was very hard and bloody fighting. The desperate Aztecs fought the Spaniards in every block and street of Tenochtitlán. To deprive the Aztecs of hiding places, Cortés ordered his men to destroy every house and building they came upon. When Cortés’s army at last reached the center of Tenochtitlán, seven-eighths of the city had been laid waste. On August 13, 1521, the Spaniards overwhelmed what remained of the Aztec forces. Cortés had conquered Mexico.

The Great Tenochtitlán, by Diego Rivera. Detail: a vision of life in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán.
The Great Tenochtitlán, by Diego Rivera. Detail: a vision of life in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán.

Out of the Depths...

The year 1521, which witnessed the fall of the Aztec empire in America was marked, only a fortnight later, by the death of a great Flemish composer, Josquin dez Prez. Josquin’s music was very influential on the music of his time. Here is a performance of his setting of Psalm 129, De Profundis Clamavi, (“Out of the depths have I cried to thee, O Lord!”).

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