Cortez, from La Noche Triste to the Fall of Tenochtitlan

A War of Voices:

Cortés’ Long Year from La Noche Triste to the Fall of Tenochtitlan


“Nothing but flowers and songs of sorrow

Are left in Mexico and Tlateloco,

Where once we saw warriors and wise men.”

~ From the Cantares Mexicanos,

16th Century Nahua poem


Hernan Cortés’ conquest of the Mexica Empire narrowly escaped disaster on La Noche Triste, the bloody night of 30 June 1520 when Spanish and allied Indian troops extracted themselves from the slaughterhouse of Tenochtitlan. Through superb leadership and personal courage, the Capitan saved the bulk of his forces, fought a week-long retreat against pursuing Mexica warriors, and took refuge with his Tlaxcalan allies. In succeeding months he subdued pro-Mexica altepetl (city states) in the east while he rebuilt his conquest machine. Eventually, Cortés renewed his investment of Tenochtitlan and took the city on 15 August 1521, destroying the Mexica Empire and creating New Spain in its place. This “Long Year”, the 13-month period between retreat and victory, is therefore vital to our understanding of the conquest.

We have access to a variety of Spanish voices which describe this critical period. Their perspectives vary significantly. The personal letters of Cortés paint him as the daring, chosen instrument of God and King, while those of his lieutenants range from sycophancy to mixed condemnation. Individual Indian communities allied with the Europeans and exploited their strength in arms in an attempt to eliminate the Mexica (Aztec) hegemony. Accordingly, indigenous oral histories tell still another story of events.

For a serviceable integration of all these narratives into a compelling history, one can read Hugh Thomas’ magisterial The Conquest of Mexico – although indigenous voices are not fully represented.[1] A comparable synthesis is beyond the scope of this study. Instead, we will analyze differences in perspective for some of the more critical phases of the Long Year, points when the conquest enterprise hung in the balance. We will see that these narrations reveal a vigorous contest between the individual perceptions and political agendas of the various participants. Yet despite the disagreement in perspectives – this “war of voices”- we will also be able to deduce much about the evolving strategies and tactics of the participants, permitting reasonable conjectures regarding the manner in which key events unfolded.

The Participants and Their Chroniclers

Until the 1980s, historians had easy access to less than a dozen first-hand reports about the Conquest of Mexico. More recently, analysis of the juicio de residencia, the official court review of Cortés’ conquest and administration of New Spain, has added many more. In addition to accounts from the conquistadores and the Spanish court scholars, we also have a variety of indigenous Nahua traditions such as the Florentine Codex and the Michoacán Chronicles.  Accordingly, this analysis samples a variety of original sources to reveal their perspectives on critical turning points in the Long Year.

The commander of the Spanish expedition, Hernan Cortés, described his role in events in a series of five letters to King Carlos V, ostensibly written as the conquest unfolded. The obsequious tone of the letters masks a sophisticated program of self-promotion. Cortés typically refers to himself in the third person, in the manner of Julius Caesar, and often frames his narrative as if it was an official report written by a committee. Perhaps more significantly, the letters anticipate the eventual juicio de residencia and therefore carefully lay out a defense of the caudillo’s conduct with regard to the orders of his colonial superiors and their friends at court.[2] Early in the First Letter Cortés begins to reinterpret the guidelines he received from “pernicious” Governor Velazquez and to take legal actions such as founding the “city” of Vera Cruz, all the while stressing that he has “disregarded his personal interest.”[3] Widely circulated in the years immediately following the conquest, these accounts became the “official” record. Cortés attempts to create a heroic epic with himself at the center of the narrative, but his lawyer’s approach and mechanical prose rob the story of any emotion. One can sense behind the narrative his painstaking selection of each word and nuance to create the desired effect. He rarely reveals his feelings or inner thoughts to us.

Cortés hired the Spanish author Francisco Lopez de Gomara to write a flattering 1553 biography. Based on the Capitan’s personal letters and on dictation to Gomara, this account puts Cortés at the center of all important actions. We cannot tell if Gomara consulted other sources for his report. Consequently he attributes all acts of bravery and proper decisions to Cortés and all acts of stupidity and knavery to others. Other than the Capitan’s direct lieutenants, Spanish and allied participants are identified only infrequently. Gomara’s approach strips Cortés of his humanity and makes him an idealized figure rather than an individual.

Offended by Gomara’s failure to give credit to other participants in the conquest, the aging conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote his own 1575 account. Diaz was a veteran of previous expeditions and had served in Guatemala after the defeat of the Mexica. He is clearly motivated by a desire to correct Gomara’s excesses and errors and to balance the record on behalf of subordinates such as himself. Diaz repeatedly scolds Gomara and Gonzalo de Illescas for their misrepresentations.[4] One can hear him swearing “I was there damn it!” If he must report on an event where he did not participate, he scrupulously attributes the incident to others. His detailed account, although written in spare, pedestrian prose, is the most stirring of original sources and it is widely read today. Diaz freely shares the credit for various successes and failures with other members of the expedition. He tells us that Cortés “consulted with his captains,” who advised him on actions.[5] In sharp contrast to Cortés’ self-absorbed account, Diaz describes individual officers and Indian leaders in detail. Gonzalo de Sandoval in particular receives more lines of print than any participant other than Cortés. Also in sharp contrast to Cortés, Diaz regularly permits emotion to color his reports.

Bernal Diaz comes across as the most sincere in attributing success to the miraculous intervention of God.[6] Although he paints Cortés as cunning and cruel, Diaz also unreservedly depicts the caudillo’s qualities of leadership and heroism. Unlike most Spanish writers, he is complimentary of Indian courage and conspicuously tolerant of their customs. In contrast to the writings of Cortés and Gomara, he typically uses the plural pronoun “we” and comes across as a humble man trying to correct a distorted record. Nevertheless, one senses both resentful anger and injured pride in his retelling of events.

Broad circulation of narratives by Cortés, Gomara and Diaz influenced subsequent historians to focus on the deeds of the commander and his lieutenants. For example, in 1993 Hugh Thomas’ widely-read The Conquest of Mexico still presented events from a predominantly European perspective.[7] This approach is now anachronistic. More recent scholarship such as Stuart Schwartz’ Victors and Vanquished and Miguel Leon-Portillo’s The Broken Spears incorporate a variety of indigenous accounts.[8] Indeed, the addition of these accounts provides insights into Indian involvement and clarifies how an undermanned and often inept group of Europeans was able to humble a mighty Mesoamerican empire.

There are several sources for Indian views of the conquest. Within a few years of the European victory, indigenous scholars supervised by Catholic priests began to make their own records of the conquest, writing the Nahuatl and Mixtec languages in the European alphabet. These methods were combined with traditional symbolic systems to produce a number of native records. Indigenous histories provide a variety of viewpoints, reflecting the social and political divisions that existed in central Mexico both before and after the conquest. The best known of these accounts was initiated in the 1540s, organized by Indian scholars who were being prepared for the Catholic priesthood. Under the supervision of Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, they recorded the memories of surviving native participants from three centers in or about Mexico City. The translators won the confidence of these old men, who answered in Nahuatl or used the old picture writing techniques.[9] These accounts translated into Spanish and published in 1579 as the Florentine Codex.

Some scholars suggest that the Florentine Codex is overly influenced by European views, but nevertheless detect within it earlier indigenous accounts such as the Annals of Tlateloco.[10] This second account was also prepared under the supervision of Spanish ecclesiastics, but not Sahagun. Accordingly, the story is weighted toward the role of long-established enemies of the Mexica. While such records provide a voice to the conquered peoples, modern scholars note that the priestly scribes were also heavily influenced by their own adaptation to European ideologies. Despite these noted European influences, however, the contrasts between Spanish accounts and those of the Indians are striking. Whereas the overall discursive style of the Europeans is understandably epic, that of the indigenous sources is in the form of an extended lament for a culture now irreparably ruined.

Other indigenous narratives were developed with little European supervision. For example, the Codex Aubin appears to have been authored by an anonymous citizen in the 1560s.[11] Such narratives often give similar accounts of key events while emphasizing different factors, but just as often they vary in tone and content depending upon the city allegiance of the author.[12] The Indian communities of Central Mexico were historically divided and frequently at war. Thus individual accounts contain discernible cultural bias, as in the case of Sahagun’s predominantly Tlaxcalan scribes, traditional enemies of the Mexica. Nevertheless, while all the indigenous accounts are undoubtedly partisan, they are remarkable for their general lack of resentment for the invaders. Rather they read as matter-of-fact reports of what transpired. We further note a significant difference in “voice” between indigenous narratives with those of the Spaniards such as Bernal Diaz. The former are stories of a people told by a people, whereas the latter is “the story of certain men told by one man.”[13] Whatever the influences on these accounts, they help to discount long-held assumptions about the Indians and their responses to the European invaders. They illustrate, for example, that the Mexica were resourceful, enjoyed highly-developed institutions, and were committed to fight to the death to defend their culture and independence.

Standing somewhat outside these previous narratives is the Dominican priest Bartolome de las Casas, who traveled as a missionary throughout the Spanish Caribbean in the early 16th century. A consistent voice against slavery, the encomienda system, and the genocide of native peoples, Las Casas lobbied King Carlos V for an end to the conquistador’s abuses. His reform efforts had mixed success.  In 1550 he participated in a series of famous debates with Juan Gines de Sepulveda, who argued for the forceful subjugation of “inferior” native peoples. Las Casas’ success in these debates assured that his progressive New Laws would continue (in theory) to protect the indigenous population.[14] His epic A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies was published in 1552. Like Sahagun, he was not present at the specific events we will examine, but his condemnation of the conquistador’s treatment of the Indians is based on first-hand experience in the Indies. He had been the holder of an encomienda before becoming a priest. Las Casas visited Mexico in the 1540s where he met with Cortés and preached to the Indians, no doubt learning about the events of the Conquest from several perspectives. His testimony therefore illuminates the ideology of the conquistadors, but it does not bear directly on the turning points we examine. Further, whatever may be said in Las Casas’ favor, he agreed with Cortés on essential points: the subjugation of America, the annexation of the Indians to Christianity, and the preference for colonization over enslavement.[15]

All the accounts, Spanish and Amerindian, were composed by nobility and/or literate elites. The stories of the majority of participants are therefore generally untold, and when they are mentioned it is by their class superiors. Similarly, the principal actors in these accounts are male authorities and soldiers. Other than Cortés’ translator, Dona Marina, women are absent.

These various perspectives permit us to triangulate individual events with the objective of discerning the most probable motivations and actions of the participants. Accordingly, this study examines a half-dozen key events in the Long Year where the course of the Conquest faced a crisis. Once we have described the competing perspectives it will be possible to abstract broader conclusions about the processes and consequences they share.

Alvarado’s Folly: The Situation in Tenochtitlan Deteriorates

When ambitious Governor Velazquez learned that Cortés had contravened his orders and exceeded authority, he sent Panfilo de Narvaez to Vera Cruz with a large fleet to arrest the Capitan. Meanwhile in Tenochtitlan Cortés had taken Moctezuma prisoner and through him claimed the Mexica Empire on behalf of Spain. Narvaez’ arrival threatened his position. Consequently, in late May 1520, Cortés left the Mexica capital and led a forced march to the coast. He bribed some of Narvaez’ men and in a brief night skirmish, captured his rival. But by the time Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan the city’s population was in open rebellion against the conquistadores.

Pedro de Alvarado had been left in Tenochtitlan with a small force to guard Moctezuma and his court. A few nights after Cortés departed (~ May 16), Alvarado and his men massacred thousands of unarmed Mexica nobles as they participated in the Toxcatl festival at the Great Temple. Cortés arrived on June 24 just in time to save his besieged men and their impetuous lieutenant. Accounts of what had caused Alvarado to make his fateful decision to kill the celebrants seriously conflict with each other.

In Cortés’ second letter to Carlos V he implicates Monteczuma of plotting with Narvaez to assassinate him, thereby justifying his later characterization of Mexica resistance as “rebellion.”[16] Upon his return to Tenochtitlan the Capitan finds himself immediately under attack by the enraged citizens. Accordingly he treats the Toxcatl incident as a revolt against the acting governor of the King’s new dominion.[17] Cortés offers no other explanation for the insurgency, nor does he accuse Alvarado of misfeasance.[18]

Gomara describes a number of tensions in the days preceding the Toxcatl massacre. Following Cortés’ model, his position is that the Mexica had recognized the sovereignty of Carlos V, thus their attempts to reassert governance or recover plundered gold were acts of rebellion. Alvarado’s rash act was therefore simply the trigger for the uprising and not the proximate cause. Gomara hints at other motivations. Although the priest mentions the possibility that someone had warned Alvarado of a possible plot, he specifically notes that the slaughter began when the lieutenant “seeing them (the Mexica nobles) so rich,” attacked.[19] Gomara clearly holds Alvarado responsible for opening hostilities and implies that his motivation was greed, thus excusing Cortés of any responsibility. He adds parenthetically that Cortés “must have felt badly” about the action.[20]

The Diaz account differs in several significant details. He first recounts that Moctezuma’s ambassadors accused Alvarado of attacking “for no reason at all.” He reports Alvarado’s first excuse that Moctezuma had plotted against Cortés and then the second, which was that the Mexica planned to assassinate those left behind in Tenochtitlan.[21] Gomara’s depiction implies that he trusted Alvarado’s shifting story no more than Cortés did. It seems probable that Alvarado was encouraged by Tlaxcalan allies and by a converted Texcocan, “Don Hernando” to fear an uprising. Vazquez de Tapia later testified at Alvarado’s residencia that he tortured Mexica and other Indian prisoners to confirm his fears. Not surprisingly, they confessed under torture that an ambush had been planned. Historian Hugh Thomas offers plausible reasons why we should doubt this threat, but Alvarado may well have believed it.[22] If so, then the massacre represented a preemptive strike to overcome the sure disadvantage Alvarado would have suffered if he had waited for a conventional battle. What is clear in all reports is that Alvarado initiated the massacre. In the residencia of Juan Alvarez, we have Alvarado boasting “As the Indians did not take the first step, we have done so ourselves.”[23]

Nahuatl accounts from the Florentine Codex describe the Toxcatl attack as deliberate and unprovoked. In this telling the Spaniards planned the massacre before the ceremony began, arming themselves and barring the exits to the Temple courtyard.[24] “They came out equipped for battle (and) went into the temple courtyard to kill people.” Premeditation is evident since nearly all of Moctezuma’s remaining retinue was simultaneously executed back in the royal quarters. The entire act was “treacherous.”[25] One can also deduce a sense of panic since Alvarado had all the porters and servants killed as well.[26] The Codex Aubin makes similar claims, but also mentions that the main object of Spanish fury was the chief idol of the worshippers.[27] This seems unlikely. The Spaniards had spent months in Tenochtitlan observing the Indian’s idols and their festivals. Mexica behavior at Toxcatl should not in itself have alarmed them.

Even indigenous explanations for the massacre are conflicting. The Codex Ramirez says Cortés “ordered it to be done before leaving” (to interdict Narvaez). Historian Ross Hassig believes that the circumstances support this interpretation. He notes that Cortés never punished Alvarado for the attack, whereas he severely punished other officers for more minor infractions. Hassig thinks it highly credible that Cortés did order the massacre to eliminate Moctezuma’s command structures, but wished the deed accomplished while he was absent so as to deny culpability.[28]  J. H. Elliott counters that this is unlikely since the Alvarado force was too small to entrust with such an obviously disruptive act.[29] He agrees that the likely explanation is that the Tlaxcaltecs invented a possible uprising and provoked Alvarado to act first. The Annals of Tlatelolco also describe an unprovoked attack but in less detail. The lord of Tlatelolco is depicted trying to stop the slaughter.[30]

Indian accounts also help us understand why the Mexica did not launch a concerted attack against Alvarado’s besieged contingent before Cortés returned. Part of their delay is explained by references to the Indian’s observance of the traditional four-day mourning ritual for their slain nobles. Later accounts reveal the Mexica’s hesitation to confront Moctezuma over his continued support of the Spaniards. We may deduce that they were still too unsure about protocol to oppose the Emperor’s political position. Further, it was the rainy season and most of the men were still engaged in agricultural pursuits.[31] Finally, the sheer number of nobles killed, combined with the imprisonment of their supreme leadership, would have completely dislocated their command structures. Indeed, it was not until Cortés unwisely released Cuitlahua to plead with the Mexica that they regained effective leadership.

Las Casas had no direct knowledge of these events. He probably pieced his account together from both Spanish and indigenous sources, filtered through his lens of condemnation. Accordingly he depicts the massacre – “this unjust thing” – as unprovoked and underhanded, such that the Mexica “shall never cease lamenting and singing (about it) in their areitos and dances.” This suggests that such songs were already active during Las Casas’ visits to Mexico in the 1540s.[32]

Fateful Leadership Changes: The Death of Moctezuma

Once inside Tenochtitlan, Cortés was himself besieged as the Mexicas raised the drawbridges at each of the three main causeways to the island capital. On June 29th, five days after Cortés reentered Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards took Moctezuma to the roof of his palace to plead with his subjects to halt the attacks, but he was killed before he could speak. Immediately thereafter, the Spanish put the remaining captive nobles to death. Consequently, when Cortés released Moctezuma’s brother to intercede with the protesters, the Mexica confirmed him as the new Emperor. Cuitlahua was the forceful resistance leader that Moctezuma had not been. Accounts conflict as to who killed Moctezuma, as well as Cortés’ role in his death.

The account of Moctezuma’s death in Cortés’ Second Letter is brief. He informs Carlos V simply that the Emperor was struck in the head by a stone and died three days later. He says he then had Moctezuma respectfully carried out to his subjects by two captives.[33] Cortés further reports that Moctezuma never had the chance to address his subjects. Other Spanish accounts narrate elaborate speeches, but otherwise it is Cortés’ version of the Emperor’s death that is repeated by most Spanish writers. Each of these accounts present more detail than Cortés.

Gomara mirrors Cortés. Moctezuma was struck by mistake “because a Spaniard covered him with a shield.” In death, Moctezuma is remembered as one who “loved (Cortés) very much.” Importantly, Gomara repeats that Cortés had the emperor’s body respectfully carried out to his subjects, and he makes no mention of the execution of other high nobles.[34] Las Casas says only that Moctezuma was forced to address his subjects when “the Spaniards put a knife to the breast of the prisoner.”[35]

Bernal Diaz’ version of Cortés’ return describes a chaotic situation in which “many squadrons” of Mexicans – who displayed conspicuous bravery and tenacity – placed the conquistadors under continuous attack. This is one of those instances when Diaz overtly credits the leadership of his captain. “Here Cortés showed himself very much of a man, as he always was.”[36] When the first attempted breakout with portable bridges failed, Cortés placed Moctezuma on a roof to plead with his subjects, who taunted and ridiculed him. Struck by a “sudden shower of stones” when his Spanish guards “momentarily neglected their duty,” Moctezuma refused treatment and died of his wounds. While Gomara tells us that Cortés wept for Moctezuma, Diaz includes “and all us captains and soldiers.”[37] Modern readers might speculate that, given the stress of events, these tears revealed tension rather than sympathy. Finally, Diaz agrees with Cortés and Gomara regarding the respectful “handing over” of Moctezuma’s body to the besiegers.[38]

How different are the indigenous accounts! It is integral to the Indian’s Leyenda Negra (the Black Legend) that the Spaniards murdered the Emperor. Most Indian narratives report that Moctezuma was stabbed to death shortly before the Spaniards fled the city. The Codex Ramirez, for example, relates that he was killed “by stabbing him in the bowels,” a report repeated by Alva Ixtlilxochitl, a Texcocan historian.[39] Fray Diego Duran had it from his Indian informants that “the king was found dead with a chain around his ankles and five wounds in the chest.”[40]  Alternatively, Torquemada tells us that Monteczuma and Itzquauhtzin, governor of Tlateloco, were garroted.[41]

The Florentine Codex says that the bodies of Moctezuma and Itzquauhtzin were not treated respectfully but were “thrown dead outside the house.”[42] Finally, the Codex Aubin adds a unique story in which Moctezuma is denied burial by one Mexica community after another until the man carrying his body cries out “Am I to go about carrying him forever?” which neatly summarizes the contempt with which the ruler was held by the time of his death.[43]

Historian J. H. Elliott finds highly likely the report of some indigenous sources that in order to disrupt Mexica opposition, Cortés had all the captive chiefs executed before the Noche Triste escape.[44] Ross Hassig agrees with this conjecture. Montezuma had become a liability to the conquistadors and his continued captivity inspired attempts to set him free. The effort of keeping him alive demanded scarce resources. Furthermore, Cortés might have feared that the Emperor would inspire more vigorous attacks if he were freed. Alternatively, if Moctezuma was now thoroughly discredited, he was worth nothing unless as a corpse to be mourned. Hassig therefore reasons that Cortés’ complicity in his death “is plausible and, in light of both earlier and later Spanish actions, probable.”[45]

La Noche Triste: The Breakout Across the Tolteca Canal

Realizing his position was increasingly precarious, Cortés jerry-rigged portable bridges and organized a stealthy withdrawal from Tenochtitlan. On the night of June 30 – July 1 he led his Spaniards and several thousand Tlaxcalan allies through the rain in the attempted escape. This night action would become La Noche Triste as thousands of Mexicas attacked. More than half the Spaniards – perhaps 865 – never made it out of Tenochtitlan and were killed or sacrificed to the Mexica gods, as were thousands of their Tlaxcalan allies.

Many of the Spanish soldiers drowned when they attempted to wade across the partly-dismantled causeway or were pushed into the water. Several sources observe that these men died because they were weighed down by the gold with which they were attempting to escape. Many of the dead were from the less-experienced Narvaez faction. Also depending upon the source, different individuals were identified as the heroes of the La Noche Triste action. Similarly, we have contradictory accounts about the behavior of Cortés on this fateful night.

In his letters to Carlos V, Cortés relates that he was not afraid of the Mexica, but since he did not want to destroy the city, he reluctantly but decisively agreed to withdraw. He immediately set out to construct “engines (with which) to capture some of the roof tops and bridges.”[46] When repelled in his first attempt, he devised a plan for the night escape that became La Noche Triste. His account makes the escape sound orderly, with great attention paid to the Capitan’s attempts to guard “your Majesty’s gold and jewels” – the king’s “fifth.” Presumably Cortés wanted to save his own treasure as well. Alas, he failed to save both his men and the gold. The Spaniards also lost artillery, horses, crossbows and munitions in great numbers. Treasure estimated to have weighed up to eight tons only served to drown the greedy.

Cortés reports his losses were “150 Spaniards and more than two thousand Indians.”[47] All other Spanish and Indian accounts give a much larger number of dead. Regardless, once he reached safety the caudillo asked only if his shipbuilder was alive, and being reassured, said “Well let’s go, for we lack nothing.” This story, repeated by a range of Spanish observers, attests to Cortés’ resolve to return to Tenochtitlan and regain his prize even on the night of his greatest defeat.

Gomara speaks repeatedly of the courage of the attacking Mexica, who “if their weapons had been equal… would have killed more than they lost.”[48] Of particular interest is his observation that Cortés abandoned his quarters so clandestinely that hundreds of Spaniards were unaware of the escape, thus condemning them to death. Intriguingly, most of those abandoned were members of the often-dissenting Narvaez faction. The majority of the 865 lost during La Noche Triste were also from this contingent. The Narvaez group had failed to demonstrate the same level of fighting effectiveness as the original contingent and they had been a source of persistent unrest. To excuse the oversight of their abandonment, Gomara says that Cortés’ soldiers “demanded (the hasty escape) of him.”[49] Nevertheless, the most direct criticism of his narrative, he describes a series of scenes in which Cortés appears to lose control. As the fighting grew desperate, Cortés “spurred on to the mainland (and left Alvarado) to pick up those who remained.” Then Alvarado deserted the rearguard soldiers, “making his way over the dead and fallen Spaniards.”[50]

Bernal Diaz describes the breakout in gripping detail. While he frequently shows Cortés giving orders, his version of the planning and execution of the withdrawal constantly emphasize collective decision-making, as in “we agreed”, “we all bore ourselves very manfully”, and “we determined…”[51] He also notes the conspicuous contribution of the Tlaxcalan troops and of individual lieutenants such as Sandoval, de Lugo and Avila. Diaz seems unsure how to describe the actions of Cortés under stress. Although he charges that Cortés and others “passed…so as to save themselves…” he notes that if they had stayed to help their comrades, “we should all have been put an end to…” He further notes that when Sandoval and Olid pleaded with Cortés to return and rescue the rest of the trapped Spaniards, the captain started to return, but stopped when Alvarado came up badly wounded and reported (incorrectly) that the treasure and the remaining soldiers had been lost.[52] He places the Spanish dead at “over 860 killed and sacrificed,” plus another 72 at Tustepec, as well as a thousand Tlaxcalans.[53] Compare this to Cortés’ much lower estimate of 150 Spaniards lost. Diaz also says of Narvaez’ soldiers “the majority fell at the bridge, weighed down with gold”, an observation echoed by Indian narratives.

In the Florentine Codex, indigenous accounts of La Noche Triste tell us that so many Spaniards and Tlaxcalans died that the canal filled up with bodies “and those who came behind were able to cross the canal on top of the dead.”[54] In this sense their description mirrors that of the Spanish sources other than Cortés. The Nahuatl add several details absent from the Spanish accounts. We read of terrorized flight. The Spaniards “hurled themselves headlong into the water, as if they were leaping from a cliff.”[55] Most interestingly; the Nahuatl identify their leaders by name and they provide details regarding the disposal of the enemy dead.[56]

Las Casas’ coverage of La Noche Triste is limited to moralizing. The Indians killed “for the most exceedingly just causes” since the Christians had “wrought devastation upon the admirable and wondrous Indians.”[57]

A Month of Pitched Battles: Otumba and the Retreat to Tlaxcala

Cortés, the 440 survivors of his Spanish army, and the remaining Indian allies escaped to Tlaxcala in a fighting withdrawal that took ten days. Pursuing Mexica forces continuously attacked the weary and wounded conquistadors. Although the pursuers made a strong attempt to finish off the Spaniards at the Battle of Otumba, Cortés rallied his troops by personally leading several cavalry charges into the Mexica forces, eventually killing their commander. The fleeing army finally reached safety at Tlaxcala on July 12th. Like the other accounts, this withdrawal played out differently in the perspectives of the various observers.

In his Second Letter to the King, Cortés described the extraction of his army in terms of his own personal bravery, while shaping the entire rout as a strategic move rather than as a desperate abandonment of the city. He makes frequent mention of his own wounds and actions. Other participants are referred to as “the Spaniards” or are treated as numbers.[58] At Otumba, he dressed his wounds and with help from the Holy Spirit led his beleaguered comrades to safety. Curiously, he does not mention the conspicuous act of his personal bravery reported later by both Gomara and Bernal Diaz. Given his effort to take credit wherever possible, we may speculate that this heroic elaboration was given to Gomara at a later date.

Gomara dwells on the enormous threat facing the retreating Spaniards. “A multitude …covered the country and surrounded them.” Cortés is credited with saving the day by leading a charge into Mexica ranks and personally killing their standard bearer. This passage redeems the leader who only the day before was described in terms of total loss of composure. Here at Otumba “all Spaniards…swear that never did a man fight as he did…he alone…saved them all.”[59] His leadership is epitomized when he serves as sentry that night for his exhausted companions.

For reasons not fully understood, the pursuing Mexica abandoned their successful harassing attacks and massed their forces in the open maize fields near Otumba. Part of the explanation must be that unlike other Indians, the Mexica had not yet experienced the fearsome effects of an armored cavalry charge in the open. The plains gave the Spaniards full opportunity to repeatedly charge and withdraw, unlike their restricted tactics within the streets of Tenochtitlan. The Battle of Otumba on 7 July 1520 was arguably the most important and most difficult that Cortés had to fight.[60] It thoroughly dispirited the Mexica and reinvigorated the Europeans. “Our horsemen speared them at pleasure.”[61] It probably saved Cortés and his forces from annihilation. Significantly, the severely-mauled Tlaxcalan forces remained loyal throughout the difficult withdrawal, despite their heavy losses.

Bernal Diaz credits “our horsemen” as joining Cortés in his attack on the Mexica standard-bearer at Otumba. In his report the Indian commander was killed by Juan de Salamanca, however, not Cortés.[62] Bernal Diaz’ revisionist version is somewhat corroborated by the accounts of several others who reported that Cortés sallied with four other riders. These others, however, credit Cortés with leading the attack, and one compares it to Alexander’s charge against Darius at Issus.[63] We learn elsewhere from de Aguilar that Cortés’ favorite battle tactic was to target the brilliantly-clad Indian leaders.[64]

The Florentine Codex describes fleeing Spanish and Tlaxcalan soldiers on a rampage, venting homicidal anger and frustration on Indian communities that had no part in the Mexica coalition.[65] These accounts paint a picture of the conquistadors as unnerved and demoralized by their close escape from Tenochtitlan. Consequently, they preyed indiscriminately upon native villages as they beat their retreat. For example, at the isolated town called Calacoayan, the Spaniards “at once killed the inhabitants – speared them. They did not warn them; they …vented their wrath upon them…”[66]

Of the unnamed engagement that appears to be Otumba, the Florentine Codex describes the fanatical resolve of the Mexica warriors, who “died in great abundance…they pursued death.” The Codex also provides details omitted from the Spanish accounts. For example, the Spaniards burned captured Mexica warriors alive and piled their bones in a mound. Regarding tactics such as the conquistador’s use of night attacks, Nahuatl reports also note that “people had not realized they would come out at night.”[67]

Ten Months of Bloody Repression: The Subjugation of Mexica’s Allied Cities

Cortés’ defeat at Tenochtitlan meant that a strategy of political destabilization was no longer feasible. Instead, it would be military conquest. Accordingly, after resting for three weeks in Tlaxcala, he began a 10-month series of brilliant battles and diplomatic overtures that pacified the allies of Tenochtitlan and strengthened her enemies. Cortés’ strategy recognized the widespread resentment against Mexica domination. Moctezuma’s fragile alliance was vulnerable to piecemeal dismemberment. Historian Alan Knight compares his approach to Stalin’s “salami” tactics in which tributary units are progressively sliced off and politically digested.[68]

This critical campaign lasted from July 1520 to April 1521 and served several purposes. First, Cortés’ diplomatic successes had been based on the perception of his military invincibility. The terrible losses of La Noche Triste revealed the weakness of this assumption and thus the Capitan needed to quickly re-confirm his prowess. Second, it was essential that he secure his lines of resupply with the coast while simultaneously eliminating Tenochtitlan’s lines of supply across Lake Texcoco. Third, he had learned that he needed large numbers of Indian troops to serve as porters and to exploit the battle opportunities created by his conquistadors. Finally, actions demonstrate that his strategy depended upon isolating Tenochtitlan from its imperial support base.

Cortés mixed brutal tactics of annihilation and slavery with offers of conciliation and alliance. Hammond Innes opines that the ruthlessness of these actions “was almost certainly inspired by the campaigns of Philip against the Moors, and its effect was similar.”[69] From a purely strategic standpoint these are the most impressive actions of the conquest. The surrender of an individual altepetl was typically followed by assurances of protection from Mexica retaliation, which was consistent with the way traditional patterns of alliance were formed in Mesoamerica.[70]

Among Cortés’ most significant victories was the capture of the strategically-located Mexica town of Chalco, which gave the Spaniards control of Lake Texcoco and access to Tenochtitlan by water. Meanwhile, smallpox swept through the central valley, killing over a third of the population, including Moctezuma’s successor, the forceful leader Cuitlahua. How do the different narratives describe this decisive process of pacification?

Cortés asserts that although he and his men needed time to recover their wounds, he could not risk appearing weak.[71] Thus when his men begged to retreat to the coast and reinforce, he “disregarded all the dangers and toil that might befall us” and resolved to “fall on our enemies.”[72] His subsequent account details victories and defeats, diplomacy and guile, battle and bluff. At no point does Cortés outline an overall plan of action, but instead appears to make decisions as he goes. He approach is workmanlike, not strategic.[73] We perceive the strategy only in retrospect; not through his reports.

Gomara tells of a near mutiny before the pacification campaign began, when many Spanish troops begged to return to Cuba. In a telling speech, Cortés exhorts them that their Indian allies “…prefer slavery among us to subjugation among the Mexicans.” This appears to be a clear reference to the spoils of encomienda that will reward success. Knowing that he has overwhelming numbers of Tlaxcalan soldiers to assure a victory, Cortés bargains with his troops to attack the weak city of Tepeaca. If they win this battle, he proposes, there will be no more complaints.[74]

Gomara repeatedly shows Cortés trying to avoid bloodshed by asking the defending cities to capitulate. When they do not, the men are executed and the women and children are enslaved. Gomara excuses this by explaining “…if he had not treated them in this fashion, they…would have risen.”[75] There is also a change in rhetoric which we may suspect was added later, as Cortés tells his troops that their mission is to “preach the faith of Jesus Christ,” cast down idols and proclaim the Holy Gospel.[76] No mention of treasure and slaves here.

Bernal Diaz constantly stresses the delicate balance between potential defeat and triumph at individual encounters. More than once he shows Cortés riding impetuously into a trap, only to be extracted at the cost of another soldier’s life. At Tacuba, for example, Cortés charges into an ambush and is saved by his pages, who are captured for sacrifice.[77] Cortés’ own account of this specific action fails to mention their heroism. Likewise, Diaz gives a full account of the plot by Antonio de Villafana and others from the Narvaez faction to assassinate Cortés after the return from Texcoco.[78] Cortés downplays the conspiracy in his brief treatment.

The Florentine Codex focuses on the devastation caused by the smallpox epidemic.  It provides a detailed description of the disease, its vectors, and the consequences to the city’s defense efforts. “The Mexica warriors were greatly weakened by it.”[79] “A great many died from this plague and many others died of hunger.”[80] The battles of the campaign of suppression are only briefly and incompletely mentioned. Similarly, the Annals of Tlatelolco begin this phase with “a plague of coughing, fever, and pus.”

Although the native recitations of military action are more detailed, they do not conflict with Spanish accounts except that the observers shift back and forth from Mexica to Tlatelolco viewpoints. This is particularly true when emphasizing the actions and deaths of many of the city’s leaders.[81] For example, more space is devoted to the torture and execution of the last Tlateloco lord than to the particulars of individual battles within Tenochtitlan.[82]

Las Casas’ contribution is once again moralistic condemnation that adds nothing to our understanding of events.[83] He will offer us no perspectives on the siege of Tenochtitlan. Instead his narrative leaves Mexico and moves on to Spanish depredations in Guatemala and Honduras.

End Game: The Siege of Tenochtitlan

Finally only Tenochtitlan and the neighboring city of Tlateloco remained under Mexica control. Cortés made overtures of peace during the first several weeks before committing himself to outright capture. Cuauhtémoc, the last Emperor of Tenochtitlan, fortified his city and prepared to withstand the siege with newly-constructed barricades and ditches, believing he was secure behind the waters of Lake Texcoco. But his empire was in ruins. Aqueducts and food supplies were cut off. The loss of Chalco, which provided access to the lake, was a catastrophe.[84] Cortés built thirteen cannon-bearing brigantines to overpower the Mexica’s canoes while he assaulted the causeways with a reinforced army of Spaniards and over 100,000 Indian allies. Thousands of allied canoes supported his naval attack.

Cortés also benefitted from an alliance with Ixtlilxochitl, the deposed ruler of Tetzcoco, the second member of the Mexica “Triple Alliance.” Despite the superior resources of the Spanish coalition, the Mexica repulsed repeated attacks, captured scores of conquistadores and thousands of Spanish allies, sacrificing them in plain view of their comrades. Many of the Indian allies deserted, but Cortés and his army eventually prevailed as Mexica resistance collapsed under attrition, starvation, and thirst. What perspectives do the sources give us on this final sequence of events?

Cortés’ Third Letter begins with a restatement of his legal justification for returning to Tenochtitlan. “The inhabitants thereof had offered themselves as Your Majesty’s vassals… receiving many benefits from us,” and were technically in rebellion. He also invokes Faith, the trust of Indian allies, and the protection of his own men as rationales for aggression.[85] Cortés then summarizes his ten-month effort to neutralize all cities in the central valley that were loyal to the Mexica, and to ally with their enemies. By 28 April he had deployed his combined forces in a stranglehold around Tenochtitlan.[86] Individual accounts are extremely tactical; peppered with repeated pledges to protect the King’s new domains.

When the brigantines are finally deployed Mexica’s capital city is cut off from food, water and reinforcement. As the combined assault is launched, Cortés begins to understate his losses. For example, he states that in action in early June, no Spaniards or allied soldiers were lost. Bernal Diaz, reporting on the same action, reports losses.[87] Similarly Cortés relates that “thirty-five or forty Spaniards” and a thousand allies were killed at the Tacuba Causeway.[88] The Florentine Codex and Bernal Diaz give significantly higher numbers. As Diaz will explain, these losses led to most of the Indian allies deserting, a fact which Cortés understandably minimizes.

Of the fateful battle at the Tlacopan causeway, Cortés reports that he was exposed due to errors by his subordinates and so he “determined to make a stand.” De Olea, the “captain who always accompanied me” and saved Cortés’ life is referred to only as “a valiant man.” Then although Cortés protests that he wanted to stay and fight to the death, his aide “seized me by the arms to turn me back” and forced him to retreat. It was at this point that “a servant of mine” (Cristobel de Guzman) was speared. In neither case does Cortés grant his rescuer a name.[89]

Gomara’s eloquent description of Cortés’ victory places the Capitan at the center of all action. Here more than in any previous section, the Capitan is shown as a master strategist and courageous leader. Nevertheless, Gomara still depicts Cortés “slaughtering…mostly women and children and unarmed men” as the starving, “terror-stricken” survivors search for food.[90] To explain the routing of Spanish troops at the Temple courtyard, Gomara invents a speech for Cuauhtémoc, who must rally his own soldiers in a manner similar to Cortés’ magnificent speeches. We also see that the Texcoco leader Ixtlilxochitl, the Tlaxcalan Chichimecatelcatl and certain of Cortés subordinates are singled out for recognition. In addition to being fierce fighters, the allies also provide indispensible support in the form of food, labor and canoes. This is the closest Gomara comes to recognizing the contribution of non-Spaniards.[91]

Gomara once again describes Mexica troops as the bravest of foes. “Reduced to the extremity of eating twigs and bark…they never sued for peace.” Here Gomara makes his one tribute to Mexica women, who “won great praise for themselves” with their valor.[92] Fanatic defense sets up a blanket excuse for disappointments. The city must be destroyed rather than preserved as a “gift for the King.” “Few or none” of the treasures are recovered. Further, the killing of surrendering citizens is attributed to the Tlaxcalan and Chalco allies, whom Cortés is unable to restrain, or on the basis that as eaters of human flesh, they deserve no better.[93] Of Cortés’ escape at the Tlacopan causeway, Gomara fully credits the personal bravery of Francisco de Olea and Cristobel de Guzman, whose sacrifices save the Capitan from capture.[94]

Bernal Diaz describes valor on all sides. Like Gomara, he reports that Cortés survived at the Tlacopan causeway only because of his rescue by de Olea and de Guzman, and adds the name of Lerma, a common soldier who also dies for his captain.[95] Forty men were lost in this ambush, most of them captured alive for sacrifice, but only these few are named. Perhaps a thousand Indian allies also die in this worst single defeat of the siege.

A slightly different account is given by conquistador Francisco de Aguilar, who designates Cortés a hero as he tries to save his drowning companions. Aguilar also has de Guzman being captured for sacrifice.[96] Aguilar is noteworthy as the only other Spaniard to recognize the courage of Mexica women. In the last days of the siege the Spaniards “were alarmed and dismayed” to discover that they now faced armed women.[97]

Diaz describes in detail the fate of those captured alive.[98] But the defenders fared no better. After the surrender of Cuauhtémoc, Diaz reports that he could not walk the streets of Tenochtitlan “without treading on the bodies and heads of dead Indians.” He found houses “full of corpses” where the Mexicas had hidden them from Spanish view.[99] Common conquistadors were disheartened by the widespread destruction of Tenochtitlan and the absence of treasure, much of which was either lost or appropriated by Cortés. Bernal Diaz reports that “every morning malicious remarks appeared” on the walls of the Capitan’s residence, complaining of their betrayal.[100] Gomara and Cortés are mute on this account.

The Mexica believed that the Spaniard’s purpose was “to destroy (Tenochtitlan’s) people,” not simply capture the city.[101] Their records tell us at several points that the Spaniards took time from the battle to loot Mexica refugees who fled the city.[102] We learn something of the tactics the Indians developed to confound Spanish guns and boats. While there are no pronounced conflicts with the European accounts, they provide elaboration on some points, such as the ritual sacrifice of Spanish captives while their comrades must watch from the brigantines.[103] Later they describe a second sacrifice, adding details about the manner in which severed Spanish and Indian heads were displayed as a provocation.[104]

The Florentine Codex devotes particular attention to a number of Mexica heroes, most especially a valiant Otomi warrior named Tzilacatzin, who is described as “scattering the Spaniards, forcing them into the water.” Tzilacatzin receives more pages of print than other participant.[105] Another champion dressed as the mythical Quetzal-Owl is also fully described in both his valor and his elaborate costume.[106] In what appears to be the same wild battle that Spanish writers identify as the Tlacopan causeway, the Florentine Codex does not specifically describe Cortés’ escape. Instead, they paint a picture of mass confusion as Spaniards drown “sinking and submerging, just pulling at one another.”[107] Their view of the fall of Tenochtitlan concludes with a vivid description of the survivors’ suffering. The people cry out “It’s over! Let everyone leave!” But the killing goes on.

The anonymous author of the Manuscript of Tlateloco provides graphic descriptions of the suffering during the last phase of the siege. Writing less than twenty years after the fall of Tenochtitlan, he says “This is how it was with us. The houses were roofless, their walls smeared with blood and spattered with brains. We ate pies made of thrushes, reeds, bits of adobe, lizards, rats, earth, worms.”[108]

Tenochtitlan fell on August 13, 1521 as the starving survivors were trapped and their last Emperor, Cuauhtémoc was captured. The Florentine Codex tells us that women disguised themselves with mud to avoid capture; men were branded as slaves. “The weapons were laid down and we collapsed.”[109] Cortés does not number the total dead in the final battle for Tenochtitlan. He tells the King that “we came across such piles of dead that we were forced to walk upon them.”[110] Gomara places the number at 100,000; Ixtlilxochitl at 240,000; while Diaz compares the toll with the destruction of Jerusalem.

A Critical Mass of Accounts – Drawing Conclusions from Conflicting Reports

Our contrasting of the various accounts of critical events in the Long Year often reveals wide variations in perspective and voice. “All were written for political purposes…and all are self-serving” as Ross Hassig notes.[111] Nevertheless, the accumulation of observations provides sufficient material with which to draw informed interpretations. Accounts can be tested for plausibility and reasonableness. Accordingly, the following sections draw upon factors common to the full range of accounts, and deduce some broad characteristics and insights.

Indian Agency – The Conquistadors as Convenient Political Tools

From the very beginning of the Conquest process, Indians used the conquistadors to further their own political interests. The steady expansion of Mexica dominance in the Central Valley was nearly complete. Cortés noted the pregnant potentialities during his early conversations with the Tlaxcalans. “When I saw the discord and animosity between these two peoples…it seemed to further my purpose considerably.”[112] One can argue that an anti-Mexica coalition was always a possibility, but it required the catalyst of Spanish arrival – and arms – to make it feasible

In mid-May 1519 Totonac ambassadors approached Cortés to offer their services – this even before he allied with the Tlaxcalans. They had reportedly heard of the strength of Spanish arms from the Mayas and wished to explore political ties. This may have shaped Cortés’ notion that Mexica’s enemies could be used against them.[113] Cortés secured a Totonac alliance by promising that he would defend them against Moctezuma.

It appears clear that despite the technological superiority of Spanish weapons, first the Tlaxcalans, and then later the Mexica, had sufficient numbers to destroy the initial invading force if they had wished. The Tlaxcalans chose to ally with the Spaniards in order to improve their political position in the Central Valley and to gain advantage over their Mexica enemies, who had threatened them for decades. Likewise, Moctezuma’s reluctance to oppose Cortés may well reveal that his political situation within Tenochtitlan might be threatened if he did not proceed with caution. The Indigenous sources reveal a strong undercurrent of dissent within the capital city, with clear factions repeatedly arguing for attacks against the Spaniards and cautioning against trusting their intentions.

Ross Hassig notes that Spanish-centered interpretations must assume that Cortés “fully understood native politics and manipulated them unerringly.”[114] It is more reasonable to assume that it was the Indians, adept at the politics of their own culture, who manipulated the Spaniards to their own ends. The relative weight of the participants reinforces the notion that Mexica’s traditional enemies had great impact on the outcomes. Of the forces besieging Tenochtitlan, less than one-half of one percent was European. The overwhelming numbers of attackers – perhaps in excess of 200,000 – were foes of the Mexica from Tlaxcala and other rival city-states. The superiority of Spanish arms was repetitively used to disrupt Mexica formations and create openings which superior allied numbers could then exploit.

Allied contingents were repeatedly successful in persuading the Spaniards to settle old scores. The Cholulan Massacre and the Great Temple Massacre are two prominent examples where the Tlaxcalans used conquistador arms and treachery to eliminate opposing elites. Some historians have gone further, interpreting the Cholulan Massacre as a Tlaxcalan “test” of Cortés’ trustworthiness as an ally. “A Spanish hand was on the sword, but Indian minds guided it.” [115] Further cases of Indian duplicity can be found during the period of city subjugation when Spanish allies used the conquistadors to settle old grudges prior to the final assault on Tenochtitlan.

The vengeance motive is most clearly illustrated by Cortés’ own words as he describes the bloodbath that followed the fall of the capital city. The Capitan tried to restrain his allies, but they could not be controlled. In uncharacteristically emotional terms he reports “Never did I see so pitiless a race or anything wearing the form of a man so destitute of humanity. The piteous cries of the women and children, in particular, were enough to break one’s heart.”[116] That the fury of the Tlaxcalans should so dismay this hardened soldier is evidence that Mexica’s enemies had used the Spaniards to remove, in Prescott’s words, “the hoarded wrongs of a century.”

Cortés – The Master Politician and Leader

Most historians have identified Cortés’ founding of Vera Cruz as the maneuver of a skillful lawyer. This act abruptly removed him from the jurisdiction of Governor Velazquez and placed him directly under the King’s command. Beyond the obvious, however, it is emblematic of his characteristically legal approach. Faced with an obstacle, Cortés would typically attempt negotiation if possible.[117] His preference to talk through a problem may reflect the training of an abrogado, as indeed does his frequent use of interrogation techniques and diplomatic ploys. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Spanish records of his clever manipulation of Moctezuma before and after the Emperor was imprisoned.

Just as the Indians used Spanish arms to resolve political tensions in the Central Valley, Cortés employed the Indians to solve some of his own problems. The Spanish narratives present clear evidence that significant tensions persisted between the Narvaez forces and those of the original Cortés contingent. It seems highly significant that at critical junctures, the troops most exposed to danger were those of the malcontent latecomers. The “mistake” that left 400 of Narvaez’ men behind in Tenochtitlan during La Noche Triste illustrates how Indian action conveniently solved a perplexing problem for the Capitan.

The Narvaez elements remained a threat to Cortés. Rather than confront them directly – an action which might have led to open hostilities between the two camps – he skillfully took advantage of opportunity. When a group of Narvaez’ officers plotted to murder Cortés after the retreat from Tenochtitlan, he arrested and executed only their leader, Antonio Villafana, who was hung from the window of his house. Cortés pardoned the rest of the plotters, who were sorely needed for the Conquest. In this manner he mirrored his policy of replacing the current chiefs of captured Indian cities with their displaced political rivals, a tactic as old as the Roman Empire.

Much has been credited to Cortés for his strategy of replacing the local leaders of altepetl with men of his own choosing. The narratives show him repeatedly using this approach both before and after La Noche Triste. While the Capitan may very well have read Machiavelli, it is more likely that nobles who were out of power used his presence to create political opportunity. It is further unlikely that he acted alone. We can assume that he paid attention to the recommendations of his allies.

The Capitan was also adept at seizing unexpected incidents to improve the long-term political landscape.  Cortés’ ability was related to his willingness to subordinate some objectives to others. As he sought additional Indian troops during the pacification program, he temporarily lifted his prohibition against human sacrifice. It follows that he was willing to fabricate justifications for expedient actions. An excellent example of this predisposition is illustrated by Cortés’ handling of Xicotencatl the Younger, a war chief who represented a significant but uncooperative part of the Tlaxcalan alliance. Spanish records claim that Xicotencatl’s chief rival Chichimecateuctli informed Cortés that he had disserted to visit a lover during the final siege. This treasonable offense provided the pretext to have him arrested and hanged. Since the young leader could easily have brought his lover with him on the campaign, the incident either reveals Cortés taking the opportunity to replace a difficult ally with a more manageable one, or it illustrates yet another case where one Indian faction successfully manipulated the conquistadors to remove a competitor.

Cortés repeatedly demonstrated two further strengths essential to his role as politician and leader. Decisiveness and personal courage are closely linked. Our sources reveal that where Moctezuma would habitually prove hesitant under stress, Cortés would make a quick assessment of conditions and then take immediate action, as confirmed in his immediate response to Alvarado’s mishandling of the Temple Massacre, his impetuous charge at the Tlacopan Causeway, or his response to Narvaez’ arrival in Vera Cruz. One must imagine the Capitan’s inner thoughts when he first saw Tenochtitlan, a city many times larger and more imposing than any in Europe, no doubt exceeding his expectations in implied power. He was caught between retreating, which would weaken his position with his Indian allies and expose him to possible arrest in Vera Cruz, or continuing into the imposing city, where he might be trapped. Another leader might have found a reason not to enter Tenochtitlan. Cortés characteristically trusted his ability to create opportunity out of threat, and entered.

Moctezuma – The Failed Leader

In contrast to Cortés’ successful leadership style, Moctezuma is a study in contradiction. His strange reluctance to take a forceful posture toward the invaders is a central mystery of the Conquest. Although he apparently had some of his gifts to Cortés cursed by Mexica priests, he did not take military action. Moreover, on several occasions he dissuaded his military leaders from attacking the conquistadors before they reached his capital. His seemingly docile acceptance of Cortés’ demands for gold and control has long confounded historians, many of whom take a simplistic view of his predicament.

The weight of evidence substantiates that Moctezuma was deeply influenced by the superstitions of his fatalistic religion. Indigenous accounts clearly list the probable associations of Cortés with apocalyptic Mexica myths. His order for a significant increase in human sacrifice also suggests that he perceived a crisis that required divine propitiation. More sophisticated analysis has suggested that the Emperor was also constrained by the likelihood of pre-existing political divisions within Tenochtitlan. Some of his priests and nobles immediately perceived the Europeans as gods to be honored. Others saw them as invaders to be destroyed. Moctezuma was but one of several potential successors when he succeeded his father in 1515. Factional intrigues were just as much a part of court life in Mesoamerica as in Europe. Further, as Hammond Innes reasonably argues, he appears to have been already convinced “that behind these invaders would come others” whose power and numbers he could not assess.”[118] Unresolved fears and uncertainties allowed this brutal leader of a powerful nation to be shackled and made a puppet. Thus, Bernal Diaz tells us, was “the great Moctezuma…tamed.”[119]

Some modern historians see a more forceful side to Moctezuma’s character, for instance suggesting that he did in fact attempt to have the Cholulans ambush Cortés as claimed by the Tlaxcalans. A greater number discount this understanding and remain perplexed by the Emperor’s acquiescence to Spanish authority. All the contemporary accounts imply the frame of mind of a leader who has been overwhelmed by events. In Spanish accounts Moctezuma appears to have been reduced to a childlike dependency upon his Castilian usurper, marked by brief flashes in which he attempts to be treated as an equal. Indeed, prior to the disastrous events of the Great Temple Massacre, a gradual transfer of political power to Cortés might have been possible. After the Massacre discredited Moctezuma, conquest was the only option open to the Capitan.

Whatever his inner thoughts, it is clear that by the time Moctezuma climbed onto the parapet to ask his subjects to quit attacking the Spaniards, he had lost all credibility with his own people. A survivor of intrigue and despotic power, he would have realized this. This may explain why he rejected medical attention and permitted himself to die.

Shared Deployment of Psychological and Diplomatic Warfare

The Spaniards and the Mexica both demonstrated skill in the use of psychological techniques in diplomacy and warfare. The incidents studied illustrate Cortés’ frequent use of a “carrot and stick” approach with resisting cities. He would follow a devastating attack with an immediate offer of clemency, sometimes even distributing gifts to the citizens. He also encouraged the leaders to bring their people back into the town as a sign of peace. Prompt agreement brought political subjugation, whereas further resistance typically resulted in the enslavement of the population. Cortés employed a similar strategy in early battles with superior Indian forces. On the second day of battle with the Tlaxcalans, for example, he waited until they marched on his tiny band with six thousand warriors and then released three captives with the message that he sought peaceful relations. Although this approach failed in this case, the concept of “hard then soft” was almost Bismarckian in design.

In the early phase of the Conquest the Tlaxcalans were on the verge of wiping out the dwindling Spanish force when they unexpectedly offered a truce and initiated discussion of an alliance. Indigenous sources make it clear that a long-running contest between Tlaxcalan pro-war and pro-alliance parties had finally resolved in the Spaniard’s favor. Ross Hassig has argued persuasively that the accumulation of experience with Spanish superiority of arms slowly convinced the Tlaxcalans that an alliance could shift the balance of power and solve their long-standing problem with the Mexica. “Without a profound alteration of the political situation, Tlaxcalan defeat by the Aztecs was only a matter of time.”[120]

Some cities were singled out for exemplary destruction to cow their neighbors. This approach of an iron fist in a velvet glove is likewise evident in Cortés treatment of high-ranking prisoners. He repeatedly took caciques and ambassadors prisoner, only to later free them with offers of alliance or cooperation with their respective cities. At Totonac, for example, he persuaded the local chiefs to arrest the Mexica tax collectors and cease paying tribute to Moctezuma. That night he released the Mexica officials, later claiming they had escaped. Cortés thus impressed both parties that he had befriended them.[121] This tactic was so successful that he was still trying it on the eve of Tenochtitlan’s destruction, when he sent captive Mexica to Cuauhtémoc with a message of peace.

Object terror was another effective tactic. Equal in psychological impact to the practice of destroying the occasional town, Cortés often made examples of willful ambassadors or uncooperative caciques. A typical act would be to cut off the hands of the delegation – sometimes up to fifty nobles at a time – and send the unlucky men back to their towns as a shock demonstration.[122]

At times Cortés arranged for simple but showy demonstrations of raw power, as when he loaded cannon with extra charges and fired them in Indian presence without warning. On another occasion he brought a stallion in heat into a meeting, permitting the agitated beast to froth and paw the ground before terrified Indians. Indian scribes drew pictures of these events which were presented to Moctezuma.[123]

Indian leaders frequently made gifts of their daughters to Cortés and his captains. This gesture was probably misunderstood by the Spaniards. It was intended to cement political ties between rough equals on the assumption that the women would bear children to the conquistadors. The Spaniards likely took a more utilitarian view. More broadly, Cortés and the others did not fully appreciate the practice and symbolism of gifting, which was meant to reinforce notions of status in the Indian culture. Moctezuma’s early presentation of gifts was “an admission of hegemonic vassalage” which under Indian custom implied superior rights for Cortés only if he would stay away from Tenochtitlan. The Emperor would have intended them to signal a state of modified vassalage in which he might pay tribute, but on the condition that he be left in peace.[124] Failing to comprehend the differences of cultural context, Cortés interpreted the gifts as complete rather than conditional subordination.

Moctezuma attempted to use disinformation to disrupt the alliances between Cortés and Mexica’s enemies. When Cortés was still developing his initial political relationship with the Tlaxcalans, for example, Moctezuma sent an embassy with rich gifts and a warning that the Tlaxcalans intended to kill and rob the Spaniards. This attempt to divide the new allies was so transparent that failed outright.[125]

For more dramatic application of psychological warfare, the Mexica quickly discovered that the conquistadors were especially dismayed by human sacrifice. Accordingly, on those occasions when they captured Spanish soldiers, they waited until they could perform the ritual dismemberment in clear view of the besieging troops. A case example followed Cortés’ imprudent charge at the Tlacopan causeway. Alerted by the Temple drums, the conquistadors looked up to see their comrades being led up the steps of the Great Temple, where their hearts were ripped out by the priests of Huitzilopochtli. The victim’s flayed heads, beards still intact, were sent to wavering allies to demonstrate that the Europeans were mortal. A similar fate awaited some of Alvarado’s men who were captured following his brash attack on the market-place during the final siege. Their heads, stuck on stakes, were prominently displayed on stakes so they could be observed. Bernal Diaz was one of Alvarado’s force who barely escaped with his life.[126]

On this and other occasions both Spanish and native accounts report that the severed limbs of victims were thrown into the Spanish lines to confound the conquistadors. The effectiveness of such psychological warfare is revealed by Bernal Diaz, who reported that his fear of being captured alive “caused a sort of horror and gloom” and caused him to “make water once or twice.”[127] Certainly it was successful against Cortés’ Indian allies, who conspicuously withdrew from the fighting for a period following the near-disaster on the causeway.

Logistics Factors and Fortuitous Resupply

If the Spaniards’ technological advantage was as critical to their success as many have asserted, it was highly dependent upon regular resupply. The initial expeditionary force was certainly too small to overcome the Mexica Empire. Clever alliances provided Cortés with huge manpower reserves, but to fully exploit them he had to use gunpowder, steel and horses to achieve the disruptive effects that would permit openings in battle. Expendable materials like munitions (gunpowder and crossbow bolts) could not be replaced locally. Similarly, new Spanish soldiers could only come from offshore sources.

Cortés received unexpected resupply at critical moments during the Conquest. The timely arrival of the Narvaez expedition was clearly one of these instances, but there were many others. For example, following the Battle of Otumba shiploads of men and arms arrived at Vera Cruz, sent by the governors of Cuba and Jamaica, who assumed they were resupplying Narvaez. Two more resupply ships arrived while the pacification program was proceeding in the Central Valley. Without these infusions of new materials, it is doubtful that the conquistadors could have maintained their technological advantage. Absent that advantage, their charisma with allies would have fallen, potentially leading to a loss of the critical alliances. So Spanish resupply was needed to open holes in Mexica ranks through which Spanish allies could pour, and it was necessary to assure that the allied troops would be there to act.

Adaptation and Evolution in Battle

Both sets of opponents evidenced the ability to adjust to the fighting styles of their enemy, and to utilize local conditions to improve their military effectiveness. For example, the traditional Mexica obsidian-edged sword, the macana, proved ineffective against Spanish armor. It required a wide stroke to gain sufficient power for a disabling blow, a move that would have been difficult in the closely-packed mob struggles of the causeways and streets. The solution was to revert to stones and masonry as hand missiles. Although typically not fatal, they could put an enemy out of action. Indigenous narratives specifically call out the debilitating affects achieved by named Mexica warriors using rocks as their primary weapons.

The events reviewed here show that the Mexica adopted tactics that reduced the lethality of Spanish weapons. Captured Spanish swords were given to the most capable Mexica warriors, who quickly mastered their use. In other cases, Toledo steel was attached to long poles to blunt charges by the Spanish cavalry and to attack the conquistadores and their mounts. But steel weapons were never captured in sufficient quantities to affect the overall defense.

The Mexica further reduced the effectiveness of Spanish horses by refusing to fight in the open and by strewing their streets with rubble to eliminate the possibility of sustained charges. Similarly, they built underwater traps for the conquistadors and their allies, often installing spikes that hobbled man and horse. The Mexica also deployed underwater spikes in areas where they expected the Spanish brigantines to operate or attempt landings. Demolition also became a major tool as the Mexica tore gaps in the causeways at night and used the rubble to erect barricades in the streets during the day.

European gunpowder technology presented special challenges for the Mexica. Once they learned that Spanish weapons fired in a straight line, they adopted tactics of dodging from side to side as they attacked, and dropping flat if they had sufficient range to avoid a missile. Similar actions were implemented when Indian canoes attacked Spanish brigantines.

We see that from the earliest encounters, the Indians used a tactic of feigned retreat to draw Spaniards into prepared traps where they could be ambushed. Even as late as the street fighting during the final siege, conquistadores were still being lured into ambush and captured or killed. The Mexica even deployed this tactic in battles on Lake Texcoco, sending out a few canoes to feign a withdrawal and thereby lure the Spanish brigantines into prepared “killing zones” where they could be immobilized and attacked by superior numbers. This tactic worked so well in the tight streets of Tenochtitlan that Cortés finally resorted to demolishing buildings in his advance to prevent the ruse of retreat-and-attack. This also eliminated flank attacks from hidden warriors and missile attacks from the roofs of the buildings.

Given their lower levels of weapon technology, Mesoamericans were not prepared for door-to-door fighting within their cities. The Mexica quickly adapted. During the day Spaniards and their allies destroyed buildings to create maneuvering room and clear fields of fire. At night the defenders would creep out to rebuild barricades and position hidden warriors in the rubble. This response was similar to what the Russians would adopt centuries later in Stalingrad.

Nevertheless, the Mexica had great difficulty in shedding certain assumptions about battle. Whereas the conquistadors sought to kill opposing warriors outright, the Mexica repeatedly attempted to disable their opponents for later sacrifice. This is clear in the two reported instances where Cortés was taken into enemy hands, only to be rescued by his comrades. It seems realistic that had they killed the Capitan outright, the resulting disorder might have provided breathing space, if not completely disrupted the Spanish advance. Finally, it has been argued that the Mexica did not have the time to formulate a comprehensive tactical and diplomatic response to the Spanish threat. The entire Conquest lasted scarcely a year and a half. The Mexica were hardly thickheaded as charged by some scholars. They simply had “insufficient time to develop counter-tactics.”[128]

Spanish tactics changed somewhat less dramatically. The building of Cortés’ brigantine navy is innovative, but represents an adaptation to the environment rather than to his enemy. The brigantines operated in many ways similar to the use of cavalry, moving in small groups of three or four to open up breaches allied canoes could expand. Beyond the obvious advantages of Spanish arms in individual combat, weapons like horses, cannon, and harquebus were essential to create the gaps in the enemy’s lines into which the allied Indian troops would pour. It follows that Cortés’ essential resources therefore required a steady supply of gunpowder, horses and crossbow bolts. Sheer numbers could be supplied by the allies, hence his constant attention to alliances and increasing demands for Indian manpower.

The State of Modern Historiography

Scholars have long been limited to the same narrow list of primary sources to deduce the motivations and strategies of the various participants in the Conquest. Consequently, until recently most historians accepted Spanish accounts at face value.[129] This uncritical approach gave rise to many of the early and persistent explanations for the outcome of the Conquest: Spanish technological, cultural or religious superiority; the effects of disease; Cortés’ leadership qualities, and so on.

William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico treats the event as a stirring tale focused on the heroic person of Cortés. Employing literary style and elegant language rarely matched by subsequent historians, Prescott’s work dominated scholarly circles for decades. It has been continuously in print since its publication in 1842 and is still widely read today. This thorough (500-plus pages) and highly detailed study nevertheless relies almost exclusively on traditional European sources. Prescott was criticized by his contemporaries for his apparent bias in favor of Spanish culture at a time when such sympathies were not popular. Nevertheless, his admiration for Cortés’ success against great odds affected subsequent scholars who often combined a grudging respect for the Capitan’s leadership skills with a general condemnation of Spanish brutality. Other 19thCentury histories in English also displayed the expectation of inevitability in the victory of Europeans over the “savage” Indians.

By the mid-20th Century historians were setting aside assumptions of inevitability. In 1971 for example, Jon Manchip White expressed appreciation that “the Conquest was not a walk-over, or in some way pre-ordained.”[130] White still centered his attention on Cortés and Moctezuma as “great men”, finding keys to Cortés’ success in the Capitan’s “courage, his manhood, his intelligence, his pride as a Spaniard and as an individual.”[131] Nevertheless, he demonstrated the willingness of this later generation of historians to use the first-hand narratives to grapple with questions of individual motivation.

Wider access to indigenous accounts, and to residencia records, has deepened our appreciation of nuance, especially with regard to our ability to construct psychological models of individual action. J. H. Elliott’s 1986 history demonstrates considerable effort to balance the various sources, although his focus on Cortés as a “great man of history” is always evident. Hugh Thomas’ The Conquest of Mexico is scrupulously neutral in assigning victim status to any player, but indigenous voices are muted. Native sources are more thoroughly and satisfactorily explored by historians such as Lockhart (1993), Schwartz (2000) and Leon-Portillo (2007).

Conquest scholarship has developed sufficiently that social historians such as Tzvetan Todorov (1999) will now use the competing voices as a vehicle to examine the role of “the other” in anthropological studies. This approach leads to seriously non-traditional observations about the root causes of the Mexica defeat. Todorov assigns notions such as technological superiority, the Spanish culture of war, and smallpox to secondary roles and develops the thesis that it was the native’s inability “to command signs” that was their undoing. The connection between literacy – and the intellectual development that comes with symbol manipulation – doomed the Mexica to defeat. This abstract rumination is impossible to prove but fascinating to reflect upon. Todorov also reveals a trend among recent Conquest histories to shun neutrality and view the event as an imperialist process, often conflated with examples of 20th Century U.S. Imperialism. In this sense he echoes the voice of similar post-colonial historians such as Leon-Portillo and Lockhart. This trend has also spawned deeper analysis which searches for the role and agency of non-elites and women in the Conquest.

Matthew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest seeks to redress a number of oversimplified understandings about the Conquest which have crept into popular culture, and which he finds seriously flawed.[132] Chief among these is a thesis that grants the Indians far greater agency than traditional histories. Restall employs both Spanish and indigenous accounts to show first that the native societies skillfully and opportunistically used the invader’s technologies to advance their own political agendas, and second, that these same societies managed to sustain their cultures far into the 19th century. He sees these groups as shrewdly “turning calamity into opportunity.” Restall pushes his revisionist view about as far away from the “great man” concept as possible, effectively removing not only Cortés but also his European soldiers from central roles in the destruction of the Mexica Empire. Henry Kamen came to somewhat similar conclusions in the same year as Restall’s history, arguing in effect that the conquistador’s military capabilities were secondary to the simple impact of their arrival in Mexico. Consistent with his overall theme is the idea that the Spanish “empire” was built by a large number of non-Spaniards pursuing their individual self-interest, which included the allied native agents of the Conquest.[133]

Arguably the finest of recent Conquest histories is Ross Hassig’s Mexico and the Spanish Conquest (2006), which makes use of all the available sources to re-examine prior interpretations.[134] Triangulating each of the accounts of individual events, Hassig unpacks the narratives to strip away bias and then ask what is the most reasonable and consistent explanation for the events as described. For example, he is skilled at demonstrating how the Spaniard’s unfamiliarity with local custom and idiom continuously led them to incorrect conclusions about native actions and intentions. While this method does lead to some conjecture, the historian’s careful dissection presents a compelling alternative to either the self-serving European depictions or the Indian’s sad story of betrayal and loss.  “Cortés… defeated the Aztecs with a surviving force of nine hundred Spaniards…but the pivotal role had been played by his 200,000 Indian allies.”[135]


Not surprisingly, Spanish accounts center on the exploits of Cortés, his chief lieutenants and their program of conquest for God and King. Until recently, historians adopted the same approach, interpreting events from a narrow European perspective. The incorporation of indigenous narratives reveals that individual Indian communities systematically exploited European arms to humble the Mexica and further their own agendas. All these accounts focus on elites. We can only speculate about how the individual Spanish or Mexica soldier fought, what he thought, and what feats of heroism he may have demonstrated.

Despite these limitations, each conquest perspective strives to venerate its own heroes and to center attention on its primary objectives. For Cortés, it is to establish the legal basis for a successful residencia. For Gomara, it is to lionize his patron and glorify God. Bernal Diaz seeks recognition for the contribution of junior officers. Indian authors hope to demonstrate the proud qualities of their defeated forefathers. Las Casas asks for our pity and moral outrage.

Hernan Cortés had many qualities that sustained his role as conquistador. He matched superb leadership skills with decisive action and unflinching ruthlessness. It must also be said that he was incredibly lucky. Ross Hassig, a leading anthropologist of the Aztec Empire, notes “there is no shortage of plausible turning points” at which Cortés and his expedition might have failed.[136] As a prime example, on June 30, 1521 Cortés was trapped on the wrong side of the Tlacopan causeway with sixty-eight of his men. Cristobal de Olea leapt to his aid, killing four Mexica warriors who were carrying him off. It is not difficult to imagine that without Cortés’ inspired leadership; the rest of the expedition would have collapsed. These various narratives demonstrate that each of the points we have examined might have yielded similar contra-factual results. The Conquest of Mexico, like most historical events, hung on individual acts.

Any observer must adopt an emotional point of view when examining this – or any – conquest event. The challenge for the historian is to do this without overtly taking sides or linking past events to more recent politics and ideologies, a mistake often committed. Two brutal conquest states met in the Central Valley of Mexico and contested for dominance. Neighboring societies utilized the conflict for their own purposes, while others unjustly suffered “collateral damage.” Rather than view the Conquest as an epic adventure, as indeed most of the contemporary Spanish and subsequent Western accounts have done, we would do well to see it as a shared tragedy.

[1] Thomas, Hugh. The Conquest of Mexico. London: Hutchinson (1993). Pp. xi-812.

[2] Elliott, J. H. “Cortés, Velazquez and Charles V” in Hernan Cortés: Letters from Mexico, Anthony Pagden, trans. New Haven: Yale University Press (1986). Pp. xi-xxxvii.

[3] Cortés, Letters, Pp. 24-7; 116.

[4] Diaz, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain. J.M. Cohen, trans. London: Penguin Books (1963). Pp. 7-8.

[5] Diaz, Conquest, P. 314.

[6] Diaz, Conquest, P. 7.

[7] Thomas, Conquest, Pp. xi-812.

[8] Schwartz, Stuart B., editor. Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s (2000). Pp. iii-271. See also Leon-Portillo, Miguel. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. New York: Beacon Press (2007). Pp. 1-265.

[9] Anderson, Arthur J. O. and Dibble, Charles E. The War of Conquest: How It Was Waged Here in Mexico. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press (1978). P. ix.

[10] James Lockhart, We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press (1993). Pp. 17-8.

[11] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 43.

[12] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 11-5.

[13] Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. Richard Howard, trans. Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press (1999). P. 119.

[14] Las Casas, Bartolome. An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies, With Related Texts. Andrew Hurley, trans. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company (2003). P.xli.

[15] Todorov, Conquest, P. 177.

[16] Cortés, Letters, Pp. 119-22.

[17] Cortés, Letters, Pp. 128-9.

[18] Cortés, Letters, Pp. 130-2.

[19] Lopez de Gomara, Francisco. Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror, L.B. Simpson, trans. Berkeley: University of California Press (1964). Pp. 206-8.

[20] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, Pp. 208.

[21] Diaz, Conquest, Pp. 283-6.

[22] Alvaraez, Juan. “Residencia against Alvarado,” in Thomas, Hugh. The Conquest of Mexico. London: Hutchinson (1993). Pp. 384-5.

[23] Alvarez, Conquest, Pp. 384-5.

[24] Leon-Portilla, Miguel. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston: Beacon Press (1992). Pp. 71-8.

[25] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 134, 141.

[26] Leon-Portilla, Broken Spears, P. 79.

[27] Leon-Portilla, Broken Spears, Pp. 80-1. Similarly, Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 274-5.

[28] Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press (2006).  P.110.

[29] Cortés, Letters, P. 475.

[30] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 256-9.

[31] Hassig. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. P. 118.

[32] Las Casas, An Account, Pp. 33-4.

[33] Cortés, Letters, P. 132.

[34] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, Pp. 212-3.

[35] Las Casas, An Account, P.34.

[36] Diaz del Castillo, Bernal. The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico: 1517-1521. Irving A. Leonard, trans. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy (1956). P. 307.

[37] Diaz, Conquest, P. 294.

[38] Diaz, Discovery, Pp. 311.

[39] Ixtlilxochitl, Fernando de Alva. “The Account by Alva Ixtlilxochitl,” in The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Miguel Leon-Portilla, ed. Boston: Beacon Press (1992). Pp. 80-1

[40] White, Jon Manchip. Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire: A Study in a Conflict of Cultures. London: Hamish Hamilton (1971). P. 224.

[41] Cortés, Letters, P. 477.

[42] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 150-1.

[43] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 276-7.

[44] Cortés, Letters, P. 478.

[45] Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. P. 113.

[46] Cortés, Letters, Pp. 132-5.

[47] Cortés, Letters, Pp. 138-9.

[48] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, Pp. 216.

[49] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, Pp. 218-9.

[50] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, Pp. 220-1.

[51] Diaz, Discovery, Pp. 300-12.

[52] Diaz, Discovery, P. 315.

[53] Diaz, Discovery, Pp. 321.

[54] Schwartz, Victors, P. 180.

[55] Leon-Portilla, Broken Spears, P. 85.

[56] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 154-61.

[57] Las Casas, An Account, Pp. 34-5.

[58] Cortés, Letters, P. 141.

[59] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, Pp. 224-5.

[60] Chaliand, Gerard. Mirrors of a Disaster: A Chronicle of the Spanish Military Conquest of America, A.M. Berrett, trans. Watertown: Blue Crane Books (1990). P. 16.

[61] Innes, Hammond. The Conquistadors. London: Collins (1986). Pp. 118-9.

[62] Diaz, Conquest,  Pp. 303-4.

[63] Francisco de Flores, Aguilar, Juan Gil and others during the “Justicia,” in Thomas, Hugh. The Conquest of Mexico. London: Hutchinson (1993). Pp. 423-6.

[64] Todorov, Conquest, P. 89.

[65] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 162-3.

[66] Anderson and Dibble. The War of Conquest. P. 57.

[67] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 174-7.

[68] Knight, Alan. Mexico from the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press (2002). Pp.223-4.

[69] Innes. The Conquistadors.  P. 121.

[70] Hassig. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. P. 126.

[71] Cortés, Letters, Pp. 145.

[72] Cortés, Letters, Pp. 145.

[73] Cortés, Letters, Pp. 145-59.

[74] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, Pp. 229-30.

[75] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, Pp. 232.

[76] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, Pp. 241.

[77] Diaz, Conquest, Pp. 347-8.

[78] Diaz, Conquest, Pp. 350-1.

[79] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 182-3.

[80] Leon-Portilla, Broken Spears, Pp. 92-3.

[81] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 258-61.

[82] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 270-1.

[83] Las Casas, An Account, P.35-6. “To recount the devastations and deaths and cruelties that they dealt the Indians in each one of these provinces would doubtless be a thing exceedingly difficult to accomplish, and impossible to tell, and yet more tedious to hear.”

[84] Thomas, Conquest, P. 485.

[85] Cortés, Letters, Pp. 166-7.

[86] Cortés, Letters, Pp. 167-206.

[87] Cortés, Letters, P. 220. Also Diaz, Chapter 151.

[88] Cortés, Letters, P. 240.

[89] Cortés, Letters, P. 237-9.

[90] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, Pp. 287.

[91] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, Pp. 272-7; 284-5.

[92] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, Pp. 292-3.

[93] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, Pp. 246-72; 291-2.

[94] Lopez de Gomara, Cortés, P. 281.

[95] Diaz, Conquest, P. 380.

[96] De Aguilar, Francisco. “Eighth Jornada.” In The Conquistadores: First-Person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico. Patricia de Fuentes, ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press (1993). Pp. 158-62.

[97] De Aguilar, “Eighth Jornada,” P. 198.

[98] Diaz, Conquest, Pp. 386-7.

[99] Diaz, Conquest, Pp. 405-6.

[100] Diaz, Conquest, P. 411.

[101] Leon-Portilla, Broken Spears, P. 94.

[102] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 248-9.

[103] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 186-7; 210-1.

[104] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 214-7.

[105] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 198-206.

[106] Leon-Portilla, Broken Spears, Pp. 112-3.

[107] Lockhart, We People Here, Pp. 234-5.

[108] White. Cortés and the Downfall. P. 255.

[109] Schwartz, Victors, Pp. 194-6.

[110] Cortés, Letters, P. 264.

[111] Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press (2006). P. 3.

[112] Pagden. Hernan Cortés. P. 69.

[113] Hassig. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Pp. 68-72.

[114] Hassig. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. P. 5.

[115] Hassig. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Pp. 96-7.

[116] White. Cortés and the Downfall. P. 258.

[117] Chaliand. Mirrors of a Disaster. P. 9.

[118] Innes, Hammond. The Conquistadors. London: Collins (1986). Pp. 79-80. The accounts in this work are not annotated and while colorful, must be treated with some reservation. Although none of the interpretations conflict with primary sources, the general construction of the history is sloppy. For example, a page 43 map of Conquest action places Lake Texcoco and Tenochtitlan near the Isthmus of Panama. Misspellings are common.

[118] Innes. The Conquistadors. P. 59.

[119] Knight. Mexico from the Beginning. P. 227.

[120]Hassig. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. P. 87.

[121] Innes. The Conquistadors.  Pp. 47-8.

[122] Innes. The Conquistadors. P. 59.

[123] Innes. The Conquistadors. Pp. 38-41.

[124] Hassig. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Pp. 67, 92.

[125] Innes. The Conquistadors. P. 61.

[126] Chaliand. Mirrors of a Disaster. P. 24.

[127] Innes. The Conquistadors. P. 128.

[128] Knight. Mexico from the Beginning. P. 231.

[129] Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press (2006). P. 4.

[130] White. Cortés and the Downfall. P. 12.

[131] White. Cortés and the Downfall. P. 261.

[132] Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. New York: The Oxford Press (2004) Pp. x – 240.

[133] Kamen, Henry. Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763. New York: Harper Perennial (2004). Pp. x-640.

[134] Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest, Second Edition. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press (2006). Pp. 3-261.

[135] Hassig. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. P. 175.

[136] Hassig, Ross. “The Immolation of Hernan Cortés” in What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, Robert Cowley, editor. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons (1999). P. 130.