top of page

The Spanish Conquest of Mexico

The Return of the Sun God


As a teenager Hernan  Cortes knew that he wanted to be a great adventurer. His parents tried shipping him off to the University of Salmanaca in central Spain to get their wild child to settle down and become a lawyer. But their hopes were dashed after two years when Cortes flunked out and returned home. Cortes had plans of his own to become a soldier and head to the New World in search of gold.


A cousin was already headed to the colony of Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti) and Cortes was eager to be on the next boat bound for the New World. Had it not been for getting himself injured by falling out the second story window of a married woman he would have left Spain in 1502. Instead, he was forced to wait for another four years until a second opportunity presented itself.


The island of Hispaniola had already gone through radical changes when the 19 year old Cortes arrived at the busy port of Santo Domingo. The island was full of men like Cortes who came from petty noble families seeking to make a name for themselves. These men were not used to doing physical labor— and were not about to start now. Instead, they recreated a mini version of European feudalism right here in the Caribbean. Cortes was given land and became a citizen of Hispaniola.  Using Indian slave labor, he quickly turned the rainforest into a profitable plantation. But the farm life was not for Cortes.


Despite his wealth and slaves Cortes wanted more. After a successful expedition to conquer the natives of Cuba he was given a government job documenting the gold and slaves being sent back to the Spanish crown. In addition to a cushy job Cortes was given even more land, even more slaves, and gold mines; but Cortes had his sights on a bigger prize: the Mexican mainland. Cortes had heard stories of an advanced civilization (the Mayans) with huge stone temples and palaces from Spanish expeditions returning from the Yucatan.


More importantly, the place was loaded. The richest gold strike in the New World had been found there just a few years earlier. Cortes was virtually foaming at the mouth to get his chance to claim this civilization for Spain. But Diego Vasquez, the governor of Cuba and close personal friend of Cortes, had plans of his own to become governor of the Yucatan territory and forbade Cortes from sailing.


Cortes and Vasquez, both headstrong and ambitious men, locked horns.  Needless to say this rivalry put a damper on their friendship. When Vasquez tried to prevent him from going to Mexico, Cortes went anyway despite a warrant for his arrest.

In March of 1519, Cortes and his crew landed on the Yucatan coast where he met up with a Spanish priest who had come on an earlier failed expedition. The priest, Jernoimo de Aguilar, had been shipwrecked and taken as a hostage of the Maya. Aguilar watched as five of his comrades were sacrificed and eaten, and somehow he managed to escape, was enslaved by another village and after eight years of servitude had been set free. For the past few months Aguilar had been hiding in the jungle when he crossed paths with Cortes.


Lucky for Cortes too, for the priest spoke Chontal Maya and for the rest of the expedition served as the official interpreter. Continuing along the coast, the Cortes crew reached the site of the modern-day city of Vera Cruz, he was greeted with an attack by the Tabasco tribe (from which the hot sauce takes its name). With 500 men, 200 Cuban slaves, a few cannons, and six horses, he was vastly outnumbered by warriors armed with arrows and spears. According to a Spanish foot soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo “the whole bank was thick with Indian warriors, carrying their native arms, blowing trumpets and conches, and beating drums.”  Cortes decided to do the opposite of what most soldiers would do in a similar situation –he charged. The Spanish with their shiny metal armor, riding animals that looked like large deer (minus the antlers, of course), and their weapons that spit smoke and fire soon had the Indians retreating into the cornfields. Cortes realized he had the most powerful weapon on his side: fear. The Indians had never seen horses or guns before and Cortes would use this fear of these strange weapons to his advantage over and over again. Cortes ordered his men to give chase, killing anyone they found.


The Aztec emperor Moctezuma had no doubt gotten word of these strange white men marching through his land. The emperor sent out a party to find out what these strangers wanted. Cortes replied that he had come in peace, his only intention was to trade with the Aztecs and meet with the emperor on behalf of Spain. Cortes wasn’t about to show his cards yet, after all.  Gifts of cotton cloth, exotic feathers, and trinkets were exchanged for Spanish wine, metal tools, and food. When the Aztecs brought painters to record what they saw, Cortes decided to make the most out of it. He ordered his men to parade on horseback with swords drawn and cannons firing. The Aztecs were clearly impressed. But Cortes wasn’t interested in trinkets and bird feathers. He told the Aztecs that he had “a disease of the heart that can be cured only with gold”. We just call it good ol’ fashioned greed. Moctezuma had no intention of allowing the strangers anywhere near his capital city. He tried to buy Cortes off with gifts of gold but this backfired, big time. Cortes was more encouraged than ever that he had found the legendary kingdom of gold.


Moctezuma's Omens

According to Aztec legend, the serpent god Quetzalcoatl was banished across the great Ocean and one day would return. On the day of the god's return, kings would fall and the Aztec world would end. According to legend, Moctezuma had been getting visions and dreams of bad omens, in total there were nine.


Dona Marina gives inside info...


Moctezuma was very confused, Omens were very important to the Aztec and they were not to be taken lightly. Yet Moctezuma was no fool and he knew these men were no gods. He sent gifts of precious feathers, gold, and jewels and waited to see what they would do (mistake #1). Waiting would be Moctezuma’s biggest mistake. Before leaving the coast, Cortes ordered his 11 ships to be sunk preventing his soldiers from turning back to Cuba. There was only one direction to go - Tenochtitlán.


The Spanish had with them a secret weapon more useful than any gun or horse. Her name was Malinche. But after she converted to Christianity, she became known as Dona Marina. Dona Marina could speak Chontal Mayan and Nahuatl–- the language of the Aztecs—and later learned Spanish. She told Cortes how many Aztec soldiers there would be, the layout of the city, even the Aztec's fears and superstitions that could be used against them. The love affair between Hernan Cortes (who had a wife back in Spain by the way) and Dona Marina began a journey that brought down an empire.


Why would she do this? Because Dona Marina was not an Aztec, but a Nahua, who had been enslaved by the Tabasco people. The Aztec Empire was practically brand new (less than 100 years old) and had come to control Central Mexico by bloody conquest, human sacrifice, and heavy taxes on the people they conquered. Many people who lived in the Aztec Empire were more than willing to switch sides against their Aztec masters. One of these people were the Tlaxcalans who would become the most important of all of Cortes's Indian allies. Cortes knew that he couldn’t take on the mighty Aztec Empire head on. Instead, he decided to use the old divide and conquer routine.


As Cortes marched towards the capital city, he recruited other soldiers who had no love for the Aztecs. By the time he came to the outskirts of Tenochtitlán, his army of 500 had grown to thousands. But compared to the 200,000 soldiers in the Aztec army, they were still vastly outnumbered. Cortez had one more card to play.

Inside Tenochtitlán

Moctezuma had sent messenger after messenger ordering Cortes to return to the coast. He was not welcome in the city. But a man that ignores his own governor and sinks his ships is not going to turn back now. Moctezuma, not knowing what to do now, invited them in (Mistake # 2).

When they reached the city of Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards were in awe at what they saw. The city was bigger than any in Europe and more beautiful than any Cortez had ever seen. The city was built on man-made islands in the middle of massive Lake Texcoco. Stone causeways connected the various islands. Fruits and vegetables were grown on their own artificial islands called Chinampas which could only be reached by canoe.

The city was divided into districts each with its own market. However, the grand market was in the nearby city of Tlatelco. Here 25,000 people gathered to trade everything from beans, to peppers, to monkeys, bricks, feathers, parrots, obsidian, gems, tools...the list goes on.  The main currency used was cocoa beans which were rare and valuable.

Each district was made up of the homes of the commoners that were built of mud and sticks. In the district market you could buy everyday food items from rabbits, deer, quail, and dogs. The city itself is laid on in a grid pattern and in the center is a huge walled square where the palaces and pyramid temples to the Aztec gods stood. The largest of these pyramid temples, rising 246 feet high was, was dedicated to the feathered-serpent Quetzlcoatl. The palace of the emperor was equally impressive with 100 rooms each with their own private bathroom for visiting nobles.

Cortes and his men are invited to stay in one of the palaces as a personal guest of the emperor. They are given a tour of the city and on one particular stop they are taken to the pyramid temple of the god of war, Huitzilopochtli. At the top of the pyramid is an altar with a statue of part hummingbird, part man wearing a mask of gold. The Spanish immediately notice a strong stench of blood in the air. In a bowl at the base of the altar are fresh human hearts from a sacrifice made earlier that day. The Spanish are horrified by this and make comments to Moctezuma about his religion being barbaric. Cortes's aim is to convert the Aztec to Christianity. Moctezuma is insulted by Cortes's words and tells him that he should not have brought him to a place of honor.

This is an important moment that will define the rest of what happens to the Spanish in Tenochtitlán. The Spanish and the Aztecs are facing a clash of cultures. The Spanish follow the Catholic traditions with a belief in one God and Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Like the Aztecs, the Spanish believe that God is all powerful and can bring harm or good. The Christians offer fasts and prayers to their God. The Aztecs offer blood and prayers to theirs. The Aztecs believe in the existence of many gods that control different forces of nature or life events.

The love affair bewteen Hernan Cortes (who had a wife back in Spain) and Dona Marina began a journey that brought down an empire.
Tenochtitlan lives again.
Thanks to this video recreation by Mindscape
Map of Tenochititlan drawn from the memory of Hernan Cortes' memory of the city.
This is Cortes's own
account of what he saw:


"This great city of Tenochtitlan is built on the salt lake, and no matter by what road you travel there are two leagues from the main body of the city to the mainland. There are four artificial causeways leading to it, and each is as wide as two cavalry lances. The city itself is as big as Seville or Córdoba. The main streets are very wide and very straight; some of these are on the land, but the rest and all the smaller ones are half on land, half canals where they paddle their canoes. All the streets have openings in places so that the water may pass from one canal to another. Over all these openings, and some of them are very wide, there are bridges. . . . There are, in all districts of this great city, many temples or houses for their idols. They are all very beautiful buildings. . . . Amongst these temples there is one, the principal one, whose great size and magnificence no human tongue could describe, for it is so large that within the precincts, which are surrounded by very high wall, a town of some five hundred inhabitants could easily be built. All round inside this wall there are very elegant quarters with very large rooms and corridors where their priests live. There are as many as forty towers, all of which are so high that in the case of the largest there are fifty steps leading up to the main part of it and the most important of these towers is higher than that of the cathedral of Seville. . . ."

The Conquest of Mexico



Within of a few months of his arrival in Tenochtitlan things were starting to break down between Cortes and Moctezuma. After he learned that several Spaniards had been killed by Aztecs on the coast, Cortes pulled his gun and quietly told Moctezuma now a prisoner in his own palace. Moctezuma tried to pretend that all was normal, but the people realized that their king had become a puppet of the Spanish. For starters, the Spanish were loading up on gold, even from the temples. The nobles knew something was up and planned a rebellion against the Spanish. Meanwhile Governor Vasquez had caught up with Cortes and was sending a force to bring the captain back to Cuba in chains. Cortes left one of his lieutenants, Pedro de Alvarado in change while he dealt with Vasquez. Cortes returned to find the city in chaos. Open rebellion might be a better way of describing the situation.


Alvarado and his men apparently went on a looting and killing spree while their leader was away—not that Cortes objected to a little killing and looting. On May 20, 1520 were holding a Fiesta of Huitzilopochtli in a place called the Patio of the Gods. For reasons that are not quite clear, the Spanish sealed off the three main entrances to the temple and began to butcher the unarmed people trapped inside. Depending on whom you ask you’ll get a different story as to why the massacre began.


The Spanish claim it was to put down a planned rebellion by the Aztec nobles. The Aztecs say it was pure greed that started the whole thing— the Spanish were certainly quick to start removing the gold jewelry from their victims.  One thing is clear is that the Massacre in the Main Temple was gruesome. The Spanish hacked off limbs and beheaded their victims as they attempted to fight or flee. For three hours the slaughter went on until hundreds of Aztec men lay dead. Once word got out what was happening in the temple the enraged Aztecs chased the Spaniards into the palace and trapped them there for 20 days. This is the scene that Cortes returned to in later June, 1520.


The people gathered in the square outside the palace and demanded that the Spanish be brought out and killed. Cortes asks Moctezuma to speak to his people to calm them down. But in the heat of the moment Moctezuma ends up dead and the Spanish are now left in an even more dangerous situation. Cortes knew that things were about to go from bad to worse. The Aztecs had torn down the only three causeways that led out of the city. The trap was set.


That night, under the cover of darkness, the Spanish snuck out and tried to leave on an improvised bridge built from the timbers of the imperial palace. Someone spotted them and sounded the alarm. The Spanish tried to fight their way out but they were outnumbered. Hundreds were captured and sacrificed to the god Huitzilopochtli. Cortes made it out alive—barely. 800 of his 1000 man army were killed trying to flee the city. But Cortes wasn’t giving up that easily.


Cortez regrouped and returned with a larger force. This time he laid siege to the city, but the Aztecs grew enough food on their Chinampas to outlast any siege. But something else was at work - a smallpox epidemic that would wipe out most of the people. Many Aztecs saw this as a sign that the gods were against them for killing the emperor. The Spanish used this moment to attack and conquer the city. They wasted no time in cleaning house. The temples were torn down and Christian churches were built in their place. The city itself was in ruins and the remaining population was enslaved to look for gold. Unlike Columbus, Cortez struck it rich. Mexico was full of gold and silver and the Spanish melted down jewelry and idols by the shipload to send back to Spain.

Final battle between Hernando Cortes (1485-1547) and Cuauhtemoc at Tenochtitlan, August 1521, illustration from a facsimile of a Mexican Indian picture history 'Lienzo de Tlaxcala' of c. 1550

Aztec C.S.I.

Who Really Killed Moctezuma?

Aztec View


"During [the month of] tecuilhuitontli the Spaniards killed (Moctezuma). They strangled him when they departed, when the Spaniards fled the city at night."


-author unknown

Spanish View


"Barely was the emperor's speech to his subjects finished when a sudden shower of stones and darts descended. Our men who had been shielding Montezuma had momentarily neglected their duty when they saw the attack cease while he spoke to his chiefs. Montezuma was hit by three stones, one on the head, one on the arm, and one on the leg; and though they begged him to have his wounds dressed and eat some food and spoke very kindly to him, he refused. Then quite unexpectedly we were told that he was dead."


-Bernal Diaz


Test Page 

bottom of page