Two worlds collide: Spanish conquistadors and Aztecs

Five centuries ago, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés met Aztec emperor Moctezuma – a moment often depicted as the start of an unstoppable, inevitable European colonisation of the Americas. Caroline Dodds Pennock explains why the story is much more complex

Meeting in Tenochtitlan between Hernan Cortes

On 8 November 1519, on a wide wooden causeway outside the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, the tlatoani (ruler) Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin – better known today as Moctezuma – and the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés came face to face for the first time. The meeting powerfully symbolises the confrontation between the great civilisations of Europe and the Americas: Cortés, standing as representative of the king of Spain and newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V; and Moctezuma, the ruler of an empire of millions. It was the start of a series of events that led to the downfall of the Aztec empire, and to the Spanish conquest and colonisation of Central and South America.

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The epic myth of the Spanish conquest has become famous in history: the daring adventurer Cortés and a few hundred plucky conquistadors who defied overwhelming odds to vanquish the brutal Aztec empire. But this is no simple tale of inevitable European dominance. This was a moment when events were finely poised, before the balance of power shifted decisively towards the Europeans. And, for the players in this delicate game, it was not at all apparent who held the strongest cards.

Spanish conquistador Herneán Cortés, depicted in a late 16th-century portrait
Spanish conquistador Herneán Cortés, depicted in a late 16th-century portrait. Rather than a noble emissary of the Spanish crown, Cortés was essentially a rebellious fortune-hunter (Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The meeting on the causeway has been depicted as emblematic of the meeting between the Old World and the New. But various aspects hint at the complexities and nuances of the encounter. After Cortés rode his horse onto the causeway he seems to have been kept waiting while Aztec nobles conducted a ceremonial welcome: each saluted him in courtly Nahuatl language before bowing low to touch and kiss the ground. It must have been an incredible scene, with thousands of Aztecs watching from canoes and rooftops, hoping to catch a glimpse of the newcomers; the causeway, too, was packed with people.

In a striking distinction, Spanish accounts of the event emphasise the precious metals and stones sported by the Aztecs, whereas the Florentine Codex – compiled later from the recollections of indigenous informants – gives priority to the glorious flowers that adorned the causeway in gourd vases, wreaths and garlands: sunflowers, popcorn flowers, magnolias, cacao blooms.

With so many nobles involved, these initial ceremonies dragged on for perhaps an hour, and it seems that Cortés endured them a little impatiently. Fortunately, the proceedings were deciphered for him by an indigenous translator, Malintzin (known to the Spanish as Doña Marina or La Malinche), who had been given to him as one of a group of enslaved women. Her importance to the encounter cannot be overstated: it was actually her voice that both Moctezuma and Cortés heard during their ‘conversations’, with all the potential for misunderstanding and misinterpretation that entailed. Fascinatingly, though the Spanish sources largely ignore her involvement, indigenous accounts don’t contain the same omission. In those, Malintzin appears as a central character, both the voice of the Spaniards and an authority figure in her own right.

After the initial ceremonies, calculated to make a grand impression and emphasise Aztec dominance, Moctezuma himself came out to meet the conquistadors. The tlatoani was carried onto the causeway on a litter with a magnificent canopy of green feathers, decorated with gold and jewels. The shimmering feathers and the green jade dangling from the canopy border, were among the most precious objects in the Aztec world, enveloping Moctezuma in a lustrous display of his power and wealth. He was surrounded by the high lords of his empire, themselves fabulously dressed, but the tlatoani’s rank was marked out by his ornate sandals. All the other Aztecs, even the highest nobles, went barefoot to honour the man who stood so close to the gods, and only his closest advisors were permitted to look him in the face.

When Moctezuma stepped down from the litter, Cortés dismounted and the two engaged in a fascinating exchange that reveals their very different values. It is hard to know precisely what happened. However, it seems that Cortés proffered his hand to Moctezuma but was rebuffed by his attendants – one did not touch the tlatoani. Moctezuma instead extended his own hand – taking control of the interaction – before accepting from Cortés a necklace of worked-glass beads scented with musk, which the conquistador had been wearing. In return, Moctezuma offered the Spaniard flowers, then put over the conquistador’s head two necklaces made of beautiful and valuable red snail shells, from which dangled eight shrimps made of pure gold, each the size of a man’s hand. After this rather unequal swap, the tlatoani invited Cortés into the city. It was the beginning of a famous relationship that led ultimately to the death of Moctezuma, and to Cortés’s triumph over a city in ruins.

Things never dreamed of before

Thanks to the dominance of sources produced by conquistadors or their supporters, this story is typically told from the Spanish perspective: scores of readers have experienced the entry into Tenochtitlan through the wide-eyed wonder of the conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo in his popular account of “things never heard of, seen, or dreamed of before”.

Moctezuma was a literate, effective administrator whose people were highly educated and determined

The awe of the Spanish is not hard to imagine. Tenochtitlan was almost certainly the largest city that any of them had ever seen. Home to perhaps a quarter of a million people (more than double the population of contemporary London), this island city was a teeming metropolis, with palaces and temples towering over clean streets, fertile gardens, orderly canals and huge plazas. The market at Tlatelolco alone drew around 60,000 people each day – similar to the population of Seville, the largest city in Spain at that time. This was, incontrovertibly, a civilisation, much to the consternation of the conquistadors. The Aztecs are often stereotyped as an ‘ancient’ culture: superstitious, Stone Age, in thrall to bloodthirsty gods. It is easy to forget that Moctezuma, a contemporary of Henry VIII, was not just a powerful warrior but also a literate, effective administrator whose people were highly educated, well-organised and determined.

Our narrative of the conquest usually follows the path of the Spanish expedition, but the meeting on the causeway was actually the culmination of more than six months of careful manoeuvring from both sides.

From the time Cortés landed on the Mexican coast in March 1519, Moctezuma had been carefully monitoring his movements, despatching emissaries to meet the new arrivals and sending astonishing gifts of gold and silver; these were intended to persuade the invaders to depart his territory and move on to others less powerful or less willing to pay tribute. To the Spanish, though, these courteous exchanges were not a deterrent but an invitation: they saw them as confirmation of the existence of a wealthy kingdom in the interior that could be easily exploited.

In a precarious position after defying his local superior – Diego Velázquez, governor of Cuba – Cortés saw the incredible treasures sent by Moctezuma as an opportunity to buy the support of Charles V. He promptly dispatched these riches to the Spanish king, along with emissaries to plead his case and secure his authority in a land he had no real mandate to conquer.

This was just one prong of a complex strategy designed to legitimise Cortés’s actions and ensure his success. First, he ordered that his ships be disabled, forcing his followers to commit to the mission and realise – as Cortés himself said later – that “they would conquer and win the land, or die in the attempt”.

This do-or-die attitude was not merely a facade. Having departed from Cuba without the governor’s sanction, Cortés had been declared a rebel against the crown and, as a result, was fighting on two fronts for much of the expedition. Indeed, in May 1520 he found himself facing a force sent by Velázquez to arrest him, but in a characteristically bold (and lucky) move, Cortés convinced the Cuban soldiers to join his quest for gold and glory. It was not until 1523, two years after the fall of Tenochtitlan, that Cortés learned he’d been named governor of New Spain, and he spent most of his life fighting Velázquez’s accusations. It’s clear, then, that his position here was far from secure.

Cortés’s strategy on the ground was to exploit local divisions, winning allies (or at least reasonably compliant bystanders) through a combination of force, diplomacy and terror tactics. By the time he arrived at Tenochtitlan he was accompanied by some 10,000 indigenous warriors. These men were Tlaxcalans, close neighbours and enemies of the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan; after initial fierce resistance, they had been convinced to throw in their lot with the Spaniards against their old adversaries.

Cortés led an army in which conquistadors were outnumbered at least ten to one by Mexicans

The entry into Tenochtitlan was an awe-inspiring moment for the conquistadors. Superficially, the balance of power favoured Moctezuma: he controlled the stage, and the Spaniards found themselves at the heart of a hostile city, in the centre of an empire of millions, surrounded by highly trained warriors who thought nothing of offering their opponents to a merciless god. “What men in all the world have shown such daring?” boasted Díaz. But the presence of a multitude of Tlaxcalans on the causeway must surely have affected the dynamic of the meeting. Bravery comes much more readily with 10,000 allies at your back.

When Cortés rode towards Tenochtitlan, he was at the head of a strikingly foreign force – unfamiliar clothes and weapons, white faces, beards, strange crosses and banners all feature in later depictions of the invading Spaniards by indigenous people – but he also led an army in which the conquistadors were outnumbered by Mexicans at least ten to one.

We don’t know what the Aztecs thought about the Tlaxcalans in their midst, but we know that their fellow Mexicans were luxuriously accommodated in the city with the Spaniards, and that many Tlaxcalans died alongside their allies on the so-called ‘Night of Sorrows’. This was the night when, after simmering hostilities erupted into open warfare following the slaughter of unarmed Aztec warriors at a festival, the conquistadors fled the city, losing most of their party in the process. Moctezuma was also killed at some point during this clash, though it’s unclear whether he died at the hands of the Spanish or his own people.

Illustration of Aztecs suffering from smallpox virus spread by Spanish
Aztecs afflicted by smallpox, shown in an illustration from the 16th-century Florentine Codex. Weakened by an epidemic of this disease, the Aztecs eventually succumbed to the Spanish invaders under Cortés (Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images)

Cortés and his allies then orchestrated an unlikely reversal, besieging the city with brigantines constructed in Tlaxcala and carried over the mountains. Ravaged by a smallpox epidemic to which they had no immunity, the Aztecs nonetheless fought to the death, refusing to surrender until their new ruler, Cuauhtemoc, was finally captured in a canoe on the lake. By that stage, the city the Spaniards had so admired was in ruins.

Moment of uncertainty

This story is not new. It has been told and retold: as the triumph of technology; as a tale of heroism and European derring-do; as a story of Spanish barbarity and vicious conquest; as the salvation of savage souls; as the last gasp of a great empire or the start of a new one. And yet we keep returning to it – to this moment of historical tension, this instant when the world stood at a tipping point. It is, for me, this very uncertainty that draws us back.

The conquest, combined with epidemics, killed all but a small fraction of the original population

There is an inexorability to history. The story marches towards the present, towards the birth of brutal European empires and the annihilation and exploitation of indigenous communities. The violence of conquest, combined with the merciless epidemics that swept through the Americas in the following decades, left all but a small fraction of the original population dead, families and communities in ruins, and thousands of Mexicans enslaved and transported to Spain.

But for the participants in this historical tragedy, the outcome was not inevitable. When the Aztec empire fell, indigenous Mexicans did not passively submit to Spanish rule. For many, one faceless emperor was simply replaced by another, and they adapted accordingly. The Tlaxcalans fought for their rights as allies to the Spanish, successfully asserting their autonomy and gaining exemption from tribute. They sent emissaries to Spain, won coats of arms, and became prominent players in colonial politics.

Other cities also asserted themselves, swiftly adapting their knowledge of legal and literary conventions to a new alphabetic system of communication, proving their adaptability and resilience, and learning the delicate art of negotiation with the crown. Even the noble families of Tenochtitlan – the conquistadors’ fiercest opponents – successfully asserted their ‘traditional’ rights, intermarried with the Spanish elite, and gained posts and grants at court in Spain.

The meeting between Cortés and Moctezuma was remarkable for all that it symbolises. For the Spanish, it was a precarious juncture. For the Aztecs, it was the arrival of a strange force to be dazzled and dominated. For the Tlaxcalans, it was an opportunity to exploit. It is a reminder that history is a mirror with many faces. The side we most often see reflects European dominance, but tilt the angle and we see other perspectives, other possibilities, other people. It is tempting to see this as the start of European global dominance, but the route by which we got here was not clearly signposted to its participants. In the 500 years since Moctezuma met Cortés, the world was remade. Yet a closer look at this moment reminds us that this history was not direct or inevitable, but a mosaic of endlessly complex possibilities.

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Caroline Dodds Pennock is lecturer in international history at the University of Sheffield and author of Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, paperback 2011)

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This content first appeared in issue 14 of BBC World Histories magazine