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Why we should remember when Cortés’s conquistadors were forced to flee the Aztec capital

Amy Fuller considers the retreat of Spanish forces from the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1520

The Spanish flee Tenochtitlan under fierce fire during La Noche Triste.
Published: June 30, 2022 at 6:31 am
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Five hundred years ago, on the night of 30 June 1520, Spanish forces and their allies fled from the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan under attack. Known as La Noche Triste (Night of Sorrows), this shameful retreat marked a key moment in the conquest – or, as it should more accurately be called, invasion – of Mexico.

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The Spanish were led by Hernán Cortés, whose illegal expedition had begun in February 1519. Cortés had left Cuba against the direct orders of his superior, Diego Velázquez, and evaded arrest several times. He had forged alliances with several indigenous groups, including the Tlaxcalans, who were enemies of the Aztecs. In November, the Spaniards reached Tenochtitlan, where they were received peacefully by Moctezuma II. However, they soon took the emperor hostage as a puppet ruler. Meanwhile, Velázquez sent a force of 1,100 men, led by Pánfilo de Narváez, to arrest Cortés, landing in Veracruz in April 1520. Cortés headed out to face them with only 226 soldiers, but he captured Narváez in a surprise attack and persuaded his men to join the mission to conquer Tenochtitlan.

In Cortés’s absence, the situation started to unravel at Tenochtitlan. Apparently afraid of an uprising (though only according to Spanish sources), Pedro de Alvarado, who had been left in charge, ordered the massacre of thousands of celebrants taking part in the sacred Toxcatl festival. This greatly diminished the Aztec forces, but meant that any pretence of friendship was over. Moctezuma lost all support: he was no longer a useful hostage, let alone able to continue his reign.

Cortés returned to a compound under siege. The Spaniards forced Moctezuma to make a rooftop appeal to his people, but he was pelted with rocks and most likely then murdered by the conquistadors. Bridges had been raised by the Aztecs to cut off a Spanish retreat, and provisions were low; the only choice was to escape to their allies in Tlaxcala, or die. The Spaniards left at midnight, loaded with gold, but were discovered and fiercely attacked. According to some sources, many were so laden with treas- ure that a bridge was created by bodies piling up in the canal. Overall, around 860 Spanish soldiers, five Spanish women and more than 1,000 Tlaxcalan warriors lost their lives.

Moctezuma has been vilified for his so-called ‘weak’ leadership, but La Noche Triste shows how sound his decision was to invite the conquistadors into the city. Contained within Tenochtitlan and reliant upon the Aztecs’ hospitality, the Spaniards’ powers were limited. It’s also important to remember that the indigenous allies were crucial; not only in military terms, but also to the Spaniards’ ability to recover, regroup and return to lay siege to the Aztec capital the following year. In fact, we can question whether the conquistadors were mere players in a war between indigenous rivals.

Amy Fuller is a lecturer in the history of the Americas at Nottingham Trent University

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This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine

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