Published Date

May 1, 2004

This resource was developed in 2004 as part of “The Conquest of Mexico” by Nancy Fitch.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards, many omens predicted an impending disaster. Thus, when the Mexica leader, Emperor Moctezuma II, learned of the arrival of strangers, the omens predicting destruction loomed large in his imagination. Aggravating his difficulties was the ruthlessness of his rule. Moctezuma engaged in constant warfare in order to obtain victims for human sacrifice and to perform agricultural labor and urban construction. At the same time, while he and his ancestors had constructed a large empire in Mesoamerica, they had never achieved the kind of consensus necessary to rule such a diverse population. Instead, they relied on terror, which, in turn, led to numerous revolts. When the Spaniards arrived on the coast of Mexico, many Amerindians viewed them as liberators and joined them against the Mexicas. To some degree Malinche’s personal history exemplifies the tensions that existed under Mexica rule. Raised in a Nahuatl-speaking area, she was sold or given to, or taken by, an indigenous population that spoke Chontal Mayan. She soon learned that language. Cortés found her useful because of her bilingual abilities.

Both sides tried to understand each other, fitting new things into categories that were familiar. The Mexicas had never seen horses before and initially described them as deer. The Spaniards described the people they found in this strange land, but confused unfamiliar animals with lions and tigers. They also described indigenous temples as mosques.

At first, Moctezuma refrained from attacking the Spaniards and sent emissaries with gifts to greet him. Cortés was not impressed with the gifts of quetzal feathers, among other items, and insisted on gold. He then fired his cannon to demonstrate his power to Moctezuma’s men. At this point, it appears that Moctezuma may have believed that Cortés was Quetzalcoatl, a god who had vowed to return. In any case, he was afraid. To placate his god, he sent more messengers along with victims for sacrifice. Eventually, he learned that the Spaniards had “a woman of our people,” translating for him.

In the meantime, Cortés founded a new city, Veracruz, and sunk his ships, forcing his men to stay on the continent and fight their way to the Mexica capital at Tenochtitlan. He fought many battles, lost some soldiers, but overwhelmingly defeated his indigenous opponents because of his superior weaponry. He made many allies, although he was frequently deceived by them, and he gradually learned not to trust them. After a fierce battle, he made a serious alliance with the Tlaxcalans, which would endure for most of the sixteenth century. The Tlaxcalans were relatively more disposed toward the Spanish religion than most native populations.

As Cortés marched toward the Mexica capital at Tenochtitlan, they recognized that they must climb mountains in the middle of the country. Malinche apparently heard a rumor that the men and women of Cholula were planning to attack the Spaniards. She repeated the rumor to Aguilar, who then told Cortés. When Cortés confirmed the rumor, he attacked the city and massacred its inhabitants. In both Mexica and Spanish accounts, La Malinche appears as a central figure in the massacre.

Learning of the massacre of the Cholulans, Moctezuma tries to bribe the Spaniards with gold, hoping they will take it and go back to wherever they were from. But the gold only made Cortés more eager to capture the Mexica capital. In one last, desperate attempt, Moctezuma sends sorcerers to cast a spell on the Spaniards.

Eventually, Cortés reached Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519, where he finally met Moctezuma. Sources from both sides indicate that the first meeting was a friendly encounter between two leaders who respected each other. They gave each other gifts, showed affection for one another, and Cortés promised Moctezuma via Malinche that “we are his friends.” Cortés gradually placed Moctezuma under house arrest and began to prepare for his subsequent rule. Once in control, Cortés demanded the Mexica gold, which they melted down. For several months, the Spaniards moved freely in the city, as Cortés ruled through Moctezuma.

Unfortunately, the Spaniards were also divided, so Cortés had to leave Tenochtitlan in April 1520 to head off an expedition sent by Pánfilo de Narváez who was sent by the governor of Cuba to arrest Cortés for insubordination. While he was plotting to defeat Narváez on the coast, Pedro de Alvarado, the man he had left in charge demanded to see the Mexicas celebrate the fiesta of Huitzilopochtli. The Mexicas agreed, and the Spaniards watched carefully as the Mexicas prepared to celebrate. Something happened during the festival, and before it was over, the Mexicas had completely revolted against the Spaniards.

Cortés heard news of the revolt, so returned to Tenochtitlan as soon as he had defeated Narváez. Somehow, Moctezuma had been killed, which the Mexicas learned when they found his body. And, while the Spaniards had driven the Mexicas from a temple, which they burned, the Mexicas tried to starve the Spaniards and prevent them from leaving their quarters. Eventually, with help from Narváez’s soldiers, Cortés tried to rescue his men, but lost two-thirds of them and most of his horses when he escaped from the city on the night of June 30, 1520, known in Spanish as La Noche Triste or the Night of Sorrows.  It would take the Spaniards months to rebuild their army with Indian allies before they were able to reconquer Tenochtitlan for the final time.