Published Date

May 1, 2004

Resource Type

Primary Source

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

From Hernán Cortés, Cartas y relaciones de Hernan Cortés al emperador Carlos V, third letter, 319–21.

From that tower I surveyed the portions of the city that had fallen into our hands, comprising without doubt seven eighths of the whole; and seeing that it was not possible for so many people to subsist in such a narrow space, especially as the houses that remained to them were small, and every one placed by itself on the water; and above all, considering the great famine that prevailed amongst them of’ which the half-eaten roots and bark of trees that we found in the streets afforded ample proof; I determined to discontinue hostilities for some days, and to offer some conditions by which so great a multitude might be saved from destruction; and as it certainly occasioned me much sorrow and regret to continue to harass them, I constantly urged them to make terms of peace. But they declared that they would not by any means accept them, and that the only thing left for them was to die with arms in their hands; that we should have nothing of all they possessed, but they would burn and sink in the water every thing they had, whence it should never reappear. Thereupon, not being disposed to render evil for evil, I dissembled my feelings by forbearing to attack them.

As we had but little powder left, we had been planning for more than fifteen days the construction of a battering engine; and though I had no mechanics who knew how to make one, some carpenters undertook to construct a small machine, which I had no idea we should be able to use. In the course of a few days, during which we held the Indians in straitened quarters, we completed it, and brought it to be placed in the square of the market, on a building resembling a theatre, which is in the center of the square made of stone and mortar, about fifteen feet in height and thirty paces from angle to angle. This structure is intended to be used at their festivals and sports, so that the actors on those occasions being placed upon it may be easily seen by all the people in the market-place, both above and below the arcades. When the machine was brought there, a delay of several days took place in adapting it to its situation, during which time our Indian allies threatened the inhabitants that by means of it we should destroy them all. Had no other effect been produced by this engine but to alarm the people, which we hoped would have led to a surrender, it would have been sufficient; but no such result flowed from it, for neither the carpenters completed their design, nor were the enemy, although they feared it, induced to make any proposals of submission, arid we concealed from them the defects of the machine by pretending that out of compassion towards them we forbore to use it for their destruction.

The day after depositing the battering engine in the market-place, on entering the city, as three or four days had elapsed since the cessation of hostilities, we found the streets through which we passed filled with women, children, and other wretched objects, dying of hunger, and wandering about with distressed and haggard looks, presenting the most melancholy spectacle in the world; and I ordered our allies to do them no harm. But none of the warriors made their appearance where it was possible for them to receive any injury, though we saw them on the terraces, covered with the mantles they are accustomed to wear and without arms. I sent them this day proposals of peace, but their answers were deceptive and as they had wasted the greater part of the day in this business, I informed them that it was my intention to attack them, and desired that they would cause their people to retire, otherwise I should give our allies leave to destroy them.