The Mexico Podcast: History & Present











February 2020
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In Texcoco, discontent brewed among Cortes’ men. There was a conspiracy against him. The plot was to kill him and all his captains while they were in a meeting and then sail for Cuba. Cortes found out about the plot and confronted the leader (a man called Villafaña) and found a letter signed by about 300 co-conspirators. In the confrontation he took the letter, but told his men Villafaña had swallowed it before he could read the names. This strategy ensured that he could keep an eye on the ones who signed it, while at the same time putting them at ease.


As a message, Villafaña was hanged. Cortes then used a full time bodyguard and slept in his armor at night.


As spring began, a rumor circulated that an army was near Chalco, organizing an attack. Cortes sent Sandoval to drive them out.


As Sandoval got closer to the village he sent messages advising the leaders to leave peacefully rather than die in battle. As a response, the Aztecs sent a hail of stones and darts.


The Aztec encampment was at the top of a hill, which the Spanish stormed. The Aztecs sent boulders tumbling down. Sandoval was struck in the head during the charge, but his forces made it to the plateau, where the men fought to throw each other over the slopes. Eventually the Spanish won the struggle and returned victoriously to Texcoco.


In response to this humiliating defeat, Cuauhtemoc ordered reprisals against the villagers for having helped the enemy. Twenty thousand soldiers marched against the village. Chalco sent for Cortes's help.


When Cortes found out that that his men had left without ensuring the village's safety, he yelled at them and ordered Sandoval to return and defend Chalco.


Before Sandoval could get there, though, the villagers had mounted a successful defense and had sent the Aztecs running. Cortes took this as a sign that the enemy was slipping and losing their control over the region.


Sandoval returned again to Texcoco with 40 slaves, and, as they had in the past, the soldiers complained that the good-looking women had been hidden and kept for the captains.


The Aztecs were interrogated and they told Cortes that Cuauhtemoc would take no prisoners. All the Spanish would be killed.


Cortes decided to gain control of an even greater swath of Mexico, so he planned to circumnavigate the region and win more allies. They rode out, leaving Texcoco. First they stopped at a city called Chimalhuacan, where nearly 40,000 local warriors joined them.


Later they came upon a hilltop fortress. The base of the mountain was about three miles around and the Aztec soldiers above, as always, threw stones and spears down at them, shouting insults.


Cortes ordered his army to scale the face of the mountain. He sent about 60 soldiers up the steepest section, supported from below by rifles and crossbows. The Aztecs pushed boulders down at the climbing team.


Bernal Diaz writes that about eight of them were killed in the attempt, having been crushed by boulders. Many of them were injured. All were extremely thirsty. After far too long, Cortes called off the assault.


They hadn't had any water for the entire day, and when they went to sleep under the stars, they were “half dead with thirst.” The Aztecs in their fortress shouted down at them and played drums and trumpets all night.


The next morning a scout found water three miles away. After the horses had been watered, they again attempted to scale the mountain, this time trying the more gradual slopes. The fighting lasted for about half an hour.


Aztec women started waving cloaks in the air and making signs with their hands indicating they were willing to bake bread for the Spanish.


So Cortes met with a few chiefs, scolding them for fighting, but saying that they would be forgiven since now they sought peace. He said that if they refused, the Spanish would wait until the men on the hilltop died of thirst. They all knew they were in a neighborhood, as Diaz calls it, with hardly any water.


After the chat, Cortes ordered a few men to climb the hill anyway and check out the fortifications. He warned them not to take so much as a grain of corn from the area.


When they got to the top, Diaz found boxes of things he thought would be sent as tribute to Cuauhtemoc, so he told his Tlaxcalan porters to load it up. When a superior officer saw this, he reprimanded Diaz, reminding him of Cortes’ words.


Diaz said that taking the items in question would not violate Cortes’ orders, but he was outranked and forced to return the items.


When they got back to camp, Cortes yelled at the officer for not letting Diaz take the stuff with.


The Spanish army stayed there for 2 days. The wounded were sent to rest and recover at Texcoco while Cortes and his men continued their reconnaissance mission. Along the way they passed through Oaxtepec, which was famous throughout Mexico for its luxurious botanical gardens. It was a place built by Moctezuma's father (also called Moctezuma). Mexico's political elite vacationed there.


Levy describes the city nicely and I'll quote him here so you can get a sense of the place.


            “Cortes was received warmly. He found himself amid what were arguably the finest botanical gardens in the world. Resplendent summer homes sprawled over miles of spring-fed countryside; small streams meandered through the city punctuated by lovely ponds. Cortes was impressed, choosing to rest there for a day. “There are summer houses spaced out at distances of two crossbow shots,” he recorded for his emperor, “and very bright flower beds, a great many trees with various fruits, and many herbs and sweet-smelling flowers. Certainly the elegance and magnificence of this garden make a remarkable sight.”


Diaz wrote that he had never seen a place as beautiful. Cortes and another Spaniard agreed that there was nothing so beautiful in Spain.


After spending the night there, they struck out for Cuernavaca. (In Nahua, the Aztec language, it was called Cuauhnahuac, but the Spanish mispronounced it so often that they just renamed it, and the mistake became the new official name.)


They marched for two days before reaching the outskirts. Cuernavaca was – and still is – a wealthy city, surrounded and protected by deep ravines. The only way in or out was via two bridges, both of which had been raised to keep the Spanish away. Cortes later claimed that if the inhabitants had put up a fight to keep them out, he wouldn't have been able to get it even with 10 times the men he had.


Bernal Diaz noticed a place in the ravine where two trees grew on opposite sides of the gorge. The trees bent toward one another. One of the Tlaxcalan soldiers began climbing the tree. He approached the center of the ravine, and jumped. He grabbed a branch on the second tree and was standing on the other side a moment later. Others followed.


Most who made the attempt got across unharmed, but three of them lost their grip and fell into the river below. One of them broke a leg.


The army split up. Diaz and some foot soldiers crossed via the trees while Cortes took the cavalry to find another way into Cuernavaca. They found an alternate passage and fought their way across. Another group of cavalrymen found a dilapidated bridge and crossed it. Eventually all the soldiers regrouped. They faced resistance but when they got to the center of the city, it was empty. Almost everyone had fled.


The chiefs apologized for having fought the Spanish, but said the Aztecs forced them. They agreed to an allegiance with Cortes who subjected them to the usual legal mumbo jumbo that the chiefs may or may not have agreed to simply to be spared an otherwise certain death. In Cortes's mind, Cuernavaca and all its people were now property of Spain.


After Cuernavaca they headed north and back toward Tenochtitlan to the city of Xochimilco, which today is a borough of Mexico City. It was a town built on the water, somewhat like Tenochtitlan. It's a series of small, island-like mounds of earth called chinampas.


As Cortes approached, the Aztecs threw darts and spears, retreating often and drawing the Spanish closer to the city. They fought across the causeway, experiencing a terrifying replay of the night they fled the capital city.


Cortes was pulled from his horse, but the Aztecs who nearly had his life in their hands made a tactical mistake. Rather than killing him on the spot, and thereby dealing a serious blow to Spanish morale, they dragged him off for sacrifice. Seeing this, two soldiers – one Tlaxcalan and the other Spanish – hacked their way through the mob surrounding their leader.


They saved his life, but a number of Spanish and allied soldiers did not survive the battle. Many were taken captive, to be sacrificed. Cuauhtemoc himself personally dismembered the corpses. Their limbs were paraded through Tenochtitlan and the surrounding provinces as a message: We are still in control and we are defeating the invaders.


That night the Spanish took shelter behind a barricaded wall, pouring hot oil onto their wounds. The crossbowmen built new arrows and the Tlaxcalans constructed a makeshift bridge to get out of the city at dawn. The causeway bridges had been removed, so this was their only hope of escape.


In the morning Cortes went to the top of the pyramid to assess the situation. What he saw must have filled him with dread. The lake was filled with warriors in canoes. They were paddling toward Xochimilco.


A messenger ran to Cortes, telling him an additional force of 10,000 warriors was closing in on foot.


Cuauhtemoc's army was making a play to end the Spaniards, who fought again to get across the bridge. They made it to land, leaving Xochimilco burning and destroyed.


On April 18, after three days of continuous mobile fighting, Cortes and company got to Coyoacan, about 17 miles away. Can you guess how they found it? Yep, abandoned.


From there, they continued the forced march back to Texcoco. On the way they lost two young pages and several soldiers in the fighting. They had been taken alive, almost certainly to be sacrificed.


The army returned from their mission on April 22, 1521. The campaign had lasted three weeks and had left an unknown number of Tlaxcalans and Spanish dead. Nearly everyone was badly injured.


One of Cortes's captains rode out to meet them. He had news: reinforcements had come. Fresh weapons, soldiers, and horses were in Texcoco. Furthermore, Project Warship had been completed and the men awaited his orders. They were ready to deploy.


In Tenochtitlan, Cuauhtemoc met with his captains and military architects. He knew Cortes would launch several large ships against him, so he ordered the architects to build traps under the surface of Lake Texcoco. Thousands of canoes were to be improved: wooden shields would be attached to them, offering protection against arrows and bullets.


The emperor wanted to mobilize as many soldiers as possible inside the city, but he didn't get nearly the numbers he called for. Tenochtitlan had already been ravaged by smallpox during the previous winter, and now the city was facing a food shortage.


Cortes's recent campaign to encircle the Aztec capital had caused a number of villages to abandon Cuahtemoc. Without a constant stream of tribute payments in the form of food from these cities, the Aztecs wouldn't have enough to feed everyone. The problems of urbanization are eternal.


It was planting season and a lot of the men who Cuauhtemoc wanted to mobilize as soldiers were farmers.


Cortes's soldiers usually faced overwhelming numbers, but even the men who weren't actually soldiers – probably the majority – still had steel armor and steel swords. They also employed steel-clad dogs along with muskets and cannons.


The Aztec farmer-soldiers set up defenses, digging pits in the ground, filling them with spikes, and covering the holes with planks and dirt.


But the Aztecs did have some dedicated warriors. The most highly revered were eagle and jaguar knights. The eagle knights wore feathered helmets with large beaks. The jaguar knights wore the pelts of jaguars. Their heads looked out from the animal's mouth. These men had attained the highest military rank attainable. They got their either through birth or by taking captives in battle.


As Cuauhtemoc made plans with his knights, Cortes made plans with his own officers. Fifty thousand arrowheads had been delivered to the Spanish by local villages. The crossbowmen made them into arrows. Blacksmiths pounded new horseshoes and swords and lances. The cavalrymen practiced wargames with the horses.


On April 28 they held mass and watched the warships launch. But this wasn't battle yet. The ships performed training and test missions for three weeks. With every test, each ship was checked for leaks and defects.


Cortes requested 20,000 soldiers from Xicotenga the Elder back in Tlaxcala and while he awaited reply the Spanish gathered in the town square. Cortes inspected them. He had 86 horsemen, 118 rifle and crossbowmen, and 700 foot soldiers. Some estimates, the more conservative ones, say that there might have been almost 200,000 indigenous allies as well. Those allied divisions gathered outside the city, and when they filed in, the train of soldiers lasted three hours.


As requested, the forces from Tlaxcala had arrived, led by Xicotenga the Younger. But, on the final night before the assault on Tenochtitlan, he left. His father was gravely ill and he saw an opportunity to declare himself the new leader.


Cortes viewed this as a desertion and ordered a group of Tlaxcalans to catch him and bring him back. When they rode into Texcoco with him as prisoner, he was hanged in the square as a message: all deserters would meet the same fate.


The last part of the plan before the main assault was to cut off the city entirely. The Spanish soldiers were divided into four divisions that would move in on foot. One division would take control of the causeway at Tacuba while two more divisions took two more causeways. Once those three groups were in place, Cortes's division – the warships – would sail onto the lake and surround the city. This four-pronged assault would leave Tenochtitlan cut off from food, water, and trade.


After hearing mass on May 22, Cortes gave a last speech to his men. He spoke about god and country and king and honor, etc. A crier addressed them on the rules of engagement. When all that was done, the ground division set off to take the causeways. It had been months in the making and had involved feats unprecedented in military history, but now – as the men marched to their destinations – the siege of Tenochtitlan had begun.


Direct download: fall_5_2018.mp3
Category:Podcast -- posted at: 6:47pm EST

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