The Mexico Podcast: History & Present











October 2015
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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.


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The people of Tenochtitlan were starting to feel the effects of a virus that had only recently been introduced to the population. And it has to be considered one of the major contributing factors that led to the fall of the city. Here, I’ll quote from Miguel Leon Portilla’s translation of an Aztec account of Tenochtitlan suffering smallpox:


“It lasted for seventy days, striking everywhere in the city and killing a vast number of our people. Sores erupted on our faces, our breasts, our bellies. No one could walk or move. The sick were so utterly helpless they could only lie on their beds like corpses, unable to move their limbs or even their heads. They could not lie face down or roll from one side to the other. If they did move, they screamed with pain.”

At first they cremated the bodies. Later on, so many people died that they gave up and just dumped them in the lake. When women contracted the disease, they got too sick to grind corn and cook, resulting in a severe food shortage. The emperor, Cuitlahuac, also grew ill.


The Aztecs had no knowledge of smallpox and, unlike the Spanish, no immunity against it. Their desperate remedies did nothing to stop the spread of what they called The Great Rash. They covered the wounds with obsidian powder and wrapped them in casts. To stop nosebleeds they put stones into nostrils. One remedy actually made things much worse. Steam baths, usually a treatment for sickness, were the perfect medium for passing the disease. I mean think about it: a dark, hot, wet environment. If you wanted to engineer the perfect smallpox-spreading weapon, you would just put people inside a big sauna for a couple minutes.


The virus made people so weak that they couldn’t get up to look for food, so they died of hunger in their beds. Many of those who survived were left paralyzed and blinded. The emperor Cuitlahuac died of smallpox on December 4, 1520.


Some estimates claim that half the city died. In the 16TH century alone (according to an estimate in Charles C Mann’s book 1491) as many as 100 million natives in the Americas may have died, from disease alone. To put that in other terms, it was roughly one in every five people on Earth.


Remember that Tenochtitlan at that time (as well as today) was one of the largest cities in the world. And activity there ground to a halt with so many infected. And that was just inside the metropolis. It also brought down the kings of nearby regions called Chalco, Cholula, and Tacuba. The Spanish, meanwhile, were all but immune to it, most of them were exposed to it as kids.





Enjoying his new found position of power over a mostly leaderless region, Cortes took time to write new legal documents solidifying his authority over Mexico (at least according to Spanish law). He wrote letters to King Carlos of Spain in an effort to preempt any legal actions against him (by, for example, Diego Velazquez, his direct superior).


Cortes even suggested a name for the landmass. He called it, redundantly, New Spain of the Ocean Sea. (Maybe “New Spain of the Ocean” was already taken.) He sent ships to procure supplies from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. He sent one of his captains, Sandoval, to crush the towns of Jalacingo and Zauta in the same way they had done in Tepeaca.


More slaves were kidnapped, and although the women were given to the soldiers to rape at their leisure the soldiers complained that they only got the old and ugly women, while the captains kept the best-looking ones for themselves.


So Cortes suggested a solution: the women would be sold to his men. The women they most desired fetched the highest price.


He spent Christmas 1520 in Tlaxcala, where the leaders asked him to help name a successor to Maxixcatzin, who had, also died of smallpox. Cortes chose one of the dead ruler’s sons and made him a knight. It was, perhaps, the first such act in the Americas. The son was baptized, as was Xicotenga the Elder, and both converted to Catholicism.


The shipbuilding was moving on schedule and the workers were highly dedicated to the project. Martin Lopez had, by now, invested his own money in it.





In Tenochtitlan the Aztec council had chosen a new emperor, a man in his early 20s who worshiped Huitzilopochtli, opposed any concessions to Christianity or the Spanish, and who according to one Aztec codex threw the stone that killed Moctezuma. (That last one seems unlikely to me, but what do I know?) His name was Cuauhtemoc, and he would be the last Aztec emperor.


Cuauhtemoc had proven himself during the battles of Tenochtitlan and he got to work right away. He sent spies to report on the Spaniards’ conditions and activities, he started fortifying the city and digging caves for ambushes. The lances lifted from the corpses of Spanish soldiers were adapted as anti-cavalry weapons. Cuauhtemoc made attempts at diplomacy, too, by sending gifts and making appeals to nearby tribes and cities, but centuries of Aztec domination, combined with fear of Spanish wrath, kept many cities from participating fully.





Meanwhile Cortes organized his own army. He had 550 foot soldiers, including 80 rifle- and crossbowmen and 10,000 Tlaxcalan soldiers. Another 70 thousand would stay behind and march if called upon.


In a speech to his men, he once again mentioned his deity and the righteousness of their cause. Then, he again paradoxically declared the Aztec nation to be vassals of Spain and in rebellion against their rightful leaders. Futhermore, he added, they had killed Spanish citizens and therefore required a quote “great whipping and punishment” unquote. His logic nonetheless rallied his troops.


He read a list of proclamations. Newly prohibited activities included blaspheming Cortes’s preferred god, gambling (unless one happened to be in Cortes’s private quarters), rape, insulting friendly indians, using indians as gifts, taking their clothes, doing violence against them, and pillaging their towns… unless one had Cortes’s permission. The list was, clearly, written so that Cortes could do anything he wanted. It reminds me of something my dad wrote when he was about 5 (and my grandma framed it and stuck in the bathroom, of all places). 

“This letter makes NAME REDACTED a member of the Sly Spy’s club. He can be doing anything he wants.” 


This is where I show my obvious historical biases. I’m gonna give my father the benefit of the doubt. Unlike Cortes, I don’t think the 5 year old author had genocide on the brain when he penned his declaration.


Cortes’s last commandment rule prohibited taking any gold or slaves for oneself. Breaking that rule was punishable by hanging.


The Spanish marched at the end of December. Their destination was the Aztec capital. At one point they came across a roadblock. The Aztecs had cut down trees to stop the army’s advance. The soldiers expected an ambush, so they cleared the debris nervously and continued marching. There was no attack. They entered the Valley of Mexico and saw smoke signals rise in the distance. Cortes told his men that they would not turn back until they had taken the city or died in the attempt. 


The trail narrowed and passed by a waterfall. Farther along, a large squadron of Aztecs waited for them, but the native army scattered when 15 cavalrymen charged, impaling some. They passed through a ravine and heard local inhabitants yelling insults at them from above. But it seems they passed through without incident.


At the village of Coatepec, they were welcomed by the King of Texcoco’s brother. The man was unhappy about his brother being chosen to rule, AND Texcoco was demanding tribute from Coatepec. Tribute, basically, means gold, and victims for sacrifice. He was glad to see Cortes and said he could offer gold and support. He would even march beside Cortes when he took Texcoco.


On December 31, they met with chieftains of other local villages, who apologized for the resistance Cortes faced while passing through the Valley of Mexico. Cuahtemoc had ordered the attacks, they said. The leader of their own city desired peace and friendship, and they had friends in Texcoco who would receive them as allies.


The Aztec empire was made up of what’s called the Aztec Triple Alliance. Three kingdoms had united to rule vast portions of Mexico. The kingdoms were Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tacuba. Tenochtitlan was the most powerful of the three, but Texcoco was vital to Cortes’s plans.


Texcoco was the second most populated city of the Triple Alliance, but the Spanish and Tlaxcalan army found the suburbs nearly empty. Bernal Diaz and other captains climbed to the top of the city’s pyramid and found out why. The lake was filled with canoes and the streets were clogged with people. Everyone was fleeing. They were going into the woods.


Cortes was furious,. He’d been deceived, so his men smashed idols, burned buildings, and rounded up the remaining families. They were branded with the cattle iron and sold as slaves.


He considered his situation. The lords of Texcoco had fled, meaning, at the very least, they would not ally with him against Tenochtitlan. On the other hand he had taken Texcoco without losing a single man, or even facing resistance. The city was now without visible rulers, so he installed a boy called Tecocol as de facto king. Two months later the boy would… mysteriously and, conveniently die. His position would fall to to Ixtlilxochitl, the brother of Texcoco’s fleeing king.


The Spanish explored the nearly-vacant city. I’ll quote Buddy Levy here:

“Cortes and his men encountered a magnificence that nearly rivaled that of neighboring Tenochtitlan, with remarkable botanical gardens, an outdoor theater for public performances, a music hall, a ball court, a zoo, and a great market (which was closed). The nobles’ houses were immaculate timbered buildings built on high wooden pylons, with terraces overlooking the lake.”


 A few days later, chiefs from three local tribute villages arrived, saying they had participated in the evacuation of the area, but now they begged Cortes for forgiveness. They said they would submit to Spanish authority.


Cortes then did something that might surprise you: he gave them a pardon, on the condition that they return to their cities and bring the women and children back home. Within a few days people started returning. People came back to Texcoco as well, and the city returned to a semblance of normalcy.


Cuauhtemoc knew that nearby cities had been forging alliances with the Spanish, so he sent messengers to win them back. But the messengers were captured and brought to Cortes, who told them to go back to their leader and warn him to bow down before Spain or face the destruction and death.


Cortes got no response, so he mounted a reconnaissance mission to Iztapalapa, an important Aztec city south of Tenochtitlan. Captain Sandoval would stay in Texcoco, in command of about 4000 Tlaxcalans and 350 Spanish.


Cortes took roughly 7000 indigenous soldiers and porters and 200 Spanish soldiers. They went with cavalry, marching south. Smoke signals again filled the air. The Aztecs organized themselves quickly and launched minor attacks, but they were ineffective. When the Spanish got to Iztapalapa, it was far from empty.


The island city was kept above water by a dike. The Spanish entered the city, killed large numbers, and expelled the rest of the situation.


Shortly before, the Aztecs had smashed a part of the dyke. The streets were filling with water.


Chiefs from Texcoco went to Iztapalapa with Cortes, though — and they knew what was happening. They advised an immediate retreat. The army met light resistance on the way out and the Spanish, as always, lit buildings on fire. (That’s a curious way to spend time in a city that’s being flooded.) At one point, apparently Ixtlilxochitl fought a duel with a rival and, later, burned him to death.


When they escaped and took stock of their situation, many Mexican allies had drowned and one Spaniard. Most of the gunpowder was too wet to use, so they left it behind. They spent the night hungry, soaking, and cold, but alive. They had planned to spend the night in the city, but clearly that plan had been scotched.


In the morning they retreated to Texcoco, fighting most of the way back. The Aztecs viewed it as a victory since their own battle tactics were, once you gained a position you didn’t retreat willingly. Retreat was equal to failure.


Cortes spent the next few days gaining more allies. The Otomi apologized for their role in earlier attacks, saying the Aztecs forced them to fight. Messages came from Chalco, too. They would ally with the Spanish if Cortes would help drive the Aztecs from their city. Cuauhtemoc had set up a military outpost in Chalco and was forcing them to support Tenochtitlan.


Cortes agreed and sent a force to battle the Aztecs. Cuauhtemoc’s soldiers tried to use their retrofitted Spanish lances against Sandoval’s cavalry charges, but they got crushed. As they retreated, Sandoval sent his men after them, killing everyone they could. Then the combined Spanish and Mexican army fought their way into Chalco, eventually taking the plaza and driving out the Aztecs.


As I said before, Tlaxcala gets a lot of scorn for allying with Cortes, but what other option did they have? They had been under the thumb of a greedy empire for a long time, and the foreigners offered something that must have seemed like an escape from tyranny. If you’re gonna play the blame game, I think certainly the Spanish take the lion’s share, but the Aztec empire fostered so much dissent and dissatisfaction among the tribes of Mexico, and they gained enough enemies, that they probably created the perfect conditions to ensure their own destruction. 


When the fighting ended, Sandoval was told that the king of Chalco had recently died of smallpox, leaving behind two sons. Sandoval brought them back to Texcoco with him.


On a side note, long ago that same king had allegedly predicted that one day Mexico would be ruled by bearded men coming from the direction of the rising sun. When he saw the Spanish, he knew he was right. I don’t know whether that’s actually true. And whatever I say about it could easily get me in trouble. If I say it seems false, then I’m gonna get yelled at by people accusing me of trying to rewrite history.

(They’re, of course, forgetting that these histories have already been rewritten… by the Spanish. I’ll then be accused by the other side of “not respecting the prophecies of an old religion.” But if I say I believe the story, then everybody gets mad all over again for different reasons. There’s no winning.)


This is the same issue that comes up when you talk about the omens that supposedly predicted the arrival of the Spanish, and the issue of whether Moctezuma believed Cortes was actually the god Quetzalcoatl. So going one way or the other on this also puts me at odds with just about everyone on all sides of this history.


A lot of the native accounts were written decades after the events actually happened and a lot of them were written by Spain’s native allies: old enemies of the Aztecs. When I use the term Aztec Codex or quote from Aztec Sources, realize that it’s hard… sometimes impossible, to tell who actually wrote any given codex or who originally told some given oral history. Just because something is called an Aztec Codex doesn’t mean it’s an official history sanctioned by Moctezuma or Cuitlahuac or Cuauhtemoc (in which case it would be just as suspect as anything written by the Spanish).


Even the word Aztec itself has a complicated history. It didn’t really come into heavy use until the 1800s thanks to western historians. The Aztecs might have called themselves something like the Mexica. The name of the country, Mexico, comes from the mexica.


Let’s get back to Chalco, now kingless. But with two princes. Cortes made one of the two boys Chalco’s new king. The other son would rule twonearby cities.


In late January 1521, Cortes ordered Sandoval to check on… let’s call it Project Warship… back in Tlaxcala. He told Sandoval that, on the way, there was an Aztec village called Zultepec that had killed 45 Spaniards the year before. Cortes wanted revenge.


Sandoval took the city easily, and some locals showed him to the temple at the top of the pyramid. The walls were smeared with Spanish blood. A message had been written in charcoal:

“Here was imprisoned the unfortunate Juan Yuste and many others of his company.”


The 45 Spanish soldiers had indeed been killed here. The faces of two had been flayed and stretched out in front of Aztec statues. Sandoval blamed the Aztecs for the killings, but he took some of the locals as slaves anyway — the word “irony” was probably not in his vocabulary.


He pardoned Zultepec and some surrounding villages on the condition that they submit to the king of Spain. The chiefs agreed — almost certainly out of fear. They knew the repercussions would be harsh if they rejected. They were also angry at the Aztecs for trying to rule them.


And this takes us again to the issue of native politics before, during, and after the Spanish Conquest. These people weren’t just defenseless tribes getting steamrolled by conquerors (although there certainly was a lot of steamrolling going on). They were making calculated decisions by joining one side or the other. Some groups thought it was best to flee and let the apocalyptic forces destroy each other. The chiefs of the region made their calculations and got ready for war.


When Sandoval finally got to Project Warship HQ in Tlaxcala, all the ships had been completed. Project Lead Martin Lopez had built a dam in the river, where he floated the ships and checked them for seaworthiness. After being deemed worthy, each ship was dismantled and organized into neat piles.


Think about that labor for a minute. Nearby tribes cut down trees and hauled them to the build site. Martin Lopez and his Spanish and native laborers cut the logs into enough pieces for 13 warships. They built a dam and put each individual ship together and checked it and then took it apart again.


And then they loaded up all 13 ships. Ten thousand Tlaxcalans would carry the pieces while another 10 thousand guarded them, ready for ambushes along the road.


Cortes knew Project Warship was the key to his entire campaign against Tenochtitlan, so the caravan was heavily guarded while en route.


They marched for four days through forests and mountain passes, stopping only at night. The wooden serpent, as the Aztecs called it, stretched for five miles. Every day Sandoval expected an attack, but none came. When the head of the serpent reached Texcoco, it took half a day for the line of people to file in and set down their cargo.


With that done, the next phase of Project Warship began. For two months 40,000 men dug a canal and buttressed it with giant slabs of wood to prevent a cave-in. The canal was 12 ft wide, 12 ft deep, and a mile long.

Cortes was impressed, but he had work to do. The city of Xaltocan had caught his attention. Cuauhtemoc still had many allies to the north, and Cortes wanted to make them his.


After hearing mass Cortes left with 250 soldiers, 30 horsemen, quote many musketeers and crossbowmen and all the Tlaxcalans unquote (whatever that means). The captains Alvarado and Olid — as well as a company of warriors from Texcoco — went with.


They got near Xaltocan and faced a large group of enemy soldiers. The Spanish fired on them before charging with the cavalry. The enemy fled into the bush and were pursued on foot by “our friends the Tlaxcalans” who killed or captured about 30 of them.


Xaltocan was, like the Aztec capital, surrounded by water, and the next morning the Aztecs attacked from across the canals, wounding 10 Spaniards and “many” Tlaxcalans.


A few days earlier the bridges had been demolished by hand to keep the Spanish out. There wasn’t much Cortes’s men could do. They fired upon the shielded canoes, though they didn’t do much damage. Diaz writes that the soldiers cursed the town and:

 “were half ashamed because the Mexicans and townspeople shouted at them and called them women and said that Malinche was a woman too, and that his only bravery was in deceiving them with stories and lies.”


In many of the Spanish accounts of the time, Malinche is called Lord Malinche and referred to using masculine pronouns. So, really, Diaz is doing the same thing the Aztecs are doing. And it strikes the modern mind as ridiculous: Hey! You’re all women, and so is that woman with you. She’s a woman too! 


While this was going on, 2 of their native allies had found a way into the city. The Spanish followed them, wading through waist-deep water. The enemy saw this and put up heavy resistance, but couldn’t keep them out. The Spanish and Tlaxcalans got in. Before long the citizens fled in their canoes. Cortes’s men burned down some buildings (because why not) and left after looting whatever gold they could find.


The next day they came to a village that had been abandoned right before they had arrived. They slept there, and Diaz says all the property had been carried off by the villagers. Then they came to another abandoned village, and another, and then they got to a city close to Tenochtitlan, called Tacuba. 


If you recall, Tacuba is the same city they fled to on the Noche Triste. This time they clashed with a large host of Aztecs and various allies, but eventually the enemy retreated. Diaz says that the next day the Aztecs attacked in even greater numbers, killing several. Again, the Spanish drove them back and eventually entered the city and burned down some buildings. When that news reached Cuauhtemoc in the capital, he sent even more men.


At one point the Aztecs ordered a false retreat, luring the Spanish onto a causeway and ambushing them. About five of the Spanish were killed and many were injured. Aztec and Tlaxcalan casualties are unknown. Cortes ordered a retreat, and they fought the whole way back. After a while the enemy gave up and the Spanish made it to camp. They fought in Tacuba for five days, and then left for Texcoco.


Cortes had been gone for 2 weeks and when he got back his men had news. A number of villages near Veracruz had allied with them. Plus, reinforcements had arrived from Cuba. Cortes now had 200 more men, 60 horses, and lots of gunpowder, swords, crossbows, and firearms.


There was more news: The ship Cortes had sent last fall had arrived in Spain and its crew had spoken with the king, informing him of Cortes’s efforts and… “discoveries”… Also, their mission in Mexico was a favorite topic of conversation in Cuba and the Dominican Republic.


Hearing the news, Cortes then sent another ship bearing what little treasure he had managed to collect as well as artifacts from the region including large mammoth bones. Spanish scientists concluded that clearly, these were the bones of men who stood 25 feet tall.


But discontent still brewed among some of the soldiers. There was another conspiracy against Cortes. Another mutiny. And this one would lead to blood.

Direct download: fall_4_2018.mp3
Category:Podcast -- posted at: 2:53pm EDT