"When we gazed upon all this splendor at once, we scarcely knew what to think, and we doubted whether all that we beheld was real. A series of large towns stretched themselves along the banks of the lake, out of which still larger ones rose magnificently above the waters. Innumerable crowds of canoes were plying everywhere around us; at regular distances we continually passed over new bridges, and before us lay the great city of Mexico in all its splendor." Those are the words of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish soldier, upon first seeing the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519. At the time, the Aztec Empire was the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdom of all time, with 80,000 square miles of territory and some 15 million inhabitants. Just 2 years later, the empire would crumble, utterly defeated by European forces staking a claim for Spain. But did you know, the leader of this exploit, Hernán Cortés, had defied Spanish authority and run off to conquer the Aztecs with less than 500 soldiers? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix, where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. This week we’re talking about the defeat of the Aztec Empire by Spanish forces in 1521. This seems like an inspiring underdog story. Less than 500 men? Wow! How? What an incredible feat. Well, I hate to burst your bubble but I want to make it clear from the very start that this episode will not be glorifying Cortés or any of his actions. But on the flip side, I’m not going to be glorifying the Aztecs either. This story involves two villainous forces colliding and, unfortunately leaving a trail destruction in their wake that has carried on to the modern day. So, this story does not have a happy ending. But it is super interesting and there are so very many misconceptions and just really false narratives to address. So here we go.
Let’s go to Mexico first. Before the rise of the Aztecs, there were many different indigenous groups living in the area that is today Mexico and Central America. By the mid 1400s, the Aztecs had conquered many of their neighbors and formed an alliance with two other cities in the region, Texcoco and Tlacopan. This was called the triple alliance. But eventually the Aztecs dominated the alliance and really ruled alone over a collection of groups with different languages and cultures. The Aztec capital was called Tenochtitlan and it was located in modern day Mexico City, beneath modern day Mexico City really. This is where the Aztec emperor controlled the empire, receiving tribute from 489 different tribal communities. The Aztecs were fierce warriors and accomplished engineers, artisans, and agriculturalists. Their city was incredible. It was super advanced and really quite shocking to the Europeans who expected to find nothing but savages in this untamed “New World.”
When the Spanish first arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519, it had around 300,000 residents. It was situated on a man made island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. So that says a lot. A freaking man made island 500 years ago. There are no bulldozers and whatever you even use to make islands these days. We’re talking about some serious ingenuity, technological advances, and just pure man power. Tenochtitlan was the central hub of the empire with gardens, palaces, temples, and raised roads with bridges that connected the city to the mainland. I’m getting Atlantis vibes for real. The Spanish were in awe of what they saw.
Now let’s go to Spain. What’s happening in Spain. Well in 1492 the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella sent Italian explorer Christopher Columbus to discover a westward route to India. Because spices are a big deal. Spices are yummy right? And that makes them valuable. I guess, whatever. It’s too hard to get to India over land. They’re like “it's just over there, just on the other side of that water. You got this.” No, but he did stumble upon the American continents which would become much more of a treasure than Spain ever thought possible, in the most horrendous way possible.
When Columbus was setting off on this grand adventure, Hernán Cortés was just 7 years old. The son of noble parents though not overly wealthy, Cortés was later described by his secretary as ruthless, haughty, mischievous, and quarrelsome. So, yeah I don’t know, those aren’t great adjectives.
Cortés was sent to study law at the age of 14 but found it way boring (as any 14 year old would) and craved adventure. He was fascinated by the tales he’d heard of Christopher Columbus in the “New World” and when he was 19 he set off himself towards the Caribbean. Eventually he joined up with Diego Velázquez and helped him conquer Cuba which was then occupied by at least two major Native American groups, the Taíno and the Guanahatabey. I’m just going to do my best with the pronunciation, please forgive me. Cortés became the mayor of Santiago which was the capital of Cuba before Havana. He then purchased enslaved people and forced them to work the land he had acquired, making him quite rich. Haughty indeed.
But being mayor of stolen territory and owning human beings still wasn’t enough for power hungry Cortés. He convinced Velázquez, who was now the governor of Cuba, to let him go on a plundering mission to Mexico on the mainland. He wanted to claim more land for Spain, convert the indigenous people to Christianity, and take all their gold and riches. But really, he wanted to earn himself some honor and glory as a great conquistador. At first Velázquez is like “Ok, I mean I guess.” But later he changes his mind and cancels the mission like “I don’t know man your way too haughty and quarrelsome, I don’t see this going well.”
But Cortés does not take no for an answer. In 1519 he organizes his own crew of 450ish soldiers, 100 sailors, and 16 horses and sets off. So he’s gone rogue. He’s completely defying the orders of the governor and therefore the king. There are accounts that, upon arriving on the southeastern coast of Mexico, which he names Veracruz, there are accounts that Cortés burns all his ships so that his men can’t turn back. But that’s probably totally false. I mean that would be really dumb right? In reality, he most likely dismantled them and carried any valuable parts with him to repurpose later.
So let’s just pause there for a minute. The Spanish have knowledge of the Aztec Empire. They’ve glimpsed it, at least in bits and pieces, throughout their exploring. Cortés knows what he’s up against. So what the heck? What does this guy think he’s going to accomplish with 450 soldiers and 16 horses? There’s no backup coming. He’s not even supposed to be doing this. He’s basically a traitor at this point, a mutineer. Well, he has a particular strategy in mind.
You see, the way the Aztecs rose to power, the way they maintained their dominance over all of these different indigenous groups would end up being their greatest weakness. They demanded tribute. That’s how they stayed on top. All of these different groups had to pay tribute to the emperor in Tenochtitlan, financially, but also with human lives cause human sacrifice for religious ceremony was a thing. They had to pay - with money and with lives - or face serious punishment. This is not a peaceful society. Cortés knows there’s trouble in paradise. Many of these groups under Aztec control resent it and some are willing to ally themselves with the Spanish in order to bring the empire down. That’s Cortés’ master plan. He’s going to turn the empire’s own subjects against it, to weaponize them. He only has 450 soldiers but they have tens of thousands and unlike the Spanish, they understand the Aztec culture, language, and warfare. They are his secret weapon.
When he first arrived on the Yucatan peninsula a group of indigenous people told him about some Europeans who had been shipwrecked and taken prisoner by the Mayas. Now, I want to just briefly point out that the Maya civilization sort of collapsed on its own before the Europeans arrived. They were in a bit of a post-apocalyptic slump at the time. But they did still exist in parts of Mexico and Central America and, actually, they still do today as well. I’m going to save the Mayas for their own episode though, because I can’t do that story justice as a footnote to this one. But, Cortés learns that the Mayas had captured a handful of Spanish people who were shipwrecked around 8 years ago. Only 2 of them were still alive - Geronimo de Aguilar who was a priest and Gonzalo Geurreo who was a soldier. Geurreo had completely assimilated with the Mayas, taken a Maya wife, had Maya children. He went full Maya and he had no interest in returning to his previous life as a Spaniard. Aguilar had learned the language and the culture like Geurreo but still clung to his Spanish roots and was more than happy to go along with Cortés. So Aguilar speaks fluent Mayan. And this is important.
They’re roaming around Mexico, battling indigenous groups as they go, but also earning their allegiance as allies against the Aztecs. At one point an Aztec chief gifted them 20 enslaved Maya women. This is the world in which our story takes place y’all. A true nightmare of a world. The giant douche and the turd sandwich, for real though, with the Aztecs and the Spanish. I don’t even know who’s worse. But anyway they get these 20 indigenous women gifted to them. One of them, named Malinalli, is of particular interest to Cortés. She speaks the Aztec language and the Mayan language. And then remember he has Aguilar who speaks Spanish and the Mayan language. So between these two, they can pretty much communicate with anyone they encounter. Malinalli is much more than a translator to Cortés though. She converts to Christianity and takes the name Doña Marina but is usually called La Malinche. Actually all 20 of the enslaved women Cortés was given were renamed Marina, which weird and confusing but she’s Doña Marina which means Lady Marina because of the high status she will achieve. She became Cortés’ mistress because, of course, why not? They also have a child together, a son named Martin, despite the fact that Cortés is already married to a Spanish woman who is waiting for him back in Cuba. His wife, Catalina, actually comes to visit him in Mexico in 1522 but then dies of mysterious circumstances, ahem strangulation, soon after. Mmhmm. Anyway back to 1519.
With the help of Aguilar and La Malinche as translators, Cortés makes his way to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. At the time, Moctezuma II was the Aztec emperor. And when Cortés’ men rolled up, they were actually received quite well by Moctezuma. No one’s really sure why. One misconception is that the Aztecs mistook Cortés as Quetzalcoatl, a mythical figure, basically like a god, with light skin and a beard, who was supposed to return to Mexico that same year. This is probably not true at all. The Aztecs did not think Cortés was a god. There’s one account of their encounter in which Moctezuma lifted his shirt and proclaimed “I am mortal blood as you are mortal blood” and then they exchanged gifts. So the whole “mistook him for a god” thing was probably made up later to help try to justify all the horrible things the Spanish did and make the Aztecs look dumb, basically.
But Cortés and his men are received surprisingly well by Moctezuma, that part is true. So Cortés takes him captive pretty much immediately with basically no resistance. It’s likely Cortés thought he could rule over the Aztecs through Moctezuma. Like, just whisper in Moctezuma’s ear and his will would be done. But he miscalculated a bit there. The Aztec emperor was not like a Spanish king. Moctezuma did not have unconditional power. Maintaining the right to rule was based on how good of a ruler he was. He could easily be replaced by another noble if he proved a poor ruler. Which makes so much sense compared to the way it was done in Europe by birthright alone.
So Moctezuma is held hostage, giving Cortés’ orders which mostly involves demanding tribute, like gold and silver, to be given to the Spanish. Yeah, Cortés is like a child with a genie, I swear. Like “I wish for gold, and also silver, and also more gold. Wait is that all 3 wishes?” But Moctezuma’s authority is slipping more and more. The Aztecs are like “kind of seems like our leader has become a puppet for these foreign invaders. Next.” And they start to turn against him. But Cortés and his guys are holed up in the palace with their hostage gathering riches and trying to maintain control.
Back in Cuba, Governor Velazquez is livid. Cortés blatantly defied his authority. He sends a commander named Pánfilo de Narváez with 19 ships, over 800 soldiers, 20 cannons, 80 horsemen, 120 crossbowman and some other fighter guys to go capture Cortés and bring him back to Cuba to answer for his crimes. But Cortés somehow hears about them landing in Mexico and takes around 300 men with him to Narváez’ camp to ambush them in a middle of the night surprise attack. Narváez surrenders and is imprisoned in Veracruz and the army he brought with him joins Cortés after he tells them about all the gold and riches back in Tenochtitlan.
Meanwhile, in Tenochtitlan, Cortés had left a guy named Pedro de Alvarado in charge with around 80 soldiers. Alvarado turns out to be a real piece of work, this guy. At this time of year, the Aztecs usually have a festival to honor the god of war. The people ask Moctezuma for permission to hold the festival and Alvarado is like “alright, sure, fine, whatever, as long as everyone is unarmed.” And they’re all like “Wait? Who even are you?” But yeah, so Moctezuma is just a puppet right now, remember, so Alvarado is in charge while Cortés is off defeating his own countrymen.
So Alvarado lets them hold their festival. They’re all dressed up. There’s singing and dancing. They all file into the courtyard of the Great Temple and out of nowhere, the Spanish attack. Now, remember the Aztecs are unarmed, that was Alvarado’s only stipulation. There are many different theories as to why, how this could possibly happen but whatever the reason, the Spanish attack, blocking the exits to the courtyard and the temple and killing an estimated 10,000 unarmed Aztec festival goers.
The rest of the Aztecs not trapped and murdered in the temple courtyard retaliate and Alvarado and his 80 men retreat to the palace and hide out until Cortés can get there. So Cortés now has his 300 men plus all of Narváez’ men that were sent from Cuba to capture him, plus he has picked up around 2,000 Tlaxcalan (Tlascalan) warriors, which was a tribe that was rebelling against the Aztecs and so formed an alliance with the Spanish. And somehow Cortés is able to get into the palace in Tenochtitlan. I really don’t know how. I mean, the Spanish are super outnumbered but they do have superior weapons, guns and cannons and metal armor, compared to the wooden clubs and spears the Aztecs were using. So I guess it kind of makes sense. I don’t know. They kind of gloss over that one.
So Cortés basically traps himself in the palace with Alvarado in the hopes that he can fix the damage this dumb dumb did while he was gone, with the help of Moctezuma, of course who they have shackled up in the palace with them. But Cortés totally misjudged the seriousness of the situation. The massacre at the festival was the last straw for the Aztec people. They were now completely against the Spanish and Moctezuma.
Cortés sends Moctezuma to tell the Aztecs to stop trying to kill them. This does not go well. The Aztecs don’t listen to Moctezuma anymore and he is somehow killed in his attempts to negotiate peace. The Spanish claim the Aztecs killed him themselves. The Aztecs claim the Spanish murdered him when they realized he no longer had power and was no longer of any use to them and actually just a liability if let go. So that’s still a mystery, but one way or another Moctezuma is killed.
So Cortés is still trapped in the palace surrounded by hostile Aztecs. He knows he needs to get out of there. So on a moonless night, during a heavy rainstorm, they sneak out of the castle, taking as much gold and other valuables as they can carry with them. They actually make it pretty far and are almost to the mainland when they are spotted. The Aztecs attack from canoes. The Spanish fire back but they can’t really see their attackers. Many jump into the water and quickly drown, weighed down by armor and gold they were attempting to escape with. What’s left of the Spanish and their indigenous allies manage to escape with over half their men dead. It’s a smashing victory for the Aztecs and would later be called “la Noche Triste,” or the sad night, by the Spanish. Which, wah, cry me river.
So Cortés has retreated and is licking his wounds. He knows he can’t go back to Velasquez in Cuba. He can’t go home to Spain. He defied Spanish authority and then attacked Spanish troops. He was very much a traitor at this point. The only way to redeem himself is to conquer the Aztec empire in the name of Spain. It’s the only way he’ll be accepted back by the Spanish, welcomed as a hero even. So he focuses on gathering more and more indigenous allies before he attempts to conquer Tenochtitlan again.
Meanwhile, back in Tenochtitlan, the Spanish have unknowingly unleashed a weapon of mass destruction on the city. They are in the midst of a smallpox epidemic. At least, most experts assume it was smallpox. Smallpox was rampant in Europe and many Europeans had developed natural immunities. Indigenous Americans, however, had never come into contact with the disease and therefore had no immunities whatsoever. Within a year, the disease had killed an estimated 40 percent of the population of Tenochtitlan and surrounding areas including the new emperor Cuitlahuac, Moctezuma’s little brother who had only ruled for 80 days. So we have a major population reduction, a city in shambles, and no leadership in Tenochtitlan. It’s suddenly not looking so good for the Aztecs who would have crushed Cortés otherwise, just based on their numbers alone.
Cortés’ plan is to trap the Aztecs within the city and basically starve them of resources and food. He still has very few Spanish soldiers, remember those numbers were completely decimated after La Noche Triste, but he has managed to gain some 50,000 indigenous allies from groups intent on destroying their violent Aztec overlords. So eventually, the Spanish forces have a stranglehold on Tenochtitlan. Famine starts to set in. As Cortés wins more and more battles, he gains more and more indigenous allies. On August 13, 1521, the Aztecs finally surrendered. Their new emperor is taken hostage and later executed. Cortés immediately starts asking that all the gold they lost during La Noche Triste be returned to him at once. I love how this guy is all “Oh, I’m just going to go spread the word of God like Jesus says to do, like a good Christian. But actually, gold. Where’s the gold? Give us back the gold that we stole from you and then you stole back from us.”
You’d think that would be the end of the violence and hostility, right? They surrendered. Cortés won. No. Even after the surrender, the Spanish forces continued to attack and loot the city, slaughtering thousands of innocent people. When all was said and done an estimated 240,000 Aztecs died during the siege. Most of the survivors were just small children. Now, this was not typical of European warfare. In Europe, a surrender was a surrender and the fighting stopped. This suggests that Cortés indigenous allies probably had a lot more power over him than he wanted to acknowledge.
By the end, an estimated 200,000 indigenous allies helped Cortés and his skeleton crew of Spaniards defeat Tenochtitlan and really the entire Aztec empire. However, they received almost no recognition for this. It was Cortés and his 500 men, or whatever. No. The Spanish may have planned the attack but they didn’t do squat. It was 200,000 resentful and mistreated indigenous warriors that really defeated the Aztec Empire. Maybe the title of this episode is a bit misleading, but I had to hook you guys somehow right? But in the end, it wasn’t a victory for the indigenous people, at all. There were several major allied groups and no one in particular was able to seize power after the fall of the Aztecs. So, of course, the Spanish stepped in, as they had always intended to do.
The Spanish government was simply delighted with Cortés now, quickly pardoning the fact that he was a mutinous traitor who had defied authority and completely gone rogue. But the fall of the Aztec Empire raked in 7,000 tons of riches for Spain plus secured them a foothold in Central America. These riches would help fund later expeditions and conquests of South America. Spain became a major world power, the major world power. Cortés was named governor of “New Spain” and Mexico City was built up on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlan.
So it’s looking pretty good for the Spanish right now. What about their indigenous allies? They certainly hoped to get something out of this too. What of their spoils? Well as Spain gained control of the region, the indigenous people were forced into subservient roles and a caste-like society formed in which the Europeans became the upper class and the natives were the lower class. But of course you saw that coming right? This disparate social dynamic characterized Mexico for centuries and really continues to this day. Of the 26 million indigenous people still living in Mexico today, 75% of them live in extreme poverty. It’s an ongoing issue.
So what happened to Cortés? Well we know he was made governor of New Spain, which was what we call Mexico today. In 1524 he headed down to Honduras where he established a city and stayed for 2 years. But when he returned to Mexico City, the dudes he had left in charge had completely turned against him and he was removed from power. Which, yeah, I mean I kind of get it. It’s pretty hard to govern a city you haven’t actually set foot in for 2 years.
So Cortés goes back to Spain to plead with King Charles I, who just keeps popping up this guy! Remember Charles was the son of Juana of Castille from the mad kings episode, the nephew of Catherine of Aragon. He’s the one who helped stop the Catholic church from granting Henry VIII his divorce. Yeah, this is like all going down at the same time. Episodes are colliding here. But Cortés is never made a governor of anything again. He does manage to remarry while he’s in Spain cause remember his first wife died under mysterious circumstances when she came to visit him in Mexico. This was while he was enjoying an extramarital relationship with his enslaved indigenous translator, La Malinche.
La Malinche is a very controversial character in this story, even to this day. An indigenous woman turned translator for the Spanish, turned mistress of Cortés, mother of his child. According to a New York Times article called “After 500 Years Cortés’ Girlfriend Is Not Forgiven” quote ”La Malinche… has become a symbol of a nation that is still not entirely comfortable with either its European or Indian roots. Some Mexican feminists say she is even at the root of much of the disdain Mexican men display toward Mexican women, expressed in the country's high rates of infidelity and domestic violence.” So, yikes. It goes on to say “La Malinche is for the most part portrayed as the perpetrator of Mexico's original sin and as a cultural metaphor for all that is wrong with Mexico.” And, I mean, I get it, Mexico has issues. There are gender issues, there are racial issues, there are poverty issues. I get it. But can we not blame it all on this poor woman?
Yes she helped Cortés defeat the Aztecs and establish Spanish dominance in Mexico, but so did Moctezuma, so did 200,000 other indigenous allies. Why are they not cultural metaphors for all that is wrong with Mexico? La Malinche, or Malinalli, which was her actual name, was a captive enslaved girl when she was gifted to Cortés. It’s not clear whether her family gave her up to slavery or she may have been kidnapped as a child, but from a young age Malinalli was enslaved. She was bought and sold, forced to work for various enslavers, very likely sexually abused. When Cortés realized her value as a translator he took her as his personal slave. Yes, she helped him take Mexico, but how much of a choice did she really have? She was enslaved. She had to obey her enslaver. It’s not like she could have told him no and he’d be like “well, darn, okay.” But, I don’t know, maybe she was down to help Cortés, could you blame her for that? I can’t imagine she had much affection for the society that had enslaved and exploited her since she was a child. The Aztecs were the ones who enslaved her to begin with.
So, I don’t know, I’m not on board with the demonization of La Malinche, with pinning all of the horrible things that happened squarely on her shoulders. For some reason this happens to women a lot. A man who did what she did, no one would bat an eye. But when it's a woman, she suddenly becomes this cultural symbol of evil and deceit. She’s evil. An evil woman. Look what she did. Really though? I have a lot to say about the psychology behind that recurring phenomenon and it has to do with systemic patriarchal oppression of women, going all the way back to the Bible, with Eve succumbing to temptation in the garden of Eden. I could unpack it for you more, but y’all are probably getting pretty tired of the subject. If it wasn’t so darn prevalent throughout all of history, I wouldn’t keep bringing it up.
Now, I’m not Mexican or Spanish or Maya or Aztec or any other Mesoamerican indigenous group so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s obviously still complicated and there’s clearly still a lot of hurt reverberating from the events that went down 500 years ago. But let’s not pin it all on this one woman.
I think part of what makes this all so complicated and emotionally charged, even to this day, is that the conquest by the Spanish and the destruction and oppression of the indigenous people of Mexico and Central America is clearly wrong. It’s disgusting, what the Europeans did, it’s reprehensible. But what makes it complicated is that the Aztecs weren’t saints either. They were a ruthless, violent, oppressive force in the region and they made plenty of enemies before the Spanish even arrived. I’m not trying to take any blame away from Cortés and the Spanish conquistadors but the Aztecs weren’t great candidates as rulers of the realm either.
What’s so sad about this story is the fate of the indigenous allies who rose up to defeat the Aztecs in the hopes they could establish a better civilization, a better world after the fall. And it almost feels like the Spanish double crossed them after taking Tenochtitlan. Like they just imported all of their own nobles, governors, colonists from Europe, “New Spain,” right? And pushed the indigenous people down and down and down into the lowest pits of society, pits they still struggle to climb out of today. So they cling to demonized characters, villains like La Malinche because they need to blame someone. It’s all so unfair. Mexican poet Octavio Paz summed it up nicely in his book “The Labyrinth of Solitude” when he said quote “The strange permanence of Cortes and La Malinche in the Mexican's imagination and sensibilities reveals that they are something more than historical figures: they are symbols of a secret conflict that we have still not resolved.” End quote.
500 years later and it’s still not resolved. This is why the choices we make today, the things we do, the actions we take, they’re so important. It’s so important that we act justly, that we act honorably, ego aside, we treat people with respect, we put people above glory, above fame, above gold and riches. Because what we do today matters. We are affecting people 500 years from now. We are making their history, right now. And, I don’t know about you but I don’t want it to still not be resolved for them.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from History.com, New World Encyclopedia, Live Science, the Houston Institute for Culture, the New York Times, New York Historical Society, thoughtco.com, bizarreandgrotesque.com, and the Borgen Project. Links to all of these sources can be found in the show notes.