This series has four easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Amid the Ruins.
As we pick up the story, Montezuma, the Aztec Emperor is dead; another one reigned for just 80 days; now it’s Guatemotzin. Cortes and his band have been driven out of the capital, loosing half of his men but not before leaving the city in ruins. After nursing his losses, Cortes attacks again. This is the final days of that attack.
Apart from the cruelty and the ruthlessness of the Spanish conquistadors, the very fact that a few of them could conquer empires so swiftly and completely shows the relative power of the civilizations of Europe and the native Americans. The Aztecs equaled the Spanish in cruelty and ruthlessness. What they lacked was the technology of war. Conquests like this should not have been only immoral and illegal; they should also have been impossible.
That a warlike civilization like this one could collapse so swiftly and so completely was a signal event in world history. European civilization would expand its power throughout the world.
This selection is from History of the Conquest of Mexico by William H. Prescott published in 1844. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
William H. Prescott (1796-1859) was a US historian who pioneered research in the two major Spanish conquests.
Time: August 1521
Place: Tenochtitlan (Mexico City)
There was no occasion to resort to artificial means to precipitate the ruin of the Azecs. It was accelerated every hour by causes more potent than those arising from mere human agency. There they were, pent up in their close and suffocating quarters, nobles, commoners, and slaves, men, women, and children, some in houses, more frequently in hovels, for this part of the city was not the best, others in the open air in canoes, or in the streets, shivering in the cold rains of night, and scorched by the burning heat of day. The ordinary means of sustaining life were long since gone. They wandered about in search of anything, however unwholesome or revolting, that might mitigate the fierce gnawings of hunger. Some hunted for insects and worms on the borders of the lake, or gathered the salt weeds and moss from its bottom, while at times they might be seen casting a wistful look at the hills beyond, which many of them had left to share the fate of their brethren in the capital.
To their credit, it is said by the Spanish writers, that they were not driven in their extremity to violate the laws of nature by feeding on one another. But unhappily this is contradicted by the Indian authorities, who state that many a mother, in her agony, devoured the offspring which she had no longer the means of supporting. This is recorded of more than one siege in history; and it is the more probable here, where the sensibilities must have been blunted by familiarity with the brutal practices of the national superstition.
But all was not sufficient, and hundreds of famished wretches died every day from extremity of suffering. Some dragged themselves into the houses, and drew their last breath alone, and in silence. Others sank down in the public streets. Wherever they died, there they were left. There was no one to bury or to remove them. Familiarity with the spectacle made men indifferent to it. They looked on in dumb despair, waiting for their own turn. There was no complaint, no lamentation, but deep, unutterable woe.
If in other quarters of the town the corpses might be seen scattered over the streets, here they were gathered in heaps. “They lay so thick,” says Bernal Diaz, “that one could not tread except among the bodies.” “A man could not set his foot down,” says Cortes, yet more strongly, “unless on the corpse of an Indian!” They were piled one upon another, the living mingled with the dead. They stretched themselves on the bodies of their friends, and lay down to sleep there. Death was everywhere. The city was a vast charnel-house, in which all was hastening to decay and decomposition. A poisonous steam arose from the mass of putrefaction, under the action of alternate rain and heat, which so tainted the whole atmosphere, that the Spaniards, including the general himself, in their brief visits to the quarter, were made ill by it, and it bred a pestilence that swept off even greater numbers than the famine.
In the midst of these awful scenes, the young emperor of the Aztecs remained, according to all accounts, calm and courageous. With his fair capital laid in ruins before his eyes, his nobles and faithful subjects dying around him, his territory rent away, foot by foot, till scarce enough remained for him to stand on, he rejected every invitation to capitulate, and showed the same indomitable spirit as at the commencement of the siege. When Cortes, in the hope that the extremities of the besieged would incline them to listen to an accommodation, persuaded a noble prisoner to bear to Guatemozin his proposals to that effect, the fierce young monarch, according to the general, ordered him at once to be sacrificed. It is a Spaniard, we must remember, who tells the story.
Cortes, who had suspended hostilities for several days, in the vain hope that the distresses of the Mexicans would bend them to submission, now determined to drive them to it by a general assault. Cooped up, as they were, within a narrow quarter of the city, their position favored such an attempt. He commanded Alvarado to hold himself in readiness, and directed Sandoval-who, besides the causeway, had charge of the fleet, which lay off the Tlatelolcan district, to support the attack by a cannonade on the houses near the water. He then led his forces into the city, or rather across the horrid waste that now encircled it.
On entering the Indian precincts, he was met by several of the chiefs, who, stretching forth their emaciated arms, exclaimed, “You are the children of the Sun. But the Sun is swift in his course. Why are you, then, so tardy? Why do you delay so long to put an end to our miseries? Rather kill us at once, that we may go to our god Huitzilopochtli, who waits for us in heaven to give us rest from our sufferings!”
Cortes was moved by their piteous appeal, and answered, that he desired not their death, but their submission. “Why does your master refuse to treat with me,” he said, “when a single hour will suffice for me to crush him and all his people?” He then urged them to request Guatemozin to confer with him, with the assurance that he might do it in safety, as his person should not be molested.
The nobles, after some persuasion, undertook the mission; and it was received by the young monarch in a manner which showed- if the anecdote before related of him be true- that misfortune had, at length, asserted some power over his haughty spirit. He consented to the interview, though not to have it take place on that day, but the following, in the great square of Tlatelolco. Cortes, well satisfied, immediately withdrew from the city, and resumed his position on the causeway.
The next morning he presented himself at the place appointed, having previously stationed Alvarado there with a strong corps of infantry to guard against treachery. The stone platform in the center of the square was covered with mats and carpets, and a banquet was prepared to refresh the famished monarch and his nobles. Having made these arrangements, he awaited the hour of the interview.
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