Cortés led his warlike array for the last time across the black and blasted environs which lay around the Indian capital.
Continuing Cortes Captures the Aztec Capital,
our selection 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. The selection is presented in four easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Cortes Captures the Aztec Capital.
Time: August 13, 1521
Place: Tenochtitlan (Mexico City)
The following morning [August 13, 1521 -jl], the Spanish commander again mustered his forces, having decided to follow up the blow of the preceding day before the enemy should have time to rally, and at once to put an end to the war. He had arranged with Alvarado, on the evening previous, to occupy the market-place of Tlatelolco; and the discharge of an arquebuse was to be the signal for a simultaneous assault. Sandoval was to hold the northern causeway, and, with the fleet, to watch the movements of the Indian Emperor and to intercept the flight to the mainland, which Cortés knew he meditated. To allow him to effect this would be to leave a formidable enemy in his own neighborhood, who might at any time kindle the flame of insurrection throughout the country. He ordered Sandoval, however, to do no harm to the royal person, and not to fire on the enemy at all except in self-defense.
It was the day of St. Hippolytus — from this circumstance selected as the patron saint of modern Mexico — that Cortés led his warlike array for the last time across the black and blasted environs which lay around the Indian capital. On entering the Aztec precincts he paused, willing to afford its wretched inmates one more chance of escape before striking the fatal blow. He obtained an interview with some of the principal chiefs, and expostulated with them on the conduct of their Prince. “He surely will not,” said the general, “see you all perish, when he can easily save you.” He then urged them to prevail on Guatemotzin to hold a conference with him, repeating the assurances of his personal safety.
The messengers went on their mission, and soon returned with the Cihuacoatl at their head, a magistrate of high authority among the Mexicans. He said, with a melancholy air, in which his own disappointment was visible, that “Guatemotzin was ready to die where he was, but would hold no interview with the Spanish commander”; adding in a tone of resignation, “It is for you to work your pleasure.” “Go, then,” replied the stern conqueror, “and prepare your countrymen for death. Their hour is come.”
He still postponed the assault for several hours. But the impatience of his troops at this delay was heightened by the rumor that Guatemotzin and his nobles were preparing to escape with their effects in the periaguas and canoes which were moored on the margin of the lake. Convinced of the fruitlessness and impolicy of further procrastination, Cortés made his final dispositions for the attack, and took his own station on an azotea which commanded the theatre of operations.
When the assailants came into the presence of the enemy, they found them huddled together in the utmost confusion, all ages and both sexes, in masses so dense that they nearly forced one another over the brink of the causeways into the water below. Some had climbed on the terraces, others feebly supported themselves against the walls of the buildings. Their squalid and tattered garments gave a wildness to their appearance which still further heightened the ferocity of their expression, as they glared on their enemy with eyes in which hate was mingled with despair. When the Spaniards had approached within bow-shot, the Aztecs let off a flight of impotent missiles, showing to the last the resolute spirit, though they had lost the strength, of their better days. The fatal signal was then given by the discharge of an arquebuse — speedily followed by peals of heavy ordnance, the rattle of fire-arms, and the hellish shouts of the confederates as they sprang upon their victims.
It is unnecessary to stain the page with a repetition of the horrors of the preceding day. Some of the wretched Aztecs threw themselves into the water and were picked up by the canoes. Others sank and were suffocated in the canals. The number of these became so great that a bridge was made of their dead bodies, over which the assailants could climb to the opposite banks. Others again, especially the women, begged for mercy, which, as the chroniclers assure us, was everywhere granted by the Spaniards, and, contrary to the instructions and entreaties of Cortés, everywhere refused by the confederates.
While this work of butchery was going on, numbers were observed pushing off in the barks that lined the shore, and making the best of their way across the lake. They were constantly intercepted by the brigantines, which broke the flimsy array of boats, sending off their volleys to the right and left as the crews of the latter hotly assailed them. The battle raged as fiercely on the lake as on the land. Many of the Indian vessels were shattered and overturned. Some few, however, under cover of smoke, which rolled darkly over the waters, succeeded in clearing themselves of the turmoil, and were fast nearing the opposite shore. Sandoval had particularly charged his captains to keep an eye on the movements of any vessel in which it was at all probable that Guatemotzin might be concealed. At this crisis, three or four of the largest periaguas were seen skimming over the water and making their way rapidly across the lake. A captain, named Garci Holguin, who had command of one of the best sailors in the fleet, instantly gave them chase. The wind was favorable, and every moment he gained on the fugitives, who pulled their oars with a vigor that despair alone could have given. But it was in vain; and after a short race, Holguin, coming alongside of one of the periaguas, which, whether from its appearance or from information he had received, he conjectured might bear the Indian Emperor, ordered his men to level their cross-bows at the boat. But, before they could discharge them a cry arose from those in it that their lord was on board. At the same moment a young warrior, armed with buckler and maquahuitl, rose up, as if to beat off the assailants. But, as the Spanish captain ordered his men not to shoot, he dropped his weapons and exclaimed: “I am Guatemotzin. Lead me to Malintzin; I am his prisoner, but let no harm come to my wife and my followers.”
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