contentsIntroduction 000 1 Setting Out for New Spain and the Serendipitous Gift of Language 000 2 The Battle with the Tabascans and the Acquisition of La Malinche 000 3 Montezuma’s Message 000 4 The Gambler Stakes All: “Either Win the Land or Die in the Attempt” 000 5 Into the Mountains 000 6 The Massacre of Cholula 000 7 The City of Dreams 000 8 City of Sacriﬁce 000 9 Seizure of Empire 00010 Cortés and Montezuma 00011 Spaniard Versus Spaniard 00012 The Festival of Toxcatl 00013 Montezuma’s Ironic Fate 00014 La Noche Triste 00015 “Fortune Favors the Bold” 00016 The Great Rash 000
x contents17 Return to the Valley of Mexico 00018 The Wooden Serpent 00019 Encirclement 00020 The Siege Begins 00021 Clash of Empires 00022 The Last Stand of the Aztecs 000Epilogue: The Shadows of Smoke 000Appendix A: Signiﬁcant Participants in the Conquest 000Appendix B: A Brief Chronology of the Conquest 000Appendix C: A Note on Nahuatl Language Pronunciation 000Appendix D: Major Deities of the Aztec Pantheon 000Appendix E: The Aztec Kings 000Notes 000A Note on the Text and the Sources 000Bibliography 000Acknowledgments 000Index 000
Men of God and men of war have strange afﬁnities. —cormac mccarthy, BLOOD MERIDIAN
introductionIn 1519 an ambitious and calculating conquistador namedHernán Cortés sailed from Cuba and arrived on the shores ofMexico with empire expansion in his veins. He intended to ap-propriate the new-found lands in the name of the crown ofSpain, to convert the inhabitants to Catholicism, and to plun-der the rich lands of their precious metals, namely gold. Cortésmade land at Pontonchan, a considerable native ﬁshing settle-ment, with a roguish, roughshod crew containing thirty cross-bowmen, twelve men with muzzle-loaded handguns calledharquebuses, fourteen pieces of small artillery, and a few can-nons. Carefully, methodically, Cortés and his crew used ropesand pulleys to unload sixteen Spanish horses, highly trainedand skilled warhorses of which the indigenous Americans hadno concept or understanding, having never seen them. He alsounloaded savage and well-trained war dogs, mastiffs, and wolf-hounds. In addition to his band of Spanish pirates and merce-naries, Cortés brought along a few hundred West African andCuban slaves for use as porters. It was March 1519. Cortés marched his small force over massive mountainsand active volcanoes towering eighteen thousand feet high,straight into the Valley of Mexico and the very heart of theAztec civilization.* What Cortés encountered when he arrived*The term Aztec was originally coined (erroneously) by the nineteenth-centuryGerman naturalist-explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Aztec was actually an eponymousderivation of the legendary Aztlan, the mythical “Place of the White Heron,” theancestral homeland of the people who eventually came to the Valley of Mexico andsettled there after long years of migration and founded the city of Tenochtitlán
2 buddy levyat Tenochtitlán, the famed “City of Dreams,” were not the bar-barians that his conquistador predecessors had envisioned buta powerful and highly evolved civilization at its zenith. TheAztecs possessed elaborate and accurate calendars, efﬁcient ir-rigation systems for their myriad year-round crops, zoos andbotanical gardens unrivaled in Europe, immaculate city streetswith waste-management methods, astounding arts and jewelry,state-run education, sport in the form of a life-or-death ball-game, a devoted and organized military apparatus, and a vasttrade and tribute network stretching the entirety of their im-mense empire, as far south as Guatemala. Cortés and hisChristian brethren would soon discover that the Aztecs alsopossessed a highly evolved and ritualized religion much morecomplex than their own, a religion that its people followedwith equal, if not greater, faith and conviction. Instead of onegod, they zealously worshipped a pantheon of deities in elabo-rate and sophisticated ceremonies. At Tenochtitlán—at the time among the most populatedand vital cities on earth, much larger than Paris or Peking—Cortés ﬁnally confronted Montezuma, the charismatic andenigmatic Aztec ruler. Their ﬁrst meeting could be consideredthe birth of modern history. The conﬂict that followed was areligious one ultimately, pitting the monotheistic Catholicismof the Spaniards against the polytheistic mysticism of theAztecs, and though in many respects the two empires werevastly different, they were actually parallel in a number of strik-ing ways. Both were barbaric in their unique traditions. TheSpaniards, ﬁred and forged by the Crusades, would pillage andrape and kill in the name of god and country, subsuming in-in 1325. In only two centuries these agricultural and warrior people had developed aremarkable culture. The term Aztec has been widely replaced—primarily by scholarsand historians—with the term Mexica, a designation that more accurately describesthe people of the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tacuba. Numerousmodern institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim Museum,the Smithsonian Museum, and even the National Museum of Anthropology in MexicoCity still employ the term Aztec. Conquistador will retain the popular term Aztec anduse it interchangeably with Mexica.
chapter one Setting Out for New Spain and the Serendipitous Gift of Language jHernán Cortés strode to the bow of his ﬂagship SantaMaría de la Concepción, a one-hundred-ton vessel and thelargest of his armada, and scanned the horizon for land. Hehad much to ponder. His navigator and chief pilot, Antonio deAlaminos, an experienced veteran who had been pilot forColumbus on his ﬁnal voyage, had been in these watersbefore—on the Ponce de Léon expedition in search of thefabled Fountain of Youth—and he suggested that if they en-countered foul weather, the entire ﬂeet should make land andconvene on the island of Cozumel, just east of the YucatánPeninsula’s northernmost tip. Since their hurried departurefrom Cuba, the ﬂeet had been buffeted by foul weather, scat-tering the boats. Cortés brought up the rear, simultaneouslyscouring for land and for brigantines and caravels blown astray.A few, perhaps as many as ﬁve, had been lost during the night,an inauspicious beginning to such an ambitious voyage. Cortés had staked everything he owned on this venture—in fact more than that, for he had incurred signiﬁcant debtbuilding the ships and stocking them with provisions. His hopeto get off to a good start had been slightly compromised whenhis patron, the fat hidalgo Diego Velázquez, now governor ofCuba, attempted to thwart his departure, even after he had
8 buddy levysigned a contract ofﬁcially conﬁrming Cortés as captain-general. Velázquez’s behavior was no surprise, given thecontentious nature of their relationship. On his arrival inHispaniola (the modern-day Dominican Republic) in 1504,Cortés had sought out the established countryman and workedunder him, initially on a raid to suppress an Indian uprising onthe island’s interior, and later on an expedition captained byPánﬁlo de Narváez to conquer Cuba, which they accom-plished easily enough. After this successful venture Velázquez,feeling magnanimous, gifted Cortés a large plot of land withmany Indians and a number of viable, working mines on it, ef-fectively making Cortés rich. But the two men were both obsti-nate, and their relationship was soon fraught with tensions thatwould ultimately threaten prison, and even death, for Cortés. Both men shared a passion for women, and a disagreementover one Catalina Suárez resulted in the governor havingCortés arrested and placed in the stocks. Cortés escaped bybribing the jailor, and Velázquez had him arrested again, evenbringing a suit upon him and threatening to hang him for hisrefusal to marry Suárez, a snubbing that had sullied her reputa-tion. Eventually Velázquez calmed, and the two men smoothedover their differences, but their relationship remained volatile.At present, in mid-February 1519, Velázquez held the politicalupper hand, for Cortés sailed under his aegis, as his emissary ona mission to trade, to ﬁnd gold, and to obtain more Indians towork the mines of Cuba. But the wily Cortés had other inten-tions as he spotted land and had his pilot make anchor atCozumel. Cortés’s ship was the last to arrive, and on setting foot onthe island he found that the local inhabitants had ﬂed at thearrival of the ﬁrst ships, dispersing into the hills and jungle.Cortés noted their fear, ﬁling it away as useful information.Then he was met with vexing news, and a reason for the localIndians’ behavior: one of his most trusted captains, Pedro deAlvarado, had arrived early, immediately raided the ﬁrst villagehe encountered—brusquely entering temples and thievingsome small gold ornaments left there as prayer offerings—and
Conquistador 9then seized a ﬂock of about forty turkeys that were millingaround the Indians’ thatch-roofed houses, even taking a fewof the frightened Indians, two men and a woman, prisoner.Cortés, incensed, contemplated how to handle the situation.He needed to trust Alvarado, and he respected the ﬁery red-headed countryman who also hailed from his homeland,Estremadura. Alvarado, already battle-hardened and havingcommanded the previous Grijalva expedition to the Yucatán,was cocksure and felt justiﬁed in making his own independentdecisions. Cortés needed him and required a symbiotic rela-tionship with his captains, but he also insisted that they obeyhis command, and he would tolerate no insubordination.1Such behavior, he impressed upon his men, “was no way topacify a country.”2 Cortés rebuked Alvarado by commanding his men to turnover the pilfered offerings and return them to their Indianowners. He also had Alvarado’s pilot Camacho, who had failedto obey orders to wait for Cortés at sea, chained in irons. Theturkeys had been slaughtered, and some of them already eaten,so Cortés ordered that the fowl be paid for with green glassbeads and small bells, which he gave to the prisoners as he re-leased them, along with a Spanish shirt for each. Then Cortésasked for a man named Melchior, a Mayan who had beentaken prisoner during an earlier expedition and converted intosomething of an interpreter, having been taught some Spanishby his captors. Through Melchior, Cortés spoke to the Indiansas he released them and sent them back to their families, in-structing them that the Spaniards came in peace and wished todo them no harm, and that Cortés as their leader would like tomeet personally with their chiefs or caciques.* The initial diplomacy worked. The next day men, women,children, and eventually the chiefs of the villages poured forth*Cacique is a Caribbean Arawak word for “chief” that the Spaniards brought with themfrom the islands. Many of the chroniclers, including Bernal Díaz and to a lesser extentCortés, use the term. The word would have been unknown to mainland Mexicans.
10 buddy levyfrom their hiding places in the lowland scrub and repopulatedtheir village, which soon was bustling again. ConquistadorBernal Díaz, a soldier under Alvarado’s command who hadbeen on both the Córdoba and Grijalva expeditions, remarkedthat “men, women, and children went about with us as if theyhad been friends with us all their lives.” Cortés sternly reiteratedthat the natives must not be harmed in any way. Díaz was im-pressed by Cortés’s leadership and style, noting that “here in thisisland our Captain began to command most energetically, andOur Lord so favored him that whatever he touched succeeded.”3 The islanders brought food to the Spaniards, includingloads of fresh ﬁsh, bundles of colorful and sweet tropical fruits,and hives of island honey, a delicacy that the island peoplenurtured and managed. The Spaniards traded beads, cutlery,bells, and other trinkets for food and low-grade gold orna-ments. Relations seemed convivial, and Cortés decided tohold a muster on the beach to assess the force he had amassedin Cuba. The ships included his one-hundred-ton ﬂagship plusthree smaller vessels displacing seventy or eighty tons. The re-maining boats had open or partially covered decks with make-shift canvas roofs to provide shade from the scorching sun orshelter from the rain squalls. The bigger ships transportedsmaller vessels that could be lowered at ports or some distanceoff shore, then rowed or sailed to a landing.4 The ships werepacked belowdecks with ample supplies of island fare: maize,yucca, chiles, and robust quantities of salt pork which had along shelf life, plus fodder for the stock. The crew of mercenaries comprised chivalrous men bredon war and adventure. Over ﬁve-hundred strong, these travel-hardened pikemen and swordsmen and lancers had either paidtheir way onto the voyage or come spurred by the promise of for-tune. Cortés strode the beach and surveyed the sharpshooters,thirty accurate crossbowmen and twelve well-trained harque-busiers bearing handheld matchlocks ﬁred from the shoulder orchest. Ten small cannons would be ﬁred by experienced artillerymen, who also carried light, transportable brass cannons called
Conquistador 11falconets. The detail-oriented, highly prepared Cortés had theforesight to bring along a few blacksmiths who could repairdamaged weaponry and, most important, keep the prized Spanishhorses well shod. Extensive stocks of ammunition and gun-powder were packaged carefully in dry containers and guardedat all times. For land transport, Cortés brought two hundredislanders from Cuba, mostly men for heavy portaging, but alsoa handful of women to prepare food and repair and fabricatethe wool, ﬂax, and linen doublets, jerkins, and brigandines themen wore. Cortés ordered the horses lowered from the ship’s decks bymeans of strong leather harnesses, ropes, and pulleys, then hadthem led ashore to exercise and graze on the island’s densefoliage. Curious islanders came forward. They had been ob-serving the general muster, and now they were absolutely en-tranced by the horses—some running away in fear at the sightof them—the ﬁrst such creatures they had ever witnessed.Intrigued by the horses’ impression on the locals, Cortés hadhis best cavalrymen mount the glistening and snorting animalsand gallop them along the beach. Artillerymen tested can-nons, ﬁring them into the hillsides; the explosions were thun-derous, ﬂame and smoke belching from the muzzles. Archersshouldered crossbows and sent arrows whistling through theair at makeshift targets.5 When the smoke from the military display had cleared andthe horses were put away, islanders approached the Spaniardsmore closely, and tugged at their beards and stroked the whiteskin of their forearms. A few of the chiefs became animatedand gesticulated aggressively using sign language and pointingbeyond the easternmost tip of the island. Cortés had Melchiorbrought forward, and after some discussion he reported someextraordinary news: the older chiefs claimed that years earlierother bearded white men had come and that two of them werestill alive, held as slaves by Indians on mainland Yucatán, just ashort distance, about a day’s paddle, across the channel waters. Cortés mused, deeply intrigued by the prospect of Spanish-speaking countrymen who had been living among mainland
12 buddy levyIndians. This was an unexpected and potentially proﬁtablewindfall. He appealed to one of the main caciques, asking himfor a few of his able men whom he could send over as scouts tosee what they might learn of these Spaniards and to bring themback if they could. The chief conferred with others, but theybalked, explaining that they feared sending any of their ownpeople as guides because they would quite likely be killed andsacriﬁced or even eaten by the mainlanders. Alarming as thisfear seemed, Cortés pressed, offering more of the green glassbeads that the islanders appeared to covet, and the chiefs ac-quiesced. Cortés dispatched several men, along with his cap-tain and friend Juan de Escalante in a brigantine. Hiddenbeneath the braided hair of one of the messengers was a letterstating that Cortés had arrived on Cozumel with more thanﬁve hundred Spanish soldiers on a mission to “explore and colo-nize these lands.” Flanking them in support were two shipsand ﬁfty armed soldiers.6 While he awaited news from this reconnaissance, Cortésscouted his hosts’ island. He noted well-built houses, orderlyand neat, and other evidence of a complex civilization, includ-ing their “books,” elaborate series of drawings on stretchedbark. What interested him most was the large pyramidal struc-ture, a temple constructed of limestone masonry, with an openplaza or sanctuary at its top, overlooking the sea. Cortésclimbed the pyramid steps and, upon reaching the temple, sawthat the pavilion was spattered with the blood of decapitatedquail and domesticated dogs, small foxlike canines that thepeople also ate. Bones were piled as offerings. Cortés and hismen found these idols monstrous, even frightening. One wasespecially curious: it was hollow, made of baked clay and setagainst a limestone wall with a secret entrance at its rear,where a priest could enter and respond to worshippers’ prayers,like an oracle. Around the idol, braziers burned resins, like in-cense. The caciques told Cortés that here they prayed for rain,and frequently their prayers were answered. Sometimes hu-man beings were offered as sacriﬁce.7
Conquistador 13 Inﬂamed by the specter of human sacriﬁce, Cortés calledfor Melchior and through him pitched his ﬁrst sermon and at-tempt at religious conversion. Speaking to the assembledIndians, Cortés railed that there was only one God, one creator—the one true God that the Spaniards worshipped. Bernal Díazlistened carefully, reporting that Cortés said “that if they wishedto be our brothers they must throw their idols out of thistemple, for they were evil and would lead them astray.”8 Theseevil abominations would send their souls to hell, Cortés said,but if they exchanged their idols for his cross, their souls wouldbe saved and their harvests would prosper. Melchior’s Spanish was hardly sufﬁcient to convincinglyor accurately convey Cortés’s message verbatim, especially thecomplex notion of the Christian soul (for which, at any rate,no Mayan terminology existed). But that did not stop Cortésfrom using an even more aggressive, highly symbolic tactic.The chiefs had responded that they disagreed—their own idolsand gods were good, and their ancestors had worshipped themsince time began. Cortés then brazenly ordered his men tosmash the idols and roll them down the pyramid steps, wherethey crumbled at the feet of the mystiﬁed and terriﬁed onlook-ers. The islanders, even the chiefs, remained too frightened bythe previous military and cavalry demonstrations to do any-thing other than shake their heads in terror and confusion.Cortés then supervised a cleansing, a whitewashing of theblood from the prayer pavilion. The men scrubbed away theblood smears and animal entrails with lime, and carpenterserected a wooden cross, as well as a ﬁgure of the Virgin Mary.These were the new idols the people of Cozumel were toworship. Cortés then ordered priest Juan Díaz to hold mass. Onleaving the newly altered shrine, Cortés sternly instructed thecaciques of the village that they must keep the altar clean anddecorate it frequently with fresh ﬂowers. As a parting gift,Cortés had his men teach the islanders how to make candlesfrom their beeswax, so that they could keep candles always