A Series of Catastrophic Events and Decisions Led to the Tragic Fall of Montezuma
A Series of Catastrophic Events and Decisions Led to the Tragic Fall of Montezuma

A Series of Catastrophic Events and Decisions Led to the Tragic Fall of Montezuma

Khalid Elhassan - November 5, 2018

A Series of Catastrophic Events and Decisions Led to the Tragic Fall of Montezuma
Montezuma addressing his people, with a rope around his neck held by a Spaniard, from the Codex Montezuma. Mexico City National Library of Anthropology and History

Montezuma’s Downfall and Aftermath

Montezuma met Cortes at the approaches to Tenochtitlan on November 8th, 1519, and after exchanging gifts, invited the Spaniard and his men to guest with him at his palace. The conquistadors lived as honoured guests of the Aztec ruler for several months, during which Montezuma foolishly plied them with lavish gifts of gold. He seems to have meant it as a display of his might, as evinced by his indifference to gold, but Montezuma’s generosity only excited the conquistadors’ lust for plunder. The Tlatoani went from host to hostage, when Cortes treacherously seized Montezuma in his own palace, and began to rule Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire through the captive ruler.

During his captivity, Montezuma seems to have developed a case of Stockholm Syndrome, and began to identify with his captors. When his nephew Cacama began planning a rebellion against the Spaniards, Montezuma heard of it, and informed Cortes, who promptly arrested and eventually executed Cacama. In the meantime, the Spaniards squeezed Montezuma hard to give them gold, and he complied, ordering his subjects to give the conquistadors what they wanted. Within months, the Spaniards had amassed an estimated eight tons of gold and silver from the Aztecs.

In April of 1520, Cortes had to speed back to Mexico’s east coast in order to ward off another Spanish expedition sent to oust him. He left behind a Spanish garrison of 200 men under a trusted deputy. In Cortes absence, however, his deputy heard rumors of a planned uprising, and decided to nip it in the bud by massacring thousands of unarmed Aztecs in Tenochtitlan’s Great Temple. Whether or not the rumors of the planned uprising had been true, the massacre ensured that a massive popular uprising was triggered against the Spaniards. After dealing with the threat from the rival Spaniards, Cortes rushed back to Tenochtitlan to try and restore Spanish control.

By then, the Spanish garrison in Tenochtitlan had been besieged in Montezuma’s palace. Cortes, with reinforcements, managed to make his way into the palace, only to end up besieged there as well. In an attempt to placate the Aztec populace, the Spaniards trotted out the captive Aztec ruler. A reluctant Montezuma was hauled to the roof of the palace, from which he pleaded with his people to stop attacking the Spaniards. Disgusted by their ruler’s conduct, the Aztecs subjected Montezuma to a barrage of stones that severely injured him, and led to his death three days later. Or at leas that is how the Spanish described it. According to native sources, Montezuma survived his injuries, only to get murdered by the Spanish when it became clear that he was of no further use to them.

A Series of Catastrophic Events and Decisions Led to the Tragic Fall of Montezuma
‘Storming of the Teocali’, by Emanuel Leutze, 1848. Pintrest

Cortes was forced to flee Tenochtitlan, losing half of his men and nearly all of the extorted treasure in the process. He then returned with a powerful native army to subdue the city. After vicious street by street fighting that wrecked much of the Aztec capital, the Spaniards and their native allies finally subdued the city, whose population had been decimated by Old World diseases against which the natives had no immunity. According to sources: “On the day that Tenochtitlán was taken, the Spaniards committed some of the most brutal acts ever inflicted upon the unfortunate people of this land. The cries of the helpless women and children were heart-rending“.

The Spanish built Mexico City and their colony of New Spain atop the ruins of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire. The Natives – former allies and enemies alike – were reduced to de facto serfs, working the large estates, or haciendas, which the conquerors apportioned to themselves. Between massacres, mistreatment, overwork, and Old World epidemics, the native population of New Spain crashed from an estimated 30 million when Cortes arrived, to a mere 3 million by 1568.

A Series of Catastrophic Events and Decisions Led to the Tragic Fall of Montezuma
‘The Last Days of Tenochtitlan, Conquest of Mexico by Cortez’, by William de Leftwich Dodge. Wikimedia


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient Origins – The Stolen Treasure of Montezuma

ThoughtCo – The Death of Emperor Montezuma

The Guardian – Murder Most Foul: British Museum Unmasks Who Really Killed Aztec Leader

Mexico Lore – The Death of Moctezuma

ThoughtCo. – Emperor Montezuma Before the Spanish

Wikipedia – Fall of Tenochtitlan

Wikipedia – Moctezuma II