Aztec capital falls to Cortés - HISTORY
Year
1521

Aztec capital falls to Cortés

After a three-month siege, Spanish forces under Hernán Cortés capture Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire. Cortés’ men leveled the city and captured Cuauhtemoc, the Aztec emperor.

Tenochtitlán was founded in 1325 A.D. by a wandering tribe of hunters and gatherers on islands in Lake Texcoco, near the present site of Mexico City. In only one century, this civilization grew into the Aztec empire, largely because of its advanced system of agriculture. The empire came to dominate central Mexico and by the ascendance of Montezuma II in 1502 had reached its greatest extent, extending as far south as perhaps modern-day Nicaragua. At the time, the empire was held together primarily by Aztec military strength, and Montezuma II set about establishing a bureaucracy, creating provinces that would pay tribute to the imperial capital of Tenochtitlán. The conquered peoples resented the Aztec demands for tribute and victims for the religious sacrifices, but the Aztec military kept rebellion at bay.

Meanwhile, Hernán Cortés, a young Spanish-born noble, came to Hispaniola in the West Indies in 1504. In 1511, he sailed with Diego Velázquez to conquer Cuba and twice was elected mayor of Santiago, the capital of Hispaniola. In 1518, he was appointed captain general of a new Spanish expedition to the American mainland. Velázquez, the governor of Cuba, later rescinded the order, and Cortés sailed without permission. He visited the coast of Yucatán and in March 1519 landed at Tabasco in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche with 500 soldiers, 100 sailors, and 16 horses. There, he won over the local Indians and was given a female slave, Malinche–baptized Marina–who became his mistress and later bore him a son. She knew both Maya and Aztec and served as an interpreter. The expedition then proceeded up the Mexican coast, where Cortés founded Veracruz, mainly for the purpose of having himself elected captain general by the colony, thus shaking off the authority of Velázquez and making him responsible only to King Charles V of Spain.

At Veracruz, Cortés trained his army and then burned his ships to ensure loyalty to his plans for conquest. Having learned of political strife in the Aztec empire, Cortés led his force into the Mexican interior. On the way to Tenochtitlán, he clashed with local Indians, but many of these people, including the nation of Tlaxcala, became his allies after learning of his plan to conquer their hated Aztec rulers. Hearing of the approach of Cortés, with his frightful horses and sophisticated weapons, Montezuma II tried to buy him off, but Cortés would not be dissuaded. On November 8, 1519, the Spaniards and their 1,000 Tlaxcaltec warriors were allowed to enter Tenochtitlán unopposed.

Montezuma suspected them to be divine envoys of the god Quetzalcatl, who was prophesied to return from the east in a “One Reed” year, which was 1519 on the Aztec calendar. The Spaniards were greeted with great honor, and Cortés seized the opportunity, taking Montezuma hostage so that he might govern the empire through him. His mistress, Marina, was a great help in this endeavor and succeeded in convincing Montezuma to cooperate fully.

In the spring of 1520, Cortés learned of the arrival of a Spanish force from Cuba, led by Pánfilo Narvez and sent by Velázquez to deprive Cortés of his command. Cortés led his army out of Tenochtitlán to meet them, leaving behind a garrison of 80 Spaniards and a few hundred Tlaxcaltecs to govern the city. Cortés defeated Narvez and enlisted Narvez’ army into his own. When he returned to Tenochtitlán in June, he found the garrison under siege from the Aztecs, who had rebelled after the subordinate whom Cortés left in command of the city massacred several Aztec chiefs, and the population on the brink of revolt. On June 30, under pressure and lacking food, Cortés and his men fought their way out of the capital at heavy cost. Known to the Spanish as La Noche Triste, or “the Night of Sadness,” many soldiers drowned in Lake Texcoco when the vessel carrying them and Aztec treasures hoarded by Cortés sank. Montezuma was killed in the fighting–in Aztec reports by the Spaniards, and in Spanish reports by an Aztec mob bitter at Montezuma’s subservience to Spanish rule. He was succeeded as emperor by his brother, Cuitláhuac.

During the Spaniards’ retreat, they defeated a large Aztec army at Otumba and then rejoined their Tlaxcaltec allies. In May 1521, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán, and after a three-month siege the city fell. This victory marked the fall of the Aztec empire. Cuauhtámoc, Cuitláhuac’s successor as emperor, was taken prisoner and later executed, and Cortés became the ruler of a vast Mexican empire.

The Spanish conquistador led an expedition to Honduras in 1524 and in 1528 returned to Spain to see the king. Charles made him Marqués del Valle but refused to name him governor because of his quarrels with Velázquez and others. In 1530, he returned to Mexico, now known as New Spain, and found the country in disarray. After restoring some order, he retired to his estate south of Mexico City and sent out maritime expeditions from the Pacific coast. In 1540, he returned to Spain and was neglected by the court. He died in 1547.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

The Battle of Britain escalates

On this day in 1940, German aircraft begin the bombing of southern England, and the Battle of Britain, which will last until October 31, escalates.The Germans called it “the Day of the Eagle,” the first day of the Luftwaffe’s campaign to destroy the RAF, the British Royal Air ...read more

Fidel Castro born

Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro is born in the Oriente province of eastern Cuba. The son of a Spanish immigrant who had made a fortune building rail systems to transport sugar cane, Fidel attended Roman Catholic boarding schools in Santiago de Cuba. He became involved in ...read more

Hitchcock born

Alfred Hitchcock, the macabre master of moviemaking, is born in London on August 13, 1899. His innovative directing techniques and mastery of suspense made him one of the most popular and influential filmmakers of the 20th century.Born the son of a grocer, Hitchcock attended St. ...read more

Berlin is divided

Shortly after midnight on this day in 1961, East German soldiers begin laying down barbed wire and bricks as a barrier between Soviet-controlled East Berlin and the democratic western section of the city.After World War II, defeated Germany was divided into Soviet, American, ...read more

German crown council at Spa

On this day in 1918, five days after an Allied attack at Amiens, France, leads German commander Erich Ludendorff to declare “the black day of the German army,” Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany summons his principal political and military leaders to a crown council at Spa, a resort ...read more

Sappers raid Long Binh ammo dump

Communist sappers (demolitions specialists) attack the ammo dump at Long Binh, destroying thousands of tons of ammunition. Some observers said that the Communists might have been reverting to guerrilla tactics due to the overall failure of the Nguyen Hue Offensive that had been ...read more

Yankee legend dies

Former New York Yankees star Mickey Mantle dies of liver cancer at the age of 63. While “The Mick” patrolled center field and batted clean-up between 1951 and 1968, the Yankees won 12 American League pennants and seven World Series championships.Mantle was born in Spavinaw, ...read more

Annie Oakley is born

Annie Oakley, one of the greatest female sharpshooters in American history, is born in Patterson Township, Ohio.Born Phoebe Ann Oakley Moses, Oakley demonstrated an uncanny gift for marksmanship at an early age. “I was eight years old when I made my first shot,” she later ...read more

Fast Times at Ridgemont High debuts

On this day in 1982, the teenage coming-of-age comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High opens in theaters around the United States. Written by Cameron Crowe and directed by Amy Heckerling, the film follows a year in the life of high school students Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Linda ...read more

Yosemite killer Cary Stayner born

Cary Stayner, the serial killer convicted in the grisly murders of four women near Yosemite National Park, is born on this day in 1961. In 1972, Stayner’s childhood took a tragic turn when his younger brother Steven, then seven, was kidnapped while walking home from school in the ...read more

Deep Bottom Run campaign begins

Sensing a weakness in the Confederate defenses around Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, Union General Ulysses S. Grant seeks to break the siege of Petersburg by concentrating his force against one section of the Rebel trenches. However, Grant miscalculated, and the week-long ...read more

Record day for the Berlin Airlift

Responding to increasing Soviet pressure on western Berlin, U.S. and British planes airlift a record amount of supplies into sections of the city under American and British control. The massive resupply effort, carried out in weather so bad that some pilots referred to it as ...read more

Rotary engine inventor Felix Wankel born

The German engineer Felix Wankel, inventor of a rotary engine that will be used in race cars, is born on August 13, 1902, in Lahr, Germany. Wankel reportedly came up with the basic idea for a new type of internal combustion gasoline engine when he was only 17 years old. In 1924, ...read more