In 1519, Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico, leading a band of Spaniards into a precarious political environment that was dominated by the Aztec Empire. To Cortés’ good fortune, the Spaniards eventually landed in a region populated by the Totonacs, a people who grudgingly paid tribute to the Aztecs. By July of 1519, Cortés was able to bring the Totonac cities into rebellion against the then ruler of the Aztecs, Montezuma II. After founding the colony of Vera Cruz and building up his alliance with the Totonacs, Cortés headed inland toward the Tlaxcalans, the fiercest rival of the Aztecs at the time. As there were Totonac warriors—former Aztec tributaries—marching with the Spaniards, the Tlaxcalans reportedly believed that Cortés had aligned with Montezuma II, and therefore the forces of Tlaxcala were at first hostile to the conquistadors. In early September, the Tlaxcalans went to war against Cortés, attacking the Spaniards during the day and ambushing the conquistadors at night. Yet, after the Tlaxcalans suffered several costly defeats, they made peace with the foreigners. When the leaders of Tlaxcala subsequently discovered that Cortés was not aligned with Montezuma, but was instead stirring up all kinds of trouble for the Aztecs, the Tlaxcalans eagerly agreed to an alliance with Hernán Cortés.
Around the time that Cortés and the Tlaxcalans began negotiating, five Aztec diplomats from Montezuma arrived in the Spanish camp. The envoys brought with them gifts of gold, jewels and cloth for Cortés, and they also delivered a message from Montezuma, in which he reportedly promised to pay tribute to Cortés’ liege, Charles V, in exchange for the Spaniards never traveling to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). After peace was formally ratified between the Spaniards and the Tlaxcalans, some of the Aztec diplomats rushed off to inform Montezuma of the happenings. A few days later, more Aztec diplomats arrived (with a further helping of ornate gifts) and they delivered another message from Montezuma, in which he begged the Spaniards not to trust the Tlaxcalans. The Aztecs, however, were not the only ones sowing distrust—during Cortés’ alliance negotiations with Tlaxcala, the Tlaxcalans repeatedly advised the Spaniards not to trust Montezuma or his subject states. Unfortunately for the Aztecs, as the Spanish support for the Totonac rebellion had already shown, Cortés did not have Montezuma’s interests at heart—therefore he traveled to Tlaxcala, soaked up as much local intelligence about the Aztecs as he could obtain, and recruited 1,000 Tlaxcalan warriors to accompany the Spaniards on their journeys.
While the Spaniards were still in Tlaxcala, another message arrived from Montezuma, in which he said it was dangerous to spend so much time with the Tlaxcalans. Montezuma suggested that Cortés travel toward Tenochtitlan, where Aztec-aligned cities would take good care of the Spaniards. The Aztec ambassadors with Cortés pointed out the city of Cholula as an ideal destination—it was one of the most important cities in Mexico and it served as an agricultural, religious and military hub in the region. Most of all, Cholula was staunchly loyal to Montezuma. Upon hearing of the suggested city, Cortés sent a message to Cholula, requesting that leaders from the area come to meet him in Tlaxcala. The Cholulans, in response, sent messengers of low status to Tlaxcala with a message that the chiefs of Cholula would not be meeting with Cortés. Infuriated, Cortés sent the messengers home with a second, angrier-toned request that the Cholulan chiefs come to meet him. The Cholulans responded steadfastly that they would in no way send their chieftains into the territory of Tlaxcala, a long-time enemy of Cholula and the Aztecs. Hernán Cortés found this explanation reasonable and decided to instead bring himself and his forces to the Cholulans. The 1,000 Tlaxcalan recruits went with him.
When Cortés’ party neared Cholula, the city’s leaders and priests came out to meet the travelers on the road. The mood was said to have been joyous until the Cholulans sighted the large contingent of Tlaxcalans in Cortés’ wake. Upon this discovery, the leaders of Cholula forbid the warriors of Tlaxcala from entering the city. When the Tlaxcalans agreed to camp away in some nearby fields, the Cholulans, satisfied, let Cortés and approximately 400 of his Spanish followers, as well as his Totonac allies, enter into the city.
At first, Cortés’ experience in the city was pleasant. The Spaniards and their allies (minus the Tlaxcalans) were given lodging and plenty of good food. Once he had access to the Cholulan leaders, Hernán Cortés began making his usual requests of the locals—convert to Christianity and swear fealty to Charles V. The Cholulans refused the first command, but said they would think about the second. For two days, the cordial atmosphere lasted; local chiefs and priests met with the Spaniards, and the residents of Cholula crowded the streets and rooftops to get a glimpse of the strange foreigners.
The mood in Cholula underwent an abrupt change on the third day, however, when dignitaries from Montezuma arrived in the city. They presented another message from the indecisive Montezuma, in which he expressly ordered the Spaniards not to continue on toward Tenochtitlan. Montezuma’s ambassador’s also met with the local authorities in Cholula, resulting in a drastic change in the local attitude toward the Spaniards—they stopped bringing food, the chieftains no longer met with Cortés, and average Cholulans in the streets avoided the Spaniards like the plague.
Curiously, several local priests in Cholula eventually began mediating between Cortés and the leaders of the city, ultimately brokering a meeting between the two sides. In the parley, the Cholulan leadership explained that Montezuma had commanded the city to give no further food to the Spaniards and to not let them travel any further toward Tenochtitlan. In response to this revelation, Cortés merely replied that he would continue on the road to Tenochtitlan anyway, preferably the very next day, and that he wanted 2,000 Cholulan porters to accompany him on his journey. The Cholulans were reportedly startled by the reply, but they agreed to assemble Cortés’ escort at a designated courtyard near the city’s temple.
According to the story put forward by the Spanish sources, Cortés received an incredible number of revelations over the next few hours until sunrise. Cortés’ Totonac allies appeared, claiming that they had found hidden pits in the city that were filled with sharpened stakes, as well as rooftops stocked with stones that could be used as projectiles. They also claimed to have seen earthen and wooden defenses that had been recently been built in the city. Later, some Tlaxcalans who had sneaked into Cholula came to Cortés and informed him that they had seen signs of war preparation at the periphery of the city, including an exodus of baggage and civilians, as well as invocations to the gods for assistance in war. Finally, Hernán Cortés’ interpreter, Malinche (whom the Spaniards called Doña Marina), rounded up three witnesses—two local priests and an elderly woman—who allegedly all confessed that the Cholulans were planning to lead the Spaniards into an ambush of 20,000 Aztec warriors hidden just outside the city.
Although the validity of the evidence, and the motivations of the people who provided it, have long been debated over the centuries, Hernán Cortés and his fellow Spaniards were, at that time, apparently completely convinced that the Cholulans wanted to do them harm. In this state of mind, Cortés sent messengers to his Tlaxcalan allies, telling them to be prepared for battle, and to attack the city if they should hear a gunshot. Finally, before dawn, Cortés marched his Spaniards and Totonac allies to the courtyard where the 2,000 Cholulan porters were due to assemble. He set up troops at all entrances and exits from the courtyard and waited for the Cholulan leaders, priests and escorts to arrive. When these people began to pour into the courtyard, the atmosphere was reportedly joyous—the Cholulans were apparently in a giggly mood that morning and their steps were quick and purposeful. More than the required 2,000 appeared in the courtyard, filling up the space. Among the crowd were two of the informants that Doña Marina had brought to Cortés; these men were subtlety sent away by the Spaniards and were told to lock themselves in their homes.
Despite the ring of Cortés’ troops encircling the courtyard, and the selective sending-away of certain pro-Spanish Cholulans, the people who gathered in the square apparently took little notice of the vulnerable situation into which they had walked. The realization of danger, however, became all too apparent when Hernán Cortés started to speak to the crowd through his interpreter. He accused the gathered Cholulans of nefarious and treasonous acts against himself and his liege, Charles V—a crime that was punishable by death. After Cortés’ speech, the Cholulan leaders reportedly again claimed that they were only following Montezuma’s orders, yet it is unclear if they were referring to the withheld food or the planned ambush of which they were being accused. Whatever the case, Hernán Cortés found the explanation unsatisfactory and decided to show no mercy to the Cholulan chiefs, priests and warriors in the courtyard. As Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the Spaniards at the scene, described the event, Cortés “ordered a musket to be fired, which was the signal we had agreed on; and they [the Cholulans] received a blow that they will remember for ever, for we killed many of them” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 83).
A large portion of the Cholulans in the courtyard were unarmed, as their primary purpose for gathering had been to serve as porters and luggage carriers of the Spaniards. As such, Hernán Cortés’ small band of conquistadors, armed with swords, shields, crossbows and firearms, cut through the thousands of Cholulans in the square with ease in a period of about two hours. In a later dispatch to Charles V, Hernán Cortés claimed that 3,000 Cholulans died in the attack, yet other contemporary 16th-century sources reported as many as 6,000 were killed.
Cortés and the Spaniards were not the only threat to Cholula on the day of the massacre—1,000 Tlaxcalan warriors were still camped outside of the city. When they heard the sounds of gunshots, the Tlaxcalans stormed Cholula to kill, plunder and take captives in the streets. As had happened before the attack at the courtyard, the Spaniards sheltered certain selected Cholulan priests and chieftains from the rampage of the Tlaxcalans, yet many of the other leadership figures in Cholula died in the massacre or on the chaotic streets. When word of events in Cholula spread back to Tlaxcala, more Tlaxcalan warriors arrived at the scene to take part in the sacking of the city.
After an unknown number of days, Cortés began to rein in the chaos. The people who were still alive in Cholula were pardoned and the Spaniards managed to convince the Tlaxcalans to return to the outskirts of the city. Cortés also reportedly asked the Tlaxcalans to release their Cholulan prisoners, although the degree to which this was done is uncertain. A new regime of chieftains and priests, returned to power in Cholula, in which the figures sheltered by the Spaniards during the attack now took prominence. Finally, Cortés was able to broker some kind of peace between the new Cholulan leaders and the Tlaxcalans who had just sacked the city.
After staying a reported fourteen days in Cholula, Hernán Cortés set out in the direction of Tenochtitlan. The alleged 20,000 hidden Aztecs warriors near Cholula—if they had really been there—had by this time withdrawn, and Cortés faced no further harassment during his trip to the Aztec capital. As was hinted earlier, the events at Cholula were controversial and much debated even in the day of Cortés. During the 16th century, Cortés’ fellow Spaniards questioned the reliability of the evidence presented by the Totonacs, the Tlaxcalans and the interpreter, Doña Marina, which led to the preemptive killing of so many Cholulans. Hernán Cortés’ comrade, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, was especially hostile to the insinuations of a bishop and Dominican friar named Bartolome de las Casas (d. 1566), who alleged Cortés “punished the Cholulans for no reason at all” and accused the Spaniards of “great cruelties” in the city (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 83). In rebuttal to Bartolome de las Casas’ accusations, Bernal Díaz del Castillo praised an investigation done by a team of “some good Franciscans,” who interviewed the leaders of the new regime in Cholula, and the accounts they received from the city leaders were reportedly identical to the ones presented by Cortés and his companions (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 83).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Storming of Teocalli by Hernan Cortes, by Emanuel Leutze (1816–1868), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.