On November 8, 1519, Hernán Cortés entered the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, a populous and bustling city, dominated by broad causeways and canoe-filled canals. The Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, managed his domain from the city, and various chieftains of the Aztec Empire gravitated there to attend the emperor’s court. As such, Tenochtitlan was a place of fashion, pageantry and courtly etiquette. Observing this political environment, Cortés wrote that the people of Tenochtitlan were “marked by as great an attention to the proprieties of life as in Spain, and good order is equally well observed” (Cortés’ Second Letter to Charles V).
Upon Cortés’ entry into the city, Montezuma II and his large entourage came out to greet the Spaniards. The Aztec emperor was carried to the spot on an ornate litter. When the litter came to a halt, a mobile canopy (decorated with feathers and precious metals) was prepared to shade Montezuma as he trekked on foot. In addition to the elegant canopy, Montezuma’s every sandaled step was preempted by a cloak being ceremoniously laid before his path, so that the Aztec emperor’s footwear would not be dirtied by the earth.
As Cortés watched this pageantry, he must have known there would be—as with most monarchs—unspoken rules about how to act (or not act) when meeting with Montezuma. Unsurprisingly, these rules were still quite vague to Cortés and his fellow Spaniards when they had their first in-person meeting with Montezuma on November 8, 1519. Consequently, Hernán Cortés had a bit of a bumbling start in his navigation of Aztec pleasantries. Fortunately for him, Montezuma was apparently in a patient and forgiving mood, willing to overlook, or subtly correct, Cortés’ breaches of etiquette.
Hernán Cortés began with a safe bet—a deep and respectful bow. Montezuma approved this opener, and returned the bow in one way or another. Through interpreters, the two then exchanged greetings and wished each other good health. Next, Cortés reportedly made a slight misstep (or a bit of political gamesmanship) by taking the initiative to extend his hand to Montezuma. The Aztec emperor corrected the ceremony by waving off Cortés’ hand and then, more in keeping with propriety, held out his own hand for the Spaniard. Cortés soon presented a gift to Montezuma. It was a necklace of multi-colored elaborate beads, strung on a perfumed gold chain. The Aztec emperor graciously accepted the gift, and even let Cortés do the honor of placing the jewelry around the emperor’s royal neck.
Hernán Cortés succeeded in placing the necklace on Montezuma’s shoulders without causing any offense. Yet, right after bestowing this gift on the emperor, Cortés apparently tried to pull Montezuma into some kind of embrace. This move was too shocking a divergence from protocol for Montezuma’s relatives and guards to let occur, so they immediately sprang into action to save their liege from a perceived disgrace or embarrassment by blocking the Spaniard’s path and grasping hold of Cortés’ arms. With the hug thwarted, the ceremony returned to surer footing. The two leaders exchanged complimentary speeches, and, finally, Montezuma had the Spaniards shown to their lodgings.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene of Hernan Cortes and the Emperor of Mexico, painted by Carlos Esquivel y Rivas (1830–1867), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.