Hernán Cortés Reportedly Burned 17 Aztec Military Leaders To Death During Montezuma’s Captivity


On November 8, 1519, Hernán Cortés and his band of conquistadors entered the Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan, where they met Montezuma II, the leader of the Aztecs at that time. Cortés and Montezuma were able to maintain a cordial relationship for a while, as the Aztec ruler invited the Spaniards to his feasts, allowed them to build a chapel, and let the conquistadors tour the city’s markets and temples in peace. Yet, both sides were naturally suspicious of the other, and while Cortés and Montezuma were acting amiably in public, both were secretly plotting ways to gain an advantage over their rival.

Cortés and the Spaniards especially feared that Montezuma would one day withdraw his protection and order an attack, leaving the conquistadors surrounded by foes in a hostile labyrinth of a city. Such paranoia caused the Spaniards to start brainstorming ways to gain leverage over the Aztecs. They eventually decided upon a bold plan to take Montezuma hostage, yet they hesitated in carrying out their mission, presumably waiting for some affront to occur which would justify their action.

The spark that the Spaniards were waiting for did not occur in Tenochtitlan, but back at the Spanish colony of Veracruz. Hernán Cortés had founded the settlement before marching off to Tenochtitlan, and a certain Juan Escalante was deputized as the constable of the colony during Cortés’ absence.  While Cortés was doing his part in Tenochtitlan, Escalante was seeing to Spanish interests at the colony, which brought him into contact with a leader named Qualpopoca, who led an Aztec-aligned city that the Spaniards called Almeria. In the so-called Second Letter that Hernán Cortés sent back to his liege, Charles V, it was reported that Qualpopoca deceived Escalante into thinking that Almeria wanted to submit to Spanish rule. Four Spaniards from Veracruz were sent to Almeria to negotiate with Qualpopoca, but upon their arrival, the Veracruz diplomats were ambushed and two were killed. The surviving two fled back to Escalante, who immediately gathered forces to seek revenge. According to Cortés’ Second Letter, Escalante marched with a force of 40 or 50 conquistadors (aided by thousands of allied natives) against Almeria.

Escalante’s battle at Almeria is a difficult event to gauge. Hernán Cortés, in his Second Letter, downplayed the battle to his liege, telling Charles V that the campaign against Almeria was a straight-forward success, in which Escalante crushed Qualpopoca’s army, forced the enemy to abandon the city, and then burned Almeria to the ground. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of Cortés’ conquistadors, had a vastly different view of the battle, which he presented in his Conquest of New Spain. In total disagreement with Cortés, Bernal Díaz claimed that the battle at Almeria was a defeat and disaster suffered by the Spaniards. Far from a steamrolling of Qualpopoca’s forces, the clash at Almeria was apparently a brutal battle. According to Bernal Díaz, a great number of Escalante’s native allies died in the attack, and around 8 of the 40-50 Spaniards who participated in the attack died from wounds sustained at Almeria—Escalante, himself, was one of those who would succumb to his wounds. Furthermore, the conquistadors’ poor showing at the battle reportedly boosted morale of the Aztecs and demoralized the communities that had been working with Veracruz. To conclude his summary of the Battle at Almeria, Bernal Díaz wrote, “It was the first defeat we had suffered in New Spain, and misfortunes, as the reader will see, were now descending upon us” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 93-94).

Although Cortés downplayed the events of Almeria in his letter to Charles V, his actions in Tenochtitlan when he learned of the battle show that his true impression of the attack was much more aligned with Bernal Díaz than the letter let on. News of Almeria and Escalante’s death spurred Cortés and the conquistadors in Tenochtitlan to launch their plot to take Montezuma hostage. They successfully kidnapped the Aztec leader, and one of the first demands they made of their royal captive was for Montezuma to summon to Tenochtitlan Qualpopoca and other chiefs involved in the Almeria incident. According to Cortés’ Second Letter, 17 chieftains answered Montezuma’s summons, including Qualpopoca and one of his sons. They apparently did not suspect that anything was amiss, for Qualpopoca entered the city leisurely, carried on a lordly litter. Their ignorance, however, did not last long—under pressure from his conquistador captors, Montezuma had the 17 military leaders arrested and handed them over to Cortés.

According to both Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz, the imprisoned chieftains were interrogated (and probably tortured), and the questions of the interrogators pried for information as to how involved Montezuma was in Qualpopoca’s hostile actions. The chieftains started out by acknowledging that they were loyal to the Aztec ruler, but also insisted that Montezuma was not directly involved in the Almeria attack. As the interrogation persisted, however, the chieftains began to change their story to implicate Montezuma more and more. Satisfied with their answers, Hernán Cortés was ready to pronounce the punishment for the leaders who had killed his friend, Escalante—it would be brutal.

When it came to punishing the leaders of the Almeria incident, Hernán Cortés did not simply want recompense or apology; instead, he wanted to take the opportunity to display his power and to instill terror on the city of Tenochtitlan. What Cortés did next apparently even caught Montezuma completely off guard, and he would react worse to this decision than he had to being kidnapped by the Spaniards. Bernal Díaz vividly described the fate of the 17 chieftains in his Conquest of New Spain:

 “Cortés sentenced the captains [of Almeria] to be burned to death before the royal palace. This sentence was immediately carried out and, to prevent any interference, Cortes had Montezuma put in chains while they were being burned. The prince roared with anger at this indignity, and became even more alarmed than before” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 95).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (The Torture of Cuahutemoc, painted in the late 19th-century by Leandro Izaguirre, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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