In the final days of December, 1520, Hernan Cortes began his second march toward the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. Setting out from the land of his allies, the Tlaxcalans, Hernan Cortes crossed mountainous terrain to reach the city of Texcoco. There, he caused Aztec loyalists to flee the region and, in the power vacuum that occurred, the Spaniards propped up a new dissident faction in the city and recognized the faction’s chosen leader as the ruler of Texcoco. With the cooperative Texcocan leader on his side, Hernan Cortes began working on a makeshift port on the city’s lakeside shore from which he wished to launch a blockade against Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards spent a twelve-day span in the city, directing the locals to dredge the local canals and widen the channels to accommodate ships.
After enjoying the new year in Texcoco and spending several days overseeing canal modifications, Hernan Cortes decided to move on from the city in order to relieve his army’s burden on the farmlands of his newfound allies, and to further consolidate power in the cities surrounding Tenochtitlan. Cortes mobilized his army and marched for Iztapalapa, a city still loyal to Tenochtitlan in the Aztec sphere of influence. Hernan Cortes’ movements were not overlooked by the Aztec intelligence network, which had eyes and ears throughout the lakeside cities that surrounded Tenochtitlan. Due to these spies, the Aztecs were able to send thousands of reinforcements to Iztapalapa before the Spaniards arrived. Together, the local city garrison and the reinforcements took to the field to challenge Hernan Cortes’ army in battle—it was a poor decision, for in a fair fight on the open ground, Cortes’ cavalry, crossbows, firearms and artillery gave him an overwhelming advantage. The Aztecs, after their forces were torn apart by such firepower, soon ended their attack and decided to retreat to Iztapalapa. As the day was late and night was beginning to fall, the Spaniards decided not to pursue. Instead, Cortes’ troops settled down in some vacated houses near the lake.
Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors suspected that a night attack was possibly incoming and took precautions by setting up watchmen and sentinels. Forces from Iztapalapa were indeed planning an attack, but it was not spears and arrows that they planned to use in their assault. Instead, with their knowledge of the canals and causeways that crisscrossed the region, the locals decided to let Mother Nature take her own swipe at the Spaniards. During the night, saboteurs from Iztapalapa went to work, and might have ended Hernan Cortes’ meteoric campaign against the Aztecs then and there had it not been for the presence of the Spanish-allied Tlaxcalans and Texcocans, who were wise to Aztec tactics. The vital role of these native allies in detecting and warning the Spaniards of the watery surprise that occurred that night near Iztapalapa was described by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (c. 1492-1580), one of Cortes’ conquistadors. He wrote:
“We placed our sentinels and watchmen, we sent out patrols and scouts. But when we were off our guard, such a flood of water swept through the town that if the chiefs we had brought from Texcoco had not shouted to us to get out of the houses as quickly as we could and make for dry land, we should have all been drowned. For the enemy had emptied the fresh- and salt-water canals, and cut through a causeway, which caused the level of the water to rise suddenly” (Conquest of New Spain, volume 2, chapter 138).
Thanks to the attentiveness of the Texcocans, Hernan Cortes’ army was saved, although the water rolled in so quickly that a few people did indeed die. In addition to the loss of life, the water ruined provisions being hauled along by Cortes’ army and it wetted much of the gunpowder that powered the Spanish firearms and artillery. Furthermore, the flood made many of Cortes’ troops uncomfortable and cold, impairing their sleep and mood. Hoping all of these contributing factors would give them an advantage, the Aztecs launched a powerful attack on Hernan Cortes as soon as dawn arrived. The Spaniards, with their soaked gunpowder, had trouble fending off the attack. Nevertheless, they managed an orderly retreat and fought their way back to Texcoco. Both sides were disappointed in the battle—the Spaniards were embarrassed and humiliated over being forced to retreat, whereas the Aztecs were distraught over their inability to inflict more damage on the conquistadors during their vulnerable state after the engineered flood.
Picture Attribution: (Flood in the Darling by WC Piguenit (1836 – 1914), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.