When Hernan Cortes began his siege of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan in 1521, he split his coalition of Spanish and allied native warriors among several officers and sent them to positions on different causeways that led toward the Aztec capital, which was built on a marshy lake. With the help of his native allies, Cortes was also able to build 13 ships to deploy on the lake around Tenochtitlan—theses ships aided his divided forces as they pushed up the causeways toward the city. In addition to supporting the Spanish ground troops and keeping hostile canoe fleets at bay, the ships also patrolled the lake at night in search of Aztec smugglers attempting to bring food and water into the besieged city. Hernan Cortes made mention of these anti-smuggling operations in his Third Letter to his liege, Charles V:
“I gave particular instructions to the commanders of these brigantines, to run day and night from one camp to the other, some one way and some to the other, since the enemy were in the habit of visiting part of the main land in the vicinity of the two camps with their canoes, which they loaded with water, fruits, maize, and other supplies” (Hernan Cortes, Third Letter).
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the conquistadors who served with Hernan Cortes, also made note of the nightly conflict between patrol ships and smugglers in his memoir history, The Conquest of New Spain. He wrote of how hunting the smugglers served a dual purpose, for it disrupted the besieged city’s food supply and also expanded the diet of the Spaniards, themselves, as the Spanish infantry on the causeways were reportedly persisting mainly on scavenged vegetables and fruits. Therefore, when the patrols captured a shipment of meat, it not only deprived the much-needed food from the Aztecs, but also gave Cortes’ troops a more exciting meal.
As time went on, the Aztecs became aware of the campaign against their smugglers. At the same time, Cortes’ patrols in the lake began to underestimate their opponents as the Spanish successes in naval battles and smuggler seizures piled up. Taking advantage of this lack of respect and discipline, the Aztecs would soon make the hunters become the hunted.
One night, two Spanish patrol ships caught site of some enemy canoes paddling a cargo of what they thought was fresh water toward the city of Tenochtitlan. With their targets in sight, the patrol ships sped off in the direction of the smugglers. The rowers in the canoes, upon realizing that they were being pursued, frantically began paddling toward a nearby shore. Although the ships were closing in, the Aztec smugglers were able to reach a lakeside thicket that crept into the water. As the smugglers pulled their canoes ashore, the two patrol ships arrived near the thicket, hoping to catch their prey before the enemy could escape. Yet, as they rowed closer to the visible vegetation, the ships jolted to a stop. No matter how hard they rowed, the ships would not budge—as the Spaniards would later discover, the Aztecs had planted spikes in that area of water, which caught or impaled the hulls of the Spanish ships.
Hidden stakes, however, were not the only threat faced by the stranded crews. Looking out from their ships, the conquistadors would have seen the thicket appear to start moving. The brushy vegetation started floating closer to the ships, and the sailors could start to discern distinct masses in the growth. Unfortunately for the Spaniards, the thicket was not really a thicket at all—actually, it was approximately thirty camouflaged canoes filled with warriors. Having successfully caught the two patrol ships in their trap, the Aztecs launched their attack. The aforementioned Bernal Díaz del Castillo recounted the ill fates of these sailors:
“When they reached the ambush all the pirogues came out together and attacked them, quickly wounding all the soldiers, oarsmen, and officers; and the launches could not escape in either direction on account of the stakes that had been planted. Thus they killed a certain Captain de Portilla, an excellent soldier who had fought in Italy, and wounded Pedro Barba, another good officer, whose launch they captured and who died of his wounds three days later” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 151).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (cropped section from The Conquest of Tenochtitlán, painting dated to the 17th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.