When the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, began his siege of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan in 1521, he deployed thirteen makeshift ships into the lake surrounding the city. His goal was to aid his troops as they pushed their way up the causeways to Tenochtitlan, as well as to combat smugglers who were trying to bring supplies to the besieged Aztec stronghold. The Aztecs, however, were a smart foe, and they began adapting their strategies and tactics to respond to the threat of Cortes’ ships. During the daytime battles, they placed stakes in the lake water beside the causeways as a barrier to keeps the Spanish ships at bay. Similarly, during the night, the Aztecs used decoy smugglers in attempts to lure Spanish patrol boats into ambushes—one such night-attack worked perfectly for the Aztecs, when two of Cortes’ ships became stuck on stakes planted under the water and were subsequently attacked by hidden warriors packed onto around thirty camouflaged canoes (read about this, HERE). Despite this embarrassing setback, Hernan Cortes would soon have his revenge.
As the Spanish ships kept up their nightly patrols, they eventually made a fortuitous catch—two high-level Aztec officers who had great knowledge of defensive positions set up around Tenochtitlan were apprehended by the Spaniards. Of special interest to Cortes was their awareness of a location where another amphibious ambush was being prepared by the Aztecs. Through bribery and kindness (and possibly torture), Cortes was able to pry from the two captured officials precise details about the plot, such as how many Aztec ambushers would be deployed for the trap, how they would lure the Spanish ships to the site, and from which directions they would attack. The plot that the captives began to divulge was incredibly similar to the previous nighttime ambush, yet this time it would be on a greater scale. As happened last time, the Aztecs were planning to use fake smugglers to lead Spanish patrol ships into a section of the lake that was riddled with submerged spikes, where, once the Spaniards were stuck or inhibited by the stakes, over forty hidden canoes would then row out to attack the stranded conquistadors. With this knowledge in his possession, Hernan Cortes selected six of his ships and prepared to ambush the ambushers.
In the dark hours when night was merging into morning, Cortes’ hand-selected fleet sailed out to where they knew the Aztec ambush was set. The Spaniards had created their own camouflage for their vessels, leaving only one of the ships easily visible in the dimly-lit atmosphere. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of Hernan Cortes’ followers, described the uncanny scene of the Aztecs and Spaniards both sending out their decoys, each hoping to lure the other into a trap:
“Then, early next morning, Cortes ordered a launch to be sent out as if in pursuit of provisioning canoes, with the two Indian chiefs on board to point out the exact position of the [hidden] pirogues. At the same time the Mexicans sent out their two decoy canoes, which purported to carry supplies, and they went in the direction of the ambush in the hope that our launch would pursue them. Each party had its own idea, and the ideas were in fact the same” (The Conquest of New Spain, Volume 2, chapter 151).
In accordance with the plan, the visible Spanish ship cautiously floated in pursuit of the decoy smugglers. Yet, before the Spanish ship reached the dangerous area that had been seeded with stakes and spikes, the crew onboard flipped the vessel around and sped off in the opposite direction at a decent—yet enticingly slow—pace. The hidden Aztec warriors, with their prey coming so close into the midst, could not hold back their desire to make chase. Instead of waiting for another ship to fall into their trap, the warriors in the canoes shed their camouflage and frantically rowed after the escaping patrol boat. During their chase, the Aztecs paid no heed of the suspicious masses lurking in the darkness of the early morning. They did not know how much danger they were in until the percussion and flash of a cannon or firearm erupted out of the darkness, followed by a Spanish battle cry. Bernal Díaz described the scene, saying, “At that moment a gun was fired as a signal for our launches to emerge. They came out with a great rush, and attacked the enemy craft, which they overturned, killing many warriors and taking many prisoners” (The Conquest of New Spain, Volume 2, chapter 151). This successful Spanish ambush of the Aztec ambushers was reportedly a turning point in the naval battles on the lake that occurred during the siege of Tenochtitlan—after this defeat, the Aztecs did not plan any further large-scale traps for Hernan Cortes’ patrol ships. Additionally, the tightened naval superiority that the battle gave Cortes meant that his efforts to cut off supplies from Tenochtitlan became more efficient.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (scene from the series, Conquest of Mexico, by Miguel Gonzales (Virreinato de la Nueva España, XVII – XVIII century – Virreinato de la Nueva España), c. 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.