During the course of the year 1521, the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, led a grueling assault against the lake-bound Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Not content with merely starving the Aztec forces within the city into submission, Cortes ringed his troops around the fortified island and had them unceasingly press up the causeways toward the heart of the city. Although Aztec sorties sometimes got the better of Cortes, his forces nonetheless pressed on, filling up canals and demolishing houses as they battled into the city interior. As the siege progressed, the Spaniards quarantined the Aztec defenders to a section of the island stronghold called Tlatelolco, which was originally its own city, but had become intertwined with Tenochtitlan because of urban growth. When Hernan Cortes and his army finally captured the great market of Tlatelolco, all that Aztec Emperor Cuauhtémoc controlled was a small residential district. The end of the siege was at hand, but the injured and exhausted Spaniards (who had been assaulting the city for months) were not eager to make the costly final push against their stubborn foes. During this hesitation, a conquistador in Hernan Cortes’ entourage made an enticing proposition—why not use catapults to bombard the Aztec holdouts into submission?
Hernan Cortes and many others who listened to this proposal thought that the idea was a splendid plan of action. Halting their assault for a time, the conquistadors and their allies repurposed their efforts into gathering supplies for the mysterious Spaniard who claimed to know how to build a catapult. Precious time and manpower were devoted to the tasks of fetching wood, ropes, miscellaneous joining materials and tools for the construction of the siege engines, as well as large stones for use as ammunition, all of which was hauled to the Tlatelolco market for the project. With these supplies in his possession, the self-proclaimed engineer went to work on his promised catapults. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the conquistadors present during the siege, commented on the construction of these siege engines and their unfortunate unveiling:
“Cortes allowed himself to be persuaded by the great things which this man promised, and issued the necessary orders for the construction of such a machine; and the stone, wood, lime, and iron, which this man required for his wonderful machine were soon provided for him. Two of these catapults were soon finished, by which large stones, of the size of buckets, were to be cast upon the houses. But these machines proved a complete failure, and the stones which they were to throw to a distance fell at the foot of the engine itself. Cortes was excessively annoyed with this soldier for having persuaded him to listen to his schemes, and ordered the machines to be destroyed” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 155).
After dismantling the failed siege engines, Hernan Cortes resumed his tried-and-true tactic of assaulting the Aztec positions through coordinated strikes carried out by his troops on the causeways, aided by a makeshift navy on the lake. Cortes’ ships were of a much better construction than the catapults, and when the Aztec ruler tried to flee by boat, the Spanish patrols on the lake were able to intercept and capture Emperor Cuauhtémoc.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Conquest of Tenochtitlán, 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.