In late December, 1520, Hernan Cortes began his second march toward the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, engaging first in campaigns against the cities around the lake-bound capital, before dividing his troops into separate camps to besiege Tenochtitlan, itself, by 1521. During the months-long siege, the conquistadors camped on the various causeways leading into the capital, and engaged in frequent and continuous skirmishes with Aztec defenders as the battle for the city progressed. Aiding the Spanish siege camps was a makeshift navy that Hernan Cortes had constructed before committing to the assault—this fleet was given several tasks, including anti-smuggling operations at night and battle assistance during the day. By launching unrelenting attacks by land and lake, the conquistadors steadily forced their way ever inward into the Aztec capital. Emperor Cuauhtémoc of the Aztecs, as his territory was whittled away, retreated to a residential district near the great Tlatelolco market. Within this final stronghold, as it dawned on the emperor that the fall of Tenochtitlan was inevitable, the Aztec ruler began planning one last maneuver. It was an escape attempt that he had on his mind. His plan, however, was an odd and ultimately ineffective debacle.
As Tenochtitlan and the Tlatelolco market area was surrounded by canals and lake water, Emperor Cuauhtémoc decided that his best route for escape was by boat. Sure, Hernan Cortes had several gun-equipped patrol ships on the lake, but that seemed like a more permeable target than the hundreds of well-armed conquistadors on the causeways, who were additionally backed up by thousands of native allies. Therefore, the Aztec emperor began gathering up every single lake-worthy vessel that was available to him from the residential district, and had his followers load all of his favorite belongings onto one of the most ornate ships. Once the preparations were complete, Cuauhtémoc needed only board his ship with his family and then escape at an opportune moment. Yet, the Aztec leader employed no subtlety, at all, during his last-ditch effort at escape. Instead, he set sail from his final stronghold at a time when the besieging conquistadors were fully vigilant. Hernan Cortes’ patrol ships were floating nearby in the canals and waterways around the residential area when the Aztec ruler tried to flee, and it was little trouble for them to pursue and locate the doomed emperor. One of the conquistadors at the scene, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, described the odd scene:
“These people embarked in their fifty canoes, in which they already placed Guatemoc’s [aka Cuauhtémoc] property, gold, and jewels, and all his family and women. Then he himself embarked and shot out into the lake, accompanied by many captains. At the same moment many more canoes set out, and soon the lake was full of them…It pleased our Lord God that Garcia Holguin should overtake Guatemoc’s fleet, which by its rich decorations, its awnings, and royal seat he recognized as the raft in which the Lord of Mexico was traveling” (Bernal Díaz, Conquest of New Spain, vol. II, chapter 156).
With the Spanish ships closing in, and their canon and other firearms trained in his direction, Cuauhtémoc ultimately decided to surrender. This capitulation reportedly occurred on August 13, 1521. The captured Aztec emperor was brought before Hernan Cortes, who initially treated his captive well. This honorable treatment, however, did not last. Cuauhtémoc was eventually tortured and finally executed by 1522.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (17th century painting by Miguel Gonzales inspired by the adventure of Hernan Cortes in the land of the Aztecs, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.