Bernal Díaz del Castillo was an experienced conquistador who served on several Spanish voyages around Yucatan and Mexico, including the expedition of Hernan Cortes that toppled the Aztec Empire. Unhappy with how the scholars and court historians portrayed and framed Cortes’ expedition, Bernal Díaz determined to write his own account of events, based on his intimate personal knowledge.
Of the many horrific sights seen by Bernal Díaz during his gruesome war against the Aztecs, few stood out in his mind like what occurred during the siege of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, in 1521. It was a resilient and heavily fortified city, able to withstand the muskets, crossbows and cannons of Hernan Cortes for months on end. The battle for the city was a horrible scene of urban combat, with near-daily skirmishes occurring at the capital’s main causeways and surrounding buildings. As the siege went on, the conquistadors and their native allies slowly pressed inward into the city, tearing down structures as they went and filling in canals so as to not be flanked by Aztecs in canoes.
Both sides used psychological warfare to great effect during the war. Spaniards used the strangeness of their horses, armor and firearms to unnerve their enemies, and encouraged tales among the natives that they were gods or other supernatural entities. On the other side, the Aztecs made great use of sound, stealth and gruesome visuals, along with relentless waves of aggression, to get into the heads of the Spaniards and demoralize the besiegers. Unfortunately, a poor decision by Hernan Cortes to commit to an unwise assault deep into the city (without waiting for buildings to be demolished or canals to be filled) gave the Aztec forces an opportunity to launch perhaps the most impactful instance of psychological warfare in the siege.
During the aforementioned unwise push by Cortes’ forces into the interior of the city, the conquistadors allowed themselves to be lured into a chokepoint where their only escape was a narrow, congested bridge. After drawing the besiegers into this bottleneck, the Aztecs renewed their attack with a vengeance. They flanked Cortes’ personal force with warriors ferried in from the canal and dealt a deadly blow to the conquistador leader’s force. Hernan Cortes was wounded and forced to retreat, but not before many of his troops were captured and killed. According to Cortes’ own letter to his liege, between 30-40 European conquistadors were killed in the fray, as well as over 1,000 of his allied native reinforcements. Bernal Díaz added to the statistics, claiming that between 62-66 conquistadors had been captured alive during the brawl.
While defeat in battle was demoralizing in itself, what happened next was even worse. Cortes wrote of the shocking next step, saying:
“Immediately after their victory, in order to strike terror into the alguazil mayor and Pedro de Alvarado, the enemy carried all the Spaniards both living and dead, whom they had taken to the Tlatelulco, which is the market-place, and in the lofty towers that are situated there they sacrificed them naked, opening their breasts and taking our their hearts to offer them to the idols. This was seen by the Spaniards of Alvarado’s division from where they were fighting, and from the whiteness of the naked bodies, which they saw sacrificed they knew them to be Christians” (Hernan Cortes’ Third Letter to Charles V, 298-299).
Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote a much more emotional and descriptive account of the sacrifices, doing a better job to re-create the sights and sounds of that day. He wrote:
“The dismal drum of Huichilobos sounded again, accompanied by conches, horns and trumpet-like instruments. It was a terrifying sound, and when we looked at the tall cue from which it came we saw our comrades who had been captured in Cortes’ defeat being dragged up the steps to be sacrificed. When they had hauled them up to a small platform in front of the shrine where they kept their accursed idols we saw them put plumes on the heads of many of them; and they made them dance with a sort of fan in front of Huichilobos. Then after they had danced the papas laid them down on their backs on some narrow stones of sacrifice and, cutting open their chests, drew out their palpitating hearts which they offered to the idols before them” (Bernal Díaz, The Conquest of New Spain, vol. II, chapter 152).
Due to the ample number of Spaniards who were captured, the Aztecs were able to keep the string of sacrificial ceremonies going for a grisly ten consecutive days. Additionally, the bodies of the sacrificial victims were mutilated and grisly hunks of the human remains were tossed into the Spanish camps. Bernal Díaz and other conquistadors also came to believe that cannibalism occurred after the sacrifices. On the psychological toll of all of this, Bernal Díaz wrote:
“I must say that when I saw my comrades dragged up each day to the altar, and their chests struck open and their palpitating hearts drawn out, and when I saw the arms and legs of these sixty two men cut off and eaten, I feared that one day or another they would do the same to me. Twice already they had laid hands on me to drag me off, but it pleased God that I should escape from their clutches. When I remembered their hideous deaths, and the proverb that the little pitcher goes many times to the fountain, and so on, I came to fear death more than ever in the past” (The Conquest of New Spain, vol. II, chapter 156).
Fortunately for the besieging conquistadors and the starving Aztec civilians in the city, the battle for Tenochtitlan would end before 1521 was over. Hernan Cortes’ forces continued pressing inward, leaving rubble in their wake, as they crept closer and closer to the Aztec emperor’s position. This emperor, Cuauhtémoc, was captured while trying to escape the city on August 13, 1521.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (16th century illustration of a sacrifice from the Codex Magliabechiano, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.