The meeting of the Aztec King Montezuma and the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés on November 8, 1519 is one of the most significant in history, affecting the well-being, beliefs and culture of millions of people living in the Western Hemisphere. Yet for centuries historians have relied on only one side of the story: the Spanish narrative.
It was a tidy tale that described how Montezuma, upon meeting Cortés and his retinue, quickly abandoned his vast native empire, acknowledging the divine right of the Spaniards and the Catholic Church to take over his lands and his people. When a violent rebellion ensued, the story goes that the Spaniards retreated with hordes of gold, then returned and besieged the Aztec capital, securing their rightful conquest and adding to the glory of Spain with its new territory. gigantic, known as Mexico.
But this narrative was loaded with personal and political agendas. New studies and accounts of the Aztecs and their descendants have shed new light on the encounter that changed the course of the continents. Here are four myths about the Aztecs, Montezuma, and what really happened when the Spaniards arrived.
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Myth 1: Montezuma was a weak and unsophisticated leader
The Aztec Empire that ruled central Mexico from 1429 to 1521 was a triple alliance between the indigenous Nahua city-states of Tetzcoco, Tlacopan, and Tenochtitlán. Over 500 small states comprising about 6 million people lived under the rule of the alliance. Montezuma was named huey tlahtoanior King, of Tenochtitlán on September 15, 1502. “He was a highly respected warrior and military leader who maintained a vibrant city and culture, both politically and economically,” says Buddy Levy, author of Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma and the Last Stand of the Aztecs. Montezuma’s empire grew in size, status, and wealth despite three years of famine and three earthquakes—catastrophes that would overthrow a weaker ruler.
Tenochtitlán was twice the size of Seville, the prosperous capital of southern Spain, but with 10 times the population. Its dazzling location on an island in the center of Lake Texcoco, along with its towering pyramids and temples, vast plazas and canals that locals crossed by canoe, inspired wonder among visiting Europeans, who had never seen a city of this size. In a letter to King Carlos V of Spain, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Cortés described bridges where “10 horses can go abreast” and public squares with markets selling food and “golden jewels and money”. The Montezuma Palace complex included a zoo with an aviary, art collections, armory, library, pleasure palace, and botanical garden.
The Aztec ruler began to study the Spaniards as soon as they arrived. “The Spaniards were constantly surrounded by spies who fed information back to Montezuma. He wanted to know more about their world, and it’s not hard to imagine that one day the Spaniards could be part of his,” says Matthew Restall, author of When Montezuma meets Cortés. “If we’re to blame him, his sense of his own authority was such that he couldn’t see the scale of the Spanish threat.”
Myth 2: The Aztecs believed that the Spanish gods were supposed to return
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If it seems too good to be true that the Spaniards showed up to conquer a mighty empire and were seen as gods destined to be its lords, that’s because it is. “[The Aztecs] did not believe that their god Quetzalcoatl walked among them, nor were they impressed by a vision of [Christianity’s Virgin] Mary or one of the saints,” writes Camilla Townsend, a history professor at Rutgers University, in The Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs.
Cortés – never shy of his exploits – never mentioned in his writings that he had been mistaken for Quetzalcoatl. The idea of a prophesied returning god was a Christian narrative superimposed on the Aztec mythology surrounding Quetzalcoatl, says Restall, made popular in the 16th century by “the Franciscans who came to convert the Nahuas to Christianity”. The Florentine Codex, written in 1555 by Nahuas educated in the Franciscan faith, emphasized this prophecy as a way to rationalize conquest.
When Cortés sailed to Mexico from Cuba, seeking territory to conquer and wealth to plunder in the name of the Spanish crown, he was an outlaw defying the orders of Cuban Governor Diego Velasquez, who had rescinded his exploratory expedition. “Cortés had gone completely rogue,” says Levy.
His letters to King Carlos V were to justify his disobedience and assert that he was following Spanish rules of conquest, which meant giving the Aztecs the opportunity to submit to the crown and to Christ.
If Montezuma had surrendered immediately, that would have been something to get excited about, but no one wrote until almost a year later when the Spanish conquered the city by force. “During the 235 days, neither Cortés nor any other Spaniard in Tenochtitlán wrote a letter or report to the king, or to anyone outside the city, detailing their supposed control of the city and the empire,” writes Restore. “Yet they claimed to have ink and paper – to legalize Montezuma’s surrender.”
First-hand accounts from locals show that Montezuma’s life goes on as normal after hosting his Spanish guests, receiving ambassadors, paying tribute envoys and giving public speeches. In his later letters to King Carlos, Cortés even reported that Montezuma went hunting and moved through the city with a retinue “always numbering at least 3,000 men”. Spanish priest and historian Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote to the king and senior court officials to say that Montezuma’s surrender was a lie. But his letter went unheeded, as acceptance of the surrender was essential to justify the siege of Tenochtitlán.
Myth 4: Smallpox wiped out the Aztecs
Multiple disease epidemics of European origin decimated the Aztecs in the decades after 1519. The largest, which lasted from 1545 to 1550, killed more than 80% of the population. A second wave of mystery cocoliztli, the Nahua word for plague, came in 1576, bringing the death toll to between 7 and 17 million people. New research suggests the cause may not have been smallpox, but salmonella.
Survivors were forced to adapt to life under new conditions. To ensure some degree of security and eventual status, Christianity and the “official” version of reunion had to be accepted as part of surrender – which is why, Restall argues, this version prevailed for centuries. “The Aztec Royal Family continues[d] have privileges after the conquest for generations,” he says. “They were elite local rulers with property, wealth and power.” Montezuma’s daughter, Tecuichpochtzin, later known as Doña Isabel Moctezuma Tecuichpo, married the conquistador Juan Cano. His sons were considered Spanish nobles and their hereditary title, Duke of Moctezuma of Tultengo, is still in use.
After the conquest, few people were willing to account for any wrongdoing – there were too many powerful people with something to gain, be it titles, lands and other spoils of war. “It takes centuries to turn Tenochtitlán into Mexico City,” Restall writes, “but only a few generations to spread a different kind of story, to tell a whole series of lies about Montezuma and the Aztecs and pass them off as historical truth. ”