Tenochtitlán was the capital of the Aztec Empire and was situated on islands in Lake Texcoco, near present day Mexico City. Over a single century this civilization of hunter gatherers grew to become the Aztec empire, mainly because of their advanced agricultural methods. The empire grew to dominate the central Mexico area and by the time of Montezuma II’s reign in 1502, it had a reach that extended as far south as modern-day Nicaragua.
The Aztec empire was primarily held together by military power, and Montezuma II set about creating provinces that would pay tribute to the imperial capital of Tenochtitlán.
The conquered peoples deeply resented Aztec demands for tribute and victims for religious sacrifices, but the tight grip of the Aztec military kept any rebellion at bay.
Hernán Cortés was a young Spanish-born noble who anchored at Mexico’s Bay of Campeche with a garrison of 500 soldiers, 100 sailors, and 16 horses in March 1519. Having learned of the ensuing political strife within the Aztec empire, Cortés led his small force into the Mexican interior.
On the way to Tenochtitlán, he clashed with various local Indian tribes including the nation of Tlaxcala, but many of these people became allies after learning of his plan to conquer their hated Aztec rulers.
Upon hearing about the approach of Cortés and his frightful beasts of terror (horses) and sophisticated weaponry, Montezuma II attempted to buy him off with gifts of gold and silver, but Cortés was not to be dissuaded. On November 8, 1519, the Spaniards and their 1,000 Tlaxcaltec warriors were permitted to enter Tenochtitlán unopposed.
According to several Spanish versions of events, some of which were reportedly written many years later, Montezuma, upon meeting these strange fair-skinned men, made the assumption that they were gods.
In an explanation of what the Spanish expedition represented in terms of Aztec tradition and folklore, Montezuma reportedly said, “My lord, you have become fatigued, you have become tired: to the land you have arrived. You have come to your city: Mexico, here you have come to sit on your place, on your throne. Oh, it has been reserved to you for a small time, it was conserved by those who have gone, your substitutes… This is what has been told by our rulers, those of whom governed this city, ruled this city. That you would come to ask for your throne, your place, that you would come here. Come to the land, come and rest: take possession of your royal houses, give food to your body.”
The idea was that Cortés and his men (pale, bearded men from the east) were the Aztec God Quetzalcoatl and his entourage who had been prophesised to return to the great city in Aztec legend.
At the end of this speech, Montezuma pledged loyalty to the King of Spain and accepted Cortés as the King’s representative by stating: “As for your great King, I am in his debt and will give him of what I possess.”
The arguments that support the idea that Montezuma believed Cortez was the god Quetzalcoatl begin with the god’s promise to return after he died in a pyre or sailed off in a boat traveling east. Physically, Quetzalcoatl was also said to reappear in two forms; one was a flying feathered serpent and the other a white -skinned man with a beard. Cortez’s arrival fit into two of the four prophecies; he sailed from the east and was white-skinned with a beard.
Once allowed to enter the Aztec city, Cortez and his men plundered and pillaged like most imperial invaders have been known to do, and in the process Montezuma was reduced to the role of a jester-like figurehead through whom Cortez sought to rule the region.
The Aztec Empire and its wealth of riches had been literally handed over to the invading Spaniards and the event precipitated the downfall of the once all-conquering tribe.
In our opinion The Aztecs shouldn’t feel too upset about handing all their gold over to the Spaniards.
Our publisher Darcus White once lost all his ‘gold’ on a lads’ holiday in the Spanish resort of Magaluf. The gold in question was a thick neck chain purchased from the hawkers who sell jewellery on the beach. It quickly turned green after a brief dip in the hotel swimming pool and had to be thrown away before it caused any lasting skin irritation!