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On May 20, 1520, Spanish conquistadors led by Pedro de Alvarado attacked unarmed Aztec nobles congregated at the Festival of Toxcatl, one of the most important festivals on the native religious calendar. Alvarado believed he had evidence of an Aztec plot to attack and murder the Spanish, who had recently occupied the city and taken Emperor Montezuma captive. Thousands were slaughtered by the ruthless Spaniards, including much of the leadership of the Mexica city of Tenochtitlan. After the massacre, the city of Tenochtitlan rose up against the invaders, and on June 30, 1520, they would successfully (if temporarily) drive them out.
Hernan Cortes and the Conquest of the Aztecs
In April of 1519, Hernan Cortes had landed near present-day Veracruz with some 600 conquistadors. The ruthless Cortes had slowly made his way inland, encountering several tribes along the way. Many of these tribes were unhappy vassals of the warlike Aztecs, who ruled their empire from the marvelous city of Tenochtitlan. In Tlaxcala, the Spanish had fought the warlike Tlaxcalans before agreeing to an alliance with them. The conquistadors had continued on to Tenochtitlan by way of Cholula, where Cortes orchestrated a massive massacre of local leaders he claimed were complicit in a plot to murder them.
In November of 1519, Cortes and his men reached the glorious city of Tenochtitlan. They were initially welcomed by Emperor Montezuma, but the greedy Spaniards soon wore out their welcome. Cortes imprisoned Montezuma and held him hostage against the good behavior of his people. By now the Spanish had seen the vast golden treasures of the Aztecs and were hungry for more. An uneasy truce between the conquistadors and an increasingly resentful Aztec population lasted into the early months of 1520.
Cortes, Velazquez, and Narvaez
Back in Spanish-controlled Cuba, governor Diego Velazquez had learned of Cortes' exploits. Velazquez had initially sponsored Cortes but had tried to remove him from command of the expedition. Hearing of the great wealth coming out of Mexico, Velazquez sent veteran conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez to rein in the insubordinate Cortes and regain control of the campaign. Narvaez landed in April of 1520 with a massive force of over 1000 well-armed conquistadors.
Cortes mustered as many men as he could and returned to the coast to battle Narvaez. He left about 120 men behind in Tenochtitlan and left his trusted lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado in charge. Cortes met meet Narvaez in battle and defeated him on the night of May 28-29, 1520. With Narvaez in chains, most of his men joined Cortes.
Alvarado and the Festival of Toxcatl
In the first three weeks of May, the Mexica (Aztecs) traditionally celebrated the Festival of Toxcatl. This long festival was dedicated to the most important of the Aztec gods, Huitzilopochtli. The purpose of the festival was to ask for the rains which would water the Aztec crops for another year, and it involved dancing, prayers, and human sacrifice. Before he left for the coast, Cortes had conferred with Montezuma and had decided that the festival could go on as planned. Once Alvarado was in charge, he also agreed to allow it, on the (unrealistic) condition that there be no human sacrifices.
A Plot Against the Spanish?
Before long, Alvarado began to believe that there was a plot to kill him and the other conquistadors remaining in Tenochtitlan. His Tlaxcalan allies told him that they had heard rumors that at the conclusion of the festival, the people of Tenochtitlan were to rise against the Spanish, capture them and sacrifice them. Alvarado saw stakes being fixed into the ground, of the sort used to hold captives while they awaited being sacrificed. A new, gruesome statue of Huitzilopochtli was being raised onto the top of the great temple. Alvarado spoke to Montezuma and demanded he put an end to any plots against the Spanish, but the emperor answered that he knew of no such plot and could not do anything about it anyway, as he was a prisoner. Alvarado was further enraged by the obvious presence of sacrificial victims in the city.
The Temple Massacre
Both the Spanish and the Aztecs became increasingly uneasy, but the Festival of Toxcatl began as planned. Alvarado, by now convinced of the evidence of a plot, decided to take the offensive. On the fourth day of the festival, Alvarado placed half of his men on guard duty around Montezuma and some of the highest-ranking Aztec lords and placed the rest in strategic positions around the Patio of the Dances near the Great Temple, where the Serpent Dance was to take place. The Serpent Dance was one of the most important moments of the Festival, and the Aztec nobility was in attendance, in beautiful cloaks of brightly colored feathers and animal skins. Religious and military leaders were present as well. Before long, the courtyard was full of brightly colored dancers and attendees.
Alvarado gave the order to attack. Spanish soldiers closed off the exits to the courtyard and the massacre began. Crossbowmen and harquebusiers rained down death from the rooftops, while heavily armed and armored foot soldiers and about a thousand Tlaxcalan allies waded into the crowd, cutting down the dancers and revelers. The Spanish spared no one, chasing down those who begged for mercy or fled. Some of the revelers fought back and even managed to kill a few of the Spanish, but the unarmed nobles were no match for steel armor and weapons. Meanwhile, the men guarding Montezuma and the other Aztec lords murdered several of them but spared the emperor himself and a few others, including Cuitláhuac, who would later become Tlatoani (Emperor) of the Aztecs after Montezuma. Thousands were killed, and in the aftermath, the greedy Spanish soldiers picked the corpses clean of golden ornaments.
Spanish Under Siege
Steel weapons and cannons or not, Alvarado's 100 conquistadors were seriously outnumbered. The city rose in outrage and attacked the Spanish, who had barricaded themselves in the palace which had been their quarters. With their harquebuses, cannons, and crossbows, the Spanish were able to mostly hold off the assault, but the rage of the people showed no signs of subsiding. Alvarado ordered Emperor Montezuma to go out and calm the people. Montezuma complied, and the people temporarily ceased their assault on the Spanish, but the city was still full of rage. Alvarado and his men were in a most precarious situation.
Aftermath of the Temple Massacre
Cortes heard of his men's dilemma and rushed back to Tenochtitlan after defeating Panfilo de Narvaez. He found the city in a state of uproar and was barely able to re-establish order. After the Spanish forced him to go out and plead for his people to stay calm, Montezuma was attacked with stones and arrows by his own people. He died slowly of his wounds, passing away on or about June 29, 1520. The death of Montezuma only made the situation worse for Cortes and his men, and Cortes decided that he simply did not have enough resources to hold the enraged city. On the night of June 30, the Spanish tried to sneak out of the city, but they were spotted and the Mexica (Aztecs) attacked. This became known as the "Noche Triste," or "Night of Sorrows," because hundreds of Spaniards were killed as they fled the city. Cortes escaped with most of his men and over the next few months would begin a campaign to re-take Tenochtitlan.
The Temple Massacre is one of the more infamous episodes in the history of the Conquest of the Aztecs, which had no shortage of barbarous events. Whether or not the Aztecs did, in fact, intend to rise up against Alvarado and his men is unknown. Historically speaking, there is little hard evidence for such a plot, but it is undeniable that Alvarado was in an extremely dangerous situation which got worse daily. Alvarado had seen how the Cholula Massacre had stunned the population into docility, and perhaps he was taking a page from Cortes' book when he ordered the Temple Massacre.
- Diaz del Castillo, Bernal… Trans., ed. J.M. Cohen. 1576. London, Penguin Books, 1963. Print.
- Levy, Buddy. Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma and the Last Stand of the Aztecs. New York: Bantam, 2008.
- Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Touchstone, 1993.