Mexico City celebrates 500 years of the Spanish siege of Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec Empire

Mexico: There are two ways to remember the Spanish siege of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital now known as Mexico City: as the painful birth of modern Mexico or the beginning of centuries of virtual slavery.

The world-changing battle began on May 22, 1521 and lasted for months until the city finally fell to the conquistadors on August 13. It was one of the few times an indigenous army organized under local command fought European colonizers for months, and the final defeat helped set the pattern for much of the conquest and colonization that followed. .

“The fall of Tenochtitlan opened the modern history of the West,” said historian Salvador Rueda, director of the city’s Chapultepec Museum.

One way of remembering the event is symbolized by a plaque placed in the city’s Plaza de los Trois Cultures in homage to indigenous Mexico, Spanish colonialism and “modern” Métis Mexico resulting from the conquest.

The three cultures are represented by three buildings: a ruined Aztec temple, a Spanish colonial church built on top of the ruins, and a modern government office building built in the 1960s. “It was neither a triumph nor a defeat. It was the painful birth of Métis (Métis) Mexico today, ”the plaque says.

This sentiment, preached by the government since the 1920s – that Mexico is a non-racial, non-racist, unified nation where everyone is mixed race, bearing the blood of conquerors and conquerors – has aged about as well as the 1960s office. building.

It is largely roped in because shards from its marble coating regularly shear and crash to the ground, and native or dark-skinned Mexicans continue to be discriminated against by their compatriots in the country. clearer skin.

A much more enduring and perhaps precise message can be found a few blocks on the wall of the tiny church of Tequipeuhcan, a place whose very name in the Aztec Nahuatl language sums it all up.

“Tequipeuhcan: ‘The place where slavery began.’ Here, Emperor Cuauhtemotzin was taken prisoner on the afternoon of August 13, 1521 ”, we read on the plaque on the wall of the church.


Image above: A plaque reads in Spanish “Tequipeuhcan: the place where slavery began. Here, Emperor Cuauhtemotzine was taken prisoner on the afternoon of August 13, 1521. ”Image via Associated Press / Eduardo Verdugo

The current mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, put it this way: “The fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlán sparked a history of epidemics, abuse and 300 years of colonial rule in Mexico.”

This would become the rule throughout the hemisphere over the next three centuries. The colonizers stole the land from the indigenous peoples and made them work, extracting the wealth for the benefit of the colonizers.

“The Spaniards seemed so convinced that this model worked well that (Lieutenant Pedro de Cortés) de Alvarado was about to go and launch an invasion of China from the port of Acapulco when he found himself tied up in a another battle in western Mexico and died, “said David M Carballo, professor of archeology, anthropology and Latin American studies at Boston University and author of the book Collision of worlds.

He said that the conquest of Mexico “really made the world globalized, because it linked the transatlantic world to the transpacific world and to all inhabited continents. It kicked off what we now call globalization. “

Cort̩s and his 900 Spaniards Рalong with thousands of allies from indigenous groups oppressed by the Aztecs Рbegan the siege on May 22, 1521. They entered Mexico City in 1520, but were driven out with great losses a few months later. , leaving most of their looted gold behind.

But the Spaniards were particularly prepared for a war of conquest. They had spent much of the previous seven centuries fighting wars to reclaim Spain from the Moors. Surprisingly, they were even able to put their experience of naval warfare in the Mediterranean to good use in the battle for the Aztec capital, located in a high mountain valley over 7,000 feet above sea level and hundreds of thousands of feet above sea level. kilometers from the sea.

Tenochtitlan was completely surrounded by a shallow lake crossed by narrow causeways, so the Spanish built attack ships known as bergantines – something akin to floating battle platforms – to fight the Aztecs in their canoes.

He got bogged down in a brutal series of months-long battles for control of the raised dirt roads leading to the city.


In this photo: A leaflet from a book published in 1524 shows a map of the capital of the Aztec Empire of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, and an interpretation of the Gulf of Mexico, based on the eyewitness testimony of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez . Image via The Associated Press / Charles Rex Arbogast

The campaign was never a predetermined defeat for the Aztecs. They achieved a number of victories, took dozens of Spanish prisoners and even used captured Spanish weapons against the conquistadors.

At one point, they took about 60 captured Spaniards and sacrificed them one by one – likely tearing their still beating hearts out of their chests – on temple battlements or platforms in plain sight of the rest of the Spaniards. Even the conquistadors admitted that the effect was terrifying.

But the Spaniards were able to draw on their experience of the sieges during the recent Christian reconquest of Muslim Spain. They cut off the supply of fresh water and food for the city. Equally important, the bulk of their troops were indigenous allies tired of paying homage under Aztec rule.


Image above: A woman walks past a mural commemorating the meeting of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez and the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. Image via The Associated Press / Eduardo Verdugo

The most powerful weapon in their arsenal was not their horses, their war dogs, or their primitive muskets. It wasn’t even the deception they used to capture Aztec Emperor Moctezuma – who died in 1520 – or later Inca Emperor Atahualpa. The most effective weapon of the Europeans was smallpox.

During Cortés’ brief stay in Mexico City in 1520, the Aztecs had begun to be infected with smallpox, allegedly carried by an African slave whom the Spaniards had brought with them.


Image above: Statues representing the founding of Tenochtitlan, the former capital of the Aztec Empire in Mexico City. Image via The Associated Press / Eduardo Verdugo

Carlo Viesca, a medical historian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said at least 150,000 of the city’s 300,000 residents likely died before the Spaniards could re-enter the city, and when they did. actually, he quoted a Spaniard as saying, “We were walking on corpses.

Ultimately, Viesca says, Cuauhtemoc – the last Aztec emperor – “had few troops with the strength to fight.”

Medical anthropologist Sandra Guevara noted that smallpox took such a virulent form in Indians who were not previously exposed to it – and without an immunological defense against it – that even those who survived were likely blinded or developed gangrene. in their feet, nose and mouth.


In this photo: The coat of arms of Mexico, depicting Aztec imagery of a Mexican eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus devouring a rattlesnake. Image via The Associated Press / Eduardo Verdugo

By the time the city fell, there were so many corpses that the Spaniards could not fully occupy the city for months. The only way to get rid of the stench was to demolish Aztec homes to bury the dead in the rubble.

Cuitláhuac, a respected leader who succeeded Moctezuma and preceded Cuauhtemoc, died of smallpox at the end of 1520, before the siege began.

“If Cuitláhuac had not died, the history of Mexico would have been different,” said Guevara.


Image above: People walk under murals depicting the founding of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, in the Tacubaya metro station. Image via The Associated Press / Eduardo Verdugo

Emperor Cuauhtemoc – Cuauhtemotzin in the Aztecs – took over and skillfully fought and led the Aztec resistance during the siege of 1521.

But in August, driven to the eastern end of the city, he surrendered or was captured. He was tortured, because the Spaniards wanted to find the gold which they had briefly plundered but had to give up in 1520. Stoic to the end, Cuauhtémoc allegedly held out a dagger at the Spaniards and asked them to kill him.

He remains such a tragic but revered figure that Mexicans have been encouraged for centuries to repeat his futile self-sacrifice. When six lightly armed army cadets were surrounded by American troops at a hilltop military academy in Mexico City during the 1847 invasion, rather than surrender, they reportedly rushed to their deaths from the parapets. They too remain national heroes.


In this photo: A model of the ancient capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan on display at the Zocalo metro station. Image via The Associated Press / Eduardo Verdugo

The failed battle to defend Tenochtitlan set the pattern for the ultimate futility of indigenous groups trying to fight Europeans with huge standing armies, fixed positions and sieges. Apart from some fighting between the Spanish and Inca armies during the conquest of Peru by Francisco Pizarro in 1536, indigenous resistance in the Americas – and much of the world – would largely be reduced to guerrilla tactics, raids. periodicals and retreats in remote or hard-to-reach areas. .

Some of the last indigenous armed resistance – both in Mexico and the United States – would not be overcome until the early 1900s.


Banner Image: An ancient Aztec temple, a Spanish colonial church and a modern government office built in the 1960s on the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Mexico City. Image via The Associated Press / Eduardo Verdugo

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