28 May – 13 August 1521

In the sixteenth century, the capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlán, site of present-day Mexico City, was one of the largest and most populous cities in the world. It was the heart of a remarkable warrior civilization that dominated central America for 200 years, and was ruled by a ‘chief speaker’ (tlatoani) chosen by the Aztec nobility. It survived by exacting heavy tribute from the subject peoples of the area, including regular human sacrifices to appease the Aztec gods. It was into this world that the Spanish adventurer Hernán Cortés arrived from the Spanish colony of Cuba in the spring of 1519 with 600 men and a number of horses. He came seeking new sources of wealth for Spain and fresh converts for Christianity, but his arrival heralded doom for the Aztecs. Their capital was destroyed two years later, thanks in part to Cortés’s decision to build a fleet of small warships on dry land in order to take the Aztec city in the middle of Lake Texcoco by surprise.

A painting by an artist of the sixteenth-century Spanish School shows the soldiers led by Hernán Cortés walled up in the royal palace of Tenochtitlán where they have kidnapped the Aztec king, Moctezuma II (1466–1520). The king was killed by a missile from one of his own warriors as he tried to address them, and Cortés escaped.

The destruction of the Aztec Empire was not inevitable. There were many opportunities for the Aztecs and their vassals to destroy the invaders, despite the disparity between the stone clubs of the Aztec warriors and the Spanish weapons forged from Toledo steel. Accompanied by only 450 men, Cortés entered the city in November 1519 to meet the chief speaker Moctezuma II (also known as Montezuma). The thousands of Aztec warriors held back from killing him because of a suspicion that the Spaniards might be gods. But following the Spanish slaughter of hundreds of Aztec nobles who had gathered for a celebration in the Great Temple, Cortés and his men were besieged by a crowd of angry warriors dressed in traditional jaguar and eagle costumes and armed with slings, spears and the deadly macuahuitl – a wooden club embedded with obsidian blades. The Spaniards, together with a number of allies recruited from the Tlaxcalan people, who were hostile to the Aztecs, managed to fight their way out on 30 June 1520 and across the lake causeways, but they lost 800 of the Spanish garrison of 1,300 in the process. Cortés himself almost drowned in the lake. The events of 29–30 June 1520 – the ‘night of sorrows’ as it came to be known – almost brought the Spanish expedition to an end.

Cortés retreated to the mountains north of the capital together with his Tlaxcalan allies. The Aztecs pursued them but were defeated in a battle on the open plain, where Cortés’s few surviving cavalry could operate effectively.It was in the mountains that the Spanish leader decided to build a fleet of boats, concealed from the distant Aztecs, to be hauled down to the lake and used to launch a surprise attack on the city. Only one carpenter had survived the massacre. With the help of local labour, trees were cut, planks were hewn, and thirteen small boats, 13 metres (42 feet) long and 3 metres (9 feet) wide, known as ‘brigantines’, were constructed over the winter of 1520–21. They were built with flat bottoms to make it easier to navigate the lake. In the spring of 1521, the boats were hauled with considerable difficulty down to Lake Texcoco. By this time, Cortés had received military supplies and a small number of infantry and cavalry sent from Cuba. His total of 90 horsemen, 820 soldiers and 18 small cannon, supported by perhaps as many as 100,000 unreliable local allies, planned to defeat an Aztec army estimated at perhaps as many as 300,000.The Aztec leaders were now certain that the Spaniards were not gods. During the fight in the city,

Moctezuma had been killed by Aztec slingshots as he tried to calm his people. A new ‘chief speaker’, the eighteen-year-old Cuauhtémoc, was determined to eradicate the Spanish threat once and for all. Tenochtitlán had been ravaged by a smallpox epidemic during the winter, but the surviving warriors still constituted a formidable force. In late May, the main aqueduct into the city was cut by a Spanish posse. Cortés divided his small force into three and posted them at the entrance to each of the causeways into the city.

Then at the beginning of June the brigantines, manned by 300 Spanish soldiers and a handful of cannon, were secretly launched onto the lake. The ships were something the Aztecs had never seen before and in the ensuing battle hundreds of Aztec canoes were destroyed or sunk. The ships remained throughout the ensuing siege, firing at the city in support of the forces trying to cross the causeways.The siege of Tenochtitlán lasted ninety-three days and was in truth an almost continuous and exhausting battle. Nearly every day the Spanish and their allies fought thousands of Aztec warriors who pressed forwards on each of the three causeways regardless of losses. Cortés himself was almost captured several times, and those Spaniards who fell into Aztec hands met a grisly end. They were stripped naked and taken to the sacrificial table of the Great Temple where the priests ripped open the victim’s chest with a stone dagger and plucked out the still pulsating heart. The soldiers besieging the city could see the sacrifice in the distance and hear their comrades’ screams.

A Spanish panel painting by an unknown late seventeenth-century artist shows the capture of Tenochtitlán by the Spanish in August 1521. One of the armed boats built by the Spanish to surprise the Aztecs can be seen beneath the causeway.

Hands and feet were severed and parts of the body eaten. The flayed skin of the dead Spaniards’ faces and chunks of their roasted flesh were thrown at the besieging forces to terrorize them. Many of the local allies who had joined Cortés melted away from the battle but enough stayed to impose on the Aztecs a level of attrition that in the end was unsustainable. Conditions on both sides deteriorated over the summer weeks as food shortages left both armies tired and emaciated. Slowly the causeways were cleared and building by building the Spanish destroyed the city to prevent the enemy from sustaining any form of urban guerrilla warfare.


Cortés appealed to Cuauhtémoc a number of times to abandon the struggle and avoid further death and destruction but the Aztec rulers now sought only death or victory. An estimated 40,000 died in the final defence of the city, though Cuauhtémoc finally chose to flee in a canoe across the lake. On 13 August, the Aztecs fought to a standstill, with women and children joining the struggle for the city, but most were too debilitated by starvation and disease to resist. The Spaniards and their allies fought across piles of bodies in the streets until the final massacre ended resistance. The din of Aztec kettledrums and trumpets and the yelling of Aztec commanders suddenly ceased after weeks of deafening battle. Cuauhtémoc was captured and begged to be killed, but Cortés spared him, impressed by his valiant defence of the city. The slaughter and destruction of the capital by Cortés’s conquistadores ended the 200 years of Aztec civilization and ushered in the age of the Spanish American Empire.