‘La Noche Triste’: Cortes & The Aztecs 

Today the impact of Spanish colonisation of the Americas is abundantly clear. The Spanish language dominates Central and South America and the culture of the once mighty power is still ever-present.

Spanish expeditions to the America’s were not as clean cut as many would imagine however, and their conquest of these lands – and the natives who inhabited them – was a hard fought, bloody, and bordering on genocidal affair.

As the technologically superior powers, European nations such as France, Britain, Portugal and the aforementioned Kingdom of Spain wrought havoc in the Americas for centuries; conquering, plundering and murdering indiscriminately.

Illness alone is estimated to have struck down millions of Native Americans in the years following European arrival, and for decades European settlers and expansionists were met with resistance from native tribes and dynasties.

‘La Noche Triste‘ or ‘Night of Sadness’ is a particularly fascinating event. It bears all the hallmarks of a blockbuster Hollywood production; Hernan Cortes the famous Conquistador, the oppressed native Aztec peoples and a clash of two worlds. An event which seen the seemingly invincible maverick retreat from the legendary city of Tenochtitlan.

His arrival in the Americas in 1504 seen a clash of personality with Diego Velazquez, and so in establishing Veracruz, Cortez found himself answering solely to the King of Spain. His new found authority and ability to act autonomously enabled him to move deeper into the interior of modern day Mexico, into Aztec held regions.

By the 16th century the Aztecs were the dominant power in Central America. Their military might, combined with far more advanced agricultural techniques – compared to their neighbours – seen them rest atop the pecking order in Central America. For Cortes, this was a prize worth the risk. Riches beyond comprehension and a culture that was technologically inferior. After all, spears and bows would stand no match for armour clad, gun wielding Conquistadors.

Regional resentment toward Aztec dominance played perfectly into the hands of Cortes. Forging alliances and agreements with regional tribes and peoples, it would appear almost that Cortes established a mandate for war against the Aztec. His right was not only divine, but now granted by native man.

The Tlaxcalan tribe proved a valuable ally for Cortes, and he immediately set upon pushing into Aztec territory, laying siege to Tenochtitlan. King Montezuma II of the Aztecs believed firmly that a prophecy would be fulfilled by the arrival of Cortes. One that would witness the return of the Aztec deity, Quetzalcoatl.

Here we see the deeply embedded cultural and religious beliefs of the many native peoples of the Americas, and Europeans’ willingness to capitalise on their apparent naivety. An army stood at Montezuma’s gates yet his concern was focused firmly on prophecy and myth.

Cortes received an envoy from Montezuma informing him that he would be welcomed into the city. The King and his flock had invited wolves into their midst, and they would pay for their hospitality in blood and plunder.

With the city ransacked by Spanish and Tlaxcalan forces, the king was swiftly captured. Cortes’ wife, bi-lingual in Maya and Aztec quickly began to manipulate Montezuma, he becomes no more than a puppet ruler for Cortes to play with and subjugate the Aztecs.

One can imagine the disdain toward Cortes if their city had been plundered, their friends, family and countrymen butchered. Resentment toward an oppressor is not simply an Aztec trait, its is universal and seen widely throughout history.

The great slave uprisings of Rome, civil wars yet still raging in Europe while these events occurred and conflicts today show that the human spirit to resist remains firmly in our hearts. The Aztecs would not lie down, they would not submit.

Diego Velazquez had pursued Cortes through Mexico, and was approaching the city. Cortes was force to act and sallied forth to meet him, leaving a contingent of his forces – some 80 men – behind in the city. It is here that the rebellion ignited. It is said the cultural festival of Tóxcatl resulted in nothing short of a massacre.

Under the command of Pedro de Alvaredo, city revelers were attacked, with sources estimating up to 10,000 Aztecs needlessly murdered. Word spread and the Spanish garrison quickly came under attack. Alvaredo, sensing a massacre in which he would be on the receiving end sent word to Cortez and once he returned, the city erupted.

Street to street, the indigenous peoples sought out their enemy. A city ablaze and a people in turmoil.

What the Aztecs lacked in technology, they more than made up for in numbers. In times passed European weaponry had allowed them to take on forces many times their size in thee Americas, and to devastating effect. In a city however, one cannot maneouvre, displace or regroup. The fighting would be visceral and devastating, and the Conquistadors would lose, so they chose to flee.

Cortes had gambled on Montezuma’s legitimacy as king, and it failed. The people seen through their puppet king. He possessed no divine right and was merely a lackey, he would burn with his captors.

The cool evening breeze was no reprieve for the Spaniards, their food and water nearly spent they bordered on starvation and madness. They would leave with the utmost haste, and they nearly escaped were it not for wandering locals raising the alarm. It is here that the term ‘La Noche Triste’ was coined, for the ensuing fight was nothing more than a bloody scrap.

Weighed down with bags of plunder, and with many likely unable to swim, hundreds drowned in the Mixcoatechialtitlan canal. Those who would not cross would be cut down by droves of incensed Aztecs, no quarter given. Fleeing west to Txalcalan territory, the Conquistadors and their native allies were broken and far fewer in number than they had set out with.

Legend says that upon arrival, Cortes sat beneath a tree and cried for hours; devastated and disheveled.

His lamenting would pass however, for his pain swiftly turned to anger and a burning determination to return, and he would in 1521.

This time he would see to it that the Aztec Empire fall. Ash and dust followed in his wake, his defeat no more than a blemish on the great tapestry of history.


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