The Warriors Who Nearly Destroyed Cortés — Before Joining Him


The chalcedony blade of this sixteenth century ceremonial knife is connected to a cedro wooden deal with depicting a crouching man dressed as an Aztec eagle warrior. (British Museum)

On getting into the state of Tlaxcala in what immediately is central Mexico, Spanish conquistadors beneath Hernán Cortés quickly discovered themselves surrounded by tens of 1000’s of hostile warriors and preventing desperately for survival. Of all of the peoples they’d encountered since their arrival in Mexico almost 5 months in the past, none had provided such fierce and decided resistance. The Tlaxcalans confirmed little concern of both Spanish horses or riders, even greedy the lances of the cavaliers and in search of to overthrow their mounts.

One horseman, unable to wrench his lance from the tenacious grasp of an enemy and robbed of his ahead momentum, was instantly beset by a throng of warriors who struck at his charger with horrible obsidian-edged broadswords, almost beheading the animal. Struggling out from beneath his lifeless horse, the rider shielded himself from his assailants’ blows with upraised arm and rodela (a small metal protect, or buckler). He absolutely would have died on the spot had his fellows not rushed to the rescue. A pointy battle raged, as fierce as any waged over a Homeric hero, earlier than the Spaniards withdrew with the rider and his saddle. The Tlaxcalans, after hacking additional on the stays of the horse, carried off severed chunks for show to fellow countrymen, to show the vulnerability of the beasts. The rider later succumbed to his wounds.

Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés
Hernán Cortés (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

When Hernán Cortés landed on Mexico’s Gulf Coast in April 1519, he had solely imprecise notions of what lay forward. He knew the native individuals have been topics of an amazing empire ruled by a mighty prince named Montezuma, who lived in an impressive metropolis within the inside. He additionally knew the Aztecs possessed wealth nearly past the desires of avarice, and he instantly started considering methods to benefit from the alternatives fortune had laid earlier than him.

The drive with which Cortés searched out his fame initially comprised 11 ships, 100 mariners, 508 troopers—together with 32 crossbowmen and 13 harquebusiers—16 horses, 10 heavy brass weapons and 4 falconets—slender sources certainly with which to penetrate an empire whose territory held a inhabitants of many hundreds of thousands and whose affect stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. No matter different faults have been attributed to Cortés, an lack of ability to make easy numerical calculations will not be amongst them. It was essential for him to win allies, and he in the end had large success in doing so. Tens of 1000’s of natives would support the Spaniards as warriors, porters and laborers and by supplying meals all through the conquest of Mexico. Allies not solely assisted Cortés in materials phrases but additionally boosted his authority in his dealings with Montezuma. Of his allies, essentially the most outstanding—each due to their character and the efforts essential to safe their friendship—have been the Tlaxcalans.

A portrait of the Aztec leader Montezuma
Montezuma (Leemage/Getty Photos)

Cortés tremendously desired to safe an alliance with the Tlaxcalans, reported to be an impartial, hardy and warlike individuals, timeless of their hatred for Montezuma and unyielding in resistance to his rule. But lengthy years of encirclement by their foes and frequent raids and invasions of their lands by vassals of the empire had honed the distrust of the Tlaxcalans to a effective edge. That they had gotten advance phrase of those unusual guests who had are available in nice ships, of the implausible beasts on which they rode, and of their thunder and smoke that killed. Additionally they knew the lads from the ocean traveled to see Montezuma and marched within the firm of his vassals. Thus they naturally assumed the foreigners have been servants of their mortal foe, come to destroy them.

As Cortés neared the Tlaxcalan frontier, he despatched forward two Cempoalan chiefs as envoys. After ready two days with no phrase, the column resumed its march and shortly encountered the terrified envoys. Having arrived within the midst of conflict preparations, they’d been seized as suspected spies. The Tlaxcalans, they stated, positively burned with the fervor of decided resistance. None would take heed to the Spanish overtures of goodwill. The one reply to Cortés’ supply of friendship was a resolve, usually repeated within the captives’ presence, that whether or not the intruders have been supernatural beings or mortal males, the Tlaxcalans would tear out their hearts and gnaw the flesh from their bones. Threatened with the identical, the envoys had managed to slide away from their inattentive guards. Undaunted, Cortés unfurled his banner and marched ahead.

A drive of some 3,000 screaming Tlaxcalans sprang from ambush, unleashing a hail of arrows and fire-hardened darts

The Spanish column had not traveled far when scouts reported some 30 Tlaxcalans forward, outfitted for battle and observing the column. Cortés ordered a detachment to seize a number of of them. However when the Spaniards beckoned with their arms and made indicators of peace, the soldiers mounted a livid assault. Because the vanguard met their cost, killing 5 of the enemy, a drive of some 3,000 screaming Tlaxcalans sprang from ambush, unleashing a hail of arrows and fire-hardened darts.

Cortés instantly ordered the remainder of the column ahead. Troopers introduced their harquebuses and crossbows to bear, and as soon as rolled into place, the artillery barked out dying on the massed attackers. The Tlaxcalans have been properly accustomed to the sounds of battle as they knew it—drums, horns, the thud of weapons putting flesh, the cries of males—however they entered a brand new realm of sensation because the report of firearms thundered of their ears, and horrible echoes rolled again from the encompassing hills. Loss of life descended on thunderous wings. But whereas the soldiers regularly gave means beneath this novel destruction, they didn’t flee. They retreated in an orderly vogue, sustaining their ranks. Encamping by a stream, the Spaniards spent an uneasy evening sleeping of their armor with weapons prepared. The horses remained saddled and bridled, and sentries and patrols stored vigilant watch.

The following morning they resumed the march, solely to seek out their path blocked by a military of 6,000 warriors who made their lethal intentions clear by means of hostile demonstrations. Cortés as soon as once more tried diplomacy, sending forth three captives of the day before today’s battle bearing a message of peace. The message was ill-received. No sooner had the captives blended into the ranks of their fellows than all the multitude started to howl with rage, their weapons and colourful plumage swaying like a forest whipped by storm winds. Battle was joined.

A Spanish comb morion helmet
Relationship from 1540, this engraved Spanish comb morion helmet seemingly belonged to a senior officer. (Heritage Auctions)

The Tlaxcalan fighters have been no unruly mob, however an organized military with strict army self-discipline. Many have been slain within the preliminary assault, and the survivors fell again. However their goal was not swift victory; slightly, by a gradual and managed retreat they sought to lure their enemy ahead into troublesome terrain the place many 1000’s of their fellows waited in ambush. When these warriors did spring the entice, the Spanish have been in a repair, unable to adequately defend themselves on damaged floor the place their cavalry was of little use. Combating their means by means of a bathe of missiles previous a number of ravines, they drew up on stage floor and dressed their traces. Cortés realized that cohesion of their formation was the important thing to survival. As they have been surrounded, any advance of the infantry would essentially open gaps by means of which warriors may pour. The one cellular arm of the Spanish drive was the cavalry, led by Cortés himself, which for the higher a part of an hour wheeled and charged endlessly inside the shrinking sphere of open floor. Solely after eight of their captains fell slain did the Tlaxcalans lastly withdraw, concluding what the Spaniards would name the Battle of Tehuacingo, fought on Sept. 2, 1519.

The daybreak of September 3 introduced no contemporary assault, so the Spaniards spent the day resting, repairing gear and replenishing their inventory of crossbow bolts. Cortés used the time for reflection. The braveness and tenacity displayed by the Tlaxcalans in battle made them much more fascinating as allies, but they’d met each try at amicable communication with threats or instant assault. How, Cortés puzzled, may he overcome the distrust and hatred the Spaniards’ presence appeared to engender and set up diplomatic discourse?

Among the many 15 captives taken on the second day of battle have been two chiefs, and Cortés had them introduced earlier than him for questioning. To their shock they’d been well-treated and have been thus keen to speak. From them Cortés discovered a lot concerning the land and other people of Tlaxcala. Every locality had its personal lord, maintained and supported by means of a system of feudal dependency not not like the construction that had lengthy prevailed in Europe. Assembled in council, such lords represented the federal government of Tlaxcala, and every contributed forces for his or her mutual protection.

The chiefs knowledgeable Cortés their supreme commander was Xicotencatl, a most fierce and resolute man. It was he who adamantly maintained the Spaniards have been spies of Montezuma and insisted on their annihilation. His was the banner noticed waving over the soldiers who had fought with such ferocity, and his colours adorned their faces. Cortés emerged from council with the chiefs strengthened in his conviction the Spaniards should press on—persevering with to increase diplomatic overtures, sure, however destroying all who rose towards them. The following morning he led out a drive to hunt provisions in close by cities and take prisoners, lest his foe infer from inaction the Spaniards had been weakened or discouraged by the resistance they’d encountered.

Launched from captivity, the pair of tlaxcalan chiefs later returned to Cortés with a message that peace would come solely when the gods had been appeased with an providing of Spanish hearts and blood

Cortés returned to camp that afternoon with some 20 extra captives, who likely anticipated a horrible destiny. As a substitute, they have been fed, offered with beads and urged by interpreters to put down their anger and turn into brothers with the Spaniards. Cortés then set them free. He additionally launched the 2 chiefs, directing them to bear one other message of peace to the capital. Intercepted by sentries and brought earlier than Xicotencatl, the pair returned to Cortés with a message that peace would come solely when the gods had been appeased with an providing of Spanish hearts and blood. Including to this bleak pronouncement, the chiefs reported that the mixed forces of Tlaxcala had gathered to destroy them. Spanish padres stored busy all evening listening to confessions.

The solar rose on males ready for dying. Pondering it higher for morale to maintain the lads lively than to attend in uncertainty, Cortés assembled the military. His remarks have been sensible slightly than inspirational. All have been to stay calm and methodical. Artillerymen have been to direct their hearth into dense teams of the enemy. Some crossbowmen and harquebusiers have been to load whereas others fired, thus sustaining as steady a stream of fireside as potential with out losing ammunition. Swordsmen have been to make use of their factors, thrusting into the bowels of their adversaries. Horsemen have been to cost at half pace, restrain their mounts and goal their lances on the face and eyes of the enemy. None have been to interrupt ranks. To fail to keep up cohesive traces or succumb to exhaustion was to die. With these phrases of grim recommendation ringing of their ears, the lads marched forth. Even the wounded, with assistance from their comrades, donned armor, grabbed weapons and stored tempo as finest they may, for all knew no man could possibly be spared from this important contest.

That they had not gone far when the Spaniards beheld the biggest military they’d but seen within the New World. Solar glinting from spear factors of copper and obsidian shaped undulating waves of sunshine above the throng of warriors. All shouted defiance and raised a fearsome conflict cry to accompany the thunder of drums. From what he had discovered of native heraldry, Cortés may establish the banners of principal captains, in addition to Xicotencatl’s private armorial machine—a white heron atop a rock. Beside it flew a banner emblazoned with a golden eagle on outstretched wings—the usual of the Tlaxcalan state. Spanish chroniclers estimated enemy numbers at wherever from 50,000 to 150,000 males. Even on the low estimate, the place of the 400-odd Spaniards and their handful of Indian allies would have been akin to a sandcastle attempting to carry again the ocean.

A 17th century triptych of panels rendered by colonial Mexican brothers Juan and Miguel González depicts stages in Cortés conquest of Mexico
Within the seventeenth century colonial Mexican brothers Juan and Miguel González rendered two dozen panels illustrating vital moments within the conquest of Mexico. These three depict (left to proper) Cortés’ sinking of his personal ships to maintain troopers from deserting, Montezuma and entourage en path to greet Cortés, and Montezuma presenting Cortés with items. (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

No embassies have been exchanged. When the Spaniards got here into vary, warriors launched a spattering of missiles, which shortly grew to become a torrent. Cortés and his males suffered their stings till reaching a distance extra favorable for his or her weapons and artillery. The volleys they fired into the densely packed enemy ranks inflicted dreadful carnage. The Tlaxcalans couldn’t carry the lifeless and wounded from the sphere as shortly as they have been struck down.

Not in a position to endure this punishment, Xicotencatl’s warriors surged ahead like a crashing tide. Spears and golf equipment hammered towards the rodelas of the swordsmen because the latter strove to keep up the road. Their arms burned with fatigue as they repeatedly thrust into the our bodies of a seemingly never-ending stream of attackers. Although crossbowmen and harquebusiers desperately poured hearth into the enemy horde, the load of numbers started to inform, and breaches opened within the Spanish line. Cortés bellowed orders however couldn’t make himself heard above the din. For a second it appeared as if the Spaniards and their allies can be swept away.

But at the same time as their victory appeared at hand, the Tlaxcalans have been not in a position to maintain the assault. The worth had been too excessive. The bottom was suffering from their lifeless and wounded, maimed and torn in methods they’d neither skilled nor imagined. Their vitality was spent, and the tide receded. The battle had lasted some 4 hours.

The Spaniards, almost all wounded in a technique or one other, have been completely exhausted. As they staggered again to camp, the troopers raised prayers of gratitude to God for his or her survival.

A map depicts the route Hernán Cortés took upon landing on Mexico's Gulf Coast in April 1519 to the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City)
On arriving on Mexico’s Gulf Coast in April 1519, Hernán Cortés marched west towards the Aztecan capital at Tenochtitlán. En route he got here up towards the Tlaxcalans. (Map by Brian Walker)

On the heels of his nearly miraculous victory Cortés once more despatched envoys to the Tlaxcalan capital, in search of peace and secure passage. Angered slightly than chastened by their military’s defeat, the lords rejected the overture and ordered Xicotencatl to mount a nighttime assault. Although he attacked with 10,000 of his finest warriors, the Tlaxcalan commander fared no higher, because the Spaniards have been always on the alert.

On the heels of this newest failure the following day’s embassy acquired a extra favorable reception. Among the many elder lords, held in nice respect, was the namesake father of Xicotencatl. He suggested making peace with the Spaniards. Like Cortés, he thought the valiant troopers from throughout the ocean would make invaluable allies. Cempoalan envoys who had accompanied the Spaniards from the coast reported to the lords that Cortés had ordered Totonac settlements within the excessive sierra to stop paying tribute to Montezuma. The information allayed Tlaxcalan fears these guests have been servants of their nice enemy and gave weight to Spanish declarations of goodwill. Heeding the elder Xicotencatl’s counsel, the lords ordered their military to stop attacking the Spaniards.

Montezuma and Aztecan envoys greet Cortés and his men on the Gulf Coast in April 1519
Montezuma warmly welcomed Cortés on the latter’s Nov. 8, 1519, arrival in Tenochtitlán. Two years later, with assist from their Tlaxcalan allies, the Spaniards defeated the Aztecs. (Library of Congress)

However the youthful Xicotencatl, his blood up, was loath to put down his arms and reaffirmed his intention to annihilate the Spaniards. Negotiations floor to a halt because the 4 chiefs chosen as ambassadors wouldn’t proceed for concern of the obstinate commander. The lords then bought phrase to the military’s captains to not obey Xicotencatl except he made peace with Cortés.

Ultimately the commander agreed to ship an embassy of 40 gift-bearing Tlaxcalans to the Spanish camp. His emissaries remained there in a single day, making detailed observations. The alert Cempoalans suspected these males to be spies and warned Cortés that Xicotencatl had encamped close by with the seemingly intention of mounting one other nighttime assault. Satisfied of the identical after interrogating two of the emissaries, Cortés despatched an uncompromising message. Taking 17 spies captive, he reduce off the arms of some, the thumbs of others, and had these grisly trophies despatched to their commander. The message the returning emissaries bore was unequivocal: Xicotencatl was to current himself in two days to just accept the Spanish supply of peace, or Cortés would search him out and destroy him.

The outcomes of his gambit have been instant. The 4 ambassadors, not blocked by the military, approached camp that very day. Showing earlier than Cortés, they made deep obeisance and begged his pardon for having attacked him. The Tlaxcalans, they defined, had believed the Spaniards to be brokers of Montezuma, who had by no means ceased in his makes an attempt by drive or fraud to invade their nation. The ambassadors requested forgiveness for his or her error and accepted Cortés’ supply of friendship.

In 1848 Emmanuel Leutze rendered this painting of Cortés (at center in black) and his conquistadors battling Aztec warriors atop Tenochtitlán's main temple
In 1848 Emmanuel Leutze rendered this portray of Cortés (at middle in black) and his conquistadors battling Aztec warriors in the course of the climactic 1521 Battle of Tenochtitlán. (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford/AKG-Photos)

The Spaniards entered the capital of Tlaxcala on Sept. 23, 1519. Taking the lords apart, Cortés questioned them intently regarding inside Mexico and the Aztec empire. He heard once more of the good energy and wealth of Montezuma and was given an in depth description of the Aztecan capital of Tenochtitlán—the causeways by which it was approached, its fortifications, its infrastructure and its public buildings. The Tlaxcalan elders even introduced footage painted on henequen material depicting their battles with the Aztecs, from which Cortés discovered a lot regarding Montezuma’s command construction and ways.

The Spanish alliance with Tlaxcala continued to yield a lot of worth all through the conquest of Mexico. The Tlaxcalans offered provides, fought alongside the conquistadors towards the hostile vassals of Montezuma, gave the Spaniards secure haven after their preliminary expulsion from the Valley of Mexico, contributed warriors to the siege of Tenochtitlán and took part wholeheartedly within the ultimate destruction of the hostile and oppressive Aztec empire. Cortés’ olive department had fostered that profitable army alliance. MH

Justin D. Lyons is an affiliate professor of historical past and authorities at Ohio’s Cedarville College. For additional studying he recommends A True Historical past of the Conquest of New Spain, by Bernal Díaz del Castillo; Conquest: Cortés, Montezuma and the Fall of Previous Mexico, by Hugh Thomas; and Historical past of the Conquest of Mexico, by William H. Prescott.

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