A Series of Catastrophic Events and Decisions Led to the Tragic Fall of Montezuma

Montezuma welcoming Hernan Cortes to Tenochtitlan. Ancient Origins

Contact With the Spaniards

Montezuma received the first reports of contact with Europeans in 1518, when an expedition under the Spaniard Juan de Grijalva set sail from Cuba, and explored the Central American coast from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Rio Panuco. Montezuma ordered that he be kept informed of any further sightings of the mysterious foreigners, and posted extra watch guards along Mexico’s Gulf coast in order to ensure that his orders were carried out.

In February of 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes (1485 – 1547) landed with a force of about 600 men on Mexico’s eastern coast. Montezuma was promptly informed, and he sent emissaries to meet the newcomers. However, the Aztec ruler was unable to figure out what to do when his emissaries and spies reported back to him about the Spaniards, so he adopted a wait and see attitude. As things turned out, that failure to mount a vigorous and rapid response to the armed foreigners arriving at his shores, would prove to be a bad decision.

After subduing the region surrounding today’s Veracruz, Cortes marched inland towards the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, defeating and allying with natives en route. Chief among those allies were the Tlaxcala, whom Montezuma had twice tried, and twice failed, to subdue. Avowed enemies of the Aztec ruler and his empire, the Tlaxcala would prove more than eager to exert themselves to the utmost in order to pay Montezuma back and bring him and his realm low.

Hernan Cortes makes Montezuma a hostage. Pintrest

Natives who refused to join Cortes were massacred, as occurred in the city of Cholula. As Cortes described it in his letters, after capturing the city, he destroyed and burned it to the ground, while the conquistadors ran riot, killing about 3000 Cholulans in a few hours. Another Spanish eyewitness put the actual number of massacred Cholulans as high as 30,000. By the time he reached Tenochtitlan, Cortes had a large native army, surrounding a core of Spaniards.

Throughout, while the Spaniards were rampaging along eastern Mexico, subduing local tribes and allying with others, all the while drawing ever closer to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, Montezuma dithered and grew indecisive. He sent Cortes gifts of gold, and ordered him to come no further, but the gold only whetted the conquistadors’ appetite, and spurred them on. When it became clear that the Spaniards had no intention of staying away, Montezuma changed tack, and invited Cortes and his conquistadors into Tenochtitlan in November of 1519, in the hopes of better understanding them and their weaknesses.