The Death of Montezuma

Who Killed Emperor Montezuma?

The Death of Montezuma
The Death of Montezuma. Painting by Charles Ricketts (1927)

In November of 1519, Spanish invaders led by Hernan Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Mexica (Aztecs). They were welcomed by Montezuma, the mighty Tlatoani (emperor) of his people. Seven months later, Montezuma was dead, possibly at the hands of his own people. What happened to the Emperor of the Aztecs?

Montezuma II Xocoyotzín, Emperor of the Aztecs

Montezuma had been selected to be Tlatoani (the word means "speaker") in 1502, the maximum leader of his people: his grandfather, father and two uncles had also been tlatoque (plural of tlatoani).

From 1502 to 1519, Montezuma had proven himself to be an able leader in war, politics, religion and diplomacy. He had maintained and expanded the empire and was lord of lands stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Hundreds of conquered vassal tribes sent the Aztecs goods, food, weapons and even slaves and captured warriors for sacrifice.

Cortes and the Invasion of Mexico

In 1519, Hernan Cortes and 600 Spanish conquistadors landed on Mexico's Gulf coast, establishing a base near the present-day city of Veracruz. They began slowly making their way inland, collecting intelligence through Cortes' interpreter/mistress Doña Marina ("Malinche"). They befriended disgruntled vassals of the Mexica and made an important alliance with the Tlaxcalans, bitter enemies of the Aztecs. They arrived in Tenochtitlan in November and were initially welcomed by Montezuma and his top officials.

Capture of Montezuma

The wealth of Tenochtitlan was astounding, and Cortes and his lieutenants began plotting how to take the city. Most of their plans involved capturing Montezuma and holding him until more reinforcements could arrive to secure the city. On November 14, 1519, they got the excuse they needed. A Spanish garrison left on the coast had been attacked by some representatives of the Mexica and several of them were killed.

Cortes arranged a meeting with Montezuma, accused him of planning the attack, and took him into custody. Amazingly, Montezuma agreed, provided he be able to tell the story that he had voluntarily accompanied the Spanish back to the palace where they were lodged.

Montezuma Captive

Montezuma was still allowed to see his advisors and participate in his religious duties, but only with Cortes' permission. He taught Cortes and his lieutenants to play traditional Mexica games and even took them hunting outside of the city. Montezuma seemed to develop a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, in which he befriended and sympathized with his captor, Cortes: when his nephew Cacama, lord of Texcoco, plotted against the Spanish, Montezuma heard of it and informed Cortes, who took Cacama prisoner.

Meanwhile, the Spanish continually badgered Montezuma for more and more gold. The Mexica generally valued brilliant feathers more than gold, so much of the gold in the city was handed over to the Spanish. Montezuma even ordered the vassal states of the Mexica to send gold, and the Spaniards amassed an unheard-of fortune: it is estimated that by May they had collected eight tons of gold and silver.

Massacre of Toxcatl and Return of Cortes

In May of 1520, Cortes had to go to the coast with as many soldiers as he could spare to deal with an army led by Panfilo de Narvaez. Unbeknownst to Cortes, Montezuma had entered into a secret correspondence with Narvez and had ordered his coastal vassals to support him. When Cortes found out, he was furious, greatly straining his relationship with Montezuma.

Cortes left his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado in charge of Montezuma, other royal captives and the city of Tenochtitlan. Once Cortes was gone, the people of Tenochtitlan became restless, and Alvarado heard of a plot to murder the Spanish. He ordered his men to attack during the festival of Toxcatl on May 20, 1520. Thousands of unarmed Mexica, most of them members of the nobility, were slaughtered. Alvarado also ordered the murder of several important lords held in captivity, including Cacama.

The people of Tenochtitlan were furious and attacked the Spaniards, forcing them to barricade themselves inside the Palace of Axayácatl.

Cortes defeated Narvaez in battle and added his men to his own. On June 24, this larger army returned to Tenochtitlan and was able to reinforce Alvarado and his embattled men.

Death of Montezuma

Cortes returned to a palace under siege. Cortes could not restore order, and the Spanish were starving, as the market had closed. Cortes ordered Montezuma to reopen the market, but the emperor said that he could not because he was a captive and no one listened to his orders anymore. He suggested that if Cortes freed his brother Cuitlahuac, also held prisoner, he might be able to get the markets to reopen. Cortes let Cuitlahuac go, but instead of reopening the market, the warlike prince organized an even fiercer attack on the barricaded Spaniards. 

Unable to restore order, Cortes had a reluctant Montezuma hauled to the roof of the palace, where he pleaded with his people to stop attacking the Spanish. Enraged, the people of Tenochtitlan threw stones and spears at Montezuma, who was badly wounded before the Spanish were able to bring him back inside the palace. According to Spanish accounts, two or three days later, on June 29, Montezuma died of his wounds. He spoke to Cortes before dying and asked him to take care of his surviving children. According to native accounts, Montezuma survived his wounds but was murdered by the Spanish when it became clear that he was of no further use to them. It is impossible to determine today exactly how Montezuma died.

Aftermath of Montezuma's Death

With Montezuma dead, Cortes realized that there was no way he could hold the city. On June 30, 1520, Cortes and his men tried to sneak out of Tenochtitlan under cover of darkness. They were spotted, however, and wave after wave of fierce Mexica warriors attacked the Spaniards fleeing over the Tacuba causeway. About six hundred Spaniards (roughly half of Cortes' army) were killed, along with most of his horses.

Two of Montezuma's children - which Cortes had just promised to protect - were slain alongside the Spaniards.  Some Spaniards were captured alive and sacrificed to the Aztec gods. Nearly all of the treasure was gone as well. The Spanish referred to this disastrous retreat as the "Night of Sorrows." A few months later, reinforced by more conquistadors and Tlaxcalans, the Spanish would re-take the city, this time for good.

Five centuries after his death, many modern Mexicans still blame Montezuma for poor leadership which led to the fall of the Aztec Empire. The circumstances of his captivity and death have much to do with this. Had Montezuma refused to allow himself to be taken captive, history would most likely have been very different. Most modern Mexicans have little respect for Montezuma, preferring the two leaders who came after him, Cuitlahuac and Cuauhtémoc, both of whom fought the Spanish fiercely.

Sources:

Diaz del Castillo, Bernal. . Trans., ed. J.M. Cohen. 1576. London, Penguin Books, 1963.

Hassig, Ross. Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Levy, Buddy. . New York: Bantam, 2008.

Thomas, Hugh. . New York: Touchstone, 1993.