The Night of Sorrows

The Spanish Lose Tenochtitlan on the "Noche Triste"

The Night of Sorrows
La Noche Triste. Library of Congress; Artist Unknown

On the night of June 30 - July 1, 1520, the Spanish conquistadors occupying Tenochtitlan decided to escape from the city, as they had been under heavy attack for several days. The Spanish tried to escape under cover of darkness, but they were spotted by locals, who rallied the Mexica warriors to attack. Although some of the Spaniards escaped, including expedition leader Hernan Cortes, many were slain by the angry natives, and many of the golden treasures of Montezuma were lost.

The Spanish referred to the escape as "la Noche Triste," or "the Night of Sorrows." 

The Conquest of the Aztecs

In 1519, conquistador Hernan Cortes landed near present-day Veracruz with about 600 men and began slowly making his way to the magnificent capital city of the Mexica (Aztec) Empire, Tenochtitlan. On his way into the Mexican heartland, Cortes learned that the Mexica controlled many vassal states, most of which were unhappy about the Mexica's tyrannical rule. Cortes also first defeated, then befriended the warlike Tlaxcalans, who would provide invaluable assistance in his conquest. On November 8, 1519, Cortes and his men entered Tenochtitlan. Before long, they took Emperor Montezuma captive, resulting in a tense stand-off with the remaining native leaders who wanted the Spaniards out.

The Battle of Cempoala and the Toxcatl Massacre

In early 1520, Cortes had a fairly firm hold on the city.

Emperor Montezuma had proved a pliant captive and a combination of terror and indecision paralyzed other native leaders. In May, however, Cortes was forced to assemble as many soldiers as he could and leave Tenochtitlan. Governor Diego Velazquez of Cuba, wishing to reassert control over Cortes' expedition, had sent a massive conquistador army under Panfilo de Narvaez to rein in Cortes.

The two conquistador armies met at the Battle of Cempoala on May 28 and Cortes emerged victorious, adding Narvaez' men to his own.

Meanwhile, back in Tenochtitlan, Cortes had left his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado in charge of about 160 Spanish reserves. Hearing rumors that the Mexica planned to slaughter them at the Festival of Toxcatl, Alvarado decided on a pre-emptive strike. On May 20, he ordered his men to attack the unarmed Aztec nobles assembled at the festival. Heavily armed Spanish conquistadors and their fierce Tlaxcalan allies waded into the unarmed mass, killing thousands.

Needless to say, the people of Tenochtitlan were enraged by the Temple Massacre. When Cortes returned to the city on June 24, he found Alvarado and the surviving Spaniards and Tlaxcalans barricaded in the Palace of Axayácatl. Although Cortes and his men were able to join them, the city was up in arms. 

The Death of Montezuma

By this point, the people of Tenochtitlan had lost their respect for their Emperor, Montezuma, who had repeatedly refused to take up arms against the hated Spanish. On June 26 or 27, the Spanish dragged a reluctant Montezuma to the rooftop to appeal to his people for peace. This tactic had worked before, but now his people were having none of it.

The assembled Mexica, egged on by new, warlike leaders including Cuitláhuc (who would succeed Montezuma as Tlatoani, or Emperor), only jeered Montezuma before launching stones and arrows at him and the Spanish on the roof. The Europeans brought Montezuma inside, but he had been mortally wounded. He died shortly thereafter, on June 29 or 30.

Preparations for Departure

With Montezuma dead, the city in arms and able military leaders like Cuitláhuac clamoring for the annihilation of all of the invaders, Cortes and his captains decided to abandon the city. They knew the Mexica did not like to fight at night, so they decided to leave at midnight on the night of June 30-July 1. Cortes decided that they would leave via the Tacuba causeway to the west, and he organized the retreat. He put his best 200 men in the vanguard, so that they could clear the way.

He also put important noncombatants there: his interpreter Doña Marina ("Malinche") was guarded personally by some of Cortes' best soldiers.

Following the vanguard would be Cortes with the main force.  They were followed by the surviving Tlaxcalan warriors with some important prisoners, including three children of Montezuma. After that, the rearguard and cavalry would be commanded by Juan Velazquez de León and Pedro de Alvarado, two of Cortes' most reliable battlefield captains.

The Night of Sorrows

The Spanish made it a fair way onto the Tacuba causeway before they were seen by a local woman who raised the alarm. Before long, thousands of enraged Mexica warriors were attacking the Spanish on the causeway and from their war canoes. The Spanish fought valiantly, but the scene soon deteriorated into chaos.

The vanguard and Cortes' main body of troops reached the western shores fairly intact, but the back half of the escape column was nearly wiped out by the Mexica. The Tlaxcalan warriors suffered great losses, as did the rearguard. Many local leaders who had allied themselves with the Spanish were killed, including Xiuhtototzin, governor of Teotihuacán. Two of Montezuma's three children were killed, including his son Chimalpopoca. Juan Velazquez de León was killed, reportedly shot full of native arrows.

There were several gaps in the Tacuba causeway, and these were difficult for the Spanish to cross. The largest gap was called "the Toltec Canal." So many Spaniards, Tlaxcalans and horses died at the Toltec Canal that their dead bodies formed a bridge over the water over which others could cross. At one point, Pedro de Alvarado allegedly made a tremendous leap over one of the gaps in the causeway: this place became known as "Alvarado's Leap" even though it likely never happened.

Some Spanish soldiers close to the rearguard decided to retreat back on the city and re-occupy the fortified Palace of Axayácatl. They may have been joined there by as many as 270 conquistadors there, veterans of the Narvaez expedition, who had apparently never been told of the plans to leave that night.

These Spanish held out for a couple of days before being overrun: all were killed in battle or sacrificed shortly thereafter.

The Treasure of Montezuma

The Spanish had been collecting wealth since long before the Night of Sorrows. They had plundered towns and cities on their way to Tenochtitlan, Montezuma had given them extravagant gifts and once they reached the capital city of the Mexica, they had looted it mercilessly. One estimate of their loot was a staggering eight tons of gold, silver and jewels at the time of the Night of Sorrows. Before they left, Cortes had ordered the treasure melted down into portable gold bars. After he had secured the King's fifth and his own fifth onto some horses and Tlaxcalan porters, he told the men to take whatever they wanted to carry with them as they fled the city. Many greedy conquistadors loaded themselves down with heavy gold bars, but some of the smarter ones did not. Veteran Bernal Diaz del Castillo carried only a small handful of gemstones which he knew were easy to barter with natives. The gold was put in the care of Alonso de Escobar, one of the men Cortes trusted most.

In the confusion of the Night of Sorrows, many of the men abandoned their gold bars when they became a needless weight. Those who had loaded themselves with too much gold were more likely to perish in battle, drown in the lake or be captured. Escobar disappeared in the confusion, presumably killed or captured, and thousands of pounds of Aztec gold disappeared with him. All in all, most of the loot the Spanish had captured thus far disappeared that night, down into the depths of Lake Texcoco or back into the hands of the Mexica. When the Spanish recaptured Tenochtitlan several months later, they would try in vain to locate this lost treasure.

Legacy of the Night of Sorrows

All in all, some 600 Spanish conquistadors and about 4,000 Tlaxcalan warriors were killed or captured on what the Spanish came to call "la Noche Triste," or the Night of Sorrows. All of the captive Spaniards were sacrificed to the Aztecs' gods. The Spaniards lost a great many important things, such as their cannons, most of their gunpowder, any food they still had and, of course, the treasure.

The Mexica rejoiced in their victory, but made a huge tactical error in not pursuing the Spanish immediately. Instead, the invaders were allowed to retreat to Tlaxcala and regroup there before beginning another assault on the city, which would fall in a matter of months, this time for good.

Tradition has it that after his defeat, Cortes wept and regrouped beneath an enormous ahuehuete tree in Tacuba Plaza. This tree stood for centuries and became known as "el árbol de la noche triste" or "the tree of the Night of Sorrows." Many modern Mexicans favor a native-centric view of the conquest: that is to say, they see the Mexica as brave defenders of their homeland and the Spanish as unwelcome invaders. One manifestation of this is a movement in 2010 to change the name of the plaza, which is called "Plaza of the Tree of the Night of Sorrows" to "Plaza of the Tree of the Night of Victory." The movement did not succeed, perhaps because there is not much left of the tree nowadays.

Sources:

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

Levy, Buddy. Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma and the Last Stand of the Aztecs. New York: Bantam, 2008.

Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Touchstone, 1993.