The Treasure of the Aztecs

Cortes and his Conquistadors plunder old Mexico

Aztec Gold Mask
Aztec Gold Mask. Dallas Museum of Art

In 1519, Hernan Cortes and his greedy band of some 600 conquistadors began their audacious assault on the Mexica (Aztec) Empire. By 1521 the Mexica capital city of Tenochtitlan was in ashes, Emperor Montezuma was dead and the Spanish were firmly in control of what they took to calling "New Spain." Along the way, Cortes and his men collected thousands of pounds of gold, silver, jewels and priceless pieces of Aztec art.

Whatever became of this unimaginable treasure?

The Concept of Wealth in the New World

For the Spanish, the concept of wealth was simple: it meant gold and silver, preferably in easily negotiable bars or coins, and the more of it the better. For the Mexica and their allies, it was more complicated. They used gold and silver but primarily for ornaments, decorations, plates and jewelry. The Aztecs prized other things far above gold: they loved brightly colored feathers, preferably from quetzals or hummingbirds. They would make elaborate cloaks and headdresses out of these feathers and it was a conspicuous display of wealth to wear one.

They loved jewels, including jade and turquoise. They also prized cotton and garments like tunics made from it: as a display of power, Tlatoani Montezuma would wear as many as four cotton tunics a day and discard them after wearing them only once. The people of central Mexico were great merchants who engaged in trade, generally bartering goods with one another, but cacao beans were also used as a currency of sorts.

Cortes Sends Treasure to the King

In April of 1519 the Cortes expedition landed near present-day Veracruz: they had already visited the Maya area of Potonchan, where they picked up some gold and the invaluable interpreter Malinche. From the town they founded in Veracruz they made friendly relationships with the coastal tribes.

The Spanish offered to ally themselves with these disgruntled vassals, who agreed and often gave them gifts of gold, feathers and cotton cloth.

In addition, emissaries from Montezuma occasionally appeared, bringing great gifts with them. The first emissaries gave the Spanish some rich clothes, an obsidian mirror, a tray and jar of gold, some fans and a shield made from mother-of-pearl. Subsequent emissaries brought a gold-plated wheel six and a half feet across, weighing some thirty-five pounds, and a smaller silver one: these represented the sun and moon. Later emissaries brought back a Spanish helmet which had been sent to Montezuma; the generous ruler had filled the helm with gold dust as the Spanish had requested. He did this because he had been made to believe that the Spanish suffered from an illness which could only be cured by gold.

In July of 1519, Cortes decided to send some of this treasure to the King of Spain, in part because the king was entitled to a fifth of any treasure found and in part because Cortes needed the king's support for his venture, which was on questionable legal ground. The Spanish put together all of the treasures they had accumulated, inventoried it and sent much of it to Spain on a ship.

They estimated that the gold and silver was worth about 22,500 pesos: this estimate was based on its worth as a raw material, not as artistic treasures. A long list of the inventory survives: it details every item. One example: "the other collar has four strings with 102 red stones and 172 apparently green, and around the two green stones are 26 golden bells and, in the said collar, ten large stones set in gold..." (qtd. in Thomas). Detailed as this list is, it appears that Cortes and his lieutenants held much back: it is likely that the king received only one-tenth of the treasure taken thus far.

The Treasures of Tenochtitlan

Between July and November of 1519, Cortes and his men made their way to Tenochtitlan. Along their way, they picked up more treasure in the form of more gifts from Montezuma, loot from the Cholula Massacre and gifts from the leader of Tlaxcala, who in addition entered into an important alliance with Cortes.

In early November, the conquistadors entered Tenochtitlan and Montezuma made them welcome. A week or so into their stay, the Spanish arrested Montezuma on a pretext and kept him in their heavily defended compound. Thus began the plunder of the great city. The Spaniards continually demanded gold, and their captive, Montezuma, told his people to bring it. Many great treasures of gold, silver jewels and featherwork were laid at the feet of the invaders.

Furthermore, Cortes asked Montezuma where the gold came from. The captive emperor freely admitted that there were several places in the Empire where gold could be found: it was usually panned from streams and smelted for use. Cortes immediately sent his men to those places to investigate.

Montezuma had allowed the Spaniards to stay at the lavish palace of Axayacatl, a former tlatoani of the empire and Montezuma's father. One day, the Spanish discovered a vast treasure behind one of the walls: gold, jewels, idols, jade, feathers and more. It was added to the invaders' ever-growing pile of loot.

The Noche Triste

In May of 1520, Cortes had to return to the coast  to defeat the conquistador army of Panfilo de Narvaez. In his absence from Tenochtitlan, his hotheaded lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado ordered the massacre of thousands of unarmed Aztec nobles attending the festival of Toxcatl. When Cortes returned in July, he found his men under siege. On June 30, they decided they could not hold the city and decided to depart.

But what to do about the treasure? At that point, it is estimated that the Spanish had amassed some eight thousand pounds of gold and silver, not to mention plenty of feathers, cotton, jewels and more. 

Cortes ordered the king's fifth and his own fifth loaded onto horses and Tlaxcalan porters and told the others to take what they wanted. Foolish conquistadors loaded themselves down with gold: smart ones only took a handful of jewels. That night, the Spanish were spotted as they tried to flee the city: the enraged Mexica warriors attacked, slaughtering hundreds of Spaniards on the Tacuba causeway out of the city. The Spanish later referred to this as the "Noche Triste" or "Night of Sorrows." The king's and Cortes' gold was lost, and those soldiers who carried very much loot either dropped it or were slaughtered because they were running too slowly. Most of the great treasures of Montezuma were irrevocably lost that night.

Return to Tenochtitlan and Division of Spoils

The Spanish regrouped and were able to re-take Tenochtitlan a few months later, this time for good. Although they found some of their lost loot (and were able to squeeze some more out of the defeated Mexica) they never found all of it, despite torturing the new emperor, Cuauhtémoc.

After the city had been retaken and it came time to divide the spoils, Cortes proved as skilled at stealing from his own men as he had in stealing from the Mexica. After setting aside the king's fifth and his own fifth, he began making suspiciously large payments to his closest cronies for weapons, services, etc. When they finally got their share, Cortes' soldiers were dismayed to learn that they had "earned" less than two hundred pesos each, far less than they would have gotten for "honest" work elsewhere.

The soldiers were furious, but there was little they could do. Cortes bought them off by sending them on further expeditions which he promised would bring in more gold and expeditions were soon on their way to the lands of the Maya in the south. Other conquistadors were given encomiendas: these were grants of vast lands with native villages or town on them. The owner theoretically had to provide protection and religious instruction for the natives, and in return the natives would work for the landowner. In reality, it was officially sanctioned slavery and led to some unspeakable abuses.

The conquistadors who served under Cortes always believed that he had held back thousands of pesos in gold from them, and the historical evidence seems to support them.

Guests to Cortes' home reported seeing many bars of gold in Cortes' possession.

Legacy of the Treasure of Montezuma

In spite of the losses of the Night of Sorrows, Cortes and his men were able to take a staggering amount of gold out of Mexico: only Francisco Pizarro's looting of the Inca Empire produced a greater amount of wealth. The audacious conquest inspired thousands of Europeans to flock to the New World, hoping to be on the next expedition to conquer a rich empire. After Pizarro's conquest of the Inca, however, there were no more great empires to find, although legends of the city of El Dorado persisted for centuries.

It is a great tragedy that the Spanish preferred their gold in coins and bars: countless priceless golden ornaments were melted down and the cultural and artistic loss is incalculable.

According the Spanish who saw these golden works, Aztec goldsmiths were more skilled than their European counterparts.

Sources:

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

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

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