History : May-Jun 2016
70 MAY/JUNE 2016 his superior weaponry, coupled with the addition- al 50,000 warriors provided by his indigenous allies, would conquer the city, which was already weakened from starvation and thirst. In May 1521 the Spaniards had cut off the city’s water supply by taking control of the Chapultepec aqueduct. Even so, the siege of Tenochtitlan was not a given. During fighting in July 1521, the Aztec held strong, even capturing Cortés himself. Wound- ed in one leg, the Spanish leader was ultimately rescued by his captains. During this setback for the conquistador, the Aztec warriors managed to regain lost ground and rebuild the city’s fortifica- tions, pushing the Spanish onto the defensive for nearly three weeks. Cortés ordered the marshland to be filled with rubble for a final assault. Finally, on August 13, 1521, the city fell. “Not a single stone remained left to burn and destroy,” one witness wrote. The loss of human life was staggering, both in absolute figures and in its disproportionality. During the siege, around 100 Spaniards lost their lives compared to as many as 100,000 Aztec. The conquest of Tenochtitlan and the subse- quent consolidation of Spanish domination over the former Aztec Empire was the first major pos- session in what became the Spanish Empire. This vast territory would reach its greatest extent in the 18th century, with territory throughout North and South America. Cortés’s triumph would be short-lived. In just a few years, he would lose many of his lands in the New World. Despite being made a marquis years later, the Conqueror of Mexico did not have a glo- rious end. In 1547, at the age of 62, he died in a vil- lage near Sevilla, Spain, embroiled in lawsuits and his health broken by a series of disastrous expedi- tions. Decades of rapid expansion in the Americas seemed to have eclipsed his own exploits, and few bells tolled for the man whose ruthlessness and cunning transformed the Americas. The siege of Tenochtitlan was not a given. During fighting in July 1521, the Aztec even managed to capture Cortés himself. BERNAT HERNÁNDEZ A SPECIALIST IN THE SPANISH EMPIRE, HERNÁNDEZ IS PROFESSOR OF MODERN HISTORY AT THE AUTONOMOUS UNIVERSITY OF BARCELONA, SPAIN.