May 22

1520 The Alvarado Massacre

It’s hard to say a good word about the Spanish conquistadors; a scummier bunch of rapacious, dishonourable murderers would be hard to find. On the other hand, one is hard-pressed to be a fan of the Aztecs, cruel imperialists who conducted human sacrifices on an industrial scale. A tragic event in May 1520 would prompt a clash between the two cultures that would eventually end very badly for the natives.

In 1519 the Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortes had marched to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and taken Emperor Moctezuma prisoner. The Spaniards and their native allies were housed in their own compound of the magnificent city on the lake, relying on the locals for food. They were a tiny, uneasy band surrounded by a hostile populace resentful at their god-leader’s capture.

While Cortes was absent, dealing with another band of Spaniards on the coast, the Aztecs informed his deputy Pedro de Alvarado that they would be holding a festival in honour of one of their gods. Alvarado was also told by his allies that this was a cover for the start of an Aztec uprising and that the Spaniards were sure to be overwhelmed and sacrificed. Alvarado chose to react violently. He sealed off the square where the dancing was taking place and butchered the unarmed participants.

Here is an Aztec account:

Here it is told how the Spaniards killed; they murdered the Mexicans who were celebrating the Fiesta of Huitzilopochtli in the place they called The Patio of the Gods.  At this time, when everyone was enjoying the celebration, when everyone was already dancing, when everyone was already singing, when song was linked to song and the songs roared like waves, in that precise moment the Spaniards determined to kill people. They came into the patio, armed for battle. They came to close the exits, the steps, the entrances [to the patio]: The Gate of the Eagle in the smallest palace, The Gate of the Canestalk and the Gate of the Snake of Mirrors. And when they had closed them, no one could get out anywhere. Once they had done this, they entered the Sacred Patio to kill people. They came on foot, carrying swords and wooden and metal shields. Immediately, they surrounded those who danced, then rushed to the place where the drums were played. They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off both his arms. Then they cut off his head [with such a force] that it flew off, falling far away. At that moment, they then attacked all the people, stabbing them, spearing them, wounding them with their swords. They struck some from behind, who fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out [of their bodies]. They cut off the heads of some and smashed the heads of others into little pieces. They struck others in the shoulders and tore their arms from their bodies. They struck some in the thighs and some in the calves. They slashed others in the abdomen and their entrails fell to the earth. There were some who even ran in vain, but their bowels spilled as they ran; they seemed to get their feet entangled with their own entrails. Eager to flee, they found nowhere to go. Some tried to escape, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates while they laughed. Others climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. Others entered the communal house, where they were safe for a while. Others lay down among the victims and pretended to be dead. But if they stood up again they [the Spaniards] would see them and kill them. The blood of the warriors ran like water as they ran, forming pools, which widened, as the smell of blood and entrails fouled the air. And the Spaniards walked everywhere, searching the communal houses to kill those who were hiding. They ran everywhere, they searched every place. When [people] outside [the Sacred Patio learned of the massacre], shouting began, “Captains, Mexicas, come here quickly! Come here with all arms, spears, and shields! Our captains have been murdered! Our warriors have been slain! Oh Mexica captains, [our warriors] have been annihilated!” Then a roar was heard, screams, people wailed, as they beat their palms against their lips. Quickly the captains assembled, as if planned in advance, and carried their spears and shields. Then the battle began. [The Mexicas] attacked them with arrows and even javelins, including small javelins used for hunting birds. They furiously hurled their javelins [at the Spaniards]. It was as if a layer of yellow canes spread over the Spaniards.

This atrocity greatly imperilled the Spanish position in the capital. Moctezuma would be repudiated by the Aztec elite and an uprising in June would eventually drive the conquistadors from the city with great losses. Much more blood would be shed before the Spaniards could crush the native resistance.

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