The Death of Emperor Montezuma

Emperor Montezuma died in a disputed incident shortly before the conquest of Tenochtitlan. According to the Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, shortly after the massacre of Aztec nobles in the precincts of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish were forced to retreat to their quarters and, following the arrival of Cortes back into the city of Tenochtitlan, they…

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Aztecs handling Montezuma’s corpse. Florentine Codex, Book XII.

“Determined to sue the Aztecs for peace, and ask their permission to leave the city. But daylight had scarcely broken forth when our quarters were again attacked at all points by innumerable bodies of the enemy. Their excessive fury in attack, their stubbornness, their desperate thrusts and yells, were all more terrific than on the previous days . . . Cortes determined that Montezuma should address the infuriated crowd from the top of the building, and ask them to cease hostilities.

(Montezuma had been taken as a prisoner by the Spanish shortly after they arrived in Tenochtitlan. They believed this would both save them from possible attack by the Aztecs and allow them to control the empire through Montezuma.)

When this offer was told to Montezuma . . . he exclaimed in the height of grief, ‘Why does Cortes now turn to me? To me, who is tired of life, and who could wish never again to hear his name mentioned, for it is he who has plunged me into all this misery! . . . I will neither see nor hear anything more from this man. I put no longer any faith in his deceitful words, his promises, and his specious lies . . . Alas! It is now too late, I am convinced that the Aztecs, whatever my wishes might be, will not grant any cessation of arms. They have already raised another emperor (Cuitlahuac) to the throne, and are fully determined that none of you shall leave this place alive. I am convinced that every one of you will meet your death in this city.

In the end, Montezuma was convinced to accompany (the Spaniards). Under cover of a strong division of our troops he advanced to the battlements of our building, and began to address the Aztecs in the most affectionate manner, desiring them to put a stop to their fighting, for the Spaniards were going to leave the city. The instant the Mexican generals recognized their king, they ordered their men to cease firing.

(Negotiations take place between the former emperor and his subjects, who are concerned for their previous king, but also bound by the wishes of their new ruler, and determined to kill all of the Spaniards.)

Several of our men had covered Montezuma with their shields while he was addressing the enemy; but as the attack was now momentarily suspended, they were not so very careful in shielding him. Unfortunately, the hostilities immediately again commenced, and before it could be prevented, he was struck by an arrow and threes stones from a sling, by which he was wounded in the arm, leg, and in his head; so that he was forced to be carried back into the building. We were immediately going to bandage up his wounds, and begged him to take something strengthening; but he refused everything, and contrary to all expectation, we soon heard that he had died.” (Diaz del Castillo, 344-345)

– Bernal Diaz del Castillo

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Illustration of jaguar warriors. Made by artist Kamikazuh, DeviantArt.

Emperor Montezuma was killed on the 29th of June, 1520 after several months of captivity in his own city (Hassig 2006, xvi). He was renowned as a fighter, war leader, and strong emperor. Diaz del Castillo continued to write at length about the virtues of Montezuma, and recounted how the Spaniards wept and lamented at his death. It’s difficult to know how authentic their sorrow truly was.

There is much contention about how Emperor Montezuma actually died. Was he killed by his own people? If the crowd had become frustrated with the former emperor because he was continuously advocating for the Spaniards, perhaps they had simply decided that the he should be killed for his treasonous actions. Perhaps his death was part of a larger plot by members of the crowd. The Aztecs had continuously attacked the Spaniards as retribution for the brutal massacre in Tenochtitlan, but maybe some of the soldiers were hesitant to fight, because they were still loyal to Montezuma, understood that he was being held at the mercy of the Spanish, and didn’t want him to get hurt. If Montezuma was already dead, the Aztecs would have no reason to hesitate in attacking the Spanish. Was his death deliberately orchestrated?

Anthropologist Ross Hassig puts forth another interesting theory. He argues, “Aztec accounts claimed that Montezuma was killed by the Spaniards. Whether or not they did so to gain a four-day respite (from the fighting) while the people mourned their king, holding Montezuma prisoner had now become a liability rather than an asset. His captivity could still inspire Aztec attacks, but if he were released, he would be ignored at best and could unite his people against the Spaniards at worst. There was little to be gained by keeping Montezuma alive and much to be gained if he died, so the Aztec version, too, is plausible and, in light of both earlier and later Spanish actions, probable.” (Hassig 2006, 113)

 


**Note that I have changed some translations in Diaz Del Castillo’s work for simplicity’s sake. The archaic and often confusing translations of the text are sometimes a chore to read.


 

Hassig, Ross. 2006. “Mexico and the Spanish Conquest”. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Diaz del Castillo, Bernal. “The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo”. Translated by John Ingram Lockhart. J. Harchard and Son, 187, Piccadilly. London. Retrieved from Google Book Search.

 

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