The Conquest of Mexico

By John D. Baldwin.

This battle took place in the latter part of June, 1520, several months after the friendly reception, and was occasioned by the treacherous and most atrocious proceedings of the Spaniards, which drove the Mexicans to madness. Nearly a year passed before Cortez made another attack on the Mexican capital. During this time he found means among the Tlascalans to build a flotilla of thirteen vessels, which were transported in pieces to Lake Tezcuco and there put together. This would have been impossible if he had not found in the country suitable tools and mechanics. By means of these vessels armed with cannon, and assisted by a great army of native allies consisting of Tlascalans, Cholulans, and many others, he took control of the lagunas, secured possession of the causeways, and attacked the city in vain for forty-five days, although his men several times penetrated to the great square. He now resolved to enter by gradual advances, and destroy every thing as he went. This he did, burning what was combustible, and tearing down most of the edifices built of stone; nevertheless, thirty or forty days more passed before this work of destruction was complete. The inhabitants of the city were given over to extermination.

The conquerors proceeded immediately to rebuild the city, native architects chiefly being employed to do the work. Materials for the rebuilding were taken from the ruins; probably many of the old Aztec foundations were retained, and there may now be edifices in the city of Mexico which stand on some of these foundations. Twelve acres of the great enclosure of the Aztec temple were taken for a Spanish plaza, and are still used for this purpose, while the site of the temple is occupied by a cathedral. The plaza is paved with marble. Like the rest of the great enclosure, it was paved when the Spaniards first saw it, and the paving was so perfect and so smooth that their horses were liable to slip and fall when they attempted to ride over it.

Some relics recovered from ruins of the old temple have been preserved. Among them is the great Aztec calendar which belonged to it, on which are carved hieroglyphics representing the months of the year. This calendar was found in 1790 buried in the great square. It was carved from a mass of porous basalt, and made eleven feet eight inches in diameter. It was a fixture of the Aztec temple; it is now walled into one side of the cathedral. The “stone of sacrifice,” another relic of the temple, nine feet in diameter, and covered with sculptured hieroglyphics, can still be seen in the city, and in the suburbs, it is said, vestiges of the ruins of long lines of edifices can be traced. Calendars made of gold and silver were common in Mexico. Before Cortez reached the capital, Montezuma sent him two “as large as cartwheels,” one representing the sun, the other the moon, both “richly carved.” During the sack of the city a calendar of gold was found by a soldier in a pond of Guatemozin’s garden. But these Spaniards did not go to Mexico to study Aztec astronomy, nor to collect curiosities. In their hands every article of gold was speedily transformed into coin.

In every Spanish description of the city we can see its resemblance to cities whose ruins are found farther south. If the Spaniards had invented the temple, they would not have made it unlike any thing they had ever before seen or heard of, by placing its altar on the summit of a high pyramid. This method of constructing temples is seen in the old ruins, but it was unknown to Cortez and his men until they found it in Mexico. The only reasonable or possible explanation of what they said of it is, that the temple actually existed at the Aztec capital, and that the Spaniards, being there, described what they saw. The uniform testimony of all who saw the country at that time shows that the edifices of towns and cities, wherever they went, were most commonly built of cut stone laid in mortar, or of timber, and that in the more rural districts thatch was frequently used for the roofs of dwellings. Moreover, we are told repeatedly that the Spaniards employed “Mexican masons,” and found them “very expert” in the arts of building and plastering. There is no good reason to doubt that the civilized condition of the country, when the Spaniards found it, was superior to what it has been at any time since the Conquest.


This is taken from Ancient America, originally published in 1871.



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