13 August 1521: The fall of the Aztec Empire

Cuauhtemoc surrenders to Hernan Cortes © Getting images
Cuauhtémoc was captured by Hernán Cortés

The Aztec Empire, begun around 1345, was formed from three great city states – the ‘Triple Alliance’ –  with the city of Tenochtitlán the capital.

The Alliance was very keen on war, and conquered many of the other city states in the Valley of Mexico. At its largest extent, the empire covered some 11,000,000 people. And it amassed huge wealth.

Unfortunately for the Aztecs, the Spanish had recently arrived in the Caribbean, and they were hungry for gold. Once the Spanish got wind of their treasures, the Aztecs’ days were numbered.

Hernán Cortés was put in charge of an expedition to Mexico in 1519. He soon met a messenger from Montezuma, the Aztec ruler, and gave him a display of the Spaniards’ might, with cavalry charges, guns and cannon blasts. The Aztecs were suitably intimidated.

Cortés moved on, subjugating cities here and there, until he got to Tenochtitlán. The inhabitants venerated the Spaniards as gods, showered them with riches and put them up in sumptuous lodgings. But the Spanish were very ungrateful guests.

And despite being hugely outnumbered, Cortés arrested Montezuma and demanded he submit to the King of Spain.

The Aztecs staged a rebellion in 1520, in which Montezuma was killed. But they succeeded in driving the Spanish out of Tenochtitlán.

The Spaniards may have fled, but they left the Aztecs a most unwelcome gift – smallpox – and the city’s population was ravaged. And it wasn’t long before the Spanish were back. Cortés returned with a bigger force of soldiers and laid siege to the city for four months.

On 13 August, Cortés captured Cuauhtémoc, the Aztecs’ new leader, and Tenochtitlán fell, effectively ending the Aztec Empire.

The city was looted, and Cuauhtémoc was tortured to find the location of the rest of the gold. Eventually, Cortés had Cuauhtémoc killed, after he suspected him of plotting to kill him.

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