return to Cempoala
CortÃ©s had been in Mexico about six months; Moctezuma, still titular ruler, was virtually a prisoner and continued to urge patience on his people. He warned CortÃ©s: you'd better go...I can't contain them much longer. CortÃ©s assured him they would leave just as soon as they could obtain new ships (he had destroyed his fleet before beginning the march inland to prevent the dissatisfied members of his troop from deserting and sailing back to Cuba). The people of were growing impatient with their leader's conciliation. DÃaz says the conquistadors were depressed and fearful, expecting at any moment to be attacked, and that at this time he developed the lifelong habit of sleeping on the ground in his clothes with his weapons at hand, ready to spring into action. CortÃ©s uncovered a great treasure sealed in a wall in the palace; Moctezuma said take it...take it all...then just please go! Then news arrived from Villa Rica.
Diego Velazquez, the governor of Cuba who had selected CortÃ©s to head the expedition, had sent 1200 men under PanfÃlo NarvÃ¡ez to arrest CortÃ©s and his captains and take over the conquest. NarvÃ¡ez had set up headquarters in Cempoala and forced the natives into submission. Now he was demanding CortÃ©s' surrender.
CortÃ©s had to respond to this threat. Leaving the rash but charismatic Pedro de Alvarado and a hundred or so men to hold the position in Tenochtitlan, he set off with the rest of the troops on forced march to Cempoala, where he overpowered the more numerous, better-armed and well-rested troops and captured NarvÃ¡ez. There were few casualties on either side, and most of NarvÃ¡ez troops, golden peso-signs dancing in their eyes, joined CortÃ©s. But just as they were celebrating yet another miraculous victory, a messenger from Tenochtitlan arrived to say that Alvarado was under siege. Here's what had happened:
It was time for one of the important annual festivals, and the nobility had approached Alvarado for permission to hold the fiesta in the square. Permission was given, but Alvarado apparently feared that an attack was imminent. To get the drop on them, he had his men fall on the dancing Aztecs and butcher them. This was the final straw, and the city was now up in arms against the interlopers. When CortÃ©s and his men returned, they found a united horde clamoring for their blood.
This was a turning point in the conquest. There was to be no more cautious jockeying for position; now for both sides it was all-out war.
But one of the most profound and far-reaching developments went practically unnoticed: a slave with NarvÃ¡ez' troop was carrying smallpox. Americans had no immunity to the disease; it quickly devastated the country. Smallpox, far more than horses, guns, powerful steel blades and fierce dogs, was the weapon that destroyed the Aztec empire.
NOTE: Quotes from DÃaz and CortÃ©s are from the following sources:
The Conquest of New Spain, Bernal DÃaz del Castillo. Translated by J. M. Cohen. Penguin Books, 1963.
Letters from Mexico, HernÃ¡n CortÃ©s. Translated by Anthony Pagden. Yale University Press, 1986.