La Noche Triste - Conquest of Mexico

Desperate return to Cempoala
Part 6 of the Spanish Invasion

Cortés 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 Cortés: you'd better go...I can't contain them much longer. Cortés 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. Díaz 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. Cortés 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 Cortés to head the expedition, had sent 1200 men under Panfílo Narváez to arrest Cortés and his captains and take over the conquest. Narváez had set up headquarters in Cempoala and forced the natives into submission. Now he was demanding Cortés' surrender.

Cortés 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 Narváez. There were few casualties on either side, and most of Narváez troops, golden peso-signs dancing in their eyes, joined Cortés. 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 Cortés 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 Narváez' 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.

Pyramid at Cempoala where Cortés and Narváez fought

As we were about to start four important chieftains arrived whom the great Montezuma had sent to Cortés to complain about Pedro de Alvarado. With tears streaming from their eyes, they said that Alvarado had come out of his quarters with all the soldiers whom Cortés had left him, and for no reason at all had falllen on their Caciques and dignitaries, who were dancing and celebrating a festival in honour of their idols Huichilobos and Tezcatlipoca, for which they had Alvarado’s permission.

--Bernal Díaz del Castillo