Which was the fabled city of gold

500 years ago, Cortés moved into the legendary capital of the Aztecs - it was the starting signal for globalization

The encounter with the Aztec king Moctezuma and the fall of the Mexican empire heralded European supremacy worldwide.

Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec Empire, must have been an extremely impressive sight. The Spanish conquerors under Hernán Cortés had never seen anything like it. When it arrived on November 8, 1519, the city had a population of around 200,000. This made the metropolis, now known as Mexico City, the largest city on the American continent at the time, and also far larger than almost all European cities.

The city impressed the Spaniards not only because of its size, but also because of its location, its wealth and its meticulous organization. Located on a large island in Lake Texcoco, it was accessed from the shore by three large dams. The Spaniards were particularly astonished at the huge market, where everything necessary for life was offered for sale and each product was assigned its fixed location. The meeting of Cortés with King Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlán 500 years ago sealed the end of the Aztec Empire and the beginning of centuries of global domination by Europeans.

Call of gold

On February 10, 1519, Cortés set sail with eleven ships and around 600 Spaniards from Santiago de Cuba. There were also 200 Taíno Indians and an unknown number of black African slaves as servants. In addition, the conquerors carried 16 horses, 4 light cannons, 32 crossbows and 13 rifles. Cortés ’assignment was to explore the southeast coast of Mexico between the Yucatán and Veracruz. As usual in the Spanish Conquista, his expedition had the blessing of the crown, but was carried out on a private basis.

The events during the campaign were recorded in great detail in a chronicle by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a subordinate of Cortés. It is of course a Spanish point of view. But it was written more than three decades after the events and is therefore less likely to be influenced by the ambitions of the conquistadors than, for example, the letters from Cortés to the king at the time. Díaz del Castillo is also not afraid to report negative things about the conquerors, such as the constant internal conflicts and frequent refusals of obedience. The following quotes are taken from this eyewitness account.

During their exploration of the Mexican coast, the conquistadors heard repeatedly from the local Indian population about the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, which is said to have large amounts of gold and other riches. After he had founded a settlement near Veracruz, Cortés decided, in excess of his mandate, to move to this city with the majority of his people. In order to prevent a rebellion among his people, he had the ships destroyed without further ado. This cut off the way back to Cuba.


The almost three-month march to Tenochtitlán demanded everything from them. Again and again they had to fight against Indian peoples, mostly in large numbers. They fought three particularly difficult battles against the Tlaxcalteks, whose number of warriors Díaz del Castillo estimated at 50,000:

In no time we were surrounded on all sides by army masses that filled 25 square kilometers of the plain. In the middle stood our heap of 400 men.

Nevertheless, they ultimately remained victorious and were able to win the Tlaxcalteks as allies. With several thousand of their warriors they moved on towards Mexico City. It is still a mystery today how a group of a few hundred Spanish adventurers managed to get the upper hand in all battles with overpowering, hostile Indian warrior peoples and to march through to Mexico City.

The stark numerical inferiority was partially offset by better equipment, particularly horses and firearms. The Spaniards also succeeded time and again in winning over peoples who were enemies with the Aztecs. They were therefore soon only a small minority within the troops fighting against the Aztecs. In the negotiations with these peoples, a woman played a decisive role. Cortés ’translator Malinche (or Marina), an Indian slave whom he had brought with him from the Yucatán, was far more than an interpreter; she was his advisor,“ chief diplomat ”and also a lover.

On a divine mission

There is also a psychological factor that should not be underestimated. Cortés and his people were absolutely convinced that they were carrying out a divine mission to Christianize pagans and thus enjoyed the protection of the Almighty. So they dared to march straight to the capital of the Aztecs, despite their small number:

The thought of death preoccupied us all. [. . .] The firm trust in our Lord Christ gave us time and again the hope that he would protect us from the overwhelming power of the Mexicans even in this danger.

On November 7th, 1519 they finally arrived at Lake Texcoco:

The next morning we reached the main road to Iztapalapa. From there we saw for the first time the large number of cities and villages that were built in the middle of the lake, and the much larger number of towns on the banks, and finally the very well-kept, straight road that leads into the city of Mexico led. We were amazed at this magical realm. The walled stone towers, temples and houses towered high and proud out of the middle of the water. [. . .] We were quartered in real palaces in Iztapalapa, in huge buildings made of beautifully hewn ashlar stones, which were decorated with woodwork made of cedar and other fragrant woods. All the rooms were hung with cotton wallpaper. These palaces included beautiful gardens with all kinds of flowering trees, rose hedges and flower beds, with orchards and a pond that was connected to the lake by a canal. [. . .] All sorts of birds swam in the various waters. Everything was so beautiful and graceful that you couldn't get enough of it.

The next day the Spaniards entered Tenochtitlán peacefully, and a historic encounter with Moctezuma took place:

Moctezuma was sitting on an extremely valuable armchair, surrounded by other greats from his empire, and slowly came towards us. When we reached the first towers of the actual city of Mexico, he got down from his armchair, the most distinguished caciques took him under the arm and led him under a magnificent canopy, richly adorned with green feathers, fine gold and silver carvings, pearls and precious stones was. [. . .] Numerous other greats surrounded the ruler, spreading precious cloths on the ground in front of him so that his foot would not have to touch the bare earth, and carried his canopy. [. . .] When Cortés was told that Moctezuma himself was nearby, he got off his horse and walked to meet him. Now there were big welcoming ceremonies on both sides. Moctezuma welcomed Cortés and the latter replied through Marina that he wished Moctezuma to be safe.

Moctezuma then led Cortés and his people into the city and quartered them in the palace of his late father. The Spaniards stayed in Tenochtitlán for almost eight months, but behaved rather improperly. According to Díaz del Castillo, they arrested their host Moctezuma and held him hostage in the palace assigned to them.

In the temples they destroyed the religious figures of the Aztecs. In response to cruel human sacrifices at a religious ceremony, they killed priests and other members of the Aztec elite. Moctezuma himself also died under unknown circumstances. In the end, however, they had to flee the city on June 30, 1520 by night and fog. Several hundred Spaniards and over 2000 of their Indian allies were killed in the battle of retreat.

But it was only a temporary victory for the Aztecs. Cortés made new alliances with their enemies and was reinforced by Spanish newcomers. From May 1521 he besieged Tenochtitlán with numerous Indian allies on water and on land, on August 13 the city, weakened by an epidemic, fell. The Spaniards made Mexico the Viceroyalty of Nueva España.

Cortés ’conquest of Mexico led to a fundamental reorganization of the global power structure. Twelve years later, the second great Latin American power, the Inca Empire, fell into the hands of the Spaniards. The two areas with their rich gold and silver deposits became centers of the Spanish colonial empire, the first empire in which the sun never set. It was something like the starting signal for globalization. With the dawn of colonialism, Europe established itself as global dominance.

Conquest campaigns as joint ventures

The idea that the conquest of the Spanish conquistadors were regular military operations is misleading. The historian Vitus Huber, who conducts research at Harvard and the University of Bern, corrects this picture in a book published this year and sheds new light on the world of the Spanish conquerors. He points out the joint venture character of these companies.

The Spanish crown usually only granted permission for the expedition. This allowed a licensee to equip an expedition and to mobilize the necessary people for it. He usually had to finance the ships and their equipment himself. The other participants had to pay for themselves. They did not receive a fixed pay and did not serve in a regular army. A special case was the first sea voyage from Columbus to America. The Spanish crown bore more than half of the costs.

In return for the granting of the license, the Spanish king received part of the spoils of war. The rest was already divided among the participants according to fixed percentages before the expedition. The more a conqueror had brought in funds into the company, the more he received. The possession of a horse or special weapons such as a crossbow or a rifle were particularly valued. Outstanding achievements during the campaign could also be specially honored.

The vast majority of the Spanish conquerors were militarily inexperienced. They came from civil professions. The most important motivation for taking part in a campaign of conquest is “the pursuit of material enrichment and a rise in social status” (Vitus Huber). The conquest of Latin America did not proceed according to a given general plan of the Spanish crown. This merely set the framework, while the actual initiatives came from the conquistadors.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo: The Conquest of Mexico. Edited by Georg A. Narciss. Insel-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2017.

Vitus Huber: The Conquistadors. Cortés, Pizarro and the conquest of America. Publishing house C. H. Beck, Munich 2019.