Early next morning, October 18, 1519, the warriors from Cholula are gathered in the citys main square. Also the Spaniards are up early, waiting sharply armed outside the square and letting all the feared warriors who want so come in – but no one may leave.
From horseback Cortés monitors the great formation and through his interpreters he asks why the Indians will kill them once he has admonished them not to be evil and sacrifice humans or worship their idols and eat their neighbors flesh or be sodomites, but behave in a nice way. He knows well they will kill us Spaniards and already have pots ready for salt, red pepper and tomatoes to eat us, yes, and twenty of us will be sacrificed to their idols.
History writer Diaz can both the high-pitched moral and the low-practical.
The chiefs answer that it is true, but they are innocent! It’s Moctezumas representatives who have ordered that they shall do so!
He also has a look for disclaimer.
Cortés declares that,
according to the Kings law, such a betrayal must be punished with death. Then
he lets a gun give fire. That’s the agreed signal. And then they get such
beats, which they will never forget, because many are killed and others are
alive. – According to the footnote of the Danish translator, Diaz has
striked through the words about the burning; also elsewhere in the manuscript,
corrections are seen – perhaps to counter contemporary writers accounts. – Then
these people did not benefit from the promises of their false idols! It took less than two hours
before the allies from Tlaxcala came and fought fiercely in the streets, looted
and took prisoners, because we couldn’t control them. Diaz calls the events in
Cholula a punishment.
So little, Diaz writes half a century after about the massacre in Cholula about this beating.
But what did Hernán Cortés write? He too – in his letter to the King a year after the events, description of an eyewitness and statement of a party – made it in brief:
I determined to anticipate them, rather than be surprised, so I had some of the lords of the city called, saying that I wished to speak with them, and I shut them in a chamber by themselves. In the meantime I had our people prepared, so that, at the firing of a musket, they should fall on a crowd of Indians who were near to our quarters, and many others who were inside them. It was done in this way, that, after I had taken these lords, and left them bound in the chamber, I mounted a horse, and ordered the musket to be fired, and we did such execution that, in two hours, more than three thousand persons had perished.
In order that Your Majesty may see how well prepared they were, before I went out of our quarters, they had occupied all the streets, and stationed all their men, but, as we took them by surprise, they were easily overcome, especially as the chiefs were wanting, for I had already taken them prisoners. I ordered fire to be set to some towers and strong houses, where they defended themselves, and assaulted us; and thus I scoured the city fighting during five hours, leaving our dwelling place, which was very strong, well guarded, until I had forced all the people out of the city at various points, in which those five thousand natives of Tlaxcala and the four hundred of Cempoala gave me good assistance.
After Cortés had written – and had let print – his letter to the King with his self-justification, but before Diaz had finished his writing, Bartolomé de las Casas – who had not personally attended this massacre – wrote in 1542 A short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which was printed 1552:
The Spaniards decided that the moment had come to organize a massacre (or ‘punishment’ as they themselves express such things) in order to inspire fear and terror in all the people of the territory. This was, indeed, the pattern they followed in all the lands they invaded: to stage a bloody massacre of the most public possible kind in order to terrorize those meek and gentle people. What they did was the following.
They requested the local lord to send for all the nobles and leading citizens of the city and of all the surrounding communities subject to it and, as soon as they arrived and entered the building to begin talks with the Spanish commander, they were seized without anyone outside getting wind of what was afoot. Part of the original request was that they should bring with them five or six thousand native bearers and these were mustered in the courtyards, when and as they arrived. One could not watch these poor wretches getting ready to carry the Spaniards packs without taking pity on them, stark naked as they were with only their modesty hidden from view, each with a kind of little net on his shoulders in which he carried his own modest store of provisions. This all got down on their haunches and waited patiently like sheep. Once they were all safely inside the courtyard, together with a number of others who were also there at the time, armed guards took up positions covering the exits and Spanish soldiers unsheated their swords and grasped their lances and proceeded to slaughter these poor innocents. Not a single soul escaped.
After a day or two had gone by, several victims surfaced, soaked from head to foot in the blood of their fellows beneath whose bodies they had sheltered (so thick was the carpet of corpses in the courtyard) and, with tears in their eyes, pleaded for their lives; but the Spaniards showed them no mercy nor any compassion, and no sooner did they crawl out from under the pile of corpses than they were butchered. The Spanish commander gave orders that the leading citizens, who numbered over a hundred and were roped together, were to be tied to stakes set in the ground and burned alive.
One of these dignitaries, however, who may well have been the first among them and the king of that whole region, managed to get free and took refuge, along with twenty or thirty or forty others, in the great temple of the city, which was fortified and was known in the local language as Quu. There they put up a stout defence against the Spaniards which lasted for the best part of the day. But the Spaniards, against whom no resistance is really possible, especially when it is mounted by unarmed civilians, set fire to the temple, burning those inside alive, the victims shouting all the time: Oh, Wicked men! What harm had we done to you? Why do you kill us? Wait till you get to Mexico City, for there our great king, Moctezuma, will avenge our deaths. It is said that while the Spaniards were slaughtering the five or six thousand men gathered in the courtyard, their commander regaled his men with snatches of:
Nero watched from Tarpeys height,
the flames engulf Romes awesome might;
children and ancient shout in pain,
he all regards with cold disdain.
With Indian sources, the massacre was described in Codex Florentino fifty years after the events:
Then the Spaniards asked the Tlaxcaltecs: How far is Tenochtitlán? Which direction is it? Is it still far? They answered them: It is not much more far that you can get there in maybe three days. It is a good place and they are very strong, great chiefs, conquerors; everywhere they still make conquests.
And the Tlaxcaltecs had long been in conflict with Cholula, they looked at each other with anger, they could not bear each other, they abhorred each other, they hated each other, they could never be with the people of Cholula. Therefore, they would conceally add them harm, and therefore they slandered them. They said to the Spaniards: A great villain is our enemy from Cholula, strong like the Aztec, friend with the Aztec.
When the Spaniards heard this, they went to Cholula; the Tlaxcaltecs and the people from Cempoala accompanied them; they went in armour. When they had arrived, they were called out, and it was proclaimed that everyone should come, the princes, the rulers, the leaders, the chiefs, and the people; all gathered in the temple courtyard. And as they all had been gathered, the Spaniards closed the entrances on all sides where one could enter. Then they were wiped out, killed, knocked down.
I just repeat the words of Sahagún from the codex. The crucial sentence has no subject to reveal who killed:
Then they were wiped out, killed, knocked down.
The people of Cholula had no idea of it before, not with arrow, not with shield they had met the Spaniards; in secret they were murdered; like robbers they would kill, secretly they would kill, the Tlaxcaltecs from their hide hit them hard.
And all that happened, all that was conveyed, was told, was Moctezuma informed of. And every envoy comes, and every single one goes, just to return immediately, there is no more opportunity to hear at ease or to report the story. And every man of the people is troubled, almost excited, as when the earth trembles, as when the earth shakes, as when everything revolves for the eyes; everyone was apprehended by fear.
In Codex Florentino, which is some Indians interpretations written by the monk Sahagún and his staff, the Tlaxcaltecs are accused – in secret and as robbers – of adding injuries to the enemy: the motif of the massacre is the hatred of the Tlaxcaltecs to Cholula.
The citizens of Cholula are described as innocent, as the Spaniards had blocked the exits for them. That’s all. Not a word here about the Spanish soldiers wilderness, firearms, blank weapons or horses. Nothing about their attack, death and massacre. Tlatoani Moctezuma learns about the massacre, but he never hears Cortés’ confession and Diaz’ confirmation: that Cortés was responsible for the massacre in Cholula.
InCodex Florentino the Spaniards appear as tools for rivalry between two Indian tribes. However, the Spaniards potential power is not denied:
And after Cholula was hit by death, the Spaniards broke up for coming to Tenochtitlán; in crowds they come, lots they come, dust they swirl up when they come. Their iron lances, their bat rod, ie. halberd, almost shine, and their iron sword waves like water; as rattles, their iron shirts ring, their iron helmets. And some come as if they are entirely of iron, come as if they are completely made of iron, they shine when they come. Therefore, they were watched with great fear, therefore they were greatly feared, therefore they looked at them with fear, therefore they made great fear. And at the head come their dogs; they come before them; they keep in front, in front they stretch out; gasping, with drooling hanging, they come.
The dogs bark. The Spaniards shine. No blood stains.
In History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings there is neither explanation for the Spanish massacre. Just a few lines about Cortés, who is called the Marquis, what he wasn’t at that time:
The Marquis was forty days in Cholula. Then there came on the behalf of Moctezuma, Viznagual, the father of Tapía, who was with the Marquis, to tell him by the orders of Moctezuma, that he would give him much gold and silver if he would turn home again.
Back to the footsoldier Bernal Diaz del Castillo. At about the same time as Sahagún and his Aztec writers stood or sat bent over their manuscripts, Diaz – who had personally participated in the fightings – wrote that the day after the massacre, several warriors from Tlaxcala came and continued the attacks, since they for many years had been hostile to those from Cholula. When the Spaniards witnessed this, the Spaniards prevented the Tlaxcalan forces from adding more pain, and Cortés let the chiefs from Tlaxcala call and demanded that they immediately should withdraw from the city, and they did so.
Some chiefs from Cholula, who, according to Diaz, claimed not to have been part of the betrayal of the Spaniards, asked Cortés and all Spaniards to forgive them what others in the city had planned: The traitors had now paid with their lives. Cortés pretended to be very angry, saying that the city deserved to be leveled with the ground, but for the sake of Moctezuma he would forgive them. In future, they should be good, else he would kill them! Then he summoned the leaders of the forces from Tlaxcala and ordered them to release their prisoners.
Diaz found that those from Tlaxcala became very rich in gold, blankets, cotton, salt and slaves from Cholula; nevertheless, Cortés established friendship between them from Tlaxcala and those from Cholula, and that friendship was never broken according to Diaz.
He also ment to know that after that time the Indians considered Cortés and his men to be fortunetellers, for the Indians could never hide any attack on them. The Spaniards were always told and for that reason the Indians were kind to them.
The Spaniards opened cages, Diaz wrote, where humans had been fattened for beeing eaten. The imprisoned were sent home and Cortés threatened the chiefs, never again to block people in and eat human flesh. This they promised these – but what helped promises, because they didn’t keep them, he complained.
The massacre had several parties: Spaniards and at least three Indian groups. Thousands lost their lives. People got blood on their hands. The massacre has occupied historians, although the written sources are few and have the character of evidence by one of the parties.
According to US-American historian Prescott, Tlaxcaltecs had told Cortés that children from Cholula had been sacrificed to the gods. Malinche, the princess interpreter, had gained the confiden-tiality of a local chiefs wife, and provided information on how Moctezuma had created alliances: the Spaniards were to be attacked when they left Cholulas streets! Twenty thousend Aztecs had surrounded the city and an appropriate number of Spaniards would be left to Cholulas priests, so they had them to sacrifice – the rest were to be sacrificed in Tenochtitlán. While this wife was inattentive, Malinche sneaked back to Cortés to reveal what she had experienced and the wife was immediately captured and confirmed the secret plan.
Cortés felt trapped. Fighting or fleeing seemed to him just as difficult. He stood in the middle of a town where every house could be transformed into a fortress. He felt like a stranger who was lost in the darkness of the maze, where every step would be deadly.
Moctezuma had changed attitude since the arrival of the Spaniards. His first order to Cholula had been to receive the Spaniards kindly, but then he changed his mind after consulting an oracle and hearing that Cholula would become his enemies grave. Oracles were the mouthpiece of gods, but the answers were sometimes unclear, and then it really was no help.
In the wait, Cortés announced that his intention was to leave the city immediately the following morning and he requested some local chiefs to come to him – they should constitute his protection, be his hostages, his lifeinsurance.
The Spanish officers disagreed on how the swearing rumors should be interpreted, but most supported Cortés in their advancement. To Tenochtitlán! Withdrawal was no solution. The Spaniards had to prove that they were invincible.
Therefore, the chiefs from Cholula were ordered to provide 2,000 men to carry the Spaniards artillery and equipment. At the same time, Moctezumas local representative received intelligence: the Spaniards should be defeated, but he insisted that Moctezuma was innocent: everything had to be caused by them from Cholula!
When Cortés saw an advantage in keeping up with Moctezuma, he accepted their explanation and allowed the prisoners to be guarded separately so they neither could coordinate information nor troop maneuvers.
The night before the massacre the Spaniards slept in armour and arms in hand – perhaps without closing an eye. No Indian attacked any Spaniards that night. There was peace. Only the sounds of the night which is part of a populated city were heard.
At dawn, Cortés again mounted the horse, directed his armed troops on the town square and secured the three gates. The Tlaxcala auxiliaries were ordered to stand ready.
The Cholula chiefs came marching with the force Cortés had demanded for transportation of the Spanish artillery and luggage, they even came with more than he had demanded. For security reasons, as you say, Cortés summoned some of the chiefs and accused them of treason. Claimed that they very well knew their plans! Admittedly, he was kindly received, but claimed that it had just been a cover for the trap they wanted to catch him in! The chiefs were frightened. Terrified. And confessed it all, but blamed everything on Moctezuma.
THEN CORTÉS GAVE THE FATAL SIGNAL: A shot from an arquebus. BANG!
Immediately all the muskets and bows were used. Pointed volleys hit the assembled who fell. They didn’t know what Cortés had said to the chiefs. Didn’t manage to defend. Other Spaniards attacked with blank weapons. Half-naked Indians stood defenseless. Ran to the sides. Were hit. A few reached the city gates. Were there hit by Spanish lances. The most lucky lay under killed fellow soldiers. Protected by the bleeding flesh after the violent death of others.
While the Spaniards massacred, warriors from Cholula heard cries and screams. Now these warriors threw themselves against the Spaniards, but Cortés had placed active artillery, so also there people fell. The natives knew nothing of modern weapons until they felt them on the body. Too late. Way too late.
The Tlaxcaltecs had heard the Spanish signal, stormed into the city, attacking Cholulas fleeing warriors who from behind were pressed by Spanish cavalry.
Some warriors and priests climbed into the great temple. They were convinced that if they removed certain temple walls, God would flood the enemy. With difficulty, parts of the masonry were broken down, but only with dust to follow. They got it in the lungs – but no water. The enemy was not washed away as it was predicted and as they had hoped. Their god did not help them now the need was greatest. Desperate, they tore several walls down and threw stones against the Spaniards.
Everything was CHAOS. Cries of war and then death sighs and rattles.
The massacre had lasted hours before Cortés stopped his soldiers and ordered the auxiliaries from Tlaxcala to release their prisoners. The number of victims is estimated to be between three and six thousand people; some believe it was even more.
(pp. 347-355 in volume 1, reproduced without notes and illustrations):
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO AZTECS AND INCAS: MYTHS AND STORIES FROM MEXICO AND PERU. Edited, translated, retold and commented by Mikael Witte. Volume 1 + Volume 2
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