Cortés and the Rebuilding of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, 1521-1524
I assure your Caesarian majesty that these people are so turbulent that at any novelty or opportunity for sedition, they rebel.
Cortés to Charles V, Fourth letter
Hernán Cortés's life was triumphant in a way that has rarely been known by any captain of men. Cortés, who looked on himself as Charles's agent, had both discovered and conquered a great indigenous empire: a regime marked by a sophisticated culture allied to barbarism. In 1522, he was the commander of a small successful Spanish army of about two thousand men, with the assistance of numerous indigenous allies, who relished the chance of rebellion and revenge against their old suzerains, the Aztecs (the Mexica). He was surrounded by a praetorian guard of about five hundred horsemen and four thousand foot, all the latter being Indians. He had no title to any command, but all the same, in the ruins of the old Mexican capital he had all the power. The new world was an echo of the old: Cortés was a great European commander who had conquered indigenous people. He had given the territory the name New Spain, no less, which would remain its designation for three hundred years.
His chief captains (such as the Alvarado brothers, Gonzalo de Sandoval, and Andrés de Tapia) were his political subordinates as well as his military deputies. One or two of these commanders had good connections in Spain: For example, Jerónimo Ruiz de la Mota was the first cousin of the Emperor Charles's preceptor, the bishop of Palencia, and Bernardino Vázquez de Tapia was the nephew of a member of the Council of Castile, Pedro (Vázquez) de Oropesa. Several of Cortés's best-connected commanders had returned to Spain to spread news of what he had done: Francisco de Montejo, of Salamanca, for example, and Alonso Hernández Portocarrero, a cousin of the count of Medellín and a nephew of Judge de las Gradas in Seville; as well as Diego de Ordaz of León, who had returned to Spain the previous year, in search of preferments of his own.
Cortés knew that what he had done was astonishing; and he had begun to conduct himself self-consciously in the shadow of Alexander the Great, Caesar, or even the Argonauts. The defeated Mexica had been humbled, many had been killed, and several members of the late Emperor Montezuma's family had accepted the Spaniards as their new rulers: These included Montezuma's son, Don Pedro Montezuma, who must be supposed to have been his heir, and his daughter, Doña Isabel or Techuipo. There was also Cihuacoatl (Tlacotzin), the majordomo of the old government, who was now working for Cortés in the ruined city of Tenochtitlan. The other defeated rulers of old Mexico-such as the monarch of Tlacopan and Tacuba, Tetlepanqueltzatzin, along with his colleague, the monarch of Texcoco, Ixtlilxochitl, and above all the tragic Cuauhtémoc, Montezuma's successor as the ruler of Tenochtitlan- were prisoners of Cortés. In the immediate aftermath of the Spanish victory, Cuauhtémoc had been tortured by the royal treasurer, Julián de Alderete, of Tordesillas, to cause him to reveal the whereabouts of hidden gold and other treasure. Cortés had accepted that, for he badly needed something to offer his victorious but restless fellow conquistadors. But he does not seem to have initiated the cruelty.
Cortés was the despot of the new territory that he had conquered. A great many people had died in the fighting leading to this despotism, mostly Mexican natives, but also perhaps one thousand Spaniards. That had not been Cortés's intention. He had thought that he could overwhelm the empire of the Mexica by kidnapping its ruler. Charles the Emperor would rule New Spain through Montezuma. This scheme had been thwarted in 1520 by Pánfilo de Narváez, Cortés's Segovia-born rival, in the first pitched battle between Spaniards in the Americas. Fighting began between Indians and Spaniards because of Pedro de Alvarado's fatal preemptive strike, as the twenty-first century would have put the matter (he anticipated an Indian mutiny). Cortés had wanted control, power, authority, not bloodshed or massacre.
In early 1522, Cortés was still awaiting a reaction from the Emperor Charles to the news of his astonishing victory, details of which he had sent by letter the previous year-a manuscript letter, of course, like everything from the Indies. The delay was not surprising, since though the surrender of Tenochtitlan had been on August 13, 1521, a report of that event did not reach Spain till March 1522. Charles was still in the Low Countries and would not return to Spain till the summer of that year. Cortés had planned that his report would be accompanied not only by Alonso de Ávila; his secretary, Juan de Ribera; and the chief of his bodyguard, Quiñones, but by a substantial treasure seized from the Mexica: 50,000 pesos in gold, of which the Crown would receive 9,000 pesos, many large pearls, much jade, several obsidian mirrors framed in gold, and even three jaguars. There were also many presents of plumage in the form of turquoise mosaics, cloaks, cotton cloths, painted maps, ornamental shields, and elaborately constructed parrots and crickets of gold and silver. These were all to go to friends of Cortés, to influential Spanish officials, to noblemen and sacred places, to monasteries and churches.
Many conquistadors would take the opportunity to send back to Spain gold to their relations. Most promising of presents in the long run perhaps was a rubber ball, such as used by the Indians in their strange but elaborate wall game. This would constitute one of the Americas' most notable gifts to the Old World.
Alas, much of this treasure was seized by French adventurers led by the piratical Jean Florin, acting on behalf of his master, Jean Ango, between the Azores and Spain, and the expedition home suffered other setbacks. But a brief letter from Cortés describing the final conquest of the Mexica did at last arrive in Spain in March 1522.
Before Cortés's detailed account in this, his "third letter," reached the court, however, in November 1522, Charles the King and Emperor had made several critical decisions. After meeting with those members of the Council of Castile who had come to deal with matters relating to the Indies, Cortés was, on October 11, 1522-that is, a month before his report arrived-named adelantado (commander in chief with proconsular responsibilities), repartidor (distributor) of Indians, and also governor and Captain-General of New Spain. That seemed to represent a political triumph for Cortés, since it formally released him from any subservience to his old master, the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez. It was also a victory since it accepted Cortés's grand name for the new land: "New Spain," a designation that indicated the supranational character of this new monarchy of Castile. It seemed, too, to give Cortés complete command: governor and Captain- General were substantial titles.
The territory covered by his appointment was, however, vague: No one knew where Cortés's dominions began and ended. But it was assumed that at the least he would control the allies who had helped him so much in his conquest; not just the lords of the valley of Mexico who had been liberated from the yoke of the Mexica but also the Totonaca and the Tlaxcalteca and most of the five hundred other tribes established in the mainland of old Mexico.
A decree issued four days later instructed Cortés about the proper treatment of the Indians and talked of grants of government money to finance representatives (procuradores) of New Spain in Castile. This decree had the advantage of accepting Cortés's judgment of the coming of Narváez to New Spain in 1520: "The journey of Pánfilo de Narváez and his fleet was the reason for the rebellion and temporary loss of the great city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan." Charles also wrote to Cortés speaking warmly of his achievements. The latter could no longer complain about a lack of appreciation at home, though these decrees, and the Emperor's letter, did not reach New Spain till September 1523, partly because of the curiously dilatory conduct of the messengers, Cortés's cousins Rodrigo de Paz and Francisco de las Casas. They took an unconscionably long time to set off and decided to travel via Cuba, where they took the bad news of the success of "Cortesillo," as Cortés once had been known in Cuba, to the governor, Diego Velázquez. He was distressed.
The Emperor Charles accompanied his praise for Cortés and his acceptance of him as his governor in New Spain with the nomination of four officials whose task would be to assist Cortés in administration of the new provinces. These were a new treasurer, Alonso de Estrada; a factor, or general administrator of the new empire, Gonzalo de Salazar; an inspector of administration, Pedro Álvarez de Chirino; and an accountant, Rodrigo de Albornoz.
These men were important. Estrada had been in Flanders, admiral at Málaga and then corregidor (representative of the central government) in Cáceres. He was a permanent councillor in his native city, Ciudad Real. He would boast that he was an illegitimate son of the late King Fernando, and perhaps he was. Salazar was a Granadino but his family was originally from Burgos. He had been an attendant in the royal household and went to New Spain with quite a retinue. Álvarez de Chirino came from Úbeda and was seen as the agent of the principal royal secretary, Francisco de los Cobos, the powerful if unimaginative official who dominated that city politically and socially. The fourth official, Rodrigo de Albornoz, was probably from Lugo in Galicia, and seems to have also held a minor position in the court of Spain. He was asked by the Italian courtier Peter Martyr to send home reports by cipher about Cortés's activities. Martyr once talked of Cortés's craftiness, his avarice, and his "partially revealed tyranny."
The nomination of these four courtly men to New Spain certainly showed that the Crown was taking the conquests of Cortés seriously. Yet they were obviously intended to control that conqueror and prevent him from undue assertion of his own authority. But these new councillors, like Paz and Las Casas before them, took a long time to reach the new country. Long before they arrived, Cortés had embarked on his greatest work of art and Spain's greatest achievement in the Americas in the sixteenth century: the rebuilding of the city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Mexica, which had been severely damaged during the fighting there between May and August 1521. (The Spaniards referred to this city as Temixtlan till 1524, when it gradually became known as Mexico.)
Cortés had been recommended by some of his friends and fellow conquistadors to rebuild the capital of New Spain in a place removed from the lake of Tenochtitlan, say at Tacuba or Coyoacán. They had argued that the old capital was exposed to the dangers of flooding, as had occurred on a large scale in 1502. Since the environs were swampy, there would always be difficulties of water supply. The critics argued that Coyoacán would be a more suitable site for a capital, as Cortés had surely appreciated since he had established his residence there after 1521 on the southern shores of the lake in a large, cool, spacious mansion built for him immediately after his victory in 1521. But in January 1522, Cortés went ahead with his plan to rebuild on the old site despite these criticisms.
Some enemies of Cortés thought that their leader must be trying to arrange defenses in order to resist any attempt to detach him from power. He decided to rebuild where he did, however, because of the legendary nature of the site of Tenochtitlan. He did not want to leave the place a monument to past glory. The Indians wanted to rebuild, too, and a good workforce for the purpose was easily assembled.
The essential part in the reconstruction was played by a "geometrician" named Alonso García Bravo, who had been born in Rivera, on the road between Málaga and Ronda, in Andalusia, and had educated himself in matters of town planning even before he left Castile in 1513 with Pedrarias. García Bravo reached New Spain with the expedition of Francisco de Garay and subsequently joined Cortés's army. He took part in several battles as a conquistador, but then went to Villa Rica, Veracruz. He remained there during the siege of Tenochtitlan, having been asked to design its planned fortress.
The success of the building at Veracruz led Cortés to ask him to direct the reconstruction of Tenochtitlan. He went up to the capital in the summer of 1522 and studied the ground with Cortés himself. The city had been fought over fiercely. There had been much destruction, since Cortés had felt the need to destroy lines of two-story buildings to prevent the Indians dropping rocks on his men from above. Sometimes the Spaniards had used artillery in these endeavors. But the overall destruction had probably been more modest than has often been supposed. The causeways, the main streets, and the remains of many buildings were all evident even if the two main shrines of ancient Mexico, in the heart of Tenochtitlan and in Tlatelolco, had been damaged.
García Bravo's first commission was to build a fortress with two towers, at the eastern end of the city, beyond the ruins of the old Templo Mayor. This was a maritime station (atarazanas), where Cortés could keep his thirteen brigantines, built under the direction of the clever but embittered Sevillano Martín López, which had played such an important part in assuring the Spanish victory over the Mexica. Again, Cortés's enemies later argued, unjustifiably, the construction of these towers was an act directed against the royal power. These buildings were built under the supervision of Cihuacoatl (Tlacotzin), the high priest of the Mexica and now a rather improbable collaborator with the victors. One tower was high and had lodgings within it.
In planning the main reconstruction of the capital, García Bravo proposed to accept the basic structure of the old Mexican city with its causeways and canals leading to a walled center, which in the past had been a sacred precinct, with the great pyramid and its sanctuaries. From all sides one saw the huge bulk of the great pyramid. The sacred precinct was approached by three causeways: to the north, the west, and the south. To the east, there was no communication with the mainland. The causeway to the north was aesthetically planned, since the direct way-via Tepeyac, now the site of the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe-would have been a parallel road a little to the east. To the south, beyond the walls of the city, there was a large marketplace where Indian buyers and sellers were busy within days of the conquest, on August 13, 1521.
Around this open space there were the palaces of the old noblemen. Within the walls, the streets in the past had often been of water, in Venetian style. In the center, those highways were straight, though there were twisted ways beyond the grand heart of the city. To the north of the sacred precinct, outside the walls, the city of Tlatelolco had its own large market and the remains of its pyramid. Perhaps Santa Fe, the artificial city built outside Granada by Fernando and Isabel in 1491, was an inspiration for the new city of Cortés and García Bravo, even though it was smaller.
Excerpted from The Golden Empire by Hugh Thomas. Copyright © 2011 by Hugh Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.