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Tenochtitlan and the Conquest of the Americas


History Of The Conquest Of Mexico, The Aztecs

Introduction. Preliminary View Of The Aztec Civilization.

Author:      Prescott, William H.


Chapter I: Ancient Mexico, Part II



     The Mexicans, with whom our history is principally concerned, came also,

as we have seen, from the remote regions of the North, - the populous nations

in the New World, as it has been in the Old. ^3 They arrived on the borders of

Anahuac towards the beginning of the thirteenth century, some time after the

occupation of the land by the kindred races.  For a long time they did not

establish themselves in any permanent residence, but continued shifting their

quarters to different parts of the Mexican Valley, enduring all the casualties

and hardships of a migratory life.  On one occasion they were enslaved by a

more powerful tribe; but their ferocity soon made them formidable to their

masters. ^4 After a series of wanderings and adventures which need not shrink

from comparison with the most extravagant legends of the heroic ages of

antiquity, they at length halted on the south-western borders of the principal

lake, in the year 1325.  They there beheld, perched on the stem of a prickly

pear, which shot out from the crevice of a rock that was washed by the waves,

a royal eagle of extraordinary size and beauty, with a serpent in his talons,

and his broad wings opened to the rising sun.  They hailed the auspicious

omen, announced by an oracle as indicating the site of their future city, and

laid its foundations by sinking piles into the shallows; for the low marshes

were half buried under water. On these they erected their light fabrics of

reeds and rushes, and sought a precarious subsistence from fishing, and from

the wild fowl which frequented the waters, as well as from the cultivation of

such simple vegetables as they could raise on their floating gardens.  The

place was called Tenochtitlan, in token of its miraculous origin, though only

known to Europeans by its other name of Mexico, ^1 derived from their war-god,

Mexitli. ^2 The legend of its foundation is still further commemorated by the

device of the eagle and the cactus, which form the arms of the modern Mexican

republic.  Such were the humble beginnings of the Venice of the Western

World. ^3


[Footnote 3: Some recent writers have contended that Mexico must have been

peopled originally by migrations from the South.  Aztec names and communities,

and traces of Toltec settlements long anterior to the occupation of Anahuac by

the same people, are found in several parts of Central America.  The most

primitive traditions, as well as the remains of the earliest civilization,

belong also to the same quarter.  This latter fact, however, is considered by

Orozco y Berra as itself an evidence of the migrations having been from the

North, the first comers having been naturally attracted southward by a warmer

climate, and more fertile soil, or pushed onward in this direction by

successive invasions from behind.  Contradictory inferences have in like

manner been drawn from the existence of Aztec remains and settlements in New

Mexico and Arizona.  All that can be said with confidence is that neither of

the opposing theories rests on a secure and sufficient basis. - Ed.]


[Footnote 4: These were the Colhuans, not Acolhuans, with whom Humboldt, and

most writers since, have confounded them.  See his Essai politique, tom. i. p.

414; ii. p. 37.


     Note: Humboldt, strictly speaking, has not confounded the Colhuans with

the Acolhuans, but has written, in the places cited, the latter name for the

former.  "Letzterer Name," says Buschmann, "ist der erstere mit dem Zusatz von

atl Wasser, - Wasser Colhuer." (Ueber die aztekischen Ortsnamen, S. 690.) Yet

the two tribes, according to the same authority, were entirely distinct, one

alone - though which, he is unable to determine - being of the Nahuatlac race.

Orozco y Berra, however, makes them both of this stock, the Acolhuans being

one of the main branches the Colhuans merely the descendants of the Toltec

remnant in Anahuac. - Ed.]


[Footnote 1: This is not quite correct, since the form used in the letters of

Cortes and other early documents is Temixtitan, which is explained as a

corruption of Tenochtitlan.  The letters x and ch are convertible, and have

the same sound, - that of the English sh. Mexico is Mexitl with the

place-designation co, tl final being dropped before an affix. - Ed.]


[Footnote 2: Clavigero gives good reasons for preferring the etymology of

Mexico above noticed, to various others.  (See his Stor. del Messico, tom. i.

p. 168, nota.)  The name Tenochtitlan signifies tunal (a cactus) on a stone.

Esplicacion de la Col. de Mendoza, apud Antiq. of Mexico, vol. iv.]


[Footnote 3: "Datur haec venia antiquitati," says Livy, "ut, miscendo humana

divinis, primordia urbium augustiora faciat."  Hist., Praef. - See, for the

above paragraph, Col. de Mendoza, plate 1, apud Antiq. of Mexico, vol. i., -

Ixtlilxochitl, Hist. Chich., MS., cap. 10, - Toribio, Historia de los Indios,

MS., Parte 3, cap. 8, - Veytia, Hist. antig., lib. 2, cap. 15. - Clavigero,

after a laborious examination, assigns the following dates to some of the

prominent events noticed in the text.  No two authorities agree on them; and

this is not strange, considering that Clavigero - the most inquisitive of

all - does not always agree with himself.  (Compare his dates for the coming

of the Acolhuans; tom. i. p. 147, and tom. iv., dissert. 2:) -



The Toltecs arrived in Anahuac   .     .   648

They abandoned the country   .   .     .  1051

The Chichimecs arrived .     .   .     .  1170

The Acolhuans arrived about  .   .     .  1200

The Mexicans reached Tula    .   .     .  1196

They founded Mexico   .      .   .     .  1325


See his dissert. 2, sec. 12.  In the last date, the one of most importance,

he is confirmed by the learned Veytia, who differs from him in all the

others. Hist., antig., lib. 2, cap. 15.]


     The forlorn condition of the new settlers was made still worse by

domestic feuds.  A part of the citizens seceded from the main body, and

formed a separate community on the neighbouring marshes.  Thus divided, it

was long before they could aspire to the acquisition of territory on the main

land.  They gradually increased, however, in numbers, and strengthened

themselves yet more by various improvements in their polity and military

discipline, while they established a reputation for courage as well as

cruelty in war which made their name terrible throughout the Valley.  In the

early part of the fifteenth century, nearly a hundred years from the

foundation of the city, an event took place which created an entire

revolution in the circumstances and, to some extent, in the character of the

Aztecs.  This was the subversion of the Tezcucan monarchy by the Tepanecs,

already noticed.  When the oppressive conduct of the victors had at length

aroused a spirit of resistance, its prince, Nezahualcoyotl, succeeded, after

incredible perils and escapes, in mustering such a force as, with the aid of

the Mexicans, placed him on a level with his enemies.  In two successive

battles, these were defeated with great slaughter, their chief slain, and

their territory, by one of those sudden reverses which characterize the wars

of petty states, passed into the hands of the conquerors.  It was awarded to

Mexico, in return for its important services.


     Then was formed that remarkable league, which, indeed, has no parallel

in history.  It was agreed between the states of Mexico, Tezcuco, and the

neighbouring little kingdom of Tlacopan, that they should mutually support

each other in their wars, offensive and defensive, and that in the

distribution of the spoil one-fifth should be assigned to Tlacopan, and the

remainder be divided, in what proportions in uncertain, between the other

powers.  The Tezcucan writers claim an equal share for their nation with the

Aztecs.  But this does not seem to be warranted by the immense increase of

territory subsequently appropriated by the latter.  And we may account for

any advantage conceded to them by the treaty, on the supposition that,

however inferior they may have been originally, they were at the time of

making it, in a more prosperous condition than their allies, broken and

dispirited by long oppression.  What is more extraordinary than the treaty

itself, however, is the fidelity with which it was maintained.  During a

century of uninterrupted warfare that ensued, no instance occurred where the

parties quarrelled over the division of the spoil, which so often makes

shipwreck of similar confederacies among civilized states. ^1


[Footnote 1: The loyal Tezcucan chronicler claims the supreme dignity for his

own sovereign, if not the greatest share of the spoil, by this imperial

compact.  (Hist. Chich., cap. 32.)  Torquemada, on the other hand, claims

one-half of all the conquered lands for Mexico.  (Monarch. Ind., lib. 2, cap.

40.)  All agree in assigning only one-fifth to Tlacopan; and Veytia (Hist.

antig., lib. 3, cap. 3) and Zurita (Rapport sur les differentes Classes de

Chefs de la Nouvelle-Espagne, trad. de Ternaux (Paris, 1840), p. 11), both

very competent critics, acquiesce in an equal division between the two

principal states in the confederacy.  An ode, still extant, of Nezahualcoyotl,

in its Castilian version, bears testimony to the singular union of the three

powers: -


     "solo se acordaran en las Naciones

     lo bien que gobernaron

     las tres Cabezas que el Imperio honraron."

     Cantares del Emperador

     Nezahualcoyotl, MS.]


     The allies for some time found sufficient occupation for their arms in

their own valley; but they soon overleaped its rocky ramparts, and by the

middle of the fifteenth century, under the first Montezuma, had spread down

the sides of the table-land to the borders of the Gulf of Mexico.

Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, gave evidence of the public prosperity.  Its

frail tenements were supplanted by solid structures of stone and lime.  Its

population rapidly increased.  Its old feuds were healed.  The citizens who

had seceded were again brought under a common government with the main body,

and the quarter they occupied was permanently connected with the parent city;

the dimensions of which, covering the same ground, were much larger than

those of the modern capital of Mexico. ^2


[Footnote 2: See the plans of the ancient and modern capital, in Bullock's

"Mexico," first edition.  The original of the ancient map was obtained by

that traveller from the collection of the unfortunate Boturini; if, as seems

probable, it is the one indicated on page 13 of his Catalogue, I find no

warrant for Mr. Bullock's statement that it was the one prepared for Cortes

by the order of Montezuma.]


     Fortunately, the throne was filled by a succession of able princes, who

knew how to profit by their enlarged resources and by the martial enthusiasm

of the nation.  Year after year saw them return, loaded with the spoils of

conquered cities, and with throngs of devoted captives, to their capital.  No

state was able long to resist the accumulated strength of the confederates.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, just before the arrival of the

Spaniards, the Aztec dominion reached across the continent, from the Atlantic

to the Pacific; and, under the bold and bloody Ahuitzotl, its arms had been

carried far over the limits already noticed as defining its permanent

territory, into the farthest corners of Guatemala and Nicaragua.  This extent

of empire, however limited in comparison with that of many other states, is

truly wonderful, considering it as the acquisition of a people whose whole

population and resources had so recently been comprised within the walls of

their own petty city, and considering, moreover, that the conquered territory

was thickly settled by various races, bred to arms like the Mexicans, and

little inferior to them in social organization.  The history of the Aztecs

suggests some strong points of resemblance to that of the ancient Romans, not

only in their military successes, but in the policy which led to them. ^1


[Footnote 1: Clavigero, Stor. del Messico, tom. i. lib. 2. - Torquemada,

Monarch. Ind., tom. i. lib. 2. - Boturini, Idea, p. 146. - Col. of Mendoza,

Part 1, and Codex Telleriano-Remensis, apud Antiq. of Mexico, vols. i., vi. -

Machiavelli has noticed it as one great cause of the military successes of

the Romans, "that they associated themselves, in their wars, with other

states, as the principal," and expresses his astonishment that a similar

policy should not have been adopted by ambitious republics in later times.

(See his Discorsi sopra T. Livio, lib. 2, cap. 4, apud Opere (Geneva, 1798).)

This, as we have seen above, was the very course pursued by the Mexicans]


     The most important contribution, of late years, to the early history of

Mexico is the Historia antigua of the Lic. Don Mariano Veytia, published in

the city of Mexico, in 1836.  This scholar was born of an ancient and highly

respectable family at Puebla, 1718.  After finishing his academic education,

he went to Spain, where he was kindly received at court.  He afterwards

visited several other countries of Europe, made himself acquainted with their

languages, and returned home well stored with the fruits of a discriminating

observation and diligent study.  The rest of his life he devoted to letters;

especially to the illustration of the national history and antiquities.  As

the executor of the unfortunate Boturini, with whom he had contracted an

intimacy in Madrid, he obtained access to his valuable collection of

manuscripts in Mexico, and from them, and every other source which his

position in society and his eminent character opened to him, he composed

various works, none of which, however, except the one before us, has been

admitted to the honours of the press.  The time of his death is not given by

his editor, but it was probably not later than 1780.


     Veytia's history covers the whole period from the first occupation of

Anahuac to the middle of the fifteenth century, at which point his labours

were unfortunately terminated by his death.  In the early portion he has

endeavoured to trace the migratory movements and historical annals of the

principal races who entered the country.  Every page bears testimony to the

extent and fidelity of his researches; and, if we feel but moderate

confidence in the results, the fault is not imputable to him, so much as to

the dark and doubtful nature of the subject.  As he descends to later ages,

he is more occupied with the fortunes of the Tezcucan than with those of the

Aztec dynasty, which have been amply discussed by others of his countrymen.

The premature close of his labours prevented him, probably, from giving that

attention to the domestic institutions of the people he describes, to which

they are entitled as the most important subject of inquiry to the historian.

The deficiency has been supplied by his judicious editor, Orteaga, from other

sources.  In the early part of his work, Veytia has explained the

chronological system of the Aztecs, but, like most writers preceding the

accurate Gama, with indifferent success.  As a critic, he certainly ranks

much higher than the annalists who preceded him, and, when his own religion

is not involved, shows a discriminating judgment.  When it is, he betrays a

full measure of the credulity which still maintains its hold on too many even

of the well-informed of his countrymen.  The editor of the work has given a

very interesting letter from the Abbe Clavigero to Veytia, written when the

former was a poor and humble exile, and in the tone of one addressing a

person of high standing and literary eminence.  Both were employed on the

same subject.  The writings of the poor abbe, published again and again, and

translated into various languages, have spread his fame throughout Europe;

while the name of Veytia, whose works have been locked up in their primitive

manuscript, is scarcely known beyond the boundaries of Mexico.

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