By Herbert W. Piekow
The chronicles of Moctezuma´s life are full of contradictions, including the more than half dozen spellings of his name. Although there are several spellings of Moctezuma, including those of Cortéz and Bernal Diaz del Castillo, both of whom knew the Emperor; each of the accepted translations of the name Moctezuma is, “he who is angry in a noble manner.”
What does seem consistent is that it was the Emperor Moctezuma who greeted Hernán Cortéz at the Aztec capitol city of Tenochtitlan. With an estimated population of over 300,000, Tenochtitlan was probably the largest city of its time and far cleaner and better laid out than any contemporary European city. With broad avenues, adequate sanitation, water supply and public gardens and spaces, Tenochtitlan impressed the arriving Spaniards with its beauty and symmetry.
Probably the most accurate biographer is Bernal Diaz del Castillo who accompanied and chronicled Cortéz´s conquest of Mexico. But even Diaz del Castillo wrote his accounts many years later, when he was an old man, and by that time the gold and wealth of the New World were already the stuff of legends. However, his accounts are those that are taken as the most complete, despite the fact that Cortéz regularly wrote to King Charles V about his ventures on behalf of his sovereign.
Bernal Diaz describes Moctezuma as: “The Great Moctezuma was about forty years old, of good height, well proportioned, spare and slight, and not very dark, though of the usual Indian complexion. He did not wear his hair long but just over his ears, and he had a short black beard, well-shaped and thin. His face was rather long and cheerful, he had fine eyes, and in his appearance and manner could express geniality or, when necessary, a serious composure. He was very neat and clean, and took a bath every afternoon. He had many women as his mistresses, the daughters of chieftains, but two legitimate wives who were Caciques (chieftains) in their own right. . . . The clothes he wore one day he did not wear again . . . He had a guard of two hundred chieftains lodged in rooms beside his own, only some of whom were permitted to speak to him.”
Unlike Bernal Diaz, who was remembering his memories many years after the fact, Cortéz wrote his Cartas de Relación (Letters from Mexico) in the moment in order to justify his actions to the Spanish Crown. His prose is characterized by simple descriptions and explanations, along with frequent personal addresses to the King. In his Second Letter, Cortéz describes his first encounter with Moctezuma thus:
“Moctezuma came to greet us and with him some two hundred lords, all barefoot and dressed in a different costume, but also very rich in their way and more so than the others. They came in two columns, pressed very close to the walls of the street, which is very wide and beautiful and so straight that you can see from one end to the other. Moctezuma came down the middle of this street with two chiefs, one on his right hand and the other on his left. And they were all dressed alike except that Moctezuma wore sandals whereas the others went barefoot; and they held his arm on either side.”
The two leaders exchanged gifts. I could not find what Cortéz presented, but it is recorded that Moctezuma gave two Aztec calendar discs, one in silver the other of gold, both of which Cortéz had melted down for their raw value.
By all accounts, Moctezuma was a great leader; he had constructed a double aqueduct to bring fresh water to his capitol. During his twenty-three year reign, he added considerable territory to the Aztec Empire and had a new palace built, complete with several gardens and a zoo. Before becoming Emperor of the Aztecs, Moctezuma studied for the priesthood and after the death of his father, Moctezuma was elected Emperor by other priests and nobles.
Cortéz’s truthfulness and motives have been called into question by many scholars because his version mentions that the Aztecs believed a god would come. Nowhere in any translated hieroglyphics or codices is there any mention of a god returning, particularly Quaziquitl (whom Cortéz reported that Moctezuma thought Cortéz might be). Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590) mentions eight events, occurring prior to the arrival of the Spanish, which were interpreted as signs of a possible disaster, e.g. a comet, the burning of a temple, a crying ghostly woman, and others.
Some speculate that the Aztecs were particularly susceptible to such ideas of doom and disaster because the particular year in which the Spanish arrived coincided with a “tying of years” ceremony at the end of a 52-year cycle in the Aztec calendar, which in Aztec belief was linked to changes, rebirth and dangerous events. Since Moctezuma had studied for the priesthood he may have been influenced by these omens, but that is only speculation.
Cortéz, with his small army of around 550 Spanish men, would never have succeeded if he had not aligned with the Tlaxcalans, who despised their Aztec overlords and were willing to risk whatever they had to help the Spaniards destroy the bloodthirsty over-lords. It is reported that Moctezuma had at least 100 children by various wives and concubines, of which not all were equal but at least 18 of his sons were eligible to succeed their father. It was his brother Cuitláhuac who did succeed as emperor. However, he died shortly afterward of smallpox, which was actually Cortéz´s greatest ally.
Within a year of Moctezuma´s death, the Aztec Empire ceased to exist; however, his descendants continue his lineage both in Mexico and in Spain, where his daughter, Isabel (as she was named by the Spanish) married a Spanish noble. “Many Spanish families descended from the numerous branches of the families of the children of Moctezuma.” The recently married, eighty-year-old Duchess of Alba is one of those whose ancestry follows Moctezuma´s line.
The death of Moctezuma is another area where eye witness accounts vary considerably. Bernal Diaz tells his readers that Moctezuma was severely injured when his subjects saw him standing on a balcony pleading with them to accept surrender to the Spaniards and to convert to Christianity. Bernal Diaz says his subjects were outraged and began to hurl stones at their mighty emperor, to whom they were not even allowed to speak. According to Bernal, three stones injured the Emperor and he refused medical attention and died shortly after of both his injuries and a broken heart.
Cortéz wrote the Spanish King that several of Moctezuma´s men stabbed him with their spears and swords and he died of his wounds. Native versions tell us that the Spaniards killed the Emperor with their swords because of either one of two reasons: he was no longer useful or that he refused to convert to Christianity.
So much for reliable eye-witness accounts of one of history´s most memorable events. After reading the next quote, it is amazing that anyone can trace their heritage to Moctezuma because according to Jim Tucker in his published work, The Aztec Hamlet, Moctezuma´s heretic line should have ended with the demise of his unholy empire. I quote from his piece.
“The Aztec’s false religion caused the downfall of what could have been thought of as one of the strongest empires on the face of the earth at that time. There are not even many archeological sites left because of the thoroughness of the destruction. The hand of God is as evident today as it was then to the Spanish. Destruction through small pox resulted because Aztec faith was placed in false gods instead of the one true God. Moctezuma served and feared gods that had been created by his priests.”