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5.3: The Widowed Land

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  • In 1519, the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés entered the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, awed by its splendour. It was, he reported, “so big and so remarkable [as to be]…almost unbelievable, for the city is much larger than Granada and very much stronger…with many more people than Granada had when it was taken…[It] is as large as Seville or Cordova.” [1] Cortés, however, was not an indifferent tourist eager to see the sights and then be on his way.

    The Fall of Mexico

    Despite their advantages, the Spanish did not defeat the Aztec coalition outright; rather they experienced a resounding defeat at the hands of the Aztecs in 1520 and were forced to flee the capital city. Those Spaniards who were captured were sacrificed at the pyramid of Huitzilopochtli; this occurred on the night of June 30-July 1, 1520, called La Noche Triste (the Sad Night) by the Spaniards. But this defeat was only a temporary setback for the Europeans, who received aid from two sources. The first of these was a massive Aboriginal army raised among the dissatisfied tribute-paying nations whose territories lay along the road from Veracruz to Tenochtitlan. The second was much more subtle.

    In 1521, smallpox struck Tenochtitlan. The disease had been introduced into the city by a Spanish slave, left behind when the Europeans retreated. An Aztec account of events (compiled 30 to 40 years later in the Florentine Codex) portrays the magnitude of what followed:

    After the Spaniards had left the city of Mexico, and before they had made any preparations to attack us again, there came amongst us a great sickness, a general plague. It began in the month of Tepeilhuitl. It raged amongst us, killing vast numbers of people. It covered many all over with sores: on the face, on the head, on the chest, everywhere. […] Nobody could move himself, nor turn his head, nor flex any part of his body. The sores were so terrible that the victims could not lie face down, nor on their backs, nor move from one side to the other. […] Many died of the disease, and many others died merely of hunger. They starved to death because there was no one left alive to care for them. […] The worst phase of this pestilence lasted sixty days, sixty days of horror … then it diminished, but it never stopped entirely…. And when this had happened, the Spanish returned.[2]