La Noche Triste
Part 6 of the Spanish Invasion
When Cortés left Tenochtitlan in May 1520, he was the practical if not titular ruler of a great empire. When he returned in June, he was fish bait. He desperately tried to regain his former position, but to no avail. His people were prisoners, cut off from food, water and escape routes. Every day they went out to plead for peace or fight for control of the causeways, but for every Aztec they killed, 10 more appeared. The Aztecs destroyed the bridges to prevent the Spaniards' escape.
The conquistadors took Moctezuma up on the roof, and he tried to calm his people. A stone hurled from the crowd hit him on the head, and a couple of days later he died, perhaps from the wound, perhaps from despair.
Cortés decided to make a run for it over the Tacuba Causeway that led out of the city to the west. He had a portable bridge constructed and that night, in a pouring rain, they headed out. The streets were deserted, but as they approached the causeway, a sentry let out a call and soon thousands of warriors had descended upon the fleeing conquistadors. All night they battled across the causeway, and when they reached the far shore, two thirds of them had been killed, along with a thousand of their Tlaxcalan allies, and untold riches had been lost in the sludge at the bottom of the shallow lake. Cortés, legend has it, sat under a tree in Tacuba and wept. For his fallen comrades? The lost gold? The seeming destruction of his great enterprise? Since the victors write history, that night has been known as la noche triste, the sad night.
They headed north, intending to skirt the lake and return to Tlaxcala, where they could recover. But all the people of the valley were against them, and they had fierce fighting every day, and nothing to eat but the corn they could scavenge or the flesh of their horses as they died. Not a man was unwounded. A week after the sad night, they passed practically in the shadow of the pyramids at Teotihuacan and then, on the plain of Otumba, they met a vast Aztec army intent on their destruction.
Can you blame the conquistadors for feeling that their victory was miraculous? Cortés saw an opening to an important-looking general, made for him instantly with several of his horsemen, captured the general and turned the tide of the battle. The Aztecs retreated, leaving the path to Tlaxcala clear.
The Tlaxcalans could have crushed them then. In fact, the Aztecs sent emissaries promising peace and prosperity if they would do just that. The Tlaxcalans chose Cortés over their traditional enemies.
NOTE: Quotes from Díaz and Cortés are from the following sources:
The Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Translated by J. M. Cohen. Penguin Books, 1963.
Letters from Mexico, Hernán Cortés. Translated by Anthony Pagden. Yale University Press, 1986.