The Fall of Tenochtitlán
The Spaniards spent several days wandering about the city, taking in the marvelous sights, much like any tourists in a foreign land. They admired the palaces with their cedar-lined chambers, the gardens, and the canals. Other scenes had quite the opposite effect: they were aghast at the great rack festooned with human skulls; and the priests, their long hair matted with dried blood, were repulsive to them. The visitors were properly fascinated by the zoo, as Bernal Díaz del Castillo noted, but, as for “the infernal noise when the lions and tigers roared, and the jackals and foxes howled, and the serpents hissed, it was horrible to listen to and it seemed like a hell.”1
Moctezuma and his nobles visited their guests’ quarters often to provide for all their needs. This attention and gracious hospitality notwithstanding, the peril of the situation was not lost on Cortés, who perceived with the greatest clarity that they were in fact trapped—if Moctezuma chose to make it so. Outside their luxurious palace the Spaniards were surrounded by a multitude of Indians who could rise on signal to ensnare them. The Spanish soldiers manifested their anxiety to Cortés, who now resolved on a bold and desperate course—he would seize as hostage Moctezuma himself.
After the Tlaxcalan allies confirmed that the Aztecs were indeed planning to kill the Spaniards, Cortés found a convenient pretext: some of his men at the Spanish garrison at Veracruz had been killed, and Cortés accused Moctezuma of ordering their deaths and, worse, of preparing to massacre the Spaniards in Tenochtitlán. Despite the emperor’s vehement denials, Cortés courteously but firmly told Moctezuma that he must remain in custody. The emperor would continue to rule his peo-
1. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,
1517–1521, trans. A. P. Maudslay, introd. Irving Leonard (New York, 1966), p. 213.