On November 8, 1519, Hernán Cortés and his six hundred conquistadors marched unopposed into Tenochtitlan, the city of palaces and temples that the Aztecs had built on an island. In an area known as Xoloco, they were welcomed by Moctezuma, the King of the Aztecs, who was convinced that the Spanish were Quetzalcoatl and other native Gods who were prophesied to return from the east in “one reed year,” which was 1519 in Aztec calendar.
Cortés and his conquistadors entered Tenochtitlan not as invaders, not as human beings, but as the Gods who were returning home.
They stayed in the best building in Tenochtitlan—the King’s palace. Had they conducted themselves with dignity, the conquistadors could have got anything they wanted from the Aztecs. But they lost no time in displaying the savage side of their personality. They got into fights with each other and the natives, they openly displayed their lust for gold and silver, they were rude to the king and the nobles, and they misbehaved with the native women. The Aztecs were confused by the vile attitude of the people that they thought were Gods.
The history of the “conquest of the Aztec empire” is generally understood on the basis of the account that the conquerors, the Spanish, have left behind. Historians have not considered the prose and poetry, written in Nahuatl language, in which the Aztec chroniclers of that time have described their version of what happened during the so-called “conquest.” I recently read the book by Mexican historian Miguel León-Portilla, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. This book has several Aztec texts translated from Nahuatl.
On May 22, 1520, Pedro de Alvarado, the chief lieutenant of Hernán Cortés, and his men massacred a group of worshippers who had gathered at the Patio of the Gods to celebrate the festival in the honor of Tezcatlipoca, an important God of the Aztecs. The worshippers were unarmed, and there were a large number of women and children among them. Here’s an excerpt from an Aztec chronicler’s description of the massacre (from Miguel León-Portilla’s book):
“They ran in among the dancers, forcing their way to the place where the drums were played. They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off his arms. Then they cut off his head, and it rolled across the floor.
“The attacked all the celebrants, stabbing them, spearing them, striking them with their swords. They attacked some of them from behind, and they fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out. Others they beheaded; they cut off their heads, or split their heads to pieces.
“They struck others in the shoulders, and their arms were torn from their bodies. They wounded some in the thigh and some in the calf. They slashed others in the abdomen, and their entrails all spilled to the ground. Some attempted to run away, but their intestines dragged as they ran; they seemed to tangle their feet in their own entails. No matter how they tried to save themselves, they could find no escape.”
The conquistadors not only slaughtered the Aztecs, they not only plundered and razed the Aztec cities, they also vilified the Aztecs by branding them as cannibals. I am convinced that the charge of cannibalism is disproved by looking at the 1521 siege of Tenochtitlan, which led to the fall of the Aztec Empire. During the siege, the conquistadors did not allow food to be brought to the city. Both Aztec and Spanish chroniclers say that the Aztecs trapped inside the city became emaciated due to lack of food. Many Aztecs did not have the strength to walk. They fell in the streets and died. The city was filled with rotting corpses. The stench was unbearable.
If humans were food for the Aztecs, then they could not have run out of food during the siege of Tenochtitlan, since the city was full of dead bodies. Apparently, the Aztecs preferred to die of starvation rather than eat the dead humans. The accounts of Cortés and people like Bernardino de Sahagún corroborate the fact that the Aztecs died from starvation in a city full of dead bodies. This proves that the Aztecs were not cannibals. Cortés and his supporters created the myth of Aztec cannibalism to justify their atrocities in the Americas.