How Native Peoples Helped Spanish Conquistadors Defeat the Aztecs

January 25, 2021 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: AztecsMexicoHernán CortésConquistadorsSpanish Empire

How Native Peoples Helped Spanish Conquistadors Defeat the Aztecs

Castaway priest-turned-slave Geronimo Aguilar helped Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors defeat the Aztecs in Mexico.

Fighting Their Way into Tabasco

Unable to navigate the Rio de Grijalva with their ships, Cortés and his men took the ships’ boats and landed on the headland a mile northeast of Tabasco. Soon the river and the surrounding area were covered with hundreds of hostile Indians girded for war. As a large canoe coasted past his position, Cortés put Aguilar to work. He learned that the locals, having been accused of cowardice by the Indians of Champoton because they had traded with Grijalva, were now determined to resist all invaders. They threatened to kill Cortés and his men if they did not leave. After further fruitless attempts to reach a peaceful understanding, the Indians left with a final threat to kill the Spaniards if they progressed beyond the palm trees on the beach.

Cortés planned accordingly, outfitting each boat with three cannons, crossbowmen, and arquebusiers. Some of Grijalva’s former companions remembered that there was a narrow path that led from the palmed headland to the town of Tabasco. Cortés sent some men to reconnoiter and, upon their return, ordered an attack for the following day. The next morning, after Mass, Alonso de Avila and a hundred men set off through the palms for Tabasco. Cortés and the rest boarded the armed boats and sailed upriver toward the town. When the Indians saw the small Castilian flotilla heading for their village, they manned their canoes and lined the riverbanks with warriors. Cortés tried one more time to effect a peaceful settlement, but the Indians continued their threats, then began to shoot clouds of arrows at the Spaniards in their boats. Surrounded by canoes full of warriors firing at them, Cortés and his men made for shore.

The banks of the river were bordered by mangrove swamps, and the Spaniards, jumping into the waist-deep water, struggled through the mud as arrows flew thick around them and the Indians on the bank thrust at them with long obsidian-bladed lances. The Spanish at last fought their way ashore and forced the Indians to retire to the wooden barricade they had erected around their town. Under fire, the conquistadors ripped their way through this obstacle and forced the Indians back down the streets of their city, fighting every step of the way. At this point, Avila showed up behind the Indians, and the combined forces of the Spaniards put the Tabascans to flight. Cortés camped in the city square among the temples of the Indian gods.

Crushing the Native Counterattack

In the morning, Cortés sent out 200 men to reconnoiter, but they were driven back to Tabasco by multitudes of Indians. Cortés and Aguilar interrogated two prisoners taken in the fighting and learned that the neighboring tribes were gathering for an all-out attack on the invaders. Cortés immediately ordered the horses to be brought ashore and the men to prepare themselves for battle.

The next morning, the conquistadors heard Mass, and with Cortés commanding the cavalry, the Castilians set out for the treeless plain where his men had been attacked the day before. Nearby was the town of Cintla. Cortés and the horsemen were forced to detour around some swampy ground, and the Spanish infantry lost sight of them. As they reached the plain of Cintla, the conquistadors encountered thousands of Indians on their way to retake Tabasco. All the men wore great feather crests, carried drums and trumpets, and were armed with large bows and arrows, spears and shields, swords, stones, and fire-toughened darts. The Indians rushed the conquistadors, bombarding them with a rain of arrows, darts, and stones and wounding 70 in the first attack. As the missiles fell thick among the Spaniards, they returned fire with their matchlocks, crossbows, and field pieces. The Indians were tightly packed, and the fire of the cannons mowed them down by the dozens.

After the initial long-range fighting, the Indians closed and sought to wound the invaders with their obsidian blades, but the Spanish soldiers fought back with their merciless Toledo steel. They cut and stabbed the Indians through their cotton armor and formed a defensive square. Cortés and his small band of horsemen, having circumnavigated the swamps and irrigation ditches that crisscrossed the area, attacked the Indians’ rear. Since the plain was covered with Indians, it took a while for the Spanish infantry to realize that Cortés had arrived at last. When they saw the horsemen in the distance, they redoubled their efforts, hacking and stabbing until the Indians, caught between the swords of the foot soldiers and the lances of the horsemen, broke formation and fled in all directions.

Donna Marina and the Way to Mexico

Although they had fought bravely, the Indians were shocked at the sight of the horses and riders, something they had never seen before, and as they ran about in confusion, the Spanish horsemen speared them without mercy. Most of the Spaniards were wounded, but only two had been killed. Two high-ranking Tabascans had been taken captive, and Aguilar advised Cortés to give them beads and send them off to negotiate a peace with their fellows. They left, and the next day 15 slaves came to Cortés, bringing gifts of food. Cortés received them respectfully, but Aguilar, who was familiar with the Indians’ customs, berated them and sent them away, ordering them to send a more dignified delegation. In the following days, 30 important caciques came to Cortés, bearing gifts of gold and 20 women. Cortés also asked the Indians where they had gotten the gold. They pointed to the west and said, “Mexico.” Cortés wasted no time hoisting sail.

A few days later, approaching their next landfall, the Spaniards spotted some large canoes coming toward them. The Indians headed for Cortés’s flagship. Coming aboard, they asked to speak with the expedition’s leader. They were representatives of Moctezuma, and no one, not even Aguilar, could understand their speech. Then one of the Indian women pointed out Cortés. She was a Mexican princess named Malinali, and had been sold by her Aztec mother and stepfather to the Maya of Yucatan. Cortés spoke Spanish to Aguilar, who translated his words into Mayan for Malinali, who then spoke to the visitors in Nahuatl.

The Spanish changed Malinali’s name to Marina and, because of her noble birth, called her Dona Marina. For the next two years, she and Aguilar helped Cortés negotiate, interrogate, and gather intelligence, while the conquistadors slowly, methodically, and bloodily conquered the Aztecs. Aguilar was last heard from in 1529, when he testified against his former commander at an inquiry regarding the death of Cortés’s wife, Catalina. By then, many of the conquistadors had turned against the conqueror of Mexico, who had managed to cheat them, the king of Spain, and his Indian allies out of most of the spoils of war. Shortly after his court appearance Aguilar died of paralysis, an oddly peaceful death for so adventurous a life.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons