Thursday, September 27, 2012

Monarch Profile: Emperor Cuauhtémoc

Among the old Aztec rulers, none are more revered in modern Mexico than Emperor Cuauhtémoc (“Descending Eagle”). Whereas the reputation of his predecessor, Emperor Montezuma II, remains mixed, Cuauhtémoc is remembered as a fierce warrior, a patriotic figure and a sympathetic victim of Spanish aggression. Of course, many details of his life are unknown and much of what can be presented was passed down as oral tradition. It is difficult to impossible to determine the veracity of such accounts but, on the other hand, they are not always wrong. Cuauhtémoc was, according to estimates, born sometime around the year 1495 into the (extremely large) Aztec imperial family. The ill-fated Emperor Montezuma II was a relation of his (usually given as cousin though sometimes referred to as uncle) and as a young man Cuauhtémoc married one of Emperor Montezuma’s daughters. According to traditional stories, Cuauhtémoc was an exceptional warrior who earned great fame for his leadership in the wars to subjugate and maintain control over the other native tribes of the central valley of Mexico. That is an easy enough story to accept, given what is known of the man.

What is more likely to be some embellishment after the fact is the stories about the omens that appeared, prior to the arrival of the Spanish, which Cuauhtémoc took to be ominous and that, from their first appearance, he was not in awe of these aliens but wary of them as potential enemies. According to such stories, Cuauhtémoc was always on the right side, foreseeing every disaster, never being fooled but never being listened to by those in authority so that the Spanish were ultimately able to overcome them. Again, even to the sympathetic ear, the stories of this period in the life of Cuauhtémoc seem a little too convenient and have the appearance of being made after the fact to embellish the reputation of someone who had already achieved the status of hero. In any event, as we do know from history, the Spanish forces of Herná n Corté s entered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519, eventually taking Montezuma II prisoner. The Emperor died, whether at the hands of the Spanish or a mob of his own people remains hotly debated to this day. Cortes fought his way out of the city in a brutal battle known in Mexico as la noche triste (“night of sorrow”) and during his absence one of his lieutenants carried out a massacre, inciting the Aztecs to rise up in revolt.

This was about the time that Cuauhtémoc inherited the feathered crown at the age of twenty-five. Montezuma II was, upon his death, succeeded by his younger brother, Emperor Cuitlahuac, who died soon afterward of smallpox; a most devastatingly effective weapon of biological warfare the Spanish inadvertently brought with them. Because of the terrible toll the disease had taken, combined with the massacre and the “night of sorrow”, there was no one left but Cuauhtémoc to take the throne. His reputation as a great warrior may have also had something to do with it as the people looked for military leadership in this time of trial. With no time for pomp or ceremony, Cuauhtémoc immediately devoted himself to securing and defending Tenochtitlan as Cortes had returned with a larger Spanish and allied army to besiege the great city. The fight, however, did not go well for the Aztecs who had virtually no experience at the art of siege warfare whereas the Spanish (like most all Europeans of their era) were masters. Despite their best efforts, the Spanish forces steadily gained ground but Cuauhtémoc fought them every step of the way, from street to street and house to house for eighty days without respite.

Still, if things continued, a Spanish victory was inevitable so, on August 13, 1521, Cuauhtémoc sent out messengers to the surrounding tribes summoning them to help fight the Spanish and defend (or soon retake) Tenochtitlan. Unfortunately, the Aztecs were not known for being the most kind of masters or benevolent of overlords and few of their fellow natives were distressed to see them facing total defeat. Indeed, the Spanish victories thus far would not have been possible if so many of the indigenous people they encountered had not been so eager to throw off the Aztec yoke that they would willingly join anyone who offered them a change. In the end, only the people of Tlatelolco (the sister-city of Tenochtitlan, also built on an island on lake Texcoco) remained loyal to the Aztec Emperor. It was not enough and soon Cuauhtémoc had no choice but to abandon the great city, with his family and a small entourage, in disguise.

Unfortunately for Cuauhtémoc, he was captured while crossing Lake Texcoco with the remaining Aztec chieftains and surrendered to Cortes, reportedly handing the Spanish conqueror his knife and asking to be killed with it. Cortes declined, saying that, “A Spaniard knows how to respect valor, even in an enemy”. It may seem implausible to modern ears, especially given what transpired in the conquest of Mexico, but the Spanish had been genuinely in awe of the Aztec rulers and, just as the Christian crusaders had spoken to the Muslim conqueror Saladin, tried to persuade them that their beliefs were unworthy of such great men. Nonetheless, Cuauhtémoc was handed over to the royal treasurer to find out where the Aztecs had hidden their vast hordes of gold and to use any means necessary to gain this information. Cuauhtémoc, along with his most elite companions, declared repeatedly that no such treasure existed and, this answer being considered unsatisfactory, had their feet burned to “persuade” them to give up their secret. A famous story says that, during this ordeal, one of the chiefs urged Cuauhtémoc to tell the Spanish what they wanted to know to save them all to which the fallen emperor is alleged to have replied, “Do you think I’m in a bed of roses?”

In truth, there was nothing Cuauhtémoc could have done as it seems factual that no such treasure existed. Indeed, the Aztecs themselves did not view gold as being particularly valuable, other than, perhaps, as a decoration and certain bird feathers worked much better, being more colorful and considerably lighter and easier to wear. Cortes, when confronted with the horrific scene of his fallen foe having his feet burned, was ashamed and ordered his immediate release. Some gold was found, scattered about the city in various temples or the homes of leading aristocrats, but nothing like the vast quantities that were expected. Cortes had given Cuauhtémoc his life, but still did not trust him and when he set off to conquer Central America for the Spanish Crown, he took the fallen monarch with him for fear that he might lead another revolt if left in Tenochtitlan. It was during this expedition on February 28, 1525 that Cortes had Cuauhtémoc put to death after discovering that he and several other Aztec noblemen were plotting his assassination. However, Cuauhtémoc protested to the last that he had been unjustly accused and afterward Cortes was genuinely anxious about whether or not he had killed an innocent man.

After the death of Cuauhtémoc, one of his advisors, Tlacotzin, was made his successor as Emperor of the Aztecs and was later baptized into the Catholic Church and named Juan Velazquez Tlacotzin. What became of the late Cuauhtémoc is uncertain. An ossuary exists in Guerrero that is alleged to be his final resting place but the legitimacy of the site remains questionable. What is not questionable is the near legendary status that Cuauhtémoc has achieved in the years following Mexican independence from Spain. Cities, streets, plazas and every sort of landmark bear his name from one end of Mexico to the other and numerous statutes, busts and artistic images of him exist. His status rose most especially in the post-revolutionary period of Mexico when there was a concerted effort by the Mexican people to distance themselves from their Spanish ancestry and associate themselves almost exclusively with the native elements of their roots. Emperor Cuauhtémoc provided just what they were looking for in a national hero; one who fought the Spanish invaders, endured torture at their hands and died the victim of injustice.

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