Cuauhtemoc (c. 1494–1525)

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Cuauhtemoc (c. 1494–1525)

Cuauhtemoc (b. ca. 1494; d. 1525), last ruler of Tenochtitlán-Tlatelolco and leader of the final defense against the Spanish invaders. Nephew of Emperor Moctezuma II, Cuauhtemoc was elected to the post of tlatoani after Cuitlahuac, Moctezuma's immediate successor, died of smallpox. Around twenty-five years old when he took power, Cuauhtemoc married a daughter of Moctezuma who was a widow of Cuitlahuac. Later baptized as Isabel Moctezuma, she wed three Spaniards in succession.

Though the Mexica under Cuauhtemoc put up a spirited resistance to Spanish attacks, lack of water and food, and mounting deaths from disease and combat took their toll. Abandoned by most of his allies, Cuauhtemoc finally embarked on 13 August 1521 with a large canoe-borne force (or, according to some indigenous accounts, in one canoe with a small number of companions), either to flee or to mount one last offensive. The tlatoani's canoe was captured by the captain of one of the Spanish brigantines used in the siege, and though Cuauhtemoc is reported to have pleaded for death, he was instead brought as a prisoner before a jubilant Hernán Cortés.

Early in his captivity, Cuauhtemoc was pressed to reveal the location of the "lost" Mexica treasure by having his feet burned with hot oil. This torture led to nothing, and Cuauhtemoc remained a prisoner until October 1524, when Cortés took him and a number of other indigenous rulers on an expedition to Honduras to subdue Cristóbal de Olid, who had declared against the conqueror. Cortés and others seem to have feared that the Indian leaders might rebel if left behind, but the Spaniards soon came to suspect that Cuauhtemoc was somehow plotting an uprising. Accordingly, during Lent of 1525 Cuauhtemoc and two other rulers were convicted of treason and hanged from a cieba tree beside the trail to Honduras. As in the later Peruvian case of the captured Inca Atahualpa, who was executed on a similar charge, the conquerors became convinced that Cuauhtemoc had outlived his usefulness.

Though defeated in life, Cuauhtemoc, and not Cortés, ultimately triumphed as an important symbol of Mexican nationalism. Evidence of his heroic stature includes such work as the later-nineteenth-century libretto of the heroic opera Guatimotzín (ca. 1872), by Mexican composer Aniceto Ortega Del Villar. By the twentieth century Cuauhtemoc's valor was celebrated in everything from post-Revolutionary murals to a statue gracing a glorieta (traffic circle) on Mexico City's Paseo de la Reforma, and even in the name of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, opposition presidential candidate in the election of 1988.

See alsoTenochtitlán .


Many colonial chronicles, both indigenous and Spanish, contain information about Cuauhtemoc, including Bernal Díaz Del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, translated by A. P. Maudslay (1956); Diego Durán, The Aztecs: The History of the Indies of New Spain, translated by Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas (1964); Francisco López De Gómara, Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary, translated and edited by Lesley B. Simpson (1964); Bernardino De Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, vol. 12, The Conquest of Mexico, translated and edited by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (1971); Fernando De Alva Ixtlilxochitl, Obras históricas, 4th ed. (1985); and Hernando Cortés, Letters from Mexico, edited by Anthony Pagden (1986). Accessible syntheses can be found in Miguel León-portilla, ed., The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (1992); Patricia De Fuentes, ed. and trans., The Conquistadors: First-person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico (1993); and Ross Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest (1993).

Additional Bibliography

Aguilar Moreno, Manuel. Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. New York: Facts on File, 2006.

Berdan, Frances. The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society. Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2005.

Hernández Chávez, Alicia. Mexico: A Brief History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Townsend, Camila. Malintzin's Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

                                       Robert Haskett