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Monument to Cuauhtémoc in Veracruz, Mexico.

Cuauhtémoc, The Last Aztec Emperor to Fight Against the Spanish


Cuauhtémoc (meaning ‘Setting Sun’ or ‘Descending Eagle’) was the 11th Tlatoani (literally meaning ‘speaker’, but may also be translated as ‘king’) of Tenochtitlan, and the last ruler of the Aztec Empire. Cuauhtémoc ruled between 1520 and 1521, which was a time when the Spanish conquistadors were on the verge of subduing the Aztec Empire. Cuauhtémoc chose not to surrender to the invaders, but fought fiercely against them. Although Cuauhtémoc would ultimately fail to halt the Spanish conquest, he would be remembered positively. Even today, Cuauhtémoc is perceived by most Mexicans as a heroic figure who defended his culture against foreign invaders and as a symbol of resistance.

The Early Life of Cuauhtémoc

Cuauhtémoc is believed to have been born around 1495, though the exact year is of his birth is unknown. Little is known about Cuauhtémoc prior to his ascension to the Aztec throne. It is known that Cuauhtémoc’s family had produced many tlatoque (the plural form of tlatoani). His grandfather and two uncles are recorded to have held this position of power. Furthermore, the two Aztec rulers preceding Cuauhtémoc (Moctezuma II, and his immediate successor, Cuitláhuac) were his cousins. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the young Cuauhtémoc had risen through the ranks of the Aztec elite, acquiring the post of tlacatécatl (general), and was part of a committee of nobles who were ruling the district of Tlatelolco.

Cuauhtémoc monument in Zocalo

Cuauhtémoc monument in Zocalo (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It has been asserted that Cuauhtémoc was hostile toward the Spanish since their arrival, and had been a voice amongst the Aztec ruler’s councilors who opposed the foreign invaders. As a comparison, the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II, was indecisive in his dealings with the Spanish, which in the end cost him both his empire and his life.

The Night of Sorrows

Following Moctezuma’s death, one of his younger brothers, Cuitláhuac, inherited the Aztec throne. Unfortunately, the new emperor had contracted smallpox, which had been brought to the New World by Europeans, and died slightly less than three months into his reign. Despite this short reign, Cuauhtémoc had succeeded in expelling the Spanish from Tenochtitlan during the famous Noche Triste or ‘Night of Sorrows’.

The battle of La Noche Triste.

The battle of La Noche Triste. (Public Domain)

The Aztecs had an opportunity to eliminate the surviving Spanish once and for all as they retreated. At the Battle of Otumba, however, the Spanish and their native allies were able to defeat a much larger Aztec force. This meant that the foreign threat was not stamped out entirely and the Spanish soon returned to complete the conquest of the Aztec Empire.

Despite their defeat at the Battle of Otumba, the liberation of Tenochtitlan from the Spanish invaders allowed the Aztecs to organize some sort of resistance against their enemies. Cuauhtémoc’s untimely death meant that a new leader had to be chosen. By this time, there were not many candidates available, as a great number of nobles were slaughtered by the Spanish during the Festival of Toxcatl, an incident now referred to as the Temple Massacre.

The Battle of Otumba.

The Battle of Otumba. (Public Domain)

The Aztec Empire in Ruins

Cuauhtémoc was chosen to lead the Aztecs, and he immediately began reinforcing Tenochtitlan and sought the help of allies. Additionally, the emperor bolstered the garrisons at Guacachula, Xaltocan, and Itzocan, hoping to keep the Spanish at bay. Cuauhtémoc also went on the offensive, sending an army to Xochimilco, in the hopes of recapturing that city. The Aztecs, however, were defeated in battle. Time was running out for Cuauhtémoc, as the full force of the Spanish and their native allies were brought against Tenochtitlan.

The Spanish assault left Tenochtitlan in ruins, and it is recorded that Cuauhtémoc was caught trying to flee the city in a war canoe on August 13, 1521. It has been commonly claimed that the Spanish tortured Cuauhtémoc by burning his hands and feet. Some say that this was to force the emperor to reveal the location where his hoard of gold was being hidden. Others suggest that this treasure was the one lost by the Spanish when they were forced to flee from Tenochtitlan during the Night of Sorrows. Cuauhtémoc decided to stay silent and not reveal anything. In one account, the emperor is said to have eventually revealed that he had the treasure thrown into the lake that surrounded Tenochtitlan.

Bust of Cuauhtémoc in Zocalo, Mexico City.

Bust of Cuauhtémoc in Zocalo, Mexico City. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1524, Cuauhtémoc traveled south when the Spanish leader, Hernán Cortés led an expedition to the region known today as Honduras. This was due to the fear that Cuauhtémoc might make use of Cortés’ absence to incite rebellion. In the following year, Cuauhtémoc and several other Aztec leaders were hanged on suspicion that they were plotting against Cortés.

Portrait of Hernán Cortés.

Portrait of Hernán Cortés. (Public Domain)

In one version of the story, Cuauhtémoc’s bones were smuggled by his followers, and brought to Ixcateopan, his alleged hometown, in 1529. The emperor’s bones are said to have been buried under what would later become the altar of the local church.

In 1949, the supposed bones of Cuauhtémoc were unearthed by archaeologists. When examined, the bones were found to have belonged to several individuals, including a half-Indian, half-Spanish woman, and several males. Additionally, Cuauhtémoc is commonly thought to be a native of Tenochtitlan, rather than Ixcateopan. Although the evidence seems to point to the contrary, the belief that Cuauhtémoc’s bones are in Ixcateopan has survived, and a festival honoring this Aztec leader has been held there annually.

Featured image: Monument to Cuauhtémoc in Veracruz, Mexico. Photo source: (CC BY 2.0)

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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