When I saw the discord and animosity between these two peoples I was not a little pleased, for it seemed to further my purpose considerably; consequently I might have the opportunity of subduing them more quickly, for as the saying goes, "divided they fall"...And I remember that one of the Gospels says, "Omne regnum...." So I maneuvered one against the other and thanked each side for their warnings and told each that I held his friendship to be of more worth than the other's.|
Then Cortés told them that the King's laws decreed such treachery should not go unpunished, and that they must die for their crime. Then he ordered a musket to be fired, which was the signal we had agreed on; and they received a blow they will remember for ever, for we killed many of them, and the promises of their false idols were of no avail.
--Bernal Díaz del Castillo
Massacre at Cholula
Twenty miles south of Tlaxcala is the ancient religious center of Cholula. For more than a thousand years pilgrims had been coming here from as far away as Guatemala. Quetzalcatl, the plumed serpent, was the major deity worshipped here, but there were temples for other gods as well. In fact, Cholula was said to have a pyramid for every day of the year. (Today it is said to have a church for every day of the year.)
At the time of the conquest, Cholula was under Aztec dominion. They probably expected and received instructions about how to deal with the intruders. After an exchange of emissaries, the Spaniards marched on Cholula with 1000 of their new Tlaxcalan allies. What happened next is a matter of continued controversy.
The official version, as presented by Cortés and Díaz and accepted by many later commentators, is that the Aztecs ordered the Cholulans to prepare a trap. The conquistadors were housed in a palace in the town. They were fed and treated well on the first day, but after a couple of days the food stopped coming. A Cholulan woman told La Malinche that the Spaniards were to be murdered the next day, except for those who would be taken back to Tenochtitlan for sacrifice, and that she should escape and save herself. Instead, she told Cortés. The next day, convinced that they were slated to be the victims of a treacherous (from their point of view) betrayal, the Spaniards turned the tables on the Cholulans and massacred about ten per cent of the city's population.
The alternate view, presented by Cortés' contemporary, Bartolomé de Las Casas, is that the massacre was an act of cold-blooded terrorism designed to break the spirits of the indigenous people. "When all the dignitaries of the city and the region came out to welcome the Spaniards with all due pomp and ceremony," he wrote in A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,"...and then proceeded to escort them into the city and lodge them in the houses of the lord and the leading citizens, the Spaniards decided that the moment had come to organize a massacre...in order to inspire fear and terror in all the people of the territory."
Cholula is the site of the largest pyramid in the world, Tepanapa. It looks like a big hill, with a cute colonial church on top. Until 1910, when it was uncovered during the construction of an insane asylum at its base, nobody knew it was a pyramid. Almost certainly it was already a tree-covered hill at the time of the conquest. Archaeologists say it was contemporary with the great Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon at Teotihuacan. If so, it would have been in use a thousand years before the time of these events, and could have been covered and forgotten.
Another version is told in Cholula today. They say that the great pyramid was so sacred that when the people realized that the nasty conquistadors were coming, they organized a work force to cover it with soil so that the Spaniards wouldn't destroy it (as they in fact did to most of the pyramids they came across, often using the very rocks in the construction of their own monuments). This seems extremely unlikely, but so does almost every part of this story!
Table of Contents
Quotes from Díaz and Cortés are from the following sources:
The Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Translated
by J. M. Cohen. Penguin Books, 1963.
Letters from Mexico, Hernán Cortés. Translated by Anthony
Pagden. Yale University Press, 1986.