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Part XIII: What triggered conflict between Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco

28 January 2017 Comments Leave a comment

In the mid-15th century, Tenochtitlan‘s influence spread already far and wide, even though it was still nowhere near what it would be only a few decades later, under the rule of the vigorous eighth ruler Ahuitzotl, who would conquer lavishly, stretching Tenochtitlan’s influence almost from coast to coast. Axayacatl, the first of the three ruling brothers, was a renowned warrior and leader, but it was the youngest, Ahuitzotl, who would spread the Mexica domination truly far and wide. However, this story deals with somewhat earlier times.

Unlike other cities, towns, and villages spread around the great Texcoco Lake and deeper inland, Tlatelolco, located on the adjacent island or even the same island, as some claim, were true kin, a sister-nation, the same Mexica-Aztec people as Tenochtitlan citizens were. Tenochtitlan’s partners in the Triple Alliance, altepetls of Texcoco and Tlacopan, were no Mexica. The first, Texcoco, were Acolhua, ruling eight other Acolhua provinces; the second, Tlacopan, was the remainder of the Tepanec Empire, ruling a few provinces of their own, the Tepanec ones. Tenochtitlan, as mentioned before, ruled farther and wider than its partners, and their Mexica nationality was exceptional. Besides them and this same troublesome Tlatelolco, no one else claimed to belong to the Mexica roots.

According to the most widely accepted narrative, both altepetls were founded not so far apart from each other, in the first part of the 14th century, both suffering a fair share of contempt and oppression from the surrounding cities and regional powers. Some say they had been sharing the opposite sides of the same island; others claim that they had been two separate islands that had been united by artificial means later on, after Tenochtitlan had conquered Tlatelolco.

However, before it happened, both sister-cities got along fairly well despite their rapidly changing circumstances. In 1428 Tenochtitlan was the one to participate in the revolt against the mighty Tepanec Empire alongside other subjected or just threatened nations, such as Acolhua of Texcoco or the dwellers of the Eastern Highlands. While the radical politics and the subsequent great wars rocked the entire Mexican Valley, Tlatelolco kept quiet and carefully neutral and out of the way, thus sealing its future history. Left out of the postwar dealings and invited to partake in no rich pickings off the fallen Tepanec Empire, Tlatelolco remained what it was, a fairly large independent altepetl that could not complete with the expanding giants of the Triple Alliance, especially the one in their backyard, the most ambitious, industrious entity out to grow and expand.

Still, it had taken nearly half a century for the real trouble to erupt, and what exactly happened there we might never know for certain, as the most detailed accounts of those few market intervals in the middle of the dry season of 1473 came to us via two different historians living two centuries later, after the entire Mexico had been destroyed by the Spanish invasion. One was Diego Duran, a Spanish monk (Dominican friar) enamored by the local Nahua culture, language, and history to the extent of displeasing his superiors and the church. The other, Domingo Chimalpahin, the 16th century Nahua annalist from Chalco – both post-conquest historians, both clearly relaying Tenochtitlan’s point of view. However, they give us the most detailed accounts of this period, aside from the Codex Mendoza, which doesn’t go into as many juicy details but supports the above-mentioned historians on the main developments.

In 1469, Axayacatl, Tenochtitlan’s sixth ruler, came to occupy his grandfather’s throne. A vigorous young man of reportedly great valor and outstanding leadership skill, he had waged a few successful and less so campaigns, gaining respect of the capital despite his young age.

At the same time, the neighboring Tlatelolco had also seen a change in rulers. Moquihuix or Moquihuixtli was also a relatively young man of presentable appearance and good orating skills. No tension between the two neighboring cities seemed to accompany those changes. On the contrary, to strengthen their ties, a customary exchange of a marital nature had taken place. Axayacatl’s elder sister, ChalchiuhNenetzin, Noble Jade Doll, was offered to the Tlatelolco ruler and promptly accepted as his chief wife, bearing him a son upon the very first year of their marriage.

The lives of both island-cities went on as usual until, according to both Chimalpahin and Duran, a certain nobleman Teconal came to occupy the reed-woven chair and the office of the head adviser to the Tlatelolco ruler. Suddenly, Moquihuixtli became less enamored of the neighboring island’s capital, the rich influential giant growing by leaps and bounds, a somewhat threatening presence. According to both Duran and Chimalpahin, his royal wife of Tenochtitlan origins did not please him greatly, not anymore. A void that Teconal’s daughter had managed to fill, added to the collection of imperial wives, and probably promoted to the highest rank among those. Polygamy was a way of life for the Mesoamerican nobility, so what must have been angering Tenochtitlan royal house or, rather, its female representative in the Tlatelolco Palace, was the advancement of the new wife above the other.

Chimalpahin and Duran both report various different complaints Axayacatl’s sister was flooding her powerful brother with through the old nobleman Tepecocatzin, a Tlatelolcan high aristocrat with apparently certain sentiment for Tenochtitlan. And yet, the busy young emperor did not interfere. Not until several other incidents made him start glancing at the neighboring island with suspicion.

One day a newly dug canal across Tlatelolco was found partly filled with rubbish (according to Duran). The suspicious Tlatelolcans accused their powerful neighbors of ill will. Sometime later, again according to Duran, a group of young Tenochtitlan nobles were reported to harass, or even molest, Tlatelolcan noble girls. A complaint was lodged with the Tenochtitlan authorities, but it is unclear what came out of it.

The storm clouds kept gathering, and it was in this uneasy atmosphere that Moquihuixtli decided to hold a competition of young Tlatelolcan warriors described by Duran in great detail. More than two thousand men came, summoned to the central plaza in order to ‘practice arts of war,’ or so their ruler had put it. A stone statue in the image of a fully armed warrior was erected upon a podium, to be taken down by slingshots aimed from a close range. “… He who aims best at the statue will receive the honor and glory as the most outstanding warrior…” were Moquihuixtli’s alleged words, accompanied with the promise of a personal reward for the best shooter (Duran). The statue was shattered in no time, to be replaced by another warlike likeness, this time made out of wood. The warriors were required to take down the new target using their spears and bows, which they did, with ‘great skill and valor.’ The Tlatelolcan ruler was impressed, telling his warriors that he could not judge the winner, as no warrior outshone his peers.

The eventful day was finished with an improvised hunt upon the shores of the Great Lake, where plenty of waterfowl was spooked, with the warriors required to use their shooting devices but only on the birds in ‘full flight.’ Again, the Tlatelolcans had reportedly outdone themselves, receiving much praise and flowery speeches but no promised rewards, which seemed to satisfy everyone nevertheless. The warriors went home puzzled but happy. Moquihuixtli and Teconal remained less puzzled but full of ideas. The emperor’s closing speech, reported by Duran, gave a clear indication. “…Tlatelolcas, I have been well pleased to see your ability… if some day you must wage war against the enemy, you will know that their flesh is not stone, that it is not wood, and that since your intrepid arms break through wood and stone, how much easier will it be to destroy flesh. You will be like ferocious jaguars and pumas. I also want you to know that our enemies are not birds that can fly and can slip between one’s fingers. Today few flying birds slipped between your fingers. Therefore, have courage, for soon you will you have need of your hands, and Mexica-Tlatelolco will be honored and all the nations will be subjected to us. Tlatelolco will rejoice in all those things that had been Mexica-Tenochtitlan’s prerogative up to now…”

So has spoken Moquihuixtli through the dry moons of 1473, counting on the Tenochtitlan emperor’s youth and lack of experience, edged by Teconal, a reportedly wise man but a very ambitious, ruthless, and single-minded individual of great willpower. Not relying on his emperor’s pretty speeches or the valor of their young warriors alone, he had sent envoys to the Eastern Highlands, the towns that were not a part of the Triple Alliance’s vastly diverse relationships. However, the Highlanders answered with suspicious reserve and no commitments. They did not see the difference between the two Mexica-Aztec towns and did not wish to be involved in what might turn out to be nothing but a fishy plot.

Yet, at this point, the Tlatelolcans would not be budged.

An excerpt from “Obsidian Puma”, The Aztec Chronicles, book one

“What was the nobleman’s name?”

“I…” He racked his brains, desperate to remember – the memory wasn’t coming, making him cold with fear. “I don’t, don’t know. Revered Emperor.”

“Leave the titles alone for now.” The contemplative eyes shifted, staring past him, very absorbed. “The name Tepecocatzin tells you something?”

He gasped. “Yes, yes! That was the name of the old man!”

The Emperor shook his head. “Thought so.”

“And you’ve been disregarding this noble person’s repeated messages,” said the Emperor’s mother reproachfully. “He has sent you plenty of warnings, taking the plight of your sister closer to his heart than you, her full brother, did.”

The suddenly fierce glare of the ruler cut the rest of the tirade short, making even the haughty noblewoman subdued, leaning back on the upholstery of her chair, the nostrils of her delicate nose widening with the strongly drawn breath.

“Go on.”

This time, it was a curt order with no encouraging softness to it.

Miztli clenched his palms tight. “Yes, Revered Emperor.” At least the title came out in time now. He collected his thoughts hastily. “Well, this nobleman Tepecocatzin, he sent word to the princess, I suppose, as later, she came as well.”

“You talked to my daughter?” Again, the Emperor’s mother had a hard time keeping her peace despite her illustrious son’s repeated demands. “You actually talked to her?” Her eyes bored at him, wide open, round with astonishment. “What did Noble Jade Doll tell you?”

He fought down a hysterical snicker, remembering the alternative nickname the people in the boat used, interpreting the word nenetl – “doll” – with its different second meaning. No doll, this one.

“She told me… she asked me to send word to Ahuitzotl. I mean, she wanted to send word through me.”

“Revered Lady!” This time, the correction was spoken in a cutting ice-cold tone.

He quailed once again. “Revered Lady.” It came out as a pitiful whisper.

“No titles for now, I said.” The Emperor’s voice rang with matching coldness, its fury unconcealed. “I will be asking this boy questions, and no one besides me. I will not be repeating myself.”

The recipient of this curt reprimand tossed her head high and leaned back in her chair once again, her own eyes ablaze.

“Go on, boy. What else did the Lady Noble Jade Doll tell you?”

“She told me to watch… to watch the contest held on the Central Plaza, and then report it all to Ahuitzotl, so he would able to… to pass the word.”

A decisive nod. “Go on.”

He could feel his fellow calmecac companions holding their breaths, staring at him as incredulously as the royal family did.

“And well, there was a competition, Revered Emperor.” Oh, but did this man say not to use the titles now? He bit his lower lip hard. “There were many hundreds of warriors and their emperor, he talked to them, encouraged them to show their valor and spirit. He said they were invincible, that even Tenochtitlan warriors can’t defeat them.” He remembered the gesticulating ruler upon the edge of the dais. “They shot their slings at the stone statue that was made especially for this occasion, in the likeness of a warrior, with obsidian sword and a shield. The Emperor promised to reward the best shooter, slinger, or spear-thrower, but not before another competition was held. When the stone statue was shattered by the missiles of the slingers, it was replaced with a wooden statue, another replica of a man with a shield, wielding its sword. This time, it was to be taken down using mainly spears, hurled or shot from atlatls, but some warriors shot their bows as well.”

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