The Cholula Massacre

The Spanish Conquest of 1519 was motivated by Hernán Cortés and his small band of merchants’ lust for gold, glory, and God. The band of men merchants traveled into the highlands and marched further into the Mexican altiplano. Their goal was to overthrow the Aztec Empire. Cortés was able to achieve this by using the division between communities found in Mesoamerica at the time, as well as using Malintzin, his translator, to gain insider intel. Though Cholula didn’t have any connections with the Azteca Empire, the massacre that occurred at Cholula’s Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, or The Great Pyramid of Cholula, is considered a foreshadowing of what was to come, as well as, the turning point of the invasion.

Cortés and his men made alliances with Cempoala and Tlaxcala along their way to the Aztec Empire. The Cempoala and Tlaxcala were long-standing enemies to the Aztec Empire. Both warring states were participants in the Flowery War, which lasted from the mid-1490s to 1519. The Flowery War involved both armies capturing the other’s soldiers, then displaying them on a skull platform located in the city. The fate of these captives was either to be sacrificed to the gods or to be forced to play a popular ballgame. The Flowery Wars demonstrates the fierceness and adversity within the Aztec Empire. Cortés and his men were fighting seasoned and skilled warriors.

In fact, Cempoala and Tlaxcala almost defeated the Spanish. However, they settled on a peaceful pact. Some historians speculate the peaceful pact wasn’t so peaceful; Historians believe Cempoala was a tributary tribe that held an alliance with the Aztec until Cortés and Malintzin blackmailed and coerced them into serving under Cortés. It’s unclear if the same occurred with Tlaxcalans. Though, once the peace pact was settled, Cortés was encouraged by both Malintzin and the Tlaxcalans to advance to the Mexica capital by way of traveling through Cholula.

Cholula’s population was around 30,000 to 50,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in Mesoamerica in 1519. Cholula was a major religious center. The city housed a temple dedicated to one of the major gods of Mesoamerica: Quetzalcoatl. According to H. B. Nicolson, the name itself means “feathered snake.” Nicholson described the god as being a rattlesnake, adored with luxurious, green quetzal feathers. The god was commonly known across Mesoamerica during the time of the conquest. However, the god’s popularity varied. The god had a great pyramid dedicated to him in Cholula, which was known as the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl. When Cortés and his men entered the city, they carried out a massacre at this religious center.

There are myths that claim Cortés was depicted and regarded by the Choluteca as being the returning god of Quetzalcoatl. However, during the time Cortés arrived in 1519, the religious hub remained a regularly flowing crowd that came in and out of Cholula for pilgrimage. There was no dramatic change in migration which means the Choluteca had a realistic explanation as to why Cortés and his men have arrived. A few reasons might include: 1. The Choluteca were not awestruck at the Spanish’s guns and horses, nor their newcomers. 2. In Camilla Townsend’s article, “Burying the White Gods,” she notes that, while the Choluteca valued Quetzalcoatl, the god was not a “paramount god in Mesoamerica” (14). 3. Townsend emphasizes Cholula went to war with Cortés. Moctezuma and the Choluteca’s desire for war with the Spanish shows they did not believe Cortés to be their returning god. 4. It seems ironic and contradictory for this supposed returning Quetzalcoatl to destroy his own monumental pyramid.

The Massacre and destruction of The Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl were a turning point for the invasion because Cortés was given insider information which allowed him to strike first. The series of events is said to have started when Malintzin learned the Choluteca’s plot to turn against the Spanish by attacking them. Malintzin then informed Cortés. As a result, Cholulatecas were brought to the ceremonial square of the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl and killed by Cortés and his men. The action caused the inhabitants of Cholula to call upon their allies in the outskirts of the city. Thousands of people were killed and haphazard pillaging continued for the days that followed. Had not Cortés have struck first and been severely wounded in number—it’s hard to say due to numerous factors— but it makes one wonder if the fall of the Aztec Empire would have ever occurred.

The massacre is well documented; There are eleven Colonial accounts and three hieroglyphs remain. Cortés’s personal letters to the King of Spain served as a means of justifying his illegal invasion. As a result, there are some manipulations used to ensure a good standing with the Spanish Crown when we went to court. There are speculations and differences between Cortés’s account and that of Bernal Dias del Castillo’s account, Francisco Lopez de Gomara’s account, and Fray Francisco de Aguilar’s account. Each one differs in how the Spanish were received by the Choluteca; if Cortés led his troops with consultation with a committee or not; the role of Malintzin; how fierce the Choluteca were in battle. Also, McCafferty notes that archeologist began excavations in 1931 and only 650 bodies have been found so far. The intensity in combat, causes of death, warrior demographics, and more are still being studied. Despite these differences in each account’s detail and the evidence that’s still being studied, the massacre was a sign of what would come in the Azteca Empire.