Cuauhtemoc was the last emperor Aztec Emperor who ruled from 1520 to 1521. Born to Ahuitzotl and Tlilancapatl, he was the cousin of late Emperor Moctezuma II. Since an early age, Cuauhtemoc’s aggressiveness and determination was famous, his name itself means ‘a person who has descended like an eagle’. Just like a descending eagle that is focussed and sharp, Cuauhtemoc too was strong-minded and unwavering. He succeeded Cuitláhuac in 1520 after the latter died an untimely death due to small pox. At the time when Cuauhtemoc ascended the throne, he was merely 25 years old. There were only a few Aztec captains who were eligible for the post. Cuauhtemoc was voted as the most able candidate by the high noblemen, which eventually led to his appointment. During his tenure as the Emperor, Cuauhtémoc defended the city through a four-month siege. He was later captured by the Spanish, who in turn tortured Cuauhtemoc to reveal the location of Aztec gold. However, Cuauhtemoc’s resoluteness was legendary as despite immense torture, he stuck to his silence and till the end did not reveal the location of traditional Aztec wealth. Fearing an insurrection by Cuauhtemoc in future, the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, killed him
Childhood & Early Life
Cuauhtemoc was born in 1495 to the Aztec emperor Ahuitzotl and his wife Tlilancapatli. He was the eldest legitimate son of the Emperor.
Young Cuauhtemoc attended Calmecac, a school for the upper-class boys, to complete his formal education.
Academically trained, he joined military service. His grit, determination and aggressiveness earned him the title of cuauhtlatoani or eagle ruler. Just like an eagle who is at its aggressive best while catching its prey, he too was belligerent towards his enemies.
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Accession & Reign
In 1515, he was named ruler of Tlatelolco. This position was strictly restricted to elite males and warriors with a history of capturing enemies for sacrifice.
In 1520, Cuauhtémoc was voted as the Emperor by the highest noblemen of the country, following the death of Montezuma’s successor, Cuitláhuac due to smallpox.
At the time when Cuauhtemoc took over the throne, Hernán Cortés, with powerful Indian allies, was marching on Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital. His predecessor, Cuitlahuac, had built a defense program against the invaders, especially Spanish allies that left the country deeply isolated, with the desertion of numerous polities that once came under Tenochtitlan.
Cuauhtémoc’s frontier forces were forced to retreat in 1521. He defended his city by launching warfare against the Spanish. In his four-months of siege, the city was impaired by destruction with fewer Indians surviving. Only the district of Tlatelolcas remained loyal to the Emperor where women too participated in the battle.
On August 13, 1521, Cuauhtemoc was captured by the Spanish, while attempting to flee Tenochtitlan at the time of crossing Lake Texcoco. Cortes treated Cuauhtemoc with deference initially. However, when the wealth found was too little, he tortured Cuauhtemoc to reveal the location of the hidden Aztec treasure. Cuauhtemoc, on the other hand, did not give out the information.
Despite being under the possession of Spainards, Cuauhtemoc continued to sustain his title of Emperor, though he wasn’t a sovereign ruler. Following the destruction of Mexico City, he put up at Tecpan, the two-storied stone palace in Tlatelolco which was constructed in pure renaissance style.
Fearing insurrection by Cuauhtemoc, Cortes took Cuauhtemoc along with several other noblemen on his expedition to Honduras. It was during the journey that Cortes ordered Cuauhtemoc to be hanged for allegedly conspiring against Cortes and other Spainards.
All through his reign, Cuauhtemoc was known for his aggressiveness and determination. Strong-willed as he was, Cuauhtemoc defended the city during the four-month siege. Though he was eventually captured and tortured by the Spainards for revealing the location of the Aztec wealth, he remained resolute and till the end did not reveal the same.
Personal Life & Legacy
Cuauhtemoc was married to Isabel Moctezuma, daughter of Emperor Moctezuma II. Not much is known about the number of children they had.
Cuauhtemoc’s captivity by Cortes ended any kind of resistance from the Aztecs. By 1525, he had become an auxillary soldier under Cortés, serving with the Spaniard’s army as it pushed into Honduras.
During the fateful journey to Honduras, Cortes was brainwashed to believe that Cuahtemoc was traitor who was plotting against him. Furious, he opened a treason trial for the Aztec leader. Cuauhtemoc was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging
There are variations to the story following Cuauhtemoc’s death. While some believe that Mexicalcingo, a Tenochtitlan citizen, stated that Coanacoch (ruler of Texcoco), Tetlepanquetzal (ruler of Tlacopan) and Cuauhtemoc were plotting Cortes death, others believe that the plot was revealed by Tapia and Juan Velásquez.
Cuauhtemoc was hanged on 28 February 1525. In his last speech, he blamed Cortes for reneging on his promise and killing him unjustly.
Astonishingly, Cuauhtemoc’s last speech impacted Cortes so much so that he suffered from insomnia due to guilt, and badly injured himself while wandering at night.
Following Cuauhtemoc’s death, Tlacotzin, Cuauhtémoc's advisor, was appointed his successor. However, he too did not live long enough and died the following year.