the last emperor of the Aztec Empire, reigning from 1520 until his capture by
He resisted Spanish conquerors from their first appearance,
led Aztec warriors in their final battle, and endured torture at the hands of
Spaniards seeking treasure after his defeat. The infamous conqueror Hernando
Cortés executed the captive emperor in 1522 in fear of his ability to lead an
The uncompromising resistance and bravery of Cuauhtémoc in his struggle with foreign invaders
made him a legendary figure in Mexican culture.
Cuauhtémoc was born around 1494 into an important and distinguished family of Aztec nobles. A
nephew to Emperor Montezuma II, he became Montezuma's son-in-law after marrying princess Tecuichpo. By the time of
the Spaniards' arrival in the early 1500s, Cuauhtémoc had become a leader of Aztec troops under his uncle and
distinguished himself as a military commander in numerous battles.
Unlike other members of the Aztec nobility, Cuauhtémoc distrusted and disliked the Spaniards
from their first encounter. When the Spaniards seized the royal palace and held Emperor Montezuma II hostage in 1519, it was Cuauhtémoc
who organized Aztec resistance to them.
After Cortés left the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán to confront a rival expedition sent from
Cuba, Cuauhtémoc rallied the Aztecs against the foreigners who had entered their city and taken their emperor
prisoner. Cortés had left Capt. Pedro de Alvarado in charge in his absence. Alvarado actively repressed Aztec
religion, massacring a large number of Aztec noblemen as they celebrated one of their ritual festivals. The enraged
Cuauhtémoc mobilized his troops as the triumphant Cortés returned to the city with reinforcements.
Cuauhtémoc then led the attack against the Spaniards, who
barricaded themselves inside the emperor's palace. A
ccording to tradition, Cuauhtémoc also challenged Montezuma
when the emperor was forced to go to the rooftop to tell his Aztec subjects to
Cuauhtémoc brandished a spear in defiance and mocked
Montezuma, inciting a crowd until they killed the emperor with a hail of
After the death of Montezuma, a council of Aztec nobles
elected his brother Cuitláhuac as the Huey Tlatoani, or the Great Speaker
(emperor), of the Aztecs in 1520.
Cuitláhuac had also distrusted the Spaniards and had helped lead the armed resistance to the
Spanish invaders. His reign proved short-lived, however, as he died in October 1520 in the great smallpox
epidemic that decimated the city. Before his death, the Aztecs drove the Spaniards out of Tenochtitlán on June
30, 1520, a defeat that came to be known as La Noche Triste (The Sad Night).
After Cuitláhuac's death, another council of nobles selected the young Cuauhtémoc as his
replacement. Upon becoming emperor, Cuauhtémoc mobilized Tenochtitlán for a long-term struggle against the
Spaniards and their indigenous allies. He fortified the central plaza and brought tons of food and provisions to
the island city in preparation for a long siege. He then destroyed all bridges and causeways leading to the city,
turning it into a fortified island.
Cuauhtémoc is estimated to have raised an army consisting of anywhere between 200,000 and
500,000 warriors from the Aztecs and their neighboring allies. Cortés, in turn, successfully regrouped his forces
to retake Tenochtitlán. Assisted by his Tlaxcalan allies, Cortés built 13 ships to assault the city by water as
well as land. Before starting his offensive, Cortés urged Cuauhtémoc to surrender the city to his superior forces.
Cuauhtémoc bravely refused, defiantly proclaiming that all Christian converts found in his lands would be
sacrificed to the Aztec gods.
The Spanish attack began in March 1521 with assaults on the towns and cities along the shores of
the lake around Tenochtitlán. Cuauhtémoc launched several successful counterattacks but had to withdraw whenever
faced with Spanish reinforcements with heavy cavalry and cannons. After defeating the surrounding cities, the
Spaniards launched their fleet of small ships.
Cuauhtémoc quickly realized that the Aztecs could not win in open combat with the mounted
Spaniards and their heavily armed ships. His warriors turned to urban guerrilla warfare, ambushing the Spaniards
and their allies from rooftops and alleyways in bloody house-to-house fighting. Unable to permanently gain a
permanent foothold in the city, the Spaniards decided to systematically level every building and throw the debris
into the lake. This forced the defenders back into what became a smaller and smaller piece of territory.
In the end, Cuauhtémoc and his Aztec army were defeated as much by famine and disease as by
force of arms. The Aztecs ate their dead as well as all the grass and weeds on the island. Cuauhtémoc defiantly
refused to surrender despite an increasingly bleak military situation. On August 13, 1521, he was captured in a
canoe as he attempted to leave to find reinforcements for the starving city. Cortés initially treated Cuauhtémoc
with respect, even promising to allow him to continue as emperor as long as he accepted the supremacy of Spanish
That initial civility ended after the city of Tenochtitlán yielded no gold or jewels to the
Spanish conquerors. Unable to find the treasure lost in their escape from the city in La Noche Triste, the
Spaniards tortured Cuauhtémoc to find where it had been hidden. Cuauhtémoc stubbornly maintained that it had lain
at the bottom of the lake since the Spanish retreat. He not only refused to reveal the treasure's location, he also
secretly planned further Aztec resistance to the Spanish invaders from his captivity.
In 1522, Cortés traveled to Honduras to punish a rebellious Spanish captain. He brought
Cuauhtémoc and other Aztec noblemen along for the dangerous trip rather than risk an uprising in his absence. A
Christian convert supposedly revealed in the course of the journey that Cuauhtémoc had plans to kill Cortés and
lead a rebellion with the goal of killing all Spaniards in Mexico. Accused and found guilty of treason, Cuauhtémoc
and other noblemen were hung from a large ceiba tree on February 26, 1522.
Cuauhtémoc's bravery and tenacity in the struggle against the Spaniards have made him a national
hero in modern times, expressing the Mexican people's strength and endurance throughout history in the face of
foreign invasion, injustice, and oppression.