Cuauhtémoc was the Aztec ruler of Tenochtitlan from 1520 to 1521.
The name Cuāuhtemōc means “One That Has Descended Like an Eagle”, commonly rendered in English as “Descending Eagle” as in the moment when an eagle folds its wings and plummets down to strike its prey, so this is a name that implies aggressiveness and determination.
Cuauhtémoc took power in 1520 as successor of Cuitláhuac and was a cousin of the former emperor Moctezuma II.
His young wife, who would later be known as Isabel Moctezuma, was one of Moctezuma’s daughters.
He ascended to the throne when he was 25 years of age, as his city was being besieged by the Spanish and devastated by an epidemic of smallpox brought to the New World by Spanish invaders.
Once upon the throne, Cuauhtémoc unsuccessfully called for reinforcements from the countryside to aid the defense of Tenochtitlán.
Cuauhtémoc was captured on August 13, 1521, while fleeing Tenochtitlán by crossing Lake Texcoco in disguise with his wife, family, and friends.
He surrendered to Hernán Cortés and, according to Spanish sources, he offered Cortés his knife and asked to be killed.
According to the same Spanish accounts, Cortés refused this offer and treated his foe magnanimously. “You have defended your capital like a brave warrior,” he declared, “A Spaniard knows how to respect valor, even in an enemy.”
At Cuauhtémoc’s request, Cortés also allowed the defeated Aztec’s to depart the city unmolested.
Subsequently, however, when the booty found did not measure up to the Spaniards’ expectations, Cuauhtémoc was tortured in an unsuccessful attempt to discover its whereabouts.
Eventually some gold was recovered, though far less than Cortés and his men expected.
Then in 1525, Cortés took Cuauhtémoc and several other indigenous nobles on his expedition to Honduras, fearing that Cuauhtémoc could have led an insurrection in his absence.
While the expedition was stopped in the Chontal Maya capital of Itzamkanac, known as Acalan in Nahuatl, Cortés had Cuauhtémoc executed for allegedly conspiring to kill him and the other Spaniards.
There are actually a number of discrepancies in the various accounts of the execution.
According to Cortés himself, on February 27, 1525 it was revealed to him by a citizen of Tenochtitlan named Mexicalcingo that Cuauhtémoc, Coanacoch (the ruler of Texcoco) and Tetlepanquetzal (the ruler of Tlacopan) were plotting his death. Cortés interrogated them until each confessed, and then had Cuauhtémoc, Tetlepanquetzal, and another lord named Tlacatlec hanged on February 28, 1525.
Cortés wrote that the other lords would be too frightened to plot against him again, as they believed he had uncovered the plan through magic powers.
Cortés’s account is supported by the historian Francisco López de Gómara.
According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador serving under Cortés who recorded his experiences in his book The Conquest of New Spain, the supposed plot was revealed by two men, named Tapia and Juan Velásquez. Díaz portrays the executions as unjust and based on no evidence, and admits to having liked Cuauhtémoc personally. He also records Cuauhtémoc giving the following speech to Cortés, through his interpreter Malinche:
Oh Malinzin [i.e., Cortés]! Now I understand your false promises and the kind of death you have had in store for me. For you are killing me unjustly. May God demand justice from you, as it was taken from me when I entrusted myself to you in my city of Mexico!
Díaz wrote that afterwards, Cortés suffered from insomnia due to guilt, and badly injured himself while wandering at night.
Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxóchitl, a Mestizo historian and descendant of Coanacoch, also wrote an account of the executions in the 17th century partly based on Texcocan oral tradition.
According to Ixtlilxóchitl the three lords were joking cheerfully with each other, due to a rumor that Cortés had decided to return the expedition to Mexico, when Cortés asked a spy to tell him what they were talking about. The spy reported honestly, but Cortés invented the plot himself. Cuauhtémoc, Coanacoch and Tetlepanquetzal were all hanged, as well as eight others. However, Cortés cut down Coanacoch, the last to be hanged, after his brother began rallying his warriors. Coanacoch did not have long to enjoy his reprieve—Ixtlilxóchitl wrote that he died a few days later.
The modern-day Mexican town of Ixcateopan in the state of Guerrero is home to an ossuary purportedly containing Cuauhtémoc’s remains.
Now WE know em