Backstory: Hernán Cortés began his career of exploitation and brutality in the New World in 1504 when he was 18 years old. By the time he was 20, he contributions to the Spanish conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba had garnered him land and indigenous slaves to work it. Indian slaves farmed his land, ranched his cattle and dug in his mines. As his wealth grew, so did his political influence. He received important appointments (he was twice mayor of Santiago) and made friends in high places, including the Governor of New Spain, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar.
Enticed by tales of great masses of gold in the Aztec Empire, Cortés put himself forward to lead the third expedition into the Mexican interior in 1518, and Velázquez granted him the charter in October of that year. Then he changed his mind, revoked the charter and demanded Cortés disband his troops. Cortés ignored him and took off in February 1519. He went so far as to scuttle his own ships once they took Veracruz to eliminate the possibility of retreat.
Cortés reached Tenochtitlán on November 8th, 1519. Moctezuma II welcomed him, gave him much gold but this only whetted his appetite for the fabled treasures of the Aztec Empire. Even as their king made pacifying overtures to the invaders, the Mexica people of Tenochtitlán were keen to kick the bums out. Cortés had made allies of several enemies of the Aztecs on his way towards the capital and they harbored no delusions about his intent in occupying the city.
To save his skin and keep the city from open revolt, Cortés took Moctezuma hostage, holding him under house arrest in his father’s palace compound in central Tenochtitlán and turning him into a full-on puppet who was repeatedly made to reassure his people that he had voluntarily arrested himself and that the gods told him to move in with the Spanish and experience the warm embrace of armed guards at all times.
The tenuous relations between the locals and the occupiers got even more hostile after Cortés left Tenochtitlán in June 1520 to fight Spanish troops sent by Velázquez to arrest him for insubordination. Cortés’ second in command, Pedro de Alvarado, stayed behind to keep the city and Moctezuma under Spanish control. He failed in a big way.
When Alvarado massacred Aztec nobles and priests, men, women and children, during the Feast of Toxcatl at the Templo Mayor on May 22nd, 1520, the city erupted. Moctezuma had specifically asked Alvarado for permission to hold the festival and he’d allowed it. Alvarado got information from two nobles and a priest that the Aztecs were planning an attack, so he struck preemptively and massacred unarmed people while they were dancing and singing. That’s what he told Cortés later, at any rate. Bartolome de las Casas said his real motivation was to steal all the gold the Aztecs would be wearing for the ceremony.
When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán after defeating Pánfilo de Narváez, the guy sent to arrest him, the Mexica had crowned a new king and were in active revolt against the Spanish. With the city raging in battle and flames, Moctezuma was ordered to appeal to his former subjects to end the fighting and let Cortés, 1000 or so Spanish troops and 2,000 allied Tlaxcalan warriors, leave the city. The appeal failed, and Moctezuma II was killed. The Spanish said the Mexica did it by stoning him to death or showering arrows at him from the street. (See panel 4 from the left of this biombo.) Nahuatl sources say the Spanish killed him from within the compound.
The next day, June 30th, Cortés decided Tenochtitlán was way too hot for him and decided to make a break for the safety of Tlaxcala. He melted down all the Aztec gold he could get his hands on into ingots for easier transport, and fled in the dark of night. Cortés’ soldier and chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo, wrote that Cortés ordered “eight lame or wounded horses and upwards of 80 Tlaxcalans” be assigned to carry the treasure “which had been run into large bars.” The rest of the soldiers, Castillo among them, grabbed as much treasure as they could load and hit the road at midnight.
As Cortés fled over the Tlacopan causeway, one of the many bridges and causeways that led in and out of the island city, the Mexica sounded the alarm and flocked to their canoes to attack the fleeing troops from the water. The Spanish troops so laden with stolen treasure they could barely move were slow-moving targets. The rearguard was slaughted; men fell off the causeway and drowned; the native allies were destroyed; the Spanish troops were reduced to paltry numbers and hardly anybody made it out of there without being wounded. Cortés himself was wounded, as was Alvarado. According to Castillo, when Alvarado reported to Cortés and the 50 or so men that had made it off the causeway onto terra firma that pretty much everyone else and their horses and artillery had been lost, “the tears ran from their eyes.”
Cortés bitter, salty tears inspired the name of this debacle, La Noche Triste (the Sad Night). It’s a critical even in the history of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, but all we know of it comes from historical accounts. Archaeological evidence of a single night is hard to come by. New analysis of a gold ingot discovered 40 years ago may not be connected conclusively to La Noche Triste, but it’s definitely in the very close neighborhood of it.
The bar was originally discovered in 1981 during a construction project some 16ft (5m) underground in downtown Mexico City – which was built on the ruins of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán – where a canal that would have been used by the fleeing Spaniards was once located.
The bar weighs about 2kg (4.4lb) and is 26.2cm (10.3in) long, 5.4cm wide and 1.4cm thick.
A fluorescent X-ray chemical analysis was able to pinpoint its creation to 1519-20, according to Inah, which coincides with the time Cortés ordered gold objects stolen from an Aztec treasury to be melted down into bars for easier transport to Europe.
The find site on Avenida Hidalgo in the center of the city is along the route Cortés was known to have taken to the Tlacopan causeway and the dimensions of the bar correspond to Castillo’s description of them as “three fingers wide.”
“The gold bar is a unique historical testimony to a transcendent moment in world history,” said archaeologist Leonardo López Luján, who leads excavations at a nearby dig where the Aztecs’ holiest shrine once stood.