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Cuauhtemoc (ca. 1496-1525) was the last of the Aztec rulers and a heroic defender of his empire against the Spanish conquistadors. Cuauhtemoc is revered by many Mexicans as the symbol of the Indians and as the representative of Mexican nationality.

Cuauhtemoc was born in Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City), capital of the Aztec empire, the son of the Aztec emperor Ahuitzótl and the princess Tlilalcapatl. When he was 15, he entered the calmecac, or school for the nobility, devoted primarily to the study of religion, science, and art. Then he participated in a number of military expeditions to bring neighboring peoples under Aztec rule. Because of his military exploits he was appointed techutli, a term indicating an upper military and administrative position. In 1515 he was also appointed lordship of the region of Tlaltelolco.

In 1519 the Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortés, began the conquest of Mexico. Cortés captured the Aztec emperor Montezuma and ruled the empire from behind the throne. In 1520, however, the Indians under the leadership of Cuauhtemoc's uncle Cuitlahuac, who had succeeded Montezuma as Aztec emperor, rebelled and expelled the Spaniards. Cortés regrouped his men and prepared to recapture Tenochtitlán.

By this time Cuitlahuac had died, and Cuauhtemoc had inherited the throne. Cortés now faced a determined and courageous Indian leader. In May 1521 the Spaniards began the siege of the city. The Aztecs fought valiantly, but the water supply dwindled when the Spaniards cut the aqueduct, and by August, with most of the city in ruins, the Aztec defense finally collapsed. Cuauhtemoc attempted to escape but was captured by Cortés's men. Cuauhtemoc asked to be killed, but Cortés refused, taking him to his headquarters in Coyoacán and keeping him under house arrest.

Cuauhtemoc remained in captivity for a long time. On one occasion he was subjected to brutal torture because the Spaniards, believing that he knew where Aztec treasures were hidden, decided to force Cuauhtemoc to reveal the locations of the gold. Cuauhtemoc endured the suffering and revealed no secrets.

During his captivity Cuauhtemoc accompanied Cortés on several expeditions, including one to Honduras in October 1524. For months Spaniards and Indians traveled through Central America, and many of Cortés's Indian allies died of starvation. Cortés became convinced by his men that Cuauhtemoc was urging Indians to rebel. Although Cuauhtemoc protested that he was innocent, Cortés insisted that he and several other Indian leaders must die. Cuauhtemoc was hanged near the town of Itzancanal on Feb. 26, 1525.

Further Reading

There is much written on Cuauhtemoc but mostly in Spanish. In English, Cora Walker, Cuatemo: Last of the Aztec Emperors (1934), is of dubious value. Some information on Cuauhtemoc as well as on the Aztecs in general is in J. Eric Thompson, Mexico before Cortez: An Account of the Daily Life, Religion, and Ritual of the Aztecs and Kindred Peoples (1933); George C. Vaillant, Aztecs of Mexico: Origin, Rise, and Fall of the Aztec Nation (1941; rev. ed. 1962); and Eric R. Wolf, Sons of the Shaking Earth (1959). □