IT was 500 years ago today on July 7, 1520, that the Battle of Otumba took place in what is now modern-day Mexico.

It was fought between the massive army of the Aztecs, the powerful overlords of the region, and the much smaller forces of the Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortes who was from the Kingdom of Castile.

Otumba is one of the most important and under-reported events in the history of Latin America, as it led directly to the collapse of the Aztec Empire. It is largely forgotten about, and given the current crisis with the coronavirus pandemic, the 500th anniversary is not being marked in Mexico by any great ceremony. In any case, the topic is not one of general discussion in Spain or Mexico, the latter country having last year sought an apology from Spain and the Pope for the slaughter of the native people of the area by the conquistadors. No direct apology was forthcoming.


TENOCHTITLAN, the capital of the Aztec Empire, was at the centre of the region controlled from the city. As many as 500 small states were under the Aztec thumb and the Empire had a population estimated by archaeologists and historians at somewhere between five and six million people.

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Against the orders of the Governor of Cuba, commander Hernan Cortes and his Castilian force sailed from the Caribbean and in 1519 he landed on the Mexican shore at a place he named Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico, the first Spanish town in what is now Mexico.

When it became clear that they would be pursued by the forces in Cuba, Cortes burned his ships to force his army to stay and fight – they did and repelled their pursuers.

It is thought he had a small army of only 500 soldiers, but crucially they were battle-hardened, well disciplined and armed with guns, metal swords and spears as well as suits of metal armour. The Aztecs had wooden clubs and swords and spears tipped with obsidian while the Spanish had a huge advantage in that they had cavalry.

It is often thought that the conquistadors were fighting a holy war to Christianise the native people of the area, and there was undoubtedly an element of that in the conquest, but a more likely tale is that Cortes and his invaders were after the riches that undoubtedly existed.

The Aztec leader Moctezuma II, sometimes known as Montezuma, negotiated peace with Cortes, who in turn had formed vital alliances with local tribes, chiefly the Totonacs and Tlaxcalans, or Talaxcaltecs, who were anxious to free themselves from Aztec rule.

In June 1520, Moctezuma was killed, allegedly by his own people for being too close to the Spanish who had occupied part of Tenochtitlan. As they fled on what became known as the Night of Sorrows, Cortes evacuated his men and women from Tenochtitlan, but the huge Aztec army awaited them on the plains of Otumba.


BERNAL Diaz del Castillo was there and wrote an account which mentioned that the Aztecs thought it would be a walkover and were only looking to capture the Spanish to sacrifice them to their gods.

The Aztec leader Matlatzincatl made a fateful decision to postpone the initial charge of his army which allowed the Spanish and their allies to form up a battle array. Cortes then inspired his men with speeches, ignoring the fact that there were at least 20 times more Aztecs in front of them.

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The Castilian cavalry was the key to the battle. The Aztecs had never faced mounted horses in battle and panicked. Then Cortes and his hand-picked veterans saw the Aztec leader Matlatzincatl and charged their way through the melee to surround and kill him, at which point the Aztec forces fled.

“Our only security, apart from God,” Cortes wrote later, “is our horses.” The Castilians and their Tlaxcalan allies made it to safety, then regrouped and captured Tenochtitlan, the modern day Mexico City.

With that victory, Spain was able to impose its rule on what became the nation of Mexico and also reach the Pacific Ocean overland – just as Christopher Columbus had predicted.


HAD the Aztecs won the battle and been able to complete the annihilation of Cortes and his men as they intended, there would not have been a Spaniard left alive in Mexico. The Aztecs would have been able to re-impose their overlordship of the tribes across the whole area of Mexico and would undoubtedly have had even larger armies as they prepared to face the Spanish, who in turn would not have been able to count on their local allies.

The loss of Cortes alone would have been a huge blow to the Castilian forces as he was recognised as the best commander in the field against the Aztecs, and had forged alliances that paid huge dividends for the conquistadors.

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Though the Spanish would have attacked again, it would have taken many years for an invasion force to be prepared by which time the Aztecs might well have been able to improve their weaponry and tactics enough to prevent their conquest. Latin America might well have ended up as Azteca America.


AS already stated, even 500 years on, the conquistadors are a matter of dispute between Spain and several countries in Latin America.

There is, however, a recently made television series, Hernan, which is currently being shown in Spanish-speaking countries and is going worldwide soon.

It does not spare the conquistadors.