That palace in the sun

I love BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, and this week’s show is one of its best. It’s called “The Siege of Tenochtitlan.”

In 1521 the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes led an army of Spanish and native forces against the city of Tenochtitlan, the spectacular island capital of the Aztec civilisation. At first Cortes had been welcomed by the Aztec leader, Moctezuma, and he and his men were treated like kings. But their friendship proved short-lived, and soon celebrations turned into vicious fighting.

After a prolonged siege and fierce battle, in which many thousands died, the city finally fell. This major confrontation between Old and New Worlds precipitated the downfall of the Aztec Empire, and marked a new phase in European colonisation of the Americas.

The host, Melvin Bragg, was good; the guests were good. I listened to it on my bike ride home from work and didn’t even think about the cold and rain I was riding through until the show ended a few blocks from my house.

My history classes treated the Spanish conquest of the New World as little more than a prelude to the English colonization. A few names, a few dates, and then on to Jamestown. Cortez’s defeat of Montezuma—those were the spellings I learned—was mentioned, of course, but I had no idea that the Aztecs had built a great city on an island in a giant complex of connected lakes where Mexico City now stands.1 Nor did I know that part of Cortez’s victory came through naval battles on that lake.

Maybe your history classes were better than mine, and you already know this stuff. Even so, I’ll bet you’d enjoy the show.

Neil Young’s understanding of the history of this period is a little shaky,2 too, but we forgive him.

  1. Missing from the show is the explanation for why the lakes aren’t there anymore: the Spaniards drained and filled them

  2. Yes, that was an intentional word choice