The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes ordered the brutal torture of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtemoc. Cortes burned Cuauhtemoc's hands and feet, hoping the torture would force the emperor to reveal secret stashes of gold. There were no secret stashes of gold, and Cortes hanged Cuauhtemoc three years after capturing him.

Photograph by Russell Hastings Millward, National Geographic 

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  • On February 28, 1525, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes ordered the execution of Cuauhtemoc, the last independent Aztec emperor
    Cuauhtemoc and Cortes had engaged in a series of fierce battles five years earlier. Cortes and an alliance of Tlaxcala and other anti-Aztec groups assaulted the Aztec capital, the island-city of Tenochtitlan. The Spanish group cut off supplies to Tenochtitlan, and rotting bodies (killed either in battle or by disease such as smallpox) contaminated the city’s water supply. The city fell, and Cuauhtemoc fled and ultimately surrendered.
    Convinced Cuauhtemoc was hiding secret hoards of gold, Cortes imprisoned and tortured the former emperor for three years. When Cortes led an expedition to what is today Honduras, he took Cuauhtemoc with him, where the former emperor was hanged.
    Cortes and other Spanish conquistadors established a series of colonial rulers, but today, Cuauhtemoc is remembered as a symbol of indigenous pride and pre-Columbian civilization in Mexico. Cuauhtemoc is a popular boy’s name, and a statue of the last Aztec emperor stands in the Zocalo, the central plaza of Mexico City—what was once Tenochtitlan.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    alliance Noun

    people or groups united for a specific purpose.

    assault Noun

    violent attack.

    Aztec Noun

    people and culture native to Mexico and Central America.

    Aztec Empire Noun

    (1325-1521) area of land in Mesoamerica conquered and ruled by the Aztecs. Also called the Aztec Triple Alliance.

    capital Noun

    city where a region's government is located.

    Encyclopedic Entry: capital
    city Noun

    large settlement with a high population density.

    civilization Noun

    complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Key Components of Civilization
    conquistador Noun

    Spanish explorer or conqueror of Latin America in the 16th century.

    contaminate Verb

    to poison or make hazardous.

    convince Verb

    to persuade or succeed in encouraging someone to believe completely.

    emperor Noun

    ruler of an empire.

    engage Verb

    to interact with.

    establish Verb

    to form or officially organize.

    expedition Noun

    journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.

    hoard Noun

    hidden supply or treasure.

    imprison Verb

    to confine or put in a jail-like facility.

    independent Adjective

    free from influence, threat, or support.

    indigenous Adjective

    characteristic to or of a specific place.

    Encyclopedic Entry: indigenous
    pre-Columbian Adjective

    having to do with the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

    smallpox Noun

    very contagious, often fatal disease wiped out with vaccination programs.

    surrender Verb

    to give up.

    symbol Noun

    something used to represent something else.

    torture Noun

    inflicting pain to force a victim to provide information.