Montezuma's Hoard

Moctezuma (c. 1466 or c. 1480 – June 1520), also known by a number of variant spellings including Montezuma, Moteuczoma, Motecuhzoma and referred to in full by early Nahuatl texts as Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin and similar, was the ninth tlatoani or ruler of Tenochtitlan, reigning from 1502 to 1520. It was during Moctezuma's reign that the episode known as the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire began. The portrayal of Moctezuma in history has mostly been coloured by his role as ruler of a defeated nation, and many sources describe him as weak-willed and indecisive. The biases of some historical sources make it difficult to understand his actions during the Spanish invasion. During his reign the Aztec Empire reached its maximal size. The 16th-century Spanish conquest of the New World was driven by greed for treasure. The conquistadors won incredibly vast wealth from the subjugated and destroyed peoples of South and Central America, yet it was not wealth beyond their wildest imagination. Their lust for gold was unquenchable, clouding their minds with a siren call that could not be silenced. In South America the greedy conquistadors convinced themselves of the reality of El Dorado In Mexico they were fixated on the idea that the Aztecs had somehow hidden a great store of treasure. The legend of Montezuma’s hoard was born.

The most common form of this legend is that in 1520 the Aztec emperor Montezuma II gathered the bulk of his treasure and sent it northwards to keep it out of the hands of the invading Spaniards. It was secreted or buried in a cave or some other spot, where it still rests to this day, waiting for a lucky or intrepid treasure hunter to stumble across what would probably be the greatest trove of all time. Most of this tale is probably wrong. To begin with, Montezuma’s actual name was Moctezuma (or even more properly, but prohibitively unpronounceable, Motecuhzoma), meaning ‘he who makes himself ruler by his rage’ in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. ‘Montezuma’ was a Spanish adaptation. Secondly, there is considerable confusion about what was hidden/lost, and where. There seem to be several different versions of the story, and in most of them the hoard is not Moctezuma’s at all.

Moctezuma II had been the ruler, or tlatoani, of the Aztecs for 17 years when he received the first reports of strange foreigners penetrating his territory in 1519. For a variety of reasons, from a slew of omens to coincidences with Aztec myth, he identified Hernán Cortés, leader of the Spanish force, with the god Quetzlcoatl. This god, a hero of the Aztecs, said to have journeyed into the east in prehistoric times, was prophesied to return one day and claim his rightful possessions, including the vast wealth in tribute, holy artifacts, temple ornaments and the like, which the Aztecs had accumulated through conquest and labour. According to Spanish accounts of the conquest, Moctezuma welcomed Cortés to the capital at Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), made obeisance to him, showered him with tribute and offered to turn over all the Aztec wealth to him.

In the Florentine Codex, one of the most important sources of information for the history of the conquest, compiled by Spanish monk Bernardino de Sahagún using Aztec sources, it is recorded that the Aztec ruler told Cortés, ‘My lord … to the land you have arrived. You have come to your city … here you have come to sit on your place, on your throne. Oh, it has been reserved to you by a small time, it was conserved by those who had gone, your substitutes … Come to the land, come and rest: take possession of your royal houses …’ If this account is accurate it seems unlikely that at the same time Moctezuma would be sending the bulk of his treasury to safety in the mountains to the north. Except that we also know that, while the Aztec ruler did indeed equate Cortés with Quetzlcoatl, he was nevertheless none too keen on receiving a visit and tried to deflect the Spaniards from approaching the capital. He sent gifts, ambassadors and more gifts, but only succeeded in inflaming the conquistadors’ greed. Perhaps his honeyed words to Cortés were a ruse to buy time and protect the treasure – later on the Spaniards certainly suspected the Aztecs of just this sort of dissemblance.

Soon after the Spanish force arrived in Tenochtitlán, Cortés began to throw his weight around, making Moctezuma a prisoner, installing Christian accoutrements in the temples and issuing constant demands for treasure. The mood amongst the Aztecs soured and things turned increasingly ugly. Cortés was forced to leave the capital to head off a Spanish force at the coast who had been sent to arrest him by a rival would-be conquistador.While he was away his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado had hundreds – possibly even a thousand – Aztec nobles massacred, triggering a revolt. Cortés arrived back just in time to get caught up in it.

As the days wore on, the situation for the Spanish – holed up in Moctezuma’s palace and surrounded by hundreds of thousands of angry Aztecs – grew increasingly desperate. Tenochtitlán was a city built on the swampy Lake Texcoco. A number of islands were connected by causeways and bridges, most of which had been destroyed by the besieging mob. The Spanish were running low on food and their water supply had also been cut.

Moctezuma imprisoned by Cortés

On 1 July 1520,Moctezuma was sent out to calm the people but was pelted with rocks and suffered an injury. The Spanish claim he died of this injury, but most historians suspect that Cortés simply realised he was no longer useful and had him murdered. News of his death inflamed the Aztecs further and the Spanish decided to make a break for it that night. Loading themselves up with as much of their loot as they could carry, the conquistadors tried to slip out along one of the causeways, but were spotted. Canoes full of hostile Native Americans closed in on all sides. The fighting was fierce and the desperate Spanish tried to press forward. Many threw their loot into the water to lighten their loads, or were pushed, dragged or fell in and sank like stones thanks to the gold they were carrying. As many as a thousand Spanish died (alongside many more Native Americans) in what is now known as the Noche Triste (the Night of Sorrow).

According to some sources, Montezuma’s hoard is actually the treasure that the Spanish lost in Lake Texcoco. Through their constant demands for tribute and treasure, the greedy conquistadors had amassed great quantities of gems and gold. Although much of the gold was probably in the form of Aztec artefacts, the Spaniards had it melted down and made into wedge-shaped bars of gold bullion. How much of these gems and bullion ended up on the lake bed alongside the bodies of thousands of Spaniards and Native Americans is unknown, but there seems little chance of recovering it. After the conquest Cortés had the lake drained, and present-day Mexico City, possibly the largest city in the world, now sits atop it. Supposedly attempts have been made in the past to search the former lakebed for treasure, and people living in the area still dream of finding it. According to an article in México desconocido, in March 1981, workers digging the foundations of the Bank of Mexico found a golden disk of Aztec craftsmanship, which was explicitly described as ‘the first discovery of Moctezuma’s treasure’. But beyond the discovery of single artefacts such as this there is no sign of the greater mass of treasure.

A final theory about the fate of the supposed Aztec hoard is that it is actually loot that the Spanish did amass, but which they subsequently lost in transit, while attempting to ship it back to Spain. Transatlantic shipping was a hazardous business and the Caribbean is hurricane territory, so wrecks were common. However, it seems clear from the various accounts that Cortés did not believe that he had recovered the full Aztec hoard, so this interpretation of Montezuma’s hoard would not be the traditional one. Even more contentiously, the hoard may already have been recovered 30 years ago only to be lost – or stolen – again.

In August 1976, gold objects were recovered from the sea floor off the Mexican coast at Río Medio, near the city of Veracruz. Eventually a remarkable haul was brought up, consisting of several gold Aztec artefacts, many ingots of gold, probably created by Spanish conquistadors melting down their loot, and many pieces of jewellery. The find was explicitly linked with the lost treasure of Moctezuma. Theories advanced to explain the find include the possibility that it was loot collected by a Castilian adventurer and ship’s captain named Figueroa, who was known to have perished in a storm in 1528 in the Río Medio area. How the treasure got from the bed of Lake Texcoco, or wherever else it may have been hidden, into Figueroa’s ships, however, is unclear. The treasure was sent to the Bank of Mexico in Mexico City (or possibly the branch in Veracruz) for safekeeping in 1976, but was never seen again.

In 1982, six years on, enquiries by journalists came up against a brick wall. The museums and universities involved in the recovery pointed to the bank, which denied ever having received any such treasure. It has not been mentioned since. Was it somehow lost in a bank, museum or university vault, or, more likely, stolen from the state and sold off illegally to private collectors?

Many American treasure hunters choose to believe the version of the legend that has the hoard transported out of danger and secreted in the far northern extremes of the Aztec dominion. Local legends, based on little or no concrete evidence, link Montezuma’s hoard to literally dozens of locations in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and, above all, in Utah. Many landmarks in the region are named after Montezuma (eg Montezuma’s Castle in Arizona, a Sinaguan pueblo ruin). One of the most persistent rumours puts the hiding place near Kanab, in South West Utah near the Arizona border, either in a cave in the surrounding hills, or in one of the Three Lakes nearby. These two sites have given rise to some far-fetched tales of treasure hunting.

(Sources : Lost Histories : “Exploring The World’s Most Famous Mysteries” by Joel Levy; and Wikipedia)

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1 comment:

  1. Very interesting indeed. I learned a lot of history in your post.


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