Battle of Cempoala: Cortés & His Men Defeat Force Sent to Arrest Him

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Battle of Cempoala: Cortés & His Men Defeat Force Sent to Arrest Him

Ruins of Cempoala (also spelled Zempoala), state of Veracruz, Mexico
Illustration courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: May 24, 1520

Our subject today is a little-known battle from the early days of the exploration and conquest of the New World by the Spanish. It involves a battle of wills between Hernando Cortés – who was already in Mexico and seeking to peacefully take over the Aztec Empire – and Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, the Spanish governor of Cuba, who had given Cortés his backing but changed his mind.


After Christopher Columbus proved the existence of the Americas, the Spanish and Portuguese made a number of voyages to lay claim to the lands of the New World, as well as the gold, silver, and other products. Many Spanish adventurers sought to lead expeditions for the glory of God and Spain (with a little self-aggrandizement as well). One of these gentlemen was Hernando Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro.

[Modern historical scholars have rendered this gentleman's name as "Hernán Cortés." However, during his own lifetime, "Hernando" and "Fernando" were used interchangeably for his first name. Also, on occasion his family name was rendered "Cortéz; this is incorrect.]

Hernando Cortés (1485-1547); 19th century engraving by William Holl; From Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Hernando Cortés (1485-1547)
19th century engraving by William Holl
From Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Cortés was born in Spain in 1485, to a family of lesser nobility. He spent two years at the University of Salamanca, likely studying law and Latin for two years. The young man left school after two years then wandered southern Spain for several years, probably listening to tales from men returning from the New World. In 1504, he sailed for Hispaniola (the island which in modern times which comprises the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), where he became a colonist. Because of his legal training, Cortés was given the job of a small town notary. Later, he participated in the conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba.

Cortés became a political ally of the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. During his early association with Velázquez, Cortés was appointed the alcalde (municipal magistrate) of the city of Santiago. The two men had a falling-out several years later – perhaps because Cortés was an ambitious, prickly man.

In 1518 Cortés began to outfit an expedition to the lands of coastal South America. However, Governor Velázquez revoked his friend's commission. Undeterred, Cortés began preparations for another expedition. These plans were fulfilled in early 1519, when Cortés left the Cuban capital of Santiago, sailed westward, and landed in modern-day Mexico sometime in March.

[Prior to his departure from Cuba, Governor Velázquez again tried to stop Cortés's flotilla. The governor had sent his now-former friend an order to call off his departure. Cortés received the order, but preferred to ignore it. He had recently sent a letter directly to the King of Spain, asking that any lands he conquered in Mexico be placed under him, as a separate colony from Cuba.]

The Spanish eventually landed on the Gulf coast of Mexico, and founded the city of Veracruz as a base of operations. After receiving a number of rich and pleasing gifts from the Aztec ruler Montezuma – sent to them to entice them to go away – Cortés and his men eventually journeyed to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (modern-day Mexico City). The Spaniards took up residence in the city, holding Montezuma as their reluctant guest. This went on for about six months, during which time many of the Aztec nobility began to doubt their emperor's ability to rule.

Spaniard versus Spaniard

In mid-April of 1520, Cortés received some upsetting news. A messenger returning from Veracruz reported that a fleet of 18 Spanish ships were anchored off the coast. Cortés put two and two together, and deduced that his former patron, Governor Velázquez, had gotten wind of the goings-on in Mexico. Once the governor heard reports of the Cortés expedition – and the amount of gold that was on its way to Spain – Velázquez began organizing a force to arrest Cortés and his men. This small army was commanded by the governor's friend and trusted lieutenant Pánfilo de Narváez, who had helped in the conquest of Cuba, with Cortés under him.

Pánfilo de Narváez (1470-1528); From book History of Cuba (1920) (Illustration from
Pánfilo de Narváez (1470-1528)
From book History of Cuba (1920)
(Illustration from

Narváez was a large, muscular, formidable man, with a ruddy complexion and red beard. He also had a booming voice, described by one chronicler as "very deep and hoarse as if it came from a vault."He was born to an upper class Spanish family, and was supremely confident, even haughty. His military experience made him the perfect choice to track down the rogue conquistador Cortés. The force under Narváez numbered 800 men – twice the size of Cortés's original force – including 80 harquebusiers, 120 crossbowmen, 80 horsemen, and 20 cannon. This host sailed from Santiago de Cuba on March 5, 1520. It arrived off the coast of Veracruz on about April 20.

Spies for the Aztec emperor Montezuma brought him nearly immediate information about these new arrivals. Since Cortés and his men had arrived in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec leader had tried to convince them to leave his country. [Whether this was from a fear of the "wrath of the gods" or that these technologically advance Spaniards would usurp his throne is open to question.] Cortés had used the excuse that he had either burnt or sent away all of his ships. With the arrival of Narváez's flotilla, said Montezuma, the Spanish no longer had an excuse to stay. Montezuma had also sent several messages to Narváez, discussing a possible alliance to rid the Aztecs of the rapacious, gold-hungry Cortés and his men.

Cortés, however, quickly deduced Narváez's true intentions. He berated Montezuma for not telling him of the arrival of the fleet from Cuba. Meeting with his subordinates, Cortés began to make preparations to meet this new threat to his expedition. Even though he knew his army was badly outnumbered, Cortés decided he had to strike fast and hard.

While he was making preparations, some interesting "mail" came from the settlement of Veracruz. Narváez decided, rather than try to storm and capture Veracruz, he would send three of his men to inform the Spanish inhabitants that they came to arrest the traitorous Cortés. As they were reading the documents, Cortés's commander grew angry and had the three men captured with nets. The three men were then carried by native porters the nearly 300 miles over mountains through steaming jungles and other rough terrain to Cortés in Tenochtitlán.

Spanish conquistadores (l to r) swordsman, harquebusier, pikeman, c. 1520 (Illustration courtesy of
Spanish conquistadores (l to r) swordsman, harquebusier, pikeman, c. 1520
(Illustration courtesy of

Cortés received advance word of the arrival of the three Narváez captives, and rode out to meet them a few miles outside Tenochtitlán. After releasing them from their nets, he mounted them on extra horses and accompanied them into the Aztec capital, treating them with great respect. The sight of the huge city – and of the fabulous wealth of gold, silver, and jewels which Cortés had taken – quickly persuaded the three to join the side of the Cortés expedition. The wily Spanish conquistador gave the three men some gold to distribute among Narváez's lieutenants, and then released them to return to Narváez.

Prelude to the Battle

Although he knew it was dangerous, Cortés divided his small command. He left 120 men under the command of Pedro de Alvarado, taking the remainder of his expedition – numbering about 80 men – and some Tlaxcalan Indian allies to surprise Narváez and his men. They left the Aztec capital in mid-May, marching to the nearby city of Cholula, where they met 250 of their companions who had been scouting the countryside for treasure caches and gold mines. Continuing their march, they were met at Tlaxcala by 60 soldiers from Veracruz, bringing the total of Cortés's force to nearly 400. Cortés kept a flurry of communications going to Narváez. He also directed a series of forced marches, giving his men just enough rest to sustain.

By this time, Cortés learned the Narváez expeditionary force had moved down the coast and taken up quarters in Cempoala. This town was the largest Indian city nearest Veracruz. The town's chieftain considered himself an ally of Cortés. At one point, Narváez received a letter from Cortés, stating that if his former comrade-in-arms could produce a royal commission, Cortés would place himself and his men under Narváez's command. However, knowing that his commission was from the governor of Cuba and not King Charles V of Spain, Narváez's mood only got fouler by the minute.

At one point the chief of Cempoala approached Narváez and said quite bluntly, "I tell you that when you least expect it, [Cortés] will be here and will kill you." Narváez promptly flew into a rage, condemning Cortés and anyone under his command. He even offered 2000 pesos to the men who would personally kill Cortés. As Narváez's volcanic outburst continued, several representatives of Cortés passed among the newcomers and spread gold around. With this stratagem, Cortés siphoned off at least one-fifth of the strength of the newly-arrived Spaniards and brought them to his side.

Map of Cortés's route from the Gulf coast to Tenochtitlán; Cortés's strike force in May 1520 reversed the march from west to east; Image is a scan from Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, NY, Henry Holt & Company, 1926; Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia
Map of Cortés's route from the Gulf coast to Tenochtitlán
Cortés's strike force in May 1520 reversed the march from west to east
Image is a scan from Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, NY, Henry Holt & Company, 1926
Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia

Battle of Cempoala

Narváez received scouting reports that Cortés and his strike force was on the way to Cempoala. The haughty Spaniard brought all his cavalry and most of his soldiers out of Cempoala, and lined them up on a large field about a mile west of the city, expecting the rogue conquistadore and his men to arrive at any moment. However, a severe rainstorm broke, forcing them to stand in squelching muck and drenching the Spaniards to the bone, even through their armor. As night fell, Narváez ordered his men back to town to dry out and sleep. He left two sentries at the field to report if the enemy approached.

Meanwhile, Cortés and his men were crossing a swollen river near the town. To bolster his men's morale, Cortés gave a short speech, reminding his men that they had won every battle to date, and Narváez's men were soft and inexperienced. He ended his orations with these words: "It is better to die worthily than to live dishonored." After crossing the river, the men marched through the night in the pouring rain, which also covered the sound of their approach.

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning of May 24, the strike force came to the field where Narváez's men had lined up for battle hours before, and surprised the two sentries. One of the men escaped and hot-footed it back to Cempoala. The captured soldier was persuaded (with a noose around his neck) to give Cortés information about Narváez's dispositions. Knowing that the alarm would shortly be raised, Cortés ordered his men to quicken their pace.

The plan Cortés drew up was precise. He knew the exact dispositions of Narváez's defense, artillery dispositions, and troop billets. Narváez himself had made his quarters in the town's main pyramid-temple. Cortés assigned 60 men to seize or disable the enemy artillery; 80 hand-picked men were given the task of capturing Narváez – or killing him if he resisted. Another 60 men were assigned the job of disabling the still-saddled horses, cutting their saddle girths. Cortés then divided the remaining men into two companies, each command roving the town to be employed when and where most needed.

The escaped sentry flew up the steps of the town's central pyramid, and vigorously shook Narváez awake. The Spanish captain only slowly came to consciousness, taking several precious moments to be roused. When the sentry convinced his leader of the danger, Narváez took several minutes to get his clothes and armor on. Very soon, however, Cortés's men were infiltrating the city, and the 80-man "hit squad" was clambering up the pyramid.

16th century falconet cannon; Similar to those used by Spanish in the Americas (Illustration courtesy of
16th century falconet cannon
Similar to those used by Spanish in the Americas
(Illustration courtesy of

Quickly Cortés's men engaged the 30 or so soldiers guarding Narváez. There was an added confusion factor, as the commotion had stirred hundreds of fireflies. This caused them to fly and flicker, adding an odd lightning to the darkness – as one chronicler said – like "the burning matches of arquebuses." Desultory fighting broke out around the town square, as several trumpets finally spread the alarm. As Narváez's horsemen sought to clamber onto their mounts, they promptly fell off, into the viscous muck. When the artillerymen tried to fire their cannon, they found wax was poured into the muzzles and touchholes, rendered them useless.

Fully awake, armed and armored, Pánfilo de Narváez emerged from his quarters, wielding a large two-handed broadsword. He swung it about him, wounding several of the enemy in his rage. However, a Cortés pikeman achieved a rather gruesome hit on the enemy commander. In the heat of the battle, a bloodcurdling cry was heard, "Holy Mary protect me, they have killed me and destroyed my eye!" With blood pouring from his eye socket down his face, Narváez was called upon to surrender; instead, he broke away and retreated back into his quarters. The thatch on the roof of the temple was fired, and shortly afterwards collapsed. Soon, Narváez crawled out of the flaming wreckage, his feet scorched and blistered. Ignoring his pleas for assistance, he was dragged away and clapped in leg irons. For all intents and purposes, the battle of Cempoala was over.


The first pitched battle between Spanish forces in the Americas was over by sunrise, after lasting something less than an hour. Cortés lost two men in the fighting, with a few others receiving light wounds. Fifteen of Narváez's men fell during the attack, with dozens others receiving light or serious wounds. Slightly after sunrise, Cortés called all the Spanish together. Using his considerable oratory skills, he convinced the rest of Narváez's soldiers to join his army. This expanded his command to nearly 1300 men.

Footnote #1: Despite the vast expansion of his forces, it would take Cortés another 15 months to fully conquer the Aztec Empire, and be able to send the riches of the Americas back to Spain.

Footnote #2: Pánfilo de Narváez would spend the next three years imprisoned in Veracruz. After returning to Cuba, in 1528 he would be appointed leader of an expedition to explore and colonize Florida. The expedition was shipwrecked, and only he and three others survived. Then, somewhere off the coast of Florida, he probably drowned or succumbed to disease.

Footnote #3: After winning the battle of Cempoala, Cortés received word that Pedro de Alvarado, his lieutenant left in charge in Tenochtitlán, had allowed matters to get badly out of hand. The Aztec inhabitants were in revolt, the small band of Spanish and Tlaxcalans in the city were under siege, and Montezuma was dead. Cortés did not realize that his troubles – far from being over with the defeat of Narváez – were only just beginning…

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