Who killed Moctezuma II? Intrigue and subversion at the British Museum…

One of the University of Glasgow Library’s most impressive and unusual treasures is currently on loan at the British Museum.  The Historia de Tlaxcala, also know as the Codex Tlaxcala, is central to the museum’s fascinating new exhibition, Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, running until the 24th of January 2010. 

The codex provides a descriptive history of the small city-state of Tlaxcala, which bordered the Aztec empire.  The Aztecs, or the Mexicas, as more correctly they should be known, were the preeminent military power in early 16th century Mesoamerica with an empire stretching from the Pacific to the Gulf Coast. The Tlaxcalans – no fans of their bullying and expansionist neighbours – were happy to ally themselves with the Spanish in their 1519 conquest and were instrumental in helping secure victory.
The codex, compiled over half a century after the conquest, was presented to the Spanish King, Philip II, in 1585.  It consists of a persuasive text and a parallel pictographic narrative detailing the Spanish-Tlaxcalan triumph, conceived and created by the Tlaxcalan delegation to curry favour with the Spanish Crown in order to win preferential treatment for the town.

The Mexica ruler, Moctezuma II, died shortly after the Spanish conquest in controversial and contested circumstances. Interestingly, the Tlaxcala codex potentially sheds some light on his untimely demise. Traditional Spanish accounts attribute the death to his angry and disillusioned subjects throwing stones.  However, the codex scribe depicts Moctezuma on the roof of his palace placating his warriors and ordering their retreat as two Spaniards approach him from behind, one with a chain raised threateningly in hand. 

So were the Spanish responsible for killing Moctezuma II? Well, they may have been – indeed, some other accounts also point to their involvement – but why, one might ask, would a Tlaxcalan account, conceived to cosy-up to the Spanish, make such a subversive claim? Perhaps, speculate the exhibition curators, because a pro-Mexica scribe had been employed to duplicate the image from a master copy, and in so doing, altered it to sabotage their old enemy the Tlaxcalans’ project!

To learn more about this interesting manuscript, read our Book of the Month article on it.

Categories: Special Collections

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