When Moctezuma ate, four beautiful women would appear to wash his hands before passing him a bowl of foaming chocolate
Visit the Aztec Exhibition at The British Museum [free entry when you join as a member]
Of course, it was a tragedy. Never in history has there been such a clash of civilisations. Never has there been a conflict as unfair as the fight between the Aztecs and the Spanish conquistadors, and it is hard not to see Moctezuma as the victim. What hope did he have against the Castilian aggressors, with their greed, their trickery and their superior military technology?
He stands for every glorious and primitive monarch who has ever been overwhelmed by the white man. He is like Boudicca, crushed by the legions; or Cetewayo, his impis mown down by the Maxim gun; or Sitting Bull, his braves slaughtered by the US cavalry – except Moctezuma was far more glorious and more tragic than them all.
When Moctezuma ate, four beautiful women would appear to wash his hands before passing him a bowl of foaming chocolate. When Moctezuma received visitors, they were obliged to enter barefoot and dressed in sacking, and to avert their eyes so religiously that no one was even sure what he looked like. When the king wanted to hunt, birds were discreetly ushered past his palace window, so that he could have a pop at them with his blowpipe. When Moctezuma pricked his ears with a needle, his people seriously believed that the trickle of blood would help the crops to grow.
Adorned with gold and the feathers of tropical birds, he ruled the most powerful and opulent civilisation of the Americas. He was the elected and unchallenged master of a city of 200,000, a place of ancient temples and fantastic statuary, set dreamlike on an island in a vast lake fringed by snow-capped volcanoes. So when, in 1519, he looked into his black polished obsidian mirror and saw – so it was said later – strange men riding on deer, he was completely unprepared for the shock that fate had in store.