Around AD 1200, the first settlers in the valleys of modern Morelos developed a highly productive agricultural society based at Cuauhnáhuac (‘Place at the Edge of the Forest’). Later, the dominant Mexica (Aztecs) called them ‘Tlahuica, ’ which means ‘people who work the land.’ In 1379 a Mexica warlord conquered Cuauhnáhuac, subdued the Tlahuica and exacted an annual tribute that included 16, 000 pieces of amate (bark paper) and 20, 000 bushels of corn. The tributes payable by the subject states were set out in a register the Spanish later called the Códice Mendocino, in which Cuauhnáhuac was represented by a three-branch tree; this symbol now graces Cuernavaca’s coat of arms.
The Mexican lord’s successor married the daughter of the Cuauhnáhuac leader, and from this marriage was born Moctezuma I Ilhuicamina, the 15th-century Aztec king, a predecessor to Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin encountered by Cortés. Under the Aztecs, the Tlahuica traded extensively and prospered. Their city was a learning and religious center, and archaeological remains suggest they had a considerable knowledge of astronomy.
When the Spanish arrived, the Tlahuica were fiercely loyal to the Aztecs. In April 1521 they were finally overcome, and Cortés torched the city. Soon the city became known as Cuernavaca, a more Spanish-friendly version of its original appellation.
In 1529, Cortés received his somewhat belated reward from the Spanish crown when he was named Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, with an estate that covered 22 towns, including Cuernavaca, and 23, 000 indigenous Mexicans. After he introduced sugar cane and new farming methods, Cuernavaca became a Spanish agricultural center, as it had been for the Aztecs. Cortés’ descendants dominated the area for nearly 300 years.
With its salubrious climate, rural surroundings and colonial elite, Cuernavaca became a refuge for the rich and powerful, including José de la Borda, the 18th-century Taxco silver magnate. Borda’s lavish home was later a retreat for Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota. Cuernavaca also attracted many artists and achieved literary fame as the setting for Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel, Under the Volcano.