Hernando Cortez and the conquistadors


The expedition, whose arrival had caused such excitement in Mexico, was commanded by Hernando Cortez, a man who united in his person all the gifts requisite for a great leader of men. He possessed a handsome person, great strength and skill at arms, extraordinary courage and daring, singular powers of conciliation and of bringing others to his way of thinking, pleasing and courteous demeanor, a careless and easy manner which concealed great sagacity and wisdom, an inexhaustible flow of spirits, and an iron determination.

Born in Estremadura in 1485, of an ancient and respectable family, he was--like many others who have distinguished themselves as great soldiers--while at school and college remarkable rather for mischievous freaks, and disregard of authority, than for love of learning. At the age of seventeen he had exhausted his parents' patience, and was on the point of starting with the expedition of Ovando, the successor to Columbus, when he so injured himself by a fall, incurred in one of his wild escapades, that he was unable to sail with it. Two years later, however, he went out in a merchant vessel to the Indies.

On reaching Hispaniola Ovando, who was governor of the island, received him kindly, and gave him a grant of land and a number of Indians to till it. The quiet life of the planter, however, little suited the restless young fellow; and after taking part in several military expeditions against insurgent natives, under the command of Diego Velasquez, he sailed in 1511, with that officer, to undertake the conquest of Cuba.

He displayed great courage and activity during the campaign, and his cheerful manner and fund of high spirits made him a great favorite with the soldiers. When the fighting was over, Cortez soon became discontented with the quiet life in the island, and joined a party of men who were disaffected to Velasquez, owing to their not having received such rewards as they considered their services merited. Cortez undertook to carry their complaints to the Governor of Hispaniola, and was about starting when the matter came to the ears of Velasquez, who seized him, put him in irons, and threw him into prison. He was not long in making his escape, and sought sanctuary in a church; but a few days later, when carelessly strolling outside its walls, he was again seized and imprisoned.

He was put on board a ship to be sent to Hispaniola, there to be tried for exciting disaffection and revolt; but at night, before she set sail, he managed to free himself from his irons, gain the deck, and swim ashore, where he again took refuge in the church. Here several influential people interfered on his behalf--among them the family of Catalina Xuares, a young lady to whom he was engaged--and a reconciliation was brought about between him and the governor. Cortez received a large estate, with an ample number of Indians for its cultivation; married, and settled down, and for some years devoted himself to agriculture and gold mining.

Success attended him, and he accumulated some three thousand castalanos--a considerable sum. So he might have lived and died, had not the news of discoveries made by Grijalva--who had sailed west and discovered Yucatan, and traded with Tabasco, and had returned with a good deal of gold and wonderful tales of fabulous wealth, existing in a great nation farther to the north--caused an excitement in the islands. The governor at once prepared to fit out a large expedition, and among the many who offered to undertake its command, and to contribute largely towards its expenses, he finally selected Cortez, who had gained the ear and influence of the governor's secretary, Duero, and the royal treasurer, Lares.

Cortez was appointed captain general of the expedition, and at once set to work, with his accustomed energy, to gather material for it. He not only contributed all the fortune he had made, but raised funds by mortgaging his estates to their full value, and by borrowing money from merchants and others, on security of the wealth that was to be acquired by the expedition.

His personal popularity in the island enabled him to gather numerous recruits, and many of his intimate friends, who joined him, assisted him from their own resources or by raising money on their estates. Velasquez himself contributed comparatively little towards the expenses, which were almost entirely borne by Cortez and his friends.

Six ships were fitted out, and three hundred recruits enrolled. The instructions Cortez received were first to find Grijalva and, joining company with him, to visit Yucatan, and endeavor to rescue six Christians who were reported as still living there, the survivors of a vessel wrecked, years before, on the coast. He was to make a survey of the whole coastline, to acquaint himself with the natural productions of the country, and with the character and institutions of the native races. He was to barter with the natives, and to treat them with kindness and humanity, and to remember, above all things, that the object the emperor had most at heart was the conversion of the Indians. He was to invite them to give in their allegiance to the king, and to send such presents as would ensure his favor and protection. The governor gave no directions for colonizing or conquering, having received no warrant from Spain that would enable him to invest his agent with such powers.

But while Cortez was preparing to start, many of the leading men of the island, who were jealous of his rapid rise, roused the suspicions of Velasquez against him; saying that, when he had once sailed, he would no longer recognize the governor's authority, and would be thinking only of winning renown and wealth for himself. Velasquez determined to appoint another commander, but Duero and Lares, to whom he confided his intentions, at once informed Cortez of them. With the same promptitude that always distinguished him in moments of danger, Cortez went round to his officers after nightfall, got them and his men on board, visited the contractor, carried off all his stock of meat (giving him a massive gold chain in security for payment), and before daybreak the fleet left its moorings and the sails were hoisted.

As soon as the news was carried to Velasquez, he hurriedly dressed and rowed down to the shore. Cortez, when he saw him, got into a boat and rowed to within speaking distance.

"This is a courteous way of taking leave, indeed!" the angry governor said.

"I was pressed for time," Cortez replied. "There are some things that should be done even before they are thought of. Has your Excellency any orders?"

Velasquez saw, by the innuendo in the words of Cortez, that the latter was aware of his intention to deprive him of his command. He had no orders to give, for it was evident that Cortez would not obey them. The latter therefore returned to his vessel, and the fleet instantly set sail for the port of Macaca. This was in November, 1516.

The act of Cortez was doubtless one of insubordination; but, after he had embarked the whole of his resources in the expedition, and had received the command from the governor, this being ratified by the authorities of Hispaniola, it could hardly be expected that he would submit to disgrace and ruin being brought, not only upon himself, but upon all the friends who had aided him in the enterprise. At Macaca Cortez laid in some more stores, and then sailed for Trinidad, an important town on the southern coast of Cuba. Here he issued proclamations inviting recruits to join him. These came in in considerable numbers, among them a hundred men from Grijalva's ship, which had just before reached the port.

What was still more important, several cavaliers of high family and standing joined him: among them the Alvarados, Olid, Avila, Velasquez de Leon (a near relation of the governor), and Sandoval. He purchased at Trinidad large military stores and provisions. While he was taking these and other steps to strengthen his position, Verdugo, the commander of the town, received letters from Velasquez ordering him to seize Cortez; but upon his communicating these orders to the principal officers of the expedition, they pointed out to him that, if he attempted to take such a grave step, the soldiers and sailors would certainly resist it, and the town would not improbably be laid in ashes. The expedition then sailed round the island to Havana, where Cortez completed his preparations; and in spite of another ineffectual attempt of Velasquez to detain him, set sail.

In the time that had intervened between the inception of the expedition and its departure, the historians agree that a remarkable change had come over Cortez. He was still frank and pleasant in his manner, courteous and cheery with all; but he was no longer the gay, careless character who had been liked, but scarcely greatly respected, in the island. His whole actions were marked by an air of resolute determination and authority. He himself superintended every detail of work and exhibited a thoughtfulness, prudence, and caution that seemed alien to his former character. He was immensely popular both among his soldiers and officers, but all felt that he was entitled to their respect as well as their liking, and that he was not only commander, but thoroughly master, of the expedition.

Although extremely careless himself as to food, comfort, or appearance, he now assumed the state befitting his appointment and authority. He dressed handsomely but quietly, appointed officers and domestics for his household, and placed it on the footing of a man of high station. Before sailing he dispatched a letter to Velasquez, begging him to rely on his devotion to his interests.

On February 10th, 1519, the expedition started. It consisted of eleven vessels, only one of which was as large as a hundred tons; of a hundred and ten sailors, five hundred and fifty-three soldiers, and two hundred Indians of the islands. There were ten heavy guns and four light ones, and sixteen horses.

Before sailing, Cortez gave an address to his soldiers, and aroused their enthusiasm to the utmost. He had the advantage of obtaining the services, as chief pilot, of Alaminos, a veteran who had acted as pilot to Columbus on his last voyage, and to Grijalva in his late expedition. Soon after they started they met with a storm, and put in at the island of Cozumal; and Cortez thence sent Ordaz to Yucatan, to try to recover the captives said to be there. That officer returned without tidings, but before the fleet sailed a canoe arrived containing one of them, Aquilar, who had been wrecked there eight years previously. He had been a priest, and had so won the esteem and reverence of the barbarians among whom he lived, that they had with great reluctance allowed him to depart, in exchange for glass beads and other trinkets promised by Ordaz.

The fleet now sailed along the coast of Yucatan, until they reached the mouth of the Tabasco River, where Grijalva had carried on so profitable a trade. Leaving the ships at anchor they ascended the river in boats; but instead of meeting with the friendly reception that Grijalva had done, they found the banks lined with the natives, whose menacing attitude showed that a landing would be opposed.

After solemnly summoning them to surrender, Cortez landed. The natives fought bravely, but were unable to resist the astounding effect of the Spaniards' firearms; and the invaders, advancing, drove them back and took possession of the town, which was found to be deserted.

Two strong parties were sent out next morning to reconnoiter, but were attacked and driven back to the town. They reported that the whole country was under arms. Cortez was much vexed at finding himself thus engaged in a war, from which no benefit was to be gained; but he felt that it would impair the confidence of his troops, were he now to draw back. He therefore landed six of the guns and the horses, and the following day sallied out to the attack. Ordaz commanded the infantry, while Cortez himself led the little body of cavalry, the horses being mounted by the cavaliers of the party.

After marching a league, the infantry came in sight of the enemy. The natives attacked them as they were struggling through deeply irrigated ground, poured volleys of missiles of all kinds upon them, and wounded many before they could get across to solid ground, where they could bring the guns into play. But even these, and the discharges of musketry did not appall the natives, who pressed forward with such fury that, after the engagement had lasted an hour, the position of the Spaniards became perilous in the extreme.

But at this moment Cortez and his companions, who had been compelled to make a great detour, owing to the difficult nature of the ground, fell suddenly upon the rear of the enemy. The latter, who had never before seen horses, and who believed that horse and rider were the same animal, were seized with a sudden panic at this extraordinary apparition. The panic speedily communicated itself to the whole army, and while the cavalry trampled down and slaughtered many in the rear, the infantry charged, and the Indians fled in wild confusion.

Great numbers had fallen, whilst on the Christian side a few only were killed, and a hundred wounded. No pursuit was attempted. Cortez released the prisoners taken in battle, among whom were two chiefs, and sent them to their countrymen, with a message that he would forgive the past if they would at once come in and tender their submission; otherwise he would ride over the land, and put every living creature to the sword. The Tabascans, cowed by the dreadful thunder weapons, and by the astounding armed creatures that had fallen upon them, had no wish for further fighting, and the principal caziques soon came in with offerings to propitiate the Spaniards.

Among these were twenty female slaves--one of whom turned out a more valuable gift to the Spaniards than all the other presents, put together. Among the gifts were only a few small gold ornaments, and when asked where the metal was procured, they pointed to the northwest and said Mexico. As there was nothing to be done here, the Spaniards prepared to depart; but before doing so insisted on the people consenting to become Christians. As they had but little idea of what was required by them, and were in no mood for argument with the Spaniards, a solemn mass was held, at which the whole people became nominally Christians.

Re-embarking, the Spaniards sailed along the coast, until they reached the island of San Juan de Uloa, and anchored in the strait between it and the mainland. A canoe speedily came off from the latter, with presents of fruit and flowers, and small gold trinkets, which the natives willingly bartered with the Spaniards. Cortez was, however, unable to converse with them; for Aquilar, who had acted as interpreter with the Tabascans, was unable to understand their dialect. Presently, however, the female slaves informed him that one of their number, named Malinche, was a native of Mexico, and spoke that language as well as the tongue of the Tabascans. She was at once installed as interpreter--she informing Aquilar what the Mexicans said, and he interpreting it to Cortez. By this means he learned that the Indians were subjects of the great Mexican Empire, which was ruled over by a monarch named Montezuma, whose capital lay seventy leagues from the coast.

A strong force at once landed on the mainland, and threw up a fortified camp. The Mexicans came in, in crowds, with fruit, vegetables, flowers, and other articles, which they bartered with the Spaniards. They brought news that the Mexican governor of the province intended to visit them, the next day.

Before noon, he arrived with his numerous suite. A banquet was served to them, and then, in answer to the cazique's inquiries as to the objects of their visit, he was informed by Cortez that he was the subject of a great monarch beyond the seas, who ruled over a vast empire; and that, hearing of the greatness of the Mexican Emperor, he had sent him as an envoy, with a present in token of his goodwill, and a message which he must deliver in person. The cazique said that he would send couriers with the royal gift to Montezuma; and that, as soon as he had learned his will, he would communicate it.

He then presented ten slave loads of fine cottons, mantles of rich feather work, and a basket filled with gold ornaments to Cortez; who then handed over the presents intended for Montezuma. These consisted of a richly carved and painted armchair, a crimson cap with a gold medal, and a quantity of collars, bracelets, and other ornaments of cut glass.

Cortez observed one of the cazique's attendants busy sketching, and found that he was drawing the Spaniards, their costumes, and arms. This was the picture writing of the Aztecs, and the chief informed him that the pictures would be sent to Montezuma. In order to impress the monarch, Cortez ordered the cavalry to maneuver, and the cannon to be fired; and these exhibitions, as well as the ships, were faithfully depicted by the artist. The chief then took his leave.

Eight days later an embassy arrived from Montezuma, with an enormous quantity of extremely valuable presents--shields, helmets, cuirasses, collars and bracelets of gold; crests of variegated feathers sprinkled with pearls and precious stones; birds and animals in excellent workmanship in gold and silver; curtains, coverings, and robes of the finest cotton of rich colors, interwoven with marvelous feather work. Among the presents were two circular plates of gold and silver, as large as cartwheels--the value of the silver wheel was estimated at five thousand pounds, that of the gold one at fifty-five thousand.

The Spaniards were astounded at this display of treasure, and delighted at the prospect it opened to them. The ambassadors, however, brought a message from the emperor, saying that he regretted much that he could not have a personal interview with them, the distance from his capital being too great, and the journey beset with difficulties and dangers; and that all that could be done, therefore, was for them to return to their own land, with the proofs thus afforded of his friendly disposition.

Cortez was much mortified by the refusal, but requested the envoys to lay before the emperor his immense desire for a personal interview with him, and that the dangers of a short land journey were as nothing to one who had accomplished so long a voyage over the sea to see him. The Mexicans repeated their assurance that his application would be unavailing, and left with some coldness of manner. The effect of their displeasure at the insistence of the Spaniards was soon manifest, the natives ceasing to bring in provisions.

While awaiting the emperor's reply, the soldiers suffered greatly from the heat and the effluvia from the neighboring marshes. Thirty died, and as the anchorage was exposed to the northern gales, Cortez decided to sail north as soon as the answer to his last application was received, and sent off two vessels to see where a safe port could be found. Ten days after the departure of the envoys they returned with a large quantity of fresh presents, but with a positive refusal on the part of the emperor to allow them to advance near the capital, and a request that, now they had obtained what they most desired, they would at once return to their own country.

Four days later the ships returned, with the news that they had found but one sheltered port, and that the country round it was well watered and favorable for a camp.

The soldiers, however, were now growing discontented. The treasure already acquired was large, the unhealthiness of the climate had alarmed them, and the proofs of the wealth and greatness of the Mexican Empire had convinced them that it needed a vastly larger force than that which Cortez had under his orders to undertake an expedition against it; for the courage showed by the Tabascans had proved conclusively that, ill armed as they were, the natives were not to be despised.

Fortunately for Cortez, five Indians made their appearance in camp one morning. Their dress and appearance were wholly different from those of the Aztecs, and they spoke a different language, but Malinche--who had been baptized, and christened Marina, by Father Olmedo, the leading priest of the expedition--found that two of them could converse in Aztec. They said that they were Totonacs, and had come from Cempoalla, their capital. They had been but recently conquered by the Aztecs, and were so oppressed by them that they were anxious to throw off their yoke, and they came to ask the wonderful strangers, of whom they had heard, to visit them.

Cortez at once saw the immense importance of the communication. Hitherto he had regarded the Mexican Empire as a great and united power, against which success with so small a force was impossible; but now that he saw it was composed of subjugated peoples, many of whom would gladly ally themselves with him against their conquerors, the enterprise wore a far more hopeful aspect. He dismissed the Indians with presents, and a promise to visit their country, shortly.

He talked the matter over with his principal friends, who were as reluctant as he was, himself, to abandon the enterprise and return to Cuba, where the governor would appropriate the largest share of the spoils they had taken. They accordingly went about among the soldiery, urging them to persuade the general to establish a permanent colony in the country. It was true that he had no authority from Velasquez to do so, but the interests of the emperor and of Spain--to say nothing of their own--were of more importance than those of the Governor of Cuba.

This talk reached the ears of the special friends and adherents of Velasquez; who, going to Cortez, remonstrated with him against such proceedings. He said that nothing was farther from his desires than to exceed his instructions, and on the following morning issued a proclamation to the troops, ordering them to prepare for embarkation. The sensation caused among the troops was great, and his partisans thronged round his tent, calling upon him to countermand his orders and form a settlement. Cortez, after due hesitation, gave in to their wishes, nominated magistrates, and proclaimed the territory a colony of Spain. As soon as the new magistrates and officers came together, Cortez came before them and tendered his resignation of his office as captain general, but was re-nominated not only captain general, but Chief Justice of the colony.

The partisans of Velasquez were most indignant at the whole proceedings, and so violent were some of the leaders that Cortez put them in irons, and sent them on board ship. Then he set to work with the soldiers, and soon brought them round; and the prisoners on board being also won over, the whole army, re-embarking, sailed up the coast until they reached the port before discovered and, landing, set out for Cempoalla.

They were delighted with the country, which was rich and fertile; and as they neared the town, the natives poured out with lively demonstrations of welcome, the women throwing garlands of flowers round the necks of the soldiers. They were greatly struck with the town, although it was but a small place in comparison with those they were afterwards to see. Cortez lost no time in sending off a vessel to Spain, with dispatches to the emperor; and his influence over the soldiers was so great that they, as well as the officers, relinquished all their shares of the treasure they had gained, in order that a worthy present should be sent home to their monarch.

In his dispatches Cortez related all that had befallen them, dilated on the prospect of annexing so rich a country to the Spanish dominions, and asked for a confirmation of his acts, and for an authorization for the magistrates of the new town, which was called Villa Rica de Vera Cruz. The ship touched at Cuba, but continued its voyage before Velasquez, who was furious at the news of the important discoveries made by Cortez, could stop it.

Scarcely had the ship sailed when Cortez discovered that a conspiracy was on foot, among the partisans of Velasquez, to seize one of the vessels and to sail away to Cuba. The conspirators were seized, two of them executed and others flogged; but the discovery that there were a number of timid spirits in the camp, who might seriously interfere with his plans, greatly annoyed Cortez, and he took the extraordinary resolution of destroying all the ships. Through some of his devoted friends he bribed the captains of the vessels to fall in with his views; and they appeared before him, and made a solemn report that the ships were worm eaten and unfit for sea. Cortez pretended great surprise, and ordered everything movable to be brought ashore, and the ships to be sunk.

Nine vessels were so destroyed, and but one small craft was left afloat. When the news reached the troops at Cempoalla, they were filled with consternation. It seemed to them that nothing but destruction awaited them, and from murmurings they broke out into mutiny.

Cortez however, as usual, speedily allayed the tumult. He pointed out that his loss was the greatest, since the ships were his property; and that the troops would in fact derive great advantage by it, since it would swell their force by a hundred men, who must otherwise have remained in charge of the vessels. He urged them to place their confidence in him, and they might rely upon it that success would attend their efforts. If there were any cowards there, they might take the remaining ship and sail to Cuba with it, and wait patiently there until the army returned, laden with the spoils of the Aztecs.

The troops at once returned to their duty, and declared their readiness to follow him, wheresoever he would. Without further delay, Cortez, taking with him a number of natives to act as carriers, set out on his march towards Mexico.

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