James W. (James William) Buel.

Library of American history (Volume 1) online

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anticipated for nearly a week began. The enemy is esti-
mated to have numbered 40,000 warriors, armed with arrows,
slings, stones and javelins, against which there were to con-
tend less than 600 Spaniards, whose lack of number was
more than compensated by their superior weapons and
their religious fanaticism, Cortez having been careful to
arouse their fervor by declaring that God would fight their
battles for them, and that they were but instruments in His
hands to extend Christianity in the New World. The
natives were first to attack with a volley that wounded
seventy Spaniards, but only one was killed. But the charge
was heroically met by the invaders, who opened a fire with
muskets and cannons that tore great gaps in the ranks of
the Indians, and was followed by a slaughter that has few
parallels in the history of Mexico. Cortez, at the head of
his small force of cavalry, had made a detour, and arrived
unperceived in the rear of the natives, whom he charged
with such impetuosity that many were trampled beneath
the hoofs of his horses and hundreds were cut down by the
broad-swords of his men. But the slaughter and dismay
caused by the charge were nothing to the terror inspired by
the sight of the horses, which the natives had never before
seen. They believed that horse and rider was some strange
creature, half man, half beast, that devoured as well as
killed, before which nothing mortal could stand.

The slaughter had now been so great that 30,000 of the
natives lay dead upon the field, while but two of the
Spaniards had been killed outright, and scarcely more than
a hundred wounded. Terror-stricken and beaten, a panic


now seized the Indians, and a dreadful rout ensued, in
which many more were slain. Upon this blood-stained
field Cortez now reassembled his army, and setting up his
baimer and erecting the cross, prepared to celebrate mass
in a manner as imposing as the scene immediately before
had been awful ; the wounds of the Spaniards were then
dressed with fat stripped from Indians that had been killed,
and night coming on, peace again brooded over that terri-
ble field.

The power of the natives about Yucatan having been
completely broken, they were ready to sue for peace upon
any terms, and accepted the conditions which Cortez im-
posed. They renounced their own religion, embraced
Catholicism, destroyed their idols, and accepting the priests
that were offered them, were confirmed in the holy religion
from which they have not since departed. Before leaving
Yucatan, Cortez was presented with twenty Indian girls
whom he distributed as wives among his captains, retaining
for himself the most beautiful one, whose name was Marina.
Polygamy was the custom of the country, so that this
young woman believed her relations to Cortez to be legiti-
mate, and by her devotion and loyalty soon won his love.
She was the daughter of a powerful Mexican cacique, but
her father having died, her mother married again, whose
affections were estranged from the daughter by the influ-
ence of a son by her second husband, so that the beautiful
Marina was finally driven from home, and became a slave
to a merchant of the country. Thus she acquired tlie lan-
guage of Yucatan, and being familiar also with the Mex-
ican tongue, proved invaluable in her services to Cortez,
not only through her devoted loyalty to him but by acting
as interpreter through a Spaniard who had some years be-
fore been driven by a storm and wrecked upon the shore of
Central America, among the natives of which country he


had lived until the landing of Cortez gave him opportunity
to escape and join the expedition.

Leaving Tabasco, Cortez continued his voyage up the
Central American coast, until he arrived before the island
of San Juan de Uloa, which is at the mouth of one of the
principal harbors of the Empire of Mexico.


CORTEZ resumed his voyage up the coast, with gay
streamers of various colors floating from the masts of his
vessels, until his squadron dropped anchor in the beautiful
harbor of Uloa, where he was directly visited by a canoe
bearing two important chiefs of the natives, acting as an
embassy from the court of the Emperor of Mexico. The
Indians were not entirely unacquainted with the Spaniards,
for they had met the expedition of Grijalva some years
before, and held a short intercourse with their visitors,
which so impressed them that when they perceived the
large squadron now lying at anchor they believed that the
strangers had come with the purpose of invading and des-
troying their peaceful homes. The emissaries, therefore,
came bearing rich presents to Cortez and to pay respectful
homage, with the hope of averting the disaster which they
believed was now impending. Cortez received them kindly,
and gained their confidence through a long interview, con-
ducted by the aid of Marina and the Spaniard as interpret-
ers. Having reassured them ot his peaceful intentions,
Cortez obtained the information that 200 miles in the in-
terior was the capital of the empire, where dwelt a monarch
named Montezuma, who was beloved by his subjects, and
whose reign extended over a vast realm. He ascertained
also that the country was divided into provinces, over each
of which a governor presided, and that the executive over
the territory at which he had landed was named Teutile,
whose residence was some twenty miles distant.


Dismissing his official visitors with some gifts, and re-
newed assurances of his peaceful intentions, Cortez landed
his entire force upon the shore, and set immediately about
constructing a fortified camp, the outer works of which was
defended by his artillery, so planted as to command the
immediate surrounding district. In this work the Spaniards
were assisted by the natives, who brought daily an abun-
dance of provisions, and in every way manifested their hos-
pitality and kindness.

After a week spent in this place, during which time the
Mexicans and Spaniards mingled freely on intimate terms,
Governor Teutile, with a numerous retinue, made a visit
to Cortez, at which demonstrations of friendship were
exchanged. The cupidity of the Spaniards, however, was
excited by the rich ornaments of silver and gold of the
most splendid workmanship which decorated the persons of
the governor and his staff, and incited them with a stronger
desire to penetrate the territory where incredible wealth
was now confidently believed might be had. At the re-
quest of Cortez, Teutile sent a communication to Mon-
tezuma, informing him of the arrival of the strangers and
their desire to visit the Mexican capital. This communica-
tion was made by picture writing, as the Mexicans made no
use of letters, which custom was peculiar to all the peoples
of North America up to the time of the settlement of the
country by the whites. Mexican painters were also em-
ployed to make pictures of the Spaniards and of the arms
which they bore, also of the fleet and the armor, horses and
general equipment of the expedition, by which means they
were enabled to convey to Montezuma a very correct idea
of the arms, character and power of the Spaniards.

On the eighth day after the transmission of the communi-
cation to the Emperor, an embassy, consisting of two nobles,
accompanied by a staff of a hundred men laden with mag-


nificciit gifts from Montezuma, presented themselves before
Cortez with the Emperor's reply. Among the many pres-
ents which they bore were articles of silver and gold,
wrought in such exquisite manner that they vastly sur-
passed the best workmanship of European artists ; and be-
sides these, a Spanish helmet, which had been sent to
Montezuma, was returned filled with nuggets of pure gold.
Accompanying the presents was the following reply to the
communication transmitted through Governor Teutile :
" Our master is happy to send these tokens of his respect
to the King of Spain. He regrets that he cannot enjoy an
interview with the Spaniards, but the distance of his capital
is too great and the perils of the journey too serious to
allow of this pleasure. The strangers are, therefore, re-
quested to return to their own homes, with these fruits of
the friendly feelings of Montezuma." This reply not only
disappointed but chagrined Cortez, who, though unwilling
to immediately offend the great emperor, insisted upon a
renewal of his request for permission to visit the Mexican
capital ; but the ambassadors assured him that another ap-
plication would be equally unavailing. However, they ac-
cepted of a few presents of shirts and ties, and departed
again on their return to Montezuma, and conveyed this
second message from the Spanish commander.

Days passed without any reply from Montezuma, and as
the natives now began to feel some uneasiness, they acted
with more reserve, and withheld the supplies of provisions
which they had before freely given. The weather, too, was
insufferably hot, and a deadly sickness was soon manifested
in the camp, from which thirty of the Spaniards died. Some
of the party were now anxious to return to Cuba, fearing to
encounter the perils which they must endure on a trip
through a country of which they knew nothing, and among
people whose number exceeded the entire population of


Spain. But Cortez was not to thus supinely abandon an
undertaking which promised both wealth and glory, and by
impassioned appeals and assurances of success he succeeded
in exciting anew the ambitions of his comrades, and it was
determined at length to push on, despite whatever might
happen, for the Mexican capital.

At the expiration of ten days, another message was re-
ceived from Montezuma, more peremptory than the first,
declaring that the Spaniards would not be permitted to
approach the capital, and begging that they would depart
from his shores, lest the friendship which he entertained
might be turned to hostility. This reply of Montezuma
inflamed Cortez with passion, which he made no effort to
conceal, and turning to his soldiers he said: " This is truly
a rich and powerful prince. His great treasures shall repay
us well for the hardships which we must encounter. If we
cannot visit his capital by invitation, we will go as soldiers
of the Cross." The ambassadors retired with expressions
of courtesy, but with manifest displeasure at the pertinacity
of the Spaniards.

On the following morning, the huts of the Mexicans
about the place where Cortez had built his fort were aban-
doned, and not one native reappeared to offer the Spaniards
food, or to exchange the kindly civilities which had before
characterized them. When provisions began to grow scarce,
there was another disaffection among the members of the
expedition, fully one-half of whom now seemed so deter-
mined to return to Cuba that Cortez apparently acquiesced,
but secretly set those who were favorable to marching to
the capital to cause a mutiny in the camp against the pro-
posed return. According to a preconcerted arrangement,
his emissaries surrounded his tent in the evening, and with
great show of force declared that, having entered upon an
enterprise of converting the country to Christianity, they


\vere determined to persevere in the effort, and that if
Cortez wished to return with the other cowards to Cuba,
they would choose another general more valorous, who
would lead them through paths of glory to the palace of
the idolaters. This ruse was completely successful, for
Cortez seized the occasion to make another patriotic ad-
dress to his followers, \vhich changed their former deter-
mination and set every one to contemplating the wealth and
glory which must follow their efforts to win the country to

Cortez now established a settlement on the coast at Uloa,
and assembled a council for the organization of the govern-
ment. Before the council thus selected, he bowed in ob-
sequious homage and, in order to obtain a commission from
the government, surrendered the authority which he had
received from Velasquez, which had indeed been long be-
fore revoked ; and in exchange was tendered a commission
from this body ostensibly representing Charles V. of Spain.
By this means he was chosen Chief Justice of the colony
and Captain General of the army, thus shaking off his de-
pendence upon Velasquez and assuming the dignity of a
governor responsible only to his sovereign.

About this time, and while preparations were being made
for the invasion, five Indians of rank came soliciting an
interview with the commander. They represented them-
selves as envoys from a chief of a province not far distant,
who reigned over a nation called Totonacs, a people who
had been conquered by Montezuma and annexed to the
Mexican Empire ; but that they suffered all manner of
severities and trials under their conqueror, and now sought
an alliance with the Spaniards with the hope that they with
their help might regain their independence. Cortez saw
that this was an opportunity that he could not afford to
waste, as here lay the means for largely augmenting his


force, and by stirring up civil war he might divide the em-
pire so as to make its subjugation more easily accompHshed.
First changing his settlement to a more desirable location
some forty miles further up the coast, Cortez set himself at
the head of his army and proceeded on a journey to a city
twelve miles in the interior, where the cacique resided.
When he had arrived within three miles of the palace of
the chief of the Totonacs, he was met by a vast concourse
of men who brought presents of gold, fruit and flowers,
and who omitted nothing in a generous exhibition of their
friendship and desire for an alliance.

The country through which the Spaniards passed was
beautiful almost beyond comparison, and the inhabitants
possessed elements of refinement which might well do
credit to the most civilized of European nations. The
town, too, was beautifully laid out and handsomely orna-
mented with shade trees, and was as clean as the most care-
fully swept floor. The chief gave a magnificent welcome
to his visitors, and exhibited such polished manners as led
Cortez to believe that he had acquired his conduct at some
magnificent court. After the first greeting, the cacique
addressed Cortez in these words : " Gracious stranger, I
cannot sufficiently commend your benevolence, and none
can stand in more need of it I You see before you a man
wearied out with unmerited wrong. I and my people are
crushed and trodden under foot by the most tyrannical power
upon earth. We were once an independent and happy peo-
ple, but the prosperity of the Totonacs is now destroyed ;
the power of our nobles is gone. We are robbed of the prod-
uce of our fields ; our sons are torn from us for sacrifices
and our daughters for slaves ; and noAV, mighty warrior, we
implore thy strength and kindness that thou wouldst enable
us to resist these tyrants, and deliver us from their exac-
tions." Promising him his assistance, Cortez rode through


the streets of the capital, and through the great court of
the temple which had been assigned for his accommodation.
At the head of his column floated gilt-bespangled banners,
followed by his cavalry of sixteen horses, animals which
the Totonacs had never before seen, and behind these came
the artillery, which, in the eyes of the natives, were super-
natural agents, dealing lightning bolts and thunder roars
at the will of the Spaniards.

On the following morning, Cortez returned to the point
selected for the settlement, and was met by another cacique,
who tendered him the service of 400 men to assist him in
removing his baggage, or to perform any other labors which
he might desire. The country was densely populated, and
Cortez was offered such aid that in a sliort while a sufficient
number of huts were erected to house all his people, and a
flourishing town was brought quickly into existence, the
first established by whites on the continent of the New

Every movement of the Spaniards had been reported to
Montezuma, who, now perceiving the intention of the
strangers, saw the necessity of doing something to prevent
their more thorough establishment in the country. Ac-
cordingly, he sent five messengers, large and imposing men,
each of whom carried a bouquet of flowers, followed by
obsequious attendants. These ambassadors visited the
settlement with authority from the Emperor to take such
action against his rebellious subjects as the exigencies of
the occasion seemed to justify. They commanded that the
Totonac chiefs appear immediately before them, which, like
terrified children, they promptly obeyed. At the conclusion
of the interview, the Totonacs in great fear appealed to
Cortez, informing him of the indignation of the Emperor
at their conduct in supporting the Spaniards, and of his
demand that, as a penalty for their actions, they immedi-


ately surrender to the five ambassadors twenty young men
and as many young women of the Totonacs, to be offered
in sacrifice to their gods. The terror inspired by this demand
may well be excused, when it is known how these sacrifices
were obtained and accomplished : At the time of Cortez'
visit, and long anterior thereto, it was a practice among the
Aztecs (which word may be used to designate all the peo-
ples occupying that territory lying between the isthmus of
Darien and the Rio Grande River) to make sacrifices of
human beings to their Sun god. These victims were gen-
erally obtained from the flower of the people, as those thus
offered up were supposed to be without blemish ; other-
wise, they would not be acceptable to the deity. The place
of sacrifice was in the temple court, upon a pyramid spe-
cially constructed for the purpose. Here the victims were
laid upon a sacrificial stone, with arms extended and bound
with iron wristlets and collar. Six priests ofiiciated upon
these occasions, one of whom plunged the copper knife into
the breast of the offering, and tearing out the heart, held
that fresh, palpitating and bleeding organ towards the sun,
at the same time reciting his orisons and devotions. The
religion of these people was essentially a bloody one,
calling so frequently for human sacrifices that it has been
estimated that no less than fifty thousand victims were re-
quired every year to placate the Aztec gods. But, in addi-
tion to these pious offerings, the Aztecs invariably tortured
their prisoners and celebrated their victories by the bloodi-
est rites, and not infrequently the bodies were served up and
eaten at sacrificial banquets with accompaniment of great

When the determination of the ambassadors dispatched
by Montezuma was described to Cortez, he assumed an air
of bitter indignation, and set earnestly about promoting an
open rupture between the Totonacs and the Mexicans. Not


only did he declare that God had commissioned him to
abolish the abominable practices of these heathens, but he
commanded the Totonac chiefs to arrest the ambassadors
and convey them immediately to prison. Having been ac-
customed to look upon Montezuma as the greatest monarch
of the earth, whose power none might successfully resist,
the Totonac chiefs were horrified at the order given them
by Cortez. But reflecting again upon the surrender of their
young men and women to be sacrificed for their own rebel-
lious acts, and feeling themselves now between two fires,
they accepted the last alternative and, with many misgiv-
ings, they hurried the ambassadors away to prison. This
was an act of open rebellion, which they realized was un-
pardonable, and henceforth they were to be the slaves of
Cortez, to whose strong arm they could alone look for pro-
tection. With a perfidy which the most depraved of human
wretches would scarcely manifest, on the following night
Cortez secretly released two of the ambassadors, and with
specious words of friendship sent them back to Monte-
zuma, with a promise to set the others at liberty at the
earliest possible moment. The next morning, the other
three were also set free and were given some presents to
convey to Montezuma, and bidden specially to report the
outrage (as he characterized it) Avhich had been committed
upon them by the Totonacs. Thus, while pretending to be
the friend of each, Cortez succeeded in his design of setting
one part of the empire against the other, and fomenting a
rebellion of which he was to be the chief beneficiary.

The settlement which Cortez had thus established he
named Villi Rica de la Vera Cruz, which interpreted means
The Rich City of the True Cross. Its location was a few
miles above where the present city of Vera Cruz stands.
Here he remained for some time, and until he received an-
other message from the court of Montezuma, which was


couched in very different language from that which had
previously been transmitted. The Mexican Emperor, be-
ing deceived by the specious pretensions of Cortez, and
alarmed as well by the appalling power which he manifested
and which the Emperor believed must be supernatural,
adopted a conciliatory policy, and even invited Cortez and
his soldiers now to visit his capital. The peaceful relations
which had thus been suddenly established between Cortez
and Montezuma were kept secret from the Totonacs as far
as possible, and, appreciating their position towards the
Emperor, they omitted no opportunity to show their faith
and reliance in the strangers with whom they had thus
formed an alliance, and to strengthen this bond the cacique
made an offering to Cortez of eight of the most beautiful
maidens that he was able to find in the country, and in urg-
ing the acceptance of this singular gift begged that they be
joined in marriage to his oflficers. This proposition Cortez
turned to his advantage by a show of gracious condescension
and a promise to receive them upon the condition that these
maidens would renounce their idolatry and be baptized into
the holy Catholic Church, which the Totonacs agreed to,
and thus were the first converts to Christianity made among
the people of Mexico.

Having thus succeeded in his first efforts to convert a few
of the people by peaceful means, he urged upon the To-
tonac chiefs an abandonment of their heathenism and a gen-
eral adoption of the Catholic faith. But this proposition
they respectfully declined, reminding Cortez of the power
of their gods, whom they had from time immemorial faith-
fully worshiped, and declaring that their abandonment
now would result in the destruction of the entire nation.
This loyalty to their religion severely provoked Cortez, who,
unable to appreciate the nobility of these sentiments, attrib-
uted their inclination to an obstinacy which he was deter-


mined to overcome by force, if persuasion were unavailing.
Accordingly, on the following day, in a solid column, the
soldiers marched directly to one of the most magnificent
temples of the district, and amid the panic created by the
pageantry that he presented, he ascended with fifty of his
men up the winding stairway of the pyramid within the
temple's court, and with violent hands hurled down the
massive wooden idols, which broke in fragments as they
struck the streets. Gathering up the remains, he placed
them in a pile and applied the torch, by which they were
speedily consumed. Appalled by this violence, and realiz-
ing their own helplessness, the Totonac chiefs docilely ac-
quiesced in all the demands made upon them by the in-
vaders. Cortez then ordered that the Totonacs be dressed in
the sacerdotal robes of the Catholic priesthood ; and placing
lighted candles in their hands, he forced them to participate
in the rites of the Papal Church. Upon the apex of the
pyramid, where human sacrifices had been offered upon
more than a hundred occasions, Cortez erected an altar, be-
fore which mass was solemnly performed. And there, on
that bloody spot, the psalmody of the Catholic priests as-
cended in the air, the first offering made to the true God
from a country in which, aside from its religion, there was
a splendid civilization. This incident so affected the minds
of the natives that many wept, and the whole nation di-
rectly accepted the Christian religion, perceiving its superi-
ority to the brutalities of their own.

Thus far there had been no serious obstacles to the prog-
ress of the purpose of Cortez. But about this time, for
some unexplained cause, there was another disaffection

Online LibraryJames W. (James William) BuelLibrary of American history (Volume 1) → online text (page 32 of 37)