by William Hickling Prescott
View of the Aztec Civilisation

Chapter I


THE country of the ancient Mexicans, or Aztecs as they were
called, formed but a very small part of the extensive territories
comprehended in the modern republic of Mexico. Its boundaries cannot
be defined with certainty. They were much enlarged in the latter
days of the empire, when they may be considered as reaching from about
the eighteenth degree north to the twenty-first on the Atlantic; and
from the fourteenth to the nineteenth, including a very narrow
strip, on the Pacific. In its greatest breadth, it could not exceed
five degrees and a half, dwindling, as it approached its south-eastern
limits, to less than two. It covered, probably, less than sixteen
thousand square leagues. Yet, such is the remarkable formation of this
country, that though not more than twice as large as New England, it
presented every variety of climate, and was capable of yielding nearly
every fruit found between the equator and. the Arctic circle.
All along the Atlantic the country is bordered by a broad tract,
called the tierra caliente, or hot region, which has the usual high
temperature of equinoctial lands. Parched and sandy plains are
intermingled with others of exuberant fertility, almost impervious
from thickets of aromatic shrubs and wild flowers, in the midst of
which tower up trees of that magnificent growth which is found only
within the tropics. In this wilderness of sweets lurks the fatal
malaria, engendered, probably, by the decomposition of rank
vegetable substances in a hot and humid soil. The season of the
bilious fever,- vomito, as it is called,- which scourges these coasts,
continues from the spring to the autumnal equinox, when it is
checked by the cold winds that descend from Hudson's Bay. These
winds in the winter season frequently freshen into tempests, and,
sweeping down the Atlantic coast and the winding Gulf of Mexico, burst
with the fury of a hurricane on its unprotected shores, and on the
neighbouring West India islands. Such are the mighty spells with which
Nature has surrounded this land of enchantment, as if to guard the
golden treasures locked up within its bosom. The genius and enterprise
of man have proved more potent than her spells.
After passing some twenty leagues across this burning region,
the traveller finds himself rising into a purer atmosphere. His
limbs recover their elasticity. He breathes more freely, for his
senses are not now oppressed by the sultry heats and intoxicating
perfumes of the valley. The aspect of nature, too, has changed, and
his eye no longer revels among the gay variety of colours with which
the landscape was painted there. The vanilla, the indigo, and the
flowering cocoa-groves disappear as he advances. The sugar-cane and
the glossy-leaved banana still accompany him; and, when he has
ascended about four thousand feet, he sees in the unchanging
verdure, and the rich foliage of the liquid-amber tree, that he has
reached the height where clouds and mists settle, in their passage
from the Mexican Gulf. This is the region of perpetual humidity; but
he welcomes it with pleasure, as announcing his escape from the
influence of the deadly vomito. He has entered the tierra templada, or
temperate region, whose character resembles that of the temperate zone
of the globe. The features of the scenery become grand, and even
terrible. His road sweeps along the base of mighty mountains, once
gleaming with volcanic fires, and still resplendent in their mantles
of snow, which serve as beacons to the mariner, for many a league at
sea. All around he beholds traces of their ancient combustion, as
his road passes along vast tracts of lava, bristling in the
innumerable fantastic forms into which the fiery torrent has been
thrown by the obstacles in its career. Perhaps, at the same moment, as
he casts his eye down some steep slope, or almost unfathomable ravine,
on the margin of the road, he sees their depths glowing with the
rich blooms and enamelled vegetation of the tropics. Such are the
singular contrasts presented, at the same time, to the senses, in this
picturesque region!
Still pressing upwards, the traveller mounts into other climates
favourable to other kinds of cultivation. The yellow maize, or
Indian corn, as we usually call it, has continued to follow him up
from the lowest level; but he now first sees fields of wheat, and
the other European grains, brought into the country by the conquerors.
Mingled with them he views the plantations of the aloe or maguey
(agave Americana), applied to such various and important uses by the
Aztecs. The oaks now acquire a sturdier growth, and the dark forests
of pine announce that he has entered the tierra fria, or cold
region, the third and last of the great natural terraces into which
the country is divided. When he has climbed to the height of between
seven and eight thousand feet, the weary traveller sets his foot on
the summit of the Cordillera of the Andes,- the colossal range that,
after traversing South America and the Isthmus of Darien, spreads out,
as it enters Mexico, into that vast sheet of tableland which maintains
an elevation of more than six thousand feet, for the distance of
nearly two hundred leagues, until it gradually declines in the
higher latitudes of the north.
Across this mountain rampart a chain of volcanic hills
stretches, in a westerly direction, of still more stupendous
dimensions, forming, indeed, some of the highest land on the globe.
Their peaks, entering the limits of perpetual snow, diffuse a grateful
coolness over the elevated plateaus below; for these last, though
termed "cold," enjoy a climate, the mean temperature of which is not
lower than that of the central parts of Italy. The air is
exceedingly dry; the soil, though naturally good, is rarely clothed
with the luxuriant vegetation of the lower regions. It frequently,
indeed, has a parched and barren aspect, owing partly to the greater
evaporation which takes place on these lofty plains, through the
diminished pressure of the atmosphere; and partly, no doubt, to the
want of trees to shelter the soil from the fierce influence of the
summer sun. In the time of the Aztecs, the tableland was thickly
covered with larch, oak, cypress, and other forest trees, the
extraordinary dimensions of some of which, remaining to the present
day, show that the curse of barrenness in later times is chargeable
more on man than on nature. Indeed the early Spaniards made as
indiscriminate war on the forests as did our Puritan ancestors, though
with much less reason. After once conquering the country, they had
no lurking ambush to fear from the submissive semi-civilised Indian,
and were not, like our forefathers, obliged to keep watch and ward for
a century. This spoliation of the ground, however, is said to have
been pleasing to their imaginations, as it reminded them of the plains
of their own Castile,- the tableland of Europe; where the nakedness of
the landscape forms the burden of every traveller's lament, who visits
that country.
Midway across the continent, somewhat nearer the Pacific than
the Atlantic ocean, at an elevation of nearly seven thousand five
hundred feet, is the celebrated Valley of Mexico. It is of an oval
form, about sixty-seven leagues in circumference, and is encompassed
by a towering rampart of porphyritic rock, which nature seems to
have provided, though ineffectually, to protect it from invasion.
The soil, once carpeted with a beautiful verdure and thickly
sprinkled with stately trees, is often bare, and, in many places,
white with the incrustation of salts, caused by the draining of the
waters. Five lakes are spread over the Valley, occupying one tenth
of its surface. On the opposite borders of the largest of these
basins, much shrunk in its dimensions since the days of the Aztecs,
stood the cities of Mexico and Tezcuco, the capitals of the two most
potent and flourishing states of Anahuac, whose history, with that
of the mysterious races that preceded them in the country, exhibits
some of the nearest approaches to civilisation to be met with
anciently on the North American continent.
Of these races the most conspicuous were the Toltecs. Advancing
from a northerly direction, but from what region is uncertain, they
entered the territory of Anahuac, probably before the close of the
seventh century. Of course, little can be gleaned, with certainty,
respecting a people whose written records have perished, and who are
known to us only through the traditionary legends of the nations
that succeeded them. By the general agreement of these, however, the
Toltecs were well instructed in agriculture, and many of the most
useful mechanic arts; were nice workers of metals; invented the
complex arrangement of time adopted by the Aztecs; and, in short, were
the true fountains of the civilisation which distinguished this part
of the continent in later times. They established their capital at
Tula, north of the Mexican Valley, and the remains of extensive
buildings were to be discerned there at the time of the Conquest.
The noble ruins of religious and other edifices, still to be seen in
various parts of New Spain, are referred to this people, whose name,
Toltec, has passed into a synonym for architect. Their shadowy history
reminds us of those primitive races, who preceded the ancient
Egyptians in the march of civilisation; fragments of whose
monuments, as they are seen at this day, incorporated with the
buildings of the Egyptians themselves, give to these latter the
appearance of almost modern constructions.
After a period of four centuries, the Toltecs, who had extended
their sway over the remotest borders of Anahuac, having been greatly
reduced, it is said, by famine, pestilence, and unsuccessful wars,
disappeared from the land as silently and mysteriously as they had
entered it. A few of them still lingered behind, but much the
greater number, probably, spread over the region of Central America
and the neighbouring isles; and the traveller now speculates on the
majestic ruins of Mitla and Palenque as possibly the work of this
extraordinary people.
After the lapse of another hundred years, a numerous and rude
tribe, called the Chichemecs, entered the deserted country from the
regions of the far North-west. They were speedily followed by other
races, of higher civilisation, perhaps of the same family with the
Toltecs, whose language they appear to have spoken. The most noted
of these were the Aztecs, or Mexicans, and the Acolhuans. The
latter, better known in later times by the name of Tezcucans, from
their capital, Tezcuco, on the eastern border of the Mexican lake,
were peculiarly fitted, by their comparatively mild religion and
manners, for receiving the tincture of civilisation which could be
derived from the few Toltecs that still remained in the country. This,
in their turn, they communicated to the barbarous Chichemees, a
large portion of whom became amalgamated with the new settlers as
one nation.
Availing themselves of the strength derived, not only from the
increase of numbers, but from their own superior refinement, the
Acolhuans gradually stretched their empire over the ruder tribes in
the north; while their capital was filled with a numerous
population, busily employed in many of the more useful and even
elegant arts of a civilised community. In this palmy state, they
were suddenly assaulted by a warlike neighbour, the Tepanecs, their
own kindred, and inhabitants of the same valley as themselves. Their
provinces were overrun, their armies beaten, their king
assassinated, and the flourishing city of Tezcuco became the prize
of the victor. From this abject condition the uncommon abilities of
the young prince Nezahualcoyotl, the rightful heir to the crown,
backed by the efficient aid of his Mexican allies, at length
redeemed the state, and opened to it a new career of prosperity,
even more brilliant than the former.
The Mexicans, with whom our history is principally concerned, came
also, as we have seen, from the remote regions of the north,- the
populous hive of nations in the New World, as it has been in the
Old. They arrived on the borders of Anahuac towards the beginning of
the thirteenth century, some time after the occupation of the land
by the kindred races. For a long time they did not establish
themselves in any permanent residence; but continued shifting their
quarters to different parts of the Mexican Valley, enduring all the
casualties and hardships of a migratory life. On one occasion, they
were enslaved by a more powerful tribe; but their ferocity soon made
them formidable to their masters. After a series of wanderings and
adventures, which need not shrink from comparison with the most
extravagant legends of the heroic ages of antiquity, they at length
halted on the south-western borders of the principal lake, in the year
1325. They there beheld, perched on the stem of a prickly pear,
which shot out from the crevice of a rock that was washed by the
waves, a royal eagle of extraordinary size and beauty, with a
serpent in his talons, and his broad wings open to the rising sun.
They hailed the auspicious omen, announced by an oracle as
indicating the site of their future city, and laid its foundations
by sinking piles into the shallows; for the low marshes were half
buried under water. On these they erected their light fabrics of reeds
and rushes; and sought a precarious subsistence from fishing, and from
the wild fowl which frequented the waters, as well as from the
cultivation of such simple vegetables as they could raise on their
floating gardens. The place was called Tenochtitlan, though only known
to Europeans by its other name of Mexico, derived from their
war-god, Mexitli. The legend of its foundation is still further
commemorated by the device of the eagle and the cactus, which form the
arms of the modern Mexican republic. Such were the humble beginnings
of the Venice of the Western World.
The forlorn condition of the new settlers was made still worse
by domestic feuds. A part of the citizens seceded from the main
body, and formed a separate community on the neighbouring marshes.
Thus divided, it was long before they could aspire to the
acquisition of territory on the main land. They gradually increased,
however, in numbers, and strengthened themselves yet more by various
improvements in their polity and military discipline, while they
established a reputation for courage as well as cruelty in war,
which made their name terrible throughout the Valley. In the early
part of the fifteenth century, nearly a hundred years from the
foundation of the city, an event took place which created an entire
revolution in the circumstances, and, to some extent, in the character
of the Aztecs. This was the subversion of the Tezcucan monarchy by the
Tepanecs, already noticed. When the oppressive conduct of the
victors had at length aroused a spirit of resistance, its prince,
Nezahualcoyotl, succeeded, after incredible perils and escapes, in
mustering such a force, as, with the aid of the Mexicans, placed him
on a level with his enemies. In two successive battles these were
defeated with great slaughter, their chief slain, and their territory,
by one of those sudden reverses which characterise the wars of petty
states, passed into the hands of the conquerors. It was awarded to
Mexico, in return for its important services.
Then was formed that remarkable league, which, indeed, has no
parallel in history. It was agreed between the states of Mexico,
Tezcuco, and the neighbouring little kingdom of Tlacopan, that they
should mutually support each other in their wars, offensive and
defensive, and that, in the distribution of the spoil, one fifth
should be assigned to Tlacopan, and the remainder be divided, in
what proportions is uncertain, between the other powers. The
Tezcucan writers claim an equal share for their nation with the
Aztecs. But this does not seem to be warranted by the immense increase
of territory subsequently appropriated by the latter. And we may
account for any advantage conceded to them by the treaty, on the
supposition, that however inferior they may have been originally, they
were, at the time of making it, in a more prosperous condition than
their allies, broken and dispirited by long oppression. What is more
extraordinary than the treaty itself, however, is the fidelity with
which it was maintained. During a century of uninterrupted warfare
that ensued, no instance occurred where the parties quarrelled over
the division of the spoil, which so often makes shipwreck of similar
confederacies among civilised states.
The allies for some time found sufficient occupation for their
arms in their own valley; but they soon overleaped its rocky ramparts,
and by the middle of the fifteenth century, under the first Montezuma,
had spread down the sides of the tableland to the borders of the
Gulf of Mexico. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, gave evidence of
the public prosperity. Its frail tenements were supplanted by solid
structures of stone and lime. Its population rapidly increased. Its
old feuds were healed. The citizens who had seceded were again brought
under a common government with the body, and the quarter they occupied
was permanently connected with the parent city; the dimensions of
which, covering the same ground, were much larger than those of the
modern capital.
Fortunately, the throne was filled by a succession of able
princes, who knew how to profit by their enlarged resources and by the
martial enthusiasm of the nation. Year after year saw them return,
loaded with the spoils of conquered cities, and with throngs of
devoted captives, to their capital. No state was able long to resist
the accumulated strength of the confederates. At the beginning of
the sixteenth century, just before the arrival of the Spaniard, the
Aztec dominion reached across the continent from the Atlantic to the
Pacific; and, under the bold and bloody Ahuitzotl, its arms had been
carried far over the limits already noticed as defining its
permanent territory, into the farthest corners of Guatemala and
Nicaragua. This extent of empire, however limited in comparison with
that of many other states, is truly wonderful, considering it as the
acquisition of a people whose whole population and resources had so
recently been comprised within the walls of their own petty city;
and considering, moreover, that the conquered territory was thickly
settled by various races, bred to arms like the Mexicans, and little
inferior to them in social organisation. The history of the Aztecs
suggests some strong points of resemblance to that of the ancient
Romans, not only in their military successes, but in the policy
which led to them.
Chapter II


THE form of government differed in the different states of
Anahuac. With the Aztecs and Tezcucans it was monarchical and nearly
absolute. I shall direct my inquiries to the Mexican polity, borrowing
an illustration occasionally from that of the rival kingdom.
The government was an elective monarchy. Four of the principal
nobles, who had been chosen by their own body in the preceding
reign, filled the office of electors, to whom were added, with
merely an honorary rank, however, the two royal allies of Tezcuco
and Tlacopan. The sovereign was selected from the brothers of the
deceased prince, or, in default of them, from his nephews. Thus the
election was always restricted to the same family. The candidate
preferred must have distinguished himself in war, though, as in the
case of the last Montezuma, he were a member of the priesthood. This
singular mode of supplying the throne had some advantages. The
candidates received an education which fitted them for the royal
dignity, while the age at which they were chosen not only secured
the nation against the evils of minority, but afforded ample means for
estimating their qualifications for the office. The result, at all
events, was favourable; since the throne, as already noticed, was
filled by a succession of able princes, well qualified to rule over
a warlike and ambitious people. The scheme of election, however
defective, argues a more refined and calculating policy than was to
have been expected from a barbarous nation.
The new monarch was installed in his regal dignity with much
parade of religious ceremony; but not until, by a victorious campaign,
he had obtained a sufficient number of captives to grace his triumphal
entry into the capital, and to furnish victims for the dark and bloody
rites which stained the Aztec superstition. Amidst this pomp of
human sacrifice he was crowned. The crown, resembling a mitre in its
form, and curiously ornamented with gold, gems, and feathers, was
placed on his head by the lord of Tezcuco, the most powerful of his
royal allies. The title of King, by which the earlier Aztec princes
are distinguished by Spanish writers, is supplanted by that of Emperor
in the later reigns, intimating, perhaps, his superiority over the
monarchies of Tlacopan and Tezcuco.
The Aztec princes, especially towards the close of the dynasty,
lived in a barbaric pomp, truly Oriental. Their spacious palaces
were provided with halls for the different councils, who aided the
monarch in the transaction of business. The chief of these was a
sort of privy council, composed in part, probably, of the four
electors chosen by the nobles after the accession, whose places,
when made vacant by death, were immediately supplied as before. It was
the business of this body, so far as can be gathered from the very
loose accounts given of it, to advise the king in respect to the
government of the provinces, the administration of the revenues,
and, indeed, on all great matters of public interest.
In the royal buildings were accommodations, also, for a numerous
body-guard of the sovereign, made up of the chief nobility. It is
not easy to determine with precision, in these barbarian
governments, the limits of the several orders. It is certain there was
a distinct class of nobles, with large landed possessions, who held
the most important offices near the person of the prince, and
engrossed the administration of the provinces and cities. Many of
these could trace their descent from the founders of the Aztec
monarchy. According to some writers of authority, there were thirty
great caciques, who had their residence, at least a part of the
year, in the capital, and who could muster a hundred thousand
vassals each on their estates. Without relying on such wild
statements, it is clear, from the testimony of the conquerors, that
the country was occupied by numerous powerful chieftains, who lived
like independent princes on their domains. It it be true that the
kings encouraged, or indeed exacted, the residence of these nobles
in the capital, and required hostages in their absence, it is
evident that their power must have been very formidable.
Their estates appear to have been held by various tenures, and
to have been subject to different restrictions. Some of them, earned
by their own good swords or received as the recompense of public
services, were held without any limitation, except that the possessors
could not dispose of them to a plebeian. Others were entailed on the
eldest male issue, and, in default of such, reverted to the crown.
Most of them seem to have been burdened with the obligation of
military service. The principal chiefs of Tezcuco, according to its
chronicler, were expressly obliged to support their prince with
their armed vassals, to attend his court, and aid him in the
counsel. Some, instead of these services, were to provide for the
repairs of his buildings, and to keep the royal demesnes in order,
with an annual offering, by way of homage, of fruits and flowers. It
was usual for a new king, on his accession, to confirm the investiture
of estates derived from the crown.
It cannot be denied that we recognise in all this several features
of the feudal system, which, no doubt, lose nothing of their effect,
under the hands of the Spanish writers, who are fond of tracing
analogies to European institutions. But such analogies lead
sometimes to very erroneous conclusions. The obligation of military
service, for instance, the most essential principle of a fief, seems
to be naturally demanded by every government from its subjects. As
to minor points of resemblance, they fall far short of that harmonious
system of reciprocal service and protection which embraced, in nice
gradation, every order of a feudal monarchy. The kingdoms of Anahuac
were, in their nature, despotic, attended, indeed, with many
mitigating circumstances unknown to the despotisms of the East; but it
is chimerical to look for much in common- beyond a few accidental
forms and ceremonies- with those aristocratic institutions of the
Middle Ages, which made the court of every petty baron the precise
image in miniature of that of his sovereign.
The legislative power, both in Mexico and Tezcuco, resided
wholly with the monarch. This feature of despotism, however, was in
some measure counteracted by the constitution of the judicial
tribunals- of more importance, among a rude people, than the
legislative, since it is easier to make good laws for such a community
than to enforce them, and the best laws, badly administered, are but a
mockery. Over each of the principal cities, with its dependent
territories, was placed a supreme judge, appointed by the crown,
with original and final jurisdiction in both civil and criminal cases.
There was no appeal from his sentence to any other tribunal, nor
even to the king. He held his office during life; and any one who
usurped his ensigns was punished with death.
Below this magistrate was a court, established in each province,
and consisting of three members. It held concurrent jurisdiction
with the supreme judge in civil suits, but in criminal an appeal lay
to his tribunal. Besides these courts, there was a body of inferior
magistrates distributed through the country, chosen by the people
themselves in their several districts. Their authority was limited
to smaller causes, while the more important were carried up to the
higher courts. There was still another class of subordinate
officers, appointed also by the people, each of whom was to watch over
the conduct of a certain number of families, and report any disorder
or breach of the laws to the higher authorities.
In Tezcuco the judicial arrangements were of a more refined
character; and a gradation of tribunals finally terminated in a
general meeting or parliament, consisting of all the judges, great
and petty, throughout the kingdom, held every eighty days in the
capital, over which the king presided in person. This body
determined all suits, which, from their importance, or difficulty, had
been reserved for its consideration by the lower tribunals. It served,
moreover, as a council of state, to assist the monarch in the
transaction of public business.
Such are the vague and imperfect notices that can be gleaned
respecting the Aztec tribunals, from the hieroglyphical paintings
still preserved, and from the most accredited Spanish writers.
These, being usually ecclesiastics, have taken much less interest in
this subject than in matters connected with religion. They find some
apology, certainly, in the early destruction of most of the Indian
paintings, from which their information was, in part, to be gathered.
On the whole, however, it must be inferred, that the Aztecs were
sufficiently civilised to envince a solicitude for the rights both
of property and of persons. The law, authorising an appeal to the
highest judicature in criminal matters only, shows an attention to
personal security, rendered the more obligatory by the extreme
severity of their penal code, which would naturally have made them
more cautious of a wrong conviction. The existence of a number of
co-ordinate tribunals, without a central one of supreme authority to
control the whole, must have given rise to very discordant
interpretations of the law in different districts, an evil which
they shared in common with most of the nations of Europe.
The provision for making the superior judges wholly independent of
the crown was worthy of an enlightened people. It presented the
strongest barrier, that a mere constitution could afford, against
tyranny. It is not, indeed, to be supposed that, in a government
otherwise so despotic, means could not be found for influencing the
magistrate. But it was a great step to fence round his authority
with the sanction of the law; and no one of the Aztec monarch, as
far as I know, is accused of an attempt to violate it.
To receive presents or a bribe, to be guilty of collusion in any
way with a suitor, was punished, in a judge, with death. Who, or
what tribunal, decided as to his guilt, does not appear. In Tezcuco
this was done by the rest of the court. But the king presided over
that body. The Tezcucan prince, Nezahualpilli, who rarely tempered
justice with mercy, put one judge to death for taking a bribe, and
another for determining suits in his own house,- a capital offence,
also, by law.
The judges of the higher tribunals were maintained from the
produce of a part of the crown lands, reserved for this purpose. They,
as well as the supreme judge, held their offices for life. The
proceedings in the courts were conducted with decency and order. The
judges wore an appropriate dress, and attended to business both
parts of the day, dining always, for the sake of despatch, in an
apartment of the same building where they held their session; a method
of proceeding much commended by the Spanish chroniclers, to whom
despatch was not very familiar in their own tribunals. Officers
attended to preserve order, and others summoned the parties, and
produced them in court. No counsel was employed; the parties stated
their own case, and supported it by their witnesses. The oath of the
accused was also admitted in evidence. The statement of the case,
the testimony, and the proceedings of the trial, were all set forth by
a clerk, in hieroglyphical paintings, and handed over to the court.
The paintings were executed with so much accuracy, that, in all
suits respecting real property, they were allowed to be produced as
good authority in the Spanish tribunals, very long after the Conquest.
A capital sentence was indicated by a line traced with an arrow
across the portrait of the accused. In Tezcuco, where the king
presided in the court, this, according to the national chronicler, was
done with extraordinary parade. His description, which is of rather
a poetical cast, I give in his own words: "In the royal palace of
Tezcuco was a courtyard, on the opposite sides of which were two halls
of justice. In the principal one, called the 'tribunal of God,' was
a throne of pure gold inlaid with turquoises and other precious
stones. On a stool in front, was placed a human skull, crowned with an
immense emerald, of a pyramidal form, and surmounted by an aigrette of
brilliant plumes and precious stones. The skull was laid on a heap
of military weapons, shields, quivers, bows, and arrows. The walls
were hung with tapestry, made of the hair of different wild animals,
of rich and various colours, festooned by gold rings, and
embroidered with figures of birds and flowers. Above the throne was
a canopy of variegated plumage, from the centre of which shot forth
resplendent rays of gold and jewels. The other tribunal, called 'the
king's,' was also surmounted by a gorgeous canopy of feathers, on
which were emblazoned the royal arms. Here the sovereign gave public
audience, and communicated his despatches. But, when he decided
important causes, or confirmed a capital sentence, he passed to 'the
tribunal of God,' attended by the fourteen great lords of the realm,
marshalled according to their rank. Then, putting on his mitred crown,
incrusted with precious stones, and holding a golden arrow, by way
of sceptre, in his left hand, he laid his right upon the skull, and
pronounced judgment." All this looks rather fine for a court of
justice, it must be owned. But it is certain, that the Tezcucans, as
we shall see hereafter, possessed both the materials and the skill
requisite to work them up in this manner. Had they been a little
further advanced in refinement, one might well doubt their having
the bad taste to do so.
The laws of the Aztecs were registered, and exhibited to the
people in their hieroglyphical paintings. Much the larger part of
them, as in every nation imperfectly civilised, relates rather to
the security of persons than of property. The great crimes against
society were all made capital. Even the murder of a slave was punished
with death. Adulterers, as among the Jews, were stoned to death.
Thieving, according to the degree of the offence, was punished by
slavery or death. Yet the Mexicans could have been under no great
apprehension of this crime, since the entrances to their dwellings
were not secured by bolts, or fastenings of any kind. It was a capital
offence to remove the boundaries of another's lands; to alter the
established measures; and for a guardian not to be able to give a good
account of his ward's property. These regulations evince a regard
for equity in dealings, and for private rights, which argues a
considerable progress in civilisation. Prodigals, who squandered their
patrimony, were punished in like manner; a severe sentence, since
the crime brought its adequate punishment along with it. Intemperance,
which was the burden, moreover, of their religious homilies, was
visited with the severest penalties; as if they had foreseen in it the
consuming canker of their own, as well as of the other Indian races in
later times. It was punished in the young with death, and in older
persons with loss of rank and confiscation of property. Yet a decent
conviviality was not meant to be proscribed at their festivals, and
they possessed the means of indulging it, in a mild fermented
liquor, called pulque.
The rites of marriage were celebrated with as much formality as in
any Christian country; and the institution was held in such reverence,
that a tribunal was instituted for the sole purpose of determining
questions relating to it. Divorces could not be obtained, until
authorised by a sentence of this court, after a patient hearing of the
But the most remarkable part of the Aztec code was that relating
to slavery. There were several descriptions of slaves: prisoners taken
in war, who were almost always reserved for the dreadful doom of
sacrifice; criminals, public debtors, persons who, from extreme
poverty, voluntarily resigned their freedom, and children who were
sold by their own parents. In the last instance, usually occasioned
also by poverty, it was common for the parents, with the master's
consent, to substitute others of their children successively, as
they grew up: thus distributing the burden, as equally as possible,
among the different members of the family. The willingness of
freemen to incur the penalties of this condition is explained by the
mild form in which it existed. The contract of sale was executed in
the presence of at least four witnesses. The services to be exacted
were limited with great precision. The slave was allowed to have his
own family, to hold property, and even other slaves. His children were
free. No one could be born to slavery in Mexico, an honourable
distinction, not known, I believe, in any civilised community where
slavery has been sanctioned. Slaves were not sold by their masters,
unless when these were driven to it by poverty. They were often
liberated by them at their death, and sometimes, as there was no
natural repugnance founded on difference of blood and race, were
married to them. Yet a refractory or vicious slave might be led into
the market, with a collar round his neck, which intimated his bad
character, and there be publicly sold, and, on a second sale, reserved
for sacrifice.
The royal revenues were derived from various sources. The crown
lands, which appear to have been extensive, made their returns in
kind. The places in the neighbourhood of the capital were bound to
supply workmen and materials for building the king's palaces, and
keeping them in repair. They were also to furnish fuel, provisions,
and whatever was necessary for his ordinary domestic expenditure,
which was certainly on no stinted scale. The principal cities, which
had numerous villages and a large territory dependent on them, were
distributed into districts, with each a share of the lands allotted to
it, for its support. The inhabitants paid a stipulated part of the
produce to the crown. The vassals of the great chiefs, also, paid a
portion of their earnings into the public treasury; an arrangement not
at all in the spirit of the feudal institutions.
In addition to this tax on all the agricultural produce of the
kingdom, there was another on its manufactures. The nature and the
variety of the tributes will be best shown by an enumeration of some
of the principal articles. These were cotton dresses, and mantles of
feather-work, exquisitely made; ornamented armour; vases and plates of
gold; gold-dust, bands and bracelets; crystal, gilt, and varnished
jars and goblets; bells, arms, and utensils of copper; reams of paper;
grain, fruits, copal, amber, cochineal, cocoa, wild animals and birds,
timber, lime, mats, etc. In this curious medley of the most homely
commodities, and the elegant superfluities of luxury, it is singular
that no mention should be made of silver, the great staple of the
country in later times, and the use of which was certainly known to
the Aztecs.
Garrisons were established in the larger cities,- probably those
at a distance, and recently conquered,- to keep down revolt, and to
enforce the payment of the tribute. Tax-gatherers were also
distributed throughout the kingdom, who were recognised by their
official badges, and dreaded from the merciless rigour of their
exactions. By a stern law, every defaulter was liable to be taken
and sold as a slave. In the capital were spacious granaries and
warehouses for the reception of the tributes. A receiver-general was
quartered in the palace, who rendered in an exact account of the
various contributions, and watched over the conduct of the inferior
agents, in whom the least malversation was summarily punished. This
functionary was furnished with a map of the whole empire, with a
minute specification of the imposts assessed on every part of it.
These imposts, moderate under the reigns of the early princes,
became so burdensome under those of the close of the dynasty, being
rendered still more oppressive by the manner of collection, that
they bred disaffection throughout the land, and prepared the way for
its conquest by the Spaniards.
Communication was maintained with the remotest parts of the
country by means of couriers. Post-houses were established on the
great roads, about two leagues distant from each other. The courier,
bearing his despatches in the form of a hieroglyphical painting, ran
with them to the first station, where they were taken by another
messenger, and carried forward to the next, and so on till they
reached the capital. These couriers, trained from childhood, travelled
with incredible swiftness; not four or five leagues an hour, as an old
chronicler would make us believe, but with such speed that
despatches were carried from one to two hundred miles a day. Fresh
fish was frequently served at Montezuma's table in twenty-four hours
from the time it had been taken in the Gulf of Mexico, two hundred
miles from the capital. In this way intelligence of the movements of
the royal armies was rapidly brought to court; and the dress of the
courier, denoting by its colour that of his tidings, spread joy or
consternation in the towns through which he passed.
But the great aim of the Aztec institutions to which private
discipline and public honours were alike directed, was the
profession of arms. In Mexico, as in Egypt, the soldier shared with
the priest the highest consideration. The king, as we have seen,
must be an experienced warrior. The tutelary deity of the Aztecs was
the god of war. A great object of their military expeditions was, to
gather hecatombs of captives for his altars. The soldier, who fell
in battle, was transported at once to the region of ineffable bliss in
the bright mansions of the Sun. Every war, therefore, became a
crusade; and the warrior, animated by a religious enthusiasm, like
that of the early Saracen, or the Christian crusader, was not only
raised to a contempt of danger, but courted it, for the imperishable
crown of martyrdom. Thus we find the same impulse acting in the most
opposite quarters of the globe, and the Asiatic, the European, and the
American, each earnestly invoking the holy name of religion in the
perpetration of human butchery.
The question of war was discussed in a council of the king and his
chief nobles. Ambassadors were sent, previously to its declaration, to
require the hostile state to receive the Mexican gods, and to pay
the customary tribute. The persons of ambassadors were held sacred
throughout Anahuac. They were lodged and entertained in the great
towns at the public charge, and were everywhere received with
courtesy, so long as they did not deviate from the high-roads on their
route. When they did, they forfeited their privileges. If the
embassy proved unsuccessful, a defiance, or open declaration of war,
was sent; quotas were drawn from the conquered provinces, which Were
always subjected to military service, as well as the payment of taxes;
and the royal army, usually with the monarch at its head, began its
The Aztec princes made use of the incentive employed by European
monarchs to excite the ambition of their followers. They established
various military orders, each having its privileges and peculiar
insignia. There seems, also, to have existed a sort of knighthood,
of inferior degree. It was the cheapest reward of martial prowess, and
whoever had not reached it was excluded from using ornaments on his
arms or his person, and obliged to wear a coarse white stuff, made
from the threads of the aloe, called nequen. Even the members of the
royal family were not excepted from this law, which reminds one of the
occasional practice of Christian knights, to wear plain armour, or
shields without device, till they had achieved some doughty feat of
chivalry. Although the military orders were thrown open to all, it
is probable that they were chiefly filled with persons of rank, who,
by their previous training and connections, were able to come into the
field under peculiar advantages.
The dress of the higher warriors was picturesque, and often
magnificent. Their bodies were covered with a close vest of quilted
cotton, so thick as to be impenetrable to the light missiles of Indian
warfare. This garment was so light and serviceable that it was adopted
by the Spaniards. The wealthier chiefs sometimes wore, instead of this
cotton mail, a cuirass made of thin plates of gold, or silver. Over it
was thrown a surcoat of the gorgeous feather-work in which they
excelled. Their helmets were sometimes of wood, fashioned like the
heads of wild animals, and sometimes of silver, on the top of which
waved a panache of variegated feathers, sprinkled with precious stones
and ornaments of gold. They wore also collars, bracelets, and
earrings, of the same rich materials.
Their armies were divided into bodies of eight thousand men; and
these, again, into companies of three or four hundred, each with its
own commander. The national standard, which has been compared to the
ancient Roman, displayed, in its embroidery of gold and
feather-work, the armorial ensigns of the state. These were
significant of its name, which, as the names of both persons and
places were borrowed from some material object, was easily expressed
by hieroglyphical symbols. The companies and the great chiefs had also
their appropriate banners and devices, and the gaudy hues of their
many-coloured plumes gave a dazzling splendour to the spectacle.
Their tactics were such as belong to a nation with whom war,
though a trade, is not elevated to the rank of a science. They
advanced singing, and shouting their war-cries, briskly charging the
enemy, as rapidly retreating, and making use of ambuscades, sudden
surprises, and the light skirmish of guerilla warfare. Yet their
discipline was such as to draw forth the encomiums of the Spanish
conquerors. "A beautiful sight it was," says one of them, "to see them
set out on their march, all moving forward so gaily, and in so
admirable order!" In battle, they did not seek to kill their
enemies, so much as to take them prisoners; and they never scalped,
like other North American tribes. The valour of a warrior was
estimated by the number of his prisoners; and no ransom was large
enough to save the devoted captive.
Their military code bore the same stern features as their other
laws. Disobedience of orders was punished with death. It was death,
also, for a soldier to leave his colours to attack the enemy before
the signal was given, or to plunder another's booty or prisoners.
One of the last Tezcucan princes, in the spirit of an ancient Roman,
put two sons to death,- after having cured their wounds,- for
violating the last-mentioned law.
I must not omit to notice here an institution, the introduction of
which, in the Old World, is ranked among the beneficent fruits of
Christianity. Hospitals were established in the principal cities for
the cure of the sick, and the permanent refuge of the disabled
soldier; and surgeons were placed over them, "who were so far better
than those in Europe," says an old chronicler, "that they did not
protract the cure, in order to increase the pay."
Such is the brief outline of the civil and military polity of
the ancient Mexicans; less perfect than could be desired, in regard to
the former, from the imperfection of the sources whence it is drawn.
Whoever has had occasion to explore the early history of modern Europe
has found how vague and unsatisfactory is the political information
which can be gleaned from the gossip of monkish annalists. How much is
the difficulty increased in the present instance, where this
information, first recorded in the dubious language of
hieroglyphics, was interpreted in another language, with which the
Spanish chroniclers were imperfectly acquainted, while it related to
institutions of which their past experience enabled them to form no
adequate conception! Amidst such uncertain lights, it is in vain to
expect nice accuracy of detail. All that can be done is, to attempt an
outline of the more prominent features, that a correct impression,
so far as it goes, may be produced on the mind of the reader.
Enough has been said, however, to show that the Aztec and Tezcucan
races were advanced in civilisation very far beyond the wandering
tribes of North America. The degree of civilisation which they had
reached, as inferred by their political institutions, may be
considered, perhaps, not much short of that enjoyed by our Saxon
ancestors, under Alfred. In respect to the nature of it, they may be
better compared with the Egyptians; and the examination of their
social relations and culture may suggest still stronger points of
resemblance to that ancient people.
Chapter III


THE CIVIL polity of the Aztecs is so closely blended with their
religion, that, without understanding the latter, it is impossible
to form correct ideas of their government or their social
institutions. I shall pass over, for the present, some remarkable
traditions, bearing a singular resemblance to those found in the
Scriptures, and endeavour to give a brief sketch of their mythology,
and their careful provisions for maintaining a national worship.
In contemplating the religious system of the Aztecs, one is struck
with its apparent incongruity, as if some portion of it had emanated
from a comparatively refined people, open to gentle influences,
while the rest breathes a spirit of unmitigated ferocity. It naturally
suggests the idea of two distinct sources, and authorises the belief
that the Aztecs had inherited from their predecessors a milder
faith, on which was afterwards engrafted their own mythology. The
latter soon became dominant, and gave its dark colouring to the creeds
of the conquered nations,- which the Mexicans, like the ancient
Romans, seem willingly to have incorporated into their own,- until the
same funereal superstition settled over the farthest borders of
The Aztecs recognised the existence of a supreme Creator and
Lord of the universe. They addressed him, in their prayers, as "the
God by whom we live," "omnipresent, that knoweth all thoughts, and
giveth all gifts," "without whom man is as nothing," "invisible,
incorporeal, one God, of perfect perfection and purity," "under
whose wings we find repose and a sure defence." These sublime
attributes infer no inadequate conception of the true God. But the
idea of unity- of a being, with whom volition is action, who has no
need of inferior ministers to execute his purposes- was too simple, or
too vast, for their understandings; and they sought relief, as
usual, in the plurality of deities, who presided over the elements,
the changes of the seasons, and the various occupations of man. Of
these, there were thirteen principal deities, and more than two
hundred inferior; to each of whom some special day, or appropriate
festival, was consecrated.
At the head of all stood the terrible Huitzilopochtli, the Mexican
Mars; although it is doing injustice to the heroic war-god of
antiquity to identify him with this sanguinary monster. This was the
patron deity of the nation. His fantastic image was loaded with costly
ornaments. His temples were the most stately and august of the
public edifices; and his altars reeked with the blood of human
hecatombs in every city of the empire. Disastrous, indeed, must have
been the influence of such a superstition on the character of the
A far more interesting personage in their mythology, was
Quetzalcoatl, god of the air, a divinity who, during his residence
on earth, instructed the natives in the use of metals, in agriculture,
and in the arts of government. He was one of those benefactors of
their species, doubtless, who have been deified, by the gratitude of
posterity. Under him, the earth teemed with fruits and flowers,
without the pains of culture. An ear of Indian corn was as much as a
single man could carry. The cotton, as it grew, took, of its own
accord, the rich dyes of human art. The air was filled with
intoxicating perfumes and the sweet melody of birds. In short, these
were the halcyon days, which find a place in the mythic systems of
so many nations in the Old World. It was the golden age of Anahuac.
From some cause, not explained, Quetzalcoatl incurred the wrath of
one of the principal gods, and was compelled to abandon the country.
On his way, he stopped at the city of Cholula, where a temple was
dedicated to his worship, the massy ruins of which still form one of
the most interesting relics of antiquity in Mexico. When he reached
the shores of the Mexican Gulf, he took leave of his followers,
promising that he and his descendants would revist them hereafter, and
then entering his wizard skill, made of serpents' skins, embarked on
the great ocean for the fabled land of Tlapallan. He was said to
have been tall in stature, with a white skin, long, dark hair, and a
flowing beard. The Mexicans looked confidently to the return of the
benevolent deity; and this remarkable tradition, deeply cherished in
their hearts, prepared the way, as we shall see hereafter, for the
future success of the Spaniards.
We have not space for further details respecting the Mexican
divinities, the attributes of many of whom were carefully defined,
as they descended in regular gradation, to the penates or household
gods, whose little images were to be found in the humblest dwelling.
The Aztecs felt the curiosity, common to man in almost every stage
of civilisation, to lift the veil which covers the mysterious past,
and the more awful future. They sought relief, like the nations of the
Old Continent, from the oppressive idea of eternity, by breaking it up
into distinct cycles, or periods of time, each of several thousand
years' duration. There were four of these cycles, and at the end of
each, by the agency of one of the elements, the human family was swept
from the earth, and the sun blotted out from the heavens, to be
again rekindled.
They imagined three separate states of existence in the future
life. The wicked, comprehending the great part of mankind, were to
expiate their sins in a place of everlasting darkness. Another
class, with no other merit than that of having died of certain
diseases, capriciously selected, were to enjoy a negative existence of
indolent contentment. The highest place was reserved, as in most
warlike nations, for the heroes who fell in battle, or in sacrifice.
They passed, at once, into the presence of the Sun, whom they
accompanied with songs and choral dances, in his bright progress
through the heavens; and, after some years, their spirits went to
animate the clouds and singing birds of beautiful plumage, and to
revel amidst the rich blossoms and odours of the gardens of
paradise. Such was the heaven of the Aztecs; more refined in its
character than that of the more polished pagan, whose elysium
reflected only the martial sports, or sensual gratifications, of
this life. In the destiny they assigned to the wicked, we discern
similar traces of refinement; since the absence of all physical
torture forms a striking contrast to the schemes of suffering so
ingeniously devised by the fancies of the most enlightened nations.-
In all this, so contrary to the natural suggestions of the ferocious
Aztec, we see the evidences of a higher civilisation, inherited from
their predecessors in the land.
Our limits will allow only a brief allusion to one or two of their
most interesting ceremonies. On the death of a person, his corpse
was dressed in the peculiar habiliments of his tutelar deity. It was
strewed with pieces of paper, which operated as charms, against the
dangers of the dark road he was to travel. A throng of slaves, if he
were rich, was sacrificed at his obsequies. His body was burned, and
the ashes, collected in a vase, were preserved in one of the
apartments of his house. Here we have successively the usages of the
Roman Catholic, the Mussulman, the Tartar, and the ancient Greek and
Roman, curious coincidences, which may show how cautious we should
be in adopting conclusions founded on analogy.
A more extraordinary coincidence may be traced with Christian
rites, in the ceremony of naming their children. The lips and bosom of
the infant were sprinkled with water, and "the Lord was implored to
permit the holy drops to wash away the sin that was given to it before
the foundation of the world; so that the child might be born anew." We
are reminded of Christian morals, in more than one of their prayers,
in which they use regular forms. "Wilt thou blot us out, O Lord, for
ever? Is this punishment intended, not for our reformation, but for
our destruction?" Again, "Impart to us, out of thy great mercy, thy
gifts which we are not worthy to receive through our own merits."
"Keep peace with all," says another petition; "bear injuries with
humility; God, who sees, will avenge you." But the most striking
parallel with Scripture is in the remarkable declaration, that "he who
looks too curiously on a woman, commits adultery with his eyes." These
pure and elevated maxims, it is true, are mixed up with others of a
puerile, and even brutal character, arguing that confusion of the
moral perceptions, which is natural in the twilight of civilisation.
One would not expect, however, to meet, in such a state of society,
with doctrines as sublime as any inculcated by the enlightened codes
of ancient philosophy.
But, although the Aztec mythology gathered nothing from the
beautiful inventions of the poet, nor from the refinements of
philosophy, it was much indebted, as I have noticed, to the priests,
who endeavoured to dazzle the imagination of the people by the most
formal and pompous ceremonial. The influence of the priesthood must be
greatest in an imperfect state of civilisation, where it engrosses all
the scanty science of the time in its own body. This is particularly
the case, when the science is of that spurious kind which is less
occupied with the real phenomena of nature, than with the fanciful
chimeras of human superstition. Such are the sciences of astrology and
divination, in which the Aztec priests were well initiated; and
while they seemed to hold the keys of the future in their own hands,
they impressed the ignorant people with sentiments of superstitious
awe, beyond that which has probably existed in any other country,-
even in Ancient Egypt.
The sacerdotal order was very numerous; as may be inferred from
the statement that five thousand priests were, in some way or other,
attached to the principal temple in the capital. The various ranks and
functions of this multitudinous body were discriminated with great
exactness. Those best instructed in music took the management of the
choirs. Others arranged the festivals conformably to the calendar.
Some superintended the education of youth, and others had charge of
the hieroglyphical paintings and oral traditions; while the dismal
rites of sacrifice were reserved for the chief dignitaries of the
order. At the head of the whole establishment were two high-priests,
elected from the order, as it would seem, by the king and principal
nobles, without reference to birth, but solely for their
qualifications, as shown by their previous conduct in a subordinate
station. They were equal in dignity, and inferior only to the
sovereign, who rarely acted without their advice in weighty matters of
public concern.
The priests were each devoted to the service of some particular
deity, and had quarters provided within the spacious precincts of
their temple; at least, while engaged in immediate attendance
there,- for they were allowed to marry and have families of their own.
In this monastic residence they lived in all the stern severity of
conventual discipline. Thrice during the day, and once at night,
they were called to prayers. They were frequent in their ablutions and
vigils, and mortified the flesh by fasting and cruel penance,- drawing
blood from their bodies by flagellation, or by piercing them with
the thorns of the aloe.
The great cities were divided into districts, placed under the
charge of a sort of parochial clergy, who regulated every act of
religion within their precincts. It is remarkable that they
administered the rites of confession and absolution. The secrets of
the confessional were held inviolable, and penances were imposed of
much the same kind as those enjoined in the Roman Catholic Church.
There were two remarkable peculiarities in the Aztec ceremony. The
first was, that, as the repetition of an offence, once atoned for, was
deemed inexpiable, confession was made but once in a man's life, and
was usually deferred to a late period of it, the penitent unburdened
his conscience, and settled, at once, the long arrears of iniquity.
Another peculiarity was, that priestly absolution was received in
Place of the legal punishment of offences, and authorised an acquittal
in case of arrest. Long after the Conquest, the simple natives, when
they came under the arm of the law, sought to escape by producing
the certificate of their confession.
One of the most important duties of the priesthood was that of
education, to which certain buildings were appropriated within the
enclosure of the principal temple. Here the youth of both sexes, of
the higher and middling orders, were placed at a very tender age.
The girls were intrusted to the care of priestesses; for women were
allowed to exercise sacerdotal functions, except those of sacrifice.
In these institutions the boys were drilled in the routine of monastic
discipline; they decorated the shrines of the gods with flowers, fed
the sacred fires, and took part in the religious chants and festivals.
Those in the higher school,- the Calmecac, as it was called,- were
initiated in their traditionary lore, the mysteries of
hieroglyphics, the principles of government, and such branches of
astronomical and natural science as were within the compass of the
priesthood. The girls learned various feminine employments, especially
to weave and embroider rich coverings for the altars of the gods.
Great attention was paid to the moral discipline of both sexes. The
most perfect decorum prevailed; and offences were punished with
extreme rigour, in some instances with death itself. Terror, not love,
was the spring of education with the Aztecs.
At a suitable age for marrying, or for entering into the world,
the pupils were dismissed, with much ceremony, from the convent, and
the recommendation of the principal often introduced those most
competent to responsible situations in public life. Such was the
crafty policy of the Mexican priests, who, by reserving to
themselves the business of instruction, were enabled to mould the
young and plastic mind according to their own wills, and to train it
early to implicit reverence for religion and its ministers; a
reverence which still maintained its hold on the iron nature of the
warrior, long after every other vestige of education had been
effaced by the rough trade to which he was devoted.
To each of the principal temples lands were annexed for the
maintenance of the priests. These estates were augmented by the policy
of devotion of successive princes, until, under the last Montezuma,
they had swollen to an enormous extent, and covered every district
of the empire. The priests took the management of their property
into their own hands; and they seem to have treated their tenants with
the liberality and indulgence characteristic of monastic corporations.
Besides the large supplies drawn from this source, the religious order
was enriched with the first-fruits, and such other offerings as
piety or superstition dictated. The surplus beyond what was required
for the support of the national worship was distributed in alms
among the poor; a duty strenuously prescribed by their moral code.
Thus we find the same religion inculcating lessons of pure
philanthropy, on the one hand, and of merciless extermination, as we
shall soon see, on the other.
The Mexican temples- teocallis, "houses of God," as they were
called- were very numerous. There were several hundreds in each of the
principal cities, many of them, doubtless, very humble edifices.
They were solid masses of earth, cased with brick or stone, and in
their form somewhat resembled the pyramidal structures of ancient
Egypt. The bases of many of them were more than a hundred feet square,
and they towered to a still greater height. They were distributed into
four or five stories, each of smaller dimensions than that below.
The ascent was by a flight of steps, at an angle of the pyramid, on
the outside. This led to a sort of terrace or gallery, at the base
of the second story, which passed quite round the building to
another flight of stairs, commencing also at the same angle as the
preceding and directly over it, and leading to a similar terrace; so
that one had to make the circuit of the temple several times, before
reaching the summit. In some instances the stairway led directly up
the centre of the western face of the building. The top was a broad
area, on which were erected one or two towers, forty or fifty feet
high, the sanctuaries in which stood the sacred images of the
presiding deities. Before these towers stood the dreadful stone of
sacrifice, and two lofty altars, on which fires were kept, as
inextinguishable as those in the temple of Vesta. There were said to
be six hundred of these altars on smaller buildings within the
inclosure of the great temple of Mexico, which, with those on the
sacred edifices in other parts of the city, shed a brilliant
illumination over its streets, through the darkest night.
From the construction of their temples, all religious services
were public. The long processions of priests, winding round their
massive sides, as they rose higher and higher towards the summit,
and the dismal rites of sacrifice performed there, were all visible
from the remotest corners of the capital, impressing on the
spectator's mind a superstitious veneration for the mysteries of his
religion, and for the dread ministers by whom they were interpreted.
This impression was kept in full force by their numerous
festivals. Every month was consecrated to some protecting deity; and
every week- nay, almost every day, was set down in their calendar
for some appropriate celebration; so that it is difficult to
understand how the ordinary business of life could have been
compatible with the exactions of religion. Many of their ceremonies
were of a light and cheerful complexion, consisting of the national
songs and dances, in which both sexes joined. Processions were made of
women and children crowned with garlands and bearing offerings of
fruits, the ripened maize, or the sweet incense of copal and other
odoriferous gums, while the altars of the deity were stained with no
blood save that of animals. These were the peaceful rites derived from
their Toltec predecessors, on which the fierce Aztecs engrafted a
superstition too loathsome to be exhibited in all its nakedness, and
one over which I would gladly draw a veil altogether, but that it
would leave the reader in ignorance of their most striking
institution, and one that had the greatest influence in forming the
national character.
Human sacrifices were adopted by the Aztecs early in the
fourteenth century, about two hundred years before the Conquest.
Rare at first, they became more frequent with the wider extent of
their empire; till, at length, almost every festival was closed with
this cruel abomination. These religious ceremonials were generally
arranged in such a manner as to afford a type of the most prominent
circumstances in the character or history of the deity who was the
object of them. A single example will suffice.
One of their most important festivals was that in honour of the
god Tezcatlipoca, whose rank was inferior only to that of the
Supreme Being. He was called "the soul of the world," and supposed
to have been its creator. He was depicted as a handsome man, endowed
with perpetual youth. A year before the intended sacrifice, a captive,
distinguished for his personal beauty, and without a blemish on his
body, was selected to represent this deity. Certain tutors took charge
of him, and instructed him how to perform his new part with becoming
grace and dignity. He was arrayed in a splendid dress, regaled with
incense, and with a profusion of sweet-scented flowers, of which the
ancient Mexicans were as fond as their descendants of the present day.
When he went abroad, he was attended by a train of the royal pages,
and, as he halted in the streets to play some favourite melody, the
crowd prostrated themselves before him, and did him homage as the
representative of their good deity. In this way he led an easy,
luxurious life, till within a month of his sacrifice. Four beautiful
girls, bearing the names of the principal goddesses, were then
selected to share the honours of his bed; and with them he continued
to live in idle dalliance feasted at the banquets of the principal
nobles, who paid him all the honours of a divinity.
At length the fatal day of sacrifice arrived. The term of his
short-lived glories was at an end. He was stripped of his gaudy
apparel, and bade adieu to the fair partners of his revelries. One
of the royal barges transported him across the lake to a temple
which rose on its margin, about a league from the city. Hither the
inhabitants of the capital flocked, to witness the consummation of the
ceremony. As the sad procession wound up the sides of the pyramid, the
unhappy victim threw away his gay chaplet of flowers, and broke in
pieces the musical instruments with which he had solaced the hours
of captivity. On the summit he was received by six priests, whose long
and matted locks flowed disorderly over their sable robes, covered
with hieroglyphic scrolls of mystic import. They led him to the
sacrificial stone, a huge block of jasper, with its upper surface
somewhat convex. On this the prisoner was stretched. Five priests
secured his head and his limbs; while the sixth, clad in a scarlet
mantle, emblematic of his bloody office, dexterously opened the breast
of the wretched victim with a sharp razor of itztli,- a volcanic
substance hard as flint,- and, inserting his hand in the wound, tore
out the palpitating heart. The minister of death, first holding this
up towards the sun, an object of worship throughout Anahuac, cast it
at the feet of the deity to whom the temple was devoted, while the
multitudes below prostrated themselves in humble adoration. The tragic
story of this prisoner was expounded by the priests as the type of
human destiny, which, brilliant in its commencement, too often
closes in sorrow and disaster.
Such was the form of human sacrifice usually practised by the
Aztecs. It was the same that often met the indignant eyes of the
Europeans, in their progress through the country, and from the
dreadful doom of which they themselves were not exempted. There
were, indeed, some occasions when preliminary tortures, of the most
exquisite kind,- with which it is unnecessary to shock the reader,-
were inflicted, but they always terminated with the bloody ceremony
above described. It should be remarked, however, that such tortures
were not the spontaneous suggestions of cruelty, as with the North
American Indians; but were all rigorously prescribed in the Aztec
ritual, and doubtless, were often inflicted with the same compunctious
visitings which a devout familiar of the Holy Office might at times
experience in executing its stern decrees. Women, as well as the other
sex, were sometimes reserved for sacrifice. On some occasions,
particularly in seasons of drought, at the festival of the
insatiable Tlaloc, the god of rain, children, for the most part
infants, were offered up. As they were borne along in open litters,
dressed in their festal robes, and decked with the fresh blossoms of
spring, they moved the hardest heart to pity, though their cries
were drowned in the wild chant of the priests, who read in their tears
a favourable augury for their petition. These innocent victims were
generally bought by the priests of parents who were poor, but who
stifled the voice of nature, probably less at the suggestions of
poverty than of a wretched superstition.
The most loathsome part of the story, the manner in which the body
of the sacrificed captive was disposed of, remains yet to be told.
It was delivered to the warrior who had taken him in battle, and by
him, after being dressed, was served up in an entertainment to his
friends. This was not the coarse repast of famished cannibals, but a
banquet teeming with delicious beverages and delicate viands, prepared
with art, and attended by both sexes, who, as we shall see
hereafter, conducted themselves with all the decorum of civilised
life. Surely, never were refinement and the extreme of barbarism
brought so closely in contact with each other!
Human sacrifices have been practised by many nations, not
excepting the most polished nations of antiquity; but never by any, on
a scale to be compared with those in Anahuac. The amount of victims
immolated on its accursed altars would stagger the faith of the
least scrupulous believer. Scarcely any author pretends to estimate
the yearly sacrifices throughout the empire at less than twenty
thousand, and some carry the number as high as fifty!
On great occasions, as the coronation of a king, or the
consecration of a temple, the number becomes still more appalling.
At the dedication of the great temple of Huitzilopochtli, in 1486, the
prisoners, who for some years had been reserved for the purpose,
were drawn from all quarters to the capital. They were ranged in
files, forming a procession nearly two miles long. The ceremony
consumed several days, and seventy thousand captives are said to
have perished at the shrine of this terrible deity! But who can
believe that so numerous a body would have suffered themselves to be
led, unresistingly, like sheep to the slaughter? Or how could their
remains, too great for consumption in the ordinary way, be disposed
of, without breeding a pestilence in the capital? Yet the event was of
recent date, and is unequivocally attested by the best informed
historians. One fact may be considered certain. It was customary to
preserve the skulls of the sacrificed, in buildings appropriated to
the purpose. The companions of Cortes counted one hundred and
thirty-six thousand in one of these edifices! Without attempting a
precise calculation, therefore, it is safe to conclude that
thousands were yearly offered up, in the different cities of
Anahuac, on the bloody altars of the Mexican divinities.
Indeed, the great object of war with the Aztecs was quite as
much to gather victims for their sacrifices, as to extend their
empire. Hence it was, that an enemy was never slain in battle, if
there was a chance of taking him alive. To this circumstance the
Spaniards repeatedly owed their preservation. When Montezuma was
asked, "why he had suffered the republic of Tlascala to maintain her
independence on his borders," he replied, "That she might furnish
him with victims for his gods!" As the supply began to fail, the
priests, the Dominicans of the New World, bellowed aloud for more, and
urged on their superstitious sovereign by the denunciations of
celestial wrath. Like the militant churchmen of Christendom in the
Middle Ages, they mingled themselves in the ranks, and were
conspicuous in the thickest of the fight, by their hideous aspects and
frantic gestures. Strange, that in every country the most fiendish
passions of the human heart have been those kindled in the name of
The influence of these practices on the Aztec character was as
disastrous as might have been expected. Familiarity with the bloody
rites of sacrifice steeled the heart against human sympathy, and begat
a thirst for carnage, like that excited in the Romans by the
exhibitions of the circus. The perpetual recurrence of ceremonies,
in which the people took part, associated religion with their most
intimate concerns, and spread the gloom of superstition over the
domestic hearth, until the character of the nation wore a grave and
even melancholy aspect, which belongs to their descendants at the
present day. The influence of the priesthood, of course, became
unbounded. The sovereign thought himself honoured by being permitted
to assist in the services of the temple. Far from limiting the
authority of the priests to spiritual matters, he often surrendered
his opinion to theirs, where they were least competent to give it.
It was their opposition that prevented the final capitulation which
would have saved the capital. The whole nation, from the peasant to
the prince, bowed their necks to the worst kind of tyranny- that of
a blind fanaticism.
Human sacrifice, however cruel, has nothing in it degrading to its
victim. It may be rather said to ennoble him, by devoting him to the
gods. Although so terrible with the Aztecs, it was sometimes
voluntarily embraced by them, as the most glorious death, and one that
opened a sure passage into paradise. The Inquisition, on the other
hand, branded its victims with infamy in this world, and consigned
them to everlasting perdition in the next.
One detestable feature of the Aztec superstition, however, sunk it
far below the Christian. This was its cannibalism; though, in truth,
the Mexicans were not cannibals, in the coarsest acceptation of the
term. They did not feed on human flesh merely to gratify a brutish
appetite, but in obedience to their religion. Their repasts were
made of the victims whose blood had been poured out on the altar of
sacrifice. This is a distinction worthy of notice. Still, cannibalism,
under any form, or whatever sanction, cannot but have a fatal
influence on the nation addicted to it. It suggests ideas so
loathsome, so degrading to man, to his spiritual and immortal
nature, that it is impossible the people who practise it should make
any great progress in moral or intellectual culture. The Mexicans
furnish no exception to this remark. The civilisation which they
possessed descended from the Toltecs, a race who never stained their
altars, still less their banquets, with the blood of man. All that
deserved the name of science in Mexico came from this source; and
the crumbling ruins of edifices, attributed to them, still extant in
various parts of New Spain, show a decided superiority in their
architecture over that of the later races of Anahuac. It is true,
the Mexicans made great proficiency in many of the social and mechanic
arts, in that material culture,- if I may so call it,- the natural
growth of increasing opulence, which ministers to the gratification of
the senses. In purely intellectual progress, they were behind the
Tezcucans, whose wise sovereigns came into the abominable rites of
their neighbours with reluctance, and practised them on a much more
moderate scale.
Chapter IV


IT is a relief to turn from the gloomy pages of the preceding
chapter to a brighter side of the picture, and to contemplate the same
nation in its generous struggle to raise itself from a state of
barbarism, and to take a positive rank in the scale of civilisation.
It is not the less interesting, that these efforts were made on an
entirely new theatre of action, apart from those influences that
operate in the Old World; the inhabitants of which, forming one
great brotherhood of nations, are knit together by sympathies, that
make the faintest spark of knowledge struck out in one quarter, spread
gradually wider and wider, until it has diffused a cheering light over
the remotest. It is curious to observe the human mind, in this new
position, conforming to the same laws as on the ancient continent, and
taking a similar direction in its first inquiries after truth,- so
similar, indeed, as, although not warranting, perhaps, the idea of
imitation, to suggest, at least, that of a common origin.
In the eastern hemisphere, we find some nations, as the Greeks,
for instance, early smitten with such a love of the beautiful as to be
unwilling to dispense with it, even in the graver productions of
science; and other nations, again, proposing a severer end to
themselves, to which even imagination and elegant art were made
subservient. The productions of such a people must be criticised,
not by the ordinary rules of taste, but by their adaptation to the
peculiar end for which they were designed. Such were the Egyptians
in the Old World, and the Mexicans in the New. We have already had
occasion to notice the resemblance borne by the latter nation to the
former in their religious economy. We shall be more struck with it
in their scientific culture, especially their hieroglyphical writing
and their astronomy.
To describe actions and events by delineating visible objects,
seems to be a natural suggestion, and is practised, after a certain
fashion, by the rudest savages. The North American Indian carves an
arrow on the bark of trees to show his followers the direction of
his march, and some other sign to show the success of his expeditions.
But to paint intelligibly a consecutive series of these actions-
forming what Warburton has happily called picture-writing- requires
a combination of ideas, that amounts to a positively intellectual
effort. Yet further, when the object of the painter, instead of
being limited to the present, is to penetrate the past, and to
gather from its dark recesses lessons of instruction for coming
generations, we see the dawnings of a literary culture, and
recognise the proof of a decided civilisation in the attempt itself,
however imperfectly it may be executed. The literal imitation of
objects will not answer for this more complex and extended plan. It
would occupy too much space, as well as time, in the execution. It
then becomes necessary to abridge the pictures, to confine the drawing
to outlines, or to such prominent parts of the bodies delineated, as
may readily suggest the whole. This is the representative or
figurative writing, which forms the lowest stage of hieroglyphics.
But there are things which have no type in the material world;
abstract ideas, which can only be represented by visible objects
supposed to have some quality analogous to the idea intended. This
constitutes symbolical writing, the most difficult of all to the
interpreter, since the analogy between the material and immaterial
object is often purely fanciful, or local in its application. Who, for
instance, could suspect the association which made a beetle
represent the universe, as with the Egyptians, or a serpent typify
time, as with the Aztecs?
The third and last division is the phonetic, in which signs are
made to represent sounds, either entire words, or parts of them.
This is the nearest approach of the hieroglyphical series to that
beautiful invention, the alphabet, by which language is resolved
into its elementary sounds, and an apparatus supplied for easily and
accurately expressing the most delicate shades of thought.
The Egyptians were well skilled in all three kinds of
hieroglyphics. But, although their public monuments display the
first class, in their ordinary intercourse and written records, it
is now certain that they almost wholly relied on the phonetic
character. Strange, that having thus broken down the thin partition
which divided them from an alphabet, their latest monuments should
exhibit no nearer approach to it than their earliest. The Aztecs,
also, were acquainted with the several varieties of hieroglyphics. But
they relied on the figurative infinitely more than on the others.
The Egyptians were at the top of the scale, the Aztecs at the bottom.
In casting the eye over a Mexican manuscript, or map, as it is
called, one is struck with the grotesque caricatures it exhibits of
the human figure; monstrous, overgrown heads, on puny misshapen
bodies, which are themselves hard and angular in their outlines, and
without the least skill in composition. On closer inspection, however,
it is obvious that it is not so much a rude attempt to delineate
nature, as a conventional symbol, to express the idea in the most
clear and forcible manner; in the same way as the pieces of similar
value on a chess-board, while they correspond with one another in
form, bear little resemblance, usually, to the objects they represent.
Those parts of the figure are most distinctly traced, which are the
most important. So, also the colouring, instead of the delicate
gradations of nature, exhibits only gaudy and violent contrasts,
such as may produce the most vivid impression. "For even colours,"
as Gama observes, "speak in the Aztec hieroglyphics."
But in the execution of all this the Mexicans were much inferior
to the Egyptians. The drawings of the latter, indeed, are
exceedingly defective when criticised by the rules of art; for they
were as ignorant of perspective as the Chinese, and only exhibited the
head in profile, with the eye in the centre, and with total absence of
expression. But they handled the pencil more gracefully than the
Aztecs, were more true to the natural forms of objects, and, above
all, showed great superiority in abridging the original figure by
giving only the outlines, or some characteristic. or essential
feature. This simplified the process, and facilitated the
communication of thought. An Egyptian text has almost the appearance
of alphabetical writing in its regular lines of minute figures. A
Mexican text looks usually like a collection of pictures, each one
forming the subject of a separate study. This is particularly the case
with the delineations of mythology; in which the story is told by a
conglomeration of symbols, that may remind one more of the
mysterious anaglyphs sculptured on the temples of the Egyptians,
than of their written records.
The Aztecs had various emblems for expressing such things as, from
their nature, could not be directly represented by the painter; as,
for example, the years, months, days, the seasons, the elements, the
heavens, and the like. A "tongue" denoted speaking; a "footprint,"
travelling; "a man sitting on the ground," an earthquake. These
symbols were often very arbitrary, varying with the caprice of the
writer; and it requires a nice discrimination to interpret them, as
a slight change in the form or position of the figure intimated a very
different meaning. An ingenious writer asserts, that the priests
devised secret symbolic characters for the record of their religious
mysteries. It is possible. But the researches of Champollion lead to
the conclusion, that the similar opinion, formerly entertained
respecting the Egyptian hieroglyphics, is without foundation.
Lastly, they employed, as above stated, phonetic signs, though
these were chiefly confined to the names of persons and places; which,
being derived from some circumstance, or characteristic quality,
were accommodated to the hieroglyphical system. Thus the town Cimatlan
was compounded of cimatl, a "root," which grew near it, and tlan,
signifying "near"; Tlaxcallan meant "the place of bread," from its
rich fields of corn; Huexotzinco, "a place surrounded by willows." The
names of persons were often significant of their adventures and
achievements. That of the great Tezcucan prince, Nezahualcoyotl,
signified "hungry fox," intimating his sagacity, and his distresses in
early life. The emblems of such names were no sooner seen, than they
suggested to every Mexican the person and place intended; and, when
painted on their shields, or embroidered on their banners, became
the armorial bearings by which city and chieftain were
distinguished, as in Europe, in the age of chivalry.
But, although the Aztecs were instructed in all the varieties of
hieroglyphical painting, they chiefly resorted to the clumsy method of
direct representation. Had their empire lasted, like the Egyptian,
several thousand, instead of the brief space of two hundred, years,
they would, doubtless, like them, have advanced to the more frequent
use of the phonetic writing. But, before they could be made acquainted
with the capabilities of their own system, the Spanish Conquest, by
introducing the European alphabet, supplied their scholars with a more
perfect contrivance for expressing thought, which soon supplanted
the ancient pictorial character.
Clumsy as it was, however, the Aztec picture-writing seems to have
been adequate to the demands of the nation, in their imperfect state
of civilisation. By means of it were recorded all their laws, and even
their regulations for domestic economy; their tribute-rolls,
specifying the imposts of the various towns; their mythology,
calendars, and rituals; their political annals, carried back to a
period long before the foundation of the city. They digested a
complete system of chronology, and could specify with accuracy the
dates of the most important events in their history; the year being
inscribed on the margin, against the particular circumstance recorded.
It is true, history, thus executed, must necessarily be vague and
fragmentary. Only a few leading incidents could be presented. But in
this it did not differ much from the monkish chronicles of the dark
ages, which often dispose of years in a few brief sentences; quite
long enough for the annals of barbarians.
In order to estimate aright the picture-writing of the Aztecs, one
must regard it in connection with oral tradition, to which it was
auxiliary. In the colleges of the priests the youth were instructed in
astronomy, history, mythology, etc.; and those who were to follow
the profession of hieroglyphical painting were taught the
application of the characters appropriated to each of these
branches. In an historical work, one had charge of the chronology,
another of the events. Every part of the labour was thus
mechanically distributed. The pupils, instructed in all that was
before known in their several departments, were prepared to extend
still further the boundaries of their imperfect science. The
hieroglyphics served as a sort of stenography, a collection of
notes, suggesting to the initiated much more than could be conveyed by
a literal interpretation. This combination of the written and the oral
comprehended what may be called the literature of the Aztecs.
Their manuscripts were made of different materials,- of cotton
cloth, or skins nicely prepared; of a composition of silk and gum;
but, for the most part, of a fine fabric from the leaves of the
aloe, agave Americana, called by the natives, maguey, which grows
luxuriantly over the tablelands of Mexico. A sort of paper was made
from it, resembling somewhat the Egyptian papyrus, which, when
properly dressed and polished, is said to have been more soft and
beautiful than parchment. Some of the specimens, still existing,
exhibit their original freshness, and the paintings on them retain
their brilliancy of colours. They were sometimes done up into rolls,
but more frequently into volumes of moderate size, in which the
paper was shut up, like a folding-screen, with a leaf or tablet of
wood at each extremity, that gave the whole, when closed, the
appearance of a book. The length of the strips was determined only
by convenience. As the pages might be read and referred to separately,
this form had obvious advantages over the rolls of the ancients.
At the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, great quantities of
these manuscripts were treasured up in the country. Numerous persons
were employed in painting, and the dexterity of their operations
excited the astonishment of the conquerors. Unfortunately, this was
mingled with other, and unworthy feelings. The strange, unknown
characters inscribed on them excited suspicion. They were looked on as
magic scrolls; and were regarded in the same light with the idols
and temples, as the symbols of a pestilent superstition that must be
extirpated. The first archbishop of Mexico, Don Juan de Zumarraga,-
a name that should be as immortal as that of Omar,- collected these
paintings from every quarter, especially from Tezcuco, the most
cultivated capital in Anahuac, and the great depository of the
national archives. He then caused them to be piled up in a
"mountain-heap,"- as it is called by the Spanish writers
themselves,- and reduced them all to ashes! His greater countryman,
Archbishop Ximenes, had celebrated a similar auto-dafe of Arabic
manuscripts, in Granada, some twenty years before. Never did
fanaticism achieve two more signal triumphs, than by the
annihilation of so many curious monuments of human ingenuity and
The unlettered soldiers were not slow in imitating the example
of their prelate. Every chart and volume which fell into their hands
was wantonly destroyed; so that, when the scholars of a later and more
enlightened age anxiously sought to recover some of these memorials of
civilisation, nearly all had perished, and the few surviving were
jealously hidden by the natives. Through the indefatigable labours
of a private individual, however, a considerable collection was
eventually deposited in the archives of Mexico; but was so little
heeded there, that some were plundered, others decayed piecemeal
from the damps and mildews, and others, again, were used up as
waste-paper! We contemplate with indignation the cruelties inflicted
by the early conquerors. But indignation is qualified with contempt,
when we see them thus ruthlessly trampling out the spark of knowledge,
the common boon and property of all mankind. We may well doubt,
which has the strongest claims to civilisation, the victor or the
A few of the Mexican manuscripts have found their way, from time
to time, to Europe, and are carefully preserved in the public
libraries of its capitals. They are brought together in the
magnificent work of Lord Kingsborough; but not one is there from
Spain. The most important of them, for the light in throws on the
Aztec institutions, is the Mendoza Codex; which, after its
mysterious disappearance for more than a century, has at length
re-appeared in the Bodleian library at Oxford. It has been several
times engraved. The most brilliant in colouring, probably, is the
Borgian collection, in Rome. The most curious, however, is the Dresden
Codex, which has excited less attention than it deserves. Although
usually classed among Mexican manuscripts, it bears little resemblance
to them in its execution; the figures of objects are more delicately
drawn, and the characters, unlike the Mexican, appear to be purely
arbitrary, and are possibly phonetic. Their regular arrangement is
quite equal to the Egyptian. The whole infers a much higher
civilisation than the Aztec, and offers abundant food for curious
Some few of these maps have interpretations annexed to them, which
were obtained from the natives after the Conquest. The greater part
are without any, and cannot now be unriddled. Had the Mexicans made
free use of a phonetic alphabet, it might have been originally easy,
by mastering the comparatively few signs employed in this kind of
communication, to have got a permanent key to the whole. A brief
inscription has furnished a clue to the vast labyrinth of Egyptian
hieroglyphics. But the Aztec characters, representing individuals,
or at most, species, require to be made out separately; a hopeless
task, for which little aid is to be expected from the vague and
general tenor of the few interpretations now existing. In less than
a hundred years after the Conquest, the knowledge of the hieroglyphics
had so far declined, that a diligent Tezcucan writer complains he
could find in the country only two persons, both very aged, at all
competent to interpret them.
It is not probable, therefore, that the art of reading these
picture-writings will ever be recovered; a circumstance certainly to
be regretted. Not that the records of a semi-civilised people would be
likely to contain any new truth or discovery important to human
comfort or progress; but they could scarcely fail to throw some
additional light on the previous history of the nation, and that of
the more polished people who before occupied the country. This would
be still more probable, if any literary relics of their Toltec
predecessors were preserved; and, if report be true, an important
compilation from this source was extant at the time of the invasion,
and may have perhaps contributed to swell the holocaust of
Zumarraga. It is no great stretch of fancy, to suppose that such
records might reveal the successive links in the mighty chain of
migration of the primitive races, and, by carrying us back to the seat
of their possessions in the Old World, have solved the mystery which
has so long perplexed the learned, in regard to the settlement and
civilisation of the New.
Besides the hieroglyphical maps, the traditions of the country
were embodied in the songs and hymns, which, as already mentioned,
were carefully taught in the public schools. These were various,
embracing the mythic legends of a heroic age, the warlike achievements
of their own, or the softer tales of love and pleasure. Many of them
were composed by scholars and persons of rank, and are cited as
affording the most authentic record of events. The Mexican dialect was
rich and expressive, though inferior to the Tezcucan, the most
polished of the idioms of Anahuac. None of the Aztec compositions have
survived, but we can form some estimate of the general state of poetic
culture from the odes which have come down to us from the royal
house of Tezcuco. Sahagun has furnished us with translations of
their more elaborate prose, consisting of prayers and public
discourses, which give a favourable idea of their eloquence, and
show that they paid much attention to rhetorical effect. They are said
to have had, also, something like theatrical exhibitions, of a
pantomimic sort, in which the faces of the performers were covered
with masks, and the figures of birds or animals were frequently
represented; an imitation to which they may have been led by the
familiar delineation of such objects in their hieroglyphics. In all
this we see the dawning of a literary culture, surpassed, however,
by their attainments in the severer walks of mathematical science.
They devised a system of notation in their arithmetic,
sufficiently simple. The first twenty numbers were expressed by a
corresponding number of dots. The first five had specific names; after
which they were represented by combining the fifth with one of the
four preceding: as five and one for six, five and two for seven, and
so on. Ten and fifteen had each a separate name, which was also
combined with the first four, to express a higher quantity. These
four, therefore, were the radical characters of their oral arithmetic,
in the same manner as they were of the written with the ancient
Romans; a more simple arrangement, probably, than any existing among
Europeans. Twenty was expressed by a separate hieroglyphic,- a flag.
Larger sums were reckoned by twenties, and, in writing, by repeating
the number of flags. The square of twenty, four hundred, had a
separate sign, that of a plume, and so had the cube of twenty, or
eight thousand, which was denoted by a purse, or sack. This was the
whole arithmetical apparatus of the Mexicans, by the combination of
which they were enabled to indicate any quantity. For greater
expedition, they used to denote fractions of the larger sums by
drawing only a part of the object. Thus, half or three-fourths of a
plume, or of a purse, represented that proportion of their
respective sums, and so on. With all this, the machinery will appear
very awkward to us, who perform our operations with so much ease by
means of the Arabic, or rather, Indian ciphers. It is not much more
awkward, however, than the system pursued by the great
mathematicians of antiquity unacquainted with the brilliant
invention which has given a new aspect to mathematical science, of
determining the value, in a great measure, by the relative position of
the figures.
In the measurement of time, the Aztecs adjusted their civil year
by the solar. They divided it into eighteen months of twenty days
each. Both months and days were expressed by peculiar
hieroglyphics,- those of the former often intimating the season of the
year, like the French months, at the period of the Revolution. Five
complementary days, as in Egypt, were added, to make up the full
number of three hundred and sixty-five. They belonged to no month, and
were regarded as peculiarly unlucky. A month was divided into four
weeks, of five days each, on the last of which was the public fair
or market day. This arrangement, different from that of the nations of
the Old Continent, whether of Europe or Asia, has the advantage of
giving an equal number of days to each month, and of comprehending
entire weeks, without a fraction, both in the months and in the year.
As the year is composed of nearly six hours more than three
hundred and sixty-five days, there still remained an excess, which,
like other nations who have framed a calendar, they provided for by
intercalation; not, indeed, every fourth year, as the Europeans, but
at longer intervals, like some of the Asiatics. They waited till the
expiration of fifty-two vague years, when they interposed thirteen
days, or rather twelve and a half, this being the number which had
fallen in arrear. Had they inserted thirteen, it would have been too
much, since the annual excess over three hundred and sixty-five is
about eleven minutes less than six hours. But, as their calendar, at
the time of the Conquest, was found to correspond with the European
(making allowance for the subsequent Gregorian reform), they would
seem to have adopted the shorter period of twelve days and a half,
which brought them, within an almost inappreciable fraction, to the
exact length of the tropical year, as established by the most accurate
observations. Indeed, the intercalation of twenty-five days, in
every hundred and four years, shows a nicer adjustment of civil to
solar time than is presented by any European calendar; since more than
five centuries must elapse, before the loss of an entire day. Such was
the astonishing precision displayed by the Aztecs, or, perhaps, by
their more polished Toltec predecessors, in these computations, so
difficult as to have baffled, till a comparatively recent period,
the most enlightened nations of Christendom!
The chronological system of the Mexicans, by which they determined
the date of any particular event, was also very remarkable. The epoch,
from which they reckoned, corresponded with the year 1091, of the
Christian era. It was the period of the reform of their calendar, soon
after their migration from Aztlan. They threw the years, as already
noticed, into great cycles, of fifty-two each, which they called
"sheafs," or "bundles," and represented by a quantity of reeds bound
together by a string. As often as this hieroglyphic occurs in their
maps, it shows the number of half centuries. To enable them to specify
any particular year, they divided the great cycle into four smaller
cycles, or indictions, of thirteen years each. They then adopted two
periodical series of signs, one consisting of their numerical dots
up to thirteen, the other, of four hieroglyphics of the years.*
These latter they repeated in regular succession, setting against each
one a number of the corresponding series of dots, continued also in
regular succession up to thirteen. The same system was pursued through
the four indictions, which thus, it will be observed, began always
with a different hieroglyphic of the year from the preceding; and in
this way, each of the hieroglyphics was made to combine successively
with each of the numerical signs, but never twice with the same; since
four, and thirteen, the factors of fifty-two,- the number of years
in the cycle,- must admit of just as many combinations as are equal to
their product. Thus every year had its appropriate symbol, by which it
was, at once, recognised. And this symbol, preceded by the proper
number of "bundles," indicating the half centuries, showed the precise
time which had elapsed since the national epoch of 1091. The ingenious
contrivance of a periodical series, in place of the cumbrous system of
hieroglyphical notation, is not peculiar to the Aztecs, and is to be
found among various people on the Asiatic continent,- the same in
principle, though varying materially in arrangement.

* These hieroglyphics were a "rabbit," a "reed," a "flint," a


The solar calendar, above described, might have answered all the
purposes of the nation; but the priests chose to construct another for
themselves. This was called a "lunar reckoning," though nowise
accommodated to the revolutions of the moon. It was formed, also, of
two periodical series; one of them consisting of thirteen numerical
signs, or dots, the other of the twenty hieroglyphics of the days.
But, as the product of these combinations would only be 260, and, as
some confusion might arise from the repetition of the same terms for
the remaining 105 days of the year, they invented a third series,
consisting of nine additional hieroglyphics, which, alternating with
the two preceding series, rendered it impossible that the three should
coincide twice in the same year, or indeed in less than 2340 days;
since 20 X 13 X 9 = 2340. Thirteen was a mystic number, of frequent
use in their tables. Why they resorted to that of nine, on this
occasion, is not so clear.
This second calendar rouses a holy indignation in the early
Spanish missionaries, and Father Sahagun loudly condemns it as "most
unhallowed, since it is founded neither on natural reason nor on the
influence of the planets, nor on the true course of the year; but is
plainly the work of necromancy, and the fruit of a compact with the
Devil!" One may doubt, whether the superstition of those who
invented the scheme was greater than that of those who impugned it. At
all events, we may, without having recourse to supernatural agency,
find in the human heart a sufficient explanation of its origin; in
that love of power, that has led the priesthood of many a faith to
affect a mystery, the key to which was in their own keeping.
By means of this calendar the Aztec priests kept their own
records, regulated the festivals and seasons of sacrifice, and made
all their astrological calculations. The astrological scheme of the
Aztecs was founded less on the planetary influences than on those of
the arbitrary signs they had adopted for the months and days. The
character of the leading sign, in each lunar cycle of thirteen days,
gave a complexion to the whole; though this was qualified, in some
degree, by the signs of the succeeding days, as well as by those of
the hours. It was in adjusting these conflicting forces that the great
art of the diviner was shown. In no country, not even in ancient
Egypt, were the dreams of the astrologer more implicitly deferred
to. On the birth of a child, he was instantly summoned. The time of
the event was accurately ascertained; and the family hung in trembling
suspense, as the minister of Heaven cast the horoscope of the
infant, and unrolled the dark volume of destiny. The influence of
the priest was confessed by the Mexican, in the very first breath
which he inhaled.
We know little further of the astronomical attainments of the
Aztecs. That they were acquainted with the cause of eclipses is
evident from the representation on their maps, of the disk of the moon
projected on that of the sun. Whether they had arranged a system of
constellations, is uncertain; though, that they recognised some of the
most obvious, as the Pleiades for example, is evident from the fact
that they regulated their festivals by them. We know of no
astronomical instruments used by them, except the dial. An immense
circular block of carved stone, disinterred in 1790, in the great
square of Mexico, has supplied an acute and learned scholar with the
means of establishing some interesting facts in regard to Mexican
science. This colossal fragment, on which the calendar is engraved,
shows that they had the means of settling the hours of the day with
precision, the periods of the solstices and of the equinoxes, and that
of the transit of the sun across the zenith of Mexico.
We cannot contemplate the astronomical science of the Mexicans, so
disproportioned to their progress in other walks of civilisation,
without astonishment. An acquaintance with some of the more obvious
principles of astronomy is within the reach of the rudest people. With
a little care, they may learn to connect the regular. changes of the
seasons with those of the place of the sun at his rising and
setting. They may follow the march of the great luminary through the
heavens, by watching the stars that first brighten on his evening
track, or fade in his morning beams. They may measure a revolution
of the moon by marking her phases, and may even form a general idea of
the number of such revolutions in a solar year. But that they should
be capable of accurately adjusting their festivals by the movements of
the heavenly bodies, and should fix the true length of the tropical
year, with a precision unknown to the great philosophers of antiquity,
could be the result only of a long series of nice and patient
observations, evincing no slight progress in civilisation. But
whence could the rude inhabitants of these mountain regions have
derived this curious erudition? Not from the barbarous hordes who
roamed over the higher latitudes of the north; nor from the more
polished races on the southern continent, with whom it is apparent
they had no intercourse. If we are driven, in our embarrassment,
like the greatest astronomer of our age, to seek the solution among
the civilised communities of Asia, we shall still be perplexed by
finding, amidst general resemblance of outline, sufficient discrepancy
in the details, to vindicate, in the judgments Of many, the Aztec
claim to originality.
I shall conclude the account of Mexican science with that of a
remarkable festival, celebrated by the natives at the termination of
the great cycle of fifty-two years. We have seen, in the preceding
chapter, their traditions of the destruction of the world at four
successive epochs. They looked forward confidently to another such
catastrophe, to take place like the preceding, at the close of a
cycle, when the sun was to be effaced from the heavens, the human race
from the earth, and when the darkness of chaos was to settle on the
habitable globe. The cycle would end in the latter part of December,
and, as the dreary season of the winter solstice approached, and the
diminished light of day gave melancholy presage of its speedy
extinction, their apprehensions increased; and, on the arrival of
the five "unlucky" days which closed the year, they abandoned
themselves to despair. They broke in pieces the little images of their
household gods, in whom they no longer trusted. The holy fires were
suffered to go out in the temples, and none were lighted in their
own dwellings. Their furniture and domestic utensils were destroyed;
their garments torn in pieces; and everything was thrown into
disorder, for the coming of the evil genii who were to descend on
the desolate earth.
On the evening of the last day, a procession of priests,
assuming the dress and ornaments of their gods, moved from the capital
towards a lofty mountain about two leagues distant. They carried
with them a noble victim, the flower of their captives, and an
apparatus for kindling the new fire, the success of which was an
augury of the renewal of the cycle. On reaching the summit of the
mountain, the procession paused till midnight; when, as the
constellation of the Pleiades approached the zenith, the new fire
was kindled by the friction of the sticks placed on the wounded breast
of the victim. The flame was soon communicated to a funeral pile, on
which the body of the slaughtered captive was thrown. As the light
streamed up towards heaven, shouts of joy and triumph burst forth from
the countless multitudes who covered the hills, the terraces of the
temples, and the house-tops, with eyes anxiously bent on the mount
of sacrifice. Couriers, with torches lighted at the blazing beacon,
rapidly bore them over every part of the country; and the cheering
element was seen brightening on altar and hearthstone, for the circuit
of many a league, long before the Sun, rising on his accustomed track,
gave assurance that a new cycle had commenced its march, and that
the laws of nature were not to be reversed.
The following thirteen days were given up to festivity. The houses
were cleansed and whitened. The broken vessels were replaced by new
ones. The people, dressed in their gayest apparel, and crowned with
garlands and chaplets of flowers, thronged in joyous procession, to
offer up their oblations and thanksgiving in the temples. Dances and
games were instituted, emblematical of the regeneration of the
world. It was the carnival of the Aztecs; or rather the national
jubilee, the great secular festival, like that of the Romans, or
ancient Etruscans, which few alive had witnessed before,- or could
expect to see again.
Chapter V


AGRICULTURE in Mexico was in the same advanced state as the
other arts of social life. In few countries, indeed, has it been
more respected. It was closely interwoven with the civil and religious
institutions of the nation. There were peculiar deities to preside
over it; the names of the months and of the religious festivals had
more or less reference to it. The public taxes, as we have seen,
were often paid in agricultural produce. All, except the soldiers
and great nobles, even the inhabitants of the cities, cultivated the
soil. The work was chiefly done by the men; the women scattering the
seed, husking the corn, and taking part only in the lighter labours of
the field.
There was no want of judgment in the management of their ground.
When somewhat exhausted, it was permitted to recover by lying
fallow. Its extreme dryness was relieved by canals, with which the
land was partially irrigated; and the same end was promoted by
severe penalties against the destruction of the woods, with which
the country, as already noticed, was well covered before the Conquest.
Lastly, they provided for their harvests ample granaries, which were
admitted by the conquerors to be of admirable construction. In this
provision we see the forecast of civilised man.
Amongst the most important articles of husbandry, we may notice
the banana, whose facility of cultivation and exuberant returns are so
fatal to habits of systematic and hardy industry. Another celebrated
plant was the cacao, the fruit of which furnished the chocolate,- from
the Mexican chocolatl,- now so common a beverage throughout Europe.
The vanilla, confined to a small district of the sea-coast, was used
for the same purposes, of flavouring their food and drink, as with us.
The great staple of the country, as, indeed, of the American
continent, was maize, or Indian corn, which grew freely along the
valleys, and up the steep sides of the Cordilleras to the high level
of the talbleland. The Aztecs were as curious in its preparation,
and as well instructed in its manifold uses, as the most expert New
England housewife. Its gigantic stalks, in these equinoctial
regions, afford a saccharine matter, not found to the same extent in
northern latitudes, and supplied the natives with sugar little
inferior to that of the cane itself, which was not introduced among
them till after the Conquest. But the miracle of nature was the
great Mexican aloe, or maguey, whose clustering pyramid of flowers,
towering above their dark coronals of leaves, were seen sprinkled over
many a broad acre of the tableland. As we have already noticed, its
bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured; its
juice was fermented into an intoxicating beverage, pulque, of which
the natives, to this day, are excessively fond; its leaves further
supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings; thread,
of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords, were drawn from
its tough and twisted fibres; pins and needles were made of the thorns
at the extremity of its leaves; and the root, when properly cooked,
was converted into a palatable and nutritious food. The agave, in
short, was meat, drink, clothing, and writing materials for the Aztec!
Surely, never did Nature enclose in so compact a form so many of the
elements of human comfort and civilisation!
It would be obviously out of place to enumerate in these pages all
the varieties of Plants, many of them of medicinal virtue, which
have been introduced from Mexico into Europe. Still less can I attempt
a catalogue of its flowers, which, with their variegated and gaudy
colours, form the greatest attraction of our greenhouses. The opposite
climates embraced within the narrow latitudes of New Spain have
given to it, probably, the richest and most diversified Flora to be
found in any country on the globe. These different products were
systematically arranged by the Aztecs, who understood their
properties, and collected them into nurseries, more extensive than any
then existing in the Old World. It is not improbable that they
suggested the idea of those "gardens of plants" which were
introduced into Europe not many years after the Conquest.
The Mexicans were as well acquainted with the mineral, as with the
vegetable treasures of their kingdom. Silver, lead, and, tin they drew
from the mines of Tasco; copper from the mountains of Zacotollan.
These were taken, not only from the crude masses on the surface, but
from veins wrought in the solid rock, into which they opened extensive
galleries. In fact, the traces of their labours furnished the best
indications for the early Spanish miners. Gold, found on the
surface, or gleaned from the beds of rivers, was cast into bars, or,
in the form of dust, made part of the regular tribute of the
southern provinces of the empire. The use of iron, with which the soil
was impregnated, was unknown to them. Notwithstanding its abundance,
it demands so many processes to prepare it for use, that it has
commonly been one of the last metals pressed into the service of
man. The age of iron has followed that of brass, in fact as well as in
They found a substitute in an alloy of tin and copper; and, with
tools made of this bronze, could cut not only metals, but, with the
aid of a siliceous dust, the hardest substances, as basalt,
porphyry, amethysts, and emeralds. They fashioned these last, which
were found very large, into many curious and fantastic forms. They
cast, also, vessels of gold and silver, carving them with their
metallic chisels in a very delicate manner. Some of the silver vases
were so large, that a man could not encircle them with his arms.
They imitated very nicely the figures of animals, and, what was
extraordinary, could mix the metals in such a manner, that the
feathers of a bird, or the scales of a fish, should be alternately
of gold and silver. The Spanish goldsmiths admitted their
superiority over themselves in these ingenious works.
They employed another tool, made of itztli, or obsidian, a dark
transparent mineral, exceedingly hard, found in abundance in their
hills. They made it into knives, razors, and their serrated swords. It
took a keen edge, though soon blunted. With this they wrought the
various stones and alabasters employed in the construction of their
public works and principal dwellings. I shall defer a more
particular account of these to the body of the narrative, and will
only add here, that the entrances and angles of the buildings were
profusely ornamented with images, sometimes of their fantastic
deities, and frequently of animals. The latter were executed with
great accuracy. "The former," according to Torquemada, "were the
hideous reflection of their own souls. And it was not till after
they had been converted to Christianity, that they could model the
true figure of a man." The old chronicler's facts are well founded,
whatever we may think of his reasons. The allegorical phantasms of his
religion, no doubt, gave a direction to the Aztec artist, in his
delineation of the human figure; supplying him with an imaginary
beauty in the personification of divinity, itself. As these
superstitions lost their hold on his mind, it opened to the influences
of a purer taste; and, after the Conquest, the Mexicans furnished many
examples of correct, and some of beautiful portraiture.
Sculptured images were so numerous, that the foundations of the
cathedral in the Plaza Mayor, the great square of Mexico, are said
to be entirely composed of them. This spot may, indeed, be regarded as
the Aztec forum,- the great depository of the treasures of ancient
sculpture, which now he hid in its bosom. Such monuments are spread
all over the capital, however, and a new cellar can hardly be dug,
or foundation laid, without turning up some of the mouldering relics
of barbaric art. But they are little heeded, and, if not wantonly
broken in pieces at once, are usually worked into the rising wall,
or supports of the new edifice! Two celebrated bas-reliefs of the last
Montezuma and his father, cut in the solid rock in the beautiful
groves of Chapoltepec, were deliberately destroyed, as late as the
last century, by order of the government! The monuments of the
barbarian meet with as little respect from civilised man, as those
of the civilised man from the barbarian.
The most remarkable piece of sculpture yet disinterred is the
great calendar stone, noticed in the preceding chapter. It consists of
dark porphyry, and in its original dimensions, as taken from the
quarry, is computed to have weighed nearly fifty tons. It was
transported from the mountains beyond Lake Chalco, a distance of
many leagues, over a broken country intersected by water-courses and
canals. In crossing a bridge which traversed one of these latter, in
the capital, the supports gave way, and the huge mass was precipitated
into the water, whence it was with difficulty recovered. The fact,
that so enormous a fragment of porphyry could be thus safely carried
for leagues, in the face of such obstacles, and without the aid of
cattle,- for the Aztecs had no animals of draught,- suggests to us
no mean ideas of their mechanical skill, and of their machinery; and
implies a degree of cultivation little inferior to that demanded for
the geometrical and astronomical science displayed in the inscriptions
on this very stone.
The ancient Mexicans made utensils of earthenware for the ordinary
purposes of domestic life, numerous specimens of which still exist.
They made cups and vases of a lackered or painted wood, impervious
to wet, and gaudily coloured. Their dyes were obtained from both
mineral and vegetable substances. Among them was the rich crimson of
the cochineal, the modern rival of the famed Tyrian purple. It was
introduced into Europe from Mexico, where the curious little insect
was nourished with great care on plantations of cactus, since fallen
into neglect. The natives were thus enabled to give a brilliant
colouring to the webs, which were manufactured of every degree of
fineness from the cotton raised in abundance throughout the warmer
regions of the country. They had the art, also, of interweaving with
these the delicate hair of rabbits and other animals, which made a
cloth of great warmth as well as beauty, of a kind altogether
original; and on this they often laid a rich embroidery of birds,
flowers, or some other fanciful device.
But the art in which they most delighted was their plumaje, or
feather-work. With this they could produce all the effect of a
beautiful mosaic. The gorgeous plumage of the tropical birds,
especially of the parrot tribe, afforded every variety of colour;
and the fine down of the humming-bird, which revelled in swarms
among the honeysuckle bowers of Mexico, supplied them with soft aerial
tints that gave an exquisite finish to the picture. The feathers,
pasted on a fine cotton web, were wrought into dresses for the
wealthy, hangings for apartments, and ornaments for the temples. No
one of the American fabries excited such admiration in Europe, whither
numerous specimens were sent by the Conquerors. It is to be
regretted that so graceful an art should have been suffered to fall
into decay.
There were no shops in Mexico, but the various manufactures and
agricultural products were brought together for sale in the great
market-places of the principal cities. Fairs were held there every
fifth day, and were thronged by a numerous concourse of persons, who
came to buy or sell from all the neighbouring country. A particular
quarter was allotted to each kind of article. The numerous
transactions were conducted without confusion, and with entire
regard to justice, under the inspection of magistrates appointed for
the purpose. The traffic was carried on partly by barter, and partly
by means of a regulated currency, of different values. This
consisted of transparent quills of gold dust; of bits of tin, cut in
the form of a T; and of bags of cacao, containing a specified number
of grains. "Blessed money," exclaims Peter Martyr, "which exempts
its possessors from avarice, since it cannot be long hoarded, nor
hidden under ground!"
There did not exist in Mexico that distinction of castes found
among the Egyptian and Asiatic nations. It was usual, however, for the
son to follow the occupation of his father. The different trades
were arranged into something like guilds; having each a particular
district of the city appropriated to it, with its own chief, its own
tutelar deity, its peculiar festivals, and the like. Trade was held in
avowed estimation by the Aztecs. "Apply thyself, my son," was the
advice of an aged chief, "to agriculture, or to feather-work, or
some other honourable calling. Thus did your ancestors before you.
Else, how would they have provided for themselves and their
families? Never was it heard, that nobility alone was able to maintain
its possessor." Shrewd maxims, that must have sounded somewhat strange
in the ear of a Spanish hidalgo!
But the occupation peculiarly respected was that of the
merchant. It formed so important and singular a feature of their
social economy, as to merit a much more particular notice than it
has received from historians. The Aztec merchant was a sort of
itinerant trader, who made his journeys to the remotest borders of
Anahuac, and to the countries beyond, carrying with him merchandise of
rich stuffs, jewelry, slaves, and other valuable commodities. The
slaves were obtained at the great market of Azcapotzalco, not many
leagues from the capital, where fairs were regularly held for the sale
of these unfortunate beings. They were brought thither by their
masters, dressed in their gayest apparel, and instructed to sing,
dance, and display their little stock of personal accomplishments,
so as to recommend themselves to the purchaser. Slave-dealing was an
honourable calling among the Aztecs.
With this rich freight, the merchant visited the different
provinces, always bearing some present of value from his own sovereign
to their chiefs, and usually receiving others in return, with a
permission to trade. Should this be denied him, or should he meet with
indignity or violence, he had the means of resistance in his power. He
performed his journeys with a number of companions of his own rank,
and a large body of inferior attendants who were employed to transport
the goods. Fifty or sixty pounds were the usual load for a man. The
whole caravan went armed, and so well provided against sudden
hostilities, that they could make good their defence, if necessary,
till reinforced from home. In one instance, a body of these militant
traders stood a siege of four years in the town of Ayotlan, which they
finally took from the enemy. Their own government, however, was always
prompt to embark in a war on this ground, finding it a very convenient
pretext for extending the Mexican empire. It was not unusual to
allow the merchants to raise levies themselves, which were placed
under their command. It was, moreover, very common for the prince to
employ the merchants as a sort of spies, to furnish him information of
the state of the countries through which they passed, and the
dispositions of the inhabitants towards himself.
Thus their sphere of action was much enlarged beyond that of a
humble trader, and they acquired a high consideration in the body
politic. They were allowed to assume insignia and devices of their
own. Some of their number composed what is called by the Spanish
writers a council of finance; at least, this was the case in
Tezcuco. They were much consulted by the monarch, who had some of them
constantly near his person; addressing them by the title of "uncle,"
which may remind one of that of primo, or "cousin," by which a grandee
of Spain is saluted by his sovereign. They were allowed to have
their own courts, in which civil and criminal cases, not excepting
capital, were determined; so that they formed an independent
community, as it were, of themselves. And, as their various traffic
supplied them with abundant stores of wealth, they enjoyed many of the
most essential advantages of an hereditary aristocracy.
That trade should prove the path to eminent political preferment
in a nation but partially civilised, where the names of soldier and
priest are usually the only titles to respect, is certainly an anomaly
in history. It forms some contrast to the standard of the more
polished monarchies of the Old World, in which rank is supposed to
be less dishonoured by a life of idle ease or frivolous pleasure, than
by those active pursuits which promote equally the prosperity of the
state and of the individual. If civilisation corrects many prejudices,
it must be allowed that it creates others.
We shall be able to form a better idea of the actual refinement of
the natives, by penetrating into their domestic life, and observing
the intercourse between the sexes. We have fortunately the means of
doing this. We shall there find the ferocious Aztec frequently
displaying all the sensibility of a cultivated nature; consoling his
friends under affliction, or congratulating them on their good
fortune, as on occasion of a marriage, or of the birth or the
baptism of a child, when he was punctilious in his visits, bringing
presents of costly dresses and ornaments, or the more simple
offering of flowers, equally indicative of his sympathy. The visits,
at these times, though regulated with all the precision of Oriental
courtesy, were accompanied by expressions of the most cordial and
affectionate regard.
The discipline of children, especially at the public schools, as
stated in a previous chapter, was exceedingly severe. But after she
had come to a mature age, the Aztec maiden was treated by her
parents with a tenderness from which all reserve seemed banished. In
the counsels to a daughter about to enter into life, they conjured her
to preserve simplicity in her manners and conversation, uniform
neatness in her attire, with strict attention to personal cleanliness.
They inculcated modesty as the great ornament of a woman, and implicit
reverence for her husband; softening their admonitions by such
endearing epithets, as showed the fulness of a parent's love.
Polygamy was permitted among the Mexicans, though chiefly
confined, probably, to the wealthiest classes. And the obligations
of the marriage vow, which was made with all the formality of a
religious ceremony, were fully recognised, and impressed on both
parties. The women are described by the Spaniards as pretty, unlike
their unfortunate descendants of the present day, though with the same
serious and rather melancholy cast of countenance. Their long black
hair, covered, in some parts of the country, by a veil made of the
fine web of the pita, might generally be seen wreathed with flowers,
or among the richer people, with strings of precious stones, and
pearls from the Gulf of California. They appear to have been treated
with much consideration by their husbands; and passed their time in
indolent tranquillity, or in such feminine occupations as spinning,
embroidery and the like; while their maidens beguiled the hours by the
rehearsal of traditionary tales and ballads.
The woman partook equally with the men of social festivities and
entertainments. These were often conducted on a large scale, both as
regards the number of guests and the costliness of the preparations.
Numerous attendants, of both sexes, waited at the banquet. The halls
were scented with perfumes, and the courts strewed with odoriferous
herb and flowers, which were distributed in profusion among the
guests, as they arrived. Cotton napkins and ewers of water were placed
before them, as they took their seats at the board; for the
venerable ceremony of ablution, before and after eating, was
punctiliously observed by the Aztecs. Tobacco was then offered to
the company, in pipes, mixed up with aromatic substances, or in the
form of cigars, inserted in tubes of tortoise-shell or silver. They
compressed the nostrils with the fingers, while they inhaled the
smoke, which they frequently swallowed. Whether the women, who sat
apart from the men at table, were allowed the indulgence of the
fragrant weed as in the most polished circles of modern Mexico, is not
told us. It is a curious fact, that the Aztecs also took the dried
leaf in the pulverised form of snuff.
The table was well provided with substantial meats, especially
game; among which the most conspicuous was the turkey, erroneously
supposed, as its name imports, to have come originally from the
East. These more solid dishes were flanked by others of vegetables and
fruits, of every delicious variety found on the North American
continent. The different viands were prepared in various ways, with
delicate sauces and seasoning, of which the Mexicans were very fond.
Their palate was still further regaled by confections and pastry,
for which their maize-flour and sugar supplied ample materials. One
other dish, of a disgusting nature, was sometimes added to the
feast, especially when the celebration partook of a religious
character. On such occasions a slave was sacrificed, and his flesh
elaborately dressed, formed one of the chief ornaments of the banquet.
Cannibalism, in the guise of an Epicurean science, becomes even the
more revolting.
The meats were kept warm by chafing-dishes. The table was
ornamented with vases of silver, and sometimes gold, of delicate
workmanship. The drinking-cups and spoons were of the same costly
materials, and likewise of tortoise-shell. The favourite beverage
was the chocolatl, flavoured with vanilla and different spices. They
had a way of preparing the froth of it, so as to make it almost
solid enough to be eaten, and took it cold. The fermented juice of the
maguey, with a mixture of sweets and acids, supplied also various
agreeable drinks of different degrees of strength, and formed the
chief beverage of the elder part of the company.
As soon as they had finished their repast, the young people rose
from the table, to close the festivities of the day with dancing. They
danced gracefully, to the sound of various instruments, accompanying
their movements with chants of a pleasing, though somewhat plaintive
character. The older guests continued at table, sipping pulque, and
gossiping about other times, till the virtues of the exhilarating
beverage put them in good humour with their own. Intoxication was
not rare in this part of the company, and, what is singular, was
excused in them, though severely punished in the younger.
The Aztec character was perfectly original and unique. It was made
up of incongruities apparently irreconcilable. It blended into one the
marked peculiarities of different nations, not only of the same
place of civilisation, but as far removed from each other as the
extremes of barbarism and refinement. It may find a fitting parallel
in their own wonderful climate, capable of producing, on a few
square leagues of surface, the boundless variety of vegetable forms
which belong to the frozen regions of the North, the temperate zone of
Europe, and the burning skies of Arabia and Hindostan!
Chapter VI


THE reader would gather but an imperfect notion of the
civilisation of Anahuac, without some account of the Acolhuans, or
Tezcucans, as they are usually cared; a nation of the same great
family with the Aztecs, whom they rivalled in power, and surpassed
in intellectual culture and the arts of social refinement.
Fortunately, we have ample materials for this in the records left by
Ixtlilxochitl, a lineal descendant of the royal line of Tezcuco, who
flourished in the century of the Conquest. With every opportunity
for information he combined much industry and talent, and, if his
narrative bears the high colouring of one who would revive the faded
glories of an ancient, but dilapidated house, he has been uniformly
commended for his fairness and integrity, and has been followed
without misgiving by such Spanish writers as could have access to
his manuscripts. I shall confine myself to the prominent features of
the two reigns which may be said to embrace the golden age of Tezcuco;
without attempting to weigh the probability of the details, which I
will leave to be settled by the reader, according to the measure of
his faith.
The Acolhuans came into the Valley, as we have seen, about the
close of the twelfth century, and built their capital of Tezcuco on
the eastern borders of the lake, opposite to Mexico. From this point
they gradually spread themselves over the northern portion of Anahuac,
when their career was cheeked by an invasion of a kindred race, the
Tepanecs, who, after a desperate struggle, succeeded in taking their
city, slaying their monarch, and entirely subjugating his kingdom.
This event took place about 1418; and the young prince,
Nezahualcoyotl, the heir to the crown, then fifteen years old, saw his
father butchered before his eyes, while he himself lay concealed among
the friendly branches of a tree, which overshadowed the spot. His
subsequent history is full of romantic daring and perilous escapes.
Not long after his flight from the field of his father's blood,
the Tezcucan prince fell into the hands of his enemy, was borne off in
triumph to his city, and was thrown into a dungeon. He effected his
escape, however, through the connivance of the governor of the
fortress, an old servant of his family, who took the place of the
royal fugitive, and paid for his loyalty with his life. He was at
length permitted, through the intercession of the reigning family in
Mexico, which was allied to him, to retire to that capital, and
subsequently to his own, where he found a shelter in his ancestral
palace. Here he remained unmolested for eight years, pursuing his
studies under an old preceptor, who had had the care of his early
youth, and who instructed him in the various duties befitting his
princely station.
At the end of this period the Tepanec usurper died, bequeathing
his empire to his son, Maxtla, a man of fierce and suspicious
temper. Nezahualcoyotl hastened to pay his obeisance to him, on his
accession. But the tyrant refused to receive the little present of
flowers which he laid at his feet, and turned his back on him in
presence of his chieftains. One of his attendants, friendly to the
young prince, admonished him to provide for his own safety, by
withdrawing, as speedily as possible, from the palace, where his
life was in danger. He lost no time, consequently, in retreating
from the inhospitable court, and returned to Tezcuco. Maxtla, however,
was bent on his destruction. He saw with jealous eye the opening
talents and popular manners of his rival, and the favour he was
daily winning from his ancient subjects.
He accordingly laid a plan for making away with him at an
evening entertainment. It was defeated by the vigilance of the
prince's tutor, who contrived to mislead the assassins, and to
substitute another victim in the place of his pupil. The baffled
tyrant now threw off all disguise, and sent a strong party of soldiers
to Tezcuco, with orders to enter the palace, seize the person of
Nezahualcoyotl, and slay him on the spot. The prince, who became
acquainted with the plot through the watchfulness of his preceptor,
instead of flying, as he was counselled, resolved to await his
enemy. They found him playing at ball, when they arrived, in the court
of his palace. He received them courteously and invited them in, to
take some refreshments after their journey. While they were occupied
in this way, he passed into an adjoining saloon, which excited no
suspicion, as he was still visible through the open doors by which the
apartments communicated with each other. A burning censer stood in the
passage, and, as it was fed by the attendants, threw up such clouds of
incense as obscured his movements from the soldiers. Under this
friendly veil he succeeded in making his escape by a secret passage,
which communicated with a large earthen pipe formerly used to bring
water to the palace. Here he remained till nightfall, when, taking
advantage of the obscurity, he found his way into the suburbs, and
sought a shelter in the cottage of one of his father's vassals.
The Tepanec monarch, enraged at this repeated disappointment,
ordered instant pursuit. A price was set on the head of the royal
fugitive. Whoever should take him, dead or alive, was promised,
however humble his degree, the hand of a noble lady, and an ample
domain along with it. Troops of armed men were ordered to scour the
country in every direction. In the course of the search, the cottage
in which the prince had taken refuge was entered. But he fortunately
escaped detection by being hid under a heap of maguey fibres used
for manufacturing cloth. As this was no longer a proper place for
concealment, he sought a retreat in the mountainous and woody district
lying between the borders of his own state and Tlascala.
Here he led a wretched wandering life, exposed to all the
inclemencies of the weather, hiding himself in deep thickets and
caverns, and stealing out at night to satisfy the cravings of
appetite; while he was kept in constant alarm by the activity of his
pursuers, always hovering on his track. On one occasion he sought
refuge from them among a small party of soldiers, who proved
friendly to him, and concealed him in a large drum around which they
were dancing. At another time, he was just able to turn the crest of a
hill, as his enemies were climbing it on the other side, when he
fell in with a girl who was reaping chian,- a Mexican plant, the
seed of which was much used in the drinks of the country. He persuaded
her to cover him up with the stalks she had been cutting. When his
pursuers came up, and inquired if she had seen the fugitive, the
girl coolly answered that she had, and pointed out a path as the one
he had taken. Notwithstanding the high rewards offered, Nezahualcoyotl
seems to have incurred no danger from treachery, such was the
general attachment felt to himself and his house. "Would you not
deliver up the prince, if he came in your way?" he inquired of a young
peasant who was unacquainted with his person. "Not I," replied the
other. "What, not for a fair lady's hand, and a rich dowry beside?"
rejoined the prince. At which the other only shook his head and
laughed. On more than one occasion, his faithful people submitted to
torture, and even to lose their lives, rather than disclose the
place of his retreat.
However gratifying such proofs of loyalty might be to his
feelings, the situation of the prince in these mountain solitudes
became every day more distressing. It gave a still keener edge to
his own sufferings to witness those of the faithful followers who
chose to accompany him in his wanderings. "Leave me," he would say
to them, "to my fate! Why should you throw away your own lives for one
whom fortune is never weary of persecuting?" Most of the great
Tezcucan chiefs had consulted their interests by a timely adhesion
to the usurper. But some still clung to their prince, preferring
proscription, and death itself, rather than desert him in his
In the meantime, his friends at a distance were active in measures
for his relief. The oppressions of Maxtla, and his growing empire, had
caused general alarm in the surrounding states, who recalled the
mild rule of the Tezcucan princes. A coalition was formed, a plan of
operations concerted, and, on the day appointed for a general
rising, Nezahualcoyotl found himself at the head of a force
sufficiently strong to face his Tepanec adversaries. An engagement
came on, in which the latter were totally discomfited; and the
victorious prince, receiving everywhere on his route the homage of his
joyful subjects, entered his capital, not like a proscribed outcast,
but as the rightful heir, and saw himself once more enthroned in the
halls of his fathers.
Soon after, he united his forces with the Mexicans, long disgusted
with the arbitrary conduct of Maxtla. The allied powers, after a
series of bloody engagements with the usurper, routed him under the
walls of his own capital. He fled to the baths, whence he was
dragged out, and sacrificed with the usual cruel ceremonies of the
Aztecs; the royal city of Azcapotzalco was razed to the ground, and
the wasted territory was henceforth reserved as the great
slavemarket for the nations of Anahuac. These events were succeeded by
the remarkable league among the three powers of Tezcuco, Mexico, and
Tlacopan, of which some account has been given in a previous chapter.
The first measure of Nezahualcoyotl, on returning to his
dominions, was a general amnesty. It was his maxim, "that a monarch
might punish, but revenge was unworthy of him." In the present
instance, he was averse even to punish, and not only freely pardoned
his rebel nobles, but conferred on some, who had most deeply offended,
posts of honour and confidence. Such conduct was doubtless politic,
especially as their alienation was owing, probably, much more to
fear of the usurper, than to any disaffection towards himself. But
there are some acts of policy which a magnanimous spirit only can
The restored monarch next set about repairing the damages
sustained under the late misrule, and reviving, or rather
remodelling the various departments of government. He framed a
concise, but comprehensive, code of laws, so well suited, it was
thought, to the exigencies of the times, that it was adopted as
their own by the two other members of triple alliance.
He divided the burden of government among a number of departments,
as the council of war, the council of finance, the council of justice.
This last was a court of supreme authority, both in civil and criminal
matters, receiving appeals from the lower tribunals of the
provinces, which were obliged to make a full report, every four
months, or eighty days, of their own proceedings to this higher
judicature. In all these bodies, a certain number of citizens were
allowed to have seats with the nobles and professional dignitaries.
There was, however, another body, a council of state, for aiding the
king in the despatch of business, and advising him in matters of
importance, which was drawn altogether from the highest order of
chiefs. It consisted of fourteen members; and they had seats
provided for them at the royal table.
Lastly, there was an extraordinary tribunal, called the council of
music, but which, differing from the import of its name, was devoted
to the encouragement of science and art. Works on astronomy,
chronology, history, or any other science, were required to be
submitted to its judgment before they could be made public. This
censorial power was of some moment, at least with regard to the
historical department, where the wilful perversion of truth was made a
capital offence by the bloody code of Nezahualcoyotl. Yet a Tezcucan
author must have been a bungler, who could not elude a conviction
under the cloudy veil of hieroglyphics. This body, which was drawn
from the best instructed persons in the kingdom, with little regard to
rank, had supervision of all the productions of art, and of the
nicer fabrics. It decided on the qualifications of the professors in
the various branches of science, on the fidelity of their instructions
to their pupils, the deficiency of which was severely punished, and it
instituted examinations of these latter. In short it was a general
board of education for the country. On stated days, historical
compositions, and poems treating of moral or traditional topics,
were recited before it by their authors. Seats were provided for the
three crowned heads of the empire, who deliberated with the other
members on the respective merits of the pieces, and distributed prizes
of value to the successful competitors.
The influence of this academy must have been most propitious to
the capital, which became the nursery not only of such sciences as
could be compassed by the scholarship of the period, but of various
useful and ornamental arts. Its historians, orators, and poets were
celebrated throughout the country. Its archives, for which
accommodations were provided in the royal palace, were stored with the
records of primitive ages. Its idiom, more polished than the
Mexican, was indeed the purest of all the Nahuatlac dialects; and
continued, long after the Conquest, to be that in which the best
productions of the native races were composed. Tezcuco claimed the
glory of being the Athens of the Western World.
Among the most illustrious of her bards was the emperor
himself,- for the Tezcucan writers claim this title for their chief,
as head of the imperial alliance. He, doubtless, appeared as a
competitor before that very academy where he so often sat as a critic.
But the hours of the Tezcucan monarch were not all passed in idle
dalliance with the Muse, nor in the sober contemplations of
philosophy, as at a later period. In the freshness of youth and
early manhood, he led the allied armies in their annual expeditions,
which were certain to result in a wider extent of territory to the
empire. In the intervals of peace he fostered those productive arts
which are the surest sources of public prosperity. He encouraged
agriculture above all; and there was scarcely a spot so rude, or a
steep so inaccessible, as not to confess the power of cultivation. The
land was covered with a busy population, and towns and cities sprung
up in places since deserted, or dwindled into miserable villages.
From resources thus enlarged by conquest and domestic industry,
the monarch drew the means for the large consumption of his own
numerous household, and for the costly works which he executed for the
convenience and embellishment of the capital. He fined it with stately
edifices for his nobles, whose constant attendance he was anxious to
secure at his court. He erected a magnificent pile of buildings
which might serve both for a royal residence and for the public
offices. It extended, from east to west, twelve hundred and
thirty-four yards; and from north to south, nine hundred and
seventy-eight. It was encompassed by a wall of unburnt bricks and
cement, six feet wide and nine high for one half of the circumference,
and fifteen feet high for the other half. Within this enclosure were
two courts. The outer one was used as the great marketplace of the
city; and continued to be so until long after the Conquest. The
interior court was surrounded by the council chambers and halls of
justice. There were also accommodations there. for the foreign
ambassadors; and a spacious saloon, with apartments: opening into
it, for men of science and poets, who pursued their studies in this
retreat, or met together to hold converse under its marble porticos.
In this quarter, also, were kept the public archives; which fared
better under the Indian dynasty than they have since under their
European successors.
Adjoining this court were the apartments of the king, including
those for the royal harem, as liberally supplied with beauties as that
of an eastern sultan. Their walls were incrusted with alabasters,
and richly tinted stucco, or hung with gorgeous tapestries of
variegated feather-work. They led through long arcades, and through
intricate labyrinths of shrubbery, into gardens, where baths and
sparkling fountains were overshadowed by tall groves of cedar and
cypress. The basins of water were well stocked with fish of various
kinds, and the aviaries with birds glowing in all the gaudy plumage of
the tropics. Many birds and animals, which could not be obtained
alive, were represented in gold and silver so skillfully as to have
furnished the great naturalist Hernandez with models.
Accommodations on a princely scale were provided for the
sovereigns of Mexico and Tlacopan, when they visited the court. The
whole of this lordly pile contained three hundred apartments, some
of them fifty yards square. The height of the building is not
mentioned. It was probably not great; but supplied the requisite
room by the immense extent of ground which it covered. The interior
was doubtless constructed of fight materials, especially of the rich
woods, which, in that country, are remarkable, when polished, for
the brilliancy and variety of their colours. That the more solid
materials of stone and stucco were also liberally employed, is
proved by the remains at the present day; remains which have furnished
an inexhaustible quarry for the churches and other edifices since
erected by the Spaniards on the site of the ancient city.
We are not informed of the time occupied in building this
palace; but two hundred thousand workmen, it is said, were employed on
it! However this may be, it is certain that the Tezcucan monarchs,
like those of Asia, and ancient Egypt, had the control of immense
masses of men, and would sometimes turn the whole population of a
conquered city, including the women, into the public works.- The
most gigantic monuments of architecture which the world has
witnessed would never have been reared by the hands of freemen.
Adjoining the palace were buildings for the king's children,
who, by his various wives, amounted to no less than sixty sons and
fifty daughters. Here they were instructed in all the exercises and
accomplishments suited to their station; comprehending, what would
scarcely find a place in a royal education on the other side of the
Atlantic,- the arts of working in metals, jewelry, and feather-mosaic.
Once in every four months, the whole household, not excepting the
youngest, and including all the officers and attendants on the
king's person, assembled in a grand saloon of the palace, to listen to
a discourse from an orator, probably one of the priesthood. The
princes, on this occasion, were all dressed in nequen, the coarsest
manufacture of the country. The preacher began by enlarging on the
obligations of morality, and of respect for the gods, especially
important in persons whose rank gave such additional weight to
example. He occasionally seasoned his homily with a pertinent
application to his audience, if any member of it had been guilty of
a notorious delinquency. from this wholesome admonition the monarch
himself was not exempted, and the orator boldly reminded him of his
paramount duty to show respect for his own laws. The king, so far from
taking umbrage, received the lesson with humility: and the audience,
we are assured, were often melted into tears by the eloquence of the
Nezahualcoyotl's fondness for magnificence was shown in his
numerous villas, which were embellished with all that could make a
rural retreat delightful. His favourite residence was at
Tezcotzinco; a conical hill about two leagues from the capital. It was
laid out in terraces, or hanging gardens, having a flight of steps
five hundred and twenty in number, many of them hewn in the natural
porphyry. In the garden on the summit was a reservoir of water, fed by
an aqueduct that was carried over hill and valley, for several
miles, on huge buttresses of masonry. A large rock stood in the
midst of this basin, sculptured with the hieroglyphics representing
the years of Nezahualcoyotl's reign and his principal achievements
in each. On a lower level were three other reservoirs, in each of
which stood a marble statue of a woman, emblematic of the three states
of the empire. Another tank contained a winged lion, cut out of the
solid rock, bearing in his mouth the portrait of the emperor. His
likeness had been executed in gold, wood, feather-work, and stone, but
this was the only one which pleased him.
From these copious basins the water was distributed in numerous
channels through the gardens, or was made to tumble over the rocks
in cascades, shedding refreshing dews on the flowers and odoriferous
shrubs below. In the depths of this fragrant wilderness, marble
porticos and pavilions were erected, and baths excavated in the
solid porphyry. The visitor descended by steps cut in the living
stone, and polished so bright as to reflect like mirrors. Towards
the base of the hill, in the midst of cedar groves, whose gigantic
branches threw a refreshing coolness over the verdure in the sultriest
seasons of the year, rose the royal villa, with its light arcades
and airy halls, drinking in the sweet perfumes of the gardens. Here
the monarch often retired, to throw off the burden of state, and
refresh his wearied spirits in the society of his favourite wives,
reposing during the noontide heats in the embowering shades of his
paradise, or mingling, in the cool of the evening, in their festive
sports and dances. Here he entertained his imperial brothers of Mexico
and Tlacopan, and followed the hardier pleasures of the chase in the
noble woods that stretched for miles around his villa, flourishing
in all their primeval majesty. Here, too, he often repaired in the
latter days of his life, when age had tempered ambition and cooled the
ardour of his blood, to pursue in solitude the studies of philosophy
and gather wisdom from meditation.
It was not his passion to hoard. He dispensed his revenues
munificently, seeking out poor, but meritorious objects, on whom to
bestow them. He was particularly mindful of disabled soldiers, and
those who had in any way sustained loss in the public service; and, in
case of their death, extended assistance to their surviving
families. Open mendicity was a thing he would never tolerate, but
chastised it with exemplary rigour.
It would be incredible, that a man of the enlarged mind and
endowments of Nezahualcoyotl should acquiesce in the sordid
superstitions of his countrymen, and still more in the sanguinary
rites borrowed by them from the Aztecs. In truth, his humane temper
shrunk from these cruel ceremonies, and he strenuously endeavoured
to recall his people to the more pure and simple worship of the
ancient Toltecs. A circumstance produced a temporary change in his
conduct. He had been married some years, but was not blessed with
issue. The priests represented that it was owing to his neglect of the
gods of his country, and that his only remedy was to propitiate them
by human sacrifice. The king reluctantly consented, and the altars
once more smoked with the blood of slaughtered captives. But it was
all in vain; and he indignantly exclaimed, "These idols of wood and
stone can neither hear nor feel; much less could they make the heavens
and the earth, and man, the lord of it. These must be the work of
the all-powerful, unknown God, Creator of the universe, on whom
alone I must rely for consolation and support."
He then withdrew to his rural palace of Tezcotzinco, where he
remained forty days, fasting and praying at stated hours, and offering
up no other sacrifice than the sweet incense of copal, and aromatic
herbs and gums. At the expiration of this time, he is said to have
been comforted by a vision assuring him of the success of his
petition. At all events, such proved to be the fact; and this was
followed by the cheering intelligence of the triumph of his arms in
a quarter where he had lately experienced some humiliating reverses.
Greatly strengthened in his former religious convictions, he now
openly professed his faith, and was more earnest to wean his
subjects from their degrading superstitions, and to substitute
nobler and more spiritual conceptions of the Deity. He built a
temple in the usual pyramidal form, and on the summit a tower nine
stories high, to represent the nine heavens; a tenth was surmounted by
a roof painted black, and profusely gilded with stars on the
outside, and incrusted with metals and precious stones within. He
dedicated this to "the unknown God, the Cause of causes." It seems
probable, from the emblem on the tower, as well as from the complexion
of his verses, as we shall see, that he mingled with his reverence for
the Supreme the astral worship which existed among the Toltecs.
Various musical instruments were placed on the top of the tower, and
the sound of them, accompanied by the ringing of a sonorous metal
struck by a mallet, summoned the worshippers to prayers at regular
seasons. No image was allowed in the edifice, as unsuited to the
"invisible God"; and the people were expressly prohibited from
profaning the altars with blood, or any other sacrifice than that of
the perfume of flowers and sweet-scented gums.
The remainder of his days was chiefly spent in his delicious
solitudes of Tezcotzinco, where he devoted himself to astronomical
and, probably, astrological studies, and to meditation on his immortal
destiny,- giving utterance to his feelings in songs, or rather
hymns, of much solemnity and pathos. At length, about the year 1470,
Nezahualcoyotl, full of years and honours, felt himself drawing near
his end. Almost half a century had elapsed since he mounted the throne
of Tezcuco. He had found his kingdom dismembered by faction, and bowed
to the dust beneath the yoke of a foreign tyrant. He had broken that
yoke; and breathed new life into the nation, renewed its ancient
institutions, extended wide its domain; had seen it flourishing in all
the activity of trade and agriculture, gathering strength from its
enlarged resources, and daily advancing higher and higher in the great
march of civilisation All this he had seen, and might fairly attribute
no small portion of it to his own wise and beneficent rule. His long
and glorious day was now drawing to its close; and he contemplated the
event with the same serenity which he had shown under the clouds of
its morning and in its meridian splendour.
A short time before his death, he gathered around him those of his
children in whom he most confided, his chief counsellors, the
ambassadors of Mexico and Tlacopan, and his little son, the heir to
the crown, his only offspring by the queen. He was then not eight
years old; but had already given, as far as so tender a blossom might,
the rich promise of future excellence.
After tenderly embracing the child, the dying monarch threw over
him the robes of sovereignty. He then gave audience to the
ambassadors, and when they had retired, made the boy repeat the
substance of the conversation. He followed this by such counsels as
were suited to his comprehension, and which when remembered through
the long vista of after years, would serve as lights to guide him in
his government of the kingdom. He besought him not to neglect the
worship of "the unknown God," regretting that he himself had been
unworthy to know him, and intimating his conviction that the time
would come when he should be known and worshipped throughout the land.
He next addressed himself to that one of his sons in whom he
Placed the greatest trust, and whom he had selected as the guardian of
the realm. "From this hour," he said to him, "you will fill the
place that I have filled, of father to this child; you will teach
him to live as he ought; and by your counsels he will rule over the
empire. Stand in his place, and be his guide, till he shall be of
age to govern for himself." Then, turning to his other children, he
admonished them to live united with one another, and to show all
loyalty to their prince, who, though a child, already manifested a
discretion far above his years. "Be true to him," he added, "and he
will maintain you in your rights and dignities."
Feeling his end approaching, he exclaimed, "Do not bewail me
with idle lamentations. But sing the song of gladness, and show a
courageous spirit, that the nations I have subdued may not believe you
disheartened, but may feel that each one of you is strong enough to
keep them in obedience!" The undaunted spirit of the monarch shone
forth even in the agonies of death. That stout heart, however,
melted as he took leave of his children and friends, weeping
tenderly over them, while he bade each a last adieu. When they had
withdrawn, he ordered the officers of the palace to allow no one to
enter it again. Soon after he expired, in the seventy-second year of
his age, and the forty-third of his reign.
Thus died the greatest monarch and, perhaps, the best who ever sat
upon an Indian throne. His character is delineated with tolerable
impartiality by his kinsman, the Tezcucan chronicler. "He was wise,
valiant, liberal; and, when we consider the magnanimity of his soul,
the grandeur and success of his enterprises, his deep policy, as
well as daring, we must admit him to have far surpassed every other
prince and captain of this New World. He had few failings himself, and
rigorously punished those of others. He preferred the public to his
private interest; was most charitable in his nature, often buying
articles at double their worth of poor and honest persons, and
giving them away again to the sick and infirm. In seasons of
scarcity he was particularly bountiful, remitting the taxes of his
vassals, and supplying their wants from the royal granaries. He put no
faith in the idolatrous worship of the country. He was well instructed
in moral science, and sought, above all things, to obtain light for
knowing the true God. He believed in one God only, the Creator of
heaven and earth, by whom we have our being, who never revealed
himself to us in human form, nor in any other; with whom the souls
of the virtuous are to dwell after death, while the wicked will suffer
pains unspeakable. He invoked the Most High, as Him by whom we live,
and 'Who has all things in himself.' He recognised the Sun for his
father, and the Earth for his mother. He taught his children not to
confide in idols, and only to conform to the outward worship of them
from deference to public opinion. If he could not entirely abolish
human sacrifices, derived from the Aztecs, he, at least, restricted
them to slaves and captives."
I have occupied so much space with this illustrious prince that
but little remains for his son and successor, Nezahualpilli. I have
thought better, in our narrow limits, to present a complete view of
a single epoch, the most interesting in the Tezcucan annals, than to
spread the inquiries over a broader, but comparatively barren field.
Yet Nezahualpilli, the heir to the crown, was a remarkable person, and
his reign contains many incidents, which I regret to be obliged to
pass over in silence.
Nezahualpilli resembled his father in his passion for astronomical
studies, and is said to have had an observatory on one of his palaces.
He was devoted to war in his youth, but, as he advanced in years,
resigned himself to a more indolent way of life, and sought his
chief amusement in the pursuit of his favourite science, or in the
soft pleasures of the sequestered gardens of Tezcotzinco. This quiet
life was ill suited to the turbulent temper of the times, and of his
Mexican rival, Montezuma. The distant provinces fell off from their
allegiance; the army relaxed its discipline; disaffection crept into
its ranks; and the wily Montezuma, partly by violence, and partly by
stratagems unworthy of a king, succeeded in plundering his brother
monarch of some of his most valuable domains. Then it was that he
arrogated to himself the title and supremacy of emperor, hitherto
borne by the Tezcucan princes, as head of the alliance. Such is the
account given by the historians of that nation, who in this way,
explain the acknowledged superiority of the Aztec sovereign, both in
territory and consideration, on the landing of the Spaniards.
These misfortunes pressed heavily on the spirits of Nezahualpilli.
Their effect was increased by certain gloomy prognostics of a near
calamity which was to overwhelm the country. He withdrew to his
retreat, to brood in secret over his sorrows. His health rapidly
declined; and in the year 1515, at the age of fifty-two, he sunk
into the grave; happy, at least, that, by his timely death, he escaped
witnessing the fulfilment of his own predictions, in the ruin of his
country, and the extinction of the Indian dynasties, for ever.
In reviewing the brief sketch here presented of the Tezcucan
monarchy, we are strongly impressed with the conviction of its
superiority, in all the great features of civilisation, over the
rest of Anahuac. The Mexicans showed a similar proficiency, no
doubt, in the mechanic arts, and even in mathematical science. But
in the science of government, in legislation, in the speculative
doctrines of a religious nature, in the more elegant pursuits of
poetry, eloquence, and whatever depended on refinement of taste and
a polished idiom, they confessed themselves inferior, by resorting
to their rivals for instruction, and citing their works as the
masterpieces of their tongue. The best histories, the best poems,
the best code of laws, the purest dialect, were all allowed to be
What was the actual amount of the Tezcucan civilisation, it is
not easy to determine, with the imperfect light afforded us. It was
certainly far below anything which the word conveys, measured by a
European standard. In some of the arts, and in any walk of science,
they could only have made, as it were, a beginning. But they had
begun in the right way, and already showed a refinement in sentiment
and manners, a capacity for receiving instruction, which, under good
auspices, might have led them on to indefinite improvement.
Unhappily, they were fast falling under the dominion of the warlike
Aztecs. And that people repaid the benefits received from their more
polished neighbours by imparting to them their own ferocious
superstition, which, falling like a mildew on the land, would soon
have blighted its rich blossoms of promise, and turned even its
fruits to dust and ashes.
Discovery of Mexico

Chapter I [1516-1518]


IN the beginning of the sixteenth century, Spain occupied
perhaps the most prominent position on the theatre of Europe. The
numerous states, into which she had been so long divided, were
consolidated into one monarchy. The Moslem crescent, after reigning
there for eight centuries, was no longer seen on her borders. The
authority of the crown did not, as in later times, overshadow the
inferior orders of the state. The people enjoyed the inestimable
privilege of political representation, and exercised it with manly
independence. The nation at large could boast as great a degree of
constitutional freedom as any other, at that time, in Christendom.
Under a system of salutary laws and an equitable administration,
domestic tranquillity was secured, public credit established, trade,
manufactures, and even the more elegant arts, began to flourish; while
a higher education called forth the first blossoms of that literature,
which was to ripen into so rich a harvest, before the close of the
century. Arms abroad kept pace with arts at home. Spain found her
empire suddenly enlarged, by important acquisitions, both in Europe
and Africa, while a New World beyond the waters poured into her lap
treasures of countless wealth, and opened an unbounded field for
honourable enterprise.
Such was the condition of the kingdom at the close of the long and
glorious reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, when on the 23rd of January,
1516, the sceptre passed into the hands of their daughter Joanna, or
rather their grandson, Charles the Fifth, who alone ruled the monarchy
during the long and imbecile existence of his unfortunate mother.
During the two years following Ferdinand's death, the regency, in
the absence of Charles, was held by Cardinal Ximenes, a man whose
intrepidity, extraordinary talents, and capacity for great
enterprises, were accompanied by a haughty spirit, which made him
too indifferent as to the means of their execution. His
administration, therefore, notwithstanding the uprightness of his
intentions, was, from his total disregard of forms, unfavourable to
constitutional liberty; for respect for forms is an essential
element of freedom. With all his faults, however, Ximenes was a
Spaniard; and the object he had at heart was the good of his country.
It was otherwise on the arrival of Charles, who, after a long
absence, came as a foreigner into the land of his fathers.
(November, 1517.) His manners, sympathies, even his language, were
foreign, for he spoke the Castilian with difficulty. He knew little of
his native country, of the character of the people or their
institutions. He seemed to care still less for them; while his natural
reserve precluded that freedom of communication which might have
counteracted, to some extent at least, the errors of education. In
everything, in short, he was a foreigner; and resigned himself to
the direction of his Flemish counsellors with a docility that gave
little augury of his future greatness.
On his entrance into Castile, the young monarch was accompanied by
a swarm of courtly sycophants, who settled, like locusts, on every
place of profit and honour throughout the kingdom. A Fleming was
made grand chancellor of Castile; another Fleming was placed in the
archiepiscopal see of Toledo. They even ventured to profane the
sanctity of the cortes by intruding themselves on its deliberations.
Yet that body did not tamely submit to these usurpations, but gave
vent to its indignation in tones becoming the representatives of a
free people.
The same pestilent foreign influence was felt, though much less
sensibly, in the Colonial administration. This had been placed, in the
preceding reign, under the immediate charge of the two great
tribunals, the Council of the Indies, and the Casa de Contratacion, or
India House at Seville. It was their business to further the
progress of discovery, watch over the infant settlements, and adjust
the disputes, which grew up in them. But the licences granted to
private adventurers did more for the cause of discovery than the
patronage of the crown or its officers. The long peace, enjoyed with
slight interruption by Spain in the early part of the sixteenth
century, was most auspicious for this; and the restless cavalier,
who could no longer win laurels on the fields of Africa and Europe,
turned with eagerness to the brilliant career opened to him beyond the
It is difficult for those of our time, as familiar from
childhood with the most remote places on the globe as with those in
their own neighbourhood, to picture to themselves the feelings of
the men who lived in the sixteenth century. The dread mystery, which
had so long hung over the great deep, had indeed been removed. It
was no longer beset with the same undefined horrors as when Columbus
launched his bold bark on its dark and unknown waters. A new and
glorious world had been thrown open. But as to the precise spot
where that world lay, its extent, its history, whether it were
island or continent,- of all this, they had very vague and confused
conceptions. Many, in their ignorance, blindly adopted the erroneous
conclusion into which the great Admiral had been led by his superior
science,- that the new countries were a part of Asia; and, as the
mariner wandered among the Bahamas, or steered his caravel across
the Caribbean seas, he fancied he was inhaling the rich odours of
the spice-islands in the Indian Ocean. Thus every fresh discovery,
interpreted by his previous delusion, served to confirm him in his
error, or, at least, to fill his mind with new perplexities.
The career thus thrown open had all the fascinations of a
desperate hazard, on which the adventurer staked all his hopes of
fortune, fame, and life itself. It was not often, indeed, that he
won the rich prize which he most coveted; but then he was sure to
win the meed of glory, scarcely less dear to his chivalrous spirit;
and, if he survived to return to his home, he had wonderful stories to
recount, of perilous chances among the strange people he had
visited, and the burning climes, whose rank fertility and magnificence
of vegetation so far surpassed anything he had witnessed in his own.
These reports added fresh fuel to imaginations already warmed by the
study of those tales of chivalry which formed the favourite reading of
the Spaniards at that period. Thus romance and reality acted on each
other, and the soul of the Spaniard was exalted to that pitch of
enthusiasm, which enabled him to encounter the terrible trials that
lay in the path of the discoverer. Indeed, the life of the cavalier of
that day was romance put into action. The story of his adventures in
the New World forms one of the most remarkable pages in the history of
Under this chivalrous spirit of enterprise, the progress of
discovery had extended, by the beginning of Charles the Fifth's reign,
from the Bay of Honduras, along the winding shores of Darien, and
the South American continent, to the Rio de la Plata. The mighty
barrier of the Isthmus had been climbed, and the Pacific descried,
by Nunez de Balboa, second only to Columbus in this valiant band of
"ocean chivalry." The Bahamas and Caribbee Islands had been explored,
as well as the Peninsula of Florida on the northern continent. To this
latter point Sebastian Cabot had arrived in his descent along the
coast from Labrador, in 1497. So that before 1518, the period when our
narrative begins, the eastern borders of both the great continents had
been surveyed through nearly their whole extent. The shores of the
great Mexican Gulf, however, sweeping with a wide circuit far into the
interior, remained still concealed, with the rich realms that lay
beyond, from the eye of the navigator. The time had now come for their
The business of colonisation had kept pace with that of discovery.
In several of the islands, and in various parts of Terra Firma, and in
Darien, settlements had been established, under the control of
governors who affected the state and authority of viceroys. Grants
of land were assigned to the colonists, on which they raised the
natural products of the soil, but gave still more attention to the
suggar-cane, imported from the Canaries. Sugar, indeed, together
with the beautiful dye-woods of the country and the precious metals,
formed almost the only articles of export in the infancy of the
colonies, which had not yet introduced those other staples of the West
Indian commerce, which, in our day, constitute its principal wealth.
Yet the precious metals, painfully gleaned from a few scanty
sources, would have made poor returns, but for the gratuitous labour
of the Indians.
The cruel system of repartimientos, or distribution of the Indians
as slaves among the conquerors, had been suppressed by Isabella.
Although subsequently countenanced by the government, it was under the
most careful limitations. But it is impossible to license crime by
halves,- to authorise injustice at all, and hope to regulate the
measure of it. The eloquent remonstrances of the Dominicans,- who
devoted themselves to the good work of conversion in the New World
with the same zeal that they showed for persecution in the Old,-
but, above all, those of Las Casas, induced the regent Ximenes to send
out a commission with full powers to inquire into the alleged
grievances, and to redress them. It had authority, moreover, to
investigate the conduct of the civil officers, and to reform any
abuses in their administration. This extraordinary commission
consisted of three Hieronymite friars and an eminent jurist, all men
of learning and unblemished piety.
They conducted the inquiry in a very dispassionate manner; but,
after long deliberation, came to a conclusion most unfavourable to the
demands of Las Casas, who insisted on the entire freedom of the
natives. This conclusion they justified on the grounds that the
Indians would not labour without compulsion, and that, unless they
laboured, they could not be brought into communication with the
whites, nor be converted to Christianity. Whatever we may think of
this argument, it was doubtless urged with sincerity by its advocates,
whose conduct through their whole administration places their
motives above suspicion. They accompanied it with many careful
provisions for the protection of the natives,- but in vain. The simple
people, accustomed all their days to a life of indolence and ease,
sunk under the oppressions of their masters, and the population wasted
away with even more frightful rapidity than did the aborigines in
our own country, under the operation of other causes. It is not
necessary to pursue these details further, into which I have been
led by the desire to put the reader in possession of the general
policy and state of affairs in the New World, at the period when the
present narrative begins.
Of the islands, Cuba was the second discovered; but no attempt had
been made to plant a colony there during the lifetime of Columbus;
who, indeed, after skirting the whole extent of its southern coast,
died in the conviction that it was part of the continent. At length,
in 1511, Diego, the son and successor of the "Admiral," who still
maintained the seat of government in Hispaniola, finding the mines
much exhausted there, proposed to occupy the neighbouring island of
Cuba, or Fernandina, as it was called, in compliment to the Spanish
monarch. He prepared a small force for the conquest, which he placed
under the command of Don Diego Velasquez; a man described by a
contemporary, as "possessed of considerable experience in military
affairs, having served seventeen years in the European wars; as
honest, illustrious by his lineage and reputation, covetous of
glory, and somewhat more covetous of wealth." The portrait was
sketched by no unfriendly hand.
Velasquez, or rather his lieutenant Narvaez, who took the office
on himself of scouring the country, met with no serious opposition
from the inhabitants, who were of the same family with the
effeminate natives of Hispaniola. The conquest, through the merciful
interposition of Las Casas, "the protector of the Indians," who
accompanied the army in its march, was effected without much
bloodshed. One chief, indeed, named Hatuey, having fled originally
from St. Domingo to escape the oppression of its invaders, made a
desperate resistance, for which he was condemned by Velasquez to be
burned alive. It was he who made that memorable reply, more eloquent
than a volume of invective. When urged at the stake to embrace
Christianity, that his soul might find admission into heaven, he
inquired if the white men would go there. On being answered in the
affirmative, he exclaimed, "Then I will not be a Christian; for I
would not go again to a place where I must find men so cruel!" The
story is told by Las Casas in his appalling record of the cruelties of
his countrymen in the New World.
After the conquest, Velasquez, now appointed governor,
diligently occupied himself with measures for promoting the prosperity
of the island. He formed a number of settlements, bearing the same
names with the modern towns, and made St. Jago, on the south-east
corner, the seat of government. He invited settlers by liberal
grants of land and slaves. He encouraged them to cultivate the soil,
and gave particular attention to the sugar-cane, so profitable an
article of commerce in later times. He was, above all, intent on
working the gold mines, which promised better returns than those in
Hispaniola. The affairs of his government did not prevent him,
meanwhile, from casting many a wistful glance at the discoveries going
forward on the continent, and he longed for an opportunity to embark
in these golden adventures himself. Fortune gave him the occasion he
An hidalgo of Cuba, named Hernandez de Cordova, sailed with
three vessels on an expedition to one of the neighbouring Bahama
Islands, in quest of Indian slaves. (February 8, 1517.) He encountered
a succession of heavy gales which drove him far out of his course, and
at the end of three weeks he found himself on a strange but unknown
coast. On landing and asking the name of the country, he was
answered by the natives, "Tectetan," meaning, "I do not understand
you,"- but which the Spaniards, misinterpreting into the name of the
place, easily corrupted into Yucatan. Some writers give a different
etymology. Such mistakes, however, were not uncommon with the early
discoverers, and have been the origin of many a name on the American
Cordova had landed on the north-eastern end of the peninsula, at
Cape Catoche. He was astonished at the size and solid material of
the buildings constructed of stone and lime, so different from the
frail tenements of reeds and rushes which formed the habitations of
the islanders. He was struck, also, with the higher cultivation of the
soil, and with the delicate texture of the cotton garments and gold
ornaments of the natives. Everything indicated a civilisation far
superior to anything he had before witnessed in the New World. He
saw the evidence of a different race, moreover, in the warlike
spirit of the people. Rumours of the Spaniards had, perhaps,
preceded them, as they were repeatedly asked if they came from the
east; and wherever they landed, they were met with the most deadly
hostility. Cordova himself, in one of his skirmishes with the Indians,
received more than a dozen wounds, and one only of his party escaped
unhurt. At length, when he had coasted the peninsula as far as
Campeachy, he returned to Cuba, which he reached after an absence of
several months, having suffered all the extremities of ill, which
these pioneers of the ocean were sometimes called to endure, and which
none but the most courageous spirit could have survived. As it was,
half the original number, consisting of one hundred and ten men,
perished, including their brave commander, who died soon after his
return. The reports he had brought back of the country, and still
more, the specimens of curiously wrought gold, convinced Velasquez
of the importance of this discovery, and he prepared with all despatch
to avail himself of it.
He accordingly fitted out a little squadron of four vessels for
the newly discovered lands, and placed it under the command of his
nephew, Juan de Grijalva, a man on whose probity, prudence, and
attachment to himself he knew he could rely. The fleet left the port
of St. Jago de Cuba, May 1, 1518. It took the course pursued by
Cordova, but was driven somewhat to the south, the first land that
it made being the island of Cozumel. From this quarter Grijalva soon
passed over to the continent and coasted the peninsula, touching at
the same places as his predecessor. Everywhere he was struck, like
him, with the evidences of a higher civilisation, especially in the
architecture. He was astonished, also, at the sight of large stone
crosses, evidently objects of worship, which he met with in various
places. Reminded by these circumstances of his own country, he gave
the peninsula the name "New Spain," a name since appropriated to a
much wider extent of territory.
Wherever Grijalva landed, he experienced the same unfriendly
reception as Cordova, though he suffered less, being better prepared
to meet it. In the Rio de Tabasco or Grijalva, as it is often called
after him, he held an amicable conference with a chief, who gave him a
number of gold plates fashioned into a sort of armour. As he wound
round the Mexican coast, one of his captains, Pedro de Alvarado,
afterwards famous in the Conquest, entered a river, to which he also
left his own name. In a neighbouring stream, called the Rio de
Vanderas, or "River of Banners," from the ensigns displayed by the
natives on its borders, Grijalva had the first communication with
the Mexicans themselves.
The cacique who ruled over this province had received notice of
the approach of the Europeans, and of their extraordinary
appearance. He was anxious to collect all the information he could
respecting them, and the motives of their visit, that he might
transmit them to his master, the Aztec emperor. A friendly
conference took place between the parties on shore, where Grijalva
landed with all his force, so as to make a suitable impression on
the mind of the barbaric chief. The interview lasted some hours,
though, as there was no one on either side to interpret the language
of the other, they could communicate only by signs. They, however,
interchanged presents, and the Spaniards had the satisfaction of
receiving, for a few worthless toys and trinkets, a rich treasure of
jewels, gold ornaments and vessels, of the most fantastic forms and
Grijalva now thought that in this successful traffic- successful
beyond his most sanguine expectations- he had accomplished the chief
object of his mission. He steadily refused the solicitations of his
followers to plant a colony on the spot,- a work of no little
difficulty in so populous and powerful a country as this appeared to
be. To this, indeed, he was inclined, but deemed it contrary to his
instructions, which limited him to barter with the natives. He
therefore despatched Alvarado in one of the caravels back to Cuba,
with the treasure and such intelligence as he had gleaned of the great
empire in the interior, and then pursued his voyage along the coast.
He touched at St. Juan de Ulua, and at the Isla de los
Sacrificios, so called by him from the bloody remains of human victims
found in one of the temples. He then held on his course as far as
the province of Panuco, where finding some difficulty in doubling a
boisterous headland, he returned on his track, and after an absence of
nearly six months, reached Cuba in safety. Grijalva has the glory of
being the first navigator who set foot on the Mexican soil, and opened
an intercourse with the Aztecs.
On reaching the island, he was surprised to learn that another and
more formidable armament had been fitted out to follow up his own
discoveries, and to find orders at the same time from the governor,
couched in no very courteous language, to repair at once to St.
Jago. He was received by that personage, not merely with coldness, but
with reproaches for having neglected so fair an opportunity of
establishing a colony in the country he had visited. Velasquez was one
of those captious spirits, who, when things do not go exactly to their
minds, are sure to shift the responsibility of the failure from
their own shoulders, where it should lie, to those of others. He had
an ungenerous nature, says an old writer, credulous, and easily
moved to suspicion. In the present instance it was most unmerited.
Grijalva, naturally a modest, unassuming person, had acted in
obedience to the instructions of his commander, given before
sailing; and had done this in opposition to his own judgment and the
importunities of his followers. His conduct merited anything but
censure from his employer.
When Alvarado had returned to Cuba with his golden freight, and
the accounts of the rich empire of Mexico which he had gathered from
the natives, the heart of the governor swelled with rapture as he
saw his dreams of avarice and ambition so likely to be realised.
Impatient of the long absence of Grijalva, he despatched a vessel in
search of him under the command of Olid, a cavalier who took an
important part afterwards in the Conquest. Finally he resolved to
fit out another armament on a sufficient scale to insure the
subjugation of the country.
He previously solicited authority for this from the Hieronymite
commission in St. Domingo. He then despatched his, chaplain to Spain
with the royal share of the gold brought from Mexico, and a full
account of the intelligence gleaned there. He set forth his own
manifold services, and solicited from the country full powers to go on
with the conquest and colonisation of the newly discovered regions.
Before receiving an answer, he began his preparations for the
armament, and, first of all, endeavoured to find a suitable person
to share the expense of it, and to take the command. Such a person
he found, after some difficulty and delay, in Hernando Cortes; the man
of all others best calculated to achieve this great enterprise,- the
last man to whom Velasquez, could he have foreseen the results,
would have confided it.
Chapter II [1518]


HERNANDO CORTES was born at Medellin, a town in the south-east
corner of Estremadura, in 1485. He came of an ancient and
respectable family; and historians have gratified the national
vanity by tracing it up to the Lombard kings, whose descendants
crossed the Pyrenees, and established themselves in Aragon under the
Gothic monarchy. This royal genealogy was not found out till Cortes
had acquired a name which would confer distinction on any descent,
however noble. His father, Martin Cortes de Monroy, was a captain of
infantry, in moderate circumstances, but a man of unblemished
honour; and both he and his wife, Dona Catalina Pizarro Altamirano,
appear to have been much regarded for their excellent qualities.
In his infancy Cortes is said to have had a feeble constitution,
which strengthened as he grew older. At fourteen, he was sent to
Salamanca, as his father, who conceived great hopes from his quick and
showy parts, proposed to educate him for the law, a profession which
held out better inducements to the young aspirant than any other.
The son, however, did not conform to these views. He showed little
fondness for books, and after loitering away two years at college,
returned home, to the great chagrin of his parents. Yet his time had
not been wholly misspent, since he had laid up a little store of
Latin, and learned to write good prose, and even verses "of some
estimation, considering"- as an old writer quaintly remarks- "Cortes
as the author." He now passed his days in the idle, unprofitable
manner of one who, too wilful to be guided by others, proposes no
object to himself. His buoyant spirits were continually breaking out
in troublesome frolics and capricious humours, quite at variance
with the orderly habits of his father's. household. He showed a
particular inclination for the military profession, or rather for
the life of adventure to which in those days it was sure to lead.
And when, at the age of seventeen, he proposed to enrol himself
under the banners of the Great Captain, his parents, probably thinking
a life of hardship and hazard abroad preferable to one of idleness
at home, made no objection.
The youthful cavalier, however, hesitated whether to seek his
fortunes under that victorious chief, or in the New World, where
gold as well as glory was to be won, and where the very dangers had
a mystery and romance in them inexpressibly fascinating to a
youthful fancy. It was in this direction, accordingly, that the hot
spirits of that day found a vent, especially from that part of the
country where Cortes lived, the neighbourhood of Seville and Cadiz,
the focus of nautical enterprise. He decided on this latter course,
and an opportunity offered in the splendid armament fitted out under
Don Nicolas de Ovando, successor to Columbus. An unlucky accident
defeated the purpose of Cortes.
As he was scaling a high wall, one night, which gave him access to
the apartment of a lady with whom he was engaged in an intrigue, the
stones gave way, and he was thrown down with much violence and
buried under the ruins. A severe contusion, though attended with no
other serious consequences, confined him to his bed till after the
departure of the fleet.
Two years longer he remained at home, profiting little, as it
would seem, from the lesson he had received. At length he availed
himself of another opportunity presented by the departure of a small
squadron of vessels bound to the Indian islands. He was nineteen years
of age when he bade adieu to his native shores in 1504,- the same year
in which Spain lost the best and greatest in her long line of princes,
Isabella the Catholic.
Immediately on landing, Cortes repaired to the house of the
governor, to whom he had been personally known in Spain. Ovando was
absent on an expedition into the interior, but the young man was
kindly received by the secretary, who assured him there would be no
doubt of his obtaining a liberal grant of land to settle on. "But I
came to get gold," replied Cortes, "not to till the soil like a
On the governor's return, Cortes consented to give up his roving
thoughts, at least for a time, as the other laboured to convince him
that he would be more likely to realise his wishes from the slow,
indeed, but sure, returns of husbandry, where the soil and the
labourers were a free gift to the planter, than by taking his chance
in the lottery of adventure, in which there were so many blanks to a
prize. He accordingly received a grant of land, with a repartimiento
of Indians, and was appointed notary of the town or settlement of
Agua. His graver pursuits, however, did not prevent his indulgence
of the amorous propensities which belong to the sunny clime where he
was born; and this frequently involved him in affairs of honour,
from which, though an expert swordsman, he carried away sears that
accompanied him to his grave. He occasionally, moreover, found the
means of breaking up the monotony of his way of life by engaging in
the military expeditions which, under the command of Ovando's
lieutenant, Diego Velasquez, were employed to suppress the
insurrections of the natives. In this school the young adventurer
first studied the wild tactics of Indian warfare; he became familiar
with toil and danger, and with those deeds of cruelty which have too
often, alas! stained the bright scutcheons of the Castilian chivalry
in the New World. He was only prevented by illness- a most fortunate
one, on this occasion,- from embarking in Nicuessa's expedition, which
furnished a tale of woe, not often matched in the annals of Spanish
discovery. Providence reserved him for higher ends.
At length, in 1511, when Velasquez undertook the conquest of Cuba,
Cortes willingly abandoned his quiet life for the stirring scenes
there opened, and took part in the expedition. He displayed throughout
the invasion an activity and courage that won him the approbation of
the commander; while his free and cordial manners, his good humour,
and lively sallies of wit made him the favourite of the soldiers.
"He gave little evidence," says a contemporary, "of the great
qualities which he afterwards showed." It is probable these
qualities were not known to himself; while to a common observer his
careless manners and jocund repartees might well seem incompatible
with anything serious or profound; as the real depth of the current is
not suspected under the light play and sunny sparkling of the surface.
After the reduction of the island, Cortes seems to have been
held in great favour by Velasquez, now appointed its governor.
According to Las Casas, he was made one of his secretaries. He still
retained the same fondness for gallantry, for which his handsome
person afforded obvious advantages, but which had more than once
brought him into trouble in earlier life. Among the families who had
taken up their residence in Cuba was one of the name of Xuarez, from
Granada in Old Spain. It consisted of a brother, and four sisters
remarkable for their beauty. With one of them, named Catalina, the
susceptible heart of the young soldier became enamoured. How far the
intimacy was carried is not quite certain. But it appears he gave
his promise to marry her,- a promise which, when the time came, and
reason, it may be, had got the better of passion, he showed no
alacrity in keeping. He resisted, indeed, all remonstrances to this
effect from the lady's family, backed by the governor, and somewhat
sharpened, no doubt, in the latter by the particular interest he
took in one of the fair sisters, who is said not to have repaid it
with ingratitude.
Whether the rebuke of Velasquez, or some other cause of disgust,
rankled in the breast of Cortes, he now became cold toward his patron,
and connected himself with a disaffected party tolerably numerous in
the island. They were in the habit of meeting at his house and
brooding over their causes of discontent, chiefly founded, it would
appear, on what they conceived an ill requital of their services in
the distribution of lands and offices. It may well be imagined, that
it could have been no easy task for the ruler of one of these
colonies, however discreet and well intentioned, to satisfy the
indefinite cravings of speculators and adventurers, who swarmed,
like so many famished harpies, in the track of discovery in the New
The malcontents determined to lay their grievances before the
higher authorities in Hispaniola, from whom Velasquez had received his
commission. The voyage was one of some hazard, as it was to be made in
an open boat, across an arm of the sea, eighteen leagues wide; and
they fixed on Cortes, with whose fearless spirit they were well
acquainted, as the fittest man to undertake it. The conspiracy got
wind, and came to the governor's ears before the departure of the
envoy, whom he instantly caused to be seized, loaded with fetters, and
placed in strict confinement. It is even said, he would have hung him,
but for the interposition of his friends.
Cortes did not long remain in durance. He contrived to throw
back one of the bolts of his fetters; and, after extricating his
limbs, succeeded in forcing open a window with the irons so as to
admit of his escape. He was lodged on the second floor of the
building, and was able to let himself down to the pavement without
injury, and unobserved. He then made the best of his way to a
neighbouring church, where he claimed the privilege of sanctuary.
Velasquez, though incensed at his escape, was afraid to violate
the sanctity of the place by employing force. But he stationed a guard
in the neighbourhood, with orders to seize the fugitive, if he
should forget himself so far as to leave the sanctuary. In a few
days this happened. As Cortes was carelessly standing without the
walls in front of the building, an alguacil suddenly sprung on him
from behind and pinioned his arms, while others rushed in and
secured him. This man, whose name was Juan Escudero, was afterwards
hung by Cortes for some offence in New Spain.
The unlucky prisoner was again put in irons, and carried on
board a vessel to sail the next morning for Hispaniola, there to
undergo his trial. Fortune favoured him once more. He succeeded
after much difficulty and no little pain, in passing his feet
through the rings which shackled them. He then came cautiously on
deck, and, covered by the darkness of the night, stole quietly down
the side of the ship into a boat that lay floating below. He pushed
off from the vessel with as little noise as possible. As he drew
near the shore, the stream became rapid and turbulent. He hesitated to
trust his boat to it; and, as he was an excellent swimmer, prepared to
breast it himself, and boldly plunged into the water. The current
was strong, but the arm of a man struggling for life was stronger; and
after buffeting the waves till he was nearly exhausted, he succeeded
in gaining a landing; when he sought refuge in the same sanctuary
which had protected him before. The facility with which Cortes a
second time effected his escape, may lead one to doubt the fidelity of
his guards; who perhaps looked on him as the victim of persecution,
and felt the influence of those popular manners which seem to have
gained him friends in every society into which he was thrown.
For some reason not explained,- perhaps from policy,- he now
relinquished his objections to the marriage with Catalina Xuarez. He
thus secured the good offices of her family. Soon afterwards the
governor himself relented, and became reconciled to his unfortunate
enemy. A strange story is told in connection with this event. It is
said, his proud spirit refused to accept the proffers of
reconciliation made him by Velasquez; and that one evening, leaving
the sanctuary, he presented himself unexpectedly before the latter
in his own quarters, when on a military excursion at some distance
from the capital. The governor, startled by the sudden apparition of
his enemy completely armed before him, with some dismay inquired the
meaning of it. Cortes answered by insisting on a full explanation of
his previous conduct. After some hot discussion the interview
terminated amicably; the parties embraced, and, when a messenger
arrived to announce the escape of Cortes, he found him in the
apartments of his Excellency, where, having retired to rest, both were
actually sleeping in the same bed! The anecdote is repeated without
distrust by more than one biographer of Cortes. It is not very
probable, however, that a haughty irascible man like Velasquez
should have given such uncommon proofs of condescension and
familiarity to one, so far beneath him in station, with whom he had
been so recently in deadly feud; nor, on the other hand, that Cortes
should have had the silly temerity to brave the lion in his den, where
a single nod would have sent him to the gibbet,- and that too with
as little compunction or fear of consequences as would have attended
the execution of an Indian slave.
The reconciliation with the governor, however brought about, was
permanent. Cortes, though not re-established in the office of
secretary, received a liberal repartimiento of Indians, and an ample
territory in the neighbourhood of St. Jago, of which he was soon after
made alcalde. He now lived almost wholly on his estate, devoting
himself to agriculture, with more zeal than formerly. He stocked his
plantation with different kinds of cattle, some of which were first
introduced by him into Cuba. He wrought, also, the gold mines which
fell to his share, and which in this island promised better returns
than those in Hispaniola. By this course of industry he found
himself in a few years master of some two or three thousand
castellanos, a large sum for one in his situation. "God, who alone
knows at what cost of Indian lives it was obtained," exclaims Las
Casas, "will take account of it!" His days glided smoothly away in
these tranquil pursuits, and in the society of his beautiful wife,
who, however ineligible as a connection, from the inferiority of her
condition, appears to have fulfilled all the relations of a faithful
and affectionate partner. Indeed, he was often heard to say at this
time, as the good bishop above quoted remarks, "that he lived as
happily with her as if she had been the daughter of a duchess."
Fortune gave him the means in after life of verifying the truth of his
Such was the state of things, when Alvarado returned with the
tidings of Grijalva's discoveries, and the rich fruits of his
traffic with the natives. The news spread like wildfire throughout the
island; for all saw in it the promise of more important results than
any hitherto obtained. The governor, as already noticed, resolved to
follow up the track of discovery with a more considerable armament;
and he looked around for a proper person to share the expense of it,
and to take the command.
Several hidalgos presented themselves, whom, from want of proper
qualifications, or from his distrust of their assuming an independence
of their employer, he one after another rejected. There were two
persons in St. Jago in whom he placed great confidence,- Amador de
Lares, the contador, or royal treasurer, and his own secretary, Andres
de Duero. Cortes was also in close intimacy with both these persons;
and he availed himself of it to prevail on them to recommend him as
a suitable person to be intrusted with the expedition. It is said,
he reinforced the proposal by promising a liberal share of the
proceeds of it. However this may be, the parties urged his selection
by the governor with all the eloquence of which they were capable.
That officer had had ample experience of the capacity and courage of
the candidate. He knew, too, that he had acquired a fortune which
would enable him to co-operate materially in fitting out the armament.
His popularity in the island would speedily attract followers to his
standard. All past animosities had long since been buried in oblivion,
and the confidence he was now to repose in him would insure his
fidelity and gratitude. He lent a willing ear, therefore, to the
recommendation of his counsellors, and, sending for Cortes,
announced his purpose of making him captaingeneral of the armada.
Cortes had now attained the object of his wishes,- the object
for which his soul had panted, ever since he had set foot in the New
World. He was no longer to be condemned to a life of mercenary
drudgery; nor to be cooped up within the precincts of a petty
island; but he was to be placed on a new and independent theatre of
action, and a boundless perspective was opened to his view, which
might satisfy not merely the wildest cravings of avarice, but, to a
bold aspiring spirit like his, the far more important cravings of
ambition. He fully appreciated the importance of the late discoveries,
and read in them the existence of the great empire in the far West,
dark hints of which had floated from time to time in the islands,
and of which more certain glimpses had been caught by those who had
reached the continent. This was the country intimated to the "Great
Admiral" in his visit to Honduras in 1502, and which he might have
reached, had he held on a northern course, instead of striking to
the south in quest of an imaginary strait. As it was, "he had but
opened the gate," to use his own bitter expression, "for others to
enter." The time had at length come when they were to enter it; and
the young adventurer, whose magic lance was to dissolve the spell
which had so long hung over these mysterious regions, now stood
ready to assume the enterprise.
From this hour the deportment of Cortes seemed to undergo a
change. His thoughts, instead of evaporating in empty levities or idle
flashes of merriment, were wholly concentrated on the great object
to which he was devoted. His elastic spirits were shown in cheering
and stimulating the companions of his toilsome duties, and he was
roused to a generous enthusiasm, of which even those who knew him best
had not conceived him capable. He applied at once all the money in his
possession to fitting out the armament. He raised more by the mortgage
of his estates, and by giving his obligations to some wealthy
merchants of the place, who relied for their reimbursement on the
success of the expedition; and, when his own credit was exhausted,
he availed himself of that of his friends.
The funds thus acquired he expended in the purchase of vessels,
provisions, and military stores, while he invited recruits by offers
of assistance to such as were too poor to provide for themselves,
and by the additional promise of a liberal share of the anticipated
All was now bustle and excitement in the little town of St.
Jago. Some were busy in refitting the vessels and getting them ready
for the voyage; some in providing naval stores; others in converting
their own estates into money in order to equip themselves; every one
seemed anxious to contribute in some way or other to the success of
the expedition. Six ships, some of them of a large size, had already
been procured; and three hundred recruits enrolled themselves in the
course of a few days, eager to seek their fortunes under the banner of
this daring and popular chieftain.
How far the governor contributed towards the expenses of the
outfit is not very clear. If the friends of Cortes are to be believed,
nearly the whole burden fell on him; since, while he supplied the
squadron without remuneration, the governor sold many of his own
stores at an exorbitant profit. Yet it does not seem probable that
Velasquez, with such ample means at his command, should have thrown on
his deputy the burden of the expedition; nor that the latter, had he
done so, could have been in a condition to meet these expenses,
amounting, as we are told, to more than twenty thousand gold ducats.
Still it cannot be denied that an ambitious man like Cortes, who was
to reap all the glory of the enterprise, would very naturally be
less solicitous to count the gains of it, than his employer, who,
inactive at home, and having no laurels to win, must look on the
pecuniary profits as his only recompense. The question gave rise, some
years later, to a furious litigation between the parties, with which
it is not necessary at present to embarrass the reader.
It is due to Velasquez to state that the instructions delivered by
him for the conduct of the expedition cannot be charged with a
narrow or mercenary spirit. The first object of the voyage was to find
Grijalva, after which the two commanders were to proceed in company
together. Reports had been brought back by Cordova, on his return from
the first visit to Yucatan, that six Christians were said to be
lingering in captivity in the interior of the country. It was supposed
they might belong to the party of the unfortunate Nicuessa, and orders
were given to find them out, if possible, and restore them to liberty.
But the great object of the expedition was barter with the natives. In
pursuing this, special care was to be taken that they should receive
no wrong, but be treated with kindness and humanity. Cortes was to
bear in mind, above all things, that the object which the Spanish
monarch had most at heart was the conversion of the Indians. He was to
impress on them the grandeur and goodness of his royal master, to
invite them "to give in their allegiance to him, and to manifest it by
regaling him with such comfortable presents of gold, pearls, and
precious stones as, by showing their own good will, would secure his
favour and protection." He was to make an accurate survey of the
coast, sounding its bays and inlets for the benefit of future
navigators. He was to acquaint himself with the natural products of
the country, with the character of its different races, their
institutions and progress in civilisation; and he was to send home
minute accounts of all these, together with such articles as he should
obtain in his intercourse with them. Finally, he was to take the
most careful care to omit nothing that might redound to the service of
God or his sovereign.
Such was the general tenor of the instructions given to Cortes,
and they must be admitted to provide for the interests of science
and humanity, as wen as for those which had reference only to a
commercial speculation. It may seem strange, considering the
discontent shown by Velasquez with his former captain, Grijalva, for
not colonising, that no directions should have been given to that
effect here. But he bad not yet received from Spain the warrant for
investing his agents with such powers; and that which had been
obtained from the Hieronymite fathers in Hispaniola conceded only
the right to traffic with the natives. The commission at the same time
recognised the authority of Cortes as Captain General.
Chapter III [1518-1519]


THE importance given to Cortes by his new position, and perhaps
a somewhat more lofty bearing, gradually gave uneasiness to the
naturally suspicious temper of Velasquez, who became apprehensive that
his officer, when away where he would have the power, might also
have the inclination, to throw off his dependence on him altogether.
An accidental circumstance at this time heightened these suspicions. A
mad fellow, his jester, one of those crack-brained wits,- half wit,
half fool,- who formed in those days a common appendage to every great
man's establishment, called out to the governor, as he was taking
his usual walk one morning with Cortes towards the port, "Have a care,
master Velasquez, or we shall have to go a hunting, some day or other,
after this same captain of ours!" "Do you hear what the rogue says?"
exclaimed the governor to his companion. "Do not heed him," said
Cortes, "he is a saucy knave, and deserves a good whipping." The words
sunk deep, however, in the mind of Velasquez,- as, indeed, true
jests are apt to stick.
There were not wanting persons about his Excellency, who fanned
the latent embers of jealousy into a blaze. These worthy gentlemen,
some of them kinsmen of Velasquez, who probably felt their own deserts
somewhat thrown into the shade by the rising fortunes of Cortes,
reminded the governor of his ancient quarrel with that officer, and of
the little probability that affronts so keenly felt at the time
could ever be forgotten. By these and similar suggestions, and by
misconstructions of the present conduct of Cortes, they wrought on the
passions of Velasquez to such a degree, that he resolved to intrust
the expedition to other hands.
He communicated his design to his confidential advisers, Lares and
Duero, and these trusty personages reported it without delay to
Cortes, although, "to a man of half his penetration," says Las
Casas, "the thing would have been readily divined from the
governor's altered demeanour." The two functionaries advised their
friend to expedite matters as much as possible, and to lose no time in
getting his fleet ready for sea, if he would retain the command of it.
Cortes showed the same prompt decision on this occasion, which more
than once afterwards in a similar crisis gave the direction to his
He had not yet got his complement of men, nor of vessels; and
was very inadequately provided with supplies of any kind. But he
resolved to weigh anchor that very night. He waited on his officers,
informed them of his purpose, and probably of the cause of it; and
at midnight, when the town was hushed in sleep, they all went
quietly on board, and the little squadron dropped down the bay. First,
however, Cortes had visited the person whose business it was to supply
the place with meat, and relieved him of all his stock on hand,
notwithstanding his complaint that the city must suffer for it on
the morrow, leaving him, at the same time, in payment, a massive
gold chain of much value, which he wore round his neck.
Great was the amazement, of the good citizens of St. Jago, when,
at dawn, they saw that the fleet, which they knew was so ill
prepared for the voyage, had left its moorings and was busily
getting under way. The tidings soon came to the ears of his
Excellency, who, springing from his bed, hastily dressed himself,
mounted his horse, and, followed by his retinue, galloped down to
the quay. Cortes, as soon as he descried their approach, entered an
armed boat, and came within speaking distance of the shore. "And is it
thus you part from me!" exclaimed Velasquez; "a courteous way of
taking leave, truly!" "Pardon me," answered Cortes, "time presses,
and there are some things that should be done before they are even
thought of. Has your Excellency any commands?" But the mortified
governor had no commands to give; and Cortes, politely waving his
hand, returned to his vessel, and the little fleet instantly made sail
for the port of Macaca, about fifteen leagues distant. (November 18,
1518.) Velasquez rode back to his house to digest his chagrin as he
best might; satisfied, probably, that he had made at least two
blunders; one in appointing Cortes to the command,- the other in
attempting to deprive him of it. For, if it be true, that by giving
our confidence by halves, we can scarcely hope to make a friend, it is
equally true, that, by withdrawing it when given, we shall make an
This clandestine departure of Cortes has been severely
criticised by some writers, especially by Las Casas. Yet much may be
urged in vindication of his conduct. He had been appointed to the
command by the voluntary act of the governor, and this had been
fully ratified by the authorities of Hispaniola. He had at once
devoted all his resources to the undertaking, incurring, indeed, a
heavy debt in addition. He was now be deprived of his commission,
without any misconduct having been alleged or at least proved
against him. Such an event must overwhelm him in irretrievable ruin,
to say nothing of the friends from whom he had so largely borrowed,
and the followers who had embarked their fortunes in the expedition on
the faith of his commanding it. There are few persons, probably, who
under these circumstances would have felt called tamely to acquiesce
in the sacrifice of their hopes to a groundless and arbitrary whim.
The most to have been expected from Cortes was, that he should feel
obliged to provide faithfully for the interests of his employer in the
conduct of the enterprise. How far he felt the force of this
obligation will appear in the sequel.
From Macaca, where Cortes laid in such stores as he could obtain
from the royal farms, and which, he said, he considered as "a loan
from the king," he proceeded to Trinidad; a more considerable town, on
the southern coast of Cuba. Here he landed, and erecting his
standard in front of his quarters, made proclamation, with liberal
offers to all who would join the expedition. Volunteers came in daily,
and among them more than a hundred of Grijalva's men, just returned
from their voyage, and willing to follow up the discovery under an
enterprising leader. The fame of Cortes attracted, also, a number of
cavaliers of family and distinction, some of whom, having
accompanied Grijalva, brought much information valuable for the
present expedition. Among these hidalgos may be mentioned Pedro de
Alvarado and his brothers, Christoval de Olid, Alonso de Avila, Juan
Velasquez de Leon, a near relation of the governor, Alonso Hernandez
de Puertocarrero, and Gonzalo de Sandoval,- all of them men who took a
most important part in the Conquest. Their presence was of great
moment, as giving consideration to the enterprise; and, when they
entered the little camp of the adventurers, the latter turned out to
welcome them amidst lively strains of music and joyous salvos of
Cortes meanwhile was active in purchasing military stores and
provisions. Learning that a trading vessel laden with grain and
other commodities for the mines was off the coast, he ordered out
one of his caravels to seize her and bring her into port. He paid
the master in bills for both cargo and ship, and even persuaded this
man, named Sedeno, who was wealthy, to join his fortunes to the
expedition. He also despatched one of his officers, Diego de Ordaz, in
quest of another ship, of which he had tidings, with instructions to
seize it in like manner, and to meet him with it off Cape St. Antonio,
the westerly point of the island. By this he effected another
object, that of getting rid of Ordaz, who was one of the governor's
household, and an inconvenient spy on his own actions.
While thus occupied, letters from Velasquez were received by the
commander of Trinidad, requiring him to seize the person of Cortes,
and to detain him, as he had been deposed from the command of the
fleet, which was given to another. This functionary communicated his
instructions to the principal officers in the expedition, who
counselled him not to make the attempt, as it would undoubtedly lead
to a commotion among the soldiers, that might end in laying the town
in ashes. Verdugo thought it prudent to conform to this advice.
As Cortes was willing to strengthen himself by still further
reinforcements, he ordered Alvarado with a small body of men to
march across the country to the Havana, while he himself would sail
round the westerly point of the island, and meet him there with the
squadron. In this port he again displayed his standard, making the
usual proclamation. He caused all the large guns to be brought on
shore, and with the small arms and crossbows, to be put in order. As
there was abundance of cotton raised in this neighbourhood, he had the
jackets of the soldiers thickly quilted with it, for a defence against
the Indian arrows, from which the troops in the former expeditions had
grievously suffered. He distributed his men into eleven companies,
each under the command of an experienced officer; and it was observed,
that, although several of the cavaliers in the service were the
personal friends and even kinsmen of Velasquez, he appeared to treat
them all with perfect confidence.
His principal standard was of black velvet embroidered with
gold, and emblazoned with a red cross amidst flames of blue and white,
with this motto in Latin beneath: "Friends, let us follow the Cross;
and under this sign, if we have faith, we shall conquer." He now
assumed more state in his own person and way of living, introducing
a greater number of domestics and officers into his household, and
placing it on a footing becoming a man of high station. This state
he maintained through the rest of his life.
Cortes at this time was thirty-three, or perhaps thirty-four years
of age. In stature he was rather above the middle size. His complexion
was pale; and his large dark eye gave an expression of gravity to
his countenance, not to have been expected in one of his cheerful
temperament. His figure was slender, at least until later life; but
his chest was deep, his shoulders broad, his frame muscular and
well-proportioned. It presented the union of agility and vigour
which qualified him to excel in fencing, horsemanship, and the other
generous exercises of chivalry. In his diet he was temperate, careless
of what he ate, and drinking little; while to toil and privation he
seemed perfectly indifferent. His dress, for he did not disdain the
impression produced by such adventitious aids, was such as to set
off his handsome person to advantage; neither gaudy nor striking,
but rich. He wore few ornaments, and usually the same; but those
were of great price. His manners, frank and soldier-like, concealed
a most cool and calculating spirit. With his gayest humour there
mingled a settled air of resolution, which made those who approached
him feel they must obey; and which infused something like awe into the
attachment of his most devoted followers. Such a combination, in which
love was tempered by authority, was the one probably best calculated
to inspire devotion in the rough and turbulent spirits among whom
his lot was to be cast.
The character of Cortes seems to have undergone some change with
change of circumstances; or to speak more correctly, the new scenes in
which he was placed called forth qualities which before lay dormant in
his bosom. There are some hardy natures that require the heats of
excited action to unfold their energies; like the plants, which,
closed to the mild influence of a temperate latitude, come to their
full growth, and give forth their fruits, only in the burning
atmosphere of the tropics.
Before the preparations were fully completed at the Havana, the
commander of the place, Don Pedro Barba, received despatches from
Velasquez ordering him to apprehend Cortes, and to prevent the
departure of his vessels; while another epistle from the same source
was delivered to Cortes himself, requesting him to postpone his voyage
till the governor could communicate with him, as he proposed, in
person. "Never," exclaims Las Casas, "did I see so little knowledge of
affairs shown, as in this letter of Diego Velasquez,- that he should
have imagined that a man, who had so recently put such an affront on
him, would defer his departure at his bidding!" It was, indeed, hoping
to stay the flight of the arrow by a word, after it had left the bow.
The captain-general, however, during his short stay had entirely
conciliated the good will of Barba. And, if that officer had had the
inclination, he knew he had not the power, to enforce his
principal's orders, in the face of a resolute soldiery, incensed at
this ungenerous persecution of their commander, and "all of whom," in
the words of the honest chronicler, Bernal Diaz, who bore part in
the expedition, "officers and privates, would have cheerfully laid
down their lives for him." Barba contented himself, therefore, with
explaining to Velasquez the impracticability of the attempt, and at
the same time endeavoured to traquillise his apprehensions by
asserting his own confidence in the fidelity of Cortes. To this the
latter added a communication of his own, in which he implored his
Excellency to rely on his devotion to his interests, and concluded
with the comfortable assurance that he and the whole fleet, God
willing, would sail on the following morning.
Accordingly, on the 10th of February, 1519, the little squadron
got under way, and directed its course towards Cape St. Antonio, the
appointed place of rendezvous. When all were brought together, the
vessels were found to be eleven in number; one of them, in which
Cortes himself went, was of a hundred tons' burden, three others
were from seventy to eighty tons, the remainder were caravels and open
brigantines. The whole was put under the direction of Antonio de
Alaminos, as chief pilot; a veteran navigator, who, had acted as pilot
to Columbus in his last voyage, and to Cordova and Grijalva in the
former expeditions to Yucatan.
Landing on the Cape and mustering his forces, Cortes found they
amounted to one hundred and ten mariners, five hundred and fifty-three
soldiers, including thirty-two crossbow-men, and thirteen
arquebusiers, besides two hundred Indians of the island, and a few
Indian women for menial offices. He was provided with ten heavy
guns, four lighter pieces called falconets, and with a good supply
of ammunition. He had, besides, sixteen horses. They were not easily
procured; for the difficulty of transporting them across the ocean
in the flimsy craft of that day made them rare and incredibly dear
in the islands. But Cortes rightfully estimated the importance of
cavalry, however small in number, both for their actual service in the
field, and for striking terror into the savages. With so paltry a
force did he enter on a conquest which even his stout heart must
have shrunk from attempting with such means, had he but foreseen
half its real difficulties!
Before embarking, Cortes addressed his soldiers in a short but
animated harangue. He told them they were about to enter on a noble
enterprise, one that would make their name famous to after ages. He
was leading them to countries more vast and opulent than any yet
visited by Europeans. "I hold out to you a glorious prize,"
continued the orator, "but it is to be won by incessant toil. Great
things are achieved only by great exertions and glory was never the
reward of sloth. If I have laboured hard and staked my all on this
undertaking, it is for the love of that renown, which is the noblest
recompense of man. But, if any among you covet riches more, be but
true to me, as I will be true to you and to the occasion, and I will
make you masters of such as our countrymen have never dreamed of!
You are few in number, but strong in resolution; and, if this does not
falter, doubt not but that the Almighty, who has never deserted the
Spaniard in his contest with the infidel, will shield you, though
encompassed by a cloud of enemies; for your cause is a just cause, and
you are to fight under the banner of the Cross. Go forward then," he
concluded, "with alacrity and confidence, and carry to a glorious
issue the work so auspiciously begun."
The rough eloquence of the general, touching the various chords of
ambition, avarice, and religious zeal, sent a thrill through the
bosoms of his martial audience; and, receiving it with acclamations,
they seemed eager to press forward under a chief who was to lead
them not so much to battle, as to triumph.
Cortes was well satisfied to find his own enthusiasm so largely
shared by his followers. Mass was then celebrated with the solemnities
usual with the Spanish navigators, when entering on their voyages of
discovery. The fleet was placed under the immediate protection of
St. Peter, the patron saint of Cortes; and, weighing anchor, took
its departure on the eighteenth day of February, 1519, for the coast
of Yucatan.
Chapter IV [1519]


ORDERS were given for the vessels to keep as near together as
possible, and to take the direction of the capitana, or admiral's
ship, which carried a beacon-light in the stern during the night.
But the weather, which had been favourable, changed soon after their
departure, and one of those tempests set in, which at this season
are often found in the latitudes of the West Indies. It fell with
terrible force on the little navy, scattering it far asunder,
dismantling some of the ships, and driving them all considerably south
of their proposed destination.
Cortes, who had lingered behind to convoy a disabled vessel,
reached the island of Cozumel last. On landing, he learned that one of
his captains, Pedro de Alvarado, had availed himself of the short time
he had been there to enter the temples, rifle them of their few
ornaments, and, by his violent conduct, so far to terrify the simple
natives, that they had fled for refuge into the interior of the
island. Cortes, highly incensed at these rash proceedings, so contrary
to the policy he had proposed, could not refrain from severely
reprimanding his officer in the presence of the army. He commanded two
Indian captives, taken by Alvarado, to be brought before him, and
explained to them the pacific purpose of his visit. This he did
through the assistance of his interpreter, Melchorejo, a native of
Yucatan, who had been brought back by Grijalva, and who, during his
residence in Cuba, had picked up some acquaintance with the Castilian.
He then dismissed them loaded with presents, and with an invitation to
their countrymen to return to their homes without fear of further
annoyance. This humane policy succeeded. The fugitives, reassured,
were not slow in coming back; and an amicable intercourse was
established, in which Spanish cutlery and trinkets were exchanged
for the gold ornaments of the natives; a traffic in which each party
congratulated itself- a philosopher might think with equal reason-
on outwitting the other.
The first object of Cortes was, to gather tidings of the
unfortunate Christians who were reported to be still lingering in
captivity on the neighbouring continent. From some traders in the
islands he obtained such a confirmation of the report, that he sent
Diego de Ordaz with two brigantines to the opposite coast of
Yucatan, with instructions to remain there eight days. Some Indians
went as messengers in the vessels, who consented to bear a letter to
the captives, informing them of the arrival of their countrymen in
Cozumel, with a liberal ransom for their release. Meanwhile the
general proposed to make an excursion to the different parts of the
island, that he might give employment to the restless spirits of the
soldiers, and ascertain the resources of the country.
It was poor and thinly peopled. But everywhere he recognised the
vestiges of a higher civilisation than what he had before witnessed in
the Indian islands. The houses were some of them large, and often
built of stone and lime. He was particularly struck with the
temples, in which were towers constructed of the same solid materials,
and rising several stories in height.
In the court of one of these he was amazed by the sight of a
cross, of stone and lime, about ten palms high. It was the emblem of
the God of rain. Its appearance suggested the wildest conjectures, not
merely to the unlettered soldiers, but subsequently to the European
scholar, who speculated on the character of the races that had
introduced there the sacred symbol of Christianity. But no such
inference, as we shall see hereafter, could be warranted. Yet it
must be regarded as a curious fact, that the Cross should have been
venerated as the object of religious worship both in the New World,
and in regions of the Old, where the light of Christianity had never
The next object of Cortes was to reclaim the natives from their
gross idolatry, and to substitute a purer form of worship. In
accomplishing this he was prepared to use force, if milder measures
should be ineffectual. There was nothing which the Spanish
government had more earnestly at heart, than the conversion of the
Indians. It forms the constant burden of their instructions, and
gave to the military expeditions in this Western Hemisphere somewhat
of the air of a crusade. The cavalier who embarked in them entered
fully into these chivalrous and devotional feelings. No doubt was
entertained of the efficacy of conversion, however sudden might be the
change, or however violent the means. The sword was a good argument
when the tongue failed; and the spread of Mahometanism had shown
that seeds sown by the hand of violence, far from perishing in the
ground, would spring up and bear fruit to after time. If this were
so in a bad cause, how much more would it be true in a good one! The
Spanish cavalier felt he had a high mission to accomplish as a soldier
of the Cross. However unauthorised or unrighteous the war into which
he had entered may seem to us, to him it was a holy war. He was in
arms against the infidel. Not to care for the soul of his benighted
enemy was to put his own in jeopardy. The conversion of a single
soul might cover a multitude of sins. It was not for morals that he
was concerned, but for the faith. This, though understood in its
most literal and limited sense, comprehended the whole scheme of
Christian morality. Whoever died in the faith, however immoral had
been his life, might be said to die in the Lord. Such was the creed of
the Castilian knight of that day, as imbibed from the preachings of
the pulpit, from cloisters and colleges at home, from monks and
missionaries abroad,- from all save one, Las Casas, whose devotion,
kindled at a purer source, was not, alas! permitted to send forth
its radiance far into the thick gloom by which he was encompassed.
No one partook more fully of the feelings above described than
Hernan Cortes. He was, in truth, the very mirror of the times in which
he lived, reflecting its motley characteristics, its speculative
devotion, and practical licence,- but with an intensity all his own.
He was greatly scandalised at the exhibition of the idolatrous
practices of the people of Cozumel, though untainted, as it would
seem, with human sacrifices. He endeavoured to persuade them to
embrace a better faith, through the agency of two ecclesiastics who
attended the expedition,- the licentiate Juan Diaz and Father
Bartolome de Olmedo. The latter of these godly men afforded the rare
example- rare in any age- of the union of fervent zeal with charity,
while he beautifully illustrated in his own conduct the precepts which
he taught. He remained with the army through the whole expedition, and
by his wise and benevolent counsels was often enabled to mitigate
the cruelties of the Conquerors, and to turn aside the edge of the
sword from the unfortunate natives.
These two missionaries vainly laboured to persuade the people of
Cozumel to renounce their abominations, and to allow the Indian idols,
in which the Christians recognised the true lineaments of Satan, to be
thrown down and demolished. The simple natives, filled with horror
at the proposed profanation, exclaimed that these were the gods who
sent them the sunshine and the storm, and, should any violence be
offered, they would be sure to avenge it by sending their lightnings
on the heads of its perpetrators.
Cortes was probably not much of a polemic. At all events, he
preferred on the present occasion action to argument; and thought that
the best way to convince the Indians of their error was to prove the
falsehood of the prediction. He accordingly, without further ceremony,
caused the venerated images to be rolled down the stairs of the
great temple, amidst the groans and lamentations of the natives. An
altar was hastily constructed, an image of the Virgin and Child placed
over it, and mass was performed by Father Olmedo and his reverend
companion for the first time within the walls of a temple in New
Spain. The patient ministers tried once more to pour the light of
the gospel into the benighted understandings of the islanders, and
to expound the mysteries of the Catholic faith. The Indian interpreter
must have afforded rather a dubious channel for the transmission of
such abstruse doctrines. But they at length found favour with their
auditors, who, whether overawed by the bold bearing of the invaders,
or convinced of the impotence of deities that could not shield their
own shrines from violation, now consented to embrace Christianity.
While Cortes was thus occupied with the triumphs of the Cross,
he received intelligence that Ordaz had returned from Yucatan
without tidings of the Spanish captives. Though much chagrined, the
general did not choose to postpone longer his departure from
Cozumel. The fleet had been well stored with provisions by the
friendly inhabitants, and, embarking his troops, Cortes, in the
beginning of March, took leave of its hospitable shores. The
squadron had not proceeded far, however, before a leak in one of the
vessels compelled them to return to the same port. The detention was
attended with important consequences; so much so, indeed, that a
writer of the time discerns in it "a great mystery and a miracle."
Soon after landing, a canoe with several Indians was seen making
its way from the neighbouring shores of Yucatan. On reaching the
island, one of the men inquired, in broken Castilian, "if he were
among Christians"; and being answered in the affirmative, threw
himself on his knees and returned thanks to Heaven for his delivery.
He was one of the unfortunate captives for whose fate so much interest
had been felt. His name was Jeronimo de Aguilar, a native of Ecija, in
Old Spain, where he had been regularly educated for the church. He had
been established with the colony at Darien, and on a voyage from
that place to Hispaniola, eight years previous, was wrecked near the
coast of Yucatan. He escaped with several of his companions in the
ship's boat, where some perished from hunger and exposure, while
others were sacrificed, on their reaching land, by the cannibal
natives of the peninsula. Aguilar was preserved from the same dismal
fate by escaping into the interior, where he fell into the hands of
a powerful cacique, who, though he spared his life, treated him at
first with great rigour. The patience of the captive, however, and his
singular humility, touched the better feelings of the chieftain, who
would have persuaded Aguilar to take a wife among his people, but
the ecclesiastic steadily refused, in obedience to his vows. This
admirable constancy excited the distrust of the cacique, who put his
virtue to a severe test by various temptations, and much of the same
sort as those with which the devil is said to have assailed St.
Anthony. From all these fiery trials, however, like his ghostly
predecessor, he came out unscorched. Continence is too rare and
difficult a virtue with barbarians not to challenge their
veneration, and the practice of it has made the reputation of more
than one saint in the Old as well as the New World. Aguilar was now
intrusted with the care of his master's household and his numerous
wives. He was a man of discretion, as well as virtue; and his counsels
were found so salutary that he was consulted on all important matters.
In short, Aguilar became a great man among the Indians.
It was with much regret, therefore, that his master received the
proposals for his return to his countrymen, to which nothing but the
rich treasure of glass beads, hawk bells, and other jewels of like
value, sent for his ransom, would have induced him to consent. When
Aguilar reached the coast, there had been so much delay that the
brigantines had sailed, and it was owing to the fortunate return of
the fleet to Cozumel that he was enabled to join it.
On appearing before Cortes, the poor man saluted him in the Indian
style, by touching the earth with his hand, and carrying it to his
head. The commander, raising him up, affectionately embraced him,
covering him at the same time with his own cloak, as Aguilar was
simply clad in the habiliments of the country, somewhat too scanty for
a European eye. It was long, indeed, before the tastes which he had
acquired in the freedom of the forest could be reconciled to the
constraints either of dress or manners imposed by the artificial forms
of civilisation. Aguilar's long residence in the country had
familiarised him with the Mayan dialects of Yucatan, and, as he
gradually revived his Castilian, he became of essential importance
as an interpreter. Cortes saw the advantage of this from the first,
but he could not fully estimate all the consequences that were to flow
from it.
The repairs of the vessels being at length completed, the
Spanish commander once more took leave of the friendly natives of
Cozumel, and set sail on the 4th of March. Keeping as near as possible
to the coast of Yucatan, he doubled Cape Catoche, and with flowing
sheets swept down the broad bay of Campeachy. He passed Potonchan,
where Cordova had experienced a rough reception from the natives;
and soon after reached the mouth of the Rio de Tabasco, or Grijalva,
in which that navigator had carried on so lucrative a traffic.
Though mindful of the great object of his voyage,- the visit to the
Aztec territories,- he was desirous of acquainting himself with the
resources of this country, and determined to ascend the river and
visit the great town on its borders.
The water was so shallow, from the accumulation of sand at the
mouth of the stream, that the general was obliged to leave the ships
at anchor, and to embark in the boats with a part only of his
forces. The banks were thickly studded with mangrove trees, that, with
their roots shooting up and interlacing one another, formed a kind
of impervious screen or net-work, behind which the dark forms of the
natives were seen glancing to and fro with the most menacing looks and
gestures. Cortes, much surprised at these unfriendly demonstrations,
so unlike what he had reason to expect, moved cautiously up the
stream. When he had reached an open place, where a large number of
Indians were assembled, he asked, through his interpreter, leave to
land, explaining at the same time his amicable intentions. But the
Indians, brandishing their weapons, answered only with gestures of
angry defiance. Though much chagrined, Cortes thought it best not to
urge the matter further that evening, but withdrew to a neighbouring
island, where he disembarked his troops, resolved to effect a
landing on the following morning.
When day broke the Spaniards saw the opposite banks lined with a
much more numerous array than on the preceding evening, while the
canoes along the shore were filled with bands of armed warriors.
Cortes now made his preparations for the attack. He first landed a
detachment of a hundred men under Alonso de Avila, at a point somewhat
lower down the stream, sheltered by a thick grove of palms, from which
a road, as he knew, led to the town of Tabasco, giving orders to his
officer to march at once on the place, while he himself advanced to
assault it in front.
Then embarking the remainder of his troops, Cortes crossed the
river in face of the enemy; but, before commencing hostilities, that
he might "act with entire regard to justice, and in obedience to the
instructions of the Royal Council," he first caused proclamation to be
made through the interpreter, that he desired only a free passage
for his men; and that he proposed to revive the friendly relations
which had formerly subsisted between his countrymen and the natives.
He assured them that if blood were spilt, the sin would he on their
heads, and that resistance would be useless, since he was resolved
at all hazards to take up his quarters that night in the town of
Tabasco. This proclamation, delivered in lofty tone, and duly recorded
by the notary, was answered by the Indians- who might possibly have
comprehended one word in ten of it- with shouts of defiance and a
shower of arrows.
Cortes, having now complied with all the requisitions of a loyal
cavalier, and shifted the responsibility from his own shoulders to
those of the Royal Council, brought his boats alongside of the
Indian canoes. They grappled fiercely together and both parties were
soon in the water, which rose above the girdle. The struggle was not
long, though desperate. The superior strength of the Europeans
prevailed, and they forced the enemy back to land. Here, however, they
were supported by their countrymen, who showered down darts, arrows,
and blazing billets of wood on the heads of the invaders. The banks
were soft and slippery, and it was with difficulty the soldiers made
good their footing. Cortes lost a sandal in the mud, but continued
to fight barefoot, with great exposure of his person, as the
Indians, who soon singled out the leader, called to one another,
"Strike at the chief!"
At length the Spaniards gained the bank, and were able to come
into something like order, when they opened a brisk fire from their
arquebuses and crossbows. The enemy, astounded by the roar and flash
of the firearms, of which they had had no experience, fell back, and
retreated behind a breastwork of timber thrown across the way. The
Spaniards, hot in the pursuit, soon carried these rude defences, and
drove the Tabascans before them towards the town, where they again
took shelter behind their palisades.
Meanwhile Avila had arrived from the opposite quarter, and the
natives taken by surprise made no further attempt at resistance, but
abandoned the place to the Christians. They had previously removed
their families and effects. Some provisions fell into the hands of the
victors, but little gold, "a circumstance," says Las Casas, "which
gave them no particular satisfaction." It was a very populous place.
The houses were mostly of mud; the better sort of stone and lime;
affording proofs in the inhabitants of a superior refinement to that
found in the islands, as their stout resistance had given evidence
of superior valour.
Cortes, having thus made himself master of the town, took formal
possession of it for the crown of Castile. He gave three cuts with his
sword on a large ceiba tree, which grew in the place, and proclaimed
aloud, that he took possession of the city in the name and on behalf
of the Catholic sovereigns, and would maintain and defend the same
with sword and buckler against all who should gainsay it. The same
vaunting declaration was also made by the soldiers, and the whole
was duly recorded and attested by the notary. This was the usual
simple but chivalric form with which the Spanish cavaliers asserted
the royal title to the conquered territories in the New World. It
was a good title, doubtless, against the claims of any other
European potentate.
The general took up his quarters that night in the courtyard of
the principal temple. He posted his sentinels, and took all the
precautions practised in wars with a civilised foe. Indeed, there
was reason for them. A suspicious silence seemed to reign through
the place and its neighbourhood; and tidings were brought that the
interpreter, Melchorejo, had fled, leaving his Spanish dress hanging
on a tree. Cortes was disquieted by the desertion of this man who
would not only inform his countrymen of the small number of the
Spaniards, but dissipate any illusions that might be entertained of
their superior natures.
On the following morning, as no traces of the enemy were
visible, Cortes ordered out a detachment under Alvarado, and another
under Francisco de Lugo, to reconnoitre. The latter officer had not
advanced a league before he learned the position of the Indians, by
their attacking him in such force that he was fain to take shelter
in a large stone building, where he was closely besieged.
Fortunately the loud yells of the assailants, like most barbarous
nations, seeking to strike terror by their ferocious cries, reached
the ears of Alvarado and his men, who, speedily advancing to the
relief of their comrades, enabled them to force a passage through
the enemy. Both parties retreated closely pursued, on the town, when
Cortes, marching out to their support, compelled the Tabascans to
A few prisoners were taken in this skirmish. By them Cortes
found his worst apprehensions verified. The country was everywhere
in arms. A force consisting of many thousands had assembled from the
neighbouring provinces, and a general assault was resolved on for
the next day. To the general's inquiries why he had been received in
so different a manner from his predecessor, Grijalva, they answered,
that "the conduct of the Tabascans then had given great offence to the
other Indian tribes, who taxed them with treachery and cowardice; so
that they had promised, on any return of the white men, to resist them
in the same manner as their neighbours had done."
Cortes might now well regret that he had allowed himself to
deviate from the direct object of his enterprise, and to become
intangled in a doubtful war which could lead to no profitable
result. But it was too late to repent. He had taken the step, and
had no alternative but to go forward. To retreat would dishearten
his own men at the outset, impair their confidence in him as their
leader, and confirm the arrogance of his foes, the tidings of whose
success might precede him on his voyage, and prepare the way for
greater mortifications and defeats. He did not hesitate as to the
course he was to pursue; but, calling his officers together, announced
his intention to give battle the following morning.
He sent back to the vessels such as were disabled by their wounds,
and ordered the remainder of the forces to join the camp. Six of the
heavy guns were also taken from the ships, together with all the
horses. The animals were stiff and torpid from long confinement on
board; but a few hours' exercise restored them to their strength and
usual spirit. He gave the command of the artillery- if it may be
dignified with the name- to a soldier named Mesa, who had acquired
some experience as an engineer in the Italian wars. The infantry he
put under the orders of Diego de Ordaz, and took charge of the cavalry
himself. It consisted of some of the most valiant gentlemen of his
little band, among whom may be mentioned Alvarado, Velasquez de
Leon, Avila, Puertocarrero, Olid, Montejo. Having thus made all the
necessary arrangements, and settled his plan of battle, he retired
to rest,- but not to slumber. His feverish mind, as may well be
imagined, was filled with anxiety for the morrow, which might decide
the fate of his expedition; and as was his wont on such occasions,
he was frequently observed, during the night, going the rounds, and
visiting the sentinels, to see that no one slept upon his post.
At the first glimmering of light he mustered his army, and
declared his purpose not to abide, cooped up in the town, the
assault of the enemy, but to march at once against him. For he well
knew that the spirits rise with action, and that the attacking party
gathers a confidence from the very movement, which is not felt by
the one who is passively, perhaps anxiously, awaiting the assault. The
Indians were understood to be encamped on a level ground a few miles
distant from the city, called the plain of Ceutla. The general
commanded that Ordaz should march with the foot, including the
artillery, directly across the country, and attack them in front,
while he himself would fetch a circuit with the horse, and turn
their flank when thus engaged, or fall upon their rear.
These dispositions being completed, the little army heard mass and
then sallied forth from the wooden walls of Tabasco. It was
Lady-day, the 25th of March,- long memorable in the annals of New
Spain. The district around the town was chequered with patches of
maize, and, on the lower level, with plantations of cacao,-
supplying the beverage, and perhaps the coin of the country, as in
Mexico. These plantations, requiring constant irrigation, were fed
by numerous canals and reservoirs of water, so that the country
could not be traversed without great toil and difficulty. It was,
however, intersected by a narrow path or causeway, over which the
cannon could be dragged.
The troops advanced more than a league on their laborious march,
without descrying the enemy. The weather was sultry, but few of them
were embarrassed by the heavy mail worn by the European cavaliers at
that period. Their cotton jackets, thickly quilted, afforded a
tolerable protection against the arrows of the Indian, and allowed
room for the freedom and activity of movement essential to a life of
rambling adventure in the wilderness.
At length they came in sight of the broad plains of Ceutla, and
beheld the dusky lines of the enemy stretching, as far as the eye
could reach, along the edge of the horizon. The Indians had shown some
sagacity in the choice of their position; and, as the weary
Spaniards came slowly on, floundering through the morass, the
Tabascans set up their hideous battle-cries, and discharged volleys of
arrows, stones, and other missiles, which rattled like hail on the
shields and helmets of the assailants. Many were severely wounded
before they could gain the firm ground, where they soon cleared a
space for themselves, and opened a heavy fire of artillery and
musketry on the dense columns of the enemy, which presented a fatal
mark for the balls. Numbers were swept down at every discharge; but
the bold barbarians, far from being dismayed, threw up dust and leaves
to hide their losses, and, sounding their war instruments, shot off
fresh flights of arrows in return.
They even pressed closer on the Spaniards, and, when driven off by
a vigorous charge, soon turned again, and, rolling back like the waves
of the ocean, seemed ready to overwhelm the little band by weight of
numbers. Thus cramped, the latter had scarcely room to perform their
necessary evolutions, or even to work their guns with effect.
The engagement had now lasted more than an hour, and the
Spaniards, sorely pressed, looked with great anxiety for the arrival
of the horse,- which some unaccountable impediments must have
detained,- to relieve them from their perilous position. At this
crisis, the furthest columns of the Indian army were seen to be
agitated and thrown into a disorder that rapidly spread through the
whole mass. It was not long before the ears of the Christians were
saluted with the cheering war-cry of "San Jago and San Pedro," and
they beheld the bright helmets and swords of the Castilian chivalry
flashing back the rays of the morning sun, as they dashed through
the ranks of the enemy, striking to the right and left, and scattering
dismay around them. The eye of faith, indeed, could discern the patron
Saint of Spain himself, mounted on his grey war-horse, heading the
rescue and trampling over the bodies of the fallen infidels!
The approach of Cortes had been greatly retarded by the broken
nature of the ground. When he came up, the Indians were so hotly
engaged, that he was upon them before they observed his approach. He
ordered his men to direct their lances at the faces of their
opponents, who, terrified at the monstrous apparition,- for they
supposed the rider and the horse, which they had never before seen, to
be one and the same,- were seized with a panic. Ordaz availed
himself of it to command a general charge along the line, and the
Indians, many of them throwing away their arms, fled without
attempting further resistance.
Cortes was too content with the victory, to care to follow it up
by dipping his sword in the blood of the fugitives. He drew off his
men to a copse of palms which skirted the place, and, under their
broad canopy, the soldiers offered up thanksgivings to the Almighty
for the victory vouchsafed them. The field of battle was made the site
of a town, called in honour of the day on which the action took place,
Santa Maria de la Vitoria, long afterwards the capital of the
province. The number of those who fought or fell in the engagement
is altogether doubtful. Nothing, indeed, is more uncertain than
numerical estimates of barbarians. And they gain nothing in
probability, when they come, as in the present instance, from the
reports of their enemies. Most accounts, however, agree that the
Indian force consisted of five squadrons of eight thousand men each.
There is more discrepancy as to the number of slain, varying from
one to thirty thousand! In this monstrous discordance, the common
disposition to exaggerate may lead us to look for truth in the
neighbourhood of the smallest number. The loss of the Christians was
inconsiderable; not exceeding- if we receive their own reports,
probably, from the same causes, much diminishing the truth- two
killed, and less than a hundred wounded! We may readily comprehend the
feelings of the Conquerors, when they declared, that "Heaven must have
fought on their side, since their own strength could never have
prevailed against such a multitude of enemies!"
Several prisoners were taken in the battle, among them two chiefs.
Cortes gave them their liberty, and sent a message by them to their
countrymen, "that he would overlook the past, if they would come in at
once, and tender their submission. Otherwise he would ride over the
land, and put every living thing in it, man, woman, and child, to
the sword!" With this formidable menace ringing in their ears, the
envoys departed.
But the Tabascans had no relish for further hostilities. A body of
inferior chiefs appeared the next day, clad in dark dresses of cotton,
intimating their abject condition, and implored leave to bury their
dead. It was granted by the general, with many assurances of his
friendly disposition; but at the same time he told them, he expected
their principal caciques, as he would treat with none other. These
soon presented themselves, attended by a numerous train of vassals,
who followed with timid curiosity to the Christian camp. Among their
propitiatory gifts were twenty female slaves, which, from the
character of one of them, proved of infinitely more consequence than
was anticipated by either Spaniards or Tabascans. Confidence was
soon restored; and was succeeded by a friendly intercourse, and the
interchange of Spanish toys for the rude commodities of the country,
articles of food, cotton, and a few gold ornaments of little value.
When asked where the precious metal was procured, they pointed to
the west, and answered "Culhua," "Mexico." The Spaniards saw this
was no place for them to traffic, or to tarry in.- Yet here, they were
not many leagues distant from a potent and opulent city, or what
once had been so, the ancient Palenque. But its glory may have even
then passed away, and its name have been forgotten by the
surrounding nations.
Before his departure the Spanish commander did not omit to provide
for one great object of his expedition, the conversion of the Indians.
He first represented to the caciques, that he had been sent thither by
a powerful monarch on the other side of the water, to whom he had
now a right to claim their allegiance. He then caused the reverend
fathers Olmedo and Diaz to enlighten their minds, as far as
possible, in regard to the great truths of revelation, urging them
to receive these in place of their own heathenish abominations. The
Tabascans, whose perceptions were no doubt materially quickened by the
discipline they had undergone, made but a faint resistance to either
proposal. The next day was Palm Sunday, and the general resolved to
celebrate their conversion by one of those pompous ceremonials of
the Church, which should make a lasting impression on their minds.
A solemn procession was formed of the whole army with the
ecclesiastics at their head, each soldier bearing a palm branch in his
hand. The concourse was swelled by thousands of Indians of both sexes,
who followed in curious astonishment at the spectacle. The long
files bent their way through the flowery savannas that bordered the
settlement, to the principal temple, where an altar was raised, and
the image of the presiding deity was deposed to make room for that
of the Virgin with the infant Saviour. Mass was celebrated by Father
Olmedo, and the soldiers who were capable joined in the solemn
chant. The natives listened in profound silence, and if we may believe
the chronicler of the event who witnessed it, were melted into
tears; while their hearts were penetrated with reverential awe for the
God of those terrible beings who seemed to wield in their own hands
the thunder and the lightning.
These solemnities concluded, Cortes prepared to return to his
ships, well satisfied with the impression made on the new converts,
and with the conquests he had thus achieved for Castile and
Christianity. The soldiers, taking leave of their Indian friends,
entered the boats with the palm branches in their hands, and
descending the river re-embarked on board their vessels, which rode at
anchor at its mouth. A favourable breeze was blowing, and the little
navy, opening its sails to receive it, was soon on its way again to
the golden shores of Mexico.
Chapter V [1519]


THE fleet held its course so near the shore, that the
inhabitants could be seen on it; and, as it swept along the winding
borders of the gulf, the soldiers, who had been on the former
expedition with Grijalva, pointed out to their companions the
memorable places on the coast. Here was the Rio de Alvarado, named
after the gallant adventurer, who was present, also, in this
expedition; there the Rio de Vanderas, in which Grijalva had carried
on so lucrative a commerce with the Mexicans; and there the Isla de
los Sacrificios, where the Spaniards first saw the vestiges of human
sacrifice on the coast.
The fleet had now arrived off St. Juan de Ulua, the island so
named by Grijalva. The weather was temperate and serene, and crowds
of natives were gathered on the shore of the main land, gazing at the
strange phenomenon, as the vessels glided along under easy sail on the
smooth bosom of the waters. It was the evening of Thursday in
Passion Week. The air came pleasantly off the shore, and Cortes,
liking the spot, thought he might safely anchor under the lee of the
island, which would shelter him from the nortes that sweep over
these seas with fatal violence in the winter, sometimes even late in
the spring.
The ships had not been long at anchor, when a light pirogue,
filled with natives, shot off from the neighbouring continent, and
steered for the general's vessel, distinguished by the royal ensign of
Castile floating from the mast. The Indians came on board with a frank
confidence, inspired by the accounts of the Spaniards spread by
their countrymen who had traded with Grijalva. They brought presents
of fruits and flowers and little ornaments of gold, which they
gladly exchanged for the usual trinkets. Cortes was baffled in his
attempts to hold a conversation with his visitors by means of the
interpreter, Aguilar, who was ignorant of the language; the Mayan
dialects, with which he was conversant, bearing too little resemblance
to the Aztec. The natives supplied the deficiency, as far as possible,
by the uncommon vivacity and significance of their gestures,- the
hieroglyphics of speech,- but the Spanish commander saw with chagrin
the embarrassments he must encounter in future for want of a more
perfect medium of communication. In this dilemma, he was informed that
one of the female slaves given to him by the Tabascan chiefs was a
native Mexican, and understood the language. Her name- that given to
her by the Spaniards- was Marina; and, as she was to exercise a most
important influence on their fortunes, it is necessary to acquaint the
reader with something of her character and history.
She was born at Painalla, in the province of Coatzacualco, on
the south-eastern borders of the Mexican empire. Her father, a rich
and powerful cacique, died when she was very young. Her mother married
again, and, having a son, she conceived the infamous idea of
securing to this offspring of her second union Marina's rightful
inheritance. She accordingly feigned that the latter was dead, but
secretly delivered her into the hands of some itinerant traders of
Xicallanco. She availed herself, at the same time, of the death of a
child of one of her slaves, to substitute the corpse for that of her
own daughter, and celebrated the obsequies with mock solemnity.
These particulars are related by the honest old soldier, Bernal
Diaz, who knew the mother, and witnessed the generous treatment of her
afterwards by Marina. By the merchants the Indian maiden was again
sold to the cacique of Tabasco, who delivered her, as we have seen, to
the Spaniards.
From the place of her birth she was well acquainted with the
Mexican tongue, which, indeed, she is said to have spoken with great
elegance. Her residence in Tabasco familiarised her with the
dialects of that country, so that she could carry on a conversation
with Aguilar, which he in turn rendered into the Castilian. Thus a
certain, though somewhat circuitous channel was opened to Cortes for
communicating with the Aztecs; a circumstance of the last importance
to the success of his enterprise. It was not very long, however,
before Marina, who had a lively genius, made herself so far mistress
of the Castilian as to supersede the necessity of any other
linguist. She learned it the more readily, as it was to her the
language of love: Cortes, who appreciated the value of her services
from the first, made her his interpreter, then his secretary, and, won
by her charms, his mistress.
With the aid of his two intelligent interpreters, Cortes entered
into conversation with his Indian visitors. He learned that they
were Mexicans, or rather subjects of the great Mexican empire, of
which their own province formed one of the comparatively recent
conquests. The country was ruled by a powerful monarch, called
Moctheuzoma, or by Europeans more commonly Montezuma, who dwelt on the
mountain plains of the interior, nearly seventy leagues from the
coast; their own province was governed by one of his nobles, named
Teuhtlile, whose residence was eight leagues distant. Cortes
acquainted them in turn with his own friendly views in visiting
their country, and with his desire of an interview with the Aztec
governor. He then dismissed them loaded with presents, having first
ascertained that there was abundance of gold in the interior, like the
specimens they had brought.
Cortes, pleased with the manners of the people, and the goodly
reports of the land, resolved to take up his quarters here for the
present. The next morning, April 21, being Good Friday, he landed with
all his force, on the very spot where now stands the modern city of
Vera Cruz. Little did the Conqueror imagine that the desolate beach,
on which he first planted his foot, was one day to be covered by a
flourishing city, the great mart of European and Oriental trade, the
commercial capital of New Spain.
It was a wide and level plain, except where the sand had been
drifted into hillocks by the perpetual blowing of the norte. On
these sand-hills he mounted his little battery of guns, so as to
give him the command of the country. He then employed the troops in
cutting down small trees and bushes which grew near, in order to
provide a shelter from the weather. In this he was aided by the people
of the country, sent, as it appeared, by the governor of the district,
to assist the Spaniards. With their help stakes were firmly set in the
earth, and covered with boughs, and with mats and cotton carpets,
which the friendly natives brought with them. In this way they
secured, in a couple of days, a good defence against the scorching
rays of the sun, which beat with intolerable fierceness on the
sands. The place was surrounded by stagnant marshes, the exhalations
from which, quickened by the heat into the pestilent malaria, have
occasioned in later times wider mortality to Europeans than all the
hurricanes on the coast. The bilious disorders, now the terrible
scourge of the tierra caliente, were little known before the Conquest.
The seeds of the poison seem to have been scattered by the hand of
civilisation; for it is only necessary to settle a town, and draw
together a busy European population, in order to call out the
malignity of the venom which had before lurked in the atmosphere.
While these arrangements were in progress, the natives flocked
in from the adjacent district, which was tolerably populous in the
interior, drawn by a natural curiosity to see the wonderful strangers.
They brought with them fruits, vegetables, flowers in abundance, game,
and many dishes cooked after the fashion of the country, with little
articles of gold and other ornaments. They gave away some as presents,
and bartered others for the wares of the Spaniards; so that the
camp, crowded with a motley throng of every age and sex, wore the
appearance of a fair. From some of the visitors Cortes learned the
intention of the governor to wait on him the following day.
This was Easter. Teuhtlile arrived, as he had announced, before
noon. He was attended by a numerous train, and was met by Cortes,
who conducted him with much ceremony to his tent, where his
principal officers were assembled. The Aztec chief returned their
salutations with polite, though formal courtesy. Mass was first said
by father Olmedo, and the service was listened to by Teuhtlile and his
attendants with decent reverence. A collation was afterwards served,
at which the general entertained his guest with Spanish wines and
confections. The interpreters were then introduced, and a conversation
commenced between the parties.
The first inquiries of Teuhtlile were respecting the country of
the strangers, and the purport of their visit. Cortes told him, that
"he was the subject of a potent monarch beyond the seas, who ruled
over an immense empire, and had kings and princes for his vassals!
that, acquainted with the greatness of the Mexican emperor, his master
had desired to enter into a communication with him, and had sent him
as his envoy to wait on Montezuma with a present in token of his
good will, and a message which he must deliver in person." He
concluded by inquiring of Teuhtlile when he could be admitted to his
sovereign's presence.
To this the Aztec noble somewhat haughtily replied, "How is it,
that you have been here only two days, and demand to see the emperor?"
He then added, with more courtesy, that "he was surprised to learn
there was another monarch as powerful as Montezuma; but that if it
were so, he had no doubt his master would be happy to communicate with
him. He would send his couriers with the royal gift brought by the
Spanish commander, and, so soon as he had learned Montezuma's will,
would communicate it."
Teuhtlile then commanded his slaves to bring forward the present
intended for the Spanish general. It consisted of ten loads of fine
cotton, several mantles of that curious feather-work whose rich and
delicate dyes might vie with the most beautiful painting, and a wicker
basket filled with ornaments of wrought gold, all calculated to
inspire the Spaniards with high ideas of the wealth and mechanical
ingenuity of the Mexicans.
Cortes received these presents with suitable acknowledgments,
and ordered his own attendants to lay before the chief the articles
designed for Montezuma. These were an arm-chair richly carved and
painted, a crimson cap of cloth, having a gold medal emblazoned with
St. George and the dragon, and a quantity of collars, bracelets, and
other ornaments of cut glass, which, in a country where glass was
not to be had, might claim to have the value of real gems, and no
doubt passed for such with the inexperienced Mexicans. Teuhtlile
observed a soldier in the camp with a shining gilt helmet on his head,
which he said reminded him of one worn by the god Quetzalcoatl in
Mexico; and he showed a desire that Montezuma should see it. The
coming of the Spaniards, as the reader will soon see, was associated
with some traditions of this same deity. Cortes expressed his
willingness that the casque should be sent to the emperor,
intimating a hope that it would be returned filled with the gold
dust of the country, that he might be able to compare its quality with
that in his own! He further told the governor, as we are informed by
his chaplain, "that the Spaniards were troubled with a disease of
the heart, for which gold was a specific remedy!" "In short," says Las
Casas, "he contrived to make his want of gold very clear to the
While these things were passing, Cortes observed one of
Teuhtlile's attendants busy with a pencil, apparently delineating some
object. On looking at his work, he found that it was a sketch on
canvas of the Spaniards, their costumes, arms, and, in short,
different objects of interest, giving to each its appropriate form and
colour. This was the celebrated picture-writing of the Aztecs, and, as
Teuhtlile informed him, this man was employed in portraying the
various objects for the eye of Montezuma, who would thus gather a more
vivid notion of their appearance than from any description by words.
Cortes was pleased with the idea; and, as he knew how much the
effect would be heightened by converting still life into action, he
ordered out the cavalry on the beach, the wet sands of which
afforded a firm footing for the horses. The bold and rapid movements
of the troops, as they went through their military exercises; the
apparent ease with which they managed the fiery animals on which
they were mounted; the glancing of their weapons, and the shrill cry
of the trumpet, all filled the spectators with astonishment; but
when they heard the thunders of the cannon, which Cortes ordered to be
fired at the same time, and witnessed the volumes of smoke and flame
issuing from these terrible engines, and the rushing sound of the
balls, as they dashed through the trees of the neighbouring forest,
shivering their branches into fragments, they were filled with
consternation, from which the Aztec chief himself was not wholly free.
Nothing of all this was lost on the painters, who faithfully
recorded, after their fashion, every particular; not omitting the
ships,- "the water-houses," as they called them, of the strangers-
which, with their dark hulls and snow-white sails reflected from the
water, were swinging lazily at anchor on the calm bosom of the bay.
All was depicted with a fidelity, that excited in their turn the
admiration of the Spaniards, who, doubtless unprepared for this
exhibition of skill, greatly overestimated the merits of the
These various matters completed, Teuhtlile with his attendants
withdrew from the Spanish quarters, with the same ceremony with
which he had entered them; leaving orders that his people should
supply the troops with provisions and other articles requisite for
their accommodation, till further instructions from the capital.
Chapter VI [1519]


WE must now take leave of the Spanish camp in the tierra caliente,
and transport ourselves to the distant capital of Mexico, where no
little sensation was excited by the arrival of the wonderful strangers
on the coast. The Aztec throne was filled at that time by Montezuma
the Second, nephew of the last, and grandson of a preceding monarch.
He had been elected to the regal dignity in 1502, in preference to his
brothers, for his superior qualifications, both as a soldier and a
priest,- a combination of offices sometimes found in the Mexican
candidates, as it was, more frequently, in the Egyptian. In early
youth he had taken an active part in the wars of the empire, though of
late he had devoted himself more exclusively to the services of the
temple; and he was scrupulous in his attentions to all the
burdensome ceremonial of the Aztec worship. He maintained a grave
and reserved demeanour, speaking little and with prudent deliberation.
His deportment was well calculated to inspire ideas of superior
Montezuma displayed all the energy and enterprise in the
commencement of his reign, which had been anticipated from him. His
first expedition against a rebel province in the neighbourhood was
crowned with success, and he led back in triumph a throng of
captives for the bloody sacrifice that was to grace his coronation.
This was celebrated with uncommon pomp. Games and religious ceremonies
continued for several days, and among the spectators who flocked
from distant quarters were some noble Tlascalans, the hereditary
enemies of Mexico. They were in disguise, hoping thus to elude
detection. They were recognised, however, and reported to the monarch.
But he only availed himself of the information to provide them with
honourable entertainment, and a good place for witnessing the games.
This was a magnanimous act, considering the long cherished hostility
between the nations.
In his first years, Montezuma was constantly engaged in war, and
frequently led his armies in person. The Aztec banners were seen in
the furthest provinces of the Gulf of Mexico, and the distant
regions of Nicaragua and Honduras. The expeditions were generally
successful; and the limits of the empire were more widely extended
that at any preceding period.
Meanwhile the monarch was not inattentive to the interior concerns
of the kingdom. He made some important changes in the courts of
justice; and carefully watched over the execution of the laws, which
he enforced with stern severity. He was in the habit of patrolling the
streets of his capital in disguise, to make himself personally
acquainted with the abuses in it. And with more questionable policy,
it is said, he would sometimes try the integrity of his judges by
tempting them with large bribes to swerve from their duty, and then
call the delinquent to strict account for yielding to the temptation.
He liberally recompensed all who served him. He showed a similar
munificent spirit in his public works, constructing and embellishing
the temples, bringing water into the capital by a new channel, and
establishing a hospital, or retreat for invalid soldiers, in the
city of Colhuacan.
These acts, so worthy of a great prince, were counterbalanced by
others of an opposite complexion. The humility, displayed so
ostentatiously before his elevation, gave way to an intolerable
arrogance. In his pleasure-houses, domestic establishment, and way
of living, he assumed a pomp unknown to his predecessors. He
secluded himself from public observation, or, when he went abroad,
exacted the most slavish homage; while in the palace he would be
served only, even in the most menial offices, by persons of rank.
He, further, dismissed several plebeians, chiefly poor soldiers of
merit, from the places they had occupied near the person of his
predecessor, considering their attendance a dishonour to royalty. It
was in vain that his oldest and sagest counsellors remonstrated on a
conduct so impolitic.
While he thus disgusted his subjects by his haughty deportment, he
alienated their affections by the imposition of grievous taxes.
These were demanded by the lavish expenditure of his court. They
fell with peculiar heaviness on the conquered cities. This
oppression led to frequent insurrection and resistance; and the latter
years of his reign present a scene of unintermitting hostility, in
which the forces of one half of the empire were employed in
suppressing the commotions of the other. Unfortunately there was no
principle of amalgamation by which the new acquisitions could be
incorporated into the ancient monarchy, as parts of one whole. Their
interests, as well as sympathies, were different. Thus the more widely
the Aztec empire was extended, the weaker it became, resembling some
vast and ill-proportioned edifice, whose disjointed materials having
no principle of cohesion, and tottering under their own weight, seem
ready to fall before the first blast of the tempest.
In 1516, died the Tezcucan king, Nezahualpilli, in whom
Montezuma lost his most sagacious counsellor. The succession was
contested by his two sons, Cacama and Ixtlilxochitl. The former was
supported by Montezuma. The latter, the younger of the princes, a
bold, aspiring youth, appealing to the patriotic sentiment of his
nation, would have persuaded them that his brother was too much in the
Mexican interests to be true to his own country. A civil war ensued,
and ended by a compromise, by which one half of the kingdom, with
the capital, remained to Cacama, and the northern portion to his
ambitious rival. Ixtlilxochitl became from that time the mortal foe of
A more formidable enemy still was the little republic of Tlascala,
lying midway between the Mexican Valley and the coast. It had
maintained its independence for more than two centuries against the
allied forces of the empire. Its resources were unimpaired, its
civilisation scarcely below that of its great rival states, and for
courage and military prowess it had established a name inferior to
none other of the nations of Anahuac.
Such was the condition of the Aztec monarchy, on the arrival of
Cortes;- the people disgusted with the arrogance of the sovereign; the
provinces and distant cities outraged by fiscal exactions; while
potent enemies in the neighbourhood lay watching the hour when they
might assail their formidable rival with advantage. Still the
kingdom was strong in its internal resources, in the will of its
monarch, in the long habitual deference to his authority,- in short,
in the terror of his name, and in the valour and discipline of his
armies, grown grey in active service, and well drilled in all the
tactics of Indian warfare. The time had now come when these
imperfect tactics and rude weapons of the barbarian were to be brought
into collision with the science and enginery of the most civilised
nations of the globe.
During the latter years of his reign, Montezuma had rarely taken
part in his military expeditions, which he left to his captains,
occupying himself chiefly with his sacerdotal functions. Under no
prince had the priesthood enjoyed greater consideration and
immunities. The religious festivals and rites were celebrated with
unprecedented pomp. The oracles were consulted on the most trivial
occasions; and the sanguinary deities were propitiated by hecatombs of
victims dragged in triumph to the capital from the conquered or
rebellious provinces. The religion, or, to speak correctly, the
superstition of Montezuma proved a principal cause of his calamities.
In a preceding chapter I have noticed the popular traditions
respecting Quetzalcoatl, that deity with a fair complexion and flowing
beard, so unlike the Indian physiognomy, who, after fulfilling his
mission of benevolence among the Aztecs, embarked on the Atlantic
Sea for the mysterious shores of Tlapallan. He promised, on his
departure, to return at some future day with his posterity, and resume
the possession of his empire. That day was looked forward to with hope
or with apprehension, according to the interest of the believer, but
with general confidence throughout the wide borders of Anahuac. Even
after the Conquest, it still lingered among the Indian races, by
whom it was as fondly cherished, as the advent of their king Sebastian
continued to be by the Portuguese, or that of the Messiah by the Jews.
A general feeling seems to have prevailed in the time of
Montezuma, that the period for the return of the deity, and the full
accomplishment of his promise, was near at hand. This conviction is
said to have gained ground from various preternatural occurrences,
reported with more or less detail by all the most ancient
historians. In 1510, the great lake of Tezcuco, without the occurrence
of a tempest, or earthquake, or any other visible cause, became
violently agitated, overflowed its banks, and, pouring into the
streets of Mexico, swept off many of the buildings by the fury of
the waters. In 1511, one of the turrets of the great temple took fire,
equally without any apparent cause, and continued to burn in
defiance of all attempts to extinguish it. In the following years,
three comets were seen; and not long before the coming of the
Spaniards a strange light broke forth in the east. It spread broad
at its base on the horizon, and rising in a pyramidal form tapered off
as it approached the zenith. It resembled a vast sheet or flood of
fire, emitting sparkles, or, as an old writer expresses it, "seemed
thickly powdered with stars." At the same time, low voices were
heard in the air, and doleful wailings, as if to announce some
strange, mysterious calamity! The Aztec monarch, terrified at the
apparitions in the heavens, took council of Nezahualpilli, who was a
great proficient in the subtle science of astrology. But the royal
sage cast a deeper cloud over his spirit, by reading in these
prodigies the speedy downfall of the empire.
Such are the strange stories reported by the chroniclers, in which
it is not impossible to detect the glimmerings of truth. Nearly thirty
years had elapsed since the discovery of the islands by Columbus,
and more than twenty since his visit to the American continent.
Rumours, more or less distinct, of this wonderful appearance of the
white men, bearing in their hands the thunder and the lightning, so
like in many respects to the traditions of Quetzalcoatl, would
naturally spread far and wide among the Indian nations. Such
rumours, doubtless, long before the landing of the Spaniards in
Mexico, found their way up the grand plateau, filling the minds of men
with anticipations of the near coming of the period when the great
deity was to return and receive his own again.
When tidings were brought to the capital of the landing of
Grijalva on the coast, in the preceding year, the heart of Montezuma
was filled with dismay. He felt as if the destinies which had so
long brooded over the royal line of Mexico were to be accomplished,
and the sceptre was to pass away from his house for ever. Though
somewhat relieved by the departure of the Spaniards, he caused
sentinels to be stationed on the heights; and when the Europeans
returned under Cortes, he doubtless received the earliest notice of
the unwelcome event. It was by his orders, however, that the
provincial governor had prepared so hospitable a reception for them.
The hieroglyphical report of these strange visitors, now forwarded
to the capital, revived all his apprehensions. He called without delay
a meeting of his principal counsellors, including the kings of Tezcuco
and Tlacopan, and laid the matter before them.
There seems to have been much division of opinion in that body.
Some were for resisting the strangers at once, whether by fraud, or by
open force. Others contended, that, if they were supernatural
beings, fraud and force would be alike useless. If they were, as
they pretended, ambassadors from a foreign prince, such a policy would
be cowardly and unjust. That they were not of the family of
Quetzalcoatl was argued from the fact, that they had shown
themselves hostile to his religion; for tidings of the proceedings
of the Spaniards in Tabasco, it seems, had already reached the
capital. Among those in favour of giving them a friendly and
honourable reception was the Tezcucan king, Cacama.
But Montezuma, taking counsel of his own ill-defined
apprehensions, preferred a half-way course,- as usual, the most
impolitic. He resolved to send an embassy, with such a magnificent
present to the strangers, as should impress them with high ideas of
his grandeur and resources; while at the same time, he would forbid
their approach to the capital. This was to reveal, at once, both his
wealth and his weakness.
While the Aztec court was thus agitated by the arrival of the
Spaniards, they were passing their time in the tierra caliente, not
a little annoyed by the excessive heats and suffocating atmosphere
of the sandy waste on which they were encamped. They experienced every
alleviation that could be derived from the attentions of the
friendly natives. These, by the governor's command, had constructed
more than a thousand huts or booths of branches and matting which they
occupied in the neighbourhood of the camp. Here they prepared
various articles of food for the tables of Cortes and his officers,
without any recompense; while the common soldiers easily obtained a
supply for themselves, in exchange for such trifles as they brought
with them for barter. Thus the camp was liberally provided with meat
and fish dressed in many savoury ways, with cakes of corn, bananas,
pine-apples, and divers luscious vegetables of the tropics, hitherto
unknown to the Spaniards. The soldiers contrived, moreover, to
obtain many little bits of gold, of no great value, indeed, from the
natives; a traffic very displeasing to the partisans of Velasquez, who
considered it an invasion of his rights. Cortes, however, did not
think it prudent in this matter to baulk the inclinations of his
At the expiration of seven, or eight days at most, the Mexican
embassy presented itself before the camp. It may seem an incredibly
short space of time, considering the distance of the capital was
near seventy leagues. But it may be remembered that tidings were
carried there by means of posts, as already noticed, in the brief
space of four-and-twenty hours; and four or five days would suffice
for the descent of the envoys to the coast, accustomed as the Mexicans
were to long and rapid travelling. At all events, no writer states the
period occupied by the Indian emissaries on this occasion as longer
than that mentioned.
The embassy, consisting of two Aztec nobles, was accompanied by
the governor, Teuhtlile, and by a hundred slaves, bearing the princely
gifts of Montezuma. One of the envoys had been selected on account
of the great resemblance which, as appeared from the painting
representing the camp, he bore to the Spanish commander. And it is a
proof of the fidelity of the painting, that the soldiers recognised
the resemblance, and always distinguished the chief by the name of the
"Mexican Cortes."
On entering the general's pavilion, the ambassadors saluted him
and his officers, with the usual signs of reverence to persons of
great consideration, touching the ground with their hands and then
carrying them to their heads, while the air was filled with clouds
of incense, which rose up from the censers borne by their
attendants. Some delicately wrought mats of the country (petates) were
then unrolled, and on them the slaves displayed the various articles
they had brought. They were of the most miscellaneous kind; shields,
helmets, cuirasses, embossed with plates and ornaments of pure gold;
collars and bracelets of the same metal, sandals, fans, panaches and
crests of variegated feathers, intermingled with gold and silver
thread, and sprinkled with pearls and precious stones; imitations of
birds and animals in wrought and cast gold and silver, of exquisite
workmanship; curtains, coverlets, and robes of cotton, fine as silk,
of rich and various dyes, interwoven with feather-work that rivalled
the delicacy of painting. There were more than thirty loads of
cotton cloth in addition. Among the articles was the Spanish helmet
sent to the capital, and now returned filled to the brim with grains
of gold. But the things which excited the most admiration were two
circular plates of gold and silver, "as large as carriage-wheels."
One, representing the sun, was richly carved with plants and animals,-
no doubt, denoting the Aztec century. It was thirty palms in
circumference, and was valued at twenty thousand pesos de oro. The
silver wheel, of the same size, weighed fifty marks.*

* Robertson cites Bernal Diaz as reckoning the value of the
silver plate at 20,000 pesos or about L 5000. (History of America,
vol. ii. note 75.) But Bernal Diaz speaks only of the value of the
gold plate, which he estimates at 20,000 pesos de oro, a different
affair from the pesos, dollars, or ounces of silver, with which the
historian confounds them. As the mention of the peso de oro will often
recur in these pages, it will be well to make the reader acquainted
with its probable value. Nothing more difficult than to ascertain
the actual value of the currency of a distant age; so many
circumstances occur to embarrass the calculation, besides the
general depreciation of the precious metals, such as the
adulteration of specific coins and the like. Senior Clemencin, the
secretary of the Royal Academy of History, in the sixth volume of
its Memorias, has computed with great accuracy the value of the
different denominations of the Spanish currency at the close of the
fifteenth century, the period just preceding that of the conquest of
Mexico. He makes no mention of the peso de oro in his tables. But he
ascertains the precise value of the gold ducat, which will answer
our purpose as well. (Memorias de la Real Academia de Historia
[Madrid, 1821], tom. vi. *Ilust. 20.) Oviedo, a contemporary of the
Conquerors, informs us that the peso de oro and the castellano were of
the same value, and that was precisely one third greater than the
value of the ducat. (Hist. del Ind., lib. 6, cap. 8, ap. Ramusio,
Navigationi et Viaggi [Venetia, 1565], tom. iii.) Now the ducat, as
appears from Clemencin, reduced to our own currency, would be equal to
eight dollars and seventy-five cents. The peso de oro, therefore,
was equal to eleven dollars and sixty-seven cents, or two pounds,
twelve shillings, and sixpence sterling. Keeping this in mind, it will
be easy for the reader to determine the actual value in pesos de
oro, of any sum that may be hereafter mentioned.

When Cortes and his officers had completed their survey, the
ambassadors courteously delivered the message of Montezuma. "It gave
their master great pleasure," they said, "to hold this communication
with so powerful a monarch as the King of Spain, for whom he felt
the most profound respect. He regretted much that he could not enjoy a
personal interview with the Spaniards, but the distance of his capital
was too great; since the journey was beset with difficulties, and with
too many dangers from formidable enemies, to make it possible. All
that could be done, therefore, was for the strangers to return to
their own land, with the proofs thus afforded them of his friendly
Cortes, though much chagrined at this decided refusal of Montezuma
to admit his visit, concealed his mortification as he best might,
and politely expressed his sense of the emperor's munificence. "It
made him only the more desirous," he said, "to have a personal
interview with him. He should feel it, indeed, impossible to present
himself again before his own sovereign, without having accomplished
this great object of his voyage; and one, who had sailed over two
thousand leagues of ocean, held lightly the perils and fatigues of
so short a journey by land." He once more requested them to become the
bearers of his message to their master, together with a slight
additional token of his respect.
This consisted of a few fine Holland shirts, a Florentine
goblet, gilt and somewhat curiously enamelled, with some toys of
little value,- a sorry return for the solid magnificence of the
royal present. The ambassadors may have thought as much. At least,
they showed no alacrity in charging themselves either with the
present. or the message; and, on quitting the Castilian quarters,
repeated their assurance that the general's application would be
The splendid treasure, which now lay dazzling the eyes of the
Spaniards, raised in their bosoms very different emotions, according
to the difference of their characters. Some it stimulated with the
ardent desire to strike at once into the interior, and possess
themselves of a country which teemed with such boundless stores of
wealth. Others looked on it as the evidence of a power altogether
too formidable to be encountered with their present insignificant
force. They thought, therefore, it would be most prudent to return and
report their proceedings to the governor of Cuba, where preparations
could be made commensurate with so vast an undertaking. There can be
little doubt as to the impression made on the bold spirit of Cortes,
on which difficulties ever operated as incentives rather than
discouragements to enterprise. But he prudently said nothing,- at
least in public,- preferring that so important a movement should
flow from the determination of his whole army, rather than from his
own individual impulse.
Meanwhile the soldiers suffered greatly from the inconveniences of
their position amidst burning sands and the pestilent effluvia of
the neighbouring marshes, while the venomous insects of these hot
regions left them no repose, day or night. Thirty of their number
had already sickened and died; a loss that could in be afforded by the
little band. To add to their troubles, the coldness of the Mexican
chiefs had extended to their followers; and the supplies for the
camp were not only much diminished, but the prices set on them were
exorbitant. The position was equally unfavourable for the shipping,
which lay in an open roadstead, exposed to the fury of the first norte
which should sweep the Mexican Gulf.
The general was induced by these circumstances to despatch two
vessels, under Francisco de Montejo, with Alaminos for his pilot, to
explore the coast in a northerly direction, and see if a safer port
and more commodious quarters for the army could not be found there.
After the lapse of ten days the Mexican envoys returned. They
entered the Spanish quarters with the same formality as on the
former visit, bearing with them an additional present of rich stuffs
and metallic ornaments, which, though inferior in value to those
before brought, were estimated at three thousand ounces of gold.
Besides these, there were four precious stones of a considerable size,
resembling emeralds, called by the natives chalchuites, each of which,
as they assured the Spaniards, was worth more than a load of gold, and
was designed as a mark of particular respect for the Spanish
monarch. Unfortunately they were not worth as many loads of earth in
Montezuma's answer was in substance the same as before. It
contained a positive prohibition for the strangers to advance nearer
to the capital; and expressed the confidence, that, now they had
obtained what they had most desired, they would return to their own
country without unnecessary delay. Cortes received this unpalatable
response courteously, though somewhat coldly, and, turning to his
officers, exclaimed, "This is a rich and powerful prince indeed; yet
it shall go hard, but we will one day pay him a visit in his capital!"
While they were conversing, the bell struck for vespers. At the
sound, the soldiers, throwing themselves on their knees, offered up
their orisons before the large wooden cross planted in the sands. As
the Aztec chiefs gazed with curious surprise, Cortes thought it a
favourable occasion to impress them with what he conceived to be a
principal object of his visit to the country. Father Olmedo
accordingly expounded, as briefly and clearly as he could, the great
doctrines of Christianity, touching on the atonement, the passion, and
the resurrection, and concluding with assuring his astonished
audience, that it was their intention to extirpate the idolatrous
practices of the nation, and to substitute the pure worship of the
true God. He then put into their hands a little image of the Virgin
with the infant Redeemer, requesting them to place it in their temples
instead of their sanguinary deities. How far the Aztec lords
comprehended the mysteries of the Faith, as conveyed through the
double version of Aguilar and Marina, or how well they perceived the
subtle distinctions between their own images and those of the Roman
Church, we are not informed. There is a reason to fear, however,
that the seed fell on barren ground; for, when the homily of the
good father ended, they withdrew with an air of dubious reserve very
different from their friendly manners at the first interview. The same
night every hut was deserted by the natives, and the Spaniards saw
themselves suddenly cut off from supplies in the midst of a desolate
wilderness. The movement had so suspicious an appearance, that
Cortes apprehended an attack would be made on his quarters, and took
precautions accordingly. But none was meditated.
The army was at length cheered by the return of Montejo from his
exploring expedition, after an absence of twelve days. He had run down
the Gulf as far as Panuco, where he experienced such heavy gales, in
attempting to double that headland, that he was driven back, and had
nearly foundered. In the whole course of the voyage he had found
only one place tolerably sheltered from the north winds.
Fortunately, the adjacent country, well watered by fresh running
streams, afforded a favourable position for the camp; and thither,
after some deliberation, it was determined to repair.
Chapter VII [1519]


THERE is no situation which tries so severely the patience and
discipline of the soldier, as a life of idleness in camp, where his
thoughts, instead of being bent on enterprise and action, are fastened
on himself and the inevitable privations and dangers of his condition.
This was particularly the case in the present instance, where, in
addition to the evils of a scanty subsistence, the troops suffered
from excessive heat, swarms of venomous insects, and the other
annoyances of a sultry climate. They were, moreover, far from
possessing the character of regular forces, trained to subordination
under a commander whom they had long been taught to reverence and
obey. They were soldiers of fortune, embarked with him in an adventure
in which all seemed to have an equal stake, and they regarded their
captain- the captain of a day- as little more than an equal.
There was a growing discontent among the men at their longer
residence in this strange land. They were still more dissatisfied on
learning the general's intention to remove to the neighbourhood of the
port discovered by Montejo. "It was time to return," they said, "and
report what had been done to the governor of Cuba, and not linger on
these barren shores until they had brought the whole Mexican empire on
their heads!" Cortes evaded their importunities as well as he could,
assuring them there was no cause for despondency. "Everything so far
had gone on prosperously, and, when they had taken up a more
favourable position, there was no reason to doubt they might still
continue the same profitable intercourse with the natives."
While this was passing, five Indians made their appearance in
the camp one morning, and were brought to the general's tent. Their
dress and whole appearance were different from those of the
Mexicans. They wore rings of gold and gems of a bright blue stone in
their ears and nostrils, while a gold leaf delicately wrought was
attached to the under lip. Marina was unable to comprehend their
language; but, on her addressing them in Aztec, two of them, it was
found, could converse in that tongue. They said they were natives of
Cempoalla, the chief town of the Totonacs, a powerful nation who had
come upon the great plateau many centuries back, and descending its
eastern slope, settled along the sierras and broad plains which
skirt the Mexican Gulf towards the north. Their country was one of the
recent conquests of the Aztecs, and they experienced such vexatious
oppressions from their conquerors as made them very impatient of the
yoke. They informed Cortes of these and other particulars. The fame of
the Spaniards had reached their master, who sent these messengers to
request the presence of the wonderful strangers in his capital.
This communication was eagerly listened to by the general, who, it
will be remembered, was possessed of none of those facts, laid
before the reader, respecting the internal condition of the kingdom,
which he had no reason to suppose other than strong and united. An
important truth now flashed on his mind, as his quick eye descried
in this spirit of discontent a potent lever by the aid of which he
might hope to overturn this barbaric empire. He received the mission
of the Totonacs most graciously, and, after informing himself, as
far as possible, of their dispositions and resources, dismissed them
with presents, promising soon to pay a visit to their lord.
Meanwhile, his personal friends, among whom may be particularly
mentioned Alonso Hernandez de Puertocarrero, Christoval de Olid,
Alonso de Avila, Pedro de Alvarado and his brothers, were very busy in
persuading the troops to take such measures as should enable Cortes to
go foward in those ambitious plans for which he had no warrant from
the powers of Velasquez. "To return now," they said, "was to abandon
the enterprise on the threshold, which, under such a leader, must
conduct to glory and incalculable riches. To return to Cuba would be
to surrender to the greedy governor the little gains they had
already got. The only way was to persuade the general to establish a
permanent colony in the country, the government of which would take
the conduct of matters into its own hands, and provide for the
interests of its members. It was true, Cortes had no such authority
from Velasquez. But the interests of the Sovereigns, which were
paramount to every other, imperatively demanded it."
These conferences could not be conducted so secretly, though
held by night, as not to reach the ears of the friends of Velasquez.
They remonstrated against the proceedings, as insidious and
disloyal. They accused the general of instigating them; and, calling
on him to take measures without delay for the return of the troops
to Cuba, announced their own intention to depart, with such
followers as still remained true to the governor.
Cortes, instead of taking umbrage at this high-handed
proceeding, or even answering in the same haughty tone, mildly
replied, "that nothing was further from his desire than to exceed
his instructions. He, indeed, preferred to remain in the country and
continue his profitable intercourse with the natives. But, since the
army thought otherwise, he should defer to their opinion, and give
orders to return, as they desired." On the following morning,
proclamation was made for the troops to hold themselves in readiness
to embark at once on board the fleet, which was to sail for Cuba.
Great was the sensation caused by their general's order. Even many
of those before clamorous for it, with the usual caprice of men
whose wishes are too easily gratified, now regretted it. The partisans
of Cortes were loud in their remonstrances. "They were betrayed by the
general," they cried, and thronging round his tent, called on him to
countermand his orders. "We came here," said they, "expecting to
form a settlement, if the state of the country authorised it. Now it
seems you have no warrant from the governor to make one. But there are
interests, higher than those of Velasquez, which demand it. These
territories are not his property, but were discovered for the
Sovereigns; and it is necessary to plant a colony to watch over
their interests, instead of wasting time in idle barter, or, still
worse, of returning, in the present state of affairs, to Cuba. If
you refuse," they concluded, "we shall protest against your conduct as
disloyal to their Highnesses."
Cortes received this remonstrance with the embarrassed air of
one by whom it was altogether unexpected. He modestly requested time
for deliberation, and promised to give his answer on the following
day. At the time appointed, he called the troops together, and made
them a brief address. "There was no one," he said, "if he knew his own
heart, more deeply devoted than himself to the welfare of his
sovereigns, and the glory of the Spanish name. He had not only
expended his all, but incurred heavy debts, to meet the charges of
this expedition, and had hoped to reimburse himself by continuing
his traffic with the Mexicans. But, if the soldiers thought a
different course advisable, he was ready to postpone his own advantage
to the good of the state." He concluded by declaring his willingness
to take measures for settling a colony in the name of the Spanish
Sovereigns, and to nominate a magistracy to preside over it.
For the alcaldes he selected Puertocarrero and Montejo, the former
cavalier his fast friend, and the latter the friend of Velasquez,
and chosen for that very reason; a stroke of policy which perfectly
succeeded. The regidores, alguacil, treasurer, and other
functionaries, were then appointed, all of them his personal friends
and adherents. They were regularly sworn into office, and the new city
received the title of Villa Rica de Vera Cruz, "The Rich Town of the
True Cross"; a name which was considered as happily intimating that
union of spiritual and temporal interests to which the arms of the
Spanish adventurers in the New World were to be devoted. Thus, by a
single stroke of the pen, as it were, the camp was transformed into
a civil community, and the whole framework and even title of the
city were arranged before the site of it had been settled.
The new municipality were not slow in coming together; when Cortes
presented himself cap in hand, before that august body, and, laying
the powers of Velasquez on the table, respectfully tendered the
resignation of his office of Captain General, "which, indeed," he
said, "had necessarily expired, since the authority of the governor
was now superseded by that of the magistracy of Villa Rica de Vera
Cruz." He then, with a profound obeisance, left the apartment.
The council, after a decent time spent in deliberation, again
requested his presence. "There was no one," they said, "who, on mature
reflection, appeared to them so well qualified to take charge of the
interests of the community, both in peace and in war, as himself;
and they unanimously named him, in behalf of their Catholic
Highnesses, Captain General and Chief justice of the colony." He was
further empowered to draw, on his own account, one fifth of the gold
and silver which might hereafter be obtained by commerce or conquest
from the natives. Thus clothed with supreme civil and military
jurisdiction, Cortes was not backward in exerting his authority. He
found speedy occasion for it.
The transactions above described had succeeded each other so
rapidly, that the governor's party seemed to be taken by surprise, and
had formed no plan of opposition. When the last measure was carried,
however, they broke forth into the most indignant and opprobrious
invectives, denouncing the whole as a systematic conspiracy against
Velasquez. These accusations led to recrimination from the soldiers of
the other side, until from words they nearly proceeded to blows.
Some of the principal cavaliers, among them Velasquez de Leon, a
kinsman of the governor, Escobar his page, and Diego de Ordaz, were so
active in instigating these turbulent movements that Cortes took the
bold measure of putting them all in irons, and sending them on board
the vessels. He then dispersed the common file by detaching many of
them, with a strong party under Alvarado, to forage the neighbouring
country, and bring home provisions for the destitute camp.
During their absence, every argument that cupidity or ambition
could suggest was used to win the refractory to his views. Promises,
and even gold, it is said, were liberally lavished; till, by
degrees, their understandings were opened to a clearer view of the
merits of the case. And when the foraging party re-appeared with
abundance of poultry and vegetables, and the cravings of the
stomach- that great laboratory of disaffection, whether in camp or
capital- were appeased, good humour returned with good cheer, and
the rival factions embraced one another as companions in arms, pledged
to a common cause. Even the high-mettled hidalgos on board the vessels
did not long withstand the general tide of reconciliation, but one
by one gave in their adhesion to the new government. What is more
remarkable is, that this forced conversion was not a hollow one, but
from this time forward several of these very cavaliers become the most
steady and devoted partisans of Cortes.
Such was the address of this extraordinary man, and such the
ascendency which in a few months he had acquired over these wild and
turbulent spirits! By this ingenious transformation of a military into
a civil community, he had secured a new and effectual basis for future
operations. He might now go forward without fear of cheek or control
from a superior,- at least from any other superior than the crown,
under which alone he held his commission. In accomplishing this,
instead of incurring the charge of usurpation, or of transcending
his legitimate powers, he had transferred the responsibility, in a
great measure, to those who had imposed on him the necessity of
action. By this step, moreover, he had linked the fortunes of his
followers indissolubly with his own. They had taken their chance
with him, and, whether for weal or for woe, must abide the
consequences. He was no longer limited to the narrow concerns of a
sordid traffic, but sure of their co-operation, might now boldly
meditate, and gradually disclose, those lofty schemes which he had
formed in his own bosom for the conquest of an empire.
Harmony being thus restored, Cortes sent his heavy guns on board
the fleet, and ordered it to coast along the shore to the north as far
as Chiahuitztla, the town near which the destined port of the new city
was situated; proposing, himself, at the head of his troops, to
visit Cempoalla, on the march. The road lay for some miles across
the dreary plains in the neighbourhood of the modern Vera Cruz. In
this sandy waste no signs of vegetation met their eyes, which,
however, were occasionally refreshed by glimpses of the blue Atlantic,
and by the distant view of the magnificent Orizaba, towering with
his spotless diadem of snow far above his colossal brethren of the
Andes. As they advanced, the country gradually assumed a greener and
richer aspect. They crossed a river, probably a tributary of the Rio
de la Antigua, with difficulty, on rafts, and on some broken canoes
that were lying on the banks. They now came in view of very
different scenery,- wide-rolling plains covered with a rich carpet
of verdure, and overshadowed by groves of cocoas and feathery palms,
among whose tall, slender stems were seen deer, and various wild
animals with which the Spaniards were unacquainted. Some of the
horsemen gave chase to the deer, and wounded, but did not succeed in
killing them. They saw, also, pheasants and other birds; among them
the wild turkey, the pride of the American forest, which the Spaniards
described as a species of peacock.
On their route they passed through some deserted villages in which
were Indian temples, where they found censers, and other sacred
utensils, and manuscripts of the agave fibre, containing the
picture-writing, in which, probably, their religious ceremonies were
recorded. They now beheld, also, the hideous spectacle, with which
they became afterwards familiar, of the mutilated corpses of victims
who had been sacrificed to the accursed deities of the land. The
Spaniards turned with loathing and indignation from a display of
butchery, which formed so dismal a contrast to the fair scenes of
nature by which they were surrounded.
They held their course along the banks of the river, towards its
source, when they were met by twelve Indians, sent by the cacique of
Cempoalla to show them the way to his residence. At night they
bivouacked in an open meadow, where they were well supplied with
provisions by their new friends. They left the stream on the following
morning, and, striking northerly across the country, came upon a
wide expanse of luxuriant plains and woodland, glowing in all the
splendour of tropical vegetation. The branches of the stately trees
were gaily festooned with clustering vines of the dark-purple grape,
variegated convolvuli, and other flowering parasites of the most
brilliant dyes. The undergrowth of prickly aloe, matted with wild rose
and honeysuckle, made in many places an almost impervious thicket.
Amid this wilderness of sweet-smelling buds and blossoms fluttered
numerous birds of the parrot tribe, and clouds of butterflies, whose
gaudy colours, nowhere so gorgeous as in the tierra caliente, rivalled
those of the vegetable creation; while birds of exquisite song, the
scarlet cardinal and the marvellous mockingbird, that comprehends in
his own notes the whole music of a forest, filled the air with
delicious melody.- The hearts of the stern Conquerors were not very
sensible to the beauties of nature. But the magical charms of the
scenery drew forth unbounded expressions of delight, and as they
wandered through this "terrestrial paradise," as they called it,
they fondly compared it to the fairest regions of their own sunny
As they approached the Indian city, they saw abundant signs of
cultivation in the trim gardens and orchards that lined both sides
of the road. They were now met by parties of the natives of either
sex, who increased in numbers with every step of their progress. The
women, as well as men, mingled fearlessly among the soldiers,
bearing bunches and wreaths of flowers, with which they decorated
the neck of the general's charger, and hung a chaplet of roses about
his helmet. Flowers were the delight of this people. They bestowed
much care in their cultivation, in which they were well seconded by
a climate of alternate heat and moisture, stimulating the soil to
the spontaneous production of every form of vegetable life. The same
refined taste, as we shall see, prevailed among the warlike Aztecs.
Many of the women appeared, from their richer dress and numerous
attendants, to be persons of rank. They were clad in robes of fine
cotton, curiously coloured, which reached from the neck- in the
inferior orders, from the waist- to the ankles. The men wore a sort of
mantle of the same material, in the Moorish fashion, over their
shoulders, and belts or sashes about the loins. Both sexes had
jewels and ornaments of gold round their necks, while their ears and
nostrils were perforated with rings of the same metal.
Just before reaching the town, some horsemen who had rode in
advance returned with the amazing intelligence, "that they had been
near enough to look within the gates, and found the houses all
plated with burnished silver!" On entering the place, the silver was
found to be nothing more than a brilliant coating of stucco, with
which the principal buildings were covered; a circumstance which
produced much merriment among the soldiers at the expense of their
credulous comrades. Such ready credulity is a proof of the exalted
state of their imaginations, which were prepared to see gold and
silver in every object around them. The edifices of the better kind
were of stone and lime, or bricks dried in the sun; the poorer were of
clay and earth. All were thatched with palm-leaves, which, though a
flimsy roof, apparently, for such structures, were so nicely
interwoven as to form a very effectual protection against the weather.
The city was said to contain from twenty to thirty thousand
inhabitants. This is the most moderate computation, and not
improbable. Slowly and silently the little army paced the narrow and
now crowded streets of Cempoalla, inspiring the natives with no
greater wonder than they themselves experienced at the display of a
policy and refinement so far superior to anything they had witnessed
in the New World. The cacique came out in front of his residence to
receive them. He was a tall and very corpulent man, and advanced
leaning on two of his attendants. He received Cortes and his followers
with great courtesy; and, after a brief interchange of civillties,
assigned the army its quarters in a neighbouring temple, into the
spacious courtyard of which a number of apartments opened, affording
excellent accommodations for the soldiery.
Here the Spaniards were well supplied with provisions, meat cooked
after the fashion of the country, and maize made into bread-cakes. The
general received, also, a present of considerable value from the
cacique, consisting of ornaments of gold and fine cottons.
Notwithstanding these friendly demonstrations, Cortes did not relax
his habitual vigilance, nor neglect any of the precautions of a good
soldier. On his route, indeed, he had always marched in order of
battle, well prepared against surprise. In his present quarters, he
stationed his sentinels with like care, posted his small artillery
so as to command the entrance, and forbade any soldier to leave the
camp without orders, under pain of death.
The following morning, Cortes, accompanied by fifty of his men,
paid a visit to the lord of Cempoalla in his own residence. It was a
building of stone and lime, standing on a steep terrace of earth,
and was reached by a flight of stone steps. It may have borne
resemblance in its structure to some of the ancient buildings found in
Central America. Cortes, leaving his soldiers in the courtyard,
entered the mansion with one of his officers, and his fair
interpreter, Dona Marina. A long conference ensued, from which the
Spanish general gathered much light respecting the state of the
country. He first announced to the chief, that he was the subject of a
great monarch who dwelt beyond the waters; that he had come to the
Aztec shores, to abolish the inhuman worship which prevailed there,
and to introduce the knowledge of the true God. The cacique replied
that their gods, who sent them the sunshine and the rain, were good
enough for them; that he was the tributary of a powerful monarch also,
whose capital stood on a lake far off among the mountains; a stern
prince, merciless in his exactions, and, in case of resistance, or any
offence, sure to wreak his vengeance by carrying off their young men
and maidens to be sacrificed to his deities. Cortes assured him that
he would never consent to such enormities; he had been sent by his
sovereign to redress abuses and to punish the oppressor; and, if the
Totonacs would be true to him, he would enable them to throw off the
detested yoke of the Aztecs.
The cacique added, that the Totonac territory contained about
thirty towns and villages, which could muster a hundred thousand
warriors,- a number much exaggerated. There were other provinces of
the empire, he said, where the Aztec rule was equally odious; and
between him and the capital lay the warlike republic of Tlascala,
which had always maintained its independence of Mexico. The fame of
the Spaniards had gone before them, and he was well acquainted with
their terrible victory at Tabasco. But still he looked with doubt
and alarm to a rupture with "the great Montezuma," as he always styled
him; whose armies, on the least provocation, would pour down from
the mountain regions of the west, and, rushing over the plains like
a whirlwind, sweep off the wretched people to slavery and sacrifice!
Cortes endeavoured to reassure him, by declaring that a single
Spaniard was stronger than a host of Aztecs. At the same time, it
was desirable to know what nations would cooperate with him, not so
much on his account, as theirs, that he might distinguish friend
from foe, and know whom he was to spare in this war of
extermination. Having raised the confidence of the admiring chief by
this comfortable and politic vaunt, he took an affectionate leave,
with the assurance that he would shortly return and concert measures
for their future operations, when he had visited his ships in the
adjoining port, and secured a permanent settlement there.
The intelligence gained by Cortes gave great satisfaction to his
mind. It confirmd his former views, and showed, indeed, the interior
of the monarchy to be in a state far more distracted than he had
supposed. If he had before scarcely shrunk from attacking the Aztec
empire in the true spirit of a knight-errant, with his single arm,
as it were, what had he now to fear, when one half of the nation could
be thus marshalled against the other? In the excitement of the moment,
his sanguine spirit kindled with an enthusiasm which overleaped
every obstacle. He communicated his own feelings to the officers about
him, and, before a blow was struck, they already felt as if the
banners of Spain were waving in triumph the towers of Montezuma!
Taking leave of the hospitable Indian on the following day, the
Spaniards took the road to Chiahuitztla, about four leagues distant,
near which was the port discovered by Montejo, where their ships
were now riding at anchor. They were provided by the cacique with four
hundred Indian porters, tamanes, as they were called, to transport the
baggage. These men easily carried fifty pounds' weight five or six
leagues in a day. They were in use all over the Mexican empire, and
the Spaniards found them of great service, henceforth, in relieving
the troops from this part of their duty. They passed through a country
of the same rich, voluptuous character as that which they had lately
traversed; and arrived early next morning at the Indian town,
perched like a fortress on a bold, rocky eminence that commanded the
Gulf. Most of the inhabitants had fled, but fifteen of the principal
men remained, who received them in a friendly manner, offering the
usual compliments of flowers and incense. The people of the place,
losing their fears, gradually returned. While conversing with the
chiefs, the Spaniards were joined by the worthy cacique of
Cempoalla, borne by his men on a litter. He eagerly took part in their
deliberations. The intelligence gained here by Cortes confirmed the
accounts already gathered of the feelings and resources of the Totonac
In the midst of their conference, they were interrupted by a
movement among the people, and soon afterwards five men entered the
great square or market-place, where they were standing. By their lofty
port, their peculiar and much richer dress, they seemed not to be of
the same race as these Indians. Their dark glossy hair was tied in a
knot on the top of the head. They had bunches of flowers in their
hands, and were followed by several attendants, some bearing wands
with cords, other fans, with which they brushed away the flies and
insects from their lordly masters. As these persons passed through the
place, they cast a haughty look on the Spaniards, scarcely deigning to
return their salutations. They were immediately joined, in great
confusion, by the Totonac chiefs, who seemed anxious to conciliate
them by every kind of attention.
The general, much astonished, inquired of Marina what it meant.
She informed him, they were Aztec nobles, empowered to receive the
tribute for Montezuma. Soon after, the chiefs returned with dismay
painted on their faces. They confirmed Marina's statement, adding,
that the Aztecs greatly resented the entertainment afforded the
Spaniards without the emperor's permission; and demanded in
expiation twenty young men and women for sacrifice to the gods. Cortes
showed the strongest indignation at this insolence. He required the
Totonacs not only to refuse the demand, but to arrest the persons of
the collectors, and throw them into prison. The chiefs hesitated,
but he insisted on it so peremptorily, that they at length complied,
and the Aztecs were seized, bound hand and foot, and placed under a
In the night, the Spanish general procured the escape of two of
them, and had them brought secretly before him. He expressed his
regret at the indignity they had experienced from the Totonacs; told
them, he would provide means for their flight, and to-morrow would
endeavour to obtain the release of their companions. He desired them
to report this to their master, with assurances of the great regard
the Spaniards entertained for him, notwithstanding his ungenerous
behaviour in leaving them to perish from want on his barren shores. He
then sent the Mexican nobles down to the port, whence they were
carried to another part of the coast by water, for fear of the
violence of the Totonacs. These were greatly incensed at the escape of
the prisoners, and would have sacrificed the remainder at once, but
for the Spanish commander, who evinced the utmost horror at the
proposal, and ordered them to be sent for safe custody on board the
fleet. Soon after, they were permitted to join their companions.- This
artful proceeding, so characteristic of the policy of Cortes, had,
as we shall see hereafter, all the effect intended on Montezuma.
By order of Cortes, messengers were despatched to the Totonac
towns, to report what had been done, calling on them to refuse the
payment of further tribute to Montezuma. But there was no need of
messengers. The affrighted attendants of the Aztec lords had fled in
every direction, bearing the tidings, which spread like wildfire
through the country, of the daring insult offered to the majesty of
Mexico. The astonished Indians, cheered with the sweet hope of
regaining their ancient liberty, came in numbers to Chiahuitztla, to
see and confer with the formidable strangers. The more timid, dismayed
at the thoughts of encountering the power of Montezuma, recommended an
embassy to avert his displeasure by timely concessions. But the
dexterous management of Cortes had committed them too far to allow any
reasonable expectation of indulgence from this quarter. After some
hesitation, therefore, it was determined to embrace the protection
of the Spaniards, and to make one bold effort for the recovery of
freedom. Oaths of allegiance were taken by the chiefs to the Spanish
sovereigns, and duly recorded by Godoy, the royal notary. Cortes,
satisfied with the important acquisition of so many vassals to the
crown, set out soon after for the destined port, having first promised
to revisit Cempoalla, where his business was but partially
The spot selected for the new city was only half a league distant,
in a wide and fruitful plain, affording a tolerable haven for the
shipping. Cortes was not long in determining the circuit of the walls,
and the sites of the fort, granary, townhouse, temple, and other
public buildings. The friendly Indians eagerly assisted, by bringing
materials, stone, lime, wood, and bricks dried in the sun. Every man
put his hand to the work. The general laboured with the meanest of the
soldiers, stimulating their exertions by his example, as well as
voice. In a few weeks the task was accomplished, and a town rose up,
which, if not quite worthy of the aspiring name it bore, answered most
of the purposes for which it was intended. It served as a good point
d'appui for future operations; a place of retreat for the disabled, as
well as for the army in case of reverses; a magazine for stores, and
for such articles as might be received from or sent to the mother
country; a port for the shipping; a position of sufficient strength to
overawe the adjacent country.
It was the first colony- the fruitful parent of so many others- in
New Spain. It was hailed with satisfaction by the simple natives,
who hoped to repose in safety under its protecting shadow. Alas!
they could not read the future, or they would have found no cause to
rejoice in this harbinger of a revolution more tremendous than. any
predicted by their bards and prophets. It was not the good
Quetzalcoatl who had returned to claim his own again, bringing
peace, freedom, and civilisation in his train. Their fetters,
indeed, would be broken, and their wrongs be amply avenged on the
proud head of the Aztec; but it was to be by that strong arm which
should bow down equally the oppressor and the oppressed. The light
of civilisation would be poured on their land; but it would be the
light of a consuming fire, before which their barbaric glory, their
institutions, their very existence and name as a nation, would
wither and become extinct! Their doom was sealed when the white man.
had set his foot on their soil.
Chapter VIII [1519]


WHILE the Spaniards were occupied with their new settlement,
they were surprised by the presence of an embassy from Mexico. The
account of the imprisonment of the royal collectors had spread rapidly
through the country. When it reached the capital, all were filled with
amazement at the unprecedented daring of the strangers. In Montezuma
every other feeling, even that of fear, was swallowed up in
indignation; and he showed his wonted energy in the vigorous
preparations which he instantly made to punish his rebellious vassals,
and to avenge the insult offered to the majesty of the empire. But
when the Aztec officers liberated by Cortes reached the capital and
reported the courteous treatment they had received from the Spanish
commander, Montezuma's anger was mitigated, and his superstitious
fears, getting the ascendency again, induced him to resume his
former timid and conciliatory policy. He accordingly sent an
embassy, consisting of two youths, his nephews, and four of the
ancient nobles of his court, to the Spanish quarters. He provided
them, in his usual munificent spirit, with a princely donation of
gold, rich cotton stuffs, and beautiful mantles of the plumaje, or
feather embroidery. The envoys, on coming before Cortes, presented him
with the articles, at the same time offering the acknowledgments of
their master for the courtesy he had shown in liberating his captive
nobles. He was surprised and afflicted, however, that the Spaniards
should have countenanced his faithless vassals in their rebellion.
He had no doubt they were the strangers whose arrival had been so long
announced by the oracles, and of the same lineage with himself. From
deference to them he would spare the Totonacs, while they were
present. But the time for vengeance would come.
Cortes entertained the Indian chieftains with frank hospitality.
At the same time he took care to make such a display of his resources,
as, while it amused their minds, should leave a deep impression of his
power. He then, after a few trifling gifts, dismissed them with a
conciliatory message to their master, and the assurance that he should
soon pay his respects to him in his capital, where all
misunderstanding between them would be readily adjusted.
The Totonac allies could scarcely credit their senses, when they
gathered the nature of this interview. Notwithstanding the presence of
the Spaniards, they had looked with apprehension to the consequences
of their rash act; and their feelings of admiration were heightened
into awe for the strangers who, at this distance, could exercise so
mysterious an influence over the terrible Montezuma.
Not long after, the Spaniards received an application from the
cacique of Cempoalla to aid him in a dispute in which he was engaged
with a neighbouring city. Cortes marched with a part of his forces
to his support. On the route, one Morla, a common soldier, robbed a
native of a couple of fowls. Cortes, indignant at this violation of
his orders before his face, and aware of the importance of maintaining
a reputation for good faith with his allies, commanded the man to be
hung up at once by the roadside, in face of the whole army.
Fortunately for the poor wretch, Pedro de Alvarado, the future
conqueror of Quiche, was present, and ventured to cut down the body
while there was yet life in it. He, probably, thought enough had
been done for example, and the loss of a single life, unnecessarily,
was more than the little band could afford. The anecdote is
characteristic, as showing the strict discipline maintained by
Cortes over his men and the freedom assumed by his captains, who
regarded him on terms nearly of equality,- as a fellow-adventurer with
themselves. This feeling of companionship led to a spirit of
insubordination among them, which made his own post as commander the
more delicate and difficult.
On reaching the hostile city, but a few leagues from the coast,
they were received in an amicable manner; and Cortes, who was
accompanied by his allies, had the satisfaction of reconciling these
different branches of the Totonac family with each other, without
bloodshed. He then returned to Cempoalla, where he was welcomed with
joy by the people, who were now impressed with as favourable an
opinion of his moderation and justice, as they had before been of
his valour. In token of his gratitude, the Indian cacique delivered to
the general eight Indian maidens, richly dressed, wearing collars
and ornaments of gold, with a number of female slaves to wait on them.
They were daughters of the principal chiefs, and the cacique requested
that the Spanish captains might take them as their wives. Cortes
received the damsels courteously, but told the cacique they must first
be baptised, as the sons of the Church could have no commerce with
idolaters. He then declared that it was a great object of his
mission to wean the natives from their heathenish abominations, and
besought the Totonac lord to allow his idols to be cast down, and
the symbols of the true faith to be erected in their place.
To this the other answered as before, that his gods were good
enough for him; nor could all the persuasion of the general, nor the
preaching of Father Olmedo, induce him to acquiesce. Mingled with
his polytheism, he had conceptions of a Supreme and Infinite Being,
Creator of the Universe, and his darkened understanding could not
comprehend how such a Being could condescend to take the form of
humanity, with its infirmities and ills, and wander about on earth,
the voluntary victim of persecution from the hands of those whom his
breath had called into existence. He plainly told the Spaniards that
he would resist any violence offered to his gods, who would, indeed,
avenge the act themselves, by the instant destruction of their
But the zeal of the Christians had mounted too high to be cooled
by remonstrance or menace. During their residence in the land, the had
witnessed more than once the barbarous rites of the natives, their
cruel sacrifices of human victims, and their disgusting cannibal
repasts. Their souls sickened at these abominations, and they agreed
with one voice to stand by their general, when he told them, that
"Heaven would never smile on their enterprise, if they countenanced
such atrocities; and that, for his own part, he was resolved the
Indian idols should be demolished that very hour, if it cost him his
life." To postpone the work of conversion was a sin. In the enthusiasm
of the moment, the dictates of policy and ordinary prudence were alike
Scarcely waiting for his commands, the Spaniards moved towards one
of the principal teocallis, or temples, which rose high on a pyramidal
foundation, with a steep ascent of stone steps in the middle. The
cacique, divining their purpose, instantly called his men to arms. The
Indian warriors gathered from all quarters, with shrill cries and
clashing of weapons; while the priests, in their dark cotton robes,
with dishevelled tresses matted with blood, flowing wildly over
their shoulders, rushed frantic among the natives, calling on them
to protect their gods from violation! All was now confusion, tumult,
and warlike menace, where so lately had been peace and the sweet
brotherhood of nations.
Cortes took his usual prompt and decided measures. He caused the
cacique and some of the principal inhabitants and priests to be
arrested by his soldiers. He then commanded them to quiet the
people, for, if an arrow was shot against a Spaniard, it should cost
every one of them his life. Marina, at the same time, represented
the madness of resistance, and reminded the cacique, that, if he now
alienated the affections of the Spaniards, he would be left without
a protector against the terrible vengeance of Montezuma. These
temporal considerations seem to have had more weight with the
Totonac chieftain than those of a more spiritual nature. He covered
his face with his hands, exclaiming, that the gods would avenge
their own wrongs.
The Christians were not slow in availing themselves of his tacit
acquiescence. Fifty soldiers, at a signal from their general, sprang
up the great stairway of the temple, entered the building on the
summit, the walls of which were black with human gore, tore the huge
wooden idols from their foundations, and dragged them to the edge of
the terrace. Their fantastic forms and features, conveying a
symbolic meaning, which was lost on the Spaniards, seemed in their
eyes only the hideous lineaments of Satan. With great alacrity they
rolled the colossal monsters down the steps of the pyramid, amidst the
triumphant shouts of their own companions, and the groans and
lamentations of the natives. They then consummated the whole by
burning them in the presence of the assembled multitude.
The same effect followed as in Cozumel. The Totonacs, finding
their deities incapable of preventing or even punishing this
profanation of their shrines, conceived a mean opinion of their power,
compared with that of the mysterious and formidable strangers. The
floor and walls of the teocalli were then cleansed, by command of
Cortes, from their, foul impurities; a fresh coating of stucco was
laid on them by the Indian masons; and an altar was raised, surmounted
by a lofty cross, and hung with garlands of roses. A procession was
next formed, in which some of the principal Totonae priests,
exchanging their dark mantles for robes of white, carried lighted
candles in their hands; while an image of the Virgin, half smothered
under the weight of flowers, was borne aloft, and, as the procession
climbed the steps of the temple, was deposited above the altar. Mass
was performed by Father Olmedo, and the impressive character of the
ceremony and the passionate eloquence of the good priest touched the
feelings of the motley audience, until Indians as well as Spaniards,
if we may trust the chronicler, were melted into tears and audible
An old soldier named Juan de Torres, disabled by bodily infirmity,
consented to remain and watch over the sanctuary and instruct the
natives in its services. Cortes then, embracing his Totonac allies,
now brothers in religion as in arms, set out once more for the Villa
Rica, where he had some arrangements to complete, previous to his
departure for the capital.
He was surprised to find that a Spanish vessel had arrived there
in his absence, having on board twelve soldiers and two horses. It was
under the command of a captain named Saucedo, a cavalier of the ocean,
who had followed in the track of Cortes in quest of adventure.
Though a small, they afforded a very seasonable, body of recruits
for the little army. By these men, the Spaniards were informed that
Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, had lately received a warrant from
the Spanish government to establish a colony in the newly discovered
Cortes now, resolved to put a plan in execution which he had
been some time meditating. He knew that all the late acts of the
colony, as well as his own authority, would fall to the ground without
the royal sanction. He knew, too, that the interest of Velasquez,
which was great at court, would, as soon as he was acquainted with his
secession, be wholly employed to circumvent and crush him. He resolved
to anticipate his movements, and to send a vessel to Spain, with
despatches addressed to the emperor himself, announcing the nature and
extent of his discoveries, and to obtain, if possible, the
confirmation of his proceedings. In order to conciliate his master's
good will, he further proposed to send him such a present as should
suggest lofty ideas of the importance of his own services to the
crown. To effect this, the royal fifth he considered inadequate. He
conferred with his officers, and persuaded them to relinquish their
share of the treasure. At his instance, they made a similar
application to the soldiers; representing that it was the earnest wish
of the general, who set the example by resigning his own fifth,
equal to the share of the crown. It was but little that each man was
asked to surrender, but the whole would make a present worthy of the
monarch for whom it was intended. By this sacrifice they might hope to
secure his indulgence for the past, and his favour for the future; a
temporary sacrifice, that would be well repaid by the security of
the rich possessions which awaited them in Mexico. A paper was then
circulated among the soldiers, which all, who were disposed to
relinquish their shares, were requested to sign. Those who declined
should have their claims respected, and receive the amount due to
them. No one refused to sign; thus furnishing another example of the
extraordinary power obtained by Cortes over these rapacious spirits,
who, at his call, surrendered up the very treasures which had been the
great object of their hazardous enterprise!*

* A complete inventory of the articles received from Montezuma is
contained in the Carta de Vera Cruz.- The following are a few of the
Two collars made of gold and precious stones.
A hundred ounces of gold ore, that their Highnesses might see in
what state the gold came from the mines.
Two birds made of green feathers, with feet, beaks, and eyes of
gold,- and, in the same piece with them, animals of gold, resembling
A large alligator's head of gold.
A bird of green feathers, with feet, beak, and eyes of gold.
Two birds made of thread and feather-work, having the quills of
their wings and tails, their feet, eyes, and the ends of their
beaks, of gold,- standing upon two reeds covered with gold, which
are raised on balls of feather-work and gold embroidery, one white and
the other yellow, with seven tassels of feather-work hanging from
each of them.
A large wheel of silver weighing forty marks, and several
smaller ones of the same metal.
A box of feather-work embroidered on leather, with a large plate
of gold, weighing seventy ounces, in the midst.
Two pieces of cloth woven with feathers; another with variegated
colours; and another worked with black and white figures.
A large wheel of gold, with figures of strange animals on it,
and worked with tufts of leaves; weighing three thousand eight hundred
A fan of variegated feather-work, with thirty-seven rods plated
with gold.
Five fans of variegated feathers,- four of which have ten, and the
other thirteen rods, embossed with gold.
Sixteen shields of precious stones, with feathers of various
colours hanging from their rims.
Two pieces of cotton very richly wrought with black and white
Six shields, each covered with a plate of gold, with something
resembling a golden mitre in the centre.

He accompanied this present with a letter to the, emperor, in
which he gave a full account of all that had befallen him since his
departure from Cuba; of his various discoveries, battles, and
traffic with the natives; their conversion to Christianity; his
strange perils and sufferings; many particulars respecting the lands
he had visited, and such as he could collect in regard to the great
Mexican monarchy and its sovereign. He stated his difficulties with
the governor of Cuba, the proceedings of the army in reference to
colonisation, and besought the emperor to confirm their acts, as
well as his own authority, expressing his entire confidence that he
should be able, with the aid of his brave followers, to place the
Castilian crown in possession of this great Indian empire.
This was the celebrated First Letter, as it is called, of
Cortes, which has hitherto eluded every search that has been made
for it in the libraries of Europe. Its existence is fully
established by references to it, both in his own subsequent letters,
and in the writings of contemporaries. Its general purport is given by
his chaplain, Gomara. The importance of the document has doubtless
been much overrated; and, should it ever come to light, it will
probably be found to add little of interest to the matter contained in
the letter from Vera Cruz, which has formed the basis of the preceding
portion of our narrative. He had no sources of information beyond
those open to the authors of the latter document. He was even less
full and frank in his communications, if it be true, that he
suppressed all notice of the discoveries of his two predecessors.
The magistrates of the Villa Rica, in their epistle, went over the
same ground with Cortes; concluding with an emphatic representation of
the misconduct of Velasquez, whose venality, extortion, and selfish
devotion to his personal interests, to the exclusion of those of his
sovereign's as well as of his own followers, they placed in a most
clear and unenviable light. They implored the government not to
sanction his interference with the new colony, which would be fatal to
its welfare, but to commit the undertaking to Hernando Cortes, as
the man most capable, by his experience and conduct, of bringing it to
a glorious termination.
With this letter went also another in the name of the
citizen-soldiers of Villa Rica, tendering their dutiful submission
to the sovereigns, and requesting the confirmation of their
proceedings, above all that of Cortes as their general.
The selection of the agents for the mission was a delicate matter,
as on the result might depend the future fortunes of the colony and
its commander. Cortes intrusted the affair to two cavaliers on whom he
could rely: Francisco de Montejo, the ancient partisan of Velasquez,
and Alonso Hernandez de Puertocarrero. The latter officer was a near
kinsman of the Count of Medellin, and it was hoped his high
connections might secure a favourable influence at court.
Together with the treasure, which seemed to verify the assertion
that "the land teemed with gold as abundantly as that whence Solomon
drew the same precious metal for his temple," several Indian
manuscripts were sent. Some were of cotton, others of the Mexican
agave. Their unintelligible characters, says a chronicler, excited
little interest in the conquerors. As evidence of intellectual
culture, however, they formed higher objects of interest to a
philosophic mind, than those costly fabrics which attested only the
mechanical ingenuity of the nation. Four Indian slaves were added as
specimens of the natives. They had been rescued from the cages in
which they were confined for sacrifice. One of the best vessels of the
fleet was selected for the voyage, manned by fifteen seamen, and
placed under the direction of the pilot Alaminos. He was directed to
hold his course through the Bahama channel, north of Cuba, or
Fernandina, as it was then called, and on no account to touch at
that island, or any other in the Indian ocean. With these
instructions, the good ship took its departure on the 26th of July,
freighted with the treasures and the good wishes of the community of
the Villa Rica de Vera Cruz.
After a quick run the emissaries made the island of Cuba, and,
in direct disregard of orders, anchored before Marien on the
northern side of the island. This was done to accommodate Montejo, who
wished to visit a plantation owned by him in the neighbourhood.
While off the port, a sailor got on shore, and, crossing the island to
St. Jago, the capital, spread everywhere tidings of the expedition,
until they reached the ears of Velasquez. It was the first
intelligence which had been received of the armament since its
departure; and, as the governor listened to the recital, it would
not be easy to paint the mingled emotions of curiosity,
astonishment, and wrath, which agitated his bosom. In the first
sally of passion, he poured a storm of invective on the heads of his
secretary and treasurer, the friends of Cortes, who had recommended
him as the leader of the expedition. After somewhat relieving
himself in this way, he despatched two fast-sailing vessels to
Marien with orders to seize the rebel ship, and, in case of her
departure, to follow and overtake her.
But before the ships could reach that port, the bird had flown,
and was far on her way across the broad Atlantic. Stung with
mortification at his fresh disappointment, Velasquez wrote letters
of indignant complaint to the government at home, and to the fathers
of St. Jerome, in Hispaniola, demanding redress. He obtained little
satisfaction from the last. He resolved however, to take it into his
own hands, and set about making formidable preparations for another
squadron, which should be more than a match for that under his
rebellious officer. He was indefatigable in his exertions, visiting
every part of the island, and straining all his resources to effect
his purpose. The preparations were on a scale that necessarily
consumed many months.
Meanwhile the little vessel was speeding her prosperous way across
the waters; and, after touching at one of the Azores, came safely into
the harbour of St. Lucar, in the month of October. However long it may
appear in the more perfect nautical science of our day, it was
reckoned a fair voyage for that. Of what befell the commissioners on
their arrival, their reception at court, and the sensation caused by
their intelligence, I defer the account to a future chapter.
Shortly after the departure of the commissioners, an affair
occurred of a most unpleasant nature. A number of persons, with the
priest Juan Diaz at their head, ill-affected, from some cause or
other, towards the administration of Cortes, or not relishing the
hazardous expedition before them, laid a plan to seize one of the
vessels, make the best of their way to Cuba, and report to the
governor the fate of the armament. It was conducted with so much
secrecy, that the party had got their provisions, water, and
everything necessary for the voyage, on board, without detection; when
the conspiracy was betrayed on the very night they were to sail by one
of their own number, who repented the part he had taken in it. The
general caused the persons implicated to be instantly apprehended.
An examination was instituted. The guilt of the parties was placed
beyond a doubt. Sentence of death was passed on two of the
ringleaders; another, the pilot, was condemned to lose his feet, and
several others to be whipped. The priest, probably the most guilty
of the whole, claiming the usual benefit of clergy, was permitted to
escape. One of those condemned to the gallows was named Escudero,
the very alguacil who, the reader may remember, so stealthily
apprehended Cortes before the sanctuary in Cuba. The general, on
signing the death warrants, was heard to exclaim, "Would that I had
never learned to write!"
The arrangements being now fully settled at the Villa Rica, Cortes
sent forward Alvarado, with a large part of the army, to Cempoalla,
where he soon after joined them with the remainder. The late affair of
the conspiracy seems to have made a deep impression on his mind. It
showed him that there were timid spirits in the camp on whom he
could not rely, and who, he feared, might spread the seeds of
disaffection among their companions. Even the more resolute, on any
occasion of disgust or disappointment hereafter, might falter in
purpose, and, getting possession of the vessels, abandon the
enterprise. This was already too vast, and the odds were too
formidable, to authorise expectation of success with diminution of
numbers. Experience showed that this was always to be apprehended,
while means of escape were at hand. The best chance for success was to
cut off these means. He came to the daring resolution to destroy the
fleet, without the knowledge of his army.
When arrived at Cempoalla, he communicated his design to a few
of his devoted adherents, who entered warmly into his views. Through
them he readily persuaded the pilots, by means of those golden
arguments which weigh more than any other with ordinary minds, to make
such a report of the condition of the fleet as suited his purpose. The
ships, they said, were grievously racked by the heavy gales they had
encountered, and, what was worse, the worms had eaten into their sides
and bottoms until most of them were not sea-worthy, and some indeed,
could scarcely now be kept afloat.
Cortes received the communication with surprise; "for he could
well dissemble," observes Las Casas, with his usual friendly
comment, "when it suited his interests." "If it be so," he
exclaimed, "we must make the best of it! Heaven's will be done!" He
then ordered five of the worst-conditioned to be dismantled, their
cordage, sails, iron, and whatever was moveable, to be brought on
shore, and the ships to be sunk. A survey was made of the others, and,
on a similar report, four more were condemned in the same manner. Only
one small vessel remained!
When the intelligence reached the troops in Cempoalla, it caused
the deepest consternation. They saw themselves cut off by a single
blow from friends, family, country! The stoutest hearts quailed before
the prospect of being thus abandoned on a hostile shore, a handful
of men arrayed against a formidable empire. When the news arrived of
the destruction of the five vessels first condemned, they had
acquiesced in it, as a necessary measure, knowing the mischievous
activity of the insects in these tropical seas. But, when this was
followed by the loss of the remaining four, suspicions of the truth
flashed on their minds. They felt they were betrayed. Murmurs, at
first deep, swelled louder and louder, menacing open mutiny. "Their
general," they said, "had led them like cattle to be butchered in
the shambles!" The affair wore a most alarming aspect. In no situation
was Cortes ever exposed to greater danger from his soldiers.
His presence of mind did not desert him at this crisis. He
called his men together, and employing the tones of persuasion
rather than authority, assured them that a survey of the ships
showed they were not fit for service. It he had ordered them to be
destroyed, they should consider, also, that his was the greatest
sacrifice, for they were his property,- all, indeed, he possessed in
the world. The troops on the other hand, would derive one great
advantage from it, by the addition of a hundred able-bodied
recruits, before required to man the vessels. But, even if the fleet
had been saved, it could have been of little service in their
present expedition; since they would not need it if they succeeded,
while they would be too far in the interior to profit by it if they
failed. He besought them to turn their thoughts in another
direction. To be thus calculating chances and means of escape was
unworthy of brave souls. They had set their hands to the work; to look
back, as they advanced, would be their ruin. They had only to resume
their former confidence in themselves and their general, and success
was certain. "As for me," he concluded, "I have chosen my part. I
will remain here, while there is one to bear me company. If there be
any so craven, as to shrink from sharing the dangers of our glorious
enterprise, let them go home, in God's name. There is still one vessel
left. Let them take that and return to Cuba. They can tell there how
they deserted their commander and their comrades, and patiently wait
till we return loaded with the spoils of the Aztecs."
The politic orator had touched the right chord in the bosoms of
the soldiers. As he spoke, their resentment gradually died away. The
faded visions of future riches and glory, rekindled by his eloquence,
again floated before their imaginations. The first shock over, they
felt ashamed of their temporary distrust. The enthusiasm for their
leader revived, for they felt that under his banner only they could
hope for victory; and they testified the revulsion of their feelings
by making the air ring with their shouts, "To Mexico! to Mexico!"
The destruction of his fleet by Cortes is, perhaps, the most
remarkable passage in the life of this remarkable man. History,
indeed, affords examples of a similar expedient in emergencies
somewhat similar; but none where the chances of success were so
precarious, and defeat would be so disastrous. Had he failed, it might
well seem an act of madness. Yet it was the fruit of deliberate
calculation. He had set fortune, fame, life itself, all upon the cast,
and must abide the issue. There was no alternative in his mind but
to succeed or perish. The measure he adopted greatly increased the
chance of success. But to carry it into execution, in the face of an
incensed and desperate soldiery, was an act of resolution that has few
parallels in history.
March to Mexico

Chapter I [1519]


WHILE at Cempoalla, Cortes received a message from Escalante,
his commander at Villa Rica, informing him there were four strange
ships hovering off the coast, and that they took no notice of his
repeated signals. This intelligence greatly alarmed the general, who
feared they might be a squadron sent by the governor of Cuba to
interfere with his movements. In much haste, he set out at the head of
a few horsemen, and, ordering a party of light infantry to follow,
posted back to Villa Rica. The rest of the army he left in charge of
Alvarado and of Gonzalo de Sandoval, a young officer, who had begun to
give evidence of the uncommon qualities which have secured to him so
distinguished a rank among the conquerors of Mexico.
Escalante would have persuaded the general, on his reaching the
town, to take some rest, and allow him to go in search of the
strangers; but Cortes replied with the homely proverb, "A wounded hare
takes no nap," and, without stopping to refresh himself or his men,
pushed on three or four leagues to the north, where he understood
the ships were at anchor. On the way, he fell in with three Spaniards,
just landed from them. To his eager inquiries whence they came, they
replied that they belonged to a squadron fitted out by Francisco de
Garay, governor of Jamaica. This person, the year previous, had
visited the Florida coast, and obtained from Spain- where he had
some interest at court- authority over the countries he might discover
in that vicinity. The three men, consisting of a notary and two
witnesses, had been sent on shore to warn their countrymen under
Cortes to desist from what was considered an encroachment on the
territories of Garay. Probably neither the governor of Jamaica, nor
his officers, had any very precise notion of the geography and
limits of these territories.
Cortes saw at once there was nothing to apprehend from this
quarter. He would have been glad, however, if he could, by any
means have induced the crews of the ships to join his expedition. He
found no difficulty in persuading the notary and his companions. But
when he came in sight of the vessels, the people on board, distrusting
the good terms on which their comrades appeared to be with the
Spaniards, refused to send their boat ashore. In this dilemma,
Cortes had recourse to a stratagem.
He ordered three of his own men to exchange dresses with the new
comers. He then drew off his little band in sight of the vessels,
affecting to return to the city. In the night, however, he came back
to the same place, and lay in ambush, directing the disguised
Spaniards, when the morning broke, and they could be discerned, to
make signals to those on board. The artifice succeeded. A boat put
off, filled with armed men, and three or four leaped on shore. But
they soon detected the deceit, and Cortes, springing from his
ambush, made them prisoners. Their comrades in the boat, alarmed,
pushed off at once for the vessels, which soon got under weigh,
leaving those on shore to their fate. Thus ended the affair. Cortes
returned to Cempoalla, with the addition of half a dozen able-bodied
recruits, and, what was of more importance, relieved in his own mind
from the apprehension of interference with his operations.
He now made arrangements for his speedy departure from the Totonac
capital. The forces reserved for the expedition amounted to about four
hundred foot and fifteen horse, with seven pieces of artillery. He
obtained, also, thirteen hundred Indian warriors, and a thousand
tamanes, or porters, from the cacique of Cempoalla, to drag the
guns, and transport the baggage. He took forty more of their principal
men as hostages, as well as to guide him on the way, and serve him
by their counsels among the strange tribes he was to visit. They
were of essential service to him throughout the march.
The remainder of his Spanish force he left in garrison at Villa
Rica de Vera Cruz, the command of which he had intrusted to the
alguacil, Juan de Escalante, an officer devoted to his interests.
The selection was judicious. It was important to place there a man who
would resist any hostile interference from his European rivals, on the
one hand, and maintain the present friendly relations with the
natives, on the other. Cortes recommended the Totonac chiefs to
apply to his officer, in case of any difficulty, assuring them that,
so long as they remained faithful to their new sovereign and religion,
they should find a sure protection in the Spaniards.
Before marching, the general spoke a few words of encouragement to
his own men. He told them they were now to embark in earnest, on an
enterprise which had been the great object of their desires; and
that the blessed Saviour would carry them victorious through every
battle with their enemies. "Indeed," he added, "this assurance must be
our stay, for every other refuge is now cut off, but that afforded
by the providence of God, and your own stout hearts." He ended by
comparing their achievements to those of the ancient Romans, "in
phrases of honeyed eloquence far beyond anything I can repeat," says
the brave and simple-hearted Bernal Diaz, who heard them. Cortes
was, indeed, master of that eloquence which went to the soldiers'
hearts. For their sympathies were his, and he shared in that
romantic spirit of adventure which belonged to them. "We are ready
to obey you," they cried as with one voice. "Our fortunes, for
better or worse, are cast with yours." Taking leave, therefore, of
their hospitable Indian friends, the little army, buoyant with high
hopes and lofty plans of conquest, set forward on the march to Mexico,
the sixteenth of August, 1519.
After some leagues of travel over roads made nearly impassable
by the summer rains, the troops began the gradual ascent- more gradual
on the eastern than the western declivities of the Cordilleras-
which leads up to the tableland of Mexico. At the close of the
second day, they reached Xalapa, a place still retaining the same
Aztec name that it has communicated to the drug raised in its
environs, the medicinal virtues of which are now known throughout
the world.* Still winding their way upward, the army passed through
settlements containing some hundreds of inhabitants each, and on the
fourth day reached a "strong town," as Cortes terms it, standing on
a rocky eminence, supposed to be that now known by the Mexican name of
Naulinco. Here they were hospitably entertained by the inhabitants,
who were friends of the Totonacs. Cortes endeavoured, through Father
Olmedo, to impart to them some knowledge of Christian truths, which
were kindly received, and the Spaniards were allowed to erect a
cross in the place, for the future adoration of the natives. Indeed,
the route of the army might be tracked by these emblems of man's
salvation, raised wherever a willing population of Indians invited it.

* Jalap, Convolvulus jalapa. The x and j are convertible consonants
in the Castilian.

The troops now entered a rugged defile, the Bishop's Pass, as it
is called, capable of easy defence against an army. Very soon they
experienced a most unwelcome change of climate. Cold winds from the
mountains, mingled with rain, and, as they rose still higher, with
driving sleet and hail, drenched their garments, and seemed to
penetrate to their very bones. The Spaniards, indeed, partially
covered by their armour and thick jackets of quilted cotton, were
better able to resist the weather, though their long residence in
the sultry regions of the valley made them still keenly sensible to
the annoyance. But the poor Indians, natives of the tierra caliente,
with little protection in the way of covering, sunk under the rude
assault of the elements, and several of them perished on the road.
The aspect of the country was as wild and dreary as the climate.
Their route wound along the spur of the huge Cofre of Perote, which
borrows its name from the coffer-like rock on its summit. It is one of
the great volcanoes of New Spain. It exhibits now, indeed, no
vestige of a crater on its top, but abundant traces of volcanic action
at its base, where acres of lava, blackened scoriae, and cinders,
proclaim the convulsions of nature, while numerous shrubs and
mouldering trunks of enormous trees, among the crevices, attest the
antiquity of these events. Working their toilsome way across this
scene of desolation, the path often led them along the border of
precipices, down whose sheer depths of two or three thousand feet
the shrinking eye might behold another climate, and see all the
glowing vegetation of the tropics choking up the bottom of the
After three days of this fatiguing travel, the way-worn army
emerged through another defile, the Sierra del Agua. They soon came
upon an open reach of country, with a genial climate, such as
belongs to the temperate latitudes of southern Europe. They had
reached the level of more than seven thousand feet above the ocean,
where the great sheet of tableland spreads out for hundreds of miles
along the crests of the Cordilleras. The country showed signs of
careful cultivation, but the products were, for the most part, not
familiar to the eyes of the Spaniards. Fields and hedges of the
various tribes of the cactus, the towering organum, and plantations of
aloes with rich yellow clusters of flowers on their tall stems,
affording drink and clothing to the Aztec, were everywhere seen. The
plants of the torrid and temperate zones had disappeared, one after
another, with the ascent into these elevated regions. The glossy and
dark-leaved banana, the chief, as it is the cheapest, aliment of the
countries below, had long since faded from the landscape. The hardy
maize, however, still shone with its golden harvests in all the
pride of cultivation, the great staple of the higher equally with
the lower terraces of the plateau.
Suddenly the troops came upon what seemed the environs of a
populous city, which, as they entered it, appeared to surpass even
that of Cempoalla in the size and solidity of its structures. These
were of stone and lime, many of them spacious and tolerably high.
There were thirteen teocallis in the place; and in the suburbs they
had seen a receptacle, in which, according to Bernal Diaz, were stored
a hundred thousand skulls of human victims, all piled and ranged in
order! He reports the number as one he had ascertained by counting
them himself. Whatever faith we may attach to the precise accuracy
of his figures, the result is almost equally startling. The
Spaniards were destined to become familiar with this appalling
spectacle, as they approached nearer to the Aztec capital.
The lord of the town ruled over twenty thousand vassals. He was
tributary to Montezuma, and a strong Mexican garrison was quartered in
the place. He had probably been advised of the approach of the
Spaniards, and doubted how far it would be welcome to his sovereign.
At all events, he gave them a cold reception, the more unpalatable
after the extraordinary sufferings of the last few days. To the
inquiry of Cortes, whether he were subject to Montezuma, he answered
with real or affected surprise, "Who is there that is not a vassal to
Montezuma?" The general told him, with some emphasis, that he was not.
He then explained whence and why he came, assuring him that he
served a monarch who had princes for his vassals as powerful as the
Aztec monarch himself.
The cacique in turn fell nothing short of the Spaniard in the
pompous display of the grandeur and resources of the Indian emperor.
He told his guest that Montezuma could muster thirty great vassals,
each master of a hundred thousand men! His revenues were immense, as
every subject, however poor, paid something. They were all expended on
his magnificent state, and in support of his armies. These were
continually in the field, while garrisons were maintained in most of
the large cities of the empire. More than twenty thousand victims, the
fruit of his wars, were annually sacrificed on the altars of his gods!
His capital, the cacique said, stood in a lake in the centre of a
spacious valley. The lake was commanded by the emperor's vessels,
and the approach to the city was by means of causeways, several
miles long, connected in parts by wooden bridges, which, when
raised, cut off all communication with the country. Some other
things he added, in answer to queries of his guest, in which as the
reader may imagine, the crafty or credulous cacique varnished over the
truth with a lively colouring of romance. Whether romance or
reality, the Spaniards could not determine. The particulars they
gleaned were not of a kind to tranquillise their minds, and might well
have made bolder hearts than theirs pause, ere they advanced. But
far from it. "The words which we heard," says the stout old
cavalier, so often quoted, "however they may have filled us with
wonder, made us- such is the temper of the Spaniard- only the more
earnest to prove the adventure, desperate as it might appear."
In a further conversation Cortes inquired of the chief whether his
country abounded in gold, and intimated a desire to take home some, as
specimens to his sovereign. But the Indian lord declined to give him
any, saying it might displease Montezuma. "Should he command it," he
added, "My gold, my person, and all I possess, shall be at your
disposal." The general did not press the matter further.
The curiosity of the natives was naturally excited by the
strange dresses, weapons, horses, and dogs of the Spaniards. Marina,
in satisfying their inquiries, took occasion to magnify the prowess of
her adopted countrymen, expatiating on their exploits and victories,
and stating the extraordinary marks of respect they had received
from Montezuma. This intelligence seems to have had its effect; for
soon after, the cacique gave the general some curious trinkets of
gold, of no great value, indeed, but as a testimony of his good
will. He sent him, also, some female slaves to prepare bread for the
troops, and supplied the means of refreshment and repose, more
important to them, in the present juncture, than all the gold of
The Spanish general, as usual, did not neglect the occasion to
inculcate the great truths of revelation on his host, and to display
the atrocity of the Indian superstitions. The cacique listened with
civil, but cold indifference. Cortes, finding him unmoved, turned
briskly round to his soldiers, exclaiming that now was the time to
Plant the Cross! They eagerly seconded his pious purpose, and the same
scenes might have been enacted as at Cempoalla, with, perhaps, very
different results, had not Father Olmedo, with better judgment,
interposed. He represented that to introduce the Cross among the
natives, in their present state of ignorance and incredulity, would be
to expose the sacred symbol to desecration, so soon as the backs of
the Spaniards were turned. The only way was to wait patiently the
season when more leisure should be afforded to instil into their minds
a knowledge of the truth. The sober reasoning of the good father
prevailed over the passions of the martial enthusiasts.
The Spanish commander remained in the city four or five days to
recruit his fatigued and famished forces. Their route now opened on
a broad and verdant valley, watered by a noble stream,- a circumstance
of not too frequent occurrence on the parched tableland of New
Spain. All along the river, on both sides of it, an unbroken line of
Indian dwellings, "so near as almost to touch one another," extended
for three or four leagues; arguing a population much denser than at
present. On a rough and rising ground stood a town, that might contain
five or six thousand inhabitants, commanded by a fortress, which, with
its walls and trenches, seemed to the Spaniards quite "on a level
with similar works in Europe." Here the troops again halted, and met
with friendly treatment.
Cortes now determined his future line of march. At the last
place he had been counselled by the natives to take the route of the
ancient city of Cholula, the inhabitants of which, subjects of
Montezuma, were a mild race, devoted to mechanical and other
peaceful arts, and would be likely to entertain him kindly. Their
Cempoalla allies, however, advised the Spaniards not to trust the
Cholulans, "a false and perfidious people," but to take the road to
Tlascala, that valiant little republic which had so long maintained
its independence against the arms of Mexico. The people were frank
as they were fearless, and fair in their dealings. They had always
been on terms of amity with the Totonacs, which afforded a strong
guarantee for their amicable disposition on the present occasion.
The arguments of his Indian allies prevailed with the Spanish
commander, who resolved to propitiate the good will of the
Tlascalans by an embassy. He selected four of the principal
Cempoallans for this, and sent by them a martial gift,- a cap of
crimson cloth, together with a sword and a crossbow, weapons which, it
was observed, excited general admiration among the natives. He added a
letter, in which he asked permission to pass through their country. He
expressed his admiration of the valour of the Tlascalans, and of their
long resistance to the Aztecs, whose proud empire he designed to
humble. It was not to be expected that this epistle, indited in good
Castilian, would be very intelligible to the Tlascalans. But Cortes
communicated its import to the ambassadors. It mysterious characters
might impress the natives with an idea of superior intelligence, and
the letters serve instead of those hieroglyphical missives which
formed the usual credentials of an Indian ambassador.
The Spaniards remained three days in this hospitable place,
after the departure of the envoys, when they resumed their progress.
Although in a friendly country, they marched always as if in a land of
enemies, the horse and light troops in the van, with the heavy-armed
and baggage in the rear, all in battle array. They were never
without their armour, waking or sleeping, lying down with their
weapons by their sides. This unintermitting and restless vigilance
was, perhaps, more oppressive to the spirits than even bodily fatigue.
But they were confident in their superiority in a fair field, and felt
that the most serious danger they had to fear from Indian warfare
was surprise. "We are few against many, brave companions," Cortes
would say to them; "be prepared, then, not as if you were going to
battle, but as if actually in the midst of it!"
The road taken by the Spaniards was the same which at present
leads to Tlascala; not that, however, usually followed in passing from
Vera Cruz to the capital, which makes a circuit considerably to the
south, towards Puebla, in the neighbourhood of the ancient Cholula.
They more than once forded the stream that rolls through this
beautiful plain, lingering several days on the way, in hopes of
receiving an answer from the Indian republic. The unexpected delay
of the messengers could not be explained and occasioned some
As they advanced into a country of rougher and bolder features,
their progress was suddenly arrested by a remarkable fortification. It
was a stone wall nine feet in height, and twenty in thickness, with
a parapet a foot and a half broad, raised on the summit for the
protection of those who defended it. It had only one opening, in the
centre, made by two semicircular lines of wall, overlapping each other
for the space of forty paces, and affording a passageway between,
ten paces wide, so contrived, therefore, as to be perfectly
commanded by the inner wall. This fortification, which extended more
than two leagues, rested at either end on the bold natural
buttresses formed by the sierra. The work was built of immense
blocks of stones nicely laid together without cement; and the
remains still existing, among which are rocks of the whole breadth
of the rampart, fully attest its solidity and size.
This singular structure marked the limits of Tlascala, and was
intended, as the natives told the Spaniards, as a barrier against
the Mexican invasions. The army paused, filled with amazement at the
contemplation of this Cyclopean monument, which naturally suggested
reflections on the strength and resources of the people who had raised
it. It caused them, too, some painful solicitude as to the probable
result of their mission to Tlascala, and their own consequent
reception there. But they were too sanguine to allow such
uncomfortable surmises long to dwell in their minds. Cortes put
himself at the head of his cavalry, and calling out, "Forward,
soldiers, the Holy Cross is our banner, and under that we shall
conquer," led his little army through the undefended passage, and in a
few moments they trod the soil of the free republic of Tlascala.
Chapter II [1519]


BEFORE advancing further with the Spaniards into the territory
of Tlascala, it will be well to notice some traits in the character
and institutions of the nation, in many respects the most remarkable
in Anahuac. The Tlascalans belonged to the same great family with
the Aztecs. They came on the grand plateau about the same time with
the kindred races, at the close of the twelfth century, and planted
themselves on the western borders of the lake of Tezcuco. Here they
remained many years engaged in the usual pursuits of a bold and
partially civilised people. From some cause or other, perhaps their
turbulent temper, they incurred the enmity of surrounding tribes. A
coalition was formed against them; and a bloody battle was fought on
the plains of Poyauhtlan, in which the Tlascalans were completely
Disgusted, however, with residence among nations with whom they
found so little favour, the conquering people resolved to migrate.
They separated into three divisions, the largest of which, taking a
southern course by the great volcan of Mexico, wound round the ancient
city of Cholula, and finally settled in the district of country
overshadowed by the sierra of Tlascala. The warm and fruitful
valleys locked up in the embraces of this rugged brotherhood of
mountains, afforded means of subsistence for an agricultural people,
while the bold eminences of the sierra presented secure positions
for their towns.
After the lapse of years, the institutions of the nation underwent
an important change. The monarchy was divided first into two,
afterwards into four separate states, bound together by a sort of
federal compact, probably not very nicely defined. Each state,
however, had its lord or supreme chief, independent in his own
territories, and possessed of co-ordinate authority with the others in
all matters concerning the whole republic. The affairs of
government, especially all those relating to peace and war, were
settled in a senate or council, consisting of the four lords with
their inferior nobles.
The lower dignitaries held of the superior, each in his own
district, by a kind of feudal tenure, being bound to supply his table,
and enable him to maintain his state in peace, as well as to serve him
in war. In return he experienced the aid and protection of his
suzerain. The same mutual obligations existed between him and the
followers among whom his own territories were distributed. Thus a
chain of feudal dependencies was established, which, if not
contrived with all the art and legal refinements of analogous
institutions in the Old World, displayed their most prominent
characteristics in its personal relations, the obligations of military
service on the one hand, and protection on the other. This form of
government, so different from that of the surrounding nations,
subsisted till the arrival of the Spaniards. And it is certainly
evidence of considerable civilisation, that so complex a polity should
have so long continued undisturbed by violence or faction in the
confederate states, and should have been found competent to protect
the people in their rights, and the country from foreign invasion.
The lowest order of the people, however, do not seem to have
enjoyed higher immunities than under the monarchical governments;
and their rank was carefully defined by an appropriate dress, and by
their exclusion from the insignia of the aristocratic orders.
The nation, agricultural in its habits, reserved its highest
honours, like most other rude-unhappily also, civilised-nations, for
military prowess. Public games were instituted, and prizes decreed
to those who excelled in such manly and athletic exercises as might
train them for the fatigues of war. Triumphs were granted to the
victorious general, who entered the city, leading his spoils and
captives in long procession, while his achievements were
commemorated in national songs, and his effigy, whether in wood or
stone, was erected in the temples. It was truly in the martial
spirit of republican Rome.
An institution not unlike knighthood was introduced, very
similar to one existing also among the Aztecs. The aspirant to the
honours of this barbaric chivalry watched his arms and fasted fifty or
sixty days in the temple, then listened to a grave discourse on the
duties of his new profession. Various whimsical ceremonies followed,
when his arms were restored to him; he was led in solemn procession
through the public streets, and the inauguration was concluded by
banquets and public rejoicings. The new knight was distinguished
henceforth by certain peculiar privileges, as well as by a badge
intimating his rank. It is worthy of remark, that this honour was
not reserved exclusively for military merit; but was the recompense,
also, of public services of other kinds, as wisdom in council, or
sagacity and success in trade. For trade was held in as high
estimation by the Tlascalans as by the other people of Anahuac.
The temperate climate of the tableland furnished the ready means
for distant traffic. The fruitfulness of the soil was indicated by the
name of the country,- Tlascala signifying the "land of bread." Its
wide plains, to the slopes of its rocky hills, waved with yellow
harvests of maize, and with the bountiful maguey, a plant which, as we
have seen, supplied the materials for some important fabrics. With
these, as well as the products of agricultural industry, the
merchant found his way down the sides of the Cordilleras, wandered
over the sunny regions at their base, and brought back the luxuries
which nature had denied to his own.
The various arts of civilisation kept pace with increasing
wealth and public prosperity; at least these arts were cultivated to
the same limited extent, apparently, as among the other people of
Anahuac. The Tlascalan tongue, says the national historian, simple
as beseemed that of a mountain region, was rough compared with the
polished Tezcucan, or the popular Aztec dialect, and, therefore, not
so well fitted for composition. But they made like proficiency with
the kindred nations in the rudiments of science. Their calendar was
formed on the same plan. Their religion, their architecture, many of
their laws and social usages were the same, arguing a common origin
for all. Their tutelary deity was the same ferocious war-god as that
of the Aztecs, though with a different name; their temples, in like
manner, were drenched with the blood of human victims, and their
boards groaned with the same cannibal repasts.
Though not ambitious of foreign conquest, the prosperity of the
Tlascalans, in time, excited the jealousy of their neighbours, and
especially of the opulent state of Cholula. Frequent hostilities arose
between them, in which the advantage was almost always on the side
of the former. A still more formidable foe appeared in later days in
the Aztecs; who could ill brook the independence of Tlascala, when the
surrounding nations had acknowledged, one after another, their
influence or their empire. Under the ambitious Axayacatl, they
demanded of the Tlascalans the same tribute and obedience rendered
by other people of the country. If it were refused, the Aztecs would
raze their cities to their foundations, and deliver the land to
their enemies.
To this imperious summons, the little republic proudly replied,
"Neither they nor their ancestors had ever paid tribute or homage to a
foreign power, and never would pay it. If their country was invaded,
they knew how to defend it, and would pour out their blood as freely
in defence of their freedom now, as their fathers did of yore, when
they routed the Aztecs on the plains of Poyauhtlan!"
This resolute answer brought on them the forces of the monarchy. A
pitched battle followed, and the sturdy republicans were victorious.
From this period hostilities between the two nations continued with
more or less activity, but with unsparing ferocity. Every captive
was mercilessly sacrificed. The children were trained from the
cradle to deadly hatred against the Mexicans; and, even in the brief
intervals of war, none of those intermarriages took place between
the people of the respective countries which knit together in social
bonds most of the other kindred races of Anahuac.
In this struggle, the Tlascalans received an important support
in the accession of the Othomis, or Otomies,- as usually spelt by
Castilian writers,- a wild and warlike race originally spread over the
tableland north of the Mexican valley. A portion of them obtained a
settlement in the republic, and were speedily incorporated in its
armies. Their courage and fidelity to the nation of their adoption
showed them worthy of trust, and the frontier places were consigned to
their keeping. The mountain barriers, by which Tlascala is
encompassed, afforded many strong natural positions for defence
against invasion. The country was open towards the east, where a
valley, of some six miles in breadth, invited the approach of an
enemy. But here it was, that the jealous Tlascalans erected the
formidable rampart which had excited the admiration of the
Spaniards, and which they manned with a garrison of Otomies.
Efforts for their subjugation were renewed on a greater scale,
after the accession of Montezuma. His victorious arms had spread
down the declivities of the Andes to the distant provinces of Vera Paz
and Nicaragua, and his haughty spirit was chafed by the opposition
of a petty state, whose territorial extent did not exceed ten
leagues in breadth by fifteen in length. He sent an army against
them under the command of a favourite son. His troops were beaten
and his son was slain. The enraged and mortified monarch was roused to
still greater preparations. He enlisted the forces of the cities
bordering on his enemy, together with those of the empire, and with
this formidable army swept over the devoted valleys of Tlascala. But
the bold mountaineers withdrew into the recesses of their hills,
and, coolly awaiting their opportunity, rushed like a torrent on the
invaders, and drove them back, with dreadful slaughter, from their
Still, notwithstanding the advantages gained over the enemy in the
field, the Tlascalans were sorely pressed by their long hostilities
with a foe so far superior to themselves in numbers and resources. The
Aztec armies lay between them and the coast, cutting off all
communication with that prolific region, and thus limited their
supplies to the products of their own soil and manufacture. For more
than half a century they had neither cotton, nor cacao, nor salt.
Indeed, their taste had been so far affected by long abstinence from
these articles, that it required the lapse of several generations
after the Conquest to reconcile them to the use of salt at their
meals. During the short intervals of war, it is said, the Aztec
nobles, in the true spirit of chivalry, sent supplies of these
commodities as presents, with many courteous expressions of respect,
to the Tlascalan chiefs. This intercourse, we are assured by the
Indian chronicler, was unsuspected by the people. Nor did it lead to
any further correspondence, he adds, between the parties,
prejudicial to the liberties of the republic, "which maintained its
customs and good government inviolate, and the worship of its gods."
Such was the condition of Tlascala, at the coming of the
Spaniards; holding, it might seem, a precarious existence under the
shadow of the formidable power which seemed suspended like an
avalanche over her head, but still strong in her own resources,
stronger in the indomitable temper of her people; with a reputation
established throughout the land for good faith and moderation in
peace, for valour in war, while her uncompromising spirit of
independence secured the respect even of her enemies. With such
qualities of character, and with an animosity sharpened by long,
deadly hostility with Mexico, her alliance was obviously of the last
importance to the Spaniards, in their present enterprise. It was not
easy to secure it.
The Tlascalans had been made acquainted with the advance and
victorious career of the Christians, the intelligence of which had
spread far and wide over the plateau. But they do not seem to have
anticipated the approach of the strangers to their own borders. They
were now much embarrassed by the embassy demanding a passage through
their territories. The great council was convened, and a
considerable difference of opinion prevailed in its members. Some,
adopting the popular superstition, supposed the Spaniards might be the
white and bearded men foretold by the oracles. At all events, they
were the enemies of Mexico, and as such might co-operate with them
in their struggle with the empire. Others argued that the strangers
could have nothing in common with them. Their march throughout the
land might be tracked by the broken images of the Indian gods, and
desecrated temples. How did the Tlascalans even know that they were
foes to Montezuma? They had received his embassies, accepted his
presents, and were now in the company of his vassals on the way to his
These last were the reflections of an aged chief, one of the
four who presided over the republic. His name was Xicontecatl. He
was nearly blind, having lived, as is said, far beyond the limits of a
century. His son, an impetuous young man of the same name with
himself, commanded a powerful army of Tlascalan and Otomie warriors,
near the eastern frontier. It would be best, the old man said, to fall
with this force at once on the Spaniards. If victorious, the latter
would then be in their power. If defeated, the senate could disown the
act as that of the general, not of the republic. The cunning counsel
of the chief found favour with his hearers, though assuredly not in
the spirit of chivalry, nor of the good faith for which his countrymen
were celebrated. But with an Indian, force and stratagem, courage
and deceit, were equally admissible in war, as they were among the
barbarians of ancient Rome.- The Cempoallan envoys were to be detained
under pretence of assisting at a religious sacrifice.
Meanwhile, Cortes and his gallant band, as stated in the preceding
chapter, had arrived before the rocky rampart on the eastern
confines of Tlascala. From some cause or other, it was not manned by
its Otomie garrison, and the Spaniards passed in, as we have seen,
without resistance. Cortes rode at the head of his body of horse, and,
ordering the infantry to come on at a quick pace, went forward to
reconnoitre. After advancing three or four leagues, he descried a
small party of Indians, armed with sword and buckler, in the fashion
of the country. They fled at his approach. He made signs for them to
halt, but, seeing that they only fled the faster, he and his
companions put spurs to their horses, and soon came up with them.
The Indians, finding escape impossible, faced round, and, instead of
showing the accustomed terror of the natives at the strange and
appalling aspect of a mounted trooper, they commenced a furious
assault on the cavaliers. The latter, however, were too strong for
them, and would have cut their enemy to pieces without much
difficulty, when a body of several thousand Indians appeared in sight,
and coming briskly on to the support of their countrymen.
Cortes, seeing them, despatched one of his party, in all haste, to
accelerate the march of his infantry. The Indians, after discharging
their missiles, fell furiously on the little band of Spaniards. They
strove to tear the lances from their grasp, and to drag the riders
from the horses. They brought one cavalier to the ground, who
afterwards died of his wounds, and they killed two of the horses,
cutting through their necks with their stout broadswords- if we may
believe the chronicler- at a blow. In the narrative of these
campaigns, there is sometimes but one step- and that a short one- from
history lo romance. The loss of the horses, so important and so few in
number, was seriously felt by Cortes, who could have better spared the
life of the best rider in the troop.
The struggle was a hard one. But the odds were as overwhelming
as any recorded by the Spaniards in their own romances, where a
handful of knights is arrayed against legions of enemies. The lances
of the Christians did terrible execution here also; but they had
need of the magic lance of Astolpho, that overturned myriads with a
touch, to carry them safe through so unequal a contest. It was with no
little satisfaction, therefore, that they beheld their comrades
rapidly advancing to their support.
No sooner had the main body reached the field of battle, than,
hastily forming, they poured such a volley from their muskets and
crossbows as staggered the enemy. Astounded, rather than
intimidated, by the terrible report of the firearms, now heard for the
first time in these regions, the Indians made no further effort to
continue the fight, but drew off in good order, leaving the road
open to the Spaniards. The latter, too well satisfied to be rid of the
annoyance, to care to follow the retreating foe, again held on their
Their route took them through a country sprinkled over with Indian
cottages, amidst flourishing fields of maize and maguey, indicating an
industrious and thriving peasantry. They were met here by two
Tlascalans envoys, accompanied by two of the Cempoallans. The
former, presenting themselves before the general, disavowed the
assault on his troops as an unauthorised act, and assured him of a
friendly reception at their capital. Cortes received the communication
in a courteous manner, affecting to place more confidence in its
good faith than he probably felt.
It was now growing late, and the Spaniards quickened their
march, anxious to reach a favourable ground for encampment before
nightfall. They found such a spot on the borders of a stream that
rolled sluggishly across the plain. A few deserted cottages stood
along the banks, and the fatigued and famished soldiers ransacked them
in quest of food. All they could find was some tame animals resembling
dogs. These they killed and dressed without ceremony, and,
garnishing their unsavoury repast with the fruit of the tuna, the
Indian fig, which grew wild in the neighbourhood, they contrived to
satisfy the cravings of appetite. A careful watch was maintained by
Cortes, and companies of a hundred men each relieved each other in
mounting guard through the night. But no attack was made.
Hostilities by night were contrary to the system of Indian tactics.
By break of day on the following morning, it being the 2nd of
September, the troops were under arms. Besides the Spaniards, the
whole number of Indian auxiliaries might now amount to three thousand;
for Cortes had gathered recruits from the friendly places on his
route; three hundred from the last. After hearing mass, they resumed
their march. They moved in close array; the general had previously
admonished the men not to lag behind, or wander from the ranks a
moment, as stragglers would be sure to be cut off by their stealthy
and vigilant enemy. The horsemen rode three abreast, the better to
give one another support; and Cortes instructed them in the heat of
fight to keep together, and never to charge singly. He taught them how
to carry their lances, that they might not be wrested from their hands
by the Indians, who constantly attempted it. For the same reason
they should avoid giving thrusts, but aim their weapons steadily at
the faces of their foes.
They had not proceeded far, when they were met by the two
remaining Cempoallan envoys, who with looks of terror informed the
general, that they had been treacherously seized and confined, in
order to be sacrificed at an approaching festival of the Tlascalans,
but in the night had succeeded in making their escape. They gave the
unwelcome tidings, also, that a large force of the natives was already
assembled to oppose the progress of the Spaniards.
Soon after, they came in sight of a body of Indians, about a
thousand, apparently all armed and brandishing their weapons, as the
Christians approached, in token of defiance. Cortes, when he had
come within hearing, ordered the interpreters to proclaim that he
had no hostile intentions; but wished only to be allowed a passage
through their country, which he had entered as a friend. This
declaration he commanded the royal notary, Godoy, to record on the
spot, that, if blood were shed, it might not be charged on the
Spaniards. This pacific proclamation was met, as usual on such
occasions, by a shower of darts, stones, and arrows, which fell like
rain on the Spaniards, rattling on their stout harness, and in some
instances penetrating to the skin. Galled by the smart of their
wounds, they called on the general to lead them on, till he sounded
the well-known battle-cry, "St. Jago, and at them!"
The Indians maintained their ground for a while with spirit,
when they retreated with precipitation, but not in disorder. The
Spaniards, whose blood was heated by the encounter, followed up
their advantage with more zeal than prudence, suffering the wily enemy
to draw them into a narrow glen or defile, intersected by a little
stream of water, where the broken ground was impracticable for
artillery, as well as for the movements of cavalry. Pressing forward
with eagerness, to extricate themselves from their perilous
position, to their great dismay, on turning an abrupt angle of the
pass, they came in presence of a numerous army choking up the gorge of
the valley, and stretching far over the plains beyond. To the
astonished eyes of Cortes, they appeared a hundred thousand men, while
no account estimates them at less than thirty thousand.*

* As this was only one of several armies kept on foot by the
Tlascalans, the smallest amount is, probably, too large. The whole
population of the state, according to Clavigero, who would not be
likely to underrate it, did not exceed half a million at the time of
the invasion.

They presented a confused assemblage of helmets, weapons, and
many-coloured plumes, glancing bright in the morning sun, and
mingled with banners, above which proudly floated one that bore as a
device the heron on a rock. It was the well-known ensign of the
house of Titcala, and, as well as the white and yellow stripes on
the bodies, and the like colours on the feather-mail of the Indians,
showed that they were the warriors of Xicotencatl.
As the Spaniards came in sight, the Tlascalans set up a hideous
war-cry, or rather whistle, piercing the ear with its shrillness,
and which, with the beat of their melancholy drums, that could be
heard for half a league or more, might well have filled the stoutest
heart with dismay. This formidable host came rolling on towards the
Christians, as if to overwhelm them by their very numbers. But the
courageous band of warriors, closely serried together and sheltered
under their strong panoplies, received the shock unshaken, while the
broken masses of the enemy, chafing and heaving tumultuously around
them, seemed to recede only to return with new and accumulated force.
Cortes, as usual, in the front of danger, in vain endeavoured,
at the head of the horse, to open a passage for the infantry. Still
his men, both cavalry and foot, kept their array unbroken, offering no
assailable point to their foe. A body of the Tlascalans, however,
acting in concert, assaulted a soldier named Moran, one of the best
riders in the troop. They succeeded in dragging him from his horse,
which they despatched with a thousand blows. The Spaniards, on foot,
made a desperate effort to rescue their comrade from the hands of
the enemy,- and from the horrible doom of the captive. A fierce
struggle now began over the body of the prostrate horse. Ten of the
Spaniards were wounded, when they succeeded in retrieving the
unfortunate cavalier from his assailants, but in so disastrous a
plight that he died on the following day. The horse was borne off in
triumph by the Indians, and his mangled remains were sent, a strange
trophy, to the different towns of Tlascala. The circumstance
troubled the Spanish commander, as it divested the animal of the
supernatural terrors with which the superstition of the natives had
usually surrounded it. To prevent such a consequence, he had caused
the two horses, killed on the preceding day, to be secretly buried
on the spot.
The enemy now began to give ground gradually, borne down by the
riders, and trampled under the hoofs of their horses. Through the
whole of this sharp encounter, the Indian allies were of great service
to the Spaniards. They rushed into the water, and grappled their
enemies, with the desperation of men who felt that "their only
safety was in the despair of safety." "I see nothing but death for
us," exclaimed a Cempoallan chief to Marina; "we shall never get
through the pass alive." "The God of the Christians is with us,"
answered the intrepid woman; "and He will carry us safely through."
Amidst the din of battle the voice of Cortes was heard, cheering
on his soldiers. "If we fail now," he cried, "the cross of Christ
can never be planted in the land. Forward, comrades! When was it
ever known that a Castilian turned his back on a foe?" Animated by the
words and heroic bearing of their general, the soldiers, with
desperate efforts, at length succeeded in forcing a passage through
the dark columns of the enemy, and emerged from the defile on the open
plain beyond.
Here they quickly recovered their confidence with their
superiority. The horse soon opened a space for the manoeuvres of
artillery. The close files of their antagonists presented a sure mark;
and the thunders of the ordnance vomiting forth torrents of fire and
sulphurous smoke, the wide desolation caused in their ranks, and the
strangely mangled carcasses of the slain, filled the barbarians with
consternation and horror. They had no weapons to cope with these
terrible engines, and their clumsy missiles, discharged from uncertain
hands, seemed to fall ineffectual on the charmed heads of the
Christians. What added to their embarrassment was, the desire to carry
off the dead and wounded from the field, a general practice among
the people of Anahuac, but which necessarily exposed them, while
thus employed, to still greater loss.
Eight of their principal chiefs had now fallen; and Xicotencatl,
finding himself wholly unable to make head against the Spaniards in
the open field, ordered a retreat. Far from the confusion of a
panic-struck mob, so common among barbarians, the Tlascalan force
moved off the ground with all the order of a well-disciplined army.
Cortes, as on the preceding day, was too well satisfied with his
present advantage to desire to follow it up. It was within an hour
of sunset, and he was anxious before nightfall to secure a good
position, where he might refresh his wounded troops, and bivouac for
the night.
Gathering up his wounded, he held on his way, without loss of
time; and before dusk reached a rocky eminence, called Tzompachtepetl,
or "the hill of Tzompach," crowned by a sort of tower or temple. His
first care was given to the wounded, both men and horses. Fortunately,
an abundance of provisions was found in some neighbouring cottages;
and the soldiers, at least all who were not disabled by their
injuries, celebrated the victory of the day with feasting and
As to the number of killed or wounded on either side, it is matter
of loosest conjecture. The Indians must have suffered severely, but
the practice of carrying off the dead from the field made it
impossible to know to what extent. The injury sustained by the
Spaniards appears to have been principally in the number of their
wounded. The great object of the natives of Anahuac in their battles
was to make prisoners, who might grace their triumphs, and supply
victims for sacrifice. To this brutal superstition the Christians were
indebted, in no slight degree, for their personal preservation. To
take the reports of the Conquerors, their own losses in action were
always inconsiderable. But whoever has had occasion to consult the
ancient chroniclers of Spain in relation to its wars with the infidel,
whether Arab or American, will place little confidence in numbers.*

* According to Cortes not a Spaniard fell- though many were
wounded- in this action so fatal to the infidel! Diaz allows one.

The events of the day had suggested many topics for painful
reflection to Cortes. He had nowhere met with so determined a
resistance within the borders of Anahuac; nowhere had he encountered
native troops so formidable for their, weapons, their discipline,
and their valour. Far from manifesting the superstitious terrors
felt by the other Indians at the strange arms and aspect of the
Spaniards, the Tlascalans had boldly grappled with their enemy, and
only yielded to the inevitable superiority of his military science.
How important would the alliance of such a nation be in a struggle
with those of their own race- for example, with the Aztecs! But how
was he to secure this alliance? Hitherto, all overtures had been
rejected with disdain; and it seemed probable, that every step of
his progress in this populous land was to be fiercely contested. His
army, especially the Indians, celebrated the events of the day with
feasting and dancing, songs of merriment, and shouts of triumph.
Cortes encouraged it, well knowing how important it was to keep up the
spirits of his soldiers. But the sounds of revelry at length died
away; and in the still watches of the night, many an anxious thought
must have crowded on the mind of the general, while his little army
lay buried in slumber in its encampment around the Indian hill.
Chapter III [1519]


THE Spaniards were allowed to repose undisturbed the following
day, and to recruit their strength after the fatigue and hard fighting
on the preceding. They found sufficient employment, however, in
repairing and cleaning their weapons, replenishing their diminished
stock of arrows, and getting everything in order for further
hostilities, should the severe lesson they had inflicted on the
enemy prove insufficient to discourage him. On the second day, as
Cortes received no overtures from the Tlascalans, he determined to
send an embassy to their camp, proposing a cessation of hostilities,
and expressing his intention to visit their capital as a friend. He
selected two of the principal chiefs taken in the late engagement as
the bearers of the message.
Meanwhile, averse to leaving his men longer in a dangerous state
of inaction, which the enemy might interpret as the result of timidity
or exhaustion, he put himself at the head of the cavalry and such
light troops as were most fit for service, and made a foray into the
neighbouring country. It was a montainous region, formed by a.
ramification of the great sierra of Tlascala, with verdant slopes
and valleys teeming with maize and plantations of maguey, while the
eminences were crowned with populous towns and villages. In one of
these, he tells us, he found three thousand dwellings. In some
places he met with a resolute resistance, and on these occasions
took ample vengeance by laying the country waste with fire and
sword. After a successful inroad he returned laden with forage and
provisions, and driving before him several hundred Indian captives. He
treated them kindly, however, when arrived in camp, endeavouring to
make them understand that these acts of violence were not dictated
by his own wishes, but by the unfriendly policy of their countrymen.
In this way he hoped to impress the nation with the conviction of
his power on the one hand, and of his amicable intentions, if met by
them in the like spirit, on the other.
On reaching his quarters, he found the two envoys returned from
the Tlascalan camp. They had fallen in with Xicotencatl at about two
leagues' distance, where he lay encamped with a powerful force. The
cacique gave them audience at the head of his troops. He told them
to return with the answer, "That the Spaniards might pass on as soon
as they chose to Tlascala; and, when they reached it, their flesh
would be hewn from their bodies, for sacrifice to the gods! If they
preferred to remain in their own quarters, he would pay them a visit
there the next day." The ambassadors added, that the chief had an
immense force with him, consisting of five battalions of ten
thousand men each. They were the flower of the Tlascalan and Otomie
warriors, assembled under the banners of their respective leaders,
by command of the senate, who were resolved to try the fortunes of the
state in a pitched battle, and strike one decisive blow for the
extermination of the invaders.
This bold defiance fell heavily on the ears of the Spaniards,
not prepared for so pertinacious a spirit in their enemy. They had had
ample proof of his courage and formidable prowess. They were now, in
their crippled condition, to encounter him with a still more
terrible array of numbers. The war, too, from the horrible fate with
which it menaced the vanquished, wore a peculiarly gloomy aspect
that pressed heavily on their spirits. "We feared death," says the
lion-hearted Diaz, with his usual simplicity, "for we were men." There
was scarcely one in the army that did not confess himself that night
to the reverend Father Olmedo, who was occupied nearly the whole of it
with administering absolution, and with the other solemn offices of
the Church. Armed with the blessed sacraments, the Catholic soldier
lay tranquilly down to rest, prepared for any fate that might betide
him under the banner of the Cross.
As a battle was now inevitable, Cortes resolved to march out and
meet the enemy in the field. This would have a show of confidence,
that might serve the double purpose of intimidating the Tlascalans,
and inspiriting his own men, whose enthusiasm might lose somewhat of
its heat, if compelled to await the assault of their antagonists,
inactive in their own intrenchments. The sun rose bright on the
following morning, the 5th of September, 1519, an eventful day in
the history of Spanish Conquest. The general reviewed his army, and
gave them, preparatory to marching, a few words of encouragement and
advice. The infantry he instructed to rely on the point rather than
the edge of their swords, and to endeavour to thrust their opponents
through the body. The horsemen were to charge at half speed, with
their lances aimed at the eyes of the Indians. The artillery the
arquebusiers, and crossbowmen, were to support one another, some
loading while others discharged their pieces, that there should be
an unintermitted firing kept up through the action. Above all, they
were to maintain their ranks close and unbroken, as on this depended
their preservation.
They had not advanced a quarter of a league, when they came in
sight of the Tlascalan army. Its dense array stretched far and wide
over a vast plain or meadow ground, about six miles square. Its
appearance justified the report which had been given of its numbers.
Nothing could be more picturesque than the aspect of these Indian
battalions, with the naked bodies of the common soldiers gaudily
painted, the fantastic helmets of the chiefs glittering with gold
and precious stones, and the glowing panoplies of feather-work which
decorated their persons. Innumerable spears and darts tipped with
points of transparent itztli or fiery copper, sparkled bright in the
morning sun, like the phosphoric gleams playing on the surface of a
troubled sea, while the rear of the mighty host was dark with the
shadows of banners, on which were emblazoned the armorial bearings
of the great Tlascalan and Otomie chieftains. Among these, the white
heron on the rock, the cognisance of the house of Xicotencatl, was
conspicuous, and, still more, the golden eagle with outspread wings,
in the fashion of a Roman signum, richly ornamented with emeralds
and silver work, the great standard of the republic of Tlascala.
The common file wore no covering except a girdle round the
loins. Their bodies were painted with the appropriate colours of the
chieftain whose banner they followed. The feather-mail of the higher
class of warriors exhibited, also, a similar selection of colours
for the like object, in the same manner as the colour of the tartan
indicates the peculiar clan of the Highlander. The caciques and
principal warriors were clothed in a quilted cotton tunic, two
inches thick, which, fitting close to the body, protected also the
thighs and the shoulders. Over this the wealthier Indians wore
cuirasses of thin gold plate, or silver. Their legs were defended by
leathern boots or sandals, trimmed with gold. But the most brilliant
part of their costume was a rich mantle of the plumaje or
feather-work, embroidered with curious art, and furnishing some
resemblance to the gorgeous surcoat worn by the European knight over
his armour in the Middle Ages. This graceful and picturesque dress was
surmounted by a fantastic head-piece made of wood or leather,
representing the head of some wild animal, and frequently displaying a
formidable array of teeth. With this covering the warrior's head was
enveloped, producing a most grotesque and hideous effect. From the
crown floated a splendid panache of the richly variegated plumage of
the tropics, indicating, by its form and colours, the rank and
family of the wearer. To complete their defensive armour, they carried
shields or targets, made sometimes of wood covered with leather, but
more usually of a light frame of reeds quilted with cotton, which were
preferred, as tougher and less liable to fracture than the former.
They had other bucklers, in which the cotton was covered with an
elastic substance, enabling them to be shut up in a more compact form,
like a fan or umbrella. These shields were decorated with showy
ornaments, according to the taste or wealth of the wearer, and fringed
with a beautiful pendant of feather-work.
Their weapons were slings, bows and arrows, javelins, and darts.
They were accomplished archers, and would discharge two or even
three arrows at a time. But they most excelled in throwing the
javelin. One species of this, with a thong attached to it, which
remained in the slinger's hand, that he might recall the weapon, was
especially dreaded by the Spaniards. These various weapons were
pointed with bone, or the mineral itztli (obsidian), the hard vitreous
substance already noticed, as capable of taking an edge like a
razor, though easily blunted. Their spears and arrows were also
frequently headed with copper. Instead of a sword, they bore a
two-handed staff, about three feet and a half long, in which, at
regular distances, were inserted, transversely, sharp blades of
itztli,- a formidable weapon, which, an eye-witness assures us, he had
seen fell a horse at a blow.
Such was the costume of the Tlascalan warrior, and, indeed, of
that great family of nations generally, who occupied the plateau of
Anahuac. Some parts of it, as the targets and the cotton mail or
escaupil, as it was called in Castilian, were so excellent, that
they were subsequently adopted by the Spaniards, as equally
effectual in the way of protection, and superior, on the score of
lightness and convenience, to their own. They were of sufficient
strength to turn an arrow, or the stroke of a javelin, although
impotent as a defence against firearms. But what armour is not? Yet it
is probably no exaggeration to say that, in convenience, gracefulness,
and strength, the arms of the Indian warrior were not very inferior to
those of the polished nations of antiquity.
As soon as the Castilians came in sight, the Tlascalans set up
their yell of defiance, rising high above the wild barbaric minstrelsy
of shell, atabal, and trumpet, with which they proclaimed their
triumphant anticipations of victory over the paltry forces of the
invaders. When the latter had come within bowshot, the Indians
hurled a tempest of missiles, that darkened the sun for a moment as
with a passing cloud, strewing the earth around with heaps of stones
and arrows. Slowly and steadily the little band of Spaniards held on
its way amidst this arrowy shower, until it had reached what
appeared the proper distance for delivering its fire with full effect.
Cortes then halted, and, hastily forming his troops, opened a
general well-directed fire along the whole line. Every shot bore its
errand of death; and the ranks of the Indians were mowed down faster
than their comrades in the rear could carry off their bodies,
according to custom, from the field. The balls in their passage
through the crowded files, bearing splinters of the broken harness and
mangled limbs of the warriors, scattered havoc and desolation in their
path. The mob of barbarians stood petrified with dismay, till, at
length, galled to desperation by their intolerable suffering, they
poured forth simultaneously their hideous war-shriek, and rushed
impetuously on the Christians.
On they came like an avalanche, or mountain torrent, shaking the
solid earth, and sweeping away every obstacle in its path. The
little army of Spaniards opposed a bold front to the overwhelming
mass. But no strength could withstand it. They faltered, gave way,
were borne along before it, and their ranks were broken and thrown
into disorder. It was in vain the general called on them to close
again and rally. His voice was drowned by the din of fight and the
fierce cries of the assailants. For a moment, it seemed that all was
lost. The tide of battle had turned against them, and the fate of
the Christians was sealed.
But every man had that within his bosom which spoke louder than
the voice of the general. Despair gave unnatural energy to his arms.
The naked body of the Indian afforded no resistance to the sharp
Toledo steel; and with their good swords, the Spanish infantry at
length succeeded in staying the human torrent. The heavy guns from a
distance thundered on the flank of the assailants, which, shaken by
the iron tempest, was thrown into disorder. Their very numbers
increased the confusion, as they were precipitated on the masses in
front. The horse at the same moment, charging gallantly under
Cortes, followed up the advantage, and at length compelled the
tumultuous throng to fall back with greater precipitation and disorder
than that with which they had advanced.
More than once in the course of the action, a similar assault
was attempted by the Tlascalans, but each time with less spirit, and
greater loss. They were too deficient in military science to profit by
their vast superiority in numbers. They were distributed into
companies, it is true, each serving under its own chieftain and
banner. But they were not arranged by rank and file, and moved in a
confused mass, promiscuously heaped together. They knew not how to
concentrate numbers on a given point, or even how to sustain an
assault, by employing successive detachments to support and relieve
one another. A very small part only of their array could be brought
into contact with an enemy inferior to them in amount of forces. The
remainder of the army, inactive and worse than useless in the rear,
served only to press tumultuously on the advance, and embarrass its
movements by mere weight of numbers, while, on the least alarm, they
were seized with a panic and threw the whole body into inextricable
confusion. It was, in short, the combat of the ancient Greeks and
Persians over again.
Still, the great numerical superiority of the Indians might have
enabled them, at a severe cost of their own lives, indeed, to wear
out, in time, the constancy of the Spaniards, disabled by wounds,
and incessant fatigue. But, fortunately for the latter, dissensions
arose among their enemies. A Tlascalan chieftain, commanding one of
the great divisions, had taken umbrage at the haughty demeanour of
Xicotencatl, who had charged him with misconduct or cowardice in the
late action. The injured cacique challenged his rival to single
combat. This did not take place. But, burning with resentment, he
chose the present occasion to indulge it, by drawing off his forces,
amounting to ten thousand men, from the field. He also persuaded
another of the commanders to follow his example.
Thus reduced to about half his original strength, and that greatly
crippled by the losses of the day, Xicotencatl could no longer
maintain his ground against the Spaniards. After disputing the field
with admirable courage for four hours, he retreated and resigned it to
the enemy. The Spaniards were too much jaded, and too many were
disabled by wounds, to allow them to pursue; and Cortes, satisfied
with the decisive victory he had gained, returned in triumph to his
position on the hill of Tzompach.
The number of killed in his own ranks had been very small,
notwithstanding the severe loss inflicted on the enemy. These few he
was careful to bury where they could not be discovered, anxious to
conceal not only the amount of the slain, but the fact that the whites
were mortal. But very many of the men were wounded, and all the
horses. The trouble of the Spaniards was much enhanced by the want
of many articles important to them in their present exigency. They had
neither oil, nor salt, which, as before noticed, was not to be
obtained in Tlascala. Their clothing, accommodated to a softer
climate, was ill adapted to the rude air of the mountains; and bows
and arrows, as Bernal Diaz sarcastically remarks, formed an
indifferent protection against the inclemency of the weather.
Still, they had much to cheer them in the events of the day; and
they might draw from them a reasonable ground for confidence in
their own resources, such as no other experience could have
supplied. Not that the results could authorise anything like
contempt for their Indian foe. Singly and with the same weapons, he
might have stood his ground against the Spaniards. But the success
of the day established the superiority of science and discipline
over mere physical courage and numbers. It was fighting over again, as
we have said, the old battle of the European and the Asiatic. But
the handful of Greeks who routed the hosts of Xerxes and Darius, it
must be remembered, had not so obvious an advantage on the score of
weapons, as was enjoyed by the Spaniards in these wars. The use of
firearms gave an ascendency which cannot easily be estimated; one so
great, that a contest between nations equally civilised, which
should be similar in all other respects to that between the
Spaniards and the Tlascalans, would probably be attended with a
similar issue. To all this must be added the effect produced by the
cavalry. The nations of Anahuac had no large domesticated animals, and
were unacquainted with any beast of burden. Their imaginations were
bewildered when they beheld the strange apparition of the horse and
his rider moving in unison and obedient to one impulse, as if
possessed of a common nature; and as they saw the terrible animal,
with his "neck clothed in thunder," bearing down their squadrons and
trampling them in the dust, no wonder they should have regarded him
with the mysterious terror felt for a supernatural being. A very
little reflection on the manifold grounds of superiority, both moral
and physical, possessed by the Spaniards in this contest, will
surely explain the issue, without any disparagement to the courage
or capacity of their opponents.
Cortes, thinking the occasion favourable, followed up the
important blow he had struck by a new mission to the capital,
bearing a message of similar import with that recently sent to the
camp. But the senate was not yet sufficiently humbled. The late defeat
caused, indeed, general consternation. Maxixcatzin, one of the four
great lords who presided over the republic, reiterated with greater
force the arguments before urged by him for embracing the proffered
alliance of the strangers. The armies of the state had been beaten too
often to allow any reasonable hope of successful resistance; and he
enlarged on the generosity shown by the politic Conqueror to his
prisoners,- so unusual in Anahuac,- as an additional motive for an
alliance with men who knew how to be friends as well as foes.
But in these views he was overruled by the war-party, whose
animosity was sharpened, rather than subdued, by the late
discomfiture. Their hostile feelings were further exasperated by the
younger Xicotencatl, who burned for an opportunity to retrieve his
disgrace, and to wipe away the stain which had fallen for the first
time on the arms of the republic.
In their perplexity they called in the assistance of the priests
whose authority was frequently invoked in the deliberations of the
American chiefs. The latter inquired, with some simplicity, of these
interpreters of fate, whether the strangers were supernatural
beings, or men of flesh and blood like themselves. The priests,
after some consultation, are said to have made the strange answer,
that the Spaniards, though not gods, were children of the sun; that
they derived their strength from that luminary, and, when his beams
were withdrawn, their powers would also fail. They recommended a night
attack, therefore, as one which afforded the best chance of success.
This apparently childish response may have had in it more of cunning
than credulity. It was not improbably suggested by Xicotencatl
himself, or by the caciques in his interest, to reconcile the people
to a measure which was contrary to the military usages,- indeed, it
may be said, to the public law of Anahuac. Whether the fruit of
artifice or superstition, it prevailed; and the Tlascalan general
was empowered, at the head of a detachment of ten thousand warriors,
to try the effect of an assault by night.
The affair was conducted with such secrecy that it did not reach
the ears of the Spaniards. But their general was not one who allowed
himself, sleeping or waking, to be surprised on his post.
Fortunately the night appointed was illumined by the full beams of
an autumnal moon; and one of the videttes perceived by its light, at a
considerable distance, a large body of Indians moving towards the
Christian lines. He was not slow in giving the alarm to the garrison.
The Spaniards slept, as has been said, with their arms by their
side; while their horses, picketed near them, stood ready saddled,
with the bridle hanging at the bow. In five minutes the whole camp was
under arms, when they beheld the dusky columns of the Indians
cautiously advancing over the plain, their heads just peering above
the tall maize with which the land was partially covered. Cortes
determined not to abide the assault in his intrenchments, but to sally
out and pounce on the enemy when he had reached the bottom of the
Slowly and stealthily the Indians advanced, while the Christian
camp, hushed in profound silence, seemed to them buried in slumber.
But no sooner had they reached the slope of the rising ground, than
they were astounded by the deep battle-cry of the Spaniards,
followed by the instantaneous apparition of the whole army, as they
sallied forth from the works, and poured down the sides of the hill.
Brandishing aloft their weapons, they seemed to the troubled fancies
of the Tlascalans like so many spectres or demons hurrying to and
fro in mid air, while the uncertain light magnified their numbers, and
expanded the horse and his rider into gigantic and unearthly
Scarcely waiting the shock of their enemy, the panic-struck
barbarians let off a feeble volley of arrows, and, offering no other
resistance, fled rapidly and tumultuously across the plain. The
horse easily overtook the fugitives, riding them down and cutting them
to pieces without mercy, until Cortes, weary with slaughter, called
off his men, leaving the field loaded with the bloody trophies of
The next day, the Spanish commander, with his usual policy after a
decisive blow had been struck, sent a new embassy to the Tlascalan
capital. The envoys received their instructions through the
interpreter, Marina. That remarkable woman had attracted general
admiration by the constancy and cheerfulness with which she endured
all the privations of the camp. Far from betraying the natural
weakness and timidity of her sex, she had shrunk from no hardship
herself, and had done much to fortify the drooping spirits of the
soldiers; while her sympathies, whenever occasion offered, had been
actively exerted in mitigating the calamities of her Indian
Through his faithful interpreter, Cortes communicated the terms of
his message to the Tlascalan envoys. He made the same professions of
amity as before, promising oblivion of all past injuries; but, if this
proffer were rejected, he would visit their capital as a conqueror,
raze every house in it to the ground, and put every inhabitant to
the sword! He then dismissed the ambassadors with the symbolical
presents of a letter in one hand, and an arrow in the other.
The envoys obtained respectful audience from the council of
Tlascala, whom they found plunged in deep dejection by their recent
reverses. The failure of the night attack had extinguished every spark
of hope in their bosoms. Their armies had been beaten again and again,
in the open field and in secret ambush. Stratagem and courage, all
their resources, had alike proved ineffectual against a foe whose hand
was never weary, and whose eye was never closed. Nothing remained
but to submit. They selected four principal caciques, whom they
intrusted with a mission to the Christian camp. They were to assure
the strangers of a free passage through the country, and a friendly
reception in the capital. The proffered friendship of the Spaniards
was cordially embraced, with many awkward excuses for the past. The
envoys were to touch at the Tlascalan camp on their way, and inform
Xicotencatl of their proceedings. They were to require him, at the
same time, to abstain from all further hostilities, and to furnish the
white men with an ample supply of provisions.
But the Tlascalan deputies, on arriving at the quarters of that
chief, did not find him in the humour to comply with these
instructions. His repeated collisions with the Spaniards, or, it may
be, his constitutional courage, left him inaccessible to the vulgar
terrors of his countrymen. He regarded the strangers not as
supernatural beings, but as men like himself. The animosity of a
warrior had rankled into a deadly hatred from the mortifications he
had endured at their hands, and his head teemed with plans for
recovering his fallen honours, and for taking vengeance on the
invaders of his country. He refused to disband any of the force, still
formidable, under his command; or to send supplies to the enemy's
camp. He further induced the ambassadors to remain in his quarters,
and relinquish their visit to the Spaniards. The latter, in
consequence, were kept in ignorance of the movements in their favour
which had taken place in the Tlascalan capital.
The conduct of Xicotencatl is condemned by Castilian writers as
that of a ferocious and sanguinary barbarian. It is natural they
should so regard it. But those who have no national prejudice to
warp their judgments may come to a different conclusion. They may find
much to admire in that high, unconquerable spirit, like some proud
column, standing alone in its majesty amidst the fragments and ruins
around it. They may see evidences of a clearsighted sagacity, which,
piercing the thin veil of insidious friendship proffered by the
Spaniards, and penetrating the future, discerned the coming miseries
of his country; the noble patriotism of one who would rescue that
country at any cost, and, amidst the gathering darkness, would
infuse his own intrepid spirit into the hearts of his nation, to
animate them to a last struggle for independence.
Chapter IV [1519]


DESIROUS to keep up the terror of the Castilian name, by leaving
the enemy no respite, Cortes on the same day that he despatched the
embassy to Tlascala, put himself at the head of a small corps of
cavalry and light troops to scour the neighbouring country. He was
at that time so ill from fever, aided by medical treatment, that he
could hardly keep his seat in the saddle. It was a rough country,
and the sharp winds from the frosty summits of the mountains pierced
the scanty covering of the troops, and chilled both men and horses.
Four or five of the animals gave out, and the general, alarmed for
their safety, sent them back to the camp. The soldiers, discouraged by
this ill omen, would have persuaded him to return. But he made answer,
"We fight under the banner of the Cross; God is stronger than nature,"
and continued his march.
It led through the same kind of chequered scenery of rugged hill
and cultivated plain as that already described, well covered with
towns and villages, some of them the frontier posts occupied by the
Otomies. Practising the Roman maxim of lenity to the submissive foe,
he took full vengeance on those who resisted, and, as resistance too
often occurred, marked his path with fire and desolation. After a
short absence, he returned in safety, laden with the plunder of a
successful foray. It would have been more honourable to him had it
been conducted with less rigour. The excesses are imputed by Bernal
Diaz to the Indian allies, whom in the heat of victory it was found
impossible to restrain. On whose head soever they fall, they seem to
have given little uneasiness to the general, who declares in his
letter to the Emperor Charles the Fifth, "As we fought under the
standard of the Cross, for the true Faith, and the service of your
Highness, Heaven crowned our arms with such success, that, while
multitudes of the infidel were slain, little loss was suffered by
the Castilians." The Spanish Conquerors, to judge from, their
writings, unconscious of any worldly motive lurking in the bottom of
their hearts, regarded themselves as soldiers of the Church,
fighting the great battle of Christianity; and in the same edifying
and comfortable light are regarded by most of the national
historians of a later day.
On his return to the camp, Cortes found a new cause of disquietude
in the discontents which had broken out among the soldiery. Their
patience was exhausted by a life of fatigue and peril, to which
there seemed to be no end. The battles they had won against such
tremendous odds had not advanced them a jot. The idea of their
reaching Mexico, says the old soldier so often quoted, "was treated
as jest by the whole army"; and the indefinite prospect of hostilities
with the ferocious people among whom they were now cast, threw a
deep gloom over their spirits.
Among the malcontents were a number of noisy, vapouring persons,
such as are found in every camp, who, like empty bubbles, are sure
to rise to the surface and make themselves seen in seasons of
agitation. They were, for the most part, of the old faction of
Velasquez, and had estates in Cuba, to which they turned many a
wistful glance as they receded more and more from the coast. They
now waited on the general, not in a mutinous spirit of resistance,-
for they remembered the lesson in Villa Rica,- but with the design
of frank expostulation, as with a brother adventurer in a common
cause. The tone of familiarity thus assumed was eminently
characteristic of the footing of equality on which the parties in
the expedition stood with one another.
Their sufferings, they told him, were too great to be endured. All
the men had received one, most of them two or three wounds. More
than fifty had perished, in one way or another, since leaving Vera
Cruz. There was no beast of burden but led a life preferable to
theirs. For when the night came, the former could rest from his
labours; but they, fighting or watching, had no rest, day nor night.
As to conquering Mexico, the very thought of it was madness. If they
had encountered such opposition from the petty republic of Tlascala,
what might they not expect from the great Mexican empire? There was
now a temporary suspension of hostilities. They should avail
themselves of it to retrace their steps to Vera Cruz. It is true,
the fleet there was destroyed; and by this act, unparalleled for
rashness even in Roman annals, the general had become responsible
for the fate of the whole army. Still there was one vessel left.
That might be despatched to Cuba, for reinforcements and supplies;
and, when these arrived, they would be enabled to resume operations
with some prospect of success.
Cortes listened to this singular expostulation with perfect
composure. He knew his men, and, instead of rebuke or harsher
measures, replied in the same frank and soldier-like vein which they
had affected.
There was much truth, he allowed, in what they said. The
sufferings of the Spaniards had been great; greater than those
recorded of any heroes in Greek or Roman story. So much the greater
would be their glory. He had often been filled with admiration as he
had seen his little host encircled by myriads of barbarians, and
felt that no people but Spaniards could have triumphed over such
formidable odds. Nor could they, unless the arm of the Almighty had
been over them. And they might reasonably look for His protection
hereafter; for was it not in His cause they were fighting? They had
encountered dangers and difficulties, it was true; but they had not
come here expecting a life of idle dalliance and pleasure. Glory, as
he had told them at the outset, was to be won only by toil and danger.
They would do him the justice to acknowledge that he had never
shrunk from his share of both. "This was a truth," adds the honest
chronicler, who heard and reports the dialogue,- which no one could
deny. But, if they had met with hardships, he continued, they had been
everywhere victorious. Even now they were enjoying the fruits of this,
in the plenty which reigned in the camp. And they would soon see the
Tlascalans, humbled by their late reverses, suing for peace on any
terms. To go back now was impossible. The very stones would rise up
against them. The Tlascalans would hunt them in triumph down to the
water's edge. And how would the Mexicans exult at this miserable issue
of their vainglorious vaunts! Their former friends would become
their enemies; and the Totonacs, to avert the vengeance of the Aztecs,
from which the Spaniards could no longer shield them, would join in
the general cry. There was no alternative, then, but to go forward
in their career. And he besought them to silence their pusillanimous
scruples, and, instead of turning their eyes towards Cuba, to fix them
on Mexico, the great object of their enterprise.
While this singular conference was going on, many other soldiers
had gathered round the spot; and the discontented party, emboldened by
the presence of their comrades, as well as by the general's
forbearance, replied, that they were far from being convinced. Another
such victory as the last would be their ruin. They were going to
Mexico only to be slaughtered. Until, at length, the general's
patience being exhausted, he cut the argument short by quoting a verse
from an old song, implying that it was better to die with honour, than
to live disgraced; a sentiment which was loudly echoed by the
greater part of his audience, who, notwithstanding their occasional
murmurs, had no design to abandon the expedition, still less the
commander, to whom they were passionately devoted. The malcontents,
disconcerted by this rebuke, slunk back to their own quarters,
muttering half-smothered execrations on the leader who had projected
the enterprise, the Indians who had guided him, and their own
countrymen who supported him in it.
Such were the difficulties that lay in the path of Cortes: a
wily and ferocious enemy; a climate uncertain, often unhealthy;
illness in his own person, much aggravated by anxiety as to the manner
in which his conduct would be received by his sovereign; last, not
least, disaffection among his soldiers, on whose constancy and union
he rested for the success of his operations,- the great lever by which
he was to overturn the empire of Montezuma.
On the morning following this event, the camp was surprised by the
appearance of a small body of Tlascalans, decorated with badges, the
white colour of which intimated peace. They brought a quantity of
provisions, and some trifling ornaments, which, they said, were sent
by the Tlascalan general, who was weary of the war, and desired an
accommodation with the Spaniards. He would soon present himself to
arrange this in person. The intelligence diffused general joy, and the
emissaries received a friendly welcome.
A day or two elapsed, and while a few of the party left the
Spanish quarters, the others, about fifty in number, who remained,
excited some distrust in the bosom of Marina. She communicated her
suspicions to Cortes that they were spies. He caused several of
them, in consequence, to be arrested, examined them separately, and
ascertained that they were employed by Xicotencatl to inform him of
the state of the Christian camp, preparatory to a meditated assault,
for which he was mustering his forces. Cortes, satisfied of the
truth of this, determined to make such an example of the delinquents
as should intimidate his enemy from repeating the attempt. He
ordered their hands to be cut off, and in that condition sent them
back to their countrymen, with the message, "that the Tlascalans might
come by day or night; they would find the Spaniards ready for them."
The doleful spectacle of their comrades returning in this
mutilated state filled the Indian camp with horror and
consternation. The haughty crest of their chief was humbled. From that
moment, he lost his wonted buoyancy and confidence. His soldiers,
filled with superstitious fear, refused to serve longer against a
foe who could read their very thoughts, and divine their plans
before they were ripe for execution.
The punishment inflicted by Cortes may well shock the reader by
its brutality. But it should be considered in mitigation, that the
victims of it were spies, and, as such, by the laws of war, whether
among civilised or savage nations, had incurred the penalty of
death. The amputation of the limbs was a milder punishment, and
reserved for inferior offences. If we revolt at the barbarous nature
of the sentence, we should reflect that it was no uncommon one at that
day; not more uncommon, indeed, than whipping and branding with a
hot iron were in our own country at the beginning of the present
century, or than cropping the ears was in the preceding one. A
higher civilisation, indeed, rejects such punishments as pernicious in
themselves, and degrading to humanity. But in the sixteenth century,
they were openly recognised by the laws of the most polished nations
in Europe. And it is too much to ask of any man, still less one bred
to the iron trade of war, to be in advance of the refinement of his
age. We may be content, if, in circumstances so unfavourable to
humanity, he does not fall below it.
All thoughts of further resistance being abandoned, the four
delegates of the Tlascalan republic were now allowed to proceed on
their mission. They were speedily followed by Xicotencatl himself,
attended by a numerous train of military retainers. As they drew
near the Spanish lines, they were easily recognised by the white and
yellow colours of their uniforms, the livery of the house of
Titcala. The joy of the army was great at this sure intimation of
the close of hostilities; and it was with difficulty that Cortes was
enabled to restore the men to tranquillity, and the assumed
indifference which it was proper to maintain in the presence of an
The Spaniards gazed with curious eye on the valiant chief who
had so long kept his enemies at bay, and who now advanced with the
firm and fearless step of one who was coming rather to bid defiance
than to sue for peace. He was rather above the middle size, with broad
shoulders, and a muscular frame intimating great activity and
strength. His head was large, and his countenance marked with the
lines of hard service rather than of age, for he was but
thirty-five. When he entered the presence of Cortes, he made the usual
salutation, by touching the ground with his hand, and carrying it to
his head; while the sweet incense of aromatic gums rolled up in clouds
from the censers carried by his slaves.
Far from a pusillanimous attempt to throw the blame on the senate,
he assumed the whole responsibility of the war. He had considered
the white men, he said, as enemies, for they came with the allies
and vassals of Montezuma. He loved his country, and wished to preserve
the independence which she had maintained through her long wars with
the Aztecs. He had been beaten. They might be the strangers who, it
had been so long predicted, would come from the east, to take
possession of the country. He hoped they would use their victory
with moderation, and not trample on the liberties of the republic.
He came now in the name of his nation, to tender their obedience to
the Spaniards, assuring them they would find his countrymen as
faithful in peace as they had been firm in war.
Cortes, far from taking umbrage, was filled with admiration at the
lofty spirit which thus disdained to stoop beneath misfortunes. The
brave man knows how to respect bravery in another. He assumed,
however, a severe aspect, as he rebuked the chief for having so long
persisted in bostilities. Had Xicotencatl believed the word of the
Spaniards, and accepted their proffered friendship sooner, he would
have spared his people much suffering, which they well merited by
their obstinacy. But it was impossible, continued the general, to
retrieve the past. He was willing to bury it in oblivion, and to
receive the Tlascalans as vassals to the emperor, his master. If
they proved true, they should find him a sure column of support; if
false, he would take such vengeance on them as he had intended to take
on their capital, had they not speedily given in their submission.- It
proved an ominous menace for the chief to whom it was addressed.
The cacique then ordered his slaves to bring forward some trifling
ornaments of gold and feather embroidery, designed as presents. They
were of little value, he said, with a smile, for the Tlascalans were
poor. They had little gold, not even cotton, nor salt; the Aztec
emperor had left them nothing but their freedom and their arms. He
offered this gift only as a token of his good will. "As such I receive
it," answered Cortes, "and coming from the Tlascalans, set more
value on it than I should from any other source, though it were a
house full of gold"; a politic, as well as magnanimous reply, for it
was by the aid of this good will that he was to win the gold of
Thus ended the bloody war with the fierce republic of Tlascala,
during the course of which, the fortunes of the Spaniards, more than
once, had trembled in the balance. Had it been persevered in but a
little longer, it must have ended in their confusion and ruin,
exhausted as they were by wounds, watching, and fatigues, with the
seeds of disaffection rankling among themselves. As it was, they
came out of the fearful contest with untarnished glory. To the
enemy, they seemed invulnerable, bearing charmed lives, proof alike
against the accidents of fortune and the assaults of man. No wonder
that they indulged a similar conceit in their own bosoms, and that the
humblest Spaniard should have fancied himself the subject of a special
interposition of providence, which shielded him in the hour of battle,
and reserved him for a higher destiny.
While the Tlascalans were still in the camp, an embassy was
announced from Montezuma. Tidings of the exploits of the Spaniards had
spread far and wide over the plateau. The emperor, in particular,
had watched every step of their progress, as they climbed the steeps
of the Cordilleras, and advanced over the broad tableland on their
summit. He had seen them, with great satisfaction, take the road to
Tlascala, trusting that, if they were mortal men, they would find
their graves there. Great was his dismay, when courier after courier
brought him intelligence of their successes, and that the most
redoubtable warriors on the plateau had been scattered like chaff by
the swords of this handful of strangers.
His superstitious fears returned in full force. He saw in the
Spaniards "the men of destiny" who were to take possession of his
sceptre. In his alarm and uncertainty, he sent a new embassy to the
Christian camp. It consisted of five great nobles of his court,
attended by a train of two hundred slaves. They brought with them a
present, as usual, dictated partly by fear, and, in part, by the
natural munificence of his disposition. It consisted of three thousand
ounces of gold, in grains, or in various manufactured articles, with
several hundred mantles and dresses of embroidered cotton, and the
picturesque feather-work. As they laid these at the feet of Cortes,
they told him, they had come to offer the congratulations of their
master on the late victories of the white men. The emperor only
regretted that it would not be in his power to receive them in his
capital, where the numerous population was so unruly, that their
safety would be placed in jeopardy. The mere intimation of the Aztec
emperor's wishes, in the most distant way, would have sufficed with
the Indian nations. It had very little weight with the Spaniards;
and the envoys, finding this puerile expression of them ineffectual,
resorted to another argument, offering a tribute in their master's
name to the Castilian sovereign, provided the Spaniards would
relinquish their visit to his capital. This was a greater error; it
was displaying the rich casket with one hand, which he was unable to
defend with the other. Yet the author of this pusillanimous policy,
the unhappy victim of superstition, was a monarch renowned among the
Indian nations for his intrepidity and enterprise,- the terror of
Cortes, while he urged his own sovereign's commands as a reason
for disregarding the wishes of Montezuma, uttered expressions of the
most profound respect for the Aztec prince, and declared that if he
had not the means of requiting his munificence, as he could wish, at
present, he trusted to repay him, at some future day, with good works!
The Mexican ambassadors were not much gratified with finding the
war at an end, and a reconciliation established between their mortal
enemies and the Spaniards. The mutual disgust of the two parties
with each other was too strong to be repressed even in the presence of
the general, who saw with satisfaction the evidences of a jealousy,
which, undermining the strength of the Indian emperor, was to prove
the surest source of his own success.
Two of the Aztec mission returned to Mexico, to acquaint their
sovereign with the state of affairs in the Spanish camp. The others
remained with the army, Cortes being willing that they should be
personal spectators of the deference shown him by the Tlascalans.
Still he did not hasten his departure for their capital. Not that he
placed reliance on the injurious intimations of the Mexicans
respecting their good faith. Yet he was willing to put this to some
longer trial, and, at the same time, to re-establish his own health
more thoroughly, before his visit. Meanwhile, messengers daily arrived
from the city, pressing his journey, and were finally followed by some
of the aged rulers of the republic, attended by a numerous retinue,
impatient of his long delay. They brought with them a body of five
hundred tamanes, or men of burden, to drag his cannon, and relieve his
own forces from this fatiguing part of their duty. It was impossible
to defer his departure longer; and after mass, and a solemn
thanksgiving to the great Being who had crowned their arms with
triumph, the Spaniards bade adieu to the quarters which they had
occupied for nearly three weeks on the hill of Tzompach.
Chapter V [1519]


THE city of Tlascala, the capital of the republic of the same
name, lay at the distance of about six leagues from the Spanish
camp. The road led into a hilly region, exhibiting in every arable
patch of ground the evidence of laborious cultivation. Over a deep
barranca, or ravine, they crossed on a bridge of stone, which,
according to tradition- a slippery authority- is the same still
standing, and was constructed originally for the passage of the
army. They passed some considerable towns on their route, where they
experienced a full measure of Indian hospitality. As they advanced,
the approach to a populous city was intimated by the crowds who
flocked out to see and welcome the strangers; men and women in their
picturesque dresses, with bunches and wreaths of roses, which they
gave to the Spaniards, or fastened to the necks and caparisons of
their horses, in the manner as at Cempoalla. Priests, with their white
robes, and long matted tresses floating over them, mingled in the
crowd, scattering volumes of incense from their burning censers. In
this way, the multitudinous and motley procession defiled through
the gates of the ancient capital of Tlascala. It was the 23rd of
September, 1519.
The press was now so great, that it was with difficulty the police
of the city could clear a passage for the army; while the azoteas,
or flat-terraced roofs of the buildings, were covered with spectators,
eager to catch a glimpse of the wonderful strangers. The houses were
hung with festoons of flowers, and arches of verdant boughs,
intertwined with roses and honeysuckle, were thrown across the
streets. The whole population abandoned itself to rejoicing; and the
air was rent with songs and shouts of triumph mingled with the wild
music of the national instruments, that might have excited
apprehensions in the breasts of the soldiery, had they not gathered
their peaceful import from the assurance of Marina, and the joyous
countenances of the natives.
With these accompaniments, the procession moved along the
principal streets to the mansion of Xicotencatl, the aged father of
the Tlascalan general, and one of the four rulers of the republic.
Cortes dismounted from his horse, to receive the old chieftain's
embrace. He was nearly blind; and satisfied, as far as he could, a
natural curiosity respecting the person of the Spanish general, by
passing his hand over his features. He then led the way to a
spacious hall in his palace, where a banquet was served to the army.
In the evening, they were shown to their quarters, in the buildings
and open ground surrounding one of the principal teocallis; while
the Mexican ambassadors, at the desire of Cortes, had apartments
assigned them next to his own, that he might the better watch over
their safety, in this city of their enemies.
Tlascala was one of the most important and populous towns on the
tableland. Cortes, in his letter to the emperor, compares it to
Granada, affirming that it was larger, stronger, and more populous
than the Moorish capital, at the time of the conquest, and quite as
well built. But notwithstanding we are assured by a most respectable
writer at the close of the last century that its remains justify the
assertion, we shall be slow to believe that its edifices could have
rivalled those monuments of Oriental magnificence, whose light, aerial
forms still survive after the lapse of ages, the admiration of every
traveller of sensibility and taste. The truth is, that Cortes, like
Columbus, saw objects through the warm medium of his own fond
imagination, giving them a higher tone of colouring and larger
dimensions than were strictly warranted by the fact. It was natural
that the man who had made such rare discoveries should unconsciously
magnify their merits to his own eyes and to those of others.
The houses were, for the most part, of mud or earth; the better
sort of stone and lime, or bricks dried in the sun. They were
unprovided with doors or windows, but in the apertures for the
former hung mats fringed with pieces of copper or something which,
by its tinkling sound, would give notice of any one's entrance. The
streets were narrow and dark. The population must have been
considerable if, as Cortes asserts, thirty thousand souls were often
gathered in the market on a public day. These meetings were a sort
of fairs, held, as usual in all the great towns, every fifth day,
and attended by the inhabitants of the adjacent country, who brought
there for sale every description of domestic produce and manufacture
with which they were acquainted. They peculiarly excelled in
pottery, which was considered as equal to the best in Europe. It is
a further proof of civilised habits, that the Spaniards found barbers'
shops, and baths, both of vapour and hot water, familiarly used by the
inhabitants. A still higher proof of refinement may be discerned in
a vigilant police which repressed everything like disorder among the
The city was divided into four quarters, which might rather be
called so many separate towns, since they were built at different
times, and separated from each other by high stone walls, defining
their respective limits. Over each of these districts ruled one of the
four great chiefs of the republic, occupying his own spacious mansion,
and surrounded by his own immediate vassals. Strange arrangement,- and
more strange that it should have been compatible with social order and
tranquillity! The ancient capital, through one quarter of which flowed
the rapid current of the Zahuatl, stretched along the summits and
sides of hills, at whose base are now gathered the miserable remains
of its once flourishing population. Far beyond, to the south-west,
extended the bold sierra of Tlascala, and the huge Malinche, crowned
with the usual silver diadem of the highest Andes, having its shaggy
sides clothed with dark green forests of firs, gigantic sycamores, and
oaks whose towering stems rose to the height of forty or fifty feet,
unencumbered by a branch. The clouds, which sailed over from the
distant Atlantic, gathered round the lofty peaks of the sierra, and,
settling into torrents, poured over the plains in the neighbourhood of
the city, converting them, at such seasons, into swamps.
Thunderstorms, more frequent and terrible here than in other parts
of the tableland, swept down the sides of the mountains, and shook the
frail tenements of the capital to their foundations. But, although the
bleak winds of the sierra gave an austerity to the climate, unlike the
sunny skies and genial temperature of the lower regions, it was far
more favourable to the development of both the physical and moral
energies. A bold and hardy peasantry was nurtured among the recesses
of the hills, fit equally to cultivate the land in peace and to defend
it in war. Unlike the spoiled child of Nature, who derives such
facilities of subsistence from her too prodigal hand, as supersede the
necessity of exertion on his own part, the Tlascalan earned his bread-
from a soil not ungrateful, it is true- by the sweat of his brow. He
led a life of temperance and toil. Cut off by his long wars with the
Aztecs from commercial intercourse, he was driven chiefly to
agricultural labour, the occupation most propitious to purity of
morals and sinewy strength of constitution. His honest breast glowed
with the patriotism,- or local attachment to the soil, which is the
fruit of its diligent culture; while he was elevated by a proud
consciousness of independence, the natural birthright of the child
of the mountains.- Such was the race with whom Cortes was now
associated for the achievement of his great work.
Some days were given by the Spaniards to festivity, in which
they were successively entertained at the hospitable boards of the
four great nobles, in their several quarters of the city. Amidst these
friendly demonstrations, however, the general never relaxed for a
moment his habitual vigilance, or the strict discipline of the camp;
and he was careful to provide for the security of the citizens by
prohibiting, under severe penalties, any soldier from leaving his
quarters without express permission. Indeed, the severity of his
discipline provoked the remonstrance of more than one of his officers,
as a superfluous caution; and the Tlascalan chiefs took some exception
at it, as inferring an unreasonable distrust of them. But, when Cortes
explained it, as in obedience to an established military system,
they testified their admiration, and the ambitious young general of
the republic proposed to introduce it, if possible, into his own
The Spanish commander, having assured himself of the loyalty of
his new allies, next proposed to accomplish one of the great objects
of his mission- their conversion to Christianity. By the advice of
Father Olmedo, always opposed to precipitate measures, he had deferred
this till a suitable opportunity presented itself for opening the
subject. Such a one occurred when the chiefs of the state proposed
to strengthen the alliance with the Spaniards, by the intermarriage of
their daughters with Cortes and his officers. He told them this
could not be, while they continued in the darkness of infidelity.
Then, with the aid of the good friar, he expounded as well as he could
the doctrines of the Faith; and, exhibiting the image of the Virgin
with the infant Redeemer, told them that there was the God, in whose
worship alone they would find salvation, while that of their own false
idols would sink them in eternal perdition.
It is unnecessary to burden the reader with a recapitulation of
his homily, which contained, probably, dogmas quite as
incomprehensible to the untutored Indian as any to be found in his own
rude mythology. But, though it failed to convince his audience, they
listened with a deferential awe. When he had finished, they replied,
they had no doubt that the God of the Christians must be a good and
a great God, and as such they were willing to give him a place among
the divinities of Tlascala. The polytheistic system of the Indians,
like that of the ancient Greeks, was of that accommodating kind
which could admit within its elastic folds the deities of any other
religion, without violence to itself. But every nation, they
continued, must have its own appropriate and tutelary deities. Nor
could they, in their old age, abjure the service of those who had
watched over them from youth. It would bring down the vengeance of
their gods, and of their own nation, who were as warmly attached to
their religion as their liberties, and would defend both with the last
drop of their blood!
It was clearly inexpedient to press the matter further, at
present. But the zeal of Cortes, as usual, waxing warm by
opposition, had now mounted too high for him to calculate obstacles;
nor would he have shrunk, probably, from the crown of martyrdom in
so good a cause. But fortunately, at least for the success of his
temporal cause, this crown was not reserved for him.
The good monk, his ghostly adviser, seeing the course things
were likely to take, with better judgment interposed to prevent it. He
had no desire, he said, to see the same scenes acted over again as
at Cempoalla. He had no relish for forced conversions. They could
hardly be lasting. The growth of an hour might well die with the hour.
Of what use was it to overturn the altar, if the idol remained
enthroned in the heart? or to destroy the idol itself, if it were only
to make room for another? Better to wait patiently the effect of
time and teaching to soften the heart and open the understanding,
without which there could be no assurance of a sound and permanent
conviction. These rational views were enforced by the remonstrances of
Alvarado, Velasquez de Leon, and those in whom Cortes placed most
confidence; till, driven from his original purpose, the military
polemic consented to relinquish the attempt at conversion, for the
present, and to refrain from a repetition of the scenes, which,
considering the different mettle of the population, might have been
attended with very different results from those at Cozumel and
But though Cortes abandoned the ground of conversion for the
present, he compelled the Tlascalans to break the fetters of the
unfortunate victims reserved for sacrifice; an act of humanity
unhappily only transient in its effects, since the prisons were filled
with fresh victims on his departure.
He also obtained permission for the Spaniards to perform the
services of their own religion unmolested. A large cross was erected
in one of the great courts or squares. Mass was celebrated every day
in the presence of the army and of crowds of natives, who, if they did
not comprehend its full import, were so far edified, that they learned
to reverence the religion of their conquerors. The direct
interposition of Heaven, however, wrought more for their conversion
than the best homily of priest or soldier. Scarcely had the
Spaniards left the city,- the tale is told on very respectable
authority,- when a thin, transparent cloud descended and settled
like a column on the cross, and, wrapping it round in its luminous
folds, continued to emit a soft, celestial radiance through the night,
thus proclaiming the sacred character of the symbol, on which was shed
the halo of divinity!
The principle of toleration in religious matters being
established, the Spanish general consented to receive the daughters of
the caciques. Five or six of the most beautiful Indian maidens were
assigned to as many of his principal officers, after they had been
cleansed from the stains of infidelity by the waters of baptism.
They received, as usual, on this occasion, good Castilian names, in
exchange for the barbarous nomenclature of their own vernacular.
Among them, Xicotencatl's daughter, Dona Luisa, as she was
called after her baptism, was a princess of the highest estimation and
authority in Tlascala. She was given by her father to Alvarado, and
their posterity intermarried with the noblest families of Castile. The
frank and joyous manners of this cavalier made him a great favourite
with the Tlascalans; and his bright open countenance, fair complexion,
and golden locks, gave him the name of Tonatiuh, the "Sun." The
Indians often pleased their fancies by fastening a sobriquet, or
some characteristic epithet, on the Spaniards. As Cortes was always
attended, on public occasions, by Dona Marina, or Malinche, as she was
called by the natives, they distinguished him by the same name. By
these epithets, originally bestowed in Tlascala, the two Spanish
captains were popularly designated among the Indian nations.
While these events were passing, another embassy arrived from
the court of Mexico. It was charged, as usual, with a costly
donative of embossed gold plate, and rich embroidered stuffs of cotton
and feather-work. The terms of the message might well argue a
vacillating and timid temper in the monarch, did they not mask a
deeper policy. He now invited the Spaniards to his capital, with the
assurance of a cordial welcome. He besought them to enter into no
alliance with the base and barbarous Tlascalans; and he invited them
to take the route of the friendly city of Cholula, where arrangements,
according to his orders, were made for their reception.
The Tlascalans viewed with deep regret the general's proposed
visit to Mexico. Their reports fully confirmd all he had before
heard of the power and ambition of Montezuma. His armies, they said,
were spread over every part of the continent. His capital was a
place of great strength, and as, from its insular position, all
communication could be easily cut off with the adjacent country, the
Spaniards, once entrapped there, would be at his mercy. His policy,
they represented, was as insidious as his ambition was boundless.
"Trust not his fair words," they said, "his courtesies, and his gifts.
His professions are hollow, and his friendships are false." When
Cortes remarked, that he hoped to bring about a better understanding
between the emperor and them, they replied, it would be impossible;
however smooth his words, he would hate them at heart.
They warmly protested, also, against the general's taking the
route of Cholula. The inhabitants, not brave in the open field, were
more dangerous from their perfidy and craft. They were Montezuma's
tools, and would do his bidding. The Tlascalans seemed to combine with
this distrust a superstitious dread of the ancient city, the
headquarters of the religion of Anahuac. It was here that the god
Quetzalcoatl held the pristine seat of his empire. His temple was
celebrated throughout the land, and the priests were confidently
believed to have the power, as they themselves boasted, of opening
an inundation from the foundations of his shrine, which should bury
their enemies in the deluge. The Tlascalans further reminded Cortes,
that while so many other and distant places had sent to him at
Tlascala, to testify their good will, and offer their allegiance to
his sovereign, Cholula, only six leagues distant, had done neither.
The last suggestion struck the general more forcibly than any of the
preceding. He instantly despatched a summons to the city requiring a
formal tender of its submission.
Among the embassies from different quarters which had waited on
the Spanish commander, while at Tlascala, was one from
Ixtlilxochitl, son of the great Nezahualpilli, and an unsuccessful
competitor with his elder brother- as noticed in a former part of
our narrative- for the crown of Tezcuco. Though defeated in his
pretensions, he had obtained a part of the kingdom, over which he
ruled with a deadly feeling of animosity towards his rival, and to
Montezuma, who had sustained him. He now offered his services to
Cortes, asking his aid, in return, to place him on the throne of his
ancestors. The politic general returned such an answer to the aspiring
young prince, as might encourage his expectations, and attach him to
his interests. It was his aim to strengthen his cause by attracting to
himself every particle of disaffection that was floating through the
It was not long before deputies arrived from Cholula, profuse in
their expressions of good will, and inviting the presence of the
Spaniards in their capital. The messengers were of low degree, far
beneath the usual rank of ambassadors. This was pointed out by the
Tlascalans; and Cortes regarded it as a fresh indignity. He sent in
consequence a new summons, declaring, if they did not instantly send
him a deputation of their principal men, he would deal with them as
rebels to his own sovereign, the rightful lord of these realms! The
menace had the desired effect. The Cholulans were not inclined to
contest, at least for the present, his magnificent pretensions.
Another embassy appeared in the camp, consisting of some of the
highest nobles; who repeated the invitation for the Spaniards to visit
their city, and excused their own tardy appearance by apprehensions
for their personal safety in the capital of their enemies. The
explanation was plausible, and was admitted by Cortes.
The Tlascalans were now more than ever opposed to his projected
visit. A strong Aztec force, they had ascertained, lay in the
neighbourhood of Cholula, and the people were actively placing their
city in a posture of defence. They suspected some insidious scheme
concerted by Montezuma to destroy the Spaniards.
These suggestions disturbed the mind of Cortes, but did not turn
him from his purpose. He felt a natural curiosity to see the venerable
city so celebrated in the history of the Indian nations. He had,
besides, gone too far to recede,- too far, at least, to do so
without a show of apprehension, implying a distrust in his own
resources, which could not fail to have a bad effect on his enemies,
his allies, and his own men. After a brief consultation with his
officers, he decided on the route to Cholula.
It was now three weeks since the Spaniards had taken up their
residence within the hospitable walls of Tlascala; and nearly six
since they entered her territory. They had been met on the threshold
as an enemy, with the most determined hostility. They were now to part
with the same people, as friends and allies; fast friends, who were to
stand by them, side by side, through the whole of their arduous
struggle. The result of their visit, therefore, was of the last
importance, since on the co-operation of these brave and warlike
republicans, greatly depended the ultimate success of the expedition.
Chapter VI [1519]


THE ancient city of Cholula, capital of the republic of that name,
lay nearly six leagues south of Tlascala, and about twenty east, or
rather south-east of Mexico. It was said by Cortes to contain twenty
thousand houses within the walls, and as many more in the environs.
Whatever was its real number of inhabitants, it was unquestionably, at
the time of the Conquest, one of the most populous and flourishing
cities in New Spain.
It was of great antiquity, and was founded by the primitive
races who overspread the land before the Aztecs. We have few
particulars of its form of government, which seems to have been cast
on a republican model similar to that of Tlascala. This answered so
well, that the state maintained its independence down to a very late
period, when, if not reduced to vassalage by the Aztecs, it was so far
under their control as to enjoy few of the benefits of a separate
political existence. Their connection with Mexico brought the
Cholulans into frequent collision with their neighbours and kindred,
the Tlascalans. But, although far superior to them in refinement and
the various arts of civilisation, they were no match in war for the
bold mountaineers, the Swiss of Anahuac. The Cholulan capital was
the great commercial emporium of the plateau. The inhabitants excelled
in various mechanical arts, especially that of working in metals,
the manufacture of cotton and agave cloths, and of a delicate kind
of pottery, rivalling, it was said, that of Florence in beauty. But
such attention to the arts of a polished and peaceful community
naturally indisposed them to war, and disqualified them for coping
with those who made war the great business of life. The Cholulans were
accused of effeminacy, and were less distinguished- it is the charge
of their rivals- by their courage than their cunning.
But the capital, so conspicuous for its refinement and its great
antiquity, was even more venerable for the religious traditions
which invested it. It was here that the god Quetzalcoatl paused in his
passage to the coast, and passed twenty years in teaching the Toltec
inhabitants the arts of civilisation. He made them acquainted with
better forms of government, and a more spiritualised religion, in
which the only sacrifices were the fruits and flowers of the season.
It is not easy to determine what he taught, since, his lessons have
been so mingled with the licentious dogmas of his own priests, and the
mystic commentaries of the Christian missionary. It is probable that
he was one of those rare and gifted beings, who dissipating the
darkness of the age by the illumination of their own genius, are
deified by a grateful posterity, and placed among the lights of
It was in honour of this benevolent deity, that the stupendous
mound was erected on which the traveller still gazes with admiration
as the most colossal fabric in New Spain, rivalling in dimensions, and
somewhat resembling in form, the pyramidal structures of ancient
Egypt. The date of its erection is unknown, for it was found there
when the Aztecs entered on the plateau. It had the form common to
the Mexican teocallis, that of a truncated pyramid, facing with its
four sides the cardinal points, and divided into the same number of
terraces. Its original outlines, however, have been effaced by the
action of time and of the elements, while the exuberant growth of
shrubs and wild flowers, which have mantled over its surface, give
it the appearance of one of those symmetrical elevations thrown up
by the caprice of nature, rather than by the industry of man. It is
doubtful, indeed, whether the interior be not a natural hill, though
it seems not improbable that it is an artificial composition of
stone and earth, deeply incrusted, as is certain, in every part,
with alternate strata of brick and clay.
The perpendicular height of the pyramid is one hundred and
seventy-seven feet. Its base is one thousand four hundred and
twenty-three feet long, twice as long as that of the great pyramid
of Cheops. It may give some idea of its dimensions to state, that
its base, which is square, covers about forty-four acres, and the
platform on its truncated summit, embraces more than one. It reminds
us of those colossal monuments of brickwork, which are still seen in
ruins on the banks of the Euphrates, and, in much higher preservation,
on those of the Nile.
On the summit stood a sumptuous temple, in which was the image
of the mystic deity, "god of the air," with ebon features, unlike
the fair complexion which he bore upon earth, wearing a mitre on his
head waving with plumes of fire, with a resplendent collar of gold
round his neck, pendants of mosaic turquoise in his ears, a jewelled
sceptre in one hand, and a shield curiously painted, the emblem of his
rule over the winds, in the other. The sanctity of the place, hallowed
by hoary tradition, and the magnificence of the temple and its
services, made it an object of veneration throughout the land, and
pilgrims from the furthest corners of Anahuac came to offer up their
devotions at the shrine of Quetzalcoatl. The number of these was so
great, as to give an air of mendicity to the motley population of
the city; and Cortes, struck with the novelty, tells us that he saw
multitudes of beggars such as are to be found in the enlightened
capitals of Europe;- a whimsical criterion of civilisation which
must place our own prosperous land somewhat low in the scale.
Cholula was not the resort only of the indigent devotee. Many of
the kindred races had temples of their own in the city, in the same
manner as some Christian nations have in Rome, and each temple was
provided with its own peculiar ministers for the service of the
deity to whom it was consecrated. In no city was there seen such a
concourse of priests, so many processions, such pomp of ceremonial
sacrifice, and religious festivals. Cholula was, in short, what
Mecca is among Mahometans, or Jerusalem among Christians; it was the
Holy City of Anahuac.
The religious rites were not performed, however, in the pure
spirit originally prescribed by its tutelary deity. His altars, as
well as those of the numerous Aztec gods, were stained with human
blood; and six thousand victims are said to have been annually offered
up at their sanguinary shrines. The great number of these may be
estimated from the declaration of Cortes, that he counted four hundred
towers in the city; yet no temple had more than two, many only one.
High above the rest rose the great "Pyramid of Cholula," with its
undying fires flinging their radiance over the capital, and
proclaiming to the nations that there was the mystic worship- alas!
how corrupted by cruelty and superstition- of the good deity who was
one day to return and resume his empire over the land.
But it is time to return to Tlascala. On the appointed morning the
Spanish army took up its march to Mexico by the way of Cholula. It was
followed by crowds of the citizens, filled with admiration at the
intrepidity of men who, so few in number, would venture to brave the
great Montezuma in his capital. Yet an immense body of warriors
offered to share the dangers of the expedition; but Cortes, while he
showed his gratitude for their good will, selected only six thousand
of the volunteers to bear him company. He was unwilling to encumber
himself with an unwieldy force that might impede his movements; and
probably did not care to put himself so far in the power of allies
whose attachment was too recent to afford sufficient guaranty for
their fidelity.
After crossing some rough and hilly ground, the army entered on
the wide plain which spreads out for miles around Cholula. At the
elevation of more than six thousand feet above the sea they beheld the
rich products of various climes growing side by side, fields of
towering maize, the juicy aloe, the chilli or Aztec pepper, and
large plantations of the cactus, on which the brilliant cochineal is
nourished. Not a rood of land but was under cultivation; and the soil-
an uncommon thing on the tableland- was irrigated by numerous
streams and canals, and well shaded by woods, that have disappeared
before the rude axe of the Spaniards. Towards evening they reached a
small stream, on the banks of which Cortes determined to take up his
quarters for the night, being unwilling to disturb the tranquillity of
the city by introducing so large a force into it at an unseasonable
Here he was soon joined by a number of Cholulan caciques and their
attendants, who came to view and welcome the strangers. When they
saw their Tlascalan enemies in the camp, however, they exhibited signs
of displeasure, and intimated an apprehension that their presence in
the town might occasion disorder. The remonstrance seemed reasonable
to Cortes, and he accordingly commanded his allies to remain in
their present quarters, and to join him as he left the city on the
way to Mexico.
On the following morning he made his entrance at the head of his
army into Cholula, attended by no other Indians than those from
Cempoalla, and a handful of Tlascalans to take charge of the
baggage. His allies, at parting, gave him many cautions respecting the
people he was to visit, who, while they affected to despise them as
a nation of traders, employed the dangerous arms of perfidy and
cunning. As the troops drew near the city, the road was lined with
swarms of people of both sexes and every age,- old men tottering
with infirmity, women with children in their arms, all eager to
catch a glimpse of the strangers, whose persons, weapons, and horses
were objects of intense curiosity to eyes which had not hitherto
ever encountered them in battle. The Spaniards, in turn, were filled
with admiration at the aspect of the Cholulans, much superior in dress
and general appearance to the nations they had hitherto seen. They
were particularly struck with the costume of the higher classes, who
wore fine embroidered mantles, resembling the graceful albornoz, or
Moorish cloak, in their texture and fashion. They showed the same
delicate taste for flowers as the other tribes of the plateau,
decorating their persons with them, and tossing garlands and bunches
among the soldiers. An immense number of priests mingled. with the
crowd, swinging their aromatic censers, while music from various kinds
of instruments gave a lively welcome to the visitors, and made the
whole scene one of gay, bewildering enchantment. If it did not have
the air of a triumphal procession so much as at Tlascala, where the
melody of instruments was drowned by the shouts of the multitude, it
gave a quiet assurance of hospitality and friendly feeling not less
The Spaniards were also struck with the cleanliness of the city,
the width and great regularity of the streets, which seemed to have
been laid out on a settled plan, with the solidity of the houses,
and the number and size of the pyramidal temples. In the court of
one of these, and its surrounding buildings, they were quartered.
They were soon visited by the principal lords of the place, who
seemed solicitous to provide them with accommodations. Their table was
plentifully supplied, and, in short, they experienced such
attentions as were calculated to dissipate their suspicions, and
made them impute those of their Tlascalan friends to prejudice and old
national hostility.
In a few days the scene changed. Messengers arrived from
Montezuma, who, after a short and unpleasant intimation to Cortes that
his approach occasioned much disquietude to their master, conferred
separately with the Mexican ambassadors still in the Castilian camp,
and then departed, taking one of the latter along with them. From this
time, the deportment of their Cholulan hosts underwent a visible
alteration. They did not visit the quarters as before, and, when
invited to do so, excused themselves on pretence of illness. The
supply of provisions was stinted, on the ground that they were short
of maize. These symptoms of alienation, independently of temporary
embarrassment, caused serious alarm in the breast of Cortes, for the
future. His apprehensions were not allayed by the reports of the
Cempoallans, who told him, that in wandering round the city they had
seen several streets barricaded; the azoteas, or flat roofs of the
houses, loaded with huge stones and other missiles, as if
preparatory to an assault; and in some places they had found holes
covered over with branches, and upright stakes planted within, as if
to embarrass the movements of the cavalry. Some Tlascalans coming in
also from their camp, informed the general that a great sacrifice,
mostly of children, had been offered up in a distant quarter of the
town, to propitiate the favour of the gods, apparently for some
intended enterprise. They added, that they had seen numbers of the
citizens leaving the city with their women and children, as if to
remove them to a place of safety. These tidings confirmed the worst
suspicions of Cortes, who had no doubt that some hostile scheme was in
agitation. If he had felt any, a discovery by Marina, the good angel
of the expedition, would have turned these doubts into certainty.
The amiable manners of the Indian girl had won her the regard of
the wife of one of the caciques, who repeatedly urged Marina to
visit her house, darkly intimating that in this way she would escape
the fate that awaited the Spaniards. The interpreter, seeing the
importance of obtaining further intelligence at once, pretended to
be pleased with the proposal, and affected, at the same time, great
discontent with the white men, by whom she was detained in
captivity. Thus throwing the credulous Cholulan off her guard,
Marina gradually insinuated herself into her confidence, so far as
to draw from her a full account of the conspiracy.
It originated, she said, with the Aztec emperor, who had sent rich
bribes to the great caciques, and to her husband among others, to
secure them in his views. The Spaniards were to be assaulted as they
marched out of the capital, when entangled in its streets, in which
numerous impediments had been placed to throw the cavalry into
disorder. A force of twenty thousand Mexicans was already quartered at
no great distance from the city, to support the Cholulans in the
assault. It was confidently expected that the Spaniards, thus
embarrassed in their movements, would fall an easy prey to the
superior strength of their enemy. A sufficient number of prisoners was
to be reserved to grace the sacrifices of Cholula; the rest were to be
led in fetters to the capital of Montezuma.
While this conversation was going on, Marina occupied herself with
putting up such articles of value and wearing apparel as she
proposed to take with her in the evening, when she could escape
unnoticed from the Spanish quarters to the house of her Cholulan
friend, who assisted her in the operation. Leaving her visitor thus
employed, Marina found an opportunity to steal away for a few moments,
and, going to the general's apartment, disclosed to him her
discoveries. He immediately caused the cacique's wife to be seized,
and on examination she fully confirmed the statement of his Indian
The intelligence thus gathered by Cortes filled him with the
deepest alarm. He was fairly taken in the snare. To fight or to fly
seemed equally difficult. He was in a city of enemies, where every
house might be converted into a fortress, and where such
embarrassments were thrown in the way, as might render the
manoeuvres of his artillery and horse nearly impracticable. In
addition to the wily Cholulans, he must cope, under all these
disadvantages, with the redoubtable warriors of Mexico. He was like
a traveller who has lost his way in the darkness among precipices,
where any step may dash him to pieces, and where to retreat or to
advance is equally perilous.
He was desirous to obtain still further confirmation and
particulars of the conspiracy. He accordingly induced two of the
priests in the neighbourhood, one of them a person of much influence
in the place, to visit his quarters. By courteous treatment, and
liberal largesses of the rich presents he had received from
Montezuma,- thus turning his own gifts against the giver,- he drew
from them a full confirmation of the previous report. The emperor
had been in a state of pitiable vacillation since the arrival of the
Spaniards. His first orders to the Cholulans were, to receive the
strangers kindly. He had recently consulted his oracles anew, and
obtained for answer, that Cholula would be the grave of his enemies;
for the gods would be sure to support him in avenging the sacrilege
offered to the Holy City. So confident were the Aztecs of success,
that numerous manacles, or poles with thongs which served as such,
were already in the place to secure the prisoners.
Cortes, now feeling himself fully possessed of the facts,
dismissed the priests, with injunctions of secrecy, scarcely
necessary. He told them it was his purpose to leave the city on the
following morning, and requested that they would induce some of the
principal caciques to grant him an interview in his quarters. He
then summoned a council of his officers, though, as it seems,
already determined as to the course he was to take.
The members of the council were differently affected by the
startling intelligence, according to their different characters. The
more timid, disheartened by the prospect of obstacles which seemed
to multiply as they drew nearer the Mexican capital, were for
retracing their steps, and seeking shelter in the friendly city of
Tlascala. Others, more persevering, but prudent, were for taking the
more northerly route originally recommended by their allies. The
greater part supported the general, who was ever of opinion that
they had no alternative but to advance. Retreat would be ruin.
Half-way measures were scarcely better; and would infer a timidity
which must discredit them with both friend and foe. Their true
policy was to rely on themselves; to strike such a blow as should
intimidate their enemies, and show them that the Spaniards were as
incapable of being circumvented by artifice, as of being crushed by
weight of numbers and courage in the open field.
When the caciques, persuaded by the priests, appeared before
Cortes, he contented himself with gently rebuking their want of
hospitality, and assured them the Spaniards would be no longer a
burden to their city, as he proposed to leave it early on the
following morning. He requested, moreover, that they would furnish a
reinforcement of two thousand men to transport his artillery and
baggage. The chiefs, after some consultation, acquiesced in a demand
which might in some measure favour their own designs.
On their departure, the general summoned the Aztec ambassadors
before him. He briefly acquainted them with his detection of the
treacherous plot to destroy his army, the contrivance of which, he
said, was imputed to their master, Montezuma. It grieved him much,
he added, to find the emperor implicated in so nefarious a scheme, and
that the Spaniards must now march as enemies against the prince,
whom they had hoped to visit as a friend.
The ambassadors, with earnest protestations, asserted their entire
ignorance of the conspiracy; and their belief that Montezuma was
equally innocent of a crime, which they charged wholly on the
Cholulans. It was clearly the policy of Cortes to keep on good terms
with the Indian monarch; to profit as long as possible by his good
offices; and to avail himself of his fancied security- such feelings
of security as the general could inspire him with- to cover his own
future operations. He affected to give credit, therefore, to the
assertion of the envoys, and declared his unwillingness to believe
that a monarch, who had rendered the Spaniards so many friendly
offices, would now consummate the whole by a deed of such unparalleled
baseness. The discovery of their twofold duplicity, he added,
sharpened his resentment against the Cholulans, on whom he would
take such vengeance as should amply requite the injuries done both
to Montezuma and the Spaniards. He then dismissed the ambassadors,
taking care, notwithstanding this show of confidence, to place a
strong guard over them, to prevent communication with the citizens.
That night was one of deep anxiety to the army. The ground they
stood on seemed loosening beneath their feet, and any moment might
be the one marked for their destruction. Their vigilant general took
all possible precautions for their safety, increasing the number of
the sentinels, and posting his guns in such a manner as to protect the
approaches to the camp. His eyes, it may well be believed, did not
close during the night. Indeed every Spaniard lay down in his arms,
and every horse stood saddled and bridled, ready for instant
service. But no assault was meditated by the Indians, and the
stillness of the hour was undisturbed except by the occasional
sounds heard in a populous city, even when buried in slumber, and by
the hoarse cries of the priests from the turrets of the teocallis,
proclaiming through their trumpets the watches of the night.
Chapter VII [1519]


WITH the first streak of morning light, Cortes was seen on
horseback, directing the movements of his little band. The strength of
his forces he drew up in the great square or court, surrounded
partly by buildings, as before noticed, and in part by a high wall.
There were three gates of entrance, at each of which he placed a
strong guard. The rest of his troops, with his great guns, he posted
without the enclosure, in such a manner as to command the avenues, and
secure those within from interruption in their bloody work. Orders had
been sent the night before to the Tlascalan chiefs to hold
themselves ready, at a concerted signal, to march into the city and
join the Spaniards.
The arrangements were hardly completed, before the Cholulan
caciques appeared, leading a body of levies, tamanes, even more
numerous than had been demanded. They were marched at once into the
square, commanded, as we have seen, by the Spanish infantry, which was
drawn up under the walls. Cortes then took some of the caciques aside.
With a stern air, he bluntly charged them with the conspiracy, showing
that he was well acquainted with all the particulars. He had visited
their city, he said, at the invitation of their emperor; had come as
friend; had respected the inhabitants and their property; and, to
avoid all cause of umbrage, had left a great part of his forces
without the walls. They had received him with a show of kindness and
hospitality, and, reposing on this, he had been decoyed into the
snare, and found this kindness only a mask to cover the blackest
The Cholulans were thunderstruck at the accusation. An undefined
awe crept over them as they gazed on the mysterious strangers, and
felt themselves in the presence of beings who seemed to have the power
of reading the thoughts scarcely formed in their bosoms. There was
no use in prevarication or denial before such judges. They confessed
the whole, and endeavoured to excuse themselves by throwing the
blame on Montezuma. Cortes, assuming an air of higher indignation at
this, assured them that the pretence should not serve, since, even
if well founded, it would be no justification; and he would now make
such an example of them for their treachery, that the report of it
should ring throughout the wide borders of Anahuac!
The fatal signal, the discharge of an arquebuse was then given. In
an instant every musket and crossbow was levelled at the unfortunate
Cholulans in the courtyard, and a frightful volley poured into them as
they stood crowded together like a herd of deer in the centre. They
were taken by surprise, for they had not heard the preceding
dialogue with the chiefs. They made scarcely any resistance to the
Spaniards, who followed up the discharge of their pieces by rushing on
them with their swords; and, as the half-naked bodies of the natives
afforded no protection, they hewed them down with as much ease as
the reaper mows down the ripe corn in harvest time. Some endeavoured
to scale the walls, but only afforded a surer mark to the arquebusiers
and archers. Others threw themselves into the gateways, but were
received on the long pikes of the soldiers who guarded them. Some
few had better luck in hiding themselves under the heaps of slain with
which the ground was soon loaded.
While this work of death was going on, the countrymen of the
slaughtered Indians, drawn together by the noise of the massacre,
had commenced a furious assault on the Spaniards from without. But
Cortes had placed his battery of heavy guns in a position that
commanded the avenues, and swept off the files of the assailants as
they rushed on. In the intervals between the discharges, which, in the
imperfect state of the science in that day, were much longer than in
ours, he forced back the press by charging with the horse into the
midst. The steeds, the guns, the weapons of the Spaniards, were all
new to the Cholulans. Notwithstanding the novelty of the terrific
spectacle, the flash of firearms mingling with the deafening roar of
the artillery, as its thunders reverberated among the buildings, the
despairing Indians pushed on to take the places of their fallen
While this fierce struggle was going forward, the Tlascalans,
hearing the concerted signal, had advanced with quick pace into the
city. They had bound, by order of Cortes, wreaths of sedge round their
heads, that they might the more surely be distinguished from the
Cholulans. Coming up in the very heat of the engagement, they fell
on the defenceless rear of the townsmen, who, trampled down under
the heels of the Castilian cavalry on one side, and galled by their
vindictive enemies on the other, could no longer maintain their
ground. They gave way, some taking refuge in the nearest buildings,
which, being partly of wood, were speedily set on fire. Others fled to
the temples. One strong party, with a number of priests at its head,
got possession of the great teocalli. There was a vulgar tradition,
already alluded to, that, on removal of part of the walls, the god
would send forth an inundation to overwhelm his enemies. The
superstitious Cholulans with great difficulty succeeded in wrenching
away some of the stones in the walls of the edifice. But dust, not
water followed. Their false gods deserted them in the hour of need. In
despair they flung themselves into the wooden turrets that crowned the
temple, and poured down stones, javelins, and burning arrows on the
Spaniards, as they climbed the great staircase, which, by a flight
of one hundred and twenty steps, scaled the face of the pyramid. But
the fiery shower fell harmless on the steel bonnets of the Christians,
while they availed themselves of the burning shafts to set fire to the
wooden citadel, which was speedily wrapt in flames. Still the garrison
held out, and though quarter, it is said, was offered, only one
Cholulan availed himself of it. The rest threw themselves headlong
from the parapet, or perished miserably in the flames.
All was now confusion and uproar in the fair city which had so
lately reposed in security and peace. The groans of the dying, the
frantic supplications of the vanquished for mercy, were mingled with
the loud battle-cries of the Spaniards, as they rode down their enemy,
and with the shrill whistle of the Tlascalans, who gave full scope
to the long cherished rancour of ancient rivalry. The tumult was still
further swelled by the incessant rattle of musketry, and the crash
of falling timbers, which sent up a volume of flame that outshone
the ruddy light of morning, making altogether a hideous confusion of
sights and sounds, that converted the Holy City into a Pandemonium. As
resistance slackened, the victors broke into the houses and sacred
places, plundering them of whatever valuables they contained, plate,
jewels, which were found in some quantity, wearing apparel and
provisions, the two last coveted even more than the former by the
simple Tlascalans, thus facilitating a division of the spoil, much
to the satisfaction of their Christian confederates. Amidst this
universal licence, it is worthy of remark, the commands of Cortes were
so far respected that no violence was offered to women or children,
though these, as well as numbers of the men, were made prisoners, to
be swept into slavery by the Tlascalans. These scenes of violence
had lasted some hours, when Cortes, moved by the entreaties of some
Cholulan chiefs, who had been reserved from the massacre, backed by
the prayers of the Mexican envoys, consented, out of regard, as he
said, to the latter, the representatives of Montezuma, to call off the
soldiers, and put a stop, as well as he could, to further outrage. Two
of the caciques were also permitted to go to their countrymen with
assurances of pardon and protection to all who would return to their
These measures had their effect. By the joint efforts of Cortes
and the caciques, the tumult was with much difficulty appeased. The
assailants, Spaniards and Indians, gathered under their respective
banners, and the Cholulans, relying on the assurance of their
chiefs, gradually returned to their homes.
The first act of Cortes was, to prevail on the Tlascalan chiefs to
liberate their captives. Such was their deference to the Spanish
commander, that they acquiesced, though not without murmurs,
contenting themselves, as they best could, with the rich spoil
rifled from the Cholulans, consisting of various luxuries long since
unknown in Tlascala. His next care was to cleanse the city from its
loathsome impurities, particularly from the dead bodies which lay
festering in heaps in the streets and great square. The general, in
his letter to Charles the Fifth, admits three thousand slain; most
accounts say six, and some swell the amount yet higher. As the
eldest and principal cacique was among the number, Cortes assisted the
Cholulans in installing a successor in his place. By these pacific
measures, confidence was gradually restored. The people in the
environs, reassured, flocked into the capital to supply the place of
the diminished population. The markets were again opened; and the
usual avocations of an orderly, industrious community were resumed.
Still, the long piles of black and smouldering ruins proclaimed the
hurricane which had so lately swept over the city, and the walls
surrounding the scene of slaughter in the great square, which were
standing more than fifty years after the event, told the sad tale of
the Massacre of Cholula.
This passage in their history is one of those that have left a
dark stain on the memory of the Conquerors. Nor can we contemplate
at this day, without a shudder, the condition of this fair and
flourishing capital thus invaded in its privacy, and delivered over to
the excesses of a rude and ruthless soldiery. But, to judge the action
fairly, we must transport ourselves to the age when it happened. The
difficulty that meets us in the outset is, to find a justification
of the right of conquest at all. But it should be remembered, that
religious infidelity, at this period, and till a much later, was
regarded- no matter whether founded on ignorance or education, whether
hereditary or acquired, heretical or pagan- as a sin to be punished
with fire and faggot in this world, and eternal suffering in the next.
Under this code, the territory of the heathen, wherever found, was
regarded as a sort of religious waif, which, in default of a legal
proprietor, was claimed and taken possession of by the Holy See, and
as such was freely given away, by the head of the church, to any
temporal potentate whom he pleased, that would assume the burden of
conquest. Thus, Alexander the Sixth generously granted a large portion
of the Western Hemisphere to the Spaniards, and of the Eastern to
the Portuguese. These lofty pretensions of the successors of the
humble fisherman of Galilee, far from being nominal, were acknowledged
and appealed to as conclusive in controversies between nations.
With the right of conquest, thus conferred, came also the
obligation, on which it may be said to have been founded, to
retrieve the nations sitting in darkness from eternal perdition.
This obligation was acknowledged by the best and the bravest, the
gownsman in his closet, the missionary, and the warrior in the
crusade. However much it may have been debased by temporal motives and
mixed up with worldly considerations of ambition and avarice, it was
still active in the mind of the Christian conqueror. We have seen
how far paramount it was to every calculation of personal interest
in the breast of Cortes. The concession of the pope then, founded on
and enforcing the imperative duty of conversion, was the assumed
basis- and, in the apprehension of that age, a sound one- of the right
of conquest.
The right could not, indeed, be construed to authorise any
unnecessary act of violence to the natives. The present expedition, up
to the period of its history at which we are now arrived, had probably
been stained with fewer of such acts than almost any similar
enterprise of the Spanish discoverers in the New World. Throughout the
campaign, Cortes had prohibited all wanton injuries to the natives, in
person or property, and had punished the perpetrators of them with
exemplary severity. He had been faithful to his friends, and, with
perhaps a single exception, not unmerciful to his foes. Whether from
policy or principle, it should be recorded to his credit, though, like
every sagacious mind, he may have felt that principle and policy go
He had entered Cholula as a friend, at the invitation of the
Indian emperor, who had a real, if not avowed, control over the state.
He had been received as a friend, with every demonstration of good
will; when, without any offence of his own or his followers, he
found they were to be the victims of an insidious plot,- that they
were standing on a mine which might be sprung at any moment, and
bury them all in its ruins. His safety, as he truly considered, left
no alternative but to anticipate the blow of his enemies. Yet who
can doubt that the punishment thus inflicted was excessive,- that
the same end might have been attained by directing the blow against
the guilty chiefs, instead of letting it fall on the ignorant
rabble, who but obeyed the commands of their masters? But when was
it ever seen, that fear, armed with power, was scrupulous in the
exercise of it? or that the passions of a fierce soldiery, inflamed by
conscious injuries, could be regulated in the moment of explosion?
But whatever be thought of this transaction in a moral view, as
a stroke of policy it was unquestionable. The nations of Anahuac had
beheld, with admiration mingled with awe, the little band of Christian
warriors steadily advancing along the plateau in face of every
obstacle, overturning army after army with as much ease, apparently,
as the good ship throws off the angry billows from her bows; or rather
like the lava, which rolling from their own volcanoes, holds on its
course unchecked by obstacles, rock, tree, or building, bearing them
along, or crushing and consuming them in its fiery path. The prowess
of the Spaniards- "the white gods," as they were often called- made
them to be thought invincible. But it was not till their arrival at
Cholula that the natives learned how terrible was their vengeance,-
and they trembled!
None trembled more than the Aztec emperor on his throne among
the mountains. He read in these events the dark character traced by
the finger of Destiny. He felt his empire melting away like a
morning mist. He might well feel so. Some of the most important cities
in the neighbourhood of Cholula, intimidated by the fate of that
capital, now sent their envoys to the Castilian camp, tendering
their allegiance, and propitiating the favour of the strangers by rich
presents of gold and slaves. Montezuma, alarmed at these signs of
defection, took counsel again of his impotent deities; but, although
the altars smoked with fresh hecatombs of human victims, he obtained
no cheering response. He determined, therefore, to send another
embassy to the Spaniards, disavowing any participation in the
conspiracy of Cholula.
Meanwhile Cortes was passing his time in that capital. He
thought that the impression produced by the late scenes, and by the
present restoration of tranquillity, offered a fair opportunity for
the good work of conversion. He accordingly urged the citizens to
embrace the Cross, and abandon the false guardians who had abandoned
them in their extremity. But the traditions of centuries rested on the
Holy City, shedding a halo of glory around it as "the sanctuary of the
gods," the religious capital of Anahuac. It was too much to expect
that the people would willingly resign this preeminence, and descend
to the level of an ordinary community. Still Cortes might have pressed
the matter, however unpalatable, but for the renewed interposition
of the wise Olmedo, who persuaded him to postpone it till after the
reduction of the whole country.
During the occurrence of these events, envoys arrived from Mexico.
They were charged, as usual, with a rich present of plate and
ornaments of gold; among others, artificial birds in imitation of
turkeys, with plumes of the same precious metal. To these were added
fifteen hundred cotton dresses of delicate fabric. The emperor even
expressed his regret at the catastrophe of Cholula, vindicated himself
from any share in the conspiracy, which, he said, had brought deserved
retribution on the heads of its authors, and explained the existence
of an Aztec force in the neighbourhood, by the necessity of repressing
some disorders there.
One cannot contemplate this pusillanimous conduct of Montezuma
without mingled feelings of pity and contempt. It is not easy to
reconcile his assumed innocence of the plot with many circumstances
connected with it. But it must be remembered here and always, that his
history is to be collected solely from Spanish writers, and such of
the natives as flourished after the Conquest, when the country had
become a colony of Spain. It is the hard fate of this unfortunate
monarch, to be wholly indebted for his portraiture to the pencil of
his enemies.
More than a fortnight had elapsed since the entrance of the
Spaniards into Cholula, and Cortes now resolved, without loss of time,
to resume his march towards the capital. His rigorous reprisals had so
far intimidated the Cholulans, that he felt assured he should no
longer leave an active enemy in his rear, to annoy him in case of
retreat. He had the satisfaction, before his departure, to heal the
feud- in outward appearance, at least- that had so long subsisted
between the Holy City and Tlascala, and which, under the revolution
which so soon changed the destinies of the country, never revived.
It was with some disquietude that he now received an application
from his Cempoallan allies to be allowed to withdraw from the
expedition, and return to their own homes. They had incurred too
deeply the- resentment of the Aztec emperor, by their insults to his
collectors, and by their co-operation with the Spaniards, to care to
trust themselves in his capital. It was in vain Cortes endeavoured
to re-assure them by promises of his protection. Their habitual
distrust and dread of "the great Montezuma" were not to be overcome.
The general learned their determination with regret, for they had been
of infinite service to the cause by their staunch fidelity and
courage. All this made it the more difficult for him to resist their
reasonable demand. Liberally recompensing their services, therefore,
from the rich wardrobe and treasures of the emperor, he took leave
of his faithful followers, before his own departure from Cholula. He
availed himself of their return to send letters to Juan de
Escalante, his lieutenant at Vera Cruz, acquainting him with the
successful progress of the expedition. He enjoined on that officer
to strengthen the fortifications of the place, so as the better to
resist any hostile interference from Cuba,- an event for which
Cortes was ever on the watch,- and to keep down revolt among the
natives. He especially commended the Totonacs to his protection, as
allies whose fidelity to the Spaniards exposed them, in no slight
degree, to the vengeance of the Aztecs.
Chapter VIII [1519]


EVERYTHING being now restored to quiet in Cholula, the allied army
of Spaniards and Tlascalans set forward in high spirits, and resumed
the march on Mexico. The road lay through the beautiful savannas and
luxuriant plantations that spread out for several leagues in every
direction. On the march they were met occasionally by embassies from
the neighbouring places, anxious to claim the protection of the
white men, and to propitiate them by gifts, especially of gold, for
which their appetite was generally known throughout the country.
Some of these places were allies of the Tlascalans, and all showed
much discontent with the oppressive rule of Montezuma. The natives
cautioned the Spaniards against putting themselves in his power by
entering his capital; and they stated, as evidence of his hostile
disposition, that he had caused the direct road to it to be blocked
up, that the strangers might be compelled to choose another, which,
from its narrow passes and strong positions, would enable him to
take them at great disadvantage.
The information was not lost on Cortes, who kept a strict eye on
the movements of the Mexican envoys, and redoubled his own precautions
against surprise. Cheerful and active, he was ever where his
presence was needed, sometimes in the van, at others in the rear,
encouraging the weak, stimulating the sluggish, and striving to kindle
in the breasts of others the same courageous spirit which glowed in
his own. At night he never omitted to go the rounds, to see that every
man was at his post. On one occasion his vigilance had well nigh
proved fatal to him. He approached so near a sentinel that the man,
unable to distinguish his person in the dark, levelled his crossbow at
him, when, fortunately, an exclamation of the general, who gave the
watchword of the night, arrested a movement which might else have
brought the campaign to a close, and given a respite for some time
longer to the empire of Montezuma.
The army came at length to the place mentioned by the friendly
Indians, where the road forked, and one arm of it was found, as they
had foretold, obstructed with large trunks of trees and huge stones
which had been strewn across it. Cortes inquired the meaning of this
from the Mexican ambassadors. They said it was done by the emperor's
orders, to prevent their taking a route which, after some distance,
they would find nearly impracticable for the cavalry. They
acknowledged, however, that it was the most direct road; and Cortes,
declaring that this was enough to decide him in favour of it, as the
Spaniards made no account of obstacles, commanded the rubbish to be
cleared away. The event left little doubt in the general's mind of the
meditated treachery of the Mexicans. But he was too politic to
betray his suspicions.
They were now leaving the pleasant champaign country, as the
road wound up the bold sierra which separates the great plateaus of
Mexico and Puebla. The air, as they ascended, became keen and
piercing; and the blasts, sweeping down the frozen sides of the
mountains, made the soldiers shiver in their thick harness of
cotton, and benumbed the limbs of both men and horses.
They were passing between two of the highest mountains on the
North American continent, Popocatepetl, "the hill that smokes," and
Iztaccihuatl, or "white woman,"- a name suggested, doubtless, by the
bright robe of snow spread over its broad and broken surface. A
puerile superstition of the Indians regarded these celebrated
mountains as gods, and Iztaccihuatl as the wife of her more formidable
neighbour. A tradition of a higher character described the northern
volcano as the abode of the departed spirits of wicked rulers, whose
fiery agonies in their prison-house caused the fearful bellowings
and convulsions in times of eruption.
The army held on its march through the intricate gorges of the
sierra. The route was nearly the same as that pursued at the present
day by the courier from the capital to Puebla, by the way of Mecameca.
It was not that usually taken by travellers from Vera Cruz, who follow
the more circuitous road round the northern base of Iztaccihuatl, as
less fatiguing than the other, though inferior in picturesque
scenery and romantic points of view. The icy winds, that now swept
down the sides of the mountains, brought with them a tempest of arrowy
sleet and snow, from which the Christians suffered even more than
the Tlascalans, reared from infancy among the wild solitudes of
their own native hills. As night came on, their sufferings would
have been intolerable, but they luckily found a shelter in the
commodious stone buildings which the Mexican government had placed
at stated intervals along the roads for the accommodation of the
traveller and their own couriers.
The troops, refreshed by a night's rest, succeeded, early on the
following day, in gaining the crest of the sierra of Ahualco, which
stretches like a curtain between the two great mountains on the
north and south. Their progress was now comparatively easy, and they
marched forward with a buoyant step, as they felt they were treading
the soil of Montezuma.
They had not advanced far, when, turning an angle of the sierra,
they suddenly came on a view which more than compensated the toils
of the preceding day. It was that of the Valley of Mexico, or
Tenochtitlan, as more commonly called by the natives; which, with
its picturesque assemblage of water, woodland, and cultivated
plains, its shining cities and shadowy hills, was spread out like some
gay and gorgeous panorama before them. In the highly rarefied
atmosphere of these upper regions, even remote objects have a
brilliancy of colouring and distinctness of outline which seem to
annihilate distance. Stretching far away at their feet were seen noble
forests of oak, sycamore, and cedar, and beyond, yellow fields of
maize and the towering maguey, intermingled with orchards and blooming
gardens; for flowers, in such demand for their religious festivals,
were even more abundant in this populous valley than in other parts of
Anahuac. In the centre of the great basin were beheld the lakes,
occupying then a much larger portion of its surface than at present;
their borders thickly studded with towns and hamlets, and, in the
midst,- like some Indian empress with her coronal of pearls,- the fair
city of Mexico, with her white towers and pyramidal temples, reposing,
as it were, on the bosom of the waters,- the far-famed "Venice of
the Aztecs." High over all rose the royal hill of Chapoltepec, the
residence of the Mexican monarchs, crowned with the same grove of
gigantic cypresses which at this day fling their broad shadows over
the land. In the distance beyond the blue waters of the lake, and
nearly screened by intervening foliage, was seen a shining speck,
the rival capital of Tezcuco, and, still further on, the dark belt
of porphyry, girding the Valley around, like a rich setting which
Nature had devised for the fairest of her jewels.
Such was the beautiful vision which broke on the eyes of the
Conquerors. And even now, when so sad a change has come over the
scene; when the stately forests have been laid low, and the soil,
unsheltered from the fierce radiance of a tropical sun, is in many
places abandoned to sterility; when the waters have retired, leaving a
broad and ghastly margin white with the incrustation of salts, while
the cities and hamlets on their borders have mouldered into ruins;-
even now that desolation broods over the landscape, so
indestructible are the lines of beauty which Nature has traced on
its features, that no traveller, however cold, can gaze on them with
any other emotions than those of astonishment and rapture.
What, then, must have been the emotions of the Spaniards, when,
after working their toilsome way into the upper air, the cloudy
tabernacle parted before their eyes, and they beheld these fair seenes
in all their pristine magnificence and beauty! It was like the
spectacle which greeted the eyes of Moses from the summit of Pisgah,
and, in the warm glow of their feelings, they cried out, "It is the
promised land!"
But these feelings of admiration were soon followed by others of a
very different complexion; as they saw in all this the evidences of
a civilisation and power far superior to anything they had yet
encountered. The more timid, disheartened by the prospect, shrunk from
a contest so unequal, and demanded, as they had done on some former
occasions, to be led back again to Vera Cruz. Such was not the
effect produced on the sanguine spirit of the general. His avarice was
sharpened by the display of the dazzling spoil at his feet; and, if he
felt a natural anxiety at the formidable odds, his confidence was
renewed, as he gazed on the lines of his veterans, whose
weather-beaten visages and battered armour told of battles won and
difficulties surmounted, while his bold barbarians, with appetites
whetted by the view of their enemy's country, seemed like eagles on
the mountains, ready to pounce upon their prey. By argument, entreaty,
and menace, he endeavoured to restore the faltering courage of the
soldiers, urging them not to think of retreat, now that they had
reached the goal for which they had panted, and the golden gates
were open to receive them. In these efforts he was well seconded by
the brave cavaliers, who held honour as dear to them as fortune; until
the dullest spirits caught somewhat of the enthusiasm of their
leaders, and the general had the satisfaction to see his hesitating
columns, with their usual buoyant step, once more on their march
down the slopes of the sierra.
With every step of their progress, the woods became thinner;
patches of cultivated land more frequent; and hamlets were seen in the
green and sheltered nooks, the inhabitants of which, coming out to
meet them, gave the troops a kind reception. Everywhere they heard
complaints of Montezuma, especially of the unfeeling manner in which
he carried off their young men to recruit his armies, and their
maidens for his harem. These symptoms of discontent were noticed
with satisfaction by Cortes, who saw that Montezuma's "Mountain
throne," as it was called, was indeed seated on a volcano, with the
elements of combustion so active within, that it seemed as if any hour
might witness an explosion. He encouraged the disaffected natives to
rely on his protection, as he had come to redress their wrongs. He
took advantage, moreover, of their favourable dispositions to
scatter among them such gleams of spiritual light as time and the
preaching of Father Olmedo could afford.
He advanced by easy stages, somewhat retarded by the crowd of
curious inhabitants gathered on the highways to see the strangers, and
halting at every spot of interest or importance. On the road he was
met by another embassy from the capital. It consisted of several Aztec
lords, freighted, as usual, with a rich largess of gold, and robes
of delicate furs and feathers. The message of the emperor was
couched in the same deprecatory terms as before. He even
condescended to bribe the return of the Spaniards, by promising, in
that event, four loads of gold to the general, and one to each of
the captains, with a yearly tribute to their sovereign. So effectually
had the lofty and naturally courageous spirit of the barbarian monarch
been subdued by the influence of superstition!
But the man whom the hostile array of armies could not daunt,
was not to be turned from his purpose by a woman's prayers. He
received the embassy with his usual courtesy, declaring, as before,
that he could not answer it to his own sovereign, if he were now to
return without visiting the emperor in his capital. It would be much
easier to arrange matters by a personal interview than by distant.
negotiation. The Spaniards came in the spirit of peace. Montezuma
would so find it, but, should their presence prove burdensome to
him, it would be easy for them to relieve him of it.
The Aztec monarch, meanwhile, was a prey to the most dismal
apprehensions. It was intended that the embassy above noticed should
reach the Spaniards before they crossed the mountains. When he learned
that this was accomplished, and that the dread strangers were on their
march across the valley, the very threshold of his capital, the last
spark of hope died away in his bosom. Like one who suddenly finds
himself on the brink of some dark and yawning gulf, he was too much
bewildered to be able to rally his thoughts, or even to comprehend his
situation. He was the victim of an absolute destiny, against which
no foresight or precautions could have availed. It was as if the
strange beings, who had thus invaded his shores, had dropped from some
distant planet, so different were they from all he had ever seen, in
appearance and manners; so superior- though a mere handful in numbers-
to the banded nations of Anahuac in strength and science, and all
the fearful accompaniments of war! They were now in the valley. The
huge mountain-screen, which nature had so kindly drawn around it for
its defence, had been overleaped. The golden visions of security and
repose, in which he had so long indulged, the lordly sway descended
from his ancestors, his broad imperial domain, were all to pass
away. It seemed like some terrible dream,- from which he was now,
alas! to awake to a still more terrible reality.
In a paroxysm of despair he shut himself up in his palace, refused
food, and sought relief in prayer and in sacrifice. But the oracles
were dumb. He then adopted the more sensible expedient of calling a
council of his principal and oldest nobles. Here was the same division
of opinion which had before prevailed. Cacama, the young king of
Tezcuco, his nephew, counselled him to receive the Spaniards
courteously, as ambassadors, so styled by themselves, of a foreign
prince. Cuitlahua, Montezuma's more warlike brother, urged him to
muster his forces on the instant, and drive back the invaders from his
capital, or die in its defence. But the monarch found it difficult
to rally his spirits for this final struggle. With downcast eye and
dejected mien he exclaimed, "Of what avail is resistance when the gods
have declared themselves against us! Yet I mourn most for the old
and infirm, the women and children, too feeble to fight or to fly. For
myself and the brave men around me, we must bare our breasts to the
storm, and meet it as we may!" Such are the sorrowful and
sympathetic tones in which the Aztec emperor is said to have uttered
the bitterness of his grief. He would have acted a more glorious
part had he put his capital in a posture of defence, and prepared,
like the last of the Palaeologi, to bury himself under its ruins.
He straightway prepared to send a last embassy to the Spaniards,
with his nephew, the lord of Tezcuco, at its head, to welcome them
to Mexico.
The Christian army, meanwhile, had advanced as far as Amaquemecan,
a well-built town of several thousand inhabitants. They were kindly
received by the cacique, lodged in large commodious stone buildings,
and at their departure presented, among other things, with gold to the
amount of three thousand castellanos. Having halted there a couple
of days, they descended among flourishing plantations of maize and
of maguey, the latter of which might be called the Aztec vineyards,
towards the lake of Chalco. Their first resting-place was Ajotzinco, a
town of considerable size, with a great part of it then standing on
piles in the water. It was the first specimen which the Spaniards
had seen of this maritime architecture. The canals, which
intersected the city instead of streets, presented an animated scene
from the number of barks which glided up and down, freighted with
provisions and other articles for the inhabitants. The Spaniards
were particularly struck with the style and commodious structure of
the houses, built chiefly of stone, and with the general aspect of
wealth, and even elegance which prevailed there.
Though received with the greatest show of hospitality, Cortes
found some occasion for distrust in the eagerness manifested by the
people to see and approach the Spaniards. Not content with gazing at
them in the roads, some even made their way stealthily into their
quarters, and fifteen or twenty unhappy Indians were shot down by
the sentinels as spies. Yet there appears, as well as we can judge
at this distance of time, to have been no real ground for such
suspicion. The undisguised jealousy of the court, and the cautions
he had received from his allies, while they very properly put the
general on his guard, seem to have given an unnatural acuteness, at
least in the present instance, to his perceptions of danger.
Early on the following morning, as the army was preparing to leave
the place, a courier came, requesting the general to postpone his
departure till after the arrival of the king of Tezcuco, who was
advancing to meet him. It was not long before he appeared, borne in
a palanquin or litter, richly decorated with plates of gold and
precious stones, having pillars curiously wrought, supporting a canopy
of green plumes, a favourite colour with the Aztec princes. He was
accompanied by a numerous suite of nobles and inferior attendants.
As he came into the presence of Cortes, the lord of Tezcuco
descended from his palanquin, and the obsequious officers swept the
ground before him as he advanced. He appeared to be a young man of
about twenty-five years of age, with a comely presence, erect and
stately in his deportment. He made the Mexican salutation usually
addressed to persons of high rank, touching the earth with his right
hand, and raising it to his head. Cortes embraced him as he rose, when
the young prince informed him that he came as the representative of
Montezuma, to bid the Spaniards welcome to his capital. He then
presented the general with three pearls of uncommon size and lustre.
Cortes, in return, threw over Cacama's neck a chain of cut glass,
which, where glass was a rare as diamonds, might be admitted to have a
value as real as the latter. After this interchange of courtesies, and
the most friendly and respectful assurances on the part of Cortes, the
Indian prince withdrew, leaving the Spaniards strongly impressed
with the superiority of his state and bearing over anything they had
hitherto seen in the country.
Resuming its march, the army kept along the southern borders of
the lake of Chalco, overshadowed at that time by noble woods, and by
orchards glowing with autumnal fruits, of unknown names, but rich
and tempting hues. More frequently it passed through cultivated fields
waving with the yellow harvest, and irrigated by canals introduced
from the neighbouring lake; the whole showing a careful and economical
husbandry, essential to the maintenance of a crowded population.
Leaving the main land, the Spaniards came on the great dike or
causeway, which stretches some four or five miles in length, and
divides lake Chalco from Xochimilco on the west. It was a lance in
breadth in the narrowest part, and in some places wide enough for
eight horsemen to ride abreast. It was a solid structure of stone
and lime, running directly through the lake, and struck the
Spaniards as one of the most remarkable works which they had seen in
the country.
As they passed along, they beheld the gay spectacle of
multitudes of Indians darting up and down in their light pirogues,
eager to catch a glimpse of the strangers, or bearing the products
of the country to the neighbouring cities. They were amazed, also,
by the sight of the chinampas, or floating gardens,- those wandering
islands of verdure, to which we shall have occasion to return
hereafter,- teeming with flowers and vegetables, and moving like rafts
over the waters. All round the margin, and occasionally far in the
lake, they beheld little towns and villages, which, half concealed
by the foliage, and gathered in white clusters round the shore, looked
in the distance like companies of wild swans riding quietly on the
waves. A scene so new and wonderful filled their rude hearts with
amazement. It seemed like enchantment; and they could find nothing
to compare it with, but the magical pictures in the Amadis de Gaula.
Few pictures, indeed, in that or any other legend of chivalry, could
surpass the realities of their own experience. The life of the
adventurer in the New World was romance put into action. What
wonder, then, if the Spaniard of that day, feeding his imagination
with dreams of enchantment at home, and with its realities abroad,
should have displayed a Quixotic enthusiasm,- a romantic exaltation of
character, not to be comprehended by the colder spirits of other
Midway across the lake the army halted at the town of
Cuitlahuac, a place of moderate size, but distinguished by the
beauty of the buildings,- the most beautiful, according to Cortes,
that he had yet seen in the country. After taking some refreshment
at this place, they continued their march along the dike. Though
broader in this northern section, the troops found themselves much
embarrassed by the throng of Indians, who, not content with gazing
on them from the boats, climbed up the causeway, and lined the sides
of the roads. The general, afraid that his ranks might be
disordered, and that too great familiarity might diminish a salutary
awe in the natives, was obliged to resort not merely to command but
menace, to clear a passage. He now found, as he advanced, a
considerable change in the feelings shown towards the government. He
heard only of the pomp and magnificence, nothing of the oppressions of
Montezuma. Contrary to the usual fact, it seemed that the respect
for the court was greatest in its immediate neighbourhood.
From the causeway, the army descended on that narrow point of land
which divides the waters of the Chalco from the Tezcucan lake, but
which in those days was overflowed for many a mile, now laid bare.
Traversing this peninsula, they entered the royal residence of
Iztapalapan, a place containing twelve or fifteen thousand houses,
according to Cortes. It was governed by Cuitlahua, the emperor's
brother, who, to do greater honour to the general, had invited the
lords of some neighbouring cities, of the royal house of Mexico,
like himself, to be present at the interview. This was conducted
with much ceremony, and, after the usual presents of gold and delicate
stuffs, a collation was served to the Spaniards in one of the great
halls of the palace. The excellence of the architecture here, also,
excited the admiration of the general, who does not hesitate, in the
glow of his enthusiasm, to pronounce some of the buildings equal to
the best in Spain. They were of stone, and the spacious apartments had
roofs of odorous cedar-wood, while the walls were tapestried with fine
cottons stained with brilliant colours.
But the pride of Iztapalapan, on which its lord had freely
lavished his care and his revenues, was its celebrated gardens. They
covered an immense tract of land; were laid out in regular squares,
and the paths intersecting them were bordered with trellises,
supporting creepers and aromatic shrubs, that loaded the air with
their perfumes. The gardens were stocked with fruit-trees, imported
from distant places, and with the gaudy family of flowers which belong
to the Mexican Flora, scientifically arranged, and growing luxuriant
in the equable temperature of the tableland. The natural dryness of
the atmosphere was counteracted by means of aqueducts and canals, that
carried water into all parts of the grounds.
In one quarter was an aviary, filled with numerous kinds of birds,
remarkable in this region both for brilliancy of plumage and of
song. The gardens were intersected by a canal communicating with the
lake of Tezcuco, and of sufficient size for barges to enter from the
latter. But the most elaborate piece of work was a huge reservoir of
stone, filled to a considerable height with water, well supplied
with different sorts of fish. This basin was sixteen hundred paces
in circumference, and was surrounded by a walk, made also of stone,
wide enough for four persons to go abreast. The sides were curiously
sculptured, and a flight of steps led to the water below, which fed
the aqueducts above noticed, or, collected into fountains, diffused
a perpetual moisture.
Such are the accounts transmitted of these celebrated gardens,
at a period when similar horticultural establishments were unknown
in Europe; and we might well doubt their existence in this
semi-civilised land, were it not a matter of such notoriety at the
time, and so explicitly attested by the invaders. But a generation had
scarcely passed after the Conquest before a sad change came over these
scenes so beautiful. The town itself was deserted, and the shore of
the lake was strewed with the wreck of buildings which once were its
ornament and its glory. The gardens shared the fate of the city. The
retreating waters withdrew the means of nourishment, converting the
flourishing plains into a foul and unsightly morass, the haunt of
loathsome reptiles; and the water-fowl built her nest in what had once
been the palaces of princes!
In the city of Iztapalapan, Cortes took up his quarters for the
night. We may imagine what a crowd of ideas must have pressed on the
mind of the Conqueror, as, surrounded by these evidences of
civilisation, he prepared, with his handful of followers, to enter the
capital of a monarch, who, as he had abundant reason to know, regarded
him with distrust and aversion. This capital was now but a few miles
distant, distinctly visible from Iztapalapan. And as its long lines of
glittering edifices, struck by the rays of the evening sun, trembled
on the dark blue waters of the lake, it looked like a thing of fairy
creation, rather than the work of mortal hands. Into this city of
enchantment Cortes prepared to make his entry on the following
Chapter IX [1519]


WITH the first faint streak of dawn, the Spanish general was up,
mustering his followers. They gathered, with beating hearts, under
their respective banners as the trumpet sent forth its spirit-stirring
sounds across water and woodland, till they died away in distant
echoes among the mountains. The sacred flames on the altars of
numberless teocallis, dimly seen through the grey mists of morning,
indicated the site of the capital, till temple, tower, and palace were
fully revealed in the glorious illumination which the sun, as he
rose above the eastern barrier, poured over the beautiful valley. It
was the 8th of November; a conspicuous day in history, as that on
which the Europeans first set foot in the capital of the Western
Cortes, with his little body of horse formed a sort of advanced
guard to the army. Then came the Spanish infantry, who in a summer
campaign had acquired the discipline and the weather-beaten aspect
of veterans. The baggage occupied the centre; and the rear was
closed by the dark files of Tlascalan warriors. The whole number
must have fallen short of seven thousand; of which less than four
hundred were Spaniards.
For a short distance, the army kept along the narrow tongue of
land that divides the Tezcucan from the Chalcan waters, when it
entered the great dike which, with the exception of an angle near
the commencement, stretches in a perfectly straight line across the
salt floods of Tezcuco to the gates of the capital. It was the same
causeway, or rather the basis of that which still forms the great
southern avenue of Mexico. The Spaniards had occasion more than ever
to admire the mechanical science of the Aztecs, in the geometrical
precision with which the work was executed, as well as the solidity of
its construction. It was composed of huge stones well laid in
cement; and wide enough, throughout its whole extent, for ten horsemen
to ride abreast.
They saw, as they passed along, several large towns, resting on
piles, and reaching far into the water,- a kind of architecture
which found great favour with the Aztecs, being in imitation of that
of their metropolis. The busy population obtained a good subsistence
from the manufacture of salt, which they extracted from the waters
of the great lake. The duties on the traffic were a considerable
source of revenue to the crown.
Everywhere the Conquerors beheld the evidence of a. crowded and
thriving population, exceeding all they had yet seen. The temples
and principal buildings of the cities were covered with a hard white
stucco, which glistened like enamel in the level beams of the morning.
The margin of the great basin was more thickly gemmed, than that of
Chalco, with towns and hamlets. The water was darkened by swarms of
canoes filled with Indians, who clambered up the sides of the
causeway, and gazed with curious astonishment on the strangers. And
here, also, they beheld those fairy islands of flowers, overshadowed
occasionally by trees of considerable size, rising and falling with
the gentle undulation of the billows. At the distance of half a league
from the capital, they encountered a solid work, or curtain of
stone, which traversed the dike. It was twelve feet high, was
strengthened by towers at the extremities, and in the centre was a
battlemented gateway, which opened a passage to the troops. It was
called the Fort of Xoloc, and became memorable in after times as the
position occupied by Cortes in the famous siege of Mexico.
Here they were met by several hundred Aztec chiefs, who came out
to announce the approach of Montezuma, and to welcome the Spaniards to
his capital. They were dressed in the fanciful gala costume of the
country, with the Maxtlatl, or cotton sash, around their loins, and
a broad mantle of the same material, or of the brilliant
feather-embroidery, flowing gracefully down their shoulders. On
their necks and arms they displayed collars and bracelets of turquoise
mosaic, with which delicate plumage was curiously mingled, while their
ears, under-lips, and occasionally their noses, were garnished with
pendants formed of precious stones, or crescents of fine gold As
each cacique made the usual formal salutation of the country
separately to the general, the tedious ceremony delayed the march more
than an hour. After this, the army experienced no further interruption
till it reached a bridge near the gates of the city. It was built of
wood, since replaced by one of stone, and was thrown across an opening
of the dike, which furnished an outlet to the waters, when agitated by
the winds, or swollen by a sudden influx in the rainy season. It was a
drawbridge; and the Spaniards, as they crossed it, felt how truly they
were committing themselves to the mercy of Montezuma, who, by thus
cutting off their communications with the country, might hold them
prisoners in his capital.
In the midst of these unpleasant reflections, they beheld the
glittering retinue of the emperor emerging from the great street which
led through the heart of the city. Amidst a crowd of Indian nobles,
preceded by three officers of state, bearing golden wands, they saw
the royal palanquin blazing with burnished gold. It was borne on the
shoulders of nobles, and over it a canopy of gaudy feather-work,
powdered with jewels, and fringed with silver, was supported by four
attendants of the same rank. They were bare-footed, and walked with
a slow, measured pace, and with eyes bent on the ground. When the
train had come within a convenient distance, it halted, and Montezuma,
descending from his litter, came forward leaning on the arms of the
lords of Tezcuco and Iztapalapan, his nephew and brother, both of
whom, as we have seen, had already been made known to the Spaniards.
As the monarch advanced under the canopy, the obsequious attendants
strewed the ground with cotton tapestry, that his imperial feet
might not be contaminated by the rude soil. His subjects of high and
low degree, who lined the sides of the causeway, bent forward with
their eyes fastened on the ground as he passed, and some of the
humbler class prostrated themselves before him. Such was the homage
paid to the Indian despot, showing that the slavish forms of
oriental adulation were to be found among the rude inhabitants of
the Western World.
Montezuma wore the girdle and ample square cloak, tilmatli, of his
nation. It was made of the finest cotton, with the embroidered ends
gathered in a knot round his neck. His feet were defended by sandals
having soles of gold, and the leathern thongs which bound them to
his ankles were embossed with the same metal. Both the cloak and
sandals were sprinkled with pearls and precious stones, among which
the emerald and the chalchiuitl- a green stone of higher estimation
than any other among the Aztecs- were conspicuous. On his head he wore
no other ornament than a panache of plumes of the royal green, which
floated down his back, the badge of military rather than of regal
He was at this time about forty years of age. His person was
tall and thin, but not ill made. His hair, which was black and
straight, was not very long; to wear it short was considered
unbecoming persons of rank. His beard was thin; his complexion
somewhat paler than is often found in his dusky, or rather
copper-coloured race. His features, though serious in their
expression, did not wear the look of melancholy, indeed, of dejection,
which characterises his portrait, and which may well have settled on
them at a later period. He moved with dignity, and his whole
demeanour, tempered by an expression of benignity not to have been
anticipated from the reports circulated of his character, was worthy
of a great prince. Such is the portrait left to us of the celebrated
Indian emperor, in this first interview with the white men.
The army halted as he drew near. Cortes, dismounting, threw his
reins to a page, and, supported by a few of the principal cavaliers,
advanced to meet him. The interview must have been one of uncommon
interest to both. In Montezuma Cortes beheld the lord of the broad
realms he had traversed, whose magnificence and power had been the
burden of every tongue. In the Spaniard, on the other hand, the
Aztec prince saw the strange being whose history seemed to be so
mysteriously connected with his own; the predicted one of his oracles;
whose achievements proclaimed him something more than human. But,
whatever may have been the monarch's feelings, he so far suppressed
them as to receive his guest with princely courtesy, and to express
his satisfaction at personally seeing him in his capital. Cortes
responded by the most profound expressions of respect, while he made
ample acknowledgments for the substantial proofs which the emperor had
given the Spaniards of his munificence. He then hung round Montezuma's
neck a sparkling chain of coloured crystal, accompanying this with a
movement as if to embrace him, when he was restrained by the two Aztec
lords, shocked at the menaced profanation of the sacred person of
their master. After the interchange of these civilities, Montezuma
appointed his brother to conduct the Spaniards to their residence in
the capital, and again entering his litter, was borne off amidst
prostrate crowds in the same state in which he had come. The Spaniards
quickly followed, and with colours flying and music playing, soon made
their entrance into the southern quarter of Tenochtitlan.
Here, again, they found fresh cause for admiration in the grandeur
of the city, and the superior style of its architecture. The dwellings
of the poorer class were, indeed, chiefly of reeds and mud. But the
great avenue through which they were now marching was lined with the
houses of the nobles, who were encouraged by the emperor to make the
capital their residence. They were built of a red porous stone drawn
from quarries in the neighbourhood, and, though they rarely rose to
a second story, often covered a large space of ground. The flat roofs,
azoteas, were protected by stone parapets, so that every house was a
fortress. Sometimes these roofs resembled parterres of flowers, so
thickly were they covered with them, but more frequently these were
cultivated in broad terraced gardens, laid out between the edifices.
Occasionally a great square or market-place intervened, surrounded
by its porticoes of stone and stucco; or a pyramidal temple reared its
colossal bulk, crowned with its tapering sanctuaries, and altars
blazing with inextinguishable fires. The great street facing the
southern causeway, unlike most others in the place, was wide, and
extended some miles in nearly a straight line, as before noticed,
through the centre of the city. A spectator standing at one end of it,
as his eye ranged along the deep vista of temples, terraces, and
gardens, might clearly discern the other, with the blue mountains in
the distance, which, in the transparent atmosphere of the tableland,
seemed almost in contact with the buildings.
But what most impressed the Spaniards was the throngs of people
who swarmed through the streets and on the canals, filling every
doorway and window, and clustering on the roofs of the buildings. "I
well remember the spectacle," exclaims Bernal Diaz; "it seems now,
after so many years, as present to my mind as if it were but
yesterday." But what must have been the sensations of the Aztecs
themselves, as they looked on the portentous pageant! as they heard,
now for the first time, the well-cemented pavement ring under the iron
tramp of the horses,- the strange animals which fear had clothed in
such supernatural terrors; as they gazed on the children of the
East, revealing their celestial origin in their fair complexions;
saw the bright falchions and bonnets of steel, a metal to them
unknown, glancing like meteors in the sun, while sounds of unearthly
music- at least, such as their rude instruments had never wakened-
floated in the air! But every other emotion was lost in that of deadly
hatred, when they beheld their detested enemy, the Tlascalan, stalking
in defiance as it were through their streets, and staring around
with looks of ferocity and wonder, like some wild animal of the
forest, who had strayed by chance from his native fastnesses into
the haunts of civilisation.
As they passed down the spacious street, the troops repeatedly
traversed bridges suspended above canals, along which they saw the
Indian barks gliding swiftly with their little cargoes of fruits and
vegetables for the markets of Tenochtitlan. At length, they halted
before a broad area near the centre of the city, where rose the huge
pyramidal pile dedicated to the patron war-god of the Aztecs, second
only in size, as well as sanctity, to the temple of Cholula, and
covering the same ground now in part occupied by the great cathedral
of Mexico.
Facing the western gate of the inclosure of the temple stood a low
range of stone buildings, spreading over a wide extent of ground,
the palace of Axayacatl, Montezuma's father, built by that monarch
about fifty years before. It was appropriated as the barracks of the
Spaniards. The emperor himself was in the courtyard, waiting to
receive them. Approaching Cortes, he took from a vase of flowers,
borne by one of his slaves, a massy collar, in which the shell of a
species of craw-fish, much prized by the Indians, was set in gold, and
connected by heavy links of the same metal. From this chain depended
eight ornaments, also of gold, made in resemblance of the same
shellfish, a span in length each, and of delicate workmanship; for the
Aztec goldsmiths were confessed to have shown skill in their craft,
not inferior to their brethren of Europe. Montezuma, as he hung the
gorgeous collar round the general's neck, said, "This palace belongs
to you, Malinche" (the epithet by which he always addressed him), "and
your brethren. Rest after your fatigues, for you have much need to
do so, and in a little while I will visit you again." So saying, he
withdrew with his attendants, evincing, in this act, a delicate
consideration not to have been expected in a barbarian.
Cortes' first care was to inspect his new quarters. The
building, though spacious, was low, consisting of one floor, except
indeed in the centre, where it rose to an additional story. The
apartments were of great size, and afforded accommodations,
according to the testimony of the Conquerors themselves, for the whole
army! The hardy mountaineers of Tlascala were, probably, not very
fastidious, and might easily find a shelter in the out-buildings, or
under temporary awnings in the ample courtyards. The best apartments
were hung with gay cotton draperies, the floors covered with mats or
rushes. There were, also, low stools made of single pieces of wood
elaborately carved, and in most of the apartments beds made of the
palm-leaf, woven into a thick mat, with coverlets, and sometimes
canopies of cotton. These mats were the only beds used by the natives,
whether of high or low degree.
After a rapid survey of this gigantic pile, the general assigned
to his troops their respective quarters, and took as vigilant
precautions for security, as if he had anticipated a siege, instead of
a friendly entertainment. The place was encompassed by a stone wall of
considerable thickness, with towers or heavy buttresses at
intervals, affording a good means of defence. He planted his cannon so
as to command the approaches, stationed his sentinels along the works,
and, in short, enforced in every respect as strict military discipline
as had been observed in any part of the march. He well knew the
importance to his little band, at least for the present, of
conciliating the good will of the citizens; and to avoid all
possibility of collision he prohibited any soldier from leaving his
quarters without orders, under pain of death. Having taken these
precautions, he allowed his men to partake of the bountiful
collation which had been prepared for them.
They had been long enough in the country to become reconciled
to, if not to relish, the peculiar cooking of the Aztecs. The appetite
of the soldier is not often dainty, and on the present occasion it
cannot be doubted that the Spaniards did full justice to the savoury
productions of the royal kitchen. During the meal they were served
by numerous Mexican slaves, who were indeed, distributed through the
palace, anxious to do the bidding of the strangers. After the repast
was concluded, and they had taken their siesta, not less important
to a Spaniard than food itself, the presence of the emperor was
again announced.
Montezuma was attended by a few of his principal nobles. He was
received with much deference by Cortes; and, after the parties had
taken their seats, a conversation commenced between them through the
aid of Dona Marina, while the cavaliers and Aztec chieftains stood
around in respectful silence.
Montezuma made many inquiries concerning the country of the
Spaniards, their sovereign, the nature of his government, and
especially their own motives in visiting Anahuac. Cortes explained
these motives by the desire to see so distinguished a monarch, and
to declare to him the true Faith professed by the Christians. With
rare discretion, he contented himself with dropping this hint for
the present, allowing it to ripen in the mind of the emperor till a
future conference. The latter asked, whether those white men, who in
the preceding year had landed on the eastern shores of his empire,
were their countrymen. He showed himself well-informed of the
proceedings of the Spaniards from their arrival in Tabasco to the
present time, information of which had been regularly transmitted in
the hieroglyphical paintings. He was curious, also, in regard to the
rank of his visitors in their own country; inquiring, if they were the
kinsmen of the sovereign. Cortes replied, they were kinsmen of one
another, and subjects of their great monarch, who held them all in
peculiar estimation. Before his departure, Montezuma made himself
acquainted with the names of the principal cavaliers, and the position
they occupied. in the army.
At the conclusion of the interview, the Aztec prince commanded his
attendants to bring forward the presents prepared for his guests. They
consisted of cotton dresses, enough to supply every man, it is said,
including the allies, with a suit! And he did not fail to add the
usual accompaniment of gold chains and other ornaments, which he
distributed in profusion among the Spaniards. He then withdrew with
the same ceremony with which he had entered, leaving every one
deeply impressed with his munificence and his affability, so unlike
what they had been taught to expect by what they now considered an
invention of the enemy.
That evening, the Spaniards celebrated their arrival in the
Mexican capital by a general discharge of artillery. The thunders of
the ordnance reverberating among the buildings and shaking them to
their foundations, the stench of the sulphureous vapour that rolled in
volumes above the walls of the encampment, reminding the inhabitants
of the explosions of the great volcan, filled the hearts of the
superstitious Aztecs with dismay. It proclaimed to them, that their
city held in its bosom those dread beings whose path had been marked
with desolation, and who could call down the thunderbolts to consume
their enemies! It was doubtless the policy of Cortes to strengthen
this superstitious feeling as far as possible, and to impress the
natives, at the outset, with a salutary awe of the supernatural powers
of the Spaniards.
On the following morning, the general requested permission to
return the emperor's visit, by waiting on him in his palace. This
was readily granted, and Montezuma sent his officers to conduct the
Spaniards to his presence. Cortes dressed himself in his richest
habit, and left the quarters attended by Alvarado, Sandoval,
Velasquez, and Ordaz, together with five or six of the common file.
The royal habitation was at no great distance. It was a vast,
irregular pile of low stone buildings, like that garrisoned by the
Spaniards. So spacious was it indeed, that, as one of the Conquerors
assures us, although he had visited it more than once, for the express
purpose, he had been too much fatigued each time by wandering
through the apartments ever to see the whole of it. It was built of
the red porous stone of the country, tetzontli, was ornamented with
marble, and on the facade over the principal entrance were
sculptured the arms or device of Montezuma, an eagle bearing an ocelot
in his talons.
In the courts through which the Spaniards passed, fountains of
crystal water were playing, fed from the copious reservoir on the
distant hill of Chapoltepec, and supplying in their turn more than a
hundred baths in the interior of the palace. Crowds of Aztec nobles
were sauntering up and down in these squares, and in the outer
halls, loitering away their hours in attendance on the court. The
apartments were of immense size, though not lofty. The ceilings were
of various sorts of odoriferous wood ingeniously carved; the floors
covered with mats of the palm-leaf. The walls were hung with cotton
richly stained, with the skins of wild animals, or gorgeous
draperies of feather-work wrought in imitation of birds, insects,
and flowers, with the nice art and glowing radiance of colours that
might compare with the tapestries of Flanders. Clouds of incense
rolled up from censers, and diffused intoxicating odours through the
apartments. The Spaniards might well have fancied themselves in the
voluptuous precincts of an Eastern harem, instead of treading the
halls of a wild barbaric chief in the Western World.
On reaching the hall of audience, the Mexican officers took off
their sandals, and covered their gay attire with a mantle of nequen, a
coarse stuff made of the fibres of the maguey, worn only by the
poorest classes. This act of humiliation was imposed on all, except
the members of his own family, who approached the sovereign. Thus
bare-footed, with downcast eyes, and formal obeisance, they ushered
the Spaniards into the royal presence.
They found Montezuma seated at the further end of a spacious
saloon, and surrounded by a few of his favourite chiefs. He received
them kindly, and very soon Cortes, without much ceremony, entered on
the subject which was uppermost in his thoughts. He was fully aware of
the importance of gaining the royal convert, whose example would
have such an influence on the conversion of his people. The general,
therefore, prepared to display the whole store of his theological
science, with the most winning arts of rhetoric he could command,
while the interpretation was conveyed through the silver tones of
Marina, as inseparable from him, on these occasions, as his shadow.
He set forth, as clearly as he could, the ideas entertained by the
Church in regard to the holy mysteries of the Trinity, the
Incarnation, and the Atonement. From this he ascended to the origin of
things, the creation of the world, the first pair, paradise, and the
fall of man. He assured Montezuma, that the idols he worshipped were
Satan under different forms. A sufficient proof of it was the bloody
sacrifices they imposed, which he contrasted with the pure and
simple rite of the mass. Their worship would sink him in perdition. It
was to snatch his soul, and the souls of his people, from the flames
of eternal fire by opening to them a purer faith, that the
Christians had come to his land. And he earnestly besought him not
to neglect the occasion, but to secure his salvation by embracing
the Cross, the great sign of human redemption.
The eloquence of the preacher was wasted on the insensible heart
of his royal auditor. It doubtless lost somewhat of its efficacy,
strained through the imperfect interpretation of so recent a
neophyte as the Indian damsel. But the doctrines were too abstruse
in themselves to be comprehended at a glance by the rude intellect
of a barbarian. And Montezuma may have, perhaps, thought it was not
more monstrous to feed on the flesh of a fellow-creature, than on that
of the Creator himself. He was, besides, steeped in the
superstitions of his country from his cradle. He had been educated
in the straitest sect of her religion; had been himself a priest
before his election to the throne; and was now the head both of the
religion and the state. Little probability was there that such a man
would be open to argument or persuasion, even from the lips of a
more practised polemic than the Spanish commander. How could he abjure
the faith that was intertwined with the dearest affections of his
heart, and the very elements of his being? How could he be false to
the gods who had raised him to such prosperity and honours, and
whose shrines were intrusted to his especial keeping?
He listened, however, with silent attention, until the general had
concluded his homily. He then replied, that he knew the Spaniards, had
held this discourse wherever they had been. He doubted not their God
was, as they said, a good being. His gods, also, were good to him. Yet
what his visitor said of the creation of the world was like what he
had been taught to believe. It was not worth while to discourse
further of the matter. His ancestors, he said, were not the original
proprietors of the land. They had occupied it but a few ages, and
had been led there by a great Being, who; after giving them laws and
ruling over the nation for a time, had withdrawn to the regions
where the sun rises. He had declared, on his departure, that he or his
descendants would again visit them and resume his empire. The
wonderful deeds of the Spaniards, their fair complexions, and the
quarter whence they came, all showed they were his descendants. If
Montezuma had resisted their visit to his capital, it was because he
had heard such accounts Of their cruelties,- that they sent the
lightning to consume his people, or crushed them to pieces under the
hard feet of the ferocious animals on which they rode. He was now
convinced that these were idle tales; that the Spaniards were kind and
generous in their natures; they were mortals of a different race,
indeed, from the Aztecs, wiser, and more valiant,- and for this he
honoured them.
"You, too," he added, with a smile, "have been told, perhaps, that
I am a god, and dwell in palaces of gold and silver. But you see, it
is false. My houses, though large, are of stone and wood like those of
others; and as to my body," he said, baring his tawny arm, "you see it
is flesh and bone like yours. It is true, I have a great empire,
inherited from my ancestors; lands, and gold, and silver. But your
sovereign beyond the waters is, I know, the rightful lord of all. I
rule in his name. You, Malinche, are his ambassador; you and your
brethren shall share these things with me. Rest now from your labours.
You are here in your own dwellings, and everything shall be provided
for your subsistence. I will see that your wishes shall be obeyed in
the same way as my own." As the monarch concluded these words, a few
natural tears suffused his eyes, while the image of ancient
independence, perhaps, flitted across his mind.
Cortes, while he encouraged the idea that his own sovereign was
the great Being indicated by Montezuma, endeavoured to comfort the
monarch by the assurance that his master had no desire to interfere
with his authority, otherwise than, out of pure concern for his
welfare, to effect his conversion and that of his people to
Christianity. Before the emperor dismissed his visitors he consulted
his munificent spirit, as usual, by distributing rich stuffs and
trinkets of gold among them, so that the poorest soldier, says
Bernal Diaz, one of the party, received at least two heavy collars
of the precious metal for his share. The iron hearts of the
Spaniards were touched with the emotion displayed by Montezuma, as
well as by his princely spirit of liberality. As they passed him,
the cavaliers, with bonnet in hand, made him the most profound
obeisance, and, "on the way home," continues the same chronicler,
"we could discourse of nothing but the gentle breeding and courtesy of
the Indian monarch, and of the respect we entertained for him."
Speculations of a graver complexion must have pressed on the
mind of the general, as he saw around him the evidences of a
civilisation, and consequently power, for which even the exaggerated
reports of the natives- discredited from their apparent
exaggeration- had not prepared him. In the pomp and burdensome
ceremonial of the court, he saw that nice system of subordination
and profound reverence for the monarch which characterise the
semi-civilised empires of Asia. In the appearance of the capital,
its massy, yet elegant architecture, its luxurious social
accommodations, its activity in trade, he recognised the proofs of the
intellectual progress, mechanical skill, and enlarged resources, of an
old and opulent community; while the swarms in the streets attested
the existence of a population capable of turning these resources to
the best account.
In the Aztec he beheld a being unlike either the rude republican
Tlascalan, or the effeminate Cholulan; but combining the courage of
the one with the cultivation of the other. He was in the heart of a
great capital, which seemed like an extensive fortification, with
its dikes and its drawbridges, where every house might be easily
converted into a castle. Its insular position removed it from the
continent, from which, at the mere nod of the sovereign, all
communication might be cut off, and the whole warlike population be at
once precipitated on him and his handful of followers. What could
superior science avail against such odds?
As to the subversion of Montezuma's empire, now that he had seen
him in his capital, it must have seemed a more doubtful enterprise
than ever. The recognition which the Aztec prince had made of the
feudal supremacy, if I may so say, of the Spanish sovereign, was not
to be taken too literally. Whatever show of deference he be disposed
to pay the latter, under the influence of his present- perhaps
temporary-delusion, it was not to be supposed that he would so
easily relinquish his actual power and possessions, or that his people
would consent to it. Indeed, his sensitive apprehensions in regard
to this very subject, on the coming of the Spaniards, were
sufficient proof of the tenacity with which he clung to his authority.
It is true that Cortes had a strong lever for future operations in the
superstitious reverence felt for himself both by prince and people. It
was undoubtedly his policy to maintain this sentiment unimpaired in
both, as far as possible. But, before settling any plan of operations,
it was necessary to make himself personally acquainted with the
topography and local advantages of the capital, the character of its
population, and the real nature and amount of its resources. With this
view, he asked the emperor's permission to visit the principal
public edifices.
Residence in Mexico

Chapter I [1519]


THE ancient city of Mexico covered the same spot occupied by the
modern capital. The great causeways touched it in the same points; the
streets ran in much the same direction, nearly from north to south,
and from east to west; the cathedral in the plaza mayor stands on same
ground that was covered by the temple of the Aztec war-god; and the
four principal quarters of the town are still known among the
Indians by their ancient names. Yet an Aztec of the days of Montezuma,
could he behold the modern metropolis; which has risen with such
phoenix-like splendour from the ashes of the old, would not
recognise its site as that of his own Tenochtitlan. For the latter was
encompassed by the salt floods of Tezcuco, which flowed in ample
canals through every part of the city; while the Mexico of our day
stands high and dry on the mainland, nearly a league distant, at its
centre, from the water. The cause of this apparent change in its
position is the diminution of the lake, which, from the rapidity of
evaporation in these elevated regions, had become perceptible before
the Conquest, but which has since been greatly accelerated by
artificial causes.
The chinampas, that archipelago of wandering islands, to which our
attention was drawn in the last chapter, have also nearly disappeared.
These had their origin in the detached masses of earth, which,
loosening from the shores, were still held together by the fibrous
roots with which they were penetrated. The primitive Aztecs, in
their poverty of land, availed themselves of the hint thus afforded by
nature. They constructed rafts of reeds, rushes, and other fibrous
materials, which, tightly knit together, formed a sufficient basis for
the sediment that they drew up from the bottom of the lake.
Gradually islands were formed, two or three hundred feet in length,
and three or four feet in depth, with a rich stimulated soil, on which
the economical Indian raised his vegetables and flowers for the
markets of Tenochtitlan. Some of these chinampas were even firm enough
to allow the growth of small trees, and to sustain a hut for the
residence of the person that had charge of it, who, with a long pole
resting on the sides or the bottom of the shallow basin, could
change the position of his little territory at pleasure, which with
its rich freight of vegetable stores was seen moving like some
enchanted island over the water.
The ancient dikes were three in number. That of Iztapalapan, by
which the Spaniards entered, approaching the city from the south. That
of Tepejacac, on the north, which, continuing the principal street,
might be regarded, also, as a continuation of the first causeway.
Lastly, the dike of Tlacopan, connecting the island-city with the
continent on the west. This last causeway, memorable for the
disastrous retreat of the Spaniards, was about two miles in length.
They were all built in the same substantial manner, of lime and stone,
were defended by drawbridges, and were wide enough for ten or twelve
horsemen to ride abreast.
The rude founders of Tenochtitlan built their frail tenements of
reeds and rushes on the group of small islands in the western part
of the lake. In process of time, these were supplanted by more
substantial buildings. A quarry in the neighbourhood, of a red
porous amygdaloid, tetzontli, was opened, and a light, brittle stone
drawn from it, and wrought with little difficulty. Of this their
edifices were constructed, with some reference to architectural
solidity, if not elegance. Mexico, as already noticed, was the
residence of the great chiefs, whom the sovereign encouraged, or
rather compelled, from obvious motives of policy, to spend part of the
year in the capital. It was also the temporary abode of the great
lords of Tezcuco and Tlacopan, who shared nominally, at least, the
sovereignty of the empire. The mansions of these dignitaries, and of
the principal nobles, were on a scale of rude magnificence
corresponding with their state. They were low, indeed; seldom of
more than one floor, never exceeding two. But they spread over a
wide extent of ground; were arranged in a quadrangular form, with a
court in the centre, and were surrounded by porticoes embellished with
porphyry and jasper, easily found in the neighbourhood, while not
unfrequently a fountain of crystal water in the centre shed a grateful
coolness over the atmosphere. The dwellings of the common people
were also placed on foundations of stone, which rose to the height
of a few feet, and were then succeeded by courses of unbaked bricks,
crossed occasionally by wooden rafters. Most of the streets were
mean and narrow. Some few, however, were wide and of great length. The
principal street, conducting from the great southern causeway,
penetrated in a straight line the whole length of the city, and
afforded a noble vista, in which the long lines of low stone
edifices were broken occasionally by intervening gardens, rising on
terraces, and displaying all the pomp of Aztec horticulture.
The great streets, which were coated with a hard cement, were
intersected by numerous canals. Some of these were flanked by a
solid way, which served as a foot-walk for passengers, and as a
landing-place where boats might discharge their cargoes. Small
buildings were erected at intervals, as stations for the revenue
officers who collected the duties on different articles of
merchandise. The canals were traversed by numerous bridges, many of
which could be raised affording the means of cutting off communication
between different parts of the city.
From the accounts of the ancient capital, one is reminded of those
acquatic cities in the Old World, the positions of which have been
selected from similar motives of economy and defence; above all, of
Venice,- if it be not rash to compare the rude architecture of the
American Indian with the marble palaces and temples- alas, how shorn
of their splendour!- which crowned the once proud mistress of the
Adriatic. The example of the metropolis was soon followed by the other
towns in the vicinity. Instead of resting their foundations on terra
firma, they were seen advancing far into the lake, the shallow
waters of which in some parts do not exceed four feet in depth. Thus
an easy means of intercommunication was opened, and the surface of
this inland "sea," as Cortes styles it, was darkened by thousands of
canoes- an Indian term- industriously engaged in the traffic between
these little communities. How gay and picturesque must have been the
aspect of the lake in those days, with its shining cities, and
flowering islets rocking, as it were, at anchor on the fair bosom of
its waters!
The population of Tenochtitlan, at the time of the Conquest, is
variously stated. No contemporary writer estimates it at less than
sixty thousand houses, which, by the ordinary rules of reckoning,
would give three hundred thousand souls. If a dwelling often
contained, as is asserted, several families, it would swell the amount
considerably higher. Nothing is more uncertain than estimates of
numbers among barbarous communities, who necessarily live in a more
confused and promiscuous manner than civilised, and among whom no
regular system is adopted for ascertaining the population. The
concurrent testimony of the Conquerors; the extent of the city,
which was said to be nearly three leagues in circumference; the
immense size of its great market-place; the long lines of edifices,
vestiges of whose ruins may still be found in the suburbs, miles
from the modern city; the fame of the metropolis throughout Anahuac,
which, however, could boast many large and populous places; lastly,
the economical husbandry and the ingenious contrivances to extract
aliment from the most unpromising sources,- all attest a numerous
population, far beyond that of the present capital.
A careful police provided for the health and cleanliness of the
city. A thousand persons are said to have been daily employed in
watering and sweeping the streets, so that a man- to borrow the
language of an old Spaniard- "could walk through them with as little
danger of soiling his feet as his hands." The water, in a city
washed on all sides by the salt floods, was extremely brackish. A
liberal supply of the pure element, however, was brought from
Chapoltepec, "the grasshopper's hill," less than a league distant.
it was brought through an earthen pipe, along a dike constructed for
the purpose. That there might be no failure in so essential an
article, when repairs were going on, a double course of pipes was
laid. In this way a column of water the size of a man's body was
conducted into the heart of the capital, where it fed the fountains
and reservoirs of the principal mansions. Openings were made in the
aqueduct as it crossed the bridges, and thus a supply was furnished to
the canoes below, by means of which it was transported to all parts of
the city.
While Montezuma encouraged a taste for architectural
magnificence in his nobles, he contributed his own share towards the
embellishment of the city. It was in his reign that the famous
calendarstone, weighing, probably, in its primitive state, nearly
fifty tons, was transported from its native quarry, many leagues
distant, to the capital, where it still forms one of the most
curious monuments of Aztec science. Indeed, when we reflect on the
difficulty of hewing such a stupendous mass from its hard basaltic bed
without the aid of iron tools, and that of transporting it such a
distance across land and water without the help of animals, we may
feel admiration at the mechanical ingenuity and enterprise of the
people who accomplished it.
Not content with the spacious residence of his father, Montezuma
erected another on a yet more magnificent scale. It occupied the
ground partly covered by the private dwellings on one side of the
plaza mayor of the modern city. This building, or, as it might more
correctly be styled, pile of buildings, spread over an extent of
ground so vast, that, as one of the Conquerors assures us, its
terraced roof might have afforded ample room for thirty knights to run
their courses in a regular tourney. I have already noticed its
interior decorations, its fanciful draperies, its roofs inlaid with
cedar and other odoriferous woods, held together without a nail, and
probably without a knowledge of the arch, its numerous and spacious
apartments, which Cortes, with enthusiastic hyperbole, does not
hesitate to declare superior to anything of the kind in Spain.
Adjoining the principal edifices were others devoted to various
objects. One was an armoury, filled with the weapons and military
dresses worn by the Aztecs, all kept in the most perfect order,
ready for instant use. The emperor was himself very expert in the
management of the maquahuitl, or Indian sword, and took great
delight in witnessing athletic exercises, and the mimic representation
of war by his young nobility. Another building was used as a
granary, and others as warehouses for the different articles of food
and apparel contributed by the districts charged with the
maintenance of the royal household.
There were also edifices appropriated to objects of quite
another kind. One of these was an immense aviary, in which birds of
splendid plumage were assembled from all parts of the empire. Here was
the scarlet cardinal, the golden pheasant, the endless parrot-tribe
with their rainbow hues (the royal green predominant), and that
miniature miracle of nature, the humming-bird, which delights to revel
among the honeysuckle bowers of Mexico. Three hundred attendants had
charge of this aviary, who made themselves acquainted with the
appropriate food of its inmates, oftentimes procured at great cost,
and in the moulting season were careful to collect the beautiful
plumage, which, with its many-coloured tints, furnished the
materials for the Aztec painter.
A separate building was reserved for the fierce birds of prey; the
voracious vulture-tribes and eagles of enormous size, whose home was
in the snowy solitudes of the Andes. No less than five hundred
turkeys, the cheapest meat in Mexico, were allowed for the daily
consumption of these tyrants of the feathered race.
Adjoining this aviary was a menagerie of wild animals, gathered
from the mountain forests, and even from the remote swamps of the
tierra caliente. The resemblance of the different species to those
in the Old World, with which no one of them, however, was identical,
led to a perpetual confusion the nomenclature of the Spaniards, as
it has since done in that of better instructed naturalists. The
collection was still further swelled by a great number of reptiles and
serpents, remarkable for their size and venomous qualities, among
which the Spaniards beheld the fiery little animal "with the castanets
in his tail," the terror of the American wilderness. The serpents were
confined in long cages, lined with down or feathers, or in troughs
of mud and water. The beasts and birds of prey were provided with
apartments large enough to allow of their moving about, and secured by
a strong lattice-work, through which light and air were freely
admitted. The whole was placed under the charge of numerous keepers,
who acquainted themselves with the habits of their prisoners, and
provided for their comfort and cleanliness. With what deep interest
would the enlightened naturalist of that day- an Oviedo, or a
Martyr, for example- have surveyed this magnificent collection, in
which the various tribes which roamed over the Western wilderness, the
unknown races of an unknown world, were, brought into one view! How
would they have delighted to study the peculiarities of these new
species, compared with those of their own hemisphere, and thus have
risen to some comprehension of the general laws by which Nature acts
in all her works! The rude followers of Cortes did not trouble
themselves with such refined speculations. They gazed on the spectacle
with a vague curiosity, not unmixed with awe; and, as they listened to
the wild cries of the ferocious animals and the hissings of the
serpents, they almost fancied themselves in the infernal regions.
I must not omit to notice a strange collection of human
monsters, dwarfs, and other unfortunate persons, in whose organisation
Nature had capriciously deviated from her regular laws. Such hideous
anomalies were regarded by the Aztecs as a suitable appendage of
state. It is even said they were in some cases the result of
artificial means, employed by unnatural parents, desirous to secure
a provision for their offspring by thus qualifying them for a place in
the royal museum!
Extensive gardens were spread out around these buildings, filled
with fragrant shrubs and flowers, and especially with medicinal
plants. No country has afforded more numerous species of these last,
than New Spain; and their virtues were perfectly understood by the
Aztecs, with whom medical botany may be said to have been studied as a
science. Amidst this labyrinth of sweet-scented groves and
shrubberies, fountains of pure water might be seen throwing up their
sparkling jets, and scattering refreshing dews over the blossoms.
Ten large tanks, well stocked with fish, afforded a retreat on their
margins to various tribes of water-fowl, whose habits were so
carefully consulted, that some of these ponds were of salt water, as
that which they most loved to frequent. A tessellated pavement of
marble inclosed the ample basins, which were overhung by light and
fanciful pavilions, that admitted the perfumed breezes of the gardens,
and offered a grateful shelter to the monarch and his mistresses in
the sultry heats of summer.
But the most luxurious residence of the Aztec monarch, at that
season, was the royal hill of Chapoltepec, a spot consecrated,
moreover, by the ashes of his ancestors. It stood in a westerly
direction from the capital, and its base was, in his day, washed by
the waters of the Tezcuco. On its lofty crest of porphyritic rock
there now stands the magnificent, though desolate, castle erected by
the young viceroy Galvez, at the close of the seventeenth century. The
view from its windows is one of the finest in the environs of
Mexico. The landscape is not disfigured here, as in many other
quarters, by the white and barren patches, so offensive to the
sight; but the eye wanders over an unbroken expanse of meadows and
cultivated fields, waving with rich harvests of European grain.
Montezuma's gardens stretched for miles around the base of the hill.
Two statues of that monarch and his father, cut in bas relief in the
porphyry, were spared till the middle of the last century; and the
grounds are still shaded by gigantic cypresses, more than fifty feet
in circumference, which were centuries old at the time of the
Conquest. The place is now a tangled wilderness of wild shrubs,
where the myrtle mingles its dark, glossy leaves with the red
berries and delicate foliage of the pepper-tree. Surely there is no
spot better suited to awaken meditation on the past; none where the
traveller, as he sits under those stately cypresses grey with the moss
of ages, can so fitly ponder on the sad destinies of the Indian
races and the monarch who once held his courtly revels under the
shadow of their branches.
The domestic establishment of Montezuma was on the same scale of
barbaric splendour as everything else about him. He could boast as
many wives as are found in the harem of an Eastern sultan. They were
lodged in their own apartments, and provided with every accommodation,
according to their ideas, for personal comfort and cleanliness. They
passed their hours in the usual feminine employments of weaving and
embroidery, especially in the graceful feather-work, for which such
rich materials were furnished by the royal aviaries. They conducted
themselves with strict decorum, under the supervision of certain
aged females, who acted in the respectable capacity of duennas, in the
same manner as in the religious houses attached to the teocallis.
The palace was supplied with numerous baths, and Montezuma set the
example, in his own person, of frequent ablutions. He bathed, at least
once, and changed his dress four times, it is said, every day. He
never put on the same apparel a second time, but gave it away to his
attendants. Queen Elizabeth, with a similar taste for costume,
showed a less princely spirit in hoarding her discarded suits.
Besides his numerous female retinue, the halls and antechambers
were filled with nobles in constant attendance on his person, who
served also as a sort of bodyguard. It had been usual for plebeians of
merit to fill certain offices in the palace. But the haughty Montezuma
refused to be waited upon by any but men of noble birth. They were not
unfrequently the sons of the great chiefs, and remained as hostages in
the absence of their fathers; thus serving the double purpose of
security and state.
His meals the emperor took alone. The well-matted floor of a large
saloon was covered with hundreds of dishes. Sometimes Montezuma
himself, but more frequently his steward, indicated those which he
preferred, and which were kept hot by means of chafingdishes. The
royal bill of fare comprehended, besides domestic animals, game from
the distant forests, and fish which, the day before, were swimming
in the Gulf of Mexico! They were dressed in manifold ways, for the
Aztec artistes, as we have already had occasion to notice, had
penetrated deep into the mysteries of culinary science.
The meats were served by the attendant nobles, who then resigned
the office of waiting on the monarch to maidens selected for their
personal grace and beauty. A screen of richly gilt and carved wood was
drawn around him, so as to conceal him from vulgar eyes during the
repast. He was seated on a cushion, and the dinner was served on a low
table, covered with a delicate cotton cloth. The dishes were of the
finest ware of Cholula. He had a service of gold, which was reserved
for religious celebrations. Indeed, it would scarcely have comported
with even his princely revenues to have used it on ordinary occasions,
when his table equipage was not allowed to appear a second time, but
was given away to his attendants. The saloon was lighted by torches
made of a resinous wood, which sent forth a sweet odour, and
probably not a little smoke, as they burned. At his meal, he was
attended by five or six of his ancient counsellors, who stood at a
respectful distance, answering his questions, and occasionally
rejoiced by some of the viands with which he complimented them from
his table.
This course of solid dishes was succeeded by another of sweetmeats
and pastry, for which the Aztec cooks, provided with the important
requisites of maize-flour, eggs, and the rich sugar of the aloe,
were famous. Two girls were occupied at the further end of the
apartment, during dinner, in preparing fine rolls and wafers, with
which they garnished the board from time to time. The emperor took
no other beverage than the chocolatl, a potation of chocolate,
flavoured with vanilla and other spices, and so prepared as to be
reduced to a froth of the consistency of honey, which gradually
dissolved in the mouth. This beverage, if so it could be called, was
served in golden goblets, with spoons of the same metal or of
tortoise-shell finely wrought. The emperor was exceedingly fond of it,
to judge from the quantity,- no less than fifty jars or pitchers being
prepared for his own daily consumption! Two thousand more were allowed
for that of his household.
The general arrangement of the meal seems to have been not very
unlike that of Europeans. But no prince in Europe could boast a
dessert which could compare with that of the Aztec emperor: for it was
gathered fresh from the most opposite climes; and his board
displayed the products of his own temperate region, and the luscious
fruits of the tropics, plucked the day previous, from the green groves
of the tierra caliente, and transmitted with the speed of steam, by
means of couriers, to the capital. It was as if some kind fairy should
crown our banquets with the spicy products that but yesterday were
growing in a sunny isle of the far-off Indian seas!
After the royal appetite was appeased, water was handed to him
by the female attendants in a silver basin, in the same manner as
had been done before commencing his meal; for the Aztecs were as
constant in their ablutions, at these times, as any nation of the
East. Pipes were then brought, made of a varnished and richly gilt
wood, from which he inhaled, sometimes through the nose, at others
through the mouth, the fumes of an intoxicating weed, called
"tobacco," mingled with liquid-amber. While this soothing process of
fumigation was going on, the emperor enjoyed the exhibitions of his
mountebanks and jugglers, of whom a regular corps was attached to
the palace. No people, not even those of China or Hindostan, surpassed
the Aztecs in feats of agility and legerdemain.
Sometimes he amused himself with his jester; for the Indian
monarch had his jesters, as well as his more refined brethren of
Europe at that day. Indeed, he used to say, that more instruction
was to be gathered from them than from wiser men, for they dared to
tell the truth. At other times, he witnessed the graceful dances of
his women, or took delight in listening to music,- if the rude
minstrelsy of the Mexicans deserve that name,- accompanied by a chant,
in slow and solemn cadence, celebrating the heroic deeds of great
Aztec warriors or of his own princely line.
When he had sufficiently refreshed his spirits with these
diversions, he composed himself to sleep, for in his siesta he was
as regular as a Spaniard. On awaking, he gave audience to
ambassadors from foreign states, or his own tributary cities, or to
such caciques as had suits to prefer to him. They were introduced by
the young nobles in attendance, and, whatever might be their rank,
unless of the blood royal, they were obliged to submit to the
humiliation of shrouding their rich dresses under the coarse mantle of
nequen, and entering bare-footed, with downcast eyes, into the
presence. The emperor addressed few and brief remarks to the
suitors, answering them generally by his secretaries; and the
parties retired with the same reverential obeisance, taking care to
keep their faces turned towards the monarch. Well might Cortes exclaim
that no court, whether of the Grand Seignior or any other infidel,
ever displayed so pompous and elaborate a ceremonial!
Besides the crowd of retainers already noticed, the royal
household was not complete without a host of artisans constantly
employed in the erection or repair of buildings, besides a great
number of jewellers and persons skilled in working metals, who found
abundant demand for their trinkets among the dark-eyed beauties of the
harem. The imperial mummers and jugglers were also very numerous,
and the dancers belonging to the palace occupied a particular district
of the city, appropriated exclusively to them.
The maintenance of this little host, amounting to some thousands
of individuals, involved a heavy expenditure, requiring accounts of
a complicated, and, to a simple people, it might well be, embarrassing
nature. Everything, however, was conducted with perfect order; and all
the various receipts and disbursements were set down in the
picture-writing of the country. The arithmetical characters were of
a more refined and conventional sort than those for narrative
purposes; and a separate apartment was fired with hieroglyphical
ledgers, exhibiting a complete view of the economy of the palace.
The care of all this was intrusted to a treasurer, who acted as sort
of major-domo in the household, having a general superintendence
over all its concerns. This responsible office, on the arrival of
the Spaniards, was in the hands of a trusty cacique named Tapia.
Such is the picture of Montezuma's domestic establishment and
way of living, as delineated by the conquerors, and their immediate
followers, who had the best means of information, too highly coloured,
it may be, by the proneness to exaggerate, which was natural to
those who first witnessed a spectacle so striking to the
imagination, so new and unexpected. I have thought it best to
present the full details, trivial though they may seem to the
reader, as affording a curious picture of manners, so superior in
point of refinement to those of the other aboriginal tribes on the
North American continent. Nor are they, in fact, so trivial, when we
reflect, that in these details of private life we possess a surer
measure of civilisation, than in those of a public nature.
In surveying them we are strongly reminded of the civilisation
of the East; not of that higher, intellectual kind which belonged to
the more polished Arabs and the Persians, but that semi-civilisation
which has distinguished, for example, the Tartar races, among whom
art, and even science, have made, indeed, some progress in their
adaptation to material wants and sensual gratification, but little
in reference to the higher and more ennobling interests of humanity.
It is characteristic of such a people to find a puerile pleasure in
a dazzling and ostentatious pageantry; to mistake show for
substance, vain pomp for power; to hedge round the throne itself
with a barren and burdensome ceremonial, the counterfeit of real
Even this, however, was an advance in refinement compared with the
rude manners of the earlier Aztecs. The change may, doubtless, be
referred in some degree to the personal influence of Montezuma. In his
younger days, he had tempered the fierce habits of the soldier with
the milder profession of religion. In later life, he had withdrawn
himself still more from the brutalising occupations of war, and his
manners acquired a refinement tinctured, it may be added, with an
effeminacy unknown to his martial predecessors.
The condition of the empire, too, under his reign, was
favourable to this change. The dismemberment of the Tezcucan
kingdom, on the death of the great Nezahualpilli, had left the Aztec
monarchy without a rival; and it soon spread its colossal arms over
the furthest limits of Anahuac. The aspiring mind of Montezuma rose
with the acquisition of wealth and power; and he displayed the
consciousness of new importance by the assumption of unprecedented
state. He affected a reserve unknown to his predecessors; withdrew his
person from the vulgar eye, and fenced himself round with an elaborate
and courtly etiquette. When he went abroad, it was in state, on some
public occasion, usually to the great temple, to take part in the
religious services; and, as he passed along, he exacted from his
people, as we have seen, the homage of an adulation worthy of an
oriental despot. His haughty demeanour touched the pride of his more
potent vassals, particularly those who at a distance felt themselves
nearly independent of his authority. His exactions, demanded by the
profuse expenditure of his palace, scattered broadcast the seeds of
discontent; and, while the empire seemed towering in its most palmy
and prosperous state, the canker had eaten deepest into its heart.
Chapter II [1519]


FOUR days had elapsed since the Spaniards made their entry into
Mexico. Whatever schemes their commander may have revolved in his
mind, he felt that he could determine on no plan of operations till he
had seen more of the capital, and ascertained by his own inspection
the nature of its resources. He accordingly, as was observed at the
close of the last book, sent to Montezuma, asking permission to
visit the great teocalli, and some other places in the city.
The friendly monarch consented without difficulty. He even
prepared to go in person to the great temple, to receive his guests
there,- it may be, to shield the shrine of his tutelar deity from
any attempted profanation. He was acquainted, as we have already seen,
with the proceedings of the Spaniards on similar occasions in the
course of their march.- Cortes put himself at the head of his little
corps of cavalry, and nearly all the Spanish foot, as usual, and
followed the caciques sent by Montezuma to guide him. They proposed
first to conduct him to the great market of Tlatelolco in the
western part of the city.
On the way, the Spaniards were struck, in the same manner as
they had been on entering the capital, with the appearance of the
inhabitants, and their great superiority in the style and quality of
their dress, over the people of the lower countries. The tilmatli,
or cloak, thrown over the shoulders, and tied round the neck, made
of cotton of different degrees of fineness, according to the condition
of the wearer, and the ample sash around the loins, were often wrought
in rich and elegant figures, and edged with a deep fringe or tassel.
As the weather was now growing cool, mantles of fur or of the gorgeous
feather-work were sometimes substituted. The latter combined the
advantage of great warmth with beauty. The Mexicans had also the art
of spinning a fine thread of the hair of the rabbit and other animals,
which they wove into a delicate web that took a permanent dye.
The women, as in other parts of the country, seemed to go about as
freely as the men. They wore several skirts or petticoats of different
lengths, with highly ornamented borders, and sometimes over them loose
flowing robes, which reached to the ankles. These also were made of
cotton, for the wealthier classes, of a fine texture, prettily
embroidered. No veils were worn here, as in some other parts of
Anahuac, where they were made of the aloe thread, or of the light
web of hair above noticed. The Aztec women had their faces exposed;
and their dark raven tresses floated luxuriantly over their shoulders,
revealing features which, although of a dusky or rather cinnamon
hue, were not unfrequently pleasing, while touched with the serious,
even sad expression characteristic of the national physiognomy.
On drawing near to the tianguez, or great market, the Spaniards
were astonished at the throng of people pressing towards it, and, on
entering the place, their surprise was still further heightened by the
sight of the multitudes assembled there, and the dimensions of the
inclosure, thrice as large as the celebrated square of Salamanca. Here
were met together traders from all parts, with the products and
manufactures peculiar to their countries; the goldsmiths of
Azcapotzalco; the potters and jewellers of Cholula, the painters of
Tezcuco, the stone-cutters of Tenajocan, the hunters of Xilotepec, the
fishermen of Cuitlahuac, the fruiterers of the warm countries, the mat
and chair-makers of Quauhtitlan, and the florists of Xochimilco,-
all busily engaged in recommending their respective wares, and in
chaffering with purchasers.
The market-place was surrounded by deep porticoes, and the several
articles had each its own quarter allotted to it. Here might be seen
cotton piled up in bales, or manufactured into dresses and articles of
domestic use, as tapestry, curtains, coverlets, and the like. The
richly-stained and nice fabrics reminded Cortes of the alcayceria,
or silk-market of Granada. There was the quarter assigned to the
goldsmiths, where the purchaser might find various articles of
ornament or use formed of the precious metals, or curious toys, such
as we have already had occasion to notice, made in imitation of
birds and fishes, with scales and feathers alternately of gold and
silver, and with movable heads and bodies. These fantastic little
trinkets were often garnished with precious stones, and showed a
patient, puerile ingenuity in the manufacture, like that of the
In an adjoining quarter were collected specimens of pottery,
coarse and fine, vases of wood elaborately carved, varnished or
gilt, of curious and sometimes graceful forms. There were also
hatchets made of copper alloyed with tin, the substitute, and, as it
proved, not a bad one, for iron. The soldier found here all the
implements of his trade. The casque fashioned into the head of some
wild animal, with its grinning defences of teeth, and bristling
crest dyed with the rich tint of the cochineal; the escaupil, or
quilted doublet of cotton, the rich surcoat of feather-mail, and
weapons of all sorts, copper-headed lances and arrows, and the broad
maquahuitl, the Mexican sword, with its sharp blades of itztli. Here
were razors and mirrors of this same hard and polished mineral which
served so many of the purposes of steel with the Aztecs. In the square
were also to be found booths occupied by barbers, who used these
same razors in their vocation. For the Mexicans, contrary to the
popular and erroneous notions respecting the aborigines of the New
World, had beards, though scanty ones. Other shops or booths were
tenanted by apothecaries, well provided with drugs, roots, and
different medicinal preparations. In other places, again, blank
books or maps for the hieroglyphical picture-writing were to be
seen, folded together like fans, and made of cotton, skins, or more
commonly the fibres of the agave, the Aztec papyrus.
Under some of the porticoes they saw hides raw and dressed, and
various articles for domestic or personal use made of the leather.
Animals, both wild and tame, were offered for sale, and near them,
perhaps, a gang of slaves, with collars round their necks,
intimating they were likewise on sale,- a spectacle unhappily not
confined to the barbarian markets of Mexico, though the evils of their
condition were aggravated there by the consciousness that a life of
degradation might be consummated at any moment by the dreadful doom of
The heavier materials for building, as stone, lime, timber, were
considered too bulky to be allowed a place in the square, and were
deposited in the adjacent streets on the borders of the canals. It
would be tedious to enumerate all the various articles, whether for
luxury or daily use, which were collected from all quarters in this
vast bazaar. I must not omit to mention, however, the display of
provisions, one of the most attractive features of the tianguez; meats
of all kinds, domestic poultry, game from the neighbouring
mountains, fish from the lakes and streams, fruits in all the
delicious abundance of these temperate regions, green vegetables,
and the unfailing maize. There was many a viand, too, ready dressed,
which sent up its savoury steams provoking the appetite of the idle
passenger; pastry, bread of the Indian corn, cakes, and confectionery.
Along with these were to be seen cooling or stimulating beverages, the
spicy foaming chocolatl,- with its delicate aroma of vanilla, and
the inebriating pulque, the fermented juice of the aloe. All these
commodities, and every stall and portico, were set out, or rather
smothered, with flowers, showing, on a much greater scale, indeed, a
taste similar to that displayed in the markets of modern Mexico.
Flowers seem to be the spontaneous growth of this luxuriant soil;
which, instead of noxious weeds, as in other regions, is ever ready,
without the aid of man, to cover up its nakedness with this rich and
variegated livery of nature.
As to the numbers assembled in the market, the estimates differ,
as usual. The Spaniards often visited the place, and no one states the
amount at less than forty thousand! Some carry it much higher. Without
relying too much on the arithmetic of the Conquerors, it is certain
that on this occasion, which occurred every fifth day, the city
swarmed with a motley crowd of strangers, not only from the
vicinity, but from many leagues around; the causeways were thronged,
and the lake was darkened by canoes filled with traders flocking to
the great tianguez. It resembled indeed the periodical fairs in
Europe, not as they exist now, but as they existed in the Middle Ages,
when, from the difficulties of intercommunication, they served as
the great central marts for commercial intercourse, exercising a
most important and salutary influence on the community.
The exchanges were conducted partly by barter, but more usually in
the currency of the country. This consisted of bits of tin stamped
with a character like a T, bags of cacao, the value of which was
regulated by their size, and lastly quills filled with gold dust. Gold
was part of the regular currency, it seems, in both hemispheres. In
their dealings it is singular that they should have had no knowledge
of scales and weights. The quantity was determined by measure and
The most perfect order reigned throughout this vast assembly.
Officers patrolled the square, whose business it was to keep the
peace, to collect the duties imposed on the different articles of
merchandise, to see that no false measures or fraud of any kind were
used, and to bring offenders at once to justice. A court of twelve
judges sat in one part of the tianguez, clothed with those ample and
summary powers, which, in despotic countries, are often delegated even
to petty tribunals. The extreme severity with which they exercised
these powers, in more than one instance, proves that they were not a
dead letter.
The tianguez of Mexico was naturally an object of great
interest, as well as wonder, to the Spaniards. For in it they saw
converged into one focus, as it were, all the rays of civilisation
scattered throughout the land. Here they beheld the various
evidences of mechanical skill, of domestic industry, the multiplied
resources, of whatever kind, within the compass of the natives. It
could not fail to impress them with high ideas of the magnitude of
these resources, as well as of the commercial activity and social
subordination by which the whole community was knit together; and
their admiration is fully evinced by the minuteness and energy of
their descriptions.
From this bustling scene, the Spaniards took their way to the
great teocalli, in the neighbourhood of their own quarters. It
covered, with the subordinate edifices, as the reader has already
seen, the large tract of ground now occupied by the cathedral, part of
the market-place, and some of the adjoining streets. It was the spot
which had been consecrated to the same object, probably, ever since
the foundation of the city. The present building, however, was of no
great antiquity, having been constructed by Ahuitzotl, who
celebrated its dedication in 1486, by that hecatomb of victims, of
which such incredible reports are to be found in the chronicles.
It stood in the midst of a vast area, encompassed by a wall of
stone and lime, about eight feet high, ornamented on the outer side by
figures of serpents, raised in relief, which gave it the name of the
coatepantli, or "wall of serpents." This emblem was a common one in
the sacred sculpture of Anahuac, as well as of Egypt. The wall,
which was quadrangular, was pierced by huge battlemented gateways,
opening on the four principal streets of the capital. Over each of the
gates was a kind of arsenal, filled with arms and warlike gear; and,
if we may credit the report of the Conquerors, there were barracks
adjoining, garrisoned by ten thousand soldiers, who served as a sort
of military police for the capital, supplying the emperor with a
strong arm in case of tumult or sedition.
The teocalli itself was a solid pyramidal structure of earth and
pebbles, coated on the outside with hewn stones, probably of the
light, porous kind employed in the buildings of the city. It was
probably square, with its sides facing the cardinal points. It was
divided into five bodies or stories, each one receding so as to be
of smaller dimensions than that immediately below it; the usual form
of the Aztec teocallis, as already described, and bearing obvious
resemblance to some of the primitive pyramidal structures in the Old
World. The ascent was by a flight of steps on the outside, which
reached to the narrow terrace or platform at the base of the second
story, passing quite round the building, when a second stairway
conducted to a similar landing at the base of the third. The breadth
of this walk was just so much space as was left by the retreating
story next above it. From this construction the visitor was obliged to
pass round the whole edifice four times, in order to reach the top.
This had a most imposing effect in the religious ceremonials, when the
pompous procession of priests with their wild minstrelsy came sweeping
round the huge sides of the pyramid, as they rose higher and higher in
the presence of gazing multitudes, towards the summit.
The dimensions of the temple cannot be given with any certainty.
The Conquerors judged by the eye, rarely troubling themselves with
anything like an accurate measurement. It was, probably, not much less
than three hundred feet square at the base; and, as the Spaniards
counted a hundred and fourteen steps, was probably less than one
hundred feet in height.
When Cortes arrived before the teocalli, he found two priests
and several caciques commissioned by Montezuma to save him the fatigue
of the ascent by bearing him on their shoulders, in the same manner as
had been done to the emperor. But the general declined the compliment,
preferring to march up at the head of his men. On reaching the summit,
they found it a vast area, paved with broad flat stones. The first
object that met their view was a large block of jasper, the peculiar
shape of which showed it was the stone on which the bodies of the
unhappy victims were stretched for sacrifice. Its convex surface, by
raising the breast, enabled the priest to perform his diabolical
task more easily, of removing the heart. At the other end of the
area were two towers or sanctuaries, consisting of three stories,
the lower one of stone and stucco, the two upper of wood elaborately
carved. In the lower division stood the images of their gods; the
apartments above were filled with utensils for their religious
services, and with the ashes of some of their Aztec princes, who had
fancied this airy sepulchre. Before each sanctuary stood an altar with
that undying fire upon it, the extinction of which boded as much
evil to the empire, as that of the Vestal flame would have done in
ancient Rome. Here, also, was the huge cylindrical drum made of
serpents' skins, and struck only on extraordinary occasions, when it
sent forth a melancholy sound that might be heard for miles,- a
sound of woe in after times to the Spaniards.
Montezuma, attended by the high-priest, came forward to receive
Cortes as he mounted the area. "You are weary, Malinche," said he to
him, "with climbing up our great temple." But Cortes, with a politic
vaunt, assured him "the Spaniards were never weary!" Then, taking
him by the hand, the emperor pointed out the localities of the
neighbourhood. The temple on which they stood, rising high above all
other edifices in the capital, afforded the most elevated as well as
central point of view. Below them the city lay spread out like a
map, with its streets and canals intersecting each other at right
angles, its terraced roofs blooming like so many parterres of flowers.
Every place seemed alive with business and bustle; canoes were
glancing up and down the canals, the streets were crowded with
people in their gay, picturesque costume, while from the marketplace
they had so lately left, a confused hum of many sounds and voices rose
upon the air. They could distinctly trace the symmetrical plan of
the city, with its principal avenues issuing, as it were, from the
four gates of the coatepantli; and connecting themselves with the
causeways, which formed the grand entrances to the capital. This
regular and beautiful arrangement was imitated in many of the inferior
towns, where the great roads converged towards the chief teocalli,
or cathedral, as to a common focus. They could discern the insular
position of the metropolis, bathed on all sides by the salt floods, of
the Tezcuco, and in the distance the clear fresh waters of the Chalco;
far beyond stretched a wide prospect of fields and waving woods,
with the burnished walls of many a lofty temple rising high above
the trees, and crowning the distant hill-tops. The view reached in
an unbroken line to the very base of the circular range of
mountains, whose frosty peaks glittered as if touched with fire in the
morning ray; while long, dark wreaths of vapour, rolling up from the
hoary head of Popocatepetl, told that the destroying element was,
indeed, at work in the bosom of the beautiful valley.
Cortes was filled with admiration at this grand and glorious
spectacle, and gave utterance to his feelings in animated language
to the emperor, the lord of these flourishing domains. His thoughts,
however, soon took another direction; and, turning to Father Olmedo,
who stood by his side, he suggested that the area would afford a
most conspicuous position for the Christian Cross, if Montezuma
would but allow it to be planted there. But the discreet ecclesiastic,
with the good sense which on these occasions seems to have been so
lamentably deficient in his commander, reminded him that such a
request, at present, would be exceedingly ill-timed, as the Indian
monarch had shown no dispositions as yet favourable to Christianity.
Cortes then requested Montezuma to allow him to enter the
sanctuaries, and behold the shrines of his gods. To this the latter,
after a short conference with the priests, assented, and conducted the
Spaniards into the building. They found themselves in a spacious
apartment incrusted on the sides with stucco, on which various figures
were sculptured, representing the Mexican calendar, perhaps, or the
priestly ritual. At one end of the saloon was a recess with a roof
of timber richly carved and gilt. Before the altar in this sanctuary
stood the colossal image of Huitzilopochtli, the tutelary deity and
war-god of the Aztecs. His countenance was distorted into hideous
lineaments of symbolical import. In his right hand he wielded a bow,
and in his left a bunch of golden arrows, which a mystic legend had
connected with the victories of his people. The huge folds of a
serpent, consisting of pearls and precious stones, were coiled round
his waist, and the same rich materials were profusely sprinkled over
his person. On his left foot were the delicate feathers of the
humming-bird, which, singularly enough, gave its name to the dread
deity. The most conspicuous ornament was a chain of gold and silver
hearts alternate, suspended round his neck, emblematical of the
sacrifice in which he most delighted. A more unequivocal evidence of
this was afforded by three human hearts smoking and almost
palpitating, as if recently torn from the victims, and now lying on
the altar before him!
The adjoining sanctuary was dedicated to a milder deity. This
was Tezcatlipoca, next in honour to that invisible Being, the
Supreme God, who was represented by no image, and confined by no
temple. It was Tezcatlipoca who created the world, and watched over it
with a providential care. He was represented as a young man, and his
image, of polished black stone, was richly garnished with gold
plates and ornaments; among which a shield, burnished like a mirror,
was the most characteristic emblem, as in it he saw reflected all
the doings of the world. But the homage to this god was not always
of a more refined or merciful character than that paid to his
carnivorous brother; for five bleeding hearts were also seen in a
golden platter on his altar.
The walls of both these chapels were stained with human gore. "The
stench was more intolerable," exclaims Diaz, "than that of the
slaughter-houses in Castile!" And the frantic forms of the priests,
with their dark robes clotted with blood, as they flitted to and
fro, seemed to the Spaniards to be those of the very ministers of
From this foul abode they gladly escaped into the open air; when
Cortes, turning to Montezuma, said with a smile, "I do not
comprehend how a great and wise prince like you can put faith in
such evil spirits as these idols, the representatives of the devil! If
you will but permit us to erect here the true Cross, and place the
images of the blessed Virgin and her Son in your sanctuaries, you will
soon see how your false gods will shrink before them!"
Montezuma was greatly shocked at this sacrilegious address.
"These are the gods," he answered, "who have led the Aztecs on to
victory since they were a nation, and who send the seed-time and
harvest in their seasons. Had I thought you would have offered them
this outrage, I would not have admitted you into their presence!"
Cortes, after some expressions of concern at having wounded the
feelings of the emperor, took his leave. Montezuma remained, saying
that he must expiate, if possible, the crime of exposing the shrines
of the divinities to such profanation by the strangers.
On descending to the court, the Spaniards took a leisurely
survey of the other edifices in the inclosure. The area was
protected by a smooth stone pavement, so polished, indeed, that it was
with difficulty the horses could keep their legs. There were several
other teocallis, built generally on the model of the great one, though
of much inferior size, dedicated to the different Aztec deities. On
their summits were the altars crowned with perpetual flames, which,
with those on the numerous temples in other quarters of the capital,
shed a brilliant illumination over its streets, through the long
Among the teocallis in the inclosure was one consecrated to
Quetzalcoatl, circular in its form, and having an entrance in
imitation of a dragon's mouth, bristling with sharp fangs and dropping
with blood. As the Spaniards cast a furtive glance into the throat
of this horrible monster, they saw collected there implements of
sacrifice and other abominations of fearful import. Their bold
hearts shuddered at the spectacle, and they designated the place not
inaptly as the "Hell."
One other structure may be noticed as characteristic of the
brutish nature of their religion. This was a pyramidal mound or
tumulus, having a complicated framework of timber on its broad summit.
On this was strung an immense number of human skulls, which belonged
to the victims, mostly prisoners of war, who had perished on the
accursed stone of sacrifice. One of the soldiers had the patience to
count the number of these ghastly trophies, and reported it to be
one hundred and thirty-six thousand! Belief might well be staggered,
did not the Old World present a worthy counterpart in the pyramidal
Golgothas which commemorated the triumphs of Tamerlane.
There were long ranges of buildings in the inclosure, appropriated
as the residence of the priests and others engaged in the offices of
religion. The whole number of them was said to amount to several
thousand. Here were, also, the principal seminaries for the
instruction of youth of both sexes, drawn chiefly from the higher
and wealthier classes. The girls were taught by elderly women, who
officiated as priestesses in the temples, a custom familiar also to
Egypt. The Spaniards admit that the greatest care for morals, and
the most blameless deportment, were maintained in these
institutions. The time of the pupils was chiefly occupied, as in
most monastic establishments, with the minute and burdensome
ceremonial of their religion. The boys were likewise taught such
elements of science as were known to their teachers, and the girls
initiated in the mysteries of embroidery and weaving, which they
employed in decorating the temples. At a suitable age they generally
went forth into the world to assume the occupations fitted to their
condition, though some remained permanently devoted to the services of
The spot was also covered by edifices of a still different
character. There were granaries filled with the rich produce of the
churchlands, and with the first-fruits and other offerings of the
faithful. One large mansion was reserved for strangers of eminence,
who were on a pilgrimage to the great teocalli. The inclosure was
ornamented with gardens, shaded by ancient trees, and watered by
fountains and reservoirs from the copious streams of Chapoltepec.
The little community was thus provided with almost everything
requisite for its own maintenance and the services of the temple.
It was a microcosm of itself,- a city within a city; and,
according to the assertion of Cortes, embraced a tract of ground large
enough for five hundred houses. It presented in this brief compass the
extremes of barbarism, blended with a certain civilisation, altogether
characteristic of the Aztecs. The rude Conquerors saw only the
evidence of the former. In the fantastic and symbolical features of
the deities, they beheld the literal lineaments of Satan; in the rites
and frivolous ceremonial, his own especial code of damnation; and in
the modest deportment and careful nurture of the inmates of the
seminaries, the snares by which he was to beguile his deluded victims.
Before a century had elapsed, the descendants of these same
Spaniards discerned in the mysteries of the Aztec religion the
features, obscured and defaced, indeed, of the Jewish and Christian
revelations! Such were the opposite conclusions of the unlettered
soldier and of the scholar. A philosopher, untouched by
superstition, might well doubt which of the two was the most
The sight of the Indian abominations seems to have kindled in
the Spaniards a livelier feeling for their own religion; since, on the
following day, they asked leave of Montezuma to convert one of the
halls in their residence into a chapel, that they might celebrate
the services of the Church there. The monarch, in whose bosom the
feelings of resentment seem to have soon subsided, easily granted
their request, and sent some of his own artisans to aid them in the
While it was in progress, some of the Spaniards observed what
appeared to be a door recently plastered over. It was a common
rumour that Montezuma still kept the treasures of his father, King
Axayacatl, in this ancient palace. The Spaniards, acquainted with this
fact, felt no scruple in gratifying their curiosity by removing the
plaster. As was anticipated, it concealed a door. On forcing this,
they found the rumour was no exaggeration. They beheld a large hall
filled with rich and beautiful stuffs, articles of curious workmanship
of various kinds, gold and silver in bars and in the ore, and many
jewels of value. It was the private hoard of Montezuma, the
contributions, it may be, of tributary cities, and once the property
of his father. "I was a young man," says Diaz, who was one of those
that obtained a sight of it, "and it seemed to me as if all the riches
of the world were in that room!" The Spaniards, notwithstanding
their elation at the discovery of this precious deposit, seem to
have felt some commendable scruples as to appropriating it to their
own use,- at least for the present. And Cortes, after closing up the
wall as it was before, gave strict injunctions that nothing should
be said of the matter, unwilling that the knowledge of its existence
by his guests should reach the ears of Montezuma.
Three days sufficed to complete the chapel; and the Christians had
the satisfaction to see themselves in possession of a temple where
they might worship God in their own way, under the protection of the
Cross, and the blessed Virgin. Mass was regularly performed by the
fathers, Olmedo and Diaz, in the presence of the assembled army, who
were most earnest and exemplary in their devotions, partly, says the
chronicler above quoted, from the propriety of the thing, and partly
for its edifying influence on the benighted heathen.
Chapter III [1519]


THE Spaniards had been now a week in Mexico. During this time,
they had experienced the most friendly treatment from the emperor. But
the mind of Cortes was far from easy. He felt that it was quite
uncertain how long this amiable temper would last. A hundred
circumstances might occur to change it. He might very naturally feel
the maintenance of so large a body too burdensome on his treasury. The
people of the capital might become dissatisfied at the presence of
so numerous an armed force within their walls. Many causes of
disgust might arise betwixt the soldiers and the citizens. Indeed,
it was scarcely possible that a rude, licentious soldiery, like the
Spaniards, could be long kept in subjection without active employment.
The danger was even greater with the Tlascalans, a fierce race now
brought into daily contact with the nation who held them in loathing
and detestation. Rumours were already rife among the allies, whether
well-founded or not, of murmurs among the Mexicans, accompanied by
menaces of raising the bridges.
Even should the Spaniards be allowed to occupy their present
quarters unmolested, it was not advancing the great object of the
expedition. Cortes was not a whit nearer gaining the capital, so
essential to his meditated subjugation of the country; and any day
he might receive tidings that the Crown, or, what he most feared,
the governor of Cuba, had sent a force of superior strength to wrest
from him a conquest but half achieved. Disturbed by these anxious
reflections, he resolved to extricate himself from his embarrassment
by one bold stroke. But he first submitted the affair to a council
of the officers in whom he most confided, desirous to divide with them
the responsibility of the act, and no doubt, to interest them more
heartily in its execution, by making it in some measure the result
of their combined judgments.
When the general had briefly stated the embarrassments of their
position, the council was divided in opinion. All admitted the
necessity of some instant action. One party were for retiring secretly
from the city, and getting beyond the causeways before their march
could be intercepted. Another advised that it should be done openly,
with the knowledge of the emperor, of whose good will they had had
so many proofs. But both these measures seemed alike impolitic. A
retreat under these circumstances, and so abruptly made, would have
the air of a flight. It would be construed into distrust of
themselves; and anything like timidity on their part would be sure not
only to bring on them the Mexicans, but the contempt of their
allies, who would, doubtless, join in the general cry.
As to Montezuma, what reliance could they place on the
protection of a prince so recently their enemy, and who, in his
altered bearing, must have taken counsel of his fears rather than
his inclinations?
Even should they succeed in reaching the coast, their situation
would be little better. It would be proclaiming to the world that,
after all their lofty vaunts, they were unequal to the enterprise.
Their only hopes of their sovereign's favour, and of pardon for
their irregular proceedings, were founded on success. Hitherto, they
had only made the discovery of Mexico; to retreat would be to leave
conquest and the fruits of it to another.- In short, to stay and to
retreat seemed equally disastrous.
In this perplexity, Cortes proposed an expedient, which none but
the most daring spirit, in the most desperate extremity, would have
conceived. This was, to march to the royal palace, and bring Montezuma
to the Spanish quarters, by fair means if they could persuade him,
by force if necessary,- at all events, to get possession of his
person. With such a pledge, the Spaniards would be secure from the
assault of the Mexicans, afraid by acts of violence to compromise
the safety of their prince. If he came by his own consent, they
would be deprived of all apology for doing so. As long as the
emperor remained among the Spaniards, it would be easy, by allowing
him a show of sovereignty, to rule in his name, until they had taken
measures for securing their safety, and the success of their
enterprise. The idea of employing a sovereign as a tool for the
government of his own kingdom, if a new one in the age of Cortes, is
certainly not so in ours.
A plausible pretext for the seizure of the hospitable monarch- for
the most barefaced action seeks to veil itself under some show of
decency- was afforded by a circumstance of which Cortes had received
intelligence at Cholula. He had left, as we have seen, a faithful
officer, Juan de Escalante, with a hundred and fifty men in garrison
at Vera Cruz, on his departure for the capital. He had not been long
absent, when his lieutenant received a message from an Aztec chief
named Quauhpopoca, governor of a district to the north of the
Spanish settlement, declaring his desire to come in person and
tender his allegiance to the Spanish authorities at Vera Cruz. He
requested that four of the white men might be sent to protect him
against certain unfriendly tribes through which his road lay. This was
not an uncommon request, and excited no suspicion in Escalante. The
four soldiers were sent; and on their arrival two of them were
murdered by the false Aztec. The other two made their way back to
the garrison.
The commander marched at once, with fifty of his men, and
several thousand Indian allies, to take vengeance on the cacique. A
pitched battle followed. The allies fled from the redoubted
Mexicans. The few Spaniards stood firm, and with the aid of the
firearms and the blessed Virgin, who was distinctly seen hovering over
their ranks in the van, they made good the field against the enemy. It
cost them dear, however, since seven or eight Christians were slain,
and among them the gallant Escalante himself, who died of his injuries
soon after his return to the fort. The Indian prisoners captured in
the battle spoke of the whole proceeding as having taken place at
the instigation of Montezuma.
One of the Spaniards fell into the hands of the natives, but
soon after perished of his wounds. His head was cut off and sent to
the Aztec emperor. It was uncommonly large and covered with hair; and,
as Montezuma gazed on the ferocious features, rendered more horrible
by death, he seemed to read in them the dark lineaments of the
destined destroyers of his house. He turned from it with a shudder,
and commanded that it should be taken from the city, and not offered
at the shrine of any of his gods.
Although Cortes had received intelligence of this disaster at
Cholula, he had concealed it within his own breast, or communicated it
to very few only of his most trusty officers, from apprehension of the
ill effect it might have on the spirits of the common soldiers.
The cavaliers whom Cortes now summoned to the council were men
of the same mettle with their leader. Their bold chivalrous spirit
seemed to court danger for its own sake. If one or two, less
adventurous, were startled by the proposal he made, they were soon
overruled by the others, who, no doubt, considered that a desperate
disease required as desperate a remedy.
That night, Cortes was heard pacing his apartment to and fro, like
a man oppressed by thought, or agitated by strong emotion. He may have
been ripening in his mind the daring scheme for the morrow. In the
morning the soldiers heard mass as usual, and Father Olmedo invoked
the blessing of Heaven on their hazardous enterprise. Whatever might
be the cause in which he was embarked, the heart of the Spaniard was
cheered with the conviction that the Saints were on his side.
Having asked an audience from Montezuma, which was readily
granted, the general made the necessary arrangements for his
enterprise. The principal part of his force was drawn up in the
courtyard, and he stationed a considerable detachment in the avenues
leading to the palace, to cheek any attempt at rescue by the populace.
He ordered twenty-five or thirty of the soldiers to drop in at the
palace, as if by accident, in groups of three or four at a time, while
the conference was going on with Montezuma. He selected five
cavaliers, in whose courage and coolness he placed most trust, to bear
him company; Pedro de Alvarado, Gonzalo de Sandoval, Francisco de
Lugo, Velasquez de Leon, and Alonso de Avila,- brilliant names in
the annals of the Conquest. All were clad, as well as the common
soldiers, in complete armour, a circumstance of too familiar
occurrence to excite suspicion.
The little party were graciously received by the emperor, who
soon, with the aid of the interpreters, became interested in a
sportive conversation with the Spaniards, while he indulged his
natural munificence by giving them presents of gold and jewels. He
paid the Spanish general the particular compliment of offering him one
of his daughters as his wife; an honour which the latter
respectfully declined, on the ground that he was already
accommodated with one in Cuba, and that his religion forbade a
When Cortes perceived that a sufficient number of his soldiers
were assembled, he changed his playful manner, and with a serious tone
briefly acquainted Montezuma with the treacherous proceedings in the
tierra caliente, and the accusation of him as their author. The
emperor listened to the charge with surprise; and disavowed the act,
which he said could only have been imputed to him by his enemies.
Cortes expressed his belief in his declaration, but added, that, to
prove it true, it would be necessary to send for Quauhpopoca and his
accomplices, that they might be examined and dealt with according to
their deserts. To this Montezuma made no objection. Taking from his
wrist, to which it was attached, a precious stone, the royal signet,
on which was cut the figure of the war-god, he gave it to one of his
nobles, with orders to show it to the Aztec governor, and require
his instant presence in the capital, together with all those who had
been accessory to the murder of the Spaniards. If he resisted, the
officer was empowered to call in the aid of the neighbouring towns
to enforce the mandate.
When the messenger had gone, Cortes assured the monarch that
this prompt compliance with his request convinced him of his
innocence. But it was important that his own sovereign should be
equally convinced of it. Nothing would promote this so much as for
Montezuma to transfer his residence to the palace occupied by the
Spaniards, till on the arrival of Quauhpopoca the affair could be
fully investigated. Such an act of condescension would, of itself,
show a personal regard for the Spaniards, incompatible with the base
conduct alleged against him, and would fully absolve him from all
Montezuma listened to this proposal, and the flimsy reasoning with
which it was covered, with looks of profound amazement. He became pale
as death; but in a moment his face flushed with resentment, as with
the pride of offended dignity, he exclaimed, "Men was it ever heard
that a great prince, like myself, voluntarily left his own palace to
become a prisoner in the hands of strangers!"
Cortes assured him he would not go as a prisoner. He would
experience nothing but respectful treatment from the Spaniards;
would be surrounded by his own household, and hold intercourse with
his people as usual. In short, it would be but a change of
residence, from one of his palaces to another, a circumstance of
frequent occurrence with him.- It was in vain. "If I should consent to
such a degradation," he answered, "my subjects never would!" When
further pressed, he offered to give up one of his sons and of his
daughters to remain as hostages with the Spaniards, so that he might
be spared this disgrace.
Two hours passed in this fruitless discussion, till a high-mettled
cavalier, Velasquez de Leon, impatient of the long delay, and seeing
that the attempt, if not the deed, must ruin them, cried out, "Why
do we waste words on this barbarian? We have gone too far to recede
now. Let us seize him, and, if he resists, plunge our swords into
his body!" The fierce tone and menacing gestures with which this was
uttered alarmed the monarch, who inquired of Marina what the angry
Spaniard said. The interpreter explained it in as gentle a manner as
she could, beseeching him "to accompany the white men to their
quarters, where he would be treated with all respect and kindness,
while to refuse them would but expose himself to violence, perhaps
to death." Marina, doubtless, spoke to her sovereign as she thought,
and no one had better opportunity of knowing the truth than herself.
This last appeal shook the resolution of Montezuma. It was in vain
that the unhappy prince looked around for sympathy or support. As
his eyes wandered over the stern visages and iron forms of the
Spaniards, he felt that his hour was indeed come; and, with a voice
scarcely audible from emotion, he consented to accompany the
strangers,- to quit the palace, whither he was never more to return.
Had he possessed the spirit of the first Montezuma, he would have
called his guards around him, and left his life-blood on the
threshold, sooner than have been dragged a dishonoured captive
across it. But his courage sank under circumstances. He felt he was
the instrument of an irresistible Fate!
No sooner had the Spaniards got his consent, than orders were
given for the royal litter. The nobles, who bore and attended it,
could scarcely believe their senses, when they learned their
master's purpose. But pride now came to Montezuma's aid, and, since he
must go, he preferred that it should appear to be with his own
free-will. As the royal retinue, escorted by the Spaniards, marched
through the street with downcast eyes and dejected mien, the people
assembled in crowds, and a rumour ran among them, that the emperor was
carried off by force to the quarters of the white men. A tumult
would have soon arisen but for the intervention of Montezuma
himself, who called out to the people to disperse, as he was
visiting his friends of his own accord; thus sealing his ignominy by a
declaration which deprived his subjects of the only excuse for
resistance. On reaching the quarters, he sent out his nobles with
similar assurances to the mob, and renewed orders to return to their
He was received with ostentatious respect by the Spaniards, and
selected the suite of apartments which best pleased him. They were
soon furnished with fine cotton tapestries, feather-work, and all
the elegances of Indian upholstery. He was attended by such of his
household as he chose, his wives and his pages, and was served with
his usual pomp and luxury at his meals. He gave audience, as in his
own palace, to his subjects, who were admitted to his presence, few,
indeed, at a time, under the pretext of greater order and decorum.
From the Spaniards themselves he met with a formal deference. No
one, not even the general himself, approached him without doffing
his casque, and rendering the obeisance due to his rank. Nor did
they ever sit in his presence, without being invited by him to do so.
With all this studied ceremony and show of homage, there was one
circumstance which too clearly proclaimed to his people that their
sovereign was a prisoner. In the front of the palace a patrol of sixty
men was established, and the same number in the rear. Twenty of each
corps mounted guard at once, maintaining a careful watch day and
night. Another body, under command of Velasquez de Leon, was stationed
in the royal antechamber. Cortes punished any departure from duty,
or relaxation of vigilance, in these sentinels, with the utmost
severity. He felt, as, indeed, every Spaniard must have felt, that the
escape of the emperor now would be their ruin. Yet the task of this
unintermitting watch sorely added to their fatigues. "Better this
dog of a king should die," cried a soldier one day, "than that we
should wear out our lives in this manner." The words were uttered in
the hearing of Montezuma, who gathered something of their import,
and the offender was severely chastised by order of the general.
Such instances of disrespect, however, were very rare. Indeed, the
amiable deportment of the monarch, who seemed to take pleasure in
the society of his jailers, and who never allowed a favour or
attention from the meanest soldier to go unrequited, inspired the
Spaniards with as much attachment as they were capable of feeling- for
a barbarian.
Things were in this posture, when the arrival of Quauhpopoca
from the coast was announced. He was accompanied by his son and
fifteen Aztec chiefs. He had travelled all the way, borne, as became
his high rank, in a litter. On entering Montezuma's presence, he threw
over his dress the coarse robe of nequen, and made the usual
humiliating acts of obeisance. The poor parade of courtly ceremony was
the more striking when placed in contrast with the actual condition of
the parties.
The Aztec governor was coldly received by his master, who referred
the affair (had he the power to do otherwise?) to the examination of
Cortes. It was, doubtless, conducted in a sufficiently summary manner.
To the general's query, whether the cacique was the subject of
Montezuma, he replied, "And what other sovereign could I serve?"
Implying that his sway was universal. He did not deny his share in the
transaction, nor did he seek to shelter himself under the royal
authority, till sentence of death was passed on him and his followers,
when they all laid the blame of their proceedings on Montezuma. They
were condemned to be burnt alive in the area before the palace. The
funeral piles were made of heaps of arrows, javelins, and other
weapons, drawn by the emperor's permission from the arsenals round the
great teocalli, where they had been stored to supply means of
defence in times of civic tumult or insurrection. By this politic
precaution, Cortes proposed to remove a ready means of annoyance in
case of hostilities with the citizens.
To crown the whole of these extraordinary proceedings, Cortes,
while preparations for the execution were going on, entered the
emperor's apartment, attended by a soldier bearing fetters in his
hands. With a severe aspect, he charged the monarch with being the
original contriver of the violence offered to the Spaniards, as was
now proved by the declaration of his own instruments. Such a crime,
which merited death in a subject, could not be atoned for, even by a
sovereign, without some punishment. So saying, he ordered the
soldier to fasten the fetters on Montezuma's ankles. He coolly
waited till it was done; then, turning his back on the monarch,
quitted the room.
Montezuma was speechless under the infliction of this last insult.
He was like one struck down by a heavy blow, that deprives him of
all his faculties. He offered no resistance. But, though he spoke
not a word, low, ill-suppressed moans, from time to time, intimated
the anguish of his spirit. His attendants, bathed in tears, offered
him their consolations. They tenderly held his feet in their arms, and
endeavoured, by inserting their shawls and mantles, to relieve them
from the pressure of the iron. But they could not reach the iron which
had penetrated into his soul. He felt that he was no more a king.
Meanwhile, the execution of the dreadful doom was going forward in
the courtyard. The whole Spanish force was under arms, to check any
interruption that might be offered by the Mexicans. But none was
attempted. The populace gazed in silent wonder, regarding it as the
sentence of the emperor. The manner of the execution, too, excited
less surprise, from their familiarity with similar spectacles,
aggravated, indeed, by additional horrors, in their own diabolical
sacrifices. The Aztec lord and his companions, bound hand and foot
to the blazing piles, submitted without a cry or a complaint to
their terrible fate. Passive fortitude is the virtue of the Indian
warriors; and it was the glory of the Aztec, as of the other races
on the North American continent, to show how the spirit of the brave
man may triumph over torture and the agonies of death.
When the dismal tragedy was ended, Cortes re-entered Montezuma's
apartment. Kneeling down, he unclasped his shackles with his own hand,
expressing at the same time his regret that so disagreeable a duty
as that of subjecting him to such a punishment had been imposed on
him. This last indignity had entirely crushed the spirit of Montezuma;
and the monarch, whose frown, but a week since, would have made the
nations of Anahuac tremble to their remotest borders, was now craven
enough to thank his deliverer for his freedom, as for a great and
unmerited boon!
Not long after, the Spanish general, conceiving that his royal
captive was sufficiently humbled, expressed his willingness that he
should return, if he inclined, to his own palace. Montezuma declined
it; alleging, it is said, that his nobles had more than once
importuned him to resent his injuries by taking arms against the
Spaniards; and that, were he in the midst of them, it would be
difficult to avoid it, or to save his capital from bloodshed and
anarchy. The reason did honour to his heart, if it was the one which
influenced him. It is probable that he did not care to trust his
safety to those haughty and ferocious chieftains who had witnessed the
degradation of their master, and must despise his pusillanimity, as
a thing unprecedented in an Aztec monarch.
Whatever were his reasons, it is certain that he declined the
offer; and the general, in a well-feigned, or real ecstasy, embraced
him, declaring "that he loved him as a brother, and that every
Spaniard would be zealously devoted to his interests, since he had
shown himself so mindful of theirs!" Honeyed words, "which," says
the shrewd old chronicler who was present, "Montezuma was wise
enough to know the worth of."
The events recorded in this chapter are certainly some of the most
extraordinary on the page of history. That a small body of men, like
the Spaniards, should have entered the palace of a mighty prince, have
seized his person in the midst of his vassals, have borne him off a
captive to their quarters,- that they should have put to an
ignominious death before his face his high officers, for executing
probably his own commands, and have crowned the whole by putting the
monarch in irons like a common malefactor,- that this should have been
done, not to a drivelling dotard in the decay of his fortunes, but
to a proud monarch in the plenitude of his power, in the very heart of
his capital, surrounded by thousands and tens of thousands who
trembled at his nod, and would have poured out their blood like
water in his defence,- that all this should have been done by a mere
handful of adventurers, is a thing too extravagant, altogether too
improbable, for the pages of romance! It is, nevertheless, literally
Chapter IV [1520]


THE settlement of La Villa Rica de Vera Cruz was of the last
importance to the Spaniards. It was the port by which they were to
communicate with Spain; the strong post on which they were to
retreat in case of disaster, and which was to bridle their enemies and
give security to their allies; the point d'appui for all their
operations in the country. It was of great moment, therefore, that the
care of it should be intrusted to proper hands.
A cavalier, named Alonso de Grado, had been sent by Cortes to take
the place made vacant by the death of Escalante. He was a person of
greater repute in civil than military matters, and would be more
likely, it was thought, to maintain peaceful relations with the
natives, than a person of more belligerant spirit. Cortes made- what
was rare with him- a bad choice. He soon received such accounts of
troubles in the settlement from the exactions and negligence of the
new governor, that he resolved to supersede him.
He now gave the command to Gonzalo de Sandoval, a young
cavalier, who had displayed through the whole campaign singular
intrepidity united with sagacity and discretion, while the good humour
with which he bore every privation, and his affable manners, made
him a favourite with all, privates as well as officers. Sandoval
accordingly left the camp for the coast. Cortes did not mistake his
man a second time.
Notwithstanding the actual control exercised by the Spaniards
through their royal captive, Cortes felt some uneasiness, when he
reflected that it was in the power of the Indians, at any time, to cut
off his communications with the surrounding country, and hold him a
prisoner in the capital. He proposed, therefore, to build two
vessels of sufficient size to transport his forces across the lake,
and thus to render himself independent of the causeways. Montezuma was
pleased with the idea of seeing those wonderful "water-houses," of
which he had heard so much, and readily gave permission to have the
timber in the royal forests felled for the purpose. The work was
placed under the direction of Martin Lopez, an experienced
ship-builder. Orders were also given to Sandoval to send up from the
coast a supply of cordage, sails, iron, and other necessary materials,
which had been judiciously saved on the destruction of the fleet.
The Aztec emperor, meanwhile, was passing his days in the
Spanish quarters in no very different manner from what he had been
accustomed to in his own palace. His keepers were too well aware of
the value of their prize, not to do everything which could make his
captivity comfortable, and disguise it from himself. But the chain
will gall, though wreathed with roses. After Montezuma's breakfast,
which was a light meal of fruits or vegetables, Cortes or some of
his officers usually waited on him, to learn if he had any commands
for them. He then devoted some time to business. He gave audience to
those of his subjects who had petitions to prefer, or suits to settle.
The statement of the party was drawn up on the hieroglyphic scrolls,
which were submitted to a number of counsellors or judges, who
assisted him with their advice on these occasions. Envoys from foreign
states or his own remote provinces and cities were also admitted,
and the Spaniards were careful that the same precise and punctilious
etiquette should be maintained towards the royal puppet, as when in
the plenitude of his authority.
After business was despatched, Montezuma often amused himself with
seeing the Castilian troops go through their military exercises. He,
too, had been a soldier, and in his prouder days led armies in the
field. It was very natural he should take an interest in the novel
display of European tactics and discipline. At other times he would
challenge Cortes or his officers to play at some of the national
games. A favourite one was called totoloque, played with golden
balls aimed at a target or mark of the same metal. Montezuma usually
staked something of value,- precious stones or ingots of gold. He lost
with good humour; indeed it was of little consequence whether he won
or lost, since he generally gave away his winnings to his
attendants. He had, in truth, a most munificent spirit. His enemies
accused him of avarice. But, if he were avaricious, it could have been
only that he might have the more to give away.
Each of the Spaniards had several Mexicans, male and female, who
attended to his cooking and various other personal offices. Cortes,
considering that the maintenance of this host of menials was a heavy
tax on the royal exchequer, ordered them to be dismissed, excepting
one to be retained for each soldier. Montezuma, on learning this,
pleasantly remonstrated with the general on his careful economy, as
unbecoming a royal establishment and, countermanding the order, caused
additional accommodations to be provided for the attendants, and their
pay to be doubled.
On another occasion, a soldier purloined some trinkets of gold
from the treasure kept in the chamber, which, since Montezuma's
arrival in the Spanish quarters, had been re-opened. Cortes would have
punished the man for the theft, but the emperor interfering said to
him, "Your countrymen are welcome to the gold and other articles, if
you will but spare those belonging to the gods." Some of the soldiers,
making the most of his permission, carried off several hundred loads
of fine cotton to their quarters. When this was represented to
Montezuma, he only replied, "What I have once given I never take back
While thus indifferent to his treasures, he was keenly sensitive
to personal slight or insult. When a common soldier once spoke to
him angrily, the tears came into the monarch's eyes, as it made him
feel the true character of his impotent condition. Cortes, on becoming
acquainted with it, was so much incensed, that he ordered the
soldier to be hanged; but, on Montezuma's intercession, commuted
this severe sentence for a flogging. The general was not willing
that any one but himself should treat his royal captive with
indignity. Montezuma was desired to procure a further mitigation of
the punishment. But he refused, saying, "that, if a similar insult had
been offered by any one of his subjects to Malinche, he would have
resented it in like manner."
Such instances of disrespect were very rare. Montezuma's amiable
and inoffensive manners, together with his liberality, the most
popular of virtues with the vulgar, made him generally beloved by
the Spaniards. The arrogance, for which he had been so distinguished
in his prosperous days, deserted him in his fallen fortunes. His
character in captivity seems to have undergone something of that
change which takes place in the wild animals of the forest, when caged
within the walls of the menagerie.
The Indian monarch knew the name of every man in the army, and was
careful to discriminate his proper rank. For some he showed a strong
partiality. He obtained from the general a favourite page, named
Orteguilla, who, being in constant attendance on his person, soon
learned enough of the Mexican language to be of use to his countrymen.
Montezuma took great pleasure, also, in the society of Velasquez de
Leon, the captain of his guard, and Pedro de Alvarado, Tonatiuh, or
"the Sun," as he was called by the Aztecs, from his yellow hair and
sunny countenance. The sunshine, as events afterwards showed, could
sometimes be the prelude to a terrible tempest.
Notwithstanding the care taken to cheat him of the tedium of
captivity, the royal prisoner cast a wistful glance now and then
beyond the walls of his residence to the ancient haunts of business or
pleasure. He intimated a desire to offer up his devotions at the great
temple, where he was once so constant in his worship. The suggestion
startled Cortes. It was too reasonable, however, for him to object
to it, without wholly discarding the appearance which he was
desirous to maintain. But he secured Montezuma's return by sending
an escort with him of a hundred and fifty soldiers under the same
resolute cavaliers who had aided in his seizure. He told him also,
that, in case of any attempt to escape, his life would instantly pay
the forfeit. Thus guarded, the Indian prince visited the teocalli,
where he was received with the usual state, and, after performing
his devotions, he returned again to his quarters.
It may well be believed that the Spaniards did not neglect the
opportunity afforded by his residence with them, of instilling into
him some notions of the Christian doctrine. Fathers Diaz and Olmedo
exhausted all their battery of logic and persuasion to shake his faith
in his idols, but in vain. He, indeed, paid a most edifying attention,
which gave promise of better things. But the conferences always closed
with the declaration, that "the God of the Christians was good, but
the gods of his own country were the true gods for him." It is said,
however, they extorted a promise from him, that he would take part
in no more human sacrifices. Yet such sacrifices were of daily
occurrence in the great temples of the capital; and the people were
too blindly attached to their bloody abominations for the Spaniards to
deem it safe, for the present at least, openly to interfere.
Montezuma showed, also, an inclination to engage in the
pleasures of the chase, of which he once was immoderately fond. He had
large forests reserved for the purpose on the other side of the
lake. As the Spanish brigantines were now completed, Cortes proposed
to transport him and his suite across the water in them. They were
of a good size, strongly built. The largest was mounted with four
falconets, or small guns. It was protected by a gaily-coloured
awning stretched over the deck, and the royal ensign of Castile
floated proudly from the mast. On board of this vessel, Montezuma,
delighted with the opportunity of witnessing the nautical skill of the
white men, embarked with a train of Aztec nobles and a numerous
guard of Spaniards. A fresh breeze played on the waters, and the
vessel soon left behind it the swarms of light pirogues which darkened
their surface. She seemed like a thing of life in the eyes of the
astonished natives, who saw her, as if disdaining human agency,
sweeping by with snowy pinions as if on the wings of the wind, while
the thunders from her sides now for the first time breaking on the
silence of this "inland sea," showed that the beautiful phantom was
clothed in terror.
The royal chase was well stocked with game; some of which the
emperor shot with arrows, and others were driven by the numerous
attendants into nets. In these woodland exercises, while he ranged
over his wild domain, Montezuma seemed to enjoy again the sweets of
liberty. It was but the shadow of liberty, however; as in his
quarters, at home, he enjoyed but the shadow of royalty. At home or
abroad, the eye of the Spaniard was always upon him.
But while he resigned himself without a struggle to his inglorious
fate, there were others who looked on it with very different emotions.
Among them was his nephew Cacama, lord of Tezcuco, a young man not
more than twenty-five years of age, but who enjoyed great
consideration from his high personal qualities, especially his
intrepidity of character. He was the same prince who had been sent
by Montezuma to welcome the Spaniards on their entrance into the
valley; and, when the question of their reception was first debated in
the council, he had advised to admit them honourably as ambassadors of
a foreign prince, and, if they should prove different from what they
pretended, it would be time enough then to take up arms against
them. That time, he thought, had now come.
In a former part of this work, the reader has been made acquainted
with the ancient history of the Acolhuan or Tezcucan monarchy, once
the proud rival of the Aztec in power, and greatly its superior in
civilisation. Under its last sovereign, Nezahualpilli, its territory
is said to have been grievously clipped by the insidious practices
of Montezuma, who fomented dissensions and insubordination among his
subjects. On the death of the Tezcucan prince, the succession was
contested, and a bloody war ensued between his eldest son, Cacama, and
an ambitious younger brother, Ixtlilxochitl. This was followed by a
partition of the kingdom, in which the latter chieftain held the
mountain districts north of the capital, leaving the residue to
Cacama. Though shorn of a large part of his hereditary domain, the
city was itself so important, that the lord of Tezcuco still held a
high rank among the petty princes of the valley. His capital, at the
time of the Conquest, contained, according to Cortes, a hundred and
fifty thousand inhabitants. It was embellished with noble buildings,
rivalling those of Mexico itself.
The young Tezcucan chief beheld, with indignation and no slight
contempt, the abject condition of his uncle. He endeavoured to rouse
him to manly exertion, but in vain. He then set about forming a league
with several of the neighbouring caciques to rescue his kinsman, and
to break the detested yoke of the strangers. He called on the lord
of Iztapalapan, Montezuma's brother, the lord of Tlacopan, and some
others of most authority, all of whom entered heartily into his views.
He then urged the Aztec nobles to join them, but they expressed an
unwillingness to take any step not first sanctioned by the emperor.
They entertained, undoubtedly, a profound reverence for their
master; but it seems probable that jealousy of the personal views of
Cacama had its influence on their determination. Whatever were their
motives, it is certain, that, by this refusal, they relinquished the
best opportunity ever presented for retrieving their sovereign's
independence, and their own.
These intrigues could not be conducted so secretly as not to reach
the ears of Cortes, who, with his characteristic promptness, would
have marched at once on Tezcuco, and trodden out the spark of
"rebellion," before it had time to burst into a flame. But from this
he was dissuaded by Montezuma, who represented that Cacama was a man
of resolution, backed by a powerful force, and not to be put down
without a desperate struggle. He consented, therefore, to negotiate,
and sent a message of amicable expostulation to the cacique. He
received a haughty answer in return. Cortes rejoined in a more
menacing tone, asserting the supremacy of his own sovereign, the
emperor of Castile. To this Cacama replied, "He acknowledged no such
authority; he knew nothing of the Spanish sovereign nor his people,
nor did he wish to know anything of them." Montezuma was not more
successful in his application to Cacama to come to Mexico, and allow
him to mediate his differences with the Spaniards, with whom he
assured the prince he was residing as a friend. But the young lord
of Tezcuco was not to be so duped. He understood the position of his
uncle, and replied, "that, when he did visit his capital, it would
be to rescue it, as well as the emperor himself, and their common
gods, from bondage. He should come, not with his hand in his bosom,
but on his sword,- to drive out the detested strangers who had brought
such dishonour on their country."
Cortes, incensed at this tone of defiance, would again have put
himself in motion to punish it, but Montezuma interposed with his more
politic arts. He had several of the Tezcucan nobles, he said, in his
pay; and it would be easy, through their means, to secure Cacama's
person, and thus break up the confederacy at once, without
bloodshed. The maintaining of corps of stipendiaries in the courts
of neighbouring princes was a refinement which showed that the western
barbarian understood the science of political intrigue, as well as
some of his royal brethren on the other side of the water.
By the contrivance of these faithless nobles, Cacama was induced
to hold a conference, relative to the proposed invasion, in a villa
which overhung the Tezcucan lake, not far from his capital. Like
most of the principal edifices, it was raised so as to admit the
entrance of boats beneath it. In the midst of the conference, Cacama
was seized by the conspirators, hurried on board a bark in readiness
for the purpose, and transported to Mexico. When brought into
Montezuma's presence, the high-spirited chief abated nothing of his
proud and lofty bearing. He taxed his uncle with his perfidy, and a
pusillanimity so unworthy of his former character, and of the royal
house from which he was descended. By the emperor he was referred to
Cortes, who, holding royalty but cheap in an Indian prince, put him in
There was at this time in Mexico a brother of Cacama, a
stripling much younger than himself. At the instigation of Cortes,
Montezuma, pretending that his nephew had forfeited the sovereignty by
his late rebellion, declared him to be deposed, and appointed
Cuicuitzca in his place. The Aztec sovereigns had always been
allowed a paramount authority in questions relating to the succession.
But this was a most unwarrantable exercise of it. The Tezcucans
acquiesced, however, with a ready ductility, which showed their
allegiance hung but lightly on them, or, what is more probable, that
they were greatly in awe of the Spaniards; and the new prince was
welcomed with acclamations to his capital.
Cortes still wanted to get into his hands the other chiefs who had
entered into the confederacy with Cacama. This was no difficult
matter. Montezuma's authority was absolute, everywhere but in his
own palace. By his command, the caciques were seized, each in his
own city, and brought in chains to Mexico, where Cortes placed them in
strict confinement with their leader.
He had now triumphed over all his enemies. He had set his foot
on the necks of princes; and the great chief of the Aztec empire was
but a convenient tool in his hands for accomplishing his purposes. His
first use of this power was to ascertain the actual resources of the
monarchy. He sent several parties of Spaniards, guided by the natives,
to explore the regions where gold was obtained. It was gleaned
mostly from the beds of rivers, several hundred miles from the
His next object was to learn if there existed any good natural
harbour for shipping on the Atlantic coast, as the road of Vera Cruz
left no protection against the tempests that at certain seasons
swept over these seas. Montezuma showed him a chart on which the
shores of the Mexican Gulf were laid down with tolerable accuracy.
Cortes, after carefully inspecting it, sent a commission, consisting
of ten Spaniards, several of them pilots, and some Aztecs, who
descended to Vera Cruz, and made a careful survey of the coast for
nearly sixty leagues south of that settlement, as far as the great
river Coatzacualco, which seemed to offer the best, indeed the only,
accommodations for a safe and suitable harbour. A spot was selected as
the site of a fortified post, and the general sent a detachment of a
hundred and fifty men, under Velasquez de Leon, to plant a colony
He also obtained a grant of an extensive tract of land in the
fruitful province of Oaxaca, where he proposed to lay out a plantation
for the Crown. He stocked it with the different kinds of
domesticated animals peculiar to the country, and with such indigenous
grains and plants as would afford the best articles for export. He
soon had the estate under such cultivation, that he assured his
master, the emperor, Charles the Fifth, it was worth twenty thousand
ounces of gold.
Chapter V [1520]


CORTES now felt his authority sufficiently assured to demand
from Montezuma a formal recognition of the supremacy of the Spanish
emperor. The Indian monarch had intimated his willingness to acquiesce
in this, on their very first interview. He did not object,
therefore, to call together his principal caciques for the purpose.
When they were assembled, he made them an address, briefly stating the
object of the meeting. They were all acquainted, he said, with the
ancient tradition, that the great Being, who had once ruled over the
land, had declared, on his departure, that he should return at some
future time and resume his sway. That time had now arrived. The
white men had come from the quarter where the sun rises, beyond the
ocean, to which the good deity had withdrawn. They were sent by
their master to reclaim the obedience of his ancient subjects. For
himself he was ready to acknowledge his authority. "You have been
faithful vassals of mine," continued Montezuma, "during the many years
that I have sat on the throne of my fathers. I now expect that you
will show me this last act of obedience by acknowledging the great
king beyond the waters to be your lord, also, and that you will pay
him tribute in the same manner as you have hitherto done to me." As he
concluded, his voice was stifled by his emotion, and the tears fell
fast down his cheeks.
His nobles, many of whom, coming from a distance, had not kept
pace with the changes which had been going on in the capital, were
filled with astonishment as they listened to his words, and beheld the
voluntary abasement of their master, whom they had hitherto reverenced
as the omnipotent lord of Anahuac. They were the more affected,
therefore, by the sight of his distress. His will, they told him,
had always been their law. It should be now; and, if he thought the
sovereign of the strangers was the ancient lord of their country, they
were willing to acknowledge him as such still. The oaths of allegiance
were then administered with all due solemnity, attested by the
Spaniards present, and a full record of the proceedings was drawn up
by the royal notary, to be sent to Spain. There was something deeply
touching in the ceremony by which an independent and absolute monarch,
in obedience less to the dictates of fear than of conscience, thus
relinquished his hereditary rights in favour of an unknown and
mysterious power. It even moved those hard men who were thus
unscrupulously availing themselves of the confiding ignorance of the
natives; and, though "it was in the regular way of their own
business," says an old chronicler, "there was not a Spaniard who could
look on the spectacle with a dry eye!"
The rumour of these strange proceedings was soon circulated
through the capital and the country. Men read in them the finger of
Providence. The ancient tradition of Quetzalcoatl was familiar to all;
and where it had slept scarcely noticed in the memory, it was now
revived with many exaggerated circumstances. It was said to be part of
the tradition, that the royal line of the Aztecs was to end with
Montezuma; and his name, the literal signification of which is "sad"
or "angry lord," was construed into an omen of his evil destiny.
Having thus secured this great feudatory to the crown of
Castile, Cortes suggested that it would be well for the Aztec chiefs
to send his sovereign such a gratuity as would conciliate his good
will by convincing him of the loyalty of his new vassals. Montezuma
consented that his collectors should visit the principal cities and
provinces, attended by a number of Spaniards, to receive the customary
tributes, in the name of the Castilian sovereign. In a few weeks
most of them returned, bringing back large quantities of gold and
silver plate, rich stuffs, and the various commodities in which the
taxes were usually paid.
To this store Montezuma added, on his own account, the treasure of
Axayacatl, previously noticed, some part of which had been already
given to the Spaniards. It was the fruit of long and careful
hoarding,- of extortion, it may be,- by a prince who little dreamed of
its final destination. When brought into the quarters, the gold
alone was sufficient to make three great heaps. It consisted partly of
native grains; part had been melted into bars; but the greatest
portion was in utensils, and various kinds of ornaments and curious
toys, together with imitations of birds, insects, or flowers, executed
with uncommon truth and delicacy. There were also quantities of
collars, bracelets, wands, fans, and other trinkets, in which the gold
and feather-work were richly powdered with pearls and precious stones.
Many of the articles were even more admirable for the workmanship than
for the value of the materials; such, indeed,- if we may take the
report of Cortes to one who would himself have soon an opportunity
to judge of its veracity, and whom it would not be safe to trifle
with,- as no monarch in Europe could boast in his dominions!
Magnificent as it was, Montezuma expressed his regret that the
treasure was no larger. But he had diminished it, he said, by his
former gifts to the white men. "Take it," he added, "Malinche, and let
it be recorded in your annals, that Montezuma sent his present to your
The Spaniards gazed with greedy eyes on the display of riches, now
their own, which far exceeded an hitherto seen in the New World, and
fell nothing short of the El Dorado which their glowing imaginations
had depicted. It may be that they felt somewhat rebuked by the
contrast which their own avarice presented to the princely munificence
of the barbarian chief. At least, they seemed to testify their sense
of his superiority by the respectful homage which they rendered him,
as they poured forth the fulness of their gratitude. They were not
so scrupulous, however, as to manifest any delicacy in appropriating
to themselves the donative, a small part of which was to find its
way into the royal coffers. They clamoured loudly for an immediate
division of the spoil, which the general would have postponed till the
tributes from the remote provinces had been gathered in. The
goldsmiths of Azcapotzalco were sent for to take in pieces the
larger and coarser ornaments, leaving untouched those of more delicate
workmanship. Three days were consumed in this labour, when the heaps
of gold were cast into ingots, and stamped with the royal arms.
Some difficulty occurred in the division of the treasure, from the
want of weights, which, strange as it appears, considering their
advancement in the arts, were, as already observed, unknown to the
Aztecs. The deficiency was soon supplied by the Spaniards, however,
with scales and weights of their own manufacture, probably not the
most exact. With the aid of these they ascertained the value of the
royal fifth to be thirty-two thousand and four hundred pesos de oro.
Diaz swells it to nearly four times that amount. But their desire of
securing the emperor's favour makes it improbable that the Spaniards
should have defrauded the exchequer of any part of its due; while,
as Cortes was responsible for the sum admitted in his letter, he would
be still less likely to overstate it. His estimate may be received
as the true one.
The whole amounted, therefore, to one hundred and sixty-two
thousand pesos de oro, independently of the fine ornaments and
jewellery, the value of which Cortes computes at five hundred thousand
ducats more. There were, besides, five hundred marks of silver,
chiefly in plate, drinking cups, and other articles of luxury. The
inconsiderable quantity of the silver, as compared with the gold,
forms a singular contrast to the relative proportions of the two
metals since the occupation of the country by the Europeans. The whole
amount of the treasure, reduced to our own currency, and making
allowance for the change in the value of gold since the beginning of
the sixteenth century, was about six million three hundred thousand
dollars, or one million four hundred and seventeen thousand pounds
sterling; a sum large enough to show the incorrectness of the
popular notion that little or no wealth was found in Mexico. It was,
indeed, small in comparison with that obtained by the conquerors in
Peru. But few European monarchs of that day could boast a larger
treasure in their coffers. Many of them, indeed, could boast little or
nothing in their coffers. Maximilian of Germany, and the more
prudent Ferdinand of Spain, left scarcely enough to defray their
funeral expenses.
The division of the spoil was a work of some difficulty. A
perfectly equal division of it among the Conquerors would have given
them more than three thousand pounds sterling a-piece; a magnificent
booty! But one fifth was to be deducted for the crown. An equal
portion was reserved for the general, pursuant to the tenor of his
commission. A large sum was then allowed to indemnify him and the
governor of Cuba for the charges of the expedition and the loss of the
fleet, The garrison of Vera Cruz was also to be provided for. Ample
compensation was made to the principal cavaliers. The cavalry,
arquebusiers, and crossbowmen, each received double pay. So that
when the turn of the common soldiers came, there remained not more
than a hundred pesos de oro for each; a sum so insignificant, in
comparison with their expectations, that several refused to accept it.
Loud murmurs now rose among the men. "Was it for this," they said,
"that we left our homes and families, perilled our lives, submitted to
fatigue and famine, and all for so contemptible a pittance! Better
to have stayed in Cuba, and contented ourselves with the gains of a
safe and easy traffic. When we gave up our share of the gold at Vera
Cruz, it was on the assurance that we should be amply requited in
Mexico. We have indeed, found the riches we expected; but no sooner
seen, than they are snatched from us by the very men who pledged us
their faith!" The malcontents even went so far as to accuse their
leaders of appropriating to themselves several of the richest
ornaments, before the partition had been made; an accusation that
receives some countenance from a dispute which arose between Mexia,
the treasurer for the crown, and Velasquez de Leon, a relation of
the governor, and a favourite of Cortes. The treasurer accused this
cavalier of purloining certain pieces of plate before they were
submitted to the royal stamp. From words the parties came to blows.
They were good swordsmen; several wounds were given on both sides, and
the affair might have ended fatally, but for the interference of
Cortes, who placed both under arrest.
He then used all his authority and insinuating eloquence to calm
the passions of his men. It was a delicate crisis. He was sorry, he
said, to see them so unmindful of the duty of loyal soldiers, and
cavaliers of the Cross, as to brawl like common banditti over their
booty. The division, he assured them, had been made on perfectly
fair and equitable principles. As to his own share, it was no more
than was warranted by his commission. Yet, if they thought it too
much, he was willing to forego his just claims, and divide with the
poorest soldier. Gold, however welcome, was not the chief object of
his ambition. If it were theirs, they should still reflect, that the
present treasure was little in comparison with what awaited them
hereafter; for had they not the whole country and its mines at their
disposal? It was only necessary that they should not give an opening
to the enemy, by their discord, to circumvent and to crush them.
With these honeyed words, of which he had good store for all fitting
occasions, says an old soldier, for whose benefit, in part, they
were intended, he succeeded in calming the storm for the present;
while in private he took more effectual means, by presents judiciously
administered, to mitigate the discontents of the importunate and
refractory. And, although there were a few of more tenacious temper,
who treasured this in their memories against a future day, the
troops soon returned to their usual subordination. This was one of
those critical conjunctures which taxed all the address and personal
authority of Cortes. He never shrunk from them, but on such
occasions was true to himself. At Vera Cruz, he had persuaded his
followers to give up what was but the earnest of future gains. Here he
persuaded them to relinquish these gains themselves. It was
snatching the prey from the very jaws of the lion. Why did he not turn
and rend him?
To many of the soldiers, indeed, it mattered little whether
their share of the booty were more or less. Gaming is a deep-rooted
passion in the Spaniard, and the sudden acquisition of riches
furnished both the means and the motive for its indulgence. Cards were
easily made out of old parchment drumheads, and in a few days most
of the prize-money, obtained with so much toil and suffering, had
changed hands, and many of the improvident soldiers closed the
campaign as poor as they had commenced it. Others, it is true, more
prudent, followed the example of their officers, who, with the aid
of the royal jewellers, converted their gold into chains, services
of plate, and other portable articles of ornament or use.
Cortes seemed now to have accomplished the great objects of the
expedition. The Indian monarch had declared himself the feudatory of
the Spanish. His authority, his revenues, were at the disposal of
the general. The conquest of Mexico seemed to be achieved, and that
without a blow. But it was far from being achieved. One important step
yet remained to be taken, towards which the Spaniards had hitherto
made little progress,- the conversion of the natives. With all the
exertions of Father Olmedo, backed by the polemic talents of the
general, neither Montezuma nor his subjects showed any disposition
to abjure the faith of their fathers. The bloody exercises of their
religion, on the contrary, were celebrated with all the usual
circumstance and pomp of sacrifice before the eyes of the Spaniards.
Unable further to endure these abominations, Cortes, attended by
several of his cavaliers, waited on Montezuma. He told the emperor
that the Christians could no longer consent to have the services of
their religion shut up within the narrow walls of the garrison. They
wished to spread its light far abroad, and to open to the people a
full participation in the blessings of Christianity. For this
purpose they requested that the great teocalli should be delivered up,
as a fit place where their worship might be conducted in the
presence of the whole city.
Montezuma listened to the proposal with visible consternation.
Amidst all his troubles he had leaned for support on his own faith,
and, indeed, it was in obedience to it that he had shown such
deference to the Spaniards as the mysterious messenger predicted by
the oracles. "Why," said he, "Malinche, why will you urge matters to
an extremity, that must surely bring down the vengeance of our gods,
and stir up an insurrection among my people, who will never endure
this profanation of their temples?"
Cortes, seeing how greatly he was moved, made a sign to his
officers to withdraw. When left alone with the interpreters, he told
the emperor that he would use his influence to moderate the zeal of
his followers, and persuade them to be contented with one of the
sanctuaries of the teocalli. If that were not granted, they should
be obliged to take it by force, and to roll down the images of his
false deities in the face of the city. "We fear not for our lives," he
added, "for, though our numbers are few, the arm of the true God is
over us." Montezuma, much agitated, told him that he would confer with
the priests.
The result of the conference was favourable to the Spaniards,
who were allowed to occupy one of the sanctuaries as a Place of
worship. The tidings spread great joy throughout the camp. They
might now go forth in open day and publish their religion to the
assembled capital. No time was lost in availing themselves of the
permission. The sanctuary was cleansed of its disgusting impurities An
altar was raised, surmounted by a crucifix and the image of the
Virgin. Instead of the gold and jewels which blazed on the
neighbouring pagan shrine, its walls were decorated with fresh
garlands of flowers; and an old soldier was stationed to watch over
the chapel, and guard it from intrusion.
When these arrangements were completed, the whole army moved in
solemn procession up the winding ascent of the pyramid. Entering the
sanctuary, and clustering round its portals, they listened
reverently to the service of the mass, as it was performed by the
fathers Olmedo and Diaz. And as the beautiful Te Deum rose towards
heaven, Cortes and his soldiers, kneeling on the ground, with tears
streaming from their eyes, poured forth their gratitude to the
Almighty for this glorious triumph of the Cross.
It was a striking spectacle,- that of these rude warriors
lifting up their orisons on the summit of this mountain temple, in the
very capital of heathendom, on the spot especially dedicated to its
unhallowed mysteries. Side by side, the Spaniard and the Aztec knelt
down in prayer; and the Christian hymn mingled its sweet tones of love
and mercy with the wild chant raised by the Indian priest in honour of
the war-god of Anahuac! It was an unnatural union, and could not
long abide.
A nation will endure any outrage sooner than that on its religion.
This is an outrage both on its principles and its prejudices; on the
ideas instilled into it from childhood, which have strengthened with
its growth, until they become a part of its nature,- which have to
do with its highest interests here, and with the dread hereafter.
Any violence to the religious sentiment touches all alike, the old and
the young, the rich and the poor, the noble and the plebeian. Above
all, it touches the priests, whose personal consideration rests on
that of their religion; and who, in a semi-civilised state of society,
usually hold an unbounded authority. Thus it was with the Brahmins
of India, the Magi of Persia, the Roman Catholic clergy in the Dark
Ages, the priests of ancient Egypt and Mexico.
The people had borne with patience all the injuries and affronts
hitherto put on them by the Spaniards. They had seen their sovereign
dragged as a captive from his own palace; his ministers butchered
before his eyes; his treasures seized and appropriated; himself in a
manner deposed from his royal supremacy. All this they had seen
without a struggle to prevent it. But the profanation of their temples
touched a deeper feeling, of which the priesthood were not slow to
take advantage.
The first intimation of this change of feeling was gathered from
Montezuma himself. Instead of his usual cheerfulness, he appeared
grave and abstracted, and instead of seeking, as he was wont, the
society of the Spaniards, seemed rather to shun it. It was noticed,
too, that conferences were more frequent between him and the nobles,
and especially the priests. His little page, Orteguilla, who had now
picked up a tolerable acquaintance with the Aztec, contrary to
Montezuma's usual practice, was not allowed to attend him at these
meetings. These circumstances could not fail to awaken most
uncomfortable apprehensions in the Spaniards.
Not many days elapsed, however, before Cortes received an
invitation, or rather a summons, from the emperor, to attend him in
his apartment. The general went with some feelings of anxiety and
distrust, taking with him Olid, captain of the guard, and two or three
other trusty cavaliers. Montezuma received them with cold civility,
and, turning to the general, told him that all his predictions had
come to pass. The gods of his country had been offended by the
violation of their temples. They had threatened the priests that
they would forsake the city, if the sacrilegious strangers were not
driven from it, or rather sacrificed on the altars, in expiation of
their crimes. The monarch assured the Christians, it was from regard
to their safety that he communicated this; and, "if you have any
regard for it yourselves," he concluded, "you will leave the country
without delay. I have only to raise my finger, and every Aztec in
the land will rise in arms against you." There was no reason to
doubt his sincerity; for Montezuma, whatever evils had been brought on
him by the white men, held them in reverence as a race more highly
gifted than his own, while for several, as we have seen, he had
conceived an attachment, flowing, no doubt, from their personal
attentions and deferences to himself.
Cortes was too much master of his feelings to show how far he
was startled by this intelligence. He replied with admirable coolness,
that he should regret much to leave the capital so precipitately, when
he had no vessels to take him from the country. If it were not for
this, there could be no obstacle to his leaving it at once. He
should also regret another step to which he should be driven, if he
quitted it under these circumstances,- that of taking the emperor
along with him.
Montezuma was evidently troubled by this last suggestion. He
inquired how long it would take to build the vessels, and finally
consented to send a sufficient number of workmen to the coast, to
act under the orders of the Spaniards; meanwhile, he would use his
authority to restrain the impatience of the people, under the
assurance that the white men would leave the land, when the means
for it were provided. He kept his word. A large body of Aztec artisans
left the capital with the most experienced Castilian ship-builders,
and, descending to Vera Cruz, began at once to fell the timber and
build a sufficient number of ships to transport the Spaniards back
to their own country. The work went forward with apparent alacrity.
But those who had the direction of it, it is said, received private
instructions from the general to interpose as many delays as possible,
in hopes of receiving in the meantime such reinforcements from
Europe as would enable him to maintain his ground.
The whole aspect of things was now changed in the Castilian
quarters. Instead of the security and repose in which the troops had
of late indulged, they felt a gloomy apprehension of danger, not the
less oppressive to the spirits, that it was scarcely visible to the
eye;- like the faint speck just descried above the horizon by the
voyager in the tropics, to the common gaze seeming only a summer
cloud, but which to the experienced mariner bodes the coming of the
hurricane. Every precaution that prudence could devise was taken to
meet it. The soldier, as he threw himself on his mats for repose, kept
on his armour. He ate, drank, slept, with his weapons by his side. His
horse stood ready caparisoned, day and night, with the bridle
hanging at the saddle-bow. The guns were carefully planted, so as to
command the great avenues. The sentinels were doubled, and every
man, of whatever rank, took his turn in mounting guard. The garrison
was in a state of siege. Such was the uncomfortable position of the
army when, in the beginning of May, 1520, six months after their
arrival in the capital, tidings came from the coast, which gave
greater alarm to Cortes, than even the menaced insurrection of the
Chapter VI [1520]


BEFORE explaining the nature of the tidings alluded to in the
preceding chapter, it will be necessary to cast a glance over some
of the transactions of an earlier period. The vessel, which, as the
reader may remember, bore the envoys Puertocarrero and Montejo with
the despatches from Vera Cruz, after touching, contrary to orders,
at the northern coast of Cuba, and spreading the news of the late
discoveries, held on its way uninterrupted towards Spain, and early in
October, 1519, reached the little port of San Lucar. Great was the
sensation caused by her arrival and the tidings which she brought; a
sensation scarcely inferior to that created by the original
discovery of Columbus. For now, for the first time, all the
magnificent anticipations formed of the New World seemed destined to
be realised.
Unfortunately, there was a person in Seville, at this time,
named Benito Martin, chaplain of Velasquez, the governor of Cuba. No
sooner did this man learn the arrival of the envoys, and the
particulars of their story, than he lodged a complaint with the Casa
de Contratacion,- the Royal India House,- charging those on board
the vessel with mutiny and rebellion against the authorities of
Cuba, as well as with treason to the crown. In consequence of his
representations, the ship was taken possession of by the public
officers, and those on board were prohibited from moving their own
effects, or anything else from her. The envoys were not even allowed
the funds necessary for the expenses of the voyage, nor a considerable
sum remitted by Cortes to his father, Don Martin. In this
embarrassment they had no alternative but to present themselves, as
speedily as possible, before the emperor, deliver the letters with
which they had been charged by the colony, and seek redress for
their own grievances. They first sought out Martin Cortes, residing at
Medellin, and with him made the best of their way to court.
Charles the Fifth was then on his first visit to Spain after his
accession. It was not a long one; long enough, however, to disgust his
subjects, and, in a great degree, to alienate their affections. He had
lately received intelligence of his election to the imperial crown
of Germany. From that hour, his eyes were turned to that quarter.
His stay in the Peninsula was prolonged only that he might raise
supplies for appearing with splendour on the great theatre of
Europe. Every act showed too plainly that the diadem of his
ancestors was held lightly in comparison with the imperial bauble in
which neither his countrymen nor his own posterity could have the
slightest interest. The interest was wholly personal.
Contrary to established usage, he had summoned the Castilian
cortes to meet at Compostella, a remote town in the north, which
presented no other advantage than that of being near his place of
embarkation. On his way thither he stopped some time at Tordesillas,
the residence of his unhappy mother, Joanna "The Mad." It was here
that the envoys from Vera Cruz presented themselves before him, in
March, 1520. At nearly the same time, the treasures brought over by
them reached the court, where they excited unbounded admiration.
Hitherto, the returns from the New World had been chiefly in vegetable
products, which, if the surest, are also the. slowest, sources of
wealth. Of gold they had as yet seen but little, and that in its
natural state, or wrought into the rudest trinkets. The courtiers
gazed with astonishment on the large masses of the precious metal, and
the delicate manufacture of the various articles, especially of the
richly-tinted feather-work. And, as they listened to the accounts,
written and oral, of the great Aztec empire, they felt assured that
the Castilian ships had, at length, reached the golden Indies, which
hitherto had seemed to recede before them.
In this favourable mood there is little doubt the monarch would
have granted the petition of the envoys, and confirmed the irregular
proceedings of the Conquerors, but for the opposition of a person
who held the highest office in the Indian department. This was Juan
Rodriguez de Fonseca, formerly dean of Seville, now bishop of
Burgos. He was a man of noble family, and had been intrusted with
the direction of the colonial concerns, on the discovery of the New
World. On the establishment of the Royal Council of the Indies by
Ferdinand the Catholic, he had been made its president, and had
occupied that post ever since. His long continuance in a position of
great importance and difficulty is evidence of capacity for
business. It was no uncommon thing in that age to find ecclesiastics
in high civil, and even military employments. Fonseca appears to
have been an active, efficient person, better suited to a secular than
to a religious vocation. He had, indeed, little that was religious
in his temper; quick to take offence, and slow to forgive. His
resentments seem to have been nourished and perpetuated like a part of
his own nature. Unfortunately his peculiar position enabled him to
display them towards some of the most illustrious men of his time.
From pique at some real or fancied slight from Columbus, he had
constantly thwarted the plans of the great navigator. He had shown the
same unfriendly feeling towards the admiral's son, Diego, the heir
of his honours; and he now, and from this time forward, showed a
similar spirit towards the Conqueror of Mexico. The immediate cause of
this was his own personal relations with Velasquez, to whom a near
relative was betrothed.
Through this prelate's representations, Charles, instead of a
favourable answer to the envoys, postponed his decision till he should
arrive at Coruna, the place of embarkation. But here he was much
pressed by the troubles which his impolitic conduct had raised, as
well as by preparations for his voyage. The transaction of the
colonial business, which, long postponed, had greatly accumulated on
his hands, was reserved for the last week in Spain. But the affairs of
the "young admiral" consumed so large a portion of this, that he had
no time to give to those of Cortes; except, indeed, to instruct the
board at Seville to remit to the envoys so much of their funds as
was required to defray the charges of the voyage. On the 16th of
May, 1520, the impatient monarch bade adieu to his distracted kingdom,
without one attempt to settle the dispute between his belligerent
vassals in the New World, and without an effort to promote the
magnificent enterprise which was to secure to him the possession of an
empire. What a contrast to the policy of his illustrious predecessors,
Ferdinand and Isabella!
The governor of Cuba, meanwhile, without waiting for support
from home, took measures for redress into his own hands. We have seen,
in a preceding chapter, how deeply he was moved by the reports of
the proceedings of Cortes and of the treasures which his vessel was
bearing to Spain. Rage, mortification, disappointed avarice,
distracted his mind. He could not forgive himself for trusting the
affair to such hands. On the very week in which Cortes had parted from
him to take charge of the fleet, a capitulation had been signed by
Charles the Fifth, conferring on Velasquez the title of adelantado,
with great augmentation of his original powers. The governor resolved,
without loss of time, to send such a force to the Aztec coast, as
should enable him to assert his new authority to its full extent,
and to take vengeance on his rebellious officer. He began his
preparations as early as October. At first, he proposed to assume
the command in person. But his unwieldy size, which disqualified him
for the fatigues incident to such an expedition, or, according to
his own account, tenderness for his Indian subjects, then wasted by an
epidemic, induced him to devolve the command on another.
The person whom he selected was a Castilian hidalgo, named Panfilo
de Narvaez. He had assisted Velasquez in the reduction of Cuba,
where his conduct cannot be wholly vindicated from the charge of
inhumanity, which too often attaches to the early Spanish adventurers.
From that time he continued to hold important posts under the
government, and was a decided favourite with Velasquez. He was a man
of some military capacity, though negligent and lax in his discipline.
He possessed undoubted courage, but it was mingled with an
arrogance, or rather overweening confidence in his own powers, which
made him deaf to the suggestions of others more sagacious than
himself. He was altogether deficient in that prudence and
calculating foresight demanded in a leader who was to cope with an
antagonist like Cortes.
The governor and his lieutenant were unwearied in their efforts to
assemble an army. They visited every considerable town in the
island, fitting out vessels, laying in stores and ammunition, and
encouraging volunteers to enlist by liberal promises. But the most
effectual bounty was the assurance of the rich treasures that
awaited them in the golden regions of Mexico. So confident were they
in this expectation, that all classes and ages vied with one another
in eagerness to embark in the expedition, until it seemed as if the
whole white population would desert the island, and leave it to its
primitive occupants.
The report of these proceedings soon spread through the islands,
and drew the attention of the Royal Audience of St. Domingo. This body
was intrusted, at that time, not only with the highest judicial
authority in the colonies, but with a civil jurisdiction, which, as
"the Admiral" complained, encroached on his own rights. The tribunal
saw with alarm the proposed expedition of Velasquez, which, whatever
might be its issue in regard to the parties, could not fail to
compromise the interests of the crown. They chose accordingly one of
their number, the licentiate Ayllon, a man of prudence and resolution,
and despatched him to Cuba, with instructions to interpose his
authority, and stay, if possible, the proceedings of Velasquez.
On his arrival, he found the governor in the western part of the
island, busily occupied in getting the fleet ready for sea. The
licentiate explained to him the purport of his mission, and the
views entertained of the proposed enterprise by the Royal Audience.
The conquest of a powerful country like Mexico required the whole
force of the Spaniards, and, if one half were employed against the
other, nothing but ruin could come of it. It was the governor's
duty, as a good subject, to forego all private animosities, and to
sustain those now engaged in the great work by sending them the
necessary supplies. He might, indeed, proclaim his own powers, and
demand obedience to them. But, if this were refused, he should leave
the determination of his dispute to the authorised tribunals, and
employ his resources in prosecuting discovery in another direction,
instead of hazarding all by hostilities with his rival.
This admonition, however sensible and salutary, was not at all
to the taste of the governor. He professed, indeed, to have no
intention of coming to hostilities with Cortes. He designed only to
assert his lawful jurisdiction over territories discovered under his
own auspices. At the same time he denied the right of Ayllon or of the
Royal Audience to interfere in the matter. Narvaez was still more
refractory; and, as the fleet was now ready, proclaimed his
intention to sail in a few hours. In this state of things, the
licentiate, baffled in his first purpose of staying the expedition,
determined to accompany it in person, that he might prevent, if
possible, by his presence, an open rupture between the parties.
The squadron consisted of eighteen vessels, large and small. It
carried nine hundred men, eighty of whom were cavalry, eighty more
arquebusiers, one hundred and fifty crossbowmen, with a number of
heavy guns, and a large supply of ammunition and military stores.
There were, besides, a thousand Indians, natives of the island, who
went probably in a menial capacity. So gallant an armada- with one
exception, the great fleet under Ovando, 1501, in which Cortes had
intended to embark for the New World,- never before rode in the Indian
seas. None to compare with it had ever been fitted out in the
Western World.
Leaving Cuba early in March, 1520, Narvaez held nearly the same
course as Cortes, and running down what was then called the "Island of
Yucatan," after a heavy tempest, in which some of his smaller
vessels foundered, anchored, April 23, off San Juan de Ulua. It was
the place where Cortes also had first landed; the sandy waste
covered by the present city of Vera Cruz.
Here the commander met with a Spaniard, one of those sent by the
general from Mexico, to ascertain the resources of the country,
especially its mineral products. This man came on board the fleet, and
from him the Spaniards gathered the particulars of all that had
occurred since the departure of the envoys from Vera Cruz,- the
march into the interior, the bloody battles with the Tlascalans, the
occupation of Mexico, the rich treasures found in it, and the
seizure of the monarch, by means of which, concluded the soldier,
"Cortes rules over the land like its own sovereign, so that a Spaniard
may travel unarmed from one end of the country to the other, without
insult or injury." His audience listened to this marvellous report
with speechless amazement, and the loyal indignation of Narvaez
waxed stronger and stronger, as he learned the value of the prize
which had been snatched from his employer.
He now openly proclaimed his intention to march against Cortes,
and punish him for his rebellion. He made this vaunt so loudly, that
the natives who had flocked in numbers to the camp, which was soon
formed on shore, clearly comprehended that the new comers were not
friends, but enemies, of the preceding. Narvaez determined, also,-
though in opposition to the counsel of the Spaniard, who quoted the
example of Cortes,- to establish a settlement on this unpromising
spot: and he made the necessary arrangements to organise a
municipality. He was informed by the soldier of the existence of the
neighbouring colony at Villa Rica, commanded by Sandoval, and
consisting of a few invalids, who, he was assured, would surrender
on the first summons. Instead of marching against the place,
however, he determined to send a peaceful embassy to display his
powers, and demand the submission of the garrison.
These successive steps gave serious displeasure to Ayllon, who saw
they must lead to inevitable collision with Cortes. But it was in vain
he remonstrated, and threatened to lay the proceedings of Narvaez
before the government. The latter, chafed by his continued
opposition and sour rebuke, determined to rid himself of a companion
who acted as a spy on his movements. He caused him to be seized and
sent back to Cuba. The licentiate had the address to persuade the
captain of the vessel to change her destination for St. Domingo;
and, when he arrived there, a formal report of his proceedings,
exhibiting in strong colours the disloyal conduct of the governor
and his lieutenant, was prepared and despatched by the Royal
Audience to Spain.
Sandoval, meanwhile, had not been inattentive to the movements
of Narvaez. From the time of his first appearance on the coast, that
vigilant officer, distrusting the object of the armament, had kept his
eye on him. No sooner was he apprised of the landing of the Spaniards,
than the commander of Villa Rica sent off his few disabled soldiers to
a place of safety in the neighbourhood. He then put his works in the
best posture of defence that he could, and prepared to maintain the
place to the last extremity. His men promised to stand by him, and,
the more effectually to fortify the resolution of any who might
falter, he ordered a gallows to be set up in a conspicuous part of the
town! The constancy of his men was not put to the trial.
The only invaders of the place were a priest, a notary, and four
other Spaniards, selected for the mission already noticed, by Narvaez.
The ecclesiastic's name was Guevara. On coming before Sandoval, he
made him a formal address, in which he pompously enumerated the
services and claims of Velasquez, taxed Cortes and his adherents
with rebellion, and demanded of Sandoval to tender his submission as a
loyal subject to the newly constituted authority of Narvaez.
The commander of La Villa Rica was so much incensed at this
unceremonious mention of his companions in arms, that he assured the
reverend envoy, that nothing but respect for his cloth saved him
from the chastisement he merited. Guevara now waxed wroth in his turn,
and called on the notary to read the proclamation. But Sandoval
interposed, promising that functionary, that, if he attempted to do
so, without first producing a warrant of his authority from the crown,
he should be soundly flogged. Guevara lost all command of himself at
this, and stamping on the ground repeated his orders in a more
peremptory tone than before. Sandoval was not a man of many words;
he simply remarked, that the instrument should be read to the
general himself in Mexico. At the same time, he ordered his men to
procure a number of sturdy tamanes, or Indian porters, on whose
backs the unfortunate priest and his companions were bound like so
many bales of goods. They were then placed under a guard of twenty
Spaniards, and the whole caravan took its march for the capital. Day
and night they travelled, stopping only to obtain fresh relays of
carriers; and as they passed through populous towns, forests and
cultivated fields, vanishing as soon as seen, the Spaniards,
bewildered by the strangeness of the scene, as well as of their
novel mode of conveyance, hardly knew whether they were awake or in
a dream. In this way, at the end of the fourth day, they reached the
Tezcucan lake in view of the Aztec capital.
Its inhabitants had already been made acquainted with the fresh
arrival of white men on the coast. Indeed, directly on their
landing, intelligence had been communicated to Montezuma, who is
said does not seem probable) to have concealed it some days from
Cortes. At length, inviting him to an interview, he told him there was
no longer any obstacle to his leaving the country, as a fleet was
ready for him. To the inquiries of the astonished general, Montezuma
replied by pointing to a hieroglyphical map sent him from the coast,
on which the ships, the Spaniards themselves, and their whole
equipment, were minutely delineated. Cortes, suppressing all
emotions but those of pleasure, exclaimed, "Blessed be the Redeemer
for his mercies!" On returning to his quarters, the tidings were
received by the troops with loud shouts, the firing of cannon, and
other demonstrations of joy. They hailed the new comers as a
reinforcement from Spain. Not so their commander. From the first, he
suspected them to be sent by his enemy, the governor of Cuba. He
communicated his suspicions to his officers, through whom they
gradually found their way among the men. The tide of joy was instantly
checked. Alarming apprehensions succeeded, as they dwelt on the
probability of this suggestion, and on the strength of the invaders.
Yet their constancy did not desert them; and they pledged themselves
to remain true to their cause, and, come what might, to stand by their
leader. It was one of those occasions, that proved the entire
influence which Cortes held over these wild adventurers. All doubts
were soon dispelled by the arrival of the prisoners from Villa Rica.
One of the convoy, leaving the party in the suburbs, entered the
city, and delivered a letter to the general from Sandoval, acquainting
him with all the particulars. Cortes instantly sent to the
prisoners, ordered them to be released, and furnished them with horses
to make their entrance into the capital,- a more creditable conveyance
than the backs of tamanes. On their arrival, he received them with
marked courtesy, apologised for the rude conduct of his officers,
and seemed desirous by the most assiduous attentions to soothe the
irritation of their minds. He showed his good will still further by
lavishing presents on Guevara and his associates, until he gradually
wrought such a change in their dispositions, that, from enemies, he
converted them into friends, and drew forth many important particulars
respecting not merely the designs of their leader, but the feelings of
his army. The soldiers, in general, they said, far from desiring a
rupture with those of Cortes, would willingly co-operate with them,
were it not for their commander. They had no feelings of resentment to
gratify. Their object was gold. The personal influence of Narvaez
was not great, and his arrogance and penurious temper had already gone
far to alienate from him the affections of his followers. These
hints were not lost on the general.
He addressed a letter to his rival in the most conciliatory terms.
He besought him not to proclaim their animosity to the world, and,
by kindling a spirit of insubordination in the natives, unsettle all
that had been so far secured. A violent collision must be
prejudicial even to the victor, and might be fatal to both. It was
only in union that they could look for success. He was ready to
greet Narvaez as a brother in arms, to share with him the fruits of
conquest, and, if he could produce a royal commission, to submit to
his authority. Cortes well knew he had no such commission to show.
Soon after the departure of Guevara and his comrades, the
general determined to send a special envoy of his own. The person
selected for this delicate office was Father Olmedo, who, through
the campaign, had shown a practical good sense, and a talent for
affairs, not always to be found in persons of his spiritual calling.
He was intrusted with another epistle to Narvaez, of similar import
with the preceding. Cortes wrote, also, to the licentiate Ayllon, with
whose departure he was not acquainted, and to Andres de Duero,
former secretary of Velasquez, and his own friend, who had come over
in the present fleet. Olmedo was instructed to converse with these
persons in private, as well as with the principal officers and
soldiers, and, as far as possible, to infuse into them a spirit of
accommodation. To give greater weight to his arguments, he was
furnished with a liberal supply of gold.
During this time, Narvaez had abandoned his original design of
planting a colony on the sea-coast, and had crossed the country to
Cempoalla, where he had taken up his quarters. He was here when
Guevara returned, and presented the letter of Cortes.
Narvaez glanced over it with a look of contempt, which was changed
into one of stern displeasure, as his envoy enlarged on the
resources and formidable character of his rival, counselling him, by
all means, to accept his proffers of amity. A different effect was
produced on the troops, who listened with greedy ears to the
accounts given of Cortes, his frank and liberal manners, which they
involuntarily contrasted with those of their own commander, the wealth
in his camp, where the humblest private could stake his ingot and
chain of gold at play, where all revelled in plenty, and the life of
the soldier seemed to be one long holiday. Guevara had been admitted
only to the sunny side of the picture.
The impression made by these accounts was confirmed by the
presence of Olmedo. The ecclesiastic delivered his missives, in like
manner, to Narvaez, who ran through their contents with feelings of
anger which found vent in the most opprobrious invectives against
his rival; while one of his captains, named Salvatierra, openly avowed
his intention to cut off the rebel's ears, and broil them for his
breakfast! Such impotent sallies did not alarm the stout-hearted
friar, who soon entered into communication with many of the officers
and soldiers, whom he found better inclined to an accommodation. His
insinuating eloquence, backed by his liberal largesses, gradually
opened a way into their hearts, and a party was formed under the
very eye of their chief, better affected to his rival's interests than
to his own. The intrigue could not be conducted so secretly as
wholly to elude the suspicions of Narvaez, who would have arrested
Olmedo and placed him under confinement, but for the interposition
of Duero. He put a stop to his further machinations by sending him
back again to his master. But the poison was left to do its work.
Narvaez made the same vaunt as at his landing, of his design to
march against Cortes and apprehend him as a traitor. The Cempoallans
learned with astonishment that their new guests, though the
countrymen, were enemies of their former. Narvaez also proclaimd his
intention to release Montezuma from captivity, and restore him to
his throne. It is said he received a rich present from the Aztec
emperor, who entered into a correspondence with him. That Montezuma
should have treated him with his usual munificence, supposing him to
be the friend of Cortes, is very probable. But that he should have
entered into a secret communication, hostile to the general's
interests, is too repugnant to the whole tenor of his conduct, to be
lightly admitted.
These proceedings did not escape the watchful eye of Sandoval.
He gathered the particulars partly from deserters, who fled to Villa
Rica, and partly from his own agents, who in the disguise of natives
mingled in the enemy's camp. He sent a full account of them to Cortes,
acquainted him with the growing defection of the Indians, and urged
him to take speedy measures for the defence of Villa Rica, if he would
not see it fall into the enemy's hands. The general felt that it was
time to act.
Yet the selection of the course to be pursued was embarrassing
in the extreme. If he remained in Mexico and awaited there the
attack of his rival, it would give the latter time to gather round him
the whole forces of the empire, including those of the capital itself,
all willing, no doubt, to serve under the banners of a chief who
proposed the liberation of their master. The odds were too great to be
If he marched against Narvaez, he must either abandon the city and
the emperor, the fruit of all his toils and triumphs, or, by leaving a
garrison to hold them in awe, must cripple his strength, already far
too weak to cope with that of his adversary. Yet on this latter course
he decided. He trusted less, perhaps, to an open encounter of arms,
than to the influence of his personal address and previous
intrigues, to bring about an amicable arrangement. But he prepared
himself for either result.
In the preceding chapter, it was mentioned that Velasquez de
Leon was sent with a hundred and fifty men to plant a colony on one of
the great rivers emptying into the Mexican Gulf. Cortes, on learning
the arrival of Narvaez, had despatched a messenger to his officer to
acquaint him with the fact, and to arrest his further progress. But
Velasquez had already received notice of it from Narvaez himself, who,
in a letter written soon after his landing, had adjured him in the
name of his kinsman, the governor of Cuba, to quit the banners of
Cortes, and come over to him. That officer, however, had long since
buried the feelings of resentment which he had once nourished
against his general, to whom he was now devotedly attached, and who
had honoured him throughout the campaign with particular regard.
Cortes had early seen the importance of securing this cavalier to
his interests. Without waiting for orders, Velasquez abandoned his
expedition, and commenced a countermarch on the capital, when he
received the general's commands to wait him in Cholula.
Cortes had also sent to the distant province of Chinantla,
situated far to the south-east of Cholula, for a reinforcement of
two thousand natives. They were a bold race, hostile to the
Mexicans, and had offered their services to him since his residence in
the metropolis. They used a long spear in battle, longer, indeed, than
that borne by the Spanish or German infantry. Cortes ordered three
hundred of their double-headed lances to be made for him, and to be
tipped with copper instead of itztli. With this formidable weapon he
proposed to foil the cavalry of his enemy.
The command of the garrison, in his absence, he instrusted to
Pedro de Alvarado,- the Tonatiuh of the Mexicans,- a man possessed
of many commanding qualities, of an intrepid, though somewhat arrogant
spirit, and his warm personal friend. He inculcated on him
moderation and forbearance. He was to keep a close watch on
Montezuma, for on the possession of the royal person rested all
their authority in the land. He was to show him the deference alike
due to his high station, and demanded by policy. He was to pay uniform
respect to the usages and the prejudices of the people; remembering
that though his small force would be large enough to overawe them in
times of quiet, yet, should they be once roused, it would be swept
away like chaff before the whirlwind.
From Montezuma he exacted a promise to maintain the same
friendly relations with his lieutenant which he had preserved
towards himself. This, said Cortes, would be most grateful to his
own master, the Spanish sovereign. Should the Aztec prince do
otherwise, and lend himself to any hostile movement, he must be
convinced that he would fall the first victim of it.
The emperor assured him of his continued good will. He was much
perplexed, however, by the recent events. Were the at his court, or
those just landed, the true representatives of their sovereign?
Cortes, who had hitherto maintained a reserve on the subject, now told
him that the latter were indeed his countrymen, but traitors to his
master. As such it was his painful duty to march against them, and,
when he had chastised their rebellion, he should return, before his
departure from the land, in triumph to the capital. Montezuma
offered to support him with five thousand Aztec warriors; but the
general declined it, not choosing to encumber himself with a body of
doubtful, perhaps disaffected, auxiliaries.
He left in garrison, under Alvarado, one hundred and forty men,
two-thirds of his whole force. With these remained all the
artillery, the greater part of the little body of horse, and most of
the arquebusiers. He took with him only seventy soldiers, but they
were men of the most mettle in the army and his staunch adherents.
They were lightly armed, and encumbered with as little baggage as
possible. Everything depended on celerity of movement.
Montezuma, in his royal litter, borne on the shoulders of his
nobles, and escorted by the whole Spanish infantry, accompanied the
general to the causeway. There, embracing him in the most cordial
manner, they parted, with all the external marks of mutual regard.- It
was about the middle of May, 1520, more than six months since the
entrance of the Spaniards into Mexico. During this time they had
lorded it over the land with absolute sway. They were now leaving
the city in hostile array, not against an Indian foe, but their own
countrymen. It was the beginning of a long career of calamity,-
chequered, indeed, by occasional triumphs,- which was yet to be run
before the Conquest could be completed.
Chapter VII [1520]


TRAVERSING the southern causeway, by which they had entered the
capital, the little party were soon on their march across the
beautiful valley. They climbed the mountain-screen which Nature has so
ineffectually drawn around it; passed between the huge volcanoes that,
like faithless watch-dogs on their posts, have long since been
buried in slumber; threaded the intricate defiles where they had
before experienced such bleak and tempestuous weather; and, emerging
on the other side, descended the eastern slope which opens on the wide
expanse of the fruitful plateau of Cholula.
They heeded little of what they saw on their rapid march, nor
whether it was cold or hot. The anxiety of their minds made them
indifferent to outward annoyances; and they had fortunately none to
encounter from the natives, for the name of Spaniard was in itself a
charm,- a better guard than helm or buckler to the bearer.
In Cholula, Cortes had the inexpressible satisfaction of meeting
Velasquez de Leon, with the hundred and twenty soldiers intrusted to
his command for the formation of a colony. That faithful officer had
been some time at Cholula, waiting for the general's approach. Had
he failed, the enterprise of Cortes must have failed also. The idea of
resistance, with his own handful of followers, would have been
chimerical. As it was, his little band was now trebled, and acquired a
confidence in proportion.
Cordially embracing their companions in arms, now knit together
more closely than ever by the sense of a great and common danger,
the combined troops traversed with quick step the streets of the
sacred city, where many a dark pile of ruins told of their
disastrous visit on the preceding autumn. They kept the high road to
Tlascala; and, at not many leagues' distance from that capital, fell
in with Father Olmedo and his companions on their return from the camp
of Narvaez. The ecclesiastic bore a letter from that commander, in
which he summoned Cortes and his followers to submit to his authority,
as captain-general of the country, menacing them with condign
punishment, in case of refusal or delay. Olmedo gave many curious
particulars of the state of the enemy's camp. Narvaez he described
as puffed up by authority, and negligent of precautions against a
foe whom he held in contempt. He was surrounded by a number of pompous
conceited officers, who ministered to his vanity, and whose braggart
tones, the good father, who had an eye for the ridiculous, imitated,
to the no small diversion of Cortes and the soldiers. Many of the
troops, he said, showed no great partiality for their commander, and
were strongly disinclined to a rupture with their countrymen; a
state of feeling much promoted by the accounts they had received of
Cortes, by his own arguments and promises, and by the liberal
distribution of the gold with which he had been provided. In
addition to these matters, Cortes gathered much important intelligence
respecting the position of the enemy's force, and his general plan
of operations.
At Tlascala, the Spaniards were received with a frank and friendly
hospitality. It is not said whether any of the Tlascalan allies
accompanied them from Mexico. If they did, they went no further than
their native city. Cortes requested a reinforcement of six hundred
fresh troops to attend him on his present expedition. It was readily
granted; but, before the army had proceeded many miles on its route,
the Indian auxiliaries fell off, one after another, and returned to
their city. They had no personal feeling of animosity to gratify in
the present instance, as in a war against Mexico. It may be, too, that
although intrepid in a contest with the bravest of the Indian races,
they had too fatal experience of the prowess of the white men to
care to measure swords with them again. At any rate, they deserted
in such numbers that Cortes dismissed the remainder at once, saying,
good-humouredly, "He had rather part with them then, than in the
hour of trial."
The troops soon entered on that wild district in the neighbourhood
of Perote, strewed with the wreck of volcanic matter, which forms so
singular a contrast to the general character of beauty with which
the scenery is stamped. It was not long before their eyes were
gladdened by the approach of Sandoval and about sixty soldiers from
the garrison of Vera Cruz, including several deserters from the enemy.
It was a most important reinforcement, not more on account of the
numbers of the men than of the character of the commander. He had been
compelled to fetch a circuit, in order to avoid falling in with the
enemy, and had forced his way through thick forests and wild
mountain passes, till he had fortunately, without accident, reached
the appointed place of rendezvous, and stationed himself once more
under the banner of his chieftain. At the same place, also, Cortes was
met by Tobillos, a Spaniard whom he had sent to procure the lances
from Chinantla. They were perfectly well made, after the pattern which
had been given; double-headed spears, tipped with copper, and of great
Cortes now took a review of his army,- if so paltry a force may be
called an army,- and found their numbers were two hundred and
sixty-six, only five of whom were mounted. A few muskets and crossbows
were sprinkled among them. In defensive armour they were sadly
deficient. They were for the most part cased in the quilted doublet of
the country, thickly stuffed with cotton, the escaupil, recommended by
its superior lightness, but which, though competent to turn the
arrow of the Indian, was ineffectual against a musket-ball. Most of
this cotton mail was exceedingly out of repair, giving evidence, in
its unsightly gaps, of much rude service, and hard blows. Few, in this
emergency, but would have given almost any price- the best of the gold
chains which they wore in tawdry display over their poor
habiliments- for a steel morion or cuirass, to take the place of their
own hacked and battered armour.
The troops now resumed their march across the tableland, until,
reaching the eastern slope, their labours were lightened, as they
descended towards the broad plains of the tierra caliente, spread
out like a boundless ocean of verdure below them. At some fifteen
leagues' distance from Cempoalla, where Narvaez, as has been
noticed, had established his quarters, they were met by another
embassy from that commander. It consisted of the priest, Guevara,
Andres de Duero, and two or three others. Duero, the fast friend of
Cortes, had been the person most instrumental, originally, in
obtaining him his commission from Velasquez. They now greeted each
other with a warm embrace, and it was not till after much
preliminary conversation on private matters, that the secretary
disclosed the object of his visit.
He bore a letter from Narvaez, couched in terms somewhat different
from the preceding. That officer required, indeed, the
acknowledgment of his paramount authority in the land, but offered his
vessels to transport all who desired it, from the country, together
with their treasures and effects, without molestation or inquiry.
The more liberal tenor of these terms was, doubtless, to be ascribed
to the influence of Duero. The secretary strongly urged Cortes to
comply with them, as the most favourable that could be obtained, and
as the only alternative affording him a chance of safety in his
desperate condition. "For, however valiant your men may be, how can
they expect," he asked, "to face a force so much superior in numbers
and equipment as that of their antagonists?" But Cortes had set his
fortunes on the cast, and he was not the man to shrink from it. "If
Narvaez bears a royal commission," he returned, "I will readily submit
to him. But he has produced none. He is a deputy of my rival,
Velasquez. For myself I am a servant of the king, I have conquered the
country for him; and for him I and my brave followers will defend
it, to the last drop of our blood. If we fall, it will be glory enough
to have perished in the discharge of our duty."
His friend might have been somewhat puzzled to comprehend how
the authority of Cortes rested on a different ground from that of
Narvaez; and if they both held of the same superior, the governor of
Cuba, why that dignitary should not be empowered to supersede his
own officer in case of dissatisfaction, and appoint a substitute.
But Cortes here reaped the full benefit of that legal fiction, if it
may be so termed, by which his commission, resigned to the
self-constituted municipality of Vera Cruz, was again derived
through that body from the crown. The device, indeed, was too palpable
to impose on any but those who chose to be blinded.
Duero had arranged with his friend in Cuba, when he took command
of the expedition, that he himself was to have a liberal share of
the profits. It is said that Cortes confirmed this arrangement at
the present juncture, and made it clearly for the other's interest
that be should prevail in the struggle with Narvaez. This was an
important point, considering the position of the secretary. From
this authentic source the general derived much information
respecting the designs of Narvaez, which had escaped the knowledge
of Olmedo. On the departure of the envoys, Cortes intrusted them
with a letter for his rival, a counterpart of that which he had
received from him. This show of negotiation intimated a desire on
his part to postpone if not avoid hostilities, which might the
better put Narvaez off his guard. In the letter he summoned that
commander and his followers to present themselves before him without
delay, and to acknowledge his authority as the representative of his
sovereign. He should otherwise be compelled to proceed against them as
rebels to the crown! With this missive, the vaunting tone of which was
intended quite as much for his own troops as the enemy, Cortes
dismissed the envoys. They returned to disseminate among their
comrades their admiration of the general and of his unbounded
liberality, of which he took care they should experience full measure,
and they dilated on the riches of his adherents, who, over their
wretched attire, displayed with ostentatious profusion, jewels,
ornaments of gold, collars, and massive chains winding several times
round their necks and bodies, the rich spoil of the treasury of
The army now took its way across the level plains of the tierra
caliente. Coming upon an open reach of meadow, of some extent, they
were, at length, stopped by a river or rather stream, called Rio de
Canoas, "the River of Canoes," of no great volume ordinarily, but
swollen at this time by excessive rains; it had rained hard that
day. The river was about a league distant from the camp of Narvaez.
Before seeking out a practical ford, by which to cross it, Cortes
allowed his men to recruit their exhausted strength by stretching
themselves on the ground. The shades of evening had gathered round;
and the rising moon, wading through dark masses of cloud, shone with a
doubtful and interrupted light. It was evident that the storm had
not yet spent its fury. Cortes did not regret this. He had made up his
mind to an assault that very night, and in the darkness and uproar
of the tempest his movements would be most effectually concealed.
Before disclosing his design, he addressed his men in one of those
stirring, soldierly harangues, to which he had recourse in emergencies
of great moment, as if to sound the depths of their hearts, and, where
any faltered, to re-animate them with his own heroic spirit. He
briefly recapitulated the great events of the campaign, the dangers
they had surmounted, the victories they had achieved over the most
appalling odds, the glorious spoil they had won. But of this they were
now to be defrauded; not by men holding a legal warrant from the
crown, but by adventurers, with no better title than that of
superior force. They had established a claim on the gratitude of their
country and their sovereign. This claim was now to be dishonoured;
their very services were converted into crimes, and their names
branded with infamy as those of traitors. But the time had at last
come for vengeance. God would not desert the soldier of the Cross.
Those, whom he had carried victorious through greater dangers, would
not be left to fail now. And, if they should fail, better to die
like brave men on the field of battle, than, with fame and fortune
cast away, to perish ignominiously like slaves on the gibbet.- This
last point he urged upon his hearers; well knowing there was not one
among them so dull as not to be touched by it.
They responded with hearty acclamations, and Velasquez de Leon,
and de Lugo, in the name of the rest, assured their commander, if they
failed, it should be his fault, not theirs. They would follow wherever
he led.- The general was fully satisfied with the temper of his
soldiers, as he felt that his difficulty lay not in awakening their
enthusiasm, but in giving it a right direction. One thing is
remarkable. He made no allusion to the defection which he knew existed
in the enemy's camp. He would have his soldiers, in this last pinch,
rely on nothing but themselves.
He announced his purpose to attack the enemy that very night, when
he should be buried in slumber, and the friendly darkness might
throw a veil over their own movements, and conceal the poverty of
their numbers. To this the troops, jaded though they were by incessant
marching, and half famished, joyfully assented. In their situation,
suspense was the worst of evils. He next distributed the commands
among his captains. To Gonzalo de Sandoval he assigned the important
office of taking Narvaez. He was commanded, as alguacil mayor, to
seize the person of that officer as a rebel to his sovereign, and,
if he made resistance, to kill him on the spot. He was provided with
sixty picked men to aid him in this difficult task, supported by
several of the ablest captains, among whom were two of the
Alvarados, de Avila and Ordaz. The largest division of the force was
placed under Christoval de Olid, or according to some authorities,
Pizarro, one of that family so renowned in the subsequent conquest
of Peru. He was to get possession of the artillery, and to cover the
assault of Sandoval by keeping those of the enemy at bay, who would
interfere with it. Cortes reserved only a body of twenty men for
himself, to act on any point that occasion might require. The
watchword was Espiritu Santo, it being the evening of Whitsunday.
Having made these arrangements, he prepared to cross the river.
During the interval thus occupied by Cortes, Narvaez had
remained at Cempoalla, passing his days in idle and frivolous
amusement. From this he was at length roused, after the return of
Duero, by the remonstrances of the old cacique of the city. "Why are
you so heedless?" exclaimed the latter; "do you think Malinche is
so? Depend on it, he knows your situation exactly, and, when you least
dream of it, he will be upon you."
Alarmed at these suggestions and those of his friends, Narvaez
at length put himself at the head of his troops, and, on the very
day on which Cortes arrived at the River of Canoes, sallied out to
meet him. But, when he had reached this barrier, Narvaez saw no sign
of an enemy. The rain, which fell in torrents, soon drenched the
soldiers to the skin. Made somewhat effeminate by their long and
luxurious residence at Cempoalla, they murmured at their uncomfortable
situation. "Of what use was it to remain there fighting with the
elements? There was no sign of an enemy, and little reason to
apprehend his approach in such tempestuous weather. It would be
wiser to return to Cempoalla, and in the morning they should be all
fresh for action, should Cortes make his appearance."
Narvaez took counsel of these advisers, or rather of his own
inclinations. Before retracing his steps, he provided against
surprise, by stationing a couple of sentinels at no great distance
from the river, to give notice of the approach of Cortes. He also
detached a body of forty horse in another direction, by which he
thought it not improbable the enemy might advance on Cempoalla. Having
taken these precautions, he fell back again before night on his own
He there occupied the principal teocalli. It consisted of a
stone building on the usual pyramidal basis; and the ascent was by a
flight of steep steps on one of the faces of the pyramid. In the
edifice or sanctuary above he stationed himself with a strong party of
arquebusiers and crossbowmen. Two other teocallis in the same area
were garrisoned by large detachments of infantry. His artillery,
consisting of seventeen or eighteen small guns, he posted in the
area below, and protected it by the remainder of his cavalry. When
he had thus distributed his forces, he returned to his own quarters,
and soon after to repose, with as much indifference as if his rival
had been on the other side of the Atlantic, instead of a
neighbouring stream.
That stream was now converted by the deluge of waters into a
furious torrent. It was with difficulty that a practicable ford
could be found. The slippery stones, rolling beneath the feet, gave
way at every step. The difficulty of the passage was much increased by
the darkness and driving tempest. Still, with their long pikes, the
Spaniards contrived to make good their footing, at least, all but two,
who were swept down by the fury of the current. When they had
reached the opposite side, they had new impediments to encounter in
traversing a road never good, now made doubly difficult by the deep
mire and the tangled brushwood with which it was overrun.
Here they met with a cross, which had been raised by them on their
former march into the interior. They hailed it as a good omen; and
Cortes, kneeling before the blessed sign, confessed his sins, and
declared his great object to be the triumph of the holy Catholic
faith. The army followed his example, and, having made a general
confession, received absolution from Father Olmedo, who invoked the
blessing of heaven on the warriors who had consecrated their swords to
the glory of the Cross. Then rising up and embracing one another, as
companions in the good cause, they found themselves wonderfully
invigorated and refreshed. The incident is curious, and well
illustrates the character of the time,- in which war, religion, and
rapine were so intimately blended together. Adjoining the road was a
little coppice; and Cortes, and the few who had horses, dismounting,
fastened the animals to the trees, where they might find some
shelter from the storm. They deposited there, too, their baggage and
such superfluous articles as would encumber their movement. The
general then gave them a few last words of advice. "Everything,"
said he, "depends on obedience. Let no man, from desire of
distinguishing himself, break his ranks. On silence, despatch, and,
above all, obedience to your officers, the success of our enterprise
Silently and stealthily they held on their way without beat of
drum or sound of trumpet, when they suddenly came on the two sentinels
who had been stationed by Narvaez to give notice of their approach.
This had been so noiseless, that the videttes were both of them
surprised on their posts, and one only, with difficulty, effected
his escape. The other was brought before Cortes. Every effort was made
to draw from him some account of the present position of Narvaez.
But the man remained obstinately silent; and, though threatened with
the gibbet, and having a noose actually drawn round his neck, his
Spartan heroism was not be vanquished. Fortunately no change had taken
place in the arrangements of Narvaez since the intelligence previously
derived from Duero.
The other sentinel, who had escaped, carried the news of the
enemy's approach to the camp. But his report was not credited by the
lazy soldiers, whose slumbers he had disturbed. "He had been
deceived by his fears," they said, "and mistaken the noise of the
storm, and the waving of the bushes, for the enemy. Cortes and his men
were far enough on the other side of the river, which they would be
slow to cross in such a night." Narvaez himself shared in the same
blind infatuation, and the discredited sentinel slunk abashed to his
own quarters, vainly menacing them with the consequences of their
Cortes, not doubting that the sentinel's report must alarm the
enemy's camp, quickened his pace. As he drew near, he discerned a
light in one of the lofty towers of the city. "It is the quarters of
Narvaez," he exclaimed to Sandoval, "and that light must be your
beacon." On entering the suburbs, the Spaniards were surprised to find
no one stirring, and no symptom of alarm. Not a sound was to be heard,
except the measured tread of their own footsteps, half-drowned in
the howling of the tempest. Still they could not move so stealthily as
altogether to elude notice, as they defiled through the streets of
this populous city. The tidings were quickly conveyed to the enemy's
quarters, where, in an instant, all was bustle and confusion. The
trumpets sounded to arms. The dragoons sprang to their steeds, the
artillerymen to their guns. Narvaez hastily buckled on his armour,
called his men around him, and summoned those in the neighbouring
teocallis, to join him in the area. He gave his orders with
coolness; for, however wanting in prudence, he was not deficient in
presence of mind or courage.
All this was the work of a few minutes. But in those minutes the
Spaniards had reached the avenue leading to the camp. Cortes ordered
his men to keep close to the walls of the buildings, that the
cannon-shot might have free range. No sooner had they presented
themselves before the inclosure than the artillery of Narvaez opened a
general fire. Fortunately the pieces were pointed so high that most of
the balls passed over their heads, and three men only were struck
down. They did not give the enemy time to reload. Cortes shouting
the watchword of the night, "Espiritu Santo! Espiritu Santo! Upon
them!" in a moment Olid and his division rushed on the artillerymen,
whom they pierced or knocked down with their pikes, and got possession
of their guns. Another division engaged the cavalry, and made a
diversion in favour of Sandoval, who with his gallant little band
sprang up the great stairway of the temple. They were received with
a shower of missiles, arrows and musketballs, which, in the hurried
aim, and the darkness of the night, did little mischief. The next
minute the assailants were on the platform, engaged hand to hand
with their foes. Narvaez fought bravely in the midst, encouraging
his followers. His standard-bearer fell by his side, run through the
body. He himself received several wounds; for his short sword was
not match for the long pikes of the assailants. At length, he received
a blow from a spear, which struck out his left "Santa Maria!"
exclaimed the unhappy man, "I am slain!" The cry was instantly taken
up by the followers of Cortes, who shouted, "Victory!"
Disabled, and half-mad with agony from his wound, Narvaez was
withdrawn by his men into the sanctuary. The assailants endeavoured to
force an entrance, but it was stoutly defended. At length a soldier,
getting possession of a torch, or firebrand, flung it on the
thatched roof, and in a few moments the combustible materials of which
it was composed were in a blaze. Those within were driven out by the
suffocating heat and smoke. A soldier, named Farfan, grappled with the
wounded commander, and easily brought him to the ground; when he was
speedily dragged down the steps, and secured with fetters. His
followers, seeing@ the fate of their chief, made no further
During this time, Cortes and the troops of Olid had been engaged
with the cavalry, and had discomfited them, after some ineffectual
attempts on the part of the latter to break through the dense array of
pikes, by which several of their number were unhorsed and some of them
slain. The general then prepared to assault the other teocallis, first
summoning the garrisons to surrender. As they refused, he brought up
the heavy guns to bear on them, thus turning the artillery against its
own masters. He accompanied this menacing movement with offers of
the most liberal import; an amnesty of the past, and a full
participation in all the advantages of the Conquest. One of the
garrisons was under the command of Salvatierra, the same officer who
talked of cutting off the ears of Cortes. From the moment he had
learned the fate of his own general, the hero was seized with a
violent fit of illness which disabled him from further action. The
garrison waited only for one discharge of the ordnance, when they
accepted the terms of capitulation. Cortes, it is said, received, on
this occasion, a support from an unexpected auxiliary. The air was
filled with cocuyos,- a species of large beetle which emits an intense
phosphoric light from its body, strong enough to enable one to read by
it. These wandering fires, seen in the darkness of the night, were
converted by the excited imaginations of the besieged, into an army
with matchlocks. Such is the report of an eye-witness. But the
facility with which the enemy surrendered may quite as probably to
be referred to the cowardice of the commander, and the disaffection of
the soldiers, not unwilling to come under the banners of Cortes.
The body of cavalry posted, it will be remembered, by Narvaez on
one of the roads to Cempoalla, to intercept his rival, having
learned what had been passing, were not long in tendering their
submission. Each of the soldiers in the conquered army was required,
in token of his obedience, to deposit his arms in the hands of the
alguacils, and to take the oaths to Cortes as Chief justice and
Captain General of the colony.
The number of the slain is variously reported. It seems probable
that no more than twelve perished on the side of the vanquished, and
of the victors half that number. The small amount may be explained
by the short duration of the action, and the random aim of the
missiles in the darkness. The number of the wounded was much more
The field was now completely won. A few brief hours had sufficed
to change the condition of Cortes from that of a wandering outlaw at
the head of a handful of needy adventurers, a rebel with a price
upon his head, to that of an independent chief, with a force at his
disposal strong enough not only to secure his present conquests, but
to open a career for still loftier ambition. While the air rung with
the acclamations of the soldiery, the victorious general, assuming a
deportment corresponding with his change of fortune, took his seat
in a chair of state, and, with a rich embroidered mantle thrown over
his shoulders, received, one by one, the officers and soldiers, as
they came to tender their congratulations. The privates were
graciously permitted to kiss his hand. The officers he noticed with
words of compliment or courtesy; and, when Duero, Bermudez the
treasurer, and some others of the vanquished party, his old friends,
presented themselves, he cordially embraced them.
Narvaez, Salvatierra, and two or three of the hostile leaders were
led before him in chains. It was a moment of deep humiliation for
the former commander, in which the anguish of the body, however
keen, must have been forgotten in that of the spirit. "You have
great reason, Senor Cortes," said the discomfited warrior, "to thank
fortune for having given you the day so easily, and put me in your
power."- "I have much to be thankful for," replied the general; "but
for my victory over you, I esteem it as one of the least of my
achievements since my coming into the country!" He then ordered the
wounds of the prisoners to be cared for, and sent them under a
strong guard to Vera Cruz.
Notwithstanding the proud humility of his reply, Cortes could
scarcely have failed to regard his victory over Narvaez as one of
the most brilliant achievements in his career. With a few scores of
followers, badly clothed, worse fed, wasted by forced marches, under
every personal disadvantage, deficient in weapons and military stores,
he had attacked in their own quarters, routed, and captured the entire
force of the enemy, thrice his superior in numbers, well provided with
cavalry and artillery, admirably equipped, and complete in all the
munitions of war! The amount of troops engaged on either side was,
indeed, inconsiderable. But the proportions are not affected by
this: and the relative strength of the parties made a result so
decisive one of the most remarkable events in the annals of war.
Chapter VIII [1520]


THE tempest that had raged so wildly during the night passed
away with the morning, which rose bright and unclouded on the field of
battle. As the light advanced, it revealed more strikingly the
disparity of the two forces so lately opposed to each other. Those
of Narvaez could not conceal their chagrin; and murmurs of displeasure
became audible, as they contrasted their own superior numbers and
perfect appointments with the way-worn visages and rude attire of
their handful of enemies! It was with some satisfaction, therefore,
that the general beheld his dusky allies from Chinantla, two
thousand in number, arrive upon the field. They were a fine athletic
set of men; and, as they advanced in a sort of promiscuous order, so
to speak, with their gay banners of feather-work, and their lances
tipped with itztli and copper, glistering in the morning sun, they had
something of an air of military discipline. They came too late for the
action, indeed, but Cortes was not sorry to exhibit to his new
followers the extent of his resources in the country. As he had now no
occasion for his Indian allies, after a courteous reception and a
liberal recompense, he dismissed them to their homes.
He then used his utmost endeavours to allay the discontent of
the troops. He addressed them in his most soft and insinuating
tones, and was by no means frugal of his promises. He suited the
action to the word. There were few of them but had lost their
accoutrements, or their baggage, or horses taken and appropriated by
the victors. This last article was in great request among the
latter, and many a soldier, weary with the long marches hitherto
made on foot, had provided himself, as he imagined, with a much more
comfortable as well as creditable conveyance for the rest of the
campaign. The general now commanded everything to be restored. "They
were embarked in the same cause," he said, "and should share with
one another equally." He went still further; and distributed among the
soldiers of Narvaez a quantity of gold and other precious
commodities gathered from the neighbouring tribes, or found in his
rival's quarters.
These proceedings, however politic in reference to his new
followers, gave great disgust to his old. "Our commander," they cried,
"has forsaken his friends for his foes. We stood by him in his hour of
distress, and are rewarded with blows and wounds, while the spoil goes
to our enemies!" The indignant soldiery commissioned the priest Olmedo
and Alonso de Avila to lay their complaints before Cortes. The
ambassadors stated them without reserve, comparing their commander's
conduct to the ungrateful proceeding of Alexander, who, when he gained
a victory, usually gave away more to his enemies than to the troops
who enabled him to beat them. Cortes was greatly perplexed. Victorious
or defeated, his path seemed equally beset with difficulties!
He endeavoured to soothe their irritation by pleading the
necessity of the case. "Our new comrades," he said, "are formidable
from their numbers; so much so, that we are even now much more in
their power than they are in ours. Our only security is to make them
not merely confederates, but friends. On any cause of disgust, we
shall have the whole battle to fight over again; and, if they are
united, under a much greater disadvantage than before. I have
considered your interests," he added, "as much as my own. All that I
have is yours. But why should there be any ground for discontent, when
the whole country, with its riches, is before us? And our augmented
strength must henceforth secure the undisturbed control of it!"
But Cortes did not rely wholly on argument for the restoration
of tranquillity. He knew this to be incompatible with inaction; and be
made arrangements to divide his forces at once, and to employ them
on distant services. He selected a detachment of two hundred men,
under Diego de Ordaz, whom he ordered to form the settlement before
meditated on the Coatzacualco. A like number was sent with Velasquez
de Leon, to secure the province of Panuco, some three degrees to the
north, on the Mexican Gulf. Twenty in each detachment were drafted
from his own veterans.
Two hundred men he despatched to Vera Cruz, with orders to have
the rigging, iron, and everything portable on board of the fleet of
Narvaez, brought on shore, and the vessels completely dismantled. He
appointed a person named Cavallero superintendent of the marine,
with instructions that if any ships hereafter should enter the port,
they should be dismantled in like manner, and their officers
imprisoned on shore.
But while he was thus occupied with new schemes of discovery and
conquest, he received such astounding intelligence from Mexico, as
compelled him to concentrate all his faculties and his forces on
that one point. The city was in a state of insurrection. No sooner had
the struggle with his rival been decided, than Cortes despatched a
courier with the tidings to the capital. In less than a fortnight, the
same messenger returned with letters from Alvarado, conveying the
alarming information that the Mexicans were in arms, and had
vigorously assaulted the Spaniards in their own quarters. The enemy,
he added, had burned the brigantines, by which Cortes had secured
the means of retreat in case of the destruction of the bridges. They
had attempted to force the defences, and had succeeded in partially
undermining them, and they had overwhelmed the garrison with a tempest
of missiles, which had killed several, and wounded a great number. The
letter concluded with beseeching his commander to hasten to their
relief, if he would save them, or keep his hold on the capital.
These tidings were a heavy blow to the general,- the heavier, it
seemed, coming, as they did, in the hour of triumph, when he had
thought to have all his enemies at his feet. There was no room for
hesitation. To lose their footing in the capital, the noblest city
in the Western World, would be to lose the country itself, which
looked up to it as its head. He opened the matter fully to his
soldiers, calling on all who would save their countrymen to follow
him. All declared their readiness to go; showing an alacrity, says
Diaz, which some would have been slow to manifest, had they foreseen
the future.
Cortes now made preparations for instant departure. He
countermanded the orders previously given to Velasquez and Ordaz,
and directed them to join him with their forces at Tlascala. He
recalled the troops from Vera Cruz, leaving only a hundred men in
garrison there, under command of one Rodrigo Rangre: for he could
not spare the services of Sandoval at this crisis. He left his sick
and wounded at Cempoalla, under charge of a small detachment,
directing that they should follow as soon as they were in marching
order. Having completed these arrangements, he set out from Cempoalla,
well supplied with provisions by its hospitable cacique, who
attended him some leagues on his way. The Totonac chief seems to
have had an amiable facility of accommodating himself to the powers
that were in the ascendant.
Nothing worthy of notice occurred during the first part of the
march. The troops everywhere met with a friendly reception from the
peasantry, who readily supplied their wants. Some time before reaching
Tlascala, the route lay through a country thinly settled, and the army
experienced considerable suffering from want of food, and still more
from that of water. Their distress increased to an alarming degree,
as, in the hurry of their march, they travelled with the meridian
sun beating fiercely on their heads. Several faltered by the way, and,
throwing themselves down by the roadside, seemed incapable of
further effort, and almost indifferent to life.
In this extremity, Cortes sent forward a small detachment of horse
to procure provisions in Tlascala, and speedily followed in person. On
arriving, he found abundant supplies already prepared by the
hospitable natives. They were sent back to the troops; the
stragglers were collected one by one; refreshments were
administered; and the army, restored in strength and spirits,
entered the republican capital.
Here they gathered little additional news respecting the events in
Mexico, which a popular rumour attributed to the secret
encouragement and machinations of Montezuma. Cortes was commodiously
lodged in the quarters of Maxixca, one of the four chiefs of the
republic. They readily furnished him with two thousand troops. There
was no want of heartiness, when the war was with their ancient
enemy, the Aztec.
The Spanish commander, on reviewing his forces, after the junction
with his two captains, found that they amounted to about a thousand
foot, and one hundred horse, besides the Tlascalan levies. In the
infantry were nearly a hundred arquebusiers, with as many crossbowmen;
and the part of the army brought over by Narvaez was admirably
equipped. It was inferior, however, to his own veterans in what is
better than any outward appointments- military training, and
familiarity with the peculiar service in which they were engaged.
Leaving these friendly quarters, the Spaniards took a more
northerly route, as more direct than that by which they had before
penetrated into the valley. It was the road to Tezcuco. It still
compelled them to climb the same bold range of the Cordilleras,
which attains its greatest elevation in the two mighty volcans at
whose base they had before travelled. As they descended into the
populous plains, their reception by the natives was very different
from that which they had experienced on the preceding visit. There
were no groups of curious peasantry to be seen gazing at them as
they passed, and offering their simple hospitality. The supplies
they asked were not refused, but granted with an ungracious air,
that showed the blessing of their giver did not accompany them. This
air of reserve became still more marked as the army entered the
suburbs of the ancient capital of the Acolhuas. No one came forth to
greet them, and the population seemed to have dwindled away,- so
many of them were withdrawn to the neighbouring scene of hostilities
at Mexico. Their cold reception was a sensible mortification to the
veterans of Cortes, who, judging from the past, had boasted to their
new comrades of the sensation their presence would excite among the
natives. The cacique of the place, who, as it may be remembered, had
been created through the influence of Cortes, was himself absent.
The general drew an ill omen from all these circumstances, which
even raised an uncomfortable apprehension in his mind respecting the
fate of the garrison in Mexico.
But his doubts were soon dispelled by the arrival of a messenger
in a canoe from that city, whence he had escaped through the
remissness of the enemy, or, perhaps, with their connivance. He
brought despatches from Alvarado, informing his commander that the
Mexicans had for the last fortnight desisted from active
hostilities, and converted their operations into a blockade. The
garrison had suffered greatly, but Alvarado expressed his conviction
that the siege would be raised, and tranquillity restored, on the
approach of his countrymen. Montezuma sent a messenger, also, to the
same effect. At the same time, he exculpated himself from any part
in the late hostilities, which he said had not only been conducted
without his privity, but contrary to his inclination and efforts.
The Spanish general, having halted long enough to refresh his
wearied troops, took up his march along the southern margin of the
lake, which led him over the same causeway by which he had before
entered the capital. It was the day consecrated to St. John the
Baptist, the 24th of June, 1520. But how different was the scene
from that presented on his former entrance! No crowds now lined the
roads, no boats swarmed on the lake, filled with admiring
spectators. A single pirogue might now and then be seen in the
distance, like a spy stealthily watching their movements, and
darting away the moment it had attracted notice. A death-like
stillness brooded over the scene,- a stillness that spoke louder to
the heart than the acclamations of multitudes.
Cortes rode on moodily at the head of his battalions, finding
abundant food for meditation, doubtless, in this change of
circumstances. As if to dispel these gloomy reflections, he ordered
his trumpets to sound, and their clear, shrill notes, borne across the
waters, told the inhabitants of the beleaguered fortress that their
friends were at hand. They were answered by a joyous peal of
artillery, which seemed to give a momentary exhilaration to the
troops, as they quickened their pace, traversed the great drawbridges,
and once more found themselves within the walls of the imperial city.
The appearance of things here was not such as to allay their
apprehensions. In some places they beheld the smaller bridges removed,
intimating too plainly, now that their brigantines were destroyed, how
easy it would be cut off their retreat. The town seemed even more
deserted than Tezcuco. Its once busy and crowded population had
mysteriously vanished. And, as the Spaniards defiled through the empty
streets, the tramp of their horses' feet upon the pavement was
answered by dull and melancholy echoes that fell heavily on their
hearts. With saddened feelings they reached the great gates of the
palace of Axayacatl. The gates were thrown open, and Cortes and his
veterans, rushing in, were cordially embraced by their companions in
arms, while both parties soon forgot the present in the interesting
recapitulation of the past.
The first inquiries of the general were respecting the origin of
the tumult. The accounts were various. Some imputed it to the desire
of the Mexicans to release their sovereign from confinement; others to
the design of cutting off the garrison while crippled by the absence
of Cortes and their countrymen. All agreed, however, in tracing the
immediate cause to the violence of Alvarado. It was common for the
Aztecs to celebrate an annual festival in May, in honour of their
patron war-god. It was called the "incensing of Huitzilopochtli,"
and was commemorated by sacrifice, religious songs, and dances, in
which most of the nobles engaged, for it was one of the great
festivals which displayed the pomp of the Aztec ritual. As it was held
in the court of the teocalli, in the immediate neighbourhood of the
Spanish quarters, and as a part of the temple itself was reserved
for a Christian chapel, the caciques asked permission of Alvarado to
perform their rites there. They requested also to be allowed the
presence of Montezuma. This latter petition Alvarado declined, in
obedience to the injunctions of Cortes; but acquiesced in the
former, on condition that the Aztecs should celebrate no human
sacrifices, and should come without weapons.
They assembled accordingly on the day appointed, to the number
of six hundred, at the smallest computation. They were dressed in
their most magnificent gala costumes, with their graceful mantles of
feather-work, sprinkled with precious stones, and their necks, arms
and legs ornamented with collars and bracelets of gold. They had
that love of gaudy splendour which belongs to semi-civilised
nations, and on these occasions displayed all the pomp and profusion
of their barbaric wardrobes.
Alvarado and his soldiers attended as spectators, some of them
taking their station at the gates, as if by chance, and others
mingling in the crowd. They were all armed, a circumstance which, as
it was usual, excited no attention. The Aztecs were soon engrossed
by the exciting movement of the dance, accompanied by their
religious chant, and wild, discordant minstrelsy. While thus occupied,
Alvarado and his men, at a concerted signal, rushed with drawn
swords on their victims. Unprotected by armour or weapons of any kind,
they were hewn down without resistance by their assailants, who, in
their bloody work, says a contemporary, showed no touch of pity or
compunction. Some fled to the gates, but were caught on the long pikes
of the soldiers. Others, who attempted to scale the Coatepantli, or
Wall of Serpents, as it was called, which surrounded the area,
shared the like fate, or were cut to pieces, or shot by the ruthless
soldiery. The pavement, says a writer of the age, ran with streams
of blood, like water in a heavy shower. Not an Aztec of all that gay
company was left alive! It was repeating the dreadful scene of
Cholula, with the disgraceful addition, that the Spaniards, not
content with slaughtering their victims, rifled them of the precious
ornaments on their persons! On this sad day fell the flower of the
Aztec nobility. Not a family of note but had mourning and desolation
brought within its walls; and many a doleful ballad, rehearsing the
tragic incidents of the story, and adapted to the plaintive national
airs, continued to be chanted by the natives long after the
subjugation of the country.
Various explanations have been given of this atrocious deed; but
few historians have been content to admit that of Alvarado himself.
According to this, intelligence had been obtained through his spies-
some of them Mexicans- of an intended rising of the Indians. The
celebration of this festival was fixed on as the period for its
execution, when the caciques would be met together, and would easily
rouse the people to support them. Alvarado, advised of all this, had
forbidden them to wear arms at their meeting. While affecting to
comply, they had secreted their weapons in the neighbouring
arsenals, whence they could readily withdraw them. But his own blow,
by anticipating theirs, defeated the design, and, as he confidently
hoped, would deter the Aztecs from a similar attempt in future.
Such is the account of the matter given by Alvarado. But, if true,
why did he not verify his assertion by exposing the arms thus
secreted? Why did he not vindicate his conduct in the eyes of the
Mexicans generally, by publicly avowing the treason of the nobles,
as was done by Cortes at Cholula? The whole looks much like an apology
devised after the commission of the deed, to cover up its atrocity.
Some contemporaries assign a very different motive for the
massacre, which, according to them, originated in the cupidity of
the Conquerors, as shown by their plundering the bodies of their
victims. Bernal Diaz, who, though not present, had conversed
familiarly with those who were, vindicates them from the charge of
this unworthy motive. According to him, Alvarado struck the blow in
order to intimidate the Aztecs from any insurrectionary movement.
But whether he had reason to apprehend such, or even affected to do so
before the massacre, the old chronicler does not inform us.
On reflection, it seems scarcely possible that so foul a deed, and
one involving so much hazard to the Spaniards themselves, should
have been perpetrated from the mere desire of getting possession of
the baubles worn on the persons of the natives. It is more likely this
was an after-thought, suggested to the rapacious soldiery by the
display of the spoil before them. It is not improbable that Alvarado
may have gathered rumours of a conspiracy among the nobles,-
rumours, perhaps, derived through the Tlascalans, their inveterate
foes, and for that reason very little deserving of credit. He proposed
to defeat it by imitating the example of his commander at Cholula. But
he omitted to imitate his leader in taking precautions against the
subsequent rising of the populace. And he grievously miscalculated,
when he confounded the bold and warlike Aztec with the effeminate
No sooner was the butchery accomplished, than the tidings spread
like wildfire through the capital. Men could scarcely credit their
senses. All they had hitherto suffered, the desecration of their
temples, the imprisonment of their sovereign, the insults heaped on
his person, all were forgotten in this one act. Every feeling of
long smothered hostility and rancour now burst forth in the cry for
vengeance. Every former sentiment of superstitious dread was merged in
that of inextinguishable hatred. It required no effort of the priests-
though this was not wanting- to fan these passions into a blaze. The
city rose in arms to a man; and on the following dawn, almost before
the Spaniards could secure themselves in their defences, they were
assaulted with desperate fury. Some of the assailants attempted to
scale the walls; others succeeded in partially undermining and in
setting fire to the works. Whether they would have succeeded in
carrying the place by storm is doubtful. But, at the prayers of the
garrison, Montezuma himself interfered, and mounting the battlements
addressed the populace, whose fury he endeavoured to mitigate by
urging considerations for his own safety. They respected their monarch
so far as to desist from further attempts to storm the fortress, but
changed their operations into a regular blockade. They threw up
works around the palace to prevent the egress of the Spaniards. They
suspended the tianguez, or market, to preclude the possibility of
their enemy's obtaining supplies; and they then quietly sat down, with
feelings of sullen desperation, waiting for the hour when famine
should throw their victims into their hands.
The condition of the besieged, meanwhile, was sufficiently
distressing. Their magazines of provisions, it is true, were not
exhausted; but they suffered greatly from want of water, which, within
the inclosure, was exceedingly brackish, for the soil was saturated
with the salt of the surrounding element. In this extremity, they
discovered, it is said, a spring of fresh water in the area. Such
springs were known in some other parts of the city; but, discovered
first under these circumstances, it was accounted as nothing less than
a miracle. Still they suffered much from their past encounters.
Seven Spaniards, and many Tlascalans, had fallen, and there was
scarcely one of either nation who had not received several wounds.
In this situation, far from their own countrymen, without
expectation of succour from abroad, they seemed to have no alternative
before them, but a lingering death by famine, or one more dreadful
on the altar of sacrifice. From this gloomy state they were relieved
by the coming of their comrades.
Cortes calmly listened to the explanation made by Alvarado. But,
before it was ended, the conviction must have forced itself on his
mind, that he had made a wrong selection for this important post.
Yet the mistake was natural. Alvarado was a cavalier of high family,
gallant and chivalrous, and his warm personal friend. He had talents
for action, was possessed of firmness and intrepidity, while his frank
and dazzling manners made the Tonatiuh an especial favourite with
the Mexicans. But, underneath this showy exterior, the future
conqueror of Guatemala concealed a heart rash, rapacious, and cruel.
He was altogether destitute of that moderation, which, in the delicate
position he occupied, was a quality of more worth than all the rest.
When Alvarado had concluded his answers to the several
interrogatories of Cortes, the brow of the latter darkened, as he said
to his lieutenant, "You have done badly. You have been false to your
trust. Your conduct has been that of a madman!" And, turning
abruptly on his heel, he left him in undisguised displeasure.
Yet this was not a time to break with one so popular, and in
many respects so important to him, as this captain, much less to
inflict on him the punishment he merited. The Spaniards were like
mariners labouring in a heavy tempest, whose bark nothing but the
dexterity of the pilot, and the hearty co-operation of the crew, can
save from foundering. Dissensions at such a moment must be fatal.
Cortes, it is true, felt strong in his present resources. He now found
himself at the head of a force which could scarcely amount to less
than twelve hundred and fifty Spaniards, and eight thousand native
warriors, principally Tlascalans. But, though relying on this to
overawe resistance, the very augmentations of numbers increased the
difficulty of subsistence. Discontented with himself, disgusted with
his officer, and embarrassed by the disastrous consequences in which
Alvarado's intemperance had involved him, he became irritable, and
indulged in a petulance by no means common; for, though a man of
lively passions by nature, he held them habitually under control.
On the day that Cortes arrived, Montezuma had left his own
quarters to welcome him. But the Spanish commander, distrusting, as it
would seem, however unreasonably, his good faith, received him so
coldly that the Indian monarch withdrew, displeased and dejected, to
his apartment. As the Mexican populace made no show of submission, and
brought no supplies to the army, the general's ill-humour with the
emperor continued. When, therefore, Montezuma sent some of the
nobles to ask an interview with Cortes, the latter, turning to his own
officers, haughtily exclaimed, "What have I to do with this dog of a
king, who suffers us to starve before his eyes!"
His captains, among whom were Olid, de Avila, and Velasquez de
Leon, endeavoured to mitigate his anger, reminding him, in
respectful terms, that, had it not been for the emperor, the
garrison might even now have been overwhelmed by the enemy. This
remonstrance only chafed him the more. "Did not the dog," he asked,
repeating the opprobrious epithet, "betray us in his communications
with Narvaez? And does he not now suffer his markets to be closed, and
leave us to die of famine?" Then, turning fiercely to the Mexicans
he said, "Go, tell your master and his people to open the markets,
or we will do it for them, at their cost!" The chiefs, who had
gathered the import of his previous taunt on their sovereign, from his
tone and gesture, or perhaps from some comprehensions of his language,
left his presence swelling with resentment; and, in communicating
his message, took care it should lose none of its effect.
Shortly after, Cortes, at the suggestion, it is said, of
Montezuma, released his brother Cuitlahua, lord of Iztapalapan, who,
it will be remembered, had been seized on suspicion of co-operating
with the chief of Tezcuco in his meditated revolt. It was thought he
might be of service in allaying the present tumult, and bringing
the. populace to a better state of feeling. But he returned no more to
the fortress. He was a bold, ambitious prince, and the injuries he had
received from the Spaniards rankled deep in his bosom. He was
presumptive heir to the crown, which, by the Aztec laws of succession,
descended much more frequently in a collateral than in a direct
line. The people welcomed him as the representative of their reign,
and chose him to supply the place of Montezuma during his captivity.
Cuitlahua willingly accepted the post of honour and of danger. He
was an experienced warrior, and exerted himself to reorganise the
disorderly levies, and to arrange a more efficient plan of operations.
The effect was soon visible.
Cortes, meanwhile, had so little doubt of his ability to overawe
the insurgents, that he wrote to that effect to the garrison of
Villa Rica, by the same despatches in which he informed them of his
safe arrival in the capital. But scarcely had his messenger been
gone half an hour, when he returned breathless with terror, and
covered with wounds.
"The city," he said, "was all in arms! The drawbridges were
raised, and the enemy would soon be upon them!" He spoke truth. It was
not long before a hoarse, sullen sound became audible, like that of
the roaring of distant waters. It grew louder and louder; till, from
the parapet surrounding the inclosure, the great avenues which led
to it might be seen dark with the masses of warriors, who came rolling
on in a confused tide towards the fortress. At the same time the
terraces and azoteas or flat roofs, in the neighbourhood, were
thronged with combatants brandishing their missiles, who seemed to
have risen up as if by magic! It was a spectacle to appal the
stoutest.- But the dark storm to which it was the prelude, and which
gathered deeper and deeper round the Spaniards during the remainder of
their residence in the capital, must form the subject of a separate

Chapter I [1520]


THE palace of Axayacatl, in which the Spaniards were quartered,
was, as the reader may remember, a vast, irregular pile of stone
buildings, having but one floor, except in the centre, where another
story was added, consisting of a suite of apartments which rose like
turrets on the main building of the edifice. A vast area stretched
around, encompassed by a stone wall of no great height. This was
supported by towers or bulwarks at certain intervals, which gave it
some degree of strength, not, indeed, as compared with European
fortifications, but sufficient to resist the rude battering enginery
of the Indians. The parapet had been pierced here and there with
embrasures for the artillery, which consisted of thirteen guns; and
smaller apertures were made in other parts for the convenience of
the arquebusiers. The Spanish forces found accommodations within the
great building; but the numerous body of Tlascalan auxiliaries could
have had no other shelter than what was afforded by barracks or
sheds hastily constructed for the purpose in the spacious courtyard.
Thus crowded into a small compact compass, the whole army could be
assembled at a moment's notice; and, as the Spanish commander was
careful to enforce the strictest discipline and vigilance, it was
scarcely possible that he could be taken by surprise. No sooner,
therefore, did the trumpet call to arms, as the approach of the
enemy was announced, than every soldier was at his post, the cavalry
mounted, the artillerymen at their guns, and the archers and
arquebusiers stationed so as to give the assailants a warm reception.
On they came, with the companies, or irregular masses, into
which the multitude was divided, rushing forward each in its own dense
column, with many a gay banner displayed, and many a bright gleam of
light reflected from helmet, arrow, and spear-head, as they were
tossed about in their disorderly array. As they drew near the
inclosure, the Aztecs set up a hideous yell, or rather that shrill
whistle used in fight by the nations of Anahuac, which rose far
above the sound of shell and atabal, and their other rude
instruments of warlike melody. They followed this by a tempest of
missiles,- stones, darts, and arrows,- which fell thick as rain on the
besieged, while volleys of the same kind descended from the crowded
terraces of the neighbourhood.
The Spaniards waited until the foremost column had arrived
within the best distance for giving effect to their fire, when a
general discharge of artillery and arquebuses swept the ranks of the
assailants, and mowed them down by hundreds. The Mexicans were
familiar with the report of these formidable engines, as they had been
harmlessly discharged on some holiday festival; but never till now had
they witnessed their murderous power. They stood aghast for a
moment, as with bewildered looks they staggered under the fury of
the fire; but, soon rallying, the bold barbarians uttered a piercing
cry, and rushed forward over the prostrate bodies of their comrades. A
second and a third volley checked their career, and threw them into
disorder, but still they pressed on, letting off clouds of arrows;
while their comrades on the roofs of the houses took more deliberate
aim at the combatants in the courtyard. The Mexicans were particularly
expert in the use of the sling; and the stones which they hurled
from their elevated positions on the heads of their enemies did even
greater execution than the arrows. They glanced, indeed, from the
mail-covered bodies of the cavaliers, and from those who were
sheltered under the cotton panoply, or escaupil. But some of the
soldiers, especially the veterans of Cortes, and many of their
Indian allies, had but slight defences, and suffered greatly under
this stony tempest.
The Aztecs, meanwhile, had advanced close under the walls of the
intrenchment; their ranks broken and disordered, and their limbs
mangled by the unintermitting fire of the Christians. But they still
pressed on, under the very muzzle of the guns. They endeavoured to
scale the parapet, which from its moderate height was in itself a work
of no great difficulty. But the moment they showed their heads above
the rampart, they were shot down by the unerring marksmen within, or
stretched on the ground by a blow of a Tlascalan maquahuitl. Nothing
daunted, others soon appeared to take the place of the fallen, and
strove, by raising themselves on the writhing bodies of their dying
comrades, or by fixing their spears in the crevices of the wall, to
surmount the barrier. But the attempt proved equally vain.
Defeated here, they tried to effect a breach in the parapet by
battering it with heavy pieces of timber. The works were not
constructed on those scientific principles by which one part is made
to overlook and protect another. The besiegers, therefore, might
operate at their pleasure, with but little molestation from the
garrison within, whose guns could not be brought into a position to
bear on them, and who could mount no part of their own works for their
defence, without exposing their persons to the missiles of the whole
besieging army. The parapet, however, proved too strong for the
efforts of the assailants. In their despair, they endeavoured to set
the Christian quarters on fire, shooting burning arrows into them, and
climbing up so as to dart their firebrands through the embrasures. The
principal edifice was of stone. But the temporary defences of the
Indian allies, and other parts of the exterior works, were of wood.
Several of these took fire, and the flame spread rapidly among the
light combustible materials. This was a disaster for which the
besieged were wholly unprepared. They had little water, scarcely
enough for their own consumption. They endeavoured to extinguish the
flames by heaping on earth; but in vain. Fortunately the great
building was of materials which defied the destroying element. But the
fire raged in some of the outworks, connected with the parapet, with a
fury which could only be checked by throwing down a part of the wall
itself, thus laying open a formidable breach. This, by the general's
order, was speedily protected by a battery of heavy guns, and a file
of arquebusiers, who kept up an incessant volley through the opening
on the assailants.
The fight now raged with fury on both sides. The walls around
the palace belched forth an unintermitting sheet of flame and smoke.
The groans of the wounded and dying were lost in the fiercer
battle-cries of the combatants, the roar of the artillery, the sharper
rattle of the musketry, and the hissing sound of Indian missiles. It
was the conflict of the European with the American; of civilised man
with the barbarian; of the science of the one with the rude weapons
and warfare of the other. And as the ancient walls of Tenochtitlan
shook under the thunders of the artillery,- it announced that the
white man, the destroyer, had set his foot within her precincts.
Night at length came, and drew her friendly mantle over the
contest. The Aztec seldom fought by night. It brought little repose,
however, to the Spaniards, in hourly expectation of an assault; and
they found abundant occupation in restoring the breaches in their
defences, and in repairing their battered armour. The ferocity shown
by the Mexicans seems to have been a thing for which Cortes was wholly
unprepared. His past experience, his uninterrupted career of victory
with a much feebler force at his command, had led him to underrate the
military efficiency, if not the valour, of the Indians. The apparent
facility with which the Mexicans had acquiesced in the outrages on
their sovereign and themselves, had led him to hold their courage,
in particular, too lightly. He could not believe the present assault
to be anything more than a temporary ebullition of the populace, which
would soon waste itself by its own fury. And he proposed, on the
following day, to sally out and inflict such chastisement on his
foes as should bring them to their senses, and show who was master
in the capital.
With early dawn, the Spaniards were up and under arms; but not
before their enemies had given evidence of their hostility by the
random missiles, which, from time to time, were sent into the
inclosure. As the grey light of morning advanced, it showed the
besieging army far from being diminished in numbers, filling up the
great square and neighbouring avenues, in more dense array than on the
preceding evening. Instead of a confused, disorderly rabble, it had
the appearance of something like a regular force, with its
battalions distributed under their respective banners, the devices
of which showed a contribution from the principal cities and districts
in the valley. High above the rest was conspicuous the ancient
standard of Mexico, with its well-known cognisance, an eagle
pouncing on an ocelot, emblazoned on a rich mantle of feather-work.
Here and there priests might be seen mingling in the ranks of the
besiegers, and, with frantic gestures, animating them to avenge
their insulted deities.
The greater part of the enemy had little clothing save the
Maxtlatl, or sash, round the loins. They were variously armed, with
long spears tipped with copper, or flint, or sometimes merely
pointed and hardened in the fire. Some were provided with slings,
and others with darts having two or three points, with long strings
attached to them, by which, when discharged, they could be torn away
again from the body of the wounded. This was a formidable weapon, much
dreaded by the Spaniards. Those of a higher order wielded the terrible
maquahuitl, with its sharp and brittle blades of obsidian. Amidst
the motley bands of warriors, were seen many whose showy dress and air
of authority intimated persons of high military consequence. Their
breasts were protected by plates of metal, over which was thrown the
gay surcoat of feather-work. They wore casques resembling, in their
form, the head of some wild and ferocious animal, crested with bristly
hair, or overshadowed by tall and graceful plumes of many a
brilliant colour. Some few were decorated with the red fillet bound
round the hair, having tufts of cotton attached to it, which denoted
by their number that of the victories they had won, and their own
pre-eminent rank among the warriors of the nation. The motley assembly
showed that priest, warrior, and citizen had all united to swell the
Before the sun had shot his beams into the Castilian quarters, the
enemy were in motion, evidently preparing to renew the assault of
the preceding day. The Spanish commander determined to anticipate them
by a vigorous sortie, for which he had already made the necessary
dispositions. A general discharge of ordnance and musketry sent
death far and wide into the enemy's ranks, and, before they had time
to recover from their confusion, the gates were thrown open, and
Cortes, sallying out at the head of his cavalry, supported by a
large body of infantry and several thousand Tlascalans, rode at full
gallop against them. Taken thus by surprise, it was scarcely
possible to offer much resistance. Those who did were trampled down
under the horses' feet, cut to pieces with the broadswords, or pierced
with the lances of the riders. The infantry followed up the blow,
and the rout for the moment was general.
But the Aztecs fled only to take refuge behind a barricade, or
strong work of timber and earth, which had been thrown across the
great street through which they were pursued. Rallying on the other
side, they made a gallant stand, and poured in turn a volley of
their light weapons on the Spaniards, who, saluted with a storm of
missiles at the same time, from the terraces of the houses, were
checked in their career, and thrown into some disorder.
Cortes, thus impeded, ordered up a few pieces of heavy ordnance,
which soon swept away the barricades, and cleared a passage for the
army. But it had lost the momentum acquired in its rapid advance. They
enemy had time to rally and to meet the Spaniards on more equal terms.
They were attacked in flank, too, as they advanced, by fresh
battalions, who swarmed in from the adjoining streets and lanes. The
canals were alive with boats filled with warriors, who, with their
formidable darts, searched every crevice or weak place in the armour
of proof, and made havoc on the unprotected bodies of the
Tlascalans. By repeated and vigorous charges, the Spaniards
succeeded in driving the Indians before them; though many, with a
desperation which showed they loved vengeance better than life, sought
to embarrass the movements of their horses by clinging to their
legs, or more successfully strove to pull the riders from their
saddles. And woe to the unfortunate cavalier who was thus dismounted,-
to be despatched by the brutal maquahuitl, or to be dragged on board a
canoe to the bloody altar of sacrifice!
But the greatest annoyance which the Spaniards endured from the
missiles from the azoteas, consisting often of large stones, hurled
with a force that would tumble the stoutest rider from his saddle.
Galled in the extreme by these discharges, against which even their
shields afforded no adequate protection, Cortes ordered fire to be set
to the buildings. This was no very difficult matter, since, although
chiefly of stone, they were filled with mats, canework, and other
combustible materials, which were soon in a blaze. But the buildings
stood separated from one another by canals and drawbridges, so that
the flames did not easily communicate to the neighbouring edifices.
Hence the labour of the Spaniards was incalculably increased, and
their progress in the work of destruction- fortunately for the city-
was comparatively slow. They did not relax their efforts, however,
till several hundred houses had been consumed, and the miseries of a
conflagration, in which the wretched inmates perished equally with the
defenders, were added to the other horrors of the scene.
The day was now far spent. The Spaniards had been everywhere
victorious. But the enemy, though driven back on every point, still
kept the field. When broken by the furious charges of the cavalry,
he soon rallied behind the temporary defences, which, at different
intervals, had been thrown across the streets, and, facing about,
renewed the fight with undiminished courage, till the sweeping away of
the barriers by the cannon of the assailants left a free passage for
the movements of their horse. Thus the action was a succession of
rallying and retreating, in which both parties suffered much, although
the loss inflicted on the Indians was probably tenfold greater than
that of the Spaniards. But the Aztecs could better afford the loss
of a hundred lives than their antagonists that of one. And while the
Spaniards showed an array broken, and obviously thinned in numbers,
the Mexican army, swelled by the tributary levies which flowed in upon
it from the neighbouring streets, exhibited, with all its losses, no
sign of diminution. At length, sated with carnage, and exhausted by
toil and hunger, the Spanish commander drew off his men, and sounded a
On his way back to his quarters, he beheld his friend, the
secretary Duero, in a street adjoining, unhorsed, and hotly engaged
with a body of Mexicans, against whom he was desperately defending
himself with his poniard. Cortes, roused at the sight, shouted his
war-cry, and, dashing into the midst of the enemy, scattered them like
chaff by the fury of his onset; then recovering his friend's horse, he
enabled him to remount, and the two cavaliers, striking their spurs
into their steeds, burst through their opponents and joined the main
body of the army.
The undaunted Aztecs hung on the rear of their retreating foes,
annoying them at every step by fresh flights of stones and arrows; and
when the Spaniards had re-entered their fortress, the Indian host
encamped around it, showing the same dogged resolution as on the
preceding evening. Though true to their ancient habits of inaction
during the night, they broke the stillness of the hour by insulting
cries and menaces, which reached the ears of the besieged. "The gods
have delivered you, at last, into our hands," they said;
"Huitzilopochtli has long cried for his victims. The stone of
sacrifice is ready. The knives are sharpened. The wild beasts in the
palace are roaring for their offal. And the cages," they added,
taunting the Tlascalans with their leanness, "are waiting for the
false sons of Anahuac, who are to be fattened for the festival." These
dismal menaces, which sounded fearfully in the ears of the besieged,
who understood too well their import, were mingled with piteous
lamentations for their sovereign, whom they called on the Spaniards to
deliver up to them.
Cortes suffered much from a severe wound which he had received
in the hand in the late action. But the anguish of his mind must
have been still greater, as he brooded over the dark prospect before
him. He had mistaken the character of the Mexicans. Their long and
patient endurance had been a violence to their natural temper,
which, as their whole history proves, was arrogant and ferocious
beyond that of most of the races of Anahuac. The restraint which, in
deference to their monarch, more than to their own fears, they had
so long put on their natures, being once removed, their passions burst
forth with accumulated violence. The Spaniards had encountered in
the Tlascalan an open enemy, who had no grievance to complain of, no
wrong to redress. He fought under the vague apprehension only of
some coming evil to his country. But the Aztec, hitherto the proud
lord of the land, was goaded by insult and injury, till he had reached
that pitch of self-devotion, which made fife cheap, in comparison with
Considerations of this kind may have passed through the mind of
Cortes, as he reflected on his own impotence to restrain the fury of
the Mexicans, and resolved in despite of his late supercilious
treatment of Montezuma, to employ his authority to allay the
tumult,- an authority so successfully exerted in behalf of Alvarado,
at an earlier stage of the insurrection. He was the more confirmed
in his purpose, on the following morning, when the assailants,
redoubling their efforts, succeeded in scaling the works in one
quarter, and effecting an entrance into the inclosure. It is true,
they were met with so resolute a spirit, that not a man of those who
entered was left alive. But in the impetuosity of the assault, it
seemed, for a few moments, as if the place was to be carried by storm.
Cortes now sent to the Aztec emperor to request his
interposition with his subjects in behalf of the Spaniards. But
Montezuma was not in the humour to comply. He had remained moodily
in his quarters ever since the general's return. Disgusted with the
treatment he had received, he had still further cause for
mortification in finding himself the ally of those who were the open
enemies of his nation. From his apartment he had beheld the tragical
scenes in his capital, and seen another, Cuitlahua, the presumptive
heir to his throne, whom Cortes had released a few days previous,
taking the place which he should have occupied at the head of his
warriors, and fighting the battles of his country. Distressed by his
position, indignant at those who had placed him in it, he coldly
answered, "What have I to do with Malinche? I do not wish to hear from
him. I desire only to die. To what a state has my willingness to serve
him reduced me!" When urged still further to comply by Olid and Father
Olmedo, he added, "It is of no use. They will neither believe me,
nor the false words and promises of Malinche. You will never leave
these walls alive." On being assured, however, that the Spaniards
would willingly depart, if a way were opened to them by their enemies,
he at length- moved, probably, more by the desire to spare the blood
of his subjects than of the Christians- consented to expostulate with
his people.
In order to give the greater effect to his presence, he put on his
imperial robes. The tilmatli, his mantle of white and blue, flowed
over his shoulders, held together by its rich clasp of the green
chalchuitl. The same precious gem, with emeralds of uncommon size, set
in gold, profusely ornamented other parts of his dress. His feet
were shod with the golden sandals, and his brows covered by the
copilli, or Mexican diadem, resembling in form the pontifical tiara.
Thus attired, and surrounded by a guard of Spaniards and several Aztec
nobles, and preceded by the golden wand, the symbol of sovereignty,
the Indian monarch ascended the central turret of the palace. His
presence was instantly recognised by the people, and, as the royal
retinue advanced along the battlements, a change, as if by magic, came
over the scene. The clang of instruments, the fierce cries of the
assailants, were hushed, and a death-like stillness pervaded the whole
assembly, so fiercely agitated but a few moments before by the wild
tumult of war! Many prostrated themselves on the ground; others bent
the knee; and all turned with eager expectation towards the monarch,
whom they had been taught to reverence with slavish awe, and from
whose countenance they had been wont to turn away as from the
intolerable splendours of divinity! Montezuma saw his advantage;
and, while he stood thus confronted with his awe-struck people, he
seemed to recover all his former authority and confidence as he felt
himself to be still a king. With a calm voice, easily heard over the
silent assembly, he is said by the Castilian writers to have thus
addressed them:
"Why do I see my people here in arms against the palace of my
fathers? Is it that you think your sovereign a prisoner, and wish to
release him? If so, you have acted rightly. But you are mistaken. I am
no prisoner. The strangers are my guests. I remain with them only from
choice, and can leave them when I list. Have you come to drive them
from the city? That is unnecessary. They will depart of their own
accord, if you will open a way for them. Return to your homes, then.
Lay down your arms. Show your obedience to me who have a right to
it. The white men shall go back to their own land; and all shall be
well again within the walls of Tenochtitlan."
As Montezuma announced himself the friend of the detested
strangers, a murmur ran through the multitude; a murmur of contempt
for the pusillanimous prince who could show himself so insensible to
the insults and injuries for which the nation was in arms! The swollen
tide of their passions swept away all the barriers of ancient
reverence, and, taking a new direction, descended on the head of the
unfortunate monarch, so far degenerated from his warlike ancestors.
"Base Aztec," they exclaimed, "woman, coward, the white men have
made you a woman,- fit only to weave and spin!" These bitter taunts
were soon followed by still more hostile demonstrations. A chief, it
is said, of high rank, bent a bow or brandished a javelin with an
air of defiance against the emperor, when, in an instant, a cloud of
stones and arrows descended on the spot where the royal train was
gathered. The Spaniards appointed to protect his person had been
thrown off their guard by the respectful deportment of the people
during their lord's address. They now hastily interposed their
bucklers. But it was too late. Montezuma was wounded by three of the
missiles one of which, a stone, fell with such violence on his head,
near the temple, as brought him senseless to the ground. The Mexicans,
shocked at their own sacrilegious act, experienced a sudden
revulsion of feeling, and setting up a dismal cry, dispersed
panic-struck in different directions. Not one of the multitudinous
array remained in the great square before the palace!
The unhappy prince, meanwhile, was borne by his attendants to
his apartments below. On recovering from the insensibility caused by
the blow, the wretchedness of his condition broke upon him. He had
tasted the last bitterness of degradation. He had been reviled,
rejected, by his people. The meanest of the rabble had raised their
hands against him. He had nothing more to live for. It was in vain
that Cortes and his officers endeavoured to soothe the anguish of
his spirit and fill him with better thoughts. He spoke not a word in
answer. His wound, though dangerous, might still, with skilful
treatment, not prove mortal. But Montezuma refused all the remedies
prescribed for it. He tore off the bandages as often as they were
applied, maintaining all the while the most determined silence. He sat
with eyes dejected, brooding over his fallen fortunes, over the
image of ancient majesty and present humiliation. He had survived
his honour. But a spark of his ancient spirit seemed to kindle in
his bosom, as it was clear he did not mean to survive his disgrace.-
From this painful scene the Spanish general and his followers were
soon called away by the new dangers which menaced the garrison.
Chapter II [1520]


OPPOSITE to the Spanish quarters, at only a few rods' distance,
stood the great teocalli of Huitzilopochtli. This pyramidal mound,
with the sanctuaries that crowned it, rising altogether to the
height of near a hundred and fifty feet, afforded an elevated position
that completely commanded the palace of Axayacatl, occupied by the
Christians. A body of five or six hundred Mexicans, many of them
nobles and warriors of the highest rank, had got possession of the
teocalli, whence they discharged such a tempest of arrows on the
garrison, that no one could leave his defences for a moment without
imminent danger; while the Mexicans, under shelter of the sanctuaries,
were entirely covered from the fire of the besieged. It was
obviously necessary to dislodge the enemy, if the Spaniards would
remain longer in their quarters.
Cortes assigned this service to his chamberlain Escobar, giving
him a hundred men for the purpose, with orders to storm the
teocalli, and set fire to the sanctuaries. But that officer was thrice
repulsed in the attempt, and, after the most desperate efforts, was
obliged to return with considerable loss and without accomplishing his
Cortes, who saw the immediate necessity of carrying the place,
determined to lead the storming party himself. He was then suffering
much from the wound in his left hand, which had disabled it for the
present. He made the arm serviceable, however, by fastening his
buckler to it, and, thus crippled, sallied out at the head of three
hundred chosen cavaliers, and several thousand of his auxiliaries.
In the courtyard of the temple he found a numerous body of Indians
prepared to dispute his passage. He briskly charged them, but the
flat, smooth stones of the pavement were so slippery that the horses
lost their footing and many of them fell. Hastily dismounting, they
sent back the animals to their quarters, and, renewing the assault,
the Spaniards succeeded without much difficulty in dispersing the
Indian warriors, and opening a free passage for themselves to the
Cortes, having cleared a way for the assault, sprang up the
lower stairway, followed by Alvarado, Sandoval, Ordaz, and the other
gallant cavaliers of his little band, leaving a file of arquebusiers
and a strong corps of Indian allies to hold the enemy in check at foot
of the monument. On the first landing, as well as on the several
galleries above, and on the summit, the Aztec warriors were drawn up
to dispute his passage. From their elevated position they showered
down volleys of lighter missiles, together with heavy stones, beams,
and burning rafters, which, thundering along the stairway,
overturned the ascending Spaniards, and carried desolation through
their ranks. The more fortunate, eluding or springing over these
obstacles, succeeded in gaining the first terrace, where, throwing
themselves on their enemies. they compelled them, after a short
resistance, to fall back. The assailants pressed on, effectually
supported by a brisk fire of the musketeers from below, which so
much galled the Mexicans in their exposed situation, that they were
glad to take shelter on the broad summit of the teocalli.
Cortes and his comrades were close upon their rear, and the two
parties soon found themselves face to face on this aerial
battle-field, engaged in mortal combat in presence of the whole
city, as well as of the troops in the courtyard, who paused, as if
by mutual consent, from their own hostilities, gazing in silent
expectation on the issue of those above. The area, though somewhat
smaller than the base of the teocalli, was large enough to afford a
fair field of fight for a thousand combatants. It was paved with
broad, flat stones. No impediment occurred over its surface, except
the huge sacrificial block, and the temples of stone which rose to the
height of forty feet, at the further extremity of the arena. One of
these had been consecrated to the Cross; the other was still
occupied by the Mexican war-god. The Christian and the Aztec contended
for their religions under the very shadow of their respective shrines;
while the Indian priests, running to and fro, with their hair wildly
streaming over their sable mantles, seemed hovering in mid air, like
so many demons of darkness urging on the work of slaughter!
The parties closed with the desperate fury of men who had no
hope but in victory. Quarter was neither asked nor given; and to fly
was impossible. The edge of the area was unprotected by parapet or
battlement. The least slip would be fatal; and the combatants, as they
struggled in mortal agony, were sometimes seen to roll over the
sheer sides of the precipice together. Many of the Aztecs, seeing
the fate of such of their comrades as fell into the hands of the
Spaniards, voluntarily threw themselves headlong from the lofty summit
and were dashed in pieces on the pavement.
The battle lasted with unintermitting fury for three hours. The
number of the enemy was double that of the Christians; and it seemed
as if it were a contest which must be determined by numbers and
brute force, rather than by superior science. But it was not so. The
invulnerable armour of the Spaniard, his sword of matchless temper,
and his skill in the use of it, gave him advantages which far
outweighed the odds of physical strength and numbers. After doing
all that the courage of despair could enable men to do, resistance
grew fainter and fainter on the side of the Aztecs. One after
another they had fallen. Two or three priests only survived to be
led away in triumph by the victors. Every other combatant was
stretched a corpse on the bloody arena, or had been hurled from the
giddy heights. Yet the loss of the Spaniards was not inconsiderable.
It amounted to forty-five of their best men, and nearly all the
remainder were more or less injured in the desperate conflict.
The victorious cavaliers now rushed towards the sanctuaries. The
lower story was of stone; the two upper were of wood. Penetrating into
their recesses, they had the mortification to find the image of the
Virgin and the Cross removed. But in the other edifice they still
beheld the grim figure of Huitzilopochtli, with the censer of
smoking hearts, and the walls of his oratory reeking with gore,- not
improbably of their own countrymen! With shouts of triumph the
Christians tore the uncouth monster from his niche, and tumbled him,
in the presence of the horror-struck Aztecs, down the steps of the
teocalli. They then set fire to the accursed building. The flame
speedily ran up the slender towers, sending forth an ominous light
over city, lake, and valley, to the remotest hut among the
mountains. It was the funeral pyre of paganism, and proclaimed the
fall of that sanguinary religion which had so long hung like a dark
cloud over the fair regions of Anahuac! No achievement in the war
struck more awe into the Mexicans than this storming of the great
temple, in which the white men seemed to bid defiance equally to the
powers of God and man.
Having accomplished this good work, the Spaniards descended the
winding slopes of the teocalli with more free and buoyant step, as
if conscious that the blessing of Heaven now rested on their arms.
They passed through the dusky files of Indian warriors in the
courtyard, too much dismayed by the appalling scenes they had
witnessed to offer resistance; and reached their own quarters in
safety. That very night they followed up the blow by a sortie on the
sleeping town, and burned three hundred houses, the horrors of
conflagration being made still more impressive by occurring at the
hour when the Aztecs, from their own system of warfare, were least
prepared for them.
Hoping to find the temper of the natives somewhat subdued by these
reverses, Cortes now determined, with his usual policy, to make them a
vantage-ground for proposing terms of accommodation. He accordingly
invited the enemy to a parley, and, as the principal chiefs,
attended by their followers, assembled in the great square, he mounted
the turret before occupied by Montezuma, and made signs that he
would address them. Marina, as usual, took her place by his side, as
his interpreter. The multitude gazed with earnest curiosity on the
Indian girl, whose influence with the Spaniards was well known, and
whose connection with the general, in particular, had led the Aztecs
to designate him by her Mexican name of Malinche. Cortes, speaking
through the soft, musical tones of his mistress, told his audience
they must now be convinced that they had nothing further to hope
from opposition to the Spaniards. They had seen their gods trampled in
the dust, their altars broken, their dwellings burned, their
warriors falling on all sides. "All this," continued he, "you have
brought on yourselves by your rebellion. Yet for the affection the
sovereign, whom you have unworthily treated, still bears you, I
would willingly stay my hand, if you will lay down your arms, and
return once more to your obedience. But, if you do not," he concluded,
"I will make your city a heap of ruins, and leave not a soul alive
to mourn over it!"
But the Spanish commander did not yet comprehend the character
of the Aztecs, if he thought to intimidate them by menaces. Calm in
their exterior and slow to move, they were the more difficult to
pacify when roused; and now that they had been stirred to their inmost
depths, it was no human voice that could still the tempest. It may be,
however, that Cortes did not so much misconceive the character of
the people. He may have felt that an authoritative tone was the only
one he could assume with any chance of effect, in his present
position, in which milder and more conciliatory language would, by
intimating a consciousness of inferiority, have too certainly defeated
its own object.
It was true, they answered, he had destroyed their temples, broken
in pieces their gods, massacred their countrymen. Many more,
doubtless, were yet to fall under their terrible swords. But they were
content so long as for every thousand Mexicans they could shed the
blood of a single white man! "Look out," they continued, "on our
terraces and streets, see them still thronged with warriors as far
as your eyes can reach. Our numbers are scarcely diminished by our
losses. Yours, on the contrary, are lessening every hour. You are
perishing from hunger and sickness. Your provisions and water are
failing. You must soon fall into our hands. The bridges are broken
down, and you cannot escape! There will be too few of you left to glut
the vengeance of our gods!" As they concluded, they sent a volley of
arrows over the battlements, which compelled the Spaniards to
descend and take refuge in their defences.
The fierce and indomitable spirit of the Aztecs filled the
besieged with dismay. All, then, that they had done and suffered,
their battles by day, their vigils by night, the perils they had
braved, even the victories they had won, were of no avail. It was
too evident that they had no longer the spring of ancient superstition
to work upon in the breasts of the natives, who, like some wild
beast that has burst the bonds of his keeper, seemed now to swell
and exult in the full consciousness of their strength. The
annunciation respecting the bridges fell like a knell on the ears of
the Christians. All that they had heard was too true,- and they
gazed on one another with looks of anxiety and dismay.
The same consequences followed, which sometimes take place among
the crew of a shipwrecked vessel. Subordination was lost in the
dreadful sense of danger. A spirit of mutiny broke out, especially
among the recent levies drawn from the army of Narvaez. They had
come into the country from no motive of ambition, but attracted simply
by the glowing reports of its opulence, and they had fondly hoped to
return in a few months with their pockets well lined with the gold
of the Aztec monarch. But how different had been their lot! From the
first hour of their landing, they had experienced only trouble and
disaster, privations of every description, sufferings unexampled,
and they now beheld in perspective a fate yet more appalling. Bitterly
did they lament the hour when they left the sunny fields of Cuba for
these cannibal regions! And heartily did they curse their own folly in
listening to the call of Velasquez, and still more in embarking
under the banner of Cortes!
They now demanded with noisy vehemence to be led instantly from
the city, and refused to serve longer in defence of a place where they
were cooped up like sheep in the shambles, waiting only to be
dragged to slaughter. In all this they were rebuked by the more
orderly soldier-like conduct of the veterans of Cortes. These latter
had shared with their general the day of his prosperity, and they were
not disposed to desert him in the tempest. It was, indeed, obvious, on
a little reflection, that the only chance of safety, in the existing
crisis, rested on subordination and union; and that even this chance
must be greatly diminished under any other leader than their present
Thus pressed by enemies without and by factions within, that
leader was found, as usual, true to himself. Circumstances so
appalling as would have paralysed a common mind, only stimulated his
to higher action, and drew forth all its resources. He combined what
is most rare, singular coolness and constancy of purpose, with a
spirit of enterprise that might well be called romantic. His
presence of mind did not now desert him. He calmly surveyed his
condition, and weighed the difficulties which surrounded him, before
coming to a decision. Independently of the hazard of a retreat in
the face of a watchful and desperate foe, it was a deep
mortification to surrender up the city, where he had so long lorded it
as a master; to abandon the rich treasures which he had secured to
himself and his followers; to forego the very means by which he had
hoped to propitiate the favour of his sovereign, and secure an amnesty
for his irregular proceedings. This, he well knew, must, after all, be
dependent on success. To fly now was to acknowledge himself further
removed from the conquest than ever. What a close was this to a career
so auspiciously begun! What a contrast to his magnificent vaunts! What
a triumph would it afford to his enemies! The governor of Cuba would
be amply revenged.
But, if such humiliating reflections crowded on his mind, the
alternative of remaining, in his present crippled condition, seemed
yet more desperate. With his men daily diminishing in strength and
numbers, their provisions reduced so low that a small daily ration
of bread was all the sustenance afforded to the soldier under his
extraordinary fatigues, with the breaches every day widening in his
feeble fortifications, with his ammunition, in fine, nearly
expended, it would be impossible to maintain the place much longer-
and none but men of iron constitutions and tempers, like the
Spaniards, could have held it out so long- against the enemy. The
chief embarrassment was as to the time and manner in which it would be
expedient to evacuate the city. The best route seemed to be that of
Tlacopan (Tacuba). For the causeway, the most dangerous part of the
road, was but two miles long in that direction, and would therefore
place the fugitives much sooner than either of the other great avenues
on terra firma. Before his final departure, however, he proposed to
make another sally in that direction, in order to reconnoitre the
ground, and, at the same time, divert the enemy's attention from his
real purpose by a show of active operations.
For some days his workmen had been employed in constructing a
military machine of his own invention. It was called a manta, and
was contrived somewhat on the principle of the mantelets used in the
wars of the Middle Ages. It was, however, more complicated, consisting
of a tower made of light beams and planks, having two chambers, one
over the other. These were to be filled with musketeers, and the sides
were provided with loop-holes, through which a fire could be kept up
on the enemy. The great advantage proposed by this contrivance was, to
afford a defence to the troops against the missiles hurled from the
terraces. These machines, three of which were made, rested on rollers,
and were provided with strong ropes, by which they were to be
dragged along the streets by the Tlascalan auxiliaries.
The Mexicans gazed with astonishment on this warlike machinery,
and, as the rolling fortresses advanced, belching forth fire and smoke
from their entrails, the enemy, incapable of making an impression on
those within, fell back in dismay. By bringing the mantas under the
walls of the houses, the Spaniards were enabled to fire with effect on
the mischievous tenants of the azoteas, and when this did not
silence them, by letting a ladder, or light drawbridge, fall on the
roof from the top of the manta, they opened a passage to the
terrace, and closed with the combatants hand to hand. They could
not, however, thus approach the higher buildings, from which the
Indian warriors threw down such heavy masses of stone and timber as
dislodged the planks that covered the machines, or, thundering against
their sides, shook the frail edifices to their foundations,
threatening all within with indiscriminate ruin. Indeed, the success
of the experiment was doubtful, when the intervention of a canal put a
stop to their further progress.
The Spaniards now found the assertion of their enemies too well
confirmed. The bridge which traversed the opening had been demolished;
and, although the canals which intersected the city were in general of
no great width or depth, the removal of the bridges not only impeded
the movements of the general's clumsy machines, but effectually
disconcerted those of his cavalry. Resolving to abandon the mantas, he
gave orders to fill up the chasm with stone, timber, and other rubbish
drawn from the ruined buildings, and to make a new passage-way for the
army. While this labour was going on, the Aztec slingers and archers
on the other side of the opening kept up a galling discharge on the
Christians, the more defenceless from the nature of their
occupation. When the work was completed, and a safe passage secured,
the Spanish cavaliers rode briskly against the enemy, who, unable to
resist the shock of the steel-clad column, fell back with
precipitation to where another canal afforded a similar strong
position for defence.
There were no less than seven of these canals, intersecting the
great street of Tlacopan, and at every one the same scene was renewed,
the Mexicans making a gallant stand, and inflicting some loss, at
each, on their persevering antagonists. These operations consumed
two days, when, after incredible toil, the Spanish general had the
satisfaction to find the line of communication completely
re-established through the whole length of the avenue, and the
principal bridges placed under strong detachments of infantry. At this
juncture, when he had driven the foe before him to the furthest
extremity of the street, where it touches on the causeway, he was
informed that the Mexicans, disheartened by their reverses, desired to
open a parley with him respecting the terms of an accommodation, and
that their chiefs awaited his return for that purpose at the fortress.
Overjoyed at the intelligence, he instantly rode back, attended by
Alvarado, Sandoval, and about sixty of the cavaliers, to his quarters.
The Mexicans proposed that he should release the two priests
captured in the temple, who might be the bearers of his terms, and
serve as agents for conducting the negotiation. They were
accordingly sent with the requisite instructions to their
countrymen. But they did not return. The whole was an artifice of
the enemy, anxious to procure the liberation of their religious
leaders, one of whom was their teoteuctli, or high-priest, whose
presence was indispensable in the probable event of a new coronation.
Cortes, meanwhile, relying on the prospects of a speedy
arrangement, was hastily taking some refreshment with his officers,
after the fatigues of the day, when he received the alarming tidings
that the enemy were in arms again, with more fury than ever; that they
had overpowered the detachments posted under Alvarado at three of
the bridges, and were busily occupied in demolishing them. Stung
with shame at the facility with which he had been duped by his wily
foe, or rather by his own sanguine hopes, Cortes threw himself into
the saddle, and, followed by his brave companions, galloped back at
full speed to the scene of action. The Mexicans recoiled before the
impetuous charge of the Spaniards. The bridges were again restored;
and Cortes and his chivalry rode down the whole extent of the great
street, driving the enemy, like frightened deer, at the points of
their lances. But before he could return on his steps, he had the
mortification to find, that the indefatigable foe, gathering from
the adjoining lanes and streets, had again closed on his infantry,
who, worn down by fatigue, were unable to maintain their position,
at one of the principal bridges. New swarms of warriors now poured
in on all sides, overwhelming the little band of Christian cavaliers
with a storm of stones, darts, and arrows, which rattled like hail
on their armour and on that of their well-barbed horses. Most of the
missiles, indeed, glanced harmless from the good panoplies of steel,
or thick quilted cotton; but, now and then, one better aimed
penetrated the joints of the harness, and stretched the rider on the
The confusion became greater around the broken bridge. Some of the
horsemen were thrown into the canal, and their steeds floundered
wildly about without a rider. Cortes himself, at this crisis, did more
than any other to cover the retreat of his followers. While the bridge
was repairing, he plunged boldly into the midst of the barbarians,
striking down an enemy at every vault of his charger, cheering on
his own men, and spreading terror through the ranks of his opponents
by the well-known sound of his battle-cry. Never did he display
greater hardihood, or more freely expose his person, emulating, says
an old chronicler, the feats of the Roman Cocles. In this way he
stayed the tide of assailants, till the last man had crossed the
bridge, when, some of the planks having given way, he was compelled to
leap a chasm of full six feet in width, amidst a cloud of missiles,
before he could place himself in safety. A report ran through the army
that the general was slain. It soon spread through the city, to the
great joy of the Mexicans, and reached the fortress, where the
besieged were thrown into no less consternation. But, happily for
them, it was false. He, indeed, received two severe contusions on
the knee, but in other respects remained uninjured. At no time,
however, had he been in such extreme danger; and his escape, and
that of his companions, were esteemed little less than a miracle.
The coming of night dispersed the Indian battalions, which,
vanishing like birds of ill-omen from the field, left the
well-contested pass in possession of the Spaniards. They returned,
however, with none of the joyous feelings of conquerors to their
citadel, but with slow step and dispirited, with weapons hacked,
armour battered, and fainting under the loss of blood, fasting, and
fatigue. In this condition they had yet to learn the tidings of a
fresh misfortune in the death of Montezuma.
The Indian monarch had rapidly declined, since he had received his
injury, sinking, however, quite as much under the anguish of a wounded
spirit, as under disease. He continued in the same moody state of
insensibility as that already described; holding little
communication with those around him, deaf to consolation,
obstinately rejecting all medical remedies, as well as nourishment.
Perceiving his end approach, some of the cavaliers present in the
fortress, whom the kindness of his manners had personally attached
to him, were anxious to save the soul of the dying prince from the sad
doom of those who perish in the darkness of unbelief. They accordingly
waited on him, with Father Olmedo at their head, and in the most
earnest manner implored him to open his eyes to the error of his
creed, and consent to be baptised. But Montezuma- whatever may have
been suggested to the contrary- seems never to have faltered in his
hereditary faith, or to have contemplated becoming an apostate; for
surely he merits that name in its most odious application, who,
whether Christian or pagan, renounces his religion without
conviction of its falsehood. Indeed, it was a too implicit reliance on
its oracles, which had led him to give such easy confidence to the
Spaniards. His intercourse with them had, doubtless, not sharpened his
desire to embrace their communion; and the calamities of his country
he might consider as sent by his gods to punish him for his
hospitality to those who had desecrated and destroyed their shrines.
When Father Olmedo, therefore, kneeling at his side, with the
uplifted crucifix, affectionately besought him to embrace the sign
of man's redemption, he coldly repulsed the priest, exclaiming, "I
have but a few moments to live; and will. not at this hour desert
the faith of my fathers." One thing, however, seemed to press
heavily on Montezuma's mind. This was the fate of his children,
especially of three daughters, whom he had by his two wives; for there
were certain rites of marriage, which distinguished the lawful wife
from the concubine. Calling Cortes to his bedside, he earnestly
commended these children to his care, as "the most precious jewels
that he could leave him." He besought the general to interest his
master, the emperor, in their behalf, and to see that they should
not be left destitute, but be allowed some portion of their rightful
inheritance. "Your lord will do this," he concluded, "if it were
only for the friendly offices I have rendered the Spaniards, and for
the love I have shown them,- though it has brought me to this
condition! But for this I bear them no ill-will." Such, according to
Cortes himself, were the words of the dying monarch. Not long after,
on the 30th of June, 1520, he expired in the arms of some of his own
nobles, who still remained faithful in their attendance on his person.
Montezuma, at the time of his death, was about forty-one years
old, of which he reigned eighteen. His person and manners have been
already described. He left a numerous progeny by his various wives,
most of whom, having lost their consideration after the Conquest, fell
into obscurity as they mingled with the mass of the Indian population.
Two of them, however, a son and a daughter, who embraced Christianity,
became the founders of noble houses in Spain. The government,
willing to show its gratitude for the large extent of empire derived
from their ancestor, conferred on them ample estates, and important
hereditary honours; and the Counts of Montezuma and Tula,
intermarrying with the best blood of Castile, intimated by their names
and titles their illustrious descent from the royal dynasty of Mexico.
Montezuma's death was a misfortune to the Spaniards. While he
lived, they had a precious pledge in their hands, which, in
extremity they might possibly have turned to account. Now the last
link was snapped which connected them with the natives of the country.
But independently of interested feelings, Cortes and his officers were
much affected by his death from personal considerations; and, when
they gazed on the cold remains of the ill-starred monarch, they may
have felt a natural compunction as they contrasted his late
flourishing condition with that to which his friendship for them had
now reduced him.
The Spanish commander showed all respect for his memory. His body,
arrayed in its royal robes, was laid decently on a bier, and borne
on the shoulders of his nobles to his subjects in the city. What
honours, if any, indeed, were paid to his remains, is uncertain. A
sound of wailing, distinctly heard in the western quarters of the
capital, was interpreted by the Spaniards into the moans of a
funeral procession, as it bore the body to be laid among those of
his ancestors, under the princely shades of Chapoltepec. Others state,
that it was removed to a burial-place in the city named Copalco, and
there burnt with the usual solemnities and signs of lamentation by his
chiefs, but not without some unworthy insults from the Mexican
populace. Whatever be the fact, the people, occupied with the stirring
scenes in which they were engaged, were probably not long mindful of
the monarch, who had taken no share in their late patriotic movements.
Nor is it strange that the very memory of his sepulchre should be
effaced in the terrible catastrophe which afterwards overwhelmed the
capital, and swept away every landmark from its surface.
Chapter III [1520]


THERE was no longer any question as to the expediency of
evacuating the capital. The only doubt was as to the time of doing so,
and the route. The Spanish commander called a council of officers to
deliberate on these matters. It was his purpose to retreat on
Tlascala, and in that capital to decide according to circumstances
on his future operations. After some discussion, they agreed on the
causeway of Tlacopan as the avenue by which to leave the city. It
would, indeed, take them back by a circuitous route, considerably
longer than either of those by which they had approached the
capital. But, for that reason, it would be less likely to be
guarded, as least suspected; and the causeway, itself being shorter
than either of the other entrances, would sooner place the army in
comparative security on the main land.
There was some difference of opinion in respect to the hour of
departure. The day-time, it was argued by some, would be preferable,
since it would enable them to see the nature and extent of their
danger, and to provide against it. Darkness would be much more
likely to embarrass their own movements than those of the enemy, who
were familiar with the ground. A thousand impediments would occur in
the night, which might prevent their acting in concert, or obeying, or
even ascertaining, the orders of the commander. But, on the other
hand, it was urged, that the night presented many obvious advantages
in dealing with a foe who rarely carried his hostilities beyond the
day. The late active operations of the Spaniards had thrown the
Mexicans off their guard, and it was improbable they would
anticipate so speedy a departure of their enemies. With celerity and
caution they might succeed, therefore, in making their escape from the
town, possibly over the causeway, before their retreat should be
discovered; and, could they once get beyond that pass of peril, they
felt little apprehension for the rest.
These views were fortified, it is said, by the counsels of a
soldier named Botello, who professed the mysterious science of
judicial astrology. He had gained credit with the army by some
predictions which had been verified by the events; those lucky hits
which make chance pass for calculation with the credulous multitude.
This man recommended to his countrymen by all means to evacuate the
place in the night, as the hour most propitious to them, although he
should perish in it. The event proved the astrologer better acquainted
with his own horoscope than with that of others.
It is possible Botello's predictions had some weight in
determining the opinion of Cortes. Superstition was the feature of the
age, and the Spanish general, as we have seen, had a full measure of
its bigotry. Seasons of gloom, moreover, dispose the mind to a ready
acquiescence in the marvellous. It is, however, quite as probable that
he made use of the astrologer's opinion, finding it coincided with his
own, to influence that of his men, and inspire them with higher
confidence. At all events, it was decided to abandon the city that
very night.
The general's first care was to provide for the safe
transportation of the treasure. Many of the common soldiers had
converted their share of the prize, as we have seen, into gold chains,
collars, or other ornaments, which they easily carried about their
persons. But the royal fifth, together with that of Cortes himself,
and much of the rich booty of the principal cavaliers had been
converted into bars and wedges of solid gold, and deposited in one
of the strong apartments of the palace. Cortes delivered the share
belonging to the crown to the royal officers, assigning them one of
the strongest horses, and a guard of Castilian soldiers to transport
it. Still, much of the treasure belonging both to the crown and to
individuals was necessarily abandoned, from the want of adequate means
of conveyance. The metal lay scattered in shining heaps along the
floor, exciting the cupidity of the soldiers. "Take what you will of
it," said Cortes to his men. "Better you should have it than these
Mexican hounds. But be careful not to overload yourselves. He
travels safest in the dark night who travels lightest." His own more
wary followers took heed to his counsel, helping themselves to a few
articles of least bulk, though, it might be, of greatest value. But
the troops of Narvaez, pining for riches, of which they had heard so
much, and hitherto seen so little, showed no such discretion. To
them it seemed as if the very mines of Mexico were turned up before
them, and, rushing on the treacherous spoil, they greedily loaded
themselves with as much of it, not merely as they could accommodate
about their persons, but as they could stow away in wallets, boxes, or
any other mode of conveyance at their disposal.
Cortes next arranged the order of march. The van, composed of
two hundred Spanish foot, he placed under the command of the valiant
Gonzalo de Sandoval, supported by Diego de Ordaz, Francisco de Lugo,
and about twenty other cavaliers. The rear-guard, constituting the
strength of the infantry, was intrusted to Pedro de Alvarado and
Velasquez de Leon. The general himself took charge of the "battle," or
centre, in which went the baggage, some of the heavy guns, most of
which, however, remained in the rear, the treasure, and the prisoners.
These consisted of a son and two daughters of Montezuma, Cacama, the
deposed lord of Tezcuco, and several other nobles, whom Cortes
retained as important pledges in his future negotiations with the
enemy. The Tlascalans were distributed pretty equally among the
three divisions; and Cortes had under his immediate command a
hundred picked soldiers, his own veterans most attached to his
service, who, with Christoval de Olid, Francisco de Morla, Alonso de
Avila, and two or three other cavaliers, formed a select corps, to act
wherever occasion might require.
The general had already superintended the construction of a
portable bridge to be laid over the open canals in the causeway.
This was given in charge to an officer named Magarino, with forty
soldiers under his orders, all pledged to defend the passage to the
last extremity. The bridge was to be taken up when the entire army had
crossed one of the breaches, and transported to the next. There were
three of these openings in the causeway, and most fortunate would it
have been for the expedition, if the foresight of the commander had
provided the same number of bridges. But the labour would have been
great, and time was short.
At midnight the troops were under arms, in readiness for the
march. Mass was performed by Father Olmedo, who invoked the protection
of the Almighty through the awful perils of the night. The gates
were thrown open, and, on the first of July, 1520, the Spaniards for
the last time sallied forth from the walls of the ancient fortress,
the scene of so much suffering and such indomitable courage.
The night was cloudy, and a drizzling rain, which fell without
intermission, added to the obscurity. The great square before the
palace was deserted, as, indeed, it had been since the fall of
Montezuma. Steadily, and as noiselessly as possible, the Spaniards
held their way along the great street of Tlacopan, which so lately had
resounded to the tumult of battle. All was now hushed in silence;
and they were only reminded of the past by the occasional presence
of some solitary corpse, or a dark heap of the slain, which too
plainly told where the strife had been hottest. As they passed along
the lanes and alleys which opened into the great street, or looked
down the canals, whose polished surface gleamed with a sort of ebon
lustre through the obscurity of night, they easily fancied that they
discerned the shadowy forms of their foe lurking in ambush, and
ready to spring on them. But it was only fancy; and the city slept
undisturbed even by the prolonged echoes of the tramp of the horses,
and the hoarse rumbling of the artillery and baggage trains. At length
a lighter space beyond the dusky line of buildings showed the van of
the army that it was emerging on the open causeway. They might well
have congratulated themselves on having thus escaped the dangers of an
assault in the city itself, and that a brief time would place them
in comparative safety on the opposite shore. But the Mexicans were not
all asleep.
As the Spaniards drew near the spot where the street opened on the
causeway, and were preparing to lay the portable bridge across the
uncovered breach which now met their eyes, several Indian sentinels,
who had been stationed at this, as at the other approaches to the
city, took the alarm, and fled, rousing their countrymen by their
cries. The priests, keeping their night watch on the summit of the
teocallis, instantly caught the tidings and sounded their shells,
while the huge drum in the desolite temple of the war-god sent forth
those solemn tones, which, heard only in seasons of calamity, vibrated
through every corner of the capital. The Spaniards saw that no time
was to be lost. The bridge was brought forward and fitted with all
possible expedition. Sandoval was the first to try its strength,
and, riding across, was followed by his little body of chivalry, his
infantry, and Tlascalan allies, who formed the first division of the
army. Then came Cortes and his squadrons, with the baggage, ammunition
wagons, and a part of the artillery. But before they had time to
defile across the narrow passage, a gathering sound was heard, like
that of a mighty forest agitated by the winds. It grew louder and
louder, while on the dark waters of the lake was heard a splashing
noise, as of many oars. Then came a few stones and arrows striking
at random among the hurrying troops. They fell every moment faster and
more furious, till they thickened into a terrible tempest, while the
very heavens were rent with the yells and war-cries of myriads of
combatants, who seemed all at once to be swarming over land and lake!
The Spaniards pushed steadily on through this arrowy sleet, though
the barbarians, dashing their canoes against the sides of the
causeway, clambered up and broke in upon their ranks. But the
Christians, anxious only to make their escape, declined all combat
except for self-preservation. The cavaliers, spurring forward their
steeds, shook off their assailants, and rode over their prostrate
bodies, while the men on foot with their good swords or the butts of
their pieces drove them headlong again down the sides of the dike.
But the advance of several thousand men, marching, probably, on
a front of not more than fifteen or twenty abreast, necessarily
required much time, and the leading files had already reached the
second breach in the causeway before those in the rear had entirely
traversed the first. Here they halted; as they had no means of
effecting a passage, smarting all the while under unintermitting
volleys from the enemy, who were clustered thick on the waters
around this second opening. Sorely distressed, the vanguard sent
repeated messages to the rear to demand the portable bridge. At length
the last of the army had crossed, and Magarino and his sturdy
followers endeavoured to raise the ponderous framework. But it stuck
fast in the sides of the dike. In vain they strained every nerve.
The weight of so many men and horses, and above all of the heavy
artillery, had wedged the timbers so firmly in the stones and earth,
that it was beyond their power to dislodge them. Still they laboured
amidst a torrent of missiles, until, many of them slain, and all
wounded, they were obliged to abandon the attempt.
The tidings soon spread from man to man, and no sooner was their
dreadful import comprehended, than a cry of despair arose, which for a
moment drowned all the noise of conflict. All means of retreat were
cut off. Scarcely hope was left. The only hope was in such desperate
exertions as each could make for himself. Order and subordination were
at an end. Intense danger produced intense selfishness. Each thought
only of his own life. Pressing forward, he trampled down the weak
and the wounded, heedless whether it were friend or foe. The leading
files, urged on by the rear, were crowded on the brink of the gulf.
Sandoval, Ordaz, and the other cavaliers dashed into the water. Some
succeeded in swimming their horses across; others failed, and some,
who reached the opposite bank, being overturned in the ascent,
rolled headlong with their steeds into the lake. The infantry followed
pellmell, heaped promiscuously on one another, frequently pierced by
the shafts, or struck down by the war-clubs of the Aztecs; while
many an unfortunate victim was dragged half-stunned on board their
canoes, to be reserved for a protracted, but more dreadful death.
The carnage raged fearfully along the length of the causeway.
Its shadowy bulk presented a mark of sufficient distinctness for the
enemy's missiles, which often prostrated their own countrymen in the
blind fury of the tempest. Those nearest the dike, running their
canoes alongside, with a force that shattered them to pieces, leaped
on the land and grappled with the Christians, until both came
rolling down the side of the causeway together. But the Aztec fell
among his friends, while his antagonist was borne away in triumph to
the sacrifice. The struggle was long and deadly. The Mexicans were
recognised by their white cotton tunics, which showed faint through
the darkness. Above the combatants rose a wild and discordant clamour,
in which horrid shouts of vengeance were mingled with groans of agony,
with invocations of the saints and the blessed Virgin, and with the
screams of women; for there were several women, both native and
Spaniards, who had accompanied the Christian camp. Among these, one
named Maria de Estrada is particularly noticed for the courage she
displayed, battling with broadsword and target like the staunchest
of the warriors.
The opening in the causeway, meanwhile, was filled up with the
wreck of matter which had been forced into it, ammunition wagons,
heavy guns, bales of rich stuffs scattered over the waters, chests
of solid ingots, and bodies of men and horses, till over this dismal
ruin a passage was gradually formed, by which those in the rear were
enabled to clamber to the other side. Cortes, it is said, found a
place that was fordable, where halting with the water up to his
saddle-girths, he endeavoured to check the confusion, and lead his
followers by a safer path to the opposite bank. But his voice was lost
in the wild uproar, and finally, hurrying on with the tide, he pressed
forward with a few trusty cavaliers, who remained near his person,
to the van; but not before he had seen his favourite page, Juan de
Salazar, struck down, a corpse, by his side. Here he found Sandoval
and his companions, halting before the third and last breach,
endeavouring to cheer on their followers to surmount it. But their
resolution faltered. It was wide and deep; though the passage was
not so closely beset by the enemy as the preceding ones. The cavaliers
again set the example by plunging into the water. Horse and foot
followed as they could, some swimming, others with dying grasp
clinging to the manes and tails of the struggling animals. Those fared
best, as the general had predicted, who travelled lightest; and many
were the unfortunate wretches, who, weighed down by the fatal gold
which they loved so well, were buried with it in the salt floods of
the lake. Cortes, with his gallant comrades, Olid, Morla, Sandoval,
and some few others, still kept in the advance, leading his broken
remnant off the fatal causeway. The din of battle lessened in the
distance; when the rumour reached them, that the rear-guard would be
wholly overwhelmed without speedy relief. It seemed almost an act of
desperation; but the generous hearts of the Spanish cavaliers did
not stop to calculate danger when the cry for succour reached them.
Turning their horses' bridles, they galloped back to the theatre of
action, worked their way through the press, swam the canal, and placed
themselves in the thick of the melee on the opposite bank.
The first grey of the morning was now coming over the waters. It
showed the hideous confusion of the scene which had been shrouded in
the obscurity of night. The dark masses of combatants, stretching
along the dike, were seen struggling for mastery, until the very
causeway on which they stood appeared to tremble, and reel to and fro,
as if shaken by an earthquake; while the bosom of the lake, as far
as the eye could reach, was darkened by canoes crowded with
warriors, whose spears and bludgeons, armed with blades of "volcanic
glass," gleamed in the morning light.
The cavaliers found Alvarado unhorsed, and defending himself
with a poor handful of followers against an overwhelming tide of the
enemy. His good steed, which had borne him through many a hard
fight, had fallen under him. He was himself wounded in several places,
and was striving in vain to rally his scattered column, which was
driven to the verge of the canal by the fury of the enemy, then in
possession of the whole rear of the causeway, where they were
reinforced every hour by fresh combatants from the city. The artillery
in the earlier part of the engagement had not been idle, and its
iron shower, sweeping along the dike, had mowed down the assailants by
hundreds. But nothing could resist their impetuosity. The front ranks,
pushed on by those behind, were at length forced up to the pieces,
and, pouring over them like a torrent, overthrew men and guns in one
general ruin. The resolute charge of the Spanish cavaliers, who had
now arrived, created a temporary check, and gave time for their
countrymen to make a feeble rally. But they were speedily borne down
by the returning flood. Cortes and his companions were compelled to
plunge again into the lake,- though all did not escape. Alvarado stood
on the brink for a moment, hesitating what to do. Unhorsed as he
was, to throw himself into the water in the face of the hostile canoes
that now swarmed around the opening, afforded but a desperate chance
of safety. He had but a second for thought. He was a man of powerful
frame, and despair gave him unnatural energy. Setting his long lance
firmly on the wreck which strewed the bottom of the lake, he sprung
forward with all his might, and cleared the wide gap at a leap! Aztecs
and Tlascalans gazed in stupid amazement, exclaiming, as they beheld
the incredible feat, "This is truly the Tonatiuh,- the child of the
Sun!"- The breadth of the opening is not given. But it was so great,
that the valorous Captain Diaz, who well remembered the place, says
the leap was impossible to any man. Other contemporaries, however,
do not discredit the story.
Cortes and his companions now rode forward to the front, where the
troops in a loose, disorderly manner, were marching off the fatal
causeway. A few only of the enemy hung on their rear, or annoyed
them by occasional flights of arrows from the lake. The attention of
the Aztecs was diverted by the rich spoil that strewed the
battle-ground; fortunately for the Spaniards, who, had their enemy
pursued with the same ferocity with which he had fought, would, in
their crippled condition, have been cut off, probably to a man. But
little molested, therefore, they were allowed to defile through the
adjacent village, or suburbs, it might be called, of Popotla.
The Spanish commander there dismounted from his jaded steed,
and, sitting down on the steps of an Indian temple, gazed mournfully
on the broken files as they passed before him. What a spectacle did
they present! The cavalry, most of them dismounted, were mingled
with the infantry, who dragged their feeble limbs along with
difficulty; their shattered mail and tattered garments dripping with
the salt ooze, showing through their rents many a bruise and ghastly
wound; their bright arms soiled, their proud crests and banners
gone, the baggage, artillery- all, in short, that constitutes the
pride and panoply of glorious war, for ever lost. Cortes, as he looked
wistfully on their thinned and disordered ranks, sought in vain for
many a familiar face, and missed more than one dear companion who
had stood side by side with him through all the perils of the
Conquest. Though accustomed to control his emotions, or, at least,
to conceal them, the sight was too much for him. He covered his face
with his hands, and the tears which trickled down revealed too plainly
the anguish of his soul.
He found some consolation, however, in the sight of several of the
cavaliers on whom he most relied. Alvarado, Sandoval, Olid, Ordaz,
Avila, were yet safe. He had the inexpressible satisfaction, also,
of learning the safety of the Indian interpreter, Marina, so dear to
him, and so important to the army. She had been committed with a
daughter of a Tlascalan chief, to several of that nation. She was
fortunately placed in the van, and her faithful escort had carried her
securely through all the dangers of the night. Aguilar, the other
interpreter, had also escaped; and it was with no less satisfaction
that Cortes learned the safety of the ship-builder, Martin Lopez.
The general's solicitude for the fate of this man, so indispensable,
as he proved, to the success of his subsequent operations, showed that
amidst all his affliction, his indomitable spirit was looking
forward to the hour of vengeance.
Meanwhile, the advancing column had reached the neighbouring
city of Tlacopan (Tacuba), once the capital of an independent
principality. There it halted in the great street, as if bewildered
and altogether uncertain what course to take. Cortes, who had
hastily mounted and rode on to the front again, saw the danger of
remaining in a populous place, where the inhabitants might sorely
annoy the troops from the azoteas, with little risk to themselves.
Pushing forward, therefore, he soon led them into the country. There
he endeavoured to reform his disorganised battalions, and bring them
to something like order.
Hard by, at no great distance on the left, rose an eminence,
looking towards a chain of mountains which fences in the valley on the
west. It was called the Hill of Otoncalpolco, and sometimes the Hill
of Montezuma. It was crowned with an Indian teocalli, with its large
outworks of stone covering an ample space, and by its strong position,
which commanded the neighbouring plain, promised a good place of
refuge for the exhausted troops. But the men, disheartened and
stupefied by their late reverses, seemed for the moment incapable of
further exertion; and the place was held by a body of armed Indians.
Cortes saw the necessity of dislodging them, if he would save the
remains of his army from entire destruction. The event showed he still
held a control over their wills stronger than circumstances
themselves. Cheering them on, and supported by his gallant
cavaliers, he succeeded in infusing into the most sluggish something
of his own intrepid temper, and led them up the ascent in face of
the enemy. But the latter made slight resistance, and after a few
feeble volleys of missiles which did little injury, left the ground to
the assailants.
It was covered by a building of considerable size, and furnished
ample accommodations for the diminished numbers of the Spaniards. They
found there some provisions; and more, it is said, were brought to
them in the course of the day from some friendly Otomie villages in
the neighbourhood. There was, also, a quantity of fuel in the
courts, destined to the uses of the temple. With this they made
fires to dry their drenched garments, and busily employed themselves
in dressing one another's wounds, stiff and extremely painful from
exposure and long exertion. Thus refreshed, the weary soldiers threw
themselves down on the floor and courts of the temple, and soon
found the temporary oblivion which Nature seldom denies even in the
greatest extremity of suffering.
There was one eye in that assembly, however, which we may well
believe did not so speedily close. For what agitating thoughts must
have crowded on the mind of their commander, as he beheld his poor
remnant of followers thus huddled together in this miserable
bivouac! And this was all that survived of the brilliant array with
which but a few weeks since he had entered the capital of Mexico!
Where now were his dreams of conquest and empire? And what was he
but a luckless adventurer, at whom the finger of scorn would be
uplifted as a madman? Whichever way he turned, the horizon was
almost equally gloomy, with scarcely one light spot to cheer him. He
had still a weary journey before him, through perilous and unknown
paths, with guides of whose fidelity he could not be assured. And
how could he rely on his reception at Tlascala, the place of his
destination; the land of his ancient enemies; where, formerly as a
foe, and now as a friend, he had brought desolation to every family
within its borders?
Yet these agitating and gloomy reflections, which might have
crushed a common mind, had no power over that of Cortes; or rather,
they only served to renew his energies, and quicken his perceptions,
as the war of the elements purifies and gives elasticity to the
atmosphere. He looked with an unblenching eye on his past reverses;
but, confident in his own resources, he saw a light through the
gloom which others could not. Even in the shattered relics which lay
around him, resembling in their haggard aspect and wild attire a horde
of famished outlaws, he discerned the materials out of which to
reconstruct his ruined fortunes. In the very hour of discomfiture
and general despondency, there is no doubt that his heroic spirit
was meditating the plan of operations which he afterwards pursued with
such dauntless constancy.
The loss sustained by the Spaniards on this fatal night, like
every other event in the history of the Conquest, is reported with the
greatest discrepancy. If we believe Cortes' own letter, it did not
exceed one hundred and fifty Spaniards and two thousand Indians. But
the general's bulletins, while they do full justice to the
difficulties to be overcome, and the importance of the results, are
less scrupulous in stating the extent either of his means or of his
losses. Thoan Cano, one of the cavaliers present, estimates the
slain at eleven hundred and seventy Spaniards, and eight thousand
allies. But this is a greater number than we have allowed for the
whole army. Perhaps we may come nearest the truth by taking the
computation of Gomara, the chaplain of Cortes, who had free access
doubtless, not only to the general's papers, but to other authentic
sources of information. According to him, the number of Christians
killed and missing was four hundred and fifty, and that of natives
four thousand. This, with the loss sustained in the conflicts of the
previous week, may have reduced the former to something more than a
third, and the latter to a fourth, or, perhaps, fifth, of the original
force with which they entered the capital. The brunt of the action
fell on the rear-guard, few of whom escaped. It was formed chiefly
of the soldiers of Narvaez, who fell the victims in some measure of
their cupidity. Forty-six of the cavalry were cut off, which with
previous losses reduced the number in this branch of the service to
twenty-three, and some of these in very poor condition. The greater
part of the treasure, the baggage, the general's papers, including his
accounts, and a minute diary of transactions since leaving Cuba-
which, to posterity, at least, would have been of more worth than
the gold,- had been swallowed up by the waters. The ammunition, the
beautiful little train of artillery, with which Cortes had entered the
city, were all gone. Not a musket even remained, the men having thrown
them away, eager to disencumber themselves of all that might retard
their escape on that disastrous night. Nothing, in short, of their
military apparatus was left, but their swords, their crippled cavalry,
and a few damaged crossbows, to assert the superiority of the European
over the barbarian.
The prisoners, including, as already noticed, the children of
Montezuma and the cacique of Tezcuco, all perished by the hands of
their ignorant countrymen, it is said, in the indiscriminate fury of
the assault. There were, also, some persons of consideration among the
Spaniards, whose names were inscribed on the same bloody roll of
slaughter. Such was Francisco de Morla, who fell by the side of
Cortes, on returning with him to the rescue. But the greatest loss was
that of Juan Velasquez de Leon, who, with Alvarado, had command of the
rear. It was the post of danger on that night, and he fell, bravely
defending it, at an early part of the retreat. There was no cavalier
in the army, with the exception, perhaps, of Sandoval and Alvarado,
whose loss would have been so deeply deplored by the commander. Such
were the disastrous results of this terrible passage of the
causeway; more disastrous than those occasioned by any other reverse
which has stained the Spanish arms in the New World; and which have
branded the night on which it happened, in the national annals, with
the name of the noche triste, "the sad or melancholy night."
Chapter IV [1520]


THE Mexicans, during the day which followed the retreat of the
Spaniards, remained, for the most part, quiet in their own capital,
where they found occupation in cleansing the streets and causeways
from the dead, which lay festering in heaps that might have bred a
pestilence. They may have been employed, also, in paying the last
honours to such of their warriors as had fallen, solemnising the
funeral rites by the sacrifice of their wretched prisoners, who, as
they contemplated their own destiny, may well have envied the fate
of their companions who left their bones on the battle-field. It was
most fortunate for the Spaniards, in their extremity, that they had
this breathing-time allowed them by the enemy. But Cortes knew that he
could not calculate on its continuance, and, feeling how important
it was to get the start of his vigilant foe, he ordered his troops
to be in readiness to resume their march by midnight. Fires were
left burning, the better to deceive the enemy; and at the appointed
hour, the little army, without sound of drum or trumpet, but with
renewed spirits, sallied forth from the gates of the teocalli.
It was arranged that the sick and wounded should occupy the
centre, transported on litters, or on the backs of the tamanes,
while those who were strong enough to keep their seats should mount
behind the cavalry. The able-bodied soldiers were ordered to the front
and rear, while others protected the flanks, thus affording all the
security possible to the invalids.
The retreating army held on its way unmolested under cover of
the darkness. But, as morning dawned, they beheld parties of the
natives moving over the heights, or hanging at a distance, like a
cloud of locusts on their rear. They did not belong to the capital;
but were gathered from the neighbouring country, where the tidings
of their rout had already penetrated. The charm, which had hitherto
covered the white men, was gone.
The Spaniards, under the conduct of their Tlascalan guides, took a
circuitous route to the north, passing through Quauhtitlan, and
round lake Tzompanco (Zumpango), thus lengthening their march, but
keeping at a distance from the capital. From the eminences, as they
passed along, the Indians rolled down heavy stones, mingled with
volleys of darts and arrows on the heads of the soldiers. Some were
even bold enough to descend into the plain and assault the extremities
of the column. But they were soon beaten off by the horse, and
compelled to take refuge among the hills, where the ground was too
rough for the rider to follow. Indeed, the Spaniards did not care to
do so, their object being rather to fly than to fight.
In this way they slowly advanced, halting at intervals to drive
off their assailants when they became too importunate, and greatly
distressed by their missiles and their desultory attacks. At night,
the troops usually found shelter in some town or hamlet, whence the
inhabitants, in anticipation of their approach, had been careful to
carry off all the provisions. The Spaniards were soon reduced to the
greatest straits for subsistence. Their principal food was the wild
cherry, which grew in the woods or by the roadside. Fortunate were
they if they found a few ears of corn unplucked. More frequently
nothing was left but the stalks; and with them, and the like
unwholesome fare, they were fain to supply the cravings of appetite.
When a horse happened to be killed, it furnished an extraordinary
banquet; and Cortes himself records the fact of his having made one of
a party who thus sumptuously regaled themselves, devouring the
animal even to his hide.
The wretched soldiers, faint with famine and fatigue, were
sometimes seen to drop down lifeless on the road. Others loitered
behind unable to keep up with the march, and fell into the hands of
the enemy, who followed in the track of the army like a flock of
famished vultures, eager to pounce on the dying and the dead.
Others, again, who strayed too far, in their eagerness to procure
sustenance, shared the same fate. The number of these, at length,
and the consciousness of the cruel lot for which they were reserved,
compelled Cortes to introduce stricter discipline, and to enforce it
by sterner punishments than he had hitherto done,- though too often
ineffectually, such was the indifference to danger, under the
overwhelming pressure of present calamity.
Through these weary days Cortes displayed his usual serenity and
fortitude. He was ever in the post of danger, freely exposing
himself in encounters with the enemy; in one of which he received a
severe wound in the head, that afterwards gave him much trouble. He
fared no better than the humblest soldier, and strove, by his own
cheerful countenance and counsels, to fortify the courage of those who
faltered, assuring them that their sufferings would soon be ended by
their arrival in the hospitable "land of bread." His faithful officers
co-operated with him in these efforts; and the common file, indeed,
especially his own veterans, must be allowed, for the most part, to
have shown a full measure of the constancy and power of endurance so
characteristic of their nation,- justifying the honest boast of an old
chronicler, "that there was no people so capable of supporting
hunger as the Spaniards, and none of them who were ever more
severely tried than the soldiers of Cortes." A similar fortitude was
shown by the Tlascalans, trained in a rough school that made them
familiar with hardships and privations. Although they sometimes
threw themselves on the ground, in the extremity of famine,
imploring their gods not to abandon them, they did their duty as
warriors; and, far from manifesting coldness towards the Spaniards
as the cause of their distresses, seemed only the more firmly knit
to them by the sense of a common suffering.
On the seventh morning, the army had reached the mountain
rampart which overlooks the plains of Otompan, or Otumba, as
commonly called, from the Indian city,- now a village,- situated in
them. The distance from the capital is hardly nine leagues. But the
Spaniards had travelled more than thrice that distance, in their
circuitous march round the lakes. This had been performed so slowly,
that it consumed a week; two nights of which had been passed in the
same quarters, from the absolute necessity of rest. It was not,
therefore, till the 7th of July that they reached the heights
commanding the plains which stretched far away towards the territory
of Tlascala, in full view of the venerable pyramids of Teotihuacan,
two of the most remarkable monuments of the antique American
civilisation now existing north of the Isthmus. During all the
preceding day, they had seen parties of the enemy hovering like dark
clouds above the highlands, brandishing their weapons, and calling out
in vindictive tones, "Hasten on! You will soon find yourselves where
you cannot escape!" words of mysterious import, which they were made
fully to comprehend on the following morning.
As the army was climbing the mountain steeps which shut in the
Valley of Otompan, the videttes came in with the intelligence, that
a powerful body was encamped on the other side, apparently awaiting
their approach. The intelligence was soon confirmed by their own eyes,
as they turned the crest of the sierra, and saw spread out, below, a
mighty host, filling up the whole depth of the valley, and giving to
it the appearance, from the white cotton mail of the warriors, of
being covered with snow. It consisted of levies from the surrounding
country, and especially the populous territory of Tezcuco, drawn
together at the instance of Cuitlahua, Montezuma's successor, and
now concentrated on this point to dispute the passage of the
Spaniards. Every chief of note had taken the field with his whole
array gathered under his standard, proudly displaying all the pomp and
rude splendour of his military equipment. As far as the eye could
reach, were to be seen shields and waving banners, fantastic
helmets, forests of shining spears, the bright feather-mail of the
chief, and the coarse cotton panoply of his follower, all mingled
together in wild confusion, and tossing to and fro like the billows of
a troubled ocean. It was a sight to fill the stoutest heart among
the Christians with dismay, heightened by the previous expectation
of soon reaching the friendly land which was to terminate their
wearisome pilgrimage. Even Cortes, as he contrasted the tremendous
array before him with his own diminished squadrons, wasted by
disease and enfeebled by hunger and fatigue, could not escape the
conviction that his last hour had arrived.
But his was not the heart to despond; and he gathered strength
from the very extremity of his situation. He had no room for
hesitation; for there was no alternative left to him. To escape was
impossible. He could not retreat on the capital, from which he had
been expelled. He must advance,- cut through the enemy, or perish.
He hastily made his dispositions for the fight. He gave his force as
broad a front as possible, protecting it on each flank by his little
body of horse, now reduced to twenty. Fortunately, he had not
allowed the invalids, for the last two days, to mount, behind the
riders, from a desire to spare the horses, so that these were now in
tolerable condition; and, indeed, the whole army had been refreshed by
halting, as we have seen, two nights and a day in the same place, a
delay, however, which had allowed the enemy time to assemble in such
force to dispute its progress.
Cortes instructed his cavaliers not to part with their lances, and
to direct them at the face. The infantry were to thrust, not strike,
with their swords; passing them, at once, through the bodies of
their enemies. They were, above all, to aim at the leaders, as the
general well knew how much depends on the life of the commander in the
wars of barbarians, whose want of subordination makes them impatient
of any control but that to which they are accustomed.
He then addressed to his troops a few words of encouragement, as
customary with him on the eve of an engagement. He reminded them of
the victories they had won with odds nearly as discouraging as the
present; thus establishing the superiority of science and discipline
over numbers. Numbers, indeed, were of no account, where the arm of
the Almighty was on their side. And he bade them have full confidence,
that He, who had carried them safely through so many perils, would not
now abandon them and his own good cause, to perish by the hand of
the infidel. His address was brief, for he read in their looks that
settled resolve which rendered words unnecessary. The circumstances of
their position spoke more forcibly to the heart of every soldier
than any eloquence could have done, filling it with that feeling of
desperation, which makes the weak arm strong, and turns the coward
into a hero. After they had earnestly commended themselves, therefore,
to the protection of God, the Virgin, and St. James, Cortes led his
battalions straight against the enemy.
It was a solemn moment,- that in which the devoted little band,
with steadfast countenances, and their usual intrepid step,
descended on the plain to be swallowed up, as it were, in the vast
ocean of their enemies. The latter rushed on with impetuosity to
meet them, making the mountains ring to their discordant yells and
battle-cries, and sending forth volleys of stones and arrows which for
a moment shut out the light of day. But, when the leading files of the
two armies closed, the superiority of the Christians was felt, as
their antagonists, falling back before the charges of cavalry, were
thrown into confusion by their own numbers who pressed on them from
behind. The Spanish infantry followed up the blow, and a wide lane was
opened in the ranks of the enemy, who, receding on all sides, seemed
willing to allow a free passage for their opponents. But it was to
return on them with accumulated force, as, rallying, they poured
upon the Christians, enveloping the little army on all sides, which
with its bristling array of long swords and javelins, stood firm,-
in the words of a contemporary,- like an islet against which the
breakers, roaring and surging, spend their fury in vain. The
struggle was desperate of man against man. The Tlascalan seemed to
renew his strength, as he fought almost in view of his own native
hills; as did the Spaniard, with the horrible doom of the captive
before his eyes. Well did the cavaliers do their duty on that day;
charging, in little bodies of four or five abreast, deep into the
enemy's ranks, riding over the broken files, and by this temporary
advantage giving strength and courage to the infantry. Not a lance was
there which did not reek with the blood of the infidel. Among the
rest, the young captain Sandoval is particularly commemorated for
his daring prowess. Managing his fiery steed with easy horsemanship,
he darted, when least expected, into the thickest of the melee,
overturning the staunchest warriors, and rejoicing in danger, as if it
were his natural element.
But these gallant displays of heroism served only to ingulf the
Spaniards deeper and deeper in the mass of the enemy, with scarcely
any more chance of cutting their way through his dense and
interminable battalions, than of hewing a passage with their swords
through the mountains. Many of the Tlascalans and some of the
Spaniards had fallen, and not one but had been wounded. Cortes himself
had received a second cut on the head, and his horse was so much
injured that he was compelled to dismount, and take one from the
baggage train, a strong-boned animal, who carried him well through the
turmoil of the day. The contest had now lasted several hours. The
sun rode high in the heavens, and shed an intolerable fervour over the
plain. The Christians, weakened by previous sufferings, and faint with
loss of blood, began to relax in their desperate exertions. Their
enemies, constantly supported by fresh relays from the rear, were
still in good heart, and, quick to perceive their advantage, pressed
with redoubled force on the Spaniards. The horse fell back, crowded on
the foot; and the latter, in vain seeking a passage amidst the dusky
throngs of the enemy, who now closed up the rear, were thrown into
some disorder. The tide of battle was setting rapidly against the
Christians. The fate of the day would soon be decided; and all that
now remained for them seemed to be to sell their lives as dearly as
At this critical moment, Cortes, whose restless eye had been
roving round the field in quest of any object that might offer him the
means of arresting the coming ruin, rising in his stirrups, descried
at a distance, in the midst of the throng, the chief who, from his
dress and military cortege, he knew must be the commander of the
barbarian forces. He was covered with a rich surcoat of
feather-work; and a panache of beautiful plumes, gorgeously set in
gold and precious stones, floated above his head. Rising above this,
and attached to his back, between the shoulders, was a short staff
bearing a golden net for a banner,- the singular, but customary,
symbol of authority for an Aztec commander. The cacique, whose name
was Cihuaca, was borne on a litter, and a body of young warriors,
whose gay and ornamented dresses showed them to be the flower of the
Indian nobles, stood round as a guard of his person and the sacred
The eagle eye of Cortes no sooner fell on this personage, than
it lighted up with triumph. Turning quickly round to the cavaliers
at his side, among whom were Sandoval, Olid, Alvarado, and Avila, he
pointed out the chief, exclaiming, "There is our mark! Follow and
support me!" Then crying his war-cry, and striking his iron heel
into his weary steed, he plunged headlong into the thickest of the
press. His enemies fell back, taken by surprise and daunted by the
ferocity of the attack. Those who did not were pierced through with
his lance, or borne down by the weight of his charger. The cavaliers
followed close in the rear. On they swept, with the fury of a
thunderbolt, cleaving the solid ranks asunder, strewing their path
with the dying and the dead, and bounding over every obstacle in their
way. In a few minutes they were in the presence of the Indian
commander, and Cortes, overturning his supporters, sprung forward with
the strength of a lion, and, striking him through with his lance,
hurled him to the ground. A young cavalier, Juan de Salamanca, who had
kept close by his general's side, quickly dismounted and despatched
the fallen chief. Then tearing away his banner, he presented it to
Cortes, as a trophy to which he had the best claim. It was all the
work of a moment. The guard, overpowered by the suddenness of the
onset, made little resistance, but, flying, communicated their own
panic to their comrades. The tidings of the loss soon spread over
the field. The Indians, filled with consternation, now thought only of
escape. In their blind terror, their numbers augmented their
confusion. They trampled on one another, fancying it was the enemy
in their rear.
The Spaniards and Tlascalans were not slow to avail themselves
of the marvellous change in their affairs. Their fatigue, their
wounds, hunger, thirst, all were forgotten in the eagerness for
vengeance; and they followed up the flying foe, dealing death at every
stroke, and taking ample retribution for all they had suffered in
the bloody marshes of Mexico. Long did they pursue, till, the enemy
having abandoned the field, they returned sated with slaughter to
glean the booty which he had left. It was great, for the ground was
covered with the bodies of chiefs, at whom the Spaniards, in obedience
to the general's instructions, had particularly aimed; and their
dresses displayed all the barbaric pomp of ornament, in which the
Indian warrior delighted. When his men had thus indemnified
themselves, in some degree, for their late reverses, Cortes called
them again under their banners; and, after offering up a grateful
acknowledgment to the Lord of Hosts for their miraculous preservation,
they renewed their march across the now deserted valley. The sun was
declining in the heavens, but before the shades of evening had
gathered around, they reached an Indian temple on an eminence, which
afforded a strong and commodious position for the night.
Such was the famous battle of Otompan, or Otumba, as commonly
called, from the Spanish corruption of the name. It was fought on
the 8th of July, 1520. The whole amount of the Indian force is
reckoned by Castilian writers at two hundred thousand! that of the
slain at twenty thousand! Those who admit the first part of the
estimate will find no difficulty in receiving the last. Yet it was,
undoubtedly, one of the most remarkable victories ever achieved in the
New World.
Chapter V [1520]


ON the following morning the army broke up its encampment at an
early hour. The enemy do not seem to have made an attempt to rally.
Clouds of skirmishers, however, were seen during the morning,
keeping at a respectful distance, though occasionally venturing near
enough to salute the Spaniards with a volley of missiles.
On a rising ground they discovered a fountain, a blessing not
too often met with in these arid regions, and gratefully
commemorated by the Christians, for the refreshment afforded by its
cool and abundant waters. A little further on, they descried the
rude works which served as the bulwark and boundary of the Tlascalan
territory. At the sight, the allies sent up a joyous shout of
congratulation, in which the Spaniards heartily joined, as they felt
they were soon to be on friendly and hospitable ground.
But these feelings were speedily followed by others of a different
nature; and, as they drew nearer the territory, their minds were
disturbed with the most painful apprehensions, as to their reception
by the people among whom they were bringing desolation and mourning,
and who might so easily, if ill-disposed take advantage of their
present crippled condition. "Thoughts like these," says Cortes,
"weighed as heavily on my spirit as any which I ever experienced in
going to battle with the Aztecs." Still he put, as usual, a good
face on the matter, and encouraged his men to confide in their allies,
whose past conduct had afforded every ground for trusting to their
fidelity in future. He cautioned them, however, as their own
strength was so much impaired, to be most careful to give no
umbrage, or ground for jealousy, to their high-spirited allies. "Be
but on your guard," continued the intrepid general, "and we have still
stout hearts and strong hands to carry us through the midst of
them!" With these anxious surmises, bidding adieu to the Aztec domain,
the Christian army crossed the frontier, and once more trod the soil
of the republic.
The first place at which they halted was the town of
Huejotlipan, a place of about twelve or fifteen thousand
inhabitants. They were kindly greeted by the people, who came out to
receive them, inviting the troops to their habitations, and
administering all the relief of their simple hospitality; yet not so
disinterested as to prevent their expecting a share of the plunder.
Here the weary forces remained two or three days, when the news of
their arrival having reached the capital, not more than four or five
leagues distant, the old chief, Maxixca, their efficient friend on
their former visit, and Xicontencatl, the young warrior who, it will
be remembered, had commanded the troops of his nation in their
bloody encounters with the Spaniards, came with a numerous concourse
of the citizens to welcome the fugitives to Tlascala. Maxixca,
cordially embracing the Spanish commander, testified the deepest
sympathy for his misfortunes. That the white men could so long have
withstood the confederated power of the Aztecs was proof enough of
their marvellous prowess. "We have made common cause together," said
the lord of Tlascala,- "and we have common injuries to avenge; and,
come weal or come woe, be assured we will prove true and loyal
friends, and stand by you to the death."
This cordial assurance and sympathy, from one who exercised a
control over the public counsels beyond any other ruler, effectually
dispelled the doubts that lingered in the mind of Cortes. He readily
accepted his invitation to continue his march at once to the
capital, where he would find so much better accommodation for his
army, than in a small town on the frontier. The sick and wounded,
placed in hammocks, were borne on the shoulders of the friendly
natives; and, as the troops drew near the city, the inhabitants came
flocking out in crowds to meet them, rending the air with joyous
acclamations and wild bursts of their rude Indian minstrelsy. Amidst
the general jubilee, however, were heard sounds of wailing and sad
lament, as some unhappy relative or friend, looking earnestly into the
diminished files of their countrymen, sought in vain for some dear and
familiar countenance, and, as they turned disappointed away, gave
utterance to their sorrow in tones that touched the heart of every
soldier in the army. With these mingled accompaniments of joy and
woe,- the motley web of human life,- the way-worn columns of Cortes at
length re-entered the republican capital.
The general and his suite were lodged in the rude, but spacious,
palace of Maxixca. The rest of the army took up their quarters in
the district over which the Tlascalan lord presided. Here they
continued several weeks, until, by the attentions of the hospitable
citizens, and such medical treatment as their humble science could
supply, the wounds of the soldiers were healed, and they recovered
from the debility to which they had been reduced by their long and
unparalleled sufferings. Cortes was one of those who suffered
severely. He lost the use of two of the fingers of his left hand. He
had received, besides, two injuries on the head; one of which was so
much exasperated by his subsequent fatigues and excitement of mind,
that it assumed an alarming appearance. A part of the bone was obliged
to be removed. A fever ensued, and for several days the hero, who
had braved danger and death in their most terrible forms, lay
stretched on his bed, as helpless as an infant. His excellent
constitution, however, got the better of disease, and he was, at
length, once more enabled to resume his customary activity.- The
Spaniards, with politic generosity, requited the hospitality of
their hosts by sharing with them the spoils of their recent victory;
and Cortes especially rejoiced the heart of Maxixca, by presenting him
with the military trophy which he had won from the Indian commander.
But while the Spaniards were thus recruiting their health and
spirits under the friendly treatment of their allies, and recovering
the confidence and tranquillity of mind which had sunk under their
hard reverses, they received tidings, from time to time, which
showed that their late disaster had not been confined to the Mexican
capital. On his descent from Mexico to encounter Narvaez, Cortes had
brought with him a quantity of gold, which he left for safe keeping at
Tlascala. To this was added a considerable sum collected by the
unfortunate Velasquez de Leon, in his expedition to the coast, as well
as contributions from other sources. From the unquiet state of the
capital, the general thought it best, on his return there, still to
leave the treasure under the care of a number of invalid soldiers,
who, when in marching condition, were to rejoin him in Mexico. A party
from Vera Cruz, consisting of five horsemen and forty foot, had
since arrived at Tlascala, and, taking charge of the invalids and
treasure, undertook to escort them to the capital. He now learned they
had been intercepted on the route, and all cut off, with the entire
loss of the treasure. Twelve other soldiers, marching in the same
direction, had been massacred in the neighbouring province of Tepeaca;
and accounts continually arrived of some unfortunate Castilian, who,
presuming the respect hitherto shown to his countrymen, and ignorant
of the disasters in the capital, had fallen a victim to the fury of
the enemy.
These dismal tidings filled the mind of Cortes with gloomy
apprehensions for the fate of the settlement at Villa Rica,- the
last of their hopes. He despatched a trusty messenger, at once, to
that place; and had the inexpressible satisfaction to receive a letter
in return from the commander of the garrison, acquainting him with the
safety of the colony, and its friendly relations with the neighbouring
Totonacs. It was the best guarantee of the fidelity of the latter,
that they had offended the Mexicans too deeply to be forgiven.
While the affairs of Cortes wore so gloomy an aspect without, he
had to experience an annoyance scarcely less serious from the
discontents of his followers. Many of them had fancied that their late
appalling reverses would put an end to the expedition; or, at least,
postpone all thoughts of resuming it for the present. But they knew
little of Cortes who reasoned thus. Even while tossing on his bed of
sickness, he was ripening in his mind fresh schemes for retrieving his
honour, and for recovering the empire which had been lost more by
another's rashness than his own. This was apparent, as he became
convalescent, from the new regulations he made respecting the army, as
well as from the orders sent to Vera Cruz for fresh reinforcements.
The knowledge of all this occasioned much disquietude to the
disaffected soldiers. They were, for the most part, the ancient
followers of Narvaez, on whom, as we have seen, the brunt of war had
fallen the heaviest. Many of them possessed property in the islands,
and had embarked on this expedition chiefly from the desire of
increasing it. But they had gathered neither gold nor glory in Mexico.
Their present service filled them only with disgust; and the few,
comparatively, who had been so fortunate as to survive, languished
to return to their rich mines and pleasant farms in Cuba, bitterly
cursing the day when they had left them.
Finding their complaints little heeded by the general, they
prepared a written remonstrance, in which they made their demand
more formally. They represented the rashness of persisting in the
enterprise in his present impoverished state, without arms or
ammunition, almost without men; and this too, against a powerful
enemy, who had been more than a match for him, with all the strength
of his late resources. It was madness to think of it. The attempt
would bring them all to the sacrifice-block. Their only course was
to continue their march to Vera Cruz. Every hour of delay might be
fatal. The garrison in that Place might be overwhelmed from want of
strength to defend itself; and thus their last hope would be
annihilated. But, once there, they might wait in comparative
security for such reinforcements as would join them from abroad;
while, in case of failure, they could the more easily make their
escape. They concluded with insisting on being permitted to return, at
once, to the port of Villa Rica. This petition, or rather
remonstrance, was signed by all the disaffected soldiers, and, after
being formally attested by the royal notary, was presented to Cortes.
It was a trying circumstance for him. What touched him most nearly
was, to find the name of his friend, the secretary Duero, to whose
good offices he had chiefly owed his command, at the head of the
paper. He was not, however, to be shaken from his purpose for a
moment; and while all outward resources seemed to be fading away,
and his own friends faltered or failed him, he was still true to
himself. He knew that to retreat to Vera Cruz would be to abandon
the enterprise. Once there, his army would soon find a pretext and a
way for breaking up, and returning to the islands. All his ambitious
schemes would be blasted. The great prize, already once in his
grasp, would then be lost for ever. He would be a ruined man.
In his celebrated letter to Charles the Fifth, he says, that, in
reflecting on his position, he felt the truth of the old adage,
"that fortune favours the brave. The Spaniards were the followers of
the Cross; and, trusting in the infinite goodness and mercy of God, he
could not believe that He would suffer them and His own good cause
thus to perish among the heathen. He was resolved, therefore, not to
descend to the coast, but at all hazards to retrace his steps and
beard the enemy again in his capital."
It was in the same resolute tone that he answered his discontented
followers. He urged every argument which could touch their pride or
honour as cavaliers. He appealed to that ancient Castilian valour
which had never been known to falter before an enemy; besought them
not to discredit the great deeds which had made their name ring
throughout Europe; not to leave the emprise half achieved, for
others more daring and adventurous to finish. How could they with
any honour, he asked, desert their allies whom they had involved in
the war, and leave them unprotected to the vengeance of the Aztecs? To
retreat but a single step towards Villa Rica would be to proclaim
their own weakness. It would dishearten their friends, and give
confidence to their foes. He implored them to resume the confidence in
him which they had ever shown, and to reflect that, if they had
recently met with reverses, he had up to that point accomplished
all, and more than all, that he had promised. It would be easy now
to retrieve their losses, if they would have patience, and abide in
this friendly land until the reinforcements, which would be ready to
come in at his call, should enable them to act on the offensive. If,
however, there were any so insensible to the motives which touch a
brave man's heart, as to prefer ease at home to the glory of this
great achievement, he would not stand in their way. Let them go in
God's name. Let them leave their general in his extremity. He should
feel stronger in the service of a few brave spirits, than if
surrounded by a host of the false or the faint-hearted.
The disaffected party, as already noticed, was chiefly drawn
from the troops of Narvaez. When the general's own veterans heard this
appeal, their blood warmed with indignation at the thoughts of
abandoning him or the cause at such a crisis. They pledged
themselves to stand by him to the last; and the malcontents
silenced, if not convinced, by this generous expression of sentiment
from their comrades, consented to postpone their departure for the
present, under the assurance, that no obstacle should be thrown in
their way, when a more favourable season should present itself.
Scarcely was this difficulty adjusted, when Cortes was menaced
with one more serious, in the jealousy springing up between his
soldiers and their Indian allies. Notwithstanding the demonstrations
of regard by Maxixca and his immediate followers, there were others of
the nation who looked with an evil eye on their guests, for the
calamities in which they had involved them; and they tauntingly asked,
if, in addition to this, they were now to be burdened by the
presence and maintenance of the strangers? The sallies of discontent
were not so secret as altogether to escape the ears of the
Spaniards, in whom they occasioned no little disquietude. They
proceeded, for the most part, it is true, from persons of little
consideration, since the four great chiefs of the republic appear to
have been steadily secured to the interests of Cortes. But they
derived some importance from the countenance of the warlike
Xicotencatl, in whose bosom still lingered the embers of that
implacable hostility which he had displayed so courageously on the
field of battle; and sparkles of this fiery temper occasionally
gleamed forth in the intimate intercourse into which he was now
reluctantly brought with his ancient opponents.
Cortes, who saw with alarm the growing feelings of estrangement,
which must sap the very foundations on which he was to rest the
lever for future operations, employed every argument which suggested
itself to restore the confidence of his own men. He reminded them of
the good services they had uniformly received from the great body of
the nation. They had a sufficient pledge of the future constancy of
the Tlascalans in their long cherished hatred of the Aztecs, which the
recent disasters they had suffered from the same quarter could serve
only to sharpen. And he urged with much force, that, if any evil
designs had been meditated by them against the Spaniards, the
Tlascalans would doubtless have taken advantage of their late disabled
condition, and not waited till they had recovered their strength and
means of resistance.
While Cortes was thus endeavouring, with somewhat doubtful
success, to stifle his own apprehensions, as well as those in the
bosoms of his followers, an event occurred which happily brought the
affair to an issue, and permanently settled the relations in which the
two parties were to stand to each other. This will make it necessary
to notice some events which had occurred in Mexico since the expulsion
of the Spaniards.
On Montezuma's death, his brother Cuitlahua, lord of
Iztapalapan, conformably to the usage regulating the descent of the
Aztec crown, was chosen to succeed him. He was an active prince, of
large experience in military affairs, and, by the strength of his
character, was well fitted to sustain the tottering fortunes of the
monarchy. He appears, morever, to have been a man of liberal, and what
may be called enlightened taste, to judge from the beautiful gardens
which he had filled with rare exotics, and which so much attracted the
admiration of the Spaniards in his city of Iztapalapan. Unlike his
predecessor, he held the white men in detestation; and had probably
the satisfaction of celebrating his own coronation by the sacrifice of
many of them. From the moment of his release from the Spanish
quarters, were he had been detained by Cortes, he entered into the
patriotic movements of his people. It was he who conducted the
assaults both in the streets of the city, and on the "Melancholy
Night"; and it was at his instigation that the powerful force had been
assembled to dispute the passage of the Spaniards in the Vale of
Since the evacuation of the capital, he had been busily occupied
in repairing the mischief it had received,- restoring the buildings
and the bridges, and putting it in the best posture of defence. He had
endeavoured to improve the discipline and arms of his troops. He
introduced the long spear among them, and, by attaching the
swordblades taken from the Christians to long poles, contrived a
weapon that should be formidable against cavalry. He summoned his
vassals, far and near, to hold themselves in readiness to march to the
relief of the capital, if necessary, and, the better to secure their
good will, relieved them from some of the burdens usually laid on
them. But he was now to experience the instability of a government
which rested not on love, but on fear. The vassals in the
neighbourhood of the valley remained true to their allegiance; but
others held themselves aloof, uncertain what course to adopt; while
others, again, in the more distant provinces, refused obedience
altogether, considering this a favourable moment for throwing off
the yoke which had so long galled them.
In this emergency, the government sent a deputation to its ancient
enemies, the Tlascalans. It consisted of six Aztec nobles, bearing a
present of cotton cloth, salt, and other articles, rarely seen, of
late years, in the republic. The lords of the state, astonished at
this unprecedented act of condescension in their ancient foe, called
the council or senate of the great chiefs together, to give the envoys
Before this body, the Aztecs stated the purpose of their
mission. They invited the Tlascalans to bury all past grievances in
oblivion, and to enter into a treaty with them. All the nations of
Anahuac should make common cause in defence of their country against
the white men. The Tlascalans would bring down on their own heads
the wrath of the gods, if they longer harboured the strangers who
had violated and destroyed their temples. If they counted on the
support and friendship of their guests, let them take warning from the
fate of Mexico, which had received them kindly within its walls and
which, in return, they had filled with blood and ashes. They
conjured them, by their reverence for their common religion, not to
suffer the white men, disabled as they now were, to escape from
their hands, but to sacrifice them at once to the gods, whose
temples they had profaned. In that event, they proffered them their
alliance, and the renewal of that friendly traffic which would restore
to the republic the possession of the comforts and luxuries of which
it had been so long deprived.
The proposals of the ambassadors produced different effects on
their audience. Xicotencatl was for embracing them at once. Far better
was it, he said, to unite with their kindred, with those who held
their own language, their faith and usages, than to throw themselves
into the arms of the fierce strangers, who, however they might talk of
religion, worshipped no god but gold. This opinion was followed by
that of the younger warriors, who readily caught the fire of his
enthusiasm. But the elder chiefs, especially his blind old father, one
of the four rulers of the state, who seem to have been all heartily in
the interests of the Spaniards, and one of them, Maxixca, their
staunch friend, strongly expressed their aversion to the proposed
alliance with the Aztecs. They were always the same, said the latter,-
fair in speech, and false in heart. They now proffered friendship to
the Tlascalans. But it was fear which drove them to it, and, when that
fear was removed, they would return to their old hostility. Who was
it, but these insidious foes, that had so long deprived the country of
the very necessaries of life, of which they were now so lavish in
their offers? Was it not owing to the white men that the nation at
length possessed them? Yet they were called on to sacrifice the
white men to the gods!- the warriors who, after fighting the battles
of the Tlascalans, now threw themselves on their hospitality. But
the gods abhorred perfidy. And were not their guests the very beings
whose coming had been so long predicted by the oracles? Let us avail
ourselves of it, he concluded, and unite and make common cause with
them, until we have humbled our haughty enemy.
This discourse provoked a sharp rejoinder from Xicotencatl, tin
the passion of the elder chieftain got the better of his patience,
and, substituting force for argument, he thrust his younger antagonist
with some violence from the council chamber. A proceeding so
contrary to the usual decorum of Indian debate astonished the
assembly. But, far from bringing censure on its author, it effectually
silenced opposition. Even the hot-headed followers of Xicotencatl
shrunk from supporting a leader who had incurred such a mark of
contemptuous displeasure from the ruler whom they most venerated.
His own father openly condemned him; and the patriotic young
warrior, gifted with a truer foresight into futurity than his
countrymen, was left without support in the council, as he had
formerly been on the field of battle.- The proffered alliance of the
Mexicans was unanimously rejected; and the envoys, fearing that even
the sacred character with which they were invested might not protect
them from violence, made their escape secretly from the capital.
The result of the conference was of the last importance to the
Spaniards, who, in their present crippled condition, especially if
taken unawares, would have been, probably, at the mercy of the
Tlascalans. At all events, the union of these latter with the Aztecs
would have settled the fate of the expedition; since, in the poverty
of his own resources, it was only by adroitly playing off one part
of the Indian population against the other, that Cortes could
ultimately hope for success.
Chapter VI [1520]


THE Spanish commander, reassured by the result of the
deliberations in the Tlascalan senate, now resolved on active
operations, as the best means of dissipating the spirit of faction and
discontent inevitably fostered by a life of idleness. He proposed to
exercise his troops, at first, against some of the neighbouring tribes
who had laid violent hands on such of the Spaniards as, confiding in
their friendly spirit, had passed through their territories. Among
these were the Tepeacans, a people often engaged in hostility with the
Tlascalans, and who, as mentioned in a preceding chapter, had lately
massacred twelve Spaniards in their march to the capital. An
expedition against them would receive the ready support of his allies,
and would assert the dignity of the Spanish name, much dimmed in the
estimation of the natives by the late disasters.
The Tepeacans were a powerful tribe of the same primitive stock as
the Aztecs, to whom they acknowledged allegiance. They had transferred
this to the Spaniards, on their first march into the country,
intimidated by the bloody defeats of their Tlascalan neighbours.
But, since the troubles in the capital, they had again submitted to
the Aztec sceptre. Their capital, now a petty village, was a
flourishing city at the time of the Conquest, situated in the fruitful
plains that stretch far away towards the base of Orizaba. The province
contained, moreover, several towns of considerable size, filled with a
bold and warlike population.
As these Indians had once acknowledged the authority of Castile,
Cortes and his officers regarded their present conduct in the light of
rebellion, and, in a council of war, it was decided that those engaged
in the late massacre had fairly incurred the doom of slavery. Before
proceeding against them, however, the general sent a summons requiring
their submission, and offering full pardon for the past, but, in
case of refusal, menacing them with the severest retribution. To
this the Indians, now in arms, returned a contemptuous answer,
challenging the Spaniards to meet them in fight, as they were in
want of victims for their sacrifices.
Cortes, without further delay, put himself at the head of his
small corps of Spaniards, and a large reinforcement of Tlascalan
warriors. They were led by the young Xicotencatl, who now appeared
willing to bury his recent animosity, and desirous to take a lesson in
war under the chief who had so often foiled him in the field.
The Tepeacans received their enemy on their borders. A bloody
battle followed, in which the Spanish horse were somewhat
embarrassed by the tall maize that covered part of the plain. They
were successful in the end, and the Tepeacans, after holding their
ground like good warriors, were at length routed with great slaughter.
A second engagement, which took place a few days after, was followed
by like decisive results; and the victorious Spaniards with their
allies, marching straightway on the city of Tepeaca, entered it in
triumph. No further resistance was attempted by the enemy, and the
whole province, to avoid further calamities, eagerly tendered its
submission. Cortes, however, inflicted the meditated chastisement on
the places implicated in the massacre. The inhabitants were branded
with a hot iron as slaves, and, after the royal fifth had been
reserved, were distributed between his own men and the allies. The
Spaniards were familiar with the system of repartimientos
established in the islands; but this was the first example of
slavery in New Spain. It was justified, in the opinion of the
general and his military casuists, by the aggravated offences of the
party. The sentence, however, was not countenanced by the crown,
which, as the colonial legislation abundantly shows, was ever at issue
with the craving and mercenary spirit of the colonist.
Satisfied with this display of his vengeance, Cortes now
established his head-quarters at Tepeaca, which, situated in a
cultivated country, afforded easy means for maintaining an army, while
its position on the Mexican frontier made it a good point d'appui
for future operations.
The Aztec government, since it had learned the issue of its
negotiations at Tlascala, had been diligent in fortifying its frontier
in that quarter. The garrisons usually maintained there were
strengthened, and large bodies of men were marched in the same
direction, with orders to occupy the strong positions on the
borders. The conduct of these troops was in their usual style of
arrogance and extortion, and greatly disgusted the inhabitants of
the country.
Among the places thus garrisoned by the Aztecs was Quauhquechollan
a city containing thirty thousand inhabitants, according to the
historians, and lying to the south-west twelve leagues or more from
the Spanish quarters. It stood at the extremity of a deep valley,
resting against a bold range of hills, or rather mountains, and
flanked by two rivers with exceedingly high and precipitous banks. The
only avenue by which the town could be easily approached, was
protected by a stone wall more than twenty feet high, and of great
thickness. Into this place, thus strongly defended by art as well as
by nature, the Aztec emperor had thrown a garrison of several thousand
warriors, while a much more formidable force occupied the heights
commanding the city.
The cacique of this strong post, impatient of the Mexican yoke,
sent to Cortes, inviting him to march to his relief, and promising a
co-operation of the citizens in an assault on the Aztec quarters.
The general eagerly embraced the proposal, and arranged with the
cacique that, on the appearance of the Spaniards, the inhabitants
should rise on the garrison. Everything succeeded as he had planned.
No sooner had the Christian battalions defiled on the plain before the
town, than the inhabitants attacked the garrison with the utmost fury.
The latter, abandoning the outer defences of the place, retreated to
their own quarters in the principal teocalli, where they maintained
a hard struggle with their adversaries. In the heat of it, Cortes,
at the head of his little body of horse, rode into the place, and
directed the assault in person. The Aztecs made a fierce defence.
But fresh troops constantly arriving to support the assailants, the
works were stormed, and every one of the garrison was put to the
The Mexican forces, meanwhile, stationed on the neighbouring
eminences, had marched down to the support of their countrymen in
the town, and formed in order of battle in the suburbs, where they
were encountered by the Tlascalan levies. "They mustered," says
Cortes, speaking of the enemy, "at least thirty thousand men, and it
was a brave sight for the eye to look on,- such a beautiful array of
warriors glistening with gold and jewels and variegated feather-work!"
The action was well contested between the two Indian armies. The
suburbs were set on fire, and, in the midst of the flames, Cortes
and his squadrons, rushing on the enemy, at length broke their
array, and compelled them to fall back in disorder into the narrow
gorge of the mountain, from which they had lately descended. The
pass was rough and precipitous. Spaniards and Tlascalans followed
close in the rear, and the light troops, scaling the high wall of
the valley, poured down on the enemy's flanks. The heat was intense,
and both parties were so much exhausted by their efforts, that it
was with difficulty, says the chronicler, that the one could pursue,
or the other fly. They were not too weary, however, to slay. The
Mexicans were routed with terrible slaughter. They found no pity
from their Indian foes, who had a long account of injuries to settle
with them. Some few sought refuge by flying higher up into the
fastnesses of the sierra. They were followed by their indefatigable
enemy, until, on the bald summit of the ridge, they reached the
Mexican encampment. It covered a wide tract of ground. Various
utensils, ornamented dresses, and articles of luxury, were scattered
round, and the number of slaves in attendance showed the barbaric pomp
with which the nobles of Mexico went to their campaigns. It was a rich
booty for the victors, who spread over the deserted camp, and loaded
themselves with the spoil, until the gathering darkness warned them to
Cortes followed up the blow by assaulting the strong town of
Itzocan, held also by a Mexican garrison, and situated in the depths
of a green valley watered by artificial canals, and smiling in all the
rich abundance of this fruitful region of the plateau. The place,
though stoutly defended, was stormed and carried; the Aztecs were
driven across a river which ran below the town, and, although the
light bridges that traversed it were broken down in the flight,
whether by design or accident, the Spaniards, fording and swimming the
stream as they could, found their way to the opposite bank,
following up the chase with the eagerness of bloodhounds. Here, too,
the booty was great; and the Indian auxiliaries flocked by thousands
to the banners of the chief who so surely led them on to victory and
Soon afterwards, Cortes returned to his head-quarters at
Tepeaca. Thence he detached his officers on expeditions which were
usually successful. Sandoval, in particular, marched against a large
body of the enemy lying between the camp and Vera Cruz; defeated
them in two decisive battles, and thus restored the communications
with the port.
The result of these operations was the reduction of that
populous and cultivated territory which lies between the great volcan,
on the west, and the mighty skirts of Orizaba, on the east. Many
places, also, in the neighbouring province of Mixtecapan, acknowledged
the authority of the Spaniards, and others from the remote region of
Oaxaca sent to claim their protection. The conduct of Cortes towards
his allies had gained him great credit for disinterestedness and
equity. The Indian cities in the adjacent territory appealed to him,
as their umpire, in their differences with one another, and cases of
disputed succession in their governments were referred to his
arbitration. By his discreet and moderate policy, he insensibly
acquired an ascendency over their counsels, which had been denied to
the ferocious Aztec. His authority extended wider and wider every day;
and a new empire grew up in the very heart of the land, forming a
counterpoise to the colossal power which had so long overshadowed it.
Cortes now felt himself strong enough to put in execution the
plans for recovering the capital, over which he had been brooding ever
since the hour of his expulsion. He had greatly undervalued the
resources of the Aztec monarchy. He was now aware, from bitter
experience, that, to vanquish it, his own forces, and all he could
hope to muster, would be incompetent, without a very extensive support
from the Indians themselves. A large army, would, moreover, require
large supplies for its maintenance, and these could not be regularly
obtained, during a protracted siege, without the friendly co-operation
of the natives. On such support he might now safely calculate from
Tlascala, and the other Indian territories, whose warriors were so
eager to serve under his banners. His past acquaintance with them
had instructed him in their national character and system of war;
while the natives who had fought under his command, if they had caught
little of the Spanish tactics, had learned to act in concert with
the white men, and to obey him implicitly as their commander. This was
a considerable improvement in such wild and disorderly levies, and
greatly augmented the strength derived from numbers.
Experience showed, that in a future conflict with the capital it
would not do to trust to the causeways, but that to succeed, he must
command the lake. He proposed, therefore, to build a number of
vessels, like those constructed under his orders in Montezuma's
time, and afterwards destroyed by the inhabitants. For this he had
still the services of the same experienced ship-builder, Martin Lopez,
who, as we have seen, had fortunately escaped the slaughter of the
"Melancholy Night." Cortes now sent this man to Tlascala, with
orders to build thirteen brigantines, which might be taken to pieces
and carried on the shoulders of the Indians to be launched on the
waters of Lake Tezcuco. The sails, rigging, and iron-work, were to
be brought from Vera Cruz, where they had been stored since their
removal from the dismantled ships. It was a bold conception, that of
constructing a fleet to be transported across forest and mountain
before it was launched on its destined waters! But it suited the
daring genius of Cortes, who, with the co-operation of his staunch
Tlascalan confederates, did not doubt his ability to carry it into
It was with no little regret, that the general learned at this
time the death of his good friend Maxixca, the old lord of Tlascala,
who had stood by him so steadily in the hour of adversity. He had
fallen a victim to that terrible epidemic, the small-pox, which was
now sweeping over the land like fire over the prairies, smiting down
prince and peasant, and adding another to the long train of woes
that followed the march of the white men. It was imported into the
country, it is said, by a Negro slave, in the fleet of Narvaez. It
first broke out in Cempoalla. The poor natives, ignorant of the best
mode of treating the loathsome disorder, sought relief in their
usual practice of bathing in cold water, which greatly aggravated
their trouble. From Cempoalla it spread rapidly over the
neighbouring country, and, penetrating through Tlascala, reached the
Aztec capital, where Montezuma's successor, Cuitlahua, fell one of its
first victims. Thence it swept down towards the borders of the
Pacific, leaving its path strewn with the dead bodies of the
natives, who, in the strong language of a contemporary, perished in
heaps like cattle stricken with the murrain. It does not seem to
have been fatal to the Spaniards, many of whom, probably, had
already had the disorder.
The death of Maxixca was deeply regretted by the troops, who
lost in him a true and most efficient ally. With his last breath, he
commended them to his son and successor, as the great beings whose
coming into the country had been so long predicted by the oracles.
He expressed a desire to die in the profession of the Christian faith.
Cortes no sooner learned his condition than he despatched Father
Olmedo to Tlascala. The friar found that Maxixca had already caused
a crucifix to be placed before his sick couch, as the object of his
adoration. After explaining, as intelligibly as he could, the truths
of revelation, he baptised the dying chieftain; and the Spaniards
had the satisfaction to believe that the soul of their benefactor
was exempted from the doom of eternal perdition that hung over the
unfortunate Indian who perished in his unbelief.
Their late brilliant successes seem to have reconciled most of the
disaffected soldiers to the prosecution of the war. There were still a
few among them, the secretary Duero, Bermudez the treasurer, and
others high in office, or wealthy hidalgos, who looked with disgust on
another campaign, and now loudly reiterated their demand of a free
passage to Cuba. To this Cortes, satisfied with the support on which
he could safely count, made no further objection. Having once given
his consent, he did all in his power to facilitate their departure,
and provide for their comfort. He ordered the best ship at Vera Cruz
to be placed at their disposal, to be well supplied with provisions
and everything necessary for the voyage, and sent Alvarado to the
coast to superintend the embarkation. He took the most courteous leave
of them, with assurances of his own unalterable regard. But, as the
event proved, those who could part from him at this crisis had
little sympathy with his fortunes; and we find Duero not long
afterwards in Spain, supporting the claims of Velasquez before the
emperor, in opposition to those of his former friend and commander.
The loss of these few men was amply compensated by the arrival
of others, whom fortune most unexpectedly threw in his way. The
first of these came in a small vessel sent from Cuba by the
governor, Velasquez, with stores for the colony at Vera Cruz. He was
not aware of the late transactions in the country, and of the
discomfiture of his officer. In the vessel came despatches, it is
said, from Fonseca, Bishop of Burgos, instructing Narvaez to send
Cortes, if he had not already done so, for trial to Spain. The alcalde
of Vera Cruz, agreeably to the general's instructions, allowed the
captain of the bark to land, who had no doubt that the country was
in the hands of Narvaez. He was undeceived by being seized, together
with his men, so soon as they had set foot on shore. The vessel was
then secured; and the commander and his crew, finding out their error,
were persuaded without much difficulty to join their countrymen in
A second vessel, sent soon after by Velasquez, shared the same
fate, and those on board consented also to take their chance in the
expedition under Cortes.
About the same time, Garay, the governor of Jamaica, fitted out
three ships with an armed force to plant a colony on the Panuco, a
river which pours into the Gulf a few degrees north of Villa Rica.
Garay persisted in establishing this settlement, in contempt of the
claims of Cortes, who had already entered into a friendly
communication with the inhabitants of that region. But the crews
experienced such a rough reception from the natives on landing, and
lost so many men, that they were glad to take to their vessels
again. One of these foundered in a storm. The others put into the port
of Vera Cruz to restore the men, much weakened by hunger and
disease. Here they were kindly received, their wants supplied, their
wounds healed; when they were induced, by the liberal promises of
Cortes, to abandon the disastrous service of their employer, and
enlist under his own prosperous banner. The reinforcements obtained
from these sources amounted to full a hundred and fifty men, well
provided with arms and ammunition, together with twenty horses. By
this strange concurrence of circumstances, Cortes saw himself in
possession of the supplies he most needed; that, too, from the hands
of his enemies, whose costly preparations were thus turned to the
benefit of the very man whom they were designed to ruin.
His good fortune did not stop here. A ship from the Canaries
touched at Cuba, freighted with arms and military stores for the
adventurers in the New World. Their commander heard there of the
recent discoveries in Mexico, and, thinking it would afford a
favourable market for him, directed his course to Vera Cruz. He was
not mistaken. The alcalde, by the general's orders, purchased both
ship and cargo; and the crews, catching the spirit of adventure,
followed their countrymen into the interior. There seemed to be a
magic in the name of Cortes, which drew all who came within hearing of
it under his standard.
Having now completed the arrangements for settling his new
conquests, there seemed to be no further reason for postponing his
departure to Tlascala. He was first solicited by the citizens of
Tepeaca to leave a garrison with them, to protect them from the
vengeance of the Aztecs. Cortes acceded to the request, and,
considering the central position of the town favourable for
maintaining his conquests, resolved to plant a colony there. For
this object he selected sixty of his soldiers, most of whom were
disabled by wounds or infirmity. He appointed the alcaldes, regidores,
and other functionaries of a civic magistracy. The place be called
Segura de la Frontera or Security of the Frontier. It received
valuable privileges as a city, a few years later, from the emperor
Charles the Fifth; and rose to some consideration in the age of the
Conquest. But its consequence soon after declined. Even its
Castilian name, with the same caprice which has decided the fate of
more than one name in our own country, was gradually supplanted by its
ancient one, and the little village of Tepeaca is all that now
commemorates the once flourishing Indian capital, and the second
Spanish colony in Mexico.
While at Segura, Cortes wrote that celebrated letter to the
emperor,- the second in the series,- so often cited in the preceding
pages. It takes up the narrative with the departure from Vera Cruz,
and exhibits in a brief and comprehensive form the occurrences up to
the time at which we are now arrived. In the concluding page, the
general, after noticing the embarrassments under which he labours,
says, in his usual manly spirit, that he holds danger and fatigue
light in comparison with the attainment of his object; and that he
is confident a short time will restore the Spaniards to their former
position, and repair all their losses.
He notices the resemblance of Mexico, in many of its features
and productions, to the mother country, and requests that it may
henceforth be called, "New Spain of the Ocean Sea." He finally
requests that a commission may be sent out at once, to investigate his
conduct, and to verify the accuracy of his statements.
This letter, which was printed at Seville the year after its
reception, has been since reprinted and translated more than once.
It excited a great sensation at the court, and among the friends of
science generally. The previous discoveries of the New World had
disappointed the expectations which had been formed after. the
solution of the grand problem of its existence. They had brought to
light only rude tribes, which, however gentle and inoffensive in their
manners, were still in the primitive stages of barbarism. Here was
an authentic account of a vast nation, potent and populous, exhibiting
an elaborate social polity, well advanced in the arts of civilisation,
occupying a soil that teemed with mineral treasures and with a
boundless variety of vegetable products, stores of wealth, both
natural and artificial, that seemed, for the first time, to realise
the golden dreams in which the great discoverer of the New World had
so fondly, and in his own day so fallaciously, indulged. Well might
the scholar of that age exult in the revelation of these wonders,
which so many had long, but in vain, desired to see.
With this letter went another to the emperor, signed, as it
would seem, by nearly every officer and soldier in the camp. It
expatiated on the obstacles thrown in the way of the expedition by
Velasquez and Narvaez, and the great prejudice this had caused to
the royal interests. It then set forth the services of Cortes, and
besought the emperor to confirm him in his authority, and not to allow
any interference with one who, from his personal character, his
intimate knowledge of the land and its people, and the attachment of
his soldiers, was the man best qualified in all the world to achieve
the conquest of the country.
It added not a little to the perplexities of Cortes, that he was
still in entire ignorance of the light in which his conduct was
regarded in Spain. He had not even heard whether his despatches,
sent the year preceding from Vera Cruz, had been received. Mexico
was as far removed from all intercourse with the civilised world, as
if it had been placed at the antipodes. Few vessels had entered, and
none had been allowed to leave its ports. The governor of Cuba, an
island distant but a few days' sail, was yet ignorant, as we have
seen, of the fate of his armament. On the arrival of every new
vessel or fleet on these shores, Cortes might well doubt whether it
brought aid to his undertaking, or a royal commission to supersede
him. His sanguine spirit relied on the former; though the latter was
much the more probable, considering the intimacy of his enemy, the
governor, with Bishop Fonseca. It was the policy of Cortes, therefore,
to lose no time; to push forward his preparations, lest another should
be permitted to snatch the laurel now almost within his grasp. Could
he but reduce the Aztec capital, he felt that he should be safe; and
that, in whatever light his irregular proceedings might now be viewed,
his services in that event would far more than counterbalance them
in the eyes both of the crown and of the country.
The general wrote, also, to the Royal Audience at St. Domingo,
in order to interest them in his cause. He sent four vessels to the
same island, to obtain a further supply of arms and ammunition; and,
the better to stimulate the cupidity of adventurers, and allure them
to the expedition, he added specimens of the beautiful fabrics of
the country, and of its precious metals. The funds for procuring these
important supplies were probably derived from the plunder gathered
in the late battles, and the gold which, as already remarked, had been
saved from the general wreck by the Castilian convoy.
It was the middle of December, when Cortes, having completed all
his arrangements, set out on his return to Tlascala, ten or twelve
leagues distant. He marched in the van of the army, and took the way
of Cholula. How different was his condition from that in which he
had left the republican capital not five months before! His march
was a triumphal procession, displaying the various banners and
military ensigns taken from the enemy, long files of captives, and all
the rich spoils of conquest gleaned from many a hard-fought field.
As the army passed through the towns and villages, the inhabitants
poured out to greet them, and, as they drew near to Tlascala, the
whole population, men, women, and children, came forth celebrating
their return with songs, dancing, and music. Arches decorated with
flowers were thrown across the streets through which they passed,
and a Tlascalan orator addressed the general, on his entrance into the
city, in a lofty panegyric on his late achievements, proclaiming him
the "avenger of the nation." Amidst this pomp and triumphal show,
Cortes and his principal officers were seen clad in deep mourning in
honour of their friend Maxixca. And this tribute of respect to the
memory of their venerated ruler touched the Tlascalans more sensibly
than all the proud display of military trophies.
The general's first act was to confirm the son of his deceased
friend in the succession, which had been contested by an
illegitimate brother. The youth was but twelve years of age; and
Cortes prevailed on him without difficulty to follow his father's
example, and receive baptism. He afterwards knighted him with his
own hand; the first instance, probably, of the order of chivalry being
conferred on an American Indian. The elder Xicotencatl was also
persuaded to embrace Christianity; and the example of their rulers had
its obvious effect in preparing the minds of the people for the
reception of the truth. Cortes, whether from the suggestions of
Olmedo, or from the engrossing nature of his own affairs, did not
press the work of conversion further at this time, but wisely left the
good seed, already sown, to ripen in secret, till time should bring
forth the harvest.
The Spanish commander, during his short stay in Tlascala, urged
forward the preparations for the campaign. He endeavoured to drill the
Tlascalans, and give them some idea of European discipline and
tactics. He caused new arms to be made, and the old ones to be put
in order. Powder was manufactured with the aid of sulphur obtained
by some adventurous cavaliers from the smoking throat of Popocatepetl.
The construction of the brigantines went forward prosperously under
the direction of Lopez, with the aid of the Tlascalans. Timber was cut
in the forests, and pitch, an article unknown to the Indians, was
obtained from the pines on the neighbouring Sierra de Malinche. The
rigging and other appurtenances were transported by the Indian tamanes
from Villa Rica; and by Christmas, the work was so far advanced,
that it was no longer necessary for Cortes to delay the march to
Chapter VII [1520]


WHILE the events related in the preceding chapter were passing, an
important change had taken place in the Aztec monarchy. Montezuma's
brother and successor, Cuitlahua, had suddenly died of the small-pox
after a brief reign of four months,- brief, but glorious, for it had
witnessed the overthrow of the Spaniards and their expulsion from
Mexico. On the death of their warlike chief, the electors were
convened, as usual, to supply the vacant throne. It was an office of
great responsibility in the dark hour of their fortunes.
The choice fell on Quauhtemotzin, or Guatemozin, as euphoniously
corrupted by the Spaniards. He was nephew to the two last monarchs,
and married his cousin, the beautiful princess Tecuichpo,
Montezuma's daughter. "He was not more than twenty-five years old, and
elegant in his person for an Indian," says one who had seen him often;
"valiant, and so terrible, that his followers trembled in his
presence." He did not shrink from the perilous post that was offered
to him; and, as he saw the tempest gathering darkly around, he
prepared to meet it like a man. Though young, he had ample
experience in military matters, and had distinguished himself above
all others in the bloody conflicts of the capital.
By means of his spies, Guatemozin made himself acquainted with the
movements of the Spaniards, and their design to besiege the capital.
He prepared for it by sending away the useless part of the population,
while he called in his potent vassals from the neighbourhood. He
continued the plans of his predecessor for strengthening the
defences of the city, reviewed his troops, and stimulated them by
prizes to excel in their exercises. He made harangues to his
soldiers to rouse them to a spirit of desperate resistance. He
encouraged his vassals throughout the empire to attack the white men
wherever they were to be met with, setting a price on their heads,
as well as the persons of all who should be brought alive to him in
Mexico. And it was no uncommon thing for the Spaniards to find hanging
up in the temples of the conquered places the arms and accoutrements
of their unfortunate countrymen who had been seized and sent to the
capital for sacrifice. Such was the young monarch who was now called
to the tottering throne of the Aztecs; worthy, by his bold and
magnanimous nature, to sway the sceptre of his country, in the most
flourishing period of her renown; and now, in her distress, devoting
himself in the true spirit of a patriotic prince to uphold her falling
fortunes, or bravely perish with them.
We must now return to the Spaniards in Tlascala, where we left
them preparing to resume their march on Mexico. Their commander had
the satisfaction to see his troops tolerably complete in their
appointments; varying, indeed, according to the condition of the
different reinforcements which had arrived from time to time; but on
the whole, superior to those of the army with which he had first
invaded the country. His whole force fell little short of six
hundred men; forty of whom were cavalry, together with eighty
arquebusiers and crossbowmen. The rest were armed with sword and
target, and with the copper-headed pike of Chinantla. He had nine
cannon of a moderate calibre, and was indifferently supplied with
As his forces were drawn up in order of march, Cortes rode through
the ranks, exhorting his soldiers, as usual with him on these
occasions, to be true to themselves, and the enterprise in which
they were embarked. He told them, they were to march against rebels,
who had once acknowledged allegiance to the Spanish sovereign; against
barbarians, the enemies of their religion. They were to fight the
battles of the Cross and of the crown; to fight their own battles,
to wipe away the stain from their arms, to avenge their injuries,
and the loss of the dear companions who had been butchered on the
field or on the accursed altar of their sacrifice. Never was there a
war which offered higher incentives to the Christian cavalier; a war
which opened to him riches and renown in this life, and an
imperishable glory in that to come. They answered with acclamations,
that they were ready to die in defence of the faith; and would
either conquer, or leave their bones with those of their countrymen,
in the waters of the Tezcuco.
The army of the allies next passed in review before the general.
It is variously estimated by writers from a hundred and ten to a
hundred and fifty thousand soldiers! The palpable exaggeration, no
less than the discrepancy, shows that little reliance can be placed on
any estimate. It is certain, however, that it was a multitudinous
array, consisting not only of the flower of the Tlascalan warriors,
but of those of Cholula, Tepeaca, and the neighbouring territories,
which had submitted to the Castilian crown.
Cortes, with the aid of Marina, made a brief address to his Indian
allies. He reminded them that he was going to fight their battles
against their ancient enemies. He called on them to support him in a
manner worthy of their renowned republic. To those who remained at
home, he committed the charge of aiding in the completion of the
brigantines, on which the success of the expedition so much
depended; and he requested that none would follow his banner, who were
not prepared to remain till the final reduction of the capital. This
address was answered by shouts, or rather yells, of defiance,
showing the exultation felt by his Indian confederates at the prospect
of at last avenging their manifold wrongs, and humbling their
haughty enemy.
Before setting out on the expedition, Cortes published a code of
ordinances, as he terms them, or regulations for the army, too
remarkable to be passed over in silence. The preamble sets forth
that in all institutions, whether divine or human,- if the latter have
any worth,- order is the great law. The ancient chronicles inform
us, that the greatest captains in past times owed their successes
quite as much to the wisdom of their ordinances, as to their own
valour and virtue. The situation of the Spaniards eminently demanded
such a code; a mere handful of men as they were, in the midst of
countless enemies, most cunning in the management of their weapons and
in the art of war. The instrument then reminds the army that the
conversion of the heathen is the work most acceptable in the eye of
the Almighty, and one that will be sure to receive his support. It
calls on every soldier to regard this as the prime object of the
expedition, without which the war would be manifestly unjust, and
every acquisition made by it a robbery.
The general solemnly protests, that the principal motive which
operates in his own bosom, is the desire to wean the natives from
their gloomy idolatry, and to impart to them the knowledge of a
purer faith; and next, to recover for his master, the emperor, the
dominions which of right belong to him.
The ordinances then prohibit all blasphemy against God or the
saints. Another law is directed against gaming, to which the Spaniards
in all ages have been peculiarly addicted. Cortes, making allowance
for the strong national propensity, authorises it under certain
limitations; but prohibits the use of dice altogether. Then follow
other laws against brawls and private combats, against Personal taunts
and the irritating sarcasms of rival companies; rules for the more
perfect discipline of the troops, whether in camp or the field.
Among others is one prohibiting any captain, under pain of death, from
charging the enemy without orders; a practice noticed as most
pernicious and of too frequent occurrence,- showing the impetuous
spirit and want of true military subordination in the bold cavaliers
who followed the standard of Cortes.
The last ordinance prohibits any man, officer or private, from
securing to his own use any of the booty taken from the enemy, whether
it be gold, silver, precious stones, feather-work, stuffs, slaves,
or other commodity, however or wherever obtained, in the city or in
the field; and requires him to bring it forthwith to the presence of
the general, or the officer appointed to receive it. The violation
of this law was punished with death and confiscation of property. So
severe an edict may be thought to prove that, however much the
Conquistador may have been influenced by spiritual considerations,
he was by no means insensible to those of a temporal character.
These provisions were not suffered to remain a dead letter. The
Spanish commander, soon after their proclamation, made an example of
two of his own slaves, whom he hanged for plundering the natives. A
similar sentence was passed on a soldier for the like offence,
though he allowed him to be cut down before the sentence was
entirely executed. Cortes knew well the character of his followers;
rough and turbulent spirits, who required to be ruled with an iron
hand. Yet he was not eager to assert his authority on light occasions.
The intimacy into which they were thrown by their peculiar
situation, perils, and sufferings, in which all equally shared, and
a common interest in the adventure, induced a familiarity between
men and officers, most unfavourable to military discipline. The
general's own manners, frank and liberal, seemed to invite this
freedom, which on ordinary occasions he made no attempt to repress;
perhaps finding it too difficult, or at least impolitic, since it
afforded a safety-valve for the spirits of a licentious soldiery,
that, if violently coerced, might have burst forth into open mutiny.
But the limits of his forbearance were clearly defined; and any
attempt to overstep them, or to violate the established regulations of
the camp, brought a sure and speedy punishment on the offender. By
thus tempering severity with indulgence, masking an iron will under
the open bearing of a soldier,- Cortes established a control over
his band of bold and reckless adventurers, such as a pedantic
martinet, scrupulous in enforcing the minutiae of military
etiquette, could never have obtained.
The ordinances, dated on the twenty-second of December, were
proclaimed to the assembled army on the twenty-sixth. Two days
afterwards, the troops were on their march. Notwithstanding the
great force mustered by the Indian confederates, the Spanish general
allowed but a small part of them now to attend him. He proposed to
establish his head-quarters at some place on the Tezcucan lake, whence
he could annoy the Aztec capital, by reducing the surrounding country,
cutting off the supplies, and thus placing the city in a state of
The direct assault on Mexico itself he intended to postpone, until
the arrival of the brigantines should enable him to make it with the
greatest advantage. Meanwhile, he had no desire to encumber himself
with a superfluous multitude, whom it would be difficult to feed;
and he preferred to leave them at Tlascala, whence they might convey
the vessels, when completed, to the camp, and aid him in his future
Three routes presented themselves to Cortes, by which he might
penetrate into the valley. He chose the most difficult, traversing the
bold sierra which divides the eastern plateau from the western, and so
rough and precipitous, as to be scarcely practicable for the march
of an army. He wisely judged, that he should be less likely to
experience annoyance from the enemy in this direction, as they might
naturally confide in the difficulties of the ground.
The first day the troops advanced five or six leagues, Cortes
riding in the van at the head of his little body of cavalry. They
halted at the village of Tetzmellocan, at the base of the mountain
chain which traverses the country, touching at its southern limit
the mighty Iztaccihuatl, or "White Woman,"- white with the snows of
ages. At this village they met with a friendly reception, and on the
following morning began the ascent of the sierra.
It was night before the way-worn soldiers reached the bald crest
of the sierra, where they lost no time in kindling their fires; and,
huddling round their bivouacs, they warmed their frozen limbs, and
prepared their evening repast. With the earliest dawn, the troops were
again in motion. Mass was said, and they began their descent, more
difficult and painful than their ascent on the day preceding; for,
in addition to the natural obstacles of the road, they found it strewn
with huge pieces of timber and trees, obviously felled for the purpose
by the natives. Cortes ordered up a body of light troops to clear away
the impediments, and the army again resumed its march, but with the
apprehension that the enemy had prepared an ambuscade, to surprise
them when they should be entangled in the pass. They moved
cautiously forward, straining their vision to pierce the thick gloom
of the forests, where the wily foe might be lurking. But they saw no
living thing, except only the wild inhabitants of the woods, and
flocks of the zopilote, the voracious vulture of the country, which,
in anticipation of a bloody banquet, hung like a troop of evil spirits
on the march of the army.
At length, the army emerged on an open level, where the eye,
unobstructed by intervening wood or hill-top, could range far and wide
over the Valley of Mexico. The magnificent vision, new to many of
the spectators, filled them with rapture. Even the veterans of
Cortes could not withhold their admiration, though this was soon
followed by a bitter feeling, as they recalled the sufferings which
had befallen them within these beautiful, but treacherous precincts.
It made us feel, says the lion-hearted Conqueror in his letters,
that "we had no choice but victory or death; and our minds once
resolved, we moved forward with as light a step as if we had been
going on an errand of certain pleasure."
As the Spaniards advanced, they beheld the neighbouring hilltops
blazing with beacon-fires, showing that the country was already
alarmed and mustering to oppose them. The general called on his men to
be mindful of their high reputation; to move in order, closing up
their ranks, and to obey implicitly the commands of their officers. At
every turn among the hills, they expected to meet the forces of the
enemy drawn up to dispute their passage. And, as they were allowed
to pass the defiles unmolested, and drew near to the open plains, they
were prepared to see them occupied by a formidable host, who would
compel them to fight over again the battle of Otumba. But, although
clouds of dusky warriors were seen, from time to time, hovering on the
highlands, as if watching their progress, they experienced no
interruption, till they reached a barranca, or deep ravine, through
which flowed a little river, crossed by a bridge partly demolished. On
the opposite side a considerable body of Indians was stationed, as
if to dispute the passage, but whether distrusting their own
numbers, or intimidated by the steady advance of the Spaniards, they
offered them no annoyance, and were quickly dispersed by a few
resolute charges of cavalry. The army then proceeded, without
molestation, to a small town, called Coatepec, where they halted for
the night. Before retiring to his own quarters, Cortes made the rounds
of the camp, with a few trusty followers, to see that all was safe. He
seemed to have an eye that never slumbered, and a frame incapable of
fatigue. It was the indomitable spirit within, which sustained him.
Yet he may well have been kept awake through the watches of the
night, by anxiety and doubt. He was now but three leagues from
Tezcuco, the far-famed capital of the Acolhuans. He proposed to
establish his head-quarters, if possible, at this place. Its
numerous dwellings would afford ample accommodations for his army.
An easy communication with Tlascala, by a different route from that
which he had traversed, would furnish him with the means of readily
obtaining supplies from that friendly country, and for the safe
transportation of the brigantines, when finished, to be launched on
the waters of the Tezcuco. But he had good reason to distrust the
reception he should meet with in the capital; for an important
revolution had taken place there, since the expulsion of the Spaniards
from Mexico, of which it will be necessary to give some account.
The reader will remember that the cacique of that place, named
Cacama, was deposed by Cortes, during his first residence in the Aztec
metropolis, in consequence of a projected revolt against the
Spaniards, and that the crown had been placed on the head of a younger
brother, Cuicuitzea. The deposed prince was among the prisoners
carried away by Cortes, and perished with the others, in the
terrible passage of the causeway, on the noche triste. His brother,
afraid, probably, after the flight of the Spaniards, of continuing
with the Aztecs, accompanied his friends in their retreat, and was
so fortunate as to reach Tlascala in safety.
Meanwhile, a second son of Nezahualpilli, named Coanaco, claimed
the crown, on his elder brother's death, as his own rightful
inheritance. As he heartily joined his countrymen and the Aztecs in
their detestation of the white men, his claims were sanctioned by
the Mexican emperor. Soon after his accession, the new lord of Tezcuco
had an opportunity of showing his loyalty to his imperial patron in an
effectual manner.
A body of forty-five Spaniards, ignorant of the disasters in
Mexico, were transporting thither a large quantity of gold, at the
very time their countrymen were on the retreat to Tlascala. As they
passed through the Tezcucan territory, they were attacked by Coanaco's
orders, most of them massacred on the spot, and the rest sent for
sacrifice to Mexico. The arms and accoutrements of these unfortunate
men were hung up as trophies in the temples, and their skins, stripped
from their dead bodies, were suspended over the bloody shrines, as the
most acceptable offering to the offended deities.
Some months after this event, the exiled prince, Cuicuitzca,
wearied with his residence in Tlascala, and pining for his former
royal state, made his way back secretly to Tezcuco, hoping, it would
seem, to raise a party there in his favour. But if such were his
expectations, they were sadly disappointed; for no sooner had he set
foot in the capital, than he was betrayed to his brother, who, by
the advice of Guatemozin, put him to death, as a traitor to his
country.- Such was the posture of affairs in Tezcuco, when Cortes, for
the second time, approached its gates; and well might he doubt, not
merely the nature of his reception there, but whether he would be
permitted to enter it at all, without force of arms.
These apprehensions were dispelled the following morning, when,
before the troops were well under arms, an embassy was announced
from the lord of Tezcuco. It consisted of several nobles, some of whom
were known to the companions of Cortes. They bore a golden flag in
token of amity, and a present of no great value to Cortes. They
brought also a message from the cacique, imploring the general to
spare his territories, inviting him to take up his quarters in his
capital, and promising on his arrival to become the vassal of the
Spanish sovereign.
Cortes dissembled the satisfaction with which he listened to these
overtures, and sternly demanded of the envoys an account of the
Spaniards who had been massacred, insisting, at the same time, on
the immediate restitution of the plunder. But the Indian nobles
excused themselves, by throwing the whole blame upon the Aztec
emperor, by whose orders the deed had been perpetrated, and who now
had possession of the treasure. They urged Cortes not to enter the
city that day, but to pass the night in the suburbs, that their master
might have time to prepare suitable accommodations for him. The
Spanish commander, however, gave no heed to this suggestion, but
pushed forward his march, and, at noon, on the 31st of December, 1520,
entered, at the head of his legions, the venerable walls of Tezcuco.
He was struck, as when he before visited this populous city,
with the solitude and silence which reigned throughout its streets. He
was conducted to the palace of Nezahualpilli, which was assigned as
his quarters. It was an irregular pile of low buildings, covering a
wide extent of ground, like the royal residence occupied by the troops
in Mexico. It was spacious enough to furnish accommodations, not
only for all the Spaniards, says Cortes, but for twice their number.
He gave orders on his arrival, that all regard should be paid to the
persons and property of the citizens; and forbade any Spaniard to
leave his quarters under pain of death.
Alarmed at the apparent desertion of the place, as well as by
the fact that none of its principal inhabitants came to welcome him,
Cortes ordered some soldiers to ascend the neighbouring teocalli and
survey the city. They soon returned with the report, that the
inhabitants were leaving it in great numbers, with their families
and effects, some in canoes upon the lake, others on foot towards
the mountains. The general now comprehended the import of the
cacique's suggestion, that the Spaniards should pass the night in
the suburbs,- in order to secure time for evacuating the city. He
feared that the chief himself might have fled. He lost no time in
detaching troops to secure the principal avenues, where they were to
turn back the fugitives, and arrest the cacique, if he were among
the number. But it was too late. Coanaco was already far on his way
across the lake to Mexico.
Cortes now determined to turn this event to his own account, by
placing another ruler on the throne, who should be more subservient to
his interests. He called a meeting of the few principal persons
still remaining in the city, and by their advice and ostensible
election advanced a brother of the late sovereign to the dignity,
which they declared vacant. The prince, who consented to be
baptised, was a willing instrument in the hands of the Spaniards. He
survived but a few months, and was succeeded by another member of
the royal house, named Ixtlilxochitl, who, indeed, as general of his
armies, may be said to have held the reins of government in his
hands during his brother's lifetime. As this person was intimately
associated with the Spaniards in their subsequent operations, to the
success of which he essentially contributed, it is proper to give some
account of his earlier history, which, in truth, is as much
enveloped in the marvellous, as that of any fabulous hero of
He was son, by a second queen, of the great Nezahualpilli. Some
alarming prodigies at his birth, and the gloomy aspect of the planets,
led the astrologers, who cast his horoscope, to advise the king, his
father, to take away the infant's life, since, if he lived to grow up,
he was destined to unite with the enemies of his country, and overturn
its institutions and religion. But the old monarch replied, says the
chronicler, that the time had arrived when the sons of Quetzalcoatl
were to come from the East to take possession of the land; and, if the
Almighty had selected his child to co-operate with them in the work,
His will be done.
As the boy advanced in years, he exhibited a marvellous
precocity not merely of talent, but of mischievous activity, which
afforded an alarming prognostic for the future. When about twelve
years old, be formed a little corps of followers of about his own age,
or somewhat older, with whom he practised the military exercises of
his nation, conducting mimic fights and occasionally assaulting the
peaceful burghers, and throwing the whole city as well as palace
into uproar and confusion. Some of his father's ancient counsellors,
connecting this conduct with the predictions at his birth, saw in it
such alarming symptoms, that they repeated the advice of the
astrologers, to take away the prince's life, if the monarch would
not see his kingdom one day given up to anarchy. This unpleasant
advice was reported to the juvenile offender, who was so much
exasperated by it, that he put himself at the head of a party of his
young desperadoes, and, entering the house of the offending
counsellors, dragged them forth, and administered to them the
garrote,- the mode in which capital punishment was inflicted in
He was seized and brought before his father. When questioned as to
his extraordinary conduct, he cooly replied, "that he had done no more
than he had a right to do. The guilty ministers had deserved their
fate, by endeavouring to alienate his father's affections from him,
for no other reason than his too great fondness for the profession
of arms,- the most honourable profession in the state, and the one
most worthy of a prince. If they had suffered death, it was no more
than they had intended for him." The wise Nezahualpilli, says the
chronicler, found much force in these reasons; and, as he saw
nothing low and sordid in the action, but rather the ebulliton of a
daring spirit, which in after life might lead to great things, he
contented himself with bestowing a grave admonition on the juvenile
culprit. Whether this admonition had any salutary effect on his
subsequent demeanour, we are not informed. It is said, however, that
as he grew older he took an active part in the wars of his country,
and when no more than seventeen had won for himself the insignia of
a valiant and victorious captain.
On his father's death, he disputed the succession with his elder
brother, Cacama. The country was menaced with a civil war, when the
affair was compromised by his brother's ceding to him that portion
of his territories which lay among the mountains. On the arrival of
the Spaniards, the young chieftain-for he was scarcely twenty years of
age-made, as we have seen, many friendly demonstrations towards
them, induced, no doubt, by his hatred of Montezuma, who had supported
the pretensions of Cacama. It was not, however, till his advancement
to the lordship of Tezcuco, that he showed the full extent of his good
will. From that hour, he became the fast friend of the Christians,
supporting them with his personal authority, and the whole strength of
his military array and resources, which, although much shorn of
their ancient splendour since the days of his father, were still
considerable, and made him a most valuable ally. His important
services have been gratefully commemorated by the Castilian
historians; and history should certainly not defraud him of his just
meed of glory,- the melancholy glory of having contributed more than
any other chieftain of Anahuac to rivet the chains round the necks
of his countrymen.
Siege and Surrender of Mexico

Chapter I [1521]


THE city of Tezcuco was the best position, probably, which
Cortes could have chosen for the head-quarters of the army. It
supplied all the accommodation for lodging a numerous body of
troops, and all the facilities for subsistence, incident to a large
and populous town. It furnished, moreover, a multitude of artisans and
labourers for the uses of the army. Its territories, bordering on
the Tlascalan, afforded a ready means of intercourse with the
country of his allies, while its vicinity to Mexico enabled the
general, without much difficulty, to ascertain the movements in that
capital. Its central situation, in short, opened facilities for
communication with all parts of the valley, and made it an excellent
Point d'appui for his future operations.
The first care of Cortes was to strengthen himself in the palace
assigned to him, and to place his quarters in a state of defence,
which might secure them against surprise, not only from the
Mexicans, but from the Tezcucans themselves. Since the election of
their new ruler, a large part of the population had returned to
their homes, assured of protection in person and property. But the
Spanish general, notwithstanding their show of submission, very much
distrusted its sincerity; for he knew that many of them were united
too intimately with the Aztecs, by marriage and other social
relations, not to have their sympathies engaged in their behalf. The
young monarch, however, seemed wholly in his interest; and, to
secure him more effectually, Cortes placed several Spaniards near
his person, whose ostensible province it was to instruct him in
their language and religion, but who were in reality to watch over his
conduct, and prevent his correspondence with those who might be
unfriendly to the Spanish interests.
Tezcuco stood about half a league from the lake. It would be
necessary to open a communication with it, so that the brigantines,
when put together in the capital, might be launched upon its waters.
It was proposed, therefore, to dig a canal, reaching from the
gardens of Nezahualcoyotl, as they were called from the old monarch
who planned them, to the edge of the basin. A little stream or
rivulet, which flowed in that direction, was to be deepened
sufficiently for the purpose; and eight thousand Indian labourers were
forthwith employed on this great work, under the direction of the
young Ixtlilxochitl.
Meanwhile Cortes received messages from several places in the
neighbourhood, intimating their desire to become the vassals of his
sovereign, and to be taken under his protection. The Spanish commander
required, in return, that they should deliver up every Mexican who
should set foot in their territories. Some noble Aztecs, who had
been sent on a mission to these towns, were consequently delivered
into his hands. He availed himself of it to employ them as bearers
of a message to their master, the emperor. In it he deprecated the
necessity of the present hostilities. Those who had most injured
him, he said, were no longer among the living. He was willing to
forget the past; and invited the Mexicans, by a timely submission,
to save their capital from the horrors of a siege. Cortes had no
expectation of producing any immediate result by this appeal. But he
thought it might lie in the minds of the Mexicans, and that, if
there was a party among them disposed to treat with him, it might
afford them encouragement, as showing his own willingness to
co-operate with their views. At this time, however, there was no
division of opinion in the capital. The whole population seemed
animated by a spirit of resistance, as one man.
In a former page I have mentioned that it was the plan of
Cortes, on entering the valley, to commence operations by reducing the
subordinate cities before striking at the capital itself, which,
like some goodly tree, whose roots had been severed one after another,
would be thus left without support against the fury of the tempest.
The first point of attack which he selected was the ancient city of
Iztapalapan; a place containing fifty thousand inhabitants,
according to his own account, and situated about six leagues
distant, on the narrow tongue of land which divides the waters of
the great salt lake from those of the fresh. It was the private domain
of the last sovereign of Mexico; where, as the reader may remember, he