Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The Bringing of the Brigantines

Spring, 1521

The Tezcucans swore allegiance to their new King, Ixtlilzochitl, and acknowledged Cortes' authority. He did not wholly trust, however, a nation so closely connected with Mexico, and began at once to put his quarters into a state of defense against attack. That done, as Tezcuco was about a mile back from the shore, he set the allies at digging a canal from the town to the lake, so that he should have a waterway for the brigantines when they were brought up to Tezcuco.

Then, made safe at home, Cortes, while he waited for his ships, started out to crush the neighboring tribes, that they might not threaten his rear when he was ready to attack Tenochtitlan.

His first move was against Iztapalapan on the narrow isthmus that divided an arm of the salt lake of Tezcuco from the fresh water of Lake Chalco lying to the west of it. This city had belonged to Montezuma's brother, Cuitlahua, who had welcomed Cortes there on his first visit to Mexico, before he had learned to hate the white men. Now, although Cuitlahua was dead, the city was most unfriendly to the Spaniards. Cortes, leaving Sandoval in charge at Tezcuco, marched against Iztapalapan at the head of two hundred Spanish foot, eighteen horse and four thousand Tlascalans.

Within a few miles of Iztapalapan the army met a body of opposing Aztecs, who were easily pushed back, and Cortes pursued them as far as Iztapalapan. On the causeway just outside the city he met great numbers of Aztecs with their canoes, whom, as they offered no resistance, the Spaniards passed without notice as they swept pell-mell into the city after their flying foe.

Once in their own town, the Aztecs turned, but in the hand to hand fight which followed they proved no match for their enemy. The Spaniards killed them by hundreds, set fire to the houses, and by the glare of the flames plundered the town, until they were loaded with treasure.

It was while they were loading themselves with treasure that someone heard a queer sound and stopped to listen. The Indians knew at once what it was.

"The dykes are broken through," they cried.

Then Cortes understood. The Indians in canoes whom he had seen at the causeway had been busy making a hole in the dyke so that all the salt waters of Lake Tezcuco could pour in on the city of Iztapalapan. And now the flood was upon them.

Cortes sounded a retreat. It was night by this time, and the men must have had their minds filled with thoughts of the "melancholy night" on the dyke of Tlacopan. This night was as dark and looked as hopeless. When the Spaniards left behind the light of the burning houses, they had nothing to guide their steps. They stumbled along up to their belts in water, dropping as they went the treasure they had gathered. When they reached the breach in the dyke through which the water was sweeping like a river, there was no escape but by swimming. Those who could swim reached the farther side of the causeway, cold and exhausted, powder wet and treasure gone.

They dragged themselves wearily along till down, when they saw the lake swarming with Aztec canoes filled with warriors, who showered them with stones and arrows. The Spanish army kept on its march without returning fire, anxious only to get back to their warm, dry quarters at Tezcuco. It was night before they arrived.

Although the attack on Iztapalapan had seemingly ended so disastrously, it had actually accomplished much for Cortes. The neighboring tribes saw one of the finest cities of the region laid in ruins, and hastily sent envoys to Cortes offering him their allegiance. Even the people of Otumba who had opposed him in the great fight, and the city of Chalco lying on the east shore of the lake of Chalco, one of the most important towns of the region, begged for his friendship.

Guatemozin had put an Aztec garrison into Chalco, and the cacique of the place offered his submission to Cortes if he would drive out the garrison. Cortes sent Sandoval to their help. He routed a large body of Mexicans drawn up in a cornfield to oppose his entrance into the city, and once in Chalco, found that the cacique was dead and the Aztec garrison had run away. Sandoval, glad of such an easy victory, took back with him to Tezcuco two young sons of the cacique who had died lamenting that he had never seen Malinche and urging his sons to pay their tribute to the white captain.

The young nobles were ready to acknowledge the Spanish rule, but they said, very justly, that they should need in return Spanish protection against Aztec vengeance.

To Cortes' ever active mind there came the thought of joining the tribes of this region in a defensive league. Some asked his help, others offered him recruits that he did not need. He could not well spare his men to guard Chalco and other weak cities, but the offered allies might well help the cities who needed protection. As each tribe was at odds with every other tribe and hated it only less than it hated the Aztecs, it took much tact and argument to make them forget their grievances and unite in a common league.

"You are now vassals of the same sovereign," Cortes said, "engaged in a common enterprise against the formidable foe who has so long trodden you in the dust. You must forget your quarrels with one another, for, singly, you can do little against the Aztecs, but, united, you can protect each other's weakness and hold the enemy at bay till the Spaniards can come to your assistance."

Cortes' wisdom prevailed. Feuds ceased and old-time enemies became warm friends, as one tribe after another fell away from Aztec rule and, under Cortes' protection, joined the new Chalcan league.

Cortes tried, too, his powers of persuasion with Guatemozin. From his first embassy he heard nothing. He sent a second, promising to respect the rights of all Aztecs and to uphold Guatemozin's authority as King, if Guatemozin would swear allegiance to Charles V of Spain. Again the Emperor sent Cortes no direct answer. He showed his contempt by publishing an edict that every Christian taken in Mexico should be sent to the capital to be sacrificed.

And then came news to Cortes that Lopez had made the brigantines, proved them sea-worthy, and had then taken them apart ready to send to Tezcuco.

It was Sandoval whom Cortes chose to go back to Tlascala for the ships, for young as he was, he had already proved his courage, coolness and good judgment.

Sandoval made the march in quick time, and as he crossed the borders of Tlascala he saw approaching the gay banners of a body of Tlascalan warriors who, tired of waiting for him, were coming with the vessels to meet him, under the leadership of a noble named Chichemecatl. Sandoval received the ships, and then dismissed some of the convoy, keeping twenty thousand men, whom he divided into two parties as guards, one to go before the ships and one behind. Chichemecatl he placed first in the van, but later changed him to the rear where Sandoval thought he would be more useful. The Indian warrior was rather insulted by the change, for he thought his place was in front, even though Sandoval explained that the rear was the post of danger and that he himself should march there. But his hurt feelings did not touch his loyalty.

With the heavy ships in sections on the backs of the Indian porters, Sandoval with his army traveled slowly up the mountains from Tlascala and down again on the other side to the valley of Mexico until, in four days, the party reached Tezcuco. The enemy hovered in their rear all through the march but did not attack them.

Cortes' joy knew no bounds when he heard that his ships were approaching Tezcuco. He might well rejoice that his plans had come out so well, for it was no light task to build thirteen ships in one place, take them apart, and send them on men's backs, through untrodden forests and over steep mountains, to a city sixty miles away.

Dressed in his best clothes, Cortes with all his officers went to meet the convoy, which stretched out for six miles along the road. The Tlascalan chiefs in their holiday attire were as brilliant as the Spanish cavaliers. It took six hours for the whole train to enter the city, marching with banners flying and music playing, while the whole host, Indians and white men, set up the ringing shout "Castile and Tlascala! Long live our sovereign the King!"

The twenty thousand Tlascalans were eager to push immediately against Mexico. "We come," they said, "to fight under your banners; to avenge our common quarrel or to fall by your side. Lead us at once against the enemy."

"Wait till you are rested," promised the general, "and you shall have your hands full."

For with his ships in the city, and so many friendly tribes outside, with Spanish cavalier and Tlascalan ally at his back, Cortes was ready at last to advance against Mexico.