Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The Massacre of Cholula

October, 1519

While the Tlascalans were still in the Spanish camp, five Aztec nobles, accompanied by two hundred slaves, came as envoys from Montezuma to Cortes. The Emperor had watched eagerly every step of the white men from Villa Rica, up the Cordilleras, and over the broad tableland on the mountain's summit. He had rejoiced, with his warrior fierceness, when he saw Cortes choose the way to Tlascala, for he was sure no human beings could cross alive a territory he had been unable to subdue. But when tidings came that Cortes had conquered Xicotencatl and put Tlascala under his feet, Montezuma, overwhelmed by his priestly superstition, sure once more that the newcomers were gods and not mortals, went back to his temporizing policy of beckoning the Spaniards with one hand by rich gifts while, with the other hand, he held them back from his country.

The new embassy brought to Cortes three thousand ounces of gold, hundreds of feather work mantles and embroidered cotton dresses, along with Montezuma's polite congratulations on the Spaniards' victory and his polite regret that he could not receive the general in Tenochtitlan.

Cortes, also, was courteous, but he would not give up his thought of visiting Montezuma. The envoys then went a step further and offered to pay tribute to the King of Spain if Cortes would give up his visit to Mexico.

Elated by the thought that he could inspire terror in a monarch whom every nation in Anahuac regarded with awe, Cortes was more than ever resolved to press on to the capital.

"I should offend my own king," he said, "if I should return to Spain without visiting so powerful a monarch as Montezuma."

Two of the envoys went back to Tenochtitlan with Cortes' message; the others Cortes kept with him in camp that they might see how high he stood with the Tlascalans. He had had an urgent invitation to take up his quarters in the city of Tlascala, but until his own health was restored and his soldiers rested, Cortes did not care to establish himself in the capital of a nation who had so lately been his enemies.

The Tlascalans now, however, were as eager to help Cortes as they had been before to hinder him. They were more than ready to be his allies in an expedition that was to humble in the dust their bitterest foe. Finally some of the aged rulers of the republic grew so impatient at Cortes' long delay that they arrived at the Spanish camp with five hundred porters ready to drag the cannon and carry the baggage of the white men to the city of Tlascala.

At that, Cortes saw that he must move his quarters into the city. Father Olmedo said mass, camp was struck, and Cortes and his army set out to march the twenty miles that separated their camp from the capital. It was a triumphal procession; all the towns on the way entertained them, and as they came near the capital men and women came out to meet them with wreaths and bunches of flowers, which they hung about the Spaniards and their horses. Indian priests were there, too, in white robes and long, matted hair, burning incense as they came. With this escort the Spaniards entered the city of Tlascala on the 23rd of September, 1519.

Once inside, the crowd was so great that the police could scarcely make a passage for the strangers. Many of the inhabitants went up to their low, flat housetops and from there looked down on the streets festooned with roses and honeysuckle and arched with green boughs. The native bands played and the crowd shrieked its welcome in a way that would have terrified the Spaniards if Marina had not assured them that it all meant peace.

The old chief, Xicotencatl, father of the warrior Xicotencatl, and one of the four rulers of the republic, received Cortes at his palace and, as he was nearly blind, passed his hand over Cortes' face to discover what he looked like. In a large hall in the palace a banquet was served, and afterward the Spaniards were assigned their quarters in the square of the chief temple. The Aztec envoys had rooms next to Cortes so that they might be safe.

For the next days the four rulers of Tlascala gave themselves up to entertaining their guests. Each one, in his own section of the city, banqueted Cortes and his captains. Through all the festivities the general kept up the strict discipline of the camp and such a constant watchfulness that the Tlascalan officers were almost offended.

To show their desire for a close alliance, the Tlascalans offered some of their women as wives for the Spaniards, in the same way that the Cempoallans had done. Cortes replied, as he had at Cempoalla, that Spaniards could marry only Christians, and urged them to worship the true God. But, though they were willing to worship the white men's God, they refused to give up their own. When Cortes would have pressed the matter, Father Olmedo once more warned Cortes not to stir up in Tlascala the same tempest that he had made in Cempoalla, but to leave the Tlascalans in possession of their own religion. Cortes reluctantly followed his advice and contented himself with setting free the captives that the Tlascalans were keeping for sacrifice.

The Tlascalan chiefs allowed the Spaniards to set up a cross in their quarters and to celebrate mass. The Indians as well as the white men came daily to hear it. With this compromise the religious difficulties were settled, and the Spaniards married the Tlascalan women. Alvarado married the daughter of Xicotencatl, a princess of high rank, and became a great favorite with the Tlascalans. They liked his yellow hair and fair skin and called him "Tonatiuh," the Sun. Marina they called "Malinche," and as she was always with Cortes on public occasions they called him also "Malinche." So both Cortes and Alvarado received in Tlascala nicknames which stuck to them through all the expedition.

While the Spaniards were feasting in Tlascala, the two Aztec envoys returned. Montezuma this time invited the Spaniards to come to Tenochtitlan but, at the same time, asked them to break with Tlascala, Mexico's mortal enemy, and to go to Cholula, which was a vassal to Montezuma, where the white men would be properly received and entertained.

The Tlascalans warned Cortes not to trust Montezuma nor the Cholulans, who, cowards in fight, were in peace treacherous and crafty. They said that Cholula, but twenty miles distant, was almost the only nation who had not sent an embassy to Cortes. They warned him, too, against Montezuma's smooth words.

"Better to march against him as foe than to enter his capital as friend," they asserted. "His power is boundless. Once shut up in Tenochtitlan with no communication with the coast, you will be at the mercy of the Aztecs."

While Cortes was considering the matter one of the Tezcucan princes arrived. Nezahualpilli had left five sons. Cacama, the oldest, had been given his father's throne by Montezuma. The second son, Ixtlilzochitl, had received only a small share of Tezcuco. It was Ixtlilzochitl, angry at Montezuma and at Cacama, who now arrived to offer his services to Cortes and to ask help in gaining Tezcuco. Cortes gave him a place among his company, but would not promise to put him on the throne.

And then came an embassy from Cholula, full of professions of goodwill, and inviting the Spaniards to their city. The Tlascalans pointed out that the ambassadors were not nobles, and that in sending men of inferior rank, Cholula was insulting Spain. Cortes at once informed Cholula that he would listen to no words of peace unless they came through Cholula's chief men.

The Cholulans, not eager to waken Cortes' anger, sent a new embassy of nobles, who, after excusing their late-coming on the ground that they had been afraid of Tlascala, humbly asked Cortes to visit their city. Cortes agreed.

The Tlascalans more than ever tried to persuade him not to go to Cholula. They assured him again of the falseness of the people and told him that not only was the city putting itself into a position of defense, but that a large Aztec force was camped near it, and that Montezuma was only asking the Spaniards to Cholula that he might there trap and kill them.

The news disturbed Cortes, but he had made up his mind to go and nothing could stop him. He knew that if he showed any signs of fear, it would at once encourage his enemies at the same time that it discouraged his allies and his own men. He consulted with his chief officers and decided on an immediate march to Cholula.

The Spaniards had been six weeks in Tlascala; during the last three, entertained as honored guests in the capital city. When the time came for their departure, thousands of Tlascalans were ready to march with the army brave enough to force Montezuma in his own stronghold. Cortes, however, not wishing a body of men so large as to prove cumbersome, chose only six thousand warriors to accompany him.

The day came when the Spaniards and their new allies, with many Godspeeds, set out for Cholula. Tradition says that they had scarcely left the city of Tlascala when a thin, transparent cloud settled down over the cross the Christians had erected in the temple courtyard and wrapped the cross in soft folds, which shone all through the night with a clear light, thus proving to the Indians the truth of the white men's religion.

It did not take the Spaniards long to cover the distance between Tlascala and Cholula. As they approached the city, the caciques came out to welcome the white men, but they refused to receive their enemies, the Tlascalans, within their walls. The allies, therefore, after many warnings to Cortes, encamped outside. Cortes marched into Cholula with only his Spaniards and the Cempoallan Indians.

Cholula, we remember, was one of the oldest cities of Anahuac and the place, according to tradition, where the god, Quetzalcoatl, had passed twenty years of teaching on his way to the coast to leave Anahuac. In his honor a wonderful temple had been built. Its base covered forty-four acres and its height was a hundred and twenty-seven feet. It held a marvelous idol adorned with gold and jewels and feathers. The Cholulans believed that if a foe attacked the temple and pulled down the walls, the god would pour forth a flood of water to overwhelm them. The temple was the Mecca of Anahuac.

The Spaniards were hospitably received in the city, and were struck with the wide, clean streets and solid houses. As in Tlascala, the guests were feasted before they were assigned quarters.

For a few days the friendly intercourse went on. Then an embassy from Montezuma changed it all. The envoys told Cortes that his approach to Tenochtitlan was very displeasing to Montezuma, and departed. At once the Cholulans lost their friendliness.

Cortes knew this meant danger. The Cempoallans, who had been wandering through the city, told him, moreover, that many of the streets were barricaded and that the flat housetops were piled with heaps of stones ready for an assault. He heard, too, that a large sacrifice had been ordered to induce the god to bless the Cholulans in their coming plans, and that many of the citizens had sent their wives and children out of the city.

These rumors of danger were turned by Marina into certainties. The wife of a Cholulan cacique had become very fond of Marina and had seen a good deal of her. She urged Marina to come to her house in order to be safe from the danger that threatened the Spaniards. Montezuma had twenty thousand men in the neighborhood, she said, and all Cholula was in arms, ready to murder the Spaniards as they marched out of the city. The streets had been barricaded and pits dug to throw the Spanish troops into confusion and make them an easy prey to their murderers. Some of the captured Spaniards were to be sacrificed in Cholula and the rest led in fetters to Montezuma.

Marina listened to the story, and at the first possible chance told Cortes. He saw in what a dangerous situation he was. To fight or to fly seemed equally hopeless in a city of enemies, with barricaded streets and fortified houses on every side.

His first step was to induce two priests to visit him. From them, by means of gifts—the gold sent him by Montezuma thus buying Montezuma's secrets—he learned that all Marina had said was true. The superstitious Emperor, when he thought the Spaniards were gods, had told Cholula to treat them kindly. Later, when another oracle had declared that Cholula would be the white men's grave, Montezuma had changed his policy, and sent word to Cholula that the Spaniards must not live. The leather straps to bind the captives were ready at hand, so sure were the Indians that the Spaniards could not escape them.

Cortes told the priests that he meant to leave the city the following morning, and asked to have the chief caciques visit him, and also that two thousand Cholulans might be sent him to carry his goods. Then he dismissed them.

At once he sent word to the Tlascalans outside the city to be ready to come to his aid at the first musket shot. He warned them to bind green wreaths on their heads to mark them from the Cholulans.

When night came, the Spaniards slept on their arms. Cortes, after posting many sentinels, listened anxiously hour after hour for any noise that should be a warning of danger, but the only sounds that came were the trumpets of the Indian priests proclaiming from the temple the watches of the night.

At the earliest dawn Cortes drew his men up against the walls of the courtyard, leaving the center clear, and trained his guns on the entrances to the court. His arrangements were scarcely made when the chiefs arrived with the porters for which Cortes had asked. Cortes received them all in the center of the courtyard. Bluntly he told the chiefs that he had discovered their treachery and was about to punish it.

The Cholulans were thunderstruck at this wonderful man who could even read their thoughts. They did not deny their guilt, but they threw the blame on Montezuma.

"That," Cortes said, "is no excuse for treachery."

He stepped back and gave his signal. The Spanish infantry under the walls leveled their guns at the host of Cholulans in the courtyard. Unarmed and taken by surprise, they were helpless and perished miserably.

The Cholulans from the city tried to force their way in to help their comrades, but the Spanish guns protected the avenues of approach. In the meantime the Tlascalans outside the walls, hearing the artillery, had rushed into the city, and had fallen on the rear of the enemy, putting them to utter rout. The Cholulans, running wildly to and fro, tried to invoke the help of their god by pulling down the temple wall, but instead of the flood of water they looked for to drown their foes, they brought down on themselves only a cloud of dust.

Then they gave up. When even their gods failed them, of what use was it to stand against the wonderful fair-skinned men who came from a far country to destroy them!