Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes' Coup d'etat

December, 1519

While Cortes with his army had been marching from the seacoast to Cholula on his way to Tenochtitlan, the little colony he had left under Escalante in Villa Rica de Vera Cruz had been having its own troubles.

The country north of Vera Cruz had for its governor an Aztec chief named Quauhpopoca, who was of course a vassal of Montezuma. This chief declared his wish to come to Vera Cruz to swear his allegiance to the Spanish authority. He asked that four white men should come to escort him through the unfriendly tribes that lay between him and Villa Rica.

This was a common request among the natives, and Escalante sent four soldiers to act as Quauhpopoca's escort. When the Spaniards reached his camp, Quauhpopoca seized them and killed two of them. The other two escaped and fled back to Escalante.

At once Escalante called his men to arms. At the head of fifty white men and several thousand Indian allies, he marched against Quauhpopoca. In the pitched battle that followed, only the Spaniards stood firm; the allies scattered in every direction at the first shock. The Spaniards, however, clearly saw an image of the Virgin hovering above them to cheer them on, and with the help of this vision, their fire-arms and their own good courage, they won the victory. One of the captives taken in battle told the Spaniards that the revolt was stirred up by Montezuma.

It was a costly victory for the Spaniards, for they lost eight of their men, and one of the eight was Escalante himself. Word sent at once to Cortes reached him before he had left Cholula, but he had concealed it from all but his most trusted friends, for he feared to lessen the courage of his soldiers on their forward march. He had sent Alonzo de Grado to take Escalante's place, and had gone on over the mountains to the City of Mexico to meet Montezuma.

Montezuma also, in ghastly fashion, had heard the news of Quauhpopoca's revolt and defeat. His postmen had carried to him the head of one of the Spaniards killed in the battle. Montezuma looked at it with horror and fear and, instead of sacrificing it in the temple, ordered it sent out of the city. It seemed to speak to his superstitious mind a prophecy of his own downfall.

All this had happened, of course, before Montezuma and Cortes had ever met; it was in the minds of both, along with other treacheries, while they talked together, though neither of them mentioned it. Cortes had been a week in Montezuma's city before the subject came up.

It had been an anxious week for Cortes. In spite of the comfort and luxury in which the Spaniards were living, Cortes could not forget that he, with a handful of followers, was in the heart of an enemy's country in a city which, like a trap, was easy to get into but could be all prongs if one wanted to get out without the ruler's permission. And that ruler, kind and friendly as he was at present, might at any time, by a new act of treachery, show them quite a different face. He might tire of giving presents to the Spaniards; there might at any moment arise a quarrel between an Aztec subject and a Spanish soldier that would turn all Aztec hearts against the white men. Cortes had heard more than once that the Mexicans resented having an army quartered on them. They had only to raise the bridge, and there were the Spaniards, rats in a trap indeed.

And even if no real evil befell, how much nearer was Cortes to his conquest of the country? And he had no time to waste in making that conquest. He had never received an answer to the letter he had sent to Charles V by Montejo and Puertocarrero; the King might any day send a governor to supersede Cortes, or even, if that did not happen, Velasquez in Cuba was sure to send out another expedition to oppose itself to Cortes' plans. Cortes must succeed before the King could depose him, or before Velasquez could send a force against him, or Montezuma turn into an open enemy. He resolved on a coup d'etat as bold as that by which he sunk his ships and so forced his men to follow him whether they would or not.

With his own mind quite made up as to what he should do, Cortes called a council of his officers and set before them the necessity of making some decisive move. All agreed that they could not go on living in Tenochtitlan in idle ease as they were doing now, but opinion was divided as to what the next step should be. Some thought they should withdraw secretly and get over the causeways to the mainland before the Mexicans knew they had stirred; others thought it time to go, but advised that they should say good-by to Montezuma and depart openly. To the first plan Cortes objected that it would look like a flight prompted by fear and would bring the enemy upon their track; to the second, he asked what reliance could be placed on Montezuma's friendship, since they all knew that it was only his frightened superstition that made him entertain the Spaniards at all.

Cortes, in short, was against leaving Tenochtitlan before they had conquered and converted it. As their expedition had broken with Velasquez, and had not yet received authority from the King, the only way to win the King's blessing was by success. If they should leave Mexico for some braver spirits to conquer, this expedition would get only punishment, added to all they had already suffered, while the newcomers would reap the glory and wealth lying ready for the hand bold enough to seize it.

With this preface, Cortes proposed his scheme, and his men, as they heard it, held their breath at its daring. It was for the Spaniards to march to the royal palace and to bring back the Emperor to residence in the palace of Axayacatl. If they could persuade him to come peaceably, it would be better; but even if they had to use force, he must come. Held in the Spanish camp, he would be a hostage for the good behavior of his people, and while Cortes would leave in Montezuma's hands the show of power, it would be Cortes himself who would be at the head of the government.

Cortes knew well how to cajole those around him to his own way of thinking; before the council was dismissed, all his officers were pledged to stand by him in his rash adventure.

Cortes did not sleep that night; he paced his apartment from dark to dawn, trying to look into the future to discover the results of his act.

In the morning Father Olmedo said mass as usual in the new chapel. The officers listened solemnly, for they knew that when they heard another mass success would have crowned their deed or all their plans would be in a state of ruin and confusion.

Cortes asked for an interview with Montezuma and, as it was granted, he marched with his troops to the palace. He left some men in the avenues outside and drew up the rest in order outside the courtyard. He took with him Marina and five cavaliers whom he thoroughly trusted—Alvarado, Sandoval, Lujo, Leon and Avila—all dressed, as he was, in complete armor. He gave orders that thirty of his soldiers should wander into the palace as if by chance in groups of three or four while the conference was going on. Then with his five knights at his back, fearless and alert, he went into the Emperor's presence.

Montezuma received him kindly, even joking with Cortes as the conversation went on. He gave the general many presents and offered him one of the royal princesses as his wife. Cortes declined this honor, as he already had a wife in Cuba. He kept up the light conversation until he saw that his thirty soldiers were assembled in the hall. Then suddenly, dropping his jesting tone, very seriously he told Montezuma the story of Escalante and Quauhpopoca, adding that Quauhpopoca had accused Montezuma of ordering the revolt. Cortes asked the Emperor what he had to answer to such a' charge.

"Such an act could only be imputed to me by my enemies," Montezuma declared proudly.

"I believe that," Cortes answered, "but to prove it to my people, it is necessary that you send for Quauhpopoca and his accomplices that they may be examined and dealt with according to their deserts."

"That I am ready to do," replied Montezuma, and took from his wrist his signet—a precious stone engraved with the image of the war god. He gave the signet to a noble and told him to hasten to Quauhpopoca, show him the signet and command at once at Tenochtitlan his presence and that of all concerned in the murder of the Spaniards.

When the noble had gone, Cortes pushed a step further. "I am now perfectly convinced of your innocence," he said politely to the Emperor, "but it is important that my sovereign shall be equally convinced. Nothing will promote this so much as for you to transfer your residence to our palace till the arrival of Quauhpopoca. Such an act of condescension will of itself show a personal regard for the Spaniards that will fully absolve you from all suspicion."

As Montezuma in astonishment listened to this speech he became first pale and then flushed with resentment.

"When was it ever heard," he exclaimed, "that a great prince like myself voluntarily left his own palace to become a prisoner in the hands of strangers?"

"It will not be as a prisoner that you will go," Cortes answered; "it will be but a change of residence from one of your palaces to another—a thing you do frequently. You will be surrounded by your own household and will hold intercourse with your people. And you may count on nothing but respectful treatment from the Spaniards."

"I will not go," insisted Montezuma. "If I should consent to such degradation, my subjects never would." Two hours passed while Cortes urged and Montezuma refused. He offered to give up a son and daughter as hostages to the Spaniards, but go himself he would not.

Finally, Leon, high-mettled and impatient, lost his self-control. They all knew now that if Montezuma did not go with them as their friend after this interview, he would stay behind as their enemy. The Spaniards had shown their hand and must play it out.

"Why do we waste words on this barbarian?" Leon exclaimed roughly. "We have gone too far to recede now. Let us seize him, and if he resists, plunge our swords into his body."

Montezuma could not understand the words, but the fierce tone and threatening gestures frightened him. "What did he say?" he asked Marina.

Marina translated the words as gently as she could. "Go with them," she implored. "If you do, you will be treated with all respect and kindness; if you refuse, you expose yourself to violence, perhaps to death."

Montezuma, between fear and anger, looked around the circle of white faces. Everywhere, instead of sympathy, he saw stern eyes and mouths that spoke iron resolution. His superstitious fears overcame him, as he felt that his gods supported him no longer.

"I will go," he whispered in a voice that could scarcely be heard.