Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes Comes to Cozumel

February, 1519

When Grijalva, after six months of exploration, returned to Cuba full of his adventures, it was only to find that someone had taken his place and that his labor was unappreciated. Cortes' fleet had been fitted out to reap the results for which he had toiled, and instead of the glory and gratitude he had expected from his uncle, the Governor had only coldness and reproof for him because he had not disobeyed his orders and founded a colony. In those early days few of the men who did the great deeds—Columbus, Balboa, Grijalva—were rewarded with anything but ingratitude.

But Cortes was off, although as yet he was not far on his way. He had put in at the port of Macaca, fifteen leagues distant from St. Jago, to lay in such stores as he could get from the royal farms. He took them as "a loan from the king," to be repaid later, but he did not stop to ask the permission of Charles V. From Macaca he went on to Trinidad on the southern shore of Cuba, and set up his standard, promising great things to those who would join him. His principal standard was of black velvet embroidered with gold and on it a red cross amid flames of blue and white over this inscription, "Friends, let us follow the cross, and under this sign, if we have faith, we shall conquer."

Among those who trooped to enlist were one hundred who had returned with Grijalva, including an Indian from Yucatan named Melchorejo, whom Cortes took as interpreter, and such great men as Alvarado, Sandoval, Olid, Avila, Puertocarrero and Valesquez de Leon, a relative of the Governor. All these men not only lent weight and dignity to the expedition but were valuable because of their experience with Grijalva in Indian warfare and took a leading part in the conquest. When they came into camp at Trinidad, the whole camp turned out to welcome them with music and artillery salutes.

Cortes was spending his time in getting together supplies. He took them wherever he could find them, as he had taken meat from the St. Jago butcher. He heard that a trading vessel was off the coast and ordered out one of his caravels to bring her into port. When he had her there, he bought both the ship and the cargo of grain and induced the ship's commander to join the expedition. When he had news of another ship, he sent Ordaz with a caravel after that one, telling him to take the captured ship to St. Antonio at the western point of the island, where Cortes would meet him. Cortes sent Ordaz on this errand because he had come to him out of the Velasquez household, and while he was chasing vessels he could not be reporting to Velasquez the doings of Cortes.

Velasquez, however, did not mean that Cortes should escape him if he could help it. He sent word to the Governor of Trinidad to seize Cortes and hold him, as another man had been put in his place to command the fleet. The Governor of Trinidad shared his news with Cortes' principal officers. They all advised him to leave Cortes alone as he had already gained such a hold over his followers that if he were touched they would probably burn the town. The Governor listened to their advice.

Cortes, however, thought it wise to leave Trinidad. As he had not yet as many men as he wanted, he set sail with part of his following for Havana, sending Alvarado with a body of men to march across country and meet him there. At Havana he brought ashore all the big guns as well as the small arms and crossbows and had them all thoroughly overhauled. As there were plenty of cotton plantations near Havana, he had an armor of quilted jackets made for his soldiers to protect them from Indian arrows.

He set up his standard at Havana with his usual generous promises to those who enlisted under him. Even so early in the expedition he was Commander-in-Chief in deed as well as in name. His air of easy familiarity with his soldiers, joined to a firmness that allowed no disobedience, made him their idol from the start and most of them would willingly have died for him. He divided his men into eleven companies, each with an experienced officer as captain. Several of these men were friends and relatives of Velasquez but Cortes treated them all alike.

Before Cortes was quite ready to leave Havana, the commander there, Don Pedro Barba, also received orders from Velasquez to arrest Cortes and not to allow the fleet to sail. Velasquez also wrote a letter to Cortes, asking him to wait until Velasquez could have a personal talk with him. But Cortes had no wish to have any personal talk just then with the Governor of Cuba. One of the men who has written the life of Cortes exclaims, "Never 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!"

Cortes did not "defer his departure" nor did Barba arrest him, for he, too, had grown fond of Cortes in his short acquaintance with him. Barba wrote the Governor of Cuba a letter in which he said that he had the greatest confidence in Cortes' loyalty, but that in any case it would be folly to try to arrest the general at the head of a large body of troops who were devoted to him. Cortes himself added a postscript to the letter, assuring Velasquez that he was bound to his interests and that he might have entire faith in him. He ended by saying that the squadron would sail the following morning.

On February 10, 1519, therefore, the fleet set sail for St. Antonio, where they were to meet Ordaz party. When the squadron thus was completed Cortes found that he had eleven vessels. The flagship was of one hundred tons, three other vessels were of seventy tons, and the other seven were only caravels or open brigantines. The fleet was under the direction of Antonio de Alaminos, an old pilot who had acted under Columbus, Cordova and Grijalva.

To man his vessels Cortes had a hundred and ten sailors, and to do his fighting he had five hundred and fifty-three soldiers, sixteen horses, ten heavy guns, four lighter guns called falconets, and plenty of ammunition. There were, besides, two hundred Indians, men and women, taken as servants. With this equipment Cortes started to conquer a country of hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, famous soldiers who, under the command of a semi-civilized, powerful Emperor, were well armed and well drilled and fighting in their own country of which they knew all the roads and bypaths and which yielded them constant food.

But Cortes was one of those who never would know he was beaten. He had determined to conquer Anahuac, and once the power had been put into his hands, no commands from the Governor, no grumbling among his men, no defeats from his enemies, not even starvation, could turn him back with his purpose unaccomplished.

Cortes stands in history with the stain of cruelty on his name. But as we follow him up his long climb from the seacoast to the City of Mexico, we must not think of him as living in our days when war is held in horror and cruel deeds are blamed by everyone. He lived in a time when war was a man's most honorable occupation. He lived in a time when the Christian nations truly believed that God had given them the New World for a possession and the savages to be converted to Christianity. They did not believe that they were either stealing or murdering when they went out to seize these new lands; they thought rather they were going on a crusade for the glory of the Holy Roman Church. We must look at their deeds, therefore, from their standpoint instead of from our own more enlightened one. And then as we go step by step with Cortes, we shall find that apart from the horrible necessities of war, he was not often guilty of deeds cruel without cause, as were so many of the early Spaniards. There is no deed that can be laid to him that can in any way be compared to the frightful cruelties inflicted on the Low Countries by Philip II and Alva in the next century.

Before his final start from St. Antonio, Cortes made to his soldiers one of the speeches which always fired their hearts. He touched on their religion, ambition, and their love of gold.

"I hold out to you a glorious prize," he said, "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 labored 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 wealth 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, with alacrity and confidence, and carry to a glorious issue the work so auspiciously begun."

The soldiers responded with loud applause, eager to set out on so wonderful a quest led by so great a leader. Mass was celebrated; the fleet placed under Cortes' patron saint, St. Peter, and on February 18, 1519, the squadron got under way and headed for the coast of Yucatan on its mission. Grijalva had returned to Cuba and he was no longer to be sought for, but there were still the six Christians said to be held captive in the interior by the natives.

The flagship led the way with a beacon-light by night at its stern. The vessels were ordered to keep together, but the fair weather changed into a tempest which scattered the ships and drove them south of their course. They landed finally, as Grijalva had, on the island of Cozumel. Cortes had lingered to convoy a vessel disabled by the gale and reached Cozumel last of all. He had warned all his captains to use great gentleness and caution in dealing with the natives that they might keep on friendly terms. But he found on landing that already Alvarado's rash spirit had started things wrong. In the short time before his commander arrived he had entered the Indian temples, stolen their treasures and been so severe to the natives that they had fled in terror into the interior.

Cortes, very angry at this disobedience to his strict orders, reproved Alvarado in the presence of the army. Then he ordered to be brought before him two Indian captives whom Alvarado had taken. They came trembling, but Cortes, through Melchorejo—the Indian whom Grijalva had brought back and who had picked up some Spanish in Cuba—made them understand that he had only friendly feelings for them. He ordered them released, loaded them with presents, and sent them to tell their friends to come without fear back to their homes.

The Indians, convinced of Cortes' good-feeling, soon were all back, ready to begin a friendly barter. The Spaniards had knives and beads; the Indians had gold ornaments. Each was glad to give what he had for what the other would give in exchange.

From these Indians Cortes gathered a few facts about the men he had come to seek, and he sent two brigantines, under Ordaz, to the opposite coast of Yucatan, telling them to stay there eight days while some Indians in the party carried a letter to the captives telling them that their countrymen were in Cozumel with a liberal ransom for their release.

While this party was away, Cortes made excursions to different parts of the island in order to keep his restless men employed as well as to make that study of the resources of the country that he had been told to make.

He found the land poor and thinly inhabited, but like Grijalva, he was astonished at the signs of civilization he found here as compared with the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. The houses were large and built of stone. The temples had towers of stone rising in terraces, story above story. In one temple he found a stone cross, which greatly excited the soldiers, as they thought Christianity had already reached the island. The cross, however, was erected to the Indian god of rain.

With Cortes were two priests, Diaz and Olmedo. Olmedo was gentle and loving at the same time that he showed great wisdom. More than once his gentle wisdom held back Cortes when he was determined to convert the heathen by force if they would not become Christians in any other way.

The two missionary priests began their preaching at once to persuade the natives to leave their heathen gods and worship the one God. But the Indians loved and reverenced their idols, and exclaimed that the gods of rain and sunshine would send down lightnings on the heads of any one who should interfere with their temples.

Cortes, not able to argue through an interpreter, thought he would give the Indians a chance to see what their gods would do for them. He entered the great temple and rolled their idol down the stairs. Then amid the groans and laments of the natives he set up an altar with an image of the Virgin, and mass was said by Father Olmedo. The Indians listened in awe although they could not understand. As no vengeance came from heaven on the bold Spaniards, the Indians concluded that the strangers' God was more powerful than theirs, and they all became Christians.

While Cortes was converting the natives, the band of men he had sent to look for the captives returned saying they could find no trace of them. Cortes was much disappointed at this news, but decided there was nothing now to keep him in Cozumel. The ship's stores had been replenished by the friendly Indians, so Cortes weighed anchor and sailed away toward Yucatan. The fleet had not gone far before one of the vessels sprang a leak, and back they all went to Cozumel.

Almost on their landing came a canoe full of Indians. One of the men in the canoe leaped ashore and saluted Cortes in Indian style, by touching the earth with his hand and carrying it to his head, then in broken Spanish he asked if they were Christians, and he fell on his knees and thanked God, for he himself was one of the captives that Cortes had come to seek. His name was Aguilar. Almost eight years before this, in a voyage to Hispaniola, his vessels had been wrecked on the coast of Yucatan. In the ship's boat he and a few companions had reached the shore. All except Aguilar fell into the hands of the cannibal natives and were killed. Aguilar escaped into the interior and was captured by a cacique, who spared his life and finally became fond of him. By his wise counsels to the cacique in several weighty matters, Aguilar became in time an important man among the Indians. They were so fond of him that they did not want him to leave them, but a ransom of glass beads and little bells bought his freedom and he joined the forces of Cortes. He had learned the Indian language and, with his knowledge of Spanish, he became very valuable as an interpreter.

There was nothing now to keep Cortes longer in Cozumel. The fate of the captives had been discovered, the vessels had been repaired and re-victualed, his men were eager to be forward on their great adventure. On March 4th, therefore, 1519, Cortes said good-by to the friendly Indians of Cozumel and set sail for the mainland.