Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes Sinks His Ships

August, 1519

The quarrel over, Cortes had the heavy guns put aboard the ships, and sent them under Alaminos' guidance north along the shore to the spot the pilot had selected for a camp. Cortes, himself, at the head of his troops set out for Cempoalla to see what friends he could make of the Totonacs, who were ready to rise against Montezuma's rule.

For a good many miles the army marched across sandy wastes, until they came to a river which they crossed on rafts. Beyond the river were grassy plains and groves of cacaos and feathery palms. The Spaniards saw deer and game, wild turkeys among the rest, though they thought them peacocks.

As they came nearer Cempoalla they were met by twelve envoys sent by the cacique, who helped the Spaniards make camp for the night, and who supplied them with food. The next morning they were on the march again through green meadows and wonderful groves of trees hung with grapevines and wild morning-glories, while the undergrowth was crowded by wild roses and honeysuckle. Among these sweet-scented things fluttered butterflies of every tint, and gay-colored, sweet-songed birds. The Spaniards thought they had found a "terrestrial paradise."

Nearer the city, they found tidy little gardens and orchards. Crowds of men and women met them and hung flower wreaths around the horses' necks. The city itself held more than twenty thousand houses of stone thatched with palm leaves so cleverly woven as to be rain-proof.

As the Spaniards marched slowly through the narrow streets of Cempoalla, it was hard to tell whether the city was more of a sight to them, or they to the city. Both parties were friendly in their curiosity. The cacique, very tall and fat, met Cortes with much ceremony in front of his house, and quartered the Spaniards in a temple nearby, whose courtyard was large enough to hold the whole army. Here he sent them a comfortable meal of meat and cornbread, as well as a large present of gold and fine cotton cloth.

In spite of all this friendliness, Cortes posted his guards, placed his artillery, and ordered his men to keep within bounds. He believed in the saying, "Eternal vigilance is the price of safety." On the march his soldiers were always in order of battle; in camp, they often slept on their arms.

The Totonacs had no thought of treachery, however. The Spaniards slept safely, and in the morning Cortes and fifty men went to visit the cacique. Cortes left his men in the courtyard, taking with him into the house itself only one officer and Marina.

"I am a subject," said Cortes, "of a great king across the seas. I have come to teach the Aztecs about the true God and to destroy the cruel worship which demands human sacrifice."

The cacique answered, "My gods who bring sunshine and rain are good enough for me. But I am vassal of the Aztec Emperor. He is a powerful monarch, whose capital stands in a lake far off across the mountains. He is a stern prince, forcing tribute from us mercilessly. If we resist, he carries off our young men and maidens to sacrifice at his altars."

Cortes told the cacique that he had come to help all the oppressed, and that he was ready to help the Totonac tribes overthrow the tyranny of Montezuma.

That impressed the cacique; he said the Totonacs numbered thousands, and not only all Totonacs, but many other tribes also, hated Montezuma. They had heard of Cortes and his great deeds at Tabasco. But they were not yet ready to put their fortunes to the touch by defying "the great Montezuma." They had suffered too much by his former punishments. Only the Tlascalans—shut into their mountain fort by their great wall—were able to hold their own against the Mexicans.

Cortes' answer was a boast. "A single Spaniard is stronger than a host of Aztecs. I do not need help, but I must know which tribes are my friends and which are my foes in this war I have before me, that I may know whom to protect and spare."

Having thus made an impression on the cacique, and obtained the information he wanted, Cortes bade a friendly farewell and, after a promise to return later, set off for the town of Chiahuitzla, near the harbor to which he had sent his fleet. The cacique gave him, to carry his baggage, four hundred Indian porters. They were so well trained that they could carry fifty pounds twenty-five miles a day.

Cortes went with a satisfied mind. He had meant to conquer the country at whatever cost. Now he found that a good many of the tribes he had thought he would have to fight, he might turn into allies to help him against the Aztecs whom they hated.

After a few days' march, Cortes reached Chiahuitzla, perched like a fortress on the rocks above the Gulf of Mexico. The city was nearly empty, for its inhabitants had fled at the appearance of the white men. Fifteen of the principal citizens, however, were waiting to welcome Cortes, and little by little the others stole back. While Cortes was in conference with them, in came the fat cacique of Cempoalla, carried by his men on a litter. He wanted to know what was going on.

As they were gathered in the market-place, there came into the square five men of lordly look and rich dress, followed by their servants. They regarded the Spaniards coldly and did not return their greeting. The Totonac chiefs immediately left Cortes and hurried, with apologetic haste, to the newcomers. Cortes, rather puzzled, turned to Marina, and she said that these five nobles were Aztecs come to collect tribute for Montezuma.

The next moment the Totonac chiefs came back to Cortes in the greatest dismay. The Aztecs demanded twenty young men and women to sacrifice to their gods to appease them for the dishonor done them by the Indians in receiving and entertaining the white men. Cortes very coolly told the Totonacs to refuse to give up the girls and boys and, more than that, to arrest the messengers.

The Totonacs were in a hard place. Whichever one they obeyed, the other would punish them. Cortes was the one at hand and strong in his confidence and promises, so very tremblingly they obeyed him. To their own unbounded surprise the Aztec nobles were seized, bound and placed under guard.

Cortes, as he had done once before, was playing a double game. His men secretly freed two of the prisoners and brought them to Cortes, who protested his sympathy with their plight and sent them back to Montezuma with messages of his friendship, in spite of the way Montezuma had treated him.

The Totonacs in the morning were very angry at the escape of two of their captives. They wanted immediately to sacrifice the others to their gods. Cortes was horrified at the idea and sent the Aztecs, for safety, to the fleet in the harbor nearby. From the ships they, too, were allowed to escape.

While he was thus placating the Aztecs, Cortes was at the same time stirring up the Totonacs to further revolt. He induced the chiefs to send messengers to all the outlying tribes, calling on them, also, to refuse tribute to Montezuma.

The messengers found the country in great commotion. The servants of the five envoys had fled when their masters were taken, and they had carried with them frightful tales of the bold white men who had insulted Montezuma's emissaries. The Indians from all sides poured into Chiahuitzla, eager to find their old freedom. A few of the fearful ones hesitated, but most of them took the oath of allegiance to the Spanish king and put themselves under Cortes.

Cortes then set to work to erect his city on the shore near the harbor two or three miles from Chiahuitzla. The Indians helped him. In a few weeks the new Villa Rica de Vera Cruz was built and the government transferred to it.

While the city was still building, a new embassy arrived from. Montezuma. The news of the imprisonment of his envoys had raised the Emperor's anger and made him a warrior, ready to defy Cortes. But when the envoys returned safe, saying it was Cortes who had freed them, Montezuma fell back into his old uncertainty, wondering what to do. In this state of mind he had sent to Cortes another embassy with rich gifts to thank him for his courtesy to the envoys and to protest against Cortes' friendly attitude toward Montezuma's rebellious vassals.

Cortes entertained this new embassy, giving it every chance to see his horses and guns. Then, with a few presents, he sent the Aztecs back to Tenochtitlan.

The Totonacs, seeing the Aztecs depart peaceably, were filled with awe. The Spaniards must indeed be gods if they could thus defy Montezuma and not be at once struck by his lightning. It would be well to support them. They were still more impressed when Cortes ordered one of his own men hanged because he had stolen chickens from a native. Alvarado interfered and saved the man's life, but both Spaniards and Indians had learned a lesson as to the strictness of Cortes' discipline.

The fat cacique of Cempoalla went home again, and found that in his absence an enemy had marched against his city. He sent at once for Cortes, and Cortes, going to Cempoalla, ended the quarrel without bloodshed. He became himself almost a god in Cempoalla, for the people had seen him defy Montezuma, deal out sharp justice to his own men, and arbitrate successfully between two warlike nations. In his great gratitude, the cacique offered to Cortes eight rich maidens as wives to his generals.

Cortes received them courteously, but said that it would be necessary for the girls to be baptized, as Spaniards could marry only Christians. He said further that the great object of his expedition was to convert the Indians to Christianity, and asked that he might tear down the heathen idols and erect the cross.

But the cacique declared again that his own gods suited him and that he would resist any attempt to replace them, although that would not be necessary as the gods themselves would avenge any act of dishonor offered them.

Cortes consulted with his soldiers. More than once since the Spaniards had landed they had seen the horrors of human sacrifice. The army now promised to stand behind Cortes in his effort to abolish the evil. Even gentle Father Olmedo, who so often held Cortes back from forcibly converting the natives, does not seem to have interfered this time.

So Cortes answered the cacique, "Heaven will never, smile on our enterprise, if we countenance such atrocities, and, for my own part, I am resolved the Indian idols shall be demolished this very hour, if it costs me my life."

At once the Spaniards pressed toward the chief temple in the city. The cacique called his men to arms and the Indians gathered from all sides. Their war-cries and their clashing weapons changed, in a twinkling, a peaceful camp into the appearance of a battle-ground. The ferocious priests, their dark gowns and long, matted hair flying, rushed wildly through the crowd, calling on the people to protect their gods.

Cortes did not waste time. He arrested the cacique and his chiefs, telling them that he held them responsible for any violence offered his men. Marina, too, warned the cacique that if he lost the friendship of Cortes, he would lose his protection against Montezuma's vengeance. The cacique yielded. He covered his face with his hands, murmuring that the gods would avenge their own wrongs.

At a sign from Cortes, fifty soldiers crowded up the steep steps of the temple, and without opposition over-turned the big wooden idols and rolled them down the steps to the temple courtyard, where they were burned, the Spaniards shouting with joy and the Indians groaning with horror, while they waited to see their gods strike the white men dead.

Instead, they saw their idols burning up like any other dry wood, and immediately they were converted; they would no longer worship gods who could not protect themselves better than that; they consented to become Christians.

Cortes had the temple walls cleansed from human blood and freshly plastered before he built an altar with a cross above it. The Indian priests also cleansed themselves, changed their dark gowns for white robes and joined in the procession that marched up to the temple to hear Father Olmedo say mass. Spaniards and Indians alike were melted to tears by the ceremony.

An old soldier consented to stay on guard and teach the priests the new religion, while Cortes went to Vera Cruz to make further preparations for marching on Tenochtitlan. He found that in his absence a vessel containing twelve men and two horses had arrived. He was glad to join these recruits to his forces, but he did not like quite so well the news they brought—that Velasquez, as Governor of Cuba, had received permission from Spain to plant a colony in Mexico.

It drove Cortes to a plan he had been considering for some time. He had resigned from Velasquez' authority and held his power now from the citizens of Villa Rica. If he could put behind that the approval of King Charles himself, he would have nothing in the future to fear from the Governor of Cuba or any other authority. He determined to write a letter to the King, telling him of all he had done and of all he meant to do, and asking for the royal authority to take Mexico and plant colonies. With the letter, he meant to send so much gold that Charles should see it was worthwhile to uphold him. He gave up his own share of the treasure, and his chief officers gave up theirs, to send to the King; more than that, the common soldiers, at Cortes' request, gave up their portion.

With this wonderful present, and a letter which stated all the riches of the country and all the difficulties of the expedition, including the jealousies of Velasquez, and which assured the King that Cortes was well able to conquer this country for Spain, the general sent home his envoys, Montejo and Puertocarrero, with strict orders not to touch at Cuba or any other island on their way to Spain. They sailed away under the pilotage of Alaminos in the best vessel of the fleet.

Their sailing suggested to some of those left behind that they, too, would like to sail—not to Spain—but back to Cuba, where they could tell Velasquez all that had been so far accomplished, and bring back more men and supplies to attempt the conquest of the country. Very secretly a plot to desert Cortes was hatched and carried on up to the night of sailing. The vessel had been chosen and stocked with food and water; everything was ready, when one of the conspirators repented at the last moment and confessed the scheme.

Cortes at once arrested the men concerned and called a council. Two of the ring-leaders were condemned to death by this council and the others were punished. The plot was completely crushed.

But it had shown Cortes a danger ahead. So long as the fleet remained, there was always a chance of the men becoming discouraged and seizing the vessels to go home. He came to a resolution that would be possible only to a man of his unfaltering purpose and dauntless courage. He made up his mind to destroy the fleet, and told his plan to a few of his generals.

The captains of the vessels were easily induced to give in the report that Cortes called for. They said the ships were so racked by gales and so worm-eaten as to be worthless. Cortes immediately ordered that the cordage, sails and iron be saved and that the vessels should be sunk. Nine ships were destroyed before the army knew what was happening.

The news that out of all the fleet only one vessel remained reached the soldiers like a thunder-clap. Even brave men shivered at the thought of their small army left in a huge, warlike empire, from which there was now no escape. Astonishment turned to reproaches, which grew into mutiny. "Our general has led us out like cattle," they cried, "to be butchered in the shambles."

Cortes faced them steadily. "If I have ordered the ships to be destroyed," he said, "you should consider that mine is the greatest sacrifice, for they are my property—all, indeed, I possess in the world. You, on the other hand, will 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 would have been of little service in our present expedition; since we will not need it if we succeed, while we would be too far in the interior to profit by it if we fail. To be thus calculating chances and means of escape is unworthy of brave souls. We have set our hands to the work; to look back, as we advance, will be our ruin. You have only to resume your former confidence in yourselves and your general and success is certain. As for me, 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 have deserted their commander and their comrades, and patiently wait till we return loaded with the spoils of the Aztecs."

[Illustration] from The Boys' Prescott by Helen Ward Banks


As usual, Cortes succeeded. When he finished there was not a man in the throng that had a thought of home. His eloquence was of the kind to stir men's hearts. They grew ashamed of their cowardice and saw again ahead of them the vision of adventure and glory and riches. Once more they became Crusaders, carrying the cross forward through every hazard under a leader who could not fail. With one accord the arms went up and the cries rang out, "To Mexico! To Mexico!"