Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks




The New Expedition of Velasquez


April, 1520


While Cortes on the temple area was thinking he had now gained everything for which he had come to Anahuac, circumstances were at work which were to show him that he was still far from the conquest of Mexico. One event following another in quick succession brought him from the planting of the cross to "the melancholy night."

The Aztecs had so far shown Cortes their milder side; they had allowed him to hold their Emperor prisoner, and had obeyed the Spanish general's orders issued through Montezuma; they had even given their wealth to support the white men. But when sacrilegious hands were laid on their religion, stirred by their priests—and doubtless by Guatemozin also, the Aztecs began to question how much they must endure.

Montezuma himself showed the change. He lost his cheerful manner and became moody and grave. Instead of amusing himself with the Spaniards, he kept to his own apartments, where his nobles came often to see him; and Montezuma's little Spanish page, Orteguilla, who had learned from his master much of the Aztec language, was now always sent out of the room when the nobles appeared.

While Cortes was wondering with some anxiety at the reason for this alteration, Montezuma sent him a summons. Cortes went to the Emperor's apartments, taking with him as usual two or three cavaliers.

Montezuma, though polite, was cold. He turned directly to Cortes.

"All my predictions have come to pass," he said. "The gods of my country have been offended by the violation of their temples. They have threatened the priests that they will forsake the city if the sacrilegious strangers are not either driven from it or sacrificed on the altars in expiation of their crimes. It is from a regard for your safety that I tell you this. If you have any concern for it yourself, you will leave the country without delay. I have only to raise my finger, and every Aztec in the land will rise in arms against you."

Cortes listened, calm outwardly, but much disturbed inwardly. He respected Montezuma's warning as an act of friendship to men of whom he was really fond, and he did not doubt its necessity. The Spaniards were in the greatest danger.

Very coolly, however, he thanked Montezuma for his warning. "I am ready now to leave," he said, "but I should dislike to go in such haste, when I have no vessels ready on the coast to take me home; that is the only obstacle to my leaving at once. There is another thing I should regret, too—if I have to be pushed out like this, I shall have to take the Emperor with me."

That remark startled Montezuma as much as his news had moved Cortes.

"How long will it take to build the vessels?" he asked, and pondered Cortes' answer.

"I will do this," he concluded. "I will send a sufficient number of workmen to the coast to build the ships under the Spaniards' orders. In the meantime, I will use my authority to restrain the impatience of my people with the knowledge that the Spaniards will leave the land as soon as means are provided."

At once a large body of Aztecs, under the most experienced Spanish ship-builders, left Mexico for Vera Cruz. There was a large enough force to cut the trees and build the ships in short time, if the head of the expedition had not carried with him the command of Cortes' that every effort was to be used to delay the work.

After the ship-builders had left, gloom fell on the palace of Axayacatl. Everyone felt it, whether or not they knew the reason why Montezuma was no longer their friendly companion. Cortes realized fully the danger. Every soldier ate, drank and slept in his armor, with his sword by his side. The horses were caparisoned day and night, with the bridles hanging at the saddle bows. The sentinels were doubled, and the guns planted to sweep the great avenues. And then up from Villa Rica came news of the next event that was to be the Spaniards' undoing; and for this one Montejo was responsible. If he had not, in disobedience to Cortes' commands, anchored off the island of Cuba overnight on his way to Spain, Velasquez would have known nothing of Cortes' doings.

It was May now, 1520, more than a year since Cortes had sailed away from Cuba in February, 1519, leaving Cuba's governor, Velasquez, black with fury at the trick played upon him. It was in October of that same year that Montejo's runaway sailor had brought to Velasquez his first news of Cortes' success. After that, Velasquez did not rest till he had fitted out another expedition, strong enough to overcome any opposition Cortes might offer. He asked permission from the King of Spain, and then went ahead, without waiting to know whether he said yes or no. Velasquez meant at first to take command himself, but as he was pretty big and fat and not anxious to go through the hardships ahead, he finally chose as leader a Castilian hidalgo named Panfilo Narvaez.

Narvaez had been with Velasquez when he had conquered Cuba. From that time on he had been a favorite of Velasquez, who had given him different government posts. He was brave and a good soldier, but he had no power to hold his soldiers, as Cortes held his, by his own personality, while his conceit and arrogance made him deaf to any suggestions. He had no doubt as to his own ability to supersede Cortes.

From October, 1519, to March, 1520, Velasquez and Narvaez went through the island of Cuba, fitting out vessels, laying in supplies, and enlisting recruits. The stories of Mexico's riches had spread so fast that Cuba was full of men, old and young, almost tumbling over each other in their effort to get a place in the new expedition. Cortes had sailed to find gold, but with him had gone, too, the spirit of discovery and adventure. Narvaez' party wanted only gold.

The tidings of these big preparations swept through all the islands of the West Indian group, and came to the ears of the Friars' Commission in St. Domingo, which had given Velasquez and Cortes their right to explore Mexico. The commission objected seriously to another large private expedition setting out for Mexico, and sent one of their number, a clever and resolute man named Ayllon, to Velasquez to remonstrate.

When Ayllon came to Cuba, Velasquez was off in the far corner of the island looking up his ships, and Ayllon had to go after him. He stated clearly the commission's views.

"The conquest of a powerful country like Mexico," he said, "requires the whole force of the Spaniards, and if one half is employed against the other, nothing but ruin can come of it. It is the governor's duty, as a good subject, to forego all private animosities, and to sustain those now engaged in the great work by sending them the necessary supplies. You may, indeed, proclaim your own powers and demand obedience to them. But, if this is refused, it will be better to leave the determination of the dispute to the authorized tribunals and to employ your resources in prosecuting discovery in another direction instead of hazarding all by hostilities with your rival."

This charge was most displeasing to Velasquez. "I have no intention," he said, "of coming to hostilities with Cortes. I mean only to assert my lawful jurisdiction over territories discovered under my own auspices. At the same time, I deny your right, or that of the commission, to interfere in the matter."

Narvaez was even more stiff-necked than Velasquez. He said the fleet was ready and he was going to sail. As Ayllon could not hold back the expedition, he decided to go along with it to prevent, if possible, fighting between Cortes and Narvaez.

The squadron consisting of eighteen vessels carried a thousand Indians and nine hundred Spaniards; eighty cavalry, eighty arquebusiers and one hundred and fifty crossbow-men among the number. It had also large quantities of stores and ammunition and several heavy guns.

The fleet sailed early in March, and Narvaez, holding much the same course that Cortes had taken, anchored on April 23rd off San Juan de Ulua, Cortes' first landing-place, near the modern Vera Cruz. From there he went to Cempoalla.

Soon after his landing, Narvaez met one of the men sent by Cortes to explore the mining facilities of the country. He, as ready to talk as Narvaez was to listen, told the whole long story of Cortes' exploits, ending with the occupation of Mexico and Cortes' supreme power there. "Cortes rules over the country like its own sovereign," he finished, "so that a Spaniard may travel unarmed from one end of the country to the other without insult or injury."

The newcomers listened open-mouthed to this wonderful tale. It made Narvaez more than ever determined to snatch from Cortes the rich prize he had won.

Narvaez announced at once that he was going to march against Cortes. This proclamation greatly astonished the Indians, who thought all white men were brothers. Before, however, Narvaez started on his march to Mexico, he decided to send messengers to the colony at Villa Rica to demand the surrender to himself of that town.

Ayllon saw how incapable he was after all to prevent hostilities between Cortes and Narvaez. He implored and rebuked and threatened, but he could not change the plans of Narvaez, who, indeed, grew so tired in time of his protests that he put Ayllon on a ship and sent him back to Cuba. Ayllon persuaded the captain of the vessel to land him at St. Domingo, where he hastened to the Commission with his story. They were not long in getting off to Spain news of the disobedient conduct of Velasquez and Narvaez.

As soon as Narvaez' fleet had neared the coast, Sandoval, commander of Vera Cruz, had sighted it with distrust. He at once sent the wounded men under his care back into the country to a place of safety and put the city into a state of defense against any invader. His men promised to stand by him, and to hold them to their promise, he erected a gallows in the middle of the town and said he would hang on it any man who failed him.

Instead of bringing his army to Vera Cruz, however, Narvaez, as we have seen, quartered at Cempoalla and sent to Sandoval five envoys to demand the city's surrender. One of the five was a priest named Guevara.

Guevara came before Sandoval with a pompous speech which began with the virtues and rights of Velasquez; went on to the wickedness and rebellion of Cortes; and ended with a formal demand to Sandoval to submit to Narvaez, who had come with all legal powers—and plenty of soldiers—to take Cortes' place.

This speech roused in Sandoval nothing but anger. "If you were not a priest," he told Guevara, "you should be soundly flogged."

At that, Guevara, as angry as Sandoval, called on the notary in the party to read the proclamation of Narvaez' rights.

"If you read it," Sandoval repeated, "you will get the flogging the priest escaped."

Guevara, too angry to speak for a moment, stamped on the ground. Then he ordered the notary to go on.

Sandoval was a man of deeds rather than of words. "If the proclamation must be read, Cortes is the man to hear it," he said shortly, and immediately told off a guard of twenty of his men, summoned five stout Indian porters, and without ceremony bound the five envoys like bales of cotton to the porters' backs.

"Now," he said, "to Mexico! Let the proclamation be read to Cortes. Do not stop till you reach the general."