Child's History of Spain - John Bonner

Hernando Cortez

A.D. 1518-1519

In the reign of Charles the First two of the most famous Spaniards who ever lived added to the Spanish dominion countries far larger and richer than Spain itself. Their names will be known when the name of Charles the First is forgotten. They were Cortez and Pizarro.

When you read the story of their lives you will be puzzled to decide whether you should admire them most for their courage, their high spirit, and their fortitude in disaster, or hate them most for their rapacity and their cruelty to races which were weaker than the Spaniards. You will find that they invaded foreign countries, seized them without reason or pretext, robbed their inhabitants of their property, and murdered them if they objected. I notice that the French and the English and the Germans are doing something of the same kind at the present time on the continent of Africa. But I cannot think you can approve such things. Robbery is robbery, and murder is murder, whether the person robbed and murdered be black or brown or white or copper-colored; and the robber and murderer is none the less criminal because he is civilized and white, while his victim is savage and colored.

The excuse which Cortez and Pizarro gave for robbing and killing the people of the countries they invaded was that the latter were heathens, while they ought to have been Christians. I suppose it was very wrong in them not to be Christians, though, as they had never heard of Christ, it would have been difficult for them to be his followers.

At the present day good Christians try to convince heathens that Christianity is a better religion than the one which they profess. But if they do not succeed in convincing the heathens, they let them alone, trusting that time will bring them to a better frame of mind. In the time of Cortez and Pizarro it was thought to be the duty of a Christian, if he could not convince a heathen by argument, to convert him with sword and pike and dagger and fire. The notion prevailed in Spain that the murder of an obstinate heathen who refused to be baptized was an act that was grateful to God. That is a notion which you cannot admit. But in judging Cortez and Pizarro, you must remember that it was the notion of the time in which they lived, and that they were no worse than other Spaniards, or, for that matter, than some of your own ancestors. I am afraid that in the reason which they gave to their consciences for their conduct in the Americas, the Spaniards got their duty to God mixed up with their covetousness of the Indian lands and the Indian gold. But they always said they were acting solely for the spread of true religion.

Hernando Cortez was born in Estremadura. He had been brought up as a lawyer, but he was born to be a soldier and ruler of men. In the year of Queen Isabella's death he sailed for Hispaniola, resolved to win fame as a discoverer. He was then nineteen years old, brave, untiring, shrewd, and, like all heroes, a lover of women and beloved by them. For fourteen years he lived in Hispaniola on a farm which the governor had given him, and which he cultivated with slave labor, the Indians having been enslaved by the Spaniards; thus he grew rich. In 1518 news reached Hispaniola that on the mainland of the new continent countries had been discovered which abounded in gold, and whose people were willing to trade. An expedition was fitted out to visit them, and Cortez was placed in command.

He was then thirty-three years old, tall, slim, pale, with dark eyes and powerful muscles; he was careless about his eating and drinking, but dressed richly and wore fine jewels. He was, as you will see presently, a man of indomitable will. When all was ready, Velasquez, the governor of the Spanish colonies, jealous of the fame he might Will, tried to stop him. But Cortez was not the man to be stopped. He sailed with five hundred and fifty-three soldiers, one hundred and ten sailors, two hundred Indians, and sixteen horses—all in eleven vessels, the largest of which was one hundred tons' burden. The fleet sailed for Yucatan on February 18th, 1519.

Coasting along the shore of Yucatan, he landed at the mouth of the river Tabasco, which is in the present Mexican State of Tabasco, fought the Indians there, and finally came to anchor opposite the present Mexican city and sea-port of Vera Cruz. Here a difficulty arose from his not understanding the Indian language, and their not understanding him. This difficulty was overcome in a curious way.

After the battle at Tabasco the Indians gave him twenty young Indian girls to be slaves. One of these, whom Cortez named Marina, was beautiful and bright. She spoke several of the Indian languages, and when Cortez fell in love with her she very quickly learned Spanish too, as any girl might do under the circumstances. Marina now began to serve as interpreter between the Spaniards and the natives. She had been sold as a slave by her mother, and had no love for her own race.

With Marina's help Cortez and his companions soon got on good terms with the Mexicans of the neighborhood. The latter brought fruit, vegetables, flowers, game, and cotton cloths, while the Spaniards presented their visitors with glass beads, objects in glass and bronze, velvets, and ornaments. The Indian chief called, bearing cloaks made of the feathers of gaudy birds, and a basketful of figures in gold; and Cortez returned the compliment by presenting hint with a fine arm-chair, collars, bracelets, a cap of cloth of gold, and a brass helmet. Then Cortez said he desired to visit the king of the country, whose name was Mochtheuzoma, or, as we call it, Montezuma; and a swift messenger started to run the two hundred miles between Vera Cruz and the City of Mexico with a message to that effect from Cortez.

In an incredibly short space of time the messenger returned with word that Montezuma would not see Cortez. A second messenger brought the same answer. Cortez was discouraged.

In his distress, a Mexican chief visited him, and complained that his people were shamefully used by Montezuma, and that they would rebel if they could get help from any source. Cortez saw his opportunity, and laid his plans. But before he could carry them out a mutiny among his own men nearly upset them. A party of soldiers and sailors resolved to sail away to Spain, and actually put food and water on a ship for the purpose. Cortez found out the plot and executed the ringleaders; then, fearing that it might be repeated, he sank all his ships but one, and that one he sent down the coast.

The men were furious when they found their retreat cut off. "The general," said they, "has led us like cattle to be murdered in the shambles."

Said Cortez, "There is one ship left. Let those who are not content to stand by me go on board of her and sail for Cuba. That will be a good place for them to stand on the shore and see us land by-and-by laden with the gold and spoils of Mexico."

Nobody wanted to go after that.

But Cortez knew that no time must be lost. On August 16th, 1519, he started from the coast westward with four hundred foot, fifteen horses, seven big guns, thirteen hundred Indian warriors, and a thousand Indian porters to draw the guns. The rest of his force he left in the fort at Vera Cruz. The soldiers marched in wild spirits.

"We are ready to obey you," they cried. "Our fortunes, for better for worse, are cast with you."

On September 2nd the little army reached the chief town of Tlascala, and the people forbade the Spaniards to pass. They proved a foe not to be despised. The Tlascalans fought like lions, and they were far more numerous than the Spaniards. But they did not like the cavalry; they had never seen horses before, and when the cannon opened fire, and mowed down whole ranks of warriors, the IndŽian army broke and scattered. Their loss was prodigious, while the Spaniards suffered little from the bows and arrows and spears and darts with which the Tlascalans fought.

Still, the Indians tried the fortune of war again and again, always with the same result. They sent a body of spies to spy out the Spanish camp, in order to find its weak points. Marina detected them, and denounced them to Cortez, who, instead of putting them to death, had their hands cut off, and sent them home in that plight. At last the Tlascalans admitted that the Spaniards were stronger than they, and sued for peace and friendship, which Cortez was only too glad to grant, on condition that a Tlascalan army should accompany him to Mexico. To this the Tlascalans agreed, and they proved as loyal in their friendship as they were warlike in their enmity.

All this time, at regular intervals, Montezuma kept sending messengers to Cortez—whom he called Malinche—with smooth words and presents. But it was not till he heard of the final defeat of the Tlascalans that he consented to receive the Spaniards in his own capital City of Mexico. Then he promised to welcome them, and advised them to come by the way of Cholula.

The Spaniards were rejoiced to spend a few days in rest at the city of Tlascala. It was a large, well-built city, with so many people in it that thirty thousand men and women gathered in the market-place on market-day. Everybody was kind to the strangers, and the chiefs gave six of their daughters—the most beautiful girls in the city—to be wives of as many Spanish officers. Cortez, however, could not afford to dally there. As soon as his men were rested he marched to Cholula.

This was the chief city of a fine country, every acre of which was under cultivation, partly with the aid of irrigating ditches. There were vast fields of corn, and plantations of cactus, aloe, and pepper trees. Fine woods grew near the city, and streams flowed under the branches. The woods were long ago cut down by the Spaniards, and the streams dried up. Cholula reminded Cortez of Granada and Seville. He could not afford to stay there, however; but just as he had resolved to march, he was stopped by a startling piece of news from Marina.

That bright woman had found out that the Cholulans intended to fall upon the Spaniards as they left the city, having barricaded the streets to impede their march, and that a body of Aztecs had been sent from Mexico to make an end of those who escaped. The peril was immediate and frightful. The Cholulans were more than ten to one of the Spaniards.

Cortez made up his mind instantly. He would not wait to be attacked. He sent an officer to the Cholulan chiefs, telling them that he would march on the following day, and would be happy to say good-bye to them and their chief officers at his quarters. When they came they were shown into a large court-yard surrounded by a high wall, with houses here and there. Inside the yard he had ranged his men with their backs against the wall. When the Cholulans were all assembled, Cortez accused them of the plot they had contrived; then the gates of the yard were closed, and, at a signal, every Spaniard opened fire on the natives, who were huddled together in a mass, and could not defend themselves. They were killed to the number of several thousand; and the Tlascalans, at the sound of the firing, came in at the double quick from their camp, and fell upon the Cholulans who were collecting outside.

No more attempts were made to check the march of the Spaniards. They passed between the two great volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Istaccihuatl, both higher than any mountains they had ever seen; climbed the range which shut in the level plain of the City of Mexico, descended to the lakes, and on November 8th, 1519, Cortez met Montezuma at the entrance of his city.

He appeared in a litter shining with burnished gold, borne on the shoulders of nobles, and shaded by a canopy of feather-work, sprinkled with jewels, and fringed with silver, which was carried by barefooted servants. He was forty years of age, pale, tall, and thin, with black hair and a scanty beard. His aspect was dignified. He wore a cloak of cotton, sprinkled with pearls and other precious stones; on his head, green plumes waved as he moved; his feet were in sandals soled with gold. He descended from his litter to welcome Cortez in a few graceful words of courtesy; then, saying that his brothers would show the Spaniards the quarters he had prepared for them, he returned to his palace.

The Spaniards were open-mouthed at what they saw. Not even in their own Spain had they beheld such splendor as was now before them As they gazed on the vast causeway across the lake and the palaces of the city, they could not help thinking that a monarch who could erect such works would be likely to be able to defend himself against an attack by seven thousand men, only four hundred of whom were Spaniards.