South American Fights and Fighters - Cyrus T. Brady

The Great Adventures of Cortez

The Chief of All the Soldiers of Fortune

At the close of the fifteenth century, to be exact, in the year 1500, in the town of Painala, in the Province of Coatzacualco, one of the feudatory divisions of the great Aztec empire of Mexico, there was born a young girl who was destined to exercise upon the fortunes of her country an influence as great as it was baleful, as wonderful as it was unfortunate. She was the daughter of the Cacique of Tenepal, who was Lord of the town and province, a feoff of the Mexican Emperor Montezuma Xocoyotzin. This was the second Montezuma who had occupied the imperial throne and his last name means "The Younger," which he adopted to distinguish him from his predecessor in the empire.

This Lord of Painala, whose name has been forgotten, unfortunately for his country departed this life soon after the birth of his daughter, who was called Malinal because she was born on the twelfth day of the month, her name indicating that fact. His property naturally devolved upon the young daughter. Her mother assumed the office of guardian and regent of the state. This lady, whose name has also been lost in oblivion, did not long remain single. After her second marriage, which apparently took place with a somewhat indecent hurry, there was born to her and her new consort, a young son. To secure to this son the inheritance, she sold her little daughter, too young to realize the unfortunate transaction, to some traders of Xicalango, who in turn disposed of her to a coast tribe of Aztecs called the Tabascans. She lived in bondage with the Tabascans until she was nineteen years old. She developed into a woman of rare beauty and unusual intellect. Something of the power of high birth was evidently hers, for she escaped the degrading servitude of the time, and was carefully trained and prepared for some higher purpose. This girl was to be the instrument of the downfall of her native land.



Now it happened that when Malinal was nineteen years old, the rumor of a strange visitation ran up and down the shore among the people who dwelt upon the great Gulf of Mexico. Some remarkable beings, the like of whom had never been seen or heard of within the memory of living man, in some remarkable boats which absolutely transcended the imagination of the Aztecs, had been seen upon the coast and some of them had landed at different points. Also there had sifted from the south, from the Isthmus of Darien and the Panama States, some account of these white-skinned demi-gods. Just enough rumor was current to cause alarm and uneasiness in the Aztec Empire when the attention of the rulers was called to some definite facts.

On Good Friday, March 23, 1519, the dreaded and expected happened, for there landed at what is now the city of Vera Cruz, in the territory of the Tabascans, vassals of Montezuma, a party of these strange adventurers. They were led by a man of mature years, whose name was Fernando Cortes—sometimes written Hernando Cortes. Like Pizarro, whose history has been related, he was from the forgotten province of Estremadura. He was born in the year 1485, in the city of Medellin. He was seven years old when Columbus set sail upon that epoch-making voyage of discovery and he was thirty-four when he set foot for the first time on the shores of Mexico. In the intervening years much interesting and valuable experience had been enjoyed.

The parents of Cortes belonged to the provincial nobility. They were worthy and respectable subjects of the King of Spain. The old-fashioned adjectives, "poor, but honest" could be applied to them. The boy was a puny, sickly lad, whom they scarcely expected to reach man's estate. When he was fourteen years old they entered him in the great University of Salamanca where he took his degree as Bachelor of Laws, after a two years' course. The law, in Spain, was considered an entirely proper profession for the nobility, especially when the nobility were unable, through narrow circumstances, properly to support the profession of arms. Cortes, therefore, was in receipt of a liberal education for his day. His letters, some of which will be quoted hereafter, are evidences of his mental training. In some respects they are as interesting as are the famous Commentaries of Julius Caesar.

The young man, whose constitution improved as he grew older, until he eventually became the hardiest, most enduring and bravest of his company, which included the most intrepid men of the age, had no love for the humdrum profession of law. He desired to go to Italy and take service with Gonsalvo de Cordova, who is remembered, when he is remembered at all, as "The Great Captain"; but sickness prevented. Following that, his thoughts turned, as did those of so many Spanish youths who were of an adventurous disposition, toward the New World. After many setbacks, one of which was caused by a wound received by the hot-blooded young man while engaged in a love affair, and which left a permanent scar upon his upper lip, he finally landed at Santo Domingo in the Spring of 1504. From there he went to Cuba and served under one Diego Velasquez, the governor of that province in some fierce fighting in the island, and received as a reward from the governor, who was much attached to him, a large plantation with a number of Indians to work it. There he married and lived prosperously. What he had done before he arrived in Mexico counted little. What he did afterward gave him eternal fame as one, if not the greatest, of the conquerors and soldiers of fortune in all history. Sir Arthur Helps thus portrays him:

"Cortes," he says, "was an heroic adventurer, a very politic statesman, and an admirable soldier. He was cruel at times in conduct, but not in disposition; he was sincerely religious, profoundly dissembling, courteous, liberal, amorous, decisive. There was a certain grandeur in all his proceedings. He was fertile in resources; and, while he looked forward, he was at the same time almost madly audacious in his enterprises. This strange mixture of valor, religion, policy, and craft, was a peculiar product of the century. . . . There are two main points in his character which I shall dwell upon at the outset. These are his soldier-like qualities and his cruelty. As a commander, the only fault imputed to him, was his recklessness in exposing himself to the dangers of personal conflict with the enemy. But then, that is an error to be commonly noticed even in the greatest generals of that period; and Cortes, with this singular dexterity in arms, was naturally prone to fall into this error. As regards his peculiar qualifications as a commander, it may be observed, that, great as he was in carrying out large and difficult operations in actual warfare, he was not less so in attending to those minute details upon which so much of the efficiency of troops depends. His companion-in-arms, Bernal Diaz, says of him, 'He would visit the hut of every soldier, see that his arms were ready at hand, and that he had his shoes on. Those whom he found had neglected anything in this way he severely reprimanded, and compared them to mangy sheep, whose own wool is too heavy for them.'

"I have said that he was cruel in conduct, but not in disposition. This statement requires explanation. Cortes was a man who always determined to go through with the thing he had once resolved to do. Human beings, if they came in his way, were to be swept out of it, like any other material obstacles. He desired no man's death, but if people would come between him and success, they must bear the consequences. He did not particularly value human life. The ideas of the nineteenth century in that respect were unknown to him. He had come to conquer, to civilize, to convert (for he was really a devout man from his youth upward); and, as his chaplain takes care to tell us, knew many prayers and psalms of the choir by heart; and the lives of thousands of barbarians, for so he deemed them, were of no account in the balance of his mind, when set against the great objects he had in view. In saying this, I am not apologizing for this cruelty; I am only endeavoring to explain it.

"Of all the generals who have been made known to us in history, or by fiction, Claverhouse, as represented by Sir Walter Scott, most closely resembles Cortes. Both of them thorough gentlemen, very dignified, very nice and precise in all their ways and habits, they were sadly indifferent to the severity of the means by which they compassed their ends; and bloody deeds sat easily, for the most part, upon their well-bred natures. I make these comments once for all; and shall hold myself excused from making further comments of a like nature when any of the cruelties of Cortes come before us—cruelties which one must ever deeply deplore on their own account, and bitterly regret as ineffaceable strains upon the fair fame and memory of a very great man. . . . The conquest of Mexico could hardly have been achieved at this period under any man of less genius than that which belonged to Hernando Cortes. And even his genius would probably not have attempted the achievement, or would have failed in it, but for a singular concurrence of good and evil fortune, which contributed much to the ultimate success of his enterprise. Great difficulties and fearful conflicts of fortune not only stimulate to great attempts, but absolutely create the opportunities for them."

The Expedition to Mexico

Reports brought back to Cuba by one Juan de Grijilva, who told of the populous and wealthy cities of the main land to the westward of Cuba, induced Velasquez to fit out an expedition for exploration, colonization or whatever might turn up. Casting about among his friends, followers, and acquaintances for a suitable leader, his choice after some hesitation devolved upon Cortes. This nascent captain had not lived at the provincial court of Velasquez without impressing his characteristics upon those with whom he came in contact. After the outfitting of the expedition had progressed considerably, Velasquez was warned that Cortes was of too high and resolved a spirit to be trusted with an independent command, and it was probable that upon this opportunity he would disregard his instructions and act for his own interests, without giving another thought to Velasquez and his backers.

Velasquez ignored the suggestions that he displace Cortes until it was too late. Cortes, learning that his enemies were undermining him with the governor, hastily completed his preparations and set sail a short time in advance of the arrival of the order displacing him from the command. His little squadron touched at a point in Cuba and was there overtaken by the missive from Velasquez, which Cortes absolutely disregarded. He had embarked his property and had persuaded his friends to invest and did not propose to be displaced by anybody or anything.

The expedition consisted of eleven ships. The flag was a small caravel of one hundred tons burden. There were three others of eighty tons each, and the seven remaining were small, undecked brigantines. Authorities vary as to the number of men in the expedition, but there were between five hundred and fifty and six hundred Spaniards, two hundred Indian servants, ten small pieces of artillery, four falconets and sixteen horses.

The truth must be admitted. There were three factors which contributed to the downfall of that vast empire against which this expedition of adventurers was launched. One of them was Cortes himself, the second was Malinal, and the third was the sixteen, doubtless sorry horses, loaded into the ships. Fiske says:

"It was not enough that the Spanish soldier of that day was a bulldog for strength and courage, or that his armor was proof against stone arrows and lances, or that he wielded a Toledo blade that could cut through silken cushions, or that his arquebus and cannon were not only death-dealing weapons but objects of superstitious awe. More potent than all else together were those frightful monsters, the horses. Before these animals men, women, and children fled like sheep, or skulked and peeped from behind their walls in an ecstasy of terror. It was that paralyzing, blood-curdling fear of the supernatural, against which no amount of physical bravery, nothing in the world but modern knowledge, is of the slightest avail."

After touching at various places, in one of which they were lucky enough to find and release a Spanish captive named Geronimo de Aguilar, who had been wrecked on the Yucatan coast while on a voyage from the Spanish settlement in Darien and had been taken captive by the Mayas and held for several years. The hospitable Mayas had eaten most of the expedition. There were then but two alive. One had renounced his religion, married a Maya woman, and had been elected chieftain of the tribe, and accordingly refused to join Cortes. Aguilar was unfettered and glad of the opportunity. During his sojourn among the Mayas he had learned to speak their language fluently.

After landing at Tabasco on Good Friday, there was a great battle with the warlike inhabitants of that section, a battle which resulted in the complete discomfiture of the Tabascans. The artillery did much to bring this about, but was not especially terrifying to the aborigines because they crowded in such numbers around the Spaniards, and made such terrific outcries, beating on their drums the while, that they drowned out the noise of the cannonade; but when Cortes at the head of the horsemen sallied out from the woods, and fell upon them, the strange, terrifying spectacle presented by these mail-clad monsters and demons, took the heart out of the Tabascans, and they abandoned the contest, leaving, so the chroniclers say, countless numbers dead upon the field.

They knew when they had had enough, and immediately thereafter, they sued for peace. Cortes was graciously pleased to grant their request, and to accept as a peace-offering a score of slaves. Among them was Malinal. In the allotment of the slaves among the officers, she fell to the share of Alonzo de Puerto Carrero from whom Cortes speedily acquired her.

Of all the Indians present with Cortes, Malinal alone could speak two languages. The Tabascans spoke a sort of degenerate Maya, with which, as she had lived among them so long, she was of course perfectly familiar, at the same time she had not forgotten her native Mexican. It would have been impossible for Cortes to have communicated with the Mexicans without Malinal, for Aguilar could turn Spanish into Maya, and Malinal could turn Maya into Mexican. This means of communication, round about though it might be, was at once established. The intervention of Aguilar soon became unnecessary, for Malinal presently learned to speak pure Castilian with fluency and grace. She received instruction from the worthy priests who accompanied the expedition and was baptised under the name of Marina, and it is by that name that she is known in history. Her eminence is even greater than that unfortunate Florinda, whose father, to revenge her mistreatment by King Roderick, the Goth, sold Spain to Tarik, the Saracen, so many centuries before.

Marina learnt among other things to love Cortes, whose fortunes she followed and whom she served with an absolute, unquestioning, blind devotion and fidelity until the end. So absolute was this attachment of hers that Cortes became known to the Aztecs as the Lord of Marina. The Aztecs could not pronounce the letter R. Marina was therefore changed to Malina, which curiously enough was nearly her original name. The word "Tzin" is the Aztec name for Lord, consequently Cortes was called Malintzin, or more shortly Malinche, meaning, as has been stated, the Lord of Malina.

Sir Arthur Helps has this to say of her: "Indeed her fidelity was assured by the love which she bore her master. Bernal Diaz says that she was handsome, clever, and eager to be useful (one that will have an oar in every boat), and she looked the great lady that she was.

"There was hardly any person in history to whom the ruin of that person's native land can be so distinctly brought home, as it can be to the wicked mother of Donna Marina. Cortes, valiant and skilful as he was in the use of the sword, was not less valiant (perhaps we might say, not less audacious) nor less skilful, in the use of the tongue. All the craft which he afterward showed in negotiations would have been profitless without a competent and trusty interpreter. . . . If a medal had been struck to commemorate the deeds of Cortes, the head of Donna Marina should have been associated with that of Cortes on the face of the medal; for, without her aid, his conquest of Mexico would never have been accomplished."

The Religion of the Aztecs

Now the Aztec Empire was a rather loose confederation of states bound together by allegiance to a common overlord, who had his capital across the mountains in the City of Mexico. It had been founded by the influx of an army of fierce marauders from the North who had overwhelmed the Toltecs who occupied the country and had attained a degree of civilization which is presumed to have been higher than that which displaced it. This Empire of Anahuac, as it was sometimes called, had endured for two centuries. It was a military despotism and the emperor was a military despot. His rule was the rule of fear. It subsisted by force of arms and terror was its cohering power. It had been extended by ruthless conquest alone until it comprised from eighteen hundred to two thousand square leagues, about two hundred thousand square miles of territory. The capital, situated on an island in the midst of a salt lake, was known as Tenochtitlan, or the City of Mexico, and what Rome was to the Italian states, or Carthage was to the north African literal, this city was to Anahuac, the empire of the Aztecs. The name Tenochtitlan is thus explained by Fiske:

"When the Aztecs, hard pressed by foes, took refuge among these marshes, they came upon a sacrificial stone which they recognized as one upon which some years before one of their priests had immolated a captive chief. From a crevice in this stone, where a little earth was imbedded, there grew a cactus, upon which sat an eagle holding in its beak a serpent. A priest ingeniously interpretated this symbolism as a prophecy of signal and long-continued victory, and, forthwith diving into the lake, he had an interview with Tlaloc, the god of waters, who told him that upon that very spot the people were to build their town. The place was thereafter called Tenochtitlan, or "the place of the cactus-rock," but the name under which it afterward came to be best known was taken from Mexitl, one of the names of the war god Huitzilopochtli. The device of the rock, the cactus, with the eagle and the serpent, formed a tribal totem for the Aztecs, and has been adopted, as the coat-of-arms of the present Republic of Mexico."

Included in the sway of its emperor were many different tribes. They were kept in submission by the strong and inexorable hand. There were a few tribes, however, which had not been subdued and which still maintained a more or less precarious independence. The subject peoples were only kept from open rebellion by the most rigorous and oppressive measures. There was jealousy, humiliation, hoped-for revenge throughout the entire empire.

Each tribe or people had its own local god, but there was a bond coherent in the general Mexican religion that had its centre of worship in the great city, and which all of them followed. This religion was one of the most ferocious, degrading and disgusting of any in history. It required human sacrifice on a larger scale than had ever before been practised. Cannibalism was universal. Captives of war were sacrificed to the gods and their bodies eaten. In Mexico, itself, with all its charm, with all its beauty, with all its luxuries, with all its verdure and wealth, there were huge pyramids of skulls. The priests were ferocious creatures, whose long black locks, never combed, were matted with blood, as they sacrificed to their awful war-god human hearts, still palpitating, torn from the victims a moment since alive. Fiske thus describes the temple pyramid and chief shrine in the great city:

"On the summit was a dreadful block of jasper, convex at the top, so that when the human victim was laid upon his back and held down, the breast was pushed upwards, ready for the priest to make one deep slashing cut and snatch out the heart. Near the sacrificial block were the altars, and sanctuaries of the gods, Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli, and others, with idols as hideous as their names. On these altars smoked fresh human hearts, of which the gods were fond, while other parts of the bodies were ready for the kitchens of the communal houses below. The gods were voracious as wolves, and the victims as numerous. In some cases the heart was thrust into the mouth of the idol with a golden spoon, in others the lips were simply daubed with blood. In the temple a great quantity of rattlesnakes, kept as sacred objects were fed with the entrails of the victims. Other parts of the body were given to the menagerie beasts, which were probably also kept for purposes of religious symbolism. Blood was also rubbed into the mouths of the carved serpents upon the jambs and lintels of the houses. The walls and floor of the great temple were clotted with blood and shreds of human flesh, and the smell was like that of a slaughter-house. Just outside the temple, in front of the broad street which led across the causeway to Tlacopan, stood the tzompantli, which was an oblong parallelogram of earth and masonry, one hundred and fifty-four feet (long) at the base, ascended by thirty steps, on each of which were skulls. Round the summit were upward of seventy raised poles about four feet apart, connected by numerous rows of cross-poles passed through holes in the masts, on each of which five skulls were filed, the sticks being passed through the temples. In the centre stood two towers, or columns, made of skulls and lime, the face of each skull being turned outwards, and giving a horrible appearance to the whole. This effect was heightened by leaving the heads of distinguished captives in their natural state, with hair and skin on. As the skulls decayed they fell from the towers or poles, and they were replaced by others, so that no vacant place was left."

Concerning the cruelty of the Spaniards, the contrast between the opposing religions must be considered. Ruthless as the conquerors were, there is no possible comparison between the most indifferent principles of the Christian Religion and the application of the awful principles of the Mexican religion. MacNutt, the author of the latest and best life of Cortes, makes this interesting comment on the Christianity of the Spanish adventurers of the time:

"Soldier of Spain and soldier of the Cross, for the Cross was the standard of militant Christianity, of which Spain was the truest exponent, his religion, devoutly believed in, but intermittently practised, inspired his ideals, without sufficiently guiding his conduct. Ofttimes brutal, he was never vulgar, while as a lover of sheer daring and of danger for danger's sake, he has never been eclipsed. . . . Sixteenth-century Spain produced a race of Christian warriors whose piety, born of an intense realization of, and love for a militant Christ, was of a martial complexion, beholding in the symbol of salvation—the Cross—the standard of Christendom around which the faithful must rally, and for whose protection and exaltation swords must be drawn and blood spilled if need be. They were the children of the generation which had expelled the Moor from Spain, and had brought centuries of religious and patriotic warfare to a triumphant close, in which their country was finally united under the crown of Castile. From such forebears the generation of Cortes received its heritage of Christian chivalry. The discovery of a new world, peopled by barbarians, opened a fresh field to Spanish missionary zeal, in which the kingdom of God upon earth was to be extended and countless souls rescued from the obscene idolatries and debasing cannibalism which enslaved them."

In the Mexican Pantheon, however, there was one good god, named Quetzalcoatl. He was a Toltec deity, and was venerated as the god of the air. He was identified with the east wind which brought the fertilizing rains. Some historians and investigators explain him as purely a mythical personage. He was supposed to have appeared to the Toltecs long before the Aztecs came into the land. He was described in ancient traditions as a tall, white-faced, bearded man, whose dress differed from that of the aborigines and included a long white tunic, upon which were dark red crosses. His teachings enjoined chastity, charity, and penance. He had but one God and preached in the name of that God. He condemned human sacrifice and taught the nation agriculture, metal work and mechanics. He fixed their calendar so that it was much more reliable than either the Greek or the Roman. There were various legends as to his departure, one of them being that he sailed away across the sea upon a raft composed of serpents, and was wafted into the unknown East whence he had come.

His color, his dress, his teachings, and his character, are all so symbolic of Christianity, they are so strange, so unique, so utterly without an explanation in anything else known of the Aztecs and Toltecs, that the conclusion that he was a Christian Bishop, wearing a pallium is almost irresistible. Why could not some Christian Bishop, voyaging along the shores of Europe, have been blown far out of his course by a long-continued easterly gale, finally have landed on the shores of Mexico and, having done what he could to teach the people, have built himself some kind of a ship and sailed eastward in the hope of once more revisiting his native land before he died. At any rate, such is the tradition. It was a tradition or legend which played no small part in the conquest about to be effected.