South American Fights and Fighters - Cyrus T. Brady

The Great Adventures of Cortez (concluded)

The Siege and Destruction of Mexico

It was April of the next year when Cortes at last arrived before the city and began the siege. The force which he had mustered for this tremendous undertaking consisted of seven hundred Spanish infantry, one hundred and twenty arquebuses, eighty-six horsemen, twelve cannon, and a countless multitude of Tlascalan fighters together with numbers of slaves and servants.

As the city was connected with the mainland by three causeways, it was necessary to invest it on three sides. The army was divided into three equal divisions. He himself commanded the force that was to attack along the south causeway; with him was Sandoval, his most trusted and efficient lieutenant; Alvarado led that which was to advance over the west causeway and Olid was to close the north causeway. The brigantines were brought over the mountains by hand by thousands of Tlascalans. There were no vehicles or highways of any sort in Mexico; the Mexicans not having domesticated any animals there was no use for anything broader than a foot-path, a fact which throws an interesting side-light on their civilization, by the way. These Spanish boats were put together on the shores of the lake and when they were launched they served to close the ring of steel which surrounded the doomed city.

The three great tribal divisions of the Aztec empire were the Aztecs themselves, the Cholulans and the Tezcocans. Cholula had been conquered and with Tezcoco at this critical juncture went over to the Spaniards, leaving Guatemoc and his Aztecs to fight the last fight alone. Besides the forces enumerated, each Spanish division was accompanied by formidable bodies of Tlascalans. The Tlascalans were nearly, if not quite, as good fighters as the Aztecs; perhaps they were better fighters, so far as their numbers went, when led and supported by the white people.

The first thing that Cortes did was to cut the aqueduct which carried fresh water into the city. The lake of Tezcoco in which Mexico stood was salt. By this one stroke, Cortes forced the inhabitants to depend upon a very meagre, scanty supply of water from wells in the city, many of which were brackish and unpalatable. The shores of the lake were swept bare by the beleaguerers. Iztatapalan, a rocky fortress was taken by storm and on April 21, 1521, the first attack was delivered along the causeways. The Mexicans met the advance with their customary intrepidity. The water on either side of the causeway swarmed with canoes. Thousands of warriors poured out of the city. The canoes swept down the lake intending to take the Spaniards in reverse and then pour in a terrible flank fire of missiles as they had done on the Melancholy Night. Cortes sustained this fire for a short time in order to draw the canoes as far toward him as possible, then he let loose the brigantines.

These brigantines were boats propelled by oars and sails on a single mast. They carried about a score of armed men and were very well and stoutly built. I suppose them to have been something like a modern man-o'-war cutter. They played havoc with the frail canoes. Their solid construction, their higher free-board, that is, the height they were above the water-line, the armor of their crews and the fact that the wind happened to be favorable and they could sail instead of row that morning, all contributed to the utter and complete destruction of the Indian flotilla. Canoes were splintered and sunk. Men were killed by the hundreds. They strove to climb up the slippery sides of the causeways and dykes. The Spaniards thrust them off into the deep water with their spears or cut them to pieces with their swords. The battle along the causeways, which were narrow, although quite wide enough for a dozen horsemen abreast, was terrible. The Aztecs literally died in their tracks, disdaining to fly. The Spaniards made their way over a floor of dead and writhing bodies.

Bare breasts, however resolute the hearts that beat beneath them, were no match for the steel cuirasses. The wooden shields did not even blunt the edge of the Toledo blade; the obsidian battle-axes could not contest with the iron maces. The jewelled feather work of the proudest noble was not equal even to the steel-trimmed leather jerkin of the poorest white soldier. The Spaniards literally cut their way, hewed, hacked, thrust their way into the city.

Here the fighting was slightly more equalized. The low roofs of the houses and pueblos swarmed with warriors. They rained missiles down upon the Spaniards' heads, while a never diminishing mob hurled itself into the faces of the white men. The Aztecs could have done more damage if they had not sacrificed everything in order to capture the Spaniards alive. In some instances they succeeded in their purpose. The fighting which was the same in all three of the causeways lasted all day and then the Spaniards retired to their several camps.

Save for the fact that they afterward cleared the lake of the canoes by the aid of the brigantines, one day's fighting was like another. The Spaniards would march into the city, slaughter until their arms were weary. They would lose a few here and there every day. The Tlascalans who took their part in all the fighting lost many. The end of the day would see things in statu quo. There were enough of the Indians even to sacrifice one hundred of them to one Spaniard and still maintain the balance of power. Cortes observed that he might fight this way until all of his army had melted away by piecemeal and have taken nothing.

He determined upon the dreadful expedient of destroying the city as he captured it. After coming to this decision, he summoned to his aid large bodies of the subject tribes. Thereafter, while the Spaniards and the Tlascalans fought, the others tore down that portion of the city which had been taken. The buildings were absolutely razed to the ground and nothing whatever was left of them. Canals were filled, gardens were ruined, trees cut down and even the walls of the city torn apart. In short, what once had been a teeming populous quarter of the city, abounding in parks, gardens and palaces, was left a desert. There was not enough power left in the Aztec Confederacy to rebuild the devastated portions over night and the Spaniards daily pressed their attack on every side with relentless rigor.

The Mexicans were slowly constricted to an ever narrowing circle. The Spaniards seized and choked up the wells. The Mexicans were dying of thirst. The brigantines swept the lake and prevented any reenforcements reaching them, which cut off their supply of provisions. They were dying of hunger. After every day's fighting Cortes offered amnesty. To do him justice, he begged that peace might be made and the fighting stopped before the city was ruined and all its inhabitants were killed. He was no mere murderer, and such scenes of slaughter horrified him. He had a genuine admiration for the enemy too. He tried his best to secure peace. His offers were repudiated with contempt. In spite of the fact that they were starving, the Aztecs in bravado actually threw provisions in the faces of the advancing Spaniards. They declared to the Tlascalans that when there was nothing left to eat they would eat them, and if there was nothing else, they would live on one another until they were all dead. They mocked and jeered at the tribes tearing down the houses, and with grim humor pointed out to them that they would have to rebuild the city whoever was successful in the strife, for either the Aztecs or the Spaniards would compel them to do so. So the fighting went on through the long days.

A Day of Desperate Fighting

On one occasion the soldiers, tiring of this, demanded, and Cortes in compliance with their wishes projected, an attack which was hoped would capture the narrow circle of defense by storm. In his own words the story of this day's fighting is now related. It will be seen how he narrowly escaped with his life:

"The day after mass, in pursuance of the arrangements already mentioned, the seven brigantines with more than three thousand canoes of our allies left the encampment; and I, with twenty-five horses and all the other force I had, including the seventy-five men from the division at Tacuba, took up the line of march and entered the city, where I distributed the troops in the following manner: There were three streets leading from where we entered to the market-place, called by the Indians Tianguizco, and the whole square in which it is situated is called Tlaltelulco; one of these streets was the principal avenue to the marketplace, which I ordered your Majesty's treasurer and auditor to take, with seventy men and more than fifteen or twenty thousand of our allies, and rear-guard consisting of seven or eight horses. I also directed that, whenever a bridge or entrenchment was taken, it should be immediately filled up; and for this purpose they had twelve men with pick-axes, together with many more of our allies who were very useful in this kind of work. The two other streets also lead from that of Tacuba to the market-place, and are narrower and full of causeways, bridges, and water-streets (or canals). I ordered two captains, to take the wildest of these with eighty men and more than ten thousand of our Indian allies; and at the head of the street of Tacuba I placed two heavy cannon with eight horse to guard them. With eight other horse and about one hundred foot, including twenty-five or more bowmen and musketeers, and an innumerable host of our allies, I took up the line of march along the other narrow street, intending to penetrate as far as possible. At its entrance I caused the cavalry to halt, and ordered them by no means to pass from there, nor to come in my rear, unless I first sent them orders to that effect; and then I alighted from my horse, and we came to an entrenchment that had been raised in front of a bridge, which we carried by means of a small field-piece, and the archers and musketeers, and then proceeded along the causeway, which was broken in two or three places, where we encountered the enemy. So great was the number of our allies, who ascended the terraces and other places, that it did not appear possible anything could stop us. When we had gained the two bridges, the entrenchments and the causeways, our allies followed along the street without taking any spoils; and I remained behind with about twenty Spanish soldiers on a little island, for I saw that some of our Indians were getting into trouble with the enemy; and in some instances they retreated until they cast themselves into the water, and with our aid were enabled to return to the attack. Besides this, we were on the watch to prevent the enemy from sallying forth out of the cross-streets in the rear of the Spaniards, who had advanced on the main street and at this time sent us word that they had made much progress, and were not far from the great square of the market-place; adding, that they wished to push forward, for they already heard the noise of the combat in which the Alguazil mayor and Pedro de Alvarado were engaged on their side of the city. I answered them that they must by no means go forward without leaving the bridges well filled up, so that, if it became necessary to beat a retreat, the water might present no obstacle or impediment, for in this consisted all the danger. They sent to me a message in reply, the amount of which was that the whole they had gained was in good condition, and that I might go and see if it was not so. But suspecting that they had disregarded the orders and left the bridges imperfectly filled up, I went to the place and found they had passed a breach in the road ten or twelve paces wide, and the water that flowed through it was ten or twelve feet deep. At the time the troops had passed this ditch, thus formed, they had thrown in it wood and reed-canes, and as they had crossed a few at a time and with great circumspection, the wood and canes had not sunk beneath their weight; and they were so intoxicated with the pleasure of victory that they imagined it to be sufficiently firm. At the moment I reached this bridge of troubles, I discovered some Spaniards and many of our allies flying back in great haste, and the enemy like dogs in pursuit of them; and when I saw such a rout, I began to cry out, 'Hold, hold!' and on approaching the water, I beheld it full of Spaniards and Indians in so dense a mass that it seemed as if there was not room for a straw to float. The enemy charged on the fugitives so hotly, that in the melee they threw themselves into the water after them; and soon the enemy's canoes came up by means of the canal and took the Spaniards alive.

"As this affair was so sudden, and I saw them killing our men, I resolved to remain there and perish in the fight. The way in which I and those that were with me could do the most good was to give our hands to some unfortunate Spaniards who were drowning, and draw them out of the water; some came out wounded, others half-drowned, and others without arms, whom I sent forward. Already such multitudes of the enemy pressed upon us, that they had completely surrounded me and the twelve or fifteen men who were with me; and being deeply interested in endeavoring to save those that were sinking, I did not observe nor regard the danger to which I was exposed. Several Indians of the enemy had already advanced to seize me and would have borne me off, had it not been for a captain of fifty men whom I always had with me, and also a youth of his company, to whom next to God, I owed my life; and in saving mine, like a valiant man, he lost his own. In the meantime the Spaniards who had fled before the enemy, pursued their course along the causeway, and as it was small and narrow, and on the same level as the water, which had been effected by those dogs on purpose to annoy us; and as the road was crowded also with our allies who had been routed, much delay was thereby occasioned, enabling the enemy to come up on both sides of the water, and to take and destroy as many as they pleased. The captain who was with me, Antonio de Quinones, said to me: 'Let us leave this place and save your life, since you know that without you none of us can escape'; but he could not induce me to go. When he saw this, he seized me in his arms, that he might force me away; and although I would have been better satisfied to die than to live, yet by the importunity of this captain and of my other companions, we began to retreat, making our way with our swords and bucklers against the enemy, who pressed hard upon us. At this moment there came up a servant of mine and made a little room; but presently he received a blow in his throat from a lance thrown from a low terrace, that brought him to the ground. While I was in the midst of this conflict, sustaining the attacks of the enemy, and waiting for the crowd on the narrow causeway, to reach a place of safety, one of my servants brought me a horse to ride on. But the mud on the causeway, occasioned by the coming and going of persons by water, was so deep that no one could stand, especially with the jostling of the people against one another in their effort to escape.

"I mounted the horse, but not to fight, as this was impossible on horseback; but if it had been practicable I should have found on the little island opposite the narrow causeway, the eight horsemen I had left there, who were unable to do more than effect their return; which indeed, was so dangerous that two mares, on which two of my servants rode fell from the causeway into the water; one of them was killed by the Indians, but the other was saved by some of the infantry. Another servant of mine Cristobal de Guzman, rode a horse that they gave him at the little island to bring to me, on which I might make my escape; but the enemy killed both him and the horse before they reached me; his death spread sorrow through the whole camp, and even to this day his loss is still mourned by those who knew him. But after all our troubles, by the blessing of God, those of us who survived, reached the street of Tlacuba, which was very wide; and collecting the people, I took my post with nine horsemen in the rear-guard. The enemy pressed forward with all the pride of victory, as if resolved that none should escape with life; but falling back in the best manner I could, I sent word to the treasurer and auditor to retreat to the public square in good order. I also sent similar orders to the two captains who had entered the city by the street that led to the market-place, both of whom had fought gallantly, and carried many entrenchments and bridges, which they had caused to be well filled up, on account of which they were able to retire without loss. Before the retreat of the treasurer and auditor some of the enemy threw in their way two or three heads of Christian men from the upper part of the entrenchment where they were fighting, but it was not known whether they were persons belonging to the camp of Pedro de Alvarado, or our own. All being assembled in the square, so large a multitude of the enemy charged upon us from all directions that we had as much as we could do to keep them back; and that, too, in places where, before this defeat, the enemy would have fled before three horse and ten foot. Immediately after, in a lofty tower filled with their idols that stood near the square, they burned perfumes and fumigated the air with certain gums peculiar to this country, that greatly resembled anime, which they offer to their idols in token of victory. Although we endeavored to throw obstacles in the way of the enemy, it was out of our power, as our people were hurrying back to the camp.

"In this defeat thirty-five or forty Spaniards, and more than a thousand of our allies, were slain by the enemy, besides more than twenty Christians wounded, among whom was myself in the leg. We lost the small field-piece that we had taken with us, and many crossbows, muskets and other arms. Immediately after their victory in order to strike terror into the Alguazil mayor and Pedro de Alvarado, the enemy carried all the Spaniards, both living and dead, whom they had taken, to the Tlaltelulco which is the market-place, and in some of the lofty towers that are situated there they sacrificed them naked, opening their breasts and taking out their hearts to offer them to the idols. This was seen by the Spaniards of Alvarado's division from where they were fighting, and from the whiteness of the naked bodies which they saw sacrificed they knew them to be Christians; but although they suffered great sorrow and dismay at the sight, they effected a retreat to their camp after having fought gallantly that day, and carried their conquests almost to the market-place, which would have been taken if God, on account of our sins, had not permitted so great a disaster. We returned to our camp, such was the grief we felt, somewhat earlier than had been usual on other days; and in addition to our other losses, we had been told that the brigantines had fallen into the hands of the enemies, who attacked them in their canoes from the rear; but it pleased God this was not true, although the brigantines and the canoes of our allies had been seen in danger enough, and even a brigantine came near being lost, the captain and the master of it being wounded, the former of whom died eight days afterward."

This modest account of the brave soldier scarcely does justice to the situation, his peril and his courage. Therefore, I supplement it by Helps' description of the same day of desperate fighting:

"The impatience of the soldiers grew to a great height, and was supported in an official quarter—by no less a person than Alderete, the King's Treasurer. Cortes gave way against his own judgment to their importunities. There had all along been a reason for his reluctance, which, probably, he did not communicate to his men; namely, that he had not abandoned the hope that the enemy would still come to terms. 'Finally,' he says, 'they pressed me so much that I gave way.'

"The attack was to be a general one, in which the divisions of Sandoval and Alvarado were to cooperate; but Cortes, with that knowledge of character which belonged to him, particularly explained that, though his general orders were for them to press into the market-place, they were not obliged to gain a single difficult pass which laid them open to defeat; 'for,' he says, 'I knew, from the men they were, that they would advance to whatever spot I told them to gain, even if they knew that it would cost them their lives.'

"On the appointed day, Cortes moved from his camp, supported by seven brigantines, and by more than three thousand canoes filled with his Indian allies. When his soldiers reached the entrance of the city, he divided them in the following manner. There were three streets which led to the market-place from the position which the Spaniards had already gained. Along the principal street, the King's Treasurer, with seventy Spaniards, and fifteen or twenty thousand allies was to make his way. His rear was to be protected by a small guard of horsemen.

"The other streets were smaller, and led from the street of Tlacuba to the market-place. Along the broader of these two streets, Cortes sent two of his principal captains, with eighty Spaniards and the thousand Indians; he himself with eight horsemen, seventy-five foot-soldiers, twenty-five musketeers, and an 'infinite number' of allies, was to enter the narrower street. At the entrance to the street of Tlacuba, he left two large cannon with eight horsemen to guard them, and at the entrance of his own street, he also left eight horsemen to protect the rear.

"The Spaniards and their allies made their entrance into the city with even more success and less embarrassment than on previous occasions. Bridges and barricades were gained, and the three main bodies of the army moved forward into the heart of the city. The ever-prudent Cortes did not follow his division, but remained with a small body-guard of twenty Spaniards in a little island formed by the intersection of certain water streets, whence he encouraged the allies, who were occasionally beaten back by the Mexicans, and where he could protect his own troops against any sudden descent of the enemy from certain side streets.

"He now received a message from these Spanish troops who had made a rapid and successful advance into the heart of the town, informing him that they were not far from the market-place, and that they wished to have his permission to push forward, as they already heard the noise of the combats which the Alguazil mayor and Pedro de Alvarado were waging from their respective stations. To this message Cortes returned for answer that on no account should they move forward without first filling up the apertures thoroughly. They sent an answer back, stating that they had made completely passable all the ground they had gained; and that he might come and see whether it were not so.

"Cortes, like a wise commander, not inclined to admit anything as a fact upon the statement of others which could be verified by personal inspection, took them at their word, and did move on to see what sort of a pathway they had made; when, to his dismay, he came in sight of a breach in the causeway, of considerable magnitude, being ten or twelve paces in width, and which, far from being filled up with solid material, had been passed upon wood and reeds, which was entirely insecure in case of retreat. The Spaniards, 'intoxicated with victory,' as their Commander describes them, had rushed on, imagining that they left behind them a sufficient pathway.

Death of Pizarro


"There was now no time to remedy this lamentable error, for when Cortes arrived near this 'bridge of affliction,' as he calls it, he saw many of the Spaniards and the allies retreating toward it, and when he came up close to it, he found the bridge-way broken down, and the whole aperture so full of Spaniards and Indians, that there was not room for a straw to float upon the surface of the water. The peril was so imminent that Cortes not only thought that the conquest of Mexico was gone, but that the term of his life as well as that of his victories had come; and he resolved to die there fighting. All that he could do at first was to help his men out of the water; and meanwhile, the Mexicans charged upon them in such numbers, that he and his little party were entirely surrounded. The enemy seized upon his person, and would have carried him off, but for the resolute bravery of some of his guard, one of whom lost his life there in succoring his master. The greatest aid, however, that Cortes had at this moment of urgent peril, was the cruel superstition of the Mexicans, which made them wish to take the Malinche alive, and grudged the death of an enemy in any other way than that of sacrifice to their detestable gods. The captain of the body-guard seized hold of Cortes, and insisted upon his retreating, declaring that upon his life depended the lives of all of them. Cortes, though at that moment he felt that he should have delighted more in death than life, gave way to the importunity of his captain, and of other Spaniards who were near, and commenced a retreat for his life. His flight was along a narrow causeway at the same level as the water, an additional circumstance of danger, which to use his expression about them, those 'dogs' had contrived against the Spaniards. The Mexicans in their canoes approached the causeway on both sides, and the slaughter they were thus enabled to commit, both among the allies and the Spaniards, was very great. Meanwhile, two or three horses were sent to aid Cortes in his retreat, and a youth upon one of them contrived to reach him, although the others were lost. At last he and a few of his men succeeded in fighting their way to the broad street of Tlacuba, where, like a brave captain, instead of continuing his flight, he and the few horsemen that were with him turned around and formed a rear-guard to protect his retreating troops. He also sent immediate orders to the King's Treasurer and the other commanders to make good their escape; orders the force of which was much heightened by the sight of two or three Spanish heads which the Mexicans, who were fighting behind a barricade, threw amongst the besiegers.

"We must now see how it fared with the other divisions. Alvarado's men had prospered in their attack, and were steadily advancing toward the marketplace, when, all of a sudden, they found themselves encountered by an immense body of Mexican troops, splendidly accoutred, who threw before them five heads of Spaniards and kept shouting out, 'Thus we will slay you, as we have slain Malinche and Sandoval, whose heads these are.' With these words they commenced an attack of such fury, and came so close to hand with the Spaniards, that they could not use their cross-bows, their muskets, or even their swords. One thing, however, was in their favor. The difficulty of their retreat was always greatly enhanced by the number of their allies; but on this occasion, the Tlascalans no sooner saw the bleeding heads and heard the menacing words of the Mexicans, than they cleared themselves off the causeway with all possible speed.

"The Spaniards, therefore, were able to retreat in good order; and their dismay did not take the form of panic, even when they heard, from the summit of the Temple, the tones of that awful drum, made from the skin of serpents, which gave forth the most melancholy sound imaginable, and which was audible at two or three leagues' distance. This was the signal of sacrifice, and at that moment ten human hearts, the hearts of their companions, were being offered up to the Mexican deities.

"A more dangerous, though not more dreadful sound was now to be heard. This was the blast of a horn sounded by no less a personage than the Mexican King—which signified that his captains were to succeed or die. The mad fury with which the Mexicans now rushed upon the Spaniards was an 'awful thing' to see; and the historian, who was present at the scene, writing in his old age, exclaims that, though he cannot describe it, yet, when he comes to think of it, it is as if it were 'visibly' before him, so deep was the impression it had made upon his mind.

"But the Spaniards were not raw troops; and terror however great, was not able to overcome their sense of discipline and their duty to each other as comrades. It was in vain that the Mexicans rushed upon them 'as a conquered thing'; they reached their station, served their cannon steadily—although they had to renew their artillery-men—and maintained their ground.

"The appalling stratagem adopted by the Mexicans—of throwing down before one division of the Spanish army some of the heads of the prisoners they had taken from another division, and shouting that these were the heads of the principal commanders—was pursued with great success. They were thus enabled to discourage Sandoval, and to cause him to retreat with loss toward his quarters. They even tried with success the same stratagem upon Cortes, throwing before his camp, to which he had at last retreated, certain bleeding heads, which they said, were those of 'Tonatiuh' (Alvarado), Sandoval, and the other teules. Then it was that Cortes felt more dismay than ever, 'though,' says the honest chronicler, who did not like the man, no matter how much he admired the soldier, 'not in such a manner that those who were with him should perceive in it much weakness.'

"After Sandoval had made good his retreat, he set off, accompanied by a few horsemen, for the camp of Cortes, and had an interview with him, of which the following account is given: 'O Senor Captain! what is this?' exclaimed Sandoval; 'are these the great counsels, and artifices of war which you have always been wont to show us? How has this disaster happened?' Cortes replied, 'O Don Sandoval! my sins have permitted this; but I am not so culpable in the business as they may make out, for it is the fault of the Treasurer, Juan de Alderete, whom I charged to fill up that difficult pass where they routed us; but he did not do so, for he is not accustomed to wars, nor to be commanded by superior officers.' At this point of the conference, the Treasurer himself, who had approached the captains in order to learn Sandoval's news, exclaimed that it was Cortes himself who was to blame; that he had encouraged his men to go forward; that he had not charged them to fill up the bridges and bad passes—if he had done so, he (the Treasurer) and his company would have done it; and, moreover, that Cortes had not cleared the causeway in time of his Indian allies. Thus they argued and disputed with one another; for hardly any one is generous, in defeat, to those with whom he has acted. Indeed, a generosity of this kind, which will not allow a man to comment severely upon the errors of his comrades in misfortune, is so rare a virtue, that it scarcely seems to belong to this planet.

"There was little time, however, for altercation, and Cortes was not the man to indulge in more of that luxury for the unfortunate than human nature demanded. He had received no tidings of what had befallen the Camp of Tlacuba, and thither he despatched Sandoval, embracing him and saying, 'Look you, since you see that I cannot go to all parts, I commend these labors to you, for, as you perceive, I am wounded and lame. I implore you, take charge of these three camps. I well know that Pedro de Alvarado and his soldiers will have behaved themselves as cavaliers, but I fear lest the great force of those dogs should have routed them.'

"The scene now changes to the ground near Alvarado's camp. Sandoval succeeded in making his way there, and arrived about the hour of Vespers. He found the men of that division in the act of repelling a most vigorous attack on the part of the Mexicans, who had hoped that night to penetrate into the camp and carry off all the Spaniards for sacrifice. The enemy were better armed than usual, some of them using the weapons which they had taken from the soldiers of Cortez. At last, after a severe conflict, in which Sandoval himself was wounded, and in which the cannon shots did not suffice to break the serried ranks of the Mexicans, the Spaniards gained their quarters, and, being under shelter, had some respite from the fury of the Mexican attack.

"There, Sandoval, Pedro de Alvarado, and the other principal captains, were standing together and relating what had occurred to each of them, when, suddenly, the sound of the sacrificial drum was heard again, accompanied by other musical instruments of a similar dolorous character. From the Camp of Tlacuba the great Temple was perfectly visible, and the Spaniards looked up at it for the interpretation of these melancholy tones; they saw their companions driven by blows and buffetings up to the place of sacrifice. The white-skinned Christians were easily to be distinguished amidst the dusky groups that surrounded them. When the unhappy men about to be sacrificed had reached the lofty level space on which these abominations were wont to be committed, it was discerned by their friends and late companions that plumes of feathers were put upon the heads of many of them, and that men, whose movements in the distance appeared like those of winnowers, made the captive dance before the image of Huitzilopochtli. When the dance was concluded, the victims were placed upon the sacrificial stones; their hearts were taken out and offered to the idols; and their bodies hurled down the steps of the temple. At the bottom of the steps stood 'other butchers' who cut off the arms and legs of the victims, intending to eat these portions of their enemy. The skin of the face with the beard was preserved. The rest of the body was thrown to the lions, tigers, and serpents. 'Let the curious reader consider,' says the chronicler, 'what pity we must have had for these, our companions, and how we said to one another, 'Oh, thanks be to God, that they did not carry me off to-day to sacrifice me.' And certainly no army ever looked on a more deplorable sight.

"There was no time, however, for such contemplation: for, at that instant, numerous bands of warriors attacked the Spaniards on all sides, and fully occupied their attention in the preservation of their own lives.

"Modern warfare has lost one great element of the picturesque in narrative, namely, in there being no interchange, now, of verbal threats and menaces between the contending parties; but in those days it was otherwise, and the Mexicans were able to indulge in the most fierce and malignant language. 'Look,' they said, 'that is the way in which all of you have to die, for our Gods have promised this to us many times.' To the Tlascalans their language was more insulting and much more minutely descriptive. Throwing to them the roasted flesh of their companions and of the Spanish soldiers, they shouted, 'Eat of the flesh of these teules, and of your brethren, for we are quite satiated with it; and, look you, for the houses you have pulled down, we shall have to make you build in their place much better ones with stone and plates of metal, likewise with hewn stone and lime; and the houses will be painted. Wherefore continue to assist these teules all of whom you will see sacrificed.'

"The Mexicans, however, did not succeed in carrying off any more Spaniards for sacrifice that night. The Spanish camp had some few hours of repose, and some time to reckon up their losses, which were very considerable. They lost upward of sixty of their own men, six horses, two cannon, and a great number of their Indian allies. Moreover the brigantines had not fared much better on this disastrous day than the land forces. But the indirect consequences of this defeat were still more injurious than the actual losses. The allies from the neighboring cities on the lake deserted the Spaniards, nearly to a man. The Mexicans regained and strengthened most of their positions; and the greatest part of the work of the besiegers seemed as if it would have to be done over again. Even the Tlascalans, hitherto so faithful, despaired of the fortunes of their allies, and could not but believe, with renewed terror, in the potency of the Mexican deities, kindred to, if not identical with, their own."

The Last Mexican

The courage of the Aztecs was beyond all question. Their heroism awakens a thrill of admiration, although we are fully aware of their fearful and ferocious and degrading religious rites. Again and again the heart-sick Spaniards saw lifted up before the hideous gods on the temple pyramids, the white, naked bodies of their unfortunate comrades who had been captured for that awful sacrifice. Both parties were wrought up to a pitch of furious rage.

No valor, no heroism, no courage, no devotion could prevail against thirst, hunger, smallpox, pestilence, the fever of besieged towns, with the streets filled with unburied dead. On August 13, 1521, the city fell. There was no formal surrender, the last defender had been killed. The old, weak and feeble were left. Only a small portion of the city, the cheapest and poorest part, was left standing. Into this ghastly street rode the Spaniards.

Where was Guatemoc? A wretched, haggard, worn, starved figure, having done all that humanity could do, and apparently more, in the defence of his land, he had striven to escape in a canoe on the lake. One of the brigantines overhauled him. The commander was about to make way with the little party when some one informed him that the principal captive was no less than Guatemotzin. The unfortunate young emperor, after vainly trying to persuade Garcia Holguin to kill him then and there, demanded to be led to Cortes. He found that great captain on one of the house-tops, watching the slaughter of the men and women and children by the furious Tlascalans who were at last feeding fat their revenge by indiscriminate massacre.

"Deal with me as you please," said the broken-hearted Mexican, as he touched the dagger which hung by Cortes's side. "Kill me at once," he implored.

He had no wish to survive the downfall of his empire, the devastation of his city, and the annihilation of his people. Cortes spared his life and at first treated him generously. He afterward marred his reputation by yielding him and the Cacique of Tlacuba to torture at the urgent and insistent demand of the soldiery. There was no treasure found in the city. It had been spirited away or else buried forever beneath the ruins of the town. The soldiers, their greed for treasure excited, insisted upon the torture of the noble Guatemoc and his comrade. The Cacique of Tlacuba, unable through weakness to sustain the torture, which consisted of burning the soles of their feet with boiling oil, broke into lamenting reproaches, some of them addressed to the emperor.

"And am I taking pleasure in my bath, do you think?" proudly replied the young chief, while the soles of his feet were being immersed in the same dreadful cauldron.

He was lame and more or less helpless for the rest of his life. I have no doubt that he often wished that he had been cut down in the final moment of his defeat. He dragged on a miserable existence until Cortes put him to death by hanging several years after the conquest while in Honduras on an expedition. The charge against him, so Cortes writes to Charles V., was conspiracy. The evidence was flimsy enough, yet it is probable that Cortes believed it. The expedition was far from Mexico, surrounded by hostile nations, and Cortes, as usual, was in great danger. Helps thus describes the bitter end of the noble young emperor:

"When led to execution, the King of Mexico exclaimed, 'O Malinche, I have long known the falseness of your words, and have foreseen that you would give me that death which, alas! I did not give myself, when I surrendered to you in my city of Mexico. Wherefore do you slay me without justice? May God demand it of you!'

"The King of the Tlacuba said that he looked upon his death as welcome, since he was able to die with his Lord, the King of Mexico. After confession and absolution, the two kings were hanged upon a ceyba tree in Izzancanac, in the province of Acalan, on one of the carnival days before Shrovetide, in the year 1525. Thus ended the great Mexican dynasty—itself a thing compacted by so much blood and toil and suffering of countless human beings. The days of deposed monarchs—victims alike to the zeal of their friends and the suspicions of their captors—are mostly very brief; and perhaps it is surprising that the King of Mexico should have survived as long as four years the conquest of his capital, and have been treated during the greater part of that time with favor and honor.

"Some writers have supposed that Cortes was weary of his captives, and wished to destroy them, and that the charge of conspiracy was fictitious. Such assertions betray a total ignorance of the character of this great Spaniard. Astute men seldom condescend to lying. Now, Cortes was not only very astute, but, according to his notions, highly honorable. A genuine hidalgo, and a thoroughly loyal man, he would as soon have thought of committing a small theft as of uttering a falsehood in a despatch addressed to his sovereign."

The End of Cortes

Cortes received a full reward for his conquest, at least for a time. He was received in high favor by Charles V., whom he visited in Spain, and who made him Marques of the Valley of Mexico.

"There is on record a single sentence of the Emperor's that must have been addressed to Cortes in some private interview, which shows the gracious esteem in which he was held by his sovereign. Borrowing a metaphor from the archery-ground, and gracefully, as it seems, alluding to a former misappreciation of the services of Cortes, the Emperor said that he wished to deal with him as those who contend with the crossbow, whose first shots go wide of the mark, and then they improve and improve, until they hit the centre of the white. So, continued His Majesty, he wished to go on until he had shot into the white of what should be done to reward the Marquis' deserts; and meanwhile nothing was to be taken from him which he then held.

"It was very pleasing to find that Cortes did not forget his old friends the Tlascalans, but dwelt on their services, and procured from the Emperor an order that they should not be given encomienda to His Majesty, or to any other person."

The only reward the Tlascalans got from the Emperor was that, when the other Mexicans were made slaves, they were left at least nominally free, but their republic soon fell into decay and the city in which they had so proudly maintained themselves in their independence, became a desolate ruin. A dirty and squalid village to-day marks the place.

Marina, who had served the Spaniards for the love of the great captain with such fidelity and such success, was cast off by Cortes and compelled to marry one of his officers, whom she scarcely knew. This crushed her spirit. She abandoned her husband and sank into wretched and miserable obscurity, and died at an early age of a broken heart.

Cortes conducted other expeditions, most of them without any great success, as that to Honduras, where he hanged the last of the Aztec Kings. Jealousy arose in the great state which he had founded, and he fell out of favor with the Emperor, who refused to see him, and he was received with cold and bitter reproaches by his wife, whom he married after the death of his former wife, and who had never proved a comfort to him. An admirable marriage which he had arranged for his daughter with one of the highest nobility of Spain failed, his last days were sad and miserable, and he died old, lonely and broken-hearted. I again quote Helps concerning these closing scenes:

"The poets say, 'Care sits behind a man and follows him wherever he goes.' So does ill-success; and henceforward the life of Cortes was almost invariably unsuccessful. There is an anecdote told of him (resting upon no higher authority than that of Voltaire) which, although evidently untrue, tells in a mythical way the reception which Cortes met at the Spanish Court; and his feelings as regards that reception.

"One day he broke through the crowd which surrounded the carriage of the Emperor and jumped on the step.

"'Who are you?' asked the Emperor in astonishment.

"'I am the man,' replied Cortes fiercely, 'who has given you more provinces than your ancestors have left you cities.'

Quitting fiction, however, and returning to fact, there is a letter extant addressed by Cortes to the Emperor, Charles V., which conveys more forcibly than even a large extent of narrative could do, the troubles, vexations, and disappointments which Cortes had to endure at this latter period of his life, and his feelings with regard to them. It is one of the most touching letters ever written by a subject to a sovereign. I will here translate some of it, greatly condensing those parts of the letter which relate to the business in hand, and which would be as wearisome to the reader to read, as they were to the writer to write; for doubtless, it was not the first time, by many times, that Cortes had set down the same grievance in writing. The letter bears date, Valladolid, the 3rd. of February, 1544. It begins thus:—

"'Sacred Cesarian Catholic Majesty:—I thought that having labored in my youth, it would so profit me that in my old age I might have ease and rest; and now it is forty years that I have been occupied in not sleeping, in eating ill, and sometimes eating neither well nor ill, in bearing armor, in placing my person in danger, in spending my estates and my life, all in the service of God, bringing sheep into his sheep-fold—which were very remote from our hemisphere, unknown, and whose names are not written in our writings—also increasing and making broad the name and patrimony of my King—gaining for him, and bringing under his yoke and Royal sceptre, many and very great kingdoms and many barbarous nations, all won by my own person, and at my own expense; without being assisted in anything, on the contrary, being much hindered by many jealous and evil and envious persons who, like leeches, have been filled to bursting with my blood.'

"He then proceeds to say that for the part which God has had in his labors and watchings he is sufficiently paid, because it was His work; and it was not without a reason that Providence was pleased that so great a work should be accomplished by so weak a medium, in order that it might be seen that to God alone the good work must be attributed.

"Cortes then says that for what he has done for the King, he has always been satisfied with the remuneration he has received. The King has been grateful to him, has honored him, and has rewarded him, and he adds that His Majesty knows that the rewards and honors which the Emperor offered were, in the opinion of Cortes, so far greater than his merits, that he refused to receive them.

"What, however, His Majesty did mean him to receive, he has not received. That which His Majesty has given has been so completely without fruit, that it would have been better for Cortes not to have had it, but that he should have taken care of his own estate, and not spent the fruit of that in defending himself against 'the Fiscal of Your Majesty, which defence has been, and is, a more difficult undertaking than to win the land of the enemy.'

"He then implores His Majesty that he will be pleased to render clear the good will which he had shown to reward him. 'I see myself,' he exclaims, 'old, poor and indebted. Not only have I no repose in my old age, but I can foresee labor and trouble until my death.' And he adds, 'Please God that the mischief may not go beyond death; but may finish with the body, and not exist forever, since whosoever has such toil in defending his bodily estate, cannot avoid injuring his soul.'

"All that he asks is that his appeal may be heard; that members of the King's Council be added to the Council of the Indies; and that the cause may be determined, and judgment given, without further delay. 'For, otherwise, I must leave it and loose it, and must return to my home, as I am no longer of the age to go about to hostelries; and should withdraw myself to make my account clear with God, since it is a large one that I have, and little life is left to me to discharge my conscience; and it will be better for me to lose my estate than my soul.' He concludes by saying that 'he is of Your Catholic Majesty the very humble servant and vassal, who kisses your very royal feet and hands—the Marquis del Valle.'

"In addition to these vexations he had a domestic trouble which doubtless caused him much mortification. His daughter, Donna Maria, was engaged to one of the greatest nobles in Spain; but ultimately the young man refused to fulfil the engagement. Some say that this caused the death of Cortes. But this is not so. He was broken, alike in health and in spirits, by reason of the many reverses he had met with in these his latter days.

"We live, to a great measure, upon success; and there is no knowing the agony that an unvarying course of ill-success causes to a sanguine and powerful mind which feels that, if only such and such small obstacles were removed out of its way, it could again shine forth with all its pristine force and brightness.

"To meet this rejected daughter, who was coming from New Spain, Cortes went to Seville. There he was taken ill, and, being molested by the importunity of many persons who came to see him on business, he retired to a small village, about half a league from Seville, called Castillaje de la Cuesta. He also sought retirement for the purpose, as Bernal Diaz says, of making his will and preparing his soul for death. 'And when he had settled his worldly affairs, our Lord Jesus Christ was pleased to take him from his troublesome world.' He died on the 2nd of December, 1547, being then sixty-two years of age."

His bones were interred in Mexico. During the civil wars of the last century, his bones were taken away and hidden. It is reported that only the other day the place of his sepulchre had been discovered. Some monument to his memory should be erected to match the statue of Guatemoc, which is one of the principal adornments of Mexico.

As is well said by William H. Johnson: "To the honor of Spain be it said, her rule in Mexico was firm and kind. The Indians became thoroughly incorporated into the national life, enjoying the opportunities of advancement as Spaniards. In the present Republic of Mexico the greatest name has been that of Benito Juarez, the president who upheld the national cause during the French-Austrian usurpation. He was of pure Aztec blood. Porfirio Diaz, the gallant soldier who led the army of the Republic during the same trying period, and who, as its president, is a model of a strong and wise ruler, is also, in part, a descendant of the ancient race."

With the following tributes to the great captain the story of his amazing adventures is ended. Says Helps:

"He was the mighty conqueror of one of the most compact and well-ordered barbaric nations of the world—a conqueror who, with a few hundreds of his fellow-countrymen, not all of them his partisans, overcame hundreds of thousands of fanatic and resolute men fighting against him with immense resources, and with a resolution nearly equal to his own. Let us give him the benefit of his sincere belief in Christianity, and his determination to substitute that beneficent religion for the hideous and cruel superstition of the people he was resolved to conquer. And let us echo the wish of that good common soldier, Bernal Diaz, who, though having his grievances against Cortes, as all of the other Conquistadores thought they had, could yet, after watching every turn in the fortunes of the great Marquis, and knowing almost every sin that he had committed, write most tenderly of the great captain whose plume he had so often followed to victory.

"After saying that, subsequently to the conquest of Mexico, Cortes had not had good fortune either in his Californian or his Honduras expedition, or indeed in anything else he had undertaken, Bernal Diaz adds, 'Perhaps it was that he might have felicity in heaven. And I believe it was so, for he was an honorable cavalier, and a devoted worshipper of the Virgin, the Apostle St. Peter and other Saints. May God pardon his sins, and mine too, and give me a righteous ending, which things are of more concern than the conquests and victories that we had over the Indians.'"

Writes MacNutt:

"His sagacity, his foresight, and his moderation have caused critical historians to rank him higher as a statesman than as a soldier. In virtue of his pre-eminent qualities both as a statesman and as a general, as well as because of the enduring importance of his conquest, Fernando Cortes occupies an uncontested place amongst the heroes of the nations."

However we may sympathize with the Aztecs, we cannot escape from the fact that it was much better that there should be a Spanish rule instead of an Aztec rule in Mexico, and that the civilization of the former should supplant the so-called civilization of the latter. That does not prevent us from wishing that the supersession might not have been so harsh and ruthless, but in view of the times, and the men, both Aztecs and Christians, it was not to be expected.

Personally, I love the memory of Guatemoc for his heroism and his devotion. I also have a warm feeling for Cortes. It is true, as has been stated, that he was a child of his age, but he was the best child of his age, and it was not his fault altogether that in some respects it was the worst age. The Spanish rule in Mexico was better than the Spanish rule in Peru, and Cortes and his successors, by the side of Pizarro and his successors, were almost angels of light.

I close with these noble words of John Fiske in his great and highly valued Discovery of North America:

"A great deal of sentimental ink has been shed over the wickedness of the Spaniards in crossing the ocean and attacking people who had never done them any harm, overturning and obliterating a 'splendid civilization,' and more to the same effect. It is undeniable that unprovoked aggression is an extremely hateful thing, and many of the circumstances attendant upon the Spanish conquest in America were not only heinous in their atrocity, but were emphatically condemned, as we shall presently see, by the best moral standards of the sixteenth century. Yet if we are to be guided by strict logic, it would be difficult to condemn the Spaniards for the mere act of conquering Mexico without involving in the same condemnation our own forefathers who crossed the ocean and overran the territory of the United States with small regard for the proprietary rights of Algonquins, or Iroquois, or red men of any sort. Our forefathers, if called upon to justify themselves, would have replied that they were founding Christian states and diffusing the blessings of a higher civilization; and such, in spite of much alloy in the motives and imperfection in the performance, was certainly the case. Now if we would not lose or distort the historical perspective, we must bear in mind that the Spanish conquerors would have returned exactly the same answer. If Cortes were to return to the world and pick up some history book in which he is described as a mere picturesque adventurer, he would feel himself very unjustly treated. He would say that he had higher aims than those of a mere fighter and gold-hunter; and so doubtless he had. In the complex tangle of motives that actuated the mediaeval Spaniard—and in his peninsula we may apply the term mediaeval to later dates than would be proper in France or Italy—the desire of extending the dominion of the Church was a very real and powerful incentive to action. The strength of the missionary and crusading spirit in Cortes is seen in the fact that where it was concerned, and there only, was he liable to let zeal overcome prudence.

"There can be no doubt that, after making all allowances, the Spaniards did introduce a better state of society into Mexico than they found there. It was high time that an end should be put to those hecatombs of human victims, slashed, torn open and devoured on all the little occasions of life. It sounds quite pithy to say that the Inquisition, as conducted in Mexico, was as great an evil as the human sacrifices and the cannibalism; but it is not true. Compared with the ferocious barbarism of ancient Mexico, the contemporary Spanish modes of life were mild, and this, I think, helps further to explain the ease with which the country was conquered. In a certain sense the prophecy of Quetzalcoatl was fulfilled and the coming of the Spaniards did mean the final dethronement of the ravening Tezcatlipoca. The work of the noble Franciscan and Dominican monks who followed closely upon Cortes, and devoted their lives to the spiritual welfare of the Mexicans, is a more attractive subject than any picture of military conquest. To this point I shall return hereafter, when we come to consider the sublime character of Las Casas. For the present we may conclude in the spirit of one of the noble Spanish historians, Pedro de Cieza de Leon, and praise God, that the idols are cast down."