Story of Mexico - Charles Morris

Cortes Conquers the Aztec Empire

The story of Hernando Cortes is one full of romantic interest. History has no record of greater daring, fertility in resources, brilliant achievements and of striking success than that of this chief of American conquerors. Pizarro in Peru rivaled him in boldness and was his equal in success, but he did not encounter and overcome such mutations of fortune as those to which Cortes was exposed and to deal with which called for daring and judgment of a remarkable type. To subdue an extensive and firmly-founded empire, with millions of inhabitants, possessing a considerable degree of civilization, accustomed to war and conquest, and of the most daring and courageous type among the Indians, was a feat that demanded the highest qualities of leadership, judgment, and mental ability, especially in view of the fact that it was accomplished by a mere handful of invaders, less than a thousand in number. In view of these scarcely credible facts some account of the earlier career of this remarkable man is desirable.

Hernando Cortes was born in 1485 at Medellin, in the province of Estramadura, Spain. Of an old but poor family, it was necessary for him to make his own way in the world and this he was well fitted to do. As a boy he was sent to the University of Salamanca. But he was born for action, not study, and soon left the school for the army, proposing to serve in the Naples campaign under the famous Gonsalvo of Cordova, then known as the "Great Captain."

Fondness for adventure led the young soldier into various escapades, in one of which he fell from a roof, injuring himself so severely that he was unable to sail with Gonsalvo's army of invasion. Now was the period when the recently discovered New World formed the center of attraction for enterprising Spaniards. Here there was hope of wealth, adventure, power and glory, and the young adventurer set sail for that land of promise as soon as he recovered from his injury. He reached San Domingo, the governor of which was a relative of his family, in 1504. There he passed several years, and in 1511 joined the expedition under Diego Velasquez, its purpose being to conquer and colonize the island of Cuba.

Hernando Cortes


The youthful adventurer had already shown himself a man of unusual powers. He is described as of strong and alert form and handsome face, with eyes of wonderful power and charm. There were no manly exercises in which he was not skilful, his courage was of the highest type, and his mental quickness never failed him in an emergency. In addition he had fine powers of persuasion and eloquence, and the faculty of bringing all men under the spell of his influence. Vast in conception, prudent in execution, enduring reverses with fortitude, never losing command of himself through success, he was just the man for the situation existing in the New World at that period.

But with these good points were the objectionable ones of cruelty towards his enemies, base perfidy where it would serve his ends, and a greed of plunder that was a serious defect in his character. Yet taken for all in all he was admirably fitted by nature for the great task which awaited him and to which the softer virtues would have been a serious detriment. Intrepidity, caution, judgment, and quickness to act in an emergency were the faculties his career demanded, and these he possessed in an unusual degree.

With this brief review of his character, we may proceed with the story of his exploits. His first display of courage and ability was in the work of conquest in Cuba under Velasquez. Cortes was rewarded for this with an estate on that island, to the development and increase of which he devoted himself for a number of years. His taste for adventure did not fail to show itself during this period, and there is a tale of his being a rival of the governor for the love of a beautiful young lady, his persecution and imprisonment by Velasquez, his escape, recapture, and incarceration in a ship with a chain around his ankle. He again escaped, in the end married the lady, and finally became reconciled with the governor, who made him alcalde of Santiago de Cuba.

Meanwhile events of higher historical import were taking place. It was known that an extensive country lay in the west. Columbus had reached it in one of his voyages, and Velasquez had sent an expedition in that direction, the leader of which, Grijalva by name, touched land in Yucatan, entered the river of Tabasco, and then returned to report and ask for instructions. Grijalva's report excited the cupidity of the governor. Here were new lands to conquer, perhaps a new empire to found. Velasquez decided to send out a larger and stronger expedition, meanwhile sending to Spain to ask for wider powers and the right to govern any lands that might be gained. He needed a man of bolder initiative than Grijalva to command this expedition, and offered the command to several of his own relatives, all of whom refused. Cortes had now gained a wide reputation for courage and daring, and Velasquez next selected him for commander. The scheme was admirably fitted for a man of the abilities and aspirations of Cortes and he did not hesitate to accept it.

He went to work, indeed, with ardor and enthusiasm, and gathered around him an ample following of the bolder spirits among the Spaniards of Cuba, some of whom had sailed in Grijalva's expedition. Among these were Bernal Diaz, who afterward wrote a history of the Conquest, Alvarado, a rash but bold adventurer, and others noted for warlike skill and daring. But as the work of enlistment and preparation went on, pushed to the highest point by the ardor of the young commander, Velasquez began to distrust him, and it needed all the persuasive skill of Cortes to keep on good terms with the jealous governor. Finally, in November, 1518, the work of preparation was completed and the members of the enterprise on board, full of ardent hopes and of trust in their enthusiastic leader. At the last moment, as the story goes, Velasquez again grew distrustful of the intentions of Cortes and determined to replace him by a more trustworthy leader. News of this came to the ears of the bold commander and when Velasquez rose on the morning of November 18th, bent on removing Cortes from his command, he saw to his dismay the fleet with sails full set gliding out of the harbor. Cortes was the last to leave the shore, and did so with words of defiance for the truculent governor.

Velasquez, his eyes opened too late, sent a swift message to the settlement in western Cuba at which Cortes would be obliged to land for further supplies, ordering his arrest and return. But Cortes was an adept in the art of making friends. Instead of being seized he gained important accessions to his party, and was soon afloat again on the little known seas that led to his goal of hope. His fleet consisted of eleven small vessels, manned by 110 sailors, and carrying 553 soldiers. Of these only thirteen bore muskets, while thirty-two were armed with arquebuses, the others bearing swords and pikes only. In addition there were ten small field-pieces and sixteen horses, the latter being destined to prove of signal service.

Cortes at the Battle of Otumba


It was a small equipment with which to invade an empire, but the companions of Cortes, while in deep ignorance of what lay before them, were inspired with hope rather than dread. Bold and resolute were the cavaliers of Spain in that age and there was no enterprise which they were not ready to undertake. Grijalva had brought back stories of an extensive empire, defended by large armies, but this recital apparently had no terrors for the companions of Cortes. Most of them had met Indians in battle and had little fear of their imperfect weapons.

The route taken by Cortes followed that of Grijalva, land being first reached at an island off the coast of Yucatan. Here they learned of the presence of white men, a ship having been wrecked there in 1511, of the crew of which thirteen reached the land. Of these only two were alive, and one of them preferred to stay with his Indian friends. The other, named Agilar, readily joined the band of Cortes. He proved a valuable auxiliary from his knowledge of the manners and customs of the people, and especially from having learned the language of the country. Thus Cortes was furnished with an interpreter, an acquisition of the utmost value to him in later days.

The first conflict with the natives took place at Tabasco River, which Grijalva had entered. The natives here were not lacking in courage, but the firearms of the Spaniards, and still more the horses, of which they fancied the riders to be part, turned their bravery into terror and they were quickly put to rout. The native king sent gifts to the victors and agreed to become a vassal of the great king of Spain, with very little thought of what this meant.

Cortes passed Palm Sunday in this place, solemnizing the anniversary with high mass. Thence the expedition sailed onward, and on Good Friday, April 21, 1519, the adventurers set foot on the mainland of Mexico at a point which they named Vera Cruz. Here they first met the subjects of Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, feasting and exchanging gifts with them, while on Easter Sunday they again celebrated high mass with great pomp and ceremony.

The story of what followed is one full of interesting and romantic details. Though the distance from the seashore to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, was a long one, and all news had to be carried on foot, a very swift system of couriers had been instituted. So rapid were they that in little over a week the news of the coming of the armed strangers, and the presents sent by them to the Aztec emperor, had reached his capital and they were back again at Vera Cruz bearing rich presents to the newcomers. The helmet sent by Cortes was returned to him filled with grains of gold, and among the other rich tokens of Aztec wealth and magnificence were two round plates of gold and silver as big as carriage wheels. The gold one represented the sun, and its surface bore richly carved figures of plants and animals. With them came a message from Montezuma, the Aztec ruler:

"Come not hither; the road is long and dangerous; return to your country with our greetings to your great king."

This was peremptory, but it was an error to accompany it with such evidences of wealth and splendor, gifts which excited the cupidity of Cortes and his companions to the utmost degree. Men like them were not of the kind to be frightened by the prohibition of a semi-barbaric potentate, especially when accompanied by such enticements to cupidity.

Again went the messengers to the Aztec capital, bearing a new demand, and again they returned with a still more peremptory order to leave the land. At the same time the natives disappeared, the supplies were cut off, and the Spaniards were left in indecision and chagrin. Some of them, fearful of danger, wished to return to Cuba.

"Go," cried Cortes. "On board, all of you. Back to Cuba and Governor Velasquez and see what happens."

None went, and the few who continued disaffected were put in irons. In this critical state of affairs a welcome message came to Cortes. An embassy from a people to the north, the Totonacs, reached the Spanish camp, with a request for the strangers to visit them, and the statement that they were tired of the Aztec yoke and yearned for independence.

Cheered and inspired by this invitation, Cortes lost no time in accepting it, marching along the coast to Cempoalla, the Totonac capital. On learning of this, threats of dire punishment came from Montezuma to the Totonac chiefs, but Cortes succeeded in enlisting them in his favor, and went so far as to insist on their becoming Christians, their idols being thrown down, their altars of sacrifice cleansed, and the image of the Virgin installed in the heathen temple.

The shrewd leader, having the favor of his own king in mind, now sent one of his swiftest ships to Spain bearing the wheel of gold and the other rare Aztec presents, with a written account of what had been done and what was proposed. This was to forestall Velasquez in any movement he might make. Cortes, a genius in affairs and a born leader of men, went much farther than this, taking a step that has become famous. Finding new discontent among his followers, and learning of a plot of secession that would destroy all his hopes, he promptly had its authors seized and executed, and then took the decisive step in question. He sank his ships!

He had burned his bridges behind him. Return was now out of the question. They must go forward, to victory or death. No other course remained.

"Forward, my brave comrades!" cried the daring adventurer. "A mountain road lies before us; beyond it await us adventure, glory, and gold!"

Montezuma, a man lacking mental strength and decision, had been affected by the determination of the Spaniards, and tradition and superstition now wrought upon him in their favor. Quetzalcoatl, the famous white god of the Toltecs, had sailed to the east, promising to return. Was this promise being kept? Was this resolute white stranger the great Toltec deity? If so no human power could stop his advance. He must be dealt with as such a mighty personage deserved. Destiny had spoken; what it had said must come to pass. If this were indeed Quetzalcoatl resistance might lead to disaster, compliance to Aztec good and glory.

Castle at Chapultepec, Mexico City,


Cortes had taken one vital step. He now took another. The messengers of Montezuma were sent back with the same message as before. The monarch was told that the white men must visit him in person, and without waiting for a reply the Spaniards turned their faces resolutely to the mountain barrier and began their eventful march toward the center of the Aztec empire.

Up the mountain slopes they toiled, marching by day, sleeping upon their arms at night. They knew little of what lay before them, but had been told of the small republic of Tlascala, a strong mountain fortress inhabited by bitter and unconquerable enemies of the Aztecs. Soon their journey brought them to the well defended wall that closed the entrance to this stronghold. It was built of stone blocks to a man's height and extended for several miles to rock ramparts on either side.

Here came the second act in the drama of the Conquest. The brave mountaineers were no more inclined than the Aztecs to permit these white-faced strangers to enter their domain. Cortes tried to win their favor by diplomacy, but the Tlascallan chiefs sent back the defiant message that "the strangers who had been thrown up by the sea could come to their great city if they chose, but it would be to become sacrifices to the gods and be served up at a sacred festival."

This defiance led to warfare, two battles following, in the second of which the Tlascallans were in vast numbers and fought with the courage of despair. But the firearms, the horses, the armor of the Spaniards were too much for the poorly armed and protected mountaineers, who after immense losses were forced to flee. This ended the resistance of the Tlascallans. Peace was concluded, the people agreeing to become vassals of the Spanish crown and to aid Cortes in his enterprise. They further consented to accept the Christian faith and to give up human sacrifices, though they refused to yield up their old protecting deities.

This event was of the greatest moment to Cortes. It gained him the alliance of a powerful and valorous people, one inspired by hatred to the Aztecs and eager to assist in their overthrow. Some time was spent at Tlascala, Cortes being so ill from fever acquired on the coast that he could hardly keep in his saddle. While recovering he received a new message from Montezuma, who now invited the stranger chief to visit him. He at the same time warned him against the perfidious Tlascallans, and advised him to come through Cholula, a friendly nation which lay in his way.

At Cholula the Spaniards showed their sanguinary character. What real warrant they had for the act of bloodshed that took place we do not know, but it has brought upon Cortes and his Spaniards the execration of historians. Being told that the Cholulans were planning his destruction, and with no apparent proof of the truth of this story, he launched his forces upon the people while peacefully traversing the city streets, mowed them down with cannon and musketry, and sent the ferocious Tlascallans to attack them in the rear. Three thousand of the unresisting natives are said to have fallen in this perfidious massacre, which deeply stained the honor of the Spanish invaders. A "punitive example" Cortes called it. It was an example of a kind that was afterwards repeated in Tenochtitlan, in the latter case nearly bringing destruction upon the Spaniards.

While at Cholula Cortes received an offer of alliance from one of two kings of Texcoco, then at war, an offer which the shrewd Spaniard was quick to accept, as it was an important step in his favor in the desperate game which lay before him. Encouraged by the events described, the bold adventurer again marched forward with a strong body of Tlascallans in his train. Over the plateau they passed, climbed the rim of hills surrounding the fair Valley of Mexico, and looked down with delight and wonder upon that verdant and fruitful plain, with its numerous towns and villages, its group of shining lakes, and far away the famous Aztec capital, crowned with its great temple, the goal of their daring and dubious enterprise. Farther off was visible the equally fair city of Texcoco, and in the far distance the opposite side of the mountain girdle. It was the promised land which the invaders had so long sought, one destined to become the scene of remarkable examples of daring and disaster.

The capture of the City of Mexico by Cortez.


On the 8th of November, 1519, Cortes and his followers set foot on one of the causeways leading to the city, built of stone and mortar above the shallow lake and connecting the island city of Tenochtitlan with the adjoining shores. The streets reached, the Spanish adventurer was met by Montezuma, the proud Aztec emperor. He came, carried in a royal litter gleaming with polished gold. In descending he stepped on splendid carpets, laid for his royal feet. Cortes met him with the utmost show of respect, and put around his neck a chain of gold ornamented with colored beads, which to the Aztecs seemed like gems of value.

Was this truly the great Quetzalcoatl? A query of this kind may have rested in the monarch's mind as he exchanged compliments with his strangely dressed and white-faced visitor. He bade the two princes who accompanied him to escort the white men to the palace prepared for their reception. The city seemed empty as they passed through. The people had been forbidden to look upon these strangers, whose souls were filled with a feeling of dread as they made their way through the silent and deserted streets.

The striking events that followed must be told with more brevity. In the following days Cortes explored the capital, held other interviews with the emperor, and became fully conscious of the peril that environed him, in a populous city filled with unfriendly people and ruled by a distrustful sovereign. It was a case in which only the boldest measures could bring success. He resolved on the boldest of all measures. He would seize the person of the emperor and hold him as a hostage for the good faith of his people. It was the same bold step that Pizarro afterwards adopted in Peru, but Cortes had a different people than the Peruvians to deal with.

Difficult as was this enterprise, the irresolute and somewhat timid character of the emperor aided in its success, and after an indignant refusal to visit Cortes in his quarters Montezuma was prevailed on to do so. He was held there seemingly as guest, but really as prisoner. Daring and doubtful as was this act, it might have proved successful but for an untoward event. Hardly had Cortes got the emperor in his power than threatening news came from the coast. Governor Velasquez had sent out a new agent, named Narvaez, who was directed to remove Cortes and take his place in command. Quick and decided action was imperative. Leaving the imperial prisoner in the hands of Don Pedro de Alvarado, Cortes hastened with part of his command to the coast, and with his usual boldness in action attacked the newcomer, routed him completely, and gained a welcome addition to his forces from the men of Narvaez. Especially welcome were the horses they had brought. The act of Velasquez had merely strengthened the man he sought to dispossess.

But Cortes had made the serious mistake of leaving Alvarado in command, an error for which he was to pay bitterly. While a man of great bravery, Alvarado had none of the prudence and judgment of his leader. Rash and bloodthirsty, he succeeded in utterly ruining all the good work which Cortes had done. Without cause or provocation, so far as we are aware, certainly without judgment or wisdom, while the Aztecs were holding a religious festival, Alvarado with fifty armed Spaniards entered the hall where they were engaged in dancing and festive entertainment, and made a sudden attack upon them, slaughtering the unarmed guests in the most merciless manner, "so that the gutters ran with blood as in a rain storm," the chroniclers say.

When Cortes returned, startled with the news that had reached his ears, he found the city in arms and Alvarado and his men besieged in their quarters by the furious populace. Cortes and his men succeeded in reaching the palace, but for several days were obliged to fight with desperation. Several sorties were made, in one of which they fought their way to the summit of the great temple, from which they had been seriously annoyed, drove the priests and warriors over its edge, and rolled the frightful idol of their war-god down into the streets beneath.

As the assaults continued with unceasing fury, Cortes persuaded the imperial prisoner to ascend to the palace roof and seek to persuade his people to suspend their attack. Montezuma did so, clad in his imperial robes and bearing his golden wand of office. A few of his nobles attended him. On seeing their monarch a sudden quiet fell upon the dense throng of assailants. His voice was heard asking them to cease their strife against the white strangers. This request was followed by a wild outburst of fury, howls and execrations filled the streets, and deadly missiles were hurled, a stone striking the emperor in the head and inflicting a mortal wound. At this the throng, horror-stricken by their act, melted away, leaving the square before the palace empty. Such is the story of the death of Montezuma, though there is a Mexican account, which may be true, saying that his death was due to the Spaniards, who, considering him an encumbrance, killed him.

The fall of Montezuma.


However this be, the position of the Spaniards in Tenochtitlan had now become too perilous to be maintained. Their numbers were daily lessening before the weapons of the Aztecs, and their only hope lay in a hasty flight. This was decided upon on the day after the emperor's death, and taking advantage of the nightly quiet of the people, the invaders, on the night of July 1, 1520, set out on their retreat. An interesting instance of the sober sense of Cortes took place while the Spaniards were preparing in all haste for flight. Heaps of gold and other valuables lay on the floor and cavaliers and troopers alike greedily helped themselves from this precious store.

"Pocket what you can," said Cortes, "but bear in mind that gold is heavy and we have to travel swiftly."

Well it proved for those who took this advice, for of those who loaded themselves down from the precious spoil few lived through that fateful night.

All seemed quiet as death when the Spaniards filed from the palace and made their way through the dark streets to the causeway across the lake. Hope came back to them as they hastened onward. There were three canals to cross and, fearing that the bridges had been removed, the fugitives carried with them a portable bridge which they had hastily constructed. All seemed going well. The first canal was reached and the bridge laid across it. Over it the cavaliers rode and the footmen dragged their cannon.

At this critical juncture a threatening sound met their ears. It was that of the great Aztec war-drum, calling the people to arms and to vengeance. They were ready for the work. Rapidly they poured in multitudes upon the causeway. The lake suddenly swarmed with canoes. Savage war-cries filled the air; darts and stones rained upon the fugitives; hand to hand was the conflict; death reigned on every side. The second breach in the causeway was reached. "Bring on the bridge" was the cry. Vain proved the demand. The bridge had sunk deeply into the muddy banks under the weight of horses and guns and it was impossible to move it. The fugitives in panic faced the open channel. Wilder grew the war-cries. On the Spaniards and their Indian allies rushed the maddened Aztecs. Down went horse and man; dead bodies fell into the yawning water; living men were borne away in canoes to become victims to the dread Aztec war-god ; terror reigned supreme.

The ditch must be filled. Already this was partly done by dead bodies of men and horses. Bales of plunder and chests of ammunition were hastily flung in. In this way the shallow opening was nearly filled and across it rushed the fugitives, a rear guard under Alvarado remaining to keep back the furious foe. The third breach was reached. Cortes and the leading cavaliers swam their horses across and were pushing onward when a loud cry reached their ears.

"The rear guard perishes!"

"Back and save them!" cried Cortes, and gallantly back went he and his cavaliers, swimming the breach once more and hurrying to where Alvarado and his men were battling like heroes with the yelling horde of pursuers.

There is a striking tale here to tell, a heroic one. Unhorsed and unprotected, Alvarado stood on the inner side of the breach, the others having passed. The gray light of the coming dawn fell upon his solitary figure, and on that of the foemen in his rear. Death seemed imminent. But planting his lance on the wreckage on the bottom of the breach the athletic Spaniard leaped forward and cleared the yawning chasm at a bound. To this day, in Mexico City, the spot is pointed out as "The Leap of Alvarado."

When morning fully dawned its light fell upon the remnant of the fleeing army, staggering onward, bleeding, hungering, gone their baggage and cannon, gone their last carbine, wandering by an unknown road into the heart of a hostile realm. Cortes, for once overcome by disaster, seated himself on the steps of a ruined temple, while hot and bitter tears flowed from his eyes. So closed the Noche Triste, the "Sad Night" of his wondrous career.

All is not lost while a hero lives. For days the fugitives moved slowly on, living on the few ears of maize that could be found along their path. Cortes led them with a brave and cheerful mien until seven days had passed. Then, from the top of a ridge they had ascended, they saw before them a mighty host, filling the whole valley of Otumba, through which their route led. Against these threatening thousands were the handful of Spaniards who had escaped, and the remnant of Tlascallans who had survived the Aztec weapons. Could they cut through that swarming host? No time was lost in considering this question. Forward into the valley they charged with desperate courage, and were soon lost in the battling multitude of vengeful Indians.

For several hours the fight continued with little success for the fugitives. Then the Indian leader was seen advancing, borne on a litter, richly dressed and bearing the royal banner of Tenochtitlan. Around him was a body of young nobles, his guard of honor. It was a critical moment. Utter disaster was threatening the Spaniards, who were being pushed back on every side. The sight of this Aztec chief inspired Cortes with a last hope. He spurred his steed towards him, followed by a small party of horsemen and cutting down all who opposed. Reaching the bodyguard, Cortes forced his way furiously through it, and struck down the prince with a vigorous thrust from his lance. Down sprang a horseman, seized the banner and handed it to Cortes. At the sight of their fallen chief and lost standard sudden terror ran through the host. They broke into utter panic and fled in a confused mass, followed by the Spaniards with thrusting lance and striking sword until the field was covered with the dead.

Thus ended the battle of Otumba, one of the most remarkable in American history. The numbers of the foe may have been greatly exaggerated, but there is no question of the warlike valor and genius of Cortes and the bravery of his men. The Spaniards repaid themselves in a measure for their losses on the causeway by the rich costumes of the dead on this fatal field to the Indians. Gladly pursuing their march, they eventually reached Tlascala, where they, and the remnant of Tlascallans with them, were warmly received.

Six months later, in December of 1520, Cortes returned. He had gained a strong reinforcement of Spaniards, gathered a large army of allies from the various tribes hostile to the Aztecs, and now found a powerful ally in the King of Texcoco, which place he entered on the final day of 1520. He had determined upon a different method of warfare, that of siege of the city and attack from the lake. He had prepared at Tlascala the material for thirteen brigantines, which were put together on the waters of Lake Texcoco, part of their timbers coming from the ships which he had sunk on the Gulf coast. With the large army now under his command he subdued all opposition in the surrounding country, and near the end of May, 1521, began his memorable siege of the Aztec capital.

For three months this siege continued, the Aztecs defending themselves with all their old gallantry, yet steadily losing ground before their powerful foes. Cut off from food and with, little water, for the waters of Lake Texcoco are salt, the brave defenders were reduced to extremities from hunger and thirst, but Guatemoc, the noble young monarch who now filled the throne of Montezuma, utterly refused to surrender. His people slain, his city ruined, all hope at an end, on the 13th of August he sought to escape, but the boat in which he fled was taken and the last Aztec emperor was brought into the presence of his conqueror.

"I have done my best to defend my people," he proudly said. "Deal with me as you will." He touched the dagger in the belt of Cortes, and added, "Despatch me at once, I beseech."

Instead of being slain, his wife, who had been taken with him, was sent for, and the royal pair were treated with kindness, rest and refreshment being provided them. And thus ended the last act of this great drama, the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortes and his band of adventurers.