Hernando Cortes - Frederick Ober

In the City of Mexico


"Malintzin," said the spokesman of a deputation of noble lords, sent by Montezuma to meet CortÚs with rich gifts, "these presents our monarch sends you, saying how grieved he is that you should take such trouble in coming from a distant country to see him. As he has already told you, he will give gold, silver, and gems for you and your teules, on condition that you will abandon your intention and not approach any nearer his capital. He now repeats this request, and promises that he will send after you a great treasure of gold and jewels for your king, four loads of gold for yourself, and a load for each of your brethren, on the condition that you return at once."

CortÚs thanked the ambassadors most courteously for their gifts and those conditionally promised, which would have amounted to more than $1,000,000 in value; but, he said, he was still determined upon keeping on until the object of his long and toilsome journey should be reached. He was surprised, he continued, to find the great Montezuma so variable, first inviting him to his court, then desiring him to depart, without so much as a glimpse of his glorious countenance. He respectfully submitted, to them and to him, that he could not now turn back, being pledged to his sovereign to proceed and deliver his message at court.

No course was open to the Spaniards now but to proceed, even though a rumor was circulated in the ranks that it was Montezuma's intention to permit them to enter the city and then put them all to death. "And being like other mortals," says one of the soldiers, "and desirous to live, it filled us with melancholy thoughts."

Still, on they marched, first halting at the town of Amecameca, then at Tlalmanalco (two towns founded by the Aztecs, which yet exist), where they rested and refreshed themselves during two days and nights, being well received by the caciques, who gave them food as well as gold. Passing thence through plantations of maize and maguey, the little band came to Chalco, a town near the first of that chain of lakes so famous in Mexico's history. Here the night was passed, and next morning word came to CortÚs by courier that Montezuma's nephew, Cacamatzin, king of Tezcoco, was approaching, and the army was drawn up to receive him. Six native nobles bore his palanquin, which was adorned with feathers, gold, and gems, and others swept the ground over which he passed.

The Spaniards were favorably impressed by the king of Tezcoco, whose magnificence gave assurance of what was in store for them at Montezuma's court, and falling into line they marched along with elastic step. The die was cast and they were already in the trap—if trap there were—set by the Mexicans for their capture, having sprung it themselves when they crossed the mountain ridge and left that barrier behind them.

Skirting the southeastern shore of Lake Chalco, at a town (still existing) known as Ayocingo, they took the causeway for a small island where stood a city called Cuitlahuac (to-day it is Tlahuac) which, with its white and glistening houses of stone and its blossoming gardens, struck them as exceedingly beautiful. Across the lake, northward, led another stone causeway, broad enough for eight horsemen to ride abreast, which ended at Iztapalapan, a city containing several thousand dwellings and stone palaces with massive cedar beams, set amid gardens of flowers. Montezuma's brother was governor here, and in one of the vast halls of his palace he had gathered many lords of inferior cities to assist him in welcoming the Spaniards, who were given a banquet and sumptuously entertained.

City of Tenochtitlan


The great city of Mexico, also known as Tenochtitlan, the Heart of Anahuac, and Aztlan, was distinctly visible from Iztapalapan, and was pointed out by the Mexican nobles, who had no occasion to magnify its wonders, which were perfectly apparent to the astonished strangers. Founded 200 years before, on an island in the salt lake, Tezcoco, the Aztec city had grown with great rapidity, long since having spread beyond its original limits. Three wide causeways and an aqueduct, all solidly built of stone and mortar, connected with the main-land around the lake, north, south, and west. Easterly lay the bulk of Tezcoco's waters, across which, on the farther shore, gleamed the towers and temples of a city bearing the same name as the lake.

The causeway connecting Iztapalapan with the capital was six miles in length and eight yards in breadth. It ran straight as an arrow's flight to the great city's central square, whence it was prolonged on its northern side to the mainland at Tepeyacac, where to-day stands the sacred shrine of Guadelupe.

About a mile from the southern shore the causeway was joined by another from the town of Coyoacan, and at their juncture stood a small but very strong stone fort, with walls ten feet high to the battlements and surrounded with a moat crossed by draw-bridges. All three causeways, in fact, were frequently cut by broad canals or ditches, spanned by wooden bridges, which could be raised at will, and thus, for a time at least, prevent the advance or retreat of an enemy so rash as to venture upon those narrow structures of stone amid the waters.

CortÚs and his men realized perfectly the risks they ran in taking this isolated highway, with the waters on either side alive with Indian canoes, a fortified city in front of them, and their retreat cut off by the gaps of open water that the raising of the bridges would reveal. The brave commander's eagle glance took in all this; but, nevertheless, he still advanced, impelled by a soldier's pride, perhaps also by a holy zeal for the conversion of the Mexicans. Led by him, forced to act against their own judgment by him, the army took the road for Aztlan's capital, by the way of Mexicalzinco, with the salt Tezcoco on one side of their narrow causeway and the fresh waters of Chalco on the other. The air was soft, the scenery enchanting. On every side were natural objects of wonderful beauty, and architectural works showing taste and refinement. Above all other things which excited the wonder of these rude soldiers were the beautiful chinampas, or floating gardens, on the bosom of Lake Chalco, made of matted vegetation, woven together with vines, covered with earth, and supporting growing plants bearing fruits and flowers for the markets of Mexico.

The people of Aztlan, or Aztec land, pressed forward by thousands to witness the advance of this grim body of warriors, scant 500 strong, cleaving the throngs like a wedge—a living wedge—which at no distant day was to split the Mexican empire in twain! The common soldiers kept their eyes upon their leader, who rode proudly at their head, the life, the soul, the animating purpose of that amazing expedition. Close after him came the cavalry, the horses' iron hoofs ringing loudly on the stones of the causeway. Next to the cavalry, the iron guns drawn by the allies attracted the dazed attention of the Aztecs, as the artillery went rumbling and rattling over the road. Then came the arquebusiers, with their matchlocks: few in number, these musketeers, but grim and stern-looking in their bonnets and corselets of steel. After them strode the swordsmen and halberdiers, or pikemen, comprising the infantry and the bulk of the soldiery.

All were lithe and sinewy men, for the weaklings had been weeded out long since by the grim Reaper with his sickle of death. Only strong men and stalwart were there, for the bearing of their armor (whether of steel or quilted cotton and iron) was a burden for any able-bodied soldier. Their helms flashed back the morning sunshine, as well as sword-hilt and halberd-head, breastplate, arquebuse, and battle-axe. Compact and perfectly drilled, swayed by one impulse, one resistless will, these mailed monsters, as they marched along with ring of steel and rattle of accoutrements, must have appeared to the wondering natives what they nearly were—invincible. They excited the awed wonder of the thronging Mexicans, between whose serried ranks they broke their way—a wonder too deep for any other sensation to affect them—until the thousand Tlascalans who came trooping after, darting their fierce glances right and left, stirred their deep hatred and resentment.

The army came to Xoloc, where the small fort stood at the juncture of the causeways, and CortÚs noted swiftly its strategic advantages, which the following year he used so well in his siege of the city. Here the Spaniards halted, while 1000 or more of the Mexican nobility trooped past them, each noble with a salute for CortÚs, as commander, consisting of a deep obeisance, and kissing one hand, after first touching it to the earth. Thus passed more than an hour, when, this barbaric ceremony being ended, the army moved on again towards the city, arrived near the great gate of which announcement was made by messengers that Montezuma was approaching. The nobles hastened to meet their sovereign lord, and CortÚs, dismounting from his horse, threw the bridle-reins to a page and advanced to greet the emperor.

No horse had he, the great Montezuma, whose slightest wish was law throughout an ocean-bounded realm, nor had he ever seen one before that day on which he met the invaders of his capital. He rode upon the shoulders of his subjects, in a litter (or palan quin) dazzling in its adornments, descending from which, and leaning on the arms of two attendant princes, he revealed himself at last to the rash stranger who had so persistently sought him.

That was another triumph for CortÚs: to be received on an equality with kings, though coming in the character of ambassador. He had won the respect, had compelled the admiration, of the greatest monarch any Spaniard had ever approached in the New World called America.

The emperor appeared to be about forty years of age, was tall and spare, with a coppery complexion and sparse beard. His eyes were dark and melancholy, his hair black and coarse, worn long and flowing. His head was adorned with a rude tiara of gold and a panache of green plumes, the insignia of his military rank. His embroidered tilmatli, or Aztec cloak, was trimmed with pearls and chalchiuitls, as also were his buskins or sandals, the soles of which were of gold. The precious metal was conspicuous, not only on his royal person, but on the palanquin in which he arrived, with pillars plated with gold and feathered canopy.



Advancing towards each other, king and conqueror met and exchanged greetings. CortÚs, in his disregard of the dignity that hedged about the sovereign, would have embraced him, after the effusive Spanish custom, but was halted half-way by the horrified attendants. He, however, hung around the emperor's neck a collar of pearls and diamonds (false, like his own pretensions), which he had the audacity—the impudence, even—to beg Montezuma to accept in the name of his sovereign.

The really great and generous Montezuma little cared for the value of a gift, preferring rather to give than to receive, and so, without more than a glance at the collar, he ordered one of his retinue to present CortÚs with two necklaces of mother-of-pearl with pendants of golden crayfish beautifully wrought. The two chief personages in this interchange of civilities then held brief converse through the interpreters. CortÚs remarked (and truthfully) that he rejoiced in having at last seen so great a monarch, and that he felt highly honored by his attentions. Montezuma responded graciously, and, having given orders for the princes of Tezcoco and Coyoacan to attend his guests to the quarters prepared for them in the city, he re-entered his palanquin and returned to his palace, guarded by his nobles, and between double ranks of cringing subjects.

Greatly elated, CortÚs and his soldiers followed close behind, with drums beating, trumpets sounding, and colors fluttering, all their recent misgivings swept away, their hopes in the ascendant. For had not the mighty Montezuma received them with greatest honor and their chief with all the distinction of royalty itself? There was no talk now of going back to Cuba, for all were exultant as, treading lightly to the sound of martial music, they entered the city through the southern gate. They marched straight down the central avenue leading to the great plaza, on either side vast, massive palaces frowned down upon by the teocallis, or temple-pyramids, their summits smoking with the fires of sacrifice.

At the entrance to an immense structure on the western side of the plaza they found Montezuma and his suite awaiting them. Taking CortÚs by the hand, the emperor said, "Malintzin, here you and your friends are now at home; enter and repose yourselves after the fatigue of your march." He then departed for his palace, promising to return after the Spaniards had rested.

The building assigned to the army of guests whom Montezuma was called upon to entertain was formerly the palace of his father, King Axayacatl. Its vast size may be inferred from the fact that within its walls ample accommodations were found for all the Spaniards as well as their allies. The apartment reserved for CortÚs was hung with cotton tapestries, golden-fringed, its floor covered with rushes as mats, and set about with wooden stools.

Refreshments were awaiting their arrival, and after the grim battalions had filed in and had been assigned to quarters, after cannon had been posted at the gates and sentinels on the parapets, CortÚs ordered a salute fired from the artillery, as a sign of triumph, and in order to terrify the Mexicans, who swarmed about the palace in wonder and amaze. It was a rude return for Montezuma's gracious hospitalities, and it was not the last of its kind; but the roar of the cannon reverberating through the streets and squares served the purpose intended by CortÚs, and was sufficiently terrifying to the astonished Aztecs. Never before in the 200 years of its existence had the Aztec city heard such sounds, nor had it ever before been invaded by soldiers in armor, bearing weapons that evoked the thunder and the lightning.