Hernando Cortes - Frederick Ober

In the Plumed Serpent's Land


CortÚs left the river Grijalva, or Tabasco, on Palm Sunday, with the vessels of his fleet bedecked with leafy banners emblematical of the holy day. All his company were in high spirits, and as they passed along the curving shores of the great gulf those who had been with Grijalva pointed out the various objects of interest, such as the great river Guacacualco and the lofty mountains of the interior, their summits white with snow.

Thus sailing serenely along, with palm-leaves aloft, as a promise of peace, the fleet left behind it the ravaged region where so lately war had held high carnival, and on Holy Thursday, 1519, arrived at the port discovered by Grijalva and named by him San Juan de Ulua. The "San Juan" was a modest reference to his own name (which was Juan, or John), and "Ulua" referred to the native name for Mexico, as nearly as it could be rendered into Spanish.

No sooner had the fleet cast anchor in the glassy waters of the bay, under shelter if the Isla de los Sacrificios, than a canoe darted out from shore and approached the flag-ship. Its passengers went on board and offered the captain-general gifts of fruits, flowers, and golden ornaments. They proved to be men of high rank in Montezuma's service; one of them, Teuhtlile, being the military governor of the province adjacent to the gulf. They had come to inquire of the strangers their errand and intentions, having watched for them ever since the departure of Grijalva.

Conversation at first was carried on by signs; but when it was discovered that Dona Marina knew their language, and also the Maya, which Aguilar could speak, it was conducted through the two interpreters. After making clear to the ambassadors from Montezuma that he had come to see the ruler of the country, or, at all events, the governor of the province, CortÚs dismissed them, with some trifling presents in return for the gold they had brought.

Route of Cortez to Mexico

The entire force was disembarked the next day upon a beach bordering the plain on which was subsequently erected "la Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz," or the Rich City of the True Cross. Two days later, shortly before noon of the succeeding Easter Sunday, Montezuma's governor, Teuhtlile, reappeared, accompanied by an immense throng bearing loads of provisions consisting of fish, fowl, and fruits of the country, besides bales of cotton cloth and gold. On the day previous a multitude of natives had been sent by him to construct shelters for the soldiers on the barren sand-hills bordering the shore, and here CortÚs received him with great ceremony.

The Aztec noble was not to be outdone in politeness, even by the courteous Spaniards, and returned their salutations with a grace that showed acquaintance with the usages of refined society.

A collation followed, at which Governor Teuhtlile behaved so admirably as to evoke favorable comment from his hosts. After the repast was over the interpreters were called in, and the governor inquired, as before, as to the object of the white strangers in visiting his shores.

CortÚs replied that he had come to open communication between his sovereign, the mighty Don Carlos of Spain, and the ruler of Mexico, to whom, by-the-way, he was anxious to send an embassy without further delay.

"What!" asked the Aztec noble, in amazement; "you are only just arrived, and yet you talk of seeing our great monarch, the peerless Montezuma? Impossible!—at least for the present; but accept these gifts which he sends you. There will be time to talk of other things afterwards."

Speaking thus, he ordered his slaves to advance and lay at the feet of his guest the burdens they had brought, consisting of ten bales of cotton mantles, specimens of the wonderful plumaje, or native feather-work, and a basketful of golden ornaments ingeniously wrought. It was a gift well worthy acceptance by royalty itself; but in return CortÚs presented the governor with an old arm-chair, carved and painted, a crimson cap, a quantity of cheap glass beads, and a brass medal with an effigy on it of St. George killing the mythical dragon. To this paltry present he added a gilded helmet which Teuhtlile had seen on the head of a soldier and much admired, remarking that it resembled one worn by their war-god.

Meanness could go no further when CortÚs remarked, as he presented the helmet, that he would be greatly pleased if it could be returned to him filled with gold. Then he explained, in a shamefaced way, that the Spaniards were afflicted with a disease of the heart which only gold could cure.

The ambassador departed for the Aztec capital, leaving another noble to supply the Spanish army with provisions during his absence. Eight days later he returned at the head of a long procession of Indians, some of whom bore him and other officials in hammocks on their shoulders, while others, to the number of more than a hundred, were staggering beneath great burdens of gifts.

That he had been able to perform the journey to the capital and return, not much less than 400 miles, in the time mentioned, seems incredible; but the statement is made on good authority. It is even related that King Montezuma was wont to receive fresh fish from the gulf daily, by means of relays of swift couriers; but this may well be doubted.

The Spaniards considered themselves richly rewarded for their labors when permitted to gaze upon the presents sent by Montezuma, which were displayed by Teuhtlile's attendants on mats spread on the sands. Wonders like these they had never beheld before. First (and this was the most dazzling of all), was a great disk of solid gold, as big as a wagon-wheel. This was said to be a symbol of the sun, and was worth $200,000. Another disk, but of silver, represented the moon—of lesser value, but equally wonderful as to its workmanship. There were also thirty golden ducks, as many deer, and other animals known to the Mexicans; collars, gorgets, helmets, cuirasses, and plumes—all of gold, most exquisitely wrought. Besides these there were many bales of cotton garments, embroidered mantles, and the peculiarly valuable plumaje.

There, too, was the veritable helmet loaned by CortÚs, and which, after having been examined and admired by Montezuma, had been returned filled with golden grains, to the value of 3000 crowns. It was a regal present, truly, surpassing in value anything the Spaniards had yet received from the New World aborigines since America had become known through the voyages of Columbus. In return for this glorious gift, what sent CortÚs to the great Montezuma? A grandiloquent message, as on the former occasion; three Holland shirts, a gilded goblet, and some worthless baubles, which even a Spanish beggar would have rejected with scorn.

It would have been far better to have sent merely his thanks, for by this beggarly present (as the sequel will show) was the poverty and meanness of the Spaniards made known to Montezuma. He had sent word to CortÚs, as commander of the invading army, that he would not be permitted to visit the capital city, and must depart from the country at once. This message, as we know, was not in accord with the inclinations of CortÚs, and a second time he represented to Teuhtlile his desire for appearing in person before the king or emperor. The best that noble could do was to promise to transmit his request, which he did.

Ten days later, another long procession of Indians came winding down among the sand dunes, bearing a third and last present for the commander, to the value of more than 3000 ounces of gold. In addition to the gold, Montezuma sent four precious stones, called by the Aztecs chalchiuitls, or native emeralds. In the estimation of the Mexicans each one was worth a back-load of gold; but these gems were found to have but little value in the marts of Europe. Still, these stones, as well as the gold and feather-work, denoted the great and generous nature which had inspired the gift, and aroused in the breasts of the Spaniards a burning desire to see the donor.

With this last gift came the emperor's final answer, denying the request of the Spaniards to advance into the country, and desiring them to leave, now that they had received the gold they sought. In emphasis of this message, which was in its nature a command, all the natives suddenly withdrew from the Spanish camp, and the next morning CortÚs and his crew found themselves without supplies, except such as they had brought, consisting of mouldy cassava bread, decayed meats, and a few fish which the sailors had caught from the vessels.

The situation was serious; but at any time, it would seem, the Spaniards could sail for Cuba, even on short rations, and there already existed quite a faction loud in demands for immediate retreat. All the Spaniards had gone into raptures over the gifts, and gloated over the rich prize, in anticipation of their individual shares; but these proofs of Mexico's vast wealth produced various effects upon different minds. Most of the soldiers argued that such an empire (as CortÚs had broadly hinted) would be a goodly one to conquer and despoil; but there were others, especially the friends of Velasquez, who saw in this very wealth that had been poured out before them an indication of resources betokening such a power of resistance as could not be overcome.

In order to understand the exaggerated importance which the Mexicans had attached to the coming of CortÚs and his band, it will be necessary to interrupt the narrative of events in sequence and revert to the happenings of a previous time. When Governor Teuhtlile and his attendants first saluted CortÚs, they bowed before him, touching their hands to the ground and kissing them, at the same time fumigating the strangers with incense. This was the customary salutation of ambassadors, as practised by the Mexicans, who addressed the strangers as tetuctin—lords, or nobles—which the interpreters wrongly translated as teules, or deities. In point of fact, as some have thought, the Mexicans at first really believed the Spaniards were the representatives of a deity they had long expected to visit their coasts—a mythical personage who figured in their traditions as Quetzalcoatl, or the God of Air.

For several years previous to the arrival of the Spaniards off the eastern coast of Mexico (if we may believe native traditions) the Mexicans, or Aztecs, had been vexed by startling portents, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and an irruption of the waters of Lake Tezcoco into the city of Mexico. In or about the year 1510, a turret of their great temple took fire and burned for many days without any visible cause. Finally a vast sheet of fire appeared in the eastern sky, accompanied by mysterious murmurings of the air.

The Aztec priests gave out that their chief deity, Huitzilopochtli, was angered, and to appease him the temple-pyramid on which he stood was covered from base to summit with rare feathers and plates of gold. His altars, too, were drenched with the blood of human victims; but their lives went out in vain, for the portents continued.

At last it was suggested that it was not the bloody war-god, but the peaceful Quetzalcoati, that should be propitiated. The Plumed Serpent, as the latter was called, did not demand human sacrifices, but only offerings of fruits and flowers. He was a god of the ancient Toltecs, who inhabited the table-land of Mexico before the Aztecs came down from the north. His palaces were of silver, gold, and precious stones, and it was he who had taught the people the cutting of gems, casting of metals, and the wonderful feather-work. In his time (tradition said), a single ear of corn was a load for a man, pumpkins were six feet in circumference, gourds were as long as one's arm, while cotton grew on its stalks all colored and ready for weaving.

Aztec God of War


Driven from Mexico by the cruel Tezcatlipoca, the Plumed Serpent departed in his great canoe hewn from a silk-cotton-tree, wafted by fragrant gales to the eastward. After tarrying awhile in Tabasco and Coatzacoalcos, he went to Yucatan, where he was worshipped under the name of Kukulcan. On the front wall of the "Nun's House," in the ruined city of Uxmal, you may still find an effigy of the "Feathered Serpent "more than one hundred feet in length. It was carved many centuries ago, and whether it was intended as a "nature symbol" merely, or as a reminder of Quetzalcoatl's promise to return, at least the effigy has been there longer than the memory of mankind can recall.

Quetzalcoatl had promised, on his departure from Tula and Cholula, that he would sometime return by the route by which he had departed, and through all the changing centuries the Mayas and Mexicans had looked for him. When, therefore, news of the Spaniards' advent reached Aztlan, the Mexican capital, the prophecy of Quetzalcoatl was recalled. He was white and bearded—so were the strangers; he had departed in a great canoe—so came the strangers, in their ships with sails.

The Mexican officials who had met Grijalva at Tabasco, and those who had received CortÚs at San Juan de Ulua, had with them expert artists, or picture-writers, whom they set at work depicting every detail of the armaments. So faithfully did they represent the bearded men and their winged ships that the agitated Montezuma, when he saw these pictures of Grijalva's company, was convinced that the Plumed Serpent had really arrived. So an embassy with rich gifts was sent to the coast, but too late to meet Grijalva, who had then sailed for Panuco, whence he returned directly to Cuba.

When the embassy returned with the tidings to Anahuac, Montezuma was perplexed; but he caused sentinels to be posted along the coast, with swift runners at hand ready to bring him the first information respecting the coming of Quetzalcoatl, in order that he might send him gifts and perhaps offer homage.

These, then, were the conditions existing at the time CortÚs appeared on the coast. The gifts that had been made ready for Grijalva were sent to his successor, and the fact that they were already prepared will explain the promptness with which they reached him.

Noting with what fidelity the native painters transferred the various scenes to "canvas," and desiring to impress the emperor with his power, CortÚs ordered out the cavalry on the day of the governor's first visit, and the horses manoeuvred on the sands. The Aztec artists were greatly impressed, of course; but they had scarcely recovered from their stupor of astonishment and regained the use of their hands when CortÚs caused the artillery to be discharged. Then the roar of the cannon and the crashing of the great balls through the trees completed their consternation.

It was some time before they could complete their work, for they not only had to calm their nerves, but, in order to transfer these new things to their sheets of prepared agave paper, they must invent new symbols, both for the man-mounted beasts and the "smoke-spitting thunder-weapons."

When these wonderful "picture-writings" reached the great Montezuma, he and his court experienced a new sensation. If they had gone to him without any verbal description by his subjects present at the scenes depicted, doubtless the Aztec monarch might have been convinced that the Plumed Serpent and his suite had actually landed on his shores. But, Teuhtlile and his staff had details to supply, as to the gross and carnal natures of these new arrivals, which absolutely precluded the belief that they were, or could be, connected with the great and good "God of Air." They had shown themselves, in truth, chiefly devoted to one deity, whom they would go any length to serve, and that was the God of Gold.