By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. — Confucius

Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober




Montezuma a Captive

Seventeen souls had passed through fire to the realms beyond. Outraged justice was to be yet further insulted, buffeted, and trampled upon. During the burning of the Mexicans, Montezuma had been kept in irons. Fetters had been placed upon his ankles. Stupefied with grief and shame, he had uttered no protest, then he broke down utterly and wept; his spirit was entirely broken, the iron had entered his soul. His abasement was such, that when the tyrant entered his apartment to remove the irons, boasting of his clemency in not taking his life, Montezuma fell upon his neck with expressions of gratitude! Knowing that he had the king fully in his power, Cortez offered to allow him to return to his palace; but this he would not consent to do, well aware that the offer was insincere, and of the danger possible to his life from his incensed and disgusted nobles, Though constantly guarded, Montezuma was allowed to go wherever he liked; to the lake to fish for water-fowl, to the woods of Chapultepec to hunt, to the temple to consult his gods. Two vessels had been built, with iron from Vera Cruz and wood from the royal forests, and one day the king and his party went in them to an island in the lake kept as a preserve, where they had great sport with deer and rabbits, and enjoyed the swift sailing of the great boats, which left the Indian canoes far behind. The royal prisoner was kept amused by parades of the soldiers and by means of conversation with a page in the employ of Cortez, who had learned the Aztec language. There was no popular commotion at the burning of the prisoners, because the people had looked upon the act as clone by the orders of their king; but all the Spanish soldiers were on duty in the square; and after that the sentinels were doubled and the horses kept always saddled and bridled at night. They prepared themselves as best they could for the revolt they had every reason to expect.

The crowning act of Montezuma's perfidy was the capture and delivery into the hands of Cortez of Cacamatzin, King of Tezcoco. This prince, a nephew of Montezuma, had become justly indignant at the treatment his uncle was receiving at the hands of the Spaniards, and he sent to tell him that he should not forget that he was a king, and that he had no more spirit than a hen, to allow himself to be reduced to such a miserable condition. He called together other princes of Mexico and tried to incite them to attack these strangers who had acquired such influence over their king, and had offered such insults to their deities. "It is now time," said this sagacious prince, "to fight for our religion, for our country, for our liberty, and for our honor, before the power of those men is increased by reinforcements from their own country or new alliances in this."

Cortez became alarmed, and sent to him a reminder of their former friendship and a warning against incurring his enmity. Cacamatzin made a spirited reply, saying that he could not regard as friends those who had so grossly insulted his gods and his relatives; and declared that he would soon rid the country of such pestilent vermin.

By means unworthy of a king, Montezuma obtained possession of the person of Cacamatzin and delivered him up to Cortez to burn or imprison, as he thought best. The utter baseness of this act will be apparent when we recollect that Cacamatzin was nephew of Montezuma, that he had been placed upon the throne by his aid, and that he had purposed resorting to arms only to free his uncle from imprisonment and his country from the presence of unprincipled oppressors. Cortez immediately placed the unfortunate prince in irons, and he subsequently perished, in the retreat from Mexico. A brother of his was in the city, Cuicuicatzin, who had sought protection from Cacamatzin, owing to a family quarrel. He was at once proclaimed king by Cortez and Montezuma, under the title of Don Carlos, and accepted as such by the servile nobility of Tezcoco.

It will be remembered that there were three possible heirs to the throne of Tezcoco at the death of Nezahualpilli, children of his favorite wife (see Chap. VI.). They were named Cacamatzin, Coanocotzin, and Cuicuicatzin. Another son, born of the second wife, was Ixtlilxochitl, whose warlike character and rebellious proceedings have already been noted. He was now lying in wait for events at his capital in the mountains, Otompan. The second son, Coanocotzin, was best entitled to the throne on the removal of Cacamatzin; but it was concluded that the other brother would be a more pliant instrument in the hands of Montezuma and Cortez. Having been elevated to the throne through their combined efforts he was expected to render them aid whenever required.

By skilful strategy, Cortez soon got possession of the lords of the principal cities of the valley, the King of Tlacopan, and the high priest of Tlaltelolco. But one thing now remained to secure, as he thought, the entire kingdom to his will. This was to compel Montezuma, his nobles, and lords, to acknowledge themselves as vassals of the Emperor of Spain, Charles V., then a dissolute youth of nineteen!

Montezuma summoned his nobles and tributary lords, and, at the suggestion of Cortez, explained to them his reasons for believing the Spaniards to be the long-pre¬dicted " children of the sun," and the King of Spain the lawful descend and of Quetzalcoatl, god of the air, who were to return to Mexico to rule the country. This, it is stated that he told them; but there is every reason for believing that this god-of-the-air theory had long since exploded, so far as it could be applied to the Spaniards. Far from exhibiting that love for peace and desire to pro-mote happiness, which were attributes of the god of the air, they had shown themselves men of blood, full of lust, and fit servants of that prince of darkness who is supposed to reside in the depths of the infernal regions. However, Montezuma was now a willing tool in the hands of Cortez for the enslaving of his people. He repeated to his nobles what the Spaniard directed, and they assented, declaring themselves vassals of the new king, though with sobs, and sighs, and groans, weeping and lamenting the fall of their own mighty empire. Now a slave, Montezuma had done his best to rivet the fetters upon the limbs of his faithful subjects. Low, indeed, had now sunk the great and terrible Montezuma!

Other indignities were in store for him and for his people. The treasure of Axayacatl, his revered father, was now requested of him, as tribute to that unknown being beyond the sea; he gave it. "Take it," said he, when Cortez informed him that some of the soldiers had been pilfering from it—"take it all; provided they do not touch the images of the gods, nor anything destined for their worship, they may take as much as they please." And take it they did, we may be very sure. They were three days sorting and distributing the articles of gold, which were wrought in elegant shapes. Most of it they melted down, but there were some rich ornaments of such exquisite workmanship that even these savage soldiers had respect for their great beauty, and resolved to send them to the King of Spain as they were. It was all weighed and divided, and it was thought that, exclusive of the gold and silver ornaments reserved, there was the value of 60,000 crowns in gold alone! In dividing it the cunning Cortez took good care that he and his captains should secure the lion's share. He first laid aside one-fifth for the king, another fifth for himself, another portion towards the expenses of the expedition, another for some imaginary agents in Spain, another for the soldiers in Vera Cruz—who never got it!—a goodly share for each of the captains and the "reverend father of mercy; "so that when it came down to the poor soldiers of the rank and file there was nothing worth having.

The captains got the native goldsmiths to make them chains of gold, and Cortez ordered a golden service of plate; but the miserable soldiers soon gambled away what little they had obtained with cards, which they made from a worn-out drumhead.

Montezuma also had sent out guides with small parties of Spaniards, who found out all the rich gold mines and rivers containing golden sands, so that there was soon collected an amount of treasure almost beyond calculation.

"Take this gold," said he, "which is all I now can collect on so short a notice, and also the treasure which I derived from my ancestors, and which I now give you, and send it to your monarch; and let it be recorded in your annals that this was the tribute of his vassal, Montezuma."

With noble scorn, he looked upon the quarrels of these freebooters over a little gold; with noble disregard of wealth, he gave these ruffians all he had—all the accumulations of his ancestors for generations past! Yet, they were not satisfied; though they pulled off their helmets in his presence and obsequiously thanked him for these royal gifts, doubtless they would have served him as they later did his nephew, Guatemotzin,—have burned his feet to a crisp,—if more gold could have been extracted from him in this way.

Now the Spaniards were exultant, but their rejoicings were of short duration. The nobles had at least succeeded in awakening the people to a sense of the degradation of their monarch, and the necessity of expelling these foreigners from their country. The priests at last informed Montezuma that the gods looked upon his conduct with disapproval, that they had threatened to withhold rain and to destroy them entirely unless the Spaniards were driven forth. His nobles also had consultations with him, in the last of which they had told him it was impossible to restrain the people longer.

Cortez was sent for and the unwelcome intelligence communicated to him, in a constrained manner, by Montezuma. After many expressions of affection and regret, he said, "Hitherto I have willingly entertained you at my court, have even been so desirous of the pleasure of your company and conversation as to live here amongst you. As for my own part, I would retain you here without any charge, daily making you experience some fresh proofs of my goodwill towards you; but it cannot be done, neither will my gods permit it, nor my subjects endure it. I find I am threatened with the heaviest punishments of heaven if I let you remain any longer in my kingdom; and such discontent already prevails among my vassals that unless I quickly remove the cause it will be altogether impossible to pacify them. Wherefore it is become necessary for my own safety as well as yours, and the good of all the kingdom, that you prepare yourselves to return to your native country."

Though greatly enraged at this command, and really fearful that it might be enforced, Cortez suggested an expedient for delay, requesting time to build three ships to carry him and his troops from the country. He promised to leave as soon as they were done, and at once despatched his carpenters to the coast, hoping that something might occur meanwhile which would enable him to remain.

It was not long after that Montezuma sent for him again, telling him with joy that he need defer his departure no longer, as a fleet of eighteen vessels had arrived on the coast. Cortez examined the paintings by which this news was conveyed, and found it was really true. He was at first rejoiced at this, as was Montezuma, for he imagined these vessels to contain reinforcements and munitions of war from Cuba or San Domingo; but when letters arrived from the governor of the port he found out his mistake—it was an armament sent against  him instead of for him.

There were eleven ships, seven brigantines, eighty-five horses, eight hundred infantry, five hundred sailors and a great quantity of ammunition, all under the command of Panfilo de Narvaez, a noted soldier, who afterwards perished in Florida. This vast armament was sent by Velasquez, Governor of Cuba, against Cortez, as a rebel and traitor to the King of Spain.

Then did this intrepid man exhibit the stuff that he was made of; he received the news without flinching, in the presence of Montezuma, and told him the arrival was that of expected succor. But Montezuma soon had truthful reports as to the nature of the expedition, as Narvaez sent to inform the king himself that he had heard of the indignities that had been heaped upon him, and was coming with his army to rescue him, and to punish Cortez and his brutal soldiery.

The wonderful energy and courage of Cortez sustained him in the demand now made upon him for extraordinary exertion and sagacity. He soon decided upon a course of action; he tried to effect with Narvaez a junction of forces against the Mexicans as a common enemy, or division of the territory between them; in both of which he failed. Narvaez would listen to nothing; he would seize Cortez as a traitor and send him to Cuba.

Then Cortez acted. Leaving but one hundred and forty soldiers as garrison in Mexico, he took two hundred and fifty and started for the coast, passing through Cholula and Tlascala. It was a distance of quite two hundred and fifty miles, but he soon traversed it. With his trained and war-scarred veterans he attacked the forces of Narvaez, encamped in the town of Cempoalla, and defeated them. Two hundred and fifty men captured four times their number! Not many were killed, some were wounded, and Narvaez himself lost an eye. It was a gallant fight on the part of Cortez' men, but the army of Narvaez was disaffected. Cortez had secretly despatched messengers to the principal officers with rich presents; the soldiers had been told of the immense booty awaiting them if they should join him and march with him to Mexico; and last, "our reverend father of the Order of Mercy," Parson Olmedo, had been among them, with the gold of Cortez in his hand and his own oily tongue in his head, both which were used to the best advantage of his commander.

Cortez now commanded nearly two thousand men, eighteen vessels and nearly a hundred horses. He was himself again, with fortune smiling upon him. He prepared troops and expeditions to explore the coast and establish colonies, and was about setting in motion a train of great discoveries when evil news came down from the table-land, from Mexico, two hundred miles away.

Pedro de Alvarado.
PEDRO DE ALVARADO.


Among the captains of Cortez there was one named Alvarado, a man brave even to rashness, fiery and impulsive. He had been left in charge of the one hundred and forty men, at the departure of Cortez for the coast, with the admonition to act prudently and to do nothing to offend the Mexicans.

He had been a favorite with Montezuma and his attendants because of his jovial disposition and pleasing manners. They had bestowed upon him the appellation, Tonatiuh—the sun—because of his fiery hair and ruddy complexion.

To Tonatiuh, then, Cortez had left the command of the little garrison, recommending him to Montezuma and the nobles. While Cortez was away, the feast of the War God fell clue, in the month of May, and as it was customary for the king to dance with the priests and nobles at this festival, the latter sent to Alvarado asking that he would allow Montezuma to join them in the temple for that purpose. Alvarado refused this request, and so they swallowed their indignation and performed the ceremonies in the courtyard of the palace in which Montezuma was confined and which the Spaniards and Tlascallans occupied. Here were several hundred of the highest order of nobility, wearing their richest ornaments and dressed in most gorgeous garments. Whether it was that the avaricious Alvarado desired to secure the wealth of ornament that the nobles wore, or whether he was incited by the suspicious whispers of the Tlascallan allies, is not known; but, for some wicked reason, he fell upon them with his troops and massacred them all! Unsuspicious of danger, and excited with the religious performances of their sacred dances, the nobles became so fatigued that they could offer no resistance to the fierce Spaniards, and fell like sheep before a pack of wolves. Blood flowed in streams; their piteous cries for mercy, their groans, their dying shrieks, filled the air. When all was over, Alvarado and his men stripped their innocent victims of their gold and jewels, and thrust their bodies into the street or buried them in the court.

After the first thrill of horror at this revolting deed an ominous silence pervaded the city; then there ensued the gathering of a mighty storm; the outraged people assembled and dashed against the palace with the fury of a whirlwind. They beat down the walls and poured through the breach, and were beaten back by the artillery and musketry only to return again and again. Surely the Spaniards would have been utterly destroyed had not the recreant Montezuma showed himself upon the walls, and begged his people to desist from further attack. Sullenly they withdrew, resolved to exterminate the villains by famine, and cut off from them their supplies.

This was the condition of things when the messengers reached Cortez. With all his troops, and in forced marches, he hastened to the rescue.