Nothing is harder to direct than a man in prosperity; nothing more easily managed than one is adversity. — Plutarch

Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

Destruction of the Ships and March Inland

Before the overthrow of the idols, Cortez had taken measures for the founding of a city on the coast which should be a strong fortress to hold the Totonacs to their allegiance to him, a nucleus for a colony, a post of defence for any new troops that might arrive, and a place of refuge to which to retreat in case of need. It was built on a plain lying at the foot of the mountain of Chiahuitzla, about twelve miles north of Cempoalla.

The first vessel that ever sailed from Mexico to Spain direct left this port shortly after, in command of Captain Alonzo Puertocarrero and Francisco Montejo, on the sixteenth of July, 1519. It was sent by Cortez to carry letters to his king, asking that he be confirmed in his office of general and chief magistrate, and contained the gold, silver, gems and mantles, sent to him by Montezuma. Not only had Cortez succeeded, by bribes and flattery, in inducing the soldiers to relinquish their share of this great treasure for the king, but they had written a letter, praying that his royal highness would bestow upon their commander those honors which the Governor of Cuba, Velasquez, was entitled to by royal favor. After describing the country and people they had discovered, the battles they had fought, and the great service they were doing his majesty in bringing these idolatrous Indians to a knowledge of the true religion, the letters went on to state, "We are four hundred and fifty soldiers, surrounded by hosts of enemies, and ready to lay down our lives for the service of God and his majesty; and we supplicate that his majesty will not bestow the government of so great and rich a country, which deserves to be ruled by a great prince or lord, upon any unworthy person."

Two days only after their agent had departed, a plot was formed among a few of the soldiers and sailors to seize one of the small vessels and escape to Cuba. It was discovered, two soldiers were immediately hanged, the feet of the pilot were cut off, and the sailors were given two hundred lashes each.

Foreseeing that this was but the first of what might prove a long list of desertions, Cortez came to the determination to prevent all such in the future by an act so bold and desperate as to compel the admiration of even his enemies. After secretly advising with his pilots and some of his soldiers he resolved to destroy his ships, and thus effectually prevent his men from leaving the enemy's country. This was done, the vessels were run on shore, the sails, anchors, rigging, etc., carefully housed in the port; and thus were five hundred men left without means of escape, in a country swarming with enemies whom they must conquer or perish in the attempt.

There is, says an English writer, "no equal to this act in history;" it stamps these adventurers as brave men, their leader as one to whom cowardice was a stranger; there was not a craven in the army.

Juan de Escalante, a valiant man, was left in charge of a small company, principally sailors converted into soldiers, who formed the garrison of the new city, while Cortez and the main army took up its march into the interior. Arrived again at Cempoalla, Cortez renewed his injunctions to the cacique to take good care of the cross and the image he had left in the temple, and recommending Escalante and his companions to his protection, commenced his circuitous approach to the Mexican capital.

[A. D. 1519.] It was on the sixteenth of August that Cortez set out to leave the coast finally behind him. He had four hundred and fifteen Spanish infantry, sixteen horses, some Totonac troops, forty nobles of that province, and four hundred men of burden to carry the baggage and drag the artillery.

Ruins of Papantla.

It was mentioned at the beginning of this book, that Mexico contained three well-defined zones  of climate and vegetation, which one might pass through on his way from the coast to the great plateau where the Mexican capital was situated. Along the coast it is very hot, and the climate is tropical—this is the tierra caliente, or "hot country; "next, as you advance into the mountains, you enter the temperate country, the tierra templada, at an elevation above the sea of 3,000 to 4,000 feet; last, is the cold country—tierra fria—situated above an elevation of 7,000 feet. Through all these zones, with their varying types of vegetation and their changes of climate, the army of Cortez was to march on its way to the capital. With gladness, it may be presumed, they turned their backs upon the hot coast country, swarming with insects and stricken with fevers, and entered the hills that led up to the vine and forest-clad mountains of the tierra templada. On their second day's march they reached Xalapa, a place where there exists to-day a town of the same name—Jalapa—celebrated for its green valleys and oak-crowned hills. Beyond this region, still climbing, they entered the great plains, crossing some forbidding mountains, where the temperature was very cold, and the soldiers, and the Indians of the hot country—especially those of Cuba—suffered severely. After suffering greatly from fatigue they arrived at a large city called Xocotla, which contained, among numerous buildings, thirteen temples and the cacique's palace of stone and lime, plastered, terraced and turreted. Here they heard further information of the capital of Mexico, as Montezuma kept at this place a great force of soldiers, and it was one of the strongest in that region. The cacique told Cortez that the Aztec capital was a city of great strength, being founded on an island, with no passage from one house to another except by boats and bridges; the Spaniards were also informed more positively and particularly of the immense wealth of Montezuma, which inflamed their lust for gold to that extent that they were ready to overcome every obstacle to obtain it. The cacique and the Spanish general each boasted to the other of the great power and grandeur of his sovereign; and Cortez foolishly demanded of the cacique, called Olintetl, gold to send to his king across the sea.

"I have enough of gold," replied Olintetl, "but cannot give it without the express orders of my king; but if he orders me, I will not only render up my gold and all my estate, but even my person."

"Then," said Cortez, "I will soon make him order you to give it and all that you have."

Here a difficulty presented itself as to the route to be chosen thence to Mexico. The chiefs of Xocotla recommended that passing through Cholula, as being all the way through Mexican territory; but their allies, the Totonacs, advised passing directly through Tlascala, because its people were enemies of the Mexicans and likely to welcome them in a friendly manner.

Tlascala and the Tlascallans

The republic of Tlascala, to which casual reference has already been made, lay nearly in the centre of Mexican territory, surrounded on all sides by hostile tribes. The capital city, Tlascala, was founded about a century previous to that of Mexico, and the inhabitants of this territory had maintained their independence from their first entrance into the Mexican valley, with the first tribes that settled about Lake Tezcoco, to the year of the Spanish invasion. War-like and courageous, they had resisted the encroachments of the Mexicans upon their territory, fighting so zealously in defence of their national honor that the Aztecs had never succeeded in subduing them. They were idolatrous, having essentially the same gods and religious system as the Mexicans; their arts were also the same, but their commerce restricted by their foes to corn and cochineal, two products of their country. From the abundance of corn on this elevated region amongst the mountains it has been called Tlascalan, or the place of bread. Ever fighting against the Mexicans, ever on the alert against surprise as they were, and successful in the defence of their homes, they had yet been unable to check Mexican progress, or to prevent themselves from being entirely surrounded and cut off from the sea. Hence, not strong enough to act more than on the defensive, they had been prohibited from trade with other nations, and had existed for many years without several articles that many people term the necessaries of life. It was in the time of King Axayacatl that the Tlascalan commerce with the maritime provinces was finally prohibited, and from that time the inhabitants grew accustomed to eat their food without salt, though it is said that the nobles had secret means of obtaining a supply for themselves.

The extent of the republic was about fifty miles by thirty; the region in which it was situated was elevated and swept by cold winds, and the soil produced little else than maize and maguey.

The Tlascallans were friendly to the Totonacs; that is, they were not at war with them, and they probably sympathized with them as conquered subjects of Montezuma, though unable to aid them.

Four of the Cempoallans were sent to the senate of Tlascala with a request that permission be granted the Spanish army to pass through their territory. The embassadors were received very politely, and in due time addressed the senate as follows: "Most great and valiant chiefs, may the gods prosper you and grant you victory over your enemies. The lord of Cempoalla, and all the nation of Totonacs, desire to acquaint you that from the quarters of the East there are arrived in our country in large ships certain bold and adventurous heroes, by the assistance of whom we are now freed from the tyrannical dominion of the King of Mexico. They acknowledge themselves the subjects of a powerful monarch, in whose name they come to visit you, to communicate intelligence to you of a true God, and to assist you against your ancient and inveterate enemy. Our nation, following the dictates of that strict friendship which has always subsisted between it and this republic, counsels you to receive those strangers as friends, who, though few in number, are equal in worth to many."

Tlascala was governed by four lords or chiefs, who composed the senate, and of these but one, Maxacatzin, seems to have been in favor of admitting the strangers. The others, led by the old chief, Xicotencati, whose son was commander of the armies, counselled opposition to them from the very beginning. Maxacatzin had suggested that these were probably the messengers sent from the god of the air, but the wise and sagacious Xicotencatl repelled this insinuation with scorn. "Those men," he said, "who demand entrance into our city appear to be rather monsters cast up by the sea, because it could not endure them in its waters, than gods descended from heaven, as some have vainly imagined. Is it possible they can be gods, who so greedily covet gold and pleasures?  And what should we not dread from them in a country so poor as this, when we are even destitute of salt? He wrongs the honor of the nation who thinks it can be overcome by a handful of adventurers. If then are mortal, the arms of the Tlascallans will tell it to all the regions round;  if they are immortal, there will always be time to appease their anger by homage, and to implore their mercy by repentance. Let their demand, therefore, be rejected; and if they dare enter by force, let our arms repel their temerity!"

Route of Cortez.

After a long and stormy debate, it was decided finally to allow the strangers to enter, but at the same time to have a large army in waiting to oppose their progress and try their strength. This army was placed in charge of a son of the old chief, Xicotencatl, of the same name, one whose bravery was equal to his skill as a general, and both had been tested in many a fight. "If we remain victors," said one of the senators, "we will do our arms immortal honor; if we are vanquished, we will accuse the Otomies—a nation on their borders—and charge them with having undertaken the war without ourorders."

After waiting impatiently several days Cortez (the embassadors not returning) decided to advance. They had marched but a few leagues when they came to a kind of fortification in the shape of a high wall of stone, which, it was said, had been built around their territory by the Tlascallans to defend them from the Mexicans. There was but one narrow passage through it, and this, though generally guarded by the Otomies, allies of the Tlascallans, was now—when most in need of defenders—wholly unprotected.

After seriously regarding this menace in stone and mortar for a while, Cortez ordered his army on, knowing well that when that boundary should be passed he would be in the country of an enemy entitled to more respect than the weak troops of the coast. The Otomies, to whom had been entrusted the keeping of the pass, soon made their appearance in flying detachments, too late to prevent the entrance of the Spanish army, which they might have done at the wall, or have caused them fearful loss. Cortez ordered some of the cavalry to pursue and make them prisoners, when the reckless savages attacked them with such fury that their horses were severely wounded; they could take no prisoners, and so they killed five. This was the first blood shed on Tlascallan territory by order of Cortez, and it was enough to account for the subsequent hostility of the Tlascallans themselves, without seeking for a cause in the decision of the senate. Three or four thousand Indians then set upon the cavalry, and were only driven off by the aid of the musketry and artillery, leaving fifty dead upon the ground. As evening drew nigh, the army found itself marching over a level plain lying between the hills, with farmhouses thickly set among fields of maize and maguey. They halted near a brook, and the soldiers dressed their wounds with the fat of dead Indians, and feasted heartily upon the dogs of the Indians, which were caught as they returned to the deserted houses of their masters at night.

After this battle had come off, the embassadors arrived with some Tlascallans, who paid their compliments to Cortez in the name of the senate, who granted his request to enter their capital, and blamed the Otomies for the disagreeable reception he had encountered. Cortez was too well versed in intrigue himself not to understand the full meaning of this message, but he sent back a grateful reply, promising to avail himself of their offer and visit them in their own capital. The next morning, after taking every precaution against surprise, the army resumed its march. They had scarcely got into marching order when they were attacked by a Tlascallan squadron, with arrows, darts, and stones. Cortez, having first sent three prisoners to them with a message of peace, ordered a halt, but the enemy would not consider his overtures, and being much annoyed by their persistence, he finally gave the war-cry, "Santiago, and at them!" Great slaughter was committed amongst them by the musketry and artillery and the Tlascallans retreated to some broken ground, where Xicotencatl, the general-in-chief, was posted, with his army drawn up in good order.

This army contained twenty or thirty thousand men, and fell upon the Spaniards so savagely that they would have all been destroyed but for their armor, their artillery and horses, and the exceeding great bravery with which they defended themselves. During this engagement the Tlascallans settled a question that had long troubled them, and that was, whether the horses, those great creatures that aided the Spaniards in their battles, were mortal or immortal. They settled it in just such a way as those Indians of Hayti did, when they held the belief that the Spaniards themselves were children of the gods and could not be killed. The Haytians took a Spaniard and held his head under water till he ceased to breathe, thus proving conclusively that those monsters who were hurrying them to torment were mortals like themselves. The Tlascallans selected a single horseman in the thick of the fight, and while a number of them engaged him and struck him from his horse, another warrior, with a single blow from his great two-handed sword, killed the animal he rode.

It must have been a tremendous blow this, with that wooden sword edged with flints; but it did not cut off the horse's head, as some historians have averred, for that would have been impossible, with a weapon set only with sharp stones, and without a continuous edge; but it killed the horse, and settled their doubts forever as to its immortality! Then these brave Indians, while the fight was raging round them, and their companions were falling by scores, cut the animal in pieces and sent a portion to every district in Tlascala. It was a trophy worthy of preservation, to be kept by their children when they should have passed away; for it was the first of those monsters slain by them, and its dismembered carcass showed these observant Indians that it was only a larger animal than any they had in Mexico, and could easily be killed.

The Spaniards finally beat off the enemy, with a loss to themselves of but one killed and fifteen wounded, and the next day they devoted to recruiting their strength and in making crossbows and arrows. By a raid upon a large village, Cortez secured many fowls and dogs for food, and made several prisoners. The latter he sent to Xicotencatl, expostulating with him for his madness in resisting his advance; but the only reply of the fierce warrior was that the Spaniards should go to Tlascala only as prisoners, where their hearts and blood would be offered to the gods, and that the next morning Cortez should hear from him in person.

A famous duel occurred that day between a Tlascallan and a Cempoallan noble, in sight of both armies; both fought with great skill, but finally the Cempoallan cut his antagonist to the ground, and hacking off his head bore it to the Spanish camp in triumph. Such an incident must have reminded the Spaniards of the exploits of their fathers, in the time of famous Ferdinand and Isabella, when Moor and Christian met in mortal combat under the walls of Granada. The inflexible Xicotencatl was evidently determined to attempt the utter destruction of the Spaniards on the following day, the battles heretofore having been merely skirmishes to feel the force and strength of his enemy. He was now without any doubts as to their being ordinary mortals like himself, for his warriors had killed, not only some of the men themselves, but their horses, those fierce animals that coursed so fleetly over the plain and trampled upon their stoutest fighting-men. He gathered his forces anew and prepared to renew the contest. Fifty thousand men were ranged under his banner. As the sun rose on that eventful morning it saw this large array covering the plain in every direction. Ten squadrons, each of not less than five thousand men, each with its own particular banner and commanded by its own cacique, with nodding plumes and golden ornaments, were gathered in front of the common standard of the republic: a golden eagle with expanded wings. To show them that he meant to conquer them fairly by force of arms, Prince Xicotencatl sent the Spaniards a present of three hundred turkeys and two hundred baskets of cakes. Soon after, two thousand of his men dashed so violently upon the Spanish lines that they broke through and penetrated to the centre of the camp.

The Spaniards were not blind to the danger they were to be in that day; all the preceding night they had been confessing their sins to their reverend fathers and preparing for the worst. They found themselves attacked by an enemy of great energy and skill at arms, and armed with pikes, lances, swords, double and triple-pointed darts, as well as bows and arrows. Had it not been for discord among themselves they might that day have conquered, and their nation have been saved from everlasting disgrace. But two of the generals—unworthy to be named in the same breath with Xicotencatl—became offended at the commander-in-chief, and withdrew their forces, remaining idle spectators while their comrades engaged the Spaniards in deadly combat. For hours the battle raged, the brave Tlascallans filling up the terrible gaps made by the artillery in their ranks so quickly as to present a solid front to their foes throughout the fight, and carrying away their dead with such despatch that none remained on the ground to tell the tale of their losses. Fate was against the Tlascallans that day; their republic, like the kingdom of the Aztecs, was divided against itself; the Spaniards conquered, not alone through their indomitable valor, but owing to disaffection in the Tlascallan ranks. Seventy Spaniards, and all the horses, were wounded, one man killed, and all so worn down with fatigue as to be unable to pursue the retiring foe. "How wretched and comfortless," wrote one of the conquerors, "was our situation after our hardships and dangers! We could not procure even oil and salt; and the cutting winds of the snow-covered mountains made us shiver again."

Cortez now renewed his offers of peace to the senate, and now they were half willing to listen to them. But the war chief, Xicotencatl, was unwilling yet to abandon the contest; he knew he could afford to lose a score of men for every one of the Spaniards, if he could but vanquish them in the end. He sent for their diviners and astrologers, who told him to prepare a night attack. "These strangers," said they, "being children of the sun, are invincible during the day; but as soon as night arrives, by want of the genial heat of that luminary, they are deprived of strength to defend themselves."

Accordingly the general marched upon the camp at night, with ten thousand chosen warriors; but Cortez had had intimation of their coming and was ready for them, giving them such a reception that they did not venture to repeat a nocturnal attack. As it was moonlight, the cavalry pursued them through the cornfields, inflicting great slaughter.

Then Xicotencatl was almost in despair, for not only was he abandoned by half his forces with their respective generals, but the senate was resolved to make peace with the Spaniards. Sending him orders to desist from his attacks upon them, he refused to obey, and when they sent to depose him his warriors and captains resisted their authority. But for the craven spirit of these counselors, and the traitorous conduct of those generals who held aloof from the fight, Tlascala might have freed herself from these creatures of prey, who later sapped her life-blood; and Montezuma, seeing their noble deeds, would have been glad to conclude with them an honorable peace, for having freed his dominion from a foe so dangerous to the safety of his empire. But here again stepped in inexorable fate, and decreed that the Spaniards should succeed, that the Indians should themselves forge the chains that their descendants were to wear for hundreds of years. At last, apparently yielding to the importunities of the senators—it is not the only example history offers us of disaster following close upon the meddling of senators and congressmen with affairs of war—Xicotencatl sent an embassy of fifty persons to Cortez, carrying with them bread and fruit, four old women, some incense and parrots' feathers. "This present," said they, "our general sends you. If you are, as it is said, Teules, and desire human sacrifice, here are these four women; take their hearts and blood for food; if you are men, here are fowls, bread, and fruit; if you are benignant gods, we offer you this incense and these parrots' feathers."

This was seemingly an honest message enough, but the Cempoallan allies told Cortez that these men were shies, and only making an inspection of the camp preparatory to another nocturnal attack by Xicotencatl. At their instigation he arrested four of them, who confessed the object of their coming; and at this he committed one of the most cruel deeds of those cruel times: He caused the hands of those fifty spies to he cut off, and then sent them back, mutilated and bleeding, to tell their general that, come when he would, by night or by day, he would find the Spaniards prepared for him, and should not fail to find out the metal they were made of.

The news of the continued successes of the Spaniards being carried to Montezuma, he had summoned again a council of the kings, and requested their advice. The King of Tezcoco advised that the strangers should be courteously treated in every place through which they passed, as all embassadors from one sovereign to another were wont to be and entitled to according to their laws, the king still preserving his supreme authority, and exacting the respect due to the majesty of the throne. If they should seem to design anything against the state, or the person of the king, then force and severity should be employed against them. Other advice was that which had proved so pernicious in the first dealings with them, namely, to send them a rich present and request them to depart from the country. Montezuma knew not what to do, for he foresaw that the dread arrivals would surely form an alliance with his deadly foes, the Tlascallans, unless they were destroyed by them—which did not seem probable; and another cause for alarm was, the action of Ixtlilxochitl, the disaffected Tezcocan prince, who was then at the head of a formidable army at Otompan, and who meditated an alliance with the Spaniards as soon as they should emerge from Tlascallan territory. Unhappily for him, he sent fresh baits for the cupidity of the Spaniards in the shape of a thousand cotton garments, and a large quantity of gold and feathers. These were in charge of six embassadors, accompanied by a retinue of two hundred men, who were advised to congratulate the Spaniards on their victories, but at the same time to attempt to dissuade them from continuing farther towards his capital.

It may be a matter of surprise that such a large embassy should be allowed by the Tlascallans to treat with a personage in their country, but it was according to the law of nations, observed by them, that the persons of embassadors should always be sacred from harm. Cortez received this embassy, with its rich presents, with greater joy than he was willing the Tlascallans should perceive, for (as in the instance of the messengers of Montezuma treating with him at Cempoalla), it gave him great importance in the eyes of those by whom he was surrounded, and who were jealously watching these proceedings. He contrived to make the ambassadors think him still friendly to Montezuma, and desirous of punishing his inveterate enemies, the Tlascallans, and he begged them to remain with him till he should conclude arrangements with them to pass through their territory secretly desiring that they should witness upon what advantageous terms he made peace with them.

View in Tierra Caliente.

Fear that the Spaniards might make an alliance with the Mexicans, when they would then be able combined to sweep the Tlascallans from the face of the earth, caused Xicotencatl to yield to the wishes of the senators and treat for peace. Consequently, he soon presented himself at the camp of the Spaniards, with a noble retinue clad in garments of red and white, and, excusing himself for his hostilities on account of the belief that Cortez was a friend of Montezuma—having accepted so many valuable presents from him, and being accompanied by Mexican troops—he now promised a firm peace and eternal alliance on the part of his people. Cortez assured him that he wanted nothing else, though the chief gave him but a small present of gold and cotton,—apologizing for its being so little on account of the poverty of his country,—and received him with many demonstrations of respect.

After peace had been concluded Cortez ordered mass to be celebrated; and it may well be imagined that the soldiers were ready to offer thanksgiving for the prospect of a season of rest. The Mexican embassadors, who had witnessed all this, now warned the Spaniards against Tlascallan perfidy, but Cortez declared he was not afraid of them, even in their capital, and invited the Mexicans along to see how he would treat with them, and how he would punish them if they should prove treacherous.