A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. — Alexander Pope

Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober




From Tabasco to Cempoalla

Through the inscrutable workings of God's will, Cortez received at Tabasco, from a source wholly unexpected, a most important auxiliary to his force, without which indeed the conquest would have been impossible. To propitiate the Spaniards, and to obtain pardon of them for having defended their homes, the Tabascans gave them what gold and cotton cloth the province afforded; and further, seeing that the conquerors desired female servants, they presented the captains with twenty Indian women. These Cortez refused to receive until they had been baptized, and until the "reverend father, Bartolome Olmedo, had preached to them many good things touching our holy faith." Then these unfortunate Indian women, "the first Christian women in New Spain," were divided among the captains, Cortez retaining a young girl of noble birth, beauty, and great spirit, who was baptized under the name of Dona Marina. From this time to the end of the conquest, this noble girl accompanied Cortez on all his expeditions, serving as counsellor and interpreter, clinging to him with affection and love, though degraded by him to the lowest position woman can occupy in the eyes of the world. She was the daughter of a noble of Goazcoalcos, who died while she was very young and left her in charge of her mother. This inhuman parent married another noble, and they, having a son whom they wished to have their inheritance, sold the young girl to a party of slave traders on their way to Tabasco. Thus, by a singular conjunction of circumstances, was a subject of the Mexican crown delivered into the possession of the Spaniards; one who contributed more than all their armies to its subjugation. Possessed of more than ordinary intelligence, she rapidly acquired the Spanish language, and as she spoke at the time of her joining the Spaniards the Mexican dialect and that of Tabasco, the Maya, she formed, with the rescued Aguilar, the link in the chain necessary to conversation with the Mexicans.

[A.D. 1519.] Leaving Tabasco on Palm Sunday, after a most solemn procession of the army, with music and song, the soldiers carrying palm branches, the fleet arrived at San Juan de Ulua on Holy Thursday; and here their sea voyage terminated. The next day the cavalry, infantry, and artillery were disembarked on the sand-hills, an altar was raised, and temporary barracks constructed for the troops. They had hardly dropped anchor when two large canoes came out to them, containing messengers from the governor of that province, offering them assistance if they needed it in the prosecution of their voyage. In communicating their message it was necessary to employ three  languages and two interpreters; first, Dona Marina explained to Aguilar what the Mexicans said, translating it into the Maya tongue, and then Aguilar converted it into Spanish.

A day or two later two governors of that portion of the coast made their appearance, accompanied by a great train of attendants. By this time, with the assistance of the Indians, huts had been constructed for all the troops, and cannon planted to defend their first nucleus of a colony in New Spain.

They brought provisions and many things in gold and feathers. Cortez invited them to dine with him, and during the repast highly extolled his monarch, Don Carlos, who, he said, was the mightiest in the world, and he demanded of the embassadors how soon he could march into the interior and deliver his embassy to their own king, Montezuma. The two Mexican lords were astonished, as well as offended, at the impudence of this audacious leader of a band of vagrants, that he should speak so lightly of his sacred majesty, Montezuma, and one of them, the lord Teuhtlile, haughtily replied: "How is this? You are but just arrived, and yet you talk of seeing our monarch. I have listened with pleasure to what you have told me concerning the grandeur and bounty of your sovereign; but, know ye, our king is not less bountiful and great. I rather wonder that there should exist another in the world more powerful than he; but as you assert it I will make it known to my sovereign, from whose goodness I trust that he will not only have pleasure in receiving intelligence of that great prince, but will likewise do honor to his embassador. Accept, in the meantime, this present which I offer you in his name." Thereupon, the Mexican lord presented Cortez with some beautifully wrought pieces of gold, ten loads of fine cotton mantles, and a great supply of provisions.

In return, and how it disgusts one to read of the paltry baubles the Spaniards, these adventurers who boasted so loudly of the magnificence of their sovereign, sent in return,—Cortez gave the Mexican an old arm-chair, painted and carved, some glass beads and a crimson cap with a gold medal on it representing St. George killing the dragon! These, this impudent braggart, in a grandiloquent speech, begged the embassador he would present the great Montezuma in the name of the King of Spain, and at the same time request him to name a time when he could wait on him.

One of the soldiers had on a gilded helmet, which the embassador observed resembled one upon the head of their idol, Huitzilopochtli, and requested permission to take it to the capital to show Montezuma. Cortez at once gave it to him, adding—with a meanness unparalleled in history—that it would be a capital thing if Montezuma would return it, filled with gold, that the Spaniards might be able to compare it with the gold of their own country, and also as an acceptable present to their emperor.

Lord Teuhtlile  then took his departure, promising to return in a short time with Montezuma's reply, while the other lord, Ciutlalpitoc, remained, to keep the Spanish army supplied with provisions.

What was the state of affairs at the Mexican court during the while their eastern coasts were vexed with wars and rumors of wars and their vessels trafficking with strange beings from over the sea? By referring to the tenth chapter, (pp. 137140) we shall recall to mind the demoralized condition of the people of Anahuac, and the consternation amongst their rulers at the coming of the winged ships and the bearded men. Upon the arrival of Juan de Grijalva, in the previous year, the governor of the coast province had sent immediate notice to the Aztec capital; they had caused hasty paintings to be made by their artists, of the boats and men, and had followed them to court with a more detailed description. Upon the reception of this alarming news, Montezuma had hastily assembled the two allied kings, Cacamatzin of Tezcoco, and Cuitlahuatzin lord of Iztapalapan. Long and anxiously they debated upon this mysterious visitation, and at last came to the unanimous conclusion that he who commanded this great army could be no other than Quetzalcoatl, god of the air—the "Plumed Serpent," who had, according to tradition, departed from their coast, ages ago, leaving behind him the promise to return and conclude the beneficent reign he had begun so happily in the time of the Toltecs.

Dominated by priestly superstitions, Montezuma was filled with a dread of the coming of this lord of the air, yet he devoutly believed in the truth of the tradition, and was ready to yield up his kingdom upon his arrival. Those kings held themselves to be but the viceroys of that deity and trustees of the crown, which they were to cede to him whenever he should make his appearance and demand it. The great size of the "winged canoes" of the Spaniards, the loud noise and destructive force of their artillery, so closely resembling the thunder-laden clouds of the air, all these things combined to awe them and inspire them with the belief that the god of the air had finally arrived. Having come to this determination, Montezuma ordered five persons of his court to hasten to the coast with a large and magnificent present for the supposed deity, and to offer him homage in his name and to congratulate him upon his safe, though long-deferred arrival. At the same time, he ordered sentinels to be placed upon the mountains over-looking the coast, with swift messengers to convey him tidings of the movements of the fleet.

Unfortunately for the Mexicans, the court embassadors, though they made every exertion, did not overtake Grijalva, who sailed northward as far as the river Panuco, and thence made passage for Cuba. Unfortunately, say we, because Grijalva was a humane man, whose desire for conquest, gold and glory was tempered by a love of justice. We have every reason to believe that, had it fallen to his lot to have undertaken the subjugation of this Mexican empire, it would have been done without the shedding of blood and the sacrifice of life that attended the invasion of Cortez.

The embassy had returned to Anahuac, and those personages who had met Cortez were simply governors of the province, tributary to Montezuma. Before his departure from the coast, Teuhtlile, who had numerous painters with him, divided the subject among them so that each one represented a different portion of the armament, and in this manner Montezuma received a description, perfect in every detail, of the wonders he was to relate to him. Desiring that they should omit nothing that would impress the emperor with the grandeur and power of his armament, Cortez ordered the cavalry to maneuver upon the beach and the artillery to be fired. When they had somewhat recovered from the stupor of amazement into which the roar of the cannon and the crashing of the balls through the trees had thrown them, the painters set themselves diligently to work to represent this new wonder upon canvas. Then they departed, bearing the miserable present and the boastful message of Cortez to their expectant emperor.

After seven or eight days of waiting, the Spaniards saw a long procession of Indians filing down the sand dunes; there were the embassadors of Montezuma borne in litters upon the shoulders of attendants and upwards of one hundred men laden with rich presents for the Spaniards.

The distance from coast to capital, at the present day by rail, is two hundred and sixty miles; but doubtless the Aztecs had shorter paths by which their messengers travelled and the distance may have been two hundred miles. If we may believe the accounts related of the couriers of Montezuma, they were incredibly swift; along the line of travel were stations with relays of runners and by this means a message was borne along from post to post with the speed of the mail-coach of old. The story often told of Montezuma's receiving fish fresh from the Gulf every day, by means of these runners, may well be doubted, and is only believed in by those credulous authors who have never visited the country; but, it is doubtless true that news sped fast in those days, by the means above mentioned. Whether it was seven days later, or ten, it matters not; the embassadors had returned and with them had brought such a present for the Spanish monarch, Don Carlos, as never before had passed from one hemisphere to another!

On their arrival they touched the ground with their hands, at the same time kissing them, and then fumigated the Spaniards with incense, calling them Teteuctin—lords or gentlemen. This, the customary mode of salutation of embassadors, caused the Spaniards to imagine they addressed them as gods—Teules, from Teteo, gods—when they had meant nothing of the kind, and gave these cut-throat adventurers an exalted opinion of their own importance.

With fine compliments, conveying from Montezuma his congratulations, and the pleasure he had received in learning of the arrival of such a brave body of men on his coast, the embassador begged Cortez to receive this present from his emperor, as a slight return for the very valuable (?) gifts he had sent him on the occasion of his first visit. Having delivered himself of a speech to this effect, consisting of long and high-sounding words—for diplomacy was a fine art at the court of Montezuma—the embassador caused some mantles to be spread upon the ground and the Indians to lay upon them their precious burdens. It may be justly imagined that the Spaniards gazed upon these treasures in open-mouthed astonishment. There were elegant works in gold and silver, gems, gold carved in the shape of various animals, bales of the finest cotton garments interwoven with bright feathers, bows and arrows, ten collars of fine gold, plumes of feathers cast in gold, panaches  of green and gorgeous feathers, and numberless wrought and other figures in gold. The most glorious gifts were two great disks, as large as a cart-wheel, one of gold; representing the sun, the other of silver, having an engraved image of the moon. And last, there was the helmet, filled,—according to the base suggestion of Cortez,—with glittering grains of gold, thought to be of the value alone of three thousand crowns! The intrinsic value of the golden wheel, without reference to its exquisite workmanship, was held to be more than twenty thousand crowns!

After these had been spread before Cortez, the Mexican made another short speech, in which he spoke of the pleasure it gave his king to contribute this portion of his treasure as a gift to their sovereign; at the same time, in the politest manner possible, he begged them to depart from the coast to the land whence they came, as soon as they had recovered from the fatigues of the voyage. Cortez was greatly rejoiced at the present, but mortified at this refusal of permission to visit the capital, still, he kept a pleasant countenance and told the embassador that he should insist upon his original intention of visiting Montezuma in person, and delivering him the message he pretended to have from his king. Then he gave in return for this magnificent tribute, which would have been a costly ransom for a king, three holland shirts and a glass cup!

How Teuhtlile's  lip must have curled, and with what a sinking of the heart must he have reflected upon this waste of treasure, sent by his generous monarch to be cast before such swine as these!

He coldly promised to send the message to Montezuma, and at the end of a number of days brought his answer. He this time sent more gold, ten loads of mantles and four rare jewels like emeralds, each one of which was considered worth a load of gold!

This time the Aztec emperor's orders were peremptory, that the strangers should not be allowed to advance farther into the territory with his consent, and that all intercourse with them by the natives should be suspended. Montezuma's eyes were now open to the true character of the invaders. Gods of the air no longer were they now to him. Intelligence must have reached him by this time of their cruel acts in Tabasco, of their insatiable lust, of their low-born manners and total lack of all generous feelings. These were not the attributes of gods, that they displayed!

Some of the Spanish writers would have us believe that Montezuma consulted his gods, making sacrifices to them of tender children, and they commanded him to repel the invaders. But it seems more probable that he now saw the error into which his superstition had led him, and if he still believed in the coming of Quetzalcoatl, he was now assured that the peace-loving god would not come in the guise of these bloody-minded adventurers. In his total ignorance of another country than that of Mexico and its contiguous territory, he was puzzled to explain their origin, and hence was easily led to accept the popular tradition. No, these were not the emissaries of the Feathered Serpent, of the Prince of Peace; he would have nothing further to do with them. Yet his generous nature—generous in great things, despite the fact that his treasure was accumulated through the oppressions of his suffering subjects—refused to let the strangers go without a show of hospitality, and a gift for that monarch they pretended had sent them on this mission. Hence it was that he would dismiss them loaded with favors, and that he would sever all connection between them and his subjects. Ill-fated, short-sighted monarch! He mistook the natures of the beings he was dealing with; he had thought them at least sensible to generous treatment, while they were in fact strangers to every sentiment of the kind! He had not reflected upon the consequences of such a display of the wealth of his kingdom upon these men whose god was gold, whose creed was as bloody as that of the Aztecs in their palmiest days. In sending them this treasure he inflamed their bosoms with a common sentiment, an unquenchable desire to see more of this kingdom in the mountains and to put its inhabitants to the sword, that they might possess themselves of its wealth.

On to Mexico! was the cry that now passed from mouth to mouth of these brave, though unprincipled men.

The following day the Spaniards found themselves in a strait, for there was not an Indian remaining of all the thousands that had come to them for barter and had been busy supplying them with provisions. Their bread was mouldy, and their sailors were kept busy fishing in the bay to keep starvation from their doors. Why did not Montezuma pour down upon them at this time with the forces of his empire? It is very certain that had he done so he could have swept them out of existence, or have driven them from his coast in dismay. But Providence, says an ancient historian, "preserved them to become the instruments of his views in that new world." "We do not mean," he adds, "to justify the design and conduct of the conquerors, but neither can we avoid tracing in the series of the conquest the destiny which prepared the ruin of that empire."

Indeed, if we will look back for a moment over the events that seemed to have contributed to the peculiar successes of Cortez we shall almost be tempted to accept these conclusions of that historian—that Cortez and his cut-throats were special instruments in the hands of Providence for the destruction of the empire. We have already seen that the country was vexed with unpropitious signs and omens, which had hardly disappeared from the sky when the news reached the Mexican court that Grijalva was upon the coast; this eminent navigator, by his kind and judicious treatment of the Indians, strengthened the prevailing opinion that the next arrivals were in reality the children of the God of the air. By a most fortuitous accident the Spanish captive, Aguilar, was rescued from the Indians of Yucatan, and thus a means of communication opened with the Tabascans, and, through the wonderful acquisition of Marina, with the Mexicans themselves. A most astonishing series of circumstances had thus operated in his favor. Is it improbable that Cortez should have looked upon these events as special dispensations of the Almighty in his behalf?

Their provisions were low and of poor quality, the mosquitoes were pestering them night and day, thirty or forty of their number were sick from their wounds, and there was a strong party, the friends and relations of Velasquez in particular, who were anxious to return to Cuba, and tried to excite a mutiny against the authority of Cortez. But by putting some in irons, and pacifying others with gold, he won the majority over to his side, and they soon chose to remain and retain him as their general, independent of Velasquez. It would probably have been death to Cortez to return to Cuba at this time, for he had neither the favor of the governor nor of his sovereign. It was while these quarrels were going on among the Spaniards, snarling over their captures like wolves in a sheepfold, that another of those aids in the propulsion of the army towards the capital came to hand. Some Indians one day approached them, and stated that they were of a province subject to Montezuma, but that their cacique wished to throw off his allegiance and ally himself with the strangers. They were Totonacs, who, you will remember, were subjugated by the Aztecs not many years before—being among the last acquisitions by the Mexican crown. The cruelties and exactions of the Aztecs had turned their hearts from them, for they not only demanded tribute of their wealth but a certain number of their children yearly to sacrifice on the altars of Anahuac. Intrigue was always welcome to the Spanish commander, and he promised them assistance in throwing off the Mexican yoke, and to shortly visit their town of Cempoalla. Meanwhile he found a better location for a settlement farther north, and there they removed with their ships and laid the foundations of a city, which they called La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz—the Rich City of the True Cross. This name is applied to the present city of Vera Cruz, which was subsequently removed to the situation it now occupies, at the point of the first landing, opposite the island of San Juan de Ulua. The first things they erected in the new city were a gallows and an altar; magistrates were created at the instigation of Cortez, to whom he resigned his command, but was immediately reinvested with it, in the name of the king, for whom this colony was now planted. In this way the cunning Cortez shook himself free from his dependence upon Velasquez.

Vera Cruz.
VERA CRUZ.


Then the little army marched towards Cempoalla, which was several leagues from the coast; when within a league of the town they were met by some of the principal men, who presented the officers with fragrant flowers, and begged them to excuse their cacique from coming out to receive them, as he was so fat and unwieldy as to be unable to do so. He sent, however, an invitation for them to enter, which Cortez accepted with thanks.

This town being the first of any extent, built of hewn stone and plastered with lime, that the Spaniards entered, they were greatly astonished at what they saw there. One of the horsemen, having penetrated to the great square, came flying back at the top of his speed, and in great excitement, crying out that the walls of the public buildings were all of silver!  But when the army entered the centre of the town they found that these "silver walls" were only polished plaster glistening white in the sun. They were assigned quarters, the inhabitants of Cempoalla treating them to fruits and flowers, baskets of plums, and bread of corn. The town was so large, clean, and beautiful, with its white-walled dwellings and temples, its gardens and plantations, that the soldiers compared it with Seville, in Spain.

The cacique shortly waited on Cortez, dressed in rich mantles and ornaments of gold, and ordered a present to be made him of gold and mantles. It did not take long to find out that what the Indians had told them on the sands—that these people were tired of Montezuma's exactions—was perfectly true. The next day the army continued its march to the shore, to a point whither the vessels had preceded them, and the cacique furnished them with four hundred men of burden to carry their baggage. This, they had found, was a custom of the country: for every cacique through whose territory a stranger passed to furnish, without pay, sufficient men to convey his effects or merchandise a certain distance. At a town called Chiahuitzla, situated upon a steep and rocky hill, about three miles from the coast, the lord of that town and the lord of Cempoalla held conference with Cortez as to the advisability of throwing off the yoke of Montezuma. Just at this juncture there entered the town five Mexican nobles, tribute collectors for the king, who marched proudly by with a great retinue, with their noses in the air, not deigning to bestow even a glance upon Cortez and his soldiers. They were dressed in elegantly embroidered mantles and drawers, wore their hair gathered in a shining knot at the top of the head, and carried in their hands bunches of roses, "which they occasionally smelled to." The lords were struck with terror, and deserted Cortez, hastening to prepare lodgings and cups of chocolate for the royal tax collectors. These nobles reprimanded them severely for holding intercourse with the Spaniards, after their great lord, Montezuma, had especially forbidden it, and demanded twenty men and women to be sent to Mexico and sacrificed in expiation of their offence.

The poor lords were in great trouble, so well they knew what Montezuma's displeasure meant; but at the instigation of Cortez they threw the officers into prison and whipped one that continued refractory. By this act they had openly committed themselves as rebels to Montezuma, which was just what the wily Cortez desired. Having got the poor chief into this dilemma, he secretly liberated the imprisoned officers, protesting that it was the Cempoallans that had done this, that he was their friend and that of their king, and sending them away with their ears full of lies and in the belief that he was greatly displeased with what had happened.

In the morning he manifested great displeasure at the guards who had allowed the prisoners to escape, and by his double dealing not only impressed the Totonacs with the idea that he was going to liberate them all from the thraldom of Montezuma, but the latter monarch with the belief that he was acting in his interests. In truth, while Cortez was stirring up rebellion and acquiring all the people of the coast provinces as allies, Montezuma sent him an embassy with a very rich present and thanks for his civility to his officers; but cautioning him to beware of the Totonacs, whom he would soon punish as they deserved. If he had but persisted in his original intention of sending a large army to wipe out the Spaniards, how different might have been the story of Mexico's history!

The fat cacique, desiring to cement the friendship now existing between the Spaniards and his people, desired to present Cortez and his officers with eight ladies, all of the first families of the place, ornamented with gold collars and earrings and attended by female slaves. These, Cortez said he would accept if they would renounce their old religion and be baptized into that of the Spaniards. He went further even than this, and proposed to the cacique the entire destruction of his gods. The cacique and the priests objected and finally attempted to resist; but the Spaniards collected their forces, and about fifty of them rushed up the steps of the temple and hurled down the hideous idols contained therein. Then the priests, who had charge of the temple, were shorn of their long and blood-matted hair, and a cross and an image of the virgin being set up in place of the other idols, they were instructed in the new faith by the Reverend Father Olmedo. An old soldier, lame from wounds, was appointed to reside in the temple as a hermit; the priests were taught how to make wax candles, to be brought before the new image, and thus this people brought out from the darkness of idolatry into the light of a new religion. They were now firm allies of Cortez, for they had imprisoned the officers of Montezuma, and insulted his gods; the power of the strangers alone could prevent them from being exterminated.