Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

Voyage of Hernando Cortez

In the year 1504 there came to the West Indies a young man, then about nineteen years of age, by the name of Cortez. He was well received in the island of Hispaniola (Haiti), as the governor, Ovando, was from his own native province of Estremadura in Spain, and he was assigned the clerkship of a small town and an encomienda  of Indians. In 1511, when Velasquez sailed over to Cuba, and completed the conquest of that island, Hernando Cortez, now a man of some importance, went with him. There he acquired land and Indians, and grew wealthy, devoting himself to the cultivation of his plantation and the raising of stock.

[A.D. 1518.] And it so happened, that when, in the year 1518, Governor Velasquez looked about him for a commander for his third expedition to Mexico, the name of Cortez was brought prominently before him. These two gentlemen had previously quarrelled (about an affair which does not particularly concern this history), but were now reconciled, and Velasquez considered favorably the proposition, made by a friend of Cortez, that he should have the command. Imperious, as well as ambitious, the governor had taken offence at the doings of the brave and discreet Grijalva, who had the strongest claims upon his consideration, and abandoned him for this man, Cortez, who was soon to cause him to repent this folly, and to consume his heart in rage and shame. Knowing that the governor would shortly become suspicious of him, Cortez, as soon as appointed, made all haste to get on his voyage. "Nothing was to be seen or spoken of," says one of the conquerors, "but selling lands to purchase arms and horses, quilting coats of mail, making bread, and salting pork, for sea stores." Volunteers flocked to his standard from every direction, and after visiting various points on the island, and securing all the available recruits and provisions, Cortez evaded the officers despatched to arrest him by the now jealous Velasquez, and put to sea, taking his final departure from the port of Havana on the tenth day of February, 1519.



[A.D. 1519.] After a rough passage, the fleet arrived at the island of Cozumel, and here, says one old chronicler, "Cortez now began to take the command upon him in earnest, and our Lord was pleased to give him grace, that whatever he undertook he succeeded in."

Here he ordered a review of the troops, being now beyond the reach of Velasquez, and having bidden a final adieu to Cuba. He found himself in command of eleven vessels, five hundred and eight soldiers, one hundred and ten sailors, sixteen horses, thirty-two crossbow men, and thirteen musketeers. As ordnance, he had ten brass cannon, and four falconets, with a large quantity of powder and ball. He appointed a brave soldier who had served in Italy, Francis de Orosco, as captain of artillery, and Alaminos as chief pilot. He divided his men into eleven companies, under the command of captains, nearly all of whom became famous in the subsequent march through Mexico. As we shall meet with most of them again, let us see what were the names of these men who followed the standard of Cortez. There was Alonzo Hernandez Puerto Carrero, who took the first ship from Mexico to Spain; Alonzo de Avila, James de Ordas, Francis de Montejo, Francis de Morla, Francis de Sancedo, John de Escalante, John Velasquez de Leon, Cristobal de Olid, and the brothers Alvarado, chief among whom was the famous, or infamous, Pedro de Alvarado. One of the conquerors, in his narrative, justly gives a portion of his pages to a detailed description of the horses, which, being the first ever landed on the soil of Mexico, aided more than anything else in striking terror into the breasts of the Indians.

Cortez had already surrounded himself with much state and ceremony, and had caused a standard to be made of gold and velvet, on which was a red cross, embroidered in the midst of white and blue flames, and underneath was the motto, in Latin, "Let us follow the Cross, and in that sign we shall conquer."  If we will bear this emblem in mind, we shall see that throughout his long career of conquest Cortez was faithful in his devotion to that sign of the cross. Even to the wondering, innocent natives, he offered the alternative, the cross  or the sword;  and he gave them both.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober


Pedro de Alvarado's vessel arrived first at Cozumel, that beautiful island on the coast of Yucatan, and that unscrupulous adventurer immediately plundered the inhabitants and drove them into the woods. Cortez, when he arrived, reprimanded him for this, and for sacking the temples, and sent out to induce the people to return, who soon came back and mingled unsuspiciously with the soldiers.

There was a temple here, and a large and very hideous idol, before which the priests in charge burned incense and bowed down in devotion. The island was considered a holy place, even by the inhabitants of the mainland, who came to it in great processions, as to a holy shrine. Cortez, seeing this, determined to convert the natives to the true faith by changing their gods, substituting the cross and the virgin for the hideous idols. At first, the people objected, telling him their gods had always been very good to them, sending rain when it was needed, and crops of corn to the people of Yucatan, who came over and offered gifts at their altars. But Cortez disregarded their prayers and predictions of disaster, and cast down the idols, telling them they were evil things, and that they would draw their souls down to hell, and if they wished to remain as brothers to the Spaniards they must "place in their stead the crucifix of our Lord, by whose assistance they would obtain good harvests and the salvation of their souls; with many other good and holy reasons, which he expressed very well." Lime was sent for, the Indian masons constructed an altar, and the Spanish carpenters a crucifix, which was erected in a small chapel (the ruins of which, it is said, yet remain). Then the "very reverend father," Juan Diaz, preached an excellent discourse, which, as it was in Spanish (a language the natives had never listened to before in their lives), was received "with great attention, and profit to their souls." Thus was a whole village of pagans converted into good Christians in a single day,—the natives reasoned that, as the Spaniards were stronger than they, and evidently favored by unseen powers, their god must be more powerful than theirs, and so they accepted the Spanish images with joy, carefully swept the temple, and attended upon the virgin.

As a curious circumstance, it is related that the Spaniards found these people, not only at Cozumel, but at various other points in this new territory, possessed of figures of the cross. From this the Spanish ecclesiasts have reasoned that these Indians were visited by Saint Thomas, during the wanderings of that revered person on earth, and received from him this emblem of the cross; but of this event the Indians have preserved no tradition.

One more allusion to the doings of the Spaniards here, and then we have done with Cozumel. Cortez often pondered over a question the natives oft repeated to his soldiers, when, pointing to the east, they would say "Castilian,"  as much as to ask if they were Castilians, or Spaniards. At last, after much inquiry, he heard, through his interpreter Julian—Melchor having died—that there were two Spaniards confined in the interior as captives. They had been cast upon the eastern shore of Yucatan, their vessels wrecked, and all their companions sacrificed save they two. Learning this, Cortez despatched a letter to them by an Indian runner (who hid it in his hair, having to pass through an enemy's country), and a quantity of beads as a ransom from their masters. The letter was as follows: "Gentlemen and brothers,—Here in Cozumel I have been informed that you are detained prisoners by a cacique: I request as a favor that you will forthwith join me. I send a ship and soldiers, with whatever is necessary for your ransom, they have orders to wait eight days; but come with all dispatch to me, from whom you shall receive every assistance and protection. I am here with eleven ships and five hundred soldiers, with which I will, with the assistance of God, proceed to Champotan, Tabasco, and beyond."

Those two captives were named Aguilar and Guerrero. The master of the former received the ransom joyfully and set him free; but the latter was already married to an Indian woman, had three sons and was a great cacique and captain in their wars. Indeed, it is said that he conducted that bloody fight against Cordova, at Champotan. He was afraid to return to the Spaniards; and, moreover, his face was scarred and his ears and nose bored, after the Indian fashion.

"What would the Spaniards think of me," he said to Aguilar, "if I went back among them? Behold these three beautiful boys; I beseech you give me for them some of these green beads, and say that my brother sent them as a present to me from my own country." Then his wife joined in and abused Aguilar for wishing her husband to leave his family, and the poor fellow was only too glad to go on to the coast alone.

When he reached the coast the boat that had been left behind for him had departed. To his great joy, however, the fleet was obliged to put back to Cozumel, one of the vessels having sprung a leak, and he got into a canoe and paddled across the channel to the island, where he met them. He had been so long in captivity that he could not be distinguished from the Indians who had come with him, and at first could only utter a few Spanish words, such as Dios  (God) and Santa Maria. He had only a few rags about his waist, an oar in his hand, and the remains of an old book of prayers tied up in a bundle on his shoulder. When he came into the presence of the company he squatted on his hams, like the Indians, and every one was looking in vain for the Spaniard, when in answer to an inquiry he said, "Here he is," and was received with gladness, clothed and fed. He was subsequently of the utmost service to the Spaniards, being for a while their only means of communication with the natives. Cortez was not mistaken in the value he set upon such an acquisition, nor in having delayed the fleet in order to secure him.

As the fleet arrived off Champotan, a boat was sent ashore, and there they were welcomed by the greyhound that had been accidentally left there the year before by Grijalva. On the 13th of March they arrived off the mouth of the river Tabasco, or Grijalva, one of the largest that flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Knowing that the larger vessels could not approach near land, Cortez sent a large body of troops in boats to land about half a league from the town of Tabasco. The Tabascans, who had before received Grijalva so hospitably, had been reproached by their neighbors, the Champotanese (and perhaps incited by messengers from Montezuma), with cowardice in not attacking these strangers on their first visit. At all events, Cortez found his advance obstructed by above twelve thousand armed Indians in canoes. They threatened the Spaniards with death if they persisted in their intention of visiting their town, which they had fortified with palisades. Cortez then, displaying the policy for which he was always noted, requested permission, through the new interpreter Aguilar, to land to procure wood and water, and to speak with their caciques, to whom he had "matters of the greatest importance, and of a holy nature, to communicate; but to this they only replied in the same manner as before."

The next morning, after mass, Cortez approached to land his men, when the enemy in canoes sallied out from the mangroves along the banks in prodigious numbers and making a fearful din with their horns and trumpets. Seeing this, Cortez ordered a halt, and then, demanding the Indians to give their attention, he caused the royal notary to read a requisition for them to supply the Spaniards with wood and water and to lay down their arms and become good Christians, and to allow the priests to land and speak to them concerning the service of God. If they should refuse this reasonable request, which was made in the king's name, then they would be responsible for all the mischief that resulted. This was read in Spanish and amidst the din and tumult of the horns and timbrels, so that it is possible that the Indians heard nothing of it, and if they did certainly did not understand a word. But it mattered not to Cortez, he had complied with the law, he was not fighting to please the Indians so much as to justify himself as an apostle of the faith in the eyes of the king and prelates in Spain. The old historian seemed astonished that the Indians paid no attention to this royal and ecclesiastical mandate. "All this," he says, "being duly explained to them, produced no effect;  they seemed as determined to oppose us as they were before." Having satisfied his conscience in this way, and having in this manner thrown all the blame of the affair upon the ignorant Indians, Cortez then unfurled his banner, with its cheerful emblem of torment, the blue and white flames, and ordered his soldiers to "at them, and show the unchristian dogs no mercy."

You may be very sure that he and his soldiers were very much provoked at the obduracy of these heathens, who so ungratefully refused his generous offer of a new king, whom they had never heard of, to rule over them. And how indignant these pious soldiers must have been at such heretics who scorned their offer of new images to worship in place of their old ones, and added insult to injury by telling them that their old gods were good enough for them, and they only wished the Spaniards would sail away and leave them in peace! This, in the eyes of the horror-stricken priests, was blasphemy of the worst nature; these holy men washed their hands of such impious wretches, and adjured the soldiers to do their best to wipe them from the face of the earth. And they did! Though the Tabascans fought valiantly, attacking them with arrows and lances, yet they were gradually driven back, until the Spaniards were in possession of their town. They defended barricade after barricade, whistling and shouting to one another—al calachioni—"kill the captain," well knowing the disastrous effect such a result would have upon the strangers. They left many dead upon the field, but never turned their backs upon the enemy, retreating face to the foe, until their town, and temples, and idols, were finally captured.

When the town was gained, Cortez took possession of the country in the name of his majesty, the King of Spain,—a disreputable monarch of a country thousands of miles away, whom the Tabascans had never heard of. And making three cuts with his sword in a great silk-cotton tree, the commander claimed the whole country for his sovereign, saying that, against any one who denied this claim, he was ready to defend it with the sword and shield he then held. Nobody offered any objection, because the soldiers believed as he did: that the land belonged to them and the king they served; and the poor Indians, strange to say, did not understand that the making of three sword-cuts in a ceiba  tree gave these strangers a clear right and title to the country they and their ancestors had held from time immemorial! Being brave men, they resolved to resent this intrusion of an armed force into their territory, and on the morrow a terrible battle ensued. Seeing that the Indians were likely to press them hard, ifnot indeed drive them to their ships, Cortez ordered out the horses. These animals were very stiff from their long confinement on board the vessels, but in the course of the day they recovered their spirits and agility. Each one was furnished with a breast-plate with bells hanging to it, and they were given to the best horsemen in the army. Marching out upon a plain beyond the town, the Spanish army saw a great host in front of them, sounding horns and trumpets, with plumes on their heads, their faces painted in red, white, and black, defended by quilted-cotton breastplates and shields, and armed with two-handed swords, darts, and slings. They fell upon the Spaniards with such fury that soon seventy of them were wounded and two of them killed. Nor were they deterred by the sharp swords of their enemy, which made such terrible wounds in their naked bodies, nor by the crossbows, and musketry and cannon, though they had never heard the thunder of these dreadful weapons before in their lives. Brave men, were these Indians of Tabasco, as indeed were all the Indians of that country of Mexico. Though believing that those black-mouthed cannon, which spit at them smoke and fire, and tore such awful gaps in their crowded ranks, were engines of destruction sent by the deities of another world, they valiantly stood their ground. At every discharge they threw up straw and dust to hide their terrible losses, and shouted back defiance. It would have fared hard with the invaders if the cavalry had not come to their relief, and Cortez and his little squadron come charging down upon the Indians. It was the first time these Indians had ever seen a horse, and when those great animals, larger than any that roamed their forests, came thundering down upon them, they gave one great shout of terror and amazement and fled in wild disorder. They believed, as they afterwards stated, that horse and rider were one animal, and sent by the avenging deities to complete their destruction.

What wonder that they fled! Fancy ourselves in their position, battling at fearful odds against an army encased in mail and armed with the powers of thunder and lightning; while every nerve is strained, and every energy called into play against this strong enemy, suddenly another appears, a strange beast, a centaur, clad in steel and breathing death upon all within its reach! Think you we should not use great expedition in getting beyond its reach? Eight hundred of the Indian army lay dead upon the field, and a still greater number dragged their mutilated bodies away to perish in the seclusion of the forest! In this manner did Cortez punish these wicked people for resisting the embassadors of a king they did not know, and for refusing a religion they did not understand! They came in humbly, the chiefs with their followers, and craved pardon for their temerity in having tried to defend their homes from assassins and thieves, their wives from dishonor, their children from slavery! They begged permission to bury their dead, so that the wild beasts should not devour them, and bringing abundance of provisions, promised to become obedient vassals of the new king.

Cortez, says one of the historians of that time, "assumed a grave countenance, told them they deserved death for their neglect of our former offers of peace, but that our great monarch, Don Carlos, had enjoined us to favor them so far as they should deserve it; and in case of their adopting a bad line of conduct, they should again feel the effect of our vengeance." Then followed another of those wholesale conversions; the Indians renounced their idols, and were received into the bosom of the holy Catholic church. And thenceforth they were to be under the loving care of the priests, and the cherished children of the King of Spain; in return for which they were only called upon to give the priests and soldiers all their property, all their gold, all their handsome maidens, all their strong young men. The Spaniards had found them freemen, living happily in their primitive villages in the forest; they left them slaves, stripped of all possessions, bleeding from a thousand wounds, and lamenting a thousand deaths.

It has been said by at least one historian that the Spaniards were assisted by one of the saints  that day, the war-like apostle St. James, who rode a dappled horse, and charged the unregenerate heathen right valiantly. If this be true, it should but increase our sympathy for the poor Indians, for what with the cannon, horse, and musketry of the Spaniards, the odds were sufficiently against them without the intervention of apostolic aid