Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The Early History of Anahuac

We will give Cortes time to strengthen his position while he waits his answer from Montezuma, and we will travel from the tierra caliente  of the Mexican coast up through Anahuac to the city of Mexico. Getting ahead even of the fast postman with the picture-writing, we will find out a little about the people and the cities of Anahuac before Cortes sees them.

The famous oval valley of Mexico lay seven thousand five hundred feet above sea-level, about half-way between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. High natural walls of rock around its circumference shut in green meadows, lofty trees and five large lakes. On the largest of these lakes, Lake Tezcuco, the two most powerful tribes of Anahuac had built their capitals. The Tezcucans had built their city of Tezcuco on the east side, while the Aztecs had erected on the opposite shore their city sometimes called Tenochtitlan and sometimes Mexico. Anahuac means "near the water," and while at first it was probably used only for this land immediately around the lakes, as these tribes spread their rule farther south, the territory of Anahuac increased, until in Cortes' time it covered most of present Mexico.

The Tezcucans and the Aztecs or Mexicans were, of course, Indian tribes. Their forerunners were the Toltecs, who came into the valley in the seventh century, bringing with them the civilization which descended later to the Tezcucans and Aztecs. For four centuries the Toltecs spread their power until they ruled all Anahuac. Then, whether by famine or pestilence or wars, they disappeared from the country as silently as they had entered it.

Other tribes, speaking the same language, followed the Toltecs. Among them were the Aztecs, the Tezcucans and the Tlascalans. For a long time the Aztecs wandered about Anahuac, until one day on the lake-shore they saw a nopal, or prickly pear, sticking out from a crack in a rock, a huge eagle sitting with a snake in his talons and his wings spread to the rising sun. They took the eagle as a sign sent them to show the position of their future city, and built it on that very spot, although they had to sink piles in the marshes as a foundation. They called the city Tenochtitlan, which meant "nopal on a stone." Later they gave it a second name, Mexico, after a war-god, Mexitli. Owing to some quarrels among themselves, part of the Aztecs pushed a little farther off and built their homes. Finally these two towns became one city—a strange city of islands, cut by many canals, joined together and to the mainland by great causeways which ran out from the principal streets.

The Tezcucans meantime had built their city, Tezcuco, on the east shore of Lake Tezcuco, and held first place among all the tribes in the country; even the Aztecs owned their superiority.

For some time the Tezcucan power spread without opposition over all northern Anahuac. About 1418 they clashed with the tribe of Tepanecs, who invaded their territory, took Tezcuco, killed the king and carried into captivity the crown-prince, who was only fifteen and who had the long name of Nezahualcoyotl. His jailer, an old servant of the Tezcucan king, was still loyal to the prince. With his help, Nezahualcoyotl escaped from prison and went to the city of Mexico, where an Aztec ruler sheltered him. Finally he was allowed to go back to Tezcuco and lived there eight years, studying under one of his old masters, who taught him all the duties of a king.

Meanwhile the Tepanec king died in his capital, Azcapozalco, and his son, Maxtla, succeeded him. As Maxtla was now ruler of all Anahuac, Nezahualcoyotl went to swear allegiance to him. Maxtla turned his back on the young prince, who, alarmed for his safety, left Azcapozalco and fled back to Tezcuco.

He was not safe even in his own city. Maxtla knew that the Tezcucans loved Nezahualcoyotl as much as they hated himself. He resolved to put his rival out of his way.

His first effort was to invite Nezahualcoyotl to a party, meaning to kill him when he came. The prince's tutor found out the plot and kept Nezahualcoyotl away. Then Maxtla sent men to the palace to take Nezahualcoyotl by force. Again the tutor was ready for them.

When the soldiers arrived they found Nezahualcoyotl playing ball in the palace courtyard. He received them graciously and offered them refreshment after their journey. While they were eating and drinking, Nezahualcoyotl strolled idly into the next apartment, passing through an entrance where a burning censer stood. He was still under the soldiers' eyes and they went on with their meal. Suddenly his attendants at the censer threw on such a quantity of intense that its clouds lay like a curtain between the prince and the soldiers. Nezahualcoyotl fled at once down a secret passage into a huge, forgotten drain which had once brought water into the palace.

The prince stayed in hiding till night fell and then crept out of the drain and escaped to the cottage of a vassal of Tezcuco. Maxtla at once set a price on his head and had out armed men to scour the country in all directions. The story of Nezahualcoyotl's life is like that of the Stuart princes in hiding in Scotland; no matter how high a price was offered for his head, he found always some subject faithful to defend it.

Obliged to leave the cottage, Nezahualcoyotl wandered down to the wooded mountains that lay between his country and Tlascala. Here he was hunted like a wild animal. He had no protection against cold and storm. He hid by day in thickets and caves, stealing out by night to find food and drink. He had hair-breadth escapes. Once a woman covered him with the maguey fibers she was using for making cloth; once some soldiers hid him in a huge drum around which they were dancing; once a girl concealed him while she sent his pursuers off on a false scent. Nezahualcoyotl asked one young peasant who did not know the prince, if he would deliver up the prince if he fell into his hands. "No," answered the peasant, not dreaming he was talking to the prince himself. "Not even for the price Maxtla offers?" Nezahualcoyotl asked. The young fellow laughed and shook his head.

Nezahualcoyotl finally grew weary of the hard life. He asked all his friends to go back to Maxtla and leave him to his fate. But the blackest hour is just before dawn. The whole population, Mexicans and Tezcucans alike, were tired of Maxtla's tyranny and longing for the return of the mild rule of Tezcuco. The nobles made a league, plans were laid, the hour set for a general uprising, and one fine day Nezahualcoyotl found himself a prince again at the head of his own army, marching against Maxtla. The Aztecs, under their king, Montezuma I, joined their forces to the Tezcucans, and together they were able to defeat Maxtla in his own capital and kill him. His city of Azcapozalco was razed to the ground and became only the slave market for Anahuac. An offensive and defensive league was formed between Tezcuco and Mexico, and the Tepanec territory was awarded to the Aztecs for the help they had given in the war.

Nezahualcoyotl, back on his throne, proclaimed a general pardon and went to work at once to restore his impoverished kingdom. He built up cities, encouraged agriculture and framed laws. He built himself a magnificent palace where he held court. This is what one of the old historians tells us about it:

"In the royal palace of Tezcuco was a courtyard, on the opposite sides of which were two halls of justice. In the principal one, called the 'tribunal of God,' was a throne of pure gold, inlaid with turquoises and other precious stones. On a stool, in front, was placed a human skull, crowned with an immense emerald, of a pyramidal form, and surmounted by an aigrette of brilliant plumes and precious stones. The skull was laid on a heap of military weapons, shields, quivers, bows, and arrows. The walls were hung with tapestry, made of the hair of different wild animals, of rich and various colors, festooned by gold rings, and embroidered with figures of birds and flowers. Above the throne was a canopy of variegated plumage, from the center of which shot forth resplendent rays of gold and jewels. The other tribunal, called 'the king's,' was also surmounted by a gorgeous canopy of feathers, on which were emblazoned the royal arms. Here the sovereign gave public audience, and communicated his dispatches. But, when he decided important causes, or confirmed a capital sentence, he passed to the 'tribunal of God,' attended by the fourteen great lords of the realm, marshaled according to their rank. Then, putting on his mitered crown, incrusted with precious stones, and holding a golden arrow, by way of scepter, in his left hand, he laid his right hand upon the skull, and pronounced judgment." [Prescott's Conquest of Mexico]

Nezahualcoyotl was not yet married. He fell desperately in love with a beautiful princess who was betrothed to one of his nobles. Like David in his desire for Bathsheba, Nezahualcoyotl did a deed unworthy of a king. He sent the noble to war and he was killed. Then Nezahualcoyotl married the princess. Except for this, Nezahualcoyotl was a wise and good king. He died in 1470, leaving one son, Nezahualpilli, to succeed him. This little prince was only eight years old when his father died.

Nezahualpilli reigned well in his early years, but as he grew older, he grew more idle and liked better to pass his time in his beautiful gardens than to carry on war or administer justice. The army grew lax in discipline and the distant provinces lost their loyalty.

As the Tezcucan power diminished, the Aztec power increased. The Mexican rulers, fierce and warlike, seized the provinces that Tezcuco was not able to hold, and ruled them harshly. Finally the title of emperor, which had always belonged to Tezcuco, was assumed by the Aztec ruler.

There was only one province—Tlascala—which was able to hold out against Mexico. It was a fertile valley, half-way between Mexico and Vera Cruz, shut in on all sides but one by the mountains in the vicinity of Popocatepetl. On the exposed side, where the valley opened to the east, the Tlascalans built a stone wall nine feet high and twenty feet broad, with a parapet on the outer side as a defense to those who manned the wall. There was only one gateway, and that was made by one end of the wall running behind the opening and the other end in front of it, while the entrance went in sidewise between the two. Thus any one going in was exposed to fire from the wall on both sides. The wall was about six miles long, and as it ran back on either side to the rocky precipices of the mountains, the little republic of Tlascala was entirely shut in.

In this impregnable fastness the Tlascalans lived their own life independent of the rest of the world. The climate and rich soil helped them to raise their own supplies, and what they could not get for themselves they went without. They learned to do without salt and cotton and cacao. They resembled the Spartans in their simplicity and severity and warlike spirit. They were governed by a council consisting of four chief nobles.

This independent little nation the Aztecs had tried, by threats and promises, to bring under their rule. The Tlascalans replied to both, "Neither we nor our ancestors have ever paid tribute to a foreign power nor ever will pay it. And they did not. While the Aztec rule spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and all tribes trembled before it, Tlascala, from her rocky fortress, boldly and defiantly proclaimed herself a mortal enemy to the Aztec Emperor.

In 1502, while Nezahualpilli was still loitering in his Tezcucan gardens and forgetting he was a king, Montezuma II, in the city across the lake, was, at the age of thirty-two, elected Emperor of Mexico. He had been trained in his youth as a soldier, but had afterward entered the priesthood. He was sweeping down the stairs of the temple of the war-god when he was told of the honor that had been done him. Only an accomplished warrior could be king of Mexico and no monarch was allowed to be crowned until he had won a victory that gave him a large number of captives in his train as lie entered his capital. Montezuma won his victory and took his captives. The crown of wrought gold and precious stones and feathers was put on his head by Nezahualpilli. Then with all the pomp of religious ceremony the captives were sacrificed in the great temple while the people feasted.

Montezuma at once proved himself an able monarch. At home, he enlarged and beautified the city and reformed the law courts. Abroad, he carried his victorious arms until he had made himself master of all Anahuac, and his enemies, as well as some of his own vassals, trembled at his name. He taxed heavily those whom he conquered to keep up his own magnificence, and the taxes were paid from fear, not from love.

Montezuma hated Tlascala. He sent against it an army under his son. The army was crushed and his son killed. He engaged all the tribes near Tlascala to punish them, but the Tlascalans drew back into their hills until their chance came, and then poured down the mountain-side like an avalanche on their foe and destroyed them.

In 1516 Nezahualpilli died, leaving several sons. Cacama and Ixtlilzochitl were the two oldest. Montezuma favored Cacama and named him for the succession. Ixtlilzochitl and his following stirred up a civil war, which ended in Cacama holding Tezcuco and half the kingdom under Montezuma, and the rest of the kingdom remaining with Ixtlilzochitl, who from that time hated Montezuma.

While Cortes, therefore, down at Vera Cruz was waiting for Montezuma's answer, there were two points of which he was ignorant, but which were to be very helpful to him. The brave little state of Tlascala might be ready to help an enemy of Montezuma, and the conquered nations lying far from Mexico and bound to it only by fear might not exert themselves greatly to defend it.