Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes Plans His Blockade

April, 1521

Although such good news met Cortes on his way back to Tezcuco, once in the city he fell upon a plot which, if it had succeeded, would have stopped his plans entirely.

There was a soldier—one of Narvaez' men—named Antonio Villafana, who was tired of life in Mexico and wanted to go back to Cuba. As soon as he began to grumble, he found others with grievances, until finally quite a party was formed against Cortes. They knew that they could not leave without his permission and as they were pretty sure that he would not grant it, they began to plan not only his assassination but the assassination of his chief officers as well, so that no one might be left to punish the offenders. After the murder, a relative of Velasquez' was to be put in Cortes' place so that Velasquez should overlook their offense.

They made up a false package supposed to contain dispatches which were to be presented to Cortes while he was at the table. While he was interested in opening the package the murderers were to fall on him, and, after he was killed, dispatch Sandoval and Alvarado and Olid. They fixed the day for their plot soon after Cortes' return from Tlacopan.

But, as at Vera Cruz, just as everything was ready one of the plotters repented and went to Cortes with the whole plan, saying that there would be found in Villafana's keeping a paper with the names of all concerned in the plot.

Cortes called for Sandoval and Alvarado and went directly to Villafana's quarters. Villafana was there with three or four conspirators, who were instantly arrested. He himself as soon as he saw Cortes tried to swallow the paper with the list of names, but Cortes seized it before it reached the man's mouth.

The general ran his eye over the list and read with grief the names of many whom he had thought his friends. Then he destroyed the paper utterly. Villafana was at once court-martialed, condemned and hanged from the window of his own quarters. Cortes then called his troops together and told them of Villafana's plot and of its detection.

"Villafana made no confession," Cortes ended. "His guilty secret perished with him. No one else is implicated. I am cut to the heart that there should be any one in our ranks capable of so base an act, for I know not what cause I have given for it. I am not conscious of having wronged any individual among you, but if I have, frankly declare your wrongs now, for I am anxious to afford you all the redress in my power."

There was not one who had a complaint to make; Cortes' friends were indignant at the plot, and those concerned in it were so relieved not to be discovered that their protestations of loyalty were loudest of all. That was the end of the affair, for Cortes never mentioned it again, though he kept a strict eye on those who had been involved. They, in their desire to prove how friendly they were, became for the time the best soldiers in camp.

Cortes' captains insisted that he should hereafter have a bodyguard and Antonio Quinones was appointed its captain. This guard watched over Cortes day and night to protect him from both secret and open enemies.

Cortes immediately turned his attention to his new fleet and to the canal that was to carry the ships from Tezcuco to the lake. It was a mile and a half long and twelve feet broad and its sides were made strong with stones and cement. It had taken the eight thousand Indians two months to build it.

The opening of the canal Cortes made into a great event. On April 28, 1521, the troops under arms and all the population of Tezcuco assembled to witness the ceremony. Father Olmedo said mass and asked God's blessing on the little navy about to be launched. Then, midst martial music, a cannon was fired, and the first vessel with the flag of Spain floating from its mast slid down into the water, followed by the next and the next, till the thirteen ships were afloat. The music rose louder, the artillery on the shore fired salutes and the ships answered, while from all the spectators rang shouts of joy, which suddenly, by common consent, changed into the swelling notes of the Te Deum.

His fleet ready, Cortes reviewed his army. It was larger and better equipped than ever before. There were eighty-seven horse, eight hundred and eighteen foot—of which a hundred and eighteen were arquebusiers and crossbow-men—three large iron guns and fifteen smaller brass guns, and a good supply of powder, balls, shot and copper-headed arrows.

Cortes was ready now for his Indian allies. He sent word for the Indians of the Chalcan league to assemble at Chalco and for the Tlascalans to come to Tezcuco. There came at once, under Xicotencatl and Chichemecatl, five hundred thousand Tlascalans, banners flying and music playing as they marched into Tezcuco with as even and steady a step as if they were already going to battle, while the city rang with the cry "Castile and Tlascala!"

Unfortunately the harmony was soon disturbed. A Spanish soldier got into a brawl with a Tlascalan chief and the chief was badly hurt. He was a relative of Xicotencatl who, in spite of fighting on their side, still hated the white men. He at once assembled his followers and, deserting his post, set out for Tlascala.

Chichemecatl told Cortes that Xicotencatl was gone, and Cortes sent after him a party of Spaniards and Tlascalans to urge the chief to come back to his post. They overtook him before he had gone far.

"Return to your duty," urged the messengers. "The Tlascalans are steady friends of the white men. Your own father is their friend."

"So much the worse," Xicotencatl answered. "If Tlascala had taken my counsel, it would never have been the dupe of perfidious strangers."

Every plea Xicotencatl answered with taunts, and finally the envoys went back to Cortes.

"Xicotencatl," Cortes said when he heard the journey had been in vain, "has always been an enemy of the Spaniards, first in the field, and since in the council-chamber; openly or in secret, still the same—their implacable enemy. There is no use in parleying with the false-hearted Indian."

The general sent another body of men after Xicotencatl to arrest him wherever he was found—even in the streets of Tlascala—and to bring him back to Tezcuco.

Cortes sent also to the council of Tlascala the stern message that the Spaniards punished desertion with death. Xicotencatl was arrested, brought back to Tezcuco, and hanged on a gallows erected in the central square. His property was confiscated to the Spanish crown. His countrymen mourned him, but they did not deny the justice of his punishment.

After this lesson in constancy to his allies, Cortes was finally ready to carry out the plans which he had formed in his journey round Tezcuco Lake, when he had seen that the mainland ends of the great causeways were the points to hold if he wished to blockade the City, of Mexico, for holding those, he could, with the help of his fleet, entirely cut off supplies from the city. Moreover, when he wanted to enter Tenochtitlan, his rear would be secure, while three bodies of troops could, by the great avenues, advance simultaneously to the center of the city.

Alvarado with thirty horse, a hundred and sixty-eight foot and twenty-five thousand Tlascalans was sent to command the causeway of Tlacopan. Olid, with an army of the same size, was to hold the town of Cojohuacan, the base of the short dyke which joined the causeway of Iztapalapan at Fort Xoloc. When they had secured their positions they were to take Chapoltepec and destroy the reservoir that supplied Tenochtitlan with water. Sandoval, with a like army and the addition of levies from the Chalcan league, was first to destroy the city of Iztapalapan—that it should not be left to harass their rear—and then to take up his position at the head of the north causeway. With their duties thus assigned, they set out. Sandoval took the southern route and Alvarado and Olid went by the northern.

Except for a quarrel as to their quarters between Alvarado and Olid, nothing occurred on the march around the north side of the lake. The cities were deserted as they had sent all their inhabitants to protect the capital. Alvarado took up his quarters in Tlacopan, while Olid occupied Cojohuacan, six miles away. As soon as they were settled, they joined forces to attack the water supply of Chapoltepec.

There was a large body of Aztecs guarding the aqueduct and it cost the Spaniards a tremendous struggle to drive the Indians off. They did rout them, however, finally, and broke up the brick and stone work of the aqueduct so that no water could flow through it into Mexico.

Sandoval with his men struck off, in the meantime, to the south to Chalco. Here his allies joined him and the army went on undisturbed to Iztapalapan. Before the city there was drawn up a large troop of Aztecs to whom Sandoval gave battle. After a fierce conflict, the Aztecs gave way and, jumping into the canal and the lake, escaped. This task accomplished, Sandoval went on to occupy his position at Tepejacac.

In the meantime Alvarado in Tlacopan called on Olid to join him in an attempt to seize the first bridge on the Tlacopan causeway. Olid objected. In his quarrel with Alvarado he had yielded to Cortes' arguments—that in such a strait as the Spaniards were in, for their general's sake and for the cause's sake, he and Alvarado must make up any difference between them. But though he had outwardly reconciled himself to Alvarado, he had not forgiven him, and the two did not work well together.

He obeyed Alvarado's call grudgingly, and brought his troops to the Tlacopan dyke, which was swarming with Aztec warriors as thickly as on the "melancholy night." The Christians made slow progress against so strong a foe, protected by barricades and aided by companions in canoes. The savages in canoes had built bulwarks on the sides to protect themselves from the white men's fire, and the savages on the dyke when they were hard pushed leaped into the water, swam a few yards and then climbed back on the causeway, ready for another assault. After a long, ineffectual struggle the Spaniards gave up and fell back on Tlacopan.

Olid in disgust, laying all the blame of the failure on Alvarado, took up his quarters in Cojohuacan.

And this is the last we hear of Olid's accomplishments. He does not enter the story of the siege of Mexico. In Cojohuacan he sulked and cherished his grudge against Alvarado, until finally it grew into a grudge against Cortes as well, which ended four years later in open revolt against his general.

When a man begins to think more of his own hurt feelings than of the cause he serves, he is apt to stain his reputation. Loyalty to a cause means forgetfulness of self.