Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The Chance that Came to Cortes


In the intervals of quarreling with Cortes after the subjugation of Cuba, Velasquez turned his thoughts to expeditions on the mainland. He was adventurous, as were all the Spaniards of that day, and what he heard of conquest and discovery and gold fired his spirit. Ponce de Leon had explored Florida in 1512; Balboa had discovered the Pacific in 1513; others had come back rich in material wealth as in experience. Velasquez longed to go and do the same.

He was again stirred to action by Cordova, an hidalgo of Cuba, who sailed in February, 1517, to the neighboring Bahama Islands to get slaves. He did not reach the islands, however, for a gale struck him and drove him far out of his course, so that after three weeks' sailing he landed on the northeast end of the peninsula of Yucatan near Cape Catoche.

He was much astonished at what he saw there. Instead of savages living in the open, he found semi-civilized men, buildings of stone and lime, highly cultivated ground, finely woven cotton garments and delicate gold ornaments.

Cordova knew that he had reached a different race of Indians from those on the islands. When he asked the name of the place, the natives answered "Tectelan," which meant, "We do not understand." Cordova, however, took it as the name of the place and called it Yucatan.

He did not find the natives friendly. Wherever he landed he met war. In one skirmish he himself received a dozen wounds. Before he reached Cuba again half of his company had died either of wounds or exposure.

Cordova lived to carry back to Cuba the news of his discovery and to exhibit to the Governor the spoils he had obtained, but he died soon after his return, worn out by the hardships he had gone through. He had lived long enough, however, to stir Velasquez to action.

Velasquez, seeing that Cordova had made a valuable discovery, was quick to get ready a squadron on his own account to carry it further. He fitted out four vessels and placed them under the command of his nephew, Juan de Grijalva, whom he knew he could trust. With Grijalva went Pedro de Alvarado, who later almost cost Cortes his conquest of Mexico.

The fleet sailed May 1st, 1518, following the course marked out by Cordova. Grijalva, like Cordova, was amazed at the signs of civilization shown everywhere, especially in the architecture. He was astonished, too, at finding in these heathen lands huge stone crosses, evidently used as objects of worship.

Grijalva met the unfriendly reception that Cordova had met, but he was prepared for it and so suffered less. One friendly chief met him in conference on the Tabasco River and gave him a number of gold plates fashioned into a sort of armor. A little later as Grijalva went on along the Mexican coast he met a body of natives under a cacique anxious to confer with him. To impress the cacique, Grijalva landed his whole party for the conference. The river where the conference was held was called the River of Banners.

The chief was a vassal of Montezuma who was Emperor of all Anahuac, and Anahuac was the country we now know as Mexico. The Chief had heard of the approach of the Spaniards and was anxious to find out about them all he could to tell his master. The white men and Indians could talk only by signs, but the conference lasted some hours and was most friendly. The Indians received with joy the beads and trinkets with which the Spaniards presented them and gave in exchange jewels and gold cups and ornaments of fine workmanship. Then the two companies parted.

Grijalva knew that Velasquez had sent him out to explore and to barter; he had received no commission to plant a colony and steadily refused all the begging of his followers to found a town on the spot. He would have liked to leave a settlement behind him in spite of the dangerous neighbors that surrounded him, but he had done the errand Velasquez had trusted him with and he thought it wiser to do no more.

He sent Alvarado back to Cuba in one of the caravels while he explored a little farther along the coast, going as far as the province of Pameco and touching at the "Isle of Sacrifices," where he found traces of the cruel human sacrifices which were such a terror afterward to the Spaniards. Grijalva was the first navigator who trod the soil of Anahuac and opened intercourse with the Aztecs.

While Grijalva was thus coasting the Mexican shores, Alvarado with his booty had reached Cuba. The Governor's heart swelled with joy when he heard Alvarado's story and saw all he had brought back. He grew impatient with Grijalva for delaying his return and at the same time blamed him for not planting a colony. Finally when he could stand it no longer he sent out Olid in search of him, and too impatient to await even Olid's return, determined to start out another and larger squadron armed to conquer the country. He began to look around for someone strong enough to command it and rich enough to share in the expense.

Velasquez applied at once for permission to the Commission of Friars at St. Domingo which had been sent out to look after the interests of the Indians. Then he sent over to Charles V, King of Spain, an account of Grijalvo's expedition, and the royal share of treasure, one-fifth of all the gold brought by Alvarado. He told the King how much he had done for the crown and asked that power be given him to carry on the conquest and colonization of Anahuac.

If the Governor had waited to receive permission from Charles before he went ahead making ready for his new expedition, he would have had to wait some time, for Charles, though ready for gold, took little interest in Spanish affairs. In his veins was the blood of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, of Maximilian, Emperor of Germany, and of Ferdinand and Isabella. Though his mother was a Spanish princess, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles had been brought up in his father's country of Flanders. His mother was insane and not fit to rule, so when Ferdinand died in 1516, and the crown passed to his daughter, her son Charles was made regent of Spain. He heartily disliked that country, and after he was elected Emperor of Germany in 1500 spent little time in Spain. The Spaniards thought of him as a foreigner and liked him as little as he liked them. As there was thus no real king in control, Spanish business moved very slowly.

After Velasquez had thus satisfied his conscience by twice asking permission to send an expedition into Anahuac, he at once set to work. Several hidalgos in Cuba were ready to take command, for the news of the riches of Anahuac had run through the island and stirred everyone to adventure. But none of these men suited Velasquez. Finally, under the advice of his treasurer, Lares, and of his secretary, Duero, in both of whom he had great confidence, he chose Cortes commander of the fleet. Report says that Cortes was a friend of these two men and that he promised them a large share of his booty if he were chosen as leader.

But whether he was persuaded in his choice or used his own judgment, Velasquez was convinced he had chosen well. His old feud with Cortes had long since died out; he knew that Cortes' courage and vigor and capability fitted him for a leader, that his fortune would help pay expenses and that his popularity in Cuba would influence many to follow his standard. Velasquez thought, moreover, that his choice would bind Cortes more closely to him in loyalty and gratitude.

To Cortes the commission was a dazzling prospect. The romance of the age of discovery that he lived in ran strong in his veins and made him eager to follow the path marked out by the "Great Admiral" who had first discovered America. Cortes understood, too, the importance of the further discoveries of Cordova and Grijalva and what opportunities would be open to the next man to follow in their footsteps. There would be glory as well as gold waiting for the conqueror of Anahuac.

He accepted the position at once, and immediately all that was strong and fine in him seemed to leap into possession of his nature to change him from a careless, uncalculating youth to a man worthy to command a great enterprise. He gave all the money at his command to fitting out the fleet, even laying a mortgage on his estate for that purpose. Through promises of riches to be gained in Anahuac he encouraged many to join the expedition, and when they had come to his standard, he kept them there, showing already the qualities which made him a leader of men.

Everything was a bustle at once in St. Jago harbor. Six ships were fitting with stores, ammunition and guns, and everyone who could by selling or mortgaging get together enough money to pay his expenses was joining the expedition. In a few days three hundred men had enlisted under Cortes.

Velasquez gave instructions to the little squadron. They were first to find Grijalva and join forces with him and then the two parties together were to discover and set free six Christians whom Cordova reported as being held captive by the Indians somewhere in the interior. As they went, they were to make an accurate survey of the coast, taking soundings that could be charted for future sailing; they were to study the products of the country, the customs of the people, and the differences between the various tribes. Reports were to be sent back to the Governor, with such articles as should be received in trade.

For after all, barter with the Indians was the real object of the expedition, although along with that in the Spaniards' minds went always the sincere desire to convert the Indians to Christianity. The Governor impressed upon Cortes that the natives should be treated as fellow-beings and not as savages and enemies. But Velasquez went on to say that after Cortes had won the Indians by his kindness, he should go on so to teach them of the grandeur and goodness of the King of Spain that they would flock "to give in their allegiance to him, and to manifest it by regaling him with such comfortable presents of gold, pearls and precious stones as by showing their own goodwill, would secure his favor and protection."

Thus Cortes was given his commission. He had no authority for colonizing, for, however much Velasquez fretted at Grijalva for not leaving a colony, he had no power to give that authority to Cortes. No word had come from Spain to the Governor, and the Commission of Friars at St. Domingo could grant only the right of exploration and trading. This Commission confirmed Velasquez in his appointment of Cortes as Captain-General of the new expedition.

Cortes was thirty-three years old. His face was pale, with large, dark eyes, giving him a serious look which did not always tell the truth as to his happy, cheerful spirit. His dress though plain was rich, and set off his tall and slender figure with the deep chest and broad shoulders that gave him strength and agility in horsemanship and fencing as well as the ability to undergo any hardship and toil. He was always temperate in his eating and drinking. His manner was that of a gay comrade, but underneath the frankness was an iron resolution which nothing could turn and which controlled the men who loved him.

His position of Captain-General gave to Cortes, of course, a new importance. He began to live in the style of a man of wealth and station and to show more authority in his speech and manner. This at once made the suspicious Governor uncomfortable, and he began to wonder if, in giving Cortes so much power, he had in fact roused in him loyalty and gratitude or whether he had encouraged him to take for himself more than Velasquez had wished to give him.

[Illustration] from The Boys' Prescott by Helen Ward Banks


These fears were made greater by his jester—who had the privilege of making jokes when he chose. As Velasquez and Cortes were walking together one day down to the harbor, the fool called out, "Have a care, Master Velasquez, or we shall have to go a-hunting, some day or other, after this same Captain of ours."

"Do you hear what the rogue says?" exclaimed the Governor.

"Do not heed him," Cortes answered; "he is a saucy knave and deserves a good whipping."

But the jester's joke stayed in the Governor's mind. There were around him a good many men who would have liked to stand in Cortes' shoes though they could not have fitted them. These jealous ones, some of them Velasquez' relatives, kept his fears and suspicions alive, until presently the Governor and Cortes were back in the old days when they feared and distrusted each other. Velasquez went so far as to resolve to take the command from Cortes and give it to someone else.

Cortes saw in the Governor's change of manner that he was out of favor, but he did not know how badly, until his friends, Lares the treasurer and Duero the secretary who had secured him the commission, came to tell him that he was to be removed from his position as Captain-General. They advised him to get off before his commission was taken from him.

Cortes was ready enough to take this advice. He did not need any time to make a decision, and once made, he was resolute in carrying it out. His men were not together; the vessels were not fully equipped; but he determined to sail that very night.

He went to work at once. Secretly he informed his officers of the change of plan. Then he went to the butcher's and took everything there was in stock, paying for it with a heavy gold chain he wore. The butcher complained there would be nothing left for the citizens on the morrow, but Cortes cared little for that.

Quietly after midnight on November 18, 1518, Cortes with his men boarded the vessels and dropped down the bay. No one knew anything about it till morning, and then the whole town was by the ears to see that the squadron was no longer at the quay. Someone lost no time in telling the Governor, and he was out of bed and down at the harbor in still less time.

Cortes, when he saw him coming, got into an armed boat and was rowed within speaking distance.

"Is it thus you part from me?" cried Velasquez bitterly. "A courteous way of taking leave surely."

"Pardon me," answered Cortes, "time presses, and there are some things that should be done before they are even thought of. Has Your Excellency any commands?"

As Velasquez said no more, Cortes waved his hand and returned to his vessel. Velasquez, mortified and angry, went home, thinking he had made two mistakes; first, in putting so much power into Cortes' hands and, second, in making an enemy of him by trying to take away the power once it was given.

As for Cortes, he was off on his great adventure. His chance had come and he had seized it. And he did not let go till it was accomplished.