Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes' New Commission

July, 1519

As Montezuma studied the picture-writing in Tenochtitlan and wondered what answer to send back to the white invader, Cortes, down in the "warm lands" of the Mexican coast, had not wasted time while he waited.

The soldiers, unused to the tropical heat, found the burning, sandy beach very trying, though the friendly natives did all they could to make their guests comfortable. The Indians had made huts for themselves near the Spanish camp where, free of charge, they prepared for Cortes and his officers meals of game, fish, corn-cakes, pineapples and bananas. The soldiers paid for their food with beads and trinkets, which they sometimes exchanged, too, for tiny bits of gold. Velasquez' friends thought that this was infringing on the rights of the Governor of Cuba, but Cortes did not interfere; he knew when to shut his eyes. He passed over always many small matters, but when he gave an order he never drew back. That made him a great leader.

There were only eight days of waiting before Teuhtlile came with the two Aztec nobles who had brought Montezuma's answer. One of the nobles had been chosen because he looked so like the picture of Cortes that Teuhtlile had sent to Tenochtitlan. The soldiers recognized the likeness to their leader and called him "the Mexican Cortes."

Montezuma, after all his argument between warrior and priest, had, in his uncertainty, chosen the worst policy of all; he was afraid to welcome Cortes boldly; he was afraid to fight him boldly; so he temporized. He sent presents to appease Cortes, and these presents showed the Spanish general how rich the Emperor was. He forbade Cortes to come to Mexico, and this showed Cortes that Montezuma was afraid of him. This is the vaguely polite message that the nobles delivered: "It gives our master great pleasure to hold this communication with so powerful a monarch as the King of Spain, for whom he feels the most profound respect. He regrets much that he cannot enjoy a personal interview with the Spaniards, but the distance of his capital is too great; since the journey is beset with difficulties, and with too many dangers from formidable enemies, to make it possible. All that can be done, therefore, is for the strangers to return to their own land, with the proofs thus afforded them of his friendly disposition."

Cortes thanked the Aztecs for the wonderful gifts, too wise to show his annoyance and disappointment at their reply.

"It makes me only the more desirous," he said, "to have a personal interview with Montezuma. I should feel it, indeed, impossible to present myself again before my own sovereign, without having accomplished this great object of my voyage; and one, who has sailed over two thousand leagues of ocean, holds lightly the perils and fatigues of so short a journey by land."

The envoys told Cortes coldly that his message would not change Montezuma's decision. They went away in not very friendly spirit, taking as presents to their Emperor some linen sheets, a Florentine goblet and other things of little value.

The huge treasure they left behind at once set the Spaniards quarreling. Some were anxious at once to possess themselves of a country rich enough to send all this wealth as a present to a foreign king. Others thought it would be folly to attack so powerful a king, and that the true wisdom would be to take what they had and sail back to Cuba for new instructions and more men from the Governor. They all spoke freely, for they were soldiers of fortune and felt themselves equal to their leader. It is not hard to tell which side Cortes would be on, though he listened and said nothing.

There were reasons for a move of some sort. The heat and the mosquitoes had so told on the Spaniards that they could scarcely endure it any longer. Thirty of their number had died. And now since the unfriendly departure of the envoys, the natives who had fed Cortes' camp, began to ask huge prices for the food.

As, added to all these things, there was no harbor for the vessels at this point, Cortes sent Alaminos, the pilot, cruising along the shore for a better place for settling.

While he was gone the envoys came back once more from Montezuma. They entered the camp with the same ceremony, and brought additional presents, but their answer was the same as before. Montezuma told the strangers—politely—that now they had what they wanted, they would better go home, and forbade them to go any nearer Tenochtitlan. Cortes received the edict courteously, but turning to an officer he said,

"This is a rich and powerful prince indeed; yet it shall go hard, but we will one day pay him a visit in his capital!"

While he was speaking, the vesper bell rang. Immediately the Spanish soldiers fell on their knees in prayer before the wooden cross which was set in the sandy beach. The Aztecs looked in interest at this strange worship, and Cortes seized the occasion to convert them to the Christian faith, for that he considered the chief object of his visit to the country. He had Father Olmedo preach them a sermon, which Aguilar translated to Marina, and she, to the Mexicans. They listened coldly and withdrew as soon as the sermon was finished. That same night the natives broke up their camp and disappeared, and Cortes found himself left in a strange land without supplies.

In a few days another band of Indians came in—five of them—looking very unlike the Mexicans. They wore in their nose and ears gold rings set with bright blue stones, and a thin leaf made of gold hung from their lower lip.

Marina could not understand their language, but fortunately two of their party understood Aztec. They said they were Totonacs from Cempoalla, which had lately been conquered by Montezuma. They hated Montezuma because of his many oppressions, and they invited Cortes to come to Cempoalla.

Cortes caught at once at the idea that Montezuma had enemies in his own kingdom. He promised to visit Cempoalla, and sent the envoys back with presents.

Then Alaminos returned from his expedition. He had found a place near the city of Chiahuitzla where the ships might harbor and where, on the adjoining shore, there were streams to supply the camp with fresh water. Cortes decided to move his settlement to this spot.

The party who were ready to go home were very much displeased with this decision. They wanted to go back to Cuba, instead of sailing to another spot where "the whole Mexican Empire" might come down on them.

Cortes did not argue; he merely told them patiently that as everything had gone on well so far, it would go even better in a better situation, and left them to their discussions.

Cortes had a good many strong personal friends in his party who were ready to argue if he was not. Alvarado, always bold, was among them. These men, eager to go forward, had such confidence in Cortes that they would follow him anywhere. They perceived that his warrant from Velasquez did not give him any more power to found a colony than Grijalva had possessed, but they had seen too much of the riches of the country to be willing to go back now with their small gains and place all the honor of the expedition in Velasquez' hands when, with a little more effort, they could establish themselves in the country and reap a rich harvest. Grijalva had obeyed Velasquez to the letter and had been punished for his obedience; Cortes might learn from Grijalva's fate not to trust the Governor of Cuba.

These friends of Cortes' set themselves to persuade the bigger part of the soldiers of the necessity of Cortes' going on up to take possession of Mexico if his followers were to get the riches of the country for themselves and for the King of Spain, instead of meekly turning it all over to Velasquez.

"To return now," they said, "is to abandon the enterprise on the threshold, which, under such a leader, must conduct to glory and incalculable riches. To return to Cuba will be to surrender to the greedy governor the little gains we have already got. The only way is to persuade the general to establish a permanent colony in the country, the government of which will take the conduct of matters into its own hands, and provide for the interests of its members. It is true, Cortes has no such authority from Velasquez. But the interests of the Sovereigns, which are paramount to every other, imperatively demand it."

Although their meetings were held very secretly at night, the friends of Velasquez heard by and by of what Cortes' friends were doing. They accused Cortes himself of stirring up the trouble, and declared it was treason. They called on him to go directly back to Cuba if he would prove his loyalty to Velasquez.

Cortes kept his temper—as he usually did. "Nothing," he said, "is further from my desire than to exceed my instructions. I, indeed, prefer to remain in the country, and continue my profitable intercourse with the natives. But, since the army thinks otherwise, I shall defer to their opinion, and give orders to return, as they desire."

At once he issued a proclamation for the troops to be ready to embark the next morning to return to Cuba. It was a bold experiment; if they obeyed, it was the end of the expedition, but if, on the other hand, they insisted on going on up to Mexico—as Cortes was sure they would—the responsibility was theirs, and they could not later complain to the leader if things went wrong.

It happened as Cortes had thought. The proclamation stirred the army tremendously. Even those who had demanded the return began to wish that they had been willing to carry the adventure further. As for Cortes' friends, they thronged around his tent and called on him to countermand his orders.

"We came here," they said, "expecting to form a settlement, if the state of the country authorized it. Now it seems you have no warrant from the governor to make one. But there are interests, higher than those of Velasquez, which demand it. These territories are not his property, but were discovered for the Sovereign; and it is necessary to plant a colony to watch over his interests, instead of wasting time in idle barter, or, still worse, of returning, in the present state of affairs, to Cuba. If you refuse, we shall protest against your conduct as disloyal to His Highness."

Cortes seemed surprised at this new idea that he was responsible to Charles V, King of Spain, instead of to Velasquez. He said he must have time to think it over.

The next day he called the soldiers together again and made them this speech. "There is no one, if I know my own heart, more deeply devoted than myself to the welfare of my sovereign, and the glory of the Spanish name. I have not only expended my all, but have incurred heavy debts, to meet the charges of this expedition, and have hoped to reimburse myself by continuing my traffic with the Mexicans. But, if the soldiers think a different course advisable, I am ready to postpone my own advantage to the good of the state."

The army responded to his appeal and demanded a new government. Cortes, on the spot, appointed two magistrates, Puertocarrero, a firm friend of his own, and Montejo, a firm friend of Velasquez, thus taking one from each party. The other officers, however, were all his own friends. They were sworn into office at once, and the city was called, "the Rich Town of the True Cross," Villa Rica de Vera Cruz, putting into its name their hopes of spiritually helping the natives while, at the same time, they made themselves materially rich.

The new government at once assembled. Cortes, hat in hand, came before them, laid his commission from Velasquez on the table, and resigned his office of Captain-General. This office Velasquez had given him, and it was no longer of any authority, since the expedition had thrown off allegiance to Velasquez and put the whole government into the hands of the Magistracy of Villa Rica de Vera Cruz.

Cortes, with a deep bow, left the room. The new government discussed the matter a little and then called him back. They told him that as there was no one so well-fitted as he to command the expedition, the government had unanimously named him, in behalf of the King, Captain-General and Chief Justice of the new state, with the right to one-fifth of all the treasure the expedition should gain.

Thus Cortes was a long step ahead. Instead of laying down his authority and returning to Velasquez, who had sent him out, the whole expedition had broken with Velasquez, and announced themselves under no one but the King of Spain. In the name of the King of Spain they had formed a new government, and put in Cortes' hands the supreme military and civil power. What could he ask more? He had authority now, not only to trade with the Indians, but to take Mexico and settle there if he could.

The government was formed and Cortes held his new commission before the friends of Velasquez had fairly opened their eyes. When they saw what had been done, they broke out in indignant reproaches of disloyalty. Cortes' party replied as violently, and the camp became a scrimmage.

Cortes exercised his new authority. He picked out from the opposition party Ordaz, Leon and his page Escobar, and sent them in irons on board the fleet. Their men he sent out to forage for provisions, under Alvarado, with a strong band of Cortes' followers.

While they were gone, Cortes used all his powers to make those of his enemies who remained in camp see things as he saw them. They yielded at last—whether convinced by reason or gold—and when the foraging party came back with food, there was only one party in camp—those in favor of Cortes. There was plenty of food and that helped to make every one good-natured. Even the haughty cavaliers in irons were glad to lose them and join the banquet on shore. It was again a united band set on the great adventure of marching up to Tenochtitlan. After this, through the whole expedition, Ordaz and Leon were among Cortes' strongest and most loyal friends.

So Cortes' plan had succeeded. He held still supreme power, and it was his now absolutely. Only Charles V was above him; if he could make the King his friend it no longer mattered what Velasquez thought or did. Cortes had changed a military community into a civil government, and had made his enemies into his friends, till all were ready to acknowledge his authority and follow him into danger. In defying Velasquez, every soldier in camp had joined his fortune to Cortes, and they must stand or fall together. Thus Cortes had fairly started to carry out his great idea—the Conquest of Mexico. That vision burned before his eyes and lured him on. Nothing was to turn him from it till he had made it a reality.

We follow him with breathless interest. We may doubt his right to seize the wealth of another country, and we may think there is trickery or cruelty in some of his methods of gaining his ends. We judge Cortes' acts by the standards of the times in which he lived, when war was a noble occupation, and scheming in politics was wisdom. But his character will stand the test of all times; his good-temper in hardships, his unfaltering courage, his constancy of purpose, his large vision, his knowledge of men, his ability to make and hold friends—all are traits so fine that, in spite of what we condemn, we must still admire the man Cortes.