Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes Plants the Cross in Mexico

Spring, 1520

Stirred by Cacama's answer, Cortes again made ready to march against the bold young prince, but once more he was dissuaded by Montezuma.

"Many of the Tezcucan nobles are in my pay," he said. "Through their means it will be easy to secure Cacama's person, and thus break up the confederacy at once without bloodshed."

So it seemed that even the savages were refined and civilized enough to keep paid spies in a nation with whom they were at peace.

Through Montezuma's spies, Cacama was induced to hold one of his rebel councils in a villa built over the lake in such a way that boats could pass beneath it. While the council was going on, the spies seized Cacama and put him into the boat waiting under the house, and carried him to Mexico.

It was a strange meeting between the Emperor of Mexico, supposedly free, and the King of Tezcuco, who, though indeed a captive, held his high, defiant bearing and his hatred for his captors. He reproached Montezuma for his treachery in helping bring into bondage the one who was ready to give all to free Anahuac from its invaders. He reproached him, too, with cowardice so unworthy of the royal Aztec race. Montezuma had nothing to answer in his own defense. He turned Cacama over to Cortes.

Cortes, though he admired always a brave man, had little mercy on his enemies. He put Cacama in fetters, and looked about for a puppet to fill the Tezcucan throne, as Montezuma filled the throne of Mexico. Cacama had three younger brothers, Ixtlilzochitl, who had already offered Cortes his friendship before the Spaniards entered Tenochtitlan, Coanaco, a strong friend to the Aztec power, and Cuicuitzca, who was still a lad without much will of his own. Cortes found the boy best suited to his purpose.

The Aztec Emperor had the right of choice in the question of succession to the Tezcucan throne. When Montezuma, therefore, issued an edict deposing Cacama on account of his "rebellion," and naming Cuicuitzca as king, the Tezcucans submitted at once, either from fear of the Spaniards or from their desire to please Montezuma. Cuicuitzca was welcomed in Tezcuco as the new king.

Soon after Cacama's arrest, Cuitlahua, Montezuma's brother, was also taken. Thus with most of the royal family of both Mexico and Tezcuco in his keeping, Cortes became the real ruler of Anahuac. He dictated his policy to Montezuma and to Cuicuitzca, and they made it law to their obedient followers.

As the spring advanced he set himself to discover the riches of his kingdom. He obtained from Montezuma a large, fertile tract of land, which he stocked with animals, trees and plants, as an estate for the King of Spain; he dispatched parties of Spaniards under Indian guides to explore the rivers where gold was to be found; he sent along the seacoast a detachment of < Page (164) ?> a hundred and fifty men under Leon to find a harbor where he could establish a permanent seaport.

Cortes now asked that Montezuma should swear allegiance to the King of Spain. Montezuma was willing to acknowledge the sovereignty of the king of these wonderful beings, descendants of Quetzalcoatl, and called together his nobles.

"You all know," he said, "the tradition that the great Being who once ruled this land declared, on his departure, that he would some time return and resume his sway. That time has arrived. The white men come from the quarter where the sun rises, beyond the ocean, where Quetzalcoatl withdrew. They are sent by their master to reclaim the obedience of his ancient subjects. I am ready to acknowledge his authority. You have been faithful vassals of mine during many years. I now expect that you will show me this last act of obedience by acknowledging the great King beyond the waters to be your lord, also, and that you will pay him tribute in the same manner that you have hitherto done to me."

He ended in tears. His nobles, astonished at his humiliation and his grief, assured him of their love and ready obedience. The oaths of allegiance were then administered by Cortes. "There was not a Spaniard who could look on the spectacle with a dry eye," one of the old chroniclers tells us.

As he had made Montezuma a vassal of Charles V, Cortes next suggested that Montezuma should pay tribute to his new sovereign. Again the Emperor obeyed. The tax collectors were sent through the country and in a few weeks came back with large quantities of gold and silver and rich stuffs.

Then, by Montezuma's orders, the sealed door in the palace of Axayacatl was broken open, and all his treasure brought forth, to be added to the tribute collected through the country. Some of the Spaniards had seen the treasure, but to those to whom it was new, it seemed incredible. In their wildest dreams they had not expected anything like this.

Cortes accepted the wealth for the King of Spain, and set to work to make it into portable shape. The goldsmiths were summoned to break up the large ornaments and to melt the gold into bars. It took the workmen three days to do it. When Cortes wanted to weigh it, he had to make his own scales, for the Aztecs did not know the use of weights.

When the treasure was weighed and counted, it was found that its value amounted to six million, three hundred thousand dollars. If the army had divided this sum equally, each man would have had fifteen thousand dollars. But first one-fifth of the whole sum must be taken for the King; then another fifth for Cortes; out of the three-fifths left, there must be paid to Cortes and Velasquez the cost of the expedition, a proper sum to each of Cortes' captains, a bonus to the cavalry, arquebusiers and crossbow-men, and a portion to the colony at Villa Rica. When the remainder was divided among the common soldiers, there was for each one something over a thousand dollars instead of fifteen thousand. Then of course the fretting began again.

"Was it for this," the soldiers grumbled, "that we left our homes and families, periled our lives, submitted to fatigue and famine, and all for so contemptible a pittance! Better to have stayed in Cuba, and contented ourselves with the gains of a safe and easy traffic. When we gave up our share of the gold at Vera Cruz, it was on the assurance that we should be amply requited in Mexico. We have, indeed, found the riches we expected; but no sooner seen, than they are snatched from us by the very men who pledged us their faith!"

Cortes gave his whole attention to calming his men. "I am sorry," he said, "to see you so unmindful of the duty of loyal soldiers, and cavaliers of the Cross, as to brawl like common banditti over your booty. The division has been made on perfectly fair and equitable principles. As to my own share, it is no more than is warranted by my commission. Yet, if you think it too much, I am willing to forgo my just claims, and divide with the poorest soldier. Gold, however welcome, is not the chief object of my ambition. If it is yours, you should still reflect that the present treasure is little in comparison with what awaits you hereafter, for is not the whole country with its mines at your disposal? It is only necessary that you should not give an opening to the enemy by your discord, to circumvent and crush you."

The soldiers listened. All, except the few who still cherished their grudge, acknowledged the justice of his words, and took the share of treasure allotted them. Most of them did not hold it long, for with cards made of old drumheads they fell at once to gambling, and many of the soldiers, unlucky in their play, were in a few days as poor as they had been before. The wise men, like their officers, had their share of gold made into chains and other articles easy to carry and protect.

With Montezuma an acknowledged vassal of Charles V, and the business of the kingdom all in Cortes' hands, the general congratulated himself that his conquest was really accomplished. The Emperor seemed quite contented to stay in the palace of Axayacatl. When he wanted to hunt in the royal preserves on the other side of the lake, he sailed across in the larger of Martin Lopez' new brigantines, which carried a gun.

"On board of this vessel, Montezuma, delighted with the opportunity of witnessing the nautical skill of the white men, embarked with a train of Aztec nobles and a numerous guard of Spaniards. A fresh breeze played on the waters, and the vessel soon left behind it the swarms of light pirogues which darkened their surface. She seemed like a thing of life in the eyes of the astonished natives, who saw her, as if disdaining human agency, sweeping by with snowy pinions as if on the wings of the wind, while the thunders from her sides, now for the first time breaking on the silence of this 'inland sea,' showed that the beautiful phantom was clothed in terror." [Prescott's Conquest of Mexico]

Montezuma went to the great temple to worship, too, though Cortes took care to send with him as an escort a hundred and fifty of the men who helped in his capture. The Emperor was received at the temple with great ceremony, but after the service was over, came willingly back to the palace of Axayacatl.

But until Montezuma should be converted from his worship of Huitzilopotchli with its horrible sacrifices, Cortes felt that his material successes counted for little. Every day Father Olmedo argued with the Emperor, who listened with courtesy and interest but made always the same reply.

"The God of the Christians is good, but the gods of my own country are the true gods for me."

Finally Cortes, secure in his position, decided that the heathen worship must stop whether the Emperor was convinced or not. He told Montezuma that he would like the great temple made ready for the Christian worship.

Montezuma received the request with the greatest consternation. He had yielded to all Cortes' demands so far because he believed Malinche to be descended from Quetzalcoatl and so ranking even higher than the Emperor of all Anahuac. But a descendant of Quetzalcoatl would never counsel that the temple be given over to the worship of strange gods!

"Why," asked Montezuma, "why, Malinche, will you urge matters to an extremity that must surely bring down the vengeance of our gods, and stir up an insurrection among my people, who will never endure this profanation of their temples?"

"I will endeavor," Cortes answered, "to moderate the zeal of my followers and persuade them to be contented with one of the two towers on the temple area. But that you must grant. If you do not, we shall be obliged to take it by force, and to roll down the images of your false gods in the face of the city. We fear not for our lives, for though our numbers are few, the arm of the true God is over us."

Montezuma, still in great distress, took counsel of his priests, and finally allowed the Christians the right to worship in one of the two tower sanctuaries, while the Aztecs kept the other sacred to their war god.

Great was the joy in the Spanish camp when the permission was received. At once the soldiers swarmed up to the sanctuary allotted them. They cleansed it from its impurities, put an image of the Virgin in place of the idol, and hung a crucifix above the altar, which they decorated with fresh flowers.

When the chapel was ready for worship, the whole Spanish army prepared to go to church. In holiday dress they moved in solemn procession up the steps and around the terraces of the great temple until they reached the paved area high above the city roofs. There, with Father Olmedo at the altar, the soldiers, on their knees near the door of the chapel, listened to the good Father as he said mass. As the Te Deum  swelled from this heathen temple toward heaven, tears of gratitude filled Cortes' eyes. His last wish was fulfilled. He had planted the cross in Mexico.