Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes Meets Montezuma

November, 1519

When the Aztec ambassadors brought to Tenochtitlan the news that Cortes, heedless of Montezuma's wishes, was already over the mountains, and moving across the plains to Mexico, the Emperor, beside himself with terror and anxiety, shut himself up and refused to eat, finally convinced that the Spaniards were indeed sent by the gods to overturn the might of his mountain empire, which had been so secure until these strange white beings had invaded his land.

Despondently Montezuma summoned his nobles in council. Cacama, the King of Tezcuco, not knowing how he was to hate the white men later, advised the Emperor to receive Cortes courteously as ambassador of a foreign prince. Cuitlahua, the Emperor's brother, urged him to gather his forces and drive back the white men before they set foot in the kingdom. Hopelessly Montezuma disregarded both suggestions.

"Of what avail is resistance when the gods have declared against us?" he answered, and prepared to send one more embassy to Cortes almost at his gates.

Cacama himself headed this embassy which was to invite Cortes to Tenochtitlan. He was a young fellow, only twenty-five, strong and straight. He traveled in a litter decorated with gold and gems and covered with green plumes.

Cacama found Cortes in the town of Ajotzinco on Lake Chalco, where the natives were entertaining the Spaniards most hospitably. He told Cortes that he came from Montezuma to bid him welcome to Tenochtitlan, and, as proof of Montezuma's friendship, Cacama gave Cortes three large pearls. Cortes in return gave the Indian prince a chain of cut glass, which was as valuable to him as were the pearls to the Spanish general. Then with many assurances of friendship, Cacama went back to Tenochtitlan and Cortes resumed his march.

The way lay along the southern shore of Lake Chalco, through beautiful woods, cultivated fields and orchards of fruit trees unknown to the white men. Finally they came to a great stone dyke five miles long, which separated the fresh water of Lake Chalco from an arm of the salt lake of Tezcuco. In its narrowest part, the dyke was only a lance's length in breadth, but in its widest, eight horsemen could ride abreast. The white men crossed it with eyes open for all the strange sights about them: the floating gardens, rising and falling with the swell of the lake; the canoes filled with Indians, darting hither and thither like swallows; the many small towns built out on piles far into the lake and looking, at a distance, "like companies of wild swans riding quietly on the waves." Halfway across the dyke, they found a good-sized town, with buildings which stirred great admiration in the Spaniards. They stopped for refreshment and here, so near to the imperial city, Cortes heard no more of Montezuma's cruelty and oppression, only of his power and riches.

After this brief rest, the white men went on. Their march was made difficult by the swarms of curious Indians who, finding the canoes too far away for a complete view of the strangers, climbed up on the causeway to gaze at them. Cortes had to clear a way through the crowd for his troops before they could leave the causeway and reach Iztapalapan, the city of Montezuma's brother, Cuitlahua, on the shores of Lake Tezcuco.

Cuitlahua had invited many neighboring caciques to help him receive Cortes with proper ceremony. The Spaniards were welcomed with gifts and then invited to a banquet in Cuitlahua's palace, before they were assigned their quarters.

Cortes greatly admired Cuitlahua's city, especially the prince's big garden. It was laid out regularly and watered in every corner by canals which connected it with Lake Tezcuco. The garden was filled with shrubs and vines and flowers delightful to smell and see. It had fruit trees, too; in one corner was an aviary of brilliant song birds; in another a huge stone reservoir stocked with fish. The reservoir was almost five thousand feet in circumference and the stone walk around it was broad enough for four persons to walk abreast.

"In the city of Iztapalapan, Cortes took up his quarters for the night. We may imagine what a crowd of ideas must have pressed on the mind of the conqueror, as, surrounded by these evidences of civilization, he prepared with his handful of followers to enter the capital of a monarch, who, as he had abundant reason to know, regarded him with distrust and aversion. This capital was now but a few miles distant, distinctly visible from Iztapalapan. And as its long lines of glittering edifices, struck by the rays of the evening sun, trembled on the dark-blue waters of the lake, it looked like a thing of fairy creation, rather than the work of mortal hands. Into this city of enchantment Cortes prepared to make his entry on the following morning." [Prescott's Conquest of Mexico]

It was on the 8th day of November, 1519, that Cortes started on the march that was to take him into the City of Mexico. The general with his cavalry was in the van; behind him came his few hundreds of infantry—weather-beaten and disciplined by the summer's campaign; next, was the baggage; while the six thousand Tlascalans closed the rear. The little army marched back along the southern shore of Lake Tezcuco until it reached the great causeway of Iztapalapan, which ran across the lake straight north to the very heart of the City of Mexico. The dyke was broad enough for ten horsemen to ride abreast; Cortes and his army, as they advanced, still wondered at the strange, beautiful sights about them. Less than two miles from the capital the dyke was cut by a shorter dyke running in from the southwest, and at the point where this dyke joined the main causeway of Iztapalapan there was built across the causeway a stone fortification twelve feet high, which could be entered only by a battlemented gateway. It was called the Fort of Xoloc.

At Xoloc Cortes was met by a body of Aztec nobles who, in their holiday dress, came to welcome him. As each noble separately had to greet Cortes, and as there were several hundred of them, the troops had time to get acquainted with the Fort of Xoloc. Later they grew to know it even better.

After the ceremony was over, the army went on along the dyke of Iztapalapan, and presently came to a canal cut through the causeway and spanned by a wooden drawbridge. To Cortes, as he walked over it, must have come the question whether getting out of Mexico would be as easy as getting in.

There was not much time to wonder about the future, however, for now Montezuma, the great Emperor, lord of Anahuac, was coming forth to meet Cortes. In the midst of a throng of great men, preceded by three officers of state bearing golden wands, came Montezuma's royal litter shining with gold, shaded by a canopy of brilliant feather work, adorned with jewels and fringed with silver, and borne on the shoulders of his nobles who, barefooted, walked with humble, downcast eyes.

The royal train halted and Montezuma descended. His attendants spread down a cotton carpet, that his royal feet might not touch the earth, and over this, supported on one side by Cuitlahua and on the other by Cacama, Montezuma came to greet Cortes.

He was about forty years old—six years older than Cortes. His dark, melancholy eyes gave a serious expression to his copper-colored face, with its straight hair and thin beard. He moved with the dignity of a great prince, and as he passed through the lines of his own subjects, they cast their eyes to the ground in humility.

As Montezuma approached, Cortes threw his reins to a page and dismounted, and with a few of his chief men went forward to meet the Emperor. The two great men looked at each other with a keen interest.

Montezuma very graciously welcomed Cortes to his city, and Cortes answered with great respect, adding many thanks for all the Mexican's gifts. He hung on Montezuma's neck a cut glass chain and, except for the interference of two shocked nobles, he would have embraced him.

Montezuma appointed Cuitlahua to escort the Spaniards to their quarters in the city, while he himself entered his litter and was carried back to his palace, followed by the Spaniards with colors flying and music playing. Thus Cortes triumphantly entered Tenochtitlan.

The Spaniards looked around them with the keen interest of people in a place of which they have heard much and see now for the first time. As they had entered by the southern causeway, they were marching through the broad avenue which led from the Iztapalapan dyke straight to the great temple in the center of the city. The houses on this street belonged to the nobles and were built of red stone with broad, flat roofs defended by the parapet which turned every housetop into a fort. Wonderful gardens surrounded the houses and sometimes were laid out on the roofs.

The streets were crowded with people, as eager to see the Christians as the Christians were to see them. The Indians were awed by the white faces and the glittering armor and the horses, but they had only anger for the Tlascalans. The white men might be gods, but the Tlascalans were the Aztecs' bitterest enemies, and it was not pleasant to Aztec eyes to see their foes walking confidently through the Mexican city.

The procession, crossing many bridges where the canals cut the avenue at various places, came at length to the heart of the City of Mexico, the great square, from which ran the four broad avenues. North, south and west these avenues ran to the three causeways that joined the city to the neighboring mainland. The avenue running east stopped at the lake front. In the center of the square stood the great temple in its courtyard surrounded by a high wall cut by a gate opposite each avenue. The temple itself was, excepting the sacred temple of Cholula, the largest and most important of the land.

Opposite the temple, on the southwest corner of the great square, was the royal palace which Montezuma had erected. On the west side was the old royal palace built fifty years before by Montezuma's father, Axayacatl. This palace was given to the Spanish army for their quarters.

Montezuma was in the courtyard of the palace of Axayacatl waiting to receive Cortes and his train. He took from a vase of flowers a chain made of shells ornamented with gold and joined by links of gold, and as he threw it over Cortes' head, he said, "This palace belongs to you, Malinche, and to your brethren. Rest after your fatigue, for you have much need to do so, and in a little while I will visit you again."'

Then he and his followers withdrew, and the white men were left with their allies in their palace in Tenochtitlan. Through much danger and untold hardships, in the face of Montezuma's commands, they had reached his city, and he had housed them in a royal palace. The Spaniards must have wondered that night if the thing were real or if they were in a dream.