Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes Enters into Negotiations with Montezuma

April, 1519

Cortes with his cavalry had found progress over the broken ground even harder than had the infantry. With his best efforts he was not able to reach his position until the infantry had been engaged for an hour. When the Spaniards heard Cortes' battle-cry they thought they could see St. Jago himself, the patron saint of Spain, leading the charge on a gray war-horse.

The sight of the cavalry gave fresh courage to Ordaz' men, while it threw the Indians into complete confusion. They had never before seen a horse, and thought that horse and rider were one—a huge creature whom no one could withstand. Seeing them waver, Ordaz ordered a new charge in front, and thus shut in between two foes, the Indians threw down their arms and fled. The battle was over.

Cortes was content with that. He had dispersed his foes and lost only two men. Instead of following up the enemy, he assembled his men under the shade of a little palm grove, where he made camp and offered thanks to God for their preservation and victory.

Two chiefs taken in battle were brought before Cortes. He gave them their freedom and sent them back to their tribes with a choice between forgiveness if they would come in at once and promise obedience, or a terrible punishment if they still held out against the Spaniards.

The Indians were ready to submit. Some inferior chiefs appeared the next day asking leave to bury their dead. Cortes granted it, but said he was waiting for a visit from their greater chiefs. They came very soon with a large following of vassals bringing many gifts—food, cotton and a few gold ornaments, for which Cortes gave them beads and trinkets in return. He asked where the gold came from. They answered, "Mexico."

Among the gifts the Indians brought were twenty women as slaves. One of them was young, beautiful and intelligent. She was a Mexican named Marina and her story was like Joseph's in the Bible. She had been the only daughter of a rich and powerful cacique on the southeastern border of the Mexican Empire. Her father had died when she was a little girl and her mother, marrying again, had a son born to her. She determined to take the inheritance that belonged to Marina and give it to Marina's half-brother, who had no right to it. So she carried out a scheme like that of Joseph's older brothers. She sold the girl to traveling merchants and said that Marina was dead. She even went through a funeral ceremony before she took Marina's riches for her son.

The merchants sold Marina to the cacique of Tabasco, who in turn gave her to Cortes. She at once proved her value. A Mexican by birth, she was thoroughly familiar with the Aztec language. By her residence in Tabasco she could speak also the Tabascan language. Aguilar, the returned captive, on the other hand, could speak Tabascan and Spanish. So Cortes was able to talk to the Aztecs by speaking Spanish to Aguilar, who spoke Tabascan to Marina, who could speak Mexican to the Aztecs. This ability to talk to the Mexicans was soon to prove very valuable to Cortes.

He had asked the Tabascan chiefs where they got their gold and they had told him Mexico. That was the place, therefore, that Cortes must reach. He was quite ready to leave Tabasco and push on.

But before he left to search for gold he lingered to convert the Tabascans to the Christian religion. He told the caciques that in paying homage to him they were swearing allegiance to the King of Spain across the water; the greatest chief in the world. He told them, too, that to be truly obedient to their new chief they must adopt his religion, and that the priest would instruct them in the Christian faith. The Tabascans agreed and listened through the interpreter as Father Olmedo preached them a sermon. We do not know how much they understood, but they professed themselves ready to change their worship from their own good god, Quetzalcoatl, to the Christians' God, and from their cross to the god of rain to the Christians' cross.

The next day was Palm Sunday and Cortes determined on a ceremony that should make a lasting impression on the Tabascans. Each soldier carrying a palm branch, the whole army in solemn procession, with Father Olmedo at their head, took its way across the flowery plains from the camp to the principal temple of the City. Here Cortes took down the idol and put in its place an image of the Virgin. Father Olmedo said mass and the soldiers joined in the chant. The Indians who had thronged to the temple listened in awe to this worship of the God of the white man, who could use the thunder and lightning to fight with.

"These solemnities concluded, Cortes prepared to return to his ships, well satisfied with the impression made on the new converts, and with the conquests he had thus achieved for Castile and Christianity. The soldiers, taking leave of their Indian friends, entered the boats with the palm-branches in their hands, and descending the river re-embarked on board their vessels, which rode at anchor at its mouth. A favorable breeze was blowing, and the little navy, opening its sails to receive it, was soon on its way again to the golden shores of Mexico." [Prescott's Conquest of Mexico]

The fleet, still holding its course near shore, on Holy Thursday arrived off the island named by Grijalva, San Juan de Ulua. As the Indians gathered along the shore did not look hostile, Cortes thought it a good place to anchor.

He had scarcely dropped anchor when a canoe loaded with natives put off from the mainland on the other side. They came directly to the flagship and boarded it with the perfect confidence which Grijalva's generous treatment had left in the minds of these natives. They had presents of flowers and fruit and gold ornaments. At first Cortes could speak to them only in sign-language, as they could not understand Aguilar. But then Marina appeared and proved her value.

Through his two interpreters Cortes was able to talk intelligently with the Indians. They said they were subjects of the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma, who ruled the entire country of Anahuac, and whose power had spread so far that almost every tribe in the country was now under his rule. They themselves lived eight leagues away and were governed by an Aztec noble named Teuhtlile. Cortes was much pleased with his interview, especially as they told him there was plenty of gold in the interior. He said he had come from a friendly monarch to see their emperor and that he wished to go to the city of Mexico to visit Montezuma.

The next day was Good Friday, April 21, 1519. Cortes landed his troops on the beach of the mainland on the spot where the city of Vera Cruz now stands.

It was a long level beach with its line of sand hills. On these dunes Cortes mounted his guns, while he had his men cut down trees and bushes to build huts for a camp. The friendly Indians helped them set stakes firmly in the ground to form uprights, which they roofed with boughs or with native mats and carpets.

In a couple of days the troops had good shelter from the burning sun. They were fed by the natives, who came daily in greater quantities, bringing not only the fruit, vegetables and game for food, but scraps of gold ornament which they bartered for Spanish beads, until the camp looked like a foreign fair.

On Easter Sunday the Governor himself, Teuhtlile, arrived with a long train of followers to call on Cortes. Cortes and his officers received Teuhtlile with much ceremony. The Indians listened quietly while Father Olmedo said mass and then all joined in a banquet of Spanish food and wines. After that was over, the interpreters, Aguilar and Marina, came in and the conversation began.

"I am the subject of a potent monarch beyond the seas," said Cortes, "who rules over an immense empire and has kings and princes for his vassals. Acquainted with the greatness of the Mexican Emperor, my master has desired me to enter into communication with him, and has sent me as his envoy to wait on Montezuma with a present in token of his goodwill and a message which I must deliver in person. When may I be admitted into your sovereign's presence?"

Teuhtlile answered coldly, "How is it that you have been here only two days and demand to see the Emperor?"

Cortes told him about his own Emperor, Charles V, the "potent monarch beyond the seas." Teuhtlile answered more politely, "I am surprised to learn that there is another monarch as powerful as Montezuma, but if that is so, I have no doubt that my master will be happy to communicate with him. I will send my couriers with the royal gift you have brought, and so soon as I learn Montezuma's will, I will communicate it.

Teuhtlile then ordered his slaves to present his gifts to Cortes. There were ten loads of fine cotton stuffs, cloaks of feather-work as rich and delicate as a painting, and a wicker basket filled with ornaments of wrought gold which Montezuma had sent. Cortes in return gave to Teuhtlile for Montezuma an armchair richly carved and painted, a cap of crimson cloth ornamented with a gold medal, and a number of cut glass collars and bracelets, which were as jewels to the Indians, who did not know how to make glass.

Then Teuhtlile was struck with a soldier's gilt helmet because it was like the helmet worn by Quetzalcoatl, "The Fair God" of the Mexicans, and asked if Montezuma might see it. Cortes sent it to Montezuma with the remark that he should like it returned filled with the gold-dust of the country that he might see how near it was like Spanish gold.

While this negotiation was going on, one of Teuhtlile's attendants was busy putting on canvas a sketch of the Spaniards' dress and arms in color. The Aztecs had no written language; all their writing was this picture-writing. This canvas was to be sent to Montezuma that he might see how the white men looked and determine whether, indeed, Cortes was the Mexican Fair God, Quetzalcoatl, who had many years ago left Mexico, promising someday to return. Cortes was pleased with the man's work, and to give Montezuma a still higher idea of the Spaniards' riches and power and strength, he ordered the horses to be put through their paces on the firm, sandy beach. The Indians watched with astonishment the glancing weapons, the easy seat of the riders, the bold movements of the fiery horses. When, added to this, Cortes ordered the cannon fired, and its sound and smoke went rolling off through the woods, while the rushing balls splintered the trees into bits, the Indians were sure that the white men were more than human.

The painter added the horses and cannon to his picture, as well as the ships, whose dark hulls and white sails were reflected in the water where they swung at anchor in the bay.

The hieroglyphic letters were then sent up through the country two hundred miles to Montezuma in the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan or Mexico. There were posting stations about six miles apart all along the route. The first postman ran the first six miles, gave the message into the hands of a second, who in turn passed it on, until it finally reached the Emperor. These postmen were trained to their work from childhood and could run so fast that news was carried from one hundred to two hundred miles in twenty-four hours. The Emperor knew pretty well what his friends and his enemies were about, and as the postmen wore one color to show they were carrying good news, and another for bad, the towns they passed through could also read this running newspaper.

After all was finished Teuhtlile and his train, with great ceremony, left the Spanish quarters. He gave orders that his people should provide the troops with food until he heard from Montezuma.

And so Cortes reached the mainland, established a camp, and opened negotiations with the Emperor of Mexico. He had well begun the task he had set himself. He had left Cuba February 18. On April 23 he was in touch with Montezuma.