Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The Great Battle of Tabasco

March, 1519

The little fleet kept to the shores of Yucatan until it doubled Cape Catoche, and then went sweeping down the Bay of Campeachy. The men who had sailed these waters before with Grijalva were eager to point out to their companions all the spots they remembered and to tell their adventures.

Puertocarrero, as he listened to their excited chatter, said to Cortes, "I advise you to look out for only the rich lands and the best way to govern them."

"Fear not," Cortes answered. "If fortune but favors me and I have such gallant gentlemen as you for companions, I shall understand myself very well."

Very soon the fleet reached the mouth of the Tabasco River, where Grijalva had had his friendly meeting with the Indian chief. Although Cortes' great desire was to travel through Anahuac to the Capital City of Mexico and visit the Aztec Emperor, he remembered, too, his orders to explore and report on the country as he went. He determined, therefore, to stop long enough to go up the Tabasco River and visit the great town on its banks.

He could not take his vessels up the stream because of a sand-bar at its mouth, so he left the fleet under guard of part of his force, while with the rest he embarked on the ships' boats and set out up the river.

Cortes went cautiously, for behind the screen of mangrove trees which lined the river he could see moving bodies of Indians, who did not look as if they belonged to the friendly natives who had met Grijalva on this river. When, at evening, near the city of Tabasco, Cortes wanted to land his troops for the night, he was met by a crowd of angry Indians brandishing weapons. Cortes asked, through his interpreter, permission to land, assuring them he came as a friend. But the sullen natives would not grant him leave, and Cortes withdrew to a little island to camp, determined not to land on the main shore until morning.

When morning came, things did not look hopeful. Not only were the angry bands of Indians drawn up along the shore in greater numbers than ever, but the river swarmed with canoes filled with armed warriors. Cortes was not to be daunted.' He had made up his mind to land, and land he would. He sent a hundred men under Avila downstream to get ashore in a grove of palms and march from that point to attack the town of Tabasco in the rear while he should assault it in front.

With his detachment of troops, Cortes crossed the river directly in face of the enemy. Before he opened fire, he proclaimed through his interpreter, Melchorejo, that he had come to renew the friendly relations which had before been between Indians and Spaniards and that all he asked was free passage for his troops. He said if blood were spilt, it would be because the Indians blocked his path, and that it would be a useless opposition, for, in spite of everything, he meant to camp that night within the walls of the town of Tabasco. Whether or not the Indians understood this proclamation, their only answer was a shout of defiance and a shower of arrows.

Cortes, having thus cleared his conscience, brought his boats at once alongside the Indian canoes and grappled them. Both parties were soon turned out of their boats and were fighting in the shallow water, where the Spaniards gradually pushed the natives back to shore. Here they had new foes to meet, for the Indians in front of the city flung at them arrows and blazing torches as they struggled to find a footing on the slippery, muddy banks. Cortes lost his sandal in the mud, but kept on fighting barefoot.

Cortes was soon picked out as leader and the Indians directed against him the worst fury of their assault. He finally got his men on firm ground, where he formed them in some degree of order and opened fire on the natives. They had never seen firearms and, at the flash and roar, fell back behind a blockade of logs they had drawn up in front of the town. The Spaniards carried that defense and drove their enemies into the city.

Avila, in the meantime, had reached his position and was attacking Tabasco from the rear. Caught between the blasts of this terrifying thunder and lightning of the white men, the Indians gave up. They had already taken their families and their possessions out of the city, and now they fled themselves, leaving their town in the hands of Cortes. All that he found in the stone houses of Tabasco, however, were provisions—the gold was gone.

Cortes took possession of Tabasco for Spain. With his sword he cut three gashes in a large tree, proclaiming that he took possession in the name of the King and would defend his claim with his sword. The soldiers took the same oath, and the whole affair was recorded by the notary. In this simple way did Spain take possession of her new territories.

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


Cortes had made good his boast to the Tabascans, for he slept that night in the courtyard of the principal temple. He took here the precautions he observed through his whole campaign by posting sentinels and having his men sleep on their arms.

All night a threatening silence hung over Tabasco, but in the morning there was no sign of the enemy. News came to Cortes, however, that the native interpreter, Melchorejo, had left his Spanish dress hanging on a tree and had" escaped in the night to join his friends. The news troubled Cortes, for Melchorejo could carry to his friends more facts about the Spaniards than Cortes wanted known.

There was no help for it, however. As the Indians still kept out of sight, Cortes sent a body of men under Alvarado one way and a second detachment the other way. This last body fell into an Indian ambush and had to entrench themselves in a stone house, where the Indians closely besieged them. The yells of the savages reached the ears of Alvarado and he took his men to the relief of their companions. Then both parties forced their way back to Tabasco, and Cortes, meeting them, they forced their enemy to retire for the time.

But the Indians were not conquered. Several prisoners had been taken in this fight who told Cortes that the whole nation was in arms against the Christians. Cortes asked in some surprise why they gave him treatment so different to that they had offered Grijalva. The Indians answered that on account of their kindness to Grijalva they had been objects of scorn to the other tribes ever since; that they had been called traitors and cowards, and that they could only regain their friends' confidence by resisting the white men.

Cortes probably wished that he had not stopped to explore the Tabasco River. But now that he had gone so far he must carry the matter to a finish. If he gave in now, not only would all the tribes along his route rise with greater force to oppose him, but his own men would lose their confidence in him as a successful leader, and with their confidence would go their courage. Without hesitation Cortes called his officers to council and announced his intention of giving battle the next day.

At once he set about his preparations. He sent the wounded back to the ships and ordered up more men from the ships to Tabasco. He ordered also six of the heavy guns to be brought up and all of the sixteen horses. The horses were stiff and lazy after their life on shipboard until a little exercise limbered them up.

Cortes himself was leader of the cavalry. The infantry he put under the command of Ordaz and the artillery under a soldier named Mesa, who was something of an engineer. The cavalry consisted of the flower of Cortes' command—Alvarado, Leon, Avila, Olid, Puertocarrero and Sandoval among them.

Having done all he could and arranged his plan of battle, Cortes went to bed. But he could not sleep. He spent the night going the rounds to see that no sentinel slept at his post.

At the first glint of dawn Cortes roused his army to attack. He knew how much courage comes with action and how courage oozes away if men sit still and wait for danger to come to them. He ordered Ordaz to march with the foot-soldiers and artillery directly across country to the plain of Ceutla, where the Indians were encamped, while Cortes himself with the cavalry should make a circuit and fall upon the rear.

It was Lady-day, March 25, 1519, when, after listening to Father Olmedo perform mass, the Spaniards marched out of the wooden walls of Tabasco and separated horse and foot each to its appointed duty. The march led through fields of maize and cacao, cut with irrigation ditches, crossed by only one narrow causeway along which the guns could be dragged.

After a march of about three miles through the sultry day the infantry came in sight of the plains of Ceutla, with the enemy, numbering forty thousand men, drawn up on dry ground in line as far as the eye could reach. As the Spaniards came floundering through the marsh, they were met by a charge of arrows and stones and a series of frightful yells. They kept on, however, and gained ground where they could plant their guns. The fire was deadly in the close-packed ranks of Indians, but they did not fall back. They tossed dust in the air as a shield against the Spaniards and, pressing closer, shot new volleys of arrows. When they were driven off by a vigorous charge, they rolled back again in greater force, until the Spaniards were almost overwhelmed merely by weight of numbers, which gave them no room to work their guns or deploy their troops. Thus the battle swung back and forth, while the Christians, panting and fearful in their struggle, kept their ears strained for Cortes' battle-cry. Had he failed them?

Suddenly, far in the rear of their foes, they saw the sun glint on Spanish helmets and heard the comforting cry, "St. Jago and St. Pedro!"