Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

The Early Days of a Famous Cavalier

The island elysium which Columbus had discovered, and of which he wrote and conversed in the most glowing terms, seemed like a fairy-land of promise to the people of Spain, and hundreds of adventurers soon crossed the seas, hopeful of winning gold and ready for deeds of peril and daring in that wonderful unknown land. Some of them were men of wealth, who were eager to add to their riches, but the most of them had little beyond their love of adventure and their thirst for gold to carry them across the seas, needy but bold soldiers and cavaliers who were ready for any enterprise, however perilous, that might promise them reward. The stories of many of these men are full of romantic interest, and this is especially the ease with one of them, the renowned Hernando Cortez.

We propose here to deal with the interesting early history of this most famous of the New World conquerors. The son of a Spanish captain, of good family, his buoyant spirit and frolicsome humor led him into many wild escapades while still a boy. The mystery and romance of the strange land beyond the sea and the chance to win gold and glory which it offered were fascinating to a spirit like his, and he was prevented from taking part in an expedition when but seventeen years of age only by an unlucky accident. As he was scaling a wall one night, in an adventure like that of Romeo and Juliet, the stones gave way and he was thrown violently to the ground and buried under the ruins. Before he got out of bed from his hurts the fleet had sailed.

Two years longer the ambitious boy remained at home, engaged, perhaps, in similar pranks, but at length another chance offered, and in 1504 he set sail for the land of promise, still a youth of only nineteen years of age. He did not get across the sea without adventure. Quintero, the captain of his ship, bound for Hispaniola and a market, stole away from the rest of the squadron, hoping to reach port and sell his cargo before the others arrived. But fierce gales came to punish him; for many days the vessel was tossed about, the sailors not knowing where they were, and furious at the treachery of their captain. At length, one morning, hope returned to them, in the form of a white dove that lighted on the foremast-top. When the bird had rested it took to flight again, and by following its course the weary mariners finally came to the port they sought. But the captain was paid for his treachery by finding that the other vessels had arrived before him and sold their cargoes.

The young adventurer was full of ambitious hope. When the governor's secretary told him that no doubt he would be given a good estate to settle on, he replied, "But I came to get gold; not to till the soil, like a peasant."

As no gold offered, however, he was glad enough to accept the land, but his fondness for active deeds clung to him, and he took part in the military expeditions sent out to fight with the rebel natives. He had his quarrels, too, and his duels about the love of fair ladies, and received wounds whose scars he carried to the grave. A nobler opening for his valor came in 1511, when an expedition set out for the conquest of Cuba. Cortez enlisted under the leader, Diego Velasquez, whose favor he won by his courage and activity, his cordial and lively disposition, and the good humor and ready wit which made him a favorite with all he met.

After the island had been conquered, Velasquez was made its governor, Cortez still being his close friend. But for some reason this friendship did not last, and when at length a party of discontented men formed a plan to complain of the acts of the governor to the higher authorities in Hispaniola, Cortez took part in the conspiracy, and was chosen, from his fearless spirit, to act as their envoy, it being necessary to perform the perilous exploit of crossing an arm of the sea over fifty miles wide in an open boat.

In some way the plot got wind, and, before he could leave the island, Cortez was arrested by order of the governor and thrown into prison, his limbs being loaded with fetters. Velasquez even intended to hang him, as we are told, but was persuaded by his friends not to go so far. These Spanish governors had the power to do almost anything they pleased, their distance from home enabling them to act the despot at will, and their influence at court saving them from evil consequences.

Cortez did not stay long in his prison cell. In some way he managed to open one of the bolts of his fetters and soon had his limbs free. Then, turning his irons into tools, he used them to force open the window of his cell. As he was on the second floor of the building, it was easy for one so agile as he to reach the ground without injury, and he made his way to a church near by, where he claimed the right of sanctuary.

When Velasquez heard of the escape of his prisoner he was furious. He did not dare attempt to take him from the church by force, since the sacred walls protected all who sought their asylum. But a guard was stationed close by, with orders to seize the fugitive if he should leave the sanctuary. With one so careless as Cortez this was sure to be done. A few days later, as he stood heedlessly sunning himself outside the walls of the building, one of the guards rushed on him from behind, seized his arms, and held him till his comrades calve to his aid. This man was one of those who afterwards took part in the conquest of Mexico, during which he was hung for some offence by Cortez, who perhaps took this opportunity for revenge.

Cathedral of San Domingo


Once more the reckless young adventurer found himself a fettered captive, this time being put on board a vessel that was to sail the next morning for Hispaniola, where Velasquez designed he should be tried for his offence. But he proved a very hard prisoner to hold. That night, with much pain and difficulty, he managed to pull his feet out of the irons that held them, and then stole cautiously to the deck, where he found a boat floating by the vessel's side. Slipping down into this, under cover of the darkness, he cut loose and paddled silently away.

When near the shore he met with a rapid current and rough waters, to which he was afraid to trust the boat. Being an expert swimmer, he thought it safest to breast the water himself, and boldly plunged overboard. He found his task a hard, almost a fatal one; the current threatened to sweep him away, but after a long struggle with the waves he succeeded in reaching the shore, in a state of almost complete exhaustion. He now sought the church again, no doubt resolving this time to keep safely within its sacred shelter.

The story goes on to state that the governor, worked upon by friends of the culprit, offered him forgiveness, which the incensed young cavalier was too proud to accept. What followed is amusing. Velasquez was at a distance from the capital, on a military excursion, when one evening he was startled in his tent by the appearance of his enemy, completely armed and threatening in aspect. In dismay, the governor asked him what he wanted. Cortez replied, angrily, that he was tired of being treated like a felon, and that he must have an explanation or he would know the reason why. Velasquez answered as angrily, and a hot altercation followed. But at length their talk became more friendly, and in the end their old amicable relations were resumed and they embraced like a pair of lovers. The amusing part of the story is this: When a messenger arrived to tell the governor that Cortez had left the sanctuary and disappeared, he found the governor and the culprit both fast asleep in the same bed.

This story seems doubtful, but at any rate they became friends again, and Cortez was given a large estate in Cuba, which he stocked with cattle, and on which he found gold-mines, which were worked by Indian labor. He married a beautiful Spanish girl, and, fast growing rich, spent several years in happy content.

This, with some, would have been the end of a career. It was only the beginning of that of Cortez, before whom still lay a wonderful history and a record of undying fame. All we can tell here is how this came about. It began in expeditions of discovery. Cordova, a Cuban settler, seeking Indians for slaves in the Bahamas, was blown far westward by a storm, and reached an unknown shore, where the natives lived in stone buildings, cultivated the soil, and wore delicate cotton garments and ornaments of gold. In other ways they showed evidence of civilization. The land thus reached is that now known as Yucatan.

Velasquez, on seeing the gold which Cordova brought back, sent out a small fleet under his nephew, Juan de Grijalva, to visit and explore this new land. Grijalva found evidence that a great civilized nation dwelt inland, rich in gold and far superior in civilization to any Indians whom the Spaniards had yet met. He named the country New Spain, and sailed back to Cuba with an account of his important discoveries.

The news filled Velasquez with hope and joy. Here seemed to be the land of gold which the Spaniards had so long sought. Here he might win vast wealth and the glory of adding a new and splendid province to Spain. He at once began to fit out a much larger expedition, and looked around for a man fit to command it. Several of the hidalgos, or gentlemen of Cuba, offered themselves, but none pleased the governor, and at length he settled upon Cortez as the best man for his purpose. By chance, rather than by intention, he had made a splendid choice. Cortez was the one man in the New World, and perhaps the one man at that time in all Spain, fitted by nature for the difficult task which lay before him. Wild and frivolous as he had shown himself in youth, all he needed was a great occasion to prove himself a great man. He was to develop into one of the ablest military leaders in all history, a man who, on a small scale, was to display a genius and achieve a success worthy of Caesar or Alexander or any of the famous soldiers of the world.

But, from another point of view, Velasquez had made a bad choice. Cortez had disdained his fetters and his prisons, and would soon disdain his control. His hope to win gain and glory by the aid of this young adventurer was likely to prove a mere Will-o'-the-wisp.

The very appointment seemed to change the whole character of the new admiral. He became a different man. His high spirits now changed to a tireless energy. He spent his money freely in fitting out the fleet, and even mortgaged his estate to raise more, and borrowed all he could. He worked incessantly, and inspired his companions and followers to active and enthusiastic toil. He was so popular in the island that several hundred recruits soon flocked to his banner, and six ships, some of them of large size, were rapidly got ready and stocked with provisions and military stores.

Yet at the last moment it seemed as if all the labor and cost of Cortez would go for naught. Velasquez grew suspicious of him, and decided to rob him of his command and trust the fleet to safer hands. But he was not dealing with a man who could be played with in this fast and loose fashion. The secret was whispered to Cortez, and he decided to sail at once, though he was still short of men, of vessels, and of supplies. That night he took on board all the meat in the town, weighed anchor, and got ready to set sail.

Vera Cruz


At day-dawn the news came to Velasquez that the fleet was about to depart. In a panic he sprang from his bed, threw on his clothes, mounted his horse, and rode in all haste to the beach. Cortez entered a boat and rowed near enough to the shore to speak with him.

"And is this the way you leave me?" cried the angry governor; "a courteous leave-taking, truly."

"Pardon me," said Cortez; "time presses, and there are some things that should be done before they are even thought of. Has your excellency any commands?"

His excellency would have commanded him to come on shore, if it had been of any use. As it was he had little to say, and with a polite wave of the hand Cortez returned to his ships. Soon only their vanishing hulls were to be seen.

The fleet stopped for supplies at Macaca and at Trinidad. At the last place many men, and several cavaliers who were to prove his ablest officers, joined him. While there, letters came from Velasquez to the governor of Trinidad, ordering him to arrest Cortez, and hold the fleet for a new admiral who was to command it. The governor looked at Cortez and his men and concluded that he had better let them alone. They were too strong for him to deal with.

So once more the bold adventurers escaped from Velasquez and his schemes and sailed in triumph away, this time for Havana. Here, also, the governor of the place had received orders to arrest Cortez, and here, also, the did not dare attempt it. Velasquez also wrote to Cortez, asking hint to wait till he could see him. Hernando Cortez was hardly the fool to pay any heed to such a letter as that. The lion was hardly likely to trust himself to the fox. He sent him a very polite and mild answer, saying that he would not lose sight of the interests of his excellency, and that he and the fleet, "God willing, would set sail the next morning."

Finally, on the 18th of February, 1519, the fleet lost sight of Cuba at Cape San Antonio, on the western end of the island. It consisted in all of eleven vessels, most of them small, and had on board six hundred and sixty-three soldiers and sailors. A few of these were armed with cross-bows and only thirteen with muskets, while the horses numbered only sixteen. In addition there were ten heavy guns and four lighter ones, with a good supply of ammunition.

Such was the fleet and such the force with which Hernando Cortez set sail to conquer a powerful and warlike nation. Fortunately the expedition had one of the world's great commanders at its head, or the enterprise would have ended in failure instead of leading, as it did, to a wonderful success.