Hernando Cortes - Frederick Ober

An Alliance with the Totonacs


CortÚs had reason for considering himself a favored child of fortune. With a large fleet, and soldiers so far devoted to his cause, he had made admirable progress. At Cozumel he had benefited by the arrival of Aguilar, whose services as interpreter were only surpassed by those of Dona Marina, the two together affording means of communicating with the Mexicans which could not have been gained without them. Again, following right after Grijalva, who had created such a favorable impression upon Montezuma and the Mexicans, he received favors intended for him, and made the most of his prestige.

But for the grave mistakes he made, CortÚs might have marched into the heart of Mexico without finding any considerable opposition. But he did not fulfill Montezuma's ideal as to what the leader of the mysterious strangers should have been, in the first place; in the second (as Teuhtlile reasoned), if he and his companions indeed suffered from a "disease of the heart" which could be cured only by gold, and had no higher ambitions than the gathering of it, they could not possibly be the men for whom the Mexicans were looking so anxiously and hopefully.

The Spanish leader's third and perhaps his greatest mistake arose from his forcible "conversion" of the natives. He had cast down the idols of Cozumel, leaving the Indians there with the cross and an image of the Virgin Mary as substitutes. He had forced the Tabascans to bow before these same objects, after slaughtering thousands of their warriors and while yet nursing dreadful wounds received in defence of their religion and their homes. So now, reviewing the "good work" he had accomplished in those instances, when an occasion came for speaking to the Mexicans on the subject, he promptly embraced it. This occasion came on the return of Teuhtlile from his last visit to Montezuma. As he was conversing with CortÚs in the calm of evening-time, when all nature was at rest, and a benison of peace extended over earth and sea, the bell for vespers sounded on board ship, and all the Spaniards present fell upon their knees in prayer.

The astonished noble inquired of Marina the meaning of this ceremony, and she interpreted the question to CortÚs. He promptly brought forward his favorite chaplain, Father Olmedo, who explained at length the mysteries of the Christian faith, and the cross, before which the Spaniards prostrated themselves in adoration. He went further than this and declared that, inasmuch as theirs was the "only true faith," it was their duty, and also their mission, to destroy all heathen idols, and convert those who worshipped them to the Christian belief, not even excepting the great monarch Montezuma. This statement was ardently seconded by CortÚs himself, and, there no longer being any doubt in the mind of the Mexican that his cherished gods were to be objects of attack and the religion of his fathers made the subject of ridicule, he retired in wrath and confusion. The next morning (as we have seen) the Indians who had supplied the Spaniards with provisions had disappeared.

The Spaniards prepared for hostilities; but no attack came, and they sullenly turned to face their critical situation, increasingly perilous the longer they stayed in Mexico. CortÚs had to confess himself beaten in the game of diplomacy played between himself and Montezuma; but he was equal to any emergency when it came to managing his band of fretful Spaniards. When, therefore, it became known to him that the majority of his company objected to going any farther, and desired to return to Cuba, he gave orders that the fleet should be made ready for that purpose; but with no intention whatever of proceeding in any other direction than towards the Mexican capital. He had slyly sounded his soldiers, and had correctly judged that the larger number would not be in favor of retracing their steps if they were put to a test. And so it proved, for when it was announced that all who desired could proceed to Cuba, there was a most furious outcry among those who either wished to found a colony on the coast, or to march inland and attempt the conquest of the country.

They called upon CortÚs in a body, and, after reminding him of the treatment the unhappy Grijalva had received at the hands of Governor Velasquez (having been deprived of his command for failing to found a colony), demanded to see his instructions. When these were produced, it was found that nothing had been said as to a settlement in the country, but that great stress was laid upon the getting of gold, extending the dominions of the king, and converting the heathen. The faction in favor of Velasquez professed to see in this omission a reason for their being sent home to Cuba, which they demanded. They also insisted upon a fair division of the spoils, after first setting aside the "royal fifth" for the king of Spain.

In the name of that same sovereign, the soldiers desirous of remaining in Mexico demanded that CortÚs should stay and at once lay the foundation of a colony, as any other course, they said, would be disloyal to the crown. Still pretending that he desired only to satisfy the greater number, and protesting his loyalty to the king as well as to the governor of Cuba, CortÚs yet affected to see a majority in favor of remaining, which was the course he wished to pursue.

"The only way out of it," he said, "is to commence a settlement—at least on paper—in the name of the sovereigns, and without delay." So he named the officials forthwith, for alcaldes choosing Puertocarrero, a steadfast friend of his, and Montejo, who was equally devoted to Velasquez. The remaining officials necessary to the organization of a Spanish pueblo, or town, such as the regidores, or aldermen, the treasurer, alguacils, or constables, etc., were all from the ranks of his friends, so at the very outset the Velasquez faction was in the minority. This being the case, it was not at all strange that, when CortÚs later appeared before the newly established municipality, cap in hand, and, with a semblance of humility, proffered his resignation as captain-general of the armada, no time was lost in carrying out his desires. "Inasmuch as the governor's authority is now superseded by that of the magistracy,"  he remarked, "and my tenure of office now terminates, I resign, etc."

That was the way out of his difficulties with the governor: to deprive him of authority, and act henceforth in the name of the sovereign only. All his future acts, in fact, were shaped to win the favor of that sovereign and excuse his betrayal of Velasquez. After a show of deliberation the officials who had been appointed by CortÚs nominated him chief-justice of the new colony, as well as captain-general, and thus, with civil authority now added to his military power, he was wellnigh invincible.

There were those, to be sure, who denounced the entire proceeding as a conspiracy against Velasquez—as in truth it was—and some few were so loud in their outcries that CortÚs forthwith put them in irons, and sent them aboard one of the vessels as prisoners. Their ardor soon cooled, in the seclusion of the vessel's hold, and they were released, after promising to support the cause of CortÚs—to which, by means of bribes and promises, the commander managed to attach most of the cavaliers, at least for a time.

After losing thirty of his men by disease, CortÚs concluded to transfer his municipal skeleton to another and more salubrious spot. He had already despatched a vessel in search of a better harbor than that of Vera Cruz, and such a place was found in Chiahuitzla, a few leagues to the northward. While he was preparing for removal to this place he was approached by some strange Indians from a city called Cempoalla, who stated that they were subjects of Montezuma, whose armies had overrun their territory and annexed it.

They were different from the Aztecs, being natives of the tropical lowlands—Totonacs. They possessed a somewhat refined civilization, a government and religion similar to those of their conquerors, and they lived in a large stone city, mainly, within the forest fringe of the tierra caliente, or hot country.

This city, Cempoalla, which the Spaniards finally sighted at the end of a hot and wearisome march, was built of white and glistening stone, and when one of the advance-guard caught a glimpse of it shining through the forest vegetation with a splendor all its own, he dashed hurriedly back to the main body, shouting, "Here is a city of silver!"

Having had tangible evidence of the country's richness in Montezuma's gifts, the soldiers were ready to believe any wonderful tale, so they pressed forward eagerly towards the "silver city," in very good humor with themselves and also with their commander, grim and crafty CortÚs.

At last they met an embassy led by the cacique of Cempoalla, who was so fat and huge that he had to be borne in a litter. He made a speech of welcome, in which he gave assurance of his friendly feeling for the strangers, and also hinted that he and his people looked to them for release from the Mexicans' galling fetters. They were hard to bear, he said, because their oppressors drafted from the flower of the populace their young men and maidens, as slaves, and victims for their sacrifices to the war-god.

Shrewd and far-seeing CortÚs promised, of course, all they desired, and far more than they expected, for he saw in their discontent a prospect of gaining allies, especially men for transporting his munitions on the long march—upon which he had already decided—to the Aztec city.

Thus the exultant Spaniards marched merrily into the city of Cempoalla and were quartered in its public buildings. Their progress was in the nature of a triumphal procession through streets lined with wondering Indians, and amid admiring throngs, who decked the soldiers and the horses of the cavaliers with garlands of flowers. Among the gifts forced upon them by the fat cacique there was only gold enough to indicate the richness of the region and the generous disposition of the people, who brought their guests baskets of native plums, cassava bread, and maize.

After a refreshing rest amid such hospitable surroundings, the little army set forward next morning for Chiahuitzla, accompanied by the fat cacique and a retinue of nobles, as also by 400 of the common people, who, according to the custom of the land, served as porters. This arrangement was well liked by the weary soldiers, who were thus relieved from the necessity of hauling the cumbrous cannon and supplies. Some of them even divested themselves of their heavy armor, their arquebuses and cross-bows; though when the ever-alert CortÚs discovered this he ordered the soldiers to resume their weapons, for it was not wise to trust an enemy in his own country.

Arrived at Chiahuitzla, which was situated above a fine harbor, on a hill naturally well fortified, CortÚs called a conference of the Cempoallans, for the purpose of discussing a rupture of their relations with Montezuma and throwing off his yoke of bondage. The fat cacique expressed himself right valiantly as without reserve in favor of it; but suddenly a change came over him, for a messenger arrived with the news that a band of Montezuma's tribute-gatherers was even then entering the town. The conference broke up in a hurry, and the cowardly Cempoallans slunk away as, attended by a large retinue, with noses held up in the air, and their attention seemingly given to bunches of roses which they held in their hands, five Mexican nobles marched stiffly through the city streets.

When CortÚs learned from the cringing Totonacs that the Mexicans had come to demand victims for sacrifice, he affected the greatest indignation, and ordered them to place those proud nobles in chains. At first the Totonacs were horrified; but on reflection, knowing that CortÚs was armed with the powers of the thunder and the lightning, and that he could slay thousands at a stroke, they tremblingly complied. They were amazed at their own audacity, knowing well that now they had committed the deed that would bring upon their heads the direst punishment unless protected by their new-found friends.

This CortÚs also knew, hence he had compelled them to arrest the Mexicans instead of having his soldiers do it. And in order to rivet the chains upon their necks, and to make it appear that the deed had been done without his sanction, he had the Mexicans brought before him, by stealth, at night, to whom he declared that to assure their safety he must have them sent aboard a vessel in the harbor. The Cempoallans were infuriated, he explained, but he, CortÚs, would protect them with men and with cannon if need be, for he was a friend, and would be an ally, of their great emperor Montezuma, to whom he now sent them with a message of peace and a proffer of assistance. With this he sent them ashore again, after the tumult was over, and the deluded Mexicans hastened to Montezuma with a statement of what had occurred. It was colored by such a relation of the Spanish commander's act of friendship that their sovereign soon after sent another embassy to CortÚs with rich gifts, and his thanks for rescuing his officials from the enraged Totonacs, whom he would surely punish as they deserved.

Having committed this act of basest perfidy to his allies, CortÚs endeavored to allay their just resentment by leading his soldiers against some neighboring tribes with whom they were at war. While on the march he gave further evidence of his "impartial sense of justice" by hanging a poor soldier of his command who had stolen a fowl from one of the Totonacs. He was cut down when almost at his last gasp, by Pedro de Alvarado, who grimly remarked that they could not afford to lose a soldier, be he good or bad, when they were so few in number. But the lesson, as intended by the commander, was not lost upon the corpulent cacique, who, when they reached his capital, begged CortÚs and his officers to accept eight Indian damsels, whom he presented to them richly dressed, as a slight token of his high esteem.

Mindful of his wife in Cuba and the obligations he had already incurred, CortÚs was slow to accept this present, especially as the lady intended for him was almost as gross and unattractive as the cacique, who was her uncle. As usual, he concealed his real reasons, and sought an excuse in the fact that the maidens were not of his own faith, and that it was forbidden to Spaniards to inter-marry with idolaters. He and Father Olmedo improved the occasion to declaim against their idols, and especially their bloody sacrifices of human beings, which (even though the Cempoallans were now allies of the Spaniards), were still continued.

The cacique objected, saying that his gods had been very good to him and his people, on the whole, giving them rains and harvests, health and happiness, but that if he were ungrateful they would doubtless destroy him. He had no objection, he said, to receiving the gods of the Spaniards, and would gladly make room for them in the temples; but as for giving up his own, it would never, never do.

Above him, on the flat summits of the teocallis  (or temple-pyramids), grinned his hideous idols; around him were grouped his horrid priests, their long, black hair matted with gore, their garments of cotton stained with human blood. Fanatic was opposed to fanatic, but the Spanish fanatics were the stronger, and of course prevailed.

"Spaniards and brothers," said CortÚs, addressing the assembled soldiers (who had been called to arms for this very purpose), "we inherit from our fathers the love of our most holy faith. These people must abjure their idolatrous practices and become good Christians. Let us now prostrate these vile images, plant in their stead the cross, and call these heathen beneath that holy symbol which is inscribed upon our banner. For my part, I am resolved that these pagan idols shall be destroyed—now, this very hour, even if my life shall be the forfeit!"

This impassioned speech was greeted with ringing cheers. Fifty soldiers sprang at once up the terraced sides of the pyramids, cast down the idols from their lofty stations and broke them in pieces on the pavement. The cacique and the priests called upon their warriors to resist. They, with their bows and arrows, spears and mighty war-clubs, would have fallen upon the Spaniards; but they were awed by the shining swords so menacingly brandished, by the black-mouthed cannon, and the flaming matchlocks, ready (as they knew) to vomit forth destruction and death.