Hernando Cortes - Frederick Ober

The Colonization of Mexico


With the capture of Guatemotzin the overthrow of the capital was assured, for all resistance ceased as soon as the Aztecs learned that he was a prisoner. He had been the life and soul of the defence, as CortÚs had been that of the attack. During that memorable siege of nearly three months, more than 150,000 Mexicans had perished, many thousands of the allies, and about 200 Spaniards, of which number 100 had been sacrificed. Of the surviving Mexicans, indeed, there were few not wounded, or afflicted with disease the result of famine and pestilence.

The order was given to vacate the city that it might be cleansed of its impurities, and "for three days and nights the causeways were covered, from one end to the other, with men, women and children, so weak and sickly, squalid, dirty, and altogether pestilential, that it was a misery to behold them. Some miserable wretches were creeping about in a famished condition through the deserted streets; the ground was all broken up, to get at such roots as it afforded, the very trees were stripped of their bark, and there was not a drop of drinking-water in the city."

The Spaniards had fallen back to their old posts in the outskirts of the city, and while the wretched people fared forth in squalor and misery, seeking the open country, homeless and destitute, the victors celebrated their victory by a great feast at their quarters in Coyoacan. It was their first in many a month, and they were certainly entitled to it; but for many reasons, admitted one of the revellers afterwards, "it would have been much better let alone," for the wine that had been brought up from the coast, "was the cause of many fooleries and worse things: it made some leap over the tables who afterwards could not go out at the doors, and many rolled down the steps . . . These scenes were truly ridiculous, and when the matter was brought to CortÚs (who was discreet in all his actions), he affected to disapprove the whole, and requested our chaplain to offer a solemn thanksgiving, and preach a sermon to the soldiers on the moral and religious duties, which he did. Then a procession was formed, with crosses, drums, and standards, and after that Father Bartholomew preached, and we returned thanks to God for our victory."

While exhilarated by wine, "the private soldiers swore they would buy horses with golden harness; the cross-bowmen would use none but golden arrows; all were to have their fortunes made." When they recovered their senses, however, they found themselves possessed of little besides the armor they wore and the weapons they carried, while some were in debt even for them.

They sacked the ruined city, even while the people were deserting it, and the atmosphere was so tainted by decaying corpses that they could scarcely breathe; but found little to reward them for their pains. From the plundering of empty houses and corpses they turned upon CortÚs and demanded that he should compel Guatemotzin to declare the hiding-place of his treasure; for the total amount of gold obtained did not exceed $200,000 in value, or less than 100 crowns to each soldier. They more than insinuated that CortÚs was shielding his royal prisoner, in order that he himself might benefit, and at the proper time appropriate the treasure. In order to vindicate himself, CortÚs basely and weakly gave Guatemotzin into the hands of his enemies, who, at the instance of the king's treasurer, drenched his feet with oil and exposed them to a slow fire. The torture was intense, but the emperor bore it with extraordinary fortitude, even mildly chiding his companion, the cacique of Tacuba (who shared this torment with him) for showing signs of weakness.

Nothing was gained by this inhuman treatment of their prisoner, except the information that what little treasure he possessed had been thrown into the deepest part of the lake, together with the cannon and other arms he had taken from the Spaniards. Expert divers searched the lake-bed for many days, by direction of the commander, but without discovering anything of great value, though an immense "sun" of solid gold (probably a calendar disk) was fished from a pond in Guatemotzin's garden.

In this connection we should note the fate of that treasure obtained at such cost of blood and misdirected energy. Having wheedled the soldiers into relinquishing their shares, small as they were, to their sovereign in Old Spain, CortÚs collected spoils to the amount of several hundred thousand crowns, consisting of gold and pearls, jewels and beautifully wrought golden ornaments, and despatched it all to Charles V. As fate would have it, the ship in which it was sent from Mexico was captured by a French corsair. When the king of France finally gazed upon this wonderful loot of a kingdom of which he had never heard, he is said to have sent word to Charles V. that he would like to know by what authority he and the king of Portugal had divided the world between them without giving him a share, and that he "desired to see the will of our father Adam, to know if he had made them exclusively his heirs."

Together with the treasure went that precious letter from CortÚs, written at Coyoacan, when he "left nothing in his inkstand which could be of service to his interests." This despatch, strange to say, eventually arrived in Spain, where it effectually urged the cause of the soldiers, who had joined with CortÚs in a petition to his majesty, praying that he might be made governor and captain-general of New Spain, and that all royal offices in the new colony might be bestowed upon the conquerors themselves, who alone were entitled to the same. Letters, petition, and treasure left Mexico in December, 1522, and in October of that year a royal commission creating CortÚs as governor and captain-general had been signed by Charles, at Valladolid, which did not reach him until a long time after.

Meanwhile, the rebuilding of the city of Mexico had gone on with great rapidity. Within two months of its evacuation it had been cleansed and made ready for occupancy again, and within five months it gave promise, in its many splendid structures already erected, of a greater magnificence than the ancient capital could boast in its palmiest clays. To those of his people who wished to reside in the city, CortÚs gave solares, or lots of ground, and eventually 2000 families occupied the district assigned to the Spaniards, while 30,000 Indians dwelt in Tlaltelolco. As the Aztecs had predicted, the Tezcocan and other allies who had assisted in demolishing their city, were compelled by the Spaniards to labor for many months at its reconstruction; but so, also, were the Mexicans themselves, and with such severity were they treated that many of them perished from famine and fatigue.

The Cempoallan, Tlascalan, and Cholulan allies had been dismissed by CortÚs, loaded with plunder of the sort to which the Spaniards attached no value, and were compelled to satisfy themselves with the thanks of the commander for their arduous labors throughout the war. With the exception of the Tlascalans, all were finally reduced to peonage, a system of slavery enforced by encomiendas. The gallant natives of the rugged country which had been so steadfast in its alliance with the conquerors were exempt from bondage, and, with this negative reward for their assistance, they retired to their homes, many of them, it is said, bearing with them the salted flesh of unfortunate Aztecs taken in battle.

Through the dispersion of the allies, and the alarming tidings which had been sent out by the Mexicans and their vassals during the progress of the siege, the whole empire had been informed of the triumph of the teules  from across the sea. Several tributary nations sent embassies to inform themselves respecting the overthrow of Aztec dominion, and among these came the king of Michoacan, a state or province near the western ocean, who brought a donation of gold and pearls. So impressed was the king by what he saw and heard, that he voluntarily rendered his homage, and when he returned to his country was accompanied by a few Spaniards, who were the first to view the Pacific Ocean, where its waters laved the shores of middle Mexico. Nearly ten years had elapsed since brave Balboa first looked upon the great "South Sea," "from a peak in Darien," almost 1000 miles nearer the equator; but these men sent by CortÚs took possession of it as though a new discovery, in the name of Spain's great sovereign. This expedition was among the first of many exploring parties sent out by CortÚs to ascertain the extent and resources of his vast domain. For the downfall of the Aztec capital carried with it dominion over nearly the entire empire. Such Indians as did not send in their allegiance to him were attacked in their strongholds and subdued. Within a few months a rebellion had been repressed in the province of Panuco, another in Coatzacoalcos, and a fruitless expedition had been sent against the fierce Zapotecos, who fought with enormous spears having blades a yard in length.

Under the faithful Sandoval, soldiers were kept in active service in every part of the country, while Alvarado subjected the southern Indians of Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-ha'-ka) and Tehuantepec (Tay-wan'-tay-pec). In Oaxaca he found gold in such quantities that he commanded the native artisans to make his stirrups of that metal, and carried back an acceptable contribution to CortÚs. He was so successful in this respect that he was given command of an expedition for the subjugation of Guatemala, and, after a series of battles with the hardy savages, succeeded in adding another vast province to the possessions of Spain.

In common with Columbus and all the explorers in the New World, CortÚs desired to solve the "secret of the strait" which was supposed to connect the two great oceans. He was not aware of what was going on in the south, along the coast which Columbus had visited twenty years before; but he heard of rich gold deposits in the country now known as Honduras, and conceived an idea that the undiscovered passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific might exist in that region. At all events he resolved to send an expedition out in search of it. A large armament was placed under command of Cristoval de Olid, which reached Honduras by sea, after visiting Cuba and sailing around the peninsula of Yucatan. The reports from Honduras were vague, but indicated wonderful wealth, insomuch that the fishermen along its coast were said to use nuggets of gold to weight their nets. It was in January, 1524, that, prompted by avarice, CortÚs despatched Olid to the conquest of Honduras, and set in motion a train of events which caused him infinite trouble and misery.

Gold and treasure were the mainsprings of motive with CortÚs in sending out his expeditions. As already mentioned, he had secured possession of Montezuma's tribute-books in "picture-writing," in which were set down the places whence that monarch's golden treasure was obtained, and to those districts his trusty captains were sent. As the valley of Mexico contained neither mines, plantations, nor manufactures, says Bernal Diaz, the veterans did not take kindly to a settlement there, but watched for opportunities to visit the golden regions.

A great rebellion broke out in southern Mexico, and Sandoval marched through the coast country going as far as Coatzacoalcos, hanging several caciques and burning others at the stake, so that in a short time peace reigned supreme throughout the land. It was on this expedition that he made the discovery, not at all relished by CortÚs, that Dona Catalina, the neglected wife of his commander, had arrived at Tabasco, whither she had come from Cuba. She was in search of her recreant lord and master, and of course Sandoval could do no less than provide her with an escort to the capital, for he was a gallant soldier and true cavalier.

"CortÚs was very sorry for her coming," says the blunt old soldier, Diaz; "but he put the best face upon it, and received her with great pomp and rejoicings. In about three months after the arrival of Dona Catalina, we heard of her having died of an asthma!"

As it happened that, about this time, all the single men among the settlers newly arrived were "up in arms" against a decree by CortÚs that all bachelors should be subject to a special tax, and all married men who did not bring their wives into the colony within eighteen months should forfeit their estates, this unexpected arrival of Dona Catalina caused much mirth in Mexico, and was looked upon as an instance of "poetic justice!"

Because the poor lady did not live long to enjoy her husband's honors, the enemies of CortÚs charged that he had poisoned her! Several instances shortly afterwards occurred to confirm this impression, among them the sudden death of Francisco de Garay, one-time governor of Jamaica, a rival of CortÚs in the colonization of the coast, who had been lured to the capital and, while a guest of the captain-general, had been seized with "pleurisy," expiring within four days of his arrival. A third victim was charged to his account, two or three years later, when a royal commissioner, Luis Ponce de Leon, who had been sent over to inquire into the administration of CortÚs, was taken with a fatal illness and deceased before an inquiry could be set on foot. Notwithstanding that these people (whom it would serve the interests of CortÚs best to have removed) had died of such diverse diseases as asthma, pleurisy, and ship-fever—as reported by the doctors in attendance—their takings-off were ascribed to the direct agency of their host, though the proof was insufficient to convict him.

It must be remembered that CortÚs was beset by powerful enemies, not alone in Mexico, but also in Spain. The most powerful and malignant of these was Bishop Fonseca, of Burgos, who for many years was the actual head of the Spanish colonial department and ruled almost supreme. A stanch friend of Governor Velasquez, he had done his best to thwart the aims of CortÚs and advance those of the former, but from the very beginning had himself been check-mated by his wily opponent in every move he made. CortÚs had attempted by means of munificent gifts (as we have seen) to influence his sovereign in his favor; but Fonseca, with every ship under his supervision, and paid emissaries at every port of Spain, for a long time prevented these gifts, and the messengers with whom they were intrusted, from being presented at court. Some of the first deputies sent by CortÚs were even cast into prison, so great was the influence of Fonseca. For months and years the fate of CortÚs and his comrades trembled in the balance, the sport of an enemy adverse to their advancement, and unrecognized by a sovereign upon whom they had bestowed a realm of vaster extent than his combined possessions in Europe. He had not the capacity to estimate the importance of Mexico; but when, finally, the gifts arrived and were permitted to be shown him, he was moved to bestow rewards upon their donors.

We should recall, in this connection, the status of CortÚs and his band of adventurers: their equivocal position, as explorers sent out by Velasquez (in whom authority was vested). They had severed all ties that connected them with him, as governor of Cuba, and had embarked upon an independent career, after throwing themselves upon the favor of the Spanish court and king. The controversy, then, was between CortÚs and Velasquez, the latter supported by the all-powerful Fonseca, and the former without any foreign aid of importance, but seeking the support and countenance of his sovereign.

Fonseca so far prevailed, in 1521, as to have a commissioner sent out to "institute an inquiry into the general's conduct, to suspend him from his functions, and even to seize his person and sequestrate his property, until the pleasure of the Castilian court should be known." This commissioner was one, Tapia, whose warrant was signed by the royal regent in April, 1521, and who arrived at Villa Rica in December.

So many obstacles of a diplomatic nature were thrown in his way, by the wary and yet courteous CortÚs, that the feeble Tapia fell ill from disappointment. Finally, the captains of CortÚs at the coast wrote him of all that had passed, and recommended him to send a goodly quantity of golden ingots, to try their effect in mollifying the fury of the would-be governor. These arrived by the return of the messenger, and with them they bought from Tapia his negroes, three horses, and one of his ships. In the other ship the commissioner himself embarked, and set sail for the island of Santo Domingo.

This was not the first time (as we know) that the astute CortÚs had submerged his enemies beneath a golden flood; and, as the sequel shows, even the puissant Charles could not withstand such an inundation as CortÚs now poured upon him. Making another forcible appeal to his comrades and fellow colonists, he got together 100,000 crowns in gold and sent this sum to the king, together with a golden culverin, or small cannon, superbly wrought by native artisans, and inscribed with these lines:

"The immortal Phoenix, peerless, sweeps the air;

To Charles is given boundless rule to bear.

Zealous to conquer, at my king's command,

I in my services unrivalled stand."

Not a word was said of the sturdy soldiers through whose aid CortÚs had attained the dizzy height whence he addressed his sovereign with such assurance. They were now impoverished, and were treated with the same contempt that Charles himself bestowed upon the golden culverin, which he looked over carelessly, and then presented to a certain don of Seville. Collectively, however, all his treasure, the plunder of murdered Mexicans, in the first place; in the second, mostly the pillage of poor soldiers, had a favorable effect upon the emperor. He had the grace to review the matter respecting CortÚs and his companions, and to refer it to a special commission, which not only acquitted him of treason to his sovereign and rebellion against Velasquez, but confirmed his previous appointment as captain-general and justice-in-chief of the vast region he had subjugated. With the appointment was bestowed a salary sufficient to the maintenance of a splendid state, and almost unlimited authority over the people, both Spaniards and Mexicans.