Hernando Cortes - Frederick Ober

Montezuma a Prisoner


Preceded by the interpreters, Aguilar and Dona Marina, and attended by five of his captains, CortÚs repaired to the palace of Montezuma, who received his visitors graciously, as usual, distributing presents and acting in a manner wholly void of suspicion. The accusation of the Spaniards came like a thunder-clap, and at first he was overcome with astonishment; but when CortÚs declared that he must send for the guilty chief and his accomplices he assented at once. Attached to a bracelet on his wrist was the signet of Huitzilopochtli—the royal seal. Detaching this emblem of authority, he gave it to a noble of his court, with the command that he bring before him Cacique Qualpopoca (who had committed the deed) and those concerned with him in the attack upon the Spaniards.

Having done this, he thought, of course, that CortÚs would be satisfied; but though he expressed himself as well pleased, the conqueror declared that one thing more was necessary to placate his men and assure the safety of all. That was the removal of Montezuma and his court to Spanish quarters in the palace of Axayacatl. This astounding proposition, coming from strangers who had been less than ten days in his capital, and whose numbers were so far inferior to those of the Aztecs, nearly took Montezuma's breath away. When he had recovered speech he replied, indignantly: "When was there ever an instance of a king, a great ruler like myself, tamely suffering himself to be led into prison? And though I were willing to debase myself in so vile a manner, would not all my vassals at once arm themselves to set me free?"

CortÚs replied with specious arguments, which the king refuted, until the captains standing by became very impatient. One of them, De Leon, cried out in a rough voice: "Why waste so many words on this barbarian? Let him this moment yield himself a prisoner or we will plunge our swords into his body. Tell him this, interpreter, and, also, that if he says a word he dies for it!"

Dona Marina softened this brutal speech as much as possible; but Montezuma knew from the captain's tone and gestures that his life was threatened, and this monarch of an almost limitless realm yielded to his fears.

"Then let us go," he said, with trembling voice. "I am willing to trust myself with you. Let us go, since my gods surely intend it!"

The news of his departure spread rapidly, and there was danger of an immediate uprising of the Mexicans, which was averted by Montezuma himself, who caused it to be proclaimed that he went with the Spaniards of his own free will. Entering his palanquin with royal state, attended by the nobles of his court, but closely guarded by the iron-willed conquerors, the emperor departed from his palace, which he was never again to enter alive.

An apartment was prepared in the palace of Axayacatl, hung with fine tapestries and furnished from the rooms he had abandoned. His hundreds of attendants waited around him as before, anticipating every want and serving him with eyes averted, still cringing before the deposed lord of Aztlan. Still, he was a prisoner, no longer in control of his own movements, and in effect imperious CortÚs was absolute ruler over Mexico. The dominance of CortÚs was made manifest to all in a terrible manner, upon the arrival of the officials charged with the capture of Qualpopoca, who reached the capital after an absence of fifteen days. Before Montezuma, himself a captive, the recreant cacique was taken. He was richly clad, but covered his costly robes with coarser garments of aloe fibre, and put off his shoes, as he appeared before his sovereign. Montezuma received him coldly, and delivered him up to CortÚs, to be dealt with as a traitor to his king, though the unfortunate cacique had merely obeyed orders sent from Mexico, to have ignored which would have cost his life.

Qualpopoca, his son, and fifteen others with them received scant mercy at the hands of CortÚs, who at once condemned them to death by burning at the stake. In the centre of the great plaza, a huge pile was made of the weapons found in the armories over the gateways. There were spears, javelins, bows, arrows—in fact, every sort of weapon known to the Aztecs, and, as they had been a long while accumulating, the wood of which they were made was dry and inflammable.

Soon the captives were enveloped in flames that leaped upward to the sky, sending huge volumes of smoke aloft, and proclaiming to the amazed inhabitants of Tenochtitlan another cruel deed committed by the invaders of their sacred capital.

Many a victim had perished by fire before in that city of the holy teocallis. The act itself did not excite the horror of the Aztecs, but the motive that inspired it roused them to transports of wrath and indignation. Then they heard that not only was their beloved, revered sovereign a prisoner, but that he had been put in irons while the dreadful deed was being consummated. Fetters had been placed upon his ankles, by order of CortÚs, who, when all was over, hastened to apologize for this gratuitous affront. This act of his, in thus adding insult to deadly injury, seems incredible; but still more strange appears the fact that according to eye-witnesses Montezuma fell upon his neck in the extremity of his abasement and despair. He wept aloud, and to assuage his grief CortÚs offered to allow him to return to his palace, knowing full well, however, that he would not dare place himself within the power of his indignant and disgusted nobles.

Montezuma was a prisoner, but he was allowed to wander at will throughout the palace, into the streets and to the lakes, where he frequently went to fish for water-fowl. He also attended to the worship of his gods in the great temple; but he was constantly guarded by his captors. His favorite resort was the grove of Chapoltepec, where he went to hunt, and one day he was taken thither by CortÚs, in one of the brigantines the Spaniards had constructed, having obtained the iron-work from Vera Cruz and timbers from the royal forests.

Other amusements were provided for the captive monarch in order to divert his mind from dwelling upon his pitiable condition. A favorite game with him was that called totoloque, played with golden balls, two on a side: Montezuma, his nephew, CortÚs, and Alvarado. When the Spaniards won they gave their winnings to the emperor's attendants, and when Montezuma was successful he bestowed his gains upon the soldiers of the guard.

Still, despite the air of peace and pleasure within the palace walls, there was great commotion without. The crackling flames which had consumed the cacique and his friends, the billows of smoke from that fearful sacrifice, and, above all, the restraining of Montezuma a prisoner in his own capital, made a deep impression upon the Aztecs. But, accustomed to look to the emperor for commands, and by his imprisonment being made leaderless, they were for weeks and months uncertain what to do or how to act. This condition could not long exist, even in a country where the subjects were so abjectly servile as in Mexico, for the Aztecs were brave to recklessness.

A leader arose in the person of Cacamatzin, king of Tezcoco, the ancient city on the opposite shore of the lake. This city was at one time a rival of the capital in all that makes for barbaric greatness, for it possessed temples and palaces, towers, gardens, and pyramids, the ruins of which have excited the wonder and admiration of modern explorers. Its decay began during the reign of its last sovereign, Nezahualpilli, whose eldest son, Cacamatzin, came into the succession at his death. The king of Tezcoco's youngest son, Ixtlilxochitl, disputed the succession with his brother, but was driven to the mountains, where he intrenched himself with a large army. He was later of inestimable service to CortÚs and the Spaniards during the siege of Mexico; but at this stage of the drama had not made his appearance prominently.

Having received information that his uncle, Montezuma, was a captive, and that the Spaniards had rifled the treasury of his ancestors, Cacamatzin sent word to the imprisoned sovereign that he should not forget he was a king, and if he persisted in allowing the strangers to rule him thus he had "no more spirit than a hen." This was true enough, but, though Montezuma allowed the Spaniards to rule him, he had by no means lost all prestige with his people. This he proved by effecting the capture of Cacamatzin in the same manner that he had compelled the unfortunate Qualpopoca to attend him at the capital and brought about his death. He gave to certain trusted officials the signet of the war-god, and they went secretly to Tezcoco, where they had the good-fortune to find Cacamatzin in conference with his chiefs in a kiosk bordering on the lake. By watching their opportunity they were enabled to drag him into their canoe, and then hastened back to the capital, where the illustrious prisoner was delivered over to Montezuma. After giving him a lecture on the folly and wickedness of opposing the wishes of his sovereign, the servile monarch gave him into the hands of CortÚs, who at once placed him in prison. There he remained in irons for months, subject to insult, and daily expecting death, finally perishing in the retreat from Mexico on the "sorrowful night" of disaster.

We now see the triumphant CortÚs, as king-maker and friend of royalty, in undisputed possession of Mexico. He had its hereditary sovereign in his grasp, also its revenues and its tributary lords, for, besides unseating the king of Tezcoco, he had seized the prince of Tlacopan (lord of another strong city in the valley) and the high-priest of Tlatelolco.

His next important step was to force from Montezuma an acknowledgment of allegiance and vassalage to Charles V., the emperor of Spain. Not alone from the pliant king, but from his nobles and the lords of distant provinces tributary to Mexico, was it his intention to exact homage and formal submission to the unknown sovereign of that far-distant land. For it was necessary that this should be done, in order to strengthen his cause at the Spanish court and secure the countenance of royal approval to actions which had been without the sanction, hitherto, of any who ranked him as superiors in power, civil or military.

The nobles yielded their allegiance to the new power, though reluctantly, with sighs and groans, weeping and lamentation, says an old historian. In their hearts they were unchanged, but they foresaw the downfall of their once mighty empire; they felt the disgrace attached to the enslavement of their sovereign, and they raged against the chains that he had assisted the Spaniards to forge upon their limbs.

After power—which he now had in great measure—CortÚs reckoned gold as the "greatest thing in the world"; and his first act as virtual ruler of Mexico's destinies was to ascertain the location of Montezuma's mines, whence he drew the vast stores of precious metal he so lavishly squandered in the embellishment of his court and in gifts to the Spaniards.

By means of accurate maps made in the hieroglyphics of picture-writing, Montezuma freely showed his friend the original source of all his treasures. From one (as was represented on the maps), he obtained the precious trogon feathers; from another, mother-of-pearl; from yet another, stores of precious woods and spices; but that which interested the conqueror most was the picture-map showing the deposits of gold. Guided by messengers furnished by Montezuma, men deputed by CortÚs to ascertain the extent of his golden treasure traveled in safety to the most distant provinces of Mexico, returning with substantial evidences of their richness and also with wonderful tales of adventure.

This contribution from the rich mines and from the rivers with golden sands, added to the vast treasure obtained by the sacking of the palace, was almost incalculable. Yet it was freely offered by Montezuma as if of little value. "Take it," he said to CortÚs. "Take this gold, which is all I can collect at such short notice, and also that treasure which I derived from my ancestors, and send it to your sovereign, with the message that this is the tribute of his vassal Montezuma!"

This gold from Montezuma (as stout old Bernal Diaz truly says) was "badly divided and worse employed," for many of the soldiers, who had "lined their pockets well," plunged into the Spanish diversion of gambling, and deep games went on by day and by night, with cards made from the heads of drums that had been worn out in service.

Some of the captains had great chains of gold made for them by the king's artificers, and CortÚs also indulged himself in this vanity, besides ordering a magnificent service of plate, some of which he afterwards left in Honduras. Little good was derived by the soldiers from their ill-gotten wealth, and the golden chains proved lures to destruction, not long after, for other adventurers from Cuba.