Hernando Cortes - Frederick Ober

Siege of the Aztec Capital


CortÚs and his companions were received by the Tlascalans with a kindness far beyond their deserts or expectations, and in the little republic they found for months a hospitable home. In view of the fact that four-fifths of the killed, in Mexico, had been natives of Tlascala, filling every house with woe and lament, and considering that the Spaniards had returned defeated, without a single fire-arm of any sort, and in a measure defenceless, the continued loyalty of the Tlascalans was greatly to their credit. It was not adequately requited by CortÚs, after the conquest had been achieved; but into the future these simple, open-hearted people could not glance. In spite of a Mexican embassy, which followed swiftly after their retreat, with proffers of an offensive and defensive league against the strangers, who "had violated every sacred honor and sacrificed the lives of their friends to their lust for gold," they remained steadfast in their allegiance to the Spanish sovereign.

The homes of all, both high and low, were opened to the Spaniards, who were provided with native nurses and surgeons, and, surrounded with every attention, brought back to health and strength. CortÚs himself had been most desperately wounded, having lost two fingers of his left hand, and received a blow from a war-club which had splintered his skull; but, even while lying on a bed of pain, he was scheming for the reconquest of the kingdom he had so nearly lost. His first act of consequence was to send for reinforcements from Villa Rica, on the coast, with which, together with his veterans, he intended to form the nucleus of an army. Such was his indomitable courage, which would not brook defeat. "Fortune ever favors those who dare," was his favorite proverb; and he wrote his sovereign, not long after his recovery, "I cannot believe that the good and merciful God will thus suffer His cause to perish among the heathen!"

His enemies, as hitherto, were contributing, though unwittingly, to his success. One of them (at least, a rival), the governor of Jamaica, had sent three vessels to form a colony on the coast north of Vera Cruz; but they cast anchor in that harbor instead, and the crews gladly joined with the friends of CortÚs. Also, a company that had been sent out by a merchant adventurer, in a ship laden with valuable military stores. To these four vessels were added two more, which had been despatched by an old acquaintance (and enemy) of CortÚs, the governor of Cuba, Velasquez. Still in ignorance of the fate of his former expedition, he believed his emissary, Narvaez, by that time, of course, all-powerful and supreme in Mexico. As fate would have it, this small expedition was commanded by our old friend, Pedro Barba, who, it will be recalled, was alcalde in Havana when CortÚs sailed from that port. Barba was decoyed ashore and captured, and, with his men, was sent to CortÚs, who soon won him over. Some soldiers and large quantities of war material were acquired with Barba; also two horses, which, added to the ten taken from the ships of Jamaica, made an even dozen—worth "all the world" to CortÚs, at that time. Finally, there returned from Hispaniola (whither CortÚs had sent them with a portion of the treasure that had been saved), two agents, who brought with them eighty horses, 200 soldiers, a great and needed supply of muskets, with ammunition, and two big battering cannon. By these various means CortÚs gradually gathered about him an army much larger than the one with which he originally invaded Mexico, and a small battery of cannon, though he was not very well supplied with muskets and. ammunition.

He had gained accessions to his force; but at the same time he was compelled to send away to Cuba quite a company of malcontents, mostly men from the command of Narvaez, whose dread of the Aztecs and a repetition of the "sorrowful night "quite overcame their desire for glory and gold. CortÚs had done his best to divert them from their scheme, by sending out forays for the conquest of neighboring tribes; but without avail. Great spoil resulted from these forays, and by means of them the spirits of the soldiers were revived, for they were constantly victorious.

The first of these punitive expeditions was to a southern province, Tepeaca, where, without fire-arms of any kind, and with only their good swords, spears, and targets, CortÚs and his soldiers defeated the Indians in a great battle. At the town of Chacula, in this province, the natives had put fifteen Spaniards to death, while CortÚs was in the Aztec city, and as a punishment all the women and children were taken for slaves. To the shoulder of each shrinking captive, whether child of tender years or blooming maiden, the hot iron was cruelly applied; and ever after it bore, burned deeply into the flesh, the letter G (guerra), brand of war.

So hardened were the soldiers, that they felt little sympathy for the unfortunate and innocent victims of their vengeance; but they were loud in their complaints of the manner in which these unlucky slaves were apportioned. For it seems, despite the perils he and his comrades had shared in common, CortÚs had changed in character not at all. He still assumed the king and CortÚs to be entitled to all the spoils, and that the poor soldier fought for them only to be despoiled, like the enemy. This, of course, caused great discontent among the soldiers, who charged CortÚs with having concealed all the valuable slaves; and those of Narvaez swore they had never heard of such a thing as two kings  and two-fifths, in his majesty's dominions.

When brought to task, CortÚs swore by his conscience ("his usual oath") that it never should happen again; but not long after, learning that some of the soldiers, who had, at the risk of their lives, saved some gold bars from Montezuma's treasure (which he had given them permission to do, it will be remembered), he ordered them to deliver up the gold on pain of death. These transactions afford us sidelights as to the character of CortÚs, and need no comment; but it is a sad reflection that one so brave could also be so base.

"Some will ask," writes blunt old Bernal Diaz, "how CortÚs was able to send agents to Spain, to Hispaniola, and Jamaica without money. To this I reply that on the night of our retreat from Mexico, though many of the soldiers were killed, yet a considerable quantity of gold was saved, as the first who passed the bridge were the eighty loaded Tlascalans; so that though much was lost in the ditches of Mexico, yet all was not left there, and the gold which was brought off by the Tlascalans was by them delivered to CortÚs."

By whatever means, but certainly by almost superhuman activity and toil during the five months of his stay in Tlascala, CortÚs completed preparations for the darling object of his ambitions, the siege and capture of the Aztec capital. While his soldiers were sweeping the country outside the valley brim clear of possible allies for the Aztecs, while his agents at the coast, in Jamaica and Hispaniola, were recruiting for his army of occupation, he had hundreds of Tlascalans employed, under that invaluable man, Martin Lopez, the shipwright, hewing timbers for thirteen brigantines, in the great pine forests of Tlascala.

After sending the Cubans home, bearing letters to Velasquez and to Dona Catalina; and after despatching to his sovereign another of those wonderful letters ("Cartas de CortÚs,"  which have lived to illumine his deeds in Mexico), CortÚs departed for his goal. One hundred Tlascalans had been sent by him to the coast for the iron-work and rigging of the dismantled ships (including his own, those taken from Narvaez, from the Jamaicans, and from Barba), with orders to meet the army at Tezcoco, whither, also, Lopez was to send the timbers for the vessels. Towards Tezcoco, in the last week of December, 1520, CortÚs took his way, attended by his little army of 600 soldiers and 10,000 Tlascalan allies.

He had chosen Tezcoco, the city on the lake of that name, as his centre of operations at the beginning of the siege, because of its many advantages. It was but nine miles distant by water from the capital, was well situated for attack as well as retreat, contained many fortified temples and palaces; and finally, commanded a stretch of fertile plain planted with maize, and capable of sustaining a large army. The king of Tezcoco, Coanacotzin, sent an embassy to meet CortÚs, at the same time presenting him with a splendid banner as a token of peace; but, as he had been instrumental in killing more than forty Spaniards, who were in his territory several months before, he dared not face the advancing army, but fled by night to the Aztec city across the lake. In his place upon the vacant throne CortÚs seated his younger brother, Prince Ixtlilxochitl (pronounced Eesht-leel-ho-cheetl), who, next to the Tlascalans, was the Spaniards' most serviceable ally during the siege.

Carrying out his sagacious scheme of cutting off from Mexico all the tributary cities and towns, CortÚs was no sooner well established at Tezcoco than he marched upon Iztapalapan with 200 soldiers and 3000 allies. In that beautiful city, which had been the residence of King Cuitlahua (and was celebrated until long after the conquest for its wonderful gardens), CortÚs came very near losing his life and his army, at one and the same time, for the inhabitants cut the dikes which kept back the waters of the two lakes by which it was surrounded, and in a trice the place was submerged. The Spaniards were busy at the sack of the city, setting fire to the houses, beating off the Aztec warriors, who came flocking thither in their war-canoes, and but for the vigilance of a Tlascalan sentinel might all have been drowned. Some few lost their lives as it was, and most of the survivors lost all their rich plunder and got their powder wet, which put them in very bad humor indeed.

At Iztapalapan, as well as at Chalco and Xochimilco (the last-named situated between the two others, and famous for its chinampas, or floating gardens), bodies of Aztec troops came over in war-canoes and did their utmost to defeat the plans of the invaders. Several Spaniards were captured alive, and, after having been barbarously sacrificed on the teocalli, their arms and legs were sent to different parts of Anahuac as trophies of Aztec valor. In the various temples of these tributary cities the sorrowing soldiers frequently discovered grewsome reminders of their slain countrymen, in the skins of their face with beards attached, tanned like leather, and hung around the altars, while the walls were besmeared with their blood.

Extending his forays in ever-widening circles, CortÚs finally reached the wonderful city of Cuernavaca, which was situated between two deep ravines, spanned by bridges, which the Indians raised or destroyed at the appearance of the enemy. The army was compelled to passively endure the taunts of the Indians, safely intrenched in their impregnable position, until one of the soldiers (the redoubtable Bernal Diaz himself) discovered that two great trees, growing on opposite banks of the ravine, interlocked their limbs in mid-air, thus affording a perilous passage for those who dared to venture. Some Tlascalans led the way, followed by several soldiers, two of whom lost their balance and fell from this dizzy height to the bed of the stream, 100 feet below. Those who got across attacked the Indians in the rear, diverting them until a bridge was thrown over, when the city was quickly taken.

Countermarching from Cuernavaca, CortÚs appeared once more among the cities within the valley brim, his nearest approach to the capital being at Coyoacan, whence he swung around westward to Tacuba, the scene of his first great defeat. On the way he passed the hill of Chapoltepec, the aqueduct from which to the capital (affording the Aztecs their sole supply of drinking-water) he partly destroyed. From Tacuba the little army passed northward and eastward, around the great lake, to Tezcoco, their point of departure, thus having completed the circuit of the valley and cut all connections leading from the capital outward to the cities roundabout.

This great work of isolating the city of Mexico from its tributaries had not been accomplished without most strenuous resistance from its occupants and defenders. The Mexicans sallied out by thousands and tens of thousands; their war-canoes darkened the waters of the lakes. On several occasions they succeeded in taking prisoners for their sacrifices, and slew many of their enemies; but their attacks did not for a moment cause the intrepid CortÚs to deviate from his plan of operations.

Three different times during this raid around the valley CortÚs had been in dire peril. Once he was severely wounded, and twice was on the point of being captured, when his soldiers rescued him from the Aztecs, who were hurrying him off to the temple, a most acceptable victim for the sacrifice. Two of his attendants were less fortunate, being taken by the enemy and thrown upon the Sacrificial Stone before the very eyes of the sorrowing but helpless Spaniards, while they were viewing the capital from the summit of a teocalli  in Tacuba.

The fourth attempt upon the life of CortÚs, after he had set out to reduce the capital, was made by one of his own countrymen, a friend of Governor Velasquez, named Villafana, who conspired with others to assassinate him while he was at dinner with his captains. The plot became known to one of his faithful soldiers, who warned him, and Villafana was promptly arrested. A paper was found in his possession containing the names of the conspirators; but CortÚs proceeded against the chief conspirator only, recognizing the necessity for an example, and hung him from a window of his apartment.

It was in the midst of perils such as these that CortÚs perfected the plans he had made, and finally moved against the Aztec city, which lay in full view of Tezcoco. While he had been marching and fighting, his workmen and artisans had been constantly employed, so that there was no halt in the labor of preparation. From the distant forests of Tlascala, Martin Lopez and his Indian auxiliaries had brought down the timber for the thirteen brigantines. Eight thousand sturdy Tlascalans bore upon their backs all the timbers, ready shaped for setting up on the stocks; 2000 more were laden with provisions, while another body of 8000 came along as an escort. They were preceded by the 2000 tamanes, or burden-bearers, from Villa Rica, carrying the iron-work and rigging from the dismantled ships; and when this vast procession entered Tezcoco, it was with shouts of triumph that might have been heard in the Aztec city across the lake. They were six hours in marching through the city, where they were reviewed by CortÚs and his troops, while, to the stirring sound of drums, horns, and trumpets, they shouted at the top of their lungs: "Tlascala, Castilla!"—Tlascala, CortÚs and Castile forever!

Martin Lopez put the ships together with the greatest speed once they were on the stocks; but he was constantly harassed by canoes filled with Mexican soldiers, who came over and, several times, set the ship-yards on fire. CortÚs retaliated upon the Aztecs for these invasions by despoiling the vast fields of maize on the borders of the lake, which belonged to the priests of the temple in Mexico.

The brigantines were finally launched in the last week of April, a canal having been dug for the purpose, a mile and a half in length, twelve feet deep and broad. They floated out to the lake, to the roar of cannon and the clash of military music, each vessel receiving its crew and equipment without a day's delay, so perfectly had CortÚs prepared for the event. And with the launching of these thirteen brigantines, which were of great importance in the operations against the Aztecs, the siege of Mexico may be said to have begun.