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THE GREAT BATTLE OF TABASCO
 IN supreme command at last, with no one to thwart or repress him, Captain-General Cortés (as
one of his soldiers says) "began to take command in earnest, and to show the mettle that
was in him." One of the vessels, in charge of Alvarado, had arrived at Cozumel ahead of
the flag-ship, and he who afterwards committed the terrible massacre of Aztec nobles in
Montezuma's capital gave evidence as to his real character by landing and pillaging the
temples of a town.
When Cortés arrived, he first placed the pilot of the vessel in irons for deserting the
fleet, and then called up Alvarado and reprimanded him for his imprudence, telling him
that he should rather have acquired the friendship of the natives, upon whom; or upon
others like them, the Spaniards were to depend for success in their endeavors. It
 was a question of policy merely, not of humanity, for Cortés himself was afterwards guilty
of the grossest cruelties towards the natives. Still, what he could do with impunity was
not to be tolerated in a subordinate.
In the "Instructions," already alluded to, and which are remarkable for their wisdom and
clarity, the following clause occurred: "You will keep along the coast of the island [as
it was then thought to be] of Yucatan, where are six Christians in the power
of some chiefs, who are known to Melchor Indio, who goes with you [as interpreter]. Treat
said Melchor Indio kindly, in order that he may remain with you and serve you faithfully."
One of the very first acts of Cortés, after landing at Cozumel, goes to show that he began
by following out these instructions to the letter. After setting free Alvarado's captives,
and restoring to the temples the ornaments of which they had been despoiled (but which he
soon after acquired, in exchange for worthless baubles), he set himself to solving two
mysteries which confronted him at the outset.
The first mystery was that among other strange symbols sacred in the estimation of
 the natives was a figure of the cross, carved in stone and set up in a court of their
chief temple. Whence they derived the conception of this symbol is almost as much a
mystery to-day as it was four centuries ago; but the priests who accompanied Cortés on the
expedition explained it away by assuming that St. Thomas had visited the country in his
wanderings. The scientists of the present day, however, conjecture that it was the symbol
of the rain-god of the Mayas and Mexicans.
The second mystery was this: Two years before the arrival of Cortés on the coast of
Yucatan the Indians of Campeche had accosted the soldiers of Cordova with the query,
"Castilian? Castilian?" at the same time pointing to the east. Again at Cozumel the
natives repeated this word, and finally it was disclosed that there were two Spanish
prisoners (whom rumor had exaggerated into six) held by a Maya chieftain in the depths of
Yucatan. Some Indian traders offered to take a message to them, and Cortés forthwith
GENTLEMEN AND BROTHERS,—Here in Cozumel I have been informed that
you have been detained by a cacique, and I request as a favor that
 you will join me without delay. I send a boat and soldiers, with whatever is necessary for
your ransom, with orders to wait eight days; but come with all despatch to me, from whom
you shall receive every assistance and protection."
The native traders were faithful to the trust reposed in them, and within two days after
the mainland had been reached the letter was in the hands of the captives. One of them,
named Alonzo de Guerrero, had married an Indian woman, whom he refused to leave, saying to
his comrade, "Lo, I have three sons. I am a cacique and a war-chief. My face is tattooed,
my ears and nose are bored. What would those Spaniards think of me? But, comrade, behold
these three beautiful sons of mine! Give them, I beseech thee, some of those glass beads,
and say that my brother sent them as a present to me from my own country."
Another reason for rejecting the proffer was that he had commanded the Indians in the
battle which had been so disastrous to Cordova, and he rightly feared the vengeance of
Cortés, who, when he heard of it, greatly desired to get him in his hands.
His companion, however, Jeronimo de Aguilar, eagerly embraced the opportunity
 for rejoining his countrymen, from whom he had been separated seven years. Having secured
his master's permission, he hastened to the coast, crossed the channel in a canoe, and
appeared at Cozumel. Cortés, once he recognized Aguilar (who, being nearly naked and as
brown as an Indian, much resembled one), embraced him fervently and ordered him clothed
and treated with distinction. He had been so long with the Indians that he had nearly lost
his native speech; but he carried with him the remnants of a book of prayers, tied in a
ragged bundle at his waist, and kept repeating, as though fearful of forgetting the few
Spanish words he remembered, "Dios [God], Santa Maria, and Sevilla." He soon recovered his
lost language, and, as he also spoke the Maya (or native tongue of Yucatan), he proved the
greatest acquisition the expedition had received.
Having put his armament in order, and having forcibly "converted" the natives of Cozumel
(by rolling their idols down the temple steps and placing an image of the Holy Virgin and
a crucifix in their stead), Cortés sailed on his course again. He had thus far faithfully
followed the governor's written instructions, and, above all, showed his
deter-  mination to enforce clause fourteen of those instructions, which read: "Take great care to
instruct the natives in the true faith, as this is the principal reason why their
Highnesses permit these discoveries."
We will follow him now as, early in March, 1519, he sailed along the north and west coast
of Yucatan, unaware of the ruins of ancient cities and remains of a wonderful civilization
within the borders of that peninsula. Centuries were to pass, before those walls of
sculptured hieroglyphs contained in Chichen, Itza, Uxmal, Mayapan (more than half a
hundred ruined cities in all) were to yield their rich treasures to the archaeologist.
Cortés and his men got a glimpse of what the Indian civilization was at Cozumel and Isla
Mujeres, on the coast of Yucatan, but they knew not what it meant, nor cared. Gold was the
object of their search—gold, and spoils of other sort, as well as the conquest of
the heathen-dwellers in that unknown land.
It may not have been the captain-general's intention to attack the people of Tabasco; but
as some of the Indians shot their arrows at the approaching boats through the leafy
screens afforded by the mangroves, and
 others shouted defiance at the Spaniards from the banks of shallow streams, where they
were gathered, evidently with hostile intent, he could not resist landing and giving them
He held a hearty contempt for Indians, bred in his years of dealings with the
mild-mannered natives of the islands; but he was to learn that they were not all alike.
The Indians, also, were to find that they had now a man to deal with far different from
Cordova and Grijalva, a man of "blood and iron," who brooked no opposition, who rode
rough-shod over all who stood in his way.
It was not to be expected that Hernando Cortés would suffer those same Tabascans who had
received Grijalva so hospitably to hurl insults at him and his men, instead of bestowing
presents. But it seems that they had been reproached with cowardice by their neighbors of
Champoton, and also threatened by the emissaries of Montezuma, and this accounted for
their change of attitude towards the Spaniards. This was not then known to Cortés, but he
resolved to punish them, and, that it might be done in a "strictly justifiable manner," as
the old historian quaintly states it, he ordered Diego
 de Godoy, the royal notary, to read a proclamation to this effect: that the Spaniards
merely desired to land for wood and water, to secure the submission of the natives to
their sovereign and the prompt acceptance of their religion.
This proclamation was one that had been used many times before, for it had been formulated
by learned men at court and given to all the conquerors. Setting aside, however, the fact
that the natives might not be disposed to accept, off-hand, a new religion and new gods,
and profess allegiance to a king of whom they had never heard before, another objection
was that it was read in Spanish (a language they did not understand) and amid the
deafening din of horns and trumpets.
Then, seeing that the stupid natives neither respected the king's command nor the proffers
of the priests, Cortés gave the battle-cry (which had been so often heard in conflicts
between the Spaniards and the Moors), "Santiago, and at them!" The fight began in earnest,
for the Indians disputed every foot the Spaniards advanced, first on the river-bank, then
on a plain adjacent, and it was not till Cortés called out
 the cavalry and ordered up the artillery that the assembled thousands began to yield.
The fighting began in the afternoon and was continued at dawn of the following day. Great
guns from the vessels were landed, and their thunderous roar drowned the terrific shouts
of the Indians, who were amazed, almost stupefied, at the noise and the terrible carnage.
But they bravely stood their ground, ever filling the gaps made in their ranks by the
plunging cannon-balls, and throwing dust and straw into the air to conceal their losses.
They withstood the cannon, strange and terrible as they appeared to them but the prancing
horses struck terror to their hearts. When they appeared, the Indians, to the estimated
number of 30,000 or 40,000, had gathered on a great plain behind their town, which had
been occupied by the infantry. While the arquebusiers and bowmen engaged them in front,
Cortés with a few choice spirits made a detour and came upon the enemy in the rear.
Let us remember that this was the first sight the natives ever had of horses—that
this was the first cavalry charge in Mexico. When, therefore, they saw those dreadful
 apparitions, of four-footed beasts guided by armor-clad warriors, which trampled and
crushed them underfoot, they fled in wild dismay. They thought man and beast one and the
same creature, and were as astonished as terrified, as if we of the present day should
behold some antediluvian monster rushing forth to devour and destroy.
It is hardly too much to say that all the soldiers in the army of invasion fought like
tigers, and that Hernando Cortés himself proved a leader worthy a greater, better cause.
He lost a sandal at the outset, when mired on the river-bank, but he withdrew his foot and
pressed gallantly on, despite the fierce cries "Al Calchioni!" ("Strike at the captain!")
resounding from every side and a perfect avalanche of barbaric missiles, arrows, javelins,
and spears which came down upon his helm and corselet.
Victory was won at last, at a cost to the Spaniards of a hundred soldiers wounded and a
few killed, but to the enemy of at least 1000 slain. The Indians could do nothing as
against these soldiers clad in armor which their weapons could not penetrate, before those
charges of ponderous beasts and the death-dealing cannon.
 After the victors had dressed their wounds with the fat of the dead Indians found on the
field, they were assembled in the town by the river, and Cortés, making three cuts with
his sword in a great ceiba (silk-cotton-tree), proclaimed possession of the
country in the name of his sovereigns, and ordered the royal notary to record the fact. He
had made a landing in that hitherto unconquered country; he and his men had met and
overcome the enemy; they could not, would not, retreat, but must now push on to further
battles and victories.
The Indian hosts had melted away; but the next day an embassy appeared, with presents of
the country's products, and followed by a train of twenty female slaves, for Cortés and
his officers. They humbly begged permission to bury their dead, before the wild beasts
should devour them, and their caciques tendered their submission to the great conqueror.
Cortés assured them that he entertained no ill-will, and if they would become vassals of
the Spanish king they might live in peace where they were. Religious services were held,
and the female slaves were baptized, after the priest had instructed, in the faith of the
 these "first of Christian converts in New Spain."
The results of that victory were greater than were at first known, for among the
first-fruits of it were the Indian slaves, one of whom indeed proved a pearl of price.
After the departure from Tabasco, and when off the Mexican coast, a canoe filled with
Indians came out to the flag-ship. These Indians were Aztecs, whose speech no one in the
fleet could understand. The only person who might have served as interpreter was Melchor
Indio, who had been made captive by Grijalva, and had come with Cortés, as narrated. But
Melchor Indio had run away at Tabasco, leaving his Spanish garments hanging on a tree; and
as Aguilar, the rescued Spaniard, understood only his own language and that of Yucatan, he
could not serve on this occasion. Then it was told Cortés that one of the Tabascan women
could speak both the Aztec and the Maya of Yucatan, and upon being summoned she proved
uncommonly capable, bright, and intelligent.
It appears that she had been born a princess, the daughter of a cacique, in the province
of Coatzacoalcos. Her father had been
 killed while she was a babe. Her mother, marrying again, and desiring the cacique-ship for
her son by the second union, sought to get rid of the daughter by selling her to some
traders as a slave. In this manner the Indian princess had come into the possession of a
certain cacique of Tabasco, by whom she was given to Cortés. She was unusually attractive
in appearance, of noble bearing, despite her fallen state, and a natural linguist.
Owing to her acquaintance with the Aztec language, as well as with the habits and customs
of the Mexicans, and to her great natural sagacity (which served the Spaniards at many a
critical moment), she aided greatly in the conquest of the country of her birth, and
became a personage of importance. This princess of Tabasco was known to the natives as
Malinché, and from her being his associate Cortés was called Malintzin, or
Malinché's lord and master; but the Spaniards named her Marina.
"Dona Marina," then, the enslaved princess of Tabasco, leaped at a bound into prominence
when it became known that she could speak the Aztec tongue, for she was the only person in
all that company of more than 600 who could do so. So she
trans-  lated what the Aztecs said into Maya, and Aguilar rendered it into Spanish, by which
process it became known to Cortés and the rest. Thus for a time two interpreters and three
languages were used in the intercourse between the Spaniards and the Mexicans. But it did
not take long for the quick-witted Malinché to learn sufficient Spanish to serve all
purposes, and she then became the sole medium of communication between the Aztecs and the
invaders of their country.