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A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge


 

 

CORTES EXPLORES AND CONQUERS MEXICO

[205] ONE would have thought that the revelation of this immense sheet of water on the far side of America would have drawn other explorers to follow, but news was slowly assimilated in those days, and it was not till fifty-three years later that the Pacific was crossed a second time by Sir Francis Drake.

In the maps of the day, Newfoundland and Florida were both placed in Asia, while Mexico was identified with the Quinsay of Marco Polo. For even while Magellan was fighting the gales of the Atlantic en route  for his long-sought strait, another strange and wonderful country was being unveiled and its unsurpassed wealth laid at the feet of Spain. The starting-place for further Spanish exploration had been, from the days of Columbus, the West Indies. From this centre, the coast of Florida had been discovered in 1513; from here, the same year, Balboa had discovered the Pacific Ocean; from here in 1517 a little fleet was fitted out under Francisco Hernando de Cordova, "a man very prudent and courageous and strongly disposed to kill and kidnap Indians." As pilot he had been with Columbus on his fourth voyage some fourteen years before. He suggested that his master had heard rumours of land to the West, and sure enough, after sailing past the peninsula of Yucatan, they found signs of the Eastern civilisation so long sought in vain.

[206] "Strange-looking towers or pyramids, ascended by stone steps, greeted their eyes, and the people who came out in canoes to watch the ships were clad in quilted cotton doublets and wore cloaks and brilliant plumes."

They had heard of the Spaniards. Indeed, only one hundred miles of sea divided Yucatan from Cuba, and they were anything but pleased to see these strangers off their coast.

"Couez cotoche" (Come to my house), they cried, for which reason Cordova called the place Cape Catoche, as it is marked in our maps to-day. Along the coast sailed the Spaniards to a place called by the Indians Quimpeche, now known as Campechy Bay. They were astonished to find how civilised were these natives, and how unlike any others they had met in these parts. But the inhabitants resented the landing of Cordova and his men, and with arrows and stones and darts they killed or wounded a great number of Spaniards, including the commander himself, who sent an account of his voyage to the Governor of Cuba and died a few days later.

His information was interesting and inspiring, and soon young Juan Grijalva was on his way to the same land, accompanied by "two hundred and fifty stout soldiers" and the old pilot, Alvarado, who had led both Columbus and Cordova. Grijalva explored for the first time the coast of this great new country.

"Mexico, Mexico," repeated the Indians with whom they conversed. Gold, too, was produced, gold ornaments, gold workmanship, until the young and handsome Grijalva was fitted out completely with a complete suit of gold armour. He returned enthusiastic over the new land where lived a powerful ruler over many cities. Surely this was none other than the Great Khan of Marco Polo fame, with the riches and magnificence of an Eastern potentate—a land worthy of further exploration.

[207] The conqueror of Mexico now comes upon the scene—young, bold, devout, unscrupulous, "a respectable gentleman of good birth"—Hernando Cortes. Great was the enthusiasm in Cuba to join the new expedition to the long-lost lands of the Great Khan; men sold their lands to buy horses and arms, pork was salted, armour was made, and at last Cortes, a plume of feathers and a gold medal in his cap, erected on board his ship a velvet flag with the royal arms embroidered in gold and the words: "Brothers, follow the cross in faith, for under its guidance we shall conquer."


[Illustration]

HERNANDO CORTES, CONQUEROR OF MEXICO.

His address to his men called forth their devotion: "I hold out to you a glorious prize, but it is to be won by incessant toil. Great things are achieved only by great exertions, and glory was never the reward of sloth. If I have laboured hard and staked my all on this undertaking, it is for the love of that renown, which is the noblest recompense of man.

But if any among you covet riches more, be but true to me, as I will make you masters of such as our countrymen have never dreamed of. You are few in number, but strong in resolution; doubt not but that the Almighty, who has never deserted the Spaniard in his contest with the infidel, will shield you, for your cause is [208] a just cause, and you are to fight under the banner of the cross.

In this spirit of enthusiasm the fleet sailed from the shores of Cuba on 18th February 1519, and was soon on its way to the land of Mexico. The pilot Alvarado was with this expedition also. Rounding Cape Catoche and coasting along the southern shores of Campechy Bay, with a pleasant breeze blowing off the shore, Cortes landed with all his force—some five hundred soldiers—on the very spot where now stands the city of Vera Cruz. "Little did the conqueror imagine that the desolate beach on which he first planted his foot was one day to be covered by a flourishing city, the great mart of European and Oriental trade—the commercial capital of New Spain."

On a wide, level plain Cortes encamped, his soldiers driving in stakes and covering them with boughs to protect themselves from the scorching rays of the fierce, tropical sun. Natives came down to the shore, bringing their beautiful featherwork cloaks and golden ornaments. Cortes had brought presents for the great King—the Khan as he thought—and these he sent with a message that he had come from the King of Spain and greatly desired an audience with the Great Khan. The Indians were greatly surprised to hear that there was another King in the world as powerful as their Montezuma, who was more god than king, who ate from dishes of gold, on whose face none dared look, in whose presence none dared speak without leave.

To impress the messengers of the King, Cortes ordered his soldiers to go through some of their military exercises on the wet sands. The bold and rapid movement of the troops, the glancing of the weapons, and the shrill cry of the trumpet filled the spectators with astonishment; but when they heard the thunder of the cannon and witnessed the volumes of smoke and flame issuing from [209] these terrible engines, the rushing of the balls as they hissed through the trees of the neighbouring forest shivering their branches, they were filled with consternation.

To the intense surprise of the Spaniards, these messengers sketched the whole scene on canvas with their pencils, not forgetting the Spanish ships or "water-houses" as they called them, with their dark hulls and snow-white sails reflected in the water as they swung lazily at anchor.

Then they returned to the King and related the strange doings of the white strangers who had landed on their shores; they showed him their picture-writing, and Montezuma, king of the great Mexican empire which stretched from sea to sea, was "sore troubled." He refused to see the Spaniards—the distance of his capital was too great, since the journey was beset with difficulties. But the presents he sent were so gorgeous, so wonderful, that Cortes resolved to see for himself the city which produced such wealth, whatever its ruler might decree. Here was a plate of gold as large as a coach wheel representing the sun, one in silver even larger, representing the moon; there were numbers of golden toys representing dogs, lions, tigers, apes, ducks, and wonderful plumes of green feathers.

The man who had sailed across two thousand leagues of ocean held lightly the idea of a short land journey, however difficult, and Cortes began his preparations for the march to Mexico. He built the little settlement at Vera Cruz, "The Rich Town of the True Cross," on the seashore as a basis for operations. Although the wealth allured them, there were many who viewed with dismay the idea of the long and dangerous march into the heart of a hostile land. After all they were but a handful of men pitted against a powerful nation. Murmurs arose which [210] reached the ears of Cortes. He was equal to the occasion and resolutely burnt all the ships in the harbour save one. Then panic ensued. Mutiny threatened.

"I have chosen my part!" cried Cortes. "I will remain here while there is one to bear me company. If there be any so craven as to shrink from sharing the dangers of our glorious enterprise, let them go home. There is still one vessel left. Let them take that and return to Cuba. They can tell there how they have deserted their commander and their comrades, and patiently wait till we return loaded with the spoils of Mexico."

He touched the right chord. Visions of future wealth and glory rose again before them, confidence in their leader revived, and, shouting bravely, "To Mexico! to Mexico!" the party started off on their perilous march. It was 16th August 1519 when the little army, "buoyant with high hopes and lofty plans of conquest," set forth. The first part of the way lay through beautiful country rich in cochineal and vanilla, with groves of many-coloured birds and "insects whose enamelled wings glistened like diamonds in the blazing sun of the tropics."

Then came the long and tedious ascent of the Cordilleras leading to the tableland of Mexico. Higher and higher grew the mountains. Heavy falls of sleet and hail, icy winds, and driving rain drenched the little Spanish party as they made their way bravely upwards, till at last they reached the level of seven thousand feet to find the great tableland rolling out along the crest of the Cordilleras.

Hitherto they had met with no opposition among the natives they had met. Indeed, as the little army advanced, it was often found that the inhabitants of the country fled awestruck from before them. Now the reason was this. The Mexicans believed in a god called the Bird-Serpent, around whom many a legend had grown up. Temples had been built in his honour and horrible human [211] sacrifices offered to appease him, for was he not the Ruler of the Winds, the Lord of the Lightning, the Gatherer of the Clouds? But the bright god had sailed away one day, saying he would return with fair-skinned men to possess the land in the fulness of time. Surely, then, the time had come and their god had come again. Here were the fair-skinned men in shining armour marching back to their own again, and Cortes at their head—was he not the god himself? The cross, too, was a Mexican symbol, so Cortes was allowed to put it up in the heathen temples without opposition.

The inhabitants of Tlascala—fierce republicans who refused to own the sway of Montezuma—alone offered resistance, and how Cortes fought and defeated them with his handful of men is truly a marvel.

It was three months before they reached the goal of all their hopes—even the golden city of Mexico. The hardships and horrors of the march had been unsurpassed, but as the beautiful valley of Mexico unfolded itself before them in the early light of a July morning, the Spaniards shouted with joy: "It is the promised land! Mexico! Mexico!"

"Many of us were disposed to doubt the reality of the scene before us and to suspect we were in a dream," says one of the party. "I thought we had been transported by magic to the terrestrial paradise."

Water, cultivated plains, shining cities with shadowy hills beyond lay like some gorgeous fairyland before and below them. At every step some new beauty appeared in sight, and the wonderful City of the Waters with its towers and shining palaces arose out of the surrounding mists.

The city was approached by three solid causeways some five miles long. It was crowded with spectators "eager to behold such men and animals as had never been seen in that part of the world."

[212] At any moment the little army of four hundred and fifty Spaniards might have been destroyed, surrounded as they were by overwhelming numbers of hostile Indian foes. It was a great day in the history of European discovery, when the Spaniard first set foot in the capital of the Western world. Everywhere was evidence of a crowded and thriving population and a high civilisation. At the walls of the city they were met by Montezuma himself. Amid a crowd of Indian nobles, preceded by officers of state bearing golden wands, was the royal palanquin blazing with burnished gold. It was borne on the shoulders of the nobles, who, barefooted, walked slowly with eyes cast to the ground. Descending from his litter, Montezuma then advanced under a canopy of gaudy featherwork powdered with jewels and fringed with silver. His cloak and sandals were studded with pearls and precious stones among which emeralds were conspicuous. Cortes dismounted, greeted the King, and spoke of his mission to the heathen and of his master, the mighty ruler of Spain. Everywhere Cortes and his men were received with friendship and reverence, for was he not the long-lost Child of the Sun? The Spanish explorer begged Montezuma to give up his idols and to stop his terrible human sacrifices. The King somewhat naturally refused. Cortes grew angry. He was also very anxious. He felt the weakness of his position, the little handful of men in this great populous city, which he had sworn to win for Spain. The King must go. "Why do we waste time on this barbarian? Let us seize him and, if he resists, plunge our swords into his body!" cried the exasperated commander.


[Illustration]

THE BATTLES OF THE SPANIARDS IN MEXICO.
FROM AN ANCIENT AZTEC DRAWING.

This is no place for the pathetic story of Montezuma's downfall. Prescott's Conquest of Mexico  is within the reach of all. It tells of the Spanish treachery, of the refusal of the Mexican ruler to accept the new faith, of his final appeal [213] to his subjects, of chains, degradation, and death. It tells of the three great heaps of gold, pearls, and precious stones taken by Cortes, of the final siege and conquest.

The news of this immense Mexican Empire, discovered and conquered for Spain, brought honours from the King, Charles V., to the triumphant conqueror.

Nor did Cortes stop even after this achievement. As Governor and Captain-General of Mexico, he sent off ships to explore the neighboring coasts. Hearing that Honduras possessed rich mines and that a strait into the [214] Pacific Ocean might be found, Cortes led an expedition by land. Arrived at Tabasco, he was provided with an Indian map of cotton cloth, whereon were painted all the towns, rivers, mountains, as far as Nicaragua. With this map and the mariner's compass, he led his army through gloomy woods so thick that no sun ever penetrated, and after a march of one thousand miles reached the sea-coast of Honduras, took over the country for Spain to be governed with Mexico by himself.

This enormous tract of country was known to the world as "New Spain."


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