The Tlaxcalans were surrounded by the Aztecs and could have been conquered by them at any time. It is thought that they were never conquered because the Aztec wanted to have an enemy population within a short march of Tenochtitlan, a ready source of sacrifices for their religious rites. Given this unfortunate geography, it is not surprising that they became key allies of the Spanish in their defeat of the Aztec confederacy.
The account of the Spanish encounter with the Tlaxcalans is chronicled by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of the few eye witness accounts of the events that have come down to us. His narrative follows.
How the old caziques of Tlascalla arrived in our camp and invited Cortes, and all of us to visit their city, and what further happened.
The old caziques of Tlascalla finding that we did not arrive in their city, determined to call upon us themselves, and set out, some on foot and some in sedans and a species of hand-barrow. Besides those I mentioned above, (Maxixcatzin and the blind Xicotencatl, the elder,) there were Guaxolacima, Chichimeclatecl, and Tecapaneca of Topoyanco. Their suite was composed of several distinguished personages. When they arrived in presence of Cortes they paid him the profoundest respect, making him and us who stood around three deep bows. They likewise perfumed with copal, touched the ground with their hands, and kissed it.
The elder Xicotencatl then addressed Cortes as follows:
“Malinche! Malinche! often have we begged of you to forgive the hostile attacks we made upon you. We have already explained to you that we imagined you were in league with Motecusuma. Indeed, if we had known before what we now do, instead of refusing you admission, we would not only have marched out to meet you by the shortest route with a quantity of provisions, but have come to the very coast where your vessels lie, in order to conduct you hither. But, as you have now pardoned all this, I am come with all the caziques to beg of you to accompany us immediately to our city, and to construct in good part the reception which we intend to give you there according to the best of our abilities. Stay all other business for the present, Malinche, we beg of you, and go with us now. We greatly deplore that the Mexicans should have attempted to poison your mind with all manner of falsehoods respecting us, and that this should alone have withheld you from paying us a visit. We are quite accustomed to their slanders. You must not believe them, no, nor even listen to them, for all their actions and words are full of deceit.”
To which Cortes said, with serenity depicted on his countenance, “He knew years ago that we should one time visit this country. They were a brave people, and he was astonished they should have treated us as enemies. With regard to the Mexicans who were now present, they were merely waiting his commands to return to their monarch Motecusuma. He joyously accepted of their invitation to visit their city, and thanked them for the provisions they had sent, and also for all their other kind offers; they might depend upon our services in return. The reason why he had not visited them before this was solely owing to our want of men to transport the tepuzques,” so they termed our cannon. When they heard this, they appeared exceedingly pleased, and immediately cried out, “How! was it nothing but this, and you would not tell us?” And, sure enough, scarcely half an hour elapsed before there were 500 porters on the spot, so that next morning early we were enabled to set out for the metropolis of Tlascalla. We marched forward as usual, with the heavy guns, the horse, the crossbow-men, and musketeers, in close order. Cortes had also requested the Mexican ambassadors to accompany us, in order that they might convince themselves that the people of Tlascalla were sincere. To allay their apprehensions, he assured them they should live in his own quarters, and not be molested.
Before, however, I proceed with my narrative, I must explain how it happened that Cortes was termed Malinche by all the tribes through whose territories we had passed. I myself in future will call him by that name, excepting there where it would be improper. This name was given to him because our interpretress Doña Marina was always about his person, particularly when ambassadors arrived, and in our negotiations with the several caziques, as on those occasions she interpreted for both parties. They therefore called him the captain of Marina, and contracted that appellation in the word Malinche.This name was likewise given to Juan Perez de Artenga of Puebla, because he always accompanied Doña Marina, and to Geronimo de Aguilar for a similar reason. The former of these two even retained the name of Juan Perez Malinche. Our entry into the metropolis of Tlascalla took place twenty-four days after we had crossed the confines of the country, the 23d day of September, in the year of our Lord 1519.
How we marched into the city of Tlascalla, and were received by the old caziques; of the present they made us, and how they brought us their daughters and nieces; and what further happened.
When the caziques found that our baggage was moving forward, they hastened before us to make the necessary preparations for our reception, and to adorn our quarters with green boughs. We had arrived within a mile of their city when they again came out to meet us, accompanied by their daughters, nieces, and other distinguished personages, in which those of the same kin or same family or tribe kept together. Without that of Topoyanco, which held the fifth degree, there were four tribes. The inhabitants of the other townships also kept flocking up, all distinguished by the national colours of their respective dresses, which, for want of cotton, were very prettily and neatly manufactured of coloured nequen. Next came the whole body of papas, of whom there were great numbers in the temple service. They carried the pans with glowing embers, and perfumed us. Some of them had on long white cloaks, after the fashion of surplices with capes, as worn by our canons. The hair of their heads was long and matted together, so that it would have been an impossibility to have put it in any shape or order without cutting it off: besides this, it was completely besmeared with blood, which trickled down over their ears, for they had been sacrificing that very day. The nails of their fingers were uncommonly long, and they held down their heads on approaching us, in token of humility. It was told us that these men were greatly revered for their religion. The principal personages now gathered themselves around Cortes’ person, and formed a guard of honour. When we entered the town, the streets and balconies could scarcely contain the numbers of men and women who had come out to see us: delight was depicted on every countenance, and twenty baskets full of roses were brought us, of various colours and sweetly scented, which were presented to Cortes and the other soldiers whom they considered officers, and particularly to those who sat on horseback. In this way we gradually arrived to some spacious courtyards, where quarters had been prepared for us. Here Xicotencatl the elder and Maxixcatzin took Cortes by the hand and conducted him into his apartments. For each of us there was a separate bed, filled with a species of dried grass, and covered with cloaks of nequen. Our friends of Sempoalla and Xocotlan were quartered in our vicinity in a similar manner. Cortes then requested that the ambassadors of Motecusuma might lodge with him. We soon discovered that good-will and friendly feeling were universal towards us here, and we therefore somewhat relaxed in our ordinary precautions. The officer whose duty it was to post our sentinels and order the patrols, remarked to Cortes, that, as everything wore such a friendly aspect there, our usual watchfulness would not be required. “This may be very true,” answered our general, “yet we will not relinquish that excellent custom. Though the people here may be very good, we must not trust too much to this peace, but always be upon our guard as if we expected each moment to be attacked. Many a general has been ruined by carelessness and over-confidence. We, who are a mere handful of men, and have been precautioned by Motecusuma himself, though he may not exactly have been in earnest, must be ready for action at a moment’s notice.”
The two chief caziques, the elder Xicotencatl and Maxixcatzin, were very much hurt at the military precautions we took, nor did they strive to hide their feelings from Cortes, but spoke to him as follows: “Malinche, if we are to draw a conclusion from the steps you are taking, you either look upon us as your enemies, or at least you place no confidence in us and the treaty of peace which has been concluded between us. You post sentinels and order your men to patrol the streets as formerly, when both armies stood in hostile array against each other. This you have not done of your own accord, Malinche, but because the Mexicans have secretly whispered to you fears of treachery, wishing thereby to estrange you from us. Believe us, you cannot put any faith in what they say. You are now in the midst of us; everything we have is at your service—our own persons and our children; and we are ready to suffer death for you. Ask for as many hostages as you like, and you shall have them.”
Cortes and all of us admired and were moved at the kind and graceful manner in which the old men expressed themselves. Our captain said he required no hostages; he had merely to make use of his eyes to convince himself that all was perfectly safe. These military precautions were ever customary with us, and they were not to take umbrage on that account. He thanked them for their kind intentions, and promised to render them great services in return.
After this explanation, other persons of distinction arrived with a quantity of provisions, consisting of fowls, maise-bread, figs, and vegetables. We had, indeed, everything in the greatest abundance during the whole of the twenty days we lay in this town.
How mass was said in the presence of a great number of caziques, and of the present the latter brought us.
The next morning early Cortes ordered an altar to be constructed, and mass to be said, as we now again had a supply of wine and holy wafers. Father Olmedo lying ill of the fever, which had greatly weakened him, the priest Juan Diaz officiated for him: Maxixcatzin, the elder Xicotencatl, and several other caziques were present.
After mass, Cortes retired to his quarters. Those among us who were always about his person accompanied him: we were also followed by the old caziques and our interpreters, who were indispensable in such company. The elder Xicotencatl now informed Cortes that it was the general wish of the inhabitants to make him a present, if agreeable to him. Cortes answered that he should at all times be most happy to receive one: they accordingly spread some mats on the floor, and over these a few cloaks, upon which they arranged five or six small pieces of gold, a few stones of trifling value, and several parcels of manufactured nequen, altogether a very poor present, and not worth twenty pesos. The caziques, on presenting these things to Cortes, said to him, with a smile on their countenance, “Malinche! we can easily imagine that you will not exactly experience much joy on receiving a present of such wretched things as these; but we have told you before that we are poor, possessing neither gold nor other riches, as the deceitful Mexicans, with their present monarch Motecusuma, have by degrees despoiled us of everything we had. Do not look to the small value of these things, but accept them in all kindness, and as coming from your faithful friends and servants.” These presents were at the same time accompanied by a quantity of provisions.
Cortes accepted of all this with every appearance of delight, and assured the old men that, since these things came from them, and were given with such great good will, they had more value in his estimation than a whole house full of gold, and that he accepted of them in that light. These words he accompanied with numerous other kind sayings and assurances of the esteem he entertained for them.
The caziques had also agreed among themselves to present us the most beautiful of their daughters and nieces. The old Xicotencatl, therefore, again addressed Cortes: “In order, Malinche, that you may have a still clearer proof of our good feeling towards you, and to show you how glad we are to do anything which we imagine may please you, we have resolved to give you our daughters in marriage, that they may have children by you. We should like to be completely fraternized with such good and brave men as you are. I myself have a daughter, who is very beautiful, and has never been married, whom I have destined for you.”
Maxixcatzin and most of the other caziques continued in the same strain, begging of us to take their daughters for our wives. These requests were accompanied by various other proffers of friendship, and Maxixcatzin and Xicotencatl passed the whole day with us: the latter was blind with age; in order, therefore, to form to himself some idea of Cortes, he drew his hand over his hair, his face, his beard, and the whole of his body.
Cortes answered, with respect to the women, that he himself and all of us were very grateful for them, and that we should take the first opportunity of rendering them a kindness in return.
“What is your opinion,” said Cortes, turning to father Olmedo, “would this not be the proper moment to desire these people to abolish their idols and the human sacrifices? From fear of the Mexicans, they will undoubtedly do anything we require of them.” “It will be time enough,” answered the priest, “when they bring us their daughters: then we shall have the best opportunity of telling them that we cannot accept of them until they have promised to abstain from their human sacrifices. If they comply, it is well; if they refuse, we know what our duty and our religion require of us.”
How the caziques presented their daughters to Cortes and all of us, and what further happened.
The day following, the old caziques came and brought five young women with them, who, for Indian females, were in every sense handsome, and neatly dressed. Each had, in addition, a young woman as maid in waiting, and all were daughters of caziques. On this occasion, Xicotencatl thus spoke to Cortes: “Malinche, this is my daughter; she is still a virgin, and has never been married: take her to yourself, and give the others to your officers.”
Cortes received the young women from his hand, and appeared very pleased, declaring that he would now consider these females as our own, but desired that they should, for the present, remain with their fathers. The caziques inquired the reason of this, when Cortes replied: “I have no other reason than that I am bound first to fulfil my duty to the God whom we adore, and to the emperor our master, which is to require of you to abolish your idols, the human sacrifices, and other abominations practised among you, and exhort you to believe in him in whom we believe, who alone is the true God.” Besides this, he told them many other things concerning our holy faith, which Doña Marina and Aguilar explained right well to them. Similar discourses took place on every occasion: Cortes at the same time showed them the image of the holy Virgin, holding her inestimable Son in her arms, and he explained to them how that represented the blessed Virgin Mary: she was now high in the heavens above, and was the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom she held in her arms, conceived by the Holy Ghost; that she was a virgin before, after, and during his birth. She was our mediator with her heavenly Son, our God.
To this he added many other things concerning our holy religion, and concluded by saying: “If you are, indeed, our brothers, and you are really inclined to conclude a lasting peace with us, and if we are to take and keep your daughters as affectionate husbands should do, they must abandon their horrible idols, and believe in the Lord God whom we adore. They would soon discover the beneficial effect of this; blessings would be showered down upon them, the seasons would be fruitful, and all their undertakings would prosper; after death their souls would be transplanted to heaven, and partake of eternal glory; for, by the human sacrifices which they made to their idols, who were nothing but devils, they would be led to hell, where eternal fire would torment their souls.” For the present Cortes said nothing further to them respecting their idols, as he had often before spoken to them concerning these.
In answer to all this, they said to Cortes: “Malinche, we have heard all this from you on former occasions, and willingly believe that this your God and this illustrious woman are right good beings. But you should reflect how very recently you have arrived in our country, and you have but just entered our city. You should certainly give us time to learn more of your doings, manner of behaviour, and nature of your gods; and when we shall have satisfied ourselves respecting their qualities, we shall certainly make choice of those we consider best. How can you ask us to abandon our gods whom we have adored for so many years, and prayed and sacrificed to them? But if we should even do so to please you, what would our papas, our young men, yes, even our boys, say to it? Believe us, they would all rise up in arms. The papas, indeed, have already spoken to our teules, who have told them not to abolish our human sacrifices, nor any other of our ancient customs, otherwise they would destroy our whole country by famine, pestilence, and war.”
We might conclude from this straightforward and fearless answer, that it would be useless to insist any longer on this point, and that they would rather allow themselves to be killed than abolish their human sacrifices. Even father Olmedo, who was a profound theolo[Pg 182]gian, found himself compelled thus to address Cortes on the subject: “My opinion is, sir, that you should no longer urge this matter with these people. It is not acting right to force them to become Christians. I could likewise wish that we had not destroyed the idols at Sempoalla. This I am convinced ought not to be done until the people have gained some knowledge of our holy religion. What, indeed, do we gain by pulling down their idols from the temples? They have merely then to repair to another temple. But, on the other hand, we should never cease to exhort them with our pious lessons. In this way the time will certainly arrive, when they will find that our intentions and our advice are good.”
In this same strain the three cavaliers Alvarado, Leon, and Lugo likewise spoke to Cortes; assuring him that father Olmedo was in the right, and that they perfectly agreed with him, that it would be inadvisable again to touch upon this point with the caziques.
Here, accordingly, the subject was dropped, and Cortes confined himself to ordering the idols to be taken down from a temple which had been recently built in the neighbourhood. The latter to be cleansed and fresh plastered, and the image of the blessed Virgin to be placed on it. To this the caziques readily consented, and when all was finished mass was said, and the daughters of the caziques were baptized. Xicotencatl’s daughter was named Doña Louisa,—when Cortes took her by the hand and presented her to Alvarado, saying, at the same time, to Xicotencatl, that he to whom he had given her was his brother and a chief officer under him, who would certainly treat her well, and with whom she would live happily; to this Xicotencatl said he was perfectly agreeable.
The niece or daughter of Maxixcatzin received the name of Doña Elvira. She was very beautiful, and was presented, if I still remember rightly, to Leon. The others were given to Oli, Sandoval, and Avila, who all subjoined their Christian names to theirs as if they had been young ladies of noble birth.
Upon this it was also explained to the caziques why we always erected two crosses wherever we formed a camp and passed the night: assuring them amongst other things that their gods feared them. All this the caziques listened to with great attention. But before I continue my narrative I must add a few words about Xicotencatl’s daughter, Doña Louisa, who was given to Alvarado.
The whole of Tlascalla took the greatest interest in her welfare, and honored her as a woman invested with command. Alvarado, who was a bachelor, got a son by her, who was named Don Pedro; and also a daughter, Doña Leonora, who is now the wife of Don Francisco de la Cueva, a cavalier of distinction, and a relation of the duke of Albuquerque. She is already the mother of four or five sons, all valiant cavaliers. She is an excellent lady, and a daughter worthy of such a father, who, as every one knows, is comptoir of Santjago and chief justice and viceroy of Guatimala; nor is she less worthy of the house of Xicotencatl, for the latter ranked very high in Tlascalla, and was looked upon as a king.
How Cortes gained some information respecting Mexico from Xicotencatl and Maxixcatzin.
Cortes one day took the caziques aside, and put several questions to them respecting the situation and affairs of Mexico. Xicotencatl, as the more intelligent and distinguished personage, answered his queries, and Maxixcatzin, who was likewise a man of high rank, assisted him from time to time.
“Motecusuma,” said Xicotencatl, “had such a vast army, that when he intended to conquer any large township, or of falling into any province, he invariably ordered 100,000 warriors into the field. They, the Tlascallans, had often experienced this in the many wars which they had waged with the Mexicans for upwards of 100 years.”
When Cortes here interrupted them with the question: “How they had managed to escape from being in the end subdued by such a vast army?” They replied, “That they had, indeed, often been worsted by the Mexicans, and lost many of their men, who were either killed in battle, or taken prisoners and sacrificed to the idols; but that they likewise had slain numbers of the enemy and taken many of them prisoners. Neither did the Mexicans ever approach so unobserved, but that they received some previous notice of their movements. In these cases they made every effort that lay in their power; could always depend on the assistance of the Huexotzincans; and, according to circumstances, either assailed the enemy or pursued a system of defence. Besides this, another circumstance was greatly in their favour, namely, that the Mexicans were excessively hated in all the provinces and among all the tribes which Motecusuma had subdued and plundered, and that the warriors who were forced to serve in his army fought with reluctance and with little courage. In this way, then, they defended their country as well as they could. The greatest overthrow they ever experienced was from the Cholullans, whose town lay about a day’s march from Tlascalla. The inhabitants there were a most deceitful set. In that town it was that Motecusuma usually assembled his troops, whence they generally commenced their march during night-time.”
Maxixcatzin here observed, “That Motecusuma had strong garrisons in every town, besides the warriors who marched out from the metropolis to the field of battle. Every province was compelled to pay him tribute, consisting in gold, silver, feathers, precious stones, cotton stuffs, as well as Indians of both sexes: some of whom he took into his service, and some were sacrificed. He was altogether such a powerful and wealthy monarch, that he accomplished and obtained everything he desired. His palaces were filled with riches and chalchihuis stones, on which he seized wherever he came. In short, all the wealth of the country was in his possession.”
They then gave such an account of the magnificence and splendour of his court, that if I here felt inclined to repeat what they told us, I should never finish; also of the number of his wives; some of whom he now and then gave in marriage to his relations; the great strength of his metropolis, how it lay in the midst of a lake, and the great depth of the latter. Several causeways, they added, led to this city, which were intersected in various places, over which wooden bridges were built, under which canoes could pass; but, if they were removed, the space between every two sections became an island, and all entrance to the town was completely cut off. Nearly the whole of the houses of the city were built in the water, and it was only possible to get from one building to another by means of drawbridges or canoes. Balconies were attached to each house, which were provided with a kind of breastwork, so that the inhabitants were able to defend themselves from the tops of the houses. Yet the whole town was well supplied with sweet water from the spring of Chapultepec, which lay about two miles from the town, whence the water was partly conveyed to the houses by means of pipes, partly in boats through the canals, and then retailed to the inhabitants.
With respect to the weapons employed by this nation, they consisted in two-edged lances, which they threw by means of a thong, and would penetrate through any cuirass. They were likewise excellent shots with the bow and arrow, and carried pikes with blades made of flint, which were of very skilful workmanship and as sharp as razors. Besides these, they carried shields, and wore cotton cuirasses. They likewise employed a great number of slingers, who were provided with round stones, long pikes, and sharp swords, which are used with both hands.
To explain all this they brought forth large pieces of nequen, on which were depicted their battles and their art of warfare. When Cortes and we others considered we had gained sufficient information of these things, the discourse turned on subjects of greater importance. Our friends told us how and whence they came into this country, and how they had settled themselves there; how it came that, notwithstanding their vicinity to the Mexicans, they resembled each other so little, and lived in perpetual warfare with each other. The tradition was also handed down from their forefathers, that in ancient times there lived here a race of men and women who were of immense stature with heavy bones, and were a very bad and evil-disposed people, whom they had for the greater part exterminated by continual war, and the few that were left gradually died away.
In order to give us a notion of the huge frame of this people, they dragged forth a bone, or rather a thigh bone, of one of those giants, which was very strong, and measured the length of a man of good stature. This bone was still entire from the knee to the hip joint. I measured it by my own person, and found it to be of my own length, although I am a man of considerable height. They showed us many similar pieces of bones, but they were all worm-eaten and decayed; we, however, did not doubt for an instant, that this country was once inhabited by giants. Cortes observed, that we ought to forward these bones to his majesty in Spain by the very first opportunity.
The caziques also mentioned another tradition which had come down from their forefathers. A certain god, to whom they paid great honours, had informed them that there would one time come from the rising of the sun, out of distant countries, a people who would subject and rule over them. If we were that people they should feel delighted, for we were courageous and good-hearted. This old prophecy was also brought up when we were negotiating terms of peace with them, and they had chiefly offered us their daughters in order to bring about a relationship between us and themselves, and to obtain assistance against the Mexicans; this they had communicated to their idols.
We were all greatly astonished at this account, and inquired of each other in amazement, whether all they told us could be true. Cortes said to them, “That we came, indeed, from the rising of the sun. The emperor, our master, had purposely sent us, that we might become their brothers, as he had had some previous knowledge respecting their country. May God in his mercy grant,” continued Cortes, “that we may be the means of saving you from eternal perdition!” To which we all added, “Amen!”
The good reader will now, no doubt, have heard sufficient of our discourses with the people of Tlascalla. And I myself shall be glad to cut them short here, as I have many other things to relate besides these.
Among others, in particular, the burning mountain of Huexotzinco, which, at the time we were in Tlascalla, happened to be emitting more flames than usual, and Cortes and all of us, to whom a volcano was something new, regarded it in astonishment. Diego de Ordas, one of our chief officers, entertained the bold idea to inspect this wonder more minutely, and begged leave of our general to ascend the mountain, who granted this request.
Ordas took two of our men with him, and desired some of the chief personages of Huexotzinco to accompany him. They certainly did not refuse, but tried to deter him by assuring him, that when he should have ascended the Popocatepetl, for so they termed this volcano, half way, he would not be able to advance further on account of the trembling of the earth, and the flames, stones and ashes which were emitted from the crater. They themselves never durst venture higher than to where some temples were built to the teules of Popocatepetl. And indeed they left Ordas when he arrived at that spot. The latter, however, boldly continued to ascend with our two soldiers until he had reached the summit.
While they were still ascending, the volcano began to emit huge flames of fire, half burnt and perforated stones, with a quantity of ashes; and the whole mountain shook under their feet to the very foundation. They then halted for an hour, until they found that the smoke and fire gradually began to diminish and less ashes to fall; they then continued to ascend until they reached the crater, which was perfectly round and about a mile in diameter. From this elevation they could plainly discern the great city of Mexico, with the whole of its lake, and the surrounding townships; for this mountain only lies about forty-eight miles from Mexico.
After Ordas had well viewed everything and sufficiently enjoyed and wondered at the sight of Mexico and its suburbs, he again returned with the two soldiers and the Indians of Huexotzinco to Tlascalla. The inhabitants there considered this undertaking to be extremely venturesome, and even we ourselves who had never seen a burning mountain before, were perfectly astonished at the account which Ordas gave Cortes of his hazardous enterprise. Indeed at that time it might well be termed hazardous! Subsequently, to be sure, several other Spaniards and Franciscan monks ascended to the mouth of this volcano, but Ordas was nevertheless the first who had ventured. When, therefore, he afterwards again returned to Spain, he begged permission of his majesty to bear a volcano in his coat of arms. These arms are at present borne by his nephew of the same name, living at Puebla. As long as we remained in this country we never again saw the mountain throw out so much fire, or heard of its making such a heavy rumbling noise, as on this occasion, and not until the year 1539 did it burst out again.
Enough, however, of this mountain; we now pretty well know what it is. Subsequently we saw many other volcanoes, as those of Nicaragua and Guatimala; after which that of Huexotzinco is scarcely worth noticing. I have still to mention that in Tlascalla we found houses built of wood, in the shape of cages, in which numbers of Indians, of both sexes, were confined, and fattened for their sacrifices and feasts. We never hesitated a single moment to break them down and liberate the prisoners. These unfortunate beings, however, never durst leave our side, and this was the only means of saving them from being butchered. From this moment Cortes gave orders to break open these cages wherever we came, for we found them in every township. We all showed our horror of these atrocities, and earnestly reproved the caziques for it, who then promised no longer to kill and devour human beings. I say they promised, but that was all, and if we were but an instant out of sight the same barbarities were committed. It is now, however, high time to think of our march to Mexico.
How our captain Hernando Cortes and all our officers and soldiers determine to march to Mexico.
We had now been seventeen days in Tlascalla, and had heard so much during that time respecting the immense treasures of Motecusuma, and the splendour of his metropolis, that Cortes resolved to hold a consultation concerning our march to Mexico, with all those officers and soldiers amongst us whom he presumed were inclined to advance further on. In this council of war it was agreed that we should commence our march thither without delay; various opinions, however, were expressed on the occasion in our camp. Many maintained that it would be acting over-rashly to venture with a mere handful of men into a strongly fortified city, whose monarch had such vast numbers of warriors at his command. But Cortes declared that all arguing on this point was useless; we could not alter the resolution we had come to, and we had on every occasion expressed our desire to pay our respects personally to Motecusuma. When those who were averse to this step saw his determination, and that the majority of us warriors were devoted with our very hearts to him, crying out, “Forward, now or never!” they ceased to make any further opposition. Those who opposed us were those again who had possessions in the island of Cuba; we other poor soldiers were ready to sacrifice our very existence in battle, and to undergo all manner of fatigues for God and our sovereign. When Xicotencatl and Maxixcatzin were convinced that it was our determination to march to Mexico, they grew anxious on our account. They urgently dissuaded Cortes from it, and warned him not to put the slightest trust in Motecusuma, nor altogether in any of the Mexicans,—to put no faith in his show of veneration, his courteous and humble talk. All their professions of friendship, said they, and even their very presents had treachery at the bottom; for what they give at one moment they take away at another. They advised us to be upon our guard night and day; for they were perfectly assured that the Mexicans would fall upon us when we were least prepared to defend ourselves. Neither were we to spare life to any of them, if it should come to a battle;—to the young man that he might not again take up arms against us, to the old man that he might not do us injury by his counsel.
They gave us many similar precautions, and our captain assured them how grateful he was for it, and otherwise showed them every possible kindness, made them and the other caziques various presents, and divided among them a great portion of the fine stuffs which had been presented to him by Motecusuma. Cortes at the same time remarked to the caziques, that it would be the best possible thing if peace and friendship could be brought about between themselves and the Mexicans, that they might no longer continue in the disagreeable necessity of making shift with other things for want of cotton, salt, and other wares.
To this Xicotencatl immediately replied, “That with the Mexicans a treaty of peace was a mere formality: enmity, nevertheless, always clung fast to their hearts. It was the characteristic of this people to plot the foulest treacheries under the semblance of profound peace. No reliance could be placed on their promises, their words were empty sounds, and he could not remind and beg of us too often to be upon our guard against the snares of this vile people.”
Next came into consideration the route we should take in our march to Mexico. Motecusuma’s ambassadors, who still remained with us, and wished to act as our guides, maintained that the best and most level road lay through the town of Cholulla, whose inhabitants, as subjects of Motecusuma, would be ready to lend any assistance.
We were also unanimously of opinion that this was the road we ought to take; but the caziques of Tlascalla, on the contrary, were quite downcast, when they learnt our determination, and maintained that we ought to march over Huexotzinco, whose inhabitants were their relatives and friends, and that we ought not to take our road through Cholulla, where Motecusuma was accustomed to form his vile stratagems. Their arguments, however, were of no avail: Cortes adhered to his resolution of marching over that town. His reason for taking that road was because this town, according to general report, was thickly populated, had many beautiful towers, and large cues and temples, and lay in a beautiful valley, surrounded by extensive townships well stocked with provisions. Indeed, at that time even, Cholulla, when viewed at a distance, had the appearance of our great city of Valladolid of Old Castile. At Cholulla, moreover, we should have our friends of Tlascalla in the immediate neighbourhood; we could not, therefore, select a more proper spot to form our plans of reaching the city of Mexico without coming into contact with the great body of its troops. For in all truth, if God had not mercifully assisted us with his heavenly arm, and lent us strength in the moment of need, it would not have been possible for us to have achieved what we did!
After a long deliberation thus, the route over Cholulla was fixed upon, and Cortes sent to acquaint the inhabitants with our intentions, more particularly as, notwithstanding they dwelt so near, they had despatched no ambassadors to us, nor shown any of those attentions which were due to us who came in the name of our great monarch, who, he added, had the good of the people of Cholulla at heart. He at the same time desired that all the caziques and papas of the town should repair to our quarters, and swear allegiance to our sovereign and master, otherwise he should look upon them as our enemies.
While Cortes was despatching this message, and making other arrangements, it was announced to him that four ambassadors had arrived with presents in gold from the powerful Motecusuma, who, indeed, never despatched any messengers from his court if not provided with presents by him. He would have considered it an insult offered to us if he had not done so. I will relate in the following chapter what message these ambassadors brought.
Source: The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, written by himself, Containing a True and Full Account of the Discovery and Conquest of Mexico and New Spain. Translated from the original Spanish by John Ingram Lockhart. Volume 1.
As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.