Aztec: How Cortes gained some information respecting Mexico

This account of how Cortes gained some information respecting Mexico from Xicotencatl and Maxixcatzin is presented by the conquistador historian Bernal Díaz del Castillo who participated as a soldier in the conquest of Mexico under Hernán Cortés and late in his life wrote an account of the events. This account of the military ability of the Mexica, their wealth, and the defensive attributes of Tenochtitan is a in his memoirs.

The account includes a reference to a race of men and women who were of immense stature with heavy bones, and were a very bad and evil-disposed people, and how they had for the greater part been exterminated by continual war, a recurring memory shared by other cultures in the Americas.
— Orly

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[Pg 187] 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.


Source:  The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Vol 1 (of 2) Written by Himself Containing a True and Full Account of the Discovery and Conquest of Mexico and New Spain.

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