How Cortez conquered,—Montezuma fell.
Much of a Southern Sea they spake,
And of that glorious city won,
Near the setting of the sun,
Throned in a silver lake:
Of seven kings in chains of gold,
And deeds of death by tongue untold,—
Deeds such as breathed in secret there,
Had shaken the confession-chair!
Columbus, who first discovered the West Indian islands, was the first also to discover the mainland of America. He reached the mouth of the Orinoco; traversed the coasts of Paria and Cumana; Yanez Pinzon, steering southward, had crossed the line to the river Amazon; the Portuguese under Alvarez Cabral had by mere accident made the coast of Brazil; Bastidas and De la Cosa had discovered the coast of Tierra Firmè; in his fourth voyage, Columbus had reached Porto Bello in Panama; Pinzon and De Solis discovered Yucatan, and in a second voyage extended their route southward beyond the Rio de la Plata; Ponce de Leon had discovered Florida; and Balboa in Darien had discovered the South Sea. These were grand steps in discovery towards those mighty kingdoms that were soon to burst upon them. Cordova discovered the mouth of the river Potonchan, beyond Campeachy; and finally, Grijalva ranged along the whole coast of Mexico from Tabasco to the river Panuco. Of their transactions on these coasts during their progress in discovery, nothing further need be said than that they were characterized by their usual indifference to the rights and feelings of the natives, and that, finding them for the most part of a more warlike disposition, several of these commanders had suffered severely from them, and some of them lost their lives.
But a strange and astounding epoch was now at hand. The names of Cortez and Pizarro, Mexico and Peru, are become sounds familiar to all ears—linked together as in a spell of wild wonder, and stand as the very embodiment of all that is marvellous, dazzling, and romantic in history. Here were vast empires, suddenly starting from the veil of ages into the presence of the European world, with the glitter of a golden opulence beyond the very extravagance of Arabian fable; populous as they were affluent; with a new and peculiar civilization; with arts and a literature unborrowed of other realms, and unlike those of any other. Here were those fairy and most interesting kingdoms as suddenly assaulted and subdued by two daring adventurers with a mere handful of followers; and as suddenly destroyed! Their young civilization, their fair and growing fabric of policy, ruthlessly dashed down and utterly annihilated; their princes murdered in cold blood; their wealth dissipated like a morning dream; and their swarming people crushed into slaves, or swept from their cities and their fair fields, as a harvest is swept away by the sickle!
It is difficult, amid the intoxication of the imagination on contemplating such a spectacle,—for there is nothing like it in the history of the whole world—it is difficult, dazzled by military triumph, and seduced by the old sophisms of glory and adventure, to bring the mind steadily to contemplate the real nature and consequences of these events. The names of Cortez and Pizarro, indeed, through all the splendour of that renown with which the acclamations of their interested contemporaries, and the false morality of their historians have surrounded them, still retain the gloom and terror of their cruelties. But this is derived rather from particular acts of outrageous atrocity, than from a just estimate of the total villainy and unrighteous nature of their entire undertakings. Their entrance, assault, and subduction of the kingdoms of Mexico and Peru, were from first to last, in limine et in termino, the acts of daring robbers, on flame with the thirst of gold, and of a spurious and fanatical renown,—setting at defiance every sentiment of justice, mercy and right, and bound by no scruples of honour or conscience, in the pursuit of their object. It is not to be denied that in the prosecution of their schemes, they displayed the most chivalrous courage, and Cortez the most consummate address,—but these are the attributes of the arch-fiend himself—boundless ambition, gigantic talent, the most matchless and successful address without one feeling of pity, or one sentiment of goodness! These surely are not the qualities for which Christians ought to applaud such men as Cortez and Pizarro! They are these false and absurd notions, derived from the spirit of gentile antiquity, that have so long mocked the progress of Christianity, and held civilization in abeyance. It is to these old sophisms that we owe all the political evils under which we groan, and under which we have made all nations that have felt our power groan too. To every truly enlightened and Christian philosopher can there be a more melancholy subject of contemplation, than these romantic empires thus barbarously destroyed by an irruption of worse than Goths and Vandals? But that melancholy must be tenfold augmented, when we reflect what would have been the fate of these realms if Europe had been not nominally, but really Christianized at the moment of their discovery. If it had learned that the “peace on earth and good-will towards men,” with which the children of heaven heralded the gospel into the world, was not a mere flourish of rhetoric,—not a mere phrase of eastern poetry, “beautiful exceedingly;” but actually the promulgation of the grandest and most pregnant axiom in social philosophy, that had ever been, or should be made known to mankind, or that it was possible for heaven itself from the infinitude of its blessedness to send down to it. That in it lay concentrated the perfection of civil policy, the beauty of social life, the harmony of nations, and the prosperity of every mercantile adventure. That it was the triumphant basis, on which arts and sciences, literature and poetry, should raise their proudest fabrics, and society from its general adoption, date its genuine civilization and a new era of glory and enjoyment. Suppose that to have been the mind and feeling of Europe at that time—and it is merely to suppose it to be what it pretended to be—in possession of Christianity—what would have been the simple consequence? To the wonder that thrilled through Europe at the tidings of such discovered states, an admiration as lively would have succeeded. Vast kingdoms in the heart of the new world, with cities and cultivated fields; with temples and palaces; monarchs of great state and splendour; vessels of silver and gold in gorgeous abundance; municipal police; national couriers; and hieroglyphic writing, and records of their own invention! Why, what interesting intelligence to every lover of philosophy, of literature, and of the study of human nature! Genuine intelligence, and enlightened curiosity would have flocked thither to look and admire; genuine philanthropy, to give fresh strength and guidance to this germinating civilization,—and Christian spirits would have glowed with delight at the thought of shewing, in the elevated virtues, the justice, generosity and magnanimity derived by them from their faith, the benefits which it could confer on these growing states.
But to have expected anything of this kind from the Spaniards, would have been the height of folly. They had no more notion of what Christianity is, than the Great Mogul had. They knew no more than what Rome chose to tell them. They were not distinguished by one Christian virtue,—for they had been instructed in none. They were not more barbarous to the Americans, than they were faithless, jealous, malignant, and quarrelsome amongst each other. Disorderly and insubordinate as soldiers, nothing but the terrors of their destructive arms, and the fatal paralysis of mind which singular prophesies had cast on the Americans, could have prevented them from being speedily swept away in the midst of their riot and contention. The idea which the Spaniards had of Christianity, is best seen in the form of proclamation which Ojeda made to the inhabitants of Tierra Firmè, and which became the Spanish model in all future usurpations of the kind. After stating that the popes, as the successors of St. Peter, were the possessors of the world, it thus went on: “One of these pontiffs, as lord of the world, hath made a grant of these islands, and of Tierra Firmè of the ocean sea, to the Catholic kings of Castile, Don Ferdinand and Donna Isabella of glorious memory, and their successors, our sovereigns, with all they contain, as is more fully expressed in certain deeds passed upon that occasion, which you may see if you desire it, (Indians, who neither knew Latin, Spanish, nor the art of reading!). Thus his majesty is king and lord of these islands, and of the continent, in virtue of this donation; and as king and lord aforesaid, most of the islands to which his title hath been notified, have recognised his majesty, and now yield obedience and subjection to him as their lord, voluntarily and without resistance! and instantly, as soon as they received information (from the sword and musket!) they obeyed the religious men sent by the king to preach to them, and to instruct them in our holy faith!... You are bound and obliged(true enough!) to act in the same manner.... If you do this, you act well, and perform that to which you are bound and obliged; his majesty, and I in his name, will receive you with love and kindness, and will leave you and your children free and exempt from servitude, and in the enjoyment of all you possess, in the same manner as the inhabitants of the islands! (ay, love and kindness, such as they had shewn to the islanders. Satan’s genuine glozing—“lies like truth, and yet most truly lies.”) Besides this, his majesty will bestow upon you many privileges, exemptions, and rewards! (Ay, such as they had bestowed on the islanders—but here begins the simple truth.) But if you will not comply, or maliciously delay to obey my injunctions, then, with the help of God, I will enter your country by force; I will carry on war against you with the utmost violence; I will subject you to the yoke of the church and the king; I will take your wives and children, and will make slaves of them, and sell or dispose of them according to his majesty’s pleasure; I will seize your goods, and do all the mischief in my power to you as rebellious subjects, who will not acknowledge or submit to their lawful sovereign. And I protest that all the bloodshed and calamities which shall follow are to be imputed to you, and not to his majesty, or to me, or to the gentlemen who serve under me, etc.”—Herrera.
Here then we have the romance stripped away from such ruffians as Cortez and Pizarro. We have here the very warrant under which they acted—a tissue of such most impudent fictions, and vindictive truths, as could only issue from that great office of delusion and oppression which corrupted all Europe with its abominable doctrine. The last sentence, however, betrays the inward feeling and consciousness of those who used it, that blood-guiltiness was not perfectly removed to their satisfaction, and is a miserable attempt at further self-delusion. These apostles of the sword, before whose proclamation our sarcasms against Mahomet and his sword-creed, fall to the ground, knew only too well that all their talk of love and kindness to the islanders was the grossest falsehood. The Pope’s bull could not blind them to that; and though the misery they inflicted is past, Europe still needs the warning of their deeds, to open its eyes to the nature of much of its own morality.
Cortez commenced his career against Mexico with breach of faith to his employer. It was villain using villain, and with the ordinary results. Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, who had sent out Grijalva, roused by the description of the new and beautiful country which he had coasted, now sought for a man, so humble in his pretensions and so destitute of alliance, that he might trust him with a fleet and force for the acquisition of it. Such a man he believed he had found in Hernando Cortez,—a man, like many other men in Spain, of noble blood, but very ignoble fortune—poor, proud, so hot and overbearing in his disposition and so dissipated in his habits, that his father was glad to send him out as an adventurer. Ovando, governor of Hispaniola, the notorious betrayer of Anacoana, and murderer of her chiefs, was his relation, and received him with open arms as a fit instrument in such work as he had to do. Cortez attended Velasquez in that expedition to Cuba in which the cazique Hatuey was burnt at the stake for his resistance to their invasion, and died bearing that memorable testimony to Spanish Christianity. Velasquez, who had acted the traitor towards Diego Columbus, whose deputy in the government of Cuba he was, had however scarcely sent out Cortez, when he conceived a suspicion that he would show no better faith than he himself had done. Scarcely had Cortez sailed for Trinidad, when Velasquez sent instructions after him, to deprive him of his commission. Cortez eluded this by hastening to the Havanna, where an express also to arrest him was forwarded. Cortez, fully justified the suspicions of Velasquez; for, from the moment that he found himself at the head of a fleet, he abandoned every idea of acknowledging the authority which had put it into his command. He boldly avowed his intentions to his fellow adventurers, and as their views, like his own, were plunder and dominion, he received their applause and their vows of adherence. Thus supported in his schemes of ambition, he set sail for the Mexican coast, with eleven vessels of various burdens and characters. His own, or admiral’s ship, was of a hundred tons, three of seventy or eighty tons, and the others were open boats. He carried with him six hundred and seventeen men; amongst whom were to be found only thirteen muskets, thirty-two cross-bows, sixteen horses, ten small field-pieces, and four falconets. Behold Cortez and his comrades thus on their way to conquer the great kingdom of Mexico, bearing on their great banner the figure of a large cross, and this inscription,—Let us follow the Cross, for under this sign we shall conquer!
“So powerfully,” says Robertson,—to whose curious remarks I shall occasionally draw the attention of my readers,—“were Cortez and his followers animated with both these passions (religion and avarice) that no less eager to plunder the opulent country whither they were bound, than zealous to propagate the Christian faith (!) among its inhabitants, they set out, not with the solicitude natural to men going upon dangerous services, but with that confidence which arises from security of success, and certainty of the divine protection.” No doubt they believed the cross which they followed was the cross of Christ, but every one now will be quite as well satisfied that it was the cross of one of the two thieves, a most fitting ensign for such an expedition. Cortez, indeed, was a fiery zealot, and frequently endangered the success of his enterprise by his assault on the gods and temples of the natives, just as Mahomet or Omar would have done; for there was not a pin to choose between the faith in which he had been educated, and that of the prophet of Mecca. One followed the cross, the other the crescent, but their faith alike was—the sword.
After touching at different spots, to remind the natives of the Christian faith by “routing them with great slaughter,” and carrying off provisions, cotton garments, gold, and twenty female slaves, one of whom was the celebrated woman, called by the Spaniards Donna Marina, who rendered them such services as interpreter, they entered, on the 2nd of April 1519, the harbour of St. Juan de Ulua. Here we are told by the Spanish historians, that the natives came on board in the most friendly and unsuspicious manner. Two of them were officers from the local government, sent to inquire what was the object of Cortez in coming thither, and offering any assistance that might be necessary to enable him to proceed in his voyage. Cortez assured them that he came with the most friendly intentions, to seek an interview with the king, of great importance to the welfare of their country; and next morning, in proof of the sincerity and friendliness of his views, landed his troops and ammunition, and began a fortification. This brought Teutile and Pilpatoe, as Robertson calls them, or Teuhtlile and Cuitlalpita, according to Clavigero, himself a Mexican, the local governors, into the camp with a numerous attendance. Montezuma, the emperor, had been alarmed, as well he might, by the former appearance of the Spaniards on his coast, and these officers urged Cortez to take his departure. He persisted, however, that he must see Montezuma, being come as an ambassador from the king of Spain to him, and charged with communications that could be opened to no one else—falsehoods worthy of a robber, for he not only had no commission from the king of Spain, but was in open rebellion to the Spanish government at the moment. To induce him to depart, these simple people resorted to the same unlucky policy as our ancestors the Saxons did with the Danes, and presented him with a present of ten loads of fine cotton cloth, plumes of various colours, and articles in gold and silver of rich and curious workmanship, besides a quantity of provisions. These not only inflamed his cupidity to the utmost, but another circumstance served to convince him that he had stumbled upon a different country to what any of his countrymen had yet found in America; and stimulated equally his ambition to conquer it. He observed painters at work in the train of Teuhtlile and Pitalpatoe, sketching on cotton cloth, himself, his men, his horses, ships and artillery. To give more effect to these drawings, he sounded his trumpets, threw his army into battle array, put it through a variety of striking military movements, and tore up the neighbouring woods with the discharge of his cannon. The Mexicans, struck with terror and admiration at these exhibitions, dispatched speedy information of all these particulars by the couriers, and in seven days received the answer of the emperor, though his capital was one hundred and eighty miles off, that Cortez must instantly depart the country. But had he had the slightest intention of the kind, the unlucky courtesy of the emperor would have changed his resolve. To render his command the more palatable, he sent an ambassador of rank, with a hundred men of burden carrying presents, and they again poured out before Cortez such a flood of treasures, as astonished him and his greedy followers.
There were boxes full of pearls and precious stones; gold in its native state, and gold wrought into the richest trinkets; two wheels, the one of gold, the other of silver. That of gold, representing the Mexican century, had the image of the sun engraved in the middle, round which were different figures in bass-relief. Bernal Diaz says the circumference was thirty palms of Toledo, and the value of it ten thousand sequins. The one of silver, in which the Mexican year was represented, was still larger, with a moon in the middle, surrounded also with figures in bass-relief. Thirty loads or bales of cotton cloths of the most exquisite fineness, and pictures in feather-work of surprising brilliancy and art. These were all opened out on mats in the most tempting manner; and besides these, was a vizor, which Cortez had desired at the last interview might be filled with gold dust, telling the officer most truly—that “the Spaniards had a disease of the heart which could only be cured by gold.”
Cortez took the presents, and coolly assured the ambassador that he should not quit the country till he had seen the emperor. A third message, accompanied by a third and more peremptory order for his departure, producing no greater effect, the officers left the camp in displeasure, and Cortez prepared to march into the country.
But before he commenced his expedition there were a few measures to be taken. He was a traitor to the governor of Cuba who had sent him out; and the governor had still adherents in the army, who objected to what appeared to them this rash enterprise against so powerful and populous an empire. It was necessary to silence these people, and his mode of doing this reminds one of the solemn artifices of Oliver Cromwell. He held out to the soldiers such prospects of booty as secured them to his interests, and on the discontented remonstrating with him, he appeared to fall in with their views, and gave instant orders for the return home, at the same time sending his emissaries amongst the soldiers to exasperate them against the return. When the order for re-embarkation the next day was therefore issued, the whole army seemed in a fury against it, and Cortez feigning to have believed the order for the return was their own desire, now declared that he was ready to lead them forwards. But this was not sufficient. Knowing that he was a traitor to the trust reposed in him, he resorted to one of those grave farces by which usurpers often attempt to give an appearance of title to their power, though they know well enough the emptiness of it. He laid out the plan of a town,—named it Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, or the Rich Town of the True Cross, established magistrates and a municipal council, and then appeared before them and resigned his command into their hands, having taken good care that the magistrates were so much his creatures as instantly to re-invest him with it. Assuming now this command, not as flowing from the governor of Cuba, but from the constituted authorities under the crown, and therefore from the crown itself, he immediately seized on the officers who had murmured at his breach of faith, clapped them in chains, and sent them aboard the fleet! So far so good; but the reflection still came, how would all these deeds sound at home? and Cortez therefore took the only means that could secure him in that quarter. He collected all the gold that could be procured by any means, and sent it by the hand of two of the mock magistrates of Vera Cruz to the King of Spain, giving a plausible colouring to their assumption of power independent of Cuba, and soliciting a confirmation of it.
These were the measures of an adventurer not more daring than artful; yet a single circumstance shewed him still his insecurity. At the moment that his magistrates were about to sail for Spain, he discovered that a conspiracy was in existence to seize one of the vessels in the harbour, and to sail to Cuba, and give the alarm to Velasquez. This startling fact determined him to put the coup de grace to his measures,—to destroy his fleet, and let his followers see that there was no longer any resource but to follow him boldly in his attack upon Mexico, or perish. He had the address to bring his men to commit this act themselves: they dragged the vessels ashore—stripped them of sails, rigging, iron-work—whatever might be useful, and then broke them up. A more daring and politic action is not upon record. Cortez, in fact, had nothing to hope from his fleet, and had cast his life and fortune on the conquest of this great and wealthy realm.
When we contemplate him at this juncture, we are however not more struck with his daring and determined policy, than as Christians we are indignant at the real nature of the act that he meditated. This was no other than to ravage this young and growing empire, to plunder it of its gold, and consume its millions of inhabitants in mines and plantations, by the sword and by the lash, as his countrymen had consumed the wealth and the people of the islands,—and all this on pretence of planting the Cross! It was the cool speculation of a daring robber, hardened by a false faith, and by witnessing deeds of blood and outrage, to a total insensibility to every feeling but the diseased overgrowth of selfish ambition.
The attempt to subdue a kingdom stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean in a breadth of above five hundred leagues from east to west, and of upwards of two hundred from north to south—a kingdom populous, fertile, and of a warlike reputation; and that with a force of not seven hundred men, appears at first view an act of madness: but Cortez was too well acquainted with American warfare to know that it was not impracticable. In the first place, he knew that the weapons of the natives had very little effect upon the quilted cotton dress which the Spaniards adopted on these expeditions, and that by the terror of their fire-arms and their union of movement, they could in almost all cases and situations keep them at that distance which took away even that little effect, while it left them open to the full play of the European missives. He knew the terror that the natives had of the Spanish horses, dogs, and artillery; and moreover he had speedily discovered, through the means of one of the women slaves brought from Darien who proved to be a Mexican by birth, that Mexico was a kingdom newly cemented by the arms of Montezuma and his immediate predecessors, and therefore full of provinces still smarting under the sense of their subjugation, and ready to seize on an occasion of revenge. In fact, he had speedily practical evidence of this, for the cazique of Chempoalla, a neighbouring town, sent an embassy to him soliciting his friendship, and offering to join him in his designs against Montezuma, whom he represented as a haughty and exacting tyrant to the provinces. Cortez of course caught gladly at this alliance, and removing his settlement, planted it at Quiabislan, near Chempoalla. The hint was given him of the real condition of the empire, and he was too crafty to neglect it. He immediately gave himself out as the champion of the aggrieved and oppressed, come to redress all their wrongs, and restore them to their liberties!
But there was another and most singular cause which gave Cortez a fair prospect of success. Throughout the American kingdoms ancient prophecies prevailed,—that a new race was to come in, and seize upon the reins of power, and before it the American tribes were to quail and give place. In the islands, in Mexico, in Peru,—far and wide,—this mysterious tradition prevailed. Everywhere these terrible people were expected to come from towards the rising of the sun: they were to be completely clad, and to lay waste every country before them;—circumstances so entirely verified in the Spaniards, that the spirit of the American natives died within them at the rumour of their approach, as the natives of Canaan did at that of the Israelites coming with the irresistible power and the awful miracles of God. For ages these prophecies had weighed on the public mind, and had been sung with loud lamentations at their solemn festivals. Cazziva, a great cazique, declared that in a supernatural interview with one of the Zemi, this terrible event had been revealed to him. “The demons which they worshipped,” says Acosta, “in this instance, told them true.” Montezuma therefore, though naturally haughty, warlike, and commanding, on so appalling an event as the fulfilment of these ancient prophecies, lost his courage, his decision, his very power of mind, and exhibited nothing but the most utter vacillation and weakness, while Cortez was advancing towards his capital in defiance of his orders.
Having strengthened himself by the alliance of the Chempoallans, and others of the Totonacas, and chastised the Tlascalans, a fierce people who gave no credit to his pretences, he advanced to Cholula, a place of great importance, consisting, according to Cortez’s account, of forty thousand houses and many populous suburban villages. Montezuma had now consented to his reception, and he was received in this city by his orders. It was a sacred city,—“the Rome of Anahuac or Mexico,” says Clavigero, full of temples, and visited by hosts of pilgrims. Here, suspecting treachery, he determined to strike terror into both the emperor and the people. “For this purpose,” says Robertson, “the Spaniards and Zempoallans were drawn up in a large court which had been allotted for their quarters near the centre of the town. The Tlascalans had orders to advance; the magistrates, and several of the chief citizens, were sent for, under various pretences, and seized. On a signal given, the troops rushed out, and fell upon the multitude destitute of leaders, and so much astonished, that the weapons dropping from their hands, they stood motionless and incapable of defence. While the Spaniards pressed them in front, the Tlascalans attacked them in the rear. The streets were filled with bloodshed and death; the temples, which afforded a retreat to the priests and some of the leading men, were set on fire, and they perished in the flames. This scene of horror continued two days, during which the wretched inhabitants suffered all that the destructive rage of the Spaniards, or the implacable revenge of their Indian allies, could inflict. At length the carnage ceased, after the slaughter of six thousand Cholulans, without the loss of a single Spaniard! Cortez then released the magistrates, and reproaching them bitterly for their intended treachery, declared that as justice was now appeased he forgave the offence, but required them to recall the citizens who had fled, and reestablish order in the town. Such was the ascendant which the Spaniards had acquired over this superstitious race of men, and so deeply were they impressed with an opinion of their superior discernment, as well as power, that in obedience to this command, the city was in a few days again filled with people, who amidst the ruins of their sacred buildings, yielded respectful service to men whose hands were stained with the blood of their relatives and fellow-citizens.
“From Cholula,” adds Robertson, “Cortez marched directly towards Mexico, which was only twenty leagues distant:”—and that is all the remark that he makes on this brutal butchery of an innocent people, by a man on his march to plant the cross! A Christian historian sees only in this most savage and infernal action, a piece of necessary policy—so obtuse become the perceptions of men through the ordinary principles of historic judgment. But the Christian mind asks what business Cortez had there at all? The people were meditating his destruction? True;—and81 it was natural and national that they should get rid of so audacious and lawless an enemy, who entered their country with the intentions of a robber, set at defiance the commands of their king, and stirred up rebellion at every step he took. The Mexicans would have been less than men if they had not resolved to cut him off. What right had he there? What right to disturb the tranquillity of their country, and shed the blood of its people? These are questions that cannot be answered on any Christian principles, or on any principles but those of the bandit and the murderer. Six thousand people butchered in cold blood—two days employed in hewing down trembling wretches, too fearful to even raise a single weapon against the murderers! Heavens! are these the deeds that we admire as heroic and as breathing of romance? Yet, says Clavigero, “He ordered the great temple to be cleaned from the gore of his murdered victims; and raised there the standard of the cross; after giving the Cholulans, as he did all the other people among whom he stopped,” some idea of the Christian religion!!! What idea had the Abbé Don Francesco Saverio Clavigero of Christianity himself?
But Cortez had plunged headlong into the enterprise—he had set his life and that of his followers at stake on the conquest of Mexico, and there was no action, however desperate, that he was not prepared to commit. And sure enough his hands became well filled with treachery and blood. It is not my business to dwell particularly upon these atrocities, but merely to recall the memory of them; yet it may be as well to give, in the words of Robertson, the manner in which the Spaniards were received into the capital, because it contrasts strongly with the manner in which the Christians behaved in this same city, and to this same monarch.
“In descending from the mountains of Chalco, across which the road lay, the vast plain of Mexico opened gradually to their view. When they first beheld this prospect, one of the most striking and beautiful on the face of the earth—when they observed fertile and cultivated fields stretching further than the eye could reach—when they saw a lake resembling the sea in extent, encompassed with large towns; and discovered the capital city, rising upon an island in the middle, adorned with its temples and turrets—the scene so far exceeded their imagination, that some believed the fanciful dreams of romance were realized, and that its enchanted palaces and gilded domes were presented to their sight. Others could hardly persuade themselves that this wonderful spectacle was anything more than a dream. As they advanced, their doubts were removed; but their amazement increased. They were now fully satisfied that the country was rich beyond any conception which they had formed of it, and flattered themselves that at length they should obtain an ample recompense for all their services and sufferings.
“When they drew near the city, about a thousand persons, who appeared to be of distinction, came forth to meet them, adorned with plumes, and clad in mantles of fine cotton. Each of these, in his order, passed by Cortez, and saluted him according to the mode deemed most respectful and submissive in their country. They announced the approach of Montezuma himself, and soon after his harbingers came in sight. There appeared first, two hundred persons in an uniform dress, with large plumes of feathers alike in fashion, marching two and two in deep silence, barefooted, with their eyes fixed on the ground. These were followed by a company of higher rank, in their most showy apparel; in the midst of whom was Montezuma, in a chair or litter, richly ornamented with gold and feathers of various colours. Four of his principal favourites carried him on their shoulders; others supported a canopy of curious workmanship over his head. Before him marched three officers with rods of gold in their hands, which they lifted up on high at certain intervals, and at that signal all the people bowed their heads, and hid their faces, as unworthy to look on so great a monarch. When he drew near, Cortez dismounted, advancing towards him with officious haste, and in a respectful posture. At the same time Montezuma alighted from his chair, and leaning on the arms of two of his near relatives, approached with a slow and stately pace, his attendants covering the street with cotton cloths that he might not touch the ground. Cortez accosted him with profound reverence after the European fashion. He returned the salutation according to the mode of his country, by touching the earth with his hand, and then kissing it. This ceremony, the customary expression of veneration from inferiors towards those who were above them in rank, appeared such amazing condescension in a proud monarch, who scarcely deigned to consider the rest of mankind as of the same species with himself, that all his subjects firmly believed those persons before whom he humbled himself in this manner, to be something more than human. Accordingly, as they marched through the crowd, the Spaniards frequently, and with much satisfaction, heard themselves denominated Teules, or divinities. Montezuma conducted Cortez to the quarter which he had prepared for his reception, and immediately took leave of him, with a politeness not unworthy of a court more refined. ‘You are now,’ says he, ‘with your brothers in your own house; refresh yourselves after your fatigue; and be happy till I return.’”
The Spanish historians give some picturesque particulars of this interview, which Robertson has not copied. The dress of Montezuma is thus described: As he rode in his litter, a parasol of green feathers embroidered with fancy-work of gold was held over him. He wore hanging from his shoulders a mantle adorned with the richest jewels of gold and precious stones; on his head a thin crown of the same metal; and upon his feet shoes of gold, tied with strings of leather worked with gold and gems. The persons on whom he leaned, were the king of Tezcuco and the lord of Iztapalapan. Cortez put on Montezuma’s neck a thin cord of gold strung with glass beads, and would have embraced him, but was prevented by the two lords on whom the king leaned. In return for this paltry necklace, Montezuma gave Cortez two of beautiful mother-of-pearl, from which hung some large cray-fish of gold in imitation of nature.
Here, then, to their own wonder and admiration, were this handful of Spanish adventurers in the “glorious city,”
Near the setting of the sun,
Throned in a silver lake.
Generous minds would have rejoiced in the glory of such a discovery, and have exulted in the mutual benefits to be derived from an honourable intercourse between their own country and this new and beautiful one,—but Cortez and his men were merely gazing on the novel splendour of this interesting city with the greedy eyes of robbers, and thinking how they might best seize upon its power, and clutch its wealth. Who is not familiar with their rapid career of audacious villany, in this fairy capital? Scarcely were they received as guests, when they seized on the monarch, and that at the very moment that he gave to Cortez his own daughter, and heaped on him other favours—and compelled him, under menaces of instantly stabbing him to the heart, to quit his palace, and take up his residence in their own quarters. The astonished and distressed king, now a puppet in their hands, was made to command every thing which they desired to be done; and they were by no means scrupulous in their exercise of this power, knowing that the people looked on the person of the monarch as sacred, and would not for a moment refuse to obey his least word, though in the hands of his enemies. The very first thing which they required him to do, was to order to be delivered up to them Qualpopoca, one of his generals, who had been employed in quelling one of the insurrections that the Spaniards had raised near Villa Rica, and who being attacked by the Spanish officer Escalante, left in command there, had killed him, with seven of his men, and taken one other alive. The order was obeyed, and the brave general, his son, and five of his principal officers, were burnt alive by these Christian heroes! To add to the cruelty and indignity of the deed, Montezuma himself was put into irons during the transaction, accompanied by threats of a darker kind.
The simplicity of Robertson’s remarks on this affair are singular: “In these transactions, as represented by the Spanish historians, we search in vain for the qualities which distinguish other parts of Cortez’s conduct.” What qualities? “To usurp a jurisdiction which could not belong to a stranger, who assumed no higher character than that of an ambassador from a foreign prince, and under colour of it, to inflict a capital punishment on men whose conduct entitled them to esteem, appears an act of barbarous cruelty.”
Why, the whole of Cortez’s conduct, from the moment that he entered with arms the kingdom of Mexico, was a usurpation that “could not belong to a stranger assuming merely the title of an ambassador.” What ambassador comes with armed troops; or when the monarch orders him to quit his realm, marches further into it; or foments rebellion as he goes along; or massacres the inhabitants by wholesale? Was the butchery of six thousand people at Cholula, no act of barbarous cruelty?
Well, by what Robertson complacently terms “the fortunate temerity in seizing Montezuma,” the Spaniards had suddenly usurped the sovereign power, and they did not pause here. They sent out some of their number to survey the whole kingdom; to spy out its wealth, and pitch on fitting stations for colonies. They put down such native officers as were too honest or able for them; they compelled Montezuma, though with tears and groans, to acknowledge himself the vassal of the Spanish crown. They divided the Mexican treasures amongst them; and finally drove the Mexicans to desperation.
The arrival of the armament from Cuba under Narvaez, sent by Velasquez to punish Cortez for his treason, and his victory over Narvaez, and the union of those troops with his own, belong to the general historian—my task is to exhibit his treatment to the natives; and his next exploit, is that of exposing Montezuma to the view of his exasperated subjects from the battlements of his house, in the hope that his royal puppet might have authority enough to appease them; a scheme which proved the death of the emperor—for his own subjects, indignant at his tame submission to the Spaniards, let fly their arrows at him. The fury of the Mexicans on this catastrophe, the terrible nocturnal retreat of Cortez from the city, still called amongst the inhabitants of Mexico, La Noche Triste, the sorrowful night,—the strange battle of Otumba, where Cortez, felling the standard-bearer of the army, dispersed in a moment tens of thousands like a mist,—the flight to Tlascala, and the return again to the siege,—the eight thousand Tamenes, or servile Indians, bearing through the hostile country to the lake the brigantines in parts, ready to put together on their arrival,—Father Olmedo blessing the brigantines as they were launched on the lake in the presence of wondering multitudes,—and the desperate siege and assault themselves, all are full of the most stirring interest, and display a sort of satanic grandeur in the man, amidst the horrors into which his ambitious guilt had plunged him, that are only to be compared to that of Napoleon in Russia, beset, in his extremity, by the vengeful warriors of the north. But the crowning disgrace of Cortez, is that of putting to the torture the new emperor, Guatimotzin, the nephew and son-in-law of Montezuma, whom the Mexicans, in admiration of his virtues and talents, had placed on the throne. The bravery with which Guatimotzin had defended his city, the frankness with which he yielded himself when taken, would have made his person sacred in the eyes of a generous conqueror; but Guatimotzin had committed the crime, unpardonable in the eyes of a Spaniard, of casting the treasures for which the Spaniards harassed his country into the lake,—and Cortez had him put to the severest torture to force from him the avowal of where they lay. Even he is said at length to have been ashamed of so base and horrid a business; yet he afterwards put him to death, and the manner in which this, and other barbarities are related by Robertson, is worthy of observation.
“It was not, however, without difficulty that the Mexican empire could be entirely reduced to the form of a Spanish province. Enraged and rendered desperate by oppression, the natives forgot the superiority of their enemies, and ran to arms in defence of their liberties. In every contest, however, the European valour and discipline prevailed. But fatally for the honour of their country, the Spaniards sullied the glory redounding from these repeated victories, by their mode of treating the vanquished people. After taking Guatimotzin, and becoming masters of his capital, they supposed that the king of Castile entered on possession of all the rights of the captive monarch, and affected to consider every effort of the Mexicans to assert their own independence, as the rebellion of vassals against their sovereign, or the mutiny of slaves against their master. Under the sanction of these ill-founded maxims, they violated every right that should be held sacred between hostile nations. After each insurrection, they reduced the common people, in the provinces which they subdued, to the most humiliating of all conditions, that of personal servitude. Their chiefs, supposed to be more criminal, were punished with greater severity, and put to death in the most ignominious or the most excruciating mode that the insolence or the cruelty of their conquerors could devise. In almost every district of the Mexican empire, the progress of the Spanish arms is marked with blood, and with deeds so atrocious, as disgrace the enterprising valour that conducted them to success. In the country of Panuco, sixty caziques, or leaders, and four hundred nobles were burnt at one time. Nor was this shocking barbarity perpetrated in any sudden sally of rage, or by a commander of inferior note. It was the act of Sandoval, an officer whose name is entitled to the second rank in the annals of New Spain; and executed after a solemn consultation with Cortez; and to complete the horror of the scene, the children and relatives of the wretched victims were assembled, and compelled to be spectators of their dying agonies.
“It seems hardly possible to exceed in horror this dreadful example of severity; but it was followed by another, which affected the Mexicans still more sensibly, as it gave them a more feeling proof of their own degradation, and of the small regard which their haughty masters retained for the ancient dignity and splendour of their state. On a slight suspicion, confirmed by a very imperfect evidence, that Guatimotzin had formed a scheme to shake off the yoke, and to excite his former subjects to take arms, Cortez, without the formality of a trial, ordered the unhappy monarch, together with the caziques of Tezeuco and Tacuba, the two persons of the greatest eminence in the empire, to be hanged; and the Mexicans, with astonishment and horror, beheld this disgraceful punishment inflicted upon persons to whom they were accustomed to look up with reverence hardly inferior to that which they paid to the gods themselves. The example of Cortez and his principal officers, encouraged and justified persons of subordinate rank to venture upon committing greater excesses.”
It is not easy to see how Cortez and his men “sullied the glory of their repeated victories,” by these actions—for these very victories were gained over a people who had no chance against European arms,—and were infamous in themselves, being violations of every sacred right of humanity. What, indeed, could sully the reputation of the man after the butchery of six thousand Cholulas in cold blood? The notions of glory with which Robertson, in common with many other historians, was infected, are mere remnants of that corrupted morality which Popery disseminated, and which created the Cortezes and Pizarros of those days, and the Napoleons of our own. No truth can be plainer to the sound sense of a real Christian, than that true glory can only be the result of great deeds done in a just cause. But Cortez’s whole career was one perpetual union of perfidy and blood. His words were not to be relied on for a moment. His promises of kindness and of restoration to both Montezuma and Guatimotzin, were followed only by fetters, tortures, and hanging.
Such were the horrors of the siege of Mexico, that Bernal Diaz says, they can be compared to nothing but those of the destruction of Jerusalem. According to Bernal Diaz, the slain exceeded one hundred thousand; and those who died of famine, bad food and water, and infection, Cortez himself asserts, were more than fifty thousand. Cortez, on gaining possession of the city, ordered all the Mexicans out of it; and Bernal Diaz, an eye-witness, says, that “for three days and three nights, all the three roads leading from the city, were seen full of men, women, and children; feeble, emaciated, and forlorn, seeking refuge where they could find it. The fetid smell which so many thousands of putrid bodies emitted was intolerable, and occasioned some illness to the general of the conquerors. The houses, streets, and canals, were full of disfigured carcases; the ground of the city was in some places dug up by the citizens in search of roots to feed on; and many trees stripped of bark for the same purpose. The general caused the dead bodies to be buried, and large quantities of wood to be burnt through all the city, as much in order to purify the infected air, as to celebrate his victory.”
But Providence failed not to visit the deeds of Cortez on himself, as he had done on Columbus. Bernal Diaz says, that “after the death of Guatimotzin, he became gloomy and restless; rising continually from his bed, and wandering about in the dark.” That “nothing prospered with him, and that it was ascribed to the curses he was loaded with.” His government was acknowledged late by the crown, and soon divided with other authorities. He returned, like Columbus, to Europe to seek redress of wrongs heaped on him; like him, not obtaining this redress, he sought to amuse his mind by fresh discoveries, and added California to the known regions; but the attempt to soothe his uneasy spirit was vain. Neglected, and even insulted by the crown, to which he had thus guiltily added vast dominions, he ended his days in the same fruitless and heart-wearing solicitation of the court which Columbus had done before.
Source: William Howitt, Colonization and Christianity: A popular history of the treatment of the natives by the Europeans in all their colonies