At about the time when Central America was first colonized, Cuba was conquered by three hundred Spaniards under Diego Velasquez, who had been sent from Hispaniola for the purpose, by Don Diego Columbus, in 1511. Hernando Cortez, destined to make a conspicuous figure in history, accompanied the expedition, and was made the chief magistrate of Santiago, the Spanish capital of the island. He was a handsome, well educated, enterprising young man, then only twenty-six years of age, and had just married one of the young ladies who came from Spain with the Vice-Queen of Hispaniola. Cortez soon amassed a considerable fortune. He was a cruel worker of the natives in his mines. "How many of the Indians died in extracting gold for him," wrote Las Casas, "God will have kept a better account than I have."
Mexico had just been discovered by Juan de Grijalva. Cortez was sent with an expedition to conquer it. He set out from Cuba late in 1518, with five hundred and fifty Spaniards, nearly three hundred Indians, a few negroes, thirteen horses and ten brass cannon, in ten ships, and landed on the shore of Tabasco, on the 4th of March, 1519. There he had a battle with the natives, and so terrified them with his horses and great guns, that they fled in dismay. They gave him as a peace-offering, a beautiful Mexican slave girl, the daughter of a cacique, whom Cortez caused to be baptized with the name of Donna Marina. She was very intelligent, and bore a conspicuous part in the fortunes of Cortez. "Without her aid," says Arthur Helps, "his conquest of Mexico would never have been accomplished."
Pushing into the interior, Cortez was met by deputies of Montezuma, a native emperor and ruler of an empire which had existed full three hundred years. The emperor hearing of the approach of the Spaniards, sent to inquire what was their errand. "Has your king any gold?" asked Cortez. The deputies answered, "Yes." The invader replied: "Let him send it to me, for I and my companions have a complaint-a disease of the heart, which only gold can cure." This was the dreadful malady which afflicted all of the Spanish discoverers and conquerors; and the records of their search for the remedy have stained the pages of history with pictures of the most horrid crimes.
Cortez took possession of the country in the usual form, and planted the seeds of a colony on the site of Vera Cruz. He destroyed his ships to prevent malcontents among his followers returning in them; and, winning to his standard several native tribes who had suffered from Montezuma's tax-gatherers, and were ready to rebel, he marched toward the Mexican capital in the month of August, over the same route which was pursued by General Scott and his conquering army more than three hundred years afterward. He fought his way against overwhelming numbers who were terrified by the flashing of the armor of the Spaniards and the thunders of their cannon. The simple people regarded the invaders as divine personages and made human sacrifices to placate them; but the avarice and ambition of the Spaniards could not be appeased until they themselves had sacrificed thousands of human beings on the alter of their lust.
Discontented or alarmed, Mexicans continually flocked to the standard of Cortez. He fought and conquered the powerful Tlascalans and made them his allies; and early in November, after murdering a large number of Cholulans that fell into his hands, he appeared before the City of Mexico--Mexico the superb, sitting on the bosom of a beautiful lake and alive with more than three hundred thousand people. With him were six thousand native warriors and four hundred and fifty Spaniards. Montezuma and his nobles received the invaders with great pomp and kindness. A beautiful palace was assigned to Cortez for his quarters. Believing that a display of power would greatly increase his strength and influence, that leader made an attack of a few Mexicans upon some of his followers, a pretext for seizing the emperor in his own palace and confining him in chains in that of his guest, whilst seventeen of the offenders were burned alive before the gate of the imperial residence. Cortez also compelled his royal prisoner to acknowledge himself a vassal of Charles the Fifth, then Emperor of Spain, and to induce his nobles and tributary caciques to do likewise. He made that vassalage a pretext for exacting tribute, and in the name of his royal master, Cortez extorted from the fallen monarch gold to the amount of two hundred thousand dollars.
This audacious robber, from the time when he left Cuba, had been rebellious towards his superiors. Another adventurer, named Narvaez, was sent with nine hundred men, eighty horses and a dozen cannon for the field, to displace the rebel and send him back to Cuba. When Cortez heard of the landing of his appointed successor, he hastened with a part of his Spanish troops and native warriors toward the coast. He had guessed the errand of Narvaez, and at once attacked him in his camp. Cortez was victorious. The defeated troops joined the standard of the victor, and all marched for the City of Mexico, where the great leader had left a small garrison under the cruel Alvarado. The inhabitants there had risen in insurrection because Alvarado, on suspicion of meditated rebellion, had caused to be murdered six hundred unarmed Mexican noblemen at the end of a solemn festival. The revolt had become formidable when Cortez returned, and in an attempt to appease his people, Montezuma had been slain. This event increased the horror and indignation of the Mexicans. The Spaniards were driven out the city, and their rear-guard were cut in pieces. They fled before the exasperated Mexicans, for the space of six days, dreadfully harassed by their pursuers. Finally, on the plain of Otamba, the fugitives turned upon the Mexicans, and on a hot day in July, 1520, a pitched battle was fought there. The Spaniards were victorious, and the fate of the dynasty of Montezuma was sealed.
Cortez now marched to Tlascala, where he was joined by an auxiliary native army. After subduing the neighboring provinces, he turned his forces toward the City of Mexico. The siege which ensued was one of the most remarkable recorded in history. It continued seventy-five days, when, on the 13th of August, 1521, the city was captured by the Spaniards with immense slaughter of the inhabitants. More human beings were that day offered upon the altar of ambition than had been slain in sacrifice before the Mexican gods in the space of ten years. The victory over the Mexicans was complete; the conquest of Mexico in less than two years, was a fact that had passed into history.
Impelled by his own religious zeal and prompted by the priests in his train, Cortez at once proceeded to further humiliate, horrify and exasperate the subdued people, by making a clean sweep, with the besom of destruction, over the idols and temples of the empire. In the great square in Mexico, the conqueror and his followers, with their garments stained with the blood of their fellow-creatures, devoutly sang the Te Deum, and prostrating themselves before the image of the Blessed Virgin which they had set up, they reverently thanked God for permitting them to be the humble instruments in annihilating image-worship and in staying the horrid rites of human sacrifice. Such was the spirit and temper of the age in which they lived. So was introduced Christianity into Mexico.
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