History of Hernando Cortes



IT was a serious position that Cortes found his troops, threatened by famine and surrounded by a hostile population. But he was so confident of his ability to overawe the insurgents that he wrote to that effect to the garrison of Vera Cruz by the same dispatches in which he informed them of his safe arrival in the capital. But scarcely had his messenger been gone half an hour when he returned breathless with terror and covered with wounds. 'The city,' he said, 'was all in arms! The drawbridges were raised and the enemy would soon be upon them!'

He spoke truth. It was not long before a hoarse, sullen sound became audible, like that of the roaring of distant waters. It grew louder, and louder, till, from the parapet surrounding the enclosure, the great avenues which led to it might be seen dark with the masses of warriors, who came rolling on in a confused tide towards the fortress. At the same time the terraces and flat roofs in the neighbourhood were thronged with combatants brandishing their missiles, who seemed to have risen up as if by magic. It was a spectacle to appal the stoutest.

But this was only the prelude to the disasters that were to befall the Spaniards. The Mexicans made desperate assaults upon the Spanish quarters, in which both sides suffered severely. At last, Montezuma, at the request of Cortes, tried to interpose. But his subjects, in fury at what they considered his desertion of them, gave him a wound of which he died. The position became untenable, and Cortes decided on retreat. This was carried out at night and, owing to the failure of a plan for laying a portable bridge across those gaps in the causeway left by the drawbridges, the Spaniards were exposed to a fierce attack from the natives, which proved most disastrous.

CAUGHT on the narrow space of the causeway, and forced to make their way as best they could across the gaps, they were almost overwhelmed by the throngs of their enemies. Cortes, who, with some of the vanguard, had reached comparative safety, dashed back into the thickest of the fight, where some of his comrades were making a last stand, and brought them out with him, so that at last all the survivors, a sadly stricken company, reached the mainland.

The story of the reconstruction by Cortes of his shattered and discouraged army is one of the most astonishing chapters in the whole history of the conquest. Wounded, impoverished, greatly reduced in numbers and broken in spirit by the terrible series of experiences through which they had passed, they demanded summarily that the expedition should be abandoned and themselves conveyed back to Cuba.

Before long the practical wisdom and personal influence of Cortes had recovered them, reanimated their spirits and inspired them with fresh zeal for conquest, and now for revenge. He added to their numbers the very men sent against him by Velasquez at this juncture, whom he persuaded to join him; and he had the same success with the members of another rival expedition from Jamaica. Eventually, he set out once more for Mexico, with a force of nearly six hundred Spaniards and a number of allies from Tlascala.

THE siege of Mexico is one of the most memorable and most disastrous sieges of history. Cortes disposed his troops so as to occupy the three great causeways leading from the shore of the lake to the city, and thus cut off the enemy from their sources of supply. He was strong in the possession of twelve brigantines, built by his orders, which swept the lake with their guns and frequently defeated the manoeuvres of the enemy, to whom a sailing ship was as new and as terrible a phenomenon as were firearms and cavalry. But the Aztecs were strong in numbers and in their deadly hatred of the invader. The young emperor, Guatemozin, opposed to the Spaniards a spirit as dauntless as that of Cortes himself.

Again and again, by fierce attack, by stratagem, and by their indefatigable labours, the Aztecs inflicted checks, and sometimes even disaster, upon the Spaniards. Many of these, and of their Indian allies, fell or were carried off to suffer the worst fate of the sacrificial victim. The priests promised the vengeance of the gods upon the strangers, and at one point Cortes saw his allies melting away from him under the power of this superstitious fear. But the threats were unfulfilled; the allies returned, and doom settled down upon the city. Famine and pestilence raged within it and all the worst horrors of a siege were suffered by the inhabitants.

But still they remained implacable, fighting to their last breath and refusing to listen to the repeated and urgent offers of Cortes to spare them and their property if they would capitulate. It was not until August 15, 1521, that the siege, which began in the latter part of May, was brought to an end. After a final offer of terms, which Guatemozin still refused, Cortes made the final assault, and carried the city in face of a resistance now sorely enfeebled but still heroic.

Guatemozin, attempting to escape with his wife and some followers to the shore of the lake, was intercepted by one of the brigantines and carried to Cortes. He bore himself with all the dignity that belonged to his courage, and was met by Cortes in a manner worthy of it. He and his train were courteously received and well entertained.

MEANWHILE, at Guatemozin's request, the population of Mexico were allowed to leave the city for the surrounding country; and, after this, the Spaniards set themselves to the much-needed work of cleansing the city. They were greatly disappointed in their hope of treasure, which the Aztecs had so effectually hidden, that only a small part of the expected riches was ever discovered. It is a blot upon the history of the war that Cortes, yielding to the importunity of his soldiers, permitted Guatemozin to be tortured in order to gain information regarding the treasure. But no information of value could be wrung from him, and the treasure remained hidden.

At the very time of his distinguished successes in Mexico the fortunes of Cortes hung in the balance in Spain. His enemy Velasquez, governor of Cuba, and the latter's friends at home, made such complaints of his conduct that a commissioner was sent to Vera Cruz to apprehend Cortes and bring him to trial. But the hostile effort failed, and the commissioner sailed for Cuba, having accomplished nothing.

The friends of Cortes, on the other hand, made counter-charges, in which they showed that his enemies had done all in their power to hinder him in what was a magnificent effort on behalf of the Spanish dominion, and asked if the council were prepared to dishonour the man who, in the face of such obstacles, and with scarcely other resources than what he found in himself, had won an empire for Castile such as was possessed by no European potentate.

This appeal was irresistible. However irregular had been the manner of proceeding, no one could deny the grandeur of the results. The acts of Cortes were confirmed in their full extent. He was constituted Governor, Captain-General and Chief Justice of New Spain, as the province was called, and his army was complimented by the emperor fully acknowledging its services.

THE news of this was received in New Spain with general acclamation. The mind of Cortes was set at ease as to the past, and he saw opening before him a noble theatre for future enterprise. His career, ever one of adventure and of arms, was still brilliant and still chequered. He fell once more under suspicion in Spain, and at last determined to present himself in person before his sovereign to assert his innocence and claim redress. Favourably received by Charles V, he subsequently returned to Mexico, pursued difficult and dangerous voyages of discovery, and ultimately returned to Spain, where he died in 1547.





Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I