Hernando Cortes and Montezuma

MORE than one embassy had reached the Spanish camp from Montezuma, the emperor of Mexico, bearing presents and conciliatory messages, but declining to receive the strangers in his capital. The basis of his conduct and of that of the bulk of his subjects towards the Spaniards was an ancient tradition concerning a beneficent deity named Quetzalcoatl, who had sailed away to the East, promising to return and reign once more over his people.

This traditional personage had a white skin and long dark hair, and the likeness of the Spaniards to him in this respect gave rise to the idea that they were his representatives and won them honour accordingly, while even to those tribes who were entirely hostile a supernatural terror clung around their name.

Montezuma, therefore, desired to conciliate them while seeking to prevent their approach to his capital. But this was the goal of their expedition, and Cortes, with his little army, never exceeding a few hundred in all, reinforced by some Tlascalan auxiliaries, marched towards the capital.

Montezuma, on hearing of their approach, was plunged into despondency. 'Of what avail is resistance,' he is said to have exclaimed, 'when the gods have declared themselves against us? Yet I mourn most for the old and infirm, the women and children, too feeble to fight or to fly. For myself and the brave men round me, we must bare our breasts to the storm, and meet it as we may!'

Meanwhile, the Spaniards marched on, enchanted as they came by the beauty and the wealth of the city and its neighbourhood. It was built on piles in a great lake, and as they descended into the valley it seemed to them to be a reality embodying the fairest dreams of all those who had spoken of the New World and its dazzling glories. They passed along one of the causeways which constituted the only method of approach to the city, and as they entered they were met by Montezuma himself, in all his royal state.

Bowing to what seemed the inevitable, he admitted them to the capital, gave them a royal palace for their quarters and entertained them well. After a week, however, the Spaniards began to be doubtful of the security of their position and, to strengthen it, Cortes conceived and carried out the daring plan of gaining possession of Montezuma's person. With his usual audacity, he went to the palace, accompanied by some of his cavaliers, and compelled Montezuma to consent to transfer himself and his household to Spanish quarters. After this, Cortes demanded that he should recognize formally the supremacy of the Spanish emperor.

Montezuma agreed, and a large treasure, amounting in value to about one and a half million pounds sterling, was dispatched to Spain in token of his fealty. The ship conveying it to Spain touched at the coast of Cuba, and the news of Cortes's success inflamed afresh the jealousy of Velasquez, its governor, who had long repented of his choice of a commander. Therefore, in March 1520, he sent Narvaez, at the head of a rival expedition to overcome Cortes and appropriate the spoils.

But he had reckoned without the character of Cortes. Leaving a garrison in Mexico, the latter advanced by forced marches to meet Narvaez and took him unawares, entirely defeating his much superior force. More than this, he induced most of these troops to join him, and thus, reinforced also from Tlascala, marched back to Mexico. There his presence was greatly needed, for news had reached him that the Mexicans had risen and that the garrison was already in straits.

Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I