THE book here epitomized is itself no less a monument of courageous perseverance in the face of well-nigh overwhelming difficulty than is the story of adventure in an unknown land that it recounts. Obliged to abandon his legal career because of the loss of his sight, Prescott took up the study of Spanish history and, with the help of several secretaries, produced several works that are now recognized as standard histories. The History of the Conquest of Mexico was first published in 1843. It is a spirited narrative of a stirring episode. To use the words of the author's own description of his motive, Prescott has 'endeavoured to surround the reader with the spirit of the times, and, in a word, to make him a contemporary of the sixteenth century.'
[THE MEXICAN EMPIRE]
Of all that extensive empire which once acknowledged the authority of Spain in the New World, no portion, for interest and importance, can be compared with Mexico, and this equally, whether we consider the variety of its soil and climate, the inexhaustible stores of its mineral wealth, its scenery, grand and picturesque beyond example, the character of its ancient inhabitants, not only far surpassing in intelligence that of the other North American races, but reminding us, by their monuments, of the primitive civilization of Egypt and Hindustan; and lastly, the peculiar circumstances of its conquest, adventurous and romantic as any legend devised by any Norman or Italian bard of chivalry. It is the purpose of the present narrative to exhibit the history of this conquest, and that of the remarkable man by whom it was achieved.
The country of the ancient Mexicans, or Aztecs, as they were called, formed but a very small part of the extensive territories comprehended in the modern republic of Mexico. The Aztecs first entered it from the north towards the beginning of the thirteenth century, but it was not until the year 1325 that, led by an auspicious omen, they laid the foundations of their future city by sinking piles into the shallows of the principal lake in the Mexican valley. Thus grew the capital known afterwards to Europeans as Mexico. The omen which led to the choice of this site--an eagle perched upon a cactus--is commemorated in the arms of the modern Mexican republic.
In the fifteenth century there was formed a remarkable league, unparalleled in history, according to which it was agreed between the states of Mexico, Tezcuco and the neighbouring little kingdom of Tlacopan that they should mutually support each other in their wars, and divide the spoil on a fixed scale. During a century of warfare this alliance was faithfully adhered to, and the confederates met with great success. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, just before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztec dominion reached across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There was thus included in it territory thickly populated by various races, themselves warlike and little inferior to the Aztecs in social organization. What this organization was may be briefly indicated.
The government of the Aztecs, or Mexicans, was an elective monarchy, the sovereign being, however, always chosen from the same family. His power was almost absolute, the legislative power residing wholly with him, though justice was administered through an administrative system which differentiated the government from the despotisms of the East. Human life was protected, except in the sense that human sacrifices were common, the victims being often prisoners of war. Slavery was practised, but strictly regulated.
The Aztec code was, on the whole, stamped with the severity of a rude people relying on physical instead of moral means for the correction of evil. Still, it evinces a profound respect for the great principles of morality, and as clear a perception of those principles as is to be found in the most cultivated nations.
One instance of their advanced position is striking; hospitals were established in the principal cities for the cure of the sick and the permanent refuge of the disabled soldier, and surgeons were placed over them 'who were so far better than those in Europe,' says an old chronicler, 'that they did not protract the cure in order to increase their pay.'
In their religion the Aztecs recognized a supreme Creator and Lord of the universe, 'without whom man is as nothing, invisible, incorporeal, one God, of perfect perfection and purity, under whose wings we find repose and a sure defence.' But beside Him they recognized numerous gods, who presided over the changes of the seasons and the various occupations of man, and in whose honour they practised bloody rites.
Such were the people dwelling in the lovely Mexican valley, and wielding a power that stretched far beyond it, when the Spanish expedition led by Hernando Cortes landed on the coast. The expedition was the fruit of an age and a people eager for adventure, for gain, for glory, and for the conversion of barbaric peoples to the Christian faith. The Spaniards were established in the West Indian Islands and sought further extension of their dominion in the West, whence rumours of great treasure had reached them.
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