Hernando Cortez and the Spanish conquest of Mexico

The first step towards the discovery of Mexico was made by Francisco Fernandez de Cordova, who, in 1517, explored the northern coast of Yucatan. Instead of finding naked savages, as in former explorations, he was surprised to discover well-clad people and large stone edifices. The natives were so bold and warlike as to drive off the Spaniards, killing many of them, and mortally wounding Cordova. In the following year, Juan de Grijalva explored a portion of the southern coast of Mexico, and obtained much treasure by traffic with the inhabitants. Velasquez, governor of Cuba, who had fitted out this expedition, now determined to attempt the conquest of the wealthy country that had been discovered, and prepared an expedition of ten vessels, manned by six hundred and seventeen men, which he placed under the command of Hernando Cortes, and adventurous cavalier who had already shown much military ability. He landed in Mexico on March 4, 1519, where his ships, his horses, and his artillery filled the natives with wonder and terror and caused them to regard the Spaniards as divine beings. After several victories over the natives, who were repulsed with great slaughter, Cortes founded the city of Vera Cruz, burned his vessels to cut off all thought of retreat from the minds of his soldiers, and commenced his march towards towards the Mexican capital. He was opposed by the people of Tlascala, enemies of the Aztecs, but he conquered this warlike republic and converted its inhabitants into useful auxiliaries. In the city of Cholula, where an ambuscade had been laid for him, he defeated his enemies with terrible slaughter. He finally reached the city of Mexico, which was situated on an island in a lake and connected by causeways with the mainland. Here he took Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, prisoner, and converted one of his palaces into a fortress. Velasquez had, meanwhile, sent an expedition under Narvaez to deprive Cortes of his command. Leaving two hundred men in the city, he marched against Narvaez, defeated him, and enlisted his men under his own banner. During his absence the Mexicans attacked the Spanish garrison. Their attacks were continued after the return of Cortes with such fury that Montezuma was mortally wounded by his own subjects, and many of the Spaniards were slain. So persistent and threatening became the Mexican assaults that the invaders found themselves in imminent peril of being entirely destroyed, and their leader was forced to order a retreat.

The story of the conquest of Mexico may be briefly concluded. Cortes, in his retreat, found himself opposed by a vastly outnumbering army, filling a valley through which he was forced to pass. A desperate conflict ensued, in which the Spaniards were in imminent danger of annihilation, when Cortes, followed by his bravest cavaliers, spurred to the point where the great Aztec standard rose in the center of the army, cut down the general, and seized the imperial banner. On seeing their standard fall, the army at once broke into a panic and fled in all directions, leaving free passage to the remnant of the Spanish force. Cortes proceeded to the coast, where he received reinforcements, and returned to besiege the city. It was defended with desperate determination, and yielded only after a siege of several months, when the city was nearly levelled with the ground, and after the inhabitants had endured the extremities of famine. The submission of the city was that of the empire, and the Aztecs experienced the fate which had been visited upon the natives in the other Spanish colonies.

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