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 general's first care was to provide for the safe transportation of the treasure. Many of the common soldiers had converted their share of the prize, as we have seen, into gold chains, collars, or other ornaments, which they easily carried about their persons. But the royal fifth, together with that of Cortes himself, and much of the rich booty of the principal cavaliers, had been converted into bars and wedges of solid gold and deposited in one of the strong apartments of the palace. Cortes delivered the share belonging to the crown to the royal officers, assigning them one of the strongest horses, and a guard of Castilian soldiers, to transport it. Still, much of the treasure, belonging both to the crown and to individuals, was necessarily abandoned, from the want of adequate means of conveyance. The metal lay scattered in shining heaps along the floor, exciting the cupidity of the soldiers. "Take what you will of it;" said Cortes to his men. "Better you should have it, than these Mexican hounds. But be careful not to overload yourselves. He travels safest in the dark night who travels lightest." His own more wary followers took heed to his counsel, helping themselves to a few articles of least bulk, though, it might be, of greatest value. But the troops of Narvaez, pining for riches of which they had heard so much and hitherto seen so little, showed no such discretion. To them it seemed as if the very mines of Mexico were turned up before them, and, rushing on the treacherous spoil, they greedily loaded themselves with as much of it, not merely as they could accommodate about their persons, but as they could stow away in wallets, boxes, or any other means of conveyance at their disposal.
Cortes next arranged the order of march. The van, composed of two hundred Spanish foot, he placed under the command of the valiant Gonzalo de Sandoval, supported by Diego de Ordaz, Francisco de Lujo, and about twenty other cavaliers. The rear-guard, constituting the strength of the infantry, was intrusted to Pedro de Alvarado and Velasquez de Leon. The general himself took charge of the "battle," or centre, in which went the baggage, some of the heavy guns, - most of which, however, remained in the rear, - the treasure, and the prisoners. These consisted of a son and two daughters of Montezuma, Cacama, the deposed lord of Tezcuco, and several other nobles, whom Cortes retained as important pledges in his future negotiations with the enemy. The Tlascalans were distributed pretty equally among the three divisions; and Cortes had under his immediate command a hundred picked soldiers, his own veterans most attached to his service, who, with Cristoval de Olid, Francisco de Morla, Alonso de Avila, and two or three other cavaliers, formed a select corps, to act wherever occasion might require.
The general had already superintended the construction of a portable bridge to be laid over the open canals in the causeway. This was given in charge to an officer named Magarino, with forty soldiers under his orders, all pledged to defend the passage to the last extremity. The bridge was to be taken up when the entire army had crossed one of the breaches, and transported to the next. There were three of these openings in the causeway, and most fortunate would it have been for the expedition if the foresight of the commander had provided the same number of bridges. But the labor would have been great, and time was short.
At midnight the troops were under arms, in readiness for the march. Mass was performed by Father Olmedo, who invoked the protection of the Almighty through the awful perils of the night. The gates were thrown open, and on the 1st of July, 1520, the Spaniards for the last time sallied forth from the walls of the ancient fortress, the scene of so much suffering and such indomitable courage.
The night was cloudy, and a drizzling rain, which fell without intermission, added to the obscurity. The great square before the palace was deserted, as, indeed, it had been since the fall of Montezuma. Steadily, and as noiselessly as possible, the Spaniards held their way along the great street of Tlacopan, which so lately had resounded with the tumult of battle. All was now hushed in silence; and they were only reminded of the past by the occasional presence of some solitary corpse, or a dark heap of the slain, which too plainly told where the strife had been hottest. As they passed along the lanes and alleys which opened into the great street, or looked down the canals, whose polished surface gleamed with a sort of ebon lustre through the obscurity of night, they easily fancied that they discerned the shadowy forms of their foe lurking in ambush and ready to spring on them. But it was only fancy; and the city slept undisturbed even by the prolonged echoes of the tramp of the horses and the hoarse rumbling of the artillery and baggage-trains. At length a lighter space beyond the dusky line of buildings showed the van of the army that it was emerging on the open causeway. They might well have congratulated themselves on having thus escaped the dangers of an assault in the city itself, and that a brief time would place them in comparative safety on the opposite shore. But the Mexicans were not all asleep.
As the Spaniards drew near the spot where the street opened on the causeway, and were preparing to lay the portable bridge across the uncovered breach, which now met their eyes, several Indian sentinels, who had been stationed at this, as at the other approaches to the city, took the alarm and fled, rousing their countrymen by their cries. The priests, keeping their night-watch on the summit of the teocallis, instantly caught the tidings and sounded their shells, while the huge drum in the desolate temple of the war-god sent forth those solemn tones which, heard only in seasons of calamity, vibrated through every corner of the capital. The Spaniards saw that no time was to be lost. The bridge was brought forward and fitted with all possible expedition. Sandoval was the first to try its strength, and, riding across, was followed by his little body of chivalry, his infantry, and Tlascalan allies, who formed the first division of the army. Then came Cortes and his squadrons, with the baggage, ammunition-wagons, and a part of the artillery. But before they had time to defile across the narrow passage, a gathering sound was heard, like that of a mighty forest agitated by the winds. It grew louder and louder, while on the dark waters of the lake was heard a plashing noise, as of many oars. Then came a few stones and arrows striking at random among the hurrying troops. They fell every moment faster and more furious, till they thickened into a terrible tempest, while the very heavens were rent with the yells and war-cries of myriads of combatants, who seemed all at once to be swarming over land and lake!
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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