Gateway to the Classics: Mexico by Margaret Duncan Coxhead
Mexico by  Margaret Duncan Coxhead

Cortes Burns His Boats

On their return to the Villa Rica the Spaniards found a Spanish ship at anchor in the harbour. The captain, a roving adventurer anxious to join the Mexican expedition, had sailed in search of CortÚs. He had but twelve men and two horses on board, but the general, who had lost his own dark chestnut in the first camp, gave them warm welcome. Less welcome was the news that Velasquez was leaving no stone unturned to discredit his rebellious lieutenant in the eyes of the Spanish court.

Strong and prompt was the action of CortÚs. Little as he could spare the men, he resolved to send a ship to Spain with all the treasure he could amass and a letter to the emperor Charles V. himself, justifying his actions, describing his discoveries, his battles, and the glorious possibilities of the great empire he was about to conquer. To show their devotion to their commander the newly elected magistrates and citizen soldiers of Villa Rica wrote also to his imperial majesty telling of the foundation of their colony and begging him to confirm CortÚs in his authority.

A still more striking proof of their devotion was the fact that each captain, each soldier, gave up at the request of their leader the treasure already gained that the trophy sent to Spain might be indeed incomparable, and that the emperor might see for himself that "the land teemed with gold as abundantly as that whence Solomon drew the same precious metal for his temple."

The treasure-ship, manned by fifteen sailors, left the shores of Mexico on the 26th of July. The cavalier in charge had been given strict instructions on no account to call at Cuba, but anxious to know if all went well with his estates, he ventured to anchor for a few hours off the northern coast of the island. In that brief time one of the sailors escaped from his comrades and disappeared on shore. The ship sailed on her way without him. The runaway meanwhile crossed the island to St. Jago, and poured forth to Velasquez all the doings and projects of CortÚs. Filled with fury, the Governor at once despatched two swift vessels in pursuit of the treasure. Too late! With prospering winds the little ship had flown on its way, and in October she reached Spain in safety to dazzle the eyes of the emperor with her rich cargo.

And now arose in the colony on the Mexican coast a new trouble. The priest Juan Diaz, jealous perhaps of the favour shown to Father Olmedo, conspired with five of the soldiers to steal away in the night-time in one of the ships. Cowards they were who dreaded the dangers of sojourn in a hostile land, and who hoped to reap a reward by acting as informants to Velasquez. At the last moment one of the traitors betrayed the plot, and stern punishment befell his companions. The priest, by virtue of his office, was spared, but the two ringleaders were hung, and the pilot was condemned to lose his feet. "Would that I had never learned to write!" exclaimed CortÚs, as he signed the death-warrants of his men.

For the first time CortÚs was depressed. He realised that he must make the soldiers feel that their only course was to go forward. Never would he conquer Mexico while his turbulent men might at any time frustrate him by retreat. Daring and drastic was his solution of the difficulty. The ships should be destroyed! The army stranded on the shores of Mexico!

The work of destruction must be done secretly, for the men would never consent to such a desperate expedient. Bidding Alvarado lead the troops to Cempoalla, CortÚs, aided by a few of his most faithful and trusted followers, dismantled all the ships save one of sails, cordage, and iron, and then remorselessly sank them to the bottom of the bay.


"To Mexico! To Mexico!"

When the news reached the army it seemed for a moment that they would turn and rend this man who had so betrayed their confidence. "Our general," they clamoured in fury and despair, "has led us like cattle to be butchered in the shambles!"

"Fellow-soldiers!" cried CortÚs, in the tone of mingled authority and comradeship so dear to his men, "the ships were mine, the only property I possess in the world, so their destruction is my greatest sacrifice. But I have done it for the sake of the cause. The hundred sailors will now be free to fight in our ranks. And what use would the ships have been to us? If we succeed we shall not need them. If we fail, we shall be too far in the interior to reach the coast. Have confidence in yourselves, you have set your hands to the work; to look back is ruin! As for me, I remain here while there is one to bear me company. If there be any so craven as to shrink from the dangers, let them go home, in God's name. There is still one vessel left. Let them take that and return to Cuba. They can tell there how they deserted their comrades, and patiently wait till we return loaded with the spoils of the Aztecs!"

Once more the general's subtle eloquence swayed his men, who with renewed enthusiasm shouted, "To Mexico! To Mexico!"

Two hundred and fifty men under Escalante were sent back as garrison to Vera Cruz. There remained for the march inland about four hundred infantry, fifteen cavaliers, and seven guns. Thirteen hundred Totonac warriors also volunteered, and the baggage and guns were transported by several hundred tamanes or carriers.

On the 16th of August the expedition set out to see, as Bernal Diaz quaintly says, "what sort of a thing the great Montezuma was of whom we had heard so much."

The march lay at first across the tropical country of Eastern Mexico. Through moist, perfume-laden woods the soldiers struggled, where the vanilla orchid encircling the trees flung down a tangle of graceful roots.

Here and there were plantations of prickly cactus, to whose leaves clung myriads of the cochineal insects which gave to the Mexicans their richest crimson dye. It was the rainy season, hot and enervating, but as the road wound gradually uphill a cooler breeze refreshed the weary men. Oaks took the place of palms and orchids, and the liquid amber tree began to show its beautiful foliage. Here in this temperate region the sea-breezes as they cooled on the mountain side brought frequent mist and rain. Resting at a village, the soldiers gazed back at the "tierra caliente," sloping from their feet toward the shining line of the ocean. In the south the mighty Orizaba, the Star Mountain, with its snow-capped peak, glittered in the sunshine. Above them frowned the mountain barrier which they must climb to reach their goal.

On again they marched, always upwards, across the base of the great volcano Cofre de Perote. On all sides yawned fearful chasms and canons with vertical walls two or three thousand feet in depth. Cut to the bone by the bitter wind and storms of sleet and hail, the Spaniards looked in amazement from their bare and arid surroundings down upon the glowing verdure clothing the feet of some dizzy precipice. Even the Europeans suffered from the change of temperature, and the lowland Indians, unprotected by armour or quilted coat, perished in numbers.

Struggling through a narrow pass, they at length emerged on to a fertile plateau, which was found to extend, north and south, for several hundred miles. Here fields of maize and acres of the tall-stemmed aloe, crowned with its dark leaves and yellow flowers, gladdened their eyes. What the palm is to the Old World the aloe is to the New. From the pulp of the leaves the Mexicans made paper; from the fibres cord and cloth; the thorns were natural pins and needles. The whole leaf thatched their houses. The root was eaten as a vegetable, and from the sap they made an excellent wine.

A few hours' march through this cultivated region brought the army to the outskirts of a large town. Without the walls was a ghastly monument composed of the skulls of human beings. Bernal Diaz, who counted them, declares that there were a hundred thousand! Thirteen temples, each with its chamber of sacrifice, dominated the city.

Tired and hungry after their difficult journey across the mountains, the Spaniards were much disheartened when the cacique  of the place received them with cold, inhospitable reserve. When asked if he were subject to Montezuma, he replied haughtily, "Who is there that is not a vassal to Montezuma?" He then spoke in vaunting terms of the greatness and power of his emperor, and of his impregnable capital, which stood in a lake in the centre of a wide valley. It was connected with the land by causeways with drawbridges, and was guarded day and night by war-canoes. "The words which we heard," boasts old Diaz, "however they may have filled us with wonder, made us—such is the temper of the Spaniard—only the more earnest to prove the adventure, desperate as it might appear."

Without orders from the emperor the cacique  refused at first to show any hospitality to his unexpected visitors, who were perhaps foes of the Aztec monarch. "Should Montezuma command it," he said, "my gold, my person, and all I possess shall be at your disposal." It was Marina at last who overcame his scruples by telling him how the emperor had honoured these noble Teules with the richest gifts of his treasure-house. Only then did he consent to give quarters and food to the famishing strangers.

In spite of the unfriendly attitude of the people, CortÚs and his soldiers, their zeal inflamed by the sight of the skulls, resolved to convert them, by force if need be, to Christianity. From this rash attempt they were only dissuaded by the wisdom and sincerity of Father Olmedo. "These people are sure to resist," he said, "even to death, and a forced conversion, where we have no time to stay and teach the truths of our religion, is useless."

After three days' rest the march was resumed, and the inhabitants of the next town at which the Spaniards arrived met them in more friendly spirit, advising them not to proceed by way of warlike Tlascala, but to go through the peaceful town of Cholula. The Totonac allies, however, loudly dissented. "The Cholulans," they declared, "are false and perfidious, but the Tlascalans are frank and fearless, and enemies of Mexico."

Keeping to his original plan, CortÚs sent four of the allies as envoys to Tlascala, asking permission to pass through that country. They were to present as a gift a cap of crimson cloth, a sword and a crossbow. After waiting three days in vain for an answer, the army set out hoping to meet the envoys. The soldiers marched always in armour, with the cavalry in the van and the baggage and heavy-armed men in the rear. "We are few against many, brave companions," said CortÚs, "be prepared then, not as if you were going to battle, but as if actually in the midst of it!"

The road, which ran at first by the side of a river flowing through a wooded plain, wound gradually upwards into wilder and more broken country. In a defile the horsemen suddenly pulled up. The way was blocked by a great stone wall nine feet high, and wide enough for twenty men to march along the top. The two ends of the wall overlapped, leaving a narrow passage—the only entrance, and one well protected by strong battlements.

As the Spaniards gazed on this huge structure with its trap-like passage their hearts almost failed them. Unseen foes might lurk behind those threatening parapets. But CortÚs, putting spurs to his horse, made for the narrow lane, crying, "Forward, soldiers! the Holy Cross is our banner, and in that sign we shall conquer!"

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