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

The Fringe of the Mexican Empire

Bidding a glad farewell to Cozumel, the island of delays, the adventurers doubled Cape Catoche and turned westward to the great gulf beyond which lay the glittering goal of their high hopes. They deemed it best to follow the coast-line, and soon reached an opening recognised by Grijalva's men as the river Tabasco, where they had met with so friendly a reception.

Anxious to visit the town of Tabasco, CortÚs left the ships at anchor and rowed up the river with a small force. Gloomy and forbidding seemed this stream, for on either hand dense growth of mangrove trees encroached on the water, making a thick screen beyond which the Spaniards could not see. But ever and anon the glint of weapons amongst the scrub raised the fear that the natives did not mean this time to trade in their former friendly way. It was growing dusk, and the sight of a group of menacing warriors barring the way induced CortÚs to encamp on an island in midstream.

The rising mists of dawn revealed on bank and water a warlike array. It was ever the policy of CortÚs to leave behind him an unbroken record of victory, and though Tabasco was but a step on the road to Mexico, he resolved to teach the natives a lesson and at all hazards to take up his quarters that night in the town.


He fought boldly in the front rank.

The captain, Alonzo de Avila, with a detachment of a hundred men, was despatched secretly down the river with orders to march on the town from the rear, while the main body prepared to advance openly. But before beginning the attack, CortÚs, conforming to the instructions of the Royal Council in Spain, caused his interpreter to make a grandiloquent and to the Indians quite incomprehensible proclamation. This manifesto, which had been drawn up by learned divines in Spain, was used by all Spanish discoverers in the New World to justify their high-handed actions. "I, Hernando CortÚs," so began the extraordinary formula, "servant of the high and mighty kings of Castile and Leon, civilisers of barbarous nations, their messenger and captain, notify and make known to you that . . . all the people of the earth , . . were given in charge, by God our Lord, to one person, named Saint Peter." Then followed an account of the Pope's donation "of these islands and continents of the ocean sea, and all that they contain, to the Catholic kings of Castile." To resist a Spanish army was thus clearly rank rebellion, and the proclamation ended with a threat: "If you do not submit, . . . by the aid of God . . . I will subdue you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of his Majesty; and I will take your wives and children, and make slaves of them . . . . and I will do you all the harm and injury in my power, as vassals who will not obey their sovereign. . . . And I protest that the deaths and disasters, which may in this manner be occasioned, will be the fault of yourselves, and not of his Majesty, nor of me, nor of these cavaliers who accompany me. And of what I here tell you, and require of you, I call upon the notary here present to give me his signed testimonial."

Held spellbound for the moment by this curious and foolish method of beginning battle, the Indians now replied in the only way they understood—by a storm of arrows. So sudden and fierce was the attack that boats were overturned and Spaniard and native were soon wrestling furiously in the water. The stronger race prevailed and the Indians were at last forced back to the banks. CortÚs was easily recognised as leader, and "Strike at the Cacique!" was the cry of the savages, "Strike at the Cacique!"

Struggling up the slippery bank the Spaniards gave hot pursuit to the Tabascans, using gun and crossbow. Terrified by the thunder and lightning the natives retreated to their village, where the fight was continued from street to street. The opportune appearance of Avila completed the rout and the Spaniards were left masters of a deserted town. The inhabitants had taken all their goods with them in their flight, so the conquerors found little gold, "a circumstance," says Las Casas, "which gave them no particular satisfaction."

As a sign of occupation CortÚs, with his sword, made three cuts in the bark of a large ceiba tree, the centre of Tabasco, proclaiming that, in the name and behalf of the Catholic sovereigns of Spain, he would hold and defend the place with sword and buckler against all comers.

At daybreak the Spanish scouts brought news of the massing of Indian troops in the neighbourhood, and CortÚs at once sent to the ships for his reserves of men, horses, and guns. Following his former successful tactics he decided to make a detour to the rear of the enemy with his cavalry, fifteen horsemen in all, while the main body of the army attacked them in the front.

Over fields of maize and through plantations of cacao, irrigated by numerous canals, the infantry, commanded by Diego de Ordas, marched impeded by the difficulty of dragging the cannon over the rough ground. It was some hours before they came in sight of the dusky foe, who at once rushed forward with the utmost courage. "I recollect," says Bernal Diaz, "that when we let off the guns, the Indians uttered loud cries and whistling sounds, and flung earth and straw into the air, that we should not see the havoc we wrought."

Just when the Spaniards were growing desperate rang out the war-cry of their general, "San Jago and San Pedro!" and the farthest ranks of the enemy began to scatter like chaff before a whirlwind. CortÚs and his horsemen to the rescue! Panic-stricken at the sight of these monsters with two heads and hoofed legs, for to them horse and rider were one, the whole Indian army broke and fled. Leading the shining cavaliers, the devout Spanish soldiers beheld the patron saint of Spain on his grey War-horse. "CortÚs, indeed," says one old chronicler, "supposed it was his own tutelar saint, St. Peter, but the common and indubitable opinion is, that it was our glorious apostle St. James, the bulwark and safeguard of our nation." Truthful old Bernal Diaz confesses frankly, "Sinner that I am! It was not permitted to me to see either the one or the other of the apostles on that occasion."

So complete was the victory that CortÚs felt strong enough to send by prisoners a stern message to the vanquished. "I will overlook the past," he declared, "if you at once tender your submission. Otherwise I will ride over the land, and put every living thing—man, woman, and child—to the sword!" Las Casas in his History remarks sarcastically, "And this was the first preaching of the gospel by CortÚs in New Spain!"

A body of chiefs, in sombre garb, followed by a train of slaves bearing presents, waited next day on the Spanish general. Bowing to the ground "before the bearded assembly, and swinging before them the censer in token of reverence," they humbly begged for pardon and tendered their submission. "The blame of bloodshed is on your head!" said CortÚs haughtily, and the bewildered Indians meekly agreed. Then only did the victor graciously consent to receive the gifts of gold and slaves, which included twenty girl bread-makers, with stones in their hands for pounding maize. When asked whence came the gold, the caciques, pointing to the west, replied "Mexico."

Burning to reach that "promised land" the Spaniards expounded, somewhat hurriedly, "the truths of the gospel they had come so far to bring," and the two priests, Father Olmedo and Father Diaz, baptized the conquered Tabascans. It was Palm Sunday. In solemn procession, bearing branches of palm, the Christians marched to the heathen temple, where Mass was celebrated. Then still carrying the palms, they rowed down the river to the sound of sacred chants, and once more rejoined their ships.

Great was the joy when on Holy Thursday, 1519, they dropped anchor off the island named by Grijalva, San Juan de Ulua, now known as Vera Cruz. They seemed to be expected, for a large pirogue  immediately put off from the mainland and steered for the flagship. CortÚs welcomed the natives on board, but found to his annoyance that not even Aguilar could understand their speech. As he was wondering what to do in this dilemma he noticed that one of his Tabascan slave-girls was carrying on an eager conversation with the visitors. Here was the means of communication. Aguilar translated the words of CortÚs into Tabascan for the maiden, who then interpreted them for the Aztecs.

In this somewhat clumsy way it was ascertained that the natives were subjects of the great Aztec emperor Montezuma, who dwelt far away beyond the mountains. He had heard of the coming of the white men, and desired that they should be received by Tendile, the Aztec governor of that province, with courtesy and hospitality. CortÚs replied that his object was to see and treat with the people of these lands, and declared that "none should receive injury by him, and that he hoped they would have cause to be satisfied with his arrival there."

When his visitors had departed he turned to Aguilar to inquire how this slave, picked up in the land of Tabasco, could speak the Aztec language. Malinche or Marina, as the Spaniards had christened her, then told them the strange story of her life.

On the death of her father, a cacique  and ruler of a large province in Mexico, her mother speedily married again, and when a son was born her one aim was to give him the poor girl's heritage. One night she was seized and secretly sold to some traders, whilst the mother, pretending to her people that Malinche was dead, lavished money on a magnificent mock funeral. The child was taken to Tabasco, and there bought by a chief, and thus by a freak of fortune she came into the hands of the white strangers and was carried back to her own country. To find a faithful interpreter was to the Spaniards a matter of supreme importance, and when CortÚs saw that she was quick and bright, and would soon learn Spanish, he was greatly pleased. Malinche herself was charmed to be of use to these wonderful white men, who treated her so kindly. "She was handsome and clever," says Bernal Diaz, "and one that would have an oar in every boat." "She looked," adds the old soldier with admiration, "the great lady that she was." Another chronicler calls her "beautiful as a goddess." She was always treated by the Spaniards with the greatest courtesy, and addressed invariably as Dona Marina.

As the Indians seemed so friendly, CortÚs decided to disembark his whole force and form an encampment. The spot seemed suited to his purpose; a sandy foreshore commanded by low hills on which the artillery could be mounted. He received every assistance from the natives, both in the building of huts and the provisioning of his men.

On Easter Sunday there came with much state to the camp Tendile, the Aztec governor. The richness of his dress and the dignity of his bearing much impressed the Spaniards, accustomed as they were to the frightened servility of the Indians of the isles. "From what country do you come?" "asked this chieftain, "and for what reason do you visit our coasts?"

"I am the subject," replied CortÚs, "of a potent monarch beyond the seas, who has kings and princes for his vassals. Acquainted with the greatness of the Mexican emperor, my master has sent me as his envoy to wait on Montezuma with a present in token of his goodwill, and a message which I must deliver in person. When can I be admitted to your sovereign's presence?"

Haughtily the Aztec governor demanded, "How is it that you have been here only two days and already request to see the emperor?"

"But surely," said CortÚs smoothly, "kings always receive ambassadors from monarchs powerful as themselves? I cannot leave the country without seeing Montezuma."

"I am surprised," returned Tendile, somewhat appeased, "to learn that a monarch rules as powerful as Montezuma, but if it is so, doubtless my master will be happy to communicate with him. I will send my couriers with your royal gift, and you shall hear shortly the will of Montezuma."

Tendile's slaves then brought forward gifts of beautifully woven stuffs and curiously wrought golden ornaments, on which the adventurers gazed with rapt and greedy eyes. CortÚs in his turn presented a carved and gilded chair for Montezuma, and various collars and bracelets of glass, a substance, it appeared, unknown to the Mexicans. A glittering brass and gilt helmet, worn by one of the Spaniards, attracted the attention of Tendile, who remarked that it greatly resembled the headpiece of one of the Aztec gods, and expressed a wish to show it to Montezuma. CortÚs immediately gave it to him, saying at the same time, "It will not be amiss to return it filled with gold-dust, that we may compare the quality of the metal with that in our own country."

Some of the Spaniards had been watching mean-while with wonder and admiration an Aztec scribe, who was busy with brush and pencil transcribing the scene before him in a picture-writing which would tell more vividly than any words what manner of men had come to the Mexican shores. Resolving to give him a subject which should strike awe into the heart of Montezuma, CortÚs ordered Alvarado, most dashing of cavaliers, to lead a cavalry charge on the hard smooth beach, and Mesa, the gunner, to give an artillery display.

The galloping horses, so easily controlled by their riders, seemed to the Aztecs the most marvellous sight they had ever seen, but the flaming thunder of the cannons and the deadly balls crashing into sand-hills and forest turned their amazement to secret terror. With all the cunning of his craft the painter meanwhile essayed to depict for Montezuma these dread beings at the portals of his empire and their "water-houses" at anchor in the bay.

"If your emperor has any gold," said CortÚs to the governor, who now with much ceremony took his leave, "ask him to send some to me, for I and my companions have a complaint, a disease of the heart, which is cured by gold."

Two hundred miles from the coast was the city of the Mexican emperor, and yet Tendile promised that his royal master would receive the message of the strangers in less than twenty-four hours. As there were no horses in Mexico news was carried every inch of the way by swift couriers trained to run from childhood. A chain of post-houses, six miles apart, connected the capital with the coast, and as the stages were so short each courier could bear the message onward at full speed, while in every hamlet his gay or sombre garb announced the tenor of his news.

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