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

The Open Gate

A new world beyond the ocean! All Europe thrilled with wonder and wild surmise. "Is it indeed," men asked, "as Columbus believes, the other side of Asia? Or perhaps some great and unknown continent? How strange may be the denizens of that far country! How marvellous the products! Will there be gold, silver, gems for each and all who sail across the sea?" None could answer, yet the wildest stories flew from lip to lip. The New World was a fairy-land of treasure guarded by monstrous dragons and men of weird and hideous shape. Yet even such dread perils could not deter the throng of bold Spaniards who, resolved to "fish for gold," sailed westwards with Columbus on his second voyage.

Well-equipped was this fleet sent forth by the monarchs of Spain, for even the cold calculations of Ferdinand, the wary and suspicious, melted before the glory of the great discovery. He hastened to secure for Spain a legal title to the possession of this new world unveiled by the humble Genoese adventurer. Did not all the lands of the earth belong to Jesus Christ, and therefore to his Holiness the Pope, Christ's Vicar and representative? To the pope Alexander VI. he therefore turned to sue for the right of dominion over the wide alluring West. A man of scheming brain and evil life, the Pope was guided in all his deeds by self-interest alone. To secure the protection of Spain he graciously consented, "out of his pure liberality, infallible knowledge, and plenitude of apostolic power," to grant in full right to Ferdinand and Isabella all the countries inhabited by infidels, which they had discovered or should hereafter discover.

To prevent this princely grant from interfering with one formerly made to the king of Portugal, his Holiness decreed that an imaginary line drawn from pole to pole, a hundred leagues to the westward of the Azores, should serve as a limit between the dominions of the rival kingdoms. All lands to the east of this line he bestowed on Portugal, to the west, on Spain, with the pious wish that the Christian faith might thus spread far and wide to perishing heathen peoples.

The ardent, soul of Isabella had ever in view the service of God, and her missionary zeal needed no prompting from the Pope. Several hooded friars were sent with Columbus and his motley band of "fishermen for gold." Alas for the glittering hopes of the eager adventurers! Little gold did they find in those islands which Columbus, still firm in his mistaken belief, had named the Indies. The soil, it is true, was fertile, the natives gentle, timid, and easily subdued, but "Gold! Gold!" was the cry of the Spaniards, and loud were their curses when they found it not.

In one of the islands, which he named Hispaniola, now St. Domingo, Columbus founded a colony, but with such turbulent, discontented settlers it was indeed a hard and thankless task. In vain did he seek to protect the unhappy natives from the insolence and cruel exactions of his followers. The soil must be tilled, and hard manual work was little to the taste of the lordly conquerors, so the Indians were perforce pressed into service and virtually enslaved.

Columbus on his third voyage discovered the mainland of the continent, but the glory of this achievement was stolen from the great Admiral by a wily Florentine who followed in his track. This man, Amerigo by name, wrote on his return so artful and vainglorious an account of his voyage that he reaped all the honour of the discovery of the continent, and in time the New World actually came to be called by his name.

To his colony of Hispaniola, seething with mutiny and misery, Columbus strove meanwhile to restore order; but all in vain, for the proud Spanish hidalgos  scorned the upstart foreigner and bitterly resented his efforts to protect the Indians. It was only at great cost that he succeeded at last in restoring the semblance of peace and order. A tract of land with an allotted number of natives was granted to each rebel. Thus originated the terrible system of repartimientos, or distributions of Indian slaves to the settlers, which made Spanish colonisation so deadly a curse.

Dogged continually by the spite and jealousy of his enemies, Columbus met with the most shameful insults, and judged guilty by an ignorant commissioner deputed by the Crown to try his case, was actually sent back to Spain loaded with cruel fetters. Not with the will of the monarchs of Spain was the great Admiral thus dishonoured; Isabella wept tears of bitter regret as she heard how her agent had treated this man who, as an old writer says, "had he lived in the days of ancient Greece or Rome, would have had statues raised and temples and divine honours dedicated to him as to a divinity." Yet though the generous Queen lavished "especial kindness and good-will" on the discoverer, he was not restored to his position of authority in Hispaniola, where under the new and horrible system of repartimientos  the Indians were wasting away by hundreds. The tender soul of Isabella bled at the story of their sufferings. Resolving at once to supersede the commissioner, she appointed a new governor named Ovando, and decreed that all Indians were free as her own subjects, and to be treated as true and faithful vassals of the Crown. Deprived of his command in Hispaniola, Columbus turned his thoughts to schemes for fresh discovery. To find in the New World, which he still supposed to be part of Asia, a strait joining the Atlantic to the Indian ocean was his all-consuming desire. What a glorious achievement to open a water-way to the jewelled East where art and commerce reigned supreme! His New World had been dubbed by treasure-seekers "a land of vanity and delusion," a grievous disappointment to the monarchs he served, and Ferdinand looked with jealous eyes on the success of the Portuguese who had reached the Indies by rounding the Cape of Good Hope, and were already gleaning a golden harvest. Surely if Columbus could find a road to these rich coffers, shorter and safer than the perilous voyage round Africa, even the rapacious Spaniards must owe him at last some need of gratitude.

For near two years the great Admiral importuned in vain for ships wherewith to carry out his bold designs. From Ferdinand, to whose nature his passionate enthusiasm was absolutely alien, he met with cold civility and veiled neglect. Weary and worn he was, and old before his time, when, in March 1502, he at length set forth on his last voyage. His fleet, consisting only of four small ships, was paltry enough for an undertaking of such magnitude, but he received, ere he sailed, a cheering letter from Queen Isabella whom he was never again to see.

This quest of a phantom strait was doomed, of course, to failure, but as Columbus touched the shores of Central America he heard rumours from natives there of a dazzling empire far away in the interior of the continent. With so scanty an equipment he could not hope, however, to explore further. "I have but opened the gates for others to enter," he exclaimed bitterly, as he returned home unsuccessful and well-nigh broken-hearted, only to learn that Isabella his steadfast friend was dead. Henceforth he despaired of reward or gratitude from the court of Spain, and in 1506 he ended his strenuous life in poverty and disappointment.

Ere Columbus left for the last time the shores of the New World there had arrived in Hispaniola a bold and resolute youth who was destined to enter the magic gate thrown open by the great discoverer, and to win the golden empire of his dreams.

Hernando Cortés, to whom this good fortune befell, was born in 1485 at the little town of Medellin, in Estremadura, in the south of Spain. Two old chroniclers indeed fix the date of his birth in 1483. They are both zealous supporters of Holy Church, and one of them declares "that Cortés came into the world the same day that that infernal beast, the false heretic Luther, entered it,—by way of compensation, no doubt, since the labours of the one to pull down the true faith were counterbalanced by those of the other to maintain and extend it!" "The same year that Luther was born in Eisleben," says the other, "Hernando Cortés was born in Medellin, the first to disturb the world and put under the devil's banner many faithful ones whose fathers and grandfathers for long years were Catholics, and the second to bring into the pale of the Church infinite multitudes who for numberless years had been under the power of Satan, wrapped up in vice and blind with idolatry."

All unconscious of this high destiny, Hernando Cortés indulged in a frankly misspent youth. His father, Martin Cortés, a captain of infantry, poor, though of honourable stock, had planned for his son a calling more profitable than his own. "It is the lawyers with their endless lawsuits who pile ducat upon ducat," thought the old soldier, "Hernando shall go to Salamanca and study law." To Salamanca, the great Spanish university, Hernando went, but he did not study law. Glib of tongue and quick of brain he could, probably, have spun out a lawsuit, and have amassed the coveted ducats as well as any lawyer of his day, but he chose a less arduous course and speedily became the bane of his tutors. Two years of turbulent idleness, and then, gay and unruffled as ever, the youth suddenly reappeared in his home at Medellin to the intense annoyance of his father.

To the quiet household of old Martin Cortés the wild spirits, overbearing temper, and mad pranks of young Hernando were a continual outrage. Just at this time, 1502, the finest fleet hitherto fitted out for the New World was about to sail. It was under the command of Don Nicolas de Ovando, who was to succeed Columbus as Governor of Hispaniola, and it was to transport to that troubled isle two thousand five hundred Spanish colonists. To the relief of all his friends Hernando elected to join the expedition. But one night as, on mischief bent, he scaled a high wall, a loose stone turned under his foot and he was flung heavily to the ground. While he lay at home, bruised and disabled, the fleet sailed.

Two long profitless years went by before the boy had another chance. He was nineteen when at last, in 1504, the year of Queen Isabella's death, he set sail in a very small ship for the Western Indies. So stormy was the voyage that at one time courage failed, and all on board gave themselves up as lost, when suddenly on the topsail yard perched a white dove! "The saints are with us!" cried the sailors, and following the bird's flight, they soon reached the friendly shores of Hispaniola.

Hardly was Isabella cold in her grave ere her humane decrees for the protection of the Indians were annulled. "Her death," says a missionary priest, "was the signal for their destruction." The hateful system of repartimientos  was at once re-established. Ovando, the Governor, had found it impossible to make the colony pay without forced Indian labour, for the Spaniards would not themselves work the mines or till the soil. A strong, capable man, though hard and cruel, he was not slow to seize the opportunity afforded by Isabella's death. Ferdinand's scruples were easily overcome, and soon every Spanish colonist boasted his share of slaves.

Hernando Cortés, as became a young Spanish hidalgo, set foot in the New World with a lordly contempt for work, and a firm resolve to gain, at the sword's point if need be, the gold for which he lusted. To Ovando's offer of land and slaves he replied with fitting scorn, "I came to get gold, not to till the soil like a peasant!" But gold lay not to everyone's hand. The youth had perforce to pocket his pride and take up the work which he so much despised.

Goaded to despair by starvation and labour far beyond their strength, the Indians strove at intervals to throw off the intolerable yoke, and Cortés varied the monotony of his life by joining in the suppression of these revolts. This struggle between ignorant, timid, naked savages and mail-clad Spanish soldiers with cavalry and cannon, cannot be dignified by the name of warfare, for the natives were, without compunction, brutally and treacherously hounded to death by thousands. The rules of European chivalry, always neglectful of the low born and the poor, were utterly regardless of these pagan, dark-skinned peoples, held to be mere beasts of burden, not entitled to the rights and privileges of men. In a few years after Isabella's death it was computed that more than six-sevenths of the population of Hispaniola had disappeared from the fair isle of their birth.

Where now would the ruthless invaders find slaves whose agonising labour should sate their avarice? Realising that the prosperity of his colony was once more at stake, Ovando, resourceful and unprincipled, planned a speedy remedy. There dwelt in the Lucayo Islands a simple, unsuspicious folk who could doubtless be enticed by Spanish guile to board the ships of the white men; and then transported to swell the thinned ranks of slaves in Hispaniola. It was not difficult to gain Ferdinand's assent to this infamous proposal, for which Ovando advanced a specious excuse. In their own free land the Lucayans lived and died in heathen darkness. Would it not then be an act of grace, most pleasing to the saints, to carry them to a Spanish colony where they might learn from their masters the doctrines of the Christian faith?

To the shores of the Lucayos came one day mighty ships bearing beautiful white-skinned men who spoke with winning accents to the wondering natives in their own tongue. "We have sailed," they declared, "from a delicious land where roam the happy spirits of your departed ancestors. They send us to invite you to come and share their bliss." Eagerly the confiding people listened to the fairy tale, and forty thousand gladly followed the beneficent strangers. Poor deluded creatures! They hoped for heaven: in Hispaniola they found a veritable hell.

Amid such scenes of treachery and violence matured the character of Hernando Cortés. Who can wonder that with courage and self-reliance he learnt also something of the unscrupulous greed and callous cruelty so characteristic of his race and age. He was, however, of too gallant and enterprising a spirit to find satisfaction in mere slave-driving, and he only awaited an opportunity to exchange his monotonous life for one of glory and adventure. A new governor, eager to promote all schemes of discovery and conquest, now ruled in Hispaniola, for Diego Columbus, the son of the great Admiral, had succeeded, after years of striving, in ousting his father's old enemy, Ovando. In 1511, when he called for volunteers to aid in the conquest of the neighbouring isle of Cuba, Hernando Cortés, with many other restless youths, at once offered his services.

Don Diego Velasquez, a soldier of rank and fortune, was given command of the expedition. An old chronicler describes this captain, who was to set young Cortés on the path to glory, as "possessed of considerable experience in military affairs, having served seventeen years in the European wars; as honest, illustrious by his lineage and reputation, covetous of fame, and somewhat more covetous of wealth."

The conquest of Cuba proved an easy task, and, thanks to a good Dominican friar, was effected without much wanton cruelty, though, as in the case of all Spanish settlements, some red crimes stain its story. All the Dominican missionaries protested against the repartimientos, and did much to curb the brutality of their countrymen, but this one, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas by name, stands forth supreme as the noblest man of his time. With heroic courage he waged a truceless war against the dark bigotry and selfish cruelty amid which his lot was cast. The fire and genius of the man, coupled with his absolute sincerity, gave him an extraordinary influence over wily, unscrupulous princes, rapacious adventurers, broken-spirited Indians, and even gained the grudging respect of fanatic ecclesiastics, lost themselves to the ordinary instincts of humanity. It is wonderful that so enlightened and courageous a man should have escaped the fires of the Inquisition, but doubtless it was to this very quality of utter fearlessness he owed his safety. In

The darkness of that battle in the West,

Where all of high and holy died away,

Las Casas,

Who reverenced his conscience as his king;

Whose glory was, redressing human wrong,

won for himself a title more illustrious than any which monarch could bestow—"Protector of the Indians."

Realising that he could do little for these poor tortured creatures while slavery was sanctioned by government, Las Casas in 1515 reluctantly left his work in Cuba where he had been much helped by the friendship of the Governor Velasquez, and returned to Spain to plead the cause of liberty and mercy. Ferdinand's long reign was soon to close. He had outlived his good genius, Queen Isabella, and the most promising of his children. Now suspicious to the last of all around him, he was dying, lonely and unloved. At heart he was superstitiously anxious to make his peace with Heaven, and Las Casas came at the right moment "when the strong man shall bow himself," and "God requireth that which is past."

In words which were "as goads" to the monarch on whom the shadow of death was falling, the Dominican spoke of the awful desolation and misery which Spanish rule had brought to the Western World. He pictured the wronged and wretched Indians, writhing under the driver's whip, tortured and slain at will by their merciless masters, and dying of hunger in the fertile land of their own inheritance. Boldly the priest declared that on Ferdinand's soul rested the guilt of their blood. A nation enslaved cried to Heaven for vengeance on their oppressor. With growing fear the king listened. In vain he protested that it was in the service of God he had sanctioned slavery, since multitudes of heathens were thus driven into the fold of Christ. In that solemn hour, and before the searing sincerity of the friar's words, "God forbids us to do evil that good may come of it," such specious excuses melted away.

In that hour of deep contrition,

He beheld, with clearer vision,

Through all outward show and fashion

Justice, the Avenger, rise.

All the pomp of earth had vanished,

Falsehood and deceit were banished,

Reason spake more loud than passion,

And the truth were no disguise.

Smitten with remorse, Ferdinand promised to redress the terrible wrong, and Las Casas turned away rejoicing. Bitter was the blow when this hard-won victory proved too late! Death stepped in ere the king had fulfilled his good intentions, and the friar was left to mourn the ruin of his high hopes.

A poor imbecile daughter, Joanna, the widow of the Archduke of Austria, was Ferdinand's nominal successor, but as she was quite incapable of ruling, her son Charles was proclaimed King of Spain. This boy of sixteen, who soon afterwards became the Emperor Charles the Fifth, the greatest monarch in Europe, had been born and brought up in his father's dominions in the Netherlands. Flemish in speech, manners, and sympathy, he cared little for Spain, and left its government for a time to a regent Cardinal Ximenes. Before this man, courageous and honourable, but both bigoted and politic, Las Casas now pleaded for his Indian flock. Ximenes listened, and at once sent out to Hispaniola a commission to inquire into and if possible redress the condition of the natives. But the commissioners, while they did all they could by many careful regulations to protect and relieve the Indians, pronounced that the hateful system of repartimientos  was absolutely necessary for the welfare of the colony, which would without forced native labour inevitably fail.

Not for a moment would Las Casas accept this attempt at compromise. No regulations, no conditions could justify the accursed evil of slavery. Doomed to continual disappointment he battled on all through the strenuous years of his long life, in the New World and the Old, for this glorious cause of liberty. His great history of the Indies is a passionate plea for the enslaved people. He did not live to realise his high ideal, but who shall say that his attempted projects, his deeds of patient heroism, his words of thunder were in vain. Even in his own day public opinion in Spain as to the rights of humanity began insensibly to change, and Cervantes wrote, "Liberty is one of the most valuable blessings that Heaven has bestowed upon mankind."

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