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

A Glimpse Within

Under Diego Velasquez the conquered isle of Cuba became one of the most prosperous of Spanish colonies, and the young adventurer, Hernando CortÚs, shared at first in the general good fortune. Wild and wayward, he soon, however, lost the Governor's favour. Velasquez was greatly interested in a family named Xuarez, and CortÚs had promised to marry one of the daughters, the beautiful Catalina. The Governor's attempt to force the inconstant youth to hold to his word led to a most violent quarrel, and CortÚs threw in his lot with some "malcontents" who were hatching a plot against Velasquez. Secret meetings led to a timely arrest, and the intriguer soon found himself in irons under the hatches of a ship which was to carry him to the court of justice in Hispaniola. It was night-time, and CortÚs, abetted surely by his guards, actually managed to loosen his fetters, gain the deck, and escape in a small boat ere the ship sailed. Once on shore he sought sanctuary in a church. Taught by grim experience, he hastened to make his peace with the Governor, and consented to an early marriage with the fair Catalina. The story runs that the reconciliation was effected in a most daring way. It is said that CortÚs one night left his sanctuary and suddenly appeared before the astonished Governor. His glib tongue must have served him well, for a messenger, sent to announce the prisoner's escape, found the enemies peaceably sleeping together in the same bed!

Wide estates and many slaves were bestowed on the repentant hidalgo, who now sunned himself in the Governor's favour, and soon grew rich and influential. By cultivating his lands and working his gold mines he gained in a few years a fortune of two or three thousand castellanos. "God," says Las Casas in his History of the Indies, "who alone knows at what cost of Indian lives it was obtained, will take account of it!"

Tame prosperity soon palled on CortÚs. Restless still he longed for fresh adventure, as every year brought news to Cuba of the discovery of hitherto unknown shores and seas. Ponce de Leon, an unworldly-minded old knight, searching for the fabled fountain of youth, reached in his wanderings the glowing coasts of Florida. Alas, for his cherished dream! Many a silver spring he found, but none which could give back to him the long-lost vigour of his youth. Balboa from a mountain top beheld the mighty Pacific, and CortÚs, as he heard on every tongue the glorious story, burned with impatience to think that others were gathering the laurels which he had hoped to wear. But Fortune the fickle is not always forgetful, and she was soon to bring to him a chance more splendid far than even his wildest dreams.

To Cuba there returned one day a battered ship with a well-nigh exhausted crew. Sore wounded though he was and near to death, the captain, a gallant hidalgo  named Cordova, was carried at once to Velasquez. Strange was the story which this man with his dying breath poured into the Governor's hungry ears. Cruising among the islands to the north of Cuba in search of slaves, he had been driven by a furious gale far to the south, and had reached at last an unknown coast. Here, instead of huts of reeds and rushes, houses of stone rose before his astonished eyes. Landing, he was met by natives dressed in the finest cotton, and decorated with ornaments of wrought gold, who greeted him with cold, unfriendly looks. "What is this country?" he asked in the Indian dialect of Cuba. The reply came in a strange tongue. "Tectetan," "I do not understand you." But to the Spaniards the country became forthwith Yucatan. Hostility did not stop at looks. So fierce an attack was made on the unwelcome visitors that it was only with great difficulty and loss they regained their ships.

Yet curiosity drove the undaunted Spaniards to persist in their efforts to obtain some nearer knowledge of this race so superior in civilisation and spirit to the ignorant and nerveless inhabitants of the isles. Coasting westwards from Cape Catoche, the eastern point of the large peninsula, they made several attempts to explore the country, but every landing cost them dear. Of the crew, half left their bones on that inhospitable shore, and but one man returned scatheless.

With absorbing interest Velasquez and his friends listened to the words of the dying captain, and when they saw the curiously wrought gold ornaments exhibited as proof of the romantic story, their eyes gleamed with the light of desire. It was at once determined to explore this new country which lay beyond the islands, and four ships were fitted out under the command of Juan de Grijalva, the Governor's nephew.

Leaving the port of St. Jago de Cuba on the first of May 1518, Grijalva, taking a more southerly course than Cordova, reached the isle of Cozumel, which nestles close to the eastern shores of Yucatan.

Here and on the adjoining mainland the Spaniards were amazed to find great stone crosses. Had the saints already vouchsafed to these heathen peoples some glimmering of the Christian faith? Could this be the blessed Island of the Seven Cities? In great excitement sailors recalled the ancient legend. It was said that a pilot, old and bewildered, reached one day in a battered ship the harbour of Lisbon. He had been driven by storms he "knew not whither," until he came to an isle in the midst of the ocean where were seven noble cities peopled by Christians who spoke the ancient Castilian tongue. They told him that they were the descendants of a band of Spaniards who had escaped from Spain at the time of the Moslem conquest. Led by seven bishops the exiles had embarked on the stormy ocean whither the infidels dared not follow, and they had made at last this beauteous island where each bishop had founded a Christian city. The old pilot, on his return to his ship, was swept out to sea by a sudden storm, and saw no more of the mysterious island. But the legend of his strange discovery had never been forgotten, and now as Grijalva's men, following Cordova's track, coasted the peninsula of Yucatan, they watched out eagerly for traces of their long-lost countrymen. And Grijalva, as he caught glimpses here and there of white-walled villages, in his enthusiasm christened this fair peninsula, with its signs of the handiwork of civilised man, "New Spain."

On the southern shores of the great Mexican Gulf the explorers left their ships, and taking to the boats penetrated a considerable way up one of the rivers which the natives called Tabasco. Rounding a wooded headland they came suddenly on a large body of Indians glittering in warlike array. Their cacique, however, proved not hostile, but intensely curious as to his strange visitors whom he was evidently anxious to impress. He accepted their presents of glass and beads, and offered in return a rich treasure of golden armour. Continuing their westerly course the Spaniards had, to their great joy, many other opportunities for this lucrative trade. They explored several noble rivers, one of which they dubbed the Rio de Alvarado, after their most popular captain. On the banks of another stream farther to the north they were greeted by the cacique of a still more imposing native host, who informed them by signs that he was the subject of a mighty emperor whose people were called Aztecs or Mexicans. "The golden empire of Columbus!" thought Grijalva, resolving to despatch the thrilling news forthwith to Velasquez. Alvarado, to whom he entrusted the message and all the treasure, sailed accordingly in the swiftest ship for Cuba.

Grijalva himself explored the coast still further, sailing as far as the river called Panuco. Many an unwonted sight the Spaniards saw in this new land. In one bright isle they entered a white stone temple and found on the altar the mangled limbs of a human being. In horror they made haste to sail away from this unhallowed Isle of Sacrifice. What, they questioned, can be the religion of this race who perform such horrid rites, and yet worship the sacred Cross? In a neighbouring island, which he named St. Juan de Ulua, Grijalva was tempted to plant a settlement, but, short as he was of both provisions and men, he realised that it would be a foolhardy experiment. Velasquez, moreover, who was a captious master, had only authorised him to explore and to trade.

Alvarado meanwhile, with his burden of treasure and his great news, set Cuba aflame with excitement and desire. The exultant Governor despatched his chaplain to Spain with a bounteous share of the gold, and a request that he might be empowered to conquer and colonise this rich country he had caused to be discovered. Without waiting for an answer, or even for Grijalva's return, he began at once to prepare a large armament. Intensely jealous in nature, he was resolved not to entrust this new expedition to his nephew, who had, he feared, already gained too much glory by the first.

When Grijalva returned to St. Jago de Cuba, after six eventful months, he met, therefore, to his surprise and dismay, with but a cold reception. Bitter was his disappointment to find that another was to command the armament already equipped to open out the alluring land he had himself discovered. His services were calmly ignored, and he was reproached, most unjustly, for not having attempted more.

No conquest, indeed, had Grijalva made, no settlement effected, yet to him must ever belong the honour of being the first European to set foot on the soil of Mexico. Misguided was Velasquez to set aside so honest and faithful an envoy. Blind he was to choose as his new commander a man bold and resourceful, but possessed with an overweening ambition—Hernando CortÚs! The longed-for chance had come!

Velasquez aimed at the impossible. He sought to make, by deputy, a great conquest, and yet to keep all the glory to himself. To secure this end he had chosen for his captain-general a man, as yet undistinguished, of no rank, and quite without political influence in the home-country. CortÚs, he fondly hoped, would prove a useful tool and no rival, for did he not owe his present prosperous position entirely to the Governor's favour? He was, moreover, a man of enterprise and resolution, well fitted to lead an expedition.

On the twenty-third of October 1518, a few days before Grijalva's return, CortÚs formally received his commission. He was solemnly charged to treat the natives with humanity, and to make their conversion his chief object. He was to inform them of the "grandeur and goodness" of the monarch of Spain, and to invite them "to give in their allegiance to him, and to manifest it by regaling him with such comfortable presents of gold, pearls, and precious stones as, showing their own goodwill, would secure his favour and protection." He was instructed to make a survey of the coast, to send back to Velasquez full reports of the products and people of the new country, with any treasure he might acquire. Finally, he was to take "the most careful care to omit nothing that might redound to the service of God or his sovereign."

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