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

Mexico a Province of Spain

Far and wide, from the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of the Pacific, throughout the length and breadth of Central America, spread the astounding news that Mexico, the imperial, and as men thought impregnable city, had fallen before the power of a strange and mighty race. Who then could hope to withstand these god-like beings with their mysterious engines? Day by day the Spanish camp was crowded with envoys from distant tribes offering allegiance to the renowned Malintzin. Awestruck they listened to the thunder of the cannon, and gazed on the horses and white-sailed brigantines. But the blackened waste which lay where shining Tenochtitlan had once stood was to them the most convincing proof that the Teules  were gods indeed. Tribes which had scorned to submit to Mexico hastened to claim the Spaniard's protection, and CortÚs found that he was owned as lord over a vast and ever-growing empire.

But whereas the Indian races were docile and submissive, the Spanish soldiers grew turbulent and rebellious. "Where is the promised treasure?" they cried; "Mexico is captured, but where is the spoil?" A report spread that the Aztecs had buried it and that Guatemozin knew the hiding-place. "If he will not reveal it," clamoured the greedy adventurers, "he must be put to the torture!" Louder grew their fury and discontent when CortÚs refused to consent to so shameful a deed.

"The general," they cried, "has taken the gold for himself, and that is why he refuses to torture the Indian!"

Every morning libels against CortÚs were found scribbled in prose and verse on the white walls of the barracks. It was said that he had taken one-fifth as commander and another as king. Discontent became so open and widespread that CortÚs actually sought to pacify his men by allowing them to put Guatemozin and the cacique  of Tacuba to the torture. Nothing can excuse the cowardice and treachery of such a concession. Under torture as in battle the Aztec emperor showed a heroic spirit. When the lord of Tacuba cried out in his agony, Guatemozin called to him in rebuke, "Am I then taking any pleasure in my bath?" The sufferers admitted that some treasure had been thrown into the lake, but the divers who were at once sent down to search found nothing of much value. CortÚs, ashamed of the base cruelty, ordered the torture to cease in time to save the lives of his noble captives.

"Go on! the more you destroy, the more you will have to build!" were the taunting words the Aztecs had flung at the allies of the white men during the siege. With what bitterness these unfortunate Indians, false sons of Anahuac, must have now recalled the gibe. Mexico was to be rebuilt by their labour. Multitudes of workmen were needed for such a task in a country without beasts of burden, and the Aztecs themselves were weak and few in number. The allies, therefore, were forced to work like slaves, bearing on their shoulders stone and timber. So great was the number of the labourers that food became very scarce, and many died from sheer starvation. But still, under the relentless Spaniard, the work went on, more Indians were driven to fill the place of those who failed.

With magic speed a new city sprang up where the old Mexico had stood. To the Emperor, Charles the Fifth, CortÚs wrote that he wished to raise this city "to the rank of queen of the surrounding provinces as she had been of yore." He told in this letter the whole story of the siege and conquest. The missive was entrusted with the royal fifth of the treasures to Avila and Quinones, who at once set out in a swift ship for Spain. Quinones, the faithful captain of the guard, lost his life on the voyage. Misfortune dogged the steps of Avila also. Just as the ship drew near the shores of Spain she was captured by a French privateer, and the commander was carried prisoner to Francis I., king of France. Right glad was Francis to seize on the treasure, to which he declared he had as good a right as his Majesty of Spain. "I should like," he said, "to see the clause in Adam's testament which entitles my brothers of Castile and Portugal to divide the New World between them!"

Avila, clever and politic, though proud and over-bearing, gained the friendship of his gaoler, and succeeded in sending his letters to Spain. The Emperor was then in Flanders, and the mind of his regent was poisoned against CortÚs by the friends of Velasquez. It was not until October 1522, when Charles the Fifth returned to his Spanish realm, that a favourable answer was sent to the unknown adventurer who had made so marvellous a conquest. Then indeed his splendid service was duly recognised and rewarded. CortÚs was made Governor, Captain-General, and Chief Justice of New Spain.

To Mexico the welcome news was sent by messengers, who stopped at Cuba on their way to trumpet in the ears of Velasquez the honour given to his hated rival. To effect the ruin of CortÚs had become the one object of the Governor's life, and the triumph of the upstart was more than he could bear. His rage and misery knew no bounds, and he survived the blow but a few months, dying, it is said, of a broken heart.

As Governor of New Spain, CortÚs was able to do still more towards rebuilding the city of Mexico. A strong citadel was built, with a dockyard for the brigantines, and on the site of the great temple was raised a magnificent cathedral, for which the Spaniards used the images of the Aztec gods as foundation stones. Urged by Father Olmedo, the conquistadores built many churches and hospitals. The good priest spent all his time in trying to relieve the hard lot of the wretched Indians. The Spaniards, who, greatly to their disgust, had received land instead of treasure, were too indolent or proud to work and too poor to pay for labour. Consequently all the natives, even the allies, were soon enslaved, the Tlascalans alone being left in their old freedom. The first care of CortÚs was the conversion of the Indians. In their letters to Spain the conquerors had begged the Emperor to send out holy friars to Mexico for this purpose, adding, however, that they hoped "his Majesty would be pleased not to suffer any scholars or men of letters to come into this country to throw us into confusion with their learning, quibbles, and books!" The coming of the friars marked the final downfall of the Aztec religion. Zealously they sought to obliterate every trace of the pagan faith, and in the process most of the exquisite picture manuscripts enshrining the ancient history of Tenochtitlan were ruthlessly destroyed.

With infinite skill and tact CortÚs organised his new and vast province, seeking to develop both its agricultural and mineral resources. But in his restless, adventurous mind teemed schemes for further conquest. "I doubt not," he wrote to the Emperor, "I will put your Majesty in possession of more lands and kingdoms than the nation has ever heard of!" His dearest wish was to discover "this great secret of a strait," that phantom waterway which all navigators felt sure must connect the Atlantic with the Pacific. Alvarado, who was sent to explore by land the western shores of the isthmus, conquered Guatemala. Sandoval explored and conquered along the eastern coast north of Vera Cruz. Olid was despatched with a squadron to cruise round the peninsula of Yucatan, steer southwards for Honduras, and make a settlement on its northern coast. There, where the isthmus narrows towards Darien, CortÚs hoped to discover the elusive strait.

Olid, hitherto ever loyal to his chief, proved now a traitor. Intoxicated with his conquests, he proclaimed himself absolute lord of Honduras! Resolved to punish the rebel, CortÚs set out himself by land to march to Honduras with a strong force of Spaniards and Indians. He was joined by Sandoval and by many of his veterans. Bernal Diaz was reluctant to leave his pleasant farm, but "CortÚs," he says, "commanded it, and we dared not say No!" Guatemozin and the chief Aztec captives were forced to go also, for it was judged unadvisable to leave them behind in Mexico.

Passing southwards through the fertile coast-land, CortÚs summoned to meet him all the caciques  of the district. Among them came the unnatural mother of Marina, with the young step-brother for whose sake the girl had been so cruelly enslaved. Many years had passed away, but mother and daughter at once knew each other, and the wretched woman flung herself at the feet of this stately girl, who had become in some mysterious way the honoured friend of the all-powerful strangers.

"Mercy!" she cried, "I only ask for mercy!"

"Have no fear," replied Marina, raising her up with a tender embrace. "I am sure," she said, turning to her Spanish friends, "my mother knew not what she did when she sold me to the traders. I forgive her freely."

To her mother she said, "God has been very gracious to me in making me become a Christian . . . If I had been made the chieftainess of as many provinces as there are in Mexico, the only use I could make of this power would be to do more service to my Lord CortÚs." Bernal Diaz, who was present, declares, "All these things I heard, and I swear to it. Amen."

Sometime during this expedition Marina was married to a Spanish cavalier, and given large estates in her native province, so CortÚs lost the beautiful interpreter, without whose aid he could hardly have made his great conquest.

The march to Honduras, which began so brightly through friendly and open countries, soon became more and more difficult, and indeed disastrous. Through dense, untrodden forests, over treacherous marshes, across wide, unfordable rivers and stony mountains, the Spaniards and Indians struggled, starving and exhausted.

In this terrible extremity an Indian informed CortÚs that Guatemozin and the other Aztec chiefs were plotting to fall on the Spaniards in some difficult pass where cannon and horse would be useless. They intended, said the informer, to kill every Spaniard, and then return to Mexico and attempt to reconquer their city. The man produced a paper on which were painted the faces of all the Aztec lords in the conspiracy. According to Diaz, Guatemozin denied all share in the plot, but CortÚs declared that the Aztec emperor refused in his pride to answer the charge at all. Dreading any attempt at revolt in that land of forest and marsh, and fearing that Guatemozin, whether he wished it or not, would always be a centre for rebellion, CortÚs resolved without further proofs that he must die.

The captive monarch and his cousin, the prince of Tacuba, were at once condemned to be hanged from the branches of a great tree on the wayside.

"O Malinche! long have I known the falseness of your words," cried Guatemozin, as he was led out to die. "Better that I had fallen by my own hands! May God demand of you this innocent blood!" "Death is welcome," said the prince of Tacuba, "since I am to die with my lord, the king of Mexico!"

Over the dreary expedition fell a yet deeper gloom. CortÚs himself was depressed, sleepless, and unusually irritable, as if regretting his dishonourable treatment of the noblest of Aztecs. As for the soldiers themselves, Bernal Diaz says frankly, "Among us there was but one opinion on the subject,—that it was a most unjust and cruel sentence."

Honduras was reached at last, and there they found that Olid had been killed in the midst of the disorders with which his province was racked. They were therefore welcomed by their countrymen, who marvelled at their terrible march, and rejoiced at "the presence of the general so renowned throughout these countries."

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