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

The Tribes Throw Off Their Yoke

Within the city of Mexico the Spaniards had an ally on whose aid CortÚs, in his deepest calculations, had never counted, yet more deadly far than sword-thrust or gunshot. Strength, wealth, rank, and skill were powerless against the new foe, which swept through the island city with death always in its train. It attacked the king in his palace and the beggar in the street. Where three or four had fallen in battle a hundred perished at the touch of this dread fiend—la viruela, the smallpox.

A negro slave had come over in one of the ships of Narvaez. He was a sick man when the fleet reached the coasts of Mexico, but his fellows had carried him ashore on a litter. He was the first negro on the continent of America, and he was dying of smallpox, until now unknown in Mexico. He died, and left behind a horrible legacy. All those who had gathered to gaze on this man of a strange race were stricken by the dire disease, always fatal, for in their ignorance they sought to cool the fever by bathing in cold water. Through all the land of Anahuac the smallpox spread with lightning speed. The Spaniards alone, a stronger race and familiar with the disease, seemed to escape its baneful breath. It was in the crowded capital that la viruela  wrought its greatest havoc, and there the people perished "like cattle stricken with the murrain."

Cuitlahuac, the emperor, was one of the first to fall. Four months only had he reigned in Montezuma's place, but in that time he had rallied his subjects and driven the strangers with slaughter from his city. To the royal palace on the cypress-crowned hill of Chapoltepec he dragged himself to die, and with his last breath he bequeathed "the intolerable burden of government" to his nephew Guatemoc, or, as he was usually called, Guatemozin, the tzin  or lord Guatemoc.

In their magnificent robes of office, attended by three hundred of the nobles of Mexico, the four great lords, the electors of the empire, met together and confirmed Cuitlahuac's choice. But first arose the teoteuctli, the high priest, garbed in sable, to invoke by solemn prayer the blessing of the supreme God.

"O Lord!" he cried, "Thou knowest that the days of Cuitlahuac, our king, are at an end. Thou hast placed him beneath Thy footstool. He has trodden the path which we all must tread, and he has gone to the house whither we all must follow, the home of everlasting shadows. There, where none shall trouble him, he is gathered to rest. . . . Thou gayest him joys to taste, but not to drink; the glory of empire passed before his eyes like the madness of a dream. With tears and prayers to Thee he took up his load, with happiness he laid it down. To Thee he should be thankful, thou King of kings, Master of the stars, who has lifted from his shoulders so great a burden, and from his brow this crown of woes, paying him peace for war and rest for labour . . . Who now shall bid the drum and the flute to sound and gather together the men mighty in battle? Our Lord and our defence! wilt Thou, in Thy wisdom, elect one who shall be worthy to sit on the throne of Thy kingdom, who shall not fear nor falter, who shall comfort and cherish Thy people even as a mother cherisheth her children?"

Then in a loud voice cried the chief of the four electors, "Guatemoc, in the name of God and with the voice of the people of Anahuac, we summon you to the throne of Anahuac. Long may you live, and justly may you rule, and may the glory be yours of beating back into the sea those foes who would destroy us. Hail to you, Guatemoc, emperor of the Aztecs and of their vassal tribes!" And the three hundred nobles of Mexico echoed the ringing words, "Hail to you, Guatemoc, emperor of the Aztecs!"

Young for his great and difficult position, the new emperor was not only brave and resolute, but wise and skilful far beyond his years. He loved his country with an all-consuming passion, and his dearest wish was to free Mexico from the yoke of the stranger. Bernal Diaz describes him as "elegant in his person for an Indian, very valiant, and so terrible that his subjects trembled in his presence." On the day of his coronation Guatemozin married his cousin Tecuichpo, Montezuma's youngest and fairest daughter. A mere girl, she too had a brave spirit, and was well fitted to help her heroic husband.

With heart and soul the young monarch worked to prepare for the struggle he knew must come. Through his spies he learned the movements of the Spaniards. The defences of the city were strengthened, warriors were called in, and the weak and useless were sent into the country. The armies were drilled and exercised, and messages were sent to all the tributary states rousing them to attack the Teules. A high price was offered for the head of a white man, and great was the reward for a white prisoner—a victim for the gods.

CortÚs meanwhile had returned in triumph to Tlascala with banners, booty, and files of captives to grace his march. Tumultuous welcome greeted him, and he was proclaimed "Avenger of the Nation." The people were much flattered to see that the great Teule  was wearing deep mourning for Maxixca, the ancient lord of the republic, who had died during his absence, a victim to la viruela. Maxixca's successor, a boy of twelve, was easily persuaded to become a Christian, and even the blind old Xicotencatl consented to give up the faith of his fathers and receive baptism. With great goodwill the Spaniards and their allies worked together to prepare for the coming campaign.

Under the direction of Martin Lopez the ship-building went rapidly forward. The timber was cut into shape, and marked for each particular part of the ships. Sails, rigging, and iron-work were brought by Indian tamanes  from Vera Cruz, while pitch, hitherto unknown to the natives, was obtained from the neighbouring pine-woods.

No difficulty seemed to daunt the general. When gunpowder ran short he called for volunteers to ascend Popocatepetl and bring back sulphur from the crater! A young cavalier, Montano, at once set out with four comrades. Climbing the volcano, they reached the edge of the crater and gazed down into its blinding depths, whence rose volumes of sulphur-laden steam. Drawing lots, it fell to Montano himself to descend, and his comrades lowered him in a basket slowly downwards with many prayers to the Virgin and St. James. At length at a depth of four hundred feet they paused, while the daring man gathered the sulphur from the chasm walls. Several times was Montano thus lowered into the crater, until at last his mission was accomplished. CortÚs was delighted with the young cavalier's hardihood, and mentioned it in his next letter to Charles V., adding, however, that it would be, on the whole, less arduous to import powder from Spain!

By Christmas-time all was ready for the march to Mexico. CortÚs realised clearly the difficulties of discipline in this strangely-mingled force he was to lead against the "Queen of Cities." In the obedience of his own veterans he had complete confidence, but he must also control the men of Narvaez, the adventurers who had lately joined his standard, and the varying and often rival tribes of Indian allies. Before setting out, therefore, he laid down more stringent regulations. Brawling, duelling, charging the enemy without orders, purloining booty without leave, were all crimes to be punished with great severity. Every soldier was to remember that the conversion of the heathen was the great object of the expedition, "without which the war would be manifestly unjust, and every acquisition made by it a robbery."

On the 28th of December, Innocents' Day, six hundred Spaniards passed in review before their general with trumpets sounding and colours flying. There were forty horsemen, eighty gunners and cross-bowmen, and nine cannon. Then came the gorgeous array of Tlascalans, led by the four great chiefs of the republic. So great was the multitude of allies indeed, that the general, thinking of provisions, did not dare to take them all with him on his march to the valley of Mexico.

Once more Spaniard and Tlascalan climbed together the mountain barrier and gained unchallenged the summit of the pass. Once more they paused in the difficult descent to gaze on the sun-bathed valley. Bitterly the veterans recalled their sufferings and their comrades lost, and thought with savage joy of vengeance for the past. "It made us feel," said CortÚs, "that we had no choice but victory or death, and our minds once resolved we moved forward with as light a step as if we had been on an errand of certain pleasure."

The general had decided to make his headquarters in Tezcuco, whence he could prepare for the investment of Mexico by subduing the surrounding country and thus cutting off supplies. He did not intend to attempt an assault on the capital itself until the thirteen brigantines were finished, transported, and launched.

At Cacama's death the emperor of Mexico had chosen for Tezcuco a new and warlike king, and the Spaniards feared as they marched across the valley that they would have to fight for the possession of the town. They were much surprised, therefore, to be met by an embassy from the Tezcucan prince bearing the golden flag of friendship. The king sent welcome to the Teules, but begged them not to enter his city until the following day, when the preparations for their reception would be complete. Suspecting treachery CortÚs refused to wait, and entered Tezcuco that very evening, the 31st of December.

No king, no caciques  came forth to welcome the visitors. Through wellnigh deserted streets they were led to the vast palace of Nezahualpilli, empty now and silent. Climbing a tower to discover the cause of this ominous stillness, CortÚs found that the lake was dark with the canoes of the inhabitants who were escaping with their goods, and on the shores also he beheld hastening towards the hills a throng of fugitives. Guards were at once posted at the gates to turn back those who had not yet departed, but the king himself was already flying over the waters in his swift canoe to Mexico.

From his home in the fastnesses of the mountains CortÚs summoned to Tezcuco Ixtlilxochitl, the brother who had waged war with Cacama for the throne, and who had wrested from him his dominion in the hills. Ever since the death of his father Nezahualpilli, this prince had cherished in his heart a bitter hatred against the Mexicans, by whose aid alone his brother had ruled as king. He but waited a time for vengeance, and now that hour had come.

Gladly he accepted from the hands of Malinche the crown of Tezcuco, declared vacant by the flight of his brother. Right willingly he swore to spend himself in the service of the white men; and so faithfully he kept his oath, that he did more than any other of his race to destroy the liberty of Anahuac. No wonder that the Tezcucan chronicler has grim stories to tell of the prince's birth and stormy boyhood.

When the horoscope of the babe was cast, so threatening and ill-omened were the stars, that the astrologers, 'twas said, implored Nezahualpilli to destroy his infant son at once. The king refused, and Ixtlilxochitl grew up a fierce and turbulent spirit. At twelve years old he had his own little army of boy companions, and passed his time in learning the arts of warfare, practising often on the peaceful citizens, and causing wild frays in the city. One night he even dragged from their houses and garrotted in the streets the wise men who had counselled his destruction. For this outrage he was seized and brought before his father, but coolly he vindicated his conduct. "If they have suffered death," he said, "it is no more than they had intended for me."

Truly the vengeful young prince was a useful ally to the Spaniards, and CortÚs took much trouble to instruct him in the Castilian tongue and Christian faith. At his election to the throne many of the inhabitants returned, and the Spaniards, with Indian labour at their command, securely fortified their quarters in this beautiful city, whence they could watch the proud capital over the water.

Tezcuco lay more than a mile from the lake, and to Ixtlilxochitl was given the task of directing the eight thousand labourers who were set to make the necessary connection for the brigantines by constructing a canal.

Leaving Sandoval in command of the garrison, the general set out to attack Iztapalapan, Cuitlahuac's fair City of Gardens, which was built partly on piles in the water and partly on the narrow strip of land which divides the salt lake of Tezcuco from the fresh waters of Chalco. After a sharp tussle a band of Aztec warriors on the outskirts of the city turned and fled. In the heat of pursuit and "covetousness of victory" the Spaniards and their allies followed the enemy into the town, scarcely noticing that Indians were labouring at the great sluice-gate which shut in the waters of the salt lake. In the houses in the water the Aztecs made a last desperate stand, and the fight did not cease until every fugitive was slain. Wildly both Spaniards and Tlascalans massacred and pillaged, finishing their work of spoil by the light of burning houses as the darkness fell.

Suddenly they heard with vague alarm a sound of rushing water, and from one to another passed the warning cry, "The lake is rising! Back while we can to the shore!" "And then," says Cortes, "our Lord brought to my memory this sluice-gate which I had seen broken in the morning. Had we remained three hours longer not a soul could have escaped!" Laden with spoil, the surprised soldiers hastened after their leaders, stumbling painfully through the dark waters. But when they reached the opening in the dyke the current was so strong that all who could not swim or who clung to their burden of booty were drowned.

Wet, weary, and supperless, with powder spoiled, guns useless, and no plunder, the discomfited men tramped back along the shore from their disastrous raid. "What provoked us most," says Diaz, "was the laughter and mockings of the Indians on the lake." As daylight dawned they saw that the height of salt Tezcuco and fresh Chalco was the same, and between them lay a channel. Showers of missiles added to their distress, but without staying to fight, CortÚs led them at last safely, but "in very bad humour," through the gates of Tezcuco.

Though the raiders returned empty-handed and in piteous plight, their expedition had not been a failure. The fate of Iztapalapan, ruined for ever by fire and flood, struck terror through all Anahuac. Never did the fairy-like gardens, with their rare plants and birds and fishes, recover from the onslaught of the strangers, who not much more than a year before had wandered wonder-struck through the trellised paths.

And now every day arrived embassies both from distant tribes and from cities in the very valley of Mexico itself, to offer allegiance to Malinche. They were eager to throw off the Aztec yoke, and hoped by aiding the strangers to regain their ancient liberty.

With consummate skill CortÚs fanned their hatred of the Aztecs, and formed against Mexico a strong coalition.

Not unopposed was he allowed thus to undermine the Mexican empire. Guatemozin well knew that the allegiance of the tribes meant victory or ruin, and did all he could to combat the wiles of his enemy. He freed the subject caciques  from their tribute, and offered them posts of honour in the empire. To the wavering or hostile cities he despatched Aztec garrisons, and was swift to punish all rebel towns.

Many were the appeals for aid which came to CortÚs, who declares in a letter to Charles the Fifth, "Beyond our own labours and necessities, the greatest distress which I suffered was in not being able to succour our Indian friends, who, for being vassals of your Majesty, were harassed and molested by the Mexicans." By uniting all the rival tribes, however, and persuading them to aid each other against the Aztec, the general accomplished more than by going to their help himself. Long had the peoples of Anahuac groaned under Mexican tyranny, but local jealousies and the lack of a leader had always made attempts at rebellion futile. Now as they took service under the mighty Malinche their feuds were all forgotten in their common hatred of Mexico. In vain were Guatemozin's tireless efforts; the canker of long years of oppression and injustice had eaten into the very heart of his empire.

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