All ages have their pervading spirit. In the fifteenth century it was, in Western Europe, a spirit of unrest, of curiosity, of adventure. Twice before in the history of the world had the same phenomenon been seen on a gigantic scale, and on all three occasions the sea had been the path along which men had passed in their craving to o'erleap the baffling bounds of the world they knew. It had tempted the Greeks to sift the fabled wonders of their day, from Colchis in the stormy east to the pillars of Hercules in the stormy west, to face the rising sun in their search for the golden fleece, and to pursue him as he set behind the garden that glowed with the golden apples of the Hesperides. It had allured the wild Northmen along its frozen margin, westward and southward to a land where the grape ripened in the open air, eastward to the outpost of European civilisation, to take service in the Emperor's Varangian guard at Constantinople. And now again, when all memory of the New World discoveries of these hardy rovers had faded from the minds of men, this same spirit, thrilling through Western Europe, led the venturesome to yet greater quests on the broad bosom of the ocean. Has this mighty sea no bourne, they questioned, save the bottomless abyss? Does the sunset hold no mystery? Or is there, perchance, as the creators of Atlas declared, far out in the gleaming West a new Atlantis inestimably rich with the gifts of Mother Nature?
To seek an answer the sailor left the safe shores of Europe and perilled his life on the dangerous deep. Foremost in this quest for the unknown were the Portuguese, driven to the sea by their narrow land. In his castle near Cape St. Vincent, whence he could gaze on the Atlantic, Prince Henry, the Navigator, gathered round him the most learned geographers and skilled seamen of his day. Sunny Madeira, green and fertile, was discovered by his ships, which, venturing farther voyage by voyage, explored the coasts of Africa itself even to the torrid zone. For long the Portuguese feared to sail south of the river Senegal, for might not the vertical rays of a flaming sun consume them in their wooden boats? But they steered boldly westwards into the open sea, and came to the Azores, nine hundred miles from any continent. The death of Prince Henry checked for a time the ardour for exploration, but in the reign of his grand-nephew John II., Portuguese vessels dared to cross the line, and followed the coast in its eastern bend, until at last Cabo Tormentoso, the Stormy Cape, was sighted far away in the south. Like wildfire through Europe flew the story of this great achievement, and in all adventurous souls stirred a like passion for discovery. With some, greed was the master motive; of these was the King of Portugal himself, who dreamed night and day of a sea-passage round Africa to the Indies, which would bring to his treasury the untold wealth of the East. To this end he toiled unceasingly to prepare an expedition which should double the Stormy Cape, rechristened the "Cape of Good Hope." Yet in his feverish striving he flung to the winds a chance of gaining the glory and riches for which his soul was athirst.
To the Court of Portugal, whence all men's eyes turned so eagerly to the East, came the Genoese Christopher Columbus, with his strange creed—"Look to the unknown West if you would reach the golden East!" John listened, but was not convinced. There might be land, as Columbus urged, beyond the great Atlantic, and it might be part of the Indies, but it was after all only a vague possibility, and he could not at such a moment, when he needed every resource for his own project, support so wild a scheme.
Denied by Portugal, Columbus turned to Spain, where reigned Ferdinand of Aragon and his wife, Isabella of Castile. He chanced on an unlucky time, when the joint sovereigns of Christian Spain were straining every nerve to capture Granada, and to wrest from the Moslem his last foothold in their land. Cold and distrustful, the king would have naught to say to the mad dreamer; but Isabella, more generous in nature, was fired by the splendour of the dream. She would help this Genoese, for might she not thus win countless heathen hordes to the faith she loved so well? "I will assume the undertaking," said she, "for my own crown of Castile, and am ready to pawn my jewels to defray the expenses, if the funds in the treasury shall be found inadequate." So it was Spain at last which sent Columbus forth on the broad and perhaps boundless ocean. And to Spain, therefore, fell the lion's share of the treasures of the New World.
To the Englishman of to-day Spain is not a land of energy or of progress. It is not to her that he turns to mark history in the making, nor to seek guidance in his heavy task of world-wide dominion. She is to him the land of rugged mountain and of silver stream, of castle-crowned rock and of old-world city, of races mediaeval in feeling or Eastern in thought, a land attuned to the music of the guitar, to the strains of which the mind wanders dreamily back over the vanished pageantry of a glorious past. For Spain, most westerly of European countries, lies under the blight which has for centuries sapped the energies of the East. Her glance, like that of the Orient, is directed backwards, and drugged with indolent pride in what has gone, she has lost zest to strive for what is to come. But on the day that Isabella, first queen of united Spain, turned from receiving the submission of Granada, the last strong-hold of her country's age-long oriental foes, to give to the ardent Genoese her mandate to explore the Occident, no people of Europe faced the widening future with higher hope or loftier courage.
Of a strange nature was the vigour which Spain was destined to display, singularly unlike the vigour of the modern world, except, perhaps, in its greed for riches. So marked it was in its outline, that to this day we associate with the word "Spaniard" the dominant qualities of the heroes of her golden age. To understand the conquerors of Mexico, it may help if we look at the stock and circumstances from which they sprang.
Nearly seventeen centuries before the fall of Granada, restless warring tribes, hemmed in by the sea before them and the Pyrenees behind, possessed the land of Spain. Pure Celt, or pure Iberian, or blended Celtiberian, these men had retained in their mountain fastnesses, through centuries of conflict, a fierce and untamed spirit. Nowhere within her boundaries had all-conquering Rome to face a more determined foe, just as nowhere within her boundaries did her intellectual supremacy bear finer fruit. The courage, the love of adventure, and the intelligence of the Spaniard are qualities ingrained in his stock.
With the decay of the Roman empire, Hispania, enfeebled by Roman luxury, fell almost without a blow when Frank and Sueve, Vandal and Goth, bursting unopposed through the Pyrenees, traversed her from end to end. Three hundred years did Gothic kings hold turbulent sway over a conquered and sullen people. Christians the conquerors were, but arrogant and luxurious; though rude and ignorant they were not deterred by their faith from living in their rock-castles like brigand chiefs. Sudden was their downfall. In the days of King Roderic there swept like a storm-cloud across the straits of Gibraltar the Moors or Saracens. Swift were the steeds and keen the scimitars of these fierce soldiers of Islam, and strange and bewildering their way of fighting. For seven days did Roderic and his knights wage desperate battle against the infidel invaders. Each day the Saracens triumphed, and on the eighth, when the king himself was slain, the banner of Spain was torn to shreds, and the standard of the Cross was trodden under foot. Thenceforth the Moslem ruled supreme in Spain, for broken and scattered was the Gothic chivalry, and the mass of the people, ground down by years of oppression, cared little for a change of masters.
A few brave spirits there were who refused thus tamely to submit. To the mountains of the Asturias fled "old Pelayo," beloved of Spanish song. There he dwelt with his followers in the dark recesses of a cave which could only be approached by a ladder of ninety steps. Wild honey at first was almost their only food, and many died of hunger, until they numbered at last but thirty men and ten women.
"What are thirty barbarians, perched up on a rock?" said the Moors contemptuously; "they must inevitably die!" But in spite of incredible hardships the refugees lived on, growing year by year in numbers and in strength, until they became a terror to all the country-side. Their life of peril and isolation, with every man their foe, made them savage and ruthless, wild and ignorant. No chance had they to acquire the refinement and civilisation with which the Moors were endowing Spain. In the fertile valleys beneath them were rich cities where art, literature, and science were springing to a glorious life, but to the Christians who broke forth from their strongholds in the mountains to ravage with fire and sword the prosperous land around, one art alone was known—a truceless warfare with the infidel Moor.
Curiously intermingled with their fierce joy in battle was an equally fierce passion for the Christian faith. Bereft of pleasure in their life on earth they had ever before them the thought of a heaven in the life to come, where they would reap a rich reward while their enemies writhed in the everlasting flames of hell. Even in their mountain caverns they practised with scrupulous piety the rites and ceremonies of their religion, and they rushed to battle fortified by the belief that God and the saints were fighting on their side.
"He who shall perish here with his face to the foe," said one of their priests as he "shrived them clean" before a battle, "his sins I take upon me, and God will receive his soul." Thus armed, the Christians of Asturias by perpetual forays drove the Moors farther and farther south, and won back step by step their lost dominions. With their conquests they spread over Spain the fervent but fanatic faith bred by the frowning mountains. This dark bigotry, lying like a pall o'er the sunny land, was to prove in the years to come a blight upon their race. It left on the Spanish character an impress which time has never effaced. It explains not only the hold which the Inquisition with its hideous tortures had on Spain, but the callous cruelty which the Spaniard wreaked on the heathen Indians in the New World across the seas.
As happens with all ignorant peoples dwelling among the wild and lonely mountains, the imagination of the Spanish Christians was vivid and had a strong superstitious bias. The saints often appeared in bodily form to aid them in their conflict with the Moors. A pious bishop, who was wont to rebuke his flock for calling St. James, or Santiago, a knight, for he was "a fisher who never rode, or even mounted a horse," fell one day into a trance, when there appeared to him, in shining armour, the apostle himself, bearing in his hands the key of a Moorish city besieged by the Spaniards. As the bishop gazed in wonder, Santiago mounted a snow-white horse and rode like "a goodly knight" three times round his own church. Ere he vanished he revealed to the bishop the day and hour at which the gate of the Moorish city would open to the Christians. The prophecy came true, and Santiago became thenceforth the patron saint of Spain, whom many a time and oft the conquerors of Mexico beheld in the forefront of a fight.
When the Spaniards were strong enough to wage war against the Moors on equal terms, their uncouth barbarity was tempered by the Moorish chivalry, and they gleaned almost insensibly something of the skill and knowledge of the Moslem. But beneath the knightly veneer they remained at heart still savage, rapacious, fanatical.
In the Cid Campeador, the national hero, half-legendary, half-historic, we find embodied the distinctive spirit of the Spaniard. By his valour in single combats he won the title of Campeador, or Challenger, and many is the story told of his heroic courage, the quality valued above all others. When the king of Morocco encamped before Valencia with "fifty times a thousand men-at-arms right well equipped, " the Cid led his wife and daughters up into a tower and exclaimed, "Great gladness has come to me from lands beyond the sea. My daughters and my wife shall see me in the fray; they shall see how homes are won in this heathen land, yea, well shall they behold how their daily bread is gained!"
"The Moors of Morocco," says the old Poema del Cid, "ride right bravely; in through the garden-grounds boldly they come. Ready are the hosts of the Christian folk. . . . Wisely did my Cid admonish his men. . . . Right willingly they go to smite the fifty thousand. So it pleased God that they routed them. My Cid wielded his lance and laid hand to his sword. So many of the Moors did he slay that they could not be counted, and from his elbow down the blood kept dripping. . . . Thence returned he who was born in happy hour. Well was he pleased with the hunting of that day. Dearly did he prize Babieca, his horse, from head to tail. . . . Joyful is my Cid and all his vassals that God had showed such favour to them that they had conquered in the field."
The cupidity and cruelty of the Spaniard which in after years ripened so terribly beneath the tropical sun in the New World is not absent from the character of this gallant national hero. The Cid, the pattern of chivalry, was not ashamed to torture a captive foe to death in the hope of extorting money. When besieging a Saracen city he treated all fugitives with horrible barbarity. Irrespective of age or sex, they were burnt alive, worried by dogs, or torn to pieces with pincers, while those who were believed to be wealthy were tortured in full view of the city walls, until their kinsmen offered rich ransoms for their release. In warfare with the infidel the Cid did not disdain to employ the ugly weapon of treachery. Fair words and empty promises often gained time, and well he knew that the priest would "shrive him clean" from the sin of a broken truce. We cannot wonder that the rude conquerors of Mexico scorned to keep faith with their heathen foes.
To his own men the Cid ever behaved "full courteously," and like a "gentle knight." Etiquette, still so prized by the Spaniard, was strictly observed by his company. "The Cid's wont was to eat by himself apart at a higher table, seated on his settle, and the other famous knights ate elsewhere at high tables with much honour. And no knight made bold to sit down with them unless he were such as to deserve to be there. The other knights who were not so well approved in arms used to eat each one at a table, presided over by a senior. Such was the ordinance of the household of the Cid, and each one knew the place where he should sit him down to eat. And one and all strove with all their might to gain sufficient fame to sit down to eat at the table of the famous knights."
Thus did this state of constant warfare foster in the Spaniard an inordinate love of renown, which supplied the motive for many a deadly duel and many a doughty deed. "If you would know who were the good men of that day," says the Chronicler, describing a tilt at arms with the misbelievers, "it behoves one to tell you, for though they are departed, it is not fitting that the names of those who have done well should die, nor would they who have done well themselves, or who hope so to do, think it right; for good men would not be so bound to do well if their feats should be kept silent." During the siege of Granada single combats became so numerous that Ferdinand, fearing to lose his best warriors, forbade his knights to accept a Moorish challenge. But to listen tamely to the taunts of the Moors who galloped insultingly across the plain which separated the city from the Christian camp, was more than the high-mettled Spaniards could endure. The story is told of a knight surnamed "He of the Exploits," who resolved on vengeance despite the orders of the king. In the dead of night he rode to a postern gate in the city walls, surprised the guards, galloped to the chief mosque, and nailed on the door a label inscribed, Ave Maria. Ere he could return Granada awoke. From every side mustered Moorish soldiers, and it was only by prodigious deeds of valour that "He of the Exploits" fought his way out alive. Ever after his descendants held the right to sit in the choir of the mosque church during the celebration of High Mass.
To the Christian knights in their camp without the walls of fair Granada the days and months went swiftly and gaily by. Tilt and tourney, fierce fray and wily stratagem rejoiced their hearts, while the rich booty won by their keen Castilian blades fired still further their natural avarice. But on the Moors within the great gates the slow, cold hand of famine was closing its deadly grip, and a day came at last when word was sent to his Catholic Majesty, King Ferdinand, that Granada could hold out no longer.
Across the plain ride in triumph the exultant Spanish cavaliers. Through the open gates they pass and enter the Alhambra, the glory of the Moors, a palace rich and beautiful beyond compare. And now from a battlemented tower shines forth the silver cross, while beside it waves the banner of St. James and the emblazoned flag of Castile and Aragon. "Santiago! Santiago!" cry the Christians, gazing spell-bound in the plain beneath the walls, and the king and queen fall to their knees in devout thanksgiving, while the whole army kneels behind them chanting in unison a solemn Te Deum.
The Moorish king fleeing to the mountains turned to gaze back upon the glistening towers of his lost city. "Allahu Akbar!" he exclaimed with tears, "God is most great!" and ever since the spot whence he bade farewell has been called "The Last Sigh of the Moor."
Granada conquered, the young nation after centuries of ceaseless conflict found herself suddenly at peace. The infidel foe so long within her bounds was utterly destroyed, but the passion for adventure, for warlike renown, for plunder, still burned in the Spanish blood. If an outlet were not found for these fierce energies there was danger that united Christian Spain would erelong be racked by lawless brigandage or civil strife.
At this moment came Columbus pointing to a new path by which the Spaniard might win glory and riches, and find scope for his valour, his violence, his fiery religious zeal. Tradition pictures the great navigator, grave and dignified, with the rapt eyes of a seer, pleading with the wise and kindly Isabella in one of the beautiful halls of the Alhambra. The Queen was seated on the throne of the Khalifs. Slender columns, walls cut into tracery exquisite as lace, a dome-ceiling azure and white like the mid-day heaven, but bright with golden stars and moons, formed a strange Arabic setting to the audience which was to bring to the persecutors of the Moors the gift of a New World. Amid such surroundings, the gentle Isabella, with the Moors lying broken beneath her feet, sent forth across the ocean the stern and merciless people whom constant warfare had bred in the sunny land of Spain.