Containing the first settlements founded by Europeans in the New World (Isabella, 1493, and Santo Domingo, 1496), Hispaniola had rapidly risen to a position of commanding importance, and while Hernando CortÚs was in the island it was a centre of activities that had as their object the conquest of new territories and their settlement. With his enterprising and restless nature, it is strange that he was not drawn into some of the many schemes for conquest that had their origin in the island or were promoted there. It is on record, in fact, that he came near embarking on that ill-fated expedition fitted out in Hispaniola by Alonzo de Ojeda, in 1509, whom he was prevented from accompanying by illness. Among those who went with Ojeda, and of the few who survived the disastrous venture, were Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who discovered the Pacific in 1513, and Francisco Pizarro, whom fate preserved to be the conqueror of Peru.
It was in the year 1509, also, that Don Diego Columbus, son of Christopher, arrived in Santo Domingo as viceroy, accompanied by his wife, the daughter of a Spanish grandee, and distantly related to King Ferdinand of Spain. Don Diego was a just man, and, in the main, ruled the Indies wisely. He extended his sway over the islands as rapidly as possible, and when, using the means nearest at hand, he despatched Diego Velasquez to complete the conquest of Cuba, he rewarded and recognized the merits of an old soldier, notwithstanding that he had been a favorite with Ovando, the enemy of his house.
Preparations for the Cuban campaign were a long time in progress, and it was not until 1511 that Velasquez finally sailed from the port of Santo Domingo, with four vessels and 300 men. The names of nearly all who went with him have passed into oblivion; but at least two besides himself, Hernando CortÚs and Bartolome de las Casas, are inseparably connected with the great events attendant upon the conquest of America.
It was quite natural that CortÚs should accompany his friend and boon companion, Velasquez, on this expedition, for they had hunted Indians and smaller game together, in the mountain fastnesses of Hispaniola, and were well acquainted with each other's qualities. Velasquez had tried the temper of Hernando CortÚs in many a foray against the Indians of Hispaniola, and he was not disappointed at his behavior in Cuba. The young man, in fact, was in every fight in which his company took part. While fiery and courageous in battle, he was patient under the trials of the march, and in camp his good nature and lively wit won him hosts of friends. His character at that time was that of the "happy-go-lucky" adventurer, a part which he had sustained in Hispaniola, with no evidence of a nature more profound. At the age of twenty-six he was still the light-hearted youth who had sought gold and glory in America. Though he had found neither the one nor the other, he yet seemed content, and, after the Indians were "pacified," he took what lands and slaves fell to his share and settled down to a life closely patterned after that he had led in Hispaniola. The historian who knew him best in after-life alludes to him at this period as a "respectable hidalgo," when called upon to assume greater responsibilities, and an alcalde (judge or justice) of Santiago de Cuba.
Santiago was founded in 1515, and, though not the first Spanish settlement in Cuba (that honor belonging to Baracoa), soon became of the greatest importance, owing to its magnificent harbor and its commanding situation, on the south coast, facing Haiti-Santo Domingo and the sea-channel to Panama. Here Velasquez made his headquarters, hither flocked numerous noble families from Spain, and also many old soldiers from Darien, Jamaica, and other parts, where they had failed to find the fortunes they had come to seek.
In the train of Don Diego Columbus and his wife, Dona Maria de Toledo, there had come out to Santo Domingo quite a number of ladies, some of noble birth, who were in search (the gossips of the time asserted) of husbands with money, regardless of true merit or ancestry. Most of these ladies found the objects of their search in Santo Domingo, where they exerted a beneficial influence upon the uncouth colonists, and a few followed after Velasquez to Cuba. One of these was a lovely woman, Catalina Suarez Pacheco, whom CortÚs had met in Santo Domingo, and to whom he had probably pledged himself; for she certainly had a claim upon him when in Santiago, which was supported not only by her family but by Governor Velasquez.
It is asserted that the governor was interested in one of Catalina's three sisters, and though there is no proof that he ever married her, still he was very insistent that his companion-at-arms, CortÚs, should fulfill his obligations to the lady he had compromised. This the fickle CortÚs was by no means willing to do, the care-free and irresponsible life he had led hitherto being far more to his liking.
Then ensued a comical contest between the two gallants, which ended in a doubtful victory for Velasquez; the recreant CortÚs finally wedding the fair Catalina, with whom, as he subsequently boasted, he was "as well pleased as if she had been the daughter of a duchess." However this may have been, the actual fulfillment of his obligations was only brought about by compulsion, and CortÚs never overlooked the officious interference of Velasquez.
Having a grievance against the governor, as he thought, he joined a body of malcontents and became the leader in a conspiracy, which Velasquez thwarted by clapping him into prison.
Contriving to break jail, CortÚs took refuge in a church, where he was safe from arrest for a while, until again secured by stratagem and reimprisoned. Then he was placed in double irons and sent aboard a vessel bound for Santo Domingo, where he was to be judged in court for his offences. But he escaped a second time, and, plunging over-board at the risk of his life, swam to shore, regained his sanctuary in the church, and defied arrest.
Having secured a sword and suit of armor, in a spirit of bravado, one evening, CortÚs left his chosen refuge and suddenly appeared before Velasquez in his own apartment at the palace. The governor was unarmed, and, being at the mercy of the man he had offended, he was compelled to listen to that man's estimate of his character. The two held a hot discussion, but finally, the humor of the situation appealing to Velasquez, and the feeling of old companionship asserting itself, he proffered a reconciliation. CortÚs promptly fell into his arms, and they embraced like brothers—or, rather, like Spaniards and Frenchmen. When, shortly after, a messenger arrived with the news of the prisoner's escape, that fugitive was found, it is said, sleeping in the governor's bed.
This story cannot be declared authentic; but, in view of the intimate relations which had previously existed between these two campaigners, and the notoriously reckless disposition of CortÚs, it is not improbable. At all events, the governor's favor was suddenly regained, and with it wealth and honor came to CortÚs. He became prosperous as a planter and miner, being among the first to introduce choice cattle into Cuba and to work the mines of copper in the vicinity of Santiago. As to the poor Indians who toiled on his plantations and in his mines, many of whom died from abuse and over-work, says Las Casas, "God alone can render a proper accounting."
In the city of Santiago, to-day, may be seen the house which, according to tradition, was occupied by CortÚs while he was alcalde; in the neighborhood was his estate, and in the mountains of Cobre, across the bay, were the mines from which he derived both gold and copper. There are no descendants living of the Indians who occupied Cuba at the coming of the Spaniards, for the last vestige of them passed away before the end of the century in which the island was invaded.
With the Spaniards firmly established in Cuba, the initial point for exploration and conquest was shifted from Hispaniola and its capital city of Santo Domingo to the island subsequently known as the "Pearl of the Antilles." Governor Velasquez encouraged the veteran soldiers from the Tierra Firma (as the coast country of South America, since called the "Spanish Main," was denominated) to embark on expeditions of adventure, and especially recommended that they should organize and make a descent upon some islands between Cuba and Honduras, for the purpose of obtaining slaves.
The old soldiers were poor but honorable men; they were athirst for adventure and for gold; but they rejected the governor's overtures, and sailed off in a more northerly direction than that he had suggested. They had induced a wealthy hidalgo, one Francisco de Cordova, who then lived at Sancti Spiritus, but who had come with Velasquez from Hispaniola, to take command of their little fleet of three small vessels and embark a portion of his fortune in the enterprise. They were piloted by the celebrated Alaminos, who had been with Columbus, and who later was in charge of the first vessel that made the voyage from Mexico to Spain.
Setting sail from Santiago one day in February, 1517, they finally made land at the northeastern extremity of the peninsula now know as Yucatan. Their pilot was not of great service, for they had wandered into unknown waters; but he was probably guided by the accounts left by Columbus, who learned of the Yucatan and Honduras coast in 1502, and by the vague description of De Solis and Pinzon, who had sighted it in 1506.
Still these bold adventurers were the first white men to land and "take possession" of the country—at least they were the first to make the attempt to do so; but were everywhere received with hostility by the natives, who in several battles killed half the entire company of 110, and wounded every one of the survivors, including the captain and Alaminos. In their extremity, the adventurers burned their smallest vessel, and in the two craft remaining sped across the Gulf of Mexico to Florida. Thence they finally made their way to the harbor of Havana, where, two years later, a city was founded.
Captain Cordova was taken across the island to his plantation, where he soon died of his wounds, and an express was sent over-land to Santiago, informing the governor of what the first expedition from Cuba had discovered. As some idols and ornaments of wrought gold had been found in a temple (which were, of course, secured and taken to Cuba), and as great cities built of stone had been seen, indicating a populous and probably wealthy country, the imagination of Velasquez took fire at once. He immediately commenced the fitting-out of another expedition, this time mainly at his own expense, which he placed under the command of his nephew, Juan de Grijalva, a worthy young man, and sent couriers all over the island for volunteers.
The unfortunate remnants of the first venture, veterans of many campaigns and planters of the island, had been compelled to shift for themselves, after landing at Havana, and had suffered many hardships. But such was the spirit of adventure that animated the restless souls of these gallant men, that all who were able to go enlisted at once, and also many others, so that a company of 200 was raised for the second expedition, which consisted of four vessels well equipped.
This second Cuban expedition, under command of Grijalva, sailed from the port of Matanzas early in April, 1518, ten days later passing the western cape of Cuba, and in eight more sighting the beautiful island of Cozumel, off the east coast of Yucatan. The strong sea-currents had set them to the southward of Cordova's course, but eight days later they landed at Champotan, where the first explorers had met with defeat, and where Grijalva's men were set upon by the natives, who were beaten back with great loss.
Thus, alternately fighting the ferocious Indians and sailing along the shores of an unknown land, Grijalva finally arrived at a point much farther westward than any white man had ever been before in those waters. He was rewarded not only by the discovery of a river (originally called the Grijalva, now the Tabasco), but by finding natives who received him hospitably, bringing the Spaniards quantities of cooked provisions and golden ornaments in the shape of birds and lizards.
These objects of gold, they informed Grijalva, came from a rich and powerful country far distant inland, known as "Acolhua," or "Mexico," words which the Spaniards first heard at that time. Still farther on, as the "River of Banners" (so called from the many Indians seen there with white flags), the Spaniards first met with emissaries of the great Montezuma, ruler over Mexico.