"In later years a time will come when ocean shall relax his bars,
and a vast territory shall appear."
—Seneca (died 67 A.D.)
W E now come to one of the most romantic chapters in the world's history—the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortes, and the tragic end of Mexico's native king, Montezuma.
A new and glorious world had been thrown open. No longer did the Spanish sailors recoil with horror at the thought of the dark and stormy waters of the broad Atlantic. There was treasure beyond. Was it not a land of gold and pearls? Ship after ship sailed across in safety, always making for Hayti or Cuba, the West Indies of Columbus. From these centres the Spaniards sailed to unknown coasts, and wandered about strange new countries.
One day in the year 1518, some Spaniards, sailing west from Cuba, landed on soil and met natives, whom they at once recognised as different to any they had seen before. They were astonished to see houses built of stone and lime, the soil cultivated, gold ornaments on the people, and delicately made cotton garments. They gave the Spaniards rich treasures of jewels, and golden ornaments of wondrous form and workmanship. Surely here was a rich country, a country which must be conquered for Spain as soon as possible.
A messenger was sent off to the mother country with news of this rich discovery and its treasures of gold. The king—no longer Ferdinand—was pleased; and he soon selected a rich subject, Fernando Cortes, to take charge of an expedition to this new country, which the natives called Mexico. Cortes had already been to Cuba. He was delighted at the prospect of his new work. He received his instructions from the King of Spain. He was to convert the Indians of Mexico to the Christian faith; he was to impress on them the greatness of Spain, to which country they should in future look for protection, showing their good will by presents of pearls, gold, and precious jewels. All was to be done for the service of God and the king.
On the 18th of November 1518, Cortes set sail from Spain. His banner was a red cross set amid flames of blue and white, on a background of black velvet and gold, bearing the motto: "Friends, let us follow the cross, and under this sign we shall conquer."
Arrived at Cuba he mustered his forces. There were one hundred and ten sailors, five hundred and fifty-three soldiers, two hundred natives from Cuba, together with ten heavy guns and sixteen horses. A small enough force for the conquest of Mexico. Before embarking, Cortes addressed his men.
"I hold out to you a glorious prize," he said, "but it is to be won by incessant toil. Be true to me, as I will be true to you. You are few in number but strong in resolution, and if this does not fail, the Almighty, who has never deserted the Spaniard in his contest with the heathen, will shield you, for your cause is a just one, and you are to fight under the banner of the cross."
With great enthusiasm for their leader Cortes, they crossed over to the coast of Mexico. It was April 21—Good Friday—in the year 1519, when Cortes landed his little force on the very spot where now stands the modern town of Vera Cruz. Little did he think, as he set foot on this desolate beach, that one day a flourishing city should arise to be a market of Eastern trade and the commercial capital of New Spain.
Natives now flocked to the shore, bringing presents to the Spanish general,—fine cottons, feather-work cloaks, and ornaments of gold,—till the men grew enthusiastic over the riches of Mexico. Cortes asked if he could see the ruler of this rich country. He told them all about the great King of Spain, who had sent him thither. That there should be another ruler in the world as great as their great emperor Montezuma surprised the natives not a little. They must go and tell him all this news.
Then a curious thing happened. One native took a pencil and sketched, on a piece of canvas or cotton, pictures of the Spaniards—their dress, their shining helmets, their pointed beards, their arms. Nothing was lost on these Mexican painters. They drew the ships—the water-houses as they called them—with their dark hulls and snow-white sails, as they swung lazily at anchor in the bay. To impress them yet more deeply, Cortes ordered his soldiers to go through some of their military exercises on horseback. The clever management of the fiery horses on the wet sand, the shrill blast of the trumpets, the shining swords, filled the natives with surprise. But when they heard the thunder of the guns, and saw the smoke and flame of the cannon, they were filled with terror.
They must indeed go and tell their great Montezuma of all they had seen and heard, and they would bring the Spaniards word again whether he would grant Cortes an audience.