THE one thing the early Spaniards wanted above all else was gold. For it they were willing to abandon their homes and families in the Old World, undergo all kinds of hardships and suffering, treat the Indians with great cruelty, and often imperil their own lives. Thus we see what men will do when possessed of a greed for wealth!
In Cuba there lived a Spanish gentleman named Hernando Cortez. He was the son of wealthy parents, and he had studied law. But when nineteen years of age, he had run away from home to find adventures in America. He possessed wonderful courage and great command over men; but by nature he was very cruel. He loved gold, as all the others did in those days, but he loved power and adventure as much as he did wealth.
Cortez heard stories about the wonderful wealth of the King of Mexico. It was said that gold was so common among them that the very people ate and drank from golden vessels. The King was said to live in a palace so covered with gold that it shone like the sun, while he and all his attendants were believed to wear gold embroidered clothes every day. These fabulous stories were told by the natives, and the Spaniards were wild with excitement.
Cortez was placed at the head of an expedition designed to conquer Mexico, and with him were the bravest of the Spanish captains and the wildest adventurers in the New World. Nothing suited Cortez better than this expedition, and with hope he and his men set forth.
The ruler of Mexico was the proud Montezuma. He was far beyond the ordinary Indian in his ways and manners. He lived in a palace, and fared sumptuously upon the dainties of his land. Was it not said of him that he ate fresh fish, brought every day from the coast by runners who came in relays over two hundred miles? Around him was every kind of comfort and luxury, and Mexico, the capital city, showed many evidences of a high civilization.
When Cortez landed at Vera Cruz, Indian runners carried swift word of the stranger to Montezuma, as he sat on his throne in Mexico City. The King turned pale as he heard of the white men, riding strange animals, killing their enemies with the aid of weapons that gave out smoke and made noises like many thunders. He cried in dismay, "They are the children of the sun, who, according to the traditions of my country, have come to take away my throne. Alas! woe is me, and woe is Mexico!" And the brave Indian monarch shed tears of distress.
The runners were sent back to Cortez, bearing presents of gold, jewels, and rich cloth, and begging him to begone with his men and leave the country in peace. When Cortez saw the gifts, his eyes blazed with greed, and he said, "Go tell your Montezuma we will visit him in his palace, even if we have to force our way. Tell him also that we have a disease of the heart; it will take much gold to cure us!"
The King heard this message with dismay, for he did not understand why men should want gold. They could not eat or wear it, and he feared their coming to his beautiful capital.
Cortez burned his ships, so that his men could not think of retreat, and then set out on his march to Mexico City. The terrified natives fled before him at the sight of his horses, and at the sound of his cannon and guns. The roads over the mountains were smooth, with here and there a stone house built nearby for the convenience of traders.
At last Cortez and his adventurers came to a point where they could look down over the city of Mexico. Great white stone buildings, were seen on an island in the middle of a lake, connected with the mainland by means of bridges. The temples and palaces were reflected in the clear water, and the whole scene was peaceful and beautiful. "The Land of Gold! The City of Plenty!" exclaimed Cortez, and he rested awhile before preparing for his triumphal entry.
Montezuma sat in his palace with his attendants around him. "The strangers are in the mountains," announced his chief warrior. "Shall I drive them away, or let them enter?" Montezuma thought awhile, and replied, "It will be of no avail to try and drive them away. Let them enter the city."
Cortez, on a fine horse and covered with all the trappings of war, attended by his captains and men, rode into the city. Montezuma was carried to meet him in a chair beneath a canopy of feathers. His mantle was decorated with gold and precious stones, and his bearers brought with them great quantities of food and rich gifts for the strangers. Alas for poor Montezuma! If he thought that was the way to get rid of the cruel and greedy Spaniard, he was much mistaken!
Cortez was given the freedom of the city. He went everywhere, observing the means of defense and the provisions of warfare. He visited the temples and saw the priests offering up human lives to the heathen gods. He resolved to force these people to adopt the Christian religion, and to abandon their heathen rites. He was very arrogant, and made the Mexicans give him everything he demanded.
So matters went on for several weeks, until the Mexicans showed plainly that they wanted the Spaniards to leave. But the Spaniards wanted more and more gold, and Cortez became anxious, for the natives were growing tired and unfriendly. He felt that he was walking over a volcano that might blow up at any minute. A Mexican slew one of his soldiers. This proved to Montezuma's subjects that the white man could be killed. Cortez demanded that the murderer be turned over to him for punishment, and, when this was done, the Spaniards burned him alive in the public square. The Mexicans became more sullen and dangerous.
Cortez had only two hundred men with him, and around him were thousands of Mexicans. He and his men, already loaded with plunder and in fear of their lives, resolved to escape with what they had. It would mean for them certain destruction if the Mexicans once began hostilities. Montezuma, whom Cortez had quite terrified, advised him to go, so as to escape the wrath of the Mexican people. Just about this time, Alvarado, one of the Spanish captains, witnessing the sacrifice of human lives at a Mexican religious festival, grew so indignant that he ordered his men to fire their cannon into the group, thereby killing some of the priests.
This brought matters to a crisis. The Spaniards must now indeed leave, and leave quickly. So they planned to go by night. But as they departed over the bridge that connected the city with the mainland, the Mexicans discovered them, and began a merciless attack upon them. They swarmed forth by the thousands, cutting away portions of the bridge, hurling stones and arrows, and rushing upon the Spaniards with their spears. Cortez lost many men before he could withdraw. The greedy Spanish soldiers would not follow his advice to drop their packs of gold as they fled. They clung to their plunder to the very last, and, in consequence, many were killed who might have escaped. In Spanish histories this is known as "the sorrowful night."
It took a whole year for Cortez to get enough men from Cuba and Spain to march again upon Mexico. In the meantime Montezuma had been slain by his own people, and Guatemazin reigned in his stead. This time the siege lasted three months, and thousands of the Mexicans were slain before the proud city gave way, and the conquest of Mexico was complete. Cortez had at last broken the heart of the ancient race, and from that time on Mexico was in possession of the Spanish conquerors.