Gateway to the Classics: A Child's History of Spain by John Bonner
A Child's History of Spain by  John Bonner

In the City of Mexico

A.D. 1519-1520

You will have noticed that from the first landing of Columbus in 1492 to the arrival of Cortez at the City of Mexico in 1519, the Spaniards found no race in the New World that was not savage. The natives of the islands and of the shores which they invaded could not read or write; they knew little of any art or science; many of them wore no clothes; they had no settled government or laws; they built no cities; they were in nothing above the level of the Indian tribes which still linger along the frontier settlements of the United States.

The Mexicans or Aztecs were a very different people. They came from some place in the country which is now the United States—what place I do not know—pouring down from the North upon the rich table-land of the South, just about the time the Moors were establishing their empire in Granada. In Mexico they found a race called Toltecs in possession of the country, having wrested it from its former owners some three hundred years before. Whether the Toltecs were exterminated by the Aztecs, whether they perished from disease, or whether they moved farther south into Central America, no one knows. Nothing is certain except that they disappeared, leaving the Aztecs in possession of the region which is now Central Mexico. On an island in a lake in the valley of Mexico the Aztecs founded a city which they called Tenochtitlan, but which we call Mexico.

Being a fighting people, they spread their sway over the whole country round the city, and gradually stretched their borders from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans, and from the Tropic of Cancer to Central America, Being an ingenious and intelligent people, they built their chief city of red stone, erected stone causeways across the lake, and constructed temples not quite as lofty but almost as vast as the pyramids of Egypt.

In these temples, which were called Teocallis, prisoners of war were sacrificed to the Mexican gods, and their flesh eaten by the chiefs and priests. The victim was led to the top of the Teocalli, where he could be seen from afar, was laid on a convex slab of stone, and held there by five priests, while a sixth cut open his breast with a sharp knife of itxli, and tore out his quivering heart. There were hundreds of such Teocallis in the cities of Mexico, and thousands of such victims sacrificed in them every year.

Apart from this savage custom, the Aztecs were a civilized people; they were careful farmers, and knew how to irrigate their fields; they were skilled miners; expert artisans, who could weave fine cotton cloths and feather-work; shrewd merchants, who travelled far and wide to procure goods for exchange; ingenious jewelers, who could make beautiful ornaments of gold and silver; dyers, who could reproduce almost every color; sculptors, who made statues of their gods; they treated their women well, and were kind to their children; they worshipped their king; they had a system of picture-writing in which they could express their thoughts; they understood arithmetic and astronomy, and could do long sums in addition by means of cords which had knots in them. Their system of laws was complete. They were brave, and knew much of the science of warfare.

This was the people whom Cortez had resolved in his secret heart to despoil of their country with his four hundred Spaniards.

When, on the day after his arrival, he visited Montezuma in his palace, which was splendid with fountains and tapestries and flowers and sweet-smelling herbs, the Spaniard was startled by so much magnificence; but in reply to a question as to what be wanted, he mustered up nerve to say that his business was to convert the Mexicans to Christianity. Montezuma. had no reply to make to this, but he supplied every man in Cortez's army with a new uniform, and on Cortez himself and his officers he bestowed rich gold ornaments, bidding them rest in their quarters after their fatigues, and assuring them that they should want for nothing.


Pyramid of Cholula

Cortez well knew that he could not stay there forever. He knew that he was an unwelcome visitor. If he tried to return to the coast, the Aztecs would fall upon him by the way, and make an end of his little army. He resolved upon a bold stroke. With a party of trusty men he went to the palace, and partly cajoled and partly bullied Montezuma into moving into the quarters of the Spaniards, where, of course, he became a prisoner. You will wonder why Montezuma was so foolish as to place himself in his enemies hands. I cannot explain his conduct except on the theory that he had lost his head.

He had not been long in custody when Cortez appeared before him one day, and, brusquely accusing him of having plotted against the Spaniards, ordered a soldier to put irons on his legs, and stood by while the fetters were riveted. The poor king moaned and quivered, but said not a word, though at the time one of his trusted officers, who had really conspired against the Spaniards, was actually burned alive before the window of the room in which he sat. His spirit was broken. He felt that he was no longer a king.

Cortez read his mind, and removed the fetters. He even let Montezuma go to worship at one of the temples, and go hunting in one of his game preserves—always under the strict eye of a powerful Spanish escort. But the king had no courage left. He did not try to escape, and when his nephew and other Mexican chiefs formed plans to rescue him, he showed Cortez how to seize the ringleaders, and did not object when Cortez put them in irons. He became a mere puppet in the Spaniards' hands.

Then Cortez demanded that Montezuma and his principal chiefs should acknowledge that they held the country for the King of Spain, that Charles was the true sovereign, and that they were his vassals. To this also the poor broken-spirited king agreed, and compelled his chiefs to sign with him a paper admitting that Mexico was a province of Spain. With this paper, Cortez suggested that it would be only proper to send the King of Spain a present. Montezuma agreed again, collected a large sum in gold, jewels, and fine stuffs, added to it all his own and his father's treasure, and placed the whole at the service of Cortez. The gold alone amounted to over six million dollars of our money.

When the Spaniards saw this vast treasure gathered in one spot, they could not contain their greed. They insisted on dividing the booty, and very little of it ever reached the King of Spain.


Tree of Montezuma.

Then Cortez demanded that the Mexicans should change their religion and become Christians. Here Montezuma made a stand. He said that his people would not endure anything of the kind, and he warned Cortez not to try their patience too far. The utmost he could concede was that the Spanish priests might celebrate mass on the top of a Teocalli by the side of the Mexican altars. This was done; but it irritated the Mexicans beyond bearing.

Shortly afterwards, during the absence of Cortez, who had gone to the coast to meet a detachment of Spaniards just landed from Spain, the people held one of their religious festivals. Alvarado, who commanded in Cortez's absence, had consented that they should do so provided they bore no arms. They came accordingly in their finest dresses, with all their gold and silver ornaments, but without their swords or shields; and they were no sooner engaged in singing their religious hymns and dancing their religious dances than the Spaniards fell upon them, butchered them all, and tore the ornaments from the dead and the dying.

Next morning every man in Mexico flew to arms, and attacked the Spanish barrack. They would have stormed it, and it would have gone hard with the garrison, for the long pent-up fury of the Mexicans was all ablaze, when Montezuma mounted the battlements, and ordered the attack to cease. You can form an idea of the docility of the Aztecs when you learn that the king's order was obeyed. The mob fell back, and resolved to besiege the Spaniards in their barrack. When Cortez returned from Vera Cruz with his reinforcements, he found himself caught in a trap.

The people of Mexico would sell the Spaniards no food. They would not let a man of them go out of the barrack in search of water, of which the barrack supply was exhausted. They shut them up with a wall which no one could pass. Cortez lost his temper for the first time, When Montezuma called to welcome him on his return, he growled:

"What have I to do with this dog of a king who lets us starve before his eyes?"

On studying the ground, he still felt sure that he could hold his own; but one morning a messenger he had sent out came back breathless and bleeding, crying:

"The whole city is in arms! The draw bridges have been raised, and our retreat is cut off!"

Soon a roar like an approaching thunder-storm filled the air. It grew louder and louder, and Cortez, from the top of the battlements, could see long black waves of warriors rolling up the streets towards the barrack, while the tops of the houses near by were covered with archers and javelin-men, who shook their fists and their weapons at the imprisoned Spaniards.

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