The Conquest of Mexico
It was now that the usefulness of the brigantines was shown. A few days after Cortez had begun his blockade the bosom of the lake was covered with Aztec canoes full of warriors. The tiny craft dashed hither and thither, hurling showers of arrows at the Spaniards, landing Indians at unprotected spots, and scurrying away when they were attacked. Cortez sailed his fleet right into their midst, ramming them as he went, and sinking and disabling so many canoes that the face of the lake was soon covered with drowning Aztecs. After this they rarely ventured to put to sea in their boats.
Then Cortez made a dash into the city, advanced as far as the old barrack which he had left on the sad night, and gazed at the great Teocalli on which the Spaniards had raised their altar, and from the top of which they had pitched the Aztec god. A new god had been set up in his place—a horrid, grinning god, daubed with blood; the Spaniards pulled him from his stand, and rolled him down the side of the Teocalli, with his priests on top of him. But Cortez did not find it easy to get out of the city. The Aztecs tried to cut off his retreat, and they were numerous and fought with the courage of despair. They failed, however, and Cortez renewed the attack next day, and the day after, and the clay after that. Once again he pushed to the old barrack and set it on fire. He burned also Montezuma's palace, and with it the royal aviary, a splendid building in which, it was said, there were specimens of all the birds in America. The beautiful songsters, and the gorgeous parrots, and the great fierce eagles were all burned.
When Montezuma died he was succeeded by his brother. When he died of smallpox the nobles chose a nephew of Montezuma's, Guatemozin, to reign over them. He was twenty-five years old, handsome, brave, and a fighter: the Spaniards he hated with a deadly hate. He swore on his Teocalli before his Aztec gods that he would wipe the white men off the face of the earth.
He did, in fact, defend his city bravely and intelligently. Hardly a day passed without a bloody fight. But the Aztec could not make Cortez let go his hold. He was a Spanish bulldog. His lines gradually contracted round Mexico, and throttled it in their grasp. Cortez pulled down the houses as he advanced, and with their materials filled up the gaps in the causeways so that they could not be reopened. Meantime no food could enter the city. The inhabitants began to suffer terribly from famine. They ate the bark and leaves from trees, and drank brackish water. Such diet weakened them so that they had not strength to bury their dead.
Still they would not yield. In pity for their sufferings Guatemozin would have listened to Cortez's proposal for a capitulation, but the priests, who knew that Spanish conquest would finish their vocation, insisted on holding out, and the people obeyed them. Men who were crippled by wounds or helpless from disease, women who were starving, and saw their children starving before their eyes, still met the Spaniards with the cry of "No surrender!"
Then another twist was given to the chain which was grinding the great Aztec city; more buildings were burned and pulled down, and more soldiers of Guatemozin, who were almost too weak to hold their weapons, were done to death. The Spaniards did not have the heart to kill the poor defenceless creatures, but the Tlascalans, and the other native troops who were serving under Cortez, had no compunctions; they slew every creature that had life, even to the women and children. Day after day Cortez sent messengers to Guatemozin entreating an interview to arrange terms of peace; but though Cortez held seven-eighths of the city, and Guatemozin and his men were penned up in the other eighth with their wives and children, and the dead and the dying, without food, and in an air poisoned by disease, the Aztec emperor said he would not meet the Spaniard. He said he was ready to die where he was.
"Go, then," said Cortez to his messenger, "and prepare for death. The hour has come."
Then the attack began on August 21st, 1521, and the Indian allies renewed their massacres. Guatemozin, leaping into a canoe with his beautiful young wife, the daughter of Montezuma, endeavored to escape across the lake; but he was intercepted by a brigantine, made prisoner, and carried before Cortez. When he was taken all resistance ceased. To Cortez the captive king said proudly—
"I have done all that I could to defend myself and my people. Now deal with me, Malinche, as you will."
"Fear not," replied Cortez, "you shall be treated with all honor."
And he sent for Guatemozin's wife, whom he intrusted to the care of Marina—the gallant girl who had stood by her friend's side in all the dangers and hardships of the campaign, and who was richly entitled to a share of his triumph.
I wish I could say that Cortez kept his word. But I cannot. First, the Spanish soldiers, disappointed at the small amount of treasure they found in Mexico, accused Guatemozin of having hid it; at their request Cortez put the captive king to the torture to make him disclose where it was hidden. He confessed nothing, having probably nothing to confess. Then, on a charge that Guatemozin had concocted a plot against the Spaniards, Cortez had him arrested and hanged to a tree by the road-side.
His beautiful young wife survived him, became a Christian, and married in succession three Castilian nobles.
Cortez gave her a splendid estate. You may be glad, perhaps, to hear that Marina, who had been so loyal and useful. to Cortez, also became a Christian and married a Castilian knight, with whom she lived happily on an estate which Cortez bestowed on her. On her last journey in Cortez's company she passed through the place of her birth, and there met her mother, who had sold her when she was a child. The old woman was terrified, and fell on her knees, supposing that her daughter came to avenge herself. But Marina raised her, kissed her, made her many presents, and said she bore no grudge for an act which had been the means of enabling her to become a Christian.
After the conquest, Cortez rebuilt the City of Mexico, and restored it as it had been, all except the Teocallis. Then, an attempt having been made to overthrow him by the same Archdeacon Fonseca who had persecuted Columbus—he was now Bishop of Burgos—he returned to Spain. There the Emperor Charles received him in state, thanked him for the work he had done, made him a marquis, gave him an estate in Mexico on which there were twenty-four towns and villages, with twenty-three thousand natives whom he was free to enslave, and appointed him Captain-General of New Spain.
Thus rewarded and honored, he returned in 1530 to Mexico, and explored the Pacific Coast as far north as California. But his exploring expeditions cost much and brought him in nothing; at the end of ten years, in 1540, he found himself in debt. He returned to Spain, and begged King Charles to relieve him from his embarrassments. Charles was not in the habit of paying other men's debts. He received Cortez coldly, and would not answer his letters, which so preyed on the conqueror's mind that he fell ill at Seville and died.
In the will which he made before his death, there is one provision which will strike you as curious in one who was as unscrupulous as Cortez had often shown himself to be. He owned a number of Indian slaves. As to them he says:
"It has long been a question whether one can conscientiously hold property in Indian slaves. I enjoin upon my son Martin to spare no pains to come to an exact knowledge of the truth on this question, as a matter which concerns his conscience and mine."
After his death his body had almost as many adventures as it had met with in life. It was at first laid in the Medina-Sidonia vault, in the monastery of San Isidro, at Seville. Fifteen years afterwards his son removed it to the monastery of San Francisco, in Tezeuco, Mexico. From thence, after sixty years, it was moved, and was reburied with great pomp in the Church of St. Francis, in the City of Mexico. More than a century afterwards, it resumed its travels, and was reinterred, in a glass coffin bound with silver, in a church which Cortez had himself founded in Mexico. Finally, in 1823, a mob threatening the church, some descendants of Cortez secretly opened the coffin and took out the bones. Whether they were ever replaced I do not know.