Gateway to the Classics: Hernando Cortes Conqueror of Mexico by Frederick A. Ober
Hernando Cortes Conqueror of Mexico by  Frederick A. Ober

The Spaniards Meet with Disaster


CortÚs was now universally recognized as the greatest man in Mexico—in America. By the victory which he had wrested from threatened defeat, he found himself in command of a total force of nearly 1500 men, including ninety cavalry and 1000 infantry. He detached from his force those most likely to cause trouble, and sent them off to colonize along the coast, while with his usual promptness he prepared to explore the unknown regions to the northward and southward.

He had distributed bribes and gifts to the newcomers with a free hand, leaving his veterans with almost nothing. Indeed, he even compelled them to return the horses, arms, and armor of which they had despoiled the enemy, replying to their indignant protests that, inasmuch as the men of Narvaez were still more numerous than themselves, it was policy to placate them with these gifts, especially as they would soon be fighting with them against the Mexicans. Little thought CortÚs, however, of what was in store for him and them respecting the reception that enemy had prepared for their return. Scarcely had he begun to reduce order from the chaotic conditions which succeeded to the fight at Cempoalla, than messengers arrived, both from Montezuma and Alvarado, with a story of disaster for which he was quite unprepared. A terrible massacre had been committed, 600 Mexican nobles having been slain, and as a consequence the capital was ablaze with the fires of a popular insurrection. Alvarado, who had been a favorite with Montezuma, second only to CortÚs himself, and to whom the emperor had given the Mexican name of Tonatiuh, or the Sun-faced Man, on account of his ruddy complexion, red hair, and sunny disposition, was also a trusted friend of CortÚs, sharing his energy of character, but without his discretion and judgment. While CortÚs was battling for his life in Vera Cruz, Alvarado was approached by some of the nobles and priests with the request that they be permitted to celebrate the feast of their war-god by their customary ceremonies in the great court of the palace in which the Spaniards were quartered. It fell due in the month of May, and as their king had always taken part in this festival, by dancing with the nobles, they also requested that he be allowed to do so now.

Alvarado refused permission for Montezuma to join them in the festival, but he allowed them to assemble for the purpose in the great court-yard, which was usually occupied by the Tlascalan allies. There they gathered, in their richest garbs and wearing their most valuable ornaments. They were unarmed, and probably had no evil intentions towards the Spaniards; but while in the midst of their ceremonials, and utterly defenceless, they were attacked by Alvarado's soldiers. The terrible massacre at Cholula was here repeated; only in this instance there was not the shadow of an excuse for the act, except for the whispered suspicions of the Tlascalans, who reported that the nobles had secreted their weapons outside the walls of the palace and planned to raise an insurrection of the people.

The excuse that Alvarado gave, when sternly brought to account by CortÚs, was that he had suspicion of their hostile intentions, and so put them to the sword, having in mind that "the first attack is half the battle. In this instance it was the whole of it, for not a soul was left of that band of nobles, the "flower of Mexican aristocracy."

Whatever may have been Alvarado's motive for this massacre, he and his fellow-murderers did not fail to strip the bodies of the slain, reaping a rich though blood-stained harvest of jewels. Avarice probably prompted him to his horrible deed, which, as CortÚs sternly told him, was that of a madman. After all was over, after the dead nobles had been pillaged and thrust without the walls, the city for a space was ominously silent. Then the infuriated populace dashed against the palace walls, like the waves of ocean in a storm. Though beaten back again and again by the deadly fire of musketry and artillery, they breached the defences, and might have captured the palace by brute force had not Montezuma appeared on the battlements. He addressed the enraged people, praying them to desist, and they so far respected his wishes as to retire, but only changed their tactics, without abating their fury in the least, by throwing up barricades, and so closely investing the palace that not one of its inmates could escape.

This was the condition of affairs in Mexico when CortÚs arrived at the causeway leading to the capital, over which he had marched in triumph seven months before. It was June 24, 1520, that he made his second entry; but this time what a contrast was afforded to his first reception! For the great causeway, throughout its entire length, was entirely deserted, and only a few Indians were visible, standing silently in the door-ways of their houses, and scowling fiercely at the conqueror, whom they had previously received with rejoicings. Strangely enough, though the Aztecs were aware of his coming, they had not offered to impede his progress by raising the bridges or obstructing the causeway, and the troop marched swiftly to the central square, where, the besiegers yielding sullenly before them, they found the gates of the palace closed and not a Spaniard visible. At last, Alvarado appeared, and, learning from the lips of CortÚs that he was still in supreme command, ordered the gates thrown open to his countrymen and their allies.

Scant time was afforded them for greetings or congratulations, since the Mexicans had retired only temporarily, in order to admit the reinforcements into the trap they had set for their destruction. They could easily have prevented them from entering the city; but they chose, rather, to get the hated invaders together and then overwhelm them in a resistless attack. The city contained at least 300,000 people, perhaps one-fifth that number being warriors who were ready to sacrifice their lives in an attempt to destroy the Spaniards utterly. Against this vast though untrained and irregular force, CortÚs could oppose less than 1800 armed soldiers and 8000 native allies, chiefly Tlascalan warriors.

Against mere numbers, CortÚs felt himself invincible; but the Mexicans had summoned an ally that could reduce the stoutest force and largest army to terms. This ally was famine. All the besiegers had to do was to cut off the supply of food and water, and time would perform the rest. When CortÚs learned that the great market was closed, and that supplies no longer came in, he sent a threatening message to Montezuma, who replied that he could do nothing, being a prisoner, but suggested the release of his brother, Cuitlahuatzin, lord of Iztapalapan, who could then use his authority. Immediately on entering the city, CortÚs had been informed that Montezuma sent his congratulations and was awaiting him in the court. But the conqueror, having a suspicion that the deposed monarch had been treating with Narvaez, angrily exclaimed: "Away with him, the dog! What have I to do with him?" The remark being repeated to Montezuma, he was deeply grieved; but his revenge came swiftly, for, upon the release of Cuitlahuatzin, the people thereby secured what they had hitherto lacked—a leader. Instead of opening the market and sending supplies to the Spaniards, the wily Aztec organized and armed his warriors so rapidly that the next morning they stormed the Spanish quarters by thousands.

Convinced that in releasing the powerful Aztec prince he had committed an error fatal to his safety, CortÚs did what he could to repair it by ordering a foray by 400 men, who were drawn into an ambuscade and compelled to retreat, with a loss of twenty-three killed and many wounded. The thronging warriors pursued the Spaniards to the gates, and sent into the courts of the palace such a tempest of darts and arrows, great stones and javelins, that cart-loads of these rude but effective weapons were afterwards collected. Flaming arrows set the palace roof on fire. A breach was opened in the wall, and through it the Mexicans poured like a flood, which was only stayed by the incessant play of cannon and musketry.

All through the night the wearied Spaniards worked at repairing the openings made by the Aztecs in their fortification, and at daylight of the second morning were called upon to repel yet other hordes of warriors, who came on regardless of the gaps made in their ranks by the fire-arms. In such dense masses they pressed forward that the gunners had no occasion to take aim, for they could not miss, fire where they would.

While the swarming warriors battled in the streets and squares, other thousands covered the azoteas, or flat roof-tops, of structures surrounding the palace, and poured into its courts a plunging rain of missiles, killing some and wounding a great number, both of the Spaniards and Tlascalans. The genius of CortÚs set itself to combat this new evil, and he caused to be constructed three large military machines, called mantas, like movable fortresses or castles, each one mounted on wheels and defended by twenty soldiers. These mantas  were pierced with port-holes for cannon and loop-holes for arquebuses and cross-bows; but, when pushed out of the gateway and against the walls, they soon failed of their purpose, as the Aztecs tumbled down huge stones from the roof-tops, which crushed not only the frail timbers of which they were made, but the valiant soldiers beneath them.

While every man of the garrison acted the part of a hero, compelled thereto by the desperate nature of the situation, the animating spirit of the company was stout CortÚs himself, who was at the front in every adventure, exposing himself with a reckless disregard of life excelled only by the Aztecs themselves. On the third day, after the failure of the attack with the mantas  (which were finally abandoned in the plaza), CortÚs led another charge with his cavalry down the great street of Tlacopan. The instant his cavalcade emerged from the palace gateway it was set upon by the swarming warriors, who surrounded it on every side. The horses were unable to keep their footing on the slippery pavement of the plaza, and several of them were soon cut down, and their riders either killed or borne away captive to the great temple for sacrifice. CortÚs was compelled to sound the retreat; but just as he turned back he caught a glimpse of his friend, Duero, desperately fighting against great odds, and at once dashed to his rescue, shouting his battle-cry of "Santiago!" He scattered the crowd of Aztecs by the fury of his charge, and assisting Duero to mount his horse (from which he had been dragged by his assailants), he led the way back to the troop, and finally regained the palace court safe and sound, though greatly exhausted.

The Mexicans fighting under Cuitlahuatzin had done what no other opponents of the Spaniards in America had accomplished before: they had compelled them to retreat. The prestige attaching to their name and deeds was destroyed, and the Aztecs no longer feared them as immortals whom their weapons could not kill. They had resolved to crush the Spaniards by mere weight of numbers hurled upon them in impenetrable masses. Many individuals of those masses would fall, never to rise again; but the work of destruction would go on until not an invader remained.

They fought for the glory of their war-god, who, they cried out to the Spaniards, in the thick of battle and in the night-watches (when they ceased from fighting), was tired of waiting for his victims. "But the gods have delivered you, at last, into our hands!" they shouted. "The stone of sacrifice is ready. The knives of iztli  are sharpened. The wild beasts of the temple are waiting to devour you! The great serpent-drum will soon proclaim your fate to others yet to be devoured!"

The great temple, the teocalli, was the actual centre of attack on the part of the Spaniards and of defence by the Mexicans. It towered above the palace of Axayacatl, but on the opposite side of the plaza, to a height, including the towers in which the gods were housed, of nearly 150 feet. Five or six hundred Mexican warriors had taken their stand upon the summitplatform of the teocalli, where they had fortified themselves, and from which point of vantage they poured down a perfect deluge of great stones, darts, arrows—missiles of every sort.

As they commanded the entire area of the palace, its open courts, battlements, and all approaches, the Spanish position was becoming untenable, and CortÚs ordered Too of his best soldiers to storm the temple and dislodge the warriors. They made three different attempts to do so, but were driven back in confusion, and he resolved to lead the assault in person; for, if the Aztecs were not driven off, the Spaniards must retreat or be destroyed. He was already suffering from a severe wound in his left hand, but he lashed his shield to arm and wrist, and, flourishing his sword, called for volunteers to follow him to what appeared to be certain death for all.

The gates were thrown open and the cavaliers charged into the square; but the pavements were now so slippery with blood that the horses fell repeatedly, and so were sent back, while the dismounted riders pursued their way on foot. There were 300 of them, led by CortÚs, closely followed by his bravest cavaliers, such as Alvarado, Sandoval, and Ordaz. They were supported by a troop of infantry, and by 3000 Tlascalans, who held the gathering crowds of Aztecs in check while the swordsmen and arquebusiers sprang up the terraced slopes. Five times they were compelled to pass around the pyramid, fighting from one terrace to another, before they gained the elevated platform in mid-air, where were gathered the Mexican priests and nobles.

"From the steps of the great temple they opposed us in front" (says a participant in this, the bloodiest battle of the war), "and we were attacked by such numbers on both sides that, although our guns swept off ten or fifteen at each discharge, and in each attack of our infantry we killed as many with our swords, we could not make any effectual impression or ascend the steps. Here CortÚs showed himself the man that he really was. What a desperate engagement we then had! Every man of us was covered with blood, and above forty were left dead upon the spot."

Furious at this attack upon their sanctuary, the Mexicans rallied about their imperiled nobles in vast numbers. Four or five thousand rushed into the surrounding enclosure and up the steps of the pyramid, defending it with lances, slings, and javelins.

But it was of no avail. The mail-clad warriors, in their armor of impenetrable steel, bore everything before them, and, though three hours elapsed before this dreadful conflict ended, they finally succeeded in setting fire to the temples of the gods. Two or three priests alone survived of the Mexicans, more than 500 having been slain in that battle in the air, while fifty Spaniards were killed, and nearly all of the gallant band covered with wounds.

CortÚs himself had a narrow escape from death when two stalwart savages endeavored to drag him over the edge of the precipitous platform; but he shook them off by a mighty effort, and they lost their lives, without recompense, for their heroic action. Many a man, Aztec as well as Spaniard, had preceded them down the steep slopes of the pyramid, meeting death among the fighting hordes below; and many thousands more had gone that way, victims of barbarian sacrifice, during the years of Aztec domination. Down these same steps, or terraces, the Aztec priests were wont to tumble the headless carcasses of the war-god's victims—whether of young men taken in battle or maidens in the bloom of youth—whose hearts had first been offered to the grim Huitzilopochtli.

No more of these sacrifices were to be made before him now, as he was soon dislodged from his high place in the temple-tower and sent headlong to the base of the pyramid, while the oratory in which he was enshrined, its walls bespattered with human gore, went up in flames, that proclaimed to all around the Spaniards' victory. CortÚs thought that by showing the Aztecs the impotency of their gods he might win them over to his side, or at least lead them to abjure their idols; but the effect of their war-god's downfall was only to increase their rage and hate. They stubbornly disputed his passage back to the palace, though many of their chiefs were slain in the fight on the pyramid; and they replied to his arguments, later, that though he had destroyed their temples, disfigured their gods, and massacred their countrymen, they were content, so long as they were sure of their revenge. "Our only sorrow is," they said, "that there will be too few of you left to satisfy the vengeance of our gods . . . . You must soon fall into our hands, for your provisions are failing; and, moreover, the bridges are broken down, and you cannot escape!"  This was the answer returned to CortÚs when, having called a conference of the few remaining nobles, he tried to arrange terms for peace. The indomitable Aztecs would not listen to talk of peace; their united voice was for war, bitter war, to the end.

They had not only hunger and consuming thirst to fight, but still the dauntless enemy, for when they had gained their quarters they found them almost in possession of the Aztecs, who had again broken down the walls and were swarming into the palace, like wolves into a sheepfold. These were driven out, but the next morning the conflict was renewed with redoubled ferocity, and they succeeded in penetrating as far as the great court, where the Spaniards fought them hand to hand. Finally expelled from the palace, leaving behind them hundreds of dead and wounded, the enemy repeatedly stormed the walls, set fire to the roof of the building, and showered upon its inmates countless missiles—arrows, stones, and darts.

CortÚs had scorned and insulted the Aztec sovereign; he had made him appear an enemy of his own people, had deprived him of liberty and all his treasures; yet so desperate was the situation that he sent for Montezuma, and humbly desired him to show himself upon the battlements and beg his countrymen to desist from their attacks. The dejected king replied to the message: "What have I to do with Malintzin? I desire neither to hear him, nor to live any longer, since it is on his account I am reduced to this unhappy fate!"

At length he yielded, and went out upon the azotea, attended by some soldiers, who held their shields ready to protect him as he addressed the people. The chiefs and nobles, as soon as their former lord and master appeared, commanded their troops to refrain from fighting, and, the tumult having abated, the multitude awaited what he had to tell them. Many were on their knees, doing homage to the once-mighty one, as he, in faltering accents, requested them to disperse to their homes, and pledged his word that the Spaniards would retire from the city.

Four of the principal nobility, who had advanced in front of the others, then interrupted him, saying that they had raised his brother to the throne made vacant by his action in choosing to associate with the invaders, whom they had solemnly promised their gods never to cease fighting until they were utterly destroyed. But they added that they daily prayed for his safety and deliverance, and should never cease to venerate him as their priest and king.

It was evident to the populace, however, that he was no longer held in veneration, and they showed their change of attitude by a shower of stones and arrows, which flew like hail about the person of his majesty. The attendant soldiers, who had relaxed their vigilance, hastened to interpose their shields; but it was too late. He was thrice wounded, and by a stone which struck him on the temple rendered unconscious, in which condition he was borne to his quarters, where he lingered a few days, then expired.

"CortÚs and our captains wept for him," wrote one of the Spaniards who knew him, "and he was lamented by them and all the soldiers who had known him as if he had been their father; nor is it to be wondered at, considering how good he was." Still, he was as surely murdered by the Spaniards as if they had driven a dagger into his breast. They were impressed, not so much by his goodness as by his generosity.

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