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

An Invasion by Narvaez


If CortÚs had been content with temporal dominion merely, all might have been well, at least for a while; but he was not satisfied while the worship of the Aztec gods went on openly in the teocallis  and that of his own deity was conducted in secret. With a troop of soldiers one day he invaded the teocallis  and threatened to sweep the idols from their thrones, but was temporarily pacified by the assignment of a sanctuary on the pyramid-top as a chapel for the Virgin. This place was cleansed, an altar and crucifix erected and left in charge of a disabled soldier, who kept his lonely vigils amid the priests and Aztec idols, who were anything but congenial company.

In consequence of this invasion of the temple by CortÚs (Montezuma soon assured him), the Aztec priests had received a message from their gods threatening to leave them entirely at the mercy of the invaders unless the latter were immediately put to death. "I find," said the emperor, "that I am threatened [by the priests] with the direst punishments of Heaven if I allow you to remain any longer in my kingdom; and such discontent already prevails among my nobles that, unless I quickly remove the cause, it will be altogether impossible to pacify them. Wherefore it has become necessary for my own safety, as well as for yours, and the good of all the kingdom, that you prepare at once to return to your native land!"

This decision was communicated to CortÚs more than six months after Montezuma had been made captive, or some time in May, 1520, so the Spaniard could not complain of undue haste in the matter, yet he professed to be very much astonished.

"I am surprised at what you say," he exclaimed; "yet I have heard, and thank you much. Name a time when you wish us to depart, and so it shall be."

"Take the time that seems to you necessary," rejoined the sovereign; "but do not delay without cause. Meanwhile, I will order that when you do go two loads of gold shall be given you, and a load for each of your companions."

"I thank your majesty," said CortÚs, in reply (having by this time invented an excuse for delay), "but you are already well aware how I destroyed my ships, when I first landed in your territory. So now we have need of others in order to return, and I beg that you will restrain your priests and warriors until I can build them. I should feel obliged, also, if you would loan me workmen to fell the trees and shape the timbers. I myself have ship-builders, and when the vessels are built we will take our departure."

Montezuma willingly assented to this plan, and promptly ordered Aztec axemen sent to the coast at Vera Cruz, where, under the direction of a skilled shipwright, Martin Lopez (who had built the brigantines then on the lake), the work went on in good earnest. The ships were begun—of that there is little doubt; but CortÚs had no intention to depart, and cast about for some other excuse for remaining. His artful mind was resourceful in emergencies, and so he said: "Your majesty, there is one other thing of which, I presume, you are well aware. It is this: when we go I shall be under the necessity of taking your majesty with us, in order to present you to my sovereign lord, the emperor of Spain." This proposition was by no means agreeable to Montezuma, and he became very pensive and sad; but he did not long continue in this state, for he one day sent for CortÚs, and informed him that there was now no necessity either for remaining longer or for building the ships. Then he spread before him a picture-chart that he had received by courier from the coast, upon which was plainly depicted a fleet of eighteen vessels recently arrived at Vera Cruz. "Now, Malintzin," exclaimed the delighted Montezuma, "you can go at once, for here are ships enough to carry all."

"Yes, and bless the great Redeemer for his mercies," answered CortÚs, joyfully. But he knew that those eighteen ships had not come from Cuba without a purpose, and debated within himself what that purpose was. At first it was thought they contained reinforcements, and taking this view the Spaniards filled the city with the sounds of their rejoicings, discharging cannon, shouting, and firing off their arquebuses.

These eleven ships and seven brigantines, containing 1400 soldiers and a vast quantity of munitions, had been sent by Governor Velasquez, of Cuba, and, consequently, were not intended for the assistance of CortÚs, but for his subjection. The expedition was commanded by one Panfilo de Narvaez, a companion of Velasquez, and he had instructions to overcome CortÚs and take him to Cuba, dead or alive; though it made little difference which, for he was to be executed, on arrival there, as a rebel, a traitor to his king and to Velasquez.

Montezuma was informed as to the true purport of this expedition, as was made apparent by his changed demeanor, and the insolence of the priests and nobles increased to such an extent that the Spaniards became greatly alarmed, "expecting every moment to be attacked." Their fears were justified, according to Dona Marina, who was familiar with the attendants at court, and by the terror and tears of little Ortego, a Spanish lad to whom Montezuma had become attached, and who served him as page and interpreter. Though intrenched within the massive walls of the great palace, with cannon commanding the gates and sentinels pacing the battlements, the Spanish soldiers never slept except in their armor; their steeds were always saddled, with bridles on the pommels, and every man was prepared for the worst.

CortÚs called a council of his officers, and, as his wont was when in trouble, he distributed gifts among the men as well as promises. He flattered his brave veterans by telling them that they were equal to ten times their number of opponents, whatever they were, and wherever they met them; so he set forth, with but 200 soldiers, all told, to meet and conquer Narvaez with quite six times as many.

It is not quite fair to Narvaez to state that CortÚs went to oppose him with a far inferior force (and, as the short sequel will show, defeated him), for he had already sent the Rev. Father Olmedo, armed with a most potent weapon for creating defection in the invader's ranks. That weapon was gold (of which the real owners, the veterans, had been so unjustly deprived), and the reverend father used it to such good effect, together with the persuasive influence of his oily tongue, that he really won the battle for CortÚs before it was fought. The commander himself had done something with the golden weapon, also, as will appear. It seems that Captain Sandoval (at Villa Rica), when summoned to surrender by some emissaries of Narvaez, not only refused, but bagged the messengers up in nets, and, placing them on the backs of Indian carriers, sent them to the city of Mexico. Theirs was a most wonderful journey: carried all the way, more than 200 miles, on the backs of Indians, passed from one to another, ever without rest, and they arrived at the capital nearly dead. CortÚs professed great sorrow for the act of his captain, Sandoval, and having shown the messengers from Narvaez the treasure he had accumulated, and bestowed a goodly portion upon them, as a salve for their injuries, he sent them back to the coast, his friends and ardent partisans.

When, therefore—after leaving the garrison in charge of Alvarado—CortÚs started for the coast with 200 men, he had, in effect, secured 1000 more by means of his gold. Still it was a most venturesome undertaking, which none but the bravest of men would have attempted. The distance which intervened between the capital and the coast was covered quickly by forced marches, and in due time CortÚs and his invincible veterans arrived at Totonac territory, where they camped, almost within sight of Cempoalla.

CortÚs and Father Olmedo had accomplished wonders with their gold, and if the stern Narvaez had not been incorruptible there is no knowing but that he himself might have been won over and the shameful strife between the Spaniards averted. But Narvaez was bent upon securing CortÚs, whom, he swore by his beard, he would march against "with fire, sword, and a free rope." He then posted his artillery, cavalry, and infantry in a plain a few miles distant from Cempoalla, but a terrible storm coming up towards night, he and his inexperienced soldiers sought shelter in the Totonac city, where he occupied one of the temples. When the fat cacique of Cempoalla saw how carelessly the guards were posted, he said to Narvaez: "Huh! What are you doing? Do you think Malintzin and his teules  are careless, like you? I tell you that when you least expect it, he will come upon you and put you all to death! . . . . "

Narvaez laughed lightly, but he heeded the warning, and placed eighteen guns in line before the building selected as his quarters, posted a grand guard of forty cavalry in the forest, twenty of whom were to patrol during the night, and then retired to shelter. He promised a reward of 2000 crowns for CortÚs or Sandoval; but this was an occasion, most certainly, of "first catch your hare."

In a speech before the battle, CortÚs said to his men: "I must remind you how often you all have been at the point of death, in various wars and battles, how we have suffered from fatigue and hunger, sleeping on the ground, on our arms; not to mention above forty of our number dead, and your own wounds as yet unhealed; our sufferings by sea and land; the perils of Tabasco, Tlascala, and Cholula, where the vessels were prepared in which we were to have been boiled; and our perilous entry into Mexico. And now, gentlemen, Narvaez comes and maligns and asperses us with the great Montezuma, and immediately on landing proclaims war against us with fire, sword, and free rope, as if we were infidel Moors!"

The attack was made at midnight, a fitting hour for such a battle as ensued, between men of the same nationality, who should have been united against the common enemy. The storm was at its height, and the soldiers of Narvaez, snug in their quarters, were taken by surprise. Suddenly they heard, borne by the shrieking gale, high above the roar of the tropical tempest, the battle-cry, "Santiago!" and the countersign of CortÚs: "Espiritu Santo! Espiritu Santo!" Despite the fearful odds against them, the veterans swept with the storm upon the legions of Narvaez, charged up to the cannons' mouths without a pause, and drove the cavalry back upon the temples, from which the infantry now swarmed down into the plazas like hornets from their nests. . . .

Brave Sandoval took the guns before half of them had been discharged; Pizarro, with a handful of lancers, supported him so effectually that they were soon turned upon their former owners; and CortÚs himself, fighting with the fury of a demon, animated his band with the energy of despair. He and his men could expect nothing but death in case they were defeated, while the soldiers of Narvaez were themselves hopeful of greater rewards under CortÚs than with their leader, and fought half-heartedly. The temples had been forced and a sanguinary conflict was going on around their terraced slopes (down which, not many months before, CortÚs had tumbled the Cempoallan idols), when the voice of Narvaez shrieked out: "Santa Maria, help! They have struck out one of my eyes!"

Then a great shout went up. "Victory! Victory for the Espiritu Santo! Narvaez is dead! Live our King and CortÚs! Narvaez is dead! . . . "

As the cry increased in volume and spread through Cempoalla, the soldiers of Narvaez cast down their arms and submitted, in groups and by hundreds. The victory of the few over the many had been won, and hardly had daylight appeared ere the former foes of CortÚs were hastening to enlist beneath his banner.

Seated within a temple on the plaza, an orange-colored mantle draping his shoulders, his sword by his side, and surrounded by his valiant officers, CortÚs "received the salutations of the cavaliers, who, as they dismounted, came to kiss his hand. And it was wonderful to see the affability and the kindness with which he spoke to and embraced them, and the compliments which he made to them; for among the number were many influential friends of Velasquez, now completely won over to the cause of his deadly enemy." During all this time, and even before the arrival of the cavalry, the drums, fifes, and timbrels of the army of Narvaez never ceased, having struck up at daybreak in honor of CortÚs, without a command from any one. One of them, a negro and a comical fellow, danced and shouted for joy, crying out, "Where are the Romans who with such small numbers ever achieved such a glorious victory?" Another of those who were equally ready to shout for CortÚs as for Narvaez, though they had come into Mexico with the latter, was our old friend Cervantes, the jester, the same who had cautioned Velasquez against the ambitions of the very man who had won this wonderful victory. The unlucky Narvaez, whose right eve had been torn out by a spear-thrust, and who was in great agony, said to CortÚs, as he came in to view his prisoner, "Senor Captain, appreciate as it merits your good-fortune in having defeated me." CortÚs answered that his thanks were due to God and to his valiant soldiers; but this was the least of his and their achievements since their arrival in New Spain (or Mexico). This may sound like boasting, and the taunting of an unfortunate opponent, and so it was. The Narvaez people were greatly ashamed of the part they had played in the affair, and some of them sought to excuse their cowardice by putting forth a singular statement. In the midnight darkness, they said, with only now and then the fitful light of the moon shining through the storm clouds, they had mistaken the myriads of fire-flies, sporting in the forest and above the meadows, for so many soldiers with lighted matchlocks in their hands.

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