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

A Massacre in the Holy City


September 23, 1519, was a day of triumph for the Spaniards and of festivity for the Tlascalans, who poured forth from their dwellings and welcomed the conquerors with offerings of food and flowers. Banquets were given in the four different sections of the city controlled by their respective governors, who, the following day, brought to Cortés five lovely damsels, and besought him to choose one lady for himself and bestow the others upon his officers.

This was the third time such an alliance had been forced upon Cortés and his friends, the others occurring with the Tabascans and the Cempoallans. The commander improved this occasion, as he had before, by refusing the proffered hostages until they should have been baptized and cleansed of paganism. He also delivered an excellent dis course upon the monstrous features of their religion, especially their worship of idols and human sacrifices. Warmed by his discourse, Cortés was on the point of ordering another idol-smashing foray, as at Cempoalla, but he compromised with the chiefs when they set free the slaves they held in cages as sacrificial victims. The Tlascalan nobles had the same answer to his arguments as the Totonacs: that their gods had been good to them, that they had given them victories over their foes, and abundant harvests. To destroy them would not only show themselves ungrateful, but would excite distrust in the minds of the younger generation. They were willing, however, to give his God a place in their pantheon, being liberal in the extreme, and "by no means prejudiced against the deities of other people." The next day a temple was cleared and cleansed, an altar was erected, and the Indian maidens baptized, after which they were assigned to their new lords and masters.

The visitor to historic Tlascala to-day will find few vestiges of the city with 40,000 inhabitants, described by Cortés, for the entire province hardly contains that number now; but some interesting memorials of the Spanish invasion are still preserved. About two miles distant from the city walls stands the church of San Estevan, which is said to cover the site of Xicotencatl's palace. In the municipal hall are portraits of the four nobles as they appeared before Cortés in 1519; inside an old church stands the great stone font from which they were baptized in 1520; and here, also, is preserved the veritable banner carried by the Spaniards in Mexico. The nobles would not abjure their idols and their religion, by command of Cortés, but when he returned to Tlascala, after his defeat by the Aztecs, the aged senators, instead of upbraiding him for the sacrifice of their soldiery, presented themselves for baptism in token of sympathy and friendship.

But we can linger no longer with Cortés in Tlascala, where he remained twenty days, resting and refreshing his soldiers. Though the natives would have had him and his men make the republic their abiding-place, and offered him every inducement to remain, he was inflexibly determined to seek out Montezuma and enter his capital. The Aztec emperor had changed his policy, for, rather than have the Spaniards league with his deadly enemies (as now seemed probable they would do), he no longer opposed their entrance into the valley of Mexico, but sent an embassy inviting them to Aztlan, with still more gold and merchandise to the value of 10,000 crowns. Cortés had long since become convinced that the Mexican king's resources were really inexhaustible, and nothing on earth should prevent him from seeing for himself.

Cholula was one of Mexico's most ancient cities, perhaps coeval in its foundation with those venerable remains which are to be seen at Palenque, at Copan, and in Yucatan; and more, it was the reputed residence of Quetzalcoatl, his last abiding-place before he left the country. He, it was said, taught the Toltecs the arts that had descended to the Cholulans of the sixteenth century, who excelled in the cutting of gems and the making of beautiful pottery and feather-work.

This holy city of the Aztecs lay about six leagues distant from Tlascala, and when first seen by the Spaniards contained more than 20,000 houses and 400 mosques or temples (wrote Cortés, in his second letter to Charles V.). Towering above the plain, and over-topping all other structures in Cholula, stood (as it stands to-day) the famed temple-pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, an artificial hill 200 feet in height and 1000 feet square at the base.

There was no sign of treachery or enmity in the faces of the happy people who welcomed Cortés and his company with acclaim; but the priests, like those of Tlascala, refused to prostrate their idols and abase their religion—the most ancient in the land—at his command. Finally, the alert and inquisitive Malinché, mistress of Cortés, having acquired the confidence of a cacique's wife, was told by her that the Cholulans had planned a massacre and urged her to secure a refuge in her house. Malinché (Dona Marina) promptly informed her master, and, the provisions hitherto supplied by the city authorities failing at this time, he called a council of his officers. Two native priests were brought before them, who confessed that Montezuma had been assured by his gods that the Spaniards were to be delivered into his hands at Cholula, while the chief cacique had received from the king the gift of a golden drum, which indicated promotion and preference.

Condemned without a hearing, foredoomed to furnish themselves victims for a massacre, instead of their guests, most of the Cholulan nobility were enticed within the walls of a great court, where the Spaniards were quartered. Then the gates were closed and the slaughter began, at a signal, which was the firing of an arquebuse.

"We were all prepared for what was to be done," wrote one of those who took part in the massacre. "The soldiers, armed with sword and buckler, were placed at the gate of the great court, in order to prevent any from escaping, and our general was on horse-back attended by a strong guard."

When he saw the people crowding in at the gate he said: "How anxious are these traitors to feast upon our flesh. . . . But God will disappoint them!" He then caused the signal to be given, and the blood-thirsty soldiers fell upon the defenceless throng like wolves upon a flock of lambs. Mingled with the roar of cannon and musketry were the death-shrieks of men, women, and children, murdered by the thousand. Blood ran in streams, the dead were piled high in heaps, and such unfortunates as survived were afterwards burned alive.

In all, it is said, more than 6000 Cholulans were murdered on this lamentable occasion. Aside from those killed by the Spanish murderers in the court, thousands perished outside, in the city streets and in the country, slaughtered by the fierce Tlascalans, who, by invitation of Cortés, took part in the massacre and gratified their thirst for blood.

The termination of this terrible battle was at the pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, up the terraced sides of which the combined force of Spaniards and Tlascalans pursued the desperate Cholulans. At the summit was a gigantic effigy of the "God of Peace," adorned with gems, around his neck a collar of precious stones, spouting from his diadem the feathery flames that signified his attributes. Around their god the Cholulans gathered in a last attempt to repel the invaders. They cast down javelins and burning arrows, stones and timbers from the ruin of their temple; but nothing could stay the progress of those invincible soldiers clad in steel. They halted not until the last miserable defender had been thrown from the pyramid and the city was wrapped in flames.

The distance in time which separates us from both Cortés and Montezuma relieves us from the necessity of apologizing for the acts of either; but, notwithstanding the labored attempts of the conqueror's biographers to vindicate his acts, the impression has remained throughout the centuries that there was no real excuse for his dreadful deeds at Cholula. In fact, no proof was ever adduced that a rising was meditated by the Cholulans; and whether the horrible massacre may be regarded as justifiable, depends upon the point of view taken by the reader, and hence is not open to argument. But whatever injuries Cortés had inflicted, he had surely acquired prestige in Mexico. He had caused Montezuma to tremble on his throne, and his subjects to quake at the mere mention of the invading teules, who, now, departing from the sacred city of Cholula, set their faces sternly towards Tenochtitlan.

'Twixt Cholula's temple-pyramid and the capital of Aztlan, a distance of about seventy miles intervened. The route was rugged, and part of the way was difficult, lying between the great volcanoes Popocatapetl and Ixtaccihuatl, whose snow-covered peaks are visible from both centres of population. They are the mightiest peaks in Mexico, and form part of that vast mountain system which encloses and isolates the great valley of Ana huac, in the centre of which lay the island-capital, Tenochtitlan, the ancient "city of the Cactus Rock." This city had been founded by the Aztecs about the year 1325 and had waxed great and powerful. Its rulers had extended their sway, under the conquests of successive kings, from ocean to ocean, and from its northernmost border southward to the confines of Guatemala.

The only independent people, not subject more or less directly to the Mexicans, or Aztecs, were the Tlascalans, 6000 of whose warriors accompanied Cortés on the march from Cholula, as soldiers and burden-bearers. They took the place of the retiring Totonacs, who were sent back to the coast, scantily rewarded for their arduous services from the abundance of clothing donated to Cortés by Montezuma, and which the shivering allies gladly accepted in lieu of gold. The Indians from Cuba had all perished of cold and privation, so the acquisition by the Spaniards—first of the Totonacs, then of the Tlascalans—was a stroke of great good-fortune.

From the summit-platform of the great pyramid at Cholula, where anciently stood the God of Plumes and burned the perpetual fire in his honor, a view is outspread which affords one of the world's most glorious prospects, for it rises from the centre of a vast and fertile plain and is overlooked by the great, snow-crested volcanoes. After crossing the beautiful plain with which Cholula was encompassed, the army entered the gloomy forests that clothed the shoulders of and filled the gap between those grim giants Ixtaccihuatl and Popocatapetl, or the "Woman in White" and the "Hill that Smokes."

Two trails were open to the Spaniards, and Cortés chose the longer of the two, though it was then obstructed with rocks and fallen tree-trunks, by order (he was told) of Montezuma, who desired him to take the other route, somewhere along which he had an ambuscade prepared for his destruction.

Colder and colder became the air, chilled as it was by the everlasting snows that cover the volcano-peaks. The trail, or road, crossed the gap at an altitude of 14,000 feet. From its highest point several of the Spaniards made an attempt to gain the crater-brim of Popocatapetl—in which they succeeded, to the amazement of the natives, who were greatly impressed by this daring feat (the first of the kind, perhaps, ever known to them). The army passed the night housed in great stone shelters which had been erected for the lodging of travellers, and the next morning, after having been chilled to the bone, crossed the crest of Ahualco, from which the first view was afforded them of the valley of Mexico. It is a glorious prospect, that which opens to the traveller over the Popocatapetl trail from the elevated slopes of Ahualco, and should have impressed even those sordid fortune-hunters under command of Cortés. But they have left no record of their sensations at beholding the beautiful panorama unfolded before their eyes, like a distant vision of paradise—that vast expanse of upland valley, dotted with forests, lakes, towns, all encircling and tributary to the great gem in the centre, the city of the isle and cactus rock, Tenochtitlan. They had not come to view scenery, but were there for spoils; and there were many among them who wished most ardently (as they saw the numerous cities set out before them, and the vast valley teeming with people, who might soon be enemies in conflict) that they could be swiftly transported back to Cuba.

It was now too late to recede, and the only thought that animated the bravest of the company was what rich booty the sacking of those populous cities would afford. There were many thousands of people, to be sure; but, as the Spanish proverb has it, "Mas Maros mas ganancia"  (the more Moors the greater the spoil), they muttered in their beards. Thus they blew upon their courage to warm it, inwardly quaking at their temerity in bearding the Aztec lion in his den, swarming as it was with brave though servile subjects.

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