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

A Perilous Expedition


CortÚs was now established in power, but only as a military governor, while he had hoped to be a viceroy at least. He was assisted in the extension of Spanish authority on a basis of security, in the distribution of lands to colonists, and the founding of towns and settlements, by the ayuntamiento, or body of magistrates, which had been appointed at the very beginning of his Mexican career, at Vera Cruz.

Some of their ordinances were so salutary that they are in force to-day, after the lapse of nearly four centuries; but it cannot be affirmed that all of them were righteous, for they sanctioned, particularly, the iniquitous system of encomiendas, which had caused the extermination of the native West-Indians. By this system almost countless Mexicans were doomed to hopeless slavery. Only the Tlascalans were relieved from rendering their unpaid services to cruel taskmasters; and if the Mexicans had not been a hardier people than their insular neighbors, they would have shared their fate.

Throughout the whole extent of subjugated Mexico, which comprised a country with a coast-line, on the Atlantic, 1200 miles in length, and on the Pacific 1500 miles, the genius of CortÚs was paramount, even to its remotest bounds. Under the supervision of Guatemotzin, the Aztecs and their former vassals labored at the up-building of the island capital. The "religious men," brought to Mexico through the urgent prayers of CortÚs, entered with fanatic zeal into the conversion of the natives, destroying their temples and their idols, and bringing them by thousands under the wing of their church. While all these things were going on; while the soil was being tilled, and the mines exploited for their wealth of gold and silver, expeditions for exploration and discovery were being sent out in every direction.

It was but natural that CortÚs should be assailed by the envious and discontented, and the day of reckoning was yet to come; but he brought his calamities to a crisis by a voluntary act of his own. It may be recalled that he had sent one of his captains to Honduras, with instructions to found a colony there and exploit such mines as might be discovered. Early in 1524 he learned that this captain, Christopher de Olid, had rebelled and asserted independence. This action could not be tolerated, of course, and so CortÚs sent his kinsman, Las Casas (who had been the bearer of the despatches from Spain announcing his elevation to the captain-generalcy), on a punitive expedition to Honduras, with five ships and Too men. This fleet was wrecked on the Honduras coast; but Las Casas secured possession of Olid, through treachery, and cut off his head. He then re-established the discarded authority of his commander; but CortÚs, hearing only of the disaster that had overtaken his ships, and believing that the entire force had perished, resolved to set out for Honduras and avenge himself.

Such a proceeding seems absurd, especially in view of the fact that officers of the king had recently arrived charged with an inquiry into the governor-general's doings. But it was characteristic of CortÚs to transact important business at first hand; besides, his ire had been aroused, and again, he wished to examine into the resources of Honduras, especially its mines of gold.

The distance to Honduras by sea, through the Gulf of Mexico and around the peninsula of Yucatan, was about 2000 miles. By land (but nearly all the way through a trackless wilderness), it was more than 1500. Distance did not matter with CortÚs, so he set out on his wild-goose chase through the wilderness. If the conception of this expedition might be termed foolish, the manner of its equipment was certainly so. It would seem that he took with him nearly all the useless and superfluous persons in Mexico, for, besides his fighting force of 250 soldiers and 3000 Indians, he included a steward and a butler, a chamberlain, grooms, jugglers, falconers, puppet-players, priests ("two reverend fathers, Flemings, good theologians, to preach the faith"), a confectioner, pages of the household, and armor-bearers. He also carried with him his valuable service of gold and silver, and a "keeper-of-the-plate" to care for it, while there were musicians, jesters, and stage-dancers to drive away his melancholy. Nearly all these persons died by the way, during the twenty months of that terrible march through the forests, and most of the equipment was lost or consumed; but the service of plate was saved to the end, and went to Spain from Honduras as "evidence of the wealth" of that country.

Though the city of Mexico was strongly garrisoned and the Aztecs in complete subjection, CortÚs took along with him his royal prisoner, Guatemotzin, and the cacique of Tacuba, as hostages in case of an uprising of the Indians. These, too, were superfluous cares on the march; but he got rid of them before it was over, as will shortly be narrated.

Striking due south from Mexico city, its progress retarded by a large herd of swine, the unique procession finally reached the province of Tabasco, in which (it will be remembered) CortÚs had his first encounter with the natives. Here were living several of the conquerors, including our old friend Bernal Diaz, the historian, afterwards governor of Guatemala. They had secured allotments of land, and were settled down to a life of peace; but they were compelled by CortÚs to furbish up their armor, saddle their horses, and accompany him on the journey. After a good deal of grumbling they did so, for the commands of the captain-general must be obeyed; but Diaz had a belated revenge, forty years later, in "writing up" the expedition.

CortÚs deprived Tabasco province of the old soldiers, but he left there, by the way of exchange, his faithful Marina, who, now that her services could be dispensed with, was married to a cavalier of his army and given a valuable estate in the home of her ancestors. This is the last we shall hear of "Dona Marina," or MalinchÚ, who had rendered inestimable service to the Spaniards as interpreter, and but for whom the conquest of Mexico by CortÚs might not have been achieved. Her son, however, Don Martin CortÚs, clung to the fortunes of his father, sharing in his honors and obloquy. He lived to become a man of mark in Mexico, but at one period of his life, was accused of treason to the state and put to the torture.

The days, the weeks, and the months passed by, and still the steadily diminishing army of CortÚs floundered through the tropical forests of southern Mexico. No other portion of that country presents so many natural obstacles to travel as that covered by CortÚs in his terrible march across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Tabasco, and Chiapas, with their vast labyrinth of rivers and swamps.

The rivers seemed innumerable, and some of them were nearly impassable. No man less determined than CortÚs could have piloted that motley band through such dangers as were encountered. Again and again they were compelled to construct bridges of trees that grew along the banks of deep and rapid rivers, and pass over on these frail supports, trembling beneath the tread of their horses, only to find the labor must be immediately repeated. Sometimes they were obliged to swim across streams infested with alligators, which devoured their hogs and such horses as were disabled.

The commander provided in advance for some contingencies, as, for instance, at Coatzacoalcos River were found canoes laden with provisions, which had been sent from the settlement at its mouth; farther on again, 300 canoes, manned by Indians, lay awaiting the arrival of the Spaniards, to ferry them across a rapid stream. But the time came when all signs of settlements were left behind, and ahead of them lay the vast and unexplored forest, with here and there an Indian hut or village, the only trails between them being waterways. Famine assailed the wandering army, some of the Spaniards and many of the Mexicans falling from exhaustion and dying in their tracks. In this extremity the Mexicans resorted to cannibalism. "Some of their chiefs seized upon the natives of places through which we passed," says Diaz, "and concealed them with the baggage, until through hunger they had killed and eaten them, baking them in a kind of oven made with heated stones which are put under ground."

On inquiry being made, it was found that the practice had become quite prevalent, and, despite the misery all were in, CortÚs caused the chief cannibal to be burned alive! Whether the surviving cannibals ate their barbecued cacique does not appear; but it is not likely that this dreadful warning had the desired effect. Famine had made them desperate, and to such an extent was the army reduced that even the soldiers bade CortÚs defiance when, at one time, some scouts brought in a quantity of provisions, which they seized and devoured. CortÚs and Sandoval complained that they had not eaten, that day, so much as a handful of maize.

Still CortÚs preserved his courage and clung to his scheme for revenge upon Olid, never once hinting of returning. Onward, ever onward, pressed the starving company, guided solely by a native map, rudely drawn, obtained from the Indian traders of Tabasco, and a compass in the possession of the leader.

One by one, and then by the score, perished the weaker members of the company, such as the buffoon, the pages, and the musicians. As for these last, says the chronicler of the march, "as for our poor musicians with their instruments, their sackbuts, and their dulcimers, they felt the loss of the regales and feasts of Castile; and now their harmony was stopped, excepting one only, whom the soldiers used to curse whenever he struck up, saying "it was maize they wanted, and not music."

Though with starvation staring him in the face, his friends falling in death around him, and dangers thickening at every step, CortÚs faltered not for a moment. The instinct of self-preservation was yet dominant within him, as shown by the most perfidious act in his long career of cruelty and crime—the execution of Guatemotzin. His royal prisoner had survived nearly four years the conquest of his capital, and CortÚs had compelled him to share this comfortless journey in order to obviate a possible rising of the Aztecs during his absence.

Guatemotzin could not fail to perceive the weak and emaciated condition of the Spaniards, outnumbered, as they were by the Mexicans, ten to one, and he would have been more, or less, than human not to have considered that his time had come for revenge. When, therefore, it came to the ears of CortÚs that he intended to destroy the entire force of Spaniards, then return to the capital and head an insurrection of his former subjects, the suspicions of the commander were confirmed. Being seized and accused, the royal warrior protested his innocence, and proof was lacking of a conspiracy; yet he and the cacique of Tacuba were sentenced to death. They were hanged from the limb of a ceiba-tree, in the forest-wilderness of Acalan, on a day in March, 1525.

As he was being led to execution, Guatemotzin turned to CortÚs and said: "Malintzin, now I find in what your false words and promises have ended—in my death! Better would it have been had I fallen by my own hand than to have trusted myself to you in my own city of Mexico. Oh, why do you thus unjustly take my life? May God demand of you this innocent blood!"

The shadow of that horrible crime hung thick and black about CortÚs, who alone was responsible for it, and for many nights he could not sleep, but wandered about as one distraught. In one of these nocturnal ramblings he fell over the parapet of a ruined temple and received severe injuries, which he tried to conceal from his men, well aware that they knew his conscience was torturing him, but too proud to admit the fact. The Mexicans might now have mutinied, even without their king and leader, but "the wretches were so exhausted by famine, sickness, and fatigue" that they thought only of keeping their souls within their bodies.

The ruined temple in which CortÚs received his injuries may have been one of the great "Palenque" group, near which, it is known, he and his army passed; but no mention is made of the deserted city by name. The Indians regarded these ruins with veneration, as they also considered CortÚs to be in league with supernatural powers through the medium of his compass. When accused of sharing in the conspiracy, these simple Mexicans begged him to look in his "mirror" and see for himself that they were loyal. They stood by him to the last, and after Honduras was reached were left to shift for themselves, such was his appreciation of their loyalty.

Beyond Acalan province, after crossing a great river, the making of a bridge for which occupied them three days, the Spaniards came to the lake of Peten, with a wonderful island of teocallis  in its centre. Here they tarried several days, and one of the horses, being disabled, was left with the natives. CortÚs enjoined them to care for the animal tenderly, and they did so to the best of their ability, setting before it flowers and fowls, basins of soup, and broiled fish; but without avail, for it died. Then they made a statue of it, which, as "the god of thunder and lightning," the people of Peten worshipped (it is said) for nearly 100 years. This incident shows what a wild and little-known region was this traversed by CortÚs, which remained for a century thereafter unvisited.

As the soldiers descended towards the Gulf of Honduras they were drenched by the floods of the rainy season, which fell day and night, and caused the rivers to increase in volume so that several men and horses were drowned in crossing them. They scaled precipices, crossed great plains beneath the blaze of a torrid sun, and at one time were twelve days in passing over a mountain of flints, the sharp stones of which cut their horses' hoofs to pieces.

At last the forlorn remnant of the band arrived at Golfo Dulce, on the opposite shore of which was the colony Olid had founded. Scouts were sent ahead, and the army placed in order for an attack upon the colonists, whom CortÚs supposed still in rebellion. Great was his surprise to learn, on their return, that Olid was dead, having been slain by Las Casas, and that all the several settlements, though on the verge of famine, were then loyal to CortÚs and the king.

What his feelings were, may better be imagined than described; but he must have felt disgusted with himself, after his months of wandering, his sufferings beyond imagining, his terrible losses of life and property, to find that he had been all the time chasing a veritable will-o'-the-wisp. He had travelled more than 1500 miles, and had tested his and his soldiers' powers to the limit of human endurance, in order to punish a traitor who was already dead, before he left the capital!

Notwithstanding his great labors on this journey, however, CortÚs had no sooner learned the facts, than he set on foot several expeditions for discovery and conquest, taking an active part in the chiefest, and in one receiving a severe wound in the face from an Indian arrow. His name and prestige accomplished more than legions of men could have achieved, for there was no Indian so wild and ignorant that he had not heard of terrible CortÚs the Conqueror!

He formed the intention of pushing the conquest of Honduras, Guatemala, and adjacent provinces southward towards the narrowing of the isthmus at Nicaragua and Panama, but by chance one day discovered colonists sent up from that region by Pdrarias, the man who had beheaded Balboa.

Perceiving that the great southern region had been, in a sort, pre-empted, CortÚs abandoned his intention of conquest in that direction and resolved to return to Mexico.

No news had come from the capital since his arrival in Honduras; but finally, one evening, as he and some companions were walking the beach at Truxillo, they espied a sail. A ship was standing into the bay, the captain of which, when he reached the shore, hastened to deliver to CortÚs some despatches from Mexico, by way of Havana.

"As soon as CortÚs read them he was overwhelmed with sorrow and distress," says the ever-faithful Diaz. "He retired to his apartment, where we could hear, from his groans, that he was suffering the greatest agitation. He did not stir out for an entire day; at night he confessed his sins, after which he called us together and read the intelligence he had received, whereby we learned that it had been universally reported and believed in New Spain that we were all dead, and our properties, in consequence, had been sold by public auction."

This was only half the story, for from his father, in Spain, CortÚs learned that intrigues were going on against him at court, while in Mexico there was a condition of affairs bordering upon anarchy. It was small consolation for CortÚs to reflect that for the conditions in Mexico, as for the disasters to his expedition, he alone was responsible. When he left the capital he had placed in charge two deputies, Estrada, the treasurer, and Albornos, the contador;  but two other persons, who had accompanied him a short distance on the expedition, had wheedled themselves into his confidence and obtained power to supersede the deputies. Two parties were formed; civil war had resulted; there was bloodshed in the streets of the capital; the Indians of three provinces had revolted, and defeated the forces sent to subdue then.

Plunged into deep dejection by these tidings, CortÚs knew not what to do, at one time deciding to stay and form a new confederation in Central America, again resolving to make all haste for Mexico. He was finally urged to the latter course, and, after several ineffectual efforts to embark, at last set sail from Truxillo on April 25, 1526, arriving at Vera Cruz a month later, and at the capital the third week in June, after an absence of more than twenty months.

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