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

CortÚs Sets Out for Mexico


Montezuma's messengers were abundantly supplied with provisions, and also with gold, which they gladly gave in exchange for such trifles (in their eyes of inestimable value) as cut glass and beads. Having acquired such a quantity of treasure, Grijalva thought it advisable to send a vessel back to Cuba with it, following it himself about a month later. This vessel was placed in charge of Pedro de Alvarado, who acquired great prominence in the subsequent campaign in Mexico. He was graciously received by Velasquez, who seemed overjoyed at the success of the enterprise; but when Grijalva finally returned to Cuba he was met with reproaches for not having planted a colony in the newly discovered land, instead of merely coasting its shores.

Grijalva appears to have been modest, as well as discreet, and, finding that his erratic relative did not intend to give him command of the greater expedition he was then fitting out, he made no protest, but quietly retired to his estate at Trinidad. He had sent and taken back gold to the amount of twenty thousand crowns, with which even the avaricious and captious Velasquez was well satisfied; but the positive information he had obtained—the first definite knowledge of a vast empire beyond that mysterious coast—was of greater value than the treasure.

Neither the dishonored Grijalva nor his men benefited from the discovery of this treasure, for it was appropriated by Velasquez, in the name of the king. The sturdy soldiers and sailors of the expedition had relied upon receiving large returns, especially as among the curious articles they had brought back to Cuba were more than 600 "golden" hatchets, which they had obtained by barter from the Indians. These hatchets were so bright and shining that they appeared to be of solid gold; but, says the historian who was one of the company, "there was great laughter in Cuba when they were assayed and found to be of copper."

Rendered uneasy by the long absence of his nephew, Velasquez had despatched one Cristoval de Olid in search of him; but his caravel was nearly wrecked, and he had returned without tidings, just previous to the arrival of Alvarado. Meanwhile, preparations for a third expedition had gone forward, and by the time Grijalva returned were well advanced. This armament was to exceed the others in every respect, for, while Cordova had sailed with only three small vessels, and Grijalva with four, the new "armada" was to consist of ten.

Governor Velasquez was for a long while uncertain as to whom he should appoint commander of this great expedition. One man, the gallant Grijalva, had earned the right to this command, and if Velasquez had bestowed it upon him all his subsequent troubles might have been avoided. But, turning a deaf ear to the claims of his estimable nephew, the governor, making the natural mistake of a nature cankered by dissolute living, appointed the man who appealed to him through mercenary motives.

This man was Hernando CortÚs, as appears by the "Instructions" issued by Velasquez, dated October 23, 1518, at Fernandina (as Cuba was called at that time). It has been claimed that the governor made this appointment at the urgent recommendation of his secretary, Andres de Duero, and the king's contador  (auditor) in Cuba, Amador de Lares; but those who make this claim seem to have lost sight of the long acquaintance which had already existed between Velasquez and CortÚs. Irrespective of their influence, indeed, there were numerous reasons why the friend and former comrade of the governor should have received this important commission.

In the first place, CortÚs was undoubtedly the best man for the command, so far as his abilities went; in the second, he was then one of the wealthiest men in Cuba, next to the governor himself, and from his nature was predisposed to lavish all his wealth upon the enterprise. With seven years to his credit in Hispaniola, and as many more in Cuba, throughout which long period Velasquez had known him intimately, it is unlikely indeed that CortÚs owed less to his merits than to his influence.

Once assured of the command, CortÚs, in the words of one who knew him, "made his money fly" to such good purpose that he soon won hosts of friends and followers. His popularity increased with the outflow of gold from his coffers, and soon, permitted by Velasquez to bear the major portion of the vast expense incident to the outfitting of the armament, he was obliged to mortgage his estates, to draw upon the resources of his friends, and to obtain advances from the merchants of Santiago.

In respect to his lavish generosity, Velasquez had made no mistake in counting upon CortÚs; but the latter's reckless advances to gain popularity, and soon his evident desire to be off and away, began to excite the governor's suspicions. He well knew that his friend was capable, energetic, indomitable as a fighter, patient under reverses, abstemious, cool in danger, but ever crafty and calculating. He also realized, when his suspicions were aroused, that CortÚs was most tenacious of his rights and privileges, keen, subtle—in short, that he possessed all the qualifications for independent and exclusive command, in whatever enterprise he might undertake.

Long accustomed to have his slightest wish obeyed, having for many years lorded it over herds of cringing natives, he had acquired a domineering manner, which he tempered with deference when in the company of superiors. With the commonalty he was very popular, owing to his superficial gayety, his lavish expenditures (when convinced that they would promote his schemes), and his admirable temper, which was always held under rigid restraint.

Though hardly above the average height in stature, his shoulders were broad and his strength was great. As a horseman he was superb, having been in the saddle almost daily for years, while he greatly excelled at sword-play and in the practice of arms in general. His numerous "affairs of honor," when pursuing his amatory conquests, had given him a reputation which he had not yet outlived, despite his latter years of sober married life with Dona Catalina. His dark and flashing eye had a compelling effect upon all he met, and he was often feared when and where he was not respected.

When in the company of those of equal or superior station, he was ever "putting his best foot foremost," and as soon as he imagined himself secure in his appointment he "appeared in much greater state as to his own person, wearing a plume of feathers and a gold medal in his cap, which ornaments became him very well." He surrounded himself with a body-guard, and Dona Catalina presented him with a standard of black velvet, embroidered in gold, upon which was a red cross in the midst of bluish flames, with the inspiring motto: "Brothers, let us follow this Cross with true faith, for by it we shall surely conquer."

Proclamation was made by drum and trumpet throughout the island, promising to volunteers shares in the gold to be found, and men flocked to his standard from every quarter. "Nothing was to be seen or spoken of," says one who went with the expedition, "but the selling of lands to purchase arms and horses, the quilting of coats of mail, the baking of bread, and the salting of pork for sea-stores."

It seems to have occurred to Velasquez, about this time, that he had been overhasty in naming CortÚs for the command; but whether it was owing to suggestion from others or to a quickened conscience is not clearly known.

"Beware of this CortÚs, an Estremaduran, full of crafty and ambitious thoughts," he was reminded by one.

"Have a care, Diego," said Cervantes, the governor's fool, one day, with the familiarity of the privileged jester, "or we shall have to go hunting for this Captain CortÚs some time or other."

CortÚs, who was walking with the governor at the time, turned upon the fool and cuffed his ears; but the latter reiterated his warning as he ran away, and added: "Long life to my friend Diego and his lucky captain. Methinks I shall go with him myself, that I may not see thee crying, friend Diego, at the bad bargain thou hast made."

Two different accounts are given of the departure of CortÚs and his fleet from Santiago, one relating that he went only after taking courteous leave of the governor in due form, with vast politeness and frequent salutations on both sides; the other that he sailed hastily at sunrise, the indignant Velasquez arriving at the shore only just in time to see the last of the fleet as it drifted down the bay. We have, however, the evidence of a member of the party that the leave-taking was dignified, the governor accompanying his friend the captain-general to his flag-ship. It is also expressly stated that the fleet sailed when but half equipped and with less than its full complement of men, owing to the fears of CortÚs that his commission might be revoked.

While he was drumming up recruits at the port of Trinidad (one of the oldest settlements on the south coast of Cuba), orders arrived, in fact, for the alcalde of that town to arrest and detain Captain-General CortÚs, as the governor had deposed him and bestowed the position upon another. But the alcalde dared not enforce this command, so popular had CortÚs become. He had, moreover, now received as accessions some of the choicest spirits among the rich hidalgos of Cuba, most of whom were at that time settled at or near Trinidad.

Ordering Pedro de Alvarado (the same who had returned with Grijalva's gold) to march overland from Trinidad to Havana, CortÚs again put to sea, and met him in the latter port, where he completed the outfitting of the squadron. He had previously despoiled the king's farms at Macaca of such stores as he could find, and had taken by force all the meats that Santiago's butcher had on hand for the city's use on the morrow, rewarding him with a great gold chain which hung about his neck. Also, by great good luck falling in with a coasting-vessel laden with provisions, he seized its cargo, paying for the same in bills of exchange. Then, learning of another vessel coming along the coast from the westward, he despatched a ship to intercept it, thus recklessly playing the "gentleman corsair" at the very beginning of his great career.

While in Trinidad, CortÚs had improved the time gathering munitions of every sort. All the smiths of the town were engaged in making arrow-heads, and as many as could be persuaded were enlisted, as well as soldiers and sailors. The musketeers and cross-bowmen were constantly practised in firing at marks, and scouts were sent out in all directions in search of horses, these animals being excessively scarce and dear. Horses had but recently been brought out from Europe, at infinite pains and expense, and were so valuable that only the richest planters could afford them. They were worth the services of many soldiers, and played such an important part in the conquest of Mexico that one of the historians makes special and loving mention of every one of the sixteen secured by CortÚs for this enterprise.


The fleet assembled by CortÚs in the since famous harbor of Havana consisted of eleven vessels, more than half of which were open brigantines or caravels, and the largest did not exceed one hundred tons' capacity.

The artillery consisted of ten brass guns of the heaviest caliber then known, and four falconets, or small pieces, for which there was an abundant supply of ammunition.

Enlisted in the expedition, finally, were 110 sailors and 553 soldiers, of which number only 16 were cavalry, 13 arquebusiers or musketeers, and 32 cross-bowmen, most of the men being armed merely with sword, lance, and shield or buckler.

Velasquez was still persistent in his intention of having CortÚs superseded, as was shown by an order which arrived while the fleet was in Havana, commanding the alcalde, Pedro Barba, to arrest and send him to Santiago without fail. But, whatever may have caused the governor's change of attitude towards one whom he had already commissioned captain-general of the armada, nobody could be found rash enough to attempt to enforce the order; for by this time the best men of the island were with CortÚs, either bodily or in spirit and intention.

Crafty CortÚs had won, after all, the first skirmish in the battle royal between himself and Velasquez, who never again set eyes on any vessel of that noble fleet, nor ever recouped himself for the expense he had assumed. Through having kept his temper, with his face set steadily in the direction he wished to go, Hernando CortÚs finally found himself clear of Cuba and afloat on the high seas, with favoring gales and currents wafting him towards Mexico.

Following the course of Grijalva, rather than that of Cordova, his first landfall was the island of Cozumel, a few miles distant from the northeast coast of Yucatan, at which he arrived about February 10th. Just two years had elapsed since Cordova, the pioneer in Mexican discovery, had set sail from Santiago, and ten months since sturdy Grijalva had landed at Cozumel. These two had done little more than point the way for the real conqueror of the then unknown country of Mexico, who was now afloat with an armament more than double the size of both fleets that had preceded him. Landing his men on a beach backed by a dense forest, from which came gales of spicy odors, CortÚs reviewed and harangued them, setting forth the objects of the expedition as plainly as he could, and waxing eloquent over the gains and glory that were to be theirs in coming contests with the infidels.

It is doubtful, however, if he made the speech which some historians have put in his mouth, and which rolls trippingly across their pages, as his eloquence was of the sort that appeals by action rather than by sounding words. The soldiers knew what they were there for: to fight, and to fight hard, for gold—all they could get, by whatever means—and incidentally for glory, though the halo of "glory" had long since dimmed in the vision of the Spanish conqueror. Some few were enthusiasts, like CortÚs; some were fanatics, like his chaplain, Olmeda; but most of them blindly followed their leader.

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