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

The Great Battle of Tabasco


In supreme command at last, with no one to thwart or repress him, Captain-General Cortés (as one of his soldiers says) "began to take command in earnest, and to show the mettle that was in him." One of the vessels, in charge of Alvarado, had arrived at Cozumel ahead of the flag-ship, and he who afterwards committed the terrible massacre of Aztec nobles in Montezuma's capital gave evidence as to his real character by landing and pillaging the temples of a town.

When Cortés arrived, he first placed the pilot of the vessel in irons for deserting the fleet, and then called up Alvarado and reprimanded him for his imprudence, telling him that he should rather have acquired the friendship of the natives, upon whom; or upon others like them, the Spaniards were to depend for success in their endeavors. It was a question of policy merely, not of humanity, for Cortés himself was afterwards guilty of the grossest cruelties towards the natives. Still, what he could do with impunity was not to be tolerated in a subordinate.

In the "Instructions," already alluded to, and which are remarkable for their wisdom and clarity, the following clause occurred: "You will keep along the coast of the island [as it was then thought to be] of Yucatan, where are six Christians  in the power of some chiefs, who are known to Melchor Indio, who goes with you [as interpreter]. Treat said Melchor Indio kindly, in order that he may remain with you and serve you faithfully."

One of the very first acts of Cortés, after landing at Cozumel, goes to show that he began by following out these instructions to the letter. After setting free Alvarado's captives, and restoring to the temples the ornaments of which they had been despoiled (but which he soon after acquired, in exchange for worthless baubles), he set himself to solving two mysteries which confronted him at the outset.

The first mystery was that among other strange symbols sacred in the estimation of the natives was a figure of the cross, carved in stone and set up in a court of their chief temple. Whence they derived the conception of this symbol is almost as much a mystery to-day as it was four centuries ago; but the priests who accompanied Cortés on the expedition explained it away by assuming that St. Thomas had visited the country in his wanderings. The scientists of the present day, however, conjecture that it was the symbol of the rain-god of the Mayas and Mexicans.

The second mystery was this: Two years before the arrival of Cortés on the coast of Yucatan the Indians of Campeche had accosted the soldiers of Cordova with the query, "Castilian? Castilian?" at the same time pointing to the east. Again at Cozumel the natives repeated this word, and finally it was disclosed that there were two Spanish prisoners (whom rumor had exaggerated into six) held by a Maya chieftain in the depths of Yucatan. Some Indian traders offered to take a message to them, and Cortés forthwith wrote:

Gentlemen and Brothers, —Here in Cozumel I have been informed that you have been detained by a cacique, and I request as a favor that you will join me without delay. I send a boat and soldiers, with whatever is necessary for your ransom, with orders to wait eight days; but come with all despatch to me, from whom you shall receive every assistance and protection."

The native traders were faithful to the trust reposed in them, and within two days after the mainland had been reached the letter was in the hands of the captives. One of them, named Alonzo de Guerrero, had married an Indian woman, whom he refused to leave, saying to his comrade, "Lo, I have three sons. I am a cacique and a war-chief. My face is tattooed, my ears and nose are bored. What would those Spaniards think of me? But, comrade, behold these three beautiful sons of mine! Give them, I beseech thee, some of those glass beads, and say that my brother sent them as a present to me from my own country."

Another reason for rejecting the proffer was that he had commanded the Indians in the battle which had been so disastrous to Cordova, and he rightly feared the vengeance of Cortés, who, when he heard of it, greatly desired to get him in his hands.

His companion, however, Jeronimo de Aguilar, eagerly embraced the opportunity for rejoining his countrymen, from whom he had been separated seven years. Having secured his master's permission, he hastened to the coast, crossed the channel in a canoe, and appeared at Cozumel. Cortés, once he recognized Aguilar (who, being nearly naked and as brown as an Indian, much resembled one), embraced him fervently and ordered him clothed and treated with distinction. He had been so long with the Indians that he had nearly lost his native speech; but he carried with him the remnants of a book of prayers, tied in a ragged bundle at his waist, and kept repeating, as though fearful of forgetting the few Spanish words he remembered, "Dios [God], Santa Maria, and Sevilla." He soon recovered his lost language, and, as he also spoke the Maya (or native tongue of Yucatan), he proved the greatest acquisition the expedition had received.

Having put his armament in order, and having forcibly "converted" the natives of Cozumel (by rolling their idols down the temple steps and placing an image of the Holy Virgin and a crucifix in their stead), Cortés sailed on his course again. He had thus far faithfully followed the governor's written instructions, and, above all, showed his determination to enforce clause fourteen of those instructions, which read: "Take great care to instruct the natives in the true faith, as this is the principal reason why their Highnesses permit these discoveries."

We will follow him now as, early in March, 1519, he sailed along the north and west coast of Yucatan, unaware of the ruins of ancient cities and remains of a wonderful civilization within the borders of that peninsula. Centuries were to pass, before those walls of sculptured hieroglyphs contained in Chichen, Itza, Uxmal, Mayapan (more than half a hundred ruined cities in all) were to yield their rich treasures to the archaeologist. Cortés and his men got a glimpse of what the Indian civilization was at Cozumel and Isla Mujeres, on the coast of Yucatan, but they knew not what it meant, nor cared. Gold was the object of their search—gold, and spoils of other sort, as well as the conquest of the heathen-dwellers in that unknown land.

It may not have been the captain-general's intention to attack the people of Tabasco; but as some of the Indians shot their arrows at the approaching boats through the leafy screens afforded by the mangroves, and others shouted defiance at the Spaniards from the banks of shallow streams, where they were gathered, evidently with hostile intent, he could not resist landing and giving them a lesson.

He held a hearty contempt for Indians, bred in his years of dealings with the mild-mannered natives of the islands; but he was to learn that they were not all alike. The Indians, also, were to find that they had now a man to deal with far different from Cordova and Grijalva, a man of "blood and iron," who brooked no opposition, who rode rough-shod over all who stood in his way.

It was not to be expected that Hernando Cortés would suffer those same Tabascans who had received Grijalva so hospitably to hurl insults at him and his men, instead of bestowing presents. But it seems that they had been reproached with cowardice by their neighbors of Champoton, and also threatened by the emissaries of Montezuma, and this accounted for their change of attitude towards the Spaniards. This was not then known to Cortés, but he resolved to punish them, and, that it might be done in a "strictly justifiable manner," as the old historian quaintly states it, he ordered Diego de Godoy, the royal notary, to read a proclamation to this effect: that the Spaniards merely desired to land for wood and water, to secure the submission of the natives to their sovereign and the prompt acceptance of their religion.

This proclamation was one that had been used many times before, for it had been formulated by learned men at court and given to all the conquerors. Setting aside, however, the fact that the natives might not be disposed to accept, off-hand, a new religion and new gods, and profess allegiance to a king of whom they had never heard before, another objection was that it was read in Spanish (a language they did not understand) and amid the deafening din of horns and trumpets.

Then, seeing that the stupid natives neither respected the king's command nor the proffers of the priests, Cortés gave the battle-cry (which had been so often heard in conflicts between the Spaniards and the Moors), "Santiago, and at them!" The fight began in earnest, for the Indians disputed every foot the Spaniards advanced, first on the river-bank, then on a plain adjacent, and it was not till Cortés called out the cavalry and ordered up the artillery that the assembled thousands began to yield.

The fighting began in the afternoon and was continued at dawn of the following day. Great guns from the vessels were landed, and their thunderous roar drowned the terrific shouts of the Indians, who were amazed, almost stupefied, at the noise and the terrible carnage. But they bravely stood their ground, ever filling the gaps made in their ranks by the plunging cannon-balls, and throwing dust and straw into the air to conceal their losses.

They withstood the cannon, strange and terrible as they appeared to them but the prancing horses struck terror to their hearts. When they appeared, the Indians, to the estimated number of 30,000 or 40,000, had gathered on a great plain behind their town, which had been occupied by the infantry. While the arquebusiers and bowmen engaged them in front, Cortés with a few choice spirits made a detour and came upon the enemy in the rear.

Let us remember that this was the first sight the natives ever had of horses—that this was the first cavalry charge in Mexico. When, therefore, they saw those dreadful apparitions, of four-footed beasts guided by armor-clad warriors, which trampled and crushed them underfoot, they fled in wild dismay. They thought man and beast one and the same creature, and were as astonished as terrified, as if we of the present day should behold some antediluvian monster rushing forth to devour and destroy.

It is hardly too much to say that all the soldiers in the army of invasion fought like tigers, and that Hernando Cortés himself proved a leader worthy a greater, better cause. He lost a sandal at the outset, when mired on the river-bank, but he withdrew his foot and pressed gallantly on, despite the fierce cries "Al Calchioni!" ("Strike at the captain!") resounding from every side and a perfect avalanche of barbaric missiles, arrows, javelins, and spears which came down upon his helm and corselet.

Victory was won at last, at a cost to the Spaniards of a hundred soldiers wounded and a few killed, but to the enemy of at least 1000 slain. The Indians could do nothing as against these soldiers clad in armor which their weapons could not penetrate, before those charges of ponderous beasts and the death-dealing cannon.

After the victors had dressed their wounds with the fat of the dead Indians found on the field, they were assembled in the town by the river, and Cortés, making three cuts with his sword in a great ceiba  (silk-cotton-tree), proclaimed possession of the country in the name of his sovereigns, and ordered the royal notary to record the fact. He had made a landing in that hitherto unconquered country; he and his men had met and overcome the enemy; they could not, would not, retreat, but must now push on to further battles and victories.

The Indian hosts had melted away; but the next day an embassy appeared, with presents of the country's products, and followed by a train of twenty female slaves, for Cortés and his officers. They humbly begged permission to bury their dead, before the wild beasts should devour them, and their caciques tendered their submission to the great conqueror. Cortés assured them that he entertained no ill-will, and if they would become vassals of the Spanish king they might live in peace where they were. Religious services were held, and the female slaves were baptized, after the priest had instructed, in the faith of the conquerors, these "first of Christian converts in New Spain."

The results of that victory were greater than were at first known, for among the first-fruits of it were the Indian slaves, one of whom indeed proved a pearl of price. After the departure from Tabasco, and when off the Mexican coast, a canoe filled with Indians came out to the flag-ship. These Indians were Aztecs, whose speech no one in the fleet could understand. The only person who might have served as interpreter was Melchor Indio, who had been made captive by Grijalva, and had come with Cortés, as narrated. But Melchor Indio had run away at Tabasco, leaving his Spanish garments hanging on a tree; and as Aguilar, the rescued Spaniard, understood only his own language and that of Yucatan, he could not serve on this occasion. Then it was told Cortés that one of the Tabascan women could speak both the Aztec and the Maya of Yucatan, and upon being summoned she proved uncommonly capable, bright, and intelligent.

It appears that she had been born a princess, the daughter of a cacique, in the province of Coatzacoalcos. Her father had been killed while she was a babe. Her mother, marrying again, and desiring the cacique-ship for her son by the second union, sought to get rid of the daughter by selling her to some traders as a slave. In this manner the Indian princess had come into the possession of a certain cacique of Tabasco, by whom she was given to Cortés. She was unusually attractive in appearance, of noble bearing, despite her fallen state, and a natural linguist.

Owing to her acquaintance with the Aztec language, as well as with the habits and customs of the Mexicans, and to her great natural sagacity (which served the Spaniards at many a critical moment), she aided greatly in the conquest of the country of her birth, and became a personage of importance. This princess of Tabasco was known to the natives as Malinché, and from her being his associate Cortés was called Malintzin, or Malinché's lord and master; but the Spaniards named her Marina.

"Dona Marina," then, the enslaved princess of Tabasco, leaped at a bound into prominence when it became known that she could speak the Aztec tongue, for she was the only person in all that company of more than 600 who could do so. So she translated what the Aztecs said into Maya, and Aguilar rendered it into Spanish, by which process it became known to Cortés and the rest. Thus for a time two interpreters and three languages were used in the intercourse between the Spaniards and the Mexicans. But it did not take long for the quick-witted Malinché to learn sufficient Spanish to serve all purposes, and she then became the sole medium of communication between the Aztecs and the invaders of their country.

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