Among the millions that from age to age are born into this world there arise in every generation one or two pre-eminent men and women who are objects of the wonder and the envy, the admiration and the hatred of their contemporaries, and whose names, after their deaths, stand out as landmarks by which we shape a course across the dark and doubtful seas of history. Cæsar and Cromwell, Mahomet and Napoleon, to mention no others, were such men, and such a man was Hernando Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico. They have been called, and well called, Men of Destiny, since it is impossible in studying their lives and tracing their vast influence upon human affairs, to avoid the conclusion that they were raised up and endowed with great talents and opportunities in order that by their agency the ends of Providence might be shaped.
Hernando Cortes was born of a good family, at the town of Medellin in Spain, in 1485, and educated at the college of Salamanca. At the age of nineteen having proved himself unfit to follow the profession of the law to which his parents had destined him, he emigrated to the Indian Island of Hispaniola where he was appointed notary of the town of Acua, and in 1511 assisted in the conquest of Cuba under the command of Velasquez. Here after many curious adventures and vacillations he married a lady named Catalina Xuarez, and being created alcade of the settlement of St. Jago realized a moderate fortune by the practice of agriculture and mining. In 1518 there came to Cuba news of the discoveries made by Grijalva in Yucatan on the coast of the country now known as Mexico, and the Governor, Velasquez, determined to despatch a force to explore this new land. After much intriguing and in consideration of the payment of a considerable sum of money toward the expenses, Cortes whose ambitious spirit had already wearied of a life of peace and indolence, contrived to persuade Velasquez to appoint him Captain General of the expedition. Before the ships sailed, however, Velasquez repented him of the appointment, for in Cortes he recognized a servant who might well become his master, and made arrangements to invest some other hidalgo with the leadership of the expedition. Now it was that Cortes showed what manner of man he was. Many in his position on learning the wishes of their superior would have tamely yielded up their posts. Not so Cortes, who on the first hint that he was to be deprived of his authority, collected his men, and all unprepared as was his squadron, weighed anchor while the governor slept. At the town of Trinidad he landed to collect stores and volunteers, treating with contempt the orders that reached the commander of the town from Velasquez to depose him from his command and detain his person. Here it was that Cortes made his famous address to the volunteers, wherein he shows that although his instructions were to undertake a trading voyage and acquire information of the country, his real aim was far different, since he promises unimagined wealth to those who are true to him, and by a curious flash of prescience prophesies immortal renown to their enterprise. On February 10, 1519, he sailed to the conquest of Mexico, accompanied by some six hundred and fifty white men and a few Indians. Cortes was in his thirty-fourth year when he entered on this the greatest of his enterprises. He was pale faced and dark eyed, somewhat slender in build, but of an iron strength and constitution. In temper he was patient though liable to fits of passion, and in disposition frank, merry, and generous, but most determined. He dressed richly and was constant in his religious exercises. Such was the great captain, a man suited by circumstances and nature to the desperate undertaking which it was his destiny to bring to a successful issue.
Having touched at the island of Cozumel on the coast of Yucatan, Cortes sailed up the Tabasco River and began his work of conquest by attacking a great army of Indians in the neighborhood of that town. For a while the natives held their own notwithstanding their dismay at the sound and effects of fire-arms; but the appearance of the horsemen, whom they took to be strange animals, caused them to flee in terror leaving many hundreds of their warriors dead upon the field. On the morrow they made their submission, bringing women and other gifts as a peace-offering. Among these women was one named Malinche, or by the Spaniards Marina, whom Cortes took as a mistress and who is described by Camargo as having been “beautiful as a goddess.” It was this lady, born to be the evil genius of her country, who instructed her lord and master in the habits, traditions, and history of the Aztecs, and of the land of Anahuac which they inhabited together with other tribes. She was Cortes’ interpreter and confidante, whose business it was to gain information from the Indians, which he could use, and whose wit and devotion more than once saved him from disaster. So invaluable were her services to Cortes that it is doubtful if without her aid he would have succeeded in conquering Mexico, and it was from her that he acquired the name of Malinche by which he was known among the Indian races. Her reward, when she had served his purpose and he was weary of her, was to be given by him in marriage to another man.
Leaving Tabasco Cortes sailed along the coast till he reached the spot where the city of Veracruz now stands, whence he opened communications with Montezuma, Emperor of the Aztecs. In due course envoys arrived from the monarch laden with magnificent gifts, who delivered a civil but none the less peremptory message requesting the Spaniards to return whence they came. By this time Cortes had learned that although the Aztecs were the greatest power in Anahuac, their supremacy was not acknowledged by all the tribes; notably was it contested by the Tlascalans and their allies the Otomies. The Tlascalans were republicans having their home in the mountains almost midway between Mexico and the coast. For fifty years or more they had been at bitter enmity with the Aztecs, who again and again had vainly attempted to subjugate them. To this people Cortes despatched an embassy asking for a safe passage through their territories on his road to Mexico, for his political insight told him that they might prove valuable allies. No answer was returned by the Tlascalans who when the Spaniards advanced attacked them furiously, only to be defeated by Cortes in several engagements, till, discouraged and believing the white men to be invincible, they sued for peace, and from enemies were converted into firm allies. From Tlascala the Spaniards proceeded to the neighboring city of Cholula where Marina discovered a plot to put them to death. For this offence Cortes took a terrible vengeance. Falling on the inhabitants of the city when they were unprepared he butchered vast numbers of them, giving their houses and temples to sack. Having thus established the terror of his name he marched on to Mexico accompanied by a body of about five thousand Tlascalan allies. Meanwhile the counsels of the Aztecs were darkened with doubt. The Spaniards might easily have been kept out of Mexico by force, but the arm of Montezuma was paralyzed by superstitious fears. Prophecy foretold that the children of the white god Quetzalcoatl should rise from the sea to possess the land, and in the Spaniards he beheld the fate fulfilled. To him they were not mortal but divine and when diplomacy had failed to keep them at a distance he feared to lift a sword against them. Thus it came about that without a blow being struck to drive them back Cortes and his little band of adventurers found themselves established at the heart of the strange and rich civilization that they had discovered, not as enemies, but as the guests of the king. They were not slow to avail themselves of the opportunities of their position in order to advance their ends which were, first plunder, secondly conquest, and, thirdly the extension of the authority of Spain and of the Christian religion. In pursuit of these ends upon some slight pretext Cortes seized the person of Montezuma, the great emperor, and imprisoned him in one of his own palaces whence, however, he was still allowed to direct the government and issue his commands.
Meanwhile reports of Cortes’ doings and success had reached Velasquez the Governor of Cuba, who determined to despatch an expedition to conquer or capture him as a traitor. Accordingly eighteen vessels containing nearly a thousand white men were placed under the command of Panfilo de Narvaez, and reached Vera Cruz in April, 1520. When Cortes heard of the arrival of this armament and its object which was to punish him for his supposed rebellion, he marched from Mexico, leaving the little garrison and the person of Montezuma in charge of his comrade Alvarado. Although he had with him but two hundred and fifty men in all, he did not hesitate to hazard a night attack upon Narvaez who was strongly encamped at Cempoalla. It was completely successful; Narvaez was wounded, captured, and sent in chains to Veracruz, while the army that had come to conquer him swore allegiance to Cortes as Captain-General and marched with him back to Mexico. Here great events were in progress. Moved to the deed by fear or by the discovery of some real or fancied plot against the Spaniards, Alvarado, the deputy of Cortes, had fallen upon the unarmed Aztec nobles while they were celebrating a feast in the courtyard of the great temple, and butchered some six hundred of them with every circumstance of brutality. Then at last the patient Aztecs rose and until the womanly Montezuma begged them to desist, attacked the palace where the Spaniards were quartered, with fury. At the intervention of their monarch the attack was turned to a blockade and Cortes arrived from his victory over Narvaez to find his companions in desperate straits. Reinforced by fresh soldiers the Spaniards carried on the war with activity. They assaulted and captured the great pyramid, putting to the sword the priests of human sacrifice and burning the blood-stained temples of the gods. Also they made several sallies into the city and repelled onslaughts upon the palace. It was in the course of one of these attacks that Montezuma received the wound that brought about his death. Mounting the central tower of the palace he implored his subjects to cease from attacking his friends the Spaniards, whereupon in their fury they overwhelmed him with a shower of darts and stones, inflicting injuries from which in course of a few days he died. Surrounded as he was on every side by thousands of fierce enemies determined to stretch every Spaniard upon the stone of sacrifice, Cortes saw the impossibility of maintaining the unequal fight and determined on retreat. Accordingly on the night of July 1, 1520, the Spaniards and their native allies sallied from the fortress, and laden with gold from Montezuma’s treasury, took the route of Tlacopan. Soon their escape was detected and instantly a fierce attack was made upon them from every quarter. The bridge that they had brought with them to span the gaps in the causeway became fixed in the mud, so that their only path across the canals lay over the bodies of their comrades. At length they won through, but out of their small force there had perished, or been taken captive as victims for sacrifice, some four hundred and fifty Spaniards and four thousand native allies. It is said that when the shattered army reached a place of safety outside the city, Cortes sat down beneath an ancient cedar-tree which is still shown to travellers, and wept. Yet within a week fortune smiled on him again, for he and the few comrades who remained to him fought and won the battle of Otompan against thousands of the Indians, Cortes killing their chief Cihuaca with his own hand.
The Aztecs rejoiced at the departure of the Spaniards from their capital Mexico or Tenoctitlan, but their joy was premature. First the small-pox, introduced into the country by the white men, fell upon the city and swept away thousands, among them Cuitlahua, the emperor who succeeded to Montezuma, and then came the news that the indomitable Cortes was marching upon them with a great army of native allies and large reinforcements of Spaniards from overseas. Guatimozin, the new emperor, made every possible preparation for defence and the siege began, a siege as cruel as that of Jerusalem and perhaps more bloody. First Cortes laid waste the cities about Mexico, then he attacked the Queen of the Valley herself—attacked it again and again till at length it was a ruin and tens of thousands of its inhabitants were dead by starvation, by pestilence, and by the sword. On either side the combat was one of desperate courage, but notwithstanding occasional successes on the part of the Aztecs, such as that when they captured and sacrificed some sixty Spaniards, from the first the genius of Cortes made the end inevitable. When nothing remained of Tenoctitlan and its people save some blackened walls and a few thousand wretches reduced to skeletons by hunger, the capture of Guatimozin while attempting to escape in a canoe, made an end of the fighting in August, 1521. Cortes promised honorable treatment to the fallen king, but before long he put him and some of his companions to the torture in order to force the discovery of hidden treasure. This brutality proved ineffectual, but taken together with the subsequent hanging of Guatimozin upon an unproved charge of conspiracy against the Spaniards, it constitutes the blackest blot upon the fame of Cortes. It is fair to add, however, that he was not by nature a harsh man, and that he was driven to the commission of these cruelties by the clamor of his soldiers who were infuriated at finding so little treasure in the devastated city. With the capture of Mexico the fortunes of Cortes culminated. He was appointed Captain-General of the land of New Spain in October, 1522, and the next few years he occupied in rebuilding the city, and in bringing the surrounding territories under the rule of Spain. Wearying of these comparatively peaceful occupations, in 1524 he undertook an expedition of discovery and conquest to Honduras, upon which he was absent until May, 1526, when he returned after enduring much hardship and suffering, to find that enemies had been plotting against him in Mexico. This discovery and the desire of clearing himself with the emperor, caused him to determine to visit Spain where he arrived in May, 1528. Charles the Fifth received him with much favor creating him Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca and military commander of New Spain, and endowing him with vast estates in the lands that he had conquered. In 1530 he returned to Mexico accompanied by his second wife, a lady of good family whom he had married while in Spain. Very soon he entered on a course of expeditions of discovery and maritime adventures which involved him in great pecuniary losses and a quarrel with the viceroy Mendoza; and in 1540 he sailed a second time for Spain to obtain redress from the emperor. But Cortes was no longer the power that he had been; his youth was gone and his work was done, therefore his prayers and remonstrances were treated with cold neglect. For nearly four years he pressed his suit and in February, 1544, we find him writing a letter to the emperor begging him to direct the Council of the Indies to come to a decision upon it. This letter in which pathetically enough, he speaks of himself as “old and poor and indebted,” produced no result and once again, worn out and bitterly disappointed, its writer turned his face toward the land that he had won for Spain. But he was never to behold it more. At Seville he was seized with dysentery and passed away December 2, 1547, being then in his sixty-third year. His body was taken to Mexico for burial.
In Hernando Cortes died one of the great men of the world, though how much of his greatness was due to chance is difficult to determine. It is certain that again and again fortune stood his friend in a manner that was little short of miraculous, as in the instances of the unexpected victory over Narvaez and of the death of the general at the battle of Otampan. But if chance or fate gave him opportunities it was Cortes’ own genius and unconquerable will that enabled him to avail himself of them. These qualities were the most striking characteristics of the man. He showed them when having determined on the conquest of Mexico he burnt his ships that there might be no escape from the decision; when he hit upon the expedient of using rival tribes to accomplish the overthrow of the Aztecs; when, driven from Mexico with the loss of the half of his army he returned to the attack; and in many another time and place. He had great good qualities, he was a true friend, and according to his lights, an honorable and even a religious man, and his faults were those of his time and training, or at worst such as are not inconsistent with a generous nature. His cruelties may be urged against him, but no Spaniard of his age thought it cruel to slaughter enemies of the Faith who practised human sacrifice; also having once embarked upon his colossal undertaking he and his companions must either slay or be slain. There is evidence to show that personally he was not a cruel man. Thus when called upon to sign the death-warrant of a soldier he lamented that he had ever been taught to write, and there are passages in his will which show his conscience to have been troubled by questions as to the right to enslave human beings. With a handful of followers Cortes overthrew the fabric of the Aztec Empire, broke the spirit of its people so effectually that to this day it has not recovered itself, and swept away its religion. Whether for good or evil this was a stupendous achievement and one that must make his name immortal.
By H. Rider Haggard
SOURCE:GREAT MEN AND FAMOUS WOMEN A Series of Pen and Pencil Sketches of THE LIVES OF MORE THAN 200 OF THE MOST PROMINENT PERSONAGES IN HISTORY