Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 20

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Mexico, as it was and as it is  (1847)  by Brantz Mayer
LETTER XX.


LETTER XX.


THE CITY OF MEXICO AS IT WAS AT THE CONQUEST.


After having given an account of the antiquities which survived the ravages of the conquerors, (who, with a blind zeal to establish their power and religion, overthrew temple, tower, and almost every record of the Indians,) it has struck me that a notice or sketch of the city of Montezuma, its sovereign and people, would not be uninteresting to even the most careless reader. I have, therefore, gathered from the letters of Cortéz to the Emperor Charles the V., and the history of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, such accounts as appear to be most authentic, not only because they impress us with the grandeur and advanced civilization of the Indians, but because they may probably serve to establish a connection between the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico and the people who, dwelling farther south, were the builders and occupants of the temples and palaces which have lately been revealed to us in the picturesque pages of Stephens and Catherwood.

"The province which constitutes the principal territory of Montezuma," (says Cortéz in his letter to Charles the V.,) "is circular, and entirely surrounded by lofty and rugged mountains, and the circumference of it is full seventy leagues. In this plain there are two lakes which nearly occupy the whole of it, as the people use canoes for more than fifty leagues round. One of these lakes is of fresh water, and the other, which is larger, is of salt water. They are divided, on one side, by a small collection of high hills, which stand in the centre of the plain, and they unite in a level strait formed between these hills and the high mountains, which strait is a gun-shot wide, and the people of the cities and other settlements which are in these lakes, communicate together in their canoes by water, without the necessity of going by land. And as this great salt lake ebbs and flows with the tide, as the sea does, in every flood the water flows from it into the other fresh lake as impetuously as if it were a large river, and consequently at the ebb, the fresh lake flows into the salt.

"This great city of Temixtitlan, (meaning Tenotchtitlan, Mexico,) is founded in this salt lake; and from terra firma to the body of the city, the distance is two leagues on which ever side they please to enter it.

"It has four entrances, or causeways, made by the hand of man, as wide as two horsemen's lances.

"The city is as large as Seville and Cordova. The streets (I mean the principal ones,) are very wide, and others very narrow; and some of the latter and all the others are one-half land and the other half water, along which the inhabitants go in their canoes; and all the streets, at given distances, are open, so that the water passes from one to the other; and in all their openings, some of which are very wide, there are very wide bridges, made of massive beams joined together and well wrought; and so wide that ten horsemen may pass abreast over many of them."

Bernal Diaz del Castillo gives the following account, of the entry of the Spaniards into this city, on the 8th of November, 1519; the period of their first visit to Montezuma, and before they had treacherously obtained possession of the monarch's person.

"We proceeded," says he, "by the great causeway, that runs in a straight line to the city. It was crowded with people, as were all the towers, temples, and causeways, in every part of the lake, attracted by curiosity to behold men and animals such as never before had been seen in these countries. When we arrived at a place where a small causeway turns off to the city Cuyoaoan, we were met by a great many of the lords of the court, sent, as they said, before the great Montezuma, to bid us welcome.

" When we arrived near certain towers which were almost close to the city, Montezuma, who was then in the neighborhood, quitted his litter that was borne in the arms of the Princes of Tezcoco, Iztapalapa, Tacuba, and Cuyoacan, under a canopy of the richest materials, ornamented with green feathers, gold, and precious stones, that hung in the manner of fringe. He was most richly draped and adorned, and wore buskins of pure gold ornamented with jewels. The princes who supported him were dressed in rich habits, different from those in which they had come to meet us previously; and others, who preceded the monarch, spread mantles on the ground lest his feet should touch it. All who attended him, except the four princes, kept their eyes fixed on the earth, not daring to look him in the face."

They entered the city. "Who," continues Diaz, "could count the multitudes of men, women, and children, who thronged the streets, canals, and terraces, and the tops of the houses, on that day!

"The whole of what I saw on this occasion is so strongly imprinted on my memory, that it appears to me as if it had happened only yesterday. Glory to our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave us courage to venture on such dangers, and brought us safely through them!"

Lodgings were provided for the Spaniards by the luxurious and lavish monarch—they were fed and entertained at his cost, and presents were made to all. "Montezuma," says the historian, "made signs to one of his principal attendants, to order his officers to bring him certain pieces of gold to give to Cortéz—together with ten loads of fine stuffs which he divided between Cortéz and his captains, and to every soldier he gave two collars of gold, each worth ten crowns, and two loads of mantles; and the gold amounted, in value, to upward of a thousand crowns; and he gave it with an affability and indifference which made him appear a truly magnificent prince."

He then proceeds, after some other details, to give an account of the personal appearance of this sovereign, and of the style and splendor of his court.

"The great Montezuma was, at this time, aged about 40 years, of good stature, well proportioned, and thin. His complexion was much fairer than that of the Indians; he wore his hair short, just covering his ears, with very little beard, well arranged, thin and black. His face was rather long, with a pleasant mien and good eyes; gravity and good-humor were blended together when he spoke. He was very delicate and cleanly in his person, bathing himself every evening. He had a number of mistresses of the first families, and two princesses, his lawful wives; when he visited them, it was with such secrecy that none could know it except his own servants. He was clear of all suspicions of unnatural vices. The clothes which he wore one day he did not put on for four days after. He had set two hundred of his nobility as a guard in apartments adjoining his own. Of these only certain persons could speak to him, and when they went to wait upon him, they took off their rich mantles and put on others of less ornament, but clean. They entered his apartment barefooted, their eyes fixed on the ground, and making three inclinations of the body as they approached him. In addressing the king they said, "Lord—my lord—great lord!" When they had finished, he dismissed them with a few words, and they retired with their faces toward him and their eyes fixed on the ground. I also observed, that when great men came from a distance about business, they entered his palace barefooted, and in plain habit; and also, that they did not enter the gate directly, but took a circuit in going toward it.

"His cooks had upward of thirty different ways of dressing meats, and they had earthen vessels so contrived as to keep them constantly hot. For the table of Montezuma himself, above three hundred dishes were dressed, and for his guards above a thousand. Before dinner, Montezuma would sometimes go out and inspect the preparations, and his officers would point out to him which were the best, and explain of what birds and flesh they were composed; and of those he would eat. But this was more for amusement than anything else.

"It is said, that at times the flesh of young children was dressed for him; but the ordinary meats were domestic fowls, pheasants, geese, partridges, quails, venison, Indian hogs, pigeons, hares and rabbits, with many other animals and birds peculiar to the country. This is certain—that after Cortéz had spoken to him relative to the dressing of human flesh, it was not practiced in his palace. At his meals, in the cold weather, a number of torches of the bark of a wood which makes no smoke, and has an aromatic smell, were lighted; and, that they should not throw too much heat, screens, ornamented with gold and painted with figures of idols, were placed before them.

"Montezuma was seated on a low throne or chair, at a table proportioned to the height of his seat. The table was covered with white cloths and napkins, and four beautiful women presented him with water for his hands, in vessels which they call xicales, with other vessels under them, like plates, to catch the water. They also presented him with towels.

"Then two other women brought small cakes of bread, and, when the King began to eat, a large screen of gilded wood was placed before him, so that during that period people should not behold him. The women having retired to a little distance, four ancient lords stood by the throne, to whom Montezuma, from time to time, spoke or addressed questions, and as a mark of particular favor, gave to each of them a plate of that which he was eating. I was told that these old lords, who were his near relations, were also counsellors and judges. The plates which Montezuma presented to them they received with high respect, eating what was on them without taking their eyes off the ground. He was served in earthenware of Cholula, red and black. While the King was at the table, no one of his guards in the vicinity of his apartment dared, for their lives, make any noise. Fruit of all kinds produced in the country, was laid before him; he ate very little; but, from time to time, a liquor prepared from coco, and of a stimulative quality, as we were told, was presented to him in golden cups. We could not, at that time, see whether he drank it or not; but I observed a number of jars, above fifty, brought in, filled with foaming chocolate, of which he took some that the women presented him.

"At different intervals during the time of dinner, there entered certain Indians, humpbacked, very deformed, and ugly, who played tricks of buffoonery; and others who, they said, were jesters. There was also a company of singers and dancers, who afforded Montezuma much entertainment. To these he ordered the vases of chocolate to be distributed. The four female attendants then took away the cloths, and again, with much respect, presented him with water to wash his hands, during which time Montezuma conferred with the four old noblemen formerly mentioned, after which they took their leave with many ceremonies.

"One thing I forgot (and no wonder,) to mention in its place, and that is, that during the time that Montezuma was at dinner, two very beautiful women were busily employed making small cakes[1] with eggs and other things mixed therein. These were delicately white, and, when made, they presented them to him on plates covered with napkins. Also another kind of bread was brought to him in long leaves, and plates of cakes resembling wafers.

"After he had dined, they presented to him three little canes, highly ornamented, containing liquid-amber, mixed with an herb they call tobacco; and when he had sufficiently viewed and heard the singers, dancers, and buffoons, he took a little of the smoke of one of these canes, and then laid himself down to sleep.

"The meal of the monarch ended, all his guards and domestics sat down to dinner; and, as near as I could judge, above a thousand plates of those eatables that I have mentioned, were laid before them, with vessels of foaming chocolate and fruit in immense quality. For his women, and various inferior servants, his establishment was of a prodigious expense; and we were astonished, amid such a profusion, at the vast regularity that prevailed.


click on this image to enlarge it.

mexican arms

"His major domo was, at this time, a prince named Tapica; who kept the accounts of Montezuma's rents in books which occupied an entire house.

"Montezuma had two buildings filled with every kind of arms, richly ornamented with gold and jewels; such as shields, large and small clubs like two-handed swords,[2] and lances much larger than ours, with blades six feet in length, so strong that if they fix in a shield they do not break; and sharp enough to use as razors.

"There was also an immense quantity of bows and arrows, and darts, together with slings, and shields which roll up into a small compass, and in action are let fall, and thereby cover the whole body. He had also much defensive armor of quilted cotton, ornamented with feathers in different devices, and casques for the head, made of wood and bone, with plumes of feathers, and many other articles too tedious to mention."

In this Palace, where the Emperor dwelt in almost oriental splendor, he had his gardens, and ponds, and aviaries. At Chapultepec, a hill on the west of the city, he owned another palace, amid groves, fountains and trees, and many of the cypresses with which the grounds were adorned still remain in all their vigor. Besides these, he had his menageries, where every species of wild beast, venomous serpent, curious fish, and bird of beautiful plumage, were gathered together and watched by innumerable attendants.

Soon after the arrival of Cortéz in Mexico, he expressed to the Emperor a desire to see his city; and, with all becoming pomp and ceremony, (having first of all consulted his priests as to the propriety,) he took his future conqueror to the top of the great Temple, whence he beheld the splendor of the Indian capital.

Streets, canals, shrines; large and beautiful houses, amid groves and gardens; markets, where every luxury of fruit and vegetables was to be found; aqueducts, which brought sweet water from the hills; streets filled with artists who wove the most beautifully pictured garments from plumes of birds, or fashioned the precious metals into gorgeous ornaments;— palaces, where the nobles dwelt in all the magnificence of barbaric wealth;—all these lay in splendor beneath him, while the land and water swarmed with an active but superstitious multitude, and the lakes beyond bore them across its silvery surface, dotted with floating gardens, to the foot of mountains, where the sunshine for ever warmed the fruits and flowers into vigorous life.

Such was the city of Mexico, and the style of the Emperor; but it was not alone in externals, that the nation was great and powerful. It was regulated by good laws, well and speedily administered; the relations of life were recognized and guarded; it fostered a good system of education; the arts were cultivated and encouraged; architecture had advanced to a high degree of excellence; the knowledge of astronomy, and of the calculation of time, was exact and scientific. The Aztecs were bold in war; they had built a vast Empire, springing from a sparse tribe which found its first home among the reeds and marshes of the lake where they had hidden for safety from their foes; and, although their religious rites were brutal and bloody, they still had some glimmering ideas of an invisible and omnipotent God. It was a nation of splendid contradictions, where social elegance and comfort were almost unequalled, and yet where religious brutality was quite as unparalleled.

The sight of this splendid city was too tempting for Cortéz—"The kingdoms of the world were at his feet." He had resolved, before, to attempt the entire subjugation of this people; and the view of this wealth only stimulated his resolution, while the bloody rites[3] of the Temple aided in exciting his ambition to give another land of idolatry to the control of the Holy Cross.

He soon afterward seized the King, and, as some assert, caused him to be put to death, or to be so exposed that his death was inevitable; yet, when the wonted spirit of the Mexicans was aroused, his troops were driven from the Capital.

He returned with Indian allies. He invested the city with a sort of mimic navy, which he launched on the lake from Tezcoco; and at length, after a severe struggle, the Capital fell into his hands.

"What I am going to say is truth, and I swear, and say Amen to it!" (exclaims Bernal Diaz del Castillo, in his quaint style:) "I have read of the destruction of Jerusalem, but I cannot conceive that the mortality there exceeded that of Mexico; for all the people from the distant provinces, which belonged to this Empire, had concentrated themselves here, where they mostly died. The streets, and squares, and houses, and the courts of the Tlatelolco[4] were covered with dead bodies; we could not step without treading on them; the lake and canals were filled with them, and the stench was intolerable.

"When all those who had been able, quitted the city, we went to examine it, which was as I have described; and some poor creatures were crawling about in different stages of the most offensive disorders, the consequences of famine and improper food. There was no water; the ground had been torn up and the roots gnawed. The very trees were stripped of their bark; yet, notwithstanding they usually devoured their prisoners, no instance occurred when, amidst all the famine and starvation of this siege, they preyed upon each other. The remnant of the population went, at the request of the conquered Guatimozin, to the neighboring villages, until the town could be purified and the dead removed." Cortéz affirms, that more than fifty thousand perished.

Nor was this all: there seems to have been a disposition, on the part of the conqueror, to obliterate the nation from the face of the earth. As his army advanced gradually into the town in the various attacks made upon it, the buildings were leveled to the ground; but when the final conflict had ended, the bigotry of the priesthood was added to the ferocity of the soldier, and hand in hand they went to the work of destruction. After they had secured every article of intrinsic value,—palace and temple were given up to ruin. The materials of which the houses of the nobles and wealthy citizens had been built, were used to fill the canals. Every idol was broken that could be destroyed, while those that were too large to be mutilated by the hand or by gunpowder, were buried in the lake or the squares; and finally, every historical record, paper, and painting, that could be found, was torn and burned, with a fanaticism as ignorant and stupid as it was zealous and bigoted.

From that time, of course, but little has descended to us, except a few fragments of manuscripts, which are now preserved in the royal collections of Berlin, Dresden, Vienna and the Vatican; the idols and images with which the Museum is filled; and the magnificent ruins of Palenque, Uxmal, and Guatamala.

It is impossible for us not to sympathize with the conquered in the fall and subjection of their Empire, notwithstanding the cruelty of their worship. Cortéz was, at best, but a great pirate, around whom a troop of needy adventurers and brave soldiers had gathered, with all the appetite for conquest and the temper of freebooters. It is undeniable, that he was a man of extraordinary capacity. Brave, sagacious, cool, enduring, intrepid; a statesman, orator, historian, soldier, poet; he united in himself every manly attribute and accomplishment, and he added to them an indomitable resolution, which quailed as little before the magnitude or danger of an enterprise, as before the multitudes who were sent to encounter him. He was worthy of a better cause, and the founding of a greater empire.

As for Montezuma, he seemed to have had a fatal presentiment of his country's destiny, from the period of his first interview with Cortéz; and his luxurious habits of life, operating, most probably, upon a temperament naturally unresisting and indolent, induced him to allow a foothold to the Spaniards, who might have been crushed by his armies at a single blow. Instead of striking that blow, he indulged in recollecting the legends of his forefathers; and scarcely had his future conqueror entered the Capital, when he hinted the fate to which his country was at last subjected. "It is long since we knew from our ancestors," said he, "that neither I nor all who inhabit their lands were originally of them, but that we are strangers, and came hither from distant places. It was said that a great lord brought our race to these parts and returned to the land of his birth, and yet, came back once more to us. But, in the mean time, those whom he first brought had intermarried with the women of the country; and when he desired them to return again to the land of their fathers they refused to go. He went alone; and ever since have we believed, that from among those who were the descendants of that mighty lord, one shall come to subdue this land and make us his vassals! According to what you declare of the place whence you come, (which is toward the rising sun,) and of the great lord who is your King, we must surely believe that he is our natural lord."

Cortéz was by no means disposed to deny it!


  1. No doubt tortillas, or maize cakes—still the stuff of life with all the Indians, and, indeed, a favorite and daily food of all classes of Mexicans.
  2. Called macuahuitl. They were composed of stout club of wood, into the sides of which square and sharpened pieces of flint or obsidian were fastened at equal distances, as will be seen in the figure A in the cut. They were described by Acosta as having been most formidable weapons; and he declares that he has seen the skull of a horse cleft in twain by one of them at a single blow. The foregoing designs are taken either from ancient paintings, or from the arms themselves, preserved in the Museum at Mexico. Opposite of page 428, of Mr. Stephens's first volume of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, there is a plate representing the sculptured figure of a jamb of a doorway from the ruins at Kabah. In the hands of a kneeling figure in the group, there is a weapon, which the reader, if he takes the trouble to compare the preceding drawing and the plate, will not fail to recognize at a glance, to be a macuahuitl. This incontestably proves an identity of arms between the ancient Mexicans and Yucatecos: and it proves something more, because it is known that these battle-axes were used by the Mexicans at the period of the Conquest. The sculptured jamb was removed from Yucatan by Mr. Stephens, and arrived safely in the United States. It escaped the loss by fire of the rest of the valuable collection, but was thrown down and broken by a careless and inquisitive street passenger, while unloading from the car that conveyed it from the vessel.
  3. "The walls and pavements of this Temple", says Bernal Diaz, "were so besmeared with blood, that they stank worse than all the slaughter-houses of Castilla." Further on he says, "At the door stood frightful idols: by it was a place for sacrifice, and within, boilers, and pots full of water, to dress the flesh of the victims, which was eaten by the priests. The idols were like serpents and devils: and before them were tables and knives for sacrifice, the place being covered with blood which was spilt on these occasions. The furniture was like that of a butcher's stall: and I never gave this accursed building any name except that of Hell! In another temple were the tombs of the Mexican nobility. It was begrimed with soot and blood. Next to this, was another, full of skeletons, and piles of bones, each kept apart, but regularly arranged."
  4. Diaz, contrary to other writers, declares this to have been the site of the great Temple. It is now the site of Convent of St. Iago Tlalteloco.