Letters of Cortes to Emperor Charles V - Vol 1/Colonial life in Cuba

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INFORMATION concerning the events of the first years of the residence of Cortes in the island of Cuba is scanty, but it may be assumed that he attended to his interests, which prospered, and enjoyed considerable popularity among his fellow-colonists as well as the favour of the Governor, Diego Velasquez, who extended a protecting friendship to him such as an older man of high rank might naturally feel for one of the most promising young men among his colonists. Mr. George Folsom, in the Introduction to his English translation of the Despatches of Hernando Cortes (New York, 1843), says that Velasquez was brother-in-law to Cortes, having married one of the Xuarez sisters. I have found no authority for this assertion, and, a few pages farther on, the same writer describes Velasquez as seeking to arrange a marriage for himself with a sister of the Bishop of Burgos. This alleged relationship between the two through their marriages is apocryphal.

As the changes which the relations between these two men underwent, worked powerfully and far upon the course of events in the New World, it is necessary before going further to consider somewhat the character of Diego Velasquez, and the causes which brought about the breach in their friendship. Oviedo states that Velasquez was of noble family, and, though arriving in the Indies poor, had there accumulated an ample fortune. His military experience had been gained by seventeen years of service in European wars. The anonymous author of De Rebus Gestis confirms these points adding, "He was covetous of glory and somewhat more so of money." The latter also represents that an intimate friendship existed during several years between the two in Hispaniola, and that Velasquez had insisted on Cortes's joining his expedition, to which the latter counselled by friendship and his longing for adventures, readily consented. Velasquez had the habit of command, which as Governor of Cuba he exercised with the scarcely restricted and arbitrary freedom which his own temperament dictated, and the usage amongst Spanish colonial governors sanctioned. With all this he was amiable, accessible, and fond of dispensing favours. Prescott estimates him as one of those captious persons who "when things do not go exactly to their taste, shift the responsibility from their own shoulders where it should lie to those of others," and Herrera describes him as "ungenerous, credulous, and suspicious!" Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, who knew him personally in Cuba gives more place to his virtues in the description he has left of him, than do some others; while admitting that he was quick to resent a liberty, jealous of his dignity, easily taking offence, he adds that he was not vindictive nor slow to forgive. As an administrator of the affairs of the island he showed himself active and capable, encouraging immigration, assisting the colonists, and extending the zone of Spanish influence. He founded many towns, some of which still bear the names he gave them, notably Havana, Puerto del Principe, Matanzas, Trinidad, and Santiago where he had his seat of government. It appears therefore that Diego Velasquez was a man whose rather petty defects of character did not usually interfere with his public conduct and who discharged his official duties satisfactorily to the colonists and as a faithful representative of the crown. He was, however, unquestionably avaricious, egotistical, and ambitious; withal no easy master to serve. Commenting on the reproaches he afterwards heaped upon Cortes for his ingratitude towards him, Oviedo says that it was no whit worse than his own had been towards his benefactor, Diego Columbus, and hence it was "measure for measure." His desire to explore and conquer by deputy, and to win distinction vicariously, was defeated by the impossibility of finding men possessed of the required ability to undertake successfully such ventures, combined with sufficient docility to surrender to him the glory and profits resulting from them.

The two fundamental versions of the historic quarrel between Cortes and Velasquez are contradictory. One is furnished by Gomara, the other by Las Casas, and, upon one or the other, later historians have based their accounts. The version ot Las Casas is that of an eye-witness, for he was present in Cuba at the time, and knew both men well. He stood high in the favour of the Governor, but, even allowing something for the bias of personal friendship and possibly something more for the influence of Velasquez's position, his acknowledged integrity excludes the possibility of a conscious mis-statement of facts, and hence the greatest weight attaches to his testimony. Gomara, on the other hand, was never in Cuba in his life and only began his Cronica de la Conquista some twenty-five years or more after the events of which he wrote, under the inspiration and direction of Cortes, then Marques del Valle, whose chaplain he had shortly before become. Gomara's chronicle was somewhat of the nature of an apologia, and it no sooner appeared than its accuracy and veracity were impugned by participants in the events he described; notably by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, whose work was undertaken for the declared purpose of correcting Gomara, and was called with emphasis the "True History" of the conquest. Gomara's account is briefly as follows: Cortes at that time paid court to Catalina Xuarez la Marcaida, one of the poor but beautiful sisters of his partner in Manicaro, Juan Xuarez, and won such favours from the lady as entitled her to exact the fulfilment of a promise of marriage which she declared he had made her, but with which he refused to comply. The Xuarez family was from Granada and came originally in the suite of Doña Maria de Toledo, wife of the Viceroy Don Diego Columbus to] Hispaniola, where it was hoped the four girls whose only dowry was their beauty might make good marriages among the rich planters. This hope was not realised in San Domingo and they removed to Cuba. Catalina, the eldest, was the most beautiful of all and had many admirers, amongst whom her preference fell upon Cortes, who was ever ready for gallant adventures. The matter was brought before the Governor who summoned Cortes ad audiendum verbum, influenced in Catalina' s favour it was said, by one of her sisters to whose charms he himself was not indifferent. But, in spite of official pressure, Cortes refused to make the reparation exacted of him. Such high words followed that the Governor ordered him to be imprisoned in the fortress under the charge of the alcalde Cristobal de Lagos. His imprisonment was brief, for he managed to escape, carrying off the sword and buckler of his gaoler, and took sanctuary in a church, from which neither the promises nor the threats of Velasquez could beguile him. One day, however, when he unwarily showed himself before the church door, the alguacil Juan Escudero seized him from behind, and, aided by others, carried him on board a ship lying in the harbour. Cortes feared this foreshadowed transportation, and, setting his wits to work, he contrived to escape a second time, dressed in the clothes of a servant who attended him. He let himself down into a small skiff and pulled for the shore, but the strength of the current at that point, where the waters of the Macaguanigua River flow into the sea, was such that his frail craft capsized, and he reached the shore swimming, with certain valuable papers tied in a packet on the top of his head. He then betook himself to Juan Xuarez, from whom he procured clothes and arms, and again took sanctuary in the church. These repeated escapes suggest sympathetic collusion on the part of his gaolers.

Velasquez professed to be won over by such bravery and resource, and sent mutual friends to make peace. But Cortes, although he married Catalina, refused the Governor's overtures and would not even speak to him, until, some Indian troubles breaking out, and Velasquez being at his headquarters outside the town, he somewhat alarmed the Governor by suddenly appearing before him late one night, fully armed, saying that he had come to make peace and to offer his services. They shook hands and spent a long time in conversation together, and slept that night in the same bed, where they were found next morning by Diego de Orellana who came to announce to the Governor that Cortes had fled from the church. This version is accepted by the author of De Rebtis Gestis without reservation; Solis, while omitting the details, also dwells upon the intimate friendship existing between the two men.

Las Casas tells a different tale, in which no mention is made of the refusal to marry Catalina Xuarez as having any part in the quarrel, but asserts rather that Cortes was secretary to Velasquez, and that the new^s of the arrival of certain appellate judges in Hispaniola having reached Cuba, all the malcontents in the colony, and those disaffected towards Velasquez, began secretly to collect material on which to base accusations against him, and that Cortes, acting with them, had been chosen to carry this information to the judges. The Governor was informed of the plot, and arrested Cortes in the act of embarking, with the incriminating papers in his possession, and would have ordered him to be hanged on the spot but for the intervention of his friends who pleaded for him. A memorial presented to the King on behalf of Velasquez by his chaplain Benito Martinez enumerates this, amongst other grievances of the Governor, and fully confirms the statement of Las Casas on this point. Las Casas admits the story of the imprisonment, the escape, and the sanctuary in the church, but he scouts the idea of any such reconciliation as Gomara describes, and says that the Governor, although he pardoned him, would not have him back as secretary, adding, "I saw Cortes in those days so small and humble that he would have craved the notice of the meanest servant of Velasquez." Las Casas reminds his readers that Gomara wrote of things about which he knew only what Cortes and his adherents told him, and at a time when Cortes, who had risen from small beginnings to great rank and fame, was anxious to have his former humble condition forgotten. It should be borne in mind that Las Casas never ceased to regard Cortes as other than an exceptionally bold and lucky adventurer, nor did he ever miss an opportunity of recalling his humble origin and irregular beginnings. The wrath of Velasquez was short lived, for he afterwards made Cortes, alcalde, and stood godfather to one of his children. During the succeeding years the fortunes of Cortes improved, and he amassed a capital of some three thousand castellanos, of which Las Casas remarks "God will have kept a better account than I of the lives it cost." Though married reluctantly, he seems to have been contented, and he described himself to the bishop as just as happy with Catalina as though she were the daughter of a duchess (Las Casas, Hist, de las Indias, lib. iii, cap. xxvii.).

Don Manuel Orozco y Berra unhesitatingly accepts the version of Las Casas, and Prescott inclines also to the opinion that Gomara's account is improbable. Indeed he seeks to prove too much, and his description of the Reconciliation is overcharged, for the Governor was more than dignified—he was pompous, and something of a martinet in his ideas of discipline, being so tenacious of etiquette that no one, not even the first citizens in the colony sat uninvited in his presence. Nor had he ever stood in relations of equal comradeship to Cortes, however friendly he may have been, hence it is not to be imagined that he humbled himself to offer a reconciliation, being first rebuffed by his subordinate, and afterwards, when it suited the latter to present himself before him, that he celebrated the resumption of friendly relations with such demonstrations of affection and intimacy as Gomara describes. If the Gomara version is the true one, and the quarrel had no other origin than the hot words exchanged concerning Cortes's conduct in a private affair which, strictly speaking, was no concern of the Governor's, Velasquez might easily have forgiven and forgotten, especially as the lady's honour was saved, if but tardily. But if the statement of Las Casas is correct, and the Governor discovered his secretary in the act of plotting with his enemies for his overthrow, then Diego Velasquez must be considered to have been the most fatuous and frivolous of men. Magnanimity might prompt forgiveness of even such treachery, and Velasquez might choose to forget the falsity of a man whose enmity he could afford to ignore or despise, but to afterwards confide the most important venture of his life to such a one was a blunder, than which it would be difficult to imagine a greater. Yet Diego Velasquez's vast capacity for blundering enabled him even to do this.

Gold was the magnet which drew the Spanish adventurers to the New World, and though it had nowhere been found either so easily or so plentifully as they expected, enough had been discovered to whet their appetites for more. They lived in the midst of a world of mysterious possibilities which might any day by a lucky discovery become realities. One navigator after another sailed the seas of unknown limits, discovered islands, landed on strange coasts, beheld primeval forests and lofty mountain-peaks clothed with untrodden snows, and, returning to the settlements on the islands, they brought back more or less accurate accounts of lands where gold and pearls were plentiful, peopled by natives eager to exchange these treasures for Spanish trinkets, at the same time producing enough specimens of precious metal to vouch for the truth of their descriptions. Rich colonists, as well as merchants in Cadiz and Seville, were easily found to risk funds in fitting out expeditions for the dual purpose of exploration and trade, while numberless were the skilful pilots, daring sailors, and bold soldiers of fortune ready to enlist for such service. After conquering Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de Leon cruised among the Lucayan Islands, and in 1512, discovered the coast which he named Florida, where, instead of the fountain of eternal youth he sought, he met his death; in 15 13, Balboa first beheld the Pacific Ocean from the mountain ridge on the isthmus of Darien; in 1515 Juan Diaz de Solis discovered the mouth of the river Plate.

In 1517 Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, a rich planter of Cuba, organised and equipped a fleet of three vessels, manned in part by some of the survivors of the first colony at Darien, and of which he himself took command. The principal object of this expedition was to capture Indians to be sold as slaves in Cuba, and the Governor furnished one ship on condition that he should be reimbursed in slaves (Bernal Diaz, Hist, de la Conquista, cap. i.). The first land discovered was a small island to which the name of Las Mugeres (Women's Island) was given, because of the images of female deities which they found in the temple there. This island lies off the extreme point of Yucatan, and from it the Spaniards saw what seemed to them a large and important city with many towers and lofty buildings, to which they gave the fanciful name of Grand Cairo. They discovered the island of Cozumel, and, in a battle with the Indians at Catoche, they captured two natives who afterwards became Christians, baptised under the names of Julian and Melchor, and rendered valuable services as interpreters. Besides the coast of Yucatan, the most interesting discovery made by this expedition was the mysterious crosses which they found the Indians venerating at Cozumel. Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba died a few days after his arrival in Cuba from the wounds he had received at Catoche, and the other members of the expedition made their way back to Santiago where the spoils taken from the temples, the small quantity of gold, the two strange Indians, and most of all the marvellous tales of the men served to excite the eager cupidity of the colonists, ever ready to believe that Eldorado was found. The news spread throughout the islands, and even reached Spain and Flanders, where the young King Charles the First (the Emperor Charles V.), then was.

Diego Velasquez promptly organised an expedition to follow up these discoveries, and establish trading relations with the natives, which he placed under the command of his kinsman, Juan de Grijalba. It was composed of four ships, the San Sebastian, La Trinidad, Santiago, and Santa Maria. The captains under Grijalba were Francisco de Avila, Pedro de Alvarado, and Francisco de Monteio (Bernal Diaz, cap. viii; Oviedo, Sumario, lib. xvii., cap. viii., Orozco y Berra, Conquista de Mexico, vol. iv., cap. i). This fleet set sail on May i, 1518, and after a fair voyage reached the island of Cozumel on May 3rd (Itinerario de larmata del Re Cattolico apud Icazbalceta, Documentos Ineditos, vol, i.).

Grijalba visited several points along the coast, giving Spanish names to various bays, islands, rivers, and towns. The Tabasco River, of which the correct Indian name seems to have been Tabzcoob, received the name of Grijalba. On arriving at the river which they named Banderas, because of the numerous Indians carrying white flags whom they saw along the coast, they first heard of the existence of Montezuma, of whom these people were vassals, and by whom they had been ordered to keep a look out for the possible return of the white men, whose former visit to Cozumel had been reported to the Emperor. On the 17th of June, a landing was made on a small island, where the Spaniards first discovered proofs that human sacrifices and cannibalism were practised by the natives, for they found there a bloodstained idol, human heads, members, and whole bodies, with the breasts cut open and the hearts gone. They named the island Isla de los Sacrificios (Oviedo, lib. xvii., cap. xiv.).

From the island which they named San Juan de Ulua (from the word Culua which they imperfectly caught from the natives), Grijalba sent Pedro de Alvarado on June 24th, with the San Sebastian to carry the results of his trading operations, and an account of his discoveries to Diego Velasquez, and to ask for an authorisation to colonise which had not been given in his original instructions, but which the members of the expedition exacted should now be granted (Las Casas, Hist, de las Indias, lib. iii., cap. cxii.).

Diego Velasquez had meanwhile felt some impatience, which gradually became alarm at hearing nothing from his expedition, so he sent Cristobal de Olid with a ship to look for it. Olid landed also at Cozumel, and took formal possession by right, as he supposed, of discovery. After coasting about for some time, and finding no traces of Grijalba, and having been obliged to cut his cables in a storm which had lost him his anchors, he returned to Cuba to augment the uneasiness of the Governor. At this juncture, however, Alvarado arrived with the treasure and Grijalba's report, which threw the Governor into an ecstasy of hope, and plunged all the colony into the greatest excitement. Without waiting for more news, Velasquez set about preparing another expedition, and sent Juan de Saucedo to Hispaniola to solicit from the Jeronymite Fathers the necessary authority for his undertaking, whose objects it was stated were to look for Grijalba's lost armada, which might be in danger, to seek for Cristobal de Olid (notwithstanding he was already safely returned), and to rescue six Spanish captives who were said to be prisoners of a cacique in Yucatan. On October 5th, Grijalba arrived in Cuba with his ships, and was coldly receied by the Governor, who professed himself much disappointed at the meagre results of the voyage, and criticised the captain severely for not having yielded to his companions' wishes to found a settlement on the newly discovered coast, despite his own instructions to the contrary.

Several names were under consideration for the commandership of the new armada but one after another was excluded, and the Governor's final choice fixed upon Fernando Cortes (Las Casas, lib. iii., cap. civ.; Bernal Diaz, cap. xix.).

This selection was attributed to the influence of Amador de Lares, a royal official of astute character who exercised a certain ascendency over Velasquez, and of Andres de Duero, the Governor's private secretary, both of whom Cortes had induced to present his name and secure his appointment, by promises of a generous share of the treasures to be discovered. Since both Grijalba and Olid were safely back in Cuba, the only one of the three reasons first advanced for this expedition which remained was the rescue of the Christian captives in Yucatan, and, although Velasquez had severely censured Grijalba for not establishing a colony or trading post somewhere, he also omitted this authorisation in his instructions to Cortes. These instructions are dated October 23, 15 18, and consist of thirty items of minute and tedious directions and counsels, covering every imaginable emergency. They are quoted in full in the Documentos Ineditos del Archivo de Indias in pages 59-79, inclusive, in the fourth volume of Orozco y Berra. The document opens by stating that the glory of God and the spread of the faith being the chief objects of the undertaking, only God-fearing and loyal men should be allowed to compose it; swearing and blasphemy against God, the blessed Virgin, and the saints are provided against by the severest penalties; the men are not to take concubines with them nor to give scandal by communication with native women; nor is gambling to be permitted in any form, dice being forbidden on board the ships. The exhaustive instructions concerning exploration and trading contain no mention of any authorisation to colonise, but very full powers are granted the commander to cover unforeseen cases.

Cortes threw himself heart and soul into the new enterprise which offered him exactly the opportunity in search of which he had come to the Indies fourteen years before. The mutual recriminations, afterwards indulged in, so obscure the facts that it is difficult to discover exactly what share of the expense of the equipment was borne by each, but of Cortes it must be said that he staked everyrthing he possessed or could procure on the venture, even raising loans by mortgages on his property. Bernal Diaz states that the amount he expended was four thousand dollars in gold, besides supplying many provisions. In the sworn statement of Puertocarrero made in La Coruña, April, 1520, the witness said that Cortes had paid two thirds of the total costs. Gomara describes Velasquez as stingy and timid, wishing to fit out the armada with the least possible risk to himself, and that he proposed to halve the cost.

The appointment of Cortes to such an important command did not fail to arouse jealousies on the part of some, and the increased consequence which he gave himself in his dress, manners, and way of living served to stimulate these sentiments, so that hardly had the work of organisation got fairly under way, when these mischief makers adroitly began to work on the suspicious spirit of Velasquez. A dwarf, who played court jester in the Governor's household, was inspired to make oracular jokes in which thinly veiled warnings of what was to be expected from Cortes's overmasterful spirit, once he was free from control and in command of such an armada, were conveyed to Velasquez; these double barbed jests did not fail of their purpose, so that his distrust finally completely mastered his reason, and pushed him to the incredible folly of deciding to revoke Cortes's appointment as commander, and substitute one Vasco Porcallo a native of Caceres. This decision he made known to Lares and Duero, the very men through whom Cortes had negotiated to obtain his place, and they hastened to warn their protégé of the Governor's intention. To accept the humiliation, the public ridicule, to say nothing of the financial ruin into which the revocation of his appointment almost on the eve of sailing would have plunged him, was an alternative which never could have been for a moment considered by Cortes, who immediately took the one step essential to his salvation, which was to hasten his preparations, and, by unflagging efforts, to get his provisions and men on board that same day, and stand down the bay with all his ships during the night. He even seized the entire meat supply of the town for which he paid with a gold chain he wore. The accounts of the manner of the departure of the fleet also conflict. It has been represented as a veritable flight, but Bernal Diaz avers that, although he got everything ready very quickly and hastened the date of sailing, Cortes went with a number of others, and took formal leave of the Governor with embraces and mutual good wishes, and that after he had heard mass, Diego Velasquez came down to the port to see the armada off. Las Casas however says that Velasquez only heard very early in the morning (from the butcher probably), that the preparations had been so rapidly pushed forward, and that rising from bed he made haste to the port accompanied by all the citizens in a state of great wonder and excitement. As soon as the Governor appeared, Cortes approached within a bow-shot of the shore in a boat full of his friends, all fully armed, and, in reply to the Governor's upbraidings and reproaches for such unseemly haste in his leave-taking, replied that, "some things were better done first and thought about afterwards and this was one of them"; after which bit of exculpating philosophy he returned to his ship, and the armada sailed away. Although Gomara, in whom we hear Cortes himself, agrees essentially with Las Casas in thus describing the departure, the story of the dialogue between Cortes in the midst of a boat-load of armed friends and Velasquez, helpless on the quay, surrounded by excited colonists, savours more of fiction than of fact. The simple and natural version of Bernal Diaz is more in consonance with Cortes's character, and he doubtless exercised scrupulous care to avoid provoking the testy Governor. Aware of the intrigues against him and the uncertainty of his position, his safety lay in pushing forward his preparations with unostentatious haste, masking his determination under an astute display of increased deference towards his suspicious superior. Although Cortes had evidently secured his captains, and could count on his crews, the moment for an act of open defiance was not yet, nor did Velasquez, in a letter dated November 17, 1519, to the licenciate Figueroa which was to be delivered to Charles V., allege any such, though he would hardly have failed to make the most of each item in his arraignment of his rebellious lieutenant. Stopping at Macaca, dad, and Havana, he forcibly seized stores at these places, and also from ships which he stopped, sometimes paying for them, and sometimes giving receipts and promises. Everywhere he increased his armament, and enlisted more men.

The Governor's uneasy suspicions augmented after the sailing of the fleet, being also aggravated by the acts of the members of his household who were jealous of the sudden rise in Cortes's fortunes, and possibly also honestly distrustful of the signs of independence he had already manifested. In the work of fretting Velasquez, a half foolish astrologer was called in, who delivered oracular warnings, and imputed to Cortes schemes of revenge for past wrongs, (referring to his imprisonment by the Governor's orders), and forecasting treachery. These representations harmonised but too well with Velasquez's own fears, and easily prevailed upon him to try to recall his attainted lieutenant by sending decisive orders to his brother-in-law, Francisco Verdugo, alcalde mayor of Trinidad, to assume command of the fleet until Vasco Porcallo, who had been appointed successor to Cortes should arrive. For greater security, he repeated these instructions to Diego de Ordaz, Francisco de Morla, and others on whose loyalty to himself the hapless Governor thought he could count. Nobody, however, undertook to carry out the orders to displace and imprison Cortes, whose faculty for making friends was such that he had already won overall those on whom Velasquez relied, especially Ordaz and Verdugo. The very messengers who brought the official orders to degrade and imprison him went over to Cortes, and joined the expedition. Public sympathy was entirely with him, for he had rallied some of the best men in Cuba to his standard, who thus had a stake in the success of the enterprise which depended primarily on the ability of the commander. In Cortes they had full confidence, and it suited neither their temper nor their interest to see him superseded. It was Cortes himself who replied to the Governor's letters, seeking to reassure him with protestations of loyalty and affection, counselling him meanwhile to silence the malicious tongues of the mischief makers in Santiago,

The Governor was in no way tranquillised by such a communication; on the contrary, the suppression of his orders by Verdugo enraged him beyond measure. The fleet had meanwhile gone to Havana whither a confidential messenger, one Garnica, was sent with fresh, and more stringent orders to the lieutenant-governor, Pedro Barba, who resided there, positively forbidding the fleet to sail, and ordering the immediate imprisonment of Cortes. Diego Velasquez was rarely happy in his choice of men and, in this instance his "confidential" messenger not only brought these official orders to the lieutenant-governor, but he likewise delivered to Fray Bartolomé Olmedo, the chaplain of the expedition, a certain letter from another priest who was in the executive household, warning Cortes of the sense of the Governor's orders. Failure attended all Velasquez's efforts, for Don Pedro Barba replied, telling him plainly that it was not in his power to stop Cortes, who was so popular, not only with his troops but also with the townspeople, that any attempt to interfere with him would result in a general rising in his favour. Bernal Diaz declares that they would have died for him, to a man.

During these days he played, as he himself afterwards described it to Las Casas, the "part of the gentle corsair." Parting in this manner from the royal Governor of Cuba, joint owner of the ships and their contents, it is obvious that there was no turning back for Cortes; he was henceforth driven forward by the knowledge that sure disgrace, very likely death was behind him, and drawn on by the enticing prospect of achieving such complete success as should vindicate his lawless courses. To redeem the irregularity of these initial proceedings, it was incumbent on Cortes from thenceforth to hedge his every act with the strictest legal sanctions, and we search in vain for the slightest lapse from prescribed forms in all the succeeding acts of his career.