Littell's Living Age/Volume 1/Issue 1/Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico
History of the Conquest of Mexico, with a Preliminary View of the Ancient Mexican Civilization, and the Life of the Conqueror, Hernando Cortes. By WILLIAM H. PRESCOTT. 3 vols. 8 vo. London; 1843.
In his excellent history of Ferdinand and Isabella, Mr. Prescott had the advantage of entering upon ground not preöccupied by any of the great modern historians. He now ventures to measure his strength with the Spaniard De Solis, and with Robertson. De Solis, whose swelling style was so peculiarly congenial to the Spanish ear, by the higher merits of his work, his skilful arrangement, his animation and dramatic power, as well as by the inextinguishable interest of his story, commanded considerable popularity even in the English translation. The narrative of Robertson has all the charm of his inimitable style. The conquest of Mexico is but one chapter, indeed, in his history of America; but it seems to have been labored with peculiar care, till every vestige of labor has disappeared, and the story flows on with the ease and gracefulness of a romance.
Yet ancient Mexico, and the adventures of her Spanish conquerors, may still afford full scope for the labor and the genius of an historian, who may aspire to tell the story in a more Christian and enlightened spirit than the bigot De Solis; on a more extended scale, and with a full command of the stores of knowledge which have accumulated since the time both of De Solis and of Robertson. If, indeed, we are to judge from the astonishment expressed by some persons, who at least might be supposed familiar with such works as Robertson’s, at the discoveries of Mr. Stephens among the ancient cities in Mexico and the adjacent provinces, it might appear full time to revive the history of the conquest in the public mind. This surprise seemed to imply an utter forgetfulness of the state of the country at the time of the Spanish conquest; that it was not a wild forest wandered over by savage hunters, or a land peopled by simple and naked Caribs; but, the seat of more than one comparatively ancient, powerful and wealthy monarchy, containing many large and populous cities, embellished with vast buildings, chiefly temples; and advanced to a high state of what we may venture to call, without pledging ourselves to its origin, Asiatic civilization.
Mr. Prescott possesses high qualifications, and some peculiar advantages for the execution of such a work. He has a high sense of the obligation of an historian to explore every source of information relating to his subject; to spare neither industry, nor, we may add, expense, in the collection of materials; and his extensive acquaintance with Spanish literature, and the name which he has already established in connexion with Spanish history, have, perhaps, enabled him to command sources of knowledge unattainable by an unknown author. In his disquisitions on the political state and the civilization of the Aztec kingdoms, he is full and copious, without being prolix and wearisome; his narrative is flowing and spirited, sometimes very picturesque; his style has dropped the few Americanisms which still jarred on our fastidious ear in his former work, and is in general pure and sound English. Above all, his judgments are unaffectedly candid and impartial; he never loses sight of the immutable principles of justice and humanity, yet allows to the Spanish conquerors the palliation for their enormities, to be drawn from those deeply-rooted and miscalled Christian principles, which authorized and even sanctified all acts of ambition and violence committed by Europeans and Christians against barbarians and infidels. His general estimate of the character of his hero appears to us singularly just. As an adventurer the bravest, the most enterprising, the must persevering, who set his foot on the shores of America; Cortes was, as a commander, rapid and daring in forming his resolutions; undaunted and resolute in their execution; beyond example prompt and fertile in resources; unappalled by the most gigantic difficulties; unshaken by the most disastrous reverses; accomplishing the most inconceivable schemes with forces apparently the most inadequate, and, as he advanced, creating means from what might seem the most hopeless and hostile sources; and with a power of attaching men to his service, which might almost look like magic. He combined under one discipline the rude and reckless adventurer, who began by thinking only of gold, but gradually kindled to the absorbing desire of glory; the jealous enemy who came to overthrow his power, and before long became its most steadfast support; the fiercest and most warlike of the natives, whom he bent not merely into obedient followers, but zealous and hearty allies. Avaricious, yet generous, and never allowing his avarice to interfere with his ambition; with address which borders close on cunning, reading men’s hearts and minds, and knowing whom to trust and how far; he was not without humanity, but when war was raging and as peculiar exigences seemed to demand, utterly remorseless and utterly reckless of the extent of carnage, hewing down human life as carelessly as the backwoodsman the forest; and withal as stern a bigot as Spain ever sent forth in cowl or in mail, to propagate the doctrine of the Cross by the Mahometan apostleship of fire and sword.
Mr. Prescott, in his collection of materials for his work, has laid all accessible quarters under contribution. The Spanish archives, which were closed against Dr. Robertson, have been freely opened to him; or rather, we should say, he has had liberal access to the rich collections made by Don Juan Baptista Muñoz, the historiographer of the Indies; to that of Don Vargas Ponce, whose papers were chiefly obtained from the archives of the Indies at Seville; and that of Navarrete, the President of the Academy, whose work on the early discoveries of the Spaniards is well known. These three collections are in the possession of the Royal Academy of Madrid; Mr. Prescott was allowed the selection and transcription of as many as he might choose; and the result has been a mass of MS. documents amounting to eight thousand folio pages. Mexico has furnished some unprinted and some printed documents, among the latter those edited by Bustamente, especially the valuable history of Father Sahagun, which appeared nearly at the same time in Mexico, and in Lord Kingsborough’s great collection of Mexican antiquities. Mr. Prescott mentions other private libraries and collections, among them that of the Duke of Monteleone, the present representative of Cortes, which have been courteously placed at his command.
Among printed works that of Clavigero had not appeared when Robertson published his history. Clavigero, indeed, professed that the object of his writing was partly to correct the errors of Robertson. Since that time, England and France have sent forth the magnificent volumes of Lord Kingsborough and the French “Antiquités Mexicaines,” and many of the Muñoz MSS. which have appeared in the translations of M. Ternaux Compans. We have memitioned the history of Father Sahagun. The “Historia Antiqua” of Don Mariano Veytia, the executor of Boturini, a most adventurous hut injudicious collector of Aztec antiquities, was published in Mexico in 1838. To these printed works Mr. Prescott adds, as his authorities: I. The MS. History of India, by the celebrated Las Casas, the Bishop of Chiapa, a name which commands our highest veneration, yet who wanted some of the first requisites of an historian, impartiality and judgment. The good bishop has all the amiability, all the ardor, and all the prejudice of an Abolitionist. II. The works of the Tezcucan historian, who rejoices in the magnificent name of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, according to Mr. Prescott, the Livy of Anahuac. These are still in manuscript, but have been consulted by some of the Spanish historians. The Historia Chichemeca, the best of his “Relaciones,” has been rendered into French in Mons. Ternaux Compans’s collection. III. The Historia General de las Indias, by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo é Valdez. Oviedo passed some time in the Spanish Indies, in Darien, and afterwards in Hispaniola. On his return to Spain he was appointed “Chronicler of the Indies.” It is understood that the Royal Academy of History at Madrid are preparing this work for the press. IV. The History of Tlascala, by Diego Muñoz Camargo. Camargo was a noble Tiascan mestee, and lived in the latter half of the sixteenth Century. His work supplies much curious and authentic information respecting the social and religious institutions of the land at the time of the conquest. His patriotism warms as he recounts the old hostilities of his countrymen with the Aztecs; and it is singular to observe how the detestation of the rival nations survived their common subjection under the Castilian yoke.
Yet it is chiefly on the institutions, manners, and polity of the kingdoms of the New World, that these masses of published and unpublished documents throw light. The great facts of the invasion and conquest; the life and character of Cortes himself; the triumphs and disasters, the gains and losses, have long been before the world. The principles and motives of these warriors, who were at once too rude and too proud to dissemble or disguise their designs and objects, are manifest from their actions. There is no secret history which is not immediately betrayed by the event. Success or failure reveals the subtlest policy of Cortes. The large works of Herrera and Torquemada contain, in general, a full and accurate account of the actual exploits, dangers, escapes, and victories of the adventurers. The despatches of Cortes, which have been long before the world, show us the course of events as they appeared to the leader himself, and as he wished them to appear before his master and before Europe.1 They are bold and honest “Commentaries,” for neither would Cortes condescend to, nor feel the slightest desire of concealment; nor would be have found a more favorable hearing with the Emperor or the court of Castile, if he had softened or disguised any of those parts of the history which most offend the moral and Christian feelings of our day. Besides this, we have the frank and gallant, however rugged, Bernal Diaz, chronicling, from recollection it is true, but still with the fidelity of honest pride and the complacent satisfaction of an old soldier, day by day, the occurrences of the whole war; speaking out, without fear or hesitation, the living feelings, the hopes, and even the fears, the passions, the superstitions of the camp. Bernal Diaz avowedly wrote to vindicate for the soldiers of Cortes that share in the common glory, which Gomara, the other great authority for the war, has ascribed too exclusively to the general. Gomara was the chaplain of Cortes on his return to Spain, and derived his information from Cortes himself, (though the book was not written till after his death,) from his family, and from some of the other distinguished actors in the great drama. Yet after all, the character of Cortes comes out still more strongly in the Chronicle of Diaz. Though Diaz is asserting the independence and voluntary subjection of the soldiers, they are only more manifestly under the despotic rule of the master mind; for that is the most consummate authority which persuades its obedient instruments to imagine that they are free agents. Honest Bernal Diaz seems to have made himself believe that he had a leading voice in the destruction of the ships. It is on this introductory portion of Mexican history, and on the character, institutions, manners, and usages, of the conquered empire, that Robertson’s brilliant episode is meagre and unsatisfactory. His calm and philosophic mind was not much alive to the romantic and picturesque; and lie was so afraid of being led away by the ardent imagination of some of the older authorities, who had been dazzled by the external splendor of the Mexican monarchy, that lie was disposed to depreciate to the utmost its real state of advancement. Mr. Prescott has availed himself of his superior advantages, and done more ample and equal justice to the subject. His preliminary view of the Aztec civilization is a full and judicious summary of that which is scattered in numerous, large, and we may add, expensive volumes, those of the printed and unpublished works of the older writers, and the modern publications of Clavigero, of the invaluable Humboldt, and the English and French Mexican Antiquities.
On the great and inexplicable problem as to the origin of this singular state of civilization, Mr. Prescott has wisely declined to enter in the opening chapters of his history: he has reserved the subject for a separate disquisition, in his Appendix. His conclusions are those of a sensible man, and a lover of truth rather than of brilliant theory. Among the great tests and trials of an historian’s honesty, and therefore of his due sense of the dignity of his office, is the acknowledgment of ignorance; the steady refusal to admit that as history, which has not sufficient historical evidence. Mr. Prescott sums up the whole discussion thus First, the coincidences are sufficiently strong to authorize a belief that the civilization of Anahuac was, in some degree, influenced by that of Eastern Asia. And, secondly, the discrepancies are such as to carry back the communication to a very remote period; so remote, that this foreign influence had been too feeble to interfewe materially with the growth of what may be regarded, in its essential features as a peculiar and indigenous civilization.
Unquestionably, the general character of the great Mexican empire has an Asiatic appearance; it resembles the great Tartar or Mongol empires, as they offered themselves to the astonished imaginations of the early Christian missionaries, or the merchant Marco Polo. Montezuma was most like Kubla Khan, or that splendid but evanescent personage, always heard of but never found, the magnificent Prester John. The analogies with Jewish and Christian customs and notions, so fondly sought and so readily believed by religious zeal, (the inspiration which fortunately gave birth to the costly publication of the late Lord Kingsborough, was a fancy about the Jewish origin of the Mexicans,) resolve themselves almost entirely into common or wide-spread Oriental customs and opinions. But when we would derive, according to the most probable theory, the American civilization from Eastern Asia, there remains this insuperable difficulty. To transplant the civilization of one distant country to another, requires either the simultaneous migration of a large body of the people, or a long and regular intercourse, a constant immigration from the parent race. A few adventurers from the most civilized region of the world—accidentally thrown upon a remote shore, or wandering to it through immeasurable tracts of forest, and savanna, and swamp, cut off from all communication with the mother country, and struggling to bring a new land into cultivation—would almost inevitably degenerate, or acquire new habits and usages adapted to their new circumstances. Whether this Tartar, Mongol, or Chinese, or, at any rate, Oriental race, found its way across the Pacific, or slowly descended southward, leaving vestiges of its passage in some of the curious monuments in North America; its preservation of so much of its peculiar character in all the vicissitudes of its fortunes seems scarcely conceivable. And language, which in general, at least in its elemental forms and simplest sounds, is the fine but enduring thread which leads us back to the parent stock, is here utterly broken and lost. If originally Asiatic, or connected with any of the dialects of Eastern Asia, it has diverged away so completely as not to retain a vestige of its origin. In its words, and in its structure, tbough split up into innumerable dialects—nay, as it should seem, innumerable independent families—the language of New Spain has baffled all the attempts of the most profound and ingenious philologists (and they are not easily baffled) to connect it with any of the tongues of the Old World. Yet either a great length of time, or a total change of socialcondition, appears absolutely necessary to obliterate every vestige of affiliation from cognate languages; and it is remarkable, that variable usages should survive that which is usually so much less mutable, the elements and the structure of speech. Nor is it unimportant to remark how comparatively recent appears the whole civilization of Anahuac. Even if, as is not improbable, the race who peopled Mexico and Tezcuco were ruder and fiercer tribes, who descended upon an older civilization, and yielded to its subduing influence, (like the shepherds in Egypt or the Tartars in China,) yet that which we are able, on the authority of the earliest traditions, to throw up into the highest antiquity, comes far within the historic times of the Old World. This recent origin effectually cuts off all possible connexion with the West; even Plato’s Atlantis, and the Phœnician voyagers, are tales in comparison of hoary eld; and it renders any permanent intercourse with the East, at least with greater empires, highly improbable. Clavigero indeed, who would by no means incline to take a low view of Aztec antiquities, fixes the descent of the Toltecs—the earlest race to whom the vague tradition, which by courtesy is called history, assigns any important influence on the civilization of this part of the New World—in the year 648 of our æra;—the foundation of Mexico, probably far better ascertained, in the year 1325.
Are we not, then, thrown back upon the previous question, whether man at earlier social stages has not a tendency to develop his social being in the same manner? May we not be required by true philosophic investigation, as far as it can lead us, to inquire how far similitude of polity, usage, law, manners, really proves identity of origin, or even remote affiliation; how far certain customs grow, not out of tradition hut out of our common nature; how far, in the almost infinite varieties of human culture, there is not, up to a certain point, a necessary uniformity, which ensures a general resemblance, or, at least, by limiting the range of accident, caprice, climate, habit, enforces the adoption of kindred institutions where there is no kindred blood, and no mutual intercourse! So many curious coincidences occur, where it is impossible to imagine either common descent (except from our first parents, or from the ark) or communication; such wayward and fanciful usages, such strange deviations from the ordinary principles and feelings of man, grow up in such distant regions, and such disconnected tribes, that we become extremely cautious in receiving such evidence as showing even the most remote relationship of race. Is might scorn that human nature has only a limited number of forms in which it can cast its social institutions, and that, however variously it may combine these forms, it is almost impossible but that points of the closest similitude should exist, where there can have been neither imitation nor common tradition.
Yet, while the institutions of the Aztec civilization may have been but the development of the common principles of justice, the necessity of mutual protection and security may have led to the establishment of the monarchical government, distinction of ranks, regular tribunals of law, fixed rules for the tenure of property; the ordinary usages of life, the invention and application of the useful, and indeed necessary arts, may have been the spontaneous, as it were, and but recent evolutions of the common wants and faculties of man: there are some few very remarkable traditions, which can scarcely be traced but to some original connexion with the brotherhood, apparently, of the Asiatic nations. Some of these are religious, the most remarkable of which is that universal one of the Deluge, the authenticity of which seems recognized by Humboldt, and admitted by Mr. Prescott. Most of the others, especially those which show too close a resemblance to Christianity, fall under the suspicion of having been invented, or, at least, of being native traditions, colored into similitude by the zeal of the new converts, anxious to propitiate the favor of their teachers, and fondly welcomed without examination, or aftcr an examination strongly biased by the profound but natural prejudices of the unenlightened monkish teachers. One or two of the scientific analogies are still more singular, particularly with regard to the Aztec calendar. The system of intercalation may indeed have forced itself upon different peoples, when they had arrived at the knowledge of the time of the sun’s annual course; and nature itself might seem to establish, especially in the period of superstition through which all nations seem doomed to pass, that period of mourning which followed the sun’s declension, and of rejoicing after the winter solstice, when the lengthening days gave the hope of another revolving year, with all its fruits and blessings. But, in the words of Mr. Prescott, after he has noticed the remarkable analogy of the Mexican cycles of years with those of the Mongol nations,—
“A correspondence quite as extraordinary is found between the hieroglyphics used by the Aztecs for the signs of the days, and those zodiacal signs which the Eastern Asiaties employed as one of the terms of their series. The symbols in the Mongolian calendar are borrowed from animals. Four of the twelve are the same as the Aztec. Three others are as nearly the same as the different species of the animals in the two hemispheres would allow. The remaining five refer to no creature then found in Anahuac.”
The note gives the names of the zodiacal signs used as the names of the years by the Eastern Asiatics (of the signs of the zodiac the Mexicans probably had no knowledge)—
“Among the Mongols, 1. mouse, 2. ox, 3. leopard (Mantchou, Japanese, &c., tiger,) 4. hare, 5. crocodile (Mantchou and Japanese, dragon,) 6. serpent, 7. hare, 8. sheep (Mantchou, &c., goat,) 9. monkey, 10. hen, 11. dog, 12. hog. In the Mexican signs for the names of the days, we also meet with hare, serpent, monkey, dog. Instead of the leopard, crocodile, and hen, neither of which animals were known in Mexico at the time of the conquest, we find the ocelot, the lizard, and the eagle. The lunar calendar of the Hindoos exhibits a correspondence equally extraordinary. Seven of the terms agree with those of the Aztecs, namely, serpent, cane, razor, path of the sun, dog’s tail, house. [Mr. Prescott gives but six.] These terms are still more arbitrarily selected, not being confined to animals.”—Vol. iii., p. 345.
We cannot but suspect that all these signs arose out of hieroglyphic or picture writing, but this by no means explains the curious resemblance. There is another point of considerable importance, which tends to show that the more civilized tribes of Southern America were of a different family of mankind from the common savage races of the islands and continent. The crania disinterred from the sepulchral mounds in those regions, as well as those of the inhabitants of the high plains of the Cordilleras, differ from those of the more barbarous tribes. The ampler forehead intimates a decided intellectual superiority, and bears a close resemblance with that of some of the Mongol tribes. We are inclined to think the habit of burning the dead, familiar to the Mongols and the Aztecs, no very strong evidence of common descent. The departure from the strange habit of burying the dead in a sitting posture, practised, according to Mr. Prescott, by most, if not all, the aborigines from Canada to Patagonia, is a more convincing proof of the independent origin of these more savage races. The latter argument tends, as far as it goes, to establish an identity of race with the Eastern Asiatics; the other singular coincidences of the calendar and the names of the days might possibly be ascribed to the casual visit of a few strangers from the Asiatic coasts, who may have imparted their superior knowledge and their religious traditions. There was, however, no such distinct tradition among the Aztecs, as among the Peruvians, of a Mango Capac, who, suddenly appearing among a barbarous race, from his superior intelligence and knowledge, was hailed with awe and reverence as a deity, as a child of the sun, and to whom is ascribed the whole framework of the social polity, and all which may be called civilization. The Mexican traditions relate to the migration of tribes rather than to the power or influence of individual chiefs or sages, unless perhaps that beneficent God, supposed to have reappeared in the person of the Spaniards.
We have glanced thus rapidly at some of the more prominent points in this curious, but, we must confess, unsatisfactory discussion, because this appears to be the strongest case in history of a spontaneous and indigenous civilization growing up without foreign influence, and within a recent period. Whatever traditions the natives of Anahuac might inherit from their Asiatic origin, if Asia was indeed the cradle of the race, have survived, what seems incredible, the total extinction of every sign of relationship in the language. The only faint traces of etymological resemblance have been found or imagined in the Otomic, the language of one of the most barbarous tribes, which is supposed to offer the nearest analogy, and that with the Chinese. Besides this, it is acknowledged that far the larger part, and that which gives its general Asiatic character to the Mexican civilization, is to all appearance but of late development. Even their legendary or mythic history is modest in its pretensions; neither Mexico nor Tezeuco claim any high or mysterious antiquity. The account of the foundation of both cities, as we have seen, is probable and recent. Let us take a very hasty survey of this introductory chapter of Mexican history.
The Toltecs are the Pelasgians of this civilization of Anahuac. They were an agricultural race, skilled in some of the mechanical arts, and to them are ascribed the buildings of the greatest solidity and magnificence, the monuments of Trans-atlantic Cyclopean architecture—yet neither they nor their buildings aspire to any formidable age. Even if we ascribe the ruins of Palenque and Uxmal, and some of the structures in the adjacent provinces, described by Mr. Stephens, to this race and to their descendants, there is no considerable difference, either in the style, the form, or the construction, or what we may conjecture to have been their uses, from the buildings found by the Spaniards in the Mexican cities, from the temples and fortresses of the existing people; there is nothing to throw the one upward into a more remote antiquity; nothing like the wide distinction between the architectures of Egypt and Greece, or even between the Pelasgian or Cyclopean masonry and that of the Hellenic tribes. A period of a very few centuries will connect the two races, even if we admit to the utmost the only evidence of a certain degree of antiquity in the older ruins, the growth of trees of enormous size within their precincts, which must have taken root after the buildings had been abandoned either as habitations or places of worship. In all these cases we must know more accurately the ordinary growth of such trees, since some kinds of timber, in that climate and in that soil, are known to increase with extraordinary rapidity.
Mexican history, however, as we have seen, did not scruple to assign, if a vague and uncertain, yet certainly no very remote period for the disappearance of the Toltec population, and the settlement and growth of the Aztec races, who were in possession of the country at the time of the Spanish invasion. The league between the great leading tribes of Mexico, of Tezeuco, and the smaller state of Tlacopan, in which these three kingdoms had combined, is a singular example of a national confederation. The league was both defensive and offensive; and the spoils and conquests torn by the combined forces from their more barbarous neighbors were divided upon a fixed scale. Yet with this dangerous element of jealousy and discord, the league had continued for a considerable period in perfect harmony.
Mexico, when the Spaniards lauded, was the leading state in wealth and in power. But Tezcuco had attained to a much higher, and, if we are to credit the native historians, a much more enlightened state of civilization. The most curious and interesting passage in Mr. Prescott’s history of the earlier state of Anahuae describes the rise and the reign of the great king of Tezcuco, with whose awful name we shall not appal our reader’s eyes or ears till it is absolutely necessary. Whether read as sober history, or as mythic legend, or as a kind of Aztec Cyropedia, it is equally extraordinary, resting as it does on the authority of a native Livy, who, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, combined into a regular history or histories the hieroglyphics, the songs, and traditions of his native land, as well as the oral testimony of many aged persons. Ixtlilxochitl, whose name we have before noticed, a descendant of the royal race, became interpreter to the viceroy; his high situation gave him command of all the ancient documents in the possession of the Spanish government, to which he added large collections of his own. He wrote in Castilian, and Mr. Prescott observes that “there is an appearance of good faith and simplicity in his writings, which may convince the reader that, when he errs, it is from no worse cause than national partiality.” But it would seem almost incredible that, even under the inspiration of the most ardent reverence for his ancestors, the ideal of a Mexican educated under Spanish influence, and living among either statesmen or friars of that period, should take this remarkable form. Our Aztec Livy must indeed have possessed a noble genius, if he could imagine some of the social and political institutions which he ascribes to the Numa of Tezcuco.2
The rising fortunes and the civilization of the Acolhuans, who entered the Valley and founded Tezcuco about the close of the twelfth century, were checked and interrupted by the subjugation of the city and territory under the Tepanecs, a kindred but more barbarous tribe:—
“This event took place about 1418; and the young prince, Nezahualcoyotl, the heir to the crown, then fifteen years old, saw his father butchered before his eyes, while he himself lay concealed among the friendly branches of a tree, which over-shadowed the spot. His subsequent history is as full of romantic daring and perilous escapes as that of the renowned Scanderbeg, or of the ‘young Chevalier.’ ”—Vol. i.,p. 146.
These adventures, of which Mr. Prescott gives a brief but stirring account, terminated with the defeat of the Tecapecs, the death of Maxtla, the last king of their race, the accession of Nezahualcoyotl to his ancestral throne, and the establishment of the federal league between Mexico, Tezcuco, and Tlacopan:—
“The first measure of Nezahualcoyotl, on returning to his dominions, was a general amnesty. It was his maxim, ‘that a monarch might punish, but revenge was unworthy of him.’ In the present instance he was averse even to punish, and not only freely pardoned his rebel nobles, but conferred on some, who had most deeply offended, posts of honor and confidence. Such conduct was doubtless politic, especially as their alienation was owing, probably, much more to fear of the usurper than to any disaffection towards himself. But there are some acts of policy which a magnanimous spirit only can execute.
“The restored monarch next set about repairing the damages sustained under the late misrule, and reviving, or rather remodelling, the various departments of government. He framed a concise, but comprehensive, code of laws, so well suited, it was thought, to the exigencies of the times, that it was adopted as their own by the two other members of the triple alliance. It was written in blood, and entitled the author to be called the Draco, rather than the ‘Solon of Anahuac,’ as he is fondly styled by his admirers. Humanity is one of the best fruits of refinement. It is only with increasing civilization that the legislator studies to economize human suffering, even for the guilty; to devise penalties, not so much by way of punishment for the past as of reformation for the future.
“He divided the burden of government among a nuniber of departments, as the council of war, the council of finance, the council of justice. This last was a court of supreme authority, both in civil and criminal matters, receiving appeals from the lower tribunals of the provinces, which were obliged to make a full report, every four months, or eighty days, of their own proceedings to this higher judicature. In all these bodies a certain number of citizens were allowed to have seats with the nobles and professional dignitaries. There was, however, another body, a council of state, for aiding the king in the despatch of business, and advising him in matters of importance, which was drawn altogether from the highest order of chiefs. It consisted of fourteen members; and they had seats provided for them at the royal table.
“Lastly, there was an extraordinary tribunal, called the council of music, but which, differing from the import of its name, was devoted to the encouragement of science and art. Works on astronomy, chronology, history, or any other science, were required to be submitted to its judgment before they could be made public. This censorial power was of some moment, at least with regard to the historical department, where the wilful perversion of truth was made a capital offence by the bloody code of Nezahualcoyotl. Yet a Tezcucan author must have been a bungler who could not elude a conviction under the cloudy veil of hieroglyphics. This body, which was drawn from the best instructed persons in the kingdom, with little regard to rank, had supervision of all the productions of art and of the nicer fabrics. It decided on the qualifications of the professors in the various branches of science, on the fidelity of their instructions to their pupils, the deficiency of which was severely punished, and it instituted examinations of these latter. In short, it was a general board of education for the country. On stated days, historical compositions, and poems treating of moral or traditional topics, were recited before it by their authors. Seats were provided for the three crowned heads of the empire, who deliberated with the other members on the respective merits of the pieces, and distributed prizes of value to the successful competitors.
“Such are the marvellous accounts transmitted to us of this institution; an institution certainly not to have been expected among the aborigines of America. It is calculated to give us a higher idea of the refinement of the people than even the noble architectural remains which still cover some parts of the continent.”—Vol. i., pp. 152—155.
The monarch himself, like some other great potentates of the East and West, aspired to be a poet. The burthen of his song seems to have been that “vanity of vanities,” of King Solomon, which is echoed along the course of Eastern, at least of Mahometan poetry, with more or less touching melancholy, and more or less grave epicurean advice to enjoy, while we may, the pleasures of this fleeting and uncertain life. The king of Tezcuco may take his place among royal and noble authors, not merely from traditionary fame, but from a translation of one of his Odes into Castilian. Mr. Prescott has subjoined a translation of the Castilian into English, “by the hand of a fair friend.”
“But the hours of the Tezcucan monarch were not all passed in idle dalliance with the muse, nor in the sober contemplations of philosophy, as at a later period. In the freshness of youth and early manhood he led the allied armies in their annual expeditions, which were certain to result in a wider extent of territory to the empire. In the intervals of peace he fostered those productive arts which are the surest sources of public prosperity. He encouraged agriculture above all and there was scarcely a spot so rude, or a steep so inaccessible, as not to confess the power of cultivation. The land was covered with a busy population, and towns and cities sprung up in places since deserted, or dwindled into miserable villages.
“From resources thus enlarged by conquest and domestic industry, the monarch drew the means for the large consumption of his own numerous household, and for the costly works which he executed for the convenience and embellishment of the capital. He filled it with stately edifices for his nobles, whose constant attendance he was anxious to secure at his court. He erected a magnificent pile of buildings which might serve both for a royal residence and for the public offices. It extended, from east to west, 1234 yards; and from north to south, 978. It was encompassed by a wall of unburnt bricks and cement, six feet wide and nine high, for one half of the circumference, arid fifteen feet high for the other half. Within this enclosure were two courts. The outer one was used as the great market-place of the city; and continued to be so until long after the Conquest, if, indeed, it is not now. The interior court was surrounded by the council chambers and halls of justice. There were also accommodations there for the foreign ambassadors; and a spacious saloon, with apartments opening into it, for men of science and poets, who pursued their studies in this retreat, or met together to hold converse under its marble porticoes. In this quarter also were kept the public archives, which fared better under the Indian dynasty than they have since under their European successors.
“Adjoining this court were the apartments of the king, including those for the royal harem, as liberally supplied with beauties as that of an eastern sultan. Their walls were encrusted with alabasters and richly tinted stucco, or hung with gorgeous tapestries of variegated feather-work. They led through long arcades, and through intricate labyrinths of shrubbery, into gardens, where baths and sparkling fountains were overshadowed by tall groves of cedar and cypress. The basins of water were well stocked with fish of various kinds, and the aviaries with birds glowing in all the gaudy plumage of the tropics. Many birds and animals, which could not be obtained alive, were represented in gold and silver so skilfully, as to have furnished the great naturalist, Hernandez, with models for his work.
“Accommodations on a princely scale were provided for the sovereigns of Mexico and Tlacopan, when they visited the court. The whole of this lordly pile contained three hundred apartments, some of them fifty yards square. The height of the building is not mentioned; it was probably not great, but supplied the requisite room by the immense extent of ground which it covered. The interior was doubtless constructed of light materials, especially of the rich woods, which, in that country, are remarkable, when polished, for the brilliancy and variety of their colors. That the more solid materials of stone and stucco were also liberally employed, is proved by the remains at the present day; remains which have furnished an inexhaustible quarry for the churches and other edifices since erected by the Spaniards on the site of the ancient city.
“We are not informed of the time occupied in building this palace; but two hundred thousand workmen, it is said, were employed on it! However this may be, it is certain that the Tezcucan monarchs, like those of Asia and ancient Egypt, had the control of immense masses of men, and would sometimes turn the whole population of a conquered city, including the women, into the public works.—The most gigantic monuments of architecture which the world has witnessed would never have been reared by the hands of freemen.
“Adjoining the palace were buildings for the kings children, who, by his various wives, amounted to no less than sixty sons and fifty daughters. Here they were instructed in all the exercises and accomplishments suited to their station; comprehending, what would scarcely find a place in a royal education on the other side of the Atlantic the arts of working in metals, jewelry, and feather-mosaic. Once in every four months the whole household, not excepting the youngest, and including all the officers and attendants on the king’s person, assembled in a grand saloon of the palace, to listen to a discourse from an orator, probably one of the priesthood. The princes, on this occasion, were all dressed in nequen, the coarsest manufacture of the country. The preacher began by enlarging on the obligations of morality, and of respect for the gods, especially important in persons whose rank gave such additional weight to example. He occasionally seasoned his homily with a pertinent application to his audience, if any member of it had been guilty of a notorious delinquency. From this wholesome admonition the monarch himself was not exempted, and the orator boldly reminded him of his paramount duty to show respect for his own laws. The king, so far from taking umbrage, received the lesson with humility; and the audience, we are assured, were often melted into tears by the eloquence of the preacher. This curious scene may remind one of similar usages in the Asiatic and Egyptian despotisms, where the sovereign occasion ally condescended to stoop from his pride of place, and allow his memory to be refreshed with the conviction of his own mortality. It soothed the feelings of the subject to find himself thus placed, though but for a moment, on a level with his king; while it cost little to the latter, who was removed too far from his people to suffer anything by this short-lived familiarity. It is probable that such an act of public humiliation would have found less favor with a prince less absolute.”—Vol. i., pp. 158, 164.
The villas of this Western Sultan were no less splendid, tasteful, and luxurious, and the history of his domestic life is, for another reason, even more surprising. The harem of these sovereigns, as we have seen, was no less amply peopled than those of the most gorgeous Oriental potentates. But the law of Tezcuco allowed only one lawful wife, to whose children the crown descended by immemorial usage. The king had been disappointed in an early attachment—the princess who had heen educated for his wife had been given to another; and the just prince submitted to the decree of the court, which awarded her to his rival. His lawful wife, however, he obtained in a manner so strangely resembling the Old Testament history of David and Uriah, that we should not be satisfied by less than the solemn protest of the historian, that it was related on the authority of the son and grandson of the king. This act is recorded as the great indelible stain upon his character; and national partiality and ancestral reverence would here have struggled against any unconscious bias towards assimilating the life of his great forefather to that example in the Sacred History which he might have heard from his Christian instructors.
But Nezahualcoyotl was likewise the Haroun Alraschid and the Akber of the West. He not only resembled the former in his magnificence, hut in his love of disguise, in which he went about discovering the feelings of his subjects in regard to his government, and meeting with adventures which in like manner tried his barbaric justice. Some of the stories are as pithy and diverting as the “Arabian Nights,” which we are obliged to remember were not known in Europe till very long after the Tezeucan historian had been gathered to his forefathers. The resemblance to the great Mahometan sovereign of India is the superiority of the Acolhuan to the religious creed of his ancestors. There is something, to those familiar with the old Oriental legends of the Talmud or the Koran, singularly and unaccouotably similar:—
“He had been married some years to the wife he had so unrighteously obtained, but was not blessed with issue. The priests represented that it was owing to his neglect of the gods of his country; and that his only remedy was to propitiate them by human sacrifice. The king reluctantly consented, and the altars once more smoked with the blood of slaughtered captives. But it was all in vain; and he indignantly exclaimed, ‘These idols of wood and stone can neither hear nor feel, much loss could they make the heavens and the earth, and man, the lord of it. These must be the work of the all-powerful, unknown God, Creator of the universe, on hom alone I must rely for consolation and support.’
“He then withdrew to his rural palace of Tezcotzinco, where he remained forty days, fasting and praying at stated hours, and offering up no other sacrifice than the sweet incense of copal, and aromatic herbs and gums. At the expiration of this time, he is said to have been comforted by a vision assuring him of the success of his petition. At all events, such proved to be the fact; and this was followed by the cheering intelligence of the triumph of his arms in a quarter where he had lately experienced some humiliating reverses.
“Greatly strengthened in his former religious convictions, he now openly professed his faith, and was more earnest to wean his subjects from their degrading superstitions, and to substitute nobler and more spiritual conceptions of the Deity. He built a temple in the usual pyramidal form, and on the summit a tower nine stories high, to represent the nine heavens; a tenth was surmounted by a roof painted black, and profusely gilded with stars on the outside, and incrusted with metals and precious stones within. He dedicated this to ‘the unknown God, the Cause of causes.’ It seems probable, from the emblem on the tower, as well as from the complexion of his verses, as we shall see, that he mingled with his reverence for the Supreme the astral worship which existed among the Toltecs. Various musical instruments were placed on the top of the tower; and the sound of them, accompanied by the ringing of a sonorous metal struck by a mallet, summoned the worshippers to prayers at regular seasons. No image was allowed in the edifice, as unsuited to the invisible God;’ and the people were expressly prohibited from profaning the altars with blood, or any other sacrifices than that of the perfume of flowers and sweet-scented gums.”—Vol. i., pp. 173, 175.
If we are to trust the verses which the king composed in the midst of the astronomical studies of his old age—with this higher view of religion—nobler and more consolatory thoughts of the future state of being had dimly dawned upon his mind:—
“All things on earth have their term, and, in the most joyous career of their vanity and splendor, their strength fails, and they sink into the dust. All the round world is but a sepulchre; and there is nothing which lives on its surface that shall not be hidden and entombed beneath it. Rivers, torrents, and streams move onward to their destination. Not one flows back to its pleasant source. They rush onward, hastening to bury themselves in the deep bosom of the ocean. The things of yesterday are no more to-day; and the things of to-day shall cease, perhaps on the morrow. The cemetery is full of the loathsome dust of bodies once quickened by living souls, who occupied thrones, presided over assemblies, marshalled armies, subdued provinces, arrogated to themselves worship, were puffed up with vainglorious pomp, and power, and empire. But these glories have all passed away like the fearful smoke that issues from the throat of Popocatepetl, with no other memorial of their existence than the record on the page of the chronicler.
“The great, the wise, the valiant, the beautiful,—alas! where are they now! They are all mingled with the clod, and that which has befallen them shall happen to us, and to those that come after us. Yet let us take courage, illustrious nobles and chieftains, true friends and loyal subjects,—let us aspire to that heaven where all is eternal, and corruption cannot come. The horrors of the tomb are but the cradle of the Sun, and the dark shadows of death are brilliant lights for the stars.”
“The mystic import of the last sentence seems to point to that superstition respecting the mansions of the Sun, which forms so beautiful a contrast to the dark features of the Aztec mythology. “—Vol. i., pp. 175—177.
We must leave the death of the great Tezcucan monarch, and the reign of his son, in Mr. Prescott’s pages. Mexico was to Tezcuco as the sterner and more warlike Rome to the more polite and cultivated Greece. Like Venice, founded by a few wanderers and fugitives on the swampy islands of the great lake, it became a powerful city—the centre of a great nation. The city rose, with rapid progress, to strength and splendor; it connected itself with the land by its strong and solid causeways, bridged over at intervals; and its situation would have been impregnable to less than Spanish valor, European arms, and European vessels. Mexico was an elective monarchy; the choice of the sovereign rested with four of the caciques, who were bound to select one of the brothers, or, in default of brothers, one of the nephews of the late king. The king was a despot; in him was vested the whole legislative and executive power in war and peace; yet there was a powerful nobility of caciques, who held their estates by different tenures, but all might be summoned—perhaps required no summons—to attend the sovereign, with their people, when he went out to war. Their judicial system might excite the astonishment of the Spaniards of that age; it sometimes draws forth a sly expression of envy from their older writers, on whose authority, as well as that of the hieroglyphic paintings, it is described. In each city and its depending territory was a supreme judge, appointed by, and maintained at the expense of, the crown, but entirely independent, holding his office for life, and with no appeal, even to the king, from his tribunal. He took cognizance of all great causes, both civil and criminal. A capital sentence was marked in the hieroglyphical paintings by an arrow drawn across the figure of the criminal. Below the supreme judge there were inferior tribunals for minor causes, down to a kind of police-offices, each of which was to watch over a certain number of families, and report any breach of the laws to the tribunals. Bribery in a judge was punished with death. It was death to usurp the insignia of a judge. The laws were barbarously prodigal of human life. Murder, adultery, some kinds of theft, destruction of the landmarks of property, altering the public measures, unfaithful guardianship of the estate of a ward, even intemperance in young persons, were capital crimes. Barbarism and civilization mingled still more strangely in the law of slavery. Prisoners taken in battle were reserved as sacrifices to the gods; but no one could be born to slavery in Mexico. Criminals, public defaulters, (for the system of taxation was rigorous and well organized,) persons in extreme poverty, either became slaves by law, or sold themselves into slavery. Parents could thus deal with their children. The services, however, of such slaves were limited; their lives and persons protected; they could not be sold, except in case of extreme poverty, by their masters; their children were born free. The law and the usage seem to have been equally lenient. They were often emancipated, as in Rome, at the death of their master.
The Aztecs of Mexico were a martial race their leading institutions and the national spirit, the splendor of dress, of ornament, and the pride and glory of Aztec, were centered in war; their legions consisting of 8,000 men, not without discipline. Montezuma had been a distinguished warrior and conqueror. The peculiarity in their mode of fighting was that they did not seek to kill, but to make prisoners, and these prisoners were to be solemn votive offerings to the gods. They did not scalp their enemies, like the North American Indians, and esteem their prowess by the number of scalps they had won: but their valor was tested by the numbers which they furnished for the horrid human hecatombs on their teocallis, or temples.
It was the unspeakable barbarity of this part of their religion which so strongly and darkly contrasted with the justice and, in some respects, mild humanity of their civil institutions. All that we know of human sacrifices in the Old World, from “Moloch, horrid king,” and the kindred superstitions of older Asia, the self-immolations under the car of Jaganaut, with the other bloody rites of Siva and of Durga in India, the wicker-cages in which our ancestors the Druids consumed their victims; all these terrific scenes shrink into nothing before the amount of human beings regularly slaughtered on the altars of the Mexican gods, with the revolting circumstances which accompanied their sacrifice. These rites seem to have been peculiar to the Aztec races, ‘and among the Mexicans rose to a more dreadful height, and were more inveterately rooted in their habits and feelings. Tradition ascribes to the older Toltecs that milder character which usually belongs to the agricultural races. They offered only purer and bloodless sacrifices to their deities. We have seen that the enlightened sovereign of Tezcuco strove to mitigate, though he could not abolish this national usage. There can be no doubt that human sacrifices formed a regular part of some of the eastern religions; in the remoter East, as well as in Syria and in Carthage. The instances recorded in later times, in the more polished nations of antiquity, were in general single victims, and offered when the public mind was darkened by the dread, or suffering under the infliction, of some tremendous calamity.3 It may he questioned whether the bursting alive of men among the Druids was not judicial rather than religious—execution rather than sacrifice; for the Druids were the judges as well as the priests of the ancient Gauls and Britons. But there is nothing like the refinement (if we may use such a word) of cruelty which, among the nations of Anahuac, made it part of the law of war that the prisoner should be spared on the battle-field, and deliberately and in cold blood offered to the god of war. The priest, as it were, held the hands of the warrior, in order that himself might have the exclusive privilege of slaughter.
Mr. Prescott, with pardonable, and indeed enforced incredulity, makes large deductions from the estimates of victims thus regularly sacrificed on the altars in Mexico. Numbers command but little confidence in older histories, whether poetical or traditionary, or, like those of Mexico, chiefly hieroglyphical.4 But one fact, he observes, “may be considered certain. It was customary to preserve the skulls of the sacrificed in buildings appropriated to the purpose. ‘The companions of Cortes counted 136,000 in one of these edifices. Without attempting a precise calculation, therefore, it is safe to conclude that thousands were yearly offered up, in the different cities of Anahuac, on the bloody altars of the Mexican divinities.” The circumstances of these horrid rites were, if possible, more revolting than the amount of the hecatombs. The flesh runs cold at the account. The more distinguished victims were fattened, as it were, were indulged in every kind of luxury and enjoyment till the day of sacrifice arrived. It was the great national spectacle, the most solemn religious festival. The high pyramidal temples appear to have been constructed for the express purpose of exhibiting the whole minute detail of the torture, and the execution, to the largest number of people. Our abhorrence is increased by the manner in which the priests officiated in the ceremony, groping among the entrails with their bloody hands for the heart of the victim. But in the darkest depth there is even a darker depth. Some paradoxical writers have attempted to dispute the proofs of cannibalism; which, if less common than is supposed, appears to us to rest on incontestable evidence in so many quarters of the world. The most amiable skepticism can, we fear, encourage no doubt that in Mexico both priests and people feasted on the flesh of the victims, which was cast down among them. It seems to have been a part of the sacrifice just like the feasting on the slaughtered bulls and goats of other religious sacrifices. Alas for human nature, that such things should be in a land where Providence was so lavish of all its bounties; where man was so far advanced beyond the savage—had learned to improve the blessings of God by the arts of civilization, and in so many respects had submitted himself to the softening influence of regular social order, of just and humane institutions, even of many of the domestic virtues.5
Had the Spaniards appeared in the cities of Mexico solely as the champions of humanity—as commissioned by the common Father of mankind forcibly to put down these unspeakable abominations—not as asserting the sovereignty of a foreign emperor, who had no more right to the supremacy over Mexico than over France or England, on the preposterous claim of a papal grant; had they raised the banner of the cross only to save the thousand victims of this ferocious superstition from their unmerited fate—not to compel, by fire and sword, the adoption, we must not say the belief, of that religion emphatically termed the religion of mercy,—in this case, though the strict justice of such interposition might have been questionable, the stronger sympathies of men would have hailed their triumph. Though their own hands might not be clean, though their own autos da fé might rise up against them, as in one respect more appalling—as more utterly alien to the spirit of their religion—yet no one would have disputed the merit of ridding the earth, and that with such surprising valor, of such a monstrous superstition.
Let us look, however, at the question in another light. Consider the ferocity which a people must have imbibed from these bloody spectacles, and the evidence which is furnished of the warlike character of a nation which could thus feed its altars with thousands of prisoners, from tribes as strong, if not as well armed, as themselves, and our astonishment at the conquest achieved by this handful of Spaniards is immeasurably increased. Consider the dread in which the Aztecs must on this account, as well as on others, have been held by the surrounding nations. It is even more extraordinary, notwithstanding the wide-spread discontent at their tyranny, and the proneness to rebellion or to war of the neighboring tribes, that Cortes should fled or make allies who should adhere to him in disaster as well as success—in defeat as well as in victory. It was this mighty empire, or rather confederation of empires, which Cortes, with a few hundred Spaniards, did not hesitate to invade, and hoped to subdue. It was not long, indeed, before he discovered the dissensions which existed in the country; that, besides the valor, and arms, and horses of his own few soldiers, he might array some of the most powerful tribes against uhe empire of Montezuma; and the revolted subjects of Mexico, weary of their emperor’s tyrannical sway, would be his best allies. In the first city which he conquered, (Cempoalla,) the inhabitants of the town and of the neighboring province, who, according to his statement, could bring fifty thousand Inca into the field, willingly, as Cortes writes to Charles V., became the vassals of his Majesty.
“They also begged me to protect them against that mighty lord (Montezuma) who used violent and tyrannical measures to keep them in subjection, and took from them their sons to be slain, and offered as sacrifices to his idols, with many other complaints against him, in order to avoid whose tyranny they embraced the service of your Majesty, to which they have so far proved faithful, and I doubt not will continue so, since they have been uniformly treated by me with favor and attention.”—Despatches of Cortes, p. 40.
In another passage he says,—
“I was not a little pleased on seeing their want of harmony, as it seemed favorable to my designs, and would enable me to bring them more easily into subjection. I applied to their ease the authority of the evangelist, who says, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself shall be rendered desolate.’ ”—Ibid., p. 64.
Cortes very early in his career received intelligence of the hostility of the powerful republic of Tlascala to the empire of Mexico, and entertained hopes of turning this to his own advantage; but, though at the same time with the arduous and appalling nature of their enterprise, these more reasonable means of accomplishing it opened upon the minds of the invaders—they had already plunged headlong into the adventure, and the resolute heart of Cortes seemed wound up to accomplish it, or to perish in the attempt. In his first despatch to the emperor (the lost despatch, but to which he appeals in the second,) he “had assured his Highness that ho (Montezuma) should be taken either dead or alive, or become a subject to the royal throne of your Majesty.” (p. 39.) It was a warfare in which they engaged without counting the cost or the hazard, because it was a warfare of conquest and of glory for Spain; still more because it was a holy warfare—a warfare against infidels. It was not that they knowingly alleged the pretext of religious zeal to cover the nobler passion of ambition, or the baser one of avarice. There can be no doubt that this of itself was a great, if not the great, dominant impulse. The thirst for gold and for power were so inseparably mixed up with this lofty and disinterested bigotry that they themselves never paused to discriminate between the prevailing motives; nor could they have discriminated, if they had ever so scrupulously examined their own hearts.
It was, as Mr. Prescott calls it, a crusade; it was one of the last, but not least, vigorous outbursts of that same spirit which had poured Europe in arms upon the East; and in the Peninsula had just fought out the long and implacable contest of Christian and Moor. Some more enlightened churchmen, like Las Casas, some more gentle-minded and more prudent friars (like Father Olmedo, who was of the utmost use in restraining the blind and headstrong bigotry of Cortes,) might have gleams of a more genuine Christianity; but in Spanish armies, in Europe as well as in America, hardly one, from the Duke of Alva to the meanest common soldier, but believed it, in the depth of his heart, to be his solemn duty to compel the baptism of unhelievers at the point of the sword. The velvet banner which Cortes raised before his door at Cuba, to invite adventurers to join him in his enterprise, bore the royal arms, with a cross, and the motto—“Brothers, follow the cross in faith for under its guidance we shall conquer.” “And besides, (Cortes, as he himself writes, reminded his soldiers,) we are only doing what as Christians we are under obligations to do, by warring against the enemies of the faith—by which means we secured to ourselves glory in another world, and gained greater honor and rewards, in this life, than had fallen to the lot of any other generation at any former period; they should also reflect that God was on our side, and that to him nothing is impossible, as they might see in the victories we had gained, when so many of the enemy were killed without any loss on our part.” On their first serious affair with the Indians an apostle was believed at the time (or afterwards fabled) to have appeared, and fought on their side. And on other occasions of peril and disaster, the same faith beheld the same supernatural appearances. Even Diaz himself ceases to doubt in the celestial presence of St. Jago.6 Throughout, the Mexicans are the “enemies of God and our King.”
We shall not undertake to follow Mr. Prescott through the early life of Cortes—the difficulties of the expedition before it qoitted the coasts of Cuba—or the miserable weakness and jealousies of the governor, Velasquez—who, after entrusting the charge of the expedition to Cortes, and allowing him to spend his whole fortune, and all that he could raise from other quarters, on the outfit of the fleet—suddenly endeavored to revoke his commission, to arrest the fleet, and either to abandon or to place the enterprise in other hands. It is sometimes of great advantage to be ill-used: even now, as in his own day, the vacillating conduct of Velasquez, the low intrigues at his petty court, kindle all the generous sympathies in favor of Cortes; we follow him with breathless interest till he is beyond these wretched obstructions. But we are still more inclined to admiration at the extraordinary skill with which he triumphs over what might seem fatal to his success, the divided allegiance of his soldiery. He had to deal with troops, half of them, especially the leaders, malcontents—and malcontents who certainly could plead a higher authority for their mutinous behavior. We are inclined to feel more regret than is expressed by Mr. Prescott at the loss of the first despatch (if Cortes, which has been sought in vain in all the archives of Europe. Some, we think very unreasonably, doubt if it was ever written; and that Cortes alludes to this imaginary document, which it would have been difficult to have framed in accordance with Spanish notions of subordination, especially those which prevailed with the counsellors of the emperor on Indian affairs. This despatch would have added, perhaps, little to our knowledge of the facts, or of the conduct of Cortes; amid his own version of the quarrel with Velasquez, and his own assertion of independence, may he fully collected from other quarters—yet we should have liked to read the exact statement, as he had dressed it up for the imperial ear: still more his own first fresh impressions when he found himself, not merely in a new land, and with a meek or a hostile savage population, but on the verge of a great empire, gradually expanding before him. The expeditions of Cordova, and, still more, that of Grijalva, who had reached the coast of Mexico, had spread the knowledge of a people who lived in houses of stone and lime, cultivated maize, and possessed gold. Grijalva had seen some of their temples, with their wild priesthood, and their altars wet with human blood and some vague rumors had transpired of powerful and wealthy races. But it was not till Cortes could avail himself of the services of Marina, that he had the least notion of the extent and power of the Mexican empire. The singular history of the beautiful and faithful interpreter, the mistress and preserver of Cortes, her unshaken attachment to the Spaniards, and wonderful escape in all their perils and disasters, is not the least truly romantic incident in the romance of their history.
On the other hand, the picture writing of the Mexicans transmitted immediately to the court the description of these awful and wonderful strangers who had suddenly appeared upon their shores. Mr. Prescott thus describes this incident, which shows the promptitude with which Cortes seized at once upon every thing which, by impressing the Mexican mind with awe of their mysterious powers, might tend to advance his designs of conquest
“While these things were passing, Cortes observed one of Teuhtlile’s attendants busy with a pencil, apparently delineating some object. On looking at his work, he found that it was a sketch on canvass of the Spaniards, their costumes, arms, and, in short, different objects of interest, giving to each its appropriate form and color. This was the celebrated picture-writing of the Aztecs, and, as Teuhtlile informed him, this man was employed in portraying the various objects for the eye of Montezuma, who would thus gather a more vivid notion of their appearance than from any description by words. Cortes was plensed with the idea; and, as he knew how much the effect would be heightened by converting still life into action, he ordered out the cavalry on the beach, the wet sands of which afforded a firm footing for the horses. The bold and rapid movements of the troops, as they went through their military exercises; the apparent ease with which they managed the fiery animals on which they were mounted; the glancing of their weapons, and the shrill cry of the trumpet, all filled the spectators with astonishment; but when they heard the thunders of the cannon, which Cortes ordered to be fired at the same time, and witnessed the volumes of smoke and flame issuing from these terrible engines, and the rushing sound of the balls, as they dashed throwrh the trees of the neighboring forest, shivering their branches into fragments, they were filled with consternation, from which the Aztec chief himself was not wholly free.
“Nothing of all this was lost on the painters, who faithfully recorded, after their fashion, every particular; not omitting the ships—‘the water-houses,’ as they called them—of the strangers, which, with their dark hulls and snow—white sails reflected from the water, were swinging lazily at anchor on the calm bosom of the bay. All was depicted with a fidelity that excited in their turn the admiration of the Spaniards, who, doubtless unprepared for this exhibition of skill, greatly over-estimated the merits of the execution.”—Vol. i., pp. 274, 275.
It is remarkable how the circumstances of the time conspired to favor the Spanish invaders. Montezuma himself, from arm intrepid warrior and a successful conqueror, had sunk into a secluded and indolent Oriental despot—instead of commanding the confidence and devoted attachment of his subjects, the glory which his youthful conquests had obtained for the Mexican name, and the advantages which had ensued from the more peaceful years of his reign, were now almest forgotten in his oppressive tyranny. Half-conquered provinces, groaning under heavy taxation, had yet the remembrance of their former freedom, and were ready to cast off the yoke. It is still more remarkable that the superstition to which Montezuma had surrendered himself as the devoutest votary, which had led him to crowd the altars with human sacrifices in unprecedented numbers, and to ally himself by the strongest ties with the bloody priesthood, now, as it were, turned against him, and prostrated his spirit before the imagined divinity, or at least the predicted success of the stranger. The desperate energy with which the religion, even more than the national spirit, maddened, it is true, by the cruelty or outrages of the Spaniards, rallied under his successor Guatemozin; the actual part which the priesthood took in the last struggle, which was so nearly fatal to the Spaniards; the manner in which the Spaniards themselves were appalled by seeing their brethren in the agony of sacrifice; and the mad hope and ungovernable frenzy of the Mexicans at that manifest triumph of their gods; all combine to show how fortunate it was that the religious feeling of Montezuma was cowed and subdued, and this most powerful weapon of resistance fell, as it were, from his hand. This alone accounts for the strange manner in which the mind of Montezuma was paralyzed at the first news of the landing of the Spaniards. The paintings of the white-bearded men in flying castles, who spoke in thunder and lightning, shook him with awe, from which he never recovered. All authorities agree about the currency of these prophecies. which no one in the empire believed with more shuddering faith than the emperor. Dryden puts them in the mouth of the high priest in his “Indian Emperor.” From the intolerable love-rants which fill that strange play, in which Spaniards and Mexicans, Cortes and Montezuma, cross each other in all the wild intricacy of amorous intrigue (as in a comedy “de Capa y Espada,”) we are inclined to rescue the few lines, more worthy of glorious John.
“Enter Gayomar hastily: the scene is a Sacrifice in the Temple.
Odmar.—My brother Guyomar! methinks I spy,
Haste in his steps, and wonder in his eye.
Montezuma.—I sent thee to the frontiers; quickly tell
The cause of thy return; are all things well?
Guyomar.—I went in order, sir, to your command,
To view the utmost limits of the land,
To that sea-shore where no more world is found,
But foaming billows breaking on the ground,
Where, for a while, my eyes no object met,
But distant skies, that in the ocean set;
And low-hung clouds that dipp’d themselves in rain
To shake their fleeces on the earth again.
At last, as far as I could cast my eyes
Upon the sea, somewhat methought did rise
Like bluish mists, which, still appearing more,
Took dreadful shapes, and moved towards the shore.
Montezuma.—What forms did these new wonders represent?
Guyomar.—More strange than what your wonder can invent.
The object I could first distinctly view
Was tall, straight trees, which on the waters flew:
Wings on their sides, instead of leaves, did grow,
Which gathered all the breath the winds could blow;
And at their roots grew floating palaces,
Whose onthowed bellies cut the yielding seas.
Montezuma.—What divine monsters, O ye Gods, are these,
That float in air, and fly upon the seas!
Came they alive or dead upon the shore?
Guyomar.—Alas! they lived, too sure; I heard them roar;
All turned their sides, and to each other spoke—
I saw their words breathe out in fire and smoke:
Sure ‘t is their voice, that thunders from on high,
Or these the younger brothers of the sky;
Deaf with the noise, I took my hasty flight—
No mortal courage can support the fright.
High Priest.—Old prophecies foretell our fall at hand
When bearded men in floating castles land;
I see it is of dire portent.”
- Indian Emperor, Act i., Scene 2.
Mr. Prescott has collected these prodigies, as they rest on the Mexican authorities, either from chronicles of the time, or from those historians who wrote soon after the conquest. His explanation is sensible, and no doubt true:—
“In a preceding chapter I have noticed the popular traditions respecting Quetzalcoatl, that deity with a fair complexion and flowing beard, so unlike the Indian physiognomy, who, after fulfilling his mission of benevolence among the Aztecs, embarked on the Atlantic Sea for the mysterious shores of Tlapallan. He promised, on his departure, to return at some future day with his posterity, and resume the possession of his empire. That day was looked forward to with hope or with apprehension, according to the interest of the believer, but with general confidence throughout the wide borders of the Anahuac. Even after the conquest, it still lingered among the Indian races, by whom it was as fondly cherished, as the advent of their king Sebastian continued to be by the Portuguese, or that of the Messiah by the Jews.
“A general feeling seems to have prevailed, in the time of Montezuma, that the period for the return of the deity, aiid the full accomplishment of his promise, was near at hand. This conviction is said to have gained ground from various preternatural occurrences, reported with more or less detail by all the most ancient historians. In 1510, the great lake of Tezcuco, without the occurrence of a tempest, or earthquake, or any other visible cause, became violently agitated, overflowed its banks, and, pouring into the streets of Mexico, swept off many of the buildings by the fury of the waters. In 1511, one of the turrets of the great temple took fire, equally without any apparent cause, and continued to burn in defiance of all attempts to extinguish it. In the following years three comets were seen; and not long before the coining of the Spaniards a strange light broke forth in the east. It spread broad at its base on the horizon, and, rising in a pyramidal form, tapered off as it approached the zenith. It resembled a vast sheet or flood of fire, emitting sparkles, or, as an old writer expresses it, ‘seemed thickly powdered with stars.’ At the same time, low voices were heard in the air, and doleful wailings, as if to announce souxe strange, mysterious calamity! The Aztec monarch, terrified at the apparitions in the heavens, took council of Nezahualpili, who was a great proficient in the subtle science of astrology. But the royal sage cast a deeper cloud over his spirit, by reading in these prodigies the speedy downfall of the empire.
“Such are the strange stories reported by the chroniclers in which it is not impossible to detect the glimmerings of truth. Nearly thirty years had elapsed since the discovery of the islands by Columbus, and more than twenty since his visit to the American continent. Rumors, more or less distinct, of this wonderful appearance of the white men, bearing in their hands the thunder and the lightning, so like in many respects to the traditions of Quetzalcoatl, would naturally spread far and wide among the Indian nations. Such rumors, doubtless, long before the lauding of the Spaniards in Mexico, found their way up the grand plateau, filling the minds of men with anticipations of the near coming of the period when the great deity was to return and receive his own again.”—Vol. I., pp. 283—285.
What wonder, then, that when Montezuma found himself face to face with the invincible, inevitable stranger, he stood rebuked and awe-struck before him? All his embassies, all his prohibitions to advance, all his intrigues, all his conspiracies, all the courageous resistance of the republicans of Tlascala, had been in vain. From the first moment in which Cortes announced his intention of visiting Mexico, he had been constantly, though slowly, approaching nearer and nearer. Montezuma may have known, probably did know, nothing of the greatest difficulties which embarrassed the movements of Cortes—of the dissensions in his own camp, the struggles of the partisans of Velasquez, joined with the fears of the more timid—of the address with which he had persuaded his troops to invest him with a kind of legal sovereignty in the new colony, holding his power direct from the crown of Spain, and independent of the governor of Cuba. He might receive vague rumors of the destruction of the ships at Vera Cruz. That daring and decisive measure, which plainly announced to the Spaniards that they had no alternative but conquest or death in a foreign land, would not carry its distinct import to the mind of the Mexican; their motives would be obscure, and he could have no notion of the difficulties of building ships for a long sea-voyage. But this he would know, amid know too certainly—that the Spaniards were moving on, and still moving on, aimd that obstacles fell, as by enchantment, before them. They had first reached the great city of Cempoalla, and had been received with the utmost hospitality; they had awed or won the whole tribe to join them as allies—there, too, they hind impiously, yet with impunity, denied the gods of the land, hurled the idols boldly from their pedestals, cleansed the temples from the blood which had so long flowed in honor of the deities, and set up images of their own to receive divine worship. And the gods had allowed these insults, this total abolition of their rites, to pass unresisted and unavenged! The strangers had gone fearlessly forward, ascended the strong and rugged passes of the Cordilleras, had reached the great level land, the seat of the Mexican and Tezcucan empires. The Tlascalans, the most obstinate and formidable enemies of the Mexican empire, under a most skilful leader, and with the most determined valor, had in vain attempted to arrest their march. They had been ridden over by the gigantic animals which bore the iron men to battle; had been mowed down by thousands with their thunders and lightnings; and had at length been compelled to submission. The conqueror had entered Tlascala, and, by the more than human power which he seemed to exercise over the minds of men, he had changed these deadly enemies into faithful allies—all Tlascala was following the stranger in arms, to assist in the conquest of Mexico! But, more astonishing still, the dark and deep-laid conspiracy to cut them off in Cholula, devised with so much craft, and conducted with so much secrecy—had been detected by these strangers, who knew nothing of their language, who communicated with them, and but imperfectly, through one of their countrymen and one female native interpreter—detected at the moment that it was ripe—by what means, unless by the gift of reading the heart of man, or by some divine communication, they could not conjecture. The terrible and remorseless vengeance had burst upon them at the moment when they expected themselves to crush their unheeding adversaries. Cholula had paid the dreadful penalty of the meditated crime by a massacre which might appal the stoutest heart. “So far,” in Mr. Prescott’s words, “the prowess of the Spaniards, ‘the white gods,’ as they were often called, made them to be thought invincible. But it was not till their arrival at Cholula that the natives learned how terrible was their vengeance—and they trembled!”—(Vol. II., p. 33.) From this time, as far as Montezuma was concerned, the conduct of the Mexicans towards the Spaniards was deprecatory and submissive, as towards beings of another nature; their presents were like lavish offerings to deities whose power they wished to propitiate, or at least to avert their anger. Notwithstanding the remonstrances of his bolder councillors, the emperor had abandoned all thoughts of resistance, and seemed prepared to await his destiny with a kind of fearful curiosity.
The sagacious mind of Cortes had no doubt, some notion of the preternatural character in which the Spaniards appeared to the Indians. He took every opportunity of impressing those terrors more deeply on the minds of the people. His soldiers, probably himself, were not without their apprehensions; and the expanding view of the magnificence, power, wealth, populousness of the cities which one after another rose upon their view, could not but contrast with their own narrow files and small company of fifteen horse, and less than four hundred men—accompanied indeed by numerous allies—but allies on whose fidelity it might well seem presumption to reckon implicitly. Honest Bernal Diaz is too brave not to own his fears:—“We continued our march. As our allies had informed us that Montezuma intended to put us all to death after our entry into his city, we were filled with melancholy reflections on our hazardous situation; recommending our souls, therefore, to the Lord Jesus Christ, who had brought us in safety through so many imminent dangers, and resolving to sell our lives at a dear rate, we proceeded on our march.” We cannot find room for Mr. Prescott’s picturesque description of the first opening of the great valley upon the astonished sight of the Spaniards; nor of the grandeur and extent of the city. But there are two more touches in Bernal Diaz, so simple, yet which convey so much in a few words, that we must allow them to stand in place of our author’s longer description:—“When,” says the adventurer, “I beheld the delicious scenery around me, I thought we had been transported by magic to the terrestrial paradise.” As he surveyed the city from the height of one of the teocallis or temples, he says:—“The noise and bustle of the market in the great square just below was so great, that it might easily have been heard almost at the distance of a league; and some of our companions, who had seen both Rome and Constantinople, declared that they had not seen any thing comparable in those cities for convenient and regular distribution, or numbers of people.”
We proceed at once to the peaceful entrance of the Spaniards into the city, and the first interview of Cortes with Montezuma. Our contempt for the pusillanimity of Montezuma, from the first moment of this meeting with Cortes, melts into respect for the dignified courtesy of his demeanor and language; the weak and superstitious barbarianan becomes a noble gentleman, bowed by the weight of inevitable calamity, and enduring affliction after affliction, insult after insult, with deep but suppressed feeling, with an outward lofty patience, yet with an inward agony of wounded pride which strives not to betray itself. It is, in the favorite phrase of our neighbors, an august misfortune. With tranquil dignity he puts by the summary and, no doubt, utterly unintelligible proposal of Cortes at their first conference, that he should change his religion; and assumes the affable tone and language of a royal host. Mr. Prescott tells it well:—
“He listened, however, with silent attention, until the general had concluded his homily. He then replied, that he knew the Spaniards had held this discourse wherever they had heen. He doubted not their God was, as they said, a good Being. His gods, also, were good to him. Yet what his visitor said of the creation of the world was like what he had heen taught to believe. It was not worth while to discourse further of the matter. His ancestors, he said, were not the original proprietors of the land. They had occupied it but a few ages, and had heen led there by a great Being, who, after giving them laws and ruling over the nation for a time, had withdrawn to the regions where the sun rises. He had declared, on his departure, that he or his descendants would again visit them and resume his empire. The wonderful deeds of the Spaniards, their fair complexions, and the quarter whence they came, all showed they were his descendants. If Montezuma had resisted their visit to his capital, it was hecause he had heard such accounts of their cruelties—that they sent the lightning to consume his people, or crushed them to pieces under the hard feet of the ferocious animals on which they rode. He was now convinced that these were idle tales; that the Spaniards were kind and generous in their natures; they were mortals of a different race, indeed, frmn the Aztecs, wiser, and more valiant—and for this he honored them.
‘You, too,’ he added, with a smile, ‘have heen told, perhaps, that I am a god, and dwell in palaces of gold and silver. But you see it is false. My houses, though large, are of stone and wood like those of others; and as to my hody,’ he said, baring his tawny arm, ‘you see it is flesh and bone like yours. It is true I have a great empire, inherited from my ancestors; lands, and gold, and silver. But your sovereign beyond the waters is, I know, the rightful lord of all. I rule in his name. You, Malintzin, are his ambassador; you and your brethren shall share these things with me. Rest now from your labors. You are here in your own dwellings, and every thing shall be provided for your suhsistence. I will see that your wishes shall be obeyed in the same way as my own.’ As the monarch concluded these words, a few natural tears suffused his eyes, while the image of ancient independence perhaps, flitted across his mind. *****
“The iron hearts of the Spaniards were touched with the emotion displayed by Montezuma, as well as by his princely spirit of liberality. As they passed him, the cavaliers, with bonnet in hand, made him the most profound obeisance, and ‘on the way home,’ continues the same chronicler, ‘we could discourse of nothing but the gentle breeding and courtesy of the Indian monarch, and of the respect we entertained for him.’ ”—Vol. ii., pp. 82—84.
Yet, in all the astonishment which Cortes felt, at seeing that mighty emperor thus, as it were, offering allegiance to his master, and heaping the most costly presents on the soldiery with imperial munificence, he never for an instant forgets any precaution which may tend to security in his hazardous position, nor any measure which may deepen the awe of his power. That very night Mexico is startled with the terrific thunder of these new gods. The whole artillery is fired, as if for a salute of rejoicing, that while its booming sounds were heard, and its sulphurous exhalations clouded over the city, Mexico might cease to wonder at the submission of her emperor to beings who thus wielded the arms of Heaven. Natural curiosity might lead Cortes almost immediately to demand permission to survey the magnificence, the extent, and the wealth of the city; and even to enter the temples, to ascertain the real character of the gods they worshipped, and the religious ceremonies they practised. The effect, if not the object, of the former, would be to stimulate the insatiable avarice of his followers, to increase their hopes of plunder to such a height as to make them shrink from no danger, hesitate at no aggression; in the latter, the unspeakahle horrors of the bloody altars, the remains of human sacrifices, the cannibal priests, might steel their hearts, and even his own, to the remorseless fulfilment of his designs. Men of less fanatic faith might have imagined themselves summoned hy a divine impulse, moved as Cortes declares himself on one, and that a far less justifiable, occasion, by the Holy Ghost, to risk all to rid the world of such enormities. On this subject we will only say further, that it was here that the Spanish soldiers counted the 136,000 skulls of human victims, laid up as memorials of the devotion of the Mexican people.
We turn to the darkening tragedy of Montezuma. His courteous reception of the Spaniards, his submissive acknowledgment of the superiority of the Emperor Charles, above all the liberality of his gifts, embarrassed Cortes more than open hostility; it had whetted the appetites of the soldiery for gold; it had encouraged the resolution of Cortes to effect a complete conquest of the country, yet seemed to have cut off all justification for further aggression. Yet Cortes had only been six days in the city when he determined on the seizure of the emperor in his own palace. Ambition can always find pretexts; and an event which had happened when Cortes was at Cholula had been, perhaps, treasured in his recollection for such an occasion. Two Spaniards had been murdered on their way from Vera Cruz, where Cortes had left 150 men to guard his infant settlement, to Almeria, the cacique of which city had tendered his allegiance. In a battle which followed to revenge the death of these Spaniards, the Indians had been totally defeated, but the captain, Escalante, and several other Spaniards slain. It was convenient to charge this on the secret hostility of Montezuma: no doubt, therefore, could be allowed to exist of his guilt; yet Cortes, as if he was secure against any high moral indignation on the part of his master, in his despatch to Charles V., fairly owns that he had fully resolved on the seizure of Montezuma, before he called to mind this event. There is a frankness in his avowal, that he thought all means lawful to advance what he considered his sovereign’s interest, so characteristic of the times and of the man, as to make his own words worthy of quotation:—
“Judging from these things and from what I had observed of the country, that it would subserve the interests of your Majesty and our own security, if Montezuma was in my power, and not wholly free from restraint in order that he might not he diverted from the resolution and willing spirit which he showed in the service of your Majesty, especially as we Spaniards were somewhat troublesome and difficult to please; lest feeling annoyed on any occasion, he should do us some serious injury, and even might cause all memory of us to perish, in the exercise of his great power. It also appeared to me, that if he was under my control, all the other countries that were subject to him would he more easily brought to the knowledge and service of your Majesty, as afterwards actually happened. I resolved, therefore, to take him and place him in my quarters, which were of great strength.”
The manner in which he fulfilled this virtuous resolution, he relates with the same quiet coolness:—
“Having used the precaution to station guards at the corner of the streets, I went to the palace of Montezuma, as I had before often done, to visit him; and after conversing with him in a sportive manner on agreeable topics, and receiving at his hands some jewels of gold, and one of his own daughters, together with several daughters of his nobles for some of my company, I then said unto him”— (Despatches of Cortes, p. 92.)
The speech, uttered no doubt in stately Spanish by Cortes, and rendered into elegant Mexican by Marina, amounted in plain English to this—
“that he was a prisoner—that he was accused of being an accomplice in the hostilities of the cacique of Almeria—that Cortes could not believe him guilty of such unfriendly treachery, but nevertheless he must march away to the Spanish quarters.”
“Montezuma listened to this proposal, and the flimsy reasoning with which it was covered, with looks of profound amazement. He became pale as death; but in a moment, his face flushed with resentment, as, with the pride of offended dignity, he exclaimed, ‘When was it ever heard that a great prince, like myself, voluntarily left his own palace to become a prisoner in the hands of strangers?’
“Cortes assured him he would not go as a prisoner. He would experience nothing but respectful treatment from the Spaniards; would be surrounded by his own household, and hold intercourse with his people as usual. In short, it would he but a change of residence, from one of his palaces to another, a circumstance of frequent occurrence with him.—It was in vain. ‘If I should consent to such a degradation,’ he answered, ‘my subjects never would!’ When further pressed, he offered to give up one of his sons and of his daughters, to remain as hostages with the Spaniards, so that he might be spared this disgrace.
“Two hours passed in this fruitless discussion, till a high-mettled cavalier, Velasquez de Leon, impatient of the long delay, and seeing that the attempt, if not the deed, must ruin them, cried out, ‘Why do we waste words on this barbarian? We have gone too far to recede now. Let us seize him, and, if he resists, plunge our swords into his body!’ The fierce tone and menacing gestures with which this was uttered, alarmed the monarch, who inquired of Marina what the angry Spaniard said. The interpreter explained it in as gentle a manner as she could, beseeching him ‘to accompany the white men to their quarters, where he would be treated with all respect and kindness, while to refuse them would but expose himself to violence, perhaps to death.’ Marina, doubtless, spoke to her sovereign as she thought, and no one had better opportunity of knowing the truth than herself.
“This last appeal shook the resolution of Montezuma. It was in vain that the unhappy prince looked around for sympathy or support. As his eyes wandered over the stern visages and iron forms of the Spaniards, he felt that his hour was indeed come; and, with a voice scarcely audible from emotion, he consented to accompany the strangers,—to quit the palace, whither he was never more to return. Had he possessed the spirit of the first Montezuma, he would have called his guards around him, and left his life-blood on the threshold, sooner than have been dragged a dishonored captive across it. But his courage sank under the circumstances. He felt he was the instrument of an irresistible Fate!”—Vol. ii., pp. 153—155.
But what was this degradation to that which followed in a few days? At first he was treated with the utmost courtesy. He had full enjoyment of all the luxuries, the splendor of his state. He could command the presence of his wives and of his courtiers. He gave public audience, though every avenue was strongly guarded by the Spanish soldiery. Even the Spaniards treated him with the mockery of respect. But when the cacique arrived who had been engaged in the battle with the Spaniards, the emperor was compelled to ratify the sentence of death upon his own subjects, who, when the sentence was passed, pleaded his imperial orders. He was compelled to witness their execution with fetters on his own limbs. The criminals were burned alive—a kind of execution apparently unknown in Mexico. To us it may awaken revolting reminiscences of scenes enough in Europe, from which Cortes and his soldiers may have learned the terrible impressiveness of this kind of death. Cortes, ever mingling policy with his most atrocious acts, ordered the pyres to be constructed of the arrows, javelins, and other weapons from the arsenals around the great temple; thus craftily depriving the people of the arms which they might seize at any time, and turn against their oppressors.
“Montezuma was speechless under the infliction of this last insult. He was like one struck down by a heavy blow, that deprives him of all his faculties. He offered no resistance; but, though he spoke not a word, low, ill-suppressed moans, from time to time, intimated the anguish of his spirit. His attendants, bathed in tears, offered him their consolations. They tenderly held his feet in their arms, and endeavored, by inserting their shawls and mantles, to relieve them from the pressure of the iron. But they could not reach the iron which had penetrated into his soul. He felt that he was no more a king.”—Vol. ii., p. 159.
This aggravation of insult might appear doubtful policy, but its success seemed to justify its wisdom, and of its cruelty no one took account. Cortes with his own hand, and with a solemn mockery of reverence, loosened the fetters, and then offered Montezuma his freedom; but he had read the heart of the humbled monarch, who, from fear or from shame, could no longer face his indignant subjects: the emperor remained a willing prisoner. He even seems to have subdued his mind to his fortunes. He won the hearts of the Spaniards by his dignified familiarity. He seemed to revive to the power of enjoyment. Under Spanish custody he practised his devotions in the temple; under Spanish custody he indulged in the pleasures of the chase. With consummate address, Cortes persuaded him that it was for his amusement that some brigantines were built, to exhibit to the wondering Mexicans the manner in which the Spaniards commanded the winds of heaven to impel their large vessels as they pleased. Cortes, meantime, was thus securing the mastery of the lake, either as a means of defence or of retreat.
Before long, Cortes ventured to suggest to the obsequious emperor the formal recognition of his master’s supremacy. The caciques were summoned to a great public assembly. Montezuma, not without tears, took his own oath of fealty to the sovereign of the white men; and not without tears did his subjects assent to their abasement, and prove their loyal attachment by humbly following the example of their monarch. Even the hard Spaniards were moved at this touching scene. As a tangible acknowledgment of their fealty, the treasures of the land were brought in from all quarters as a tribute to the white men. Had Montezuma known the difficulties of Cortes in dividing this spoil, and the severe trial to which it subjected his authority over his army, the tribute would have appeared a politic measure; yet, thus steeped in degradation to the lips. Montezuma, as if spell-bound, retained his fidelity. He consented to degrade the sovereign of Tezcuco, (Cacamatzin,) who was hostile to the Spaniards, and to invest his brother, who was more flexible to Spanish influence, with the royal dignity.
When Cortes demanded possession of one of the temples, cleansed it from all its defilements, and insulted the religious feelings of the whole nation by the solemn and public performance of the Christian ritual in one of their own most stately sanctuaries, it was Montezunca who warned him of the danger of thus provoking to the utmost his priests and priest-led people, betrayed the growing disaffection, and made Cortes aware that the fires of the volcano were brooding, and ready to burst, beneath him. According to Bernal Diaz, “Montezuma, at a solemn conference, declared to Cortes that he was extremely grieved at the manifestations of the will of his gods that we should all be put to death, or expelled from Mexico. He therefore, as our sincere friend, earnestly recommended that we should not run the risk of incuring the indignation of his subjects, but should save our lives by a retreat whilst that remained within our power.” From this moment the Spaniards slept upon their arms, with their cannon pointed, and with every precaution against surprise. “We were full of terror of being attacked by the whole force of a numerous and warlike people, exasperated by the insults we had heaped on their sovereign and their religion.’7
Cortes had sent the master shipbuilder, Lopez, with Aztec artizans, to the coast, to build vessels for their return to Spain—but it is said with secret instructions to delay their completion.
It was at this perilous juncture that he achieved the most wonderful of all his wonderful exploits. He received intelligence that a Spanish force had landed, under a leader of reputation, boldly announcing that they came, if not with an imperial commission, with superior authority, to supersede, to degrade, to lead him away from the scene of his conquests. The whole of this army seemed to be impregnated with the implacable hostility of his old enemy, Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, who had fitted out the expedition, and was eager to seize the golden prize from his grasp. This force was well appointed—in number three times as great as the whole of that under Cortes—perhaps four times, at least, as great as that which he could bring into the field against them. Yet, in an incredibly short time, Cortes is marching back to Mexico at the head of the troops who came to depose him, now mingled, if not altogether in cordial amity, yet with outward unanimity, among his own veteran soldiers; he has cajoled by smooth language—he has bribed, he has beaten his enemies into his own ranks; the general, Narvaez, is his prisoner; and he finds himself at the head of a much larger Spanish force, with artillery, ammunition, and all the necessaries of war, returning to the capital, unhappily, not to support, but save, if possible, the feeble and ill-commanded garrison whom he had left in Mexico.
It is not the least testimony to the transcendent abilities of Cortes, that, unless perhaps where Sandoval was in command, wherever he was not personally present all went wrong. Alvarado, whom he had left at the head of the troops in Mexico, had no one quality of a captain but intrepid courage. The massacre of six hundred Aztec nobles, unarmed, during the peaceful celebration of a religious ceremony, had at length maddened the whole people to revolt. There is no direct information whether the cruelty or rapacity of Alvarado, or some secret intelligence of a conspiracy, (not improbable, when the Mexicans saw that their whole city was now held in check by but a handful of the Spaniards,) had prompted this ill-timed and ill-conducted mimicry of the great blow struck by Cortes at Cholula; but from this time the whole Aztec nation was leagued in implacable hostility to the Spaniards. Alvarado and his garrison were shut up in the fortress, in danger of perishing by famine, (for all the markets had ceased,) and still more by want of water. Cortes, now at the head of seventy horse, and five hundred foot, was advancing, not to the peaceful reöccupation of the capital, but to the rescue—he could scarcely hope the timely rescue—of his men. Through a silent and unpeopled country, over the silent and unpeopled lake, through the silent and unpeopled streets of Mexico, he arrives at the gates of the fortress, and unites his whole force to encounter the multiplying dangers.
Even Cortes himself allowed his Spanish pride to blind his cool and sagacious judgment. He treated Montezuma, who still protested his fidelity to the Spanish cause, with the most galling contempt. When he spurned “the dog of a king” from his presence, he not only utterly broke the spirit of the unhappy monarch, but by violating that divinity which, according to the Aztec feeling, “still hedged the king,” he abandoned all the advantage which he had hitherto gained by the possession of the royal person. By a still more fatal and unaccountable error he released at that moment the brother of Montezuma, a bold warrior, who no doubt spread abroad the intelligence of this last insult to the emperor, and set himself at once at the head of the insurrection. Cortes had yet to learn the terrible energy of a nation’s despair; the tame submission with which the Aztecs had up to this time borne the foreign yoke, and endured plunder, insult, the injury to their king, the occupation of their capital, the contemptuous outrage on their religion, had led him to a false estimate of his own immeasurable superiority: the conquest, instead of being achieved, was hardly begun.
No passage in the Spanish conquest of Mexico is so well known, or had been told so well, as the conflict within the city, the death of Montezuma, the storming of the temple; the retreat of the Spaniards over the hroken causeways and the chasms where the bridges had been destroyed;—all the awful adventures of the Noehe Triste, the melancholy night. Mr. Prescott (and it is saying much in his favor) does not fail in this great trial of his strength; he maintains throughout the clearness and animation of his narrative. We pass reluctantly over the death of Montezuma. Faithful, it should seem, to the last, he desired to be taken to the battlements, and endeavored to repress the furious onset of his people. At first the sight of the emperor commanded awe: but the silence soon gave place to the language of contempt and indignity. They taunted him as a woman; they heaped contumely upon his head. At length, probably supposing that he had withdrawn, they discharged a volley of arrows and of stones against the spot where he had stood. A stone struck him on the head, and he fell senseless: he recovered, but his heart was broken; he obstinately refused all remedies, pined away and died. We must make room for Mr. Prescott’s storming of the temple:—
“Cortes, having cleared a way for the assault, sprang up the lower stairway, followed by Alvarado, Sandoval, Ordaz, and the other gallant cavaliers of his little band, leaving a file of arquebusiers and a strong corps of Indian allies to hold the enemy in check at the foot of the monument. On the first landing, as well as on the several galleries above, and on the summit, the Aztec warriors were drawn up to dispute his passage. From their elevated position they showered down volleys of lighter missiles, together with heavy stones, beams, and burning rafters, which, thundering along the stairway, overturned the ascending Spaniards, and carried desolation through their ranks. The more fortunate, eluding or springing over these obstacles, succeeded in gaining the first terrace, where, throwing themselves on their enemies, they compelled them, after a short resistance, to fall back. The assailants pressed on, effectually supported by a brisk fire of the musketeers from below, which so much galled the Mexicans in their exposed situation that they were glad to take shelter on the broad summit of the teocalli.
“Cortes and his comrades were close upon their rear, and the two parties soon found themselves face to face on this aërial battle-field, engaged in mortal combat in presence of the whole city, as well as of the troops in the court-yard, who paused, as if by mutual consent, from their own hostilities, gazing in silent expectation on the issue of those above. The area, though somewhat smaller than the base of the teocalli, was large enough to afford a fair field of fight for a thousand combatants. It was paved with broad, flat stones. No impediment occurred over its surface, except the huge sacrificial block, and the temples of stone which rose to the height of forty feet, at the further extremity of the arena. One of these had been consecrated to the cross; the other was still occupied by the Mexican war-god. The Christian and the Aztec contended for their religions under the very shadow of their respective shrines; while the Indian priests, running to and fro, with their hair wildly streaming over their sable mantles, seemed hovering in mid-air, like so many demons of darkness urging on the work of slaughter.
“The parties closed with the desperate fury of men who had no hope but in victory. Quarter was neither asked nor given; and to fly was impossible. The edge of the area was unprotected by parapet or battlement. The least slip would he fatal; and the combatants, as they struggled in mortal agony, were sometimes seen to roll over the sheer sides of the precipice together. Cortes himself is said to have had a narrow escape from this dreadful fate. Two warriors, of strong muscular frames, seized on him, and were dragging him violently towards the brink of the pyramid. Aware of their intention, he struggled with all his force, and, before they could accomplish their purpose, succeeded in tearing himself from their grasp, and hurling one of them over the walls with his own arm. The story is not improbable in itself, for Cortes was a man of uncommon agility and strength. It has heen often repeated; but not by contemporary history.
“The battle lasted with unintermitting fury for three hours. The number of the enemy was double that of the Christians; and it seemed as if it were a contest which must be determined by numbers and brute force, rather than by superior science. But it was not so. The invulnerahle armor of the Spaniard, his sword of matchless temper, and his skill in the use of it, gave him advantages which far outweighed the odds of physical strength and numbers. After doing all that the courage of despair could enable men to do, resistance grew fainter and fainter on the side of the Aztecs. One after another they had fallen. Two or three priests only survived to be led away in triumph by the victors. Every other combatant was stretched a corpse on the bloody arena, or had been hurled from the giddy heights. Yet the loss of the Spaniards was not inconsiderable: it amounted to forty-five of their best men; and nearly all of the remainder were more or less injured in the desperate conflict.
“The victorious cavaliers now rushed towards the sanctuaries. The lower story was of stone, the two upper were of wood. Penetrating into their recesses, they had the mortification to find the image of the Virgin and Cross removed. But in the other edifice they still beheld the grim figure of Huitzilopotchli, with his censer of smoking hearts, and the walls of his oratory reeking with gore—not improbably of their own countrymen. With shouts of triumph the Christians tore the uncouth monster from his niche, and tumbled him, in the presence of the horror-struck Aztecs, down the steps of the teocalli. They then set fire to the accursed building. The flame speedily ran up the slender towers, sending forth an ominous light over city, lake, and valley, to the remotest hut among the mountains. It was the funeral pyre of paganism, and proclaimed the fall of that sanguinary religion which had so long hung like a dark cloud over the fair regions of Anahuac.”—Vol. ii., p. 297.
There is a fine epic interest in the midnight retreat along the causeways. The battle, from its local circumstances, is perfectly distinct and intelligible; while, on the Spanish side, the individual feats of valor, the personal exploits of Alvarado, Velasquez, Sandoval, and above all of Cortes himself, awaken breathless sympathy. We watch for the emerging of the survivors of that gallant band, out of the wild confusion and darkness, over the chasms of the broken bridges, over the lost artillery, the treasure thrown away in the last agony of flight, over the bodies of their own men and horses mingled with the heaps of slaughtered Mexicans, as for the winding up of a romance: and how touching is the close:—
“The Spanish commander dismounted from his jaded steed, and, sitting down on the steps of an Indian temple, gazed mournfully on the broken files as they passed before him. What a spectacle did they present! The cavalry, most of them dismounted, were mingled with the infantry, who dragged their feeble limbs along with difficulty; their shattered mail and tattered garments dripping with the salt ooze, showing through their rents many a bruise and ghastly wound; their bright arms soiled, their proud crests and banners gone, the baggage, artillery—all, in short, that constitutes the pride and panoply of glorious war, forever lost. Cortes, as he looked wistfully on their thinned and disordered ranks, sought in vain for many a familiar face, and missed more than one dear companion who had stood side by side with him through all the perils of the conquest. Though accustomed to control his emotions, or, at least, to conceal them, the sight was too much for him. He covered his face with his hands, and the tears, which trickled down, revealed too plainly the anguish of his soul.”—Vol. ii., p. 340.
But if the mind of Cortes was once bewildered by the pride of success, how did it rise to meet adversity? In one week after the retreat along the causeway, with his diminished and broken force, without his artillery, with almost all his crossbows gone, with but few of his horses, with many of his men and himself severely wounded, he fights the great battle of Otumba against the whole force of the Mexican empire; he wins it by his own personal prowess in killing the commander of the hostile army. Yet this wonderful man, to whom all the other contemporary writers assign this crowning exploit, in his despatch to the emperor, notices it in these words:—“We were engaged during the greater part of the day, until it pleased God that one should fall, who must have been a leading personage amongst them, as at his death the battle ceased.” It was the quick eye of Cortes which saw the importance of the death of this cacique, as well as his strong arm which struck him down. Well may Mr. Prescott say that these modest words form a beautiful contrast to the style of panegyric in others.
In the hour of his darkest disaster, Cortes never despaired of the final subjogation of Mexico. The battle of Otumba secured the fidelity of the Tlascalans.8 There was still a powerful party in that city, headed by Xicotencatl, who urged the abandonment of the Spaniards to their fate; wisely foreseeing that the only security for their own freedom, as well as that of Mexico, was the expulsion of the stranger from the land. But either the old hatred of Mexico, and the dread of her vengeance, or awe of the Spaniards, and the involuntary respect extorted by their valor under these trials, and their unexpected victory, secured the ascendency of the Spanish party in the senate of Tlascala. The Mexican envoys, who had been sent to organize a general league against the invaders, were dismissed with a stern rejection of their offers. What was still more extraordinary, Cortes at last shamed the dispirited followers of Narvaez, who had shared all the disasters, and tasted nothing of the glory or the gain of his own veterans, into something of the general enthusiasm. Unexpected supplies arrived on the coast, guns and ammunition, and men and horses; and some spell of magic might seem to gather them all, in unhesitating obedience, under his banner.
An unexpected ally impeded, for a time at least, the preparations of the Mexicans. The communication of diseases seems an inevitable evil, which attends the contact of different races, and partly from ignorance of their treatment, partly from the new force which they seem to acquire by being imparted to fresh constitutions, they in general become more than usually destructive. The small-pox had been brought to the shores of Mexico, it is supposed, by a negro, on board of one of the ships, and spread with frightful fatality. The new emperor, Cuitlahuac, was among its victims. Yet eventually the accession of Guatemozin to the throne, gave new vigor and obstinacy to the resistance. The noble valor of Guatemozin retrieved the royal race from the pusillanimity of Montezuma. Numancia or Saragossa were not defended with greater intrepidity or more unshaken endurance than Mexico. We cannot follow the siege in all its strange vicissitudes and romantic adventures; but unless famine and pestilence had assisted in the work of destruction, the issue, notwithstanding the multiplying thousands of Indians, whose aid Cortes was now glad to accept, might have heen more doubtful.9 Once, it is well known that the Spaniards who had penetrated into the city were driven out of it, and took refuge in their own quarters. It was then that the appalling scene took place, with which we shall close our extracts from Mr. Prescott:—
“It was late in the afternoon when he reached them; but the sun was still lingering above the western hills, and poured its beams wide over the valley, lighting up the old towers and temples of Tenochtitlan with a mellow radiance, that little harmonized with the dark scenes of strife in which the city had so lately been involved. The tranquillity of the hour, however, was on a sudden broken by the strange sounds of the great drum in the temple of the war-god,—sounds which recalled the noche triste, with all its terrible images, to the minds of the Spaniards, for that was the only occasion on which they had ever heard them. They intimated some solemn act of religion within the unhallowed precincts of the teocalli; and the soldiers, startled by the mournful vibrations, which might be heard for leagues across the valley, turned their eyes to the quarter whence they proceeded. There they beheld a long procession winding up the huge sides of the pyramid; for the camp of Alvarado was pitched scarcely a mile from the city, and objects are distinctly visible, at a great distance, in the transparent atmosphere of the table-land.
“As the long file of priests and warriors reached the flat summit of the teocalli, the Spaniards saw the figures of several men stripped to their waists, some of whom, by the whiteness of their skins, they recognized as their own countrymen. They were the victims for sacrifice. Their heads were gaudily decorated with coronals of plumes, and they carried fans in their hands. They were urged along by blows, and compelled to take part in the dances in honor of the Aztec war-god. The unfortunate captives, then stripped of their sad finery, were stretched, one after another, on the great stone of sacrifice. On its convex surface, their breasts were heaved up conveniently for the diabolical purpose of the priestly executioner, who cut asunder the ribs by a strong blow with his sharp razor of itztli, and thrusting his hand into the wound, tore away the heart, which, hot and reeking, was deposited on the golden censer before the idol. The body of the slaughtered victim was then hurled down the steep stairs of the pyramid, which, it may be remembered, were placed at the same angle of the pile, one flight below another; and the mutilated remains were gathered up by the savages beneath, who soon prepared with them the cannibal repast which completed the work of abomination.
“We may imagine with what sensations the stupified Spaniards must have gazed on this horrid spectacle, so near that they could almost recognize the persons of their unfortunate friends, see the struggles and writhing of their bodies, hear—or fancy that they heard—their screams of agony; yet so far removed, that they could render them no assistance. Their limbs trembled beneath them, as they thought what might one day be their own fate; and the bravest among them, who had hitherto gone to battle as careless and light-hearted as to the banquet or the ball-room, were unable, from this time forward, to encounter their ferocious enemy without a sickening feeling, much akin to fear, coming over them.”—Vol. iii., pp. 135—137.
Cortes himself acknowledges the peril and the desperation of his troops. The following extract from the despatches shows the extremity to which they were reduced:—
“God knows the dangers which they encountered in this expedition, (against Mataleingo,) and also to which we who remained behind were exposed; but as it was the best policy for us to exhibit greater courage and resolution than ever, and even to die in arms, we concealed our weakness as well from our allies as from the enemy; and often, very often, have I heard the Spanish soldiers declare that they only wished it would please God to spare their lives, and make them conquerors of the city, although they should derive no interest nor advantage from it; from which it will be seen to what extremity we were reduced, and on what a slender chance we held our persons and lives.”—Despatches, p. 304.
Whether their prayers were sincere or not, these were the only terms on which they at length obtained possession of the city. They were literally forced to burn as they went along. All the buildings for splendor or for luxury, for the gorgeous pleasures of the king, or the worship of the idols, went down one by one; and the line of the progress of the Spaniards was marked by the total demolition of the city. They won it, street by street, square by square, and as they won destroyed on either side. The palaces, the aviary, the gardens sunk in the flames, and by their rubbish formed an open and unexposed road for the conquerors. Even the stern heart of Cortes10 was touched; he was moved, we may helieve, with more generous feelings than the disappointment of his rapacity, as the Queen of the Valley, with all her wealth and splendor, gradually smouldered in ashes, or sunk into the lake. He was master of the beautiful site of Mexico, but Mexico had perished. The state of misery to which the few gallant survivors were reduced is strangely shown in their characteristic language to Cortes, when summoned to surrender:—
“They said to me, that since they regarded me as the offspring of the sun, and the sun in so short a space of time as one day and one night revolved around the whole world, I ought therefore to despatch them out of life in as brief a space as possible; and thus deliver them from their troubles: for they desired to go to heaven to their Orchilobus, (qu.) who was waiting to receive them into a state of peaceful repose.”—Despatches, p. 322.
They fought till they had no way to fight but over the bodies of the slain. The siege lasted for seventy-five days; of the amount of carnage, it is impossible to form any conjecture. Cortes, on one occasion, speaks of 12,000—in others of 50,000—killed in one conflict. And this warfare was carried on in the name and under the Cross of Christ!
De Solis, like a skilful dramatist, closes his book with the catastrophe of the capture of Guatemozin. Mr. Prescott carries us on through the shifting vicissitudes of the life of Cortes, his popularity in Spain, his favor at the court, his later disastrous adventures in other parts of the American continent. De Solis, no doubt, broke off where he did, nor only to heighten the effect of his work, but lest he should be constrained to darken the brilliant panegyric of his hero, Cortes. Cortes could restrain his soldiers during the war by his severe discipline; he could support their courage under reverses; but he wanted either the power or the will to restrain the excesses of their rapacity when conquerors. Nor was this in the heat and flush of victory. The foul stain on the Spanish character of Cortes, who, at least, did not set his face, as a flint, against such barbarity, was the treatment of the captive Guatemozin. The emperor, the gallant foe, was cruelly tortured, in order to make him reveal the hiding-place of imaginary treasures. And this was the man whose language Humboldt justly compares to the noblest passages in Greek or Roman story. “When brought before Cortes on his first capture,”—let Mr. Prescott tell the tale:—
“Cortes came forward with a dignified and studied courtesy to receive him. The Aztec monarch probably knew the person of his conqueror, for he first broke silence by saying: ‘I have done all that I could to defend myself and my people. I am now reduced to this state. You will deal with me, Malintzin, as you list.’ Then laying his hand on the hilt of a poinard, stuck in the general’s belt, he added with vehemence, ‘Better despatch me with this, and rid me of life at once.’ Cortes was filled with admiration at the proud bearing of the young barbarian, showing in his reverses a spirit worthy of an ancient Roman. ‘Fear not,’ he replied, ‘you shall be treated with all honor. You have defended your capital like a brave warrior. A Spaniard knows how to respect valor even in an enemy.’ ”—Vol. iii., pp. 182, 183.
A darker story is behind; at a later period Guatemozin, for what seems an imaginary, or at least unproved conspiracy, was actually hanged by the command of Cortes.
Thus Mexico became a province of Spain, and a part of Christendom, with what results we can but briefly inquire. History seems to speak, significantly enough, as to the extent of advantage acquired by Spain from these conquests, purchased at the price of so much blood and crime. It is a whimsical notion of the author of the “True-born Englishman,” that the devil luckily enabled the Spaniards to discover South America, because the wealth of those provinces, in the hands of any but that proud nation, would have been fatal to the liberties of mankind: thus, by the way, representing the devil as rather more favorable to the liberties of man than might be expected.
“The subtile Prince thought fittest to bestow
On them the golden ffiines of Mexico,
With all the silver mountains of Peru;
Wealth which would in wise hands the world undo.”
For Mexico, we are not without our fears lest Mr. Prescott’s glowing description of the reign of Prince Nezahualcoyotl might, under the older Spanish rule, have awakened some fond regret for the departure of his golden age and in the present day might contrast not too favorably with the state of the Independent Republic. Mr. Stephen’s lively account of his vain search for the government to which he was accredited11 and Madame Calderon de la Barca’s very pleasing volumes, do not represent the social order or present condition of things in a very enviable light. We do not quite recollect how many revolutions Madame Calderon witnessed during a residence of a year and a quarter in the capital not orderly and peaceful revolutions, but such changes as made the shots fly about in all directions, with little discrimination hetween friend and foe, native or stranger, peaceful inhabitant or exalted partisan. Nature alone in her prodigality is faithful to this favored region. There seems much which is amiable and hospitable in the old Spanish society, and the Indians, though utterly sunk and degraded in their intellectual faculties, seem a gentle race. Yet where God has made such a paradise, we cannot but wish that man were better disposed to cultivate and adorn it. What were a golded age without its peace and happiness?
Christianity here began to add a new world to her conquests. Yet as we cannot but lament that it was not propagated by other means, and presented in a purer form, and has not produced more of its blessed results, it is but just, it is absolutely incumbent upon us, to call to mind the hideous and bloody superstition which it erased from the land. The first conversions to Christianity, it must be acknowledged, were rather summary and expeditious. Even during the conquest, many of the greater caciques in Tlascala, in Tezcuco, and among the other allies, received baptism. Considering that good father Olmedo was altogether ignorant of the language that all the work of interpretation, in the religious as well as the civil intercourse, was carried on by Aguilar and Donna Marina, with the assistance, at last, of Orteguilla, a young page of Cortes’, who acquired some knowledge of the language, the preparatory instruction must have been tolerably compendious. But there was one unanswerable argument: the God of the conqueror—(we fear that we must write, considering the share that the Virgin and the Saints took in the conquest)—the Gods of the white men were the strongest and if the deities of the Indians allowed themselves to be tumbled headlong from their pedestals, it was a sure sign that their reign was over, and a full justification for the desertion of their altars. It would have been vain, perhaps, to have offered to such converts a more pure and spiritual Christianity. There is, however, an exceedingly curious passage in the despatches of Cortes, relating to the propagation of Christianity, both as characteristic of the conqueror, and as a remarkable testimony to the sentiments of men like Cortes, on the overgrown pride, wealth, and power of the church in Spain. Cortes strongly urges on his master to keep the tenths in the hands of the government to prosecute the conversion of the natives by the regular clergy, the monks and friars of the different orders, who should reside in their own monastic communities:—
For if bishops and other prelates are sent, they will follow the custom practised by them for our sins at the present day, by disposing of the estates of the church, and expending them in pageants and other foolish matters, and bestowing rights of inheritance on their sons or relatives. A still greater evil would result from this state of things: the natives of this country formerly had their priests, who were engaged in conducting the rites and ceremonies of their religion; and so strict were they in the practice of honesty and chastity, that any deviation therefrom was punished with death; now, if they saw the affairs of the church and what related to the service of God were entrusted to canons and other dignitaries, and if they understood that these were the ministers of God, whom they beheld indulging in vicious habits and profaneness, as is the case in these days in Spain, it would lead thent to undervalue our faith and treat it with derision, and all the preaching in the world would mint be able to counteract the mischief arising from this source.”—Despatches, p. 426.
The blind and obstinate hostility of Fonseca, bishop of Burgos, may no doubt have rankled in the mind of Cortes, and made him look upon the higher churchmen with darkening prejudice; but Charles V. must have been astonished at receiving from the New World language so strangely in accordance with the loud cry for the reformation of the church in Germany and throughout Europe. So far Cortes and Luther might seem embarked in one cause; yet, as his precautionary advice was not followed, so we trust his vaticinations were at least not completely fulfilled. If there was more than one Las Casas, such prelates might redeem their order, and propagate Christianity in the hearts of the Indians by the stronger persuasion of veneration and love.
But we must not pursue this subject. We conclude with expressing our satisfaction that Mr. Prescott has given us an opportunity at this time of showing our deep sympathy, the sympathy of kindred and of blood, with Americans who, like himself, do honor to our common literature. Mr. Prescott may take his place among the really good English writers of history in modern times; and will be received, we are persuaded, into that small community, with every feeling of friendly and fratternal respect.
 A very respectable and useful Translation of these Despatches by Mr. George Folsom, has been published at New York (1843.) We have availed ourselves of this translation in our extracts.
 We would observe that the reign of this lawgiver of Tezcuco had been before given at some length, not to say prolixity, by Torquemada, in his “Monarchia Indiana;” and the resemblance of the incident in his life, which wilt hereafter be noticed, to the narrative of Scripture, could not escape the ecclesiastical writer.
 The Roman prohibitory law against human sacrifices, quoted by Mr. Prescott from Pliny, is manifestly directed against foreign and Oriental magical rites. Livy’s words relating to such rites, “more non Romano,” and both the Iphigenias of Euripides, in one of which the victor is saved by the intervention of the deity, in the other it is the altar of the barbarous Scythian Diana where such offerings are made, show the predominant feeling on this subject in Greece and Rome. Two notes in Milman’s “History of Christianity,” Vol. i., p. 27, mention the recorded exceptions of later times.
 There is something very honest in old Bernal Diaz, who accuses Gomara of enormously exaggerating the numhers slain in the different battles under Cortes himself. “Our force seldom much exceeded four hundred men; and even if we bad found the multitude he speaks of bound hand and foot, we had not been able to put so many to death.”
 Let the reader turn to the advice of an Aztec mother to her daughter—(the first article in Mr. Prescott’s Appendix)—and though that deepest well-spring of tenderness, a mother’s heart, is never dry, even in the lowest condition of humanity, and the “advice inculcates conjugal fidelity, not merely because God, who is in every place, sees you, but because the law punished adultery with death;” yet it seems almost incredible that such pure and gentle, though simply expressed, sentiments could prevail among a people whose altars, whose lips, reeked with human blood.
 The passage of Bernal Diaz relatiiw to the first apparition, which we take from the English translation, is worth notice, as to that story itselt and still more so with reference to his subsequent convictions. “Gomara relates that in this battle, previous to the arrival of Cortes with his cavalry, one of the Holy Apostles, either St. Jago or Peter, appeared on a dapple-grey horse, under the semblance of Francesco de Morla. All our victories were assuredly guided by the hand of our Lord Jesus Christ; but if this were the case, I, a poor sinner, was not worthy to be permitted to see it, neither was it seen by any of our army, above four hundred in number. I certainly saw Francesco de Morla along with Cortes; but he rode a chesnut horse that day. We certainly were bad Christians indeed, if, according to the account of Gomara, God sent one of his Holy Apostles to fight at our head, and we ungratefully neglected to give thanks for so great a mercy; but till I read the chronicle of Gomara, I never heard of the miracle, neither was it ever mentioned by any of the conquerors who were present in the battle.”
 Not merely is Mr. Prescott’s narrative in this part more full and circumstantial than that of De Solis, but the impression is entirely different. De Solis slurs over the daring insult to the religion of the country, and the scene of the Christian service in a part of one of the Mexican temples, so strikingly told by Mr. Prescott. According to his view, Montezuma grew impatient of the presence of the Spaniards, more than hinted that the purposes of their embassy had been fulfilled, and that it was now time for them to depart. He says little more on the profound religious excitement than “that the devil wearied Montezuma with horrible menaces, giving to his idols a voice, or what seemed a voice, to irritate him against the Spaniards.” Robertson is more full and particular than De Solis; but Mr. Prescott has seized, we think, with as much accuracy as picturesqueness of description, the real turning point in the fortunes of the Spaniards.
 De Solis gives an account of the Tlascalan senate assembling all their best physicians to attend om Cortes; and attributes the cure of his serious wound on the head entirely to their skilful treatment. If Gil Blas is good authority for Spanish medical science, even at a later period, Cortes umay have been fortunate in his Indian doctors.
 These numbers evidently increased beyond the control of Cortes. Cortes, in one place, speaks of one hundred and fifty thousand men to nine hundred Spaniards. He was obliged to allow them to plunder on their own account, and thus to snatch a large part of the rewards of their victories from the hands of the Spaniards. There is a still more extraordinary proof of their independent adherence to their old habits—“And that night (the night of a battle in which one thousand five hundred of the most distinguished Mexicans had been slain) our allies were well supplied for their supper, as they took the bodies of the slain and cut them up for food!!”—(Despatches, p. 313.) We hope that these were not among the Christian converts.
 “Considering that the inhabitants of the city were rebels, and that they discovered so strong a determination to defend themselves or perish, I inferred two things; first, that we should recover little or nothing of the wealth of which they had deprived us! and second, that they had given us occasion and compelled us utterly to exterminate them. On this last consideration I dwelt with most feeling, and it weighed heavily on my mind.” After describing the more “noble” and more “gay and elegant” buildings, he adds, “Although it grieved me much, yet as it grieved the enemy more, I determined to burn these palaces.”—Despatches, p. 280.
 We have seen some specimens of engravings from Mr. Catherwood’s drawings, illustrative of Mr. Stephens’ work, on a much larger scale, and giving therefore a much better notion of the extraordinary ruins in Mexico and Yucatan. The whole series promises to be of great interest and importance.