The Story of Mexico/Chapter 17

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The Mexicans drew a long breath after the departure of the enemy. It is true their emperor was ignominiously slain, covered with the contempt and scorn of his own subjects. His two sons, whom Cortés carried with him as prisoners, perished in the flight. The streets ran with blood and were strewn with corpses. The beautiful city was defaced, the causeways shattered, the bridges destroyed, and many of the houses burnt down. But it was freed from the odius presence of the stranger, who they imagined would never return. In fact the Aztecs conceived him and his army to be absolutely annililated. They set about restoring their tumbled down gods to their places, and contemplated appeasing Huitzilopochtli for the indignity with which he had been treated, by a new course of sacrifices.

Cuitlahuatzin, brother of Montezuma, was elected emperor. He had fought valiantly in the struggle, and shown heroic courage in driving Cortés from the capital, which it was his determination to enforce. He began the slow task of gathering the army together, and bringing order out of confusion, but a few days only after the great battle, he was attacked by small-pox. This disease, never before known among the Aztecs, was one of the misfortunes bequeathed to them by the Spaniards. A negro, who had just come up with Cortés, on his return from Vera Cruz, one of his recruits belonging to Narvaez, had the malady, and died of it, spreading contagion in the capital.

Cuahtemoc succeeded, the thirteenth and last king. He was of a different stock, the sons of Axayacatl all being destroyed, of the family of the friendly kings of the little neighboring state of Tlaltelolco. He embraced with enthusiasm the cause of his country, and attacked vigorously the work of restoration. He was but little more than twenty years old.

The tranquillity of the capital was but brief. In less than a week rumors came that the terrible white warrior was not killed, but alive, strong and determined as ever. Many of the Aztecs conceived him to be immortal, and it is scarcely to be wondered at. Cortés had gathered together the little remnant of his army, who crept along a winding route north of the city absolutely ignorant of their way, and what they might encounter. When light came, so that they were observed, stones and arrows were aimed at them by chance natives from above. For several days and nights they slowly advanced, living on the few ears of maize they found; for all provision was carried off from the deserted villages they passed through by the inhabitants as soon as they saw them approach. Cortés was always brave, cheerful, and even encouraging in these dark days. In this toilsome march seven days were passed, and then they came upon the strange pyramid of the sun and moon, at San Juan Teotihuacan, supposed to be the work of the earliest dwellers upon Anahuac, older than the Toltecs. These they make no mention of in their narrative, and we may well suppose they scarcely noticed them, for a sight more impressive and awe-inspiring soon after met their eyes, as they turned the crest of a ridge they had been climbing,—a full-fledged army stretched out before them, filling up the valley of Otumba, and giving it the appearance of being covered with snow, for the warriors were dressed in white cotton mail.

Cuitlahua had lost no time. As soon as he heard of the survival of the invader's army, he wasted not a moment. No puerile fear, no fatalistic paralysis restrained his understanding. Ably seconded by the warriors of the army, now roused to the importance of the occasion, he gathered a noble army. Every chief took the field with his whole force, and in a wonderfully short space of time a large army was collected and marched against the fugitives, having learned their course among the mountains.

The Spaniards were but a handful, and the few Tlaxcallans who were with them increased the force but little. Gathering themselves together, they dashed directly into the midst of the Aztec army, on their horses, with the intention of cutting themselves a path through the ranks. Flight, and not conquest, was their only thought. They were soon surrounded, but defended themselves desperately. Several hours had passed, when the chief of the army was TSOM D201 Pyramid at Teotihuacan.pngPYRAMID AT TEOTIHUACAN.

seen advancing on a litter, richly dressed, with plumes upon his head, a mantle of feather-work, and the banner of Tenochtitlan floating from his shoulders. Around him, to protect his sacred person, were a body of young warriors, richly dressed. It was a shining mark, and Cortés sprang towards it on his charger. Coming down upon the prince, and overturning his bearers, he struck him through with his lance and threw him to the ground. One of his men sprang from the saddle, seized the banner, and gave it to Cortés quick as a flash. It was all over in a moment. A panic ensued. The whole Mexican army fled in confusion, convinced that they fought against odds too great, human skill against the power of the immortals.

The Spaniards followed up the flying army, killing right and left, and then returned to the battle-field to gather up booty from the rich costumes of the dead and wounded left upon the field. This was the famous battle of Otumba, one of the most extraordinary in history, fought on the 8th of July, 1520. This encounter at Otumba is regarded by Baudelier as grossly exaggerated. He reduces the number of the attacking army to a much smaller proportion, but does credit to the bravery of Cortés and his men. He considers the episode, the fall of the standard-bearer deciding the fight, as completely in accordance with Indian modes of warfare.

Whatever remained to tell the melancholy tale came back to the capital. The inhabitants were filled with their old terror, but Cuahtemoc retained his courage, and only made more vigorous exertions than before, seeing that his work was not only to restore the capital, but to prepare the country for another conflict. He collected great stores of corn in the warehouses, fortified all the places he considered exposed to attack, shattered the calzadas, or causeways, and got ready a large fleet of canoas. He worked with all diligence, for he was kept well informed of the proceedings of the enemy, and knew that Cortés had arrived safe within the boundaries of Tlaxcalla. And, indeed, before the end of the year the renewed attack began.

The distance from Otumba to Tlaxcalla was short, and the Spaniards were not further interrupted. The returned Tlaxcallans were received at home with great honors, and in spite of the disasters of the Spaniards, they remained faithful to the stranger. Cortés reposed among them, recovering from his own wounds, and giving his companions time to rest and refresh themselves. Meanwhile, he was forming new projects and drawing closer the bond of friendship with his hosts. The wise old Maxixcatzin, his first friend and constant supporter, died at that time, but the other Tlaxcallans continued their favor.

By December, only six months from his return to Tlaxcalla, Cortés had succeeded in making a new army of respectable proportion. Ixtlilxochitl now ruled undisturbed over the whole of Texcuco, after the death of his brothers, who had resisted the cause of the invaders. He was the fourteenth and last monarch of his country, of which he was the greatest enemy, fatal to it as well as to his own race and family. From the beginning a prudent ally of Cortés, after the retreat of the Spanish army to Texcuco, he sent him renewed offers of aid, and raised a large troop of soldiers for the invading army. Without them and other indigenous bands Cortés would have been badly off. Thus increased, his new army reached the reputed number of two hundred thousand men. With these he came to Texcuco, by two days' march, halting at a little village at the base of Iztaccihuatl, the companion volcano of Popocatepetl, which, stretched like a corpse in its shroud of everlasting snow, bears the name of the White Woman. The Spanish army entered Texcuco on the last day of the year, December 31, 1520, and here was conducted to the palace of Nezahualpilli, a building spacious enough to accommodate all the Spaniards. The town, as on his first entrance at Tenochtitlan, was deserted, and Cortés learned that whole families were leaving in boats and by the mountain paths. A weaker heart might have sunk at the repetition of such intimations of dislike, but the Spanish conqueror's heart was inflexible. Ixtlilxochitl received him with all cordiality, and presented to him the body of fifty thousand men he had raised, a substantial gift, which was in itself encouraging.

It was a great advantage to Cortés to have Texcuco for his head-quarters. He had caused to be made in Tlaxcalla thirteen brigantines for crossing the lake. These were put together after his arrival and launched upon the water, through a little stream which had to be enlarged by the work of thousands of Indians, which led from the gardens of Nezahualcoyotl to the lake. These brigantines, constructed in part of the timbers of his own ships which he had left scuttled at Vera Cruz, supplemented by quantities of native canoas, made a respectable fleet. During these preparations Cortés was bringing the whole neighborhood into his control, either by conquest or negotiation. As we have seen, the Mexicans were by no means beloved by the smaller powers. It was not until the latter part of May, 1521, that the regular siege of the city of Mexico began. The first division of the army was given to the formidable Pedro de Alvarado, called by the Mexicans Tonatiah, which means the sun, or all powerful. The second division was assigned to Christobal de Olid, and the third to Gonzalo de Sandoval. These three were all his trusty companions, who had shown themselves from the first as daring, as enduring, as invincible as himself. Only in the characteristics of superior forethought, judgment, and tact did Cortés exceed them. To himself he reserved the conduct of the brigantines upon the lake.

The whole campaign against Mexico lasted eight months, while the siege proper was maintained for eighty days. The Spaniards attacked time and again with their artillery, and slew thousands of Mexicans. They penetrated even to the heart of the capital but were driven back. Cortés himself, and all his captains, ran several times great risk of being slain or taken prisoners. The native allies could not be, or were not, restrained from plundering and burning houses and killing men, women, and children.

Upon the lake the brigantines besides assisting the land attack, mastered and sank the canoes of the enemy in great numbers. The temples were burned; the new images of the gods, put in place since the first sack of the teocalli, were thrown down and hustled into the lake; whole streets were demolished, and with their ruins the canals were filled up.

Cortés made various propositions of peace to Cuahtemoc, but the brave young monarch, in spite of the hunger which reigned in the besieged city, the multitude of corpses heaped in the streets, although he saw before him the inevitable ruin of his kingdom, was unwilling to surrender until the supreme moment came when further resistance was impossible. On the 13th of August, 1521, Cuahtemoc was concealed in a piragua, or boat, leaving the attack, in order to command elsewhere. His presence there was suspected and the boat followed. Just as the pursuers were aiming their cross-bows, a young warrior, fully armed, rose and said, "I am Cuahtemoc, lead me to your chief." On landing, he was escorted to the presence of Cortés, who was stationed on an azotea where he could survey the combat. Marina was by his side as interpreter. Cuahtemoc approached with a calm bearing and firm step, a noble, well-proportioned youth, it is said, with a complexion fair for one of his race. Without waiting to be addressed he said: "I have done my best to defend my people. Deal with me as you will," and touching the dagger in Cortes' belt, he added, "Despatch me at once, I beseech you."

The wife of the captive king was now sent for; she was one of the daughters of Montezuma, and of wonderful beauty it is said. The captive pair were treated with kindness, rest and refreshment offered to them.

It was the hour of vespers when the Aztec monarch surrendered. This was the end of the contest. During that night a tremendous tempest burst on the fallen city of Tenochtitlan. Thunder and lightning shook the shattered teocallis and levelled them to the ground. The elements finished what the Conquistadores had begun,—the ancient city of the Aztecs was in ruins.

After the surrender of Tenochtitlan, Cortés withdrew to Coyoacán, still a picturesque old town in the suburbs of the modern city. There he remained while the capital was rebuilt. It is said that he gave a banquet to his captains in honor of the victory they had achieved, an occasion made genial by some good wine which opportunely arrived just then at Vera Cruz. The house he occupied with Marina, is still to be seen on the northern side of the plaza of the little town. Over the doorway are carved the arms of the conqueror, much obscured by repeated coats of whitewash. In the church-yard is a stone cross set up on a little mound, said to have been placed there by Cortés himself. His first labor was to cleanse the city and dispose of the dead, then to clear away the ruins in order to erect new buildings. The Spaniards were greatly disappointed not to find vast treasures belonging to the Aztec crown, which they were convinced were somewhere concealed. To his everlasting dishonor Cortés allowed Cuahtemoc to be tortured by putting his feet in boiling oil, in order that he might reveal where such treasure was to be found. The king of Tlacopan was tortured also for the same object, but with no result. Both victims were of opinion that the precious objects so coveted by the Spaniards, if they existed at all, must have been thrown into the lake, but the Spaniards explored in vain the bottom of the shallow expanse and found nothing. If such treasures were there, there they still remain.

The country was put under military rule, although the Mexican chiefs were allowed to retain their titles and nominal authority. Cortés assumed the titles of Governor, Captain General, and Chief-Justice, in all of which he was later confirmed by the King of Spain. He had next to make sure of the subjugation of the other tribes of Anahuac. He organized expeditions and embassies to all the peoples thereabouts, and among others to Michoacan, where, as we have seen, was a kingdom of strength and power, which had never surrendered to the Aztecs. Tangaxoan II., when he heard of the conquest of Mexico, awaited his own turn with terror. Cortés at first sent a peaceful ambassador, led by a soldier named Montaño, who returned after some dangers with a detailed account of the wonders of Calzonzi—the name given this monarch by the Spaniards. Shortly afterwards Christobal de Olid was sent out with seventy horses and two hundred foot soldiers; this force was sufficient to subjugate the monarch and make him swear allegiance to the King of Spain. Afterwards Calzonzi came to Mexico on a visit to Cortés; he beheld with amazement the ruins of the great city which he had never seen in the days of its splendor. The destruction of his hereditary rival gave him much to reflect upon, and hastened his willingness to accept the religion of the Conquistadores. In his ancient capital of Tzintzuntzan there is a pathetic picture, crude and of course not ancient, which depicts the Tarascan king accepting the cross.

During the rule of Cortés, Tangaxoan lived peacefully, enjoying the nominal control of his vast kingdom. In the course of three years, Cortés greatly extended the dominion of Castile in New Spain, as it was then called; for all his conquests were of course referred to his sovereign, Charles V. of Spain, to whom from time to time he sent presents of gold, specimens of the wealth of the new possessions. His power extended as far as Honduras, where Christobal de Olid was put in power. At a safe distance from his chief. Olid conceived the foolish idea of asserting his personal control, and made himself king of the colony. Olid lost his life in this attempt; and Cortés determined to go himself to Honduras. It was on this expedition that, without knowing it, he passed close to the ruins of the serpent city, Nachan, now Palenque. But, as we have seen, Cortés was more in the way of making ruins on his own account, than of regarding the mighty ones wrought by time; and had he known of the existence of the city, it is doubtful whether he would have stopped to cut away the massive growth in which it was concealed. In Izancapac, a Tabascan town, Cortés suddenly ordered the death of the three royal captives of Anahuac, whom he had brought thus far with him, perhaps for this purpose. On the charge of a conspiracy to restore the Aztec rule, they were hung upon a ceyba tree,—Cuahtemoc, and the kings of Tacuba and Texcuco,—all denying any thought of conspiracy.

This was the sad end of the life of Cuahtemoc, the last of the Aztec kings. The rest of the native chiefs died off gradually, so that in a few years, all the old governments of the country were obliterated. Few of the other states discovered by the Spaniards made resistance, and none of them any thing like that of the Mexican. Remains of various uncivilized tribes retreated to the sierras or the deserts of the north, where they continued for generations in perpetual war with the white race.

During the remainder of his life, Cortés made several voyages to Spain to defend his interests and arrange his affairs. In Mexico he employed the greater part of his time and fortune in the discovery of new lands in the neighborhood of Jalisco and the western coast. Finally, considering himself neglected and overlooked, he returned to Spain to make one more attempt at recognition at court. He was but coldly received by his sovereign. His time had gone by. The wonders of Peru had eclipsed the glory of the Mexican Conquest. He was taken ill, perhaps as much of disappointment as disease, and withdrew to Seville; afterwards to a small town in that neighborhood, Castilleja de la Cuesta, where he died on the 2d of December, 1547. His body was carried thence in great state and buried in the chapel of the Dukes of Medina Sidonia. But Cortés had ordered in his will that his bones should be brought in ten years time from his death to Mexico, and this wish was fulfilled, and the remains were interred at Texcuco. On the 2d of July, 1794, the bones of the great Conquistador were placed in a marble sepulchre which had been prepared for them in the church of Jesu-Nazareno, which he had founded himself. Even then they did not rest, for in the first years of the revolution, so great was the popular hatred of everything Spanish, safety required that they should be hidden; they were secretly removed, by the orders of the heirs of Cortés, and by last advices, they are now at rest in Italy, in the vaults of the Dukes of Monteleone, his descendants.

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