We Spaniards know a sickness of the heart that only gold can cure.
More than 500 years ago Hernán Cortés was, although married, chasing women around Hispaniola (today’s Haiti and the Dominican Republic) where the island’s third governor was a twice-distant relative of his father’s. He was, in the words of a biographer, “immoderately addicted to women and to gambling.” Cortés had failed to make an earlier passage to the new world with a distant relative because of an injury sustained in his home town of Medellín while hurriedly escaping from the bedroom of a married woman. The 18-year-old arrived in Hispaniola in 1504 and soon afterwards the governor gave him an encomienda and made him a notary of the town of Azua de Compostela. When the Governor’s secretary assured him that he would be able to get a land grant Cortés replied “I came to get gold, not to till the soil, like a peasant.”
By 1509 he had become alcalde (magistrate) of Santiago, Cuba. By the age of 26 Cortés was entrusted with the ensuring that the Spanish Crown received the quinto, or customary one-fifth of the profits from the Cuban expedition. He became a man of substance with cattle and Indian labor for his mines, he became a leader of opponents to the governor (Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar), and in 1514 he led a group which demanded that more Indians be assigned to the settlers.
Around this time the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II and his people received a series of omens (including a comet that crossed the sky) that foretold future calamities. Then the temple dedicated to the god of war (Huitzilopochtli) burst into flames and the Lake of Mexico flooded. When some fishermen discovered a bird that wore a strange mirror in the crown of its head, Montezuma looked into the mirror and saw a distant plain with people making war.
By 1519 the Aztec Empire, a regime that was despised and feared from without and that used force to extract prisoners, tribute, and food levies from neighboring peoples, had become internally weak. Stressed by military failures, economic trouble, and social unrest the over-extended empire made no attempt to assimilate the peoples it conquered from the Valley of Mexico into Central America.
As the empire weakened, its rulers and priests continued to demand human sacrifice to feed its gods. The incredible number of people the Aztecs sacrificed led to its hatred by some of its surrounding peoples including the powerful city-state of Tlaxcala.
The first Spanish expedition to the nearby Yucatan took place in 1517 and was led by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who encountered Mayan urban civilization for the first time at Cape Catoche. Near Campeche the expedition was attacked by a local chief who believed the Spaniards were predatory barbarians; Cordoba lost almost 20 per cent of his troops and by the time he returned to Cuba, half his expedition was dead. Cordoba brought to Cuba gold pieces that the Maya had traded from a land to the north, a land called “Mexico.”
Velázquez then organized a new expedition under Juan de Grijalva, his nephew. Grijalva was also fiercely attacked by the Mayans, but after a sea journey of several hundred miles, reached the coast of what is now Veracruz. Grijalva and his men realized that — judging by the size of the rivers, the height of the distant snow-capped mountains, and the variety and richness of human cultures and languages — they were on part of a continent, not an island. Grijalva established a colony on the mainland where he found a bonanza of silver and gold.
When word reached Velázquez, he decided to send Cortés to help Grijalva. Velázquez told Cortés he would provide two or three ships if Cortés would find the rest of the money and lead the army. Cortés agreed and in October of 1518, Velázquez appointed him “captain-general” of this new expedition.
Velázquez made the appointment despite the strained relations between Cortés and himself. The falling-out may have been due to Cortés’ romantic involvement with Catalina Xuárez, the Governor’s sister-in-law. Velázquez believed that Cortés was trifling with Catalina’s affections – a belief perhaps fed by Cortés affection for one of Catalina’s sisters – but Cortés eventually married Catalina, reluctantly, under pressure from Velázquez.
Cortés gathered six ships and 300 men within a month. Velázquez feared losing control as the scale of Cortés’ preparations grew: Velázquez decided to replace Cortés. Cortés’ brother-in-law killed Velázquez’ messenger and Cortés now moved quickly. He seized all the meat supplies in Santiago and in an act of mutiny set sail at daybreak accompanied by 11 ships, about 500 men, 13 horses and a small number of cannon. Velázquez reached the harbor just as Cortés was pulling away in a small boat.
Cortés saw the Mayan pyramids for the first time at Cozumel where the islanders told him that in the land known as “Yucatan” were two Christians who had been shipwrecked. One of the men was Geronimo de Aguilar a Spanish Franciscan priest who spoke the Chontal Maya language.
Cortés continued round the tip of the Yucatan and disembarked at Potonchan, where the natives gave him small offerings of food and a gold mask, but then asked the Spanish to go: ”We wish neither war nor trade,” they told Cortés. ”We have no more gold – you will be killed if you do not leave.”
In March Cortés claimed the land for the Spanish crown. He proceeded to Tabasco, where he met with resistance and won a battle against the natives from whom he received twenty young indigenous women including La Malinche, a woman wgi knew the Nahuatl language as well as Chontal Maya. She would become his mistress and mother of his child. Cortés was then able to communicate with the Aztecs via Aguilar and La Malinche. It was from the Tabascans that Cortés learned about the wealth of the Aztec Empire.
In April the fleet pressed on to the Isle of Sacrifices where de Grijalva had landed. Cortés was received warmly there by the Totonac people to whom Grijalva had been kind. They thought that the Spanish might become allies in their war of liberation against the Aztecs.
Several days later, Teudile, Montezuma’s steward. arrived. Montezuma had instructed Teudile to supply and feed his guests as well as to offer them gifts. Cortés presented himself as the ambassador of a king who ruled “the greater part of the world.” Cortés asked after Montezuma. Teudile replied he would send a message to Montezuma to find out his wishes. Cortés then gave the Aztecs a demonstration of his guns and horses. His cavalry charged along the beach at full tilt with swords flashing and bells tinkling. If that were not intimidating enough, the cannon were fired, at which Teudile and his men literally fell to the ground in fear.
Montezuma’s messengers returned to the emperor with the terrifying reports of their encounter with the Spaniards, which paralyzed Montezuma. Could Cortés be the return of Quetzalcoatl, “the feathered serpent” who vowed to return one day to claim his kingdom?
If Cortés returned to Cuba he faced imprisonment or death for having defied the governor. He felt his only option was to conquer and settle part of the land. So he resigned the position Velázquez had conferred on him in Cuba, convinced his supporters to create a “town council of Villa Rica” and offer him the position of captain-general, which he accepted. Those loyal to Velázquez intended to seize a ship and return to Cuba, but Cortés quelled the mutiny and had his own ships sunk (except one small vessel) to prevent another mutiny. There would be no turning back.
Cortéz the Killer
He came dancing across the water
With his galleons and guns
Looking for the new world
In that palace in the sun
On the shore lay Montezuma
With his coca leaves and pearls
In his halls he often wandered
With the secrets of the worlds
His subjects gathered ’round him
Like the leaves around a tree
In their clothes of many colors
For the angry Gods to see
The women all were beautiful
Men stood straight and strong
They offered life in sacrifice
So others could go on
Hate was just a legend
War was never known
People worked together
And they lifted many stones
And they carried them to the flatlands
But they died along the way
And they built up with their bare hands
What we still can’t do today
And I know she’s living there
She loves me to this day
I still can’t remember where
Or how I lost my way
He came dancing across the water
What a killer
Yeah dancing across the water
What a killer, killer
He came dancing across the water
What a killer