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CONQUEST OF MEXICO;
HERNANDO COR TES.
THERE is something so stupendous in the conquests of Mexico and Peru, that mankind must ever feel an interest in the recital. The history of those events is as honourable to European courage and capacity, as it is disgraceful to the principles and conduct of the chief actors on the stage. In vain shall the nations of Europe plume themselves on superior refinement; in vain shall they boast of a pure religion and a
correct system of morals, while they feel no compunction in enslaving the ignorant savage, in monopolizing his wealth, or in occupying his land.
It having been determined to fit out an expedition for the continent of America, to take advantage of circumstances, and to enrich the adventurers and their employers with gold,
| HERNANDo Cortes was appointed commander. This gentle
man was born at Medellin, a town of Estremadura in Spain; and being bred to a military life, resolved to push his fortune in the West Indies, whither he sailed in 1504, with letters of recommendation to his kinsman Don Nicholas de Obando, then governor of Hispaniola His ambition, however, was not satisfied; and therefore, in 1511, he obtained permission to accompany Diego Velasquez in an expedition to Cuba. In this service he distinguished himself so much, that he received in ample concession of lands and of Indians, the usual recomPence bestowed upon adventurers in the New World.
Cortes, naturally ardent and active, displayed other qualities, which adapted him for difficult and hazardous enterprizes. With calm prudence in concerting schemes, and presevering vigour in executing them, he combined the art of gaining the confidence and governing the minds of those with whom he was concerned. To these superior accomplishments, he added others of an inferior kind, that are suited to strike the vulgar, and command their respect; a graceful person, an engaging aspect, singular address in martial exercises, and a robust constitution capable of enduring any fatigue.
Cortes, however, at the commencement of his adventure, found, that in the suspicious and jealous temper of Velasquez, he had difficulties with which to contend, that required a very high degree of prudence and resolution, and these difficulties were enhanced in the progress of his undertaking. On the 18th of November, 1518, he set sail from St. Jago de Cuba; but he had no sooner arrived at Trinidad, a small settlement on the same side of the island, before Velasquez made an tempt to deprive him of his commission. Cortes, however, had so far engaged the esteem and confidence of his troops, that, partly by soothing, and partly by intimidating Vergudo, a magistrate at Trinidad, to whom Velasquez had sent his instructions, he was allowed to depart without molestation from Trinidad. Cortes sailed for the Havannah in order to raise more soldiers, and to complete the victualling of his fleet.
During his unavoidable stay in this place, Walasquez sent orders for arresting him, and for delaying the departure of the armament. Cortes, forewarned of the danger, had time to take precautions for his own safety. He announced to his troops the hostile intentions of Walasquez, and found that both his officers and soldiers, who were intent on an expedition which flattered them with the hopes of glory and wealth, were determined to persevere; and accordingly they were unanimous in their intreaties that he would not abandon the important station to which he was so well intitled; offering, at the same time, to shed the last drop of their blood in supporting his authority. Cortes did not hesitate in complying with their wishes; swore that he would never desert them,
and promised to conduct them without further delay, to that rich country, which had been so long the object of their thoughts and wishes. Had this expedition happened in very remote ages, so romantic are the circumstances attending it, that it would have ranked, in point of authenticity with the Argonautic, or the labours of Hercules. Never was more achieved by less improbable means. The empire of Mexico had subsisted for many centuries: its inhabitants were far advanced in refinement, and remote from barbarism; they were intelligent, and in some degree learned. Like the ancient Egyptians, whose wisdom is so much admired in this particular, they knew the annual revolution of the sun, with a precision which could scarcely have been expected from a people unacquainted with letters. They fixed the period of the year at 365 days nearly. Their superiority in military affairs, was the object of admiration and terror over the remote parts of the continent; and their constitution, founded on the sure basis of religion and law, seemed as permanent as time itself. The cities displayed magnificence in architecture, and opulence in their decorations. But all these advantages combined could not secure Mexico from the unequal prowess of Spain. Though this expedition was fitted out by the united efforts of the Spanish power in Cuba; though every settlement had contributed its quota of men and provisions; though the governor had laid out considerable sums, and each adventurer had exhausted his stock, or strained his credit, the poverty of the preparations was such as must astonish the present age, and bore, indeed, no resemblance to an armament destined for the conquest of a great empire. The fleet consisted of 11 vessels; the largest of a 100 tons, which was dignified by the name of Admiral; three of 70 or 80 tons, and the rest small open barks. On board of these vessels were 617 men; of which 508 belonged to the land service, and 109 were seamen or artificers. The soldiers were divided into 11 companies, according to the number of the ships; to each of which Cortes appointed a captain, and committed to him the command of the vessel while at sea, and of the men when on shore. As Vol. I. L
the use of fire-arms among the nations of Europe was hitherto confined to a few battalions of regularly disciplined infantry, only 13 soldiers were armed with muskets, 32 were cross-bow men, and the rest had swords and spears. Instead of the usual defensive armour, which must have been cumbersome in a hot climate, the soldiers wore jackets quilted with cotton, which experience had taught the Spaniards to be a sufficient protection against the weapons of the Americans. They had only 16 horses, 10 small field pieces, and 4 falconets. With this slender and ill-provided train did Cortes set sail on the 10th of February, 1519, to make war upon a monarch whose dominions were more extensive than all the kingdoms subject to the Spanish crown. As religious enthusiasm always mingled with the spirit of adventure in the New World, and, by a combination still more strange, united with avarice, in prompting the Spaniards to all their enterprizes, a large cross was displayed in their standards, with this inscription, Let us Jollow the cross, for under this sign we shall conquer. Cortes steering directly towards the island of Cozumel had the good fortune to redeem Jerome de Aguilar, a Spaniard, who had been eight years a prisoner among the Indians. This man was perfectly acquainted with a dialect of their language, understood through a large extent of country, and possessing besides a considerable share of prudence and sagacity, proved extremely useful as an interpreter. From Cozumel, Cortes proceeded to the river of Tobasco [March 4], in hopes of meeting a friendly reception from the natives; but, after repeated endeavours to conciliate their good-will, he was constrained to have recourse to violence. Though the forces of the enemy were numerous, and advanced with extraordinary courage, they were routed with great slaughter, in several successive actions. The loss which they sustained, and still more the astonishment and terror excited by the destructive effect of the fire-arms, and the dreadful appearance of the horses, humbled their fierce spirits, and induced them to sue for peace. They acknowledged the king of Castile as their sovereign, and granted Cortes a supply of provisions, with a present of cotton garments, some gold, and 20 female slaves.
Cortes continued his course to the westward, keeping as near the shore as possible, in order to observe the country; but could discover no proper place for landing, until he arrived at St. Juan de Ulua. As he entered this harbour [April 2], a large canoe, full of people, among whom were two who seemed to be persons of distinction, approached his ship with signs of peace and amity. They came on board without fear or distrust, and addressed him in a most respectful manner, but in a language, altogether unknown to Aguilar. Cortes was in the utmost perplexity and distress, at an event of which he instantly foresaw all the consequences. But he did not remain long in his embarrassing situation: a fortunate accident extricated him, when his own sagacity could have contributed little towards his relief. One of the female slaves, whom he had received from the cazique of Tobasco, happened to be present at the first interview between Cortes and his new guests. She perceived his distress, as well as the confusion of Aguilar; and as she perfectly understood the Mexican language, she explained what they said in the Yucatan tongue, with which Aguilar was acquainted.
He now learned, that the two persons whom he had received on board of his ship were deputies from Teutile and Pilpatoe, two officers entrusted with the government of that province, by a great monarch, whom they called Montezuma; and that they were sent to inquire what his intentions were in visiting their coast, and to offer him what assistance he might need, in order to continue his voyage. Cortes, struck with the appearance of those people, as well as the tenor of the message, assured them, in respectful terms, that he approached their country with most friendly sentiments, and came to propose matters of great importance to the welfare of their prince and his kingdom, which he would unfold more fully, in person, to the governor and the general. Next morning, without waiting for any answer, he landed his troops, his horses, and artillery; and having chosen proper ground, began to erect huts for his men, and to fortify his camp. The natives, instead of opposing the entrance of those fatal guests into their