After three days' rest the march was resumed, and the inhabitants of the next town at which the Spaniards arrived met them in more friendly spirit, advising them not to proceed by way of warlike Tlascala, but to go through the peaceful town of Cholula. The Totonac allies, however, loudly dissented. " The Cholulans," they declared, " are false and perfidious, but the Tlascalans are frank and fear- less, and enemies of Mexico."
Cortes route from Tlascala to the Aztec Capital . View larger image here.
Keeping to his original plan, Cortes sent four of the allies as envoys to Tlascala, asking permission to pass through that country. They were to present as a gift a cap of crimson cloth, a sword and a crossbow. After waiting three days in vain for an answer, the army set out hoping to meet the envoys. The soldiers marched always in armor, with the cavalry in the van and the baggage and heavy-armed men in the rear.
Aztecs: Arrival of Cortes and the Conquistadors
The Spanish Conquest of Mexico - Cholula Part 2/2
The road, which ran at first by the side of a river flowing through a wooded plain, wound gradually upwards into wilder and more broken country. In a defile the horsemen suddenly pulled up. The way was blocked by a great stone wall nine feet high, and wide enough for twenty men to march along the top. The two ends of the wall overlapped, leaving a narrow passage the only entrance, and one well protected by strong battlements. The cavalry dashed through the passage, which was, however, quite undefended, and the whole army entered unopposed the jealously guarded territory of Tlascala.
The horsemen riding on had advanced some miles into the country when they perceived in the distance a small body of men retreating as if in fear. Swiftly the cavaliers gave chase, when suddenly the fugitives turned on their pursuers, and at the same moment hundreds of Tlascalans sprang up from ambush and joined in a fierce attack on the strangers. They showed no fear of the horses, two of which were killed and decapitated in triumph. Cortes and his cavaliers would soon have been overwhelmed had not the infantry rushed up at the critical moment and opened a hot fire on the enemy. At the flash and report of the guns the natives did indeed recoil, but they retired without panic and in good order.Marching on through fields of maize and aloe the Spaniards encamped for the night in some deserted huts on the banks of a river. For their supper they were reduced to eating Indian dogs and wild figs.
At dawn the camp was astir. When all was ready for the march Cortes gave his directions. The mounted men were to ride three abreast, and to strike always at the faces of the foe. The little army had advanced but a short distance when two Indians were seen approaching in a state of evident terror and exhaustion. They were the Totonac envoys who had escaped in the night from the sacrificial cage into which they had been ruthlessly flung. Breathlessly they warned the them that a Tlascalan army was close at hand. And now shrill and high rose the whistling Indian war-cry, and a flight of arrows startled the foremost ranks of the Spaniards. Fierce and sudden was the Tlascalan attack, and suspiciously sudden their retreat. But the blood of the Spaniards was up. " St. Jago and at them ! " cried the cavaliers, and furiously pursuing they found themselves the next moment in a narrow, rugged glen difficult for horses and impracticable for guns. Attacked on every side, they strove to escape from this death-trap and cut their way onward to the entrance of the pass. But there they found, to their dismay, an angry sea of gleaming helmets and waving banners ! To advance seemed certain death, but to retreat was impossible.
In vain the cavalry hurled themselves against the dense ranks of the Tlascalans, who had learned to aim their blows at the horses. They succeeded in killing one, and captured the rider alive to serve as a victim for sacrifice. Around the fallen man the fight raged most fiercely, and he was rescued by his comrades with desperate courage, only to die shortly afterwards of his wounds. As for the body of the horse, it was borne off in triumph by the Indians, and was after- wards hacked in pieces and sent through all the districts of Tlascala.
" Forward, comrades ! " shouted Cortes to his cavaliers, "if we fail now the cross of Christ can never be planted in the land. When was it ever known that a Castilian turned his back on a foe ? " In answer, his horsemen charged with such fury that they swept through the mass of the enemy to the open plain beyond. Hard upon their heels came the infantry, straining every nerve to bring the artillery into action, and the havoc wrought by the guns turned the tide of battle.
The Tlascalans drew off, carrying with them their dead and wounded, for the Spaniards were too exhausted to press home their advantage. In this action the Totnacs had been of the greatest service, fighting hand to hand in the thickest of the press. " I see nothing but death for us," said a Cempoallan chief to Marina, who shared every danger of her beloved master. " The God of the Christians is with us," she replied with steadfast faith, " and He will carry us safely through."
The army encamped for the night in a temple on the rocky hill of Tzompach, and the men spent the following day in tending to their wounds, overhauling their weapons, and making fresh arrows, while the cavalry scoured the country for the much-needed provisions. Still Cortes hoped for peace, and for the friend- ship of the gallant little republic. Releasing all the prisoners, he sent a letter by two of the chiefs pro- posing once more an alliance, or at the least neutrality. The messengers were met by Xicotencatl, the great general of Tlascala, who was encamped with his army two leagues from the hill of Tzompach.
Insolent was his answer : " The Spaniards will be welcome in our city, where their flesh will be hewn from their bodies for sacrifice to the gods ! To-morrow I will deliver this answer in person ! " At this savage message, "being but mortals, and like all others fearing death," says Bernal Diaz, "we prepared for battle by confessing to our reverend fathers, who were occupied during the whole night in that holy office." The Spaniards had no mind to await the promised visit inactive in their camp, and the next day Cortes gave them a few last orders before leading them forth to fight. At all costs they were to keep their ranks unbroken. The infantry were to thrust with the point rather than to strike ( with the edge of their swords, and the cavaliers were to charge at half-speed, aiming at the eyes of the Indians. A ceaseless fire was to be kept up, some loading while others discharged the guns.
They had advanced but a short distance when they came in sight of the army of Xicotencatl, which seemed to cover the whole plain. Over the mighty host waved the banner of the republic emblazoned with a golden eagle, whose outspread wings were studded with emeralds and silver. Every chieftain had his banner, and foremost in the ranks was the proud standard of Xicotencatl himself, bearing as its device a heron on a rock. The gorgeous colouring of paint and feather-work, the glittering of copper lance-head and golden cuirass, were dazzling in the sunlight. To add terror to their appearance, the helmets of the chiefs were formed like the heads of ferocious beasts, decorated with gold and gems and gleaming, grinning teeth. From their crests floated choice and brilliant plumes denoting rank and family. But their weapons were poor as opposed to Spanish steel and powder. Very deadly, however, was the " Maquahuitl," a wooden pole three feet in length, armed on each side with two razor-like blades of itztli, and tied to the warrior's wrist that it might not be wrested from him in battle. Their other arms were bows and arrows, darts and javelins, and they bore shields made of reeds quilted with cotton, and adorned with feather- work, gold, and silver. Not long had the Spaniards to study this martial array. Letting fly such a cloud of arrows that " the sun was actually darkened," the Tlascalans, yelling their hideous battle-cry, swept down upon the strangers, throwing them into complete disorder. It was only the superiority of tempered steel which enabled the Spaniards to rally and re-form. Again and again did the massed battalions of dusky warriors try to break through the serried ranks bristling with sword-points, only to be flung back reeling and broken. Their very numbers told against them, they hampered each other and afforded an easy mark for the artillery.
One of the Tlascalan caciques whom Xicotencatl had called a coward, first challenged his general to a duel, and then withdrew from the fight, taking with him his whole division. The battle was over, but once again at such cost that the Spaniards made no attempt to pursue, but returned at once to the hill of Tzompach. Surely after this defeat, thought Cortes, even this intrepid race will welcome peace, and once more he sent by prisoners a letter proposing friendship and alliance. This time they were to deliver their message to the rulers in the capital itself, and not to the fierce young general in his camp.
The republic was governed by four great lords who sat in council together, each surrounded by his inferior chieftains. Anxiously they debated the white man's proposals, and opinion was divided as to the answer they should return. Doubt as to the origin of the foreigners was rife. Maxixcatzin, one of the four ancient lords, was for peace and alliance with the strangers, who might perhaps be gods, and certainly were mighty warriors. But the young Xicotencatl hotly urged war to the death on these invaders of Tlascala, who had already shown themselves to be enemies of the gods of Anahuac.
In their dilemma the councilors turned to the priests, who gave this oracular reply : " The Spaniards, though not gods, are children of the Sun. From the sun do they derive their strength, and when his beams depart their power also fails." Now the nations of Anahuac never waged war in the night-time, and it may be that the priests, who knew well that the Christians were their foes, hoped by these words to incite their people to change their tactics, but continue the warfare. It was resolved to attack the camp of the strangers in the darkness. One night, as a Spanish sentinel looked out across the plain, he noticed in the moonlight a dark mass moving towards the hill. At once the alarm was given, and the Spaniards, who slept with their weapons at their side, and with horses ready saddled, sprang to arms. On crept the Tlascalans, their heads just showing over the maize. The camp was all in darkness, doubtless their foes were sleeping. Suddenly, " St. Jago, and at them ! " rang out from above, and down the hill charged the children of the Sun, horsemen and foot- men looming huge in the moonlight. The Tlascalans, completely surprised, and unused to fighting at night, lost their wonted nerve and fled, mercilessly cut to pieces by the victors.
The patience of Cortes was exhausted. This time his envoys bore an arrow, with a letter sternly demanding instant submission. A few days later forty Indians climbed the Hill of Tzompach wearing white badges as a sign of peace, and the soldiers, glad the war was ended, entertained them kindly. Marina, however, discovered that these men were really spies of Xicotencatl, and Cortes, bent on breaking this stub- born resistance, had all their hands cut off, and sent them thus mutilated back to their master. "The Tlascalans," he said, "may come by day or night, they will find us ready " From this time Tlascala never failed the children of the Sun, to whom she had vowed her friendship.
There now arrived from Montezuma an embassy bringing many compliments and much treasure. Montezuma had heard of their victory over the unconquerable republic, and was more than ever anxious to prevent their advance on his own capital. To the offer of a rich bribe if they would but turn back, Cortes gave the unchanging answer that he must see the emperor himself.
Leaving the "Tower of Victory," as they had in called their temple-camp, the Spaniards proceeded to Tlascala, where they were received with great rejoicing. Every show of enmity had disappeared, and the streets were decked with flowers as if for a festival. They were bidden that evening to a banquet in the palace of Xicotencatl, the blind father of the young general. Quarters were assigned to them in one of the chief temples. During the three weeks of their stay they became familiar with the native mode of life, and were much struck with the advanced stage of civilization and the excellence of the public institutions, so great a contrast to the barbarities of the religion. On the roofs of the well-built houses were terraced gardens. In the apertures for windows and doors hung mats fringed with tinkling bells. The Spaniards were amazed to find luxurious public baths of vapor and hot water. A well-organised police system kept the town always orderly and quiet. Though a large market was held every week, there were also many shops, among which those of the barbers were especially noticeable.
The city consisted of four wards, separated from each other by high stone walls, each ruled by one of the four great chiefs of the republic. Shut in by natural barriers and at constant war with the surrounding tribes, the state was perforce self-supporting, and the inhabitants were therefore agricultural. The climate, more rigorous than in other parts of the table-land of Anahuac, had bred a bolder and finer race.
Word now came from Montezuma actually inviting the invaders to Mexico. He begged them not to remain among the " base and barbarous Tlascalans," but to proceed to Cholula, whither he would send a suitable escort. Vehemently the new allies protested. Montezuma, they declared, was not to be trusted, and sought but to entrap the strangers in his island city. But if the Spanish had resolved to accept the invitation, let them avoid Cholula at all hazards. Cortes thought they were right, but to choose another route would look like fear or weakness, and it was ever his policy to leave no unvisited stronghold behind him.
Six thousand Tlascalans took service under the banner of Castile, and subsequently proved their friendship in many a hard-fought fray. A day's march from Cholula the army was welcomed by some of the notables of the city, but passage was refused to the Tlascalans, who encamped therefore without the gates. As the strangers proceeded through the crowded flower-decked streets they thought they had never seen so fine a town as this sacred city of Anahuac. "It is more beautiful from without," wrote Cortes later in a letter to Charles V., "than any city in Spain, for it is many -towered and lies in a plain. And I certify to your Highness that I counted from a mosque there four hundred other mosques and as many towers. It is the city most fit for Spaniards to dwell in of any that I have seen here, for it has some untilled ground and water so that cattle might be bred, a thing which no other of the cities we have seen possesses; for such is the multitude of people who dwell in these parts that there is not a hand-breadth of uncultivated ground."
The luxury of the dress and life of the Cholulans seemed in keeping with the place, but the black robes of a countless priesthood lent a somber and sinister tone to the otherwise joyous city. Here Quetzalcoatl, the benignant, had rested on his way to the coast, and here was erected in his honor a pyramid, great as that of Cheops, crowned with a temple. Hither flocked thousands of pilgrims to worship. Gorgeous was the image of the Fair God ; round his neck was a collar of gold, from his ears hung pendants of turquoise, in one hand he bore a jeweled sceptre, in the other a painted shield with his device as lord of the air and the winds, while from his miter sprang plumes of undying fire.
When the Spaniards had been entertained for two days in the spacious city, some Mexican nobles arrived who spoke privately to the Cholulan chiefs and then withdrew. The caciques who had been so friendly now became cold and haughty, and the supply of provisions ceased. The streets were almost deserted, and "the few inhabitants that we saw also," says Bernal Diaz, " avoided us with a mysterious kind of sneer on their faces."
The Totonacs, who had wandered through the town, declared that the roads had been barricaded, and that stones and weapons had been placed on the roofs of the houses. Cortes grew anxious, and now an incident occurred which verified his worst fears.
The wife of one of the Cholulan caciques who had taken a great fancy to Dona Marina came one day to the Spanish quarters, eagerly begging that the Aztec girl should visit her house. When Marina refused, darkly whispered the Cholulan woman, "A fearful fate will befall you if you do not come." Suspecting a plot, Marina feigned to consent and began to collect her jewelry and clothes. The woman then told her that Montezuma had sent bribes to the Cholulan chiefs, asking them to fall on the Spaniards as they were leaving the city. All was ready for a surprise attack, and without the town lay a large Mexican army. With a hasty excuse Marina left the cacique's wife busy with her clothes, and hastened to inform Cortes of the danger.
He was appalled at the news that Montezuma was so sure of success that he had sent manacles to bind the Spaniards ! To force his way through the streets of a city where both cavalry and artillery would be useless, and where on every housetop enemies would be stationed, was quite impossible. Yet to stay on inactive in his quarters meant starvation. At last he resolved to outwit the Cholulans by so terrible a surprise that they would not only be punished for their treachery, but would never dare to face a Spaniard again.
Sending a message to the Tlascalans to be ready to march into the city when a certain signal was given, he summoned his officers and unfolded to them his plan. He then sent word to the Cholulan chiefs that he intended to leave their city in the morning, and asked an escort of two thousand warriors.
At daybreak he placed a cordon round the great courtyard of his temple quarters, and at each of the three entrances a strong guard. The remainder of his men with the artillery were stationed without the gates. Soon afterwards the Cholulan caciques arrived with an even larger number of men than Cortes had demanded, and entered the courtyard. The gates closed behind them. Then the Spanish general, summoning the chiefs to approach him, told them sternly that he had discovered all their treachery. If they had intended to attack their guests, why had they not done it openly, he asked, as had the Tlascalans ? Such crimes could not be suffered to pass unpunished.
Suddenly a musket-shot rang out, and at the signal the Spaniards opened a deadly fire on the Cholulans, who were so closely crowded together that they had no room to fight. To escape was impossible, and the struggle soon degenerated into a massacre. In vain the warriors in the city rushed to rescue their country- men, and hurled themselves against the mail-clad foes who guarded the gates with their terrible cannon. And now the Tlascalans fell fiercely on their rear, and caught thus between two fires the rescuers broke and ,fled. Some of them made for the temple of Quetzalcoatl, for had not the Fair God promised that if in time of dire necessity they dragged down his walls a deluge would flow thence to overwhelm their enemies ? Many with bare hands tore at the stones, but, alas ! no miracle rewarded their frenzied efforts, no vengeful flood gushed forth, showers of crumbling brick-dust alone mocked their faith. In the towers of the temple they sought refuge, only to perish miserably in the flames of the wooden structures fired by the Spaniards. It was a scene of horrid carnage. "We slew many of them," says Bernal Diaz, "and others were burnt alive ; so little did the promises of their false gods avail them." To quell the tumult he had himself aroused was no easy task even for the iron will of the conqueror, but at last both Spaniards and allies were gathered under their banners, the streets were cleansed, the dead buried. For fourteen days Cortes remained in Cholula, giving up all his time, with statesmanlike foresight, to the work of reconstruction. The country people were brought in to open the shops and carry on the daily work which was at a standstill for lack of hands. The cacique had been among the slain, so another was appointed in his place. The victims for sacrifice were freed, their cages demolished, and in the temple of Quetzalcoatl a cross was planted. But Cortes could not wipe away the traces of the terrible massacre. Black and smoking ruins showed their unsightly scars where shining temples had so lately stood, and never did the sacred city regain her former glory.
In the capital consternation reigned. The gods were indeed come, and who could stay their onward march ? To propitiate the dread beings Montezuma sent humbly disclaiming any share in the recent treachery. His slaves bore as usual costly offerings. The way now lay open to Mexico. The Totonacs, however, feared to proceed, such was their dread of " the great Montezuma," so Cortes allowed them to return to their own country laden with the rewards of faithful service.
The Tlascalans, on the other hand, were eager to advance, and Cortes was obliged to refuse thousands of fresh volunteers. The first stages of the march led across wide savannas and through well-kept plantations. Several caciques, who had heard of the downfall of Cholula, came from their cities to greet the conquerors. They all complained of the tyranny of Montezuma, and warned Cortes that the main road to Mexico had been blocked to force the Spaniards to follow a more dangerous route commanded by hidden forts. Gentle rises soon brought them to the foot of that great mountain barrier which separates the plains of Cholula from the valley of Mexico. Here the road branched, and the main track was much encumbered with fallen timber and great stones. Acting on the information he had received, Cortes removed the obstacles, continued on his way, and entered wild and broken country swept by icy blasts.
Spaniards climb Popocatepetl
Two giant volcanic peaks, among the highest in North America, guarded the pass, Popocatepetl, " the Smoking Hill," and Iztaccihuatl, "the White Woman." From far- distant Tlascala had been seen the smoke and flames of the former in ceaseless eruption. And to Montezuma in his island city, the same sight had seemed to forecast the doom of his empire.
No man, declared the Tlascalans, might ascend the Smoking Hill and live. Hearing this, ten of the cavaliers at once determined to make the ascent, and to their surprise several of the Tlascalans, not to be outdone in courage by their white friends, volunteered to accompany them. Passing successively through forests with dense undergrowth and belts of pine, they emerged on to the bleak, lava-strewn mountain side. Strange groanings and rumblings came from beneath their feet, and the Indians, who had climbed on manfully to this point, suddenly declared with looks of terror that they could go no farther. The mysterious noises, they said, were the groans of the tormented spirits of wicked rulers chained beneath the Smoking Hill. The ten climbed on, coming at last to the snow-line. Without rope or alpenstock they clambered over the slippery ice often on the brink of ghastly chasms and crevasses. Dizzy and faint from the rarefied air they drew near the summit, but Popocatepetl was awake . A rush of burning smoke and glowing cinders drove back the rash intruders. To show how far they had climbed into the region of perpetual snow, they took down with them some mighty icicles. Cortes, much pleased with the bravado of these gallants, mentioned the matter in his next missive to Charles V., and Ordaz, the leader, was allowed to quarter on his shield a burning mountain.
Having passed the crest of the Sierra the march became easier ; the mighty walls of rock grew lower, and suddenly turning a sharp angle of the road the weary, travel -worn soldiers gazed on a view so entrancing that all their toils were forgotten. The Valley of Mexico lay before them. Across green woods and yellow cornfields, shining streams and glowing gardens, gleamed the glancing waters of five beautiful lakes with white-towered cities on their shores. So rare was the air at this altitude that distance did not dim brilliance of color or distinctness of outline, and in such a light the rampart of porphyry rocks encircling the whole valley seemed of richest purple. Beyond the largest lake Tezcuco rose the dark cypress-covered hill of Chapoltepec, while in the very midst of the waters glittered the palaces and temples of Mexico, or, as the Aztecs loved to call it, Tenochtitlan, the city of the eagle and cactus. This haughty capital it was on which the Spaniards fixed their eyes. There lay the reward of all their toil. No wonder that they cried with joy, " It is the promised land ! "