Discovery of Mexico
Chapter I [1516-1518]
SPAIN UNDER CHARLES V- PROGRESS OF DISCOVERY- COLONIAL POLICY-
CONQUEST OF CUBA- EXPEDITIONS TO YUCATAN
IN the beginning of the sixteenth century, Spain occupied
perhaps the most prominent position on the theatre of Europe. The
numerous states, into which she had been so long divided, were
consolidated into one monarchy. The Moslem crescent, after reigning
there for eight centuries, was no longer seen on her borders. The
authority of the crown did not, as in later times, overshadow the
inferior orders of the state. The people enjoyed the inestimable
privilege of political representation, and exercised it with manly
independence. The nation at large could boast as great a degree of
constitutional freedom as any other, at that time, in Christendom.
Under a system of salutary laws and an equitable administration,
domestic tranquillity was secured, public credit established, trade,
manufactures, and even the more elegant arts, began to flourish; while
a higher education called forth the first blossoms of that literature,
which was to ripen into so rich a harvest, before the close of the
century. Arms abroad kept pace with arts at home. Spain found her
empire suddenly enlarged, by important acquisitions, both in Europe
and Africa, while a New World beyond the waters poured into her lap
treasures of countless wealth, and opened an unbounded field for
Such was the condition of the kingdom at the close of the long and
glorious reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, when on the 23rd of January,
1516, the sceptre passed into the hands of their daughter Joanna, or
rather their grandson, Charles the Fifth, who alone ruled the monarchy
during the long and imbecile existence of his unfortunate mother.
During the two years following Ferdinand's death, the regency, in
the absence of Charles, was held by Cardinal Ximenes, a man whose
intrepidity, extraordinary talents, and capacity for great
enterprises, were accompanied by a haughty spirit, which made him
too indifferent as to the means of their execution. His
administration, therefore, notwithstanding the uprightness of his
intentions, was, from his total disregard of forms, unfavourable to
constitutional liberty; for respect for forms is an essential
element of freedom. With all his faults, however, Ximenes was a
Spaniard; and the object he had at heart was the good of his country.
It was otherwise on the arrival of Charles, who, after a long
absence, came as a foreigner into the land of his fathers.
(November, 1517.) His manners, sympathies, even his language, were
foreign, for he spoke the Castilian with difficulty. He knew little of
his native country, of the character of the people or their
institutions. He seemed to care still less for them; while his natural
reserve precluded that freedom of communication which might have
counteracted, to some extent at least, the errors of education. In
everything, in short, he was a foreigner; and resigned himself to
the direction of his Flemish counsellors with a docility that gave
little augury of his future greatness.
On his entrance into Castile, the young monarch was accompanied by
a swarm of courtly sycophants, who settled, like locusts, on every
place of profit and honour throughout the kingdom. A Fleming was
made grand chancellor of Castile; another Fleming was placed in the
archiepiscopal see of Toledo. They even ventured to profane the
sanctity of the cortes by intruding themselves on its deliberations.
Yet that body did not tamely submit to these usurpations, but gave
vent to its indignation in tones becoming the representatives of a
The same pestilent foreign influence was felt, though much less
sensibly, in the Colonial administration. This had been placed, in the
preceding reign, under the immediate charge of the two great
tribunals, the Council of the Indies, and the Casa de Contratacion, or
India House at Seville. It was their business to further the
progress of discovery, watch over the infant settlements, and adjust
the disputes, which grew up in them. But the licences granted to
private adventurers did more for the cause of discovery than the
patronage of the crown or its officers. The long peace, enjoyed with
slight interruption by Spain in the early part of the sixteenth
century, was most auspicious for this; and the restless cavalier,
who could no longer win laurels on the fields of Africa and Europe,
turned with eagerness to the brilliant career opened to him beyond the
It is difficult for those of our time, as familiar from
childhood with the most remote places on the globe as with those in
their own neighbourhood, to picture to themselves the feelings of
the men who lived in the sixteenth century. The dread mystery, which
had so long hung over the great deep, had indeed been removed. It
was no longer beset with the same undefined horrors as when Columbus
launched his bold bark on its dark and unknown waters. A new and
glorious world had been thrown open. But as to the precise spot
where that world lay, its extent, its history, whether it were
island or continent,- of all this, they had very vague and confused
conceptions. Many, in their ignorance, blindly adopted the erroneous
conclusion into which the great Admiral had been led by his superior
science,- that the new countries were a part of Asia; and, as the
mariner wandered among the Bahamas, or steered his caravel across
the Caribbean seas, he fancied he was inhaling the rich odours of
the spice-islands in the Indian Ocean. Thus every fresh discovery,
interpreted by his previous delusion, served to confirm him in his
error, or, at least, to fill his mind with new perplexities.
The career thus thrown open had all the fascinations of a
desperate hazard, on which the adventurer staked all his hopes of
fortune, fame, and life itself. It was not often, indeed, that he
won the rich prize which he most coveted; but then he was sure to
win the meed of glory, scarcely less dear to his chivalrous spirit;
and, if he survived to return to his home, he had wonderful stories to
recount, of perilous chances among the strange people he had
visited, and the burning climes, whose rank fertility and magnificence
of vegetation so far surpassed anything he had witnessed in his own.
These reports added fresh fuel to imaginations already warmed by the
study of those tales of chivalry which formed the favourite reading of
the Spaniards at that period. Thus romance and reality acted on each
other, and the soul of the Spaniard was exalted to that pitch of
enthusiasm, which enabled him to encounter the terrible trials that
lay in the path of the discoverer. Indeed, the life of the cavalier of
that day was romance put into action. The story of his adventures in
the New World forms one of the most remarkable pages in the history of
Under this chivalrous spirit of enterprise, the progress of
discovery had extended, by the beginning of Charles the Fifth's reign,
from the Bay of Honduras, along the winding shores of Darien, and
the South American continent, to the Rio de la Plata. The mighty
barrier of the Isthmus had been climbed, and the Pacific descried,
by Nunez de Balboa, second only to Columbus in this valiant band of
"ocean chivalry." The Bahamas and Caribbee Islands had been explored,
as well as the Peninsula of Florida on the northern continent. To this
latter point Sebastian Cabot had arrived in his descent along the
coast from Labrador, in 1497. So that before 1518, the period when our
narrative begins, the eastern borders of both the great continents had
been surveyed through nearly their whole extent. The shores of the
great Mexican Gulf, however, sweeping with a wide circuit far into the
interior, remained still concealed, with the rich realms that lay
beyond, from the eye of the navigator. The time had now come for their
The business of colonisation had kept pace with that of discovery.
In several of the islands, and in various parts of Terra Firma, and in
Darien, settlements had been established, under the control of
governors who affected the state and authority of viceroys. Grants
of land were assigned to the colonists, on which they raised the
natural products of the soil, but gave still more attention to the
suggar-cane, imported from the Canaries. Sugar, indeed, together
with the beautiful dye-woods of the country and the precious metals,
formed almost the only articles of export in the infancy of the
colonies, which had not yet introduced those other staples of the West
Indian commerce, which, in our day, constitute its principal wealth.
Yet the precious metals, painfully gleaned from a few scanty
sources, would have made poor returns, but for the gratuitous labour
of the Indians.
The cruel system of repartimientos, or distribution of the Indians
as slaves among the conquerors, had been suppressed by Isabella.
Although subsequently countenanced by the government, it was under the
most careful limitations. But it is impossible to license crime by
halves,- to authorise injustice at all, and hope to regulate the
measure of it. The eloquent remonstrances of the Dominicans,- who
devoted themselves to the good work of conversion in the New World
with the same zeal that they showed for persecution in the Old,-
but, above all, those of Las Casas, induced the regent Ximenes to send
out a commission with full powers to inquire into the alleged
grievances, and to redress them. It had authority, moreover, to
investigate the conduct of the civil officers, and to reform any
abuses in their administration. This extraordinary commission
consisted of three Hieronymite friars and an eminent jurist, all men
of learning and unblemished piety.
They conducted the inquiry in a very dispassionate manner; but,
after long deliberation, came to a conclusion most unfavourable to the
demands of Las Casas, who insisted on the entire freedom of the
natives. This conclusion they justified on the grounds that the
Indians would not labour without compulsion, and that, unless they
laboured, they could not be brought into communication with the
whites, nor be converted to Christianity. Whatever we may think of
this argument, it was doubtless urged with sincerity by its advocates,
whose conduct through their whole administration places their
motives above suspicion. They accompanied it with many careful
provisions for the protection of the natives,- but in vain. The simple
people, accustomed all their days to a life of indolence and ease,
sunk under the oppressions of their masters, and the population wasted
away with even more frightful rapidity than did the aborigines in
our own country, under the operation of other causes. It is not
necessary to pursue these details further, into which I have been
led by the desire to put the reader in possession of the general
policy and state of affairs in the New World, at the period when the
present narrative begins.
Of the islands, Cuba was the second discovered; but no attempt had
been made to plant a colony there during the lifetime of Columbus;
who, indeed, after skirting the whole extent of its southern coast,
died in the conviction that it was part of the continent. At length,
in 1511, Diego, the son and successor of the "Admiral," who still
maintained the seat of government in Hispaniola, finding the mines
much exhausted there, proposed to occupy the neighbouring island of
Cuba, or Fernandina, as it was called, in compliment to the Spanish
monarch. He prepared a small force for the conquest, which he placed
under the command of Don Diego Velasquez; a man described by a
contemporary, as "possessed of considerable experience in military
affairs, having served seventeen years in the European wars; as
honest, illustrious by his lineage and reputation, covetous of
glory, and somewhat more covetous of wealth." The portrait was
sketched by no unfriendly hand.
Velasquez, or rather his lieutenant Narvaez, who took the office
on himself of scouring the country, met with no serious opposition
from the inhabitants, who were of the same family with the
effeminate natives of Hispaniola. The conquest, through the merciful
interposition of Las Casas, "the protector of the Indians," who
accompanied the army in its march, was effected without much
bloodshed. One chief, indeed, named Hatuey, having fled originally
from St. Domingo to escape the oppression of its invaders, made a
desperate resistance, for which he was condemned by Velasquez to be
burned alive. It was he who made that memorable reply, more eloquent
than a volume of invective. When urged at the stake to embrace
Christianity, that his soul might find admission into heaven, he
inquired if the white men would go there. On being answered in the
affirmative, he exclaimed, "Then I will not be a Christian; for I
would not go again to a place where I must find men so cruel!" The
story is told by Las Casas in his appalling record of the cruelties of
his countrymen in the New World.
After the conquest, Velasquez, now appointed governor,
diligently occupied himself with measures for promoting the prosperity
of the island. He formed a number of settlements, bearing the same
names with the modern towns, and made St. Jago, on the south-east
corner, the seat of government. He invited settlers by liberal
grants of land and slaves. He encouraged them to cultivate the soil,
and gave particular attention to the sugar-cane, so profitable an
article of commerce in later times. He was, above all, intent on
working the gold mines, which promised better returns than those in
Hispaniola. The affairs of his government did not prevent him,
meanwhile, from casting many a wistful glance at the discoveries going
forward on the continent, and he longed for an opportunity to embark
in these golden adventures himself. Fortune gave him the occasion he
An hidalgo of Cuba, named Hernandez de Cordova, sailed with
three vessels on an expedition to one of the neighbouring Bahama
Islands, in quest of Indian slaves. (February 8, 1517.) He encountered
a succession of heavy gales which drove him far out of his course, and
at the end of three weeks he found himself on a strange but unknown
coast. On landing and asking the name of the country, he was
answered by the natives, "Tectetan," meaning, "I do not understand
you,"- but which the Spaniards, misinterpreting into the name of the
place, easily corrupted into Yucatan. Some writers give a different
etymology. Such mistakes, however, were not uncommon with the early
discoverers, and have been the origin of many a name on the American
Cordova had landed on the north-eastern end of the peninsula, at
Cape Catoche. He was astonished at the size and solid material of
the buildings constructed of stone and lime, so different from the
frail tenements of reeds and rushes which formed the habitations of
the islanders. He was struck, also, with the higher cultivation of the
soil, and with the delicate texture of the cotton garments and gold
ornaments of the natives. Everything indicated a civilisation far
superior to anything he had before witnessed in the New World. He
saw the evidence of a different race, moreover, in the warlike
spirit of the people. Rumours of the Spaniards had, perhaps,
preceded them, as they were repeatedly asked if they came from the
east; and wherever they landed, they were met with the most deadly
hostility. Cordova himself, in one of his skirmishes with the Indians,
received more than a dozen wounds, and one only of his party escaped
unhurt. At length, when he had coasted the peninsula as far as
Campeachy, he returned to Cuba, which he reached after an absence of
several months, having suffered all the extremities of ill, which
these pioneers of the ocean were sometimes called to endure, and which
none but the most courageous spirit could have survived. As it was,
half the original number, consisting of one hundred and ten men,
perished, including their brave commander, who died soon after his
return. The reports he had brought back of the country, and still
more, the specimens of curiously wrought gold, convinced Velasquez
of the importance of this discovery, and he prepared with all despatch
to avail himself of it.
He accordingly fitted out a little squadron of four vessels for
the newly discovered lands, and placed it under the command of his
nephew, Juan de Grijalva, a man on whose probity, prudence, and
attachment to himself he knew he could rely. The fleet left the port
of St. Jago de Cuba, May 1, 1518. It took the course pursued by
Cordova, but was driven somewhat to the south, the first land that
it made being the island of Cozumel. From this quarter Grijalva soon
passed over to the continent and coasted the peninsula, touching at
the same places as his predecessor. Everywhere he was struck, like
him, with the evidences of a higher civilisation, especially in the
architecture. He was astonished, also, at the sight of large stone
crosses, evidently objects of worship, which he met with in various
places. Reminded by these circumstances of his own country, he gave
the peninsula the name "New Spain," a name since appropriated to a
much wider extent of territory.
Wherever Grijalva landed, he experienced the same unfriendly
reception as Cordova, though he suffered less, being better prepared
to meet it. In the Rio de Tabasco or Grijalva, as it is often called
after him, he held an amicable conference with a chief, who gave him a
number of gold plates fashioned into a sort of armour. As he wound
round the Mexican coast, one of his captains, Pedro de Alvarado,
afterwards famous in the Conquest, entered a river, to which he also
left his own name. In a neighbouring stream, called the Rio de
Vanderas, or "River of Banners," from the ensigns displayed by the
natives on its borders, Grijalva had the first communication with
the Mexicans themselves.
The cacique who ruled over this province had received notice of
the approach of the Europeans, and of their extraordinary
appearance. He was anxious to collect all the information he could
respecting them, and the motives of their visit, that he might
transmit them to his master, the Aztec emperor. A friendly
conference took place between the parties on shore, where Grijalva
landed with all his force, so as to make a suitable impression on
the mind of the barbaric chief. The interview lasted some hours,
though, as there was no one on either side to interpret the language
of the other, they could communicate only by signs. They, however,
interchanged presents, and the Spaniards had the satisfaction of
receiving, for a few worthless toys and trinkets, a rich treasure of
jewels, gold ornaments and vessels, of the most fantastic forms and
Grijalva now thought that in this successful traffic- successful
beyond his most sanguine expectations- he had accomplished the chief
object of his mission. He steadily refused the solicitations of his
followers to plant a colony on the spot,- a work of no little
difficulty in so populous and powerful a country as this appeared to
be. To this, indeed, he was inclined, but deemed it contrary to his
instructions, which limited him to barter with the natives. He
therefore despatched Alvarado in one of the caravels back to Cuba,
with the treasure and such intelligence as he had gleaned of the great
empire in the interior, and then pursued his voyage along the coast.
He touched at St. Juan de Ulua, and at the Isla de los
Sacrificios, so called by him from the bloody remains of human victims
found in one of the temples. He then held on his course as far as
the province of Panuco, where finding some difficulty in doubling a
boisterous headland, he returned on his track, and after an absence of
nearly six months, reached Cuba in safety. Grijalva has the glory of
being the first navigator who set foot on the Mexican soil, and opened
an intercourse with the Aztecs.
On reaching the island, he was surprised to learn that another and
more formidable armament had been fitted out to follow up his own
discoveries, and to find orders at the same time from the governor,
couched in no very courteous language, to repair at once to St.
Jago. He was received by that personage, not merely with coldness, but
with reproaches for having neglected so fair an opportunity of
establishing a colony in the country he had visited. Velasquez was one
of those captious spirits, who, when things do not go exactly to their
minds, are sure to shift the responsibility of the failure from
their own shoulders, where it should lie, to those of others. He had
an ungenerous nature, says an old writer, credulous, and easily
moved to suspicion. In the present instance it was most unmerited.
Grijalva, naturally a modest, unassuming person, had acted in
obedience to the instructions of his commander, given before
sailing; and had done this in opposition to his own judgment and the
importunities of his followers. His conduct merited anything but
censure from his employer.
When Alvarado had returned to Cuba with his golden freight, and
the accounts of the rich empire of Mexico which he had gathered from
the natives, the heart of the governor swelled with rapture as he
saw his dreams of avarice and ambition so likely to be realised.
Impatient of the long absence of Grijalva, he despatched a vessel in
search of him under the command of Olid, a cavalier who took an
important part afterwards in the Conquest. Finally he resolved to
fit out another armament on a sufficient scale to insure the
subjugation of the country.
He previously solicited authority for this from the Hieronymite
commission in St. Domingo. He then despatched his, chaplain to Spain
with the royal share of the gold brought from Mexico, and a full
account of the intelligence gleaned there. He set forth his own
manifold services, and solicited from the country full powers to go on
with the conquest and colonisation of the newly discovered regions.
Before receiving an answer, he began his preparations for the
armament, and, first of all, endeavoured to find a suitable person
to share the expense of it, and to take the command. Such a person
he found, after some difficulty and delay, in Hernando Cortes; the man
of all others best calculated to achieve this great enterprise,- the
last man to whom Velasquez, could he have foreseen the results,
would have confided it.
1. The following passage--one among many--from that faithful mirror of the times, Peter Martyr's correspondence, does ample justice to the intemperance, avarice, and intolerable arrogance of the Flemings. The testimony is worth the more, as coming from one who, though resident in Spain, was not a Spaniard. "Crumenas auro fulcire inhiant; huic uni studio invigilant. Nec detrectat ju venis Rex. Farcit quacunque posse datur; non satiat tamen. Quæ qualisve sit gens hæc, depingere adhuc nescio. Insufflat vulgus hic in omne genus hominum non arctoum. Minores faciunt Hispanos, quam si nati essent inter eorum cloacas. Rugiunt jam Hispani, labra mordent, submurmurant taciti, fatorum vices tales esse conqueruntur, quod ipsi domitores regnorum ita floccifiant ab his, quorum Deus unicus (sub rege temperato) Bacchus est cum Citherea." Opus Epistolarum, (Amstelodami, 1610,) ep. 608.
2. Yet the nobles were not all backward in manifesting their disgust. When Charles would have conferred the famous Burgundian order of the Golden Fleece on the Count of Benavente, that lord refused it, proudly telling him, "I am a Castilian. I desire no honors but those of my own country, in my opinion, quite as good as--indeed, better than those of any other." Sandoval, Historia de la Vida y Hechos del Emperador Cárlos V., (Ambéres, 1681,) tom. I. p. 103.
3. I will take the liberty to refer the reader, who is desirous of being more minutely acquainted with the Spanish colonial administration and the state of discovery previous to Charles V., to the "History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella," (Part 2, ch. 9, 26,) where the subjects treated in extenso.
4. See the curious document attesting this, and drawn up by order of Columbus, ap. Navarrete, Coleccion de los Viages y de Descubrimientos, (Madrid, 1825,) tom. II. Col. Dip., No. 76.
5. The island was originally called by Columbus, Juana, in honor of prince John, heir to the Castilian crown. After his death, it received the name of Fernandina, at the king's desire. The Indian name has survived both. Herrera, Hist. General, Descrip., cap. 6.
6. "Erat Didacus, ut hoc in loco de eo semel tantum dicamus, veteranus miles, rei militaris gnarus, quippe qui septem et decem annos in Hispania militiam exercitus fuerat, homo probus, opibus, genere et fama clarus, honoris cupidus, pecuniæ aliquanto cupidior." De Rebus Gestis Ferdinandi Cortesii, MS.
7. The story is told by Las Casas in his appalling record of the cruelties of his countrymen in the New World, which charity--and common sense--may excuse us for believing the good father has greatly overcharged. Brevíssima Relacion de la Destruycion de las Indias, (Venetia, 1643,) p. 28.
8. Among the most ancient of these establishments we find in Havana, Puerto del Principe, Trinidad, St. Salvador, and Matanzas, or the Slaughter, so called from a massacre of the Spaniards there by the Indians. Bernal Diaz, Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 8.
9. Gomara, Historia de las Indias, cap. 52, ap. Barcia, tom. II.
Bernal Diaz says the word came from the vegetable yuca, and tale the name for a hillock in which it is planted. (Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 6.) M. Waldeck finds a much more plausible derivation in the Indian word Ouyouckatan, "listen to what they say." Voyage Pittoresque, p. 25.
10. Two navigators, Solís and Pinzon, had described the coast as far back as 1506, according to Herrera, though they had not taken possession of it. (Hist. General, dec. 1, lib. 6, cap. 17.) It is, indeed, remarkable it should so long have eluded discovery, considering that it is but two degrees distant from Cuba.
11. Oviedo, General y Natural Historia de las Indias, MS., lib. 33, cap. 1.--De Rebus Gestis, MS.--Carta de Cabido de Vera Cruz, (July 10, 1519,) MS.
Bernal Diaz denies that the original object of the expedition, in which he took part, was to procure slaves, though Velasquez had proposed it. (Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 2.) But he is contradicted in this by the other contemporary records above cited.
12. Itinerario de la isola de Iucha than, novamente ritrovata per il signor Joan de Grijalva, per il suo capellano, MS.
The chaplain's word may be taken for the date, which is usually put at the eighth of April.
13. De Rebus Gestis, MS.--Itinerario del Capellano, MS.
14. According to the Spanish authorities, the cacique was sent with these presents from the Mexican sovereign, who had received previous tidings of the approach of the Spaniards. I have followed Sahagun, who obtained his intelligence directly from the natives. Historia de la Conquista, MS., cap. 2.
15. Gomara has given the per and contra of this negotiation, in which gold and jewels, of the value of fifteen or twenty thousand pesos de oro, were exchanged for glass beads, pins, scissors, and other trinkets common in an assorted cargo for savages. Crónica, cap. 6.
16. Itinerario del Capellano, MS.--Carta de Vera Cruz, MS.
17. "Hombre de terrible condicion," says Herrera, citing the good Bishop of Chiapa, "para los que le servian, i aiudaban, i que facilmente se indignaba contra aquellos." Hist. General, dec. 2, lib. 3, cap. 10.
18. At least, such is the testimony of Las Casas, who knew both the parties well, and had often conversed with Grijalva upon his voyage. Historia General de las Indias, MS., lib. 3, cap. 113.
19. Itinerario del Capellano, MS.--Las Casas, Hist. de las Indias, MS., lib. 3, cap. 113.