Chapter VIII 
DREADFUL SUFFERINGS OF THE BESIEGED-SPIRIT OF GUATEMOZIN-MURDEROUS ASSAULT-CAPTURE OF GUATEMOZIN-TERMINATION OF THE SIEGE-REFLECTIONS
THERE was no occasion to resort to artificial means to precipitate
the ruin of the Azecs. It was accelerated every hour by causes more
potent than those arising from mere human agency. There they were,-
pent up in their close and suffocating quarters, nobles, commoners,
and slaves, men, women, and children, some in houses, more
frequently in hovels,- for this part of the city was not the best,-
others in the open air in canoes, or in the streets, shivering in
the cold rains of night, and scorched by the burning heat of day.
The ordinary means of sustaining life were long since gone. They
wandered about in search of anything, however unwholesome or
revolting, that might mitigate the fierce gnawings of hunger. Some
hunted for insects and worms on the borders of the lake, or gathered
the salt weeds and moss from its bottom, while at times they might
be seen casting a wistful look at the hills beyond, which many of them
had left to share the fate of their brethren in the capital.
To their credit, it is said by the Spanish writers, that they were
not driven in their extremity to violate the laws of nature by feeding
on one another. But unhappily this is contradicted by the Indian
authorities, who state that many a mother, in her agony, devoured
the offspring which she had no longer the means of supporting. This is
recorded of more than one siege in history; and it is the more
probable here, where the sensibilities must have been blunted by
familiarity with the brutal practices of the national superstition.
But all was not sufficient, and hundreds of famished wretches died
every day from extremity of suffering. Some dragged themselves into
the houses, and drew their last breath alone, and in silence. Others
sank down in the public streets. Wherever they died, there they were
left. There was no one to bury or to remove them. Familiarity with the
spectacle made men indifferent to it. They looked on in dumb
despair, waiting for their own turn. There was no complaint, no
lamentation, but deep, unutterable woe.
If in other quarters of the town the corpses might be seen
scattered over the streets, here they were gathered in heaps. "They
lay so thick," says Bernal Diaz, "that one could not tread except
among the bodies." "A man could not set his foot down," says Cortes,
yet more strongly, "unless on the corpse of an Indian!" They were
piled one upon another, the living mingled with the dead. They
stretched themselves on the bodies of their friends, and lay down to
sleep there. Death was everywhere. The city was a vast
charnel-house, in which all was hastening to decay and
decomposition. A poisonous steam arose from the mass of
putrefaction, under the action of alternate rain and heat, which so
tainted the whole atmosphere, that the Spaniards, including the
general himself, in their brief visits to the quarter, were made ill
by it, and it bred a pestilence that swept off even greater numbers
than the famine.
In the midst of these awful scenes, the young emperor of the
Aztecs remained, according to all accounts, calm and courageous.
With his fair capital laid in ruins before his eyes, his nobles and
faithful subjects dying around him, his territory rent away, foot by
foot, till scarce enough remained for him to stand on, he rejected
every invitation to capitulate, and showed the same indomitable spirit
as at the commencement of the siege. When Cortes, in the hope that the
extremities of the besieged would incline them to listen to an
accommodation, persuaded a noble prisoner to bear to Guatemozin his
proposals to that effect, the fierce young monarch, according to the
general, ordered him at once to be sacrificed. It is a Spaniard, we
must remember, who tells the story.
Cortes, who had suspended hostilities for several days, in the
vain hope that the distresses of the Mexicans would bend them to
submission, now determined to drive them to it by a general assault.
Cooped up, as they were, within a narrow quarter of the city, their
position favoured such an attempt. He commanded Alvarado to hold
himself in readiness, and directed Sandoval-who, besides the causeway,
had charge of the fleet, which lay off the Tlatelolcan district,- to
support the attack by a cannonade on the houses near the water. He
then led his forces into the city, or rather across the horrid waste
that now encircled it.
On entering the Indian precincts, he was met by several of the
chiefs, who, stretching forth their emaciated arms, exclaimed, "You
are the children of the Sun. But the Sun is swift in his course. Why
are you, then, so tardy? Why do you delay so long to put an end to our
miseries? Rather kill us at once, that we may go to our god
Huitzilopochtli, who waits for us in heaven to give us rest from our
Cortes was moved by their piteous appeal, and answered, that he
desired not their death, but their submission. "Why does your master
refuse to treat with me," he said, "when a single hour will suffice
for me to crush him and all his people?" He then urged them to request
Guatemozin to confer with him, with the assurance that he might do
it in safety, as his person should not be molested.
The nobles, after some persuasion, undertook the mission; and it
was received by the young monarch in a manner which showed- if the
anecdote before related of him be true- that misfortune had, at
length, asserted some power over his haughty spirit. He consented to
the interview, though not to have it take place on that day, but the
following, in the great square of Tlatelolco. Cortes, well
satisfied, immediately withdrew from the city, and resumed his
position on the causeway.
The next morning he presented himself at the place appointed,
having previously stationed Alvarado there with a strong corps of
infantry to guard against treachery. The stone platform in the
centre of the square was covered with mats and carpets, and a
banquet was prepared to refresh the famished monarch and his nobles.
Having made these arrangements, he awaited the hour of the interview.
But Guatemozin, instead of appearing himself, sent his nobles, the
same who had brought to him the general's invitation, and who now
excused their master's absence on the plea of illness. Cortes,
though disappointed, gave a courteous reception to the envoys,
considering that it might still afford the means of opening a
communication with the emperor. He persuaded them without much
entreaty to partake of the good cheer spread before them, which they
did with a voracity that told how severe had been their abstinence. He
then dismissed them with a seasonable supply of provisions for their
master, pressing him to consent to an interview, without which it
was impossible their differences could be adjusted.
The Indian envoys returned in a short time, bearing with them a
present of fine cotton fabrics, of no great value, from Guatemozin,
who still declined to meet the Spanish general. Cortes, though
deeply chagrined, was unwilling to give up the point. "He will
surely come," he said to the envoys, "when he sees that I suffer you
to go and come unharmed, you who have been my steady enemies, no
less than himself, throughout the war. He has nothing to fear from
me." He again parted with them, promising to receive their answer
the following day.
On the next morning, the Aztec chiefs, entering the Christian
quarters, announced to Cortes that Guatemozin would confer with him at
noon in the market-place. The general was punctual at the hour; but
without success. Neither monarch nor ministers appeared there. It
was plain that the Indian prince did not care to trust the promises of
his enemy. A thought of Montezuma may have passed across his mind.
After he had waited three hours, the general's patience was exhausted,
and, as he learned that the Mexicans were busy in preparations for
defence, he made immediate dispositions for the assault.
The confederates had been left without the walls, for he did not
care to bring them in sight of the quarry, before he was ready to slip
the leash. He now ordered them to join him; and, supported by
Alvarado's division, marched at once into the enemy's quarters. He
found them prepared to receive him. Their most able-bodied warriors
were thrown into the van, covering their feeble and crippled comrades.
Women were seen occasionally mingling in the ranks, and, as well as
children, thronged the azoteas, where, with famine-stricken visages
and haggard eyes, they scowled defiance and hatred on their invaders.
As the Spaniards advanced, the Mexicans set up a fierce war-cry,
and sent off clouds of arrows with their accustomed spirit, while
the women and boys rained down darts and stones from their elevated
position on the terraces. But the missiles were sent by hands too
feeble to do much damage; and, when the squadrons closed, the loss
of strength became still more sensible in the Aztecs. Their blows fell
feebly and with doubtful aim; though some, it is true, of stronger
constitution, or gathering strength from despair, maintained to the
last a desperate fight.
The arquebusiers now poured in a deadly fire. The brigantines
replied by successive volleys in the opposite quarter. The besieged,
hemmed in, like deer surrounded by the huntsmen, were brought down
on every side. The carnage was horrible. The ground was heaped up with
slain, until the maddened combatants were obliged to climb over the
human mounds to get at one another. The miry soil was saturated with
blood, which ran off like water, and dyed the canals themselves with
crimson. All was uproar and terrible confusion. The hideous yells of
the barbarians; the oaths and execrations of the Spaniards; the
cries of the wounded; the shrieks of women and children; the heavy
blows of the Conquerors; the deathstruggle of their victims; the
rapid, reverberating echoes of musketry; the hissing of innumerable
missiles; the crash and crackling of blazing buildings, crushing
hundreds in their ruins; the blinding volumes of dust and sulphurous
smoke shrouding all in their gloomy canopy,- made a scene appalling
even to the soldiers of Cortes, steeled as they were by many a rough
passage of war, and by long familiarity with blood and violence.
"The piteous cries of the women and children, in particular," says the
general, "were enough to break one's heart." He commanded that they
should be spared, and that all, who asked it, should receive
quarter. He particularly urged this on the confederates, and placed
men among them to restrain their violence. But he had set an engine in
motion too terrible to be controlled. It were as easy to curb the
hurricane in its fury, as the passions of an infuriated horde of
savages. "Never did I see so pitiless a race," he exclaims, "or any
thing wearing the form of man so destitute of humanity." They made
no distinction of sex or age, and in this hour of vengeance seemed
to be requiting the hoarded wrongs of a century. At length, sated with
slaughter, the Spanish commander sounded a retreat. It was full
time, if, according to his own statement,- we may hope it is an
exaggeration,- forty thousand souls had perished! Yet their fate was
to be envied, in comparison with that of those who survived.
Through the long night which followed, no movement was perceptible
in the Aztec quarter. No light was seen there, no sound was heard,
save the low moaning of some wounded or dying wretch, writhing in
his agony. All was dark and silent,- the darkness of the grave. The
last blow seemed to have completely stunned them. They had parted with
hope, and sat in sullen despair, like men waiting in silence the
stroke of the executioner. Yet, for all this, they showed no
disposition to submit. Every new injury had sunk deeper into their
souls, and filled them with a deeper hatred of their enemy. Fortune,
friends, kindred, home,- all were gone. They were content to throw
away life itself, now that they had nothing more to live for.
Far different was the scene in the Christian camp, where, elated
with their recent successes, all was alive with bustle, and
preparation for the morrow. Bonfires were seen blazing along the
causeways, lights gleamed from tents and barracks, and the sounds of
music and merriment, borne over the waters, proclaimed the joy of
the soldiers at the prospect of so soon terminating their wearisome
On the following morning the Spanish commander again mustered
his forces, having decided to follow up the blow of the preceding
day before the enemy should have time to rally, and at once to put
an end to the war. He had arranged with Alvarado, on the evening
previous, to occupy the market-place of Tlatelolco; and the
discharge of an arquebuse was to be the signal for a simultaneous
assault. Sandoval was to hold the northern causeway, and, with the
fleet, to watch the movements of the Indian emperor, and to
intercept the flight to the main land, which Cortes knew he meditated.
To allow him to effect this, would be to leave a formidable enemy in
his own neighbourhood, who might at any time kindle the flame of
insurrection throughout the country. He ordered Sandoval, however,
to do no harm to the royal person, and not to fire on the enemy at
all, except in self-defence.
It was on the memorable 13th of August, 1521, that Cortes led
his warlike array for the last time across the black and blasted
environs which lay around the Indian capital. On entering the Aztec
precincts, he paused, willing to afford its wretched inmates one
more chance of escape, before striking the fatal blow. He obtained
an interview with some of the principal chiefs, and expostulated
with them on the conduct of their prince. "He surely will not," said
the general, "see you all perish, when he can so easily save you."
He then urged them to prevail on Guatemozin to hold a conference
with him, repeating the assurances of his personal safety.
The messengers went on their mission, and soon returned with the
cihuacoatl at their head, a magistrate of high authority among the
Mexicans. He said, with a melancholy air, in which his own
disappointment was visible, that "Guatemozin was ready to die where he
was, but would hold no interview with the Spanish commander"; adding
in a tone of resignation, "It is for you to work your Pleasure."
"Go, then," replied the stern Conqueror, "and prepare your
countrymen for death. Their hour is come."
He still postponed the assault for several hours. But the
impatience of his troops at this delay was heightened by the rumor
that Guatemozin and his nobles were preparing to escape with their
effects in the piraguas and canoes which were moored on the margin
of the lake. Convinced of the fruitlessness and impolicy of further
procrastination, Cortes made his final dispositions for the attack,
and took his own station on an azotea, which commanded the theatre
When the assailants came into presence of the enemy, they found
them huddled together in the utmost confusion, all ages and sexes,
in masses so dense that they nearly forced one another over the
brink of the causeways into the water below. Some had climbed on the
terraces, others feebly supported themselves against the wars of the
buildings. Their squalid and tattered garments gave a wildness to
their appearance, which still further heightened the ferocity of their
expressions, as they glared on their enemy with eyes in which hate was
mingled with despair. When the Spaniards had approached within
bowshot, the Aztecs let off a flight of impotent missiles, showing
to the last the resolute spirit, though they had lost the strength, of
their better days. The fatal signal was then given by the discharge of
an arquebuse,- speedily followed by peals of heavy ordnance, the
rattle of firearms, and the hellish shouts of the confederates, as
they sprang upon their victims. It is unnecessary to stain the page
with a repetition of the horrors of the preceding day. Some of the
wretched Aztecs threw themselves into the water, and were picked up by
the canoes. Others sunk and were suffocated in the canals. The
number of these became so great, that a bridge was made of their
dead bodies, over which the assailants could climb to the opposite
banks. Others again, especially the women, begged for mercy, which, as
the chroniclers assure us, was everywhere granted by the Spaniards,
and, contrary to the instructions and entreaties of Cortes, everywhere
refused by the confederates.
While this work of butchery was going on, numbers were observed
pushing off in the barks that lined the shore, and making the best
of their way across the lake. They were constantly intercepted by
the brigantines, which broke through the flimsy array of boats;
sending off their volleys to the right and left, as the crews of the
latter hotly assailed them. The battle raged as fiercely on the lake
as on the land. Many of the Indian vessels were shattered and
overturned. Some few, however, under cover of the smoke, which
rolled darkly over the waters, succeeded in clearing themselves of the
turmoil, and were fast nearing the opposite shore.
Sandoval had particularly charged his captains to keep an eye on
the movements of any vessel in which it was at all probable that
Guatemozin might be concealed. At this crisis, three or four of the
largest piraguas were seen skimming over the water, and making their
way rapidly across the lake. A captain named Garci Holguin, who had
command of one of the best sailers in the fleet, instantly gave them
chase. The wind was favourable, and every moment he gained on the
fugitives, who pulled their oars with a vigour that despair alone
could have given. But it was in vain; and, after a short race,
Holguin, coming alongside of one of the piraguas, which, whether
from its appearance, or from information he had received, he
conjectured might bear the Indian emperor, ordered his men to level
their crossbows at the boat. But, before they could discharge them,
a cry arose from those on it, that their lord was on board. At the
same moment, a young warrior, armed with buckler and maquahuitl,
rose up, as if to beat off the assailants. But, as the Spanish captain
ordered his men not to shoot, he dropped his weapons, and exclaimed,
"I am Guatemozin; lead me to Malinche, I am his prisoner; but let no
harm come to my wife and my followers."
Holguin assured him that his wishes should be respected, and
assisted him to get on board the brigantine, followed by his wife
and attendants. These were twenty in number, consisting of Coanaco,
the deposed lord of Tezcuco, the lord of Tlacopan, and several other
caciques and dignitaries, whose rank, probably, had secured them
some exemption from the general calamities of the siege. When the
captives were seated on the deck of his vessel, Holguin requested
the Aztec prince to put an end to the combat by commanding his
people in the other canoes to surrender. But, with a dejected air,
he replied, "It is not necessary. They will fight no longer, when they
see that their prince is taken." He spoke truth. The news of
Guatemozin's capture spread rapidly through the fleet, and on shore,
where the Mexicans were still engaged in conflict with their
enemies. It ceased, however, at once. They made no further resistance;
and those on the water quickly followed the brigantines, which
conveyed their captive monarch to land.
Meanwhile Sandoval, on receiving tidings of the capture, brought
his own brigantine alongside of Holguin's, and demanded the royal
prisoner to be surrendered to him. But his captain claimed him as
his prize. A dispute arose between the parties, each anxious to have
the glory of the deed, and perhaps the privilege of commemorating it
on his escutcheon. The controversy continued so long that it reached
the ears of Cortes, who, in his station on the azotea, had learned,
with no little satisfaction, the capture of his enemy. He instantly
sent orders to his wrangling officers to bring Guatemozin before
him, that he might adjust the difference between them. He charged
them, at the same time, to treat their prisoner with respect. He
then made preparations for the interview; caused the terrace to be
carpeted with crimson cloth and matting, and a table to be spread with
provisions, of which the unhappy Aztecs stood so much in need. His
lovely Indian mistress, Dona Marina, was present to act as
interpreter. She had stood by his side through all the troubled scenes
of the Conquest, and she was there now to witness its triumphant
Guatemozin, on landing, was escorted by a company of infantry to
the presence of the Spanish commander. He mounted the azotea with a
calm and steady step, and was easily to be distinguished from his
attendant nobles, though his full, dark eye was no longer lighted up
with its accustomed fire, and his features wore an expression of
passive resignation, that told little of the fierce and fiery spirit
that burned within. His head was large, his limbs well proportioned,
his complexion fairer than those of his bronze-coloured nation, and
his whole deportment singularly mild and engaging.
Cortes came forward with a dignified and studied courtesy to
receive him. The Aztec monarch probably knew the person of his
conqueror, for he first broke silence by saying, "I have done all that
I could, to defend myself and my people. I am now reduced to this
state. You will deal with me, Malinche, as you list." Then, laying his
hand on the hilt of a poniard, stuck in the general's belt, he
added, with vehemence, "Better despatch me with this, and rid me of
life at once." Cortes was filled with admiration at the proud
bearing of the young barbarian, showing in his reverses a spirit
worthy of an ancient Roman. "Fear not," he replied, "you shall be
treated with all honour. You have defended your capital like a brave
warrior. A Spaniard knows how to respect valour even in an enemy." He
then inquired of him, where he had left the princess, his wife; and,
being informed that she still remained under protection of a Spanish
guard on board the brigantine, the general sent to have her escorted
to his presence.
She was the youngest daughter of Montezuma; and was hardly yet
on the verge of womanhood. On the accession of her cousin, Guatemozin,
to the throne, she had been wedded to him as his lawful wife. She
was kindly received by Cortes, who showed her the respectful
attentions suited to her rank. Her birth, no doubt, gave her an
additional interest in his eyes, and he may have felt some touch of
compunction, as he gazed on the daughter of the unfortunate Montezuma.
He invited his royal captives to partake of the refreshments which
their exhausted condition rendered so necessary. Meanwhile the Spanish
commander made his dispositions for the night, ordering Sandoval to
escort the prisoners to Cojohuacan, whither he proposed himself
immediately to follow. The other captains, and Alvarado, were to draw
off their forces to their respective quarters. It was impossible for
them to continue in the capital, where the poisonous effluvia from the
unburied carcasses loaded the air with infection. A small guard only
was stationed to keep order in the wasted suburbs.- It was the hour of
vespers when Guatemozin surrendered, and the siege might be considered
as then concluded.
Thus, after a siege of nearly three months' duration, unmatched in
history for the constancy and courage of the besieged, seldom
surpassed for the severity of its sufferings, fell the renowned
capital of the Aztecs. Unmatched, it may be truly said, for
constancy and courage, when we recollect that the door of capitulation
on the most honourable terms was left open to them throughout the
whole blockade, and that, sternly rejecting every proposal of their
enemy, they, to a man, preferred to die rather than surrender. More
than three centuries had elapsed since the Aztecs, a poor and
wandering tribe from the far north-west, had come on the plateau.
There they built their miserable collection of huts on the spot- as
tradition tells us- prescribed by the oracle. Their conquests, at
first confined to their immediate neighbourhood, gradually covered the
valley, then crossing the mountains, swept over the broad extent of
the tableland, descended its precipitous sides, and rolled onwards
to the Mexican Gulf, and the distant confines of Central America.
Their wretched capital, meanwhile, keeping pace with the enlargement
of territory, had grown into a flourishing city, filled with
buildings, monuments of art, and a numerous population, that gave it
the first rank among the capitals of the Western World. At this
crisis, came over another race from the remote East, strangers like
themselves, whose coming had also been predicted by the oracle, and,
appearing on the plateau, assailed them in the very zenith of their
prosperity, and blotted them out from the map of nations for ever! The
whole story has the air of fable rather than of history! a legend of
romance,- a tale of the genii!
Yet we cannot regret the fall of an empire which did so little
to promote the happiness of its subjects, or the real interests of
humanity. Notwithstanding the lustre thrown over its latter days by
the glorious defence of its capital, by the mild munificence of
Montezuma, by the dauntless heroism of Guatemozin, the Aztecs were
emphatically a fierce and brutal race, little calculated, in their
best aspects, to excite our sympathy and regard. Their civilisation,
such as it was, was not their own, but reflected, perhaps imperfectly,
from a race whom they had succeeded in the land. It was, in respect to
the Aztecs, a generous graft on a vicious stock, and could have
brought no fruit to perfection. They ruled over their wide domains
with a sword, instead of a sceptre. They did nothing to ameliorate the
condition, or in any way promote the progress, of their vassals. Their
vassals were serfs, used only to minister to their pleasure, held in
awe by armed garrisons, ground to the dust by imposts in peace, by
military conscriptions in war. They did not, like the Romans, whom
they resembled in the nature of their conquests, extend the rights
of citizenship to the conquered. They did not amalgamate them into one
great nation, with common rights and interests. They held them as
aliens,- even those who in the valley were gathered round the very
walls of the capital. The Aztec metropolis, the heart of the monarchy,
had not a sympathy, not a pulsation, in common with the rest of the
body politic. It was a stranger in its own land.
The Aztecs not only did not advance the condition of their
vassals, but morally speaking, they did much to degrade it. How can
a nation, where human sacrifices prevail, and especially when combined
with cannibalism, further the march of civilisation? How can the
interests of humanity be consulted where man is levelled to the rank
of the brutes that perish? The influence of the Aztecs introduced
their gloomy superstition into lands before unacquainted with it, or
where, at least, it was not established in any great strength. The
example of the capital was contagious. As the latter increased in
opulence, the religious celebrations were conducted with still more
terrible magnificence. In the same manner as the gladiatorial shows of
the Romans increased in pomp with the increasing splendour of the
capital, men became familiar with scenes of horror and the most
loathsome abominations; women and children- the whole nation became
familiar with, and assisted at them. The heart was hardened, the
manners were made ferocious, the feeble light of civilisation,
transmitted from a milder race, was growing fainter and fainter, as
thousands and thousands of miserable victims throughout the empire
were yearly fattened in its cages, sacrificed on its altars, dressed
and served at its banquets! The whole land was converted into a vast
human shambles! The empire of the Aztecs did not fall before its time.
Whether these unparalleled outrages furnish a sufficient plea to
the Spaniards for their invasion, whether, with the Protestant, we are
content to find a warrant for it in the natural rights and demands
of civilisation, or, with the Roman Catholic, in the good pleasure
of the Pope,- on the one or other of which grounds, the conquests by
most Christian nations in the East and the West have been defended,-
it is unnecessary to discuss, as it has already been considered in a
former chapter. It is more material to inquire, whether, assuming
the right, the conquest of Mexico was conducted with a proper regard
to the claims of humanity. And here we must admit that, with all
allowance for the ferocity of the age and the laxity of its
principles, there are passages which every Spaniard, who cherishes the
fame of his countrymen, would be glad to see expunged from their
history; passages not to be vindicated on the score of self-defence,
or of necessity of any kind, and which must forever leave a dark
spot on the annals of the Conquest. And yet, taken as a whole, the
invasion, up to the capture of the capital, was conducted on
principles less revolting to humanity than most, perhaps than any,
of the other conquests of the Castilian crown in the New World.
It may seem slight praise to say that the followers of Cortes used
no blood-hounds to hunt down their wretched victims, as in some
other parts of the continent, nor exterminated a peaceful and
submissive population in mere wantonness of cruelty, as in the
Islands. Yet it is something that they were not so far infected by the
spirit of the age, and that their swords were rarely stained with
blood unless it was indispensable to the success of their
enterprise. Even in the last siege of the capital, the sufferings of
the Aztecs, terrible as they were, do not imply any unusual cruelty in
the victors; they were not greater than those inflicted on their own
countrymen at home, in many a memorable instance, by the most polished
nations, not merely of ancient times but of our own. They were the
inevitable consequences which follow from war, when, instead of
being confined to its legitimate field, it is brought home to the
hearthstone, to the peaceful community of the city,- its burghers
untrained to arms, its women and children yet more defenceless. In the
present instance, indeed, the sufferings of the besieged were in a
great degree to be charged on themselves,- on their patriotic, but
desperate, self-devotion. It was not the desire, as certainly it was
not the interest, of the Spaniards to destroy the capital, or its
inhabitants. When any of these fell into their hands, they were kindly
entertained, their wants supplied, and every means taken to infuse
into them a spirit of conciliation; and this, too, it should be
remembered, in despite of the dreadful doom to which they consigned
their Christian captives. The gates of a fair capitulation were kept
open, though unavailingly, to the last hour.
The right of conquest necessarily implies that of using whatever
force may be necessary for overcoming resistance to the assertion of
that right. For the Spaniards to have done otherwise than they did,
would have been to abandon the siege, and, with it, the conquest of
the country. To have suffered the inhabitants, with their
high-spirited monarch, to escape, would but have prolonged the
miseries of war by transferring it to another and more inaccessible
quarter. They literally, as far as the success of the expedition was
concerned, had no choice. If our imagination is struck with the amount
of suffering in this, and in similar scenes of the Conquest, it should
be borne in mind, that it is a natural result of the great masses of
men engaged in the conflict. The amount of suffering does not in
itself show the amount of cruelty which caused it; and it is but
justice to the Conquerors of Mexico to say that the very brilliancy
and importance of their exploits have given a melancholy celebrity
to their misdeeds, and thrown them into somewhat bolder relief than
strictly belongs to them. It is proper that thus much should be
stated, not to excuse their excesses, but that we may be enabled to
make a more impartial estimate of their conduct, as compared with that
of other nations under similar circumstances, and that we may not
visit them with peculiar obloquy for evils which necessarily flow from
the condition of war.*
* By none has this obloquy been poured with such unsparing hand
on the heads of the old Conquerors as by their own descendants, the
modern Mexicans. Ixtlilxochitl's editor, Bustamante, concludes an
animated invective against the invaders with recommending that a
monument should be raised on the spot,- now dry land,- where
Guatemozin was taken, which, as the proposed inscription itself
intimates, should "devote to eternal execration the detested memory of
these banditti!" (Venida de los Esp., p. 52, nota.) One would
suppose that the pure Aztec blood, uncontaminated by a drop of
Castilian, flowed in the veins of the indignant editor and his
compatriots; or, at least, that their sympathies for the conquered
race would make them anxious to reinstate them in their ancient
rights. Notwithstanding these bursts of generous indignation, however,
which plentifully season the writings of the Mexicans of our day, we
do not find that the Revolution, or any of its numerous brood of
pronunciamientos, has resulted in restoring them to an acre of their
Whatever may be thought of the Conquest in a moral view,
regarded as a military achievement, it must fill us with astonishment.
That a handful of adventurers, indifferently armed and equipped,
should have landed on the shores of a powerful empire, inhabited by
a fierce and warlike race, and in defiance of the reiterated
prohibitions of its sovereign, have forced their way into the
interior;- that they should have done this, without knowledge of the
language or the land, without chart or compass to guide them,
without any idea of the difficulties they were to encounter, totally
uncertain whether the next step might bring them on a hostile
nation, or on a desert, feeling their way along in the dark, as it
were;- that though nearly overwhelmed by their first encounter with
the inhabitants, they should have still pressed on to the capital of
the empire, and, having reached it, thrown themselves unhesitatingly
into the midst of their enemies;- that, so far from being daunted by
the extraordinary spectacle there exhibited of power and civilisation,
they should have been but the more confirmed in their original
design;- that they should have seized the monarch, have executed his
ministers before the eyes of his subjects, and, when driven forth with
ruin from the gates, have gathered their scattered wreck together,
and, after a system of operations pursued with consummate policy and
daring, have succeeded in overturning the capital, and establishing
their sway over the country;- that all this should have been so
effected by a mere handful of indigent adventurers, is in fact
little short of the miraculous, too startling for the probabilities
demanded by fiction, and without a parallel in the pages of history.
Yet this must not be understood too literally; for it would be
unjust to the Aztecs themselves, at least to their military prowess,
to regard the Conquest as directly achieved by the Spaniards alone.
The Indian empire was in a manner conquered by Indians. The Aztec
monarchy fell by the hands of its own subjects, under the direction of
European sagacity and science. Had it been united, it might have
bidden defiance to the invaders. As it was, the capital was dissevered
from the rest of the country; and the bolt, which might have passed
off comparatively harmless, had the empire been cemented by a common
principle of loyalty and patriotism, now found its way into every
crack and crevice of the ill-compacted fabric, and buried it in its
own ruins. Its fate may serve as a striking proof, that a
government, which does not rest on the sympathies of its subjects,
cannot long abide; that human institutions, when not connected with
human prosperity and progress, must fall, if not before the increasing
light of civilisation, by the hand of violence; by violence from
within, if not from without. And who shall lament their fall?
1. "Estaban los tristes Mejicanos, hombres y mugeres, niños y niñas, viejos y viejas, heridos y enfermos en un lugar bien estrecho, y bien apretados los unos con los otros, y con grandísima falta de bastimentos, y al calor del Sol, y al frio de la noche, y cada hora esperando la muerte." Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva Esp., MS., lib. 12, cap. 39.
2. Torquemada had the anecdote from a nephew of one of the Indian matrons, then a very old man himself. Monarch. Ind., lib. 4, cap. 102.
3. Ibid., ubi supra.--Bernal Diaz, Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 156.
4. "De los niños, no quedó nadie, que las mismas madres y padres los comian (que era gran lástima de ver, y mayormente de sufrir)." (Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva Esp., MS., lib. 12, cap. 39.) The historian derived his accounts from the Mexicans themselves, soon after the event. One is reminded of the terrible denunciations of Moses: "The tender and delicate woman among you, which would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground for delicateness and tenderness, her eye shall be evil toward ..... her children which she shall bear; for she shall eat them, for want of all things, secretly, in the siege and straitness wherewith thine enemy shall distress thee in thy gates." Deuteronomy, chap. 28, vs. 56, 57.
5. "No podiamos andar sino entre cuerpos, y cabeças de Indios muertos." Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 156.
6. "No tenian donde estar sino sobre los cuerpos muertos de los suyos." Rel. Terc., ap. Lorenzana, p. 291.
7. Bernal Diaz, Ibid., ubi supra.--Herrera, Hist. General, dec. 3, lib. 2, cap. 8.--Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva Esp., MS., lib. 12, cap. 41.--Gonzalo de las Casas, Defensa, MS., cap. 28.
8. "Un torbellino de fuego como sangre embuelto en brasas y en centellas, que partia de hacia Tepeacac (que es donde está ahora Santa María de Guadalupe) y fué haciendo gran ruido, hacia donde estaban acorralados los Mejicanos y Tlaltilulcanos; y dió una vuelta para enrededor de ellos, y no dicen si los empeció algo, sino que habiendo dado aquella vuelta, se entró por la laguna adelante; y allí desapareció." Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva Esp., MS., lib. 12, cap. 40.
9. "Inclinatis ad credendum animis," says the philosophic Roman historian, "loco ominum etiam fortuita." Tacitus, Hist., lib. 2, sec. 1.
10. "Y como lo lleváron delante de Guatimucin su Señor, y él le comenzó á hablar sobre la Paz, dizque luego lo mandó matar y sacrificar." Rel. Terc., ap. Lorenzana, p. 293.
11. "Que pues ellos me tenian por Hijo del Sol, y el Sol en tanta brevedad como era en un dia y una noche daba vuelta á todo el Mundo, que porque yo assí brevemente no los acababa de matar, y los quitaba de penar tanto, porque ya ellos tenian deseos de morir, y irse al Cielo para su Ochilobus, [Huitzilopochtli,] que los estaba esperando para descansar." Ibid., p. 292.
12. "Y yo les torné á repetir, que no sabia la causa, porque él se recelaba venir ante mí, pues veia que á ellos, que yo sabia q habian sido los causadores principales de la Guerra, y que la habian sustentado, les hacia buen tratamiento, que los dejaba ir, y venir seguramente, sin recibir enojo alguno; que les rogaba, que le tornassen á hablar, y mirassen mucho en esto de su venida, pues á él le convenia, y yo lo hacia por su provecho." Ibid., pp. 294, 295.
13. The testimony is most emphatic and unequivocal to these repeated efforts on the part of Cortés to bring the Aztecs peaceably to terms. Besides his own Letter to the Emperor, see Bernal Diaz, cap. 155,--Herrera, Hist. General, lib. 2, cap. 6, 7,--Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 4, cap. 100,--Ixtlilxochitl, Venida de los Esp., pp. 44-48,--Oviedo, Hist. de las Ind., MS., lib. 33, cap. 29, 30.
14. "Corrian Arroios de Sangre por las Calles, como pueden correr de Agua, quando llueve, y con ímpetu, y fuerça." Torquemada, Monarch, Ind., lib. 4, cap. 103.
15. "Era tanta la grita, y lloro de los Niños, y Mugeres, que no habia Persona, á quien no quebrantasse el corazon." (Rel. Terc., ap. Lorenzana, p. 296.) They were a rash and stiff-necked race, exclaims his reverend editor, the archbishop, with a charitable commentary! "Gens duræ cervicis, gens absque consilio." Nota.
16. "Como la gente de la Cibdad se salia á los nuestros habia el general proveido, que por todas las calles estubiesen Españoles para estorvar á los amigos, que no matasen aquellos tristes, que eran sin número. É tambien dixo á todos los amigos capitanes, que no consintiesen á su gente que matasen á ninguno de los que salian." Oviedo, Hist. de las Ind., MS., lib. 33, cap. 30.
17. "La qual crueldad nunca en Generacion tan recia se vió, ni tan fuera de toda órden de naturaleza, como en los Naturales de estas partes." Rel. Terc. de Cortés, ap. Lorenzana, p.296.
18. Ibid., ubi supra.--Ixtlilxochitl says, 50,000 were slain and taken in this dreadful onslaught. Venida de los Esp., p. 48.
19. "Adonde estauan retraidos el Guatemuz con toda la flor de sus Capitanes, y personas mas nobles que en México auia, y le mandó que no matasse, ni hiriesse á ningunos Indios, saluo si no le diessen guerra, é que aunque se la diessen, que solamente se defendiesse." Bernal Diaz, Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 156.
20. "Y al fin me dijo, que en ninguna manera el Señor vernia ante mí; y antes queria por allá morir, y que á él pesaba mucho de esto, que hiciesse yo lo que quisiesse; y como ví en esto su determinacion, yo le dije; que se bolviesse á los supos, y que él, y ellos se aparejassen, porque los queria combatir, y acabar de matar, y assí se fué." Rel. Terc. de Cortés, ap. Lorenzana, p, 298.
21. Oviedo, Hist. de las Ind., MS., lib. 33, cap. 30.--Ixtlilxochitl, Venida de los Esp., p. 48.--Herrera, Hist. General, dec. 3, lib. 2, cap. 7.--Rel. Terc. de Cortés, ap. Lorenzana, pp. 297, 298.--Gomara, Crónica, cap. 142.
22. Ixtlilxochitl, Venida de los Esp., p. 49.
"No me tiren, que yo soy el Rey de México, y desta tierra, y lo que te ruego es, que no me llegues á mi muger, ni á mis hijos; ni á ninguna muger, ni á ninguna cosa de lo que aquí traygo, sino que me tomes á mí, y me lleues á Malinche." (Bernal Diaz, Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 156.) M. de Humboldt has taken much pains to identify the place of Guatemozin's capture,--now become dry land,--which he considers to have been somewhere between the Garita del Peralvillo, the square of St. Iago de Tlaltelolco, and the bridge of Amaxac. Essai Politique, tom. II, p. 76.
23. For the preceding account of the capture of Guatemozin, told with little discrepancy, though with more or less minuteness by the different writers, see Bernal Diaz, Ibid., ubi supra,--Rel. Terc. de Cortés, p. 299,--Gonzalo de las Casas, Defensa, MS.,--Oviedo, Hist. de las Ind., MS., lib. 33, cap. 30,--Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 4, cap. 101.
24. The general, according to Diaz, rebuked his officers for their ill-timed contention, reminding them of the direful effects of a similar quarrel between Marius and Sylla, respecting Jugurtha. (Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 156.) This piece of pedantry savors much more of the old chronicler than his commander. The result of the whole--not an uncommon one in such cases--was, that the Emperor granted to neither of the parties, but to Cortés, the exclusive right of commemorating the capture of Guatemozin, by placing his head, together with the heads of seven other captive princes, on the border of his shield.
25. Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva Esp., MS., lib. 12, cap. 40.
26. For the portrait of Guatemozin, I again borrow the faithful pencil of Diaz, who knew him--at least his person--well. "Guatemuz era de muy gentil disposicion, assí de cuerpo, como de fayciones, y la cata algo larga, y alegre, y los ojos mas parecian que quando miraua, que eran con grauedad, y halagüeños, y no auia falta en ellos, y era de edad de veinte y tres, ó veinte y quatro años, y el color tiraua mas á blanco, que al color, y matiz de essotros Indios morenos." Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 156.
27. "Llegóse á mi, y díjome en su lengua: que ya él habia hecho todo, lo que de su parte era obligado para defenderse á sí, y á los suyos, hasta venir en aquel estado; que ahora ficiesse de él lo que yo quisiesse; y puso la mano en un puñal, que yo tenia diciéndome, que le diesse de puñaladas, y le matasse." (Rel. Terc. de Cortés, ap. Lorenzana, p. 300.) This remarkable account by the Conqueror himself is confirmed by Diaz, who does not appear to have seen this letter of his commander. Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 156.
28. Ibid., cap. 156.--Also Oviedo, Hist. de las Ind., MS., lib. 33, cap. 48,--and Martyr, (De Orbe Novo, dec. 5, cap. 8,) who, by the epithet of magnanimo regi, testifies the admiration which Guatemozin's lofty spirit excited in the court of Castile.
29. The ceremony of marriage, which distinguished the "lawful wife" from the concubine, is described by Don Thoan Cano, in his conversation with Oviedo. According to this, it appears that the only legitimate offspring, which Montezuma left at his death, was a son and a daughter, this same princess.
30. For a further account of Montezuma's daughter, see Book VII., Chapter III, of this History.
31. The event is annually commemorated, or rather was, under the colonial government, by a solemn procession round the walls of the city. It took place on the 13th of August, the anniversary of the surrender, and consisted of the principal cavaliers and citizens on horseback, headed by the viceroy, and displaying the venerable standard of the Conqueror.
32. Toribio, Hist. de los Ind., MS., Parte 3, cap. 7.--Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva Esp., MS., lib. 12, cap. 42.--Bernal Diaz, Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 156.
"The lord of Mexico having surrendered," says Cortés, in his letter to the Emperor, "the war, by the blessing of Heaven, was brought to an end, on Wednesday, the 13th day of August, 1521. So that from the day when we first sat down before the city, which was the 30th of May, until its final occupation, seventy-five days elapsed." (Rel. Terc., ap. Lorenzana, p. 300.) It is not easy to tell what event occurred on May 30th, to designate the beginning of the siege. Clavigero considers it the occupation of Cojohuacan by Olid. (Stor. del Messico, tom. III. p. 196.) But I know not on what authority. Neither Bernal Diaz, nor Herrera, nor Cortés, so fixes the date. Indeed, Clavigero says, that Alvarado and Olid left Tezcuco May 20, while Cortés says May 10. Perhaps Cortés dates from the time when Sandoval established himself on the northern causeway, and when the complete investment of the capital began.--Bernal Diaz, more than once, speaks of the siege as lasting three months, computing, probably, from the time when his own division, under Alvarado, took up its position at Tacuba.
33. It did not, apparently, disturb the slumbers of the troops, who had been so much deafened by the incessant noises of the siege, that, now these had ceased, "we felt," says Diaz, in his homely way, "like men suddenly escaped from a belfry, where we had been shut up for months with a chime of bells ringing in our ears!" Ibid., ubi supra.
34. Herrera (Hist. General, dec. 3, lib. 2, cap. 7) and Torquemada (Monarch. Ind., lib. 4, cap. 101) estimate them at 30,000. Ixtlilxochitl says that 60,000 fighting men laid down their arms; (Venida de los Esp., p. 49;) and Oviedo swells the amount still higher, to 70,000 (Hist. de las Ind., MS., lib. 33, cap. 48.)--After the losses of the siege, these numbers are startling.
35. "Digo que en tres dias con sus noches iban todas tres calçadas llenas de Indios, é Indias, y muchachos, llenas de bote en bote, que nunca dexauan de salir, y tan flacos, y suzios, é amarillos, é hediondos, que era lástima de los ver." Bernal Diaz, Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 156.
36. Cortés estimates the losses of the enemy in the three several assaults at 67,000, which, with 50,000, whom he reckons to have perished from famine and disease, would give 117,000. (Rel. Terc., ap. Lorenzana, p. 298, et alibi.) But this is exclusive of those who fell previously to the commencement of the vigorous plan of operations for demolishing the city. Ixtlilxochitl, who seldom allows any one to beat him in figures, puts the dead, in round numbers, at 240,000, comprehending the flower of the Aztec nobility. (Venida de los Esp., p. 51.) Bernal Diaz observes, more generally, "I have read the story of the destruction of Jerusalem, but I doubt if there was as great mortality there as in this siege; for there was assembled in the city an immense number of Indian warriors from all the provinces and towns subject to Mexico, the most of whom perished." (Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 156.) "I have conversed," says Oviedo, "with many hidalgos and other persons, and have heard them say that the number of the dead was incalculable,--greater than that at Jerusalem, as described by Josephus." (Hist. de las Ind., MS., lib. 30, cap. 30.) As the estimate of the Jewish historian amounts to 1,100,000, (Antiquities of the Jews, Eng. tr., Book VII. chap. XVII.,) the comparison may stagger the most accommodating faith. It will be safer to dispense with arithmetic, where the data are too loose and slippery to afford a foothold for getting at truth.
37. Ibid., ubi supra.
38. Rel. Terc., ap. Lorenzana, p. 301.
Oviedo goes into some further particulars respecting the amount of the treasure and especially of the imperial fifth, to which I shall have occasion to advert hereafter. Hist. de las Ind., MS., lib. 33, cap. 31.
39. Herrera, Hist. General, dec. 3, lib. 2, cap. 8.--Bernal Diaz, Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 156.--Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva Esp., MS., lib. 12, cap. 42.--Oviedo, Hist. de las Ind., MS., lib. 33, cap. 30.--Ixtlilxochitl, Venida de los Esp., pp. 51, 52.
40. By none has this obloquy been poured with such unsparing hand on the heads of the old Conquerors, as by their own descendants, the modern Mexicans. Ixtlilxochitl's editor, Bustamante, concludes an animated invective against the invaders with recommending that a monument should be raised on the spot,--now dry land,--where Guatemozin was taken, which, as the proposed inscription itself intimates, should "devote to eternal execration the detested memory of these banditti!" (Venida de los Esp., p. 52, nota.) One would suppose that the pure Aztec blood, uncontaminated by a drop of Castilian, flowed in the veins of the indignant editor and his compatriots; or, at least, that their sympathies for the conquered race would make them anxious to reinstate them in their ancient rights. Notwithstanding these bursts of generous indignation, however, which plentifully season the writings of the Mexicans of our day, we do not find, that the Revolution, or any of its numerous brood of pronunciamientos, has resulted in restoring them to an acre of their ancient territory.
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