Chapter II [1522-1524]


IN less than four years from the destruction of Mexico, a new city had risen on its ruins, which, if inferior to the ancient capital in extent, surpassed it in magnificence and strength. It occupied so exactly the same site as its predecessor that the plaza mayor, or great square, was the same spot which had been covered by the huge teocalli and the palace of Montezuma; while the principal streets took their departure as before from this central point, and passing through the whole length of the city, terminated at the principal causeways. Great alteration, however, took place in the fashion of the architecture. The streets were widened, many of the canals were filled up, and the edifices were constructed on a plan better accommodated to European taste and the wants of a European population.

On the site of the temple of the Aztec war-god rose the stately cathedral dedicated to St. Francis; and, as if to complete the triumphs of the Cross, the foundations were laid with the broken images of the Aztec gods. In a corner of the square, on the ground once covered by the House of Birds, stood a Franciscan convent, a magnificent pile, erected a few years after the Conquest by a lay brother, Pedro de Gante, a natural son, it is said, of Charles the Fifth. In an opposite quarter of the same square, Cortes caused his own palace to be constructed. It was built of hewn stone, and seven thousand cedar beams are said to have been used for the interior. The government afterwards appropriated it to the residence of the viceroys; and the Conqueror's descendants, the Dukes of Monteleone, were allowed to erect a new mansion in another part of the plaza, on the spot which, by an ominous coincidence, had been covered by the palace of Montezuma.

The general's next care was to provide a population for the capital. He invited the Spaniards thither by grants of lands and houses, while the Indians, with politic liberality, were permitted to live under their own chiefs as before, and to enjoy various immunities. With this encouragement, the Spanish quarter of the city in the neighbourhood of the great square could boast in a few years two thousand families; while the Indian district of Tlatelolco included no less than thirty thousand. The various trades and occupations were resumed; the canals were again covered with barges; two vast markets in the respective quarters of the capital displayed all the different products and manufactures of the surrounding country; and the city swarmed with a busy, industrious population, in which the white man and the Indian, the conqueror and the conquered, mingled together promiscuously in peaceful and picturesque confusion. Not twenty years had elapsed since the Conquest, when a missionary who visited it had the confidence, or the credulity, to assert, that "Europe could not boast a single city so fair and opulent as Mexico."

Cortes stimulated the settlement of his several colonies by liberal grants of land and municipal privileges. The great difficulty was to induce women to reside in the country, and without them he felt that the colonies, like a tree without roots, must soon perish. By a singular provision, he required every settler, if a married man, to bring over his wife within eighteen months, on pain of forfeiting his estate. If he were too poor to do this himself, the government would assist him. Another law imposed the same penalty on all bachelors who did not provide themselves with wives within the same period! The general seems to have considered celibacy as too great a luxury for a young country.

His own wife, Dona Catalina Xuarez, was among those who came over from the Islands to New Spain. According to Bernal Diaz, her coming gave him no particular satisfaction. It is possible; since his marriage with her seems to have been entered into with reluctance, and her lowly condition and connections stood somewhat in the way of his future advancement. Yet they lived happily together for several years, according to the testimony of Las Casas; and whatever he may have felt, he had the generosity, or the prudence not to betray his feelings to the world. On landing, Dona Catalina was escorted by Sandoval to the capital, where she was kindly received by her husband, and all the respect paid to her to which she was entitled by her elevated rank. But the climate of the tableland was not suited to her constitution, and she died in three months after her arrival. An event so auspicious to his worldly prospects did not fail, as we shall see hereafter, to provoke the tongue of scandal to the most malicious, but is scarcely necessary to say, unfounded inferences.

In the distribution of the soil among the Conquerors, Cortes adopted the vicious system of repartimientos, universally practised among his countrymen. In a letter to the emperor, he states, that the superior capacity of the Indians in New Spain had made him regard it as a grievous thing to condemn them to servitude, as had been done in the Islands. But, on further trial, he had found the Spaniards so much harassed and impoverished, that they could not hope to maintain themselves in the land without enforcing the services of the natives, and for this reason he had at length waived his own scruples in compliance with their repeated remonstrances. This was the wretched pretext used on the like occasions by his countrymen to cover up this flagrant act of injustice. The crown, however, in its instructions to the general, disavowed the act and annulled the repartimientos. It was all in vain. The necessities, or rather the cupidity, of the colonists, easily evaded the royal ordinances. The colonial legislation of Spain shows, in the repetition of enactments against slavery, the perpetual struggle that subsisted between the crown and the colonists, and the impotence of the former to enforce measures repugnant to the interests, at all events to the avarice, of the latter.

The Tlascalans, in gratitude for their signal services, were exempted, at the recommendation of Cortes, from the doom of slavery. It should be added, that the general, in granting the repartimientos, made many humane regulations for limiting the power of the master, and for securing as many privileges to the native as were compatible with any degree of compulsory service. These limitations, it is true, were too often disregarded; and in the mining districts in particular the situation of the poor Indian was often deplorable. Yet the Indian population, clustering together in their own villages, and living under their own magistrates, have continued to prove by their numbers, fallen as these have below their primitive amount, how far superior was their condition to that in most other parts of the vast colonial empire of Spain.

Whatever disregard he may have shown to the political rights of the natives, Cortes manifested a commendable solicitude for their spiritual welfare. He requested the emperor to send out holy men to the country; not bishops and pampered prelates, who too often squandered the substance of the Church in riotous living, but godly persons, members of religious fraternities, whose lives might be a fitting commentary on their teaching. Thus only, he adds,- and the remark is worthy of note,- can they exercise any influence over the natives, who have been accustomed to see the least departure from morals in their own priesthood punished with the utmost rigour of the law. In obedience to these suggestions, twelve Franciscan friars embarked for New Spain, which they reached early in 1524. They were men of unblemished purity of life, nourished with the learning of the cloister, and, like many others whom the Romish Church has sent forth on such apostolic missions, counted all personal sacrifices as little in the cause to which they were devoted.

The conquerors settled in such parts of the country as best suited their inclinations. Many occupied the south-eastern slopes of the Cordilleras towards the rich valley of Oaxaca. Many more spread themselves over the broad surface of the tableland, which, from its elevated position; reminded them of the plateau of their own Castiles. Here, too, they were in the range of those inexhaustible mines which have since poured their silver deluge over Europe. The mineral resources of the land were not, indeed, fully explored, or comprehended till at a much later period; but some few, as the mines of Zacatecas, Guanaxuato, and Tasco,- the last of which was also known in Montezuma's time,- had begun to be wrought within a generation after the Conquest.

But the best wealth of the first settlers was in the vegetable products of the soil, whether indigenous, or introduced from abroad by the wise economy of Cortes. He had earnestly recommended the crown to require all vessels coming to the country, to bring over a certain quantity of seeds and plants. He made it a condition of the grants of land on the plateau, that the proprietor of every estate should plant a specified number of vines in it. He further stipulated, that no one should get a clear title to his estate until he had occupied it eight years. He knew that permanent residence could alone create that interest in the soil which would lead to its efficient culture; and that the opposite system had caused the impoverishment of the best plantations in the Islands.

While thus occupied with the internal economy of the country, Cortes was still bent on his great schemes of discovery and conquest. In the preceding chapter we have seen him fitting out a little fleet at Zacatula, to explore the shores of the Pacific. It was burnt in the dock-yard, when nearly completed. This was a serious calamity, as most of the materials were to be transported across the country from Villa Rica. Cortes, however, with his usual promptness, took measures to repair the loss. He writes to the emperor, that another squadron will soon be got ready at the same port. A principal object of this squadron was the discovery of a strait which should connect the Atlantic with the Pacific. Another squadron, consisting of five vessels, was fitted out in the Gulf of Mexico, to take the direction of Florida, with the same view of detecting a strait. For Cortes trusted- we, at this day, may smile at the illusion- that one might be found in that direction, which should conduct the navigator to those waters which had been traversed by the keels of Magellan!

The discovery of a strait was the great object to which nautical enterprise in that day was directed, as it had been ever since the time of Columbus. It was in the sixteenth century what the discovery of the North-West passage has been in our own age; the great ignis fatuus of navigators. The vast extent of the American continent had been ascertained by the voyages of Cabot in the North, and of Magellan very recently in the South. The proximity, in certain quarters, of the two great oceans that washed its eastern and western shores had been settled by the discoveries both of Balboa and of Cortes. European scholars could not believe, that Nature had worked on a plan so repugnant to the interests of humanity, as to interpose, through the whole length of the great continent, such a barrier to communication between the adjacent waters.

It was partly with the same view, that the general caused a considerable armament to be equipped and placed under the command of Christoval de Olid, the brave officer who, as the reader will remember, had charge of one of the great divisions of the besieging army. He was to steer for Honduras, and plant a colony on its northern coast. A detachment of Olid's squadron was afterwards to cruise along its southern shore towards Darien in search of the mysterious strait. The country was reported to be full of gold; so full, that "the fishermen used gold weights for their nets." The life of the Spanish discoverers was one long day-dream. Illusion after illusion chased one another like the bubbles which the child throws off from his pipe, as bright, as beautiful, and as empty. They lived in a world of enchantment.

Together with these maritime expeditions Cortes fitted out a powerful expedition by land. It was intrusted to Alvarado, who, with a large force of Spaniards and Indians, was to descend the southern slant of the Cordilleras, and penetrate into the countries that lay beyond the rich valley of Oaxaca. The campaigns of this bold and rapacious chief terminated in the important conquest of Guatemala.

In the prosecution of his great enterprises, Cortes, within three short years after the Conquest, had reduced under the dominion of Castile an extent of country more than four hundred leagues in length, as he affirms, on the Atlantic coast, and more than five hundred on the Pacific; and, with the exception of a few interior provinces of no great importance, had brought them to a condition of entire tranquillity. In accomplishing this, he had freely expended the revenues of the crown, drawn from tributes similar to those which had been anciently paid by the natives to their own sovereigns; and he had, moreover, incurred a large debt on his own account, for which he demanded remuneration from government. The celebrity of his name, and the dazzling reports of the conquered countries, drew crowds of adventurers to New Spain, who furnished the general with recruits for his various enterprises.

Whoever would form a just estimate of this remarkable man, must not confine himself to the history of the Conquest. His military career, indeed, places him on a level with the greatest captains of his age. But the period subsequent to the Conquest affords different, and in some respects nobler, points of view for the study of his character. For we then see him devising a system of government for the motley and antagonist races, so to speak, now first brought under a common dominion; repairing the mischiefs of war; and employing his efforts to detect the latent resources of the country, and to stimulate it to its highest power of production. The narration may seem tame after the recital of exploits as bold and adventurous as those of a paladin of romance. But it is only by the perusal of this narrative that we can form an adequate conception of the acute and comprehensive geinus of Cortes.

1. Herrera, Hist. General, dec. 3, lib. 4, cap. 8.

2. Clavigero, Stor. del Messico, tom. I. p. 271.--Humboldt, Essai Politique, tom. II. p. 58.

3. Herrera, Hist. General, ubi supra.

4. Humboldt, Essai Politique, tom. II. p. 72.

5. Rel. d' un gent., ap. Ramusio, tom. III. fol. 309.

6. Ibid., ubi supra.

7. Bernal Diaz, Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 177.

8. Rel. Quarta de Cortés, ap. Lorenzana, p. 376, nota.

9. For an account of this singular enterprise, see Ante, p. 285.

10. Cortés, reckoning only the Indian population, says treinta mil vecinos. (Rel. Quarta, ap. Loren­zana, p. 375.) Gomara, speaking of Mexico some years later, estimates the number of Span­ish householders as in the text. Crónica, cap. 162.

11. Toribio, Hist. de los Indios, MS., Parte 3, cap. 7.
      Yet this is scarcely stronger language than that of the Anonymous Conqueror; "Così ben ordinato et di si belle piazze et strade, quanto d' altre città che siano al mondo." Rel. d' un gent., ap. Ramusio, tom. III. fol. 309.

12. "Y tengo por cierto, que aquel Pueblo ha de ser, despues de esta Ciudad, el mejor que obiere en esta Nueva España." (Rel. Quarto, ap. Lorenzana, p. 382.) The archbishop confounds this town with the modern Vera Cruz. But the general's description of the port refutes this sup­position, and confirms our confidence in Clavigero's statement, that the present city was founded by the Conde de Monterey, at the time mentioned in the text. See p. 191, note.

13. Ordenanzas Municipales, Tenochtitlan, Marzo, 1524, MS.
      The Ordinances made by Cortés, for the government of the country during his viceroy­alty, are still preserved in Mexico; and the copy in my possession was transmitted to me from that capital. They give ample evidence of the wise and penetrating spirit which embraced every object worthy of the attention of an enlightened ruler; and I will quote, in the original, the singular provisions mentioned in the text.
      "Item. Por que mas se manifieste la voluntad que los pobladores de estas partes tienen de residir y permanecer en ellas, mando que todas las personas que tuvieren Indios, que fueren casados en Castilla ó en otras partes, que traigan sus mugeres dentro de un año y medio primero siguientes de como estas ordenanzas fueren pregonadas, so pena de perder los In­dios, y todo lo con ellos adquirido é grangeado; y por que muchas personas podrian poner por achaque aunque tuviesen aparejo de decir que no tienen dineros para enviar por ellas, por hende las tales personas que tuvieran esta necesidad parescan ante el Ro. Pe. Fray Juan de Teto y ante Alonso de Estrada, tesorero de su Magestad, á les informar de su necesidad, para que ellos la comuniquen á mí, y su necesidad se remedie; y si algunas personas hay que casa­dos y no tienen sus mugeres en esta tierra, y quisieran traerlas, sepan que trayéndolas serán ayudadas así mismo para las traer dando fianzas.
      "Item. Por quanto en esta tierra hay muchas personas que tienen Indios de encomienda y no son casados, por hende por que conviene así para la salud de sus conciencias de los tales por estar en buen estado, como por la poblacion é noblecimiento de sus tierras, mando que las tales personas se casen, traigan y tengan sus mugeres en esta tierra dentro de un año y medio, des pues que fueren pregonadas estas dichas Ordenanzas, é que no haciendo lo por el mismo caso sean privados y pierdan los tales Indios que así tienen."

14. Bernal Diaz, Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 160.

15. Ante, p. 134.

16. Of asthma, according to Bernal Diaz; (Hist. de la Conquista, ubi supra;) but her death seems to have been too sudden to be attributed to that disease. I shall return to the subject here­after.

17. Rel. Terc., ap. Lorenzana, pp. 319, 320.

18. Herrera, Hist. General, dec. 3, lib. 5, cap. 1.

19. Ibid., dec. 4, lib. 6, cap. 5.--Ordenanzas, MS.
      The ordinances prescribe the service of the Indians, the hours they may be employed, their food, compensation, and the like. They require the encomendero to provide them with suitable means of religious instruction and places of worship.--But what avail good laws, which, in their very nature, imply the toleration of a great abuse?

20. The whole population of New Spain, in 1810, is estimated by Don Francisco Navarro y No­riega at about 6,000,000; of which more than half were pure Indians. The author had the best means for arriving at a correct result. See Humboldt, Essai Politique, tom. I. pp. 318, 319, note.

21. Rel. Quarta, ap. Lorenzana, pp. 391-394.
      The petition of the Conquerors was acceded to by government, which further prohibited "attorneys and men learned in the law from setting foot in the country, on the ground that experience had shown, they would be sure by their evil practices to disturb the peace of the community." (Herrera, Hist. General, dec. 3, lib. 5, cap. 2.) These enactments are but an indifferent tribute to the character of the two professions in Castile.

22. Toribio, Hist. de los Indios, MS., Parte 1, cap. 1.--Camargo, Hist. de Tlascala. MS.

23. "Cuyo hecho del rotísimo y humilde recebimiento fué uno de los heroicos hechos que este Capitan hizo, porque fué documento para que con mayor fervor los naturales desta tierra viniesen á la conversion de nuestra fee." (Camargo, Hist. de Tlascala, MS.--See also Bernal Diaz, Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 171.) Archbishop Lorenzana falls nothing short of the Tlas­calan historian in his admiration of the religious zeal of the great Conquistador, which, he as­sures us, "entirely overwhelms him, as savoring so much more of the apostolic missionary than of the soldier!" Lorenzana, p. 393, nota.

24. Toribio, Hist. de los Indios, MS., Parte 3, cap. 1.
      Father Sahagun, who has done better service in this way than any other of his order, describes with simple brevity the rapid process of demolition. "We took the children of the caciques," he says, "into our schools, where we taught them to read, write, and to chant. The children of the poorer natives were brought together in the court-yard, and instructed there in the Christian faith. After our teaching, one or two brethren took the pupils to some neigh­boring teocalli, and, by working at it for a few days, they levelled it to the ground. In this way they demolished, in a short time, all the Aztec temples, great and small, so that not a vestige of them remained." (Hist. de Nueva España, tom. III. p. 77.) This passage helps to explain why so few architectural relics of the Indian era still survive in Mexico.

25. "De manera que á mi juicio y verdaderamente serán bautizados en este tiempo que digo, que serán quince años, mas de nueve millones de ánimas de Indios." Toribio, Hist. de los Indios, MS., Parte 2, cap. 3.

26. Clavigero, Stor. del Messico, tom. I. p. 43.--Humboldt, Essai Politique, tom. III. pp. 115, 145.--Esposicion de Don Lúcas Alaman, (México, 1828,) p. 59.

27. "Páraque cada Navío traiga cierta cantidad de Plantas, y que no pueda salir sin ellas, porque será mucha causa para la Poblacion, y perpetuacion de ella." Rel. Quarta de Cortés, ap. Lorenzana, p. 397.

28. "Item, que cualquier vesino que tubiere Indios de repartimiento sea obligado á poner en ellos en cada un año con cada cien Indios de los que tuvieren de repartimiento mil sarmientos, encogiendo la mejor que pudiese hallar." Ordenanzas Municipales, año de 1524, MS.

29. Ordenanzas Municipales, año de 1524, MS.

30. "Tengo de ser causa, que Vuestra Cesarea Magestad sea en estas partes Señor de mas Reynos, y Señoríos que los que hasta hoy en nuestra Nacion se tiene noticia." Rel. Quarta de Cortés, ap. Lorenzana, p. 374.

31. "Much as I esteem Hernando Cortés," exclaims Oviedo, "for the greatest captain and most practised in military matters of any we have known, I think such an opinion shows he was no great cosmographer." (Hist. de las Ind., MS., lib. 33, cap. 41.) Oviedo had lived to see its fal­lacy.

32. Martyr, Opus Epist., ep. 811.

33. Rel. Quarta, ap. Lorenzana, p. 385.

34. The illusion at home was kept up, in some measure, by the dazzling display of gold and jewels remitted from time to time, wrought into fanciful and often fantastic forms. One of the articles sent home by Cortés was a piece of ordnance, made of gold and silver, of very fine workmanship, the metal of which alone cost 25,500 pesos de oro. Oviedo, who saw it in the palace, speaks with admiration of this magnificent toy. Hist. de las Ind., MS., lib. 33, cap. 41.

35. Among these may be particularly mentioned the Letters of Alvarado and Diego de Godoy, transcribed by Oviedo in his Hist. de las Ind., MS., (lib. 33, cap. 42-44,) and translated by Ra­musio, for his rich collection, Viaggi, tom. III.

36. See, among others, his orders to his kinsman, Francis Cortés,--"Instruccion Civil y Militar por la Expedicion de la Costa de Colima." The paper is dated in 1524, and forms part of the Muñoz collection of MSS.

37. Rel. Quarta, ap. Lorenzana, p. 371.
      "Well may we wonder," exclaims his archiepiscopal editor, "that Cortés and his soldiers could have overrun and subdued, in so short a time, countries, many of them so rough and difficult of access, that, even at the present day, we can hardly penetrate them!" Ibid., nota.