Chapter V [1530-1547]
CORTES REVISITS MEXICO- RETIRES TO HIS ESTATES-
HIS VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY- FINAL RETURN TO CASTILE-
COLD RECEPTION- DEATH OF CORTES- HIS CHARACTER
EARLY in the spring of 1530, Cortes embarked for New Spain. He was
accompanied by the marchioness, his wife, together with his aged
mother (who had the good fortune to live to see her son's
elevation), and by a magnificent retinue of pages and attendants, such
as belonged to the household of a powerful noble. How different from
the forlorn condition in which, twenty-six years before, he had been
cast loose, as a wild adventurer, to seek his bread upon the waters!
The first point of his destination was Hispaniola, where he was to
remain until he received tidings of the organisation of the new
government that was to take charge of Mexico. In the preceding chapter
it was stated that the administration of the country had been
intrusted to a body called the Royal Audience; one of whose first
duties it was to investigate the charges brought against Cortes. Nunez
de Guzman, his avowed enemy, was placed at the head of this board; and
the investigation was conducted with all the rancour of personal
hostility. A remarkable document still exists, called the Pesquisa
Secreta, or "Secret Inquiry," which contains a record of the
proceedings against Cortes.
The charges are eight in number; involving, among other crimes,
that of a deliberate design to cast off his allegiance to the crown;
that of the murder of two of the commissioners who had been sent out
to supersede him; of the murder of his own wife, Catalina Xuarez; of
extortion, and of licentious practices,- of offences, in short, which,
from their private nature, would seem to have little to do with his
conduct as a public man. The testimony is vague and often
contradictory; the witnesses are, for the most part, obscure
individuals, and the few persons of consideration among them appear to
have been taken from the ranks of his decided enemies. When it is
considered that the inquiry was conducted in the absence of Cortes,
before a court, the members of which were personally unfriendly to
him, and that he was furnished with no specification of the charges
and had no opportunity of disproving them, it is impossible, at this
distance of time, to attach any importance to this paper as a legal
document. When it is added, that no action was taken on it by the
government to whom it was sent, we may be disposed to regard it as a
monument of the malice of his enemies.
The high-handed measures of the Audience and the oppressive
conduct of Guzman, especially towards the Indians, excited general
indignation in the colony, and led to serious apprehensions of an
insurrection. It became necessary to supersede an administration so
reckless and unprincipled. But Cortes was detained two months at the
island, by the slow movements of the Castilian court, before tidings
reached him of the appointment of a new Audience for the government of
the country. The person selected to preside over it was the Bishop
of St. Domingo, a prelate whose acknowledged wisdom and virtue gave
favourable augury for the conduct of his administration. After this,
Cortes resumed his voyage, and landed at Villa Rica on the 15th of
July, 1530. An edict, issued by the empress during her husband's
absence, had interdicted Cortes from approaching within ten leagues of
the Mexican capital, while the present authorities were there. The
empress was afraid of a collision between the parties. Cortes,
however, took up his residence on the opposite side of the lake, at
No sooner was his arrival there known in the metropolis, than
multitudes, both of Spaniards and natives, crossed the lake to pay
their respects to their old commander, to offer him their services,
and to complain of their manifold grievances. It seemed as if the
whole population of the capital was pouring into the neighbouring
city, where the marquess maintained the state of an independent
potentate. The members of the Audience, indignant at the mortifying
contrast which their own diminished court presented, imposed heavy
penalties on such of the natives as should be found in Tezcuco; and,
affecting to consider themselves in danger, made preparations for
the defence of the city. But these belligerent movements were
terminated by the arrival of the new Audience; though Guzman had the
address to maintain his hold on a northern province, where he earned a
reputation for cruelty and extortion unrivalled even in the annals
of the New World.
Everything seemed now to assure a tranquil residence to Cortes.
The new magistrates treated him with marked respect, and took his
advice on the most important measures of government. Unhappily, this
state of things did not long continue; and a misunderstanding arose
between the parties, in respect to the enumeration of the vassals
assigned by the crown to Cortes, which the marquess thought was made
on principles prejudicial to his interests, and repugnant to the
intentions of the grant. He was still further displeased by finding
that the Audience were intrusted, by their commission, with a
concurrent jurisdiction with himself in military affairs. This led,
occasionally, to an interference, which the proud spirit of Cortes, so
long accustomed to independent rule, could ill brook. After submitting
to it for a time, he left the capital in disgust, no more to return
there, and took up his residence in his city of Cuernavaca.
It was the place won by his own sword from the Aztecs, previous to
the siege of Mexico. It stood on the southern slope of the
Cordilleras, and overlooked a wide expanse of country, the fairest and
most flourishing portion of his own domain. He had erected a stately
palace on the spot, and henceforth made this city his favourite
residence. It was well situated for superintending his vast estates,
and he now devoted himself to bringing them into proper cultivation.
He introduced the sugar cane from Cuba, and it grew luxuriantly in the
rich soil of the neighbouring lowlands. He imported large numbers of
merino sheep and other cattle, which found abundant pastures in the
country around Tehuantepec. His lands were thickly sprinkled with
groves of mulberry trees, which furnished nourishment for the
silk-worm. He encouraged the cultivation of hemp and flax, and, by his
judicious and enterprising husbandry, showed the capacity of the
soil for the culture of valuable products before unknown in the
land; and he turned these products to the best account, by the
erection of sugar-mills, and other works for the manufacture of the
raw material. He thus laid the foundation of an opulence for his
family, as substantial, if not as speedy, as that derived from the
mines. Yet this latter source of wealth was not neglected by him;
and he drew gold from the region of Tehuantepec, and silver from
that of Zacatecas. The amount derived from these mines was not so
abundant as at a later day. But the expense of working them was much
less in the earlier stages of the operation, when the metal lay so
much nearer the surface.
But this tranquil way of life did not long content his restless
and adventurous spirit; and it sought a vent by availing itself of his
new charter of discovery to explore the mysteries of the Great
Southern Ocean. In 1527, two years before his return to Spain, he
had sent a little squadron to the Moluccas. Cortes was preparing to
send another squadron of four vessels in the same direction, when
his plans were interrupted by his visit to Spain; and his unfinished
little navy, owing to the malice of the Royal Audience, who drew off
the hands employed in building it, went to pieces on the stocks. Two
other squadrons were now fitted out by Cortes, in the years 1532 and
1533, and sent on a voyage of discovery to the North-west. They were
unfortunate, though, in the latter expedition, the Californian
peninsula was reached, and a landing effected on its southern
extremity at Santa Cruz, probably the modern port La Paz. One of the
vessels, thrown on the coast of New Galicia, was seized by Guzman, the
old enemy of Cortes, who ruled over that territory, the crew were
plundered, and the ship was detained as a lawful prize. Cortes,
indignant at the outrage, demanded justice from the Royal Audience;
and, as that body was too feeble to enforce its own decrees in his
favour, he took redress into his own hands.
He made a rapid but difficult march on Chiametla, the scene of
Guzman's spoliation; and as the latter did not care to face his
incensed antagonist, Cortes recovered his vessel, though not the
cargo. He was then joined by the little squadron which he had fitted
out from his own port of Tehuantepec,- a port which, in the
sixteenth century, promised to hold the place since occupied by that
of Acapulco. The vessels were provided with everything requisite for
planting a colony in the newly discovered region, and transported four
hundred Spaniards and three hundred Negro slaves, which Cortes had
assembled for that purpose. With this intention he crossed the Gulf,
the Adriatic- to which an old writer compares it- of the Western
Our limits will not allow us to go into the details of this
disastrous expedition, which was attended with no important results
either to its projector or to science. It may suffice to say, that, in
the prosecution of it, Cortes and his followers were driven to the
last extremity by famine; that he again crossed the Gulf, was tossed
about by terrible tempests, without a pilot to guide him, was thrown
upon the rocks, where his shattered vessel nearly went to pieces, and,
after a succession of dangers and disasters as formidable as any which
he had ever encountered on land, succeeded, by means of his
indomitable energy, in bringing his crazy bark safe into the same port
of Santa Cruz from which he had started.
While these occurrences were passing, the new Royal Audience,
after a faithful discharge of its commission, had been superseded by
the arrival of a viceroy, the first ever sent to New Spain. Cortes,
though invested with similar powers, had the title only of governor.
This was the commencement of the system afterwards pursued by the
crown, of intrusting the colonial administration to some individual,
whose high rank and personal consideration might make him the
fitting representative of majesty. The jealousy of the court did not
allow the subject clothed with such ample authority to remain long
enough in the same station to form dangerous schemes of ambition,
but at the expiration of a few years he was usually recalled, or
transferred to some other province of the vast colonial empire. The
person now sent to Mexico was Don Antonio de Mendoza, a man of
moderation and practical good sense, and one of that illustrious
family who in the preceding reign furnished so many distinguished
ornaments to the church, to the camp, and to letters.
The long absence of Cortes had caused the deepest anxiety in the
mind of his wife, the Marchioness of the Valley. She wrote to the
viceroy immediately on his arrival, beseeching him to ascertain, if
possible, the fate of her husband, and, if he could be found, to
urge his return. The viceroy, in consequence, despatched two ships
in search of Cortes, but whether they reached him before his departure
from Santa Cruz is doubtful. It is certain that he returned safe,
after his long absence, to Acapulco, and was soon followed by the
survivors of his wretched colony.
Undismayed by these repeated reverses, Cortes, still bent on
some discovery worthy of his reputation, fitted out three more
vessels, and placed them under the command of an officer named
Ulloa. This expedition, which took its departure in July, 1539, was
attended with more important results. Ulloa penetrated to the head
of the Gulf; then, returning and winding round the coast of the
peninsula, doubled its southern point, and ascended as high as the
twenty-eighth or twenty-ninth degree of north latitude on its
western borders. After this, sending home one of the squadron, the
bold navigator held on his course to the north, but was never more
Thus ended the maritime enterprises of Cortes; sufficiently
disastrous in a pecuniary point of view, since they cost him three
hundred thousand castellanos of gold, without the return of a ducat.
He was even obliged to borrow money, and to pawn his wife's jewels, to
procure funds for the last enterprise; thus incurring a debt which,
increased by the great charges of his princely establishment, hung
about him during the remainder of his life. But, though disastrous
in an economical view, his generous efforts added important
contributions to science. In the course of these expeditions, and
those undertaken by Cortes previous to his visit to Spain, the Pacific
had been coasted from the Bay of Panama to the Rio Colorado. The great
peninsula of California had been circumnavigated as far as to the isle
of Cedros or Cerros, into which the name has since been corrupted.
This vast tract, which had been supposed to be an archipelago of
islands, was now discovered to be a part of the continent; and its
general outline, as appears from the maps of the time, was nearly as
well understood as at the present day. Lastly, the navigator had
explored the recesses of the Californian Gulf, or Sea of Cortes, as,
in honour, of the great discoverer, it is with more propriety named by
the Spaniards; and he had ascertained that, instead of the outlet
before supposed to exist towards the north, this unknown ocean was
locked up within the arms of the mighty continent. These were
results that might have made the glory and satisfied the ambition of a
common man; but they are lost in the brilliant renown of the former
achievements of Cortes.
Notwithstanding the embarrassments of the Marquess of the
Valley, he still made new efforts to enlarge the limits of
discovery, and prepared to fit out another squadron of five vessels,
which he proposed to place under the command of a natural son, Don
Luis. But the viceroy Mendoza, whose imagination had been inflamed
by the reports of an itinerant monk respecting an El Dorado in the
north, claimed the right of discovery in that direction. Cortes
protested against this, as an unwarrantable interference with his
own powers. Other subjects of collision arose between them; till the
marquess, disgusted with this perpetual check on his authority and his
enterprises, applied for redress to Castile. He finally determined
to go there to support his claims in person, and to obtain, if
possible, renumeration for the heavy charges he had incurred by his
maritime expeditions, as well as for the spoliation of his property by
the Royal Audience, during his absence from the country; and,
lastly, to procure an assignment of his vassals on principles more
comformable to the original intentions of the grant. With these
objects in view, he bade adieu to his family, and, taking with him his
eldest son and heir, Don Martin, then only eight years of age, he
embarked from Mexico, in 1540, and, after a favourable voyage, again
set foot on the shores of his native land.
The emperor was absent from the country. But Cortes was honourably
received in the capital, where ample accommodations were provided
for him and his retinue. When he attended the Royal Council of the
Indies to urge his suit, he was distinguished by uncommon marks of
respect. The president went to the door of the hall to receive him,
and a seat was provided for him among the members of the Council.
But all evaporated in this barren show of courtesy. justice,
proverbially slow in Spain, did not mend her gait for Cortes; and at
the expiration of a year, he found himself no nearer the attainment of
his object than on the first week after his arrival in the capital.
In the following year, 1541, we find the Marquess of the Valley
embarked as a volunteer in the memorable expedition against Algiers.
Charles the Fifth, on his return to his dominions, laid siege to
that stronghold of the Mediterranean corsairs. Cortes accompanied
the forces destined to meet the emperor, and embarked on board the
vessel of the Admiral of Castile. But a furious tempest scattered
the navy, and the admiral's ship was driven a wreck upon the coast.
Cortes and his son escaped by swimming; but the former, in the
confusion of the scene, lost the inestimable set of jewels noticed
in the preceding chapter.
On arriving in Castile, Cortes lost no time in laying his suit
before the emperor. His applications were received by the monarch with
civility,- a cold civility, which carried no conviction of its
sincerity. His position was materially changed since his former
visit to the country. More than ten years had elapsed, and he was
now too well advanced in years to give promise of serviceable
enterprise in future. Indeed his undertakings of late had been
singularly unfortunate. Even his former successes suffered the
disparagement natural to a man of declining fortunes. They were
already eclipsed by the magnificent achievements in Peru, which had
poured a golden tide into the country, that formed a striking contrast
to the streams of wealth that, as yet, had flowed in but scantily from
the silver mines of Mexico. Cortes had to learn that the gratitude
of a court has reference to the future much more than to the past.
He stood in the position of an importunate suitor, whose claims,
however just, are too large to be readily allowed. He found, like
Columbus, that it was possible to deserve too greatly.
In the month of February, 1544, he addressed a letter to the
emperor,- it was the last he ever wrote him,- soliciting his attention
to his suit. He begins by proudly alluding to his past services to the
crown and beseeching his sovereign to "order the Council of the
Indies, with the other tribunals which had cognisance of his suits, to
come to a decision; since he was too old to wander about like a
vagrant, but ought rather, during the brief remainder of his life,
to stay at home and settle his account with Heaven, occupied with
the concerns of his soul, rather than with his substance."
This appeal to his sovereign, which has something in it touching
from a man of the haughty spirit of Cortes, had not the effect to
quicken the determination of his suit. He still lingered at the
court from week to week, and from month to month, beguiled by the
deceitful hopes of the litigant, tasting all that bitterness of the
soul which arises from hope deferred. After three years more, passed
in this unprofitable and humiliating occupation, he resolved to
leave his ungrateful country and return to Mexico.
He had proceeded as far as Seville, accompanied by his son, when
he fell ill of an indigestion, caused, probably, by irritation and
trouble of mind. This terminated in dysentery, and his strength sank
so rapidly under the disease, that it was apparent his mortal career
was drawing towards its close. He prepared for it by making the
necessary arrangements for the settlement of his affairs. He had
made his will some time before; and he now executed it. It is a very
long document, and in some respects a remarkable one.
The bulk of his property was entailed to his son, Don Martin, then
fifteen years of age. In the testament he fixes his majority at
twenty-five; but at twenty his guardians were to allow him his full
income, to maintain the state becoming his rank. In a paper
accompanying the will, Cortes specified the names of the agents to
whom he had committed the management of his vast estates scattered
over many different provinces; and he requests his executors to
confirm the nomination, as these agents have been selected by him from
a knowledge of their peculiar qualifications. Nothing can better
show the thorough supervision which, in the midst of pressing public
concerns, he had given to the details of his widely extended property.
He makes a liberal provision for his other children, and a
generous allowance to several old domesties and retainers in his
household. By another clause he gives away considerable sums in
charity, and he applies the revenues of his estates in the city of
Mexico to establish and permanently endow three public
institutions,- a hospital in the capital, which was to be dedicated to
Our Lady of the Conception, a college in Cojohuacan for the
education of missionaries to preach the gospel among the natives,
and a convent, in the same place, for nuns. To the chapel of this
convent, situated in his favourite town, he orders that his own body
shall be transported for burial, in whatever quarter of the world he
may happen to die.
After declaring that he has taken all possible care to ascertain
the amount of tributes formerly paid by his Indian vassals to their
native sovereigns, he enjoins on his heir, that, in case those which
they have hitherto paid shall be found to exceed the right
valuation, he shall restore them a full equivalent. In another clause,
he expresses a doubt whether it is right to exact personal service
from the natives; and commands that strict inquiry shall be made
into the nature and value of such services as he had received, and,
that, in all cases, a fair compensation shall be allowed for them.
Lastly, he makes this remarkable declaration: "It has long been a
question, whether one can conscientiously hold property in Indian
slaves. Since this point has not yet been determined, I enjoin it on
my son Martin and his heirs, that they spare no pains to come to an
exact knowledge of the truth; as a matter which deeply concerns the
conscience of each of them, no less than mine."
Cortes names, as his executors, and as guardians of his
children, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, the Marquess of Astorga, and the
Count of Aguilar. For his executors in Mexico, he appoints his wife,
the marchioness, the Archbishop of Toledo, and two other prelates. The
will was executed at Seville, 11th of October, 1547.
Finding himself much incommoded, as he grew weaker, by the
presence of visitors, to which he was necessarily exposed at
Seville, he withdrew to the neighbouring village of Castilleja de la
Cuesta, attended by his son, who watched over his dying parent with
filial solicitude. Cortes seems to have contemplated his approaching
end with the composure not always to be found in those who have
faced death with indifference on the field of battle. At length,
having devoutly confessed his sins and received the sacrament, he
expired on the 2nd of December, 1547, in the sixty-third year of his
The inhabitants of the neighbouring country were desirous to
show every mark of respect to the memory of Cortes. His funeral
obsequies were celebrated with due solemnity by a long train of
Andalusian nobles and of the citizens of Seville, and his body was
transported to the chapel of the monastery, San Isidro, in that
city, where it was laid in the family vault of the Duke of Medina
Sidonia. In the year 1562, it was removed, by order of his son, Don
Martin, to New Spain, not as directed by his will, to Cojohuacan,
but to the monastery of St. Francis, in Tezcuco, where it was laid
by the side of a daughter, and of his mother, Dona Catalina Pizarro.
In 1629, the remains of Cortes were again removed; and on the death of
Don Pedro, fourth Marquess of the Valley, it was decided by the
authorities of Mexico to transfer them to the church of St. Francis,
in that capital.
Yet his bones were not permitted to rest here undisturbed; and
in 1794, they were removed to the Hospital of Jesus of Nazareth. It
was a more fitting place, since it was the same institution which,
under the name of "Our Lady of the Conception," had been founded and
endowed by Cortes, and which, with a fate not too frequent in
similar charities, has been administered to this day on the noble
principles of its foundation. The mouldering relics of the warrior,
now deposited in a crystal coffin secured by bars and plates of
silver, were laid in the chapel, and over them was raised a simple
monument, displaying the arms of the family, and surmounted by a
bust of the Conqueror, executed in bronze, by Tolsa, a sculptor worthy
of the best period of the arts.
Unfortunately for Mexico, the tale does not stop here. In 1823,
the patriot mob of the capital, in their zeal to commemorate the era
of the national independence, and their detestation of the "old
Spaniards," prepared to break open the tomb which held the ashes of
Cortes, and to scatter them to the winds! The authorities declined
to interfere on the occasion; but the friends of the family, as is
commonly reported, entered the vault by night, and secretly removing
the relics, prevented the commission of a sacrilege which must have
left a stain, not easy to be effaced, on the scutcheon of the fair
city of Mexico.
Cortes had no children by his first marriage. By his second he
left four; a son, Don Martin,- the heir of his honours,- and three
daughters, who formed splendid alliances. He left, also, several
natural children, whom he particularly mentions in his testament and
honourably provides for. Two of these, Don Martin, the son of
Marina, and Don Luis Cortes, attained considerable distinction, and
were created comendadores of the Order of St. Jago.
The male line of the Marquess of the Valley became extinct in
the fourth generation. The title and estates descended to a female,
and by her marriage were united with those of the house of
Terranova, descendants of the "Great Captain" Gonsalvo de Cordova. By
a subsequent marriage they were carried into the family of the Duke of
Monteleone, a Neapolitan noble. The present proprietor of these
princely honours and of vast domains, both in the Old and the New
World, dwells in Sicily, and boasts a descent- such as few princes can
boast- from two of the most illustrious commanders of the sixteenth
century, the "Great Captain," and the Conqueror of Mexico.
The personal history of Cortes has been so minutely detailed in
the preceding narrative, that it will be only necessary to touch on
the more prominent features of his character. Indeed, the history of
the Conquest, as I have already had occasion to remark, is necessarily
that of Cortes, who is, if I may so say, not merely the soul, but
the body, of the enterprise, present everywhere in person, in the
thick of the fight, or in the building of the works, with his sword or
with his musket, sometimes leading his soldiers, and sometimes
directing his little navy. The negotiations, intrigues,
correspondence, are all conducted by him; and, like Caesar, he wrote
his own Commentaries in the heat of the stirring scenes which form the
subject of them. His character is marked with the most opposite
traits, embracing qualities apparently the most incompatible. He was
avaricious, yet liberal; bold to desperation, yet cautious and
calculating in his plans; magnanimous, yet very cunning; courteous and
affable in his deportment, yet inexorably stern; lax in his notions of
morality, yet (not uncommon) a sad bigot. The great feature in his
character was constancy of purpose; a constancy not to be daunted by
danger, nor baffled by disappointment, nor wearied out by
impediments and delays.
He was a knight-errant, in the literal sense of the word. Of all
the band of adventurous cavaliers whom Spain, in the sixteenth
century, sent forth on the career of discovery and conquest, there was
none more deeply filled with the spirit of romantic enterprise than
Hernando Cortes. Dangers and difficulties, instead of deterring,
seemed to have a charm in his eyes. They were necessary to rouse him
to a full consciousness of his powers. He grappled with them at the
outset, and, if I may so express myself, seemed to prefer to take
his enterprises by the most difficult side. He conceived, at the first
moment of his landing in Mexico, the design of its conquest. When he
saw the strength of its civilisation, he was not turned from his
purpose. When he was assailed by the superior force of Narvaez, he
still persisted in it; and, when he was driven in ruin from the
capital, he still cherished his original idea. How successfully he
carried it into execution, we have seen. After the few years of repose
which succeeded the Conquest, his adventurous spirit impelled him to
that dreary march across the marshes of Chiapa; and, after another
interval, to seek his fortunes on the stormy Californian Gulf. When he
found that no other continent remained for him to conquer, he made
serious proposals to the emperor to equip a fleet at his own
expense, with which he would sail to the Moluccas, and subdue the
Spice Islands for the crown of Castile!
This spirit of knight-errantry might lead us to undervalue his
talents as a general, and to regard him merely in the light of a lucky
adventurer. But this would be doing him injustice; for Cortes was
certainly a great general, if that man be one, who performs great
achievements with the resources which his own genius has created.
There is probably no instance in history where so vast an enterprise
has been achieved by means apparently so inadequate. He may be truly
said to have effected the conquest by his own resources. If he was
indebted for his success to the co-operation of the Indian tribes,
it was the force of his genius that obtained command of such
materials. He arrested the arm that was lifted to smite him, and
made it do battle in his behalf. He beat the Tlascalans, and made them
his staunch allies. He beat the soldiers of Narvaez, and doubled his
effective force by it. When his own men deserted him, he did not
desert himself. He drew them back by degrees, and compelled them to
act by his will, till they were all as one man. He brought together
the most miscellaneous collection of mercenaries who ever fought under
one standard; adventurers from Cuba and the Isles, craving for gold;
hidalgos, who came from the old country to win laurels; broken-down
cavaliers, who hoped to mend their fortunes in the New World;
vagabonds flying from justice; the grasping followers of Narvaez,
and his own reckless veterans,- men with hardly a common tie, and
burning with the spirit of jealousy and faction; wild tribes of the
natives from all parts of the country, who had been sworn enemies from
their cradles, and who had met only to cut one another's throats,
and to procure victims for sacrifice; men, in short, differing in
race, in language, and in interests, with scarcely anything in
common among them. Yet this motley congregation was assembled in one
camp, compelled to bend to the will of one man, to consort together in
harmony, to breathe, as it were, one spirit, and to move on a common
principle of action! It is in this wonderful power over the discordant
masses thus gathered under his banner, that we recognise the genius of
the great commander, no less than in the skill of his military
Cortes was not a vulgar conqueror. He did not conquer from the
mere ambition of conquest. If he destroyed the ancient capital of
the Aztecs, it was to build up a more magnificent capital on its
ruins. If he desolated the land and broke up its existing
institutions, he employed the short period of his administration in
digesting schemes for introducing there a more improved culture and
a higher civilisation. In all his expeditions he was careful to
study the resources of the country, its social organisation, and its
physical capacities. He enjoined it on his captains to attend
particularly to these objects. If he was greedy of gold, like most
of the Spanish cavaliers in the New World, it was not to hoard it, nor
merely to lavish it in the support of a princely establishment, but to
secure funds for prosecuting his glorious discoveries. Witness his
costly expeditions to the Gulf of California. His enterprises were not
undertaken solely for mercenary objects; as is shown by the various
expeditions he set on foot for the discovery of a communication
between the Atlantic and the Pacific. In his schemes of ambition he
showed a respect for the interests of science, to be referred partly
to the natural superiority of his mind, but partly, no doubt, to the
influence of early education. It is, indeed, hardly possible that a
person of his wayward and mercurial temper should have improved his
advantages at the university, but he brought away from it a tincture
of scholarship, seldom found among the cavaliers of the period, and
which had its influence in enlarging his own conceptions. His
celebrated Letters are written with a simple elegance, that, as I have
already had occasion to remark, have caused them to be compared to the
military narrative of Caesar. It will not be easy to find in the
chronicles of the period a more concise, yet comprehensive, statement,
not only of the events of his campaigns, but of the circumstances most
worthy of notice in the character of the conquered countries.
In private life he seems to have had the power of attaching to
himself, warmly, those who were near his person. The influence of this
attachment is shown in every page of Bernal Diaz, though his work
was written to vindicate the claims of the soldiers, in opposition
to those of the general. He seems to have led a happy life with his
first wife, in their humble retirement in Cuba; and regarded the
second, to judge from the expressions in his testament, with
confidence and love. Yet he cannot be acquitted of the charge of those
licentious gallantries which entered too generally into the
character of the military adventurer of that day. He would seem, also,
by the frequent suits in which he was involved, to have been of an
irritable and contentious spirit. But much allowance must be made
for the irritability of a man who had been too long accustomed to
independent sway, patiently to endure the checks and control of the
petty spirits who were incapable of comprehending the noble
character of his enterprises. "He thought," says an eminent writer,
"to silence his enemies by the brilliancy of the new career on which
he had entered. He did not reflect, that these enemies had been raised
by the very grandeur and rapidity of his success." He was rewarded for
his efforts by the misinterpretation of his motives; by the calumnious
charges of squandering the public revenues, and of aspiring to
independent sovereignty. But, although we may admit the foundation
of many of the grievances alleged by Cortes, yet, when we consider the
querulous tone of his correspondence and the frequency of his
litigation, we may feel a natural suspicion that his proud spirit
was too sensitive to petty slights, and too jealous of imaginary
In the earlier part of the History, I have given a description
of the person of Cortes. It may be well to close this review of his
character by the account of his manners and personal habits left us by
Bernal Diaz, the old chronicler, who has accompanied us through the
whole course of our narrative, and who may now fitly furnish the
conclusion of it. No man knew his commander better; and, if the avowed
object of his work might naturally lead to a disparagement of
Cortes, this is more than counterbalanced by the warmth of his
personal attachment, and by that esprit de corps which leads him to
take a pride in the renown of his general.
"In his whole appearance and presence," says Diaz, "in his
discourse, his table, his dress, in everything, in short, he had the
air of a great lord. His clothes were in the fashion of the time; he
set little value on silk, damask, or velvet, but dressed plainly and
exceedingly neat; nor did he wear massy chains of gold, but simply a
fine one of exquisite workmanship, from which was suspended a jewel
having the figure of our Lady the Virgin and her precious Son, with
a Latin motto cut upon it. On his finger he wore a splendid diamond
ring; and from his cap, which, according to the fashion of that day,
was of velvet, hung a medal, the device of which I do not remember. He
was magnificently attended, as became a man of his rank, with
chamberlains and major-domos and many pages; and the service of his
table was splendid, with a quantity of both gold and silver plate.
At noon he dined heartily, drinking about a pint of wine mixed with
water. He supped well, though he was not dainty in regard to his food,
caring little for the delicacies of the table, unless, indeed, on such
occasions as made attention to these matters of some consequence.
"He was acquainted with Latin, and, as I have understood, was made
Bachelor of Laws; and, when he conversed with learned men who
addressed him in Latin, he answered them in the same language. He
was also something of a poet; his conversation was agreeable, and he
had a pleasant elocution. In his attendance on the services of the
Church he was most punctual, devout in his manner, and charitable to
"When he swore, he used to say, 'On my conscience'; and when he
was vexed with any one, 'Evil betide you.' With his men he was very
patient; and they were sometimes impertinent, and even insolent.
When very angry, the veins in his throat and forehead would swell, but
he uttered no reproaches against either officer or soldier.
"He was fond of cards and dice, and, when he played, was always in
good humour, indulging freely in jests and repartees. He was affable
with his followers, especially with those who came over with him
from Cuba. In his campaigns he paid strict attention to discipline,
frequently going the rounds himself during the night, and seeing
that the sentinels did their duty. He entered the quarters of his
soldiers without ceremony, and chided those whom he found without
their arms and accoutrements, saying, 'it was a bad sheep that could
not carry its own wool.' On the expedition to Honduras, he acquired
the habit of sleeping after his meals, feeling unwell if he omitted
it; and, however sultry or stormy the weather, he caused a carpet or
his cloak to be thrown under a tree, and slept soundly for some
time. He was frank and exceedingly liberal in his disposition, until
the last few years of his life, when he was accused of parsimony.
But we should consider, that his funds were employed on great and
costly enterprises; and that none of these, after the Conquest,
neither his expedition to Honduras, nor his voyages to California,
were crowned with success. It was perhaps intended that he should
receive his recompense in a better world; and I fully believe it;
for he was a good cavalier, most true in his devotions to the
Virgin, to the Apostle St. Peter, and to all the other Saints."
Such is the portrait, which has been left to us by the faithful
hand most competent to trace it, of Hernando Cortes, the Conqueror
1. Carta de Cortés al Emperador, MS., Tezcuco, 10 de Oct., 1530.
2. Doña Catalina's death happened so opportunely for the rising fortunes of Cortés, that this charge of murder by her husband has found more credit with the vulgar than the other accusations brought against him. Cortés, from whatever reason, perhaps from the conviction that the charge was too monstrous to obtain credit, never condescended to vindicate his innocence. But, in addition to the arguments mentioned in the text for discrediting the accusation generally, we should consider, that this particular charge attracted so little attention in Castile, where he had abundance of enemies, that he found no difficulty, on his return there, seven years afterwards, in forming an alliance with one of the noblest houses in the kingdom; that no writer of that day, (except Bernal Diaz, who treats it as a base calumny,) not even Las Casas, the stern accuser of the Conquerors, intimates a suspicion of his guilt; and that, lastly, no allusion whatever is made to it in the suit, instituted, some years after her death, by the relatives of Doña Catalina, for the recovery of property from Cortés, pretended to have been derived through her marriage with him,--a suit conducted with acrimony, and protracted for several years. I have not seen the documents connected with this suit, which are still preserved in the archives of the house of Cortés, but the fact has been communicated to me by a distinguished Mexican, who has carefully examined them, and I cannot but regard it as of itself conclusive, that the family, at least, of Doña Catalina, did not attach credit to the accusation.
Yet so much credit has been given to this in Mexico, where the memory of the old Spaniards is not held in especial favor, at the present day, that it has formed the subject of an elaborate discussion in the public periodicals of that city.
3. This remarkable paper, forming part of the valuable collection of Don Vargas Ponçe, is without date. It was doubtless prepared in 1529, during the visit of Cortés to Castile. The following Title is prefixed to it.
Relacion de los cargos que resultan de la pesquisa secreta contra Don Hernando Cort&$233;s, de los quales no se le dió copia ni translado á la parte del dicho Don Hernando, así por ser los dichos cargos de la calidad que son, como por estar la persona del dicho Don Hernando ausente como está. Los quales you Gregorio de Saldaña, escribano de S. M. y escribano de la dicha Residencia, saqué de la dicha pesquisa secreta por mandado de los Señores, Presidente y Oidores de la Audiencia y Chancillería Real que por mandado de S. M. en esta Nueva España reside. Los quales dichos Señores, Presidente y Oidores, envian á S. M. para que los mande ver, y vistos mande proveer lo que á su servicio convenga." MS.
4. MS., Tordelaguna, 22 de Marzo, 1530.
5. The principal grievance alleged was, that slaves, many of them held temporarily by their masters, according to the old Aztec usage, were comprehended in the census. The complaint forms part of a catalogue of grievances embodied by Cortés in a memorial to the emperor. It is a clear and business-like paper. Carta de Cortés á Nuñez, MS.
6. Ibid., MS.
7. The palace has crumbled into ruins, and the spot is now only remarkable for its natural beauty and its historic associations. "It was the capital," says Madame de Calderon, "of the Tlahuica nation, and, after the Conquest, Cortés built here a splendid palace, a church, and a convent for Franciscans, believing that the had laid the foundation of a great city. . . . . . It is, however, a place of little importance, though so favored by nature; and the Conqueror's palace is a half-ruined barrack, though a most picturesque object, standing on a hill, behind which starts up the great white volcano. There are some good houses, and the remains of the church which Cortés built, celebrated for its bold arch." Life in Mexico, vol. II. let. 31.
8. These particulars, respecting the agricultural economy of Cortés, I have derived in part, from a very able argument, prepared in January, 1828, for the Mexican Chamber of Deputies, by Don Lúcas Alaman, in defence of the territorial rights possessed at this day by the Conqueror's descendant, the duke of Monteleone.
9. Navarrete, Coleccion de los Viages y descubrimientos, (Madrid, 1837,) tom. V., Viages al Maluco.
10. Instruccion que dió Marques del Valle á Juan de Avellaneda, &c., MS.
11. Provision sobre los Descubrimientos del Sur, MS., Setiembre, 1534.
12. The river Huasacualco furnished great facilities for transporting, across the isthmus, from Vera Cruz, materials to build vessels on the Pacific. Humboldt, Essai Politique, tom. IV. p. 50.
13. Instruccion del Marques del Valle, MS.
The most particular and authentic account of Ulloa's cruise will be found in Ramusio. (tom. III. pp. 340-354.) It is by one of the officers of the squadron.--My limits will not allow me to give the details of the voyages made by Cortés, which, although not without interest, were attended with no permanent consequences. A good summary of his expeditions in the Gulf has been given by Navarete in the Introduction to his Relacion del Viage hecho por las Goletas Sutil y Mexicana, (Madrid, 1802,) pp. vi.-xxvi.; and the English reader will find a brief account of them in Greenhow's valuable Memoir on the Northwest Coast of North America, (Washington, 1840) pp. 22-27.
14. Memorial al Rey del Marques del Valle, MS., 25 de Junio, 1540.
15. Provision sobre los Descubrimientos del Sur, MS.
16. See the map prepared by the pilot Domingo del Castillo, in 1541, ap. Lorenzana, p. 328.
17. In the collection of Vargas Ponçe is a petition of Cortés, setting forth his grievances, and demanding an investigation of the vice-king's conduct. It is without date. Peticion contra Don Antonio de Mendoza Virrey, pediendo residencia contra él, MS.
18. Bernal Diaz, Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 200.
19. Gomara, Crónica, cap. 237.
20. Sandoval, Hist. de Cárlos V., lib. 12, cap. 25.--Ferreras, (trad. d'Hermilly,) Hist. d'Espagne, tom. IX. p. 231.
21. Voltaire tells us, that, one day, Cortés, unable to obtain an audience of the emperor, pushed through the press surrounding the royal carriage, and mounted the steps; and, when Charles inquired "who that man was," he replied, "One who has given you more kingdoms than you had towns before." (Essai sur les Mœurs, chap. 147.) For this most improbable anecdote I have found no authority whatever. It served, however, very well to point a moral,--the main thing with the philosopher of Ferney.
22. The Letter is dated February 3, 1544, Valladolid.
23. "Item. Porque acerca de los esclavos naturales de la dicha Nueva España, así de guerra como de rescate, ha habido y hay muchas dudas y opiniones sobre si se han podido tener con buena conciencia ó no, y hasta ahora no está determinado: Mando que todo aquello que generalmente se averiguare, que en este caso se debe hacer para descargo de las conciencias en lo que toca á estos esclavos de la dicha Nueva Españ, que se haya y cumpla entodos los que yo tengo, é encargo. Y mando á D. Martin mi hijo subcesor, y á los que despues dél subcedieren en mi Estado, que para averiguar esto hagan todas las diligencias que combengan al descargo de mi conciencia y suyas." Testamento de Hernan Cortés, MS.
24. This is the argument controverted by Las Casas in his elaborate Memorial addressed to the government, in 1542, on the best method of arresting the destruction of the Aborigines.
25. This interesting document is in the Royal Archives of Seville; and a copy of it forms part of the valuable collection of Don Vargas Ponçe.
26. Zuñiga, Annales de Sevilla, p. 504.--Gomara, Crónica, cap. 237.
In his last letter to the emperor, dated in February, 1544, he speaks of himself as being "sixty years of age." But he probably did not mean to be exact to a year. Gomara's statement, that he was born in the year 1485, (Crónica, cap. 1,) was confirmed by Diaz, who tells us, the Cortés used to say, that, when he first came over to Mexico, in 1519, he was thirty-four years old. (Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 205.) This would coincide with the age mentioned in the text.
27. Noticia del Archivero de la Santa Eclesia de Sevilla, MS.
28. The full particulars of the ceremony described in the text may be found in a copy of the original document, existing in the Archives of the Hospital of Jesus, in Mexico.
29. Essai Politique, tom. II. p. 60.
30. Don Martin Cortéz, second marquess of the Valley, was accused, like his father, of an attempt to establish an independent sovereignty in New Spain. His natural brothers, Don Martin and Don Luis, were involved in the same accusation with himself, and the former--as I have elsewhere remarked--was in consequence subjected to the torture. Several others of his friends, on charge of abetting his treasonable designs, suffered death. The marquess was obliged to remove with his family to Spain, where the investigation was conducted; and his large estates in Mexico were sequestered until the termination of the process, a period of seven years, from 1567 to 1574, when he was declared innocent. But his property suffered irreparable injury, under the wretched administration of the royal officers, during the term of sequestration.
31. "Yo me ofresco á descubrir por aqué to da la espeçería, y otras Islas si huviere cerca de Moluco, ó Melaca, y la China, y aun de dar tal órden que V. M. no aiga la espeçería por via de rescate, como la ha el Rey de Portugal, sino que la tenga por cosa propria, y los naturales de aquellas Islas le reconoscan y sirvan como á su Rey y señor natural, porque yo me ofresco con el dicho additamento de embiar á ellas tal armada, ó ir yo con mi persona por manera que la sojusge y pueble." Carta Quinta de Cortés, MS.
32. The comparison to Hannibal is better founded than the old soldier probably imagined. Livy's description of the Carthaginian warrior has a marvellous application to Cortés,--better, perhaps, than that of the imaginary personage quoted a few lines below in the text. "Plurimum audaciæ ad pericula capessenda, plurimum consilii inter ipsa pericula erat: nullo labore aut corpus fatigari, aut animus vinci poterat. Caloris ac frigoris patientia par: cibi potionisque desiderio naturali, non voluptate, modus finitus: vigiliarum somnique nec die, nec nocte discriminata tempora. Id, quod gerendis rebus superesset, quieti datum; ea neque molli strato, neque silentio arcessita. Multi sæpe militari sagulo opertum, humi jacentem, inter custodias stationesque militum, conspexerunt. Vestitus nihil inter æquales excellens; arma atque equi conspiciebantur. Equitum peditumque idem longe primus erat; princeps in prœlio excedebat." (Hist., lib. xxi. sec. 5.) The reader, who reflects on the fate of Guatemozin, may possibly think that the extract should have embraced the "perfidia plus quám Punica," in the succeeding sentence.
33. Testamento de Hernan Cortés, MS.
34. Humboldt, Essai Politique, tom. II. p. 267.
35. An extraordinary anecdote is related by Cavo, of this bigotry (shall we call it policy?) of Cortés. "In Mexico," says the historian, "it is commonly reported, that, after the Conquest, he commanded, that on Sundays and holidays all should attend, under pain of a certain number of stripes, to the expounding of the Scriptures. The general was himself guilty of an omission, on one occasion, and, after having listened to teh admonition of the priest, submitted, with edifying humility, to be chastised by him, to the unspeakable amazement of the Indians!" Hist de los Tres Siglos, tom. I. p. 151.
36. "Al Rey infinitas tierras,
Y á Dios infinitas almas,"
says Lope de Vega, commemorating in this couplet the double glory of Cortés. It is the light in which the Conquest was viewed by every devout Spaniard of the sixteenth century.
37. Ante, p. 142.
38. So Gomara: "Vestia mas pulido que rico. Era hombre limpísimo." Crónica, cap. 238.
39. "Fué mui gran comedor, i templado en el beber, teniendo abundancia. Sufria mucho la hambre con necesidad." Ibid., ubi supra.
40. He dispensed a thousand ducats every year in his ordinary charities, according to Gomara. "Grandísimo limosnero; daba cada un año mil ducados de limosna ordinaria." Ibid., ubi supra.
41. Hist. de la Conquista, cap. 203.