ON the tenth of February, 1519, 100 years before the Mayflower sighted the dunes of Provincetown, eleven small ships stood out from the harbour of Havana and bent their course due west. The slender resources of the island of Cuba had been all but exhausted to fill their decks and holds. Aboard the vessels were 633 men, of whom 100 were seamen and the rest soldier adventurers; sixteen horses-then almost worth their weight in gold in Cuba; thirty-two crossbows, thirteen muskets-the ancient type which were fired from stands like small cannon -and four falconets. The alleged purpose of the armada, as broadcast by Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, was to found a Christian colony in the great mainland to the west which two earlier scouting expeditions had located and roughly charted. Its real purpose was to find, and hopefully encircle, the source of that gold which the earlier expeditions had definitely determined the natives possessed.
Ever since I can remember I have been puzzled by the conquest of Mexico. How could 600 white men, seventeen firearms, and sixteen horses liquidate, practically overnight as history counts time, a nation of courageous warriors and mighty builders, with a total population running into millions? We shall sketch briefly the story of the conquest, and try to unravel the mystery as we go.
In command of the fleet was Hernando Cortez, a gentleman of whom little was known. He was then thirty-four years old, and had been steadily running himself into debt trying to work "a grant of Indians" in Santiago. Velasquez had rescued him from obscurity and put him in charge of the expedition primarily in the hope of having a pliant agent who would not be too punctilious when it came to the division of spoils. The logical candidate, Juan de Grijalva, who led the second scouting trip to Yucatan, a brave man and well loved by his soldiers, was passed by in favour of the bankrupt Cortez. Velasquez was to find that he had caught a tartar, and history to carve a generous niche for another immortal.
The choice was not quite so inept as it initially appeared to the citizens of Cuba and the soldiers of the fleet. Fifteen years before, when the nineteen-year-old boy first set foot in the new world, he had already hitched his wagon to a star. "I came to get gold, not to till the soil like a peasant." And later in a burst of confidence he told an Aztec chieftain in Vera Cruz: "The Spaniards are troubled with a disease of the heart for which gold is a specific remedy." Velasquez could not have picked a man better adjusted, philosophically, to the real, as against the alleged, purposes of the expedition. Nor was our hero blind to an effective bit of publicity. He ordered two standards to be made, worked in gold with the royal arms and a cross on each side, and underneath a legend which read: "Comrades, let us follow the sign of the holy Cross with true faith, and through it we shall conquer." The Captain General was a fine figure of a man. "He began to adorn himself and be more careful of his appearance, and he wore a plume of feathers with a medal, and a gold chain, and a velvet cloak trimmed with knots of gold; in fact he looked like a gallant and courageous Captain." In a later portrait we see a square, resolute face, a long aggressive nose, bushy beard, and large fine Spanish eyes, with a touch of sadness in them. The times and the man were joined. Cortez may not be remembered without anguish, but he will always be remembered.
Aboard the fleet in the capacity of a petty officer was another gentleman to whom history will remain profoundly in debt. Without the memoirs of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, we should lose at once a great part of our documentary knowledge of the conquest, how it progressed from day to day, and one of the most dramatic tales ever got between the two covers of a book. I know of nothing to compare with it, save possibly the Antarctic diaries of Captain Scott. Either Diaz took notes during the campaigns, or he had a memory like those geniuses who play thirty games of chess at once, or he was a thundering liar-probably all three. But if half he tells is true-and I suspect the ratio is higher than this-the story is sufficiently tremendous. I suspect it is mainly true because of the authentic human touches which appear on nearly every page. He seldom fails to give us the details of what he had to eat, the quality of the forage and camping quarters, the peculiar merits and demerits of Indian maidens, whom he found amiable but not over comely, and the exact exchange value in Spanish currency of all gifts, findings, partitions and ceremonial presentations of articles containing gold or silver. Even as the boyish remarks of Cortez shed light on the conquest, so does the expert accountancy of Diaz. Both men were carved from the same Castilian granite, infinitely courageous and infinitely greedy. I shall use the memoirs of Diaz constantly in the pages to come. If the reader wants to add a grain of salt he is welcome to, though I have already put in a shaker full, as well as checking his more incredible statements with the accounts of other historians.
The end of the peninsula of Yucatan was sighted about the first of March, following a stopover in western Cuba, and landing parties were put ashore. The natives were unfriendly and gold in negotiable quantities was not to be found. All along its northern coast, the peninsula was raided with indifferent success. Here lived the Mayas, who, as we shall see, put up the sturdiest defence of all the native armies. One pitched battle was fought near Ceutla in Tabasco, in which a detachment of Spanish infantry was all but overwhelmed before Cortez and the cavalry came to the rescue. The gunfire the Indians had withstood, despite its terrible punishment, but the horses were too much for them. Terror of the supernatural came into play, and thinking that "the horse and its rider were all one animal," they turned and fled. Thus a page from Greek mythology saved the Spaniards, and was destined to save them again and again.
Perhaps even more valuable than the victory of the centaur was the acquisition in Maya territory of Dona Marina. It was a sorry day for Mexico when this able Indian girl was traded in, together with four diadems, some gold lizards and ducks, and two masks of gold, to appease the invaders after the battle of Ceutla. Presented at first to Don Alonzo Hernandez Puertocarrero, one of the fleet captains, she became in the end the mistress of Cortez, and worth a whole squadron of horses to the Spanish cause. She was both chief interpreter and vice diplomat to the invading army.
In the early raids he began to give evidence of his command of the idiom. Could the masters of Hollywood, I wonder, better this little publicity demonstration? A delegation of Tabascan chiefs, anxious to make peace, signified their intention of waiting upon the Captain General. He set the hour and also the stage. He ordered the biggest cannon to be loaded with a large ball and a good charge of powder. He ordered a mare to be picketed where the delegation would stand when it arrived, and a stallion to be held in readiness. When the visitors came, and nervous they were, he lectured them through an interpreter on their derelictions, the power of the great king Carlos of Spain whose agent he was, and the highly unreliable temperaments of his cannon, guns and horses. (The Indians thought the guns shot themselves off.) The latter, he said, had been seriously upset by the recent violence, and were likely to vent their wrath in all directions at any moment. He gave a secret signal and a match was touched to the cannon. "It went off with a thunderclap and the ball went buzzing over the hills, and as it was midday and very still, it made a great noise, and the caciques [chiefs] were terrified on hearing it." Another signal and the stallion was brought where he could scent the mare, and he "began to paw the ground and neigh and become wild with excitement, looking all the time towards the Indians whence the scent of the mare had come, and the caciques thought he was roaring at them and they were terrified anew."
In brief it was a difficult day on native nerves, and the beginning of a wave of terror and awe, rolling steadily and growing as it rolled, towards Montezuma and the capital. Were these indeed the teules, the white-faced gods who, as it was foretold, had come to rule the land from oversea ? Was this Quetzalcoatl himself? Destroyer or messiah-the psychology of the defence stumbled between these alternatives. Later when Montezuma dispatched his camera men to the front-skilled painters who set down on parchment every detail of the Spaniards' accoutrements-Cortez dressed his troops, his cavalry and his cannon anew, and for their benefit presented another super-cinema opening. The paintings were rushed back by fleet runners over the mountains, to the bewilderment of the Aztec chief of staff.
Yucatan was good ground for propaganda, but altogether too prickly a coast to conquer. The fleet sailed west again until the great snowy cone of Orizaba hove into view, and a series of high white dunes and the germs of a harbour (there are almost no natural harbours on the Gulf coast of Mexico) arrested its attention. Here the expedition disembarked not far from what is now called Vera Cruz.
The mosquitoes, then as now, were terrible. (But the defence is better today. Above every hotel bed one finds a great shower bath of netting.) The little army pitched camp on top of the dunes and swore and slapped and sweltered for many days. The landing was on Holy Thursday, April 21, 1519, and the march to the capital did not begin until August. Nearby a town was built-a town which, with fitting justice, the pirates of the Spanish Main periodically captured and looted for the next 200 years; a town as wicked as Port Said and as pestilential as a sewer. Here Cortez came into direct contact with Montezuma through his accredited ambassadors.
The head of the Aztec commonwealth at this juncture decided to placate rather than attack the invaders. His methods were fittingly imperial. He sent a great cacique "who in face, feature, and appearance bore a strong likeness to our Captain Cortez"--the camera men had done their work well-together with one hundred Indian bearers. After kissing the earth, fumigating Cortez with copal incense from baziers of pottery, and delivering many courteous speeches of welcome, the delegation proceeded to the business of the day, and spread on the ground what any archeologist today-and I think I myself-would give eye-teeth to see.
"The first article presented was a wheel like a sun, as big as a cart wheel, with many sorts of pictures on it, the whole of fine gold, and a wonderful thing to behold, which those who afterwards weighed it said was worth more than ten thousand dollars." (Here we have the authentic Diaz touch.) There followed an even greater wheel of pure silver, intricately carved and symbolizing the moon. Then a helmet of grains of gold as they came from the mine-a fatal gift. The company gathered around with glittering eyes. "This helmet was worth more to us than if it contained twenty thousand dollars, because it showed us that there were good mines there." Then twenty golden ducks, beautifully worked, and images in gold, "very natural looking," of dogs, tigers, lions and monkeys; ten necklaces of exquisite workmanship; twelve arrows and a bow with its string, two rodlike staffs of justice five palms long-all in beautiful hollow work of fine gold. There were crests of gold, plumes of rich green feathers, silver crests and fans; a deer copied in hollow gold, and thirty loads of "beautiful cotton cloth worked with many patterns and decorated with many-coloured feathers; and many other things that I cannot remember."
To which Cortez gave measure for measure in flowery speeches, but all the tangible property the ambassadors took back to Montezuma--if indeed they carried it so far-was a gilded glass cup of Florentine ware engraved with trees, and three holland shirts-a trading ratio which, by and large, Spain and Mexico were to retain for 300 years.
A fiction was established of the most extravagant friendship between the Spanish monarch through his agent, the Captain General, on the one side, and Montezuma on the other. Their regard for each other's persons, characters and achievements was astronomical. Meanwhile each busily plotted and schemed the surest way to assassination and annihilation. Indeed they might have been the chancelleries of a pair of modern European powers. But Cortez was the shrewder man. He knew precisely what he wanted. Montezuma could not make up his mind, and alternately threatened and abased himself. A resolute prince could have thrown the Spaniards into the Gulf of Mexico in an hour's time-centaurs, temperamental self-exploding cannon, and all. It would have cost something in manpower but it could have been done.
The negotiations dragged on. Cortez was determined to be invited to visit the capital. Montezuma was charmed to receive him today, and regretful tomorrow. The army slapped mosquitoes, "both long-legged ones and small ones which are called xexenes which are worse than the large ones, and we could get no sleep on account of them"; and foraged not too successfully for food. Thirty-five died from sickness and malnutrition. The rank and file grumbled and presently demanded a return to Cuba. Nobody save Cortez seems to have had the slightest illusions about the suicidal attempt to march with a few hundred men through an unknown country, filled with mountainous chasms and thousands of wellarmed enemies. But the Captain General was indomitable. Whatever his motives, his sheer grit in this intolerable situation was superb. And he made one transcendent discovery. A delegation of Totonacs came into the Spanish camp one day when Montezuma's people were absent. From them Cortez learned that Mexico way not united, that there were nations who hated the Aztecs and their tax gatherers.
With this information in hand, it did not take him long to act. He gave secret orders to a few dependable men, and while the little army looked on in horror, its ships went up in flames ! All but one small vessel. That settled the retreat to Cuba; it way forward or perish. He seized the Aztec tax gatherers in the nearby territory of the Totonacs, and thereby bound that tribe to him in deadly fear of what the Aztecs would do in retaliation. Then he released the assessors and sent them back to Mexico, laying the whole blame on the Totonacs--thereby checkmating Montezuma. He proceeded to gather a native army of porters and second-line warriors from among the tributary states, left the sick and weakhearted at Vera Cruz as an apology for a base, and on the 16th day of August, with 400 odd Spaniards, a dozen horses, and some thousands of Indian allies, started for the capital. The negotiations were over. Invitation or no invitation, he proposed to look Montezuma in the face. Lindbergh, starting across the ocean for France, way taking no greater risk. He made his way across the steamy jungles of the coastal plain with little opposition save that of nature. Then the army began to climb; and the allies sweated under the load of the cannon. To the crest of the plateau way nearly 8,00o vertical feet of heaving, serrated cliff and chasm, but fortunately the native trails lay open and undefended. A few warriors, a few boulders could have held those canyon passes literally forever. Neither horse nor cannon could have deployed against them. Once on the crest, Cortez headed for the country of the Tlaxcalany, a numerous, sturdy, and independent people, allies of his native troops. They had no use for Aztecs, and by the same token it presently appeared that they had no use for Spaniards. Diplomacy almost immediately collapsed, and the 400, temporarily deserted by their allies from the coast, found themselves in the most desperate circumstances which perhaps the whole conquest hay to record. The Tlaxcalany descended upon them like locusts on an orchard. Only the Castilian phalanx prevented instant annihilation. There were many skirmishes and three pitched battles. Let Diaz tell the story of one of them: All the plain was swarming with warriors and we stood four hundred men in number, and of those many sick and wounded. And we know for certain that this time our foe came with the determination to leave none of us alive excepting those who would be sacrificed to their idols.
How they began to charge on us! What a hail of stones sped from their slings! As for their bowmen, the javelins lay like corn on the threshing floor; all of them barbed and fire-hardened, which would pierce any armour and would reach the vitals where there is no protection; the men with swords and shields and other arms larger than swords, such as broadswords and lances, how they pressed on us and with what mighty shouts and yells they charged upon us! The steady bearing of our artillery, musketeers, and crossbowmen was indeed a help to us, and we did the enemy much damage. The horsemen were so skilful and bore themselves so valiantly that, after God who protected us, they were our bulwark.
One thing only saved our lives, and that was that the enemy were so numerous and so crowded one on another that the shots wrought havoc among them. They gave me two wounds, one in the head with a stone, and one in the thigh with an arrow; but this did not prevent me from fighting, and keeping watch, and helping our soldiers, and all the soldiers who were wounded did the same; for few of us remained unwounded.
Then we returned to our camp, well contented, and giving thanks to God. We buried the dead in one of those houses which the Indians had built underground, so that the enemy should not see that we were mortals, but should believe that, as they said, we were Teules. Then we doctored all the wounded, with the fat of an Indian. It was cold comfort to be even without salt or oil with which to cure the wounded. There was another want from which we suffered, and it was a severe one-and that was clothes with which to cover ourselves, for such a cold wind came from the snow mountains, that it made us shiver, for our lances and muskets and crossbows made a poor covering.
The Tlaxcalans who lived under the shadow of Malinche were not to be won by honeyed words, but they had the fighters' respect for men strong enough to defeat them. According to some accounts, internal dissension lost them the decisive battle. However that may be, in the end they elected to join Cortez, and became the fulcrum of the invaluable native support in his subsequent campaigns. (It was the Tlaxcalans, you will remember, who had the annual rush with the Aztecs for dragging off sacrificial victims.)
Reinforced by a strong detachment of these allies, Cortez continued his march. His next objective was Cholula. Here he took no chances with native sentiment, and after promises of a peaceful parley he butchered in the citadel 2,00o disarmed warriors. The Cholulans were close allies of the Aztecs, but not technically members of that nation. He crossed the towering pass between Popocatepetl and the White Woman-one of his captains climbed the smoking volcano and peered into its crater of writhing sulphur-came down into the broad valley in which Mexico City stands, and at the gates of the metropolis met Montezuma, even as he had sworn to, face to face.
If we could conceive the novelty and wonder of that descent and meeting I How it makes all other epics of exploration shrink and fade. Uncharted islands, unscaled peaks, the icy wastes of polar seas, tombs of pharaohs long dead, are little things compared with the first vision of a living race, building mightier monuments than Europe had ever dared, passing and repassing in this fair city which they had raised. To come upon the forgotten dead is indeed adventure; but to come upon the unknown living, forging a great civilization, is an experience which perhaps only two expeditions in all history have known-those of Pizarro and Cortez. It will never be-equalled again upon this planet. Only when half-frozen men step from their aeropile upon the crust of Mars, may such a moment come again.
Gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before us was real. On one side, on the land, there were great cities, and in the lake ever so many more, and in the causeway were many bridges at intervals, and in front of us stood the great City of Mexico, and we-we did not number four hundred soldiers!
And when we entered the city, the appearance of the palaces in which they lodged us! How spacious and well built they were, of beautiful stone work and cedar wood, and the wood of other sweet-scented trees, with great rooms and courts. . . We went to the orchard and garden, which was such a wonderful thing to see and walk in, that I was never tired of looking at the diversity of the trees, and noting the scent which each one had, and the paths full of roses and flowers, and the pond of fresh water. Great canoes were able to pass into the garden from the lake outside so that there was no need for their occupants to land. And all was cemented and very splendid with many kinds of stone monuments with pictures on them. Then the birds of many kinds which came into the garden. I say again that I stood looking at it and thought that never in the world would there be discovered such lands as these. Of all these wonders that I then beheld, today all is overthrown and lost, nothing is standing. An old soldier, with the scar of an Indian sword on his throat, writing his memoirs in his eightieth year, remembers a garden, the sweet-scented trees, and the birds that came there. Remembers, and almost regrets that he and his comrades went into that garden and cut it down.
Now the tale becomes so involved that we shall have to leave it to the historians, giving here only a bare outline. After exchanging more presents-at the usual ratio -and prodigious parleying, Cortez and his followers were invited into the city and lodged in one of the great government palaces. Here they were kept virtually prisoners. The Aztec captains would have rushed and slaughtered them at once, but Montezuma held back "weighted down by superstition, and rendered powerless by a timid and vacillating character, the autocrat felt himself fatally conquered before beginning the struggle." One day in a careless moment he let himself be seized by seven Spanish soldiers, of whom Diaz was one, and made hostage. This was a stroke as decisive as it was obvious. Now the Aztecs did not dare attack lest their prince be murdered. The poor man swore fealty to the king of Spain, and, what was more to the point, connived to hand over to Cortez some 700,000 gold dollars. (It is interesting to note that in the subsequent division, each common soldier received only about one hundred dollars. Some of them "fell ill from brooding and grief," but our good Diaz did not mourn. As special sentry over Montezuma, he was so helpful and respectful that the prince declared him a special dividend of "gold and mantles," and a beautiful Indian girl.)
The deadlock dragged along. The Aztecs held the Spaniards captive, and the Spaniards held the Aztec prince. In March, 1520, Panfilo de Narvaez arrived at Vera Cruz with sixteen ships, 1,400 soldiers, ninety crossbowmen, seventy musketeers, and eighty horses. He had come from Cuba to depose Cortez for grossly exceeding his orders. Cortez, leaving Montezuma in the care of a small garrison captained by Alvarado, managed to get out of the city and went down to meet the fleet, taking all the gold he could stagger under. Once out of Aztec territory, he travelled with comparative safety, for the country was rising against Montezuma. At Vera Cruz the police force-then as now-was ready to discuss the question reasonably in the light of adequate cash consideration. It deserted en masse to Cortez, leaving Narvaez the captain of his own soul, perhaps, but of nothing else. With this handsome addition to his army, Cortez marched up to Mexico again, and got into his beleaguered stronghold, only to find an even more critical situation. The garrison under Alvarado had been repeatedly attacked. Food was running low. Native respect for Montezuma was all but gone. A new prince, Cuitlahuac, had been appointed by the Aztec council, and a wholesale assault upon the Spaniards was imminent. Suddenly the deadlock broke. In the midst of a skirmish, Montezuma, who had been asked by the Spaniards to mount a battlement and speak to his people, was killed by a shower of stones; killed, the Spaniards insisted, by the Aztecs themselves.
This was the end. The Spaniards must leave, and that with the utmost dispatch. On the dreadful "Noche Triste" some 2,000 men sought to hack their way out of the city, but between the vigour of the Aztec assault and the amount of gold each man strove to bear away on his person, only a battered fraction of the force left the metropolis alive. One is still shown the spot called "Alvarado's Leap" where the fleeing captain jumped his horse over a yawning ditch. The faithful Tlaxcalans received the bloody and impoverished survivors and nursed their wounds. It was touch and go, furthermore, whether they were to be comforted or annihilated. (By way of gratitude the expeditionary force presented the nation with smallpox, and the king of Tlaxcala died of it. So did Montezuma's brother and successor, Cuitlahuac, after four months in office.)
Cortez sent to Cuba for more reinforcements. The governor, now convinced that it was the Captain General or nobody, sent them. A great army of native troops, Tlaxcalans and others, was assembled. The country about Mexico City was invested and put to fire and sword. Food supplies and drinking water were cut off. The Aztec nation, stripped of its allies, now began to fight for its life on its native soil. On the 21St of May, 1521, the siege proper was begun. It lasted eighty-five days. Sea battles were fought on the great lakes; the causeways ran with blood.
Not for one moment did the Mexicans show signs of discouragement, notwithstanding the scarcity of fresh water and pro visions, the superiority of the arms of the Spaniards, and the immense number of their native allies. Each day as it came was for them as the first day of the strife, so great was the determination and the strength with which they appeared on the field of battle, and moreover they never ceased fighting from dawn to dusk. When the greater number of them had already perished, the few who still remained stoically resisted thirst, hunger, weariness and pestilence in the defense of their country, and even then refused, with indomitable fortitude, the proposals of peace which Cortez repeatedly made to them. In this manner only did they die.
Somehow it puts me in mind of the Alamo. The city fell on the 13th of August, 1521, and a great civilization passed into history. But it was not until 1541, twenty years later, that the Mayas of Yucatan were subdued. Repeatedly they defeated the Spanish armies, driving every white man into the sea. The Zapotecs to the south put up an equally stubborn defence; while high in the mountains and deep in the jungles lived tribes who were never conquered, and have not been conquered to this day.
In all Mexico today there is no statue to Cortez. But in the Paseo de la Reforma, one of the great avenues of the capital, stands a lofty and impressive monument to Cuauhtemoc, the leader of the defending forces in the siege, and the last of the Aztec princes.
With the essential facts before us, the mystery of the conquest begins to clear. Cortez and his original 600 did not subdue Mexico. They never had one respectable fight with the Aztecs. They fought the Mayas in Tabasco, and beat them in one scrimmage, but promptly left them. They fought the Tlaxcalans to a standstill, and made this nation their lasting allies. They marched into Aztec territory proper-the valley of Mexico City -nominally as Montezuma's guests; the way before them was strewn with flowers. With the prince as hostage they were safe for a time from attack. But when he was stoned to death, the Spaniards, though reinforced by the 1,500 men of Narvaez, were ejected from the city overnight, and the greater part of them killed. This was the first real trial of strength between the two forces. Up to then diplomacy had been the rule, tempered by a few skirmishes. If Montezuma had been a man instead of a weakling, and if his office had not been held in such veneration that, like the President of the United States, he could do no wrong, Cortez would have needed thousands of musketeers and hundreds of horses to conquer the country unaided.
Unaided. This brings us to a second major reason for the downfall. The Aztecs held a large part of Mexico in subjugation, as we have seen. From the tributary nations they collected taxes in precious metals and in kind, and young men and women in war and as a punishment on every pretext, for sacrifice on their altars. As the cult of the blood sacrifice grew, potential revolt increased. The Spaniards acted as a spearhead to lead perhaps the original Mexican Revolution. They came at the psychological moment. The priests had foretold the return of Quetzalcoatl, the blond god. Into this prophecy the Spaniards, with their white faces, their horses and their falconets "breathing thunder and lightning," fitted admirably. The coincidence both paralyzed Montezuma and encouraged the tributary states to take gods as leaders of their revolt.
Cortez, in his own accounts, uses the following phrases in respect to the formidableness of his native military support : "numberless people," "an infinite number," "which could not be counted," "more than one hundred and fifty thousand men." After the reform of his battered battalion following the "Noche Triste" and the arrival of reinforcements from Cuba, native troops came swarming into his camp. It is safe to say that the total force far outnumbered the Aztec army penned in its own watery territory. At one juncture Diaz and a detachment went swinging around to Tepoztlan and Cuernavaca in an encircling movement. In this not too equal encounter, Cortez won, and would have been an indifferent commander had he not.
In brief, while the march of the 600 is one of the world's odysseys, an analysis of the relevant facts makes the conquest as a whole an understandable achievement. Cortez, as the saying goes, had all the breaks. No amount of luck, however, can lessen our appreciation of his courage in burning his ships, and daring that march inland, with its appalling dangers and its unknown end.
We salute the Captain General; but great courage and great conquests, while they make history, do not necessarily make the generality of mankind any happier. All too often they plunge the race backward in its slow ascent. Consider Alexander, Napoleon, von Hindenburg. Let us see if we can strike a balance between the human gains and losses which followed this exhibition of resolute heroism.
To begin with, we must emphasize again that the conquest of Mexico was a gold rush with no more thought of settlement than had the invaders of the Yukon in '98, although settlement ultimately proved necessary to stabilize the business of exporting valuables. Here we find the cardinal difference between the taking of New Spain and the taking of the territory to the north which was to become the United States. In the latter Europeans came primarily to live, in the former to loot. Cortez travelled to the new world to seek his fortune. But his steadfast plan was to take that fortune back to Spain, and there lead the roistering life of a caballero.
It remains an open question furthermore whether Spain conquered Mexico or Mexico conquered Spain. Economists and historians have held, and I think with justice, that the flow of gold into the Iberian peninsula, and the habits which the ruling classes drifted into as a result of it, formed one of the cardinal reasons for the decay of the Spanish Empire. Even more significant to our story is that Mexico, like China, tended to absorb its invaders. As we shall see, Tepoztlan today is more Aztec than Spanish. Here we find another sharp difference from the United States. The North American Indians were to all intents and purposes obliterated. Hardly a vestige of their culture remains except in such words as "moccasin," "canoe," "tobacco," and costumes at fancy dress balls.
The outstanding gain of the conquest, humanly considered, was the liquidation of the blood sacrifice. The practice might or might not have proved a temporary phenomenon-the Mayas and pre-Aztecs were not addicted to it-but the fact remains that it was gaining under Montezuma, and its abrupt termination, even at the immediate cost of many lives, can only be construed as a blessing to all concerned.
From Spain the Mexicans derived a number of useful material improvements, notably the horse, mule, donkey as beasts of burden; new foods in the form of wheat, rice, domesticated fruits; while a unified language, with a phonetic alphabet, may have been a greater contribution than wheat and horses. Finally, the wealth of Mexico certainly added to the power and prestige of Spain for a time, however much of a boomerang it proved in the end. It contributed much to the pageantry of civilization in sixteenth century Europe. Of the specific losses, to my mind the most poignant of all-and it is a purely hypothetical one-is that the conquest terminated a great experiment. Nobody knows to what heights indigenous American civilization might have climbed with its splendid beginnings, and nobody will ever know. Mexican culture continued and still continues, but it is the body only, decapitated by the conquest.
Meanwhile the tangible losses to the Mexicans were very great. Hundreds of thousands died in the wars and uprisings and epidemics attending the inauguration of the Spanish rule-probably more than the blood sacrifice had ever taken. The whole race was thrown into peonage, where it could not escape to the mountains, and thousands were needlessly lost in the mines, haciendas, and building operations of their Spanish masters. Craftsmanship of a high order persisted, and still persists, but the exquisite artistry of the old period, the masks of turquoise, the great golden wheel of the sun with its basreliefs, such things are gone forever.
And finally, it is infinitely mournful to contemplate four centuries and more of cringing abjection in a land where once civilized men walked free, fearless and masters of their destiny. I wish with Bernal Diaz that he and his kind had never stepped into that garden on Lake Texcoco, beside the white palaces, where the trees gave forth each its own sweet odour, the roses bloomed, and the birds sang.