Ancient History & Civilisation



The Empires of the Aztecs, the Mayas, and the Toltecs

The city was desolate.… It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her masts gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came, to whom she belonged, how long on her voyage, or what caused her destruction; her lost people to be traced only by some fancied resemblance in the construction of the vessel, and, perhaps, never to be known at all.

—John L. Stephens facing his first discovery


“With the first faint streak of dawn, the Spanish general was up, mustering his followers. They gathered, with beating hearts, under their respective banners, as the trumpet sent forth its spirit-stirring sounds across water and woodland, till they died away in distant echoes among the mountains. The sacred flames on the altars of numberless teocallis, dimly seen through the grey mists of morning, indicated the site of the capital, till temple, tower, and palace were fully revealed in the glorious illumination which the sun, as he rose above the eastern barrier, poured over the beautiful valley. It was November 8, 1519; a conspicuous day in history, as that on which the Europeans first set foot in the capital of the Western World.”

Thus a nineteenth-century historian, W. H. Prescott, described the portentous historical moment when the Spanish adventurer Hernando Cortés, with his four hundred Spanish followers, first saw Mexico, the capital of the Aztec empire.

When Cortés’s troops—there were, in addition to the Spaniards, about 6,000 native auxiliaries, mostly Tlascalans, hereditary enemies of the Aztecs—had crossed the causeway that connected the mainland with the island city, they passed over a great drawbridge. Not one of the Spaniards could doubt that they had now given themselves into the hands of a prince whose power was eloquently attested not only by the bands of warriors swarming around them, and the vast edifices rearing up before them, but also by all the stories they had heard from the natives.

The Spaniards’ thundering advance moved on without hesitation.

When they reached the great main thoroughfare of the city, they saw advancing toward them a shimmering procession of men in gorgeous array. Behind three dignitaries holding golden staves of office swayed a golden palanquin borne on the shoulders of noblemen. Its canopy was fashioned of many-colored feathers bestrewn with jewels and bordered in silver. The noble bearers walked barefoot, with measured tread and eyes downcast. At the proper distance, the procession came to a halt, and from the palanquin descended a tall, slender man about forty years old. His complexion was paler than that of the ordinary natives, his black hair was smooth and not very long, his beard was sparse. He wore a cape embroidered with pearls and precious stones, tied under his chin. He was shod in golden sandals that were tied to his ankles with gold-encrusted straps. As he came forward, leaning upon the arms of two courtiers, servants spread cotton blankets before him so that he would not soil his feet. So stood Moctezuma II, Emperor of the Aztecs, before Cortés.

Cortés descended from his horse and, also leaning upon the arms of two noble companions, moved to meet the native ruler.

Fifty years later Bernal Díaz, one of the conquistador’s companions, wrote of this encounter: “I shall never forget this scene; after all these years it remains as vivid to me as if it had happened yesterday.”

When those two men stood eye to eye, exchanging ceremonial words of greeting, two worlds, two historical ages were meeting face to face.

For the first time in the history of great discoveries related in this book it came to pass that a man from the Christian West did not have to reconstruct an unknown rich culture from its ruins but encountered it in the flesh. Cortés before Moctezuma! It is as though Brugsch-Bey had suddenly found himself face to face with Ramses the Great in the Valley of Deir el-Bahri, or as though Koldewey had met Nebuchadnezzar strolling in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and they could have conversed together as Cortés did with Moctezuma.

But Cortés was a conqueror, not an archæologist. Beauty was of interest to him only when it was exchangeable for gold, and greatness only as something against which to measure his own. He was concerned with profit for himself and his Hispanic Majesty, and at most with furthering the supremacy of the Cross, but certainly not the advancement of knowledge (unless one were to consider his interest in geography a basically scientific interest). Barely a year after he had met Moctezuma for the first time, Moctezuma was dead. In less than another year, the splendor of Mexico was destroyed—and not only the city itself.

To cite a cultural historian of our own time, Oswald Spengler: “This is the only example of the violent sudden death of a culture. This culture did not wither away; it was not suppressed or inhibited. It was murdered in the full glory of its flowering, demolished like a sunflower wantonly beheaded by a passerby.”

To understand what happened, it is necessary to take a glance backward across the years, now known as the Age of the Conquistadors, that formed a period in the history of the Christian West reddened by fire and blood, draped in priestly vestments, and bounded by the sword.

In 1492 the Genoese Captain Cristóbal Colón, later known as Christopher Columbus, voyaging toward India, discovered the islands of Guanahani, Cuba, and Haiti off the coast of Central America, and later Dominica, Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and finally the coast of South and Middle America. While at the same time Vasco da Gama found the true (i.e. the nearest) sea route to India, Hojeda and Vespucci and Ferdinand Magellan explored the southern coasts of the New World. After the voyage of John Cabot and Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe, the extent of the American continent was known from Labrador to Tierra del Fuego. And when Nunez de Balboa dramatically walked into the Pacific in full armor to take possession of it “for all time,” and Pizarro and Almagro invaded the empire of the Incas—the Peru of our day—from the western coast, a breach had been made within a single generation for the greatest of European adventures. Discovery might be followed by exploration, but exploration had to be succeeded by conquest, for the New World was a repository of unimaginable riches, both in the sense of offering new markets and in that of being a treasure house awaiting plunder.

It was this, of course—the prospect of treasures to be had for the taking—that most inspired those daring exploits by mere handfuls of men sailing on ships of a size seen nowadays only on inland rivers. Yet it would be unjust to suppose that gold was their only objective, their only motive greed coupled with dare-devilry. Those explorers and conquerors went forth not only for themselves, for Isabella and Ferdinand and later for Charles V; they were also serving their pope, Alexander VI, the Borgia who in 1493, with one straight line across a map, divided the world neatly between Portugal and Spain. They went forth under the banner of the Virgin on behalf of his Apostolic Majesty, as missionaries against the infidels, and none of their ships lacked a priest ready to plant the Cross wherever they might land.

When the explorers and conquistadors sailed for America, a world conception was to become global for the first time in history. Ideas, religion, politics, adventurousness all played their parts. A new knowledge of the stars, of geography, and consequently of navigation, also served to implement the expansive politics of an essentially European world empire “on which the sun would never set.” A creed hardened to fanaticism could send out adventurers under its sacred banners because the hearts of hidalgos had wearied of dreaming and thirsted for action.

Apart from such basic determinants of history there are also always, of course, those odd quirks of events that have so often proved decisive in the development of the science of vanished cultures. It may be amusing to note that Hernando Cortés, the great discoverer of the Aztec culture, was intended to become a lawyer. His first attempt to escape from this hated profession by joining the expedition of Nicolas de Ovando, Columbus’s successor, was balked when a high wall the young man was climbing to reach the chamber of a lady love crumbled under his feet and buried Hernando under its rubble. The contusions sustained in this, the first of his known adventures, kept the young Don Juan in bed until after Ovando’s fleet had sailed. We will never know what turn the history of the New World might have taken, had the wall offered less of an obstacle to young love.

Even men like Cortés, however, are replaceable when the times call for them.

The campaign in which Cortés took Mexico by storm is without parallel in history.

Sixteen years before, when he was nineteen and had just landed on Hispaniola, he arrogantly told the governor’s secretary, who was offering to assign him a piece of land: “I have come to get gold, not to plow the field like a peasant.” At twenty-four he took part in the conquest of Cuba under Velásquez, with distinction, but joined the party of the opposition to the new governor and was tossed into jail. He escaped, was captured, escaped again; finally managed a reconciliation with the governor. He settled on an estate, introduced European cattle to Cuba, exploited gold mines, and accumulated the impressive sum of 2,000 to 3,000 castellanos. Bishop Las Casas, one of the few friends the Indians had in the New World, commented on this: “God, who alone knows at the cost of how many Indian lives this sum was collected, will demand an accounting for it.”

The acquisition of this fortune was a turning point for Cortés’s career. Now that he could afford to equip every kind of fighting force he was given the command of a fleet of warships which he and Velásquez outfitted together, destined to reach at last the coast of that fabled country about which the natives had told so many galvanizing stories. At the last moment there was fresh dissension with the governor. When Cortés had reached Trinidad with the fleet into which he had put his entire fortune and that of his friends, Velásquez tried to have him arrested. But by this time Cortés was the man all his soldiers swore by. They would have rioted at any serious attempt to hold their commander. So Cortés was allowed to proceed with eleven ships, the largest of which was a hundred-tonner, into his most portentous adventure.

At this point the entire striking force—with which he had set out to conquer a country of which he had no real conception—consisted of 110 sailors, 553 soldiers (including 32 archers and 13 musketeers), 10 cannons, 4 culverins (light field guns), and 16 horses.

Under his flag of black velvet embroidered with gold thread, with a red cross and the inscription: “Friends, let us follow the Cross, for under this sign those who have faith shall conquer,” he addressed his forces in words which have come down to us, ending as follows:

“You are only few in number, but strong in resolution. If you do not falter in this, have no doubt that the Almighty, who has never yet abandoned the Spaniard in his struggle against the infidel, will shield you even when you are surrounded by a swarm of enemies; for your cause is a righteous cause, and you will be fighting under the banner of the Cross. Forward then, in good spirits and confidence; let us bring the work so auspiciously begun to a glorious conclusion.”

On August 16, 1519, he set out from a point on the coast near the future Vera Cruz to conquer Mexico. He had expected to fight against tribes; he now saw that he would have to defeat an empire. He had assumed that he would have to pit himself against savages; he now had to learn that he was at war with a highly civilized nation. He had counted on finding villages and rural settlements in his way; instead, vast cities with temples and palaces loomed up from the plain before him. That none of these confrontations and sights shook his determination to subjugate this country shows him to be one of those men who are cursed by posterity only when they fail.

The maniacal three months of conquest which swept Cortés into Moctezuma’s capital city cannot be described here in detail. It is enough to say that Cortés overcame obstacle after obstacle offered by the landscape, the climate, and the unknown diseases bred by them. He waged and won battles against thirty to fifty thousand Indians. His reputation for being unconquerable preceded him from city to city. His strategy combined the most precise military science with savage butchery. Meanwhile he did a great deal of skillful political maneuvering, returning the ambassadors Moctezuma kept sending to him loaded with gifts, while playing out the Emperor’s vassal peoples against each other, turning the Tlascalans, who were his enemies one day, into his friends the next. Purposefully he moved forward until Moctezuma’s aimless halfway measures lost all effectiveness in arresting his advance, and the Aztec ruler, supreme lord of far over 100,000 warriors, ended by pleading with Cortés not to set foot in his capital.

This triumphal campaign, which is without equal in history, is almost impossible to explain. Cortés’s strength lay in having a reputation of almost mythical proportions joined with the advantage of organized, disciplined military tactics. As one historian put it, it was another case of Greeks versus Persians. But this time the “Greeks” had—in addition to discipline—firearms, weapons unknown and terrifying to the enemy. And they had something else that threw the Indians into a panic every time: horses, thundering monsters in the eyes of the Aztec people, who saw rider and mount as one and did not lose their superstitious awe of these creatures even after they had captured one and a leader had it hacked to pieces which he dispatched to all the cities of the realm.

The day on which the capital was taken by the Spaniards, November 8, 1519, moved irresistibly closer. It could not even be called a conquest; the city was occupied by a victorious invader, without resistance. Yet Cortés’s discovery, in the Mexican metropolis, of that treasure of which he had been dreaming since he was nineteen years old, and the precipitancy with which he planted the Cross upon the Aztec temples, together brought about a series of complications that came within a hair’s breadth of costing him and his followers all the fruits of their victory.

On November 10, 1519, the third day after Cortés entered the capital, he asked Moctezuma for permission to set up a chapel in one of the palaces that had been turned over to him and his men. Permission was granted at once; indeed, Moctezuma sent Aztec craftsmen to lend a hand.

The Spaniards, however, did their own reconnoitering. In going over the old masonry they noticed a patch of wall where the mortar was still fresh, and with the experience gained from much requisitioning they suspected that there was a door behind it. Although they were still nominally guests in the imperial palace, they did not scruple to break into that wall. When a door was indeed revealed, they immediately opened it—and sent for Cortés.

He came, and looked through the opening they had made; then he had to shut his eyes for a moment. Before him lay a hall full of the richest, most magnificent fabrics, ornaments, precious utensils, jewels of every kind, silver and gold not only in exquisitely worked objects but stacked ingots. Bernal Díaz, the chronicler, who had seen this over Cortés’s shoulder, wrote later: “I was a young man, and it seemed to me that all the riches of the world lay piled up in that room.”

They were standing before the treasure of Moctezuma; that of the father, enriched by the acquisitions of the son.

Cortés proceeded with extraordinary circumspection. He ordered the door walled up again at once; for he realized that he was perched on the crater’s edge of a volcano that might erupt at any moment. Considering the odds against the little troop of Spaniards inside that vast alien city, an estimated 65,000 buildings, the mere thought of their audacity is still breath-taking.

What were their chances, in fact, of bringing this adventure to a safe conclusion? Now that they had seen the treasure, how were they to get it out of that great city, under the nose of the emperor and his great host of an army? How could they suppose that they could seize power over this kingdom to secure their economic exploitation of it, as they had been able to do with the savage islands of the New World?

As Cortés proved, there was one, and only one, way to seize power within the capital, though it might occur only to such desperate adventurers as these, and be grasped only by such intrepid conquistadors. Cortés had perceived the virtually sacral status of Moctezuma; the Emperor’s subjects would not dare to lift a finger against whoever had the Emperor’s person in his power. After a calculated interval he invited Moctezuma to move in with him, thus combining the imperial residence with his own. His invitation included such a mixture of reasons, discreet pleadings, and covert threats (his most imposing-looking knights in full armor already posted at the doors) that Moctezuma yielded.

On the evening of the same day the Fathers Bartolomé Olmedo and Juan Díaz conducted Holy Mass in the new chapel. During this pious exercise the treasure, which each of the praying Spaniards considered his in part, lay in the adjoining chamber to the left. At the right of it sat its owner, an Emperor in the midst of his realm, and yet no more than a hostage at the mercy of a few men, letting his nobles comfort him as best they could regarding the indignity of his position. All the Spaniards, remarked Bernal Díaz, behaved with the utmost gravity and decorum during their devotions, “partly for the sake of the rite itself, and partly because of its edifying influence upon the benighted heathens.”

So far Cortés had a series of unbroken successes to his credit, as though good fortune were on his side in every venture. Then three events in rapid sequence changed the picture.

The first unpleasantness arose in the ranks of the Spaniards themselves. Once Moctezuma had become his prisoner, Cortés saw no reason to leave the treasure undisturbed. (The luckless ruler tried to save face by offering the entire treasure to Cortés’s distant King, his Spanish Majesty, as a gift, together with an oath of fealty—a gesture of little worth, considering his situation.) To have it properly assessed, Cortés had the treasure brought into one of the great halls. Its total value, according to the scales and weights the Spaniards had to improvise—the Aztecs, great mathematicians though they were, had never heard of such things—came to about 162,000 gold pesos, equivalent (according to a nineteenth-century estimate) to about 6.3 million dollars. It is unlikely that any sixteenth-century European ruler had ever seen the equivalent of so enormous a sum, for the time, in his treasury. No wonder the Spanish soldiers went into a frenzy when they calculated the value of an equal share for each of them.

But it turned out that Cortés had rather different plans for dividing this booty. He was, after all, the emissary of his Spanish Majesty, who was surely entitled to a proper share. And what about Cortés himself, who had furnished the ships, equipped the troops, and was still deeply in debt for all this, debts he would have to pay off one day? He therefore decreed the following division of the spoils: one fifth to the King of Spain; another to Cortés; a third part to Velásquez, the King’s Governor who had to be placated, since Cortés had flouted his orders and simply gone off with all the ships; a fourth to be paid out as a premium to the noblemen, the artillerists, the arquebusiers and archers as well as the garrison left to guard the coast of Vera Cruz. This left one fifth to be distributed—100 gold pesos to a soldier!—a pittance for what they had accomplished, a wretched tip in the eyes of those who had seen the entire treasure.

Cortés’s band was on the brink of mutiny. Quarrels broke out that led to duels and bloodshed. Cortés intervened, not by invoking discipline, but by resorting to eloquence. “With sweet words, of which he had a good supply for every kind of contingency,” said one of his soldiers. He pacified them by feeding their imaginations with visions of a far greater reward than they had dreamed of. Meanwhile the one fifth of the treasure that was to be equally shared by the soldiers was all they received; the other four fifths remained well guarded in the palace.

A few months afterwards, something far more serious occurred. Cortés was informed by a captain from the coastal station that a fleet under the command of a certain Narváez had landed at Vera Cruz, sent by the enraged Velásquez for no other purpose than that of relieving Cortés of his command and taking him to Cuba as a prisoner charged with open rebellion and with exceeding his authority. The details were alarming: Narváez had 18 ships, holding 900 men, including 80 cavalry, 80 arquebusiers, 150 crossbowmen, and much heavy artillery. Cortés, sitting upon the powder keg of Mexico, was now facing in addition an army of his own countrymen that was not only far stronger than any force at his command, but was by far the greatest military force ever yet marshalled for battle in the New World.

What he did was extraordinary. Anyone who might have attributed Cortés’s triumphs to luck, to daredevilry, to the fact that his opponents were only poorly armed Indians, must now revise his opinion. For Cortés decided to move against Narváez and crush him.

What with?

He dared to leave behind Pedro de Alvarado, one of his captains, with two thirds of his entire army, to guard Mexico and Moctezuma, still his valuable hostage. With the last third—70 soldiers in all—he was going to hurl himself against Narváez! Before setting off he painted for Moctezuma so terrifying a picture of punishment to be inflicted upon traitors from among his own people that the weak-willed ruler, fearing the worst at the Spaniard’s return, turned a deaf ear to his own advisers trying to rouse him in this unexpectedly favorable hour. Moctezuma in fact did his best to mollify Cortés, accompanying him in his palanquin (well guarded by Alvarado all the way) as far as the dam, where he embraced the Spaniard and wished him good fortune!

And so Cortés and his army—or rather, his horde increased by Indian confederates to a total of 266 men—set out into the plain, the Tierra Caliente. Through heavy downpours of rain and storm his scouts brought word that Narváez had reached Cempoalla. Now only a river lay between him and his enemy.

Narváez meanwhile, far from lacking in experience and military strategy, was making toward the river to confront Cortés that very evening. But in view of the dreadful weather he inclined to heed the grumbling of his soldiers. Convinced that Cortés could not be expected on such a night, and trusting in the superiority of his weapons, he withdrew again to the town and retired for the night.

Cortés crossed the river. The enemy’s sentinels were taken by surprise. On Whitsunday night, 1520, with their war-cry “Espiritu Santo!” his scanty, ill-equipped troops, with him at their van, burst into Narváez’s camp which was bristling with men and weapons.

The surprise attack was a complete success. In a brief but fearful night battle, lit by torches and here and there a flash of cannon fired but once, the camp was captured. Narváez, defending himself from the top of a temple tower, caught a spear in his left eye. Hisscream of pain was followed by Cortés’s jubilant “Victoria!”

It was said later on that the cocuyos, huge fireflies of the region, had come to the aid of Cortés and his just cause by suddenly arriving in swarms, so that the defenders believed themselves attacked by a vast army bearing lighted matchlocks. In any case the victory went unquestionably to Cortés. Its full extent showed itself when most of the vanquished offered to swear fealty to him, and when he inspected his rich booty of cannons, guns, and horses, finding that at long last, for the first time in the history of his Mexican expedition, he was in command of a really powerful striking force.

Yet this powerful force was destined to fail where the inconsiderable horde Cortés had been leading hitherto had so signally triumphed.

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