Cortes’ March to Tenochtitlan I


Hernán Cortés


Cortés burns his boats

OCTOBER 23, 1518. After offering command of this latest enterprise to various individuals, Velazquez selects a 34-year-old alcalde or magistrate at Santiago de Cuba named Hernan Cortés. It is Velazquez’s intent for Cortés to secure a foothold in this new territory to await the governor’s arrival with a main body; yet Velazquez is soon disconcerted by the speed and scope of his subordinate’s preparations, for Cortés musters seven vessels and more than 300 eager volunteers within a matter of weeks. Alarmed, the governor decides to replace him at the last minute with Luis de Medina; but Cortés gets wind of this proposed change.

NOVEMBER 18, 1518. Rather than allow himself to be superseded, Cortés weighs anchor from Santiago de Cuba with his 100-ton flagship Santa Maria de la Concepcion and five other vessels, sailing along southern Cuba and gathering more recruits and supplies while openly defying Velazquez’s repeated recalls.

FEBRUARY 10, 1519. After almost three months, Cortés has gathered a fleet comprised of his 100- ton flagship, three other ships of 70-80 tons apiece, plus seven lesser vessels and brigantines at Guaniguanico near the western tip of Cuba, bearing 500 troops (12 of them harquebusiers and 30 crossbowmen), 50 sailors, 16 horses, and 14 large artillery pieces and numerous smaller ones, plus war dogs, a doctor, 2 interpreters, a dozen women, as well as a couple hundred Cuban porters and black slaves.

With this expedition, he strikes out eight days later for Cozumel but is scattered by a nocturnal storm; his fleet straggles in to drop anchor by February 21 with one ship missing. As the island’s inhabitants have fled into the jungle, Cortés lands his troops and horses to recuperate and orders repairs made to his fleet before coaxing the natives back to their homes through kind usage. Learning of reputed Spanish castaways living on the nearby mainland of Yucatan, he secretly sends an Indian messenger to them, hoping to gain intelligence.

A couple of weeks later, his expedition resumes its passage, touching at Isla Mujeres before Capt. Pedro de Alvarado’s vessel springs a bad leak, obliging the entire fleet to return to Cozumel.

MARCH 13, 1519. While preparing to once more depart Cozumel, Cortés is joined by a Spanish castaway named Geronimo de Aguilar, who has been living among the Indians of Yucatan for eight years and has answered his covert summons.

A few days after setting sail and watering at Isla Mujeres, Cortés rounds the Yucatan Peninsula and locates his missing ship anchored in Puerto Escondido near the Laguna de Términos. He then proceeds to the Grijalva River mouth, probing almost two miles upstream-with only his smaller vessels bearing a small contingent-until they come within sight of a large Mayan town enclosed “by a thick wooden wall and battlements” named Potonchan. Cortés requests permission to buy provisions and water, which the Chontal natives refuse. Instead, their noncombatants exit into the interior, while the Spanish main army moves upstream and covertly joins their leader Cortés under cover of darkness.

MARCH 24, 1519. Initial Clashes. After a day of tense negotiations with the Chontal Maya inhabitants of Potonchan, a fight erupts at sundown when Cortés pushes across the river with 200 men, assaulting the defenses along the town’s waterfront. The 400 native defenders are frightened by the Spaniards’ artillery and are defeated when Cortés’s 300 other soldiers pour into Potonchan unexpectedly from its landward side. All the Mayans are either killed, wounded, or captured, as opposed to only 20 injured among the attackers’ ranks.

The Spanish hold the town for a couple of days, while Mayan forces marshal in the interior under their chief, Tabasco. Cortés then detaches three 80- man columns under Pedro de Alvarado, Alonso de Avila, and Gonzalo de Sandoval to forage inland for food. These men become embroiled in a series of skirmishes around the village of Cintla or Centla and have to be rescued. Consequently, Cortés has his horses brought ashore and, next dawn, advances with all his 500 troops, 13 cavalrymen, and six artillery pieces.

They encounter some 8,000 Mayans massed at Cintla, so the Spanish cavalry maneuvers through a hail of arrows around to the left of its cultivated fields and ditches, looking for flat land to charge, while the infantry marches behind their shields to the right. The latter are checked in close-quarters combat, eventually fighting their way through after Cortés and his riders rejoin them. Never having seen horses before, the Mayans are panic-stricken by the swift-moving figures and suffer some 300 deaths and hundreds more wounded or captured. More than 70 Spaniards are injured.

After releasing his prisoners with renewed promises of generous terms for the inhabitants, Cortés receives a delegation of Mayan noblemen the next day, who agree to submit to Spanish rule. The invaders remain in occupation of Potonchan and its district for almost three weeks, renaming it Santa Maria de la Victoria-literally, “Saint Mary of the Victory.” They furthermore receive 20 young Indian slave women, one of whom is called Malinali or Malinche and is baptized as “Doña Marina.” She speaks Nahuatl (the language of the inland Aztec empire) and will prove an invaluable interpreter, confidante, and lover to Cortés during his forthcoming campaign against central Mexico.

APRIL 17, 1519. After celebrating Palm Sunday with a Mass at Santa Maria de la Victoria, Cortés’s expedition goes back aboard ship and resumes its progression westward, sighting the islands of San Juan de Ulua by April 20. The next day, the fleet drops anchor in the islands’ lee, and a boat bearing two subordinates of the regional Aztec administrator Teutliltzin (also rendered as Teudile or Teudilli) contacts the visitors, inquiring as to their intentions.

APRIL 22 (GOOD FRIDAY), 1519. Cortés ferries his army ashore, complete with horses and artillery, and has his Cuban laborers swiftly fell trees and erect a fortified camp opposite San Juan de Ulua. The Spaniards are given a friendly reception by the local Totonac Indians, vassals of the Aztecs for the past 40 years.

Two days later, the regional overlord Teutliltzin arrives with an impressive Aztec retinue, exchanging presents and banqueting with Cortés. Learning that the visitors wish to meet the Emperor Moctezuma II at his capital of Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City), Teutliltzin sends a request and other reports inland by messenger, while assigning 2,000 native tributaries to wait upon the Spaniards.

MAY 1, 1519. Teutliltzin returns with an embassy sent by the hueyi tlatoani or “great speaker,” the Emperor Moctezuma II. The embassy bears even more wealthy gifts for Cortés-thus unwittingly exciting the Spaniards’ greed-but also brings a message discouraging the strangers from visiting the Aztec capital. Cortés nonetheless insists and, while awaiting a reply, receives a delegation of Totonac Indians from nearby Cempoala, who reveal to him that many subject tribes are resentful of Aztec rule.

Teutliltzin reappears 10 days afterward with a few more presents, plus a final rejection from the emperor of the Spaniards’ request for a meeting; the local tribune also withdraws their 2,000 native servants overnight, thereby cutting off the Spaniards’ food supply. Cortés consequently sends Pedro de Alvarado to probe inland with 100 soldiers, 15 crossbowmen, and 6 harquebusiers, who return after wending nine miles through the dunes and swamps only to find a few abandoned Indian hamlets. Simultaneously, two brigantines with 50 men apiece are sent northwestward up the coast under captains Francisco de Montejo and Rodrigo Alvarez Chico to search for a better anchorage for the fleet.

During these absences, Cortés convenes a general meeting of his small army and gets them to agree to found a new Spanish settlement in Mexico, which is to be called Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz or “Rich Town of the True Cross.” He is elected as its “mayor,” a legal fiction that will allow him to sever all ties with Velazquez and report directly to the king in Spain.

JUNE 7, 1519. Once his two brigantines return, Cortés decides to shift his land base 40 miles northwestward of San Juan de Ulua into the more sheltered harbor near Quiahuiztlan in Totonacan territory beyond Cempoala. He therefore marches overland with 400 soldiers, all his horses, and two small artillery pieces, while his ships circle around with the remaining force. During their progression, the Spanish army is splendidly received by the immensely fat chief Xicomecoatl of Cempoala, who proposes to Cortés that an alliance with the inland tribes of Tlaxcala and Huejotzingo will help overthrow the Aztecs.

JUNE 28, 1519. From Cempoala, Cortés completes his journey to the coastal town of Quiahuiztlan and secretly encourages its inhabitants to seize a score of Aztec tribute-collectors, two of whom he releases that same night in a false gesture of friendship. The Spanish commander then proceeds to the nearby harbor and lays out the future city of Veracruz (then known as Villa Rica la Vieja), assigning lots and having bricks made to erect a fort.

A few days later, two of the emperor’s young nephews arrive with a large Aztec delegation, bearing gifts in thanks for the release of the two captive tribute-collectors and informing Cortés that, while the Spaniards may now travel to Tenochtitlan, they might not be received by Moctezuma himself. Cortés returns a smooth reply, while arranging for the liberation of the remaining 18 captives-yet still covertly encouraging the local natives to refuse paying tribute to Mexico.

When news of this tax rebellion spreads, the regional Aztec collectors flee to their garrison town of Tizapantzingo, whose troops sally to punish the Totonac and Cempoalan rebels. Cortés counters by advancing swiftly upon this hilltop fortress with some Spanish soldiers and a host of native allies, scattering the Aztec army through sheer fright at the sight of his horsemen, thereby overrunning this base and expelling its defenders-disarmed but otherwise unharmed.

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