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Setting Out for New Spain and the Serendipitous Gift of Language
Hernán Cortés strode to the bow of his flagship Santa María de la Concepción, a one-hundred-ton vessel and the largest of his armada, and scanned the horizon for land. He had much to ponder. His navigator and chief pilot, Antonio de Alaminos, an experienced veteran who had been pilot for Columbus on his final voyage, had been in these waters before—on the Ponce de León expedition in search of the fabled Fountain of Youth—and he suggested that if they encountered foul weather, the entire fleet should make land and convene on the island of Cozumel, just east of the Yucatán Peninsula’s northernmost tip. Since their hurried departure from Cuba, the fleet had been buffeted by foul weather, scattering the boats. Cortés brought up the rear, simultaneously scouring for land and for brigantines and caravels blown astray. A few, perhaps as many as five, had been lost during the night, an inauspicious beginning to such an ambitious voyage.
Cortés had staked everything he owned on this venture—in fact more than that, for he had incurred significant debt building the ships and stocking them with provisions. His hope to get off to a good start had been slightly compromised when his patron, the fat hidalgo Diego Velázquez, now governor of Cuba, attempted to thwart his departure, even after he had signed a contract officially confirming Cortés as captain- general. Velázquez’s behavior was no surprise, given the contentious nature of their relationship. On his arrival in Hispaniola (the modern-day Dominican Republic) in 1504, Cortés had sought out the established countryman and worked under him, initially on a raid to suppress an Indian uprising on the island’s interior, and later on an expedition captained by Pánfilo de Narváez to conquer Cuba, which they accomplished easily enough. After this successful venture Velázquez, feeling magnanimous, gifted Cortés a large plot of land with many Indians and a number of viable, working mines on it, effectively making Cortés rich. But the two men were both obstinate, and their relationship was soon fraught with tensions that would ultimately threaten prison, and even death, for Cortés.
Both men shared a passion for women, and a disagreement over one Catalina Suárez resulted in the governor’s having Cortés arrested and placed in the stocks. Cortés escaped by bribing the jailor, and Velázquez had him arrested again, even bringing a suit upon him and threatening to hang him for his refusal to marry Suárez, a snubbing that had sullied her reputation. Eventually Velázquez calmed, and the two men smoothed over their differences, but their relationship remained volatile. At present, in mid-February 1519, Velázquez held the political upper hand, for Cortés sailed under his aegis, as his emissary on a mission to trade, to find gold, and to obtain more Indians to work the mines of Cuba. But the wily Cortés had other intentions as he spotted land and had his pilot make anchor at Cozumel.
Cortés’s ship was the last to arrive, and on setting foot on the island he found that the local inhabitants had fled at the arrival of the first ships, dispersing into the hills and jungle. Cortés noted their fear, filing it away as useful information. Then he was met with vexing news, and a reason for the local Indians’ behavior: one of his most trusted captains, Pedro de Alvarado, had arrived early, immediately raided the first village he encountered—brusquely entering temples and thieving some small gold ornaments left there as prayer offerings—and then seized a flock of about forty turkeys that were milling around the Indians’ thatch-roofed houses, even taking a few of the frightened Indians, two men and a woman, prisoner. Cortés, incensed, contemplated how to handle the situation. He needed to trust Alvarado, and he respected the fiery redheaded countryman who also hailed from his homeland, Estremadura. Alvarado, already battle-hardened and having commanded the previous Grijalva expedition to the Yucatán, was cocksure and felt justified in making his own independent decisions. Cortés needed him and required a symbiotic relationship with his captains, but he also insisted that they obey his command, and he would tolerate no insubordination.1 Such behavior, he impressed upon his men, “was no way to pacify a country.”2
Cortés rebuked Alvarado by commanding his men to turn over the pilfered offerings and return them to their Indian owners. He also had Alvarado’s pilot Camacho, who had failed to obey orders to wait for Cortés at sea, chained in irons. The turkeys had been slaughtered, and some of them already eaten, so Cortés ordered that the fowl be paid for with green glass beads and small bells, which he gave to the prisoners as he released them, along with a Spanish shirt for each. Then Cortés asked for a man named Melchior, a Mayan who had been taken prisoner during an earlier expedition and converted into something of an interpreter, having been taught some Spanish by his captors. Through Melchior, Cortés spoke to the Indians as he released them and sent them back to their families, instructing them that the Spaniards came in peace and wished to do them no harm, and that Cortés as their leader would like to meet personally with their chiefs or caciques.*
The initial diplomacy worked. The next day men, women, children, and eventually the chiefs of the villages poured forth
*Cacique is a Caribbean Arawak word for “chief” that the Spaniards brought with them from the islands. Many of the chroniclers, including Bernal Díaz and to a lesser extent Cortés, use the term. The word would have been unknown to mainland Mexicans.
from their hiding places in the lowland scrub and repopulated their village, which soon was bustling again. Conquistador Bernal Díaz, a soldier under Alvarado’s command who had been on both the Córdoba and Grijalva expeditions, remarked that “men, women, and children went about with us as if they had been friends with us all their lives.” Cortés sternly reiterated that the natives must not be harmed in any way. Díaz was impressed by Cortés’s leadership and style, noting that “here in this island our Captain began to command most energetically, and Our Lord so favored him that whatever he touched succeeded.”3
The islanders brought food to the Spaniards, including loads of fresh fish, bundles of colorful and sweet tropical fruits, and hives of island honey, a delicacy that the island people nurtured and managed. The Spaniards traded beads, cutlery, bells, and other trinkets for food and low-grade gold ornaments. Relations seemed convivial, and Cortés decided to hold a muster on the beach to assess the force he had amassed in Cuba.
The ships included his one-hundred-ton flagship plus three smaller vessels displacing seventy or eighty tons. The remaining boats had open or partially covered decks with makeshift canvas roofs to provide shade from the scorching sun or shelter from the rain squalls. The bigger ships transported smaller vessels that could be lowered at ports or some distance offshore, then rowed or sailed to a landing.4 The ships were packed belowdecks with ample supplies of island fare: maize, yucca, chiles, and robust quantities of salt pork which had a long shelf life, plus fodder for the stock.
The crew of mercenaries comprised chivalrous men bred on war and adventure. Over five hundred strong, these travel-hardened pikemen and swordsmen and lancers had either paid their way onto the voyage or come spurred by the promise of fortune. Cortés strode the beach and surveyed the sharpshooters, thirty accurate crossbowmen and twelve well-trained harquebusiers bearing handheld matchlocks fired from the shoulder or chest. Ten small cannons would be fired by experienced artillery-men, who also carried light, transportable brass cannons called falconets. The detail-oriented, highly prepared Cortés had the foresight to bring along a few blacksmiths who could repair damaged weaponry and, most important, keep the prized Spanish horses well shod. Extensive stocks of ammunition and gun- powder were packaged carefully in dry containers and guarded at all times. For land transport, Cortés brought two hundred islanders from Cuba, mostly men for heavy portaging, but also a handful of women to prepare food and repair and fabricate the wool, flax, and linen doublets, jerkins, and brigandines the men wore.
Cortés ordered the horses lowered from the ship’s decks by means of strong leather harnesses, ropes, and pulleys, then had them led ashore to exercise and graze on the island’s dense foliage. Curious islanders came forward. They had been observing the general muster, and now they were absolutely entranced by the horses—some islanders running away in fear at the sight of them—the first such creatures they had ever witnessed. Intrigued by the horses’ impression on the locals, Cortés had his best cavalrymen mount the glistening and snorting animals and gallop them along the beach. Artillerymen tested cannons, firing them into the hillsides; the explosions were thunderous, flame and smoke belching from the muzzles. Archers shouldered crossbows and sent arrows whistling through the air at makeshift targets.5
When the smoke from the military display had cleared and the horses were put away, islanders approached the Spaniards more closely, and tugged at their beards and stroked the white skin of their forearms. A few of the chiefs became animated and gesticulated aggressively using sign language and pointing beyond the easternmost tip of the island. Cortés had Melchior brought forward, and after some discussion he reported some extraordinary news: the older chiefs claimed that years earlier other bearded white men had come and that two of them were still alive, held as slaves by Indians on mainland Yucatán, just a short distance, about a day’s paddle, across the channel waters.
Cortés mused, deeply intrigued by the prospect of Spanish-speaking countrymen who had been living among mainland Indians. This was an unexpected and potentially profitable windfall. He appealed to one of the main caciques, asking him for a few of his able men whom he could send over as scouts to see what they might learn of these Spaniards and to bring them back if they could. The chief conferred with others, but they balked, explaining that they feared sending any of their own people as guides because they would quite likely be killed and sacrificed or even eaten by the mainlanders. Alarming as this fear seemed, Cortés pressed, offering more of the green glass beads that the islanders appeared to covet, and the chiefs acquiesced. Cortés dispatched several men, along with his captain and friend Juan de Escalante, in a brigantine. Hidden beneath the braided hair of one of the messengers was a letter stating that Cortés had arrived on Cozumel with more than five hundred Spanish soldiers on a mission to “explore and colonize these lands.” Flanking them in support were two ships and fifty armed soldiers.6
While he awaited news from this reconnaissance, Cortés scouted his hosts’ island. He noted well-built houses, orderly and neat, and other evidence of a complex civilization, including their “books,” elaborate series of drawings on stretched bark. What interested him most was a large pyramidal structure, a temple constructed of limestone masonry, with an open plaza or sanctuary at its top, overlooking the sea. Cortés climbed the pyramid steps and, upon reaching the temple, saw that the pavilion was spattered with the blood of decapitated quail and domesticated dogs, small foxlike canines that the people also ate. Bones were piled as offerings. Cortés and his men found these idols monstrous, even frightening. One was especially curious: it was hollow, made of baked clay and set against a limestone wall with a secret entrance at its rear, where a priest could enter and respond to worshippers’ prayers, like an oracle. Around the idol, braziers burned resins, like incense. The caciques told Cortés that here they prayed for rain, and frequently their prayers were answered. Sometimes human beings were offered as sacrifice.7
Inflamed by the specter of human sacrifice, Cortés called for Melchior and through him pitched his first sermon and attempt at religious conversion. Speaking to the assembled Indians, Cortés railed that there was only one God, one creator—the one true God that the Spaniards worshipped. Bernal Díaz listened carefully, reporting that Cortés said “that if they wished to be our brothers they must throw their idols out of this temple, for they were evil and would lead them astray.”8 These evil abominations would send their souls to hell, Cortés said, but if they exchanged their idols for his cross, their souls would be saved and their harvests would prosper.
Melchior’s Spanish was hardly sufficient to convincingly or accurately convey Cortés’s message verbatim, especially the complex notion of the Christian soul (for which, at any rate, no Mayan terminology existed). But that did not stop Cortés from using an even more aggressive, highly symbolic tactic. The chiefs had responded that they disagreed—their own idols and gods were good, and their ancestors had worshipped them since time began. Cortés then brazenly ordered his men to smash the idols and roll them down the pyramid steps, where they crumbled at the feet of the mystified and terrified onlookers. The islanders, even the chiefs, remained too frightened by the previous military and cavalry demonstrations to do anything other than shake their heads in terror and confusion. Cortés then supervised a cleansing, a whitewashing of the blood from the prayer pavilion. The men scrubbed away the blood smears and animal entrails with lime, and carpenters erected a wooden cross, as well as a figure of the Virgin Mary. These were the new idols the people of Cozumel were to worship.
Cortés then ordered the priest Juan Díaz to hold mass. On leaving the newly altered shrine, Cortés sternly instructed the caciques of the village that they must keep the altar clean and decorate it frequently with fresh flowers. As a parting gift, Cortés had his men teach the islanders how to make candles from their beeswax, so that they could keep candles always burning before the figure of the Virgin.9 In exchange, the islanders presented Cortés with gifts of “four fowls and two jars of honey.”10
A week later Escalante and Ordaz returned from their foray to the Yucatán. They had delivered Cortés’s letter to a village chieftain, they claimed, but nothing had come of it. Cortés was disappointed, but it was time to press on, so he summoned his captains, loaded the ships, packed some Cozumel honey and wax for his king, and, as the weather looked promising, sailed away from the island paradise that they had already renamed Santa Cruz. They set their bearings for the small island called Isla Mujeres, which Francisco de Córdoba had discovered and named on his unsuccessful voyage two years earlier, in 1517. Almost immediately distress shouts came from Juan de Escalante’s brigantine; the vessel hove to and then ignited its cannon, signaling that it was imperiled. It was leaking badly, and the pilot feared it would not make the crossing. Escalante’s ship carried the bulk of the expedition’s important stores of cassava bread, which had been packed in Cuba, so Cortés decided to turn around and sail back to Cozumel, where they might repair the ship in friendly environs.
For several days, with the help of the islanders, Cortés’s carpenters caulked the leaks. Meticulous, Cortés had his “gunners” clean and maintain all the weaponry, then pack and repack all the ammunition and powder. His “bowmen” ascertained that all the crossbows were in order and had “two or three spare nuts and cords and forecords.”11 Cortés took the opportunity to see if the Virgin Mary and cross were still affixed at the temple, which to his pleasure they were. The repairs complete, the stores of provisions dried and reloaded, the weaponry properly maintained, the fleet prepared to set sail once more.
It was March 12, a Sunday. Cortés requested that mass be held before they depart. That done, the expeditionary force readied to board—but just then they spotted the outline of a canoe heading toward them from the mainland, paddling furiously. The boat made land down the beach. Cortés dispatched his trusted captain Andrés de Tapia to investigate; Tapia and a few officers strode down the beach, swords brandished. There they met the arrivals, a half-dozen men “naked except that their private parts were covered. Their hair was tied as women’s hair is tied, and they carried bows and arrows.”12 Seeing the Spaniards carrying drawn swords, the oarsmen in the canoe set to push off again and flee, but a tall man standing in the prow spoke to them quietly, telling them to wait. Then he stepped forward and called out to Tapia in broken Spanish, “Brothers, are you Christians?”
Tapia nodded and sent immediately for Cortés, then embraced the man as he knelt and wept. He was a priest named Jerónimo de Aguilar, and his story was miraculous.
Back in 1511 the ship Aguilar was on had struck low shoals off the coast of Jamaica, and he and about twenty other survivors had escaped in a rowboat with what little they could gather. Bereft of food and water, and trading shifts on their only set of oars, they caught a westerly current and washed up on the shores of the Yucatán, half their number dead and the rest nearly so.
Mayan tribesmen welcomed them by taking them prisoner, immediately sacrificing their leader, the conquistador Valdivia, and four other men, then eating these Spaniards during a festival feast. Aguilar and his remaining friends, including a man named Gonzalo Guerrero, were crammed into cages and could only watch in horror at the sacrificial ceremonies, as drums rumbled into the lowland jungle and celebrants blew mournful songs on conch shells. The Spaniards were being fattened for sacrifice. Realizing their potential fate, they worked together and broke the cage slats, sneaking away into the night.
Aguilar and Guerrero, along with a few others, found refuge in another village and were quickly enslaved. Aguilar became known as “the white slave.” Through hard work, acquiescence, luck, and his faith, he had survived eight years among his Mayan captors and had earned his freedom.13 He had received Cortés’s letter from the messengers, and then visited his countryman Guerrero, who was now living in a nearby village. Guerrero had won his own freedom through impressive feats of manual labor and was now an accepted member of his tribe, a warrior and a military leader. He had taken a wife, a chief’s daughter, and she had borne him a daughter and two sons. His heavily muscled body was covered with tattoos, his ears were pierced, and he wore a hunk of jade in his lower lip. He had gone native and told Aguilar he had no desire to return.
For his part, Aguilar had always held out the remote hope that he might someday be rescued, and from the day of his arrival on mainland Yucatán, he had kept his mind sharp and strong by counting the days. One of the first questions he asked Cortés and his men was what day of the week it was. He learned it was Sunday and realized he was off by a few days, but by now it hardly mattered. Tucked beneath his tattered cloak was a torn old prayer book, which he kept with him at all times. In his eight years marooned, he had learned to speak Chontal Mayan fluently, and he had retained much of his native Spanish, though it was rusty and came with difficulty.
Cortés was elated by this stroke of providence. Through Aguilar he could learn something of the mainlanders’ customs, their beliefs and lifeways. But more important, he could now communicate with them, something he understood to be crucial to his success. He immediately made Aguilar his translator and interpreter and kept him nearby at all times.14
The weather was favorable, and the leaky ship had been repaired. All the weapons, horses, and provisions were in proper order. Leaving Cozumel once more, the fleet struck out for the mainland, come what might.