Document : History of the Conquest of Mexico. By William Prescott. 3 Vols. 1843.
Dans son volume 22 d’octobre 18441, le célèbre mensuel britannique The Gentleman’s magazine publiait un compte rendu sans nom d’auteur de la publication de William Prescott intitulée History of the Conquest of Mexico, parue l’année précédente. C’est ce document que nous transcrivons ci-après avec les notes d’origine.
THOUGH all histories coincide in their general purpose and aim of imparting to us a knowledge of some portion of mankind, during a certain period of their existence ; yet, in effecting this, they may vary their style and manner, according to the genius of the writer, the particular purpose he has to accomplish, or the nature of his subject. What may be called the general style of historical writing, which is more usually adopted than any other, is when the writer, enumerating the facts that occur, separating what is essential and important from what is accidental or trivial, then reasons on what are the probable causes connected with them. Thus history becomes philosophical, drawing general inferences, revealing important truths, and obtaining instruction for the future from the experience of the past. In this manner of writing, among the Greeks, Thucydides stands pre-eminent ; and Tacitus among the Romans. We see in them the great masters of political wisdom ; judging, as from a higher survey of good and evil, of wisdom and of folly, of moral strength or weakness ; connecting causes with events, tracing back important results unto their secret springs, and penetrating into those remote doctrines of the future which an ordinary eye would fail to reach. In the same class, in later times, we should reckon Davila, and Hume, and Gibbon, and others of no inferior claims in our own times. At one of the two extremes of this division, lies that species of history which in the hands of Machiavel became purely philosophical or didactic; in which the facts are used as mere illustrations of the principles, and comprehensive conclusions are drawn from certain events, and the consequences that have resulted from them, and in which the clear and comprehensive mind of the philosopher fixes its attention solely on the general results for the just deduction of inferences. At the opposite extreme is seen what may be called the picturesque narrative, in which class the old chroniclers for the most part will be found, and such histories as that of Froissart and Monstrelet ; which style has lately been revived under the eloquent pen of Mr. Barante, in his ‘‘ History of the Dukes of Burgundy,” and of Chateaubriand in his “ Genius of Christianity.” Here, dismissing all fine and subtle analysis of motives, or remote deduction of consequences, or logical infer- ences, or penetrating criticism, or ingenious and probable theories, the writer simply mentions his field of action, produces his characters, and gives life to his picture, by the skilfulness of his grouping, the animation of his action, and the variety and splendour of his colouring. With such a pencil as this, the Greek historian already alluded to has described that memorable expedition of the Athenian army to the conquest of Sicily, from its commencement, when it left the harbour of the Pireus, like a triumphal procession, and the inspiring sounds and melody of musical instruments, aud the benedictions of the people, till its final termination in defeat and in distress, its ruined armies in the prisons of Syracuse, and its heart-broken commanders seeking in death a refuge from a fate still more terrible : or as may be read in later times, in those terrific pictures which the pencil of Tacitus has drawn, of an age of political wickedness and personal depravity, — of vice, and misery, and degradation in every shape still increasing, till, as we descend aloug the stream of history, it seems almost to leave the surface of the earth and the open light of heaven, and to sink into low, deep, subterrancous channels, where it may be heard sullenly and dismally heaving amid the chasms of darkness, and dashing in low and melancholy reverberations against the hollow caverns in which it has sunk.
It is in this class — in the province of picturesque history — that the present author will take his place, and to which both the nature of his subject and the bent of his genius have united to lead him. History must take its hue and local colouring from its subject, and that will naturally be chosen by a writer which he feels congenial to him, and on which he trusts successfully to exert his powers. It would perhaps be impossible in modern times to point at a subject which in itself would form a more splendid and fascinating historical picture than the ove before us : it possesses unity of subject, with striking contrasts of character, novelty of description, and variety of detail. It is crowded with romantic adventures and noble ex- ploits ; it admits the most picturesque associations, and is connected with the most engrossing interests. It describes countries previously unknown, it makes us acquainted with a people living under a form of social inter-course and political regulation not before observed ; it opens a new and almost boundless landscape beyond the distant shores; it describes the most astonishing changes of fortune, and the most momentous conse- quences proceeding from very trifling causes ; and lastly, it presents to us both the powers of the mind and the affections and natural virtues of the heart under modifications not before observed, and existing in circumstances that were not known to exist at all. Such is the nature of the history which the present writer has selected to embellish with the graces of his narrative, as well as to illustrate bya supply of richer materials than any of his predecessors could command.2
History is more or less entertaining, we are apt to think, as it is more or Jess personal. How, for instance, the foremost associations of Grecian history crowd around the persons of a few favourite heroes, as Miltiades or Epaminondas among the carlier, and most prominently around Alexander in the later times ; and how they droop and fade and fall away under the reigns of his successors, not because the matter is unimportant, but because the interest is no longer concentrated. If the welfare of the state is added to this personal interest in the principal agent or character, so that history and biography are mingled with each other, nothing more is wanting in attraction of the subject, — and these requisites are all found in the present narrative. The characters present many noble portraits for the historical painter; and the history is a record of heroic deeds on the one hand, in defence of national existence ; on the other, instigated by the strongest of passions, worldly and religious, that the mind of man could feel. Here was then an adaptation of means to ends, carried on through long and complicated difficulties ; evil principles and good mixed, and contending together; things immoral, and low, and base, mixing with all that was virtuous, and ennobling, and praiseworthy ; and all this displayed in the most attractive field of all — the field of war and battle ; where the imperfect tactics and rude masses of the barbarians were to be brought into collision with the science and ingenuity of the most civilized nation of the globe. The first object of the author was to collect all the authorities to which he could gain access, and which were unknown to or unused by his predecessors : the next was to appreciate their value, to keep a watchful eye on national prejudices, on professional interests, on party views, or on personal habits and temperament.
The author justly observes.
The subversion of a great empire by a handful of adventurers, taken with all its strange and picturesque accompaniments, has the air of romance rather than of sober history; and it is not easy to treat such a theme according to the se- vere rules prescribed by historical criti- cism. But, notwithstanding the seductions of the subject, I have conscientiously endeavoured to distinguish fact from fiction, and to establish the narrative on as broad a basis as possible of contempo- rary evidence. * * * The distance of the present age from the period of the narrative might be presumed to secure the historian from undue prejudice or partiality. Yet to the American and the English reader, acknowledging so dif- ferent a moral standard from that of the sixteenth century, I may possibly be conquerors ; while to a Spaniard, accustomed to the undiluted panegyric of Solis, I may be deemed to have dealt too hardly with them. To such I can only say, that, while, on the one hand, I have not hesi- tated to expose in their strongest colours the excesses of the conquerors; on the other, I have given them the benefit of such mitigating reflections as might be suggested by the circumstances and the period in which they lived. I have endeavoured not only to present a picture true in itself, but to place it in its proper light, and to put the spectator ina proper point of view for seeing it to the best advantage. I have endeavoured, at the ex- pense of some repetition, to surround him with the spirit of the times, and, in a word, to make him, if I may so express myself, a contemporary of the sixteenth thought too indulgent to the errors of the century,’’ &c.Preface, vol. I. p. xii.
It is true that the same period of history and the same events have been described by Robertson, and with all that judgment, grace, and e‘egance in the disposition of his subject, which he so eminently possessed, and which often supplied the place of deeper investigation and a wider circumference of knowledge; but the History of the Conquest of Mexico formed only oue part of Robertson’s more comprehensive plan ; and was therefore as briefly narrated by him as was consistent with a clear and just elucidation of the subject. The present writer has viewed it on a larger scale; the dimensions of his canvass are more extensive; he is enabled to enter into more minute details, and to give a more elaborate finish to his design. Yet it is the very extent of this narrative that occasions the difficulty we feel in conveying our impressions of it. We are embarrassed by the copiousness of the subject, and the exuberant richness of the successive pictures, and the variety of subjects it comprehends. If we take single specimens from different pages of the work, they are but little detached fragments, less pleasing as detached from the general body, and giving little insight, and but partial and scattered glimpses, into the general structure: and, if we were to attempt an abridgment of the whole, it would be dry, tedious, and uninteresting in its altered form.3
Even the first volume alone is so comprehensive in its view as to afford at once a description of the natural features, the climate, and productions of the country, and of the various and remote migrations of the people ; a history of their government, laws, and revenue ; of their political state, their military institutions, and their religious belief and worship ; of the arts of life, and the degree to which they had attained; and of the domestic manners and habits ; as well as of the discovery of the country by its fu- ture conqueror. One chapter is devoted to a summary of the mythology of the Mexicans ; and another to the very curious subject of their hieroglyphics4 and picture-writing, connected with their astronomy and chrono- logy, their system of notation, and their sacred calendar: and the first book closes with a view of the nation of the Tezcucans, of the golden age of the empire, of the accomplished princes who reigned over them, and especially of their enlightened and illustrious prince, Nezahualcoyotl, and his successor ; men truly great, whose wise and generous policy extended through nearly half a century, and whose names are identified with the most glorious period in the annals of the Indian races.5
Mr. Prescott has also given us a valuable essay on that difficult and controverted subject, the origin of Mexican civilization, as connected with the magnificent ruins and architectural antiquities of Central America, discovered by Mr. Stephens, and with the remains of Palinque and Uxmul, described by Dupaix and Waldeck. Much light has been thrown into the darkness of this mysterious subject, though a much greater portion is still hidden under an impenetrable veil, which no distinction of races, or analysis of language, or history of rites and customs, can remove.
Let us begin our extracts with one where our author introduces us to the country and the people where the scene of his history is to be laid : — “Midway across the continent, yet somewhat nearer to the Pacific than the Atlantic, at an elevation of nearly seven thousand five hundred feet above the level of the sea, is the celebrated valley of Mexico. It is of an oval form, about sixty-seven leagues in circumference, encompassed by lofty ramparts of porphyritic rock, and the soil white with the incrustation of salts. Five lakes are spread over its surface, occupying about a fifth of its extent. Here stood the cities of Mexico and Tezcuco, the capitals of the two states of Anahuac ; whose history, “says the author,” with that of the mysterious races that preceded them, exhibits some of the nearest approaches to civilization to be met with anciently on the American continent.” Of these races the most conspicuous were the Toltecs, who entered the territory of Anahuac probably about the close of the seventh century, but from what region they came is uncertain. Remains of the extensive buildings which formed their ancient capital of Tula, were still remaining at the time of the Conquest. After a period of about four centuries, this people, who had extended their sway over the remotest borders of Anahuac, disappeared from the land as silently and mysteriously as they had entered it. A few perhaps lingered behind, but the greater number of them spread over the region of Central America, and the traveller now speculates on the ruins of Mitla and Palenque as possibly the work of this extraordinary people, since whose existence so many ages have rolled away. As the author says, their shadowy history reminds us of those primitive races who preceded the ancient Egyptians in the march of civilization. These were succeeded by a numerous and rude tribe called the Chichemecs, and after them came the Aztecs, or Mexicans, and the Acolhuans, better known as Tezcucans, from the name of their capital, on the eastern border of the Mexican lake. The Mexicans came also from the remote regions of the north, and arrived on the borders of Anahuac towards the beginning of the thirteenth century, and after wandering in an unsettled state for some period, probably halted on the southern borders of that lake in 1325. They laid the foundation of their capital by sinking poles into the shallows of the lake, and they named it after their war-god, Mexitli. Such were the humble beginnings of the Venice of the Western World. Soon after this, a league was formed between Mexico, Tezcuco, and the neighbouring kingdom of Tlacopan, so remarkable, as to be said to have no parallel in history ; they agreed to support each other in war, and that in the distribution of the spoil one- fifth should be assigned to Tlacopan, and the remainder divided between the other powers. Success crowned the warlike adventures of the conferacy ; and by the middle of the fifteenth century, under the reign of the first Montezuma, the dominion spread down to the borders of the Gulf of Mexico. The throne was filled by a succession of able monarchs : no state was able to meet the accumulated strength of the confederates ; year after year their armies returned home laden with the spoils of conquered cities, and with throngs of devoted captives. At the beginning of the six- teenth century, just before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztec dominion reached across the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and they penetrated even into the farthest corners of Guatemala and Nicaragua. The history of the Aztecs is said to present some striking resemblance to that of the Romans in the early stages of their history ; particularly in the policy of associating themselves in wars, with other states, as principals.6
Such is a brief outline of the state of Mexico, as seen in its infant cradle. We then proceed with the author to view it in its political and civil regulations, in the law of succession to the crown, in the order of nobility, in the judicial system, and military institutions. The government was an elective monarchy ; there was a distinct class of nobles, with large landed possessions and political power. The judges were independent of the crown, and held their offices for life. The rites of marriage were celebrated with religious reverence, and divorces could with difliculty be obtained. Slavery was sanctioned under various forms ; but, under all, of a mild character, and no one in Mexico could be born to slavery. The taxation was, something after the spirit of our feudal institutions, in money payment or in personal service. At first light, this grew so burdensome, probably from the increasing luxury of the monarch and the capital, as to breed dissatisfaction through the land, and prepare the way for its con- quest by the Spaniards. Their armies were divided into bodies of eight thousand each, and these, again, into companies of three or four hundred. Their knowledge of the tactics of war was not scientific, but their discipline was exact and severe. Their object was not to kill their enemies, but take them prisoners ; and they never scalped like the other North American tribes. They had military hospitals, and surgeons were placed over them, “who were so far better (says the old chronicler Torquemada)7 than those in Europe, that they did not protract the cure in order to increase their pay.” In short, the degree of civilization which this singular and interesting people had attained, has been compared to that enjoyed by our Saxon ancestors under Alfred ; but in the nature of that civilization, as well as in other things connected with religion, and with their social relations, they bear a closer resemblance to the Egyptians.
The institution, however, which had the greatest influence in forming the national character, and without maturing which, no just or accurate account could be given of the people, was that of human sacrifices. They were adopted by the Aztecs in the fourteenth century, and consequently had been in use for two centuries before the Conquest. Rare at first, they became more frequent as the empire extended, till every festival was closed with them. The form of sacrifice was rigorously prescribed in the Aztec ritual ; women were sometimes selected, and children, and sometimes infants. In the case of a captive, the body was delivered to the warrior who had taken him in battle, and by him, after being dressed, was served up in an entertainment to his friends. “This was not the coarse repast of famished cannibals, but a banquet teeming with delicious beverages and delicate viands, prepared with art, and attended by both sexes, who conducted themselves with all the decorum of civilized life :” thus bringing great refinement and the extreme of barbarism in close and curious contact with each other. Human sacrifices were practised by the Egyptians, by the Greeks, and by the Romans; but never to any extent compared with that of Anahuac. The amount of victims would stagger all belief ;8 but scarcely any author pretends to estimate the yearly sacrifice at less than 20,000, and some carry it as high as 50,000. At the dedication of the great temple in 1486 the prisoners, who had been reserved, were drawn from all quarters to the capital. The procession reached two miles in length; the ceremony lasted several days, and seventy thousand captives are said to have perished. It was customary to preserve the skulls of the sacrificed. The companions of Cortés counted 136,000 in one of these edifices.
The great object of war was as much to gather victims as to extend empire. An evemy was never slain in battle if he could be taken alive ; and to this circumstance the Spaniards repeatedly owed their preservation. Montezuma said that the republic of Tlascala was maintained in her independence, ‘‘that she might furnish victims for his gods!” Familiarity with these horrid rites rendered the character of the Aztecs cruel, sauguinary, and superstitious. The character of the whole nation wore a gloomy, melancholy aspect ; the power of the priesthood of course became unbounded, and a blind fanaticism spread over the whole nation. The cannibalism of the nation, the most detestable feature of the whole, however, was not, as the author observes, such in the coarsest acceptation of the term ; they fed on human flesh, not to gratify a brutal appetite, but in obedience to their religion. Their repasts were made of the victims offered in sacrifice, and of them alone. This loathsome and detestable crime seems to stand as it were apart from other parts of their character. It did not so much seem to arise out of any natural ferocity as to beget it. The whole was the offspring of some strange, wicked, and abominable superstition.
Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.
“In this state of things,” says Mr. Prescott, ‘‘it was beneficently ordered by Providence that the land should be delivered over to another race, who would rescue it from the brutish superstitions that daily extended wider and wider, with extent of empire. The debasing institutions of the Aztecs furnish the best apology for their conquest. It is true, the conquerors brought along with them Inquisition.9 But they also brought Christianity, whose benign radiance would still survive, when the fierce flames of fanaticism should he extinguished ; dispelling those dark forms of horror which had so long brooded over the fair regions of Anahuac.”
The author commences his second book with an account of the colonial policy of Spain under Charles the Fifth, with the discovery and conquest of Cnba by Velasquez, and by Cordova’s expedition to Yucatan, and his traffic with the Indians ; events which led to the fitting out of a new armada for further discovery and fresh conquests, and with the command of it being given to Cortés, of whom the following portrait is drawn.
“Cortés at this time was thirty-three, or, perhaps, thirty-four years of age. In stature he was rather above the middle size. His complexion was pale ; and his large dark eye gave an expression of gravity to his countenance, not to have been expected in one of his cheerful temperament. His figure was slender, at least until later life; but his chest was deep, his shoulders broad, his frame muscular and well proportioned. It presented the union of agility and vigour, which qualified him to excel in fencing, horsemanship, and the other generous exercises of chivalry. In his diet he was temperate, careless of what he ate, and drinking little; while to toil and privation he seemed per- fectly indifferent. His dress, for he did not disdain the impression produced by such adventitious aids, was such as to set off his handsome person to advantage ; neither gaudy nor striking, but rich. He wore few ornaments, and usually the same; but those were of great price. His manners, frank and soldier-like, concealed a most cool and calculating spirit. With his gayest humour there mingled a settled air of resolution, which made those who approached him feel they must obey, and which infused something like awe into the attachment of his most devoted followers. Such a combination, in which love was tempered by authority, was the one probably best calculated to inspire devotion in the rough and turbulent spirits among whom his lot was to becast. The character of Cortés seems to have undergone some change with change of circumstances, or, to speak more correctly, the new scenes in which he was placed called forth qualities which before lay dormant in his bosom. There are some hardy natures that require the heats of excited action to unfold their energies ; like the plants, which, closed to the mild influence of a temperate lati- tude, come to their full growth and give forth their fruits only in the burning atmosphere of the tropics. — Such is the portrait left to us by his contemporaries of this remarkable man; the instrument selected by Providence to scatter terror among the barbarian monarchs of the Western world, and lay their empires in the dust.”
The strength of the armament which Cortés led to the conquest of the New World was as follows :
‘‘Landing on the Cape, and mustering his forces, Cortés found that they amounted to one hundred and ten mariners, five hundred and fifty-three soldiers, including thirty-two crossbow-men and thirteen arquebusiers, besides two hundred Indians of the island, and a few Indian women for menial offices. He was provided with ten heavy guns, four lighter pieces called falconets, and with a good supply of ammunition. He had besides sixteen horses. They were not easily procured, for the difficulty of transporting them across the ocean in the flimsy craft of that day made them rare and incredibly dear in the islands. But Cortés right-fully estimated the importance of cavalry, however small in number, both for their actual service in the field and for striking terror into the savages. With so paltry a force did he enter on a conquest, which even his stout heart must have shrunk from attempting with such means, had he but foreseen half its real difficulties. Before embarking Cortés addressed his soldiers in a short but animated harangue. He told them they were about to enter on a noble enterprise, one that would make their name famous to after ages. He was leading them to countries more vast and opulent than any yet visited by Europeans. ‘I hold out to you a glorious prize,’ continued the orator, ‘ but it is to be won by incessant toil. Great things are achieved only by great exertions, and glory was never the reward of sloth. If I have laboured hard and staked my all on this undertaking, it is for the love of that renown which is the noblest recompense of man. But if any among you covet riches more, be but true to me, as I will be true to you, and to the occasion, and I will make you masters of such as our countrymen have never dreamed of! You are few in number, but strong in resolution ; and, if this does not falter, doubt not but that the Almighty, who has never deserted the Spaniard in his contest with the infidel, will shield you, though encompassed by a cloud of enemies; for your cause is a just cause, and you are to’ fight under the banner of the Cross. Go forward then,’ he concluded, ‘ with alacrity and confidence, and carry to a glorious issue the work so auspiciously begun.’ The rough eloquence of the general, touch- ing the various chords of ambition, avarice, and religious zeal, sent a thrill through the bosoms of his martial audience, and, receiving it with acclamations, they seemed eager to press forward under a chief who was to lead them not so much to battle as to triumph.” ****
“The first object of Cortés wasto reclaim the natives from their gross idolatry, and to substitute a purer form of worship. In accomplishing this he was prepared to use force, if milder measures should be in-effectual. There was nothing which the Spanish government had more earnestly at heart than the conversion of the Indians. It forms the constant burden of their instructions, and gave to the military expeditions in this western hemisphere some- what of the air ofacrusade. The cavalier who embarked in them entered fully into these chivalrous and devotional feelings. No doubt was entertained of the efficacy of conversion, however sudden might be the change, or however violent the means. The sword was a good argument when the tongue failed; and the spread of Mahometanism had shewn that seeds sown by the hand of violence, far from perishing in the ground, would spring up and bear fruit to after time. If this were so in a bad cause, how much more would it be true in a good one! The Spanish cavalier felt he had a high mission to accomplish as a soldier of the Cross. However unauthorised or unrighteous the war into which he had entered may seem to us, to him it was a holy war. He was ia arms against the infidel. Not to care for the soul of his benighted enemy was to put his own into jeopardy. The conversion of a single soul might cover a multitude of sins. It was not for morals that he was concerned, but for the faith. This, though understood in its most literal and limited sense, comprehended the whole scheme of Christian morality. Whoever died in the faith, however immoral had been his life, might be said to die in the Lord. Such was the creed of the Castilian knight of that day, as imbibed from the preachings of the pulpit, from cloisters and colleges at home, from monks and missionaries abroad, from all save one,10 whose devotion, kindled at a purer source, was not, alas! permitted to send forth its radiance far into the thick gloom by which he was encompassed. No one partook more fully of the feelings above described that Hernan Cortés. He was, in truth, the very mirror of the times in which he lived, reflecting its motley characteristics, its speculative devotion, and practical licence,—but with an intensity all his own. He was greatly scandalized at the exhibition of the idolatrous practices of the people of Cozumel, though untainted, as it would seem, with human sacrifices. He endeavoured to persuade them to em- brace a better faith through the agency of two ecclesiastics who attended the expedition, — the licentiate Juan Diaz, and father Bartolomé de Olmedo. The latter of these godly men afforded the rare example — rare in any age — of the union of fervent zeal with charity, while he beauti- fully illustrated in his own conduct the precepts which he taught. He remained with the army through the whole expedition, and by his wise and benevolent counsels was often enabled to mitigate the cruelties of the conquerors, and to turn aside the edge of the sword from the unfortunate natives. These two missionaries vainly laboured to persuade the people of Cozumel to renounce their abominations, and to allow the Indian idols, in which the Christians recognised the true lineaments of Satan, to be thrown down and demolished. The simple natives, filled with horror at the proposed pro- fanation, exclaimed that those were the gods who sent them the sunshine and the storm, and should any violence be offered they would be sure to avenge it by sending their lightnings on the heads of its per- petrators. Cortés was probably not much of a polemic. At all events he preferred on the present occasion action to argu- ment, and thought that the best way to convince the Indians of their error was to prove the falsehood of the prediction. Heaccordingly, without further ceremony, caused the venerated images to be rolled down the stairs of the great temple, amidst the groans and lamentations of the natives. An altar was hastily constructed, an image of the Virgin and child placed over it, and mass was performed by father Olmedo and his reverend companion for the first time within the walls of a temple in New Spain. The patient ministers tried once more to pour the light of the gospel into the benighted understandings of the islanders, and to expound the mysteries of the Catholic faith. The Indian interpreter must have afforded rather a dubious channel for the transmission of such abstruse doctrines. But they at length found favour with their auditors, who, whether overawed by the bold bearing of the invaders, or convinced of the impotence of deities that could not shield their own shrines from violation, now consented to embrace Christianity.’’11
We next meet with the arrival of the Spanish forces at Tabasco, the first and desperate conflict with the Indians, the terror inspired by the warwhoop, the victory, and the conversion of the natives. We then first enter the presence of Montezuma, hear the mysterious prophecy which foretold the arrival of the Stycas, listen to the portentous omen, and witness the melancholy forebodings and vain propitiations of the dismayed and afflicted monarch ; but the sight of the gold which he presented only sharpened the cupidity of the invaders. The army is again on its march, and already there lies at its feet, like a victim dressed for sacrifice, the beautiful valley of Cempoalla.
They now came in view of very dif- ferent scenery—wide rolling plains covered with a rich carpet of verdure, and over- shadowed by groves of cocoas and feathery palms, among whose tall slender stems were seen deer and various wild animals with which the Spaniards were unac- quainted. Some of the horsemen gave chase to the deer, and wounded but did not succeed in killing them. They saw, also, pheasants and other birds, among them the wild turkey, the pride of the American forest, which the Spaniards described as a species of peacock. On their route they passed through some deserted villages in which were Indian temples, where they found censers and other sacred utensils, and manuscripts of the agave fibre, containing the picture- writing, in which, probably, their religious ceremonies were recorded. They now beheld, also, the hideous spectacle with which they became afterwards familiar, of the mutilated corpses of victims who had been sacrificed to the accursed deities of the land. The Spaniards turned with loathing and indignation from a display of butchery which formed so dismal a contrast to the fair scenes of nature by which they were surrounded. They held their course along the banks of the river, towards its source, when they were met by twelve Indians, sent by the cacique of Cempoalla to shew them the way to his residence. At night
ferent scenery — wide rolling plains covered with a rich carpet of verdure, and over- shadowed by groves of cocoas and feathery palms, among whose tall slender stems were seen deer and various wild animals with which the Spaniards were unacquainted. Some of the horsemen gave chase to the deer, and wounded but did not succeed in killing them. They saw, also, pheasants and other birds, among them the wild turkey, the pride of the American forest, which the Spaniards described as a species of peacock. On their route they passed through some deserted villages in which were Indian temples, where they found censers and other sacred utensils, and manuscripts of the agave fibre, containing the picture- writing, in which, probably, their religious ceremonies were recorded. They now beheld, also, the hideous spectacle with which they became afterwards familiar, of the mutilated corpses of victims who had been sacrificed to the accursed deities of the land. The Spaniards turned with loathing and indignation from a display of butchery which formed so dismal a contrast to the fair scenes of nature by which they were surrounded. They held their course along the banks of the river, towards its source, when they were met by twelve Indians, sent by the cacique of Cempoalla to shew them the way to his residence. At night they bivouacked in an open meadow, where they were well supplied with provisions by their new friends. They left the stream on the following morning, and, striking northerly across the country, came upon a wide expanse of luxuriant plains and woodland, glowing in all the splendour of tropical vegetation. The branches of the stately trees were gaily festooned with clustering vines of the dark purple grape, variegated convolvuli, and other flowering parasites of the most brilliant dyes. The undergrowth of prickly aloe, matted with wild-drop and honeysuckle, made in many places an almost impervious thicket. Amid this wilderness of sweet smelling buds and blossoms fluttered numerous birds of the parrot tribe, and clouds of butterflies, whose gaudy colours, nowhere so gorgeous as in the tierra caliente, rivalled those of the vegetable creation ; while birds of ex- quisite song, the scarlet cardinal and the marvellous mocking bird, that compre- hends in its own notes the whole music of a forest, filled the air with delicious melody. The hearts of the stern conquerors were not very sensible to the beauties of nature. But the magical charms of the scenery drew forth unbounded expressions of delight, and as they wandered through this ‘ terrestial paradise,’ as they called it, they fondly compared it to the fairest regions of their own sunny land. As they approached the Indian city, they saw abundant signs of cultivation, in the trim gardens and orchards that lined both sides of the road. They were now met by parties of the natives of either sex, who increased in numbers with every step of their progress. The women, as well as men, mingled fear- lessly among the soldiers, bearing bunches and wreaths of flowers with which they decorated the neck of the general’s charger, and hung a chaplet of roses about his helmet. Flowers were the delight of this people. They bestowed much care in their cultivation, in which they were well seconded by a climate of alternate heat and moisture, stimulating the soil to the spontaneous production of every form of vegetable life. The same refined taste, as we shall see, prevailed among the warlike Aztecs, and has survived the degradation of the nation in their descendants of the present day. Many of the women appeared, from their richer dress and numerous attendants, to be persons of rank. They were clad in robes of fine cotton, curiously coloured, which reached from the neck, — in the inferior orders from the waist to the ankles. The men wore a sort of mantle of the same material, à la Norisca, in the Moorish fashion, over the shoulders, and belts or sashes about the loins. Both sexes had jewels and ornaments of gold round their necks, while their ears and nostrils were perforated with rings of the same metal. Just before reaching the town, some horsemen who had rode in advance, returned with the amazing intelligence, ‘that they had been near enough to look within the gates, and found the houses all plated with burnished silver!’ On entering the place the silver was found to be nothing more than a brilliant coating of stucco, with which the principal buildings were covered ; a circumstance which produced much merriment among the soldiers, at the expense of their credulous comrades. Such ready credulity is a proof of the exalted state of their imaginations, which were prepared to see gold and silver in every object around them. The edifices of the better kind were of stone and lime, or bricks dried in the sun ; the poorer were of clay and earth. All were thatched with palm leaves, which, though a flimsy roof, apparently, for such structures, were so nicely interwoven as to form a very effectual protection against the weather,” &c.
In the long interval that separates this from the next quotation, — after a series of victories, peace is made with the republic of Tlascala, maidens of the highest rank, the daughters of princes and caciques, are bestowed on the generals and leaders of the army, and the army leaves Teasla for the city of Cholula. Again the march is resumed, ascent of the great volcano is made, they descend into the plains of Mexico, pass the great causeway into the unresisting city, and are received in the very heart of the capital. The author in vivid colours describes all the wonders and enchantments that awakened their curiosity and aroused their avarice, the multitudinous population, the busy trade and crowded markets, the magnificent buildings, and the imperial palace with its beautiful gardens.
“Extensive gardens were spread out around these buildings, filled with fragrant shrubs and flowers, and especially with medicinal plants. Nocountry has afforded more numerous species of these plants than New Spain, and their virtues were perfectly understood by the Aztecs, with whom medical botany may be said to have been studied as a science. Amidst this labyrinth of sweet-scented groves and shrubberies, fountains of pure water might be seen throwing up their sparkling jets, and scattering refreshing dews over the blossoms. Ten large tanks, well stocked with fish, afforded a retreat on their margins to various tribes of water fowl, whose habits were so carefully consulted, that some of these ponds were of salt water, as that which they most loved to frequent. A tessellated pavement of marble inclosed the ample basins, which were overhung by light and fanciful pavilions, that admitted the perfumed breezes of the gardens, and offered a grateful shelter to the monarch and his mistresses in the sultry heats of summer.12 But the most luxurious residence of the Aztec monarch at that season was the royal hill of Chapoltepec, a spot consecrated, moreover, by the ashes of his ancestors. It stood in a westerly direction from the capital, and its base was, in his day, washed by the waters of the Tezcuco. On its lofty crest of porphyritic rock there now stands the magnificent, though desolate, castle, erected by the young viceroy Galvez, at the close of the 17th century. The view from its windows is one of the finest in the environs of Mexico. The landscape is not disfigured here, as in many other quarters, by the white and barren patches so offensive to the sight; but the eye wanders over an unbroken expanse of meadows and cultivated fields, waving with rich harvests of European grain. Montezuma’s gardens stretched for miles around the base of the hill. Two statues of that monarch and his father, cut in bas relief in the porphyry, were spared till the middle of the last century; and the grounds are still shaded by gigantic cypresses more than fifty feet in circum- ference, which were centuries old at the time of the Conquest.13 The place is now a tangled wilderness of wild shrubs, where the myrtle mingles its dark glossy leaves with the red berries and delicate foliage of the pepper tree. Surely there is no spot better suited to awaken meditation on the past; none where the traveller, as he sits under these stately cypresses grey with the moss of ages, can so fitly ponder on the sad destinies of the Indian races, and the monarch who once held his courtly revels under the shadow of their branches. The domestic establishment of Montezuma was on the same scale of barbaric splendour as everything else about him. He could boast as many wives as are found in the harem of an eastern sultan. They were lodged in their own apartments, and provided with every accommodation according to their ideas of personal comfort and cleanliness. They passed their hours in the usual feminine employments of weaving and embroidery, especially in the graceful feather work, for which such rich materials were furnished by the royal aviaries. They conducted them- selves with strict decorum, under the supervision of certain aged females, who acted in the respectable character of duennas in the same manner as in the religious houses attached to the teocallis. The palace was supplied with numerous baths, and Montezuma set the example in his own person, of frequent ablutions. He bathed at least once, and changed his dress four times, it is said, every day. He never put on the same apparel a second time, but gave it away to his attendants. Queen Elizabeth, with a similar taste for costume, showed a less princely spirit in hoarding her discarded suits. Her ward- robe was probably somewhat more costly than that of the Indian emperor. Be- sides his numerous female retinue, the halls and antichambers were filled with nobles in constant attendance on his person, who served also as a sort of body-guard. It had been usual for plebeians of merit to fill certain offices in the palace. But the haughty Montezuma refused to be waited upon by any but men of noble birth. They were not unfrequently the sons of the great chiefs, and remained as hostages in the absence of their fathers ; thus serving the double purpose of security and state. His meals the emperor took alone. The well-matted floor of a large saloon was covered with hundreds of dishes. Sometimes Montezuma himself, but more frequently his steward, indicated those which he preferred, and which were kept hot by means of chafing dishes. The royal bill of fare comprehended, besides domestic animals, game from the distant forests, and fish, which the day before was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. They were dressed in manifold ways, for the Aztec artistes, as we have already had occasion to notice, had penetrated deep into the mysteries of culinary science.14 The meats were served by the attendant nobles, who then resigned the office of waiting on the monarch to maidens selected for their personal grace and beauty. Avscreen of richly gilt and carved wood was drawn around him, so as to conceal him from vulgar eyes during the repast. He was seated on a cushion, and the dinner was served on a low table, covered with a delicate cotton cloth. The dishes were of the finest ware of Cholula. He had a service of gold which was re- served for religious celebrations. Indeed it would scarcely have comported with even his princely revenues to have used it on ordinary occasions, when his table equipage was not allowed to appear a second time, but was given away to his attendants. The saloon is lighted by torches made of a resinous wood, which sent forth a sweet odor and, probably, not a little smoke, as they burned. At his meal, he was attended by five or six of his ancient counsellors, who stood at a respectful distance, answering his ques- tions, and occasionally rejoiced by some of the viands with which he complimented them from his table. This course of solid dishes was succeeded by.another of sweetmeats and pastry, for which the Aztec cooks, provided with the important requisites of maize-flour, eggs, and the rich sugar of the aloe, were famous. Two girls were occupied at the further end of the apartment, during dinner, in preparing fine rolls and wafers, with which they garnished the board from time to time. The emperor took no other beverage than the chocolatl, a potation of chocolate, flavored with vanilla and other spices, and so prepared as to be reduced to a froth of the consistency of honey, which gradually dissolved in the mouth. This beverage, if so it could be called, was served in golden goblets, with spoons of the same metal or of tortoise-shell finely wrought. The emperor was exceedingly fond of it, to judge from the quantity, — no less than fifty jars or pitchers being prepared for his own daily consumption. Two thousand more were allowed for that of his household. The general arrangement of the meal seems to have been not very unlike that of Europeans. But no prince in Europe could boast a dessert which could compare with that of the Aztec emperor: for it was gathered fresh from the most opposite climes ; and his board displayed the products of his own temperate region, and the luscious fruits of the tropics, plucked the day previous, from the green groves of the tierra caliente, and transmitted with the speed of steam, by means of couriers, to the capital. It was as if some kind fairy should crown our banquets with the spicy products that but yesterday were growing in a sunny isle of the far- off Indian seas. After the royal appetite was appeased, water was handed to him by the female attendants in a silver basin, in the same manner as had been done before commencing his meal; for the Aztecs were as constant in their ablutions, at these times, as any nation of the East. Pipes were then brought, made of a varnished and richly gilt wood, from which he inhaled, sometimes through the nose, at others through the mouth, the fumes of an intoxicating weed, called tobacco, (que se dize tabaco,) mingled with liquid-amber. While this soothing process of fumigation was going on, the emperor enjoyed the exhibitions of his mountebanks and jugglers, of whom a regular corps was attached to the palace. No people, not even those of China or Hindostan, surpassed the Aztecs in feats of agility and legerdemain.”
” Such (says our author) is the picture of Montezuma’s domestic establishment and way of living, as delineated by the Conquerors, and theirimmediate followers, who had the best means of information ; too highly coloured, it may be, by the proneness to exaggerate, which was natural to those who first witnessed a spectacle so striking to the imagination, so new and unexpected. I have thought it best to present the full details, trivial though they may seem to the reader, as affording a curious picture of manners, so superior in point of refinement to those of the other aboriginal tribes on the North American continent. Nor are they, in fact, so trivial, when we reflect, that, in these details of private life, we possess a surer measure of civilization, than in those of a public nature. In surveying them we are strongly reminded of the civilization of the East; not of that higher, intellectual kind which belonged to the more polished Arabs and the Persians, but that semi-civilization which has distinguished, for example, the Tartar races, among whom art, and even science, have made, indeed, some progress in their adaptation to material wants and sensual gratification, but little in reference to the higher and more ennobling interests of humanity. It is characteristic of such a people to find a puerile pleasure in a dazzling and ostentatious pageantry; to mistake show for substance, vain pomp for power; to hedge round the throne itself with a barren and burdensome ceremonial, the counterfeit of real majesty. Even this, however, was an advance in refinement, compared with the rude manners of the earlier Aztecs. The change may, doubtless, be referred in some degree to the personal influence of Montezuma. In his younger days, he had tempered the fierce habits of the soldier with the milder profession of religion. In later life, he had withdrawn himself still more from the brutalizing occupations of war, and his manners acquired a refinement tinctured, it may be added, with an effeminacy un- known to his martial predecessors. The condition of the empire, too, under his reign, was favourable to this change. The dismemberment of the Tezcucan kingdom, on the death of the great Nezahualpilli, had left the Aztec monarchy without a rival ; and it soon spread its colossal arms over the furthest limits of Anahuac. The aspiring mind of Montezuma rose with the acquisition of wealth and power ; and he displayed the consciousness of new importance by the assumption of unprece- dented state. He affected a reserve un- known to his predecessors ; withdrew his person from the vulgar eye, and fenced himself round with an elaborate and courtly etiquette. When he went abroad, it was in state, on some public occasion, usually to the great temple, to take part in the religious services; and, as he passed along, he exacted from his people, as we have seen, the homage of an adulation worthy of an Oriental despot. His haughty demeanour touched the pride of his more potent vassals, particularly those who, at a distance, felt themselves nearly independent of his authority. His exactions, demanded by the profuse expenditure of his palace, scattered broadcast the seeds of discontent ; and, while the empire seemed towering in its most palmy and prosperous state, the canker had eaten deepest into its heart.”15
“On the way, the Spaniards were struck, in the same manner as they had been on entering the capital, with the appearance of the inhabitants, and their great superiority, in the style and quality of their dress, over the people of the lower countries. The tilmatli, or cloak, thrown over the shoulders, and tied round the neck, made of cotton of different degrees of fineness, according to the condition of the wearer, and the ample sash around the loins, were often wrought in rich and elegant figures, and edged with a deep fringe or tassel. As the weather was now growing cool, mantles of fur or of the gorgeous feather- work were sometimes substituted. The latter combined the advantage of great warmth with beauty. The Mexicans had also the art of spinning a fine thread of the hair of the rabbit and other animals, which they wove into a delicate web that took a permanent dye. The women, as in other parts of the country, seemed to go about asfreelyas themen. They wore several skirts or petticoats of different lengths, with highly ornamented borders, and sometimes over them loose flowing robes, which reached to the ankles. These also were made of cotton, for the wealthier classes, of a fine texture, prettily em- broidered. No veils were worn here, as in some other parts of Anahuac, where they were made of the aloe thread, or of the light web of hair above noticed. The Aztec women had their faces exposed ; and their dark raven tresses floated lux- uriantly over their shoulders, revealing features, which, although of a dusky or rather cinnamon hue, were not unfre- quently pleasing, while touched with the serious, even sad expression, charac- teristic of the national physiognomy. On drawing near to the tianguez, or great market, the Spaniards were astonished at the throng of people pressing towards it, and, on entering the place, their surprise was still further heightened by the sight of the multitudes assembled there, and the dimensions of the inclosure, thrice as largeas the celebrated square of Salamanca. Here were met together traders from all parts, with the products and manufactures peculiar to their countries; the goldsmiths of Azcapozalco, the potters and jewellers of Cholula, the painters of Tezcuco, the stone-cutters of Tenajocan, the hunters of Xilotepec, the fishermen of Cuitlahuac, the fruiterers of the warm countries, the mat and chair-makers of Quauhtitlan, and the florists of Xochimilco, — all busily engaged in recommending their respective wares, and in chaffering with purchasers. The market-place was surrounded by deep porticoes, and the several articles had each its own quarter allotted to it. Here might be seen cotton piled up in bales, or manu- factured into dresses and articles of domestic use, as tapestry, curtains, coverlets, and the like. The richly-stained and nice fabrics reminded Cortés of the alcayceria, or silk-market of Granada. There was the quarter assigned to the gold- smiths, where the purchaser might find various articles of ornament or use formed of the precious metals ; or curious toys, such as we have already had occasion to notice, made in imitation of birds and fishes, with scales and feathers alternately of gold and silver, and with movable heads and bodies. These fantastic little trinkets were often garnished with precious stones, and showed a patient, puerile ingenuity in the manufacture, like that of the Chinese. In an adjoining quarter were collected specimens of pottery, coarse and fine, vases of wood elaborately carved, varnished or gilt, of curious and sometimes graceful forms. There were also hatchets made of copper alloyed with tin, the substitute, and, as it proved, not a bad one, for iron. The soldier found here all the implements of his trade. The casque fashioned into the head of some wild animal, with its grinning defences of teeth, and bristling crest dyed with the rich tint of the cochineal; the escaupil, or quilted doublet of cotton, the rich surcoat of feather-mail, and weapons of all sorts, copper-headed lances and arrows, and the broad maquahuitl, the Mexican sword, with its sharp blades of itztli. Here were razors and mirrors of this same hard and polished mineral which served so many of the purposes of steel with the Aztecs. In the square were also to be found booths occupied by barbers, who used these same razors in their vocation. For the Mexicans, contrary to the popular and erroneous notions re- specting the Aborigines of the New World, had beards, though scanty ones. Other shops or booths were tenanted by apothe- caries, well provided with drugs, roots, and different medicinal preparations. In other places, again, blank books or maps for the hieroglyphical picture- writing were to be seen, folded together like fans, and made of cotton, skins, or more commonly the fibres of the agave, the Aztec papyrus.
“Under some of the porticoes they saw hides raw and dressed, and various articles for domestic or personal use made of the leather. Animals, both wild and tame, were offered for sale, and near them, perhaps, a gang of slaves, with collars round their necks, intimating they were likewise on sale, — a spectacle unhappily not confined to the barbarian markets of Mexico, though the evils of their condition were aggravated there by the consciousness that a life of degradation might be consummated at any moment by the dreadful doom of sacrifice.16 ** I must not omit to mention, however, the display of provisions, one of the most attractive features of the tianguez; meats of all kinds, domestic poultry, game from the neighbouring mountains, fish from the lakes and streams, fruits in all the delicious abundance of these temperate regions, green vegetables, and the unfailing maize. There was many a viand, too, ready dressed, which sent up its savory steams, provoking the appetite of the idle passenger; pastry, bread of the Indian corn, cakes, and confectionary. Along with these were to be seen cooling or stimulating beverages, the spicy foaming chocolatl, with its delicate aroma of vanilla, and the inebriating pulque, the fermented juice of the aloe. All these commodities, and every stall and portico, were set out, or rather smothered, with flowers, showing, on a much greater scale, indeed, a taste similar to that displayed in the markets of modern Mexico. Flowers seem to be thespontaneousgrowth of this luxuriant soil; which, instead of noxious weeds, as in other regions, is ever ready, without the aid of man, to cover up its nakedness with this rich and variegated livery of Nature.’’
The author observes, that the mechanical skill and the polished wants of this singular people appeared to the Spaniards to resemble those of a refined community, rather than a nation of savages; but it was the material civilization which belongs neither to the one nor to the other. The Aztec had plainly reached that middle station, as far above the rude
races of the New World as it was below the cultivated communities of the Old. In the midst, however, of all this luxury and refinement, and the gentle arts of peace, and the pleasing labours of commerce, there was one spot on the capital which at once altered the whole aspect of outward things, and showed the ignorance, superstition, and abomination on which they were built. The Spaniards saw with curiosity and horror the great temple, and the shrine of the idols, and the blood-stained sanctuaries, and the mounds of skulls, and the dreadful instruments of worship. They saw there enshrined the war god of the Aztecs, his visage distorted into hideous lineaments of symbolical import.
“The most conspicuous ornament upon him was a chain of gold and silver hearts alternate, suspended round his neck, emblematical of the sacrifice in which he most delighted. A more unequivocal evidence of this was afforded by three human hearts smoking and almost palpitating, as if recently torn from the victims, and now lying on the altar before him. The adjoining sanctuary was dedicated to a milder deity. This was Tezcatlipoca, next in honor to that invisible Being, the Supreme God, who was represented by ho image, and confined by no temple. It was Tezcatlipoca who created the world, and watched over it with a providential care. He was represented as a young man, and his image, of polished black stone, was richly garnished with gold plates and ornaments ; among which a shield, burnished like a mirror, was the most characteristic emblem, as in it he saw reflected all the doings of the world. But the homage to this god was not always of a more refined or merciful character than that paid to his carnivorous brother ; for five bleeding hearts were also seen in a golden platter on his altar. The walls of both these chapels were stained with human gore. ‘The stench was more intolerable,’ exclaims Diaz, ‘than that of the slaughter-houses in Castile.’ And the frantic forms of the priests, with their dark robes clotted with blood, as they flitted to and fro, seemed to the Spaniards to be those of the very ministers of Satan.”
But we have little more room, and must bring our extracts to a close. We must suppose the anxiety of Cortés in his strange and hazardous position ; the boldness of his designs ; the seizure of Montezuma ; the burning of the chiefs ; the intimidation of the people ; and, lastly, the treasures bestowed on the victors, in the vain hope of securing their friendship and hastening their departure. We are told the whole treasure amounted to one hundred and sixty-two thousand pesos de oro, independently of the fine ornaments and jewelry, the value of which Cortés computes at five hundred thousand ducats more. There were, besides, five hundred marks of silver, chiefly in plate, drinking cups, and other articles of luxury. The inconsiderable quantity of the silver, as compared with the gold, forms a singular contrast to the relative proportions of the two metals since the occupation of the country by the Europeans.17 The whole amount of the treasure, reduced to our currency, and making allowance for the change in the value of gold since the beginning of the sixteenth century, was about six million three hundred thousand dollars, or one million four hundred and seventeen thousand pounds sterling ; a sum large enough to shew the incorrectness of the popular notion, that little or no wealth was found in Mexico. It was, indeed, small in comparison with that obtained by the conquerors of Peru. But few European monarchs of that day could boast a larger treasure in their coffers.18
The division of the spoil was a work of some difficulty. A perfectly equal division of it among the conquerors would have given them more than 3000l. a-piece,—a magnificent booty ! But one-fifth was to be deducted for the Crown ; an equal portion for the general ; a large sum was to indemnify him for the charges of the ex- pedition and the loss of the fleet. Ample compensation was made to the principal cavaliers. The cavalry, arquebusiers, and crussbowmen each received double pay. So that, when the turn of the common soldiers came, there remained not more than a hundred pesos de oro for each; a sum so insignificant in comparison with their expectations, that several refused to accept it. Discontent on this vital subject rose to such a height as to tax all the address and authority of Cortés to meet it ; but he did not shrink from it. “ At Vera Cruz,” says the author, “ he had persuaded his followers to give up what was but the earnest of future gains. Here he persuaded them to relinquish those gains themselves. It was snatching the prey from the very jaws of the lion. Why did he not turn and rend him ?”
“ Thus, after a siege of nearly three months’ duration, unmatched in history for the constancy and courage of the be-sieged, seldom surpassed for the severity of its sufferings, fell the renowned capital of the Aztecs. Unmatched, it may be truly said, for constancy and courage, when we recollect that the door of capitulation on the most honourable terms was left open to them throughout the whole blockade, and that, sternly rejecting every proposal of their enemy, they, to a man, preferred to die rather than surrender. More than three centuries had elapsed since the Aztecs, a poor and wandering tribe from the far North-west, had come on the plateau. There they built their miserable collection of huts, on the spot — as tradition tells us — prescribed by the oracle. Their conquests, at first confined to their immediate neighbour- hood, gradually covered the Valley, then, crossing the mountains, swept over the broad extent of the table-land, descended its precipitous sides, and rolled onwards te the Mexican Gulf, and the distant confines of Central America. Their wretched capital, meanwhile, keeping pace with the enlargement of territory, had grown into a flourishing city, filled with buildings, monuments of art, and a numerous population, that gave it the first rank among the capitals of the Western World. At this crisis came over another race from the remote East, strangers like themselves, whose coming had also been predicted by the oracle, and, appearing on the plateau, assailed them in the very zenith of their prosperity, and blotted them out from the map of nations for ever! The whole story has the air of fable rather than of history ! — a legend of romance, — a tale of the genii ! Yet we cannot regret the fall of an empire which did so little to promote the happiness of its subjects, or the real interests of humanity. Notwithstanding the lustre thrown over its latter days by the glorious defence of its capital, by the mild munificence of Montezuma, by the dauntless heroism of Guatemozin, the Aztecs were emphatically a fierce and brutal race, little calculated, in their best aspects, to excite our sympathy and regard. Their civilization, such as it was, was not their own, but reflected, perhaps imperfectly, from a race whom they had succeeded in the land. It was, in respect to the Aztecs, a generous graft on a vicious stock, and could have brought no fruit to perfection. They ruled over their wide domains with a sword, instead of a sceptre. They did nothing to ameliorate the condition, or in any way promote the progress, of their vassals. Their vassals were serfs, used only to minister to their pleasure, held in awe by armed garrisons, ground to the dust by imposts in peace, by military conscriptions in war. They did not, like the Romans, whom they resembled in the nature of their conquests, extend the rights of citizenship to the conquered. They did not amalgamate them into one great nation, with common rights and interests. They held them as aliens, — even those who in the valley were gathered round the very walla of the capital. The Aztec metropolis, the heart of the monarchy, had not a sympathy, not a pulsation, in common with the rest of the body politic. It was a stranger in its own land. The Aztecs not only did not advance the condition of their vassals, but, morally speaking, they did much to degrade it. How can a nation, where human sacrifices prevail, and especially when com- bined with cannibalism, further the march of civilization? How can the interests of humanity be consulted, where man is levelled to the rank of the brutes that perish ? The influence of the Aztecs in- troduced their gloomy superstition into lands before unacquainted with it, or where, at least, it was not established in any great strength. The example of the capital was contagious. As the latter increased in opulence, the religious celebrations were conducted with still more terrible magnificence ; in the same manner as the gladiatorial shows of the Romans increased in pomp with the increasing splendour of the capital. Men became familiar with scenes of horror and the most loathsome abominations. Women and children — the whole nation — became familiar with, and assisted at them. The heart was hardened, the manners were made ferocious, the feeble light of civilization, transmitted from a milder race, was growing fainter and fainter, as thou- sands and thousands of miserable victims, throughout the empire, were yearly fattened in its cages, sacrificed on its altars, dressed and served at its banquets ! The whole land was converted into a vast human shambles! The empire of the Aztees did not fall before its time.
“Whether these unparalleled outrages furnish a sufficient plea to the Spaniards for their invasion ; whether, with the Protestant, we are content to find a warrant for it in the natural rights and demands of civilization, or, with the Roman Catholic, in the good pleasure of the Pope, — on the one or other of which grounds, the conquests by most Christian nations in the East and the West have been defended,—it is unnecessary to discuss, as it has already been considered in a former chapter. It is more material to inquire, whether, assuming the right, the conquest of Mexico was conducted with a proper regard to the claims of humanity. And here we must admit, that, with all allowance for the ferocity of the age and the laxity of its principles, there are pas- sages which every Spaniard who cherishes the fame of his countrymen would be glad to see expunged from their history ;19 passages not to be vindicated on the score of self-defence, or of necessity of any kind, and which must for ever leave a dark spot on the annals of the Conquest, And yet, taken as a whole, the invasion, up to the capture of the capital, was con- ducted on principles less revolting to hu- manity than most, perhaps than any, of the other conquests of the Castilian crown in the New World.
“Whatever may be thought of the Conquest in a moral view, regarded asa military achievement it must fill us with astonishment. That a handful of adven- turers, indifferently armed and equipped, should have landed on the shores of a powerful empire, inhabited bya fierce and warlike race, and, in defiance of the reiterated prohibitions of its sovereign, have forced their way into the interior ; — that they should have done this, without know- ledge of the language or of the land, without chart or compass to guide them, without any idea of the difficulties they were to encounter, totally uncertain whether the next step might bring them on a hostile nation, or on a desert, feeling their way along in the dark as it were ; — that, though nearly overwhelmed by their first encounter with the inhabitants, they should have still pressed on to the capital of the empire, and, having reached it, thrown themselves unhesi- tatingly into the midst of their enemies ; — that, so far from being daunted by the extraordinary spectacle there exhibited of power and civilization, they should have been but the more confirmed in their original design ; — that they should have seized the monarch, have executed his ministers before the eyes of his subjects, and, when driven forth with ruin from the gates, have gathered their scattered wreck together, and, after a system of Operations pursued with consummate policy and daring, have succeeded in over-turning the capital, and establishing their sway over the country ; — that all this should have been so effected by a mere handful of indigent adventurers, is a fact little short of the miraculous, — too startling for the probabilities demanded by fiction, and without a parallel in the pages of history.
” Yet this must not be understood too literally ; for it would be unjust to the Aztecs themselves, at least to their mili- tary prowess, to regard the Conquest as directly achieved by the Spaniards alone. This would indeed be to arm the latter with the charmed shield of Ruggiero and the magic lance of Astolfo, overturning its hundreds at a touch. The Indian empire was in a manner conquered by Indians. The first terrible encounter of the Spaniards with the Tlascalans, which had nearly proved their ruin, did in fact insure their success. It secured to them a strong native support, on which to retreat in the hour of trouble, and around which they could rally the kindred races of the land for one great and overwhelming assault. The Aztec monarchy fell by the hands of its own subjects, under the direction of European sagacity and science. Had it been united, it might have bidden defiance to the invaders. As it was, the capital was dissevered from the rest of the country, and the bolt, which might have passed off comparatively harmless had the empire been cemented by a common principle of loyalty and patriotism, now found its way into every crack and crevice of the ill-compacted fabric, and buried it in its own ruins. — Its fate may serve as a striking proof, that a government which does not rest on the sympathies of its subjects cannot long abide ; that human institutions, when not connected with human prosperity and progress, must fall, — if not before the increasing light of civilization, by the hand of violence; by violence from within, if not from without. And who shall lament their fall ?”
It appears to us that no nation has ever been discovered in the same singular stage of society in which the Mexicans were at the time of the Conquest, appearing either barbarous or refined, according to the aspect in which they are viewed. They are described as most ferocious in warfare, yet they never scalped their enemies, as was the custom of the northern tribes. They felt all the intense hatred to their enemies which with every cruel passion belongs to man in his brutal and benighted state, and they united not the delicate and chivalrous feelings of polished and refined nations. While closely besieging a neighbouring city, the Aztec nobles sent presents of fruits and provisions to the chiefs of the forces opposed to them, a species of military gallantry and generosity that we read of in the wars of Louis XIV. but which we should not expect to find amoug the savage tribes of Anahuac. They were advanced in mathematical science aud mechanical arts, and they were also the slaves of a blind, ignorant, fanaticism, and of a loathsome and bloody mythology. With such an enlightened and liberal policy as is not often found in European countries, they allowed success in trade to lead to eminent political power and preferment, while at the same time the taxation of the country was enormous, tyrannical, and unequal. Such are the incongruities to be observed, that, while the general character of the nation is described as one of unmitigated ferocity, yet in domestic or social life the intercourse was regulated with all the ceremonial forms of civilised communities, and accompanied with expressions of polite attention or affectionate regard. The obligation of the marriage vow was sanctified by religion, and fully recognised, and the women partook equally with the men in the festivities and refinements of social intercourse. The discipline of children when under tutelage was severe, but the greatest care of morals and the most blameless deportment were maintained; and the modest Aztec maiden, when grown up, was treated with unreserved tenderness, and all the fulness of a parent’s love.20 There was the same contrast and opposition, it has been observed, in the character of the people as there was in the natural features of the country they possessed ; where tracts of hopeless sterility — the bristling peaks of the wild sierra, the burning volcano, the dark range of porphyritic rocks, or mountains clothed with perpetual snow, looked down where, in a soft and genial climate, lay the most lovely valleys at their feet, each a paradise upon earth ; where the palm and the banana waved their graceful foliage and spread their cooling shade ; where, knitting branch to branch, flowers of surpassing beauty waved in bright festoons and garlands, filling the air with fragrance ; where, partially seen through the openings of the forests, extended the blue lake, whose waters, like a polished mirror, seemed to tremble in the light ; where birds and insects of the richest plumage and most dazzling colours glittered in the sun ; and where a carpet of perpetual verdure was spread, enamelled with the brightest hues of spring, and glowing with all the splendour of tropical vegetation. To reconcile such striking opposition of character and habits, we must fix an attentive look on history, where she tells us that the Aztec nation, as seen by the Spaniards, was formed from the conjunction of two; that on the mild and civilised character of their predecessors, the polished Toltecs, they bad grafted their own fiercer and more warlike virtues, even as, in their religious ceremonies, they mixed beautiful flowers with their bloody rites. From long familiarity with a licentious and predatory warfare, they had become a cruel people in their nature, and cruelty is ever allied to superstition. Upon this was founded the supreme power, the uncontrolled authority, of the priesthood, who nurtured it by a rigid system of superstitious terror, by human sacrifices, and butchery of the most brutal kind : add to this, that the throne of Mexico at the time of the invasion of the Spaniards was filled by a monarch who, though of a brave and warlike character in youth, had become effeminate and luxurious in his habits, and tyrannical in his rule, — had oppressed his subjects and offended his nobles, but was still regarded, like the Eastern despots, with feelings of awe and admiration by the people. Such was the state of things at that time ; and the existence of much discontent and disaffection throughout the empire, and among the higher ranks, showed that it was not a state likely to be permanent—that internal divisions and troubles would probably have taken place, and that in some revolution or change an injured and indignant people might have thrown off at once the yoke of a bloody superstition and a tyrannic despotism, and, under some fortunate and favourite chief- tain, have gone out again to conquer, and founded an empire which might have spread over remote countries to the Atlantic shore, and have rivalled in extent and in opulence the glory of the ancient dynasties of the Eastern World, It pleased Providence to order things otherwise. The right of conquest over the infidel and heathen was a thing acknowledged and assumed ; a holy duty not to be disclaimed or even avoided ; a mission to an inferior race ignorant of God, neither worthy of the name nor entitled to the rights of men.21 The cross of Christ was planted in the battle field. The champion of Christ was he in whose dark and frowning lineaments the destined destroyer might he imagined; the book of God lay beside the battered cuirass and the bruised and blood-stained sword ; the religion of Christ came into the land accompanied with carnage, and famine, and desolation ; the consuming fire of the conqueror’s breath alone could cleanse the pollution of the land ;22 and the idolatrous nation was baptized, not in the waters of their own rivers, but in the blood of themselves and of their children. Thus terminated the history of a people who seemed to bear in the pensive and melancholy expression of their features too sure a prognostic of the darkness of their coming destiny, and who all perished, after a vain and fruitless resistance, beneath a power mysterious, irresistible, and unknown. Yet the historian, who surveyed with the clear and com- prehensive glance of a philosopher the institutions and influencing prin- ciples of the people, and fixed his attention on the great results to be drawn from the discoveries, has pronounced his important judgment, not criticising the means, but looking to the end, “That the empire of the Aztecs did not fall before its time.”
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Olivier Jacquot (2021, 24 juillet). Document : History of the Conquest of Mexico. By William Prescott. 3 Vols. 1843. Amoxcalli. Consulté le 27 février 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/b3ck
- « History of the Conquest of Mexico. By William Prescott. 3 Vols. 1843 », The Gentleman’s magazine, 1844, october, vol. 22, p. -359. Disponible en ligne, url : <https://archive.org/details/sim_gentlemans-magazine_1844-10_22/page/339/mode/1up>.
- See in the Preface, p. v. to p. viii. an account of the new materials which Mr. Prescott possessed, both from Madrid and Mexico, as well as by other sources, public and private. These most important materials were wanting to Robertson, which have since been assembled by the industry of Spanish scholars.
- La methode des abrégés a également les inconveniens. En écartant les détails intermediaires, en depouillent les faits de leur accessoires, elle resserre l’auteur dans un cercle si étroit, qu’il y est comme en captivité. Sa narration devient aride, et cette aridité est une bien essentielle, qu’on ne peut racheter que par l’interêt qu’on suppose que le lecteur prend aux matières qu’on traite sommairement pour ménager son tems.’’ — v. Pauw sur les Americains, vol. i. p. 282.
- In this branch of the subject, the author refers to Lord Kingsborough’s splendid work. See vol. i. p. 115. The work is sold at 175 l. and the mechanical execution is perfect. The drift of Lord Kingsborough’s speculation is, to establish the colonization of Mexico by the Israelites ! but Mr. Prescott observes, that it would be unjust, however, not to admit that the noble author, if his logic is not always convincing, shows much acuteness in detecting analogies; that he displays familiarity with his subject, and a fund of erudition, though it often runs to waste ; that, whatever be the defects of arrangement, he has brought together a most rich collection of unpublished materials to illustrate the Aztec, and in a wider sense American, antiquities ; and that, by this munificent undertaking, which no government, probably, would have, and few individuals could have, executed, he has entitled himself to the lasting gratitude of every friend of science. Mr. Prescott also mentions the name of Antonio Gama, whose works should be consulted by every student of Mexican antiquities. P. 117. The Aztecs when compared to the Egyptians, were at the bottom of the scale in hieroglyphics, and yet it has been observed that the Egyptians had made no advance in their alphabet for twenty-two hundred years. See vol. i. p. 94.
- Who would not think that the scene of the following story was not at the Court of Persia or of Delhi, so Asiatic its character? who would have placed it in a barbarous city, in an unknown country, and among a savage people ?
” The elder son of the King (Nezahualpilli), heir to the crown, a prince of great promise, entered into a poetical correspondence with one of his father’s concubines, the lady of Tula, a woman of humble origin, but of uncommon endowments. She wrote verses with ease, and could discuss graver matters with the king and his minis- ters. She maintained a separate establishment, where she lived in state, and acquired by her beauty and accomplishments great ascendancy over her royal lover. With this favourite the prince carried on a correspondence in verse, — whether of an amorous nature does not appear. At all events, the offence was capital. It was submitted to the regular tribunal, who pronounced sentence of death on the unfortunate youth ; and the king, steeling his heart against all entreaties, and the voice of nature, suffered the cruel judgment to be carried into execution. We might, in this case, suspect the influence of baser passions on his mind, but it was not a solitary instance of his inexorable justice towards those most near to him. He had the stern virtue of an ancient Roman, destitute of the softer graces which make virtue attractive. When the sentence was carried into effect, he shut himself up in his palace for many weeks, and commanded the doors and windows of his son’s residence to be walled up, that it might never again be occupied.” Vol. i. p. 182.
- See Machiavelli, Discorsi sopra T. Livio, lib. 2, cap. 4. The early history of Mexico is best gained from the Historia Antiqua of Veytia, published in 1836. See an interesting account of him and his labours in a note, vol. I. p. 20.
- Torquemada and Clavigero are the authorities for this part of the history, the last of which is a work of great merit, the avowed object of which was to vindicate his countrymen from the misrepresentations of Robertson, Raynal, and De Pauw: and, as regards the last two, he was perfectly successful.
- That eccentric but ingenious writer Pauw, has a chapter on Anthropophages, in his Récherches sur les Americains, vol. i. p. 207. The milder Peruvians it appears only opened a vein in their victim, and let the blood flow over their bread or flour-cake. The last Mexican victim, it appears, was Mr. Charleville, who, in 1719, having lost his way while hunting, was seized by the Atacapas, taken to the village, killed by blows with aclub, and eaten at a general feast. Vide p. 219. But the Mexicans said Christian flesh was very bitter. Vide vol. iii. p. 148.
- An institution which yearly destroyed its thousands, by a death more painful than the Aztec sacrifices ; which armed the hand of brother against brother, and, setting its burning seal upon the lip, did more to stay the march of improvement than any other scheme ever devised by human cunning. p. 76.
- The Bishop Las Casas.
- In the cement of one of the houses he was amazed by the sight of a cross of stone and lime, about 10 palms high. It was the emblem of the god of rain. Its appearance suggested the wildest conjectures, not merely to the unlettered soldier, but subsequently to the European scholar, who speculated on the character of the races that had introduced there the sacred symbol of Christianity. But no such inference, as we shall see hereafter, could be warranted. Yet it must be regarded as a curious fact, that the cross should have been venerated as the object of religious worship both in the new world and in the old, where the light of Christianity had never risen. Cozumel is now an uninhabited island, covered with impenetrable forests. Mr. Prescott refers to Mr. Stephens’s Travels in Yucatan, vol. I. c. 20, for further reflections on the existence of the cross as a symbol of worship among the islanders.
- It was an extraordinary delicacy and refinement of taste in Montezuma, as a landscape gardener, in not allowing fruit trees in his pleasure grounds, thinking them unsuitable to the scenery. This was far beyond the refinement of Roman luxury, even in the days of Sallust ; and even in England the fig and the mulberry are admitted among their brethren of loftier station and more luxuriant beauty ; but the taste of the Mexican monarch was surely correct. — REV
- See on the subject of these most interesting trees, considered to be the oldest, as well as the largest, existing on the face of the earth. Humboldt, Tableau de la Nature. Next to these taxodiums, in size and age, are the baobabs of western Africa, and the dragon tree of Teneriffe. When the reader in these volumes meets with the words cedar and cypress, he is not to understand the cedar of Lebanon, or the evergreen cypress of Italy, but the white cedar of the American swamps, which is a tree of gigantic size, we have heard the largest of all American trees, and the deciduous cypress, or taxodium distichum. Mr. Prescott’s American readers would not be so likely to mistakes on this head as Europeans. Which of the American maples he means by the word ‘‘sycamore,’’ a name applied to an European tree, we do not know. — Rev.
- Bernal Diaz has given us a few items of the royal carte. The first course is rather a startling one, — being a fricassée, or stew, of little children. ‘‘Carnes de muchachos de poca edad ! ’’ And we are told, ‘‘at the great Aztec feasts, the flesh of a slave elaborately dressed formed one of the chief ornaments of the banquet.” Cannibalism in the guise of an epicurean science !
- Here the author happily quotes the Roman historian. “Referre in tanto rege iget superbam mutationem vestis, et desideratas humi jacentium adulationes.” Liv. Hist. ix. 18. The remarks of the Roman historian in reference to Alexander, after he was infected with the manners of Persia, fit equally well the Aztec emperor. Yet “Tanto rege” is an expression hardly adapted to the Aztec emperor. We have often thought (though our opinion, as far as we know, has no support for this) that Alexander’s change of costume might partly be owing to a natural and reasonable desire to adapt his clothing to the new climate in which he lived. In tropical countries, the loose dress of Europeans is most inconvenient and unhealthy. The turban and the loose trousers are as appropriate to these climates as the hat and tight pantaloons to ours. — Rev.
- The author has somewhere in a note to his work correctly observed, that without the assistance of fire-arms Madoc in Mr. Southey’s poem could not have effected what he and his little band are represented to have done against multitudes, armed in a manner similar to themselves. The objection is fatal to the probability of the story : and we may add, that, if sword to sword it was a drawn battle between Madoc and Italala on the stone of sacrifice, how could Madoc’s few companions cope with the countless multitudes opposed to them ; their only advantage lying in their iron armour, instead of their enemies’ quilted cotton doublet ? — REV.
- Humboldt says, that the quantity of silver taken from the American mines ex- ceeded that of gold in the ratio of 46 to 1. The value of gold, says Clemengin, which, on the discovery of the New World, was only 11 times greater than silver, has now come to be 16. This does not materially differ from Adam Smith’s estimate made after the middle of the last century. Vide Wealth of Nations, i. ch. 2.
- Maximilian of Germany and Ferdinand of Spain barely left enough to bury them. Henry IV. of France embraced Sully with rapture, because he had saved, by great economy, about 1,500,000 livres in the treasury. And Elizabeth had never any treasure to spare. But no European monarchs ever reached the riches of the Emperors of the East. It is said Napoleon had collected 20 millions in gold, for the payment of his army in the Russian campaign. The produce of the sack of Delhi has been estimated at 70 millions by Mr. Sharp.
- True, but we may ask, are the military annals of any nation free from the stain of cruelty, ferocity, and atrocity in its worst forms ? Are our own, even in our own times ? He who would flatter himself with this belief, should read Col. Napier’s account of the taking of St. Sebastian, where he says that language fails him to describe the unparalleled horrors that took place ; but to describe them would be imssible, even to mention such abominations is to defile the pages of history ; but all that rapacity, lust, and drunkenness, stimulated by revenge, could do, was witnessed there; and the very atrocity alone preserves them from our full execration, because it makes it impossible to describe them. Mr. Prescott openly declares that the atrocities committed by the soldiers of Cortés at Cholula were not so bad as those inflicted in the late war of the Peninsula by the most polished nation of our time — by the British at Badajos. Vide ii. p. 31. Part of Napier’s narrative is as follows: (Napier’s Peninsular War, vol. vi. p. 205, Storming of San Sebastian.) “This storm seemed to be the signal of hell for the perpetration of villany which would have shamed the most ferocious barbarians of antiquity. At Ciudad Rodrigo, intoxication and plunder had been the principal object ; at Badajos lust and murder were joined to rapine and drunkenness; but at San Sebastian the direst, the most revolting, cruelty was added to the catalogue of crimes. One atrocity, of which a girl of seventeen was the victim, staggers the mind by its enormous, incredible, indescribable barbarity. Some order was at first maintained, but the resolution of the troops to throw off discipline was quickly made manifest. A British staff-officer was pursued with a volley of small arms, and escaped with difficulty from men who mistook him for the provost-martial of the fifth division; a Portuguese adjutant, who endeavoured to prevent some atrocity, was put to death in the market-place, not with sudden violence from a single ruffian, but deliberately by a number of English soldiers. Many officers exerted themselves to preserve order, many men were well-conducted, but the rapine and violence commenced by villains soon spread, the camp-followers crowded into the place, and the disorder continued until the flames, following the steps of the plunderer, put an end to his ferocity by destroying the whole town.’’
- See a very interesting document, ‘‘ Advice of an Aztec mother to her daughter,’’ translated in the Appendix to Mr. Prescott’s history, vol. iii. p. 373—376. The translator mentions the moral sublimity of it, and that it is the product of the true light of civilization. We can see very little childishness in it. Modest reserve in behaviour and chastity are the two virtues it chiefly inculcates. It ends with these remarkable words, ‘‘ May God prosper you, my first-born, and may you come to God, who is in every place.”
- Bernal Diaz’s language, on being seized by the Indians, is one that would apply to beasts as much as to men,— ‘‘ When this mob had their claws on me.” Vide Hist. p. 291. The Pope Paul III. in his bull, 1537, declared them to be rational creatures, but not to be admitted to the communion.
- In the city of Cholula alone it is computed that above 6000 victims were annually offered up at the sanguinary shrines. vol. ii. p. 8. When Cortés was there, a great sacrifice of children was offered up. p. 14. The Spaniards, when they entered the great temple, saw three human hearts smoking and almost palpitating, as if recently torn from the victims and lying onthe altar. The stench, says Bernal Diaz, was more intolerable than all the slaughter-houses of Castile, and the frantic forms of the priests, with their dark robes clotted with blood as they flitted to and fro, seemed to the Spaniards to be those of the very ministers of Satan. ii. p. 138. Thousands and thousands of miserable victims were yearly fattened in cages, sacrificed on the altars, and served at the banquets. The whole land was converted into vast human shambles ! iii. p. 192.