Document : Compte rendu (1844) de : History of the Conquest of Mexico de William H. Prescott
Dans son volume IV de 18441, le trimestriel méthodiste de The Methodist quarterly review de la Methodist Episcopal Church publiait un compte rendu sans nom d’auteur de la publication de William Prescott intitulée History of the Conquest of Mexico, parue pour la première fois en 1843. C’est ce document que nous transcrivons ci-après.
Taking into view all the requisites of a perfect historian, we look upon Mr. Prescott as coming as near to that pre-eminence as any wnter in that department of literature in our language. He has no positive defects, and he unites more of the higher attributes essential to the rank we claim for him, than are found united in any one of the great English historians. Without being equal in brilliant eloquence to Gibbon, or in acute philosophy to Hume, or m graceful elegance to Robertson, he is not wanting in either of these qualities, and he is unequaled by either of them, or by any other historian, in fidelity of investigation, honest use of his authorities, clearness in narration, just estimate of his historical personages, and perfect impartiality in delineating their characters. To these peculiar excellences of a historian, he adds one no less im- portant as a writer, that of a finished style, exactly appropriate to his subject, neither too ornate on the one hand, nor jejune on the other — smooth and ilowing, but not careless, and sufficiently elevated without being stitT and stately. We seek in vain for perfect models of historical composition in modern literature — they are to be found only in the writings of antiquity — and Mr. Prescott gives the clearest evidence that the study of these has not been neglected by him. Of late the scholars of Germany and their followers have dwelt so much on the philosophy of history, that history, properly so called, has almost entirely given place to philosophical disquisitions upon some memorable event, or period, or personage ; and we owe much to the author of Ferdinand and Isabella for the practical reclamation he has made in both his works, for history to be restored to its legitimate province, to be allowed to teach its own philosophy, and not to be perverted to the support of fanciful theories. It would be easy to add much to these commendations of Mr. Prescott, were it our purpose now to discuss his general merits as a historian ; but as it is not, we pass to our more specific object, the examination of his History of Mexico.
It was, we confess, with fear and trembling that we took up this last work of our author — not from a distrust of his powers, but from a consciousness of the extravagance of our own and of public expectation. He had the most difficult of positions to maintain, that of a perfectly-successful débutant who had burst upon the world in a full blaze of popularity. By the high standard he had himself fixed, he had become his own most dangerous rival — he must go beyond this standard, or he is pronounced to be falling off. He has gone beyond it, and we shall never fear for him again : he has proved that he does possess the extraordinary power of becoming greater than himself, and as long as he lives and writes, we doubt not he will do it. In point of subject, the advantage was vastly in favor of his first historical effort, and there was the charm of a feat of chivalry in his taking it up : it was like a gallant foreign knight taking up the glove for some injured princess who had found no defender among her own cavaliers — he came forward to spread the renown of a beautiful and brilliant queen, whose deeds of glory had not been duly heralded by the writers of her own nation and language. The story too was as grand as it was new, embracing a period memorable for three great events — the consolidation of the Spanish monarchy, the expulsion of the Moors from Europe, and the discovery of the western continent, the most important of discoveries in the progress of geographical knowledge. And then what mighty personages to give life and grandeur to this story — the magnanimous, heroic Isabella, and her royal consort ; Columbus, the truly sublime adventurer ; Gonsalvo, the great captain ; Mendoza, the grand cardinal of Spain ; and Ximenes, his successor, the learned ecclesiastic, the consummate statesman, and the master spirit of his times. No man of ordinary mind would have had the courage to venture upon such themes even under the most favorable circumstances ; and no greater proof could be given of a most energetic and powerful one than was given by Mr. Prescott in undertaking and accomplishing so arduous a labor, under every discouragement of distance from the sources of authentic information, and the various perplexities and embarrassments arising from want of sight, and the necessity of relying upon the eyes of others. In surmounting these difficulties, and thus faithfully recording the great achievements of the most eventful and glorious reign in Spanish history, he has raised his own imperishable monument. There is nothing equivocal or indefinite in the reputation he has thus acquired ; it is not that he has written a pleasing book, and given great promise as an author, but it is that he has proved himself a historian ; fur whatever fault criticism may have found with his work, it always ended with this confession. The learned everywhere unite in awarding him this distinction, — in England, in France, in Germany, his claim to it is universally recognized, and even in Spain, where he might have most to fear, he is most honored and commended. The Italian campaigns did not more clearly bear witness to the soldiership of Napoleon, than did the History of Ferdinand and Isabella to the adaptation of Mr. Prescott, in mind, talent, and character, to the office of a historian.
With such a reputation at stake, he has again ventured to appear at the bar of public criticism, and he is again met with like, but louder, plaudits. The story of the conquest of Mexico had not the charm of novelty ; it had often been told before, but never with the truth, and life, and spirit, and distinctness, as it now comes to us ; his admirable narrative of it, we think, is never to be supplanted or superseded by any one that may come after it. By referring to his materials it will be perceived, that no known original authority, or printed volume, which could throw light upon his subject, has been neglected by him, — the conqueror’s own letters, the testimony of the eye-witnesses, honest Bernal Diaz and the chaplain Gomara, the contemporary Spanish historian Sahagun, the Tezcucan Ixtlilxochitl, the Tlascalan Camargo, De Solis, Herrera, and the other Spanish writers, are all consulted, compared, and sifted for the facts upon which he builds his own stable fabric ; and it is not only a History of the Conquest of Mexico, it is also a history of the people who were conquered, or rather a view of the condition in which they were found, and the progress they had made in civilization when first visited by Europeans, and in the Appendix he gives a shorter essay on the origin of this civilization. These we must first consider.
In this part of his work, particularly the introductory view of the Aztec civilization, Mr. Prescott may safely challenge all competition ; he has spared no pains in searching into it, and has condensed the fruits of his labor into the compass of half a volume, which would have furnished rich materials for three. In that half volume he imparts more and clearer information upon the subject, than could elsewhere be obtained by a year’s reading, or in fact could be obtained at all. Being derived from the best authorities, and having past the ordeal of his scrutiny, it may be relied upon as authentic, if anything upon such a question can be so. From this account we make the following summary : —
It is well known, that two distinct, but probably kindred races, successively occupied that portion of the Mexican state which was the theatre of Cortes’ conquests — the Toltecs, who arrived there in the seventh century, and continued until the eleventh ; and the Aztecs, who followed them after the lapse of a hundred years or more. The latter, after wandering about for a long time in the Mexican valley, at last fixed their abode on the south-west shore of the lake, and in the year 1325 founded the city of Tenochlitlan, since known by the name of Mexico. Whence they came has never been learned, either from tradition or otherwise, and nothing more of their march has been certainly ascertained, than that they approached the borders of Anahuac, as the country was then called, from a north-westerly direction. From the architectural monuments still remaining in the vicinity of the Gulf of Mexico, it may furly be inferred that the Toltecs were a cultivated people, as many of these monuments bear conclusive marks of being older than the arrival of their successors ; but by what calamity their power was destroyed, their edifices ruined, and their settlements broken up, recent as must have been the event, we can now only conjecture. As there were several minor tribes, they may have combined and driven out the stronger, and in their turn, on the arrival of the Aztecs and Tezcucans, been overpowered and merged in one or other of these conquering families. However that may be, it is certain that for the two centuries prior to the Spanish conquest, both the territory and the dominion were chiefly held by these two last-named races. The city of Mexico was founded, as we have seen, in the year 1325, and taken possession of by Cortes in 1519, not quite two centuries afterward. In this short period it attained an extent and magnificence that astonished its conquerors, familiar as they were with their own capitals : nearly the same description applies to Tezcuco, situated on the eastern side of the lake. It is evident that the people who built such cities must have previously made no small progress in the arts of civilized life; and how it is that a people so civilized left no traces of their earlier abodes, or of their path from one abode to another, is an unfathomable mystery, that a further examination into their condition will only serve to increase.
The Aztec state was a regularly-organized elective monarchy, the choice being restricted to the family of the reigning dynasty, first to the brothers, and if none, to the nephews of the last sovereign. The monarch wore a crown, was addressed by a regal title, was the fountain of all honors, lived in a splendid palace, had his council of slate, his body guard, and an immense retinue of nobles and dependent vassals bound to render homage and military service — in short, all the pomp and circumstance of royalty. He was also the sole and supreme lawgiver ; but the laws which he made were enforced by regularly-constituted judicial tribunals, the judges of which, when once appointed, were independent of his will. In all trials the parties appeared in person to state their own case and no counsel were allowed, that justice might not be perverted or defeated. The laws were severe, all great crimes against society being mide capital : intemperance even, if the offender was young, was punished with death ; if old, with the loss of rank or property. The institution of marriage was held in reverence, and a special tribunal established for judging all causes connected with it Slavery was permitted by their code ; but it was personal only, and not hereditary. No one was born a slave among them, and none were made so except captives, criminals, public debtors, persons who gave up their freedom from poverty, or other like cause, and children sold by their parents. The condition was but little more than personal service, and not one of great hardship, as would naturally be inferred from the last two modes of becoming subjected to it.
Contributions for the exigences of the state were made in various ways — there were crown lands, and taxes on the products of agriculture and manufactures, with tributes, and all such blessings of civilization. Soldiers were stationed in the principal towns To enforce the fiscal laws in case of. resistance. They had couriers for the transmission of intelligence from place to place, who, by being trained early, were able to run with great speed ; they were found at regular post-houses, which seems to be an anticipation of Europe in establishing mails, and is the more remarkable, as they had no horses.
As war was made the chief business of life by the Aztecs, the profession of arms was naturally held in great honor. They had a war-god for their protecting divinity, and their king must be a military chieftain. The bravery of the soldier on the battle-field was excited by the strongest inducements — honors from his sovereign if he survived, and an immediate admission to the bright mansions of the sun if he fell. Military orders, with appropriate insignia, were the rewards of martial prowess, and death was the invariable punishment for all delinquencies — for disobedience of authority, desertion of colors, attacking without orders, plundering, and every other violation of a soldier’s duty. Hospitals and surgical attendance were provided for the sick and the wounded, and retreats for the permanently-disabled soldiers. They wore a martial dress, and that of the chiefs was very showy, and of sufficient thickness to protect the body against light arrows ; the wealthiest had cuirasses of gold or silver. Their armies must have been considerable, judging from the large bodies into which they were divided ; eight thousand men constituting a division. Questions of war were discussed by the king and nobles in council, and no open declaration was made until ambassadors had been sent to demand satisfaction and returned unsuccessful. The persons of these ambassadors were sacred, and they were provided for at the public charge. This sketch of the civil and military institutions of the Aztecs will show how nearly they approached to European civilization in the great foundations of society : in pursuing the inquiry, we come upon usages denoting the lowest state of barbarism.
When we look at their religion, for example, we find it full of bloody rites and degrading superstitions, proving how very little any civilization that is not Christian civilization can effect in imparting a knowledge of the true God. It was the same in the most refined ages of Greece and Rome ; their religious worship was a reproach to the human mind. No religion but Christianity has respect to humanity in the worship of the Deity ; and that lies at the foundation of the Christian scheme, in the manifestation of the divine and human nature in the person of its Author, and it is also the direct practical influence of its whole spirit, proclaiming peace on earth, good will to man. Yet the Aztec religion, frightful as it was, was not without some glimmerings of a better faith. It enjoined a belief in a supreme Creator and Governor of the universe, and invoked him as an omnipotent, omniscient, invisible, and spiritual being : it taught also a belief in a future existence and state of retribution, in which the wicked were to make expiation for sin, and the heroes who fell in battle to be received into the presence of the sun, and their spirits after a time to pass into clouds and singing birds, and revel amid the flowers and perfumes of paradise. An intermediate condition was assigned to another class, of mere negative, indolent existence, without suffering and without enjoyment. It inculcated many precepts of excellent morality ; it made almsgiving a duty, and it provided for the education of youth. By the latter the priests look care to perpetuate their own influence, as it was excluvely intrusted to them. Confession and absolution were practiced as in the Romish Church, in connection with which two peculiar usages are worthy of note. After confession, the repetition of the same offense was inexpiable, and absolution made full satisfaction for crime, and when given, no other punishment could be inflicted. Their religion throughout was one of burdensome ceremonials their priesthood an army of human butchers, and their temples of worship altars of sacrifice for hecatombs of human victims. How brutal and revolting were these sacrifices, may best be learned from the following account of our author : —
” One of their most important festivals was that in honor of the god Tezcatlipoca, whose rank was inferior only to that of the Supreme Being. He was called ‘ the soul of the world, ‘ and supposed to have been its creator. He was depicted as a handsome man, endowed with perpetual youth. A year before the intended sacrifice, a captive, distinguished for his personal beauty, and without a blemish on his body, was selected to represent this deity. Certain tutors took charge of hira, and instructed him how to perform his new part with becoming srace and dignity. He was arrayed in a splendid dress, regaled with incense and with a profusion of sweet-scented flowers, of which the ancient Mexicans were as fond as their descendants at the present day. When he went abroad, he was attended by a train of the royal pages, and, as he halted in the streets to play some favorite melody, the crowd prostrated themselves before him, and did him homage as the representative of their good deity. In this way he led an easy, luxurious life, till within a month of his sacrifice. Four beautiful girls, bearing the names of the principal goddesses, were then selected to share the honors of his bed ; and with them he continued to live in idle dalliance, feasted at the banquets of the principal nobles, who paid him all the honors of a divinity.
” At length the fatal day of sacrifice arrived. The term of his short- lived glories was at an end. He was stripped of his gaudy apparel, and bade adieu to the fair partners of his revelries. One of the roval barges transported him across the lake to a temple which rose on its margin, about a league from the city. Hither the inhabitants of the capital flocked, to witness the consummation of the ceremony. As the sad procession wound up the sides of the pyramid, the unhappy victim threw away his gay chaplets of flowers, and broke in pieces the musical instruments with which he had solaced the hours of captivity. On the summit he was received by six priests, whose long and matted locks flowed disorderly over their sable robes, covered with hieroglyphic scrolls of mystic import. They led him to the sacrificial stone, a huge block of jasper, with its upper surface somewhat convex. On this the prisoner was stretched. Five priests secured his head and his limbs ; while the sixth, clad in a scarlet mantle, emblematic of his bloody office, dexterously opened the breast of the wretched victim with a sharp razor of ifztli, — a volcanic substance, hard as flint, — and, inserting his hand in the wound, tore out the palpitating heart. The minister of death, first holding this up toward the sun, an object of worship throughout Anahuac, cast it at the feet of the deity to whom the temple was devoted, while the multitudes below prostrated themselves in humble adoration. The tragic story of this prisoner was expounded by the priests as the type of human destiny, which, brilliant in its commencement, too often closes in sorrow and disaster. ”
” The most loathsome part of the story — the manner in which the body of the sacrificed captive was disposed of — remains yet to be told. It 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, as we shall see hereafter, conducted themselves with all the decorum of civilized life. Surely, never were refinement and the extreme of barbarism brought so closely in contact with each other ! ” — Vol. i, pp. 75, 76, 78, 79.
The number of these sacrifices is represented to be great, almost beyond belief ; and yet we see, from the following passage, that Mr. Prescott considers that the fact is supported by the most unquestionable authority : —
” On great occasions, as the coronation of a king, or the consecration of a temple, the number becomes still more appalling. At the dedication of the great temple of Huitzilopotchli, in 1486, the prisoners, who for some years had been reserved for the purpose, were drawn from all quarters to the capital. They were ranged in files, forming a procession nearly two miles long. The ceremony consumed several days, and seventy thousand captives are said to have perished at the shrine of this terribly deity ! But who can believe that so numerous a body would have suffered themselves to be led unresistingly like sheep to the slaughter ? Or how could their remains, too great for consumption in the ordinary way, be disposed of, without breeding a pestilence in the capital ? Yet the event was of recent date, and is unequivocally attested by the best-informed historians. One fact may be considered certain. It was customary to preserve the skulls of the sacrificed, in buildings appropriated to the purpose. The companions of Cortes counted one hundred and thirty-six thousand in one of these edifices ! Without attempting a precise calculation, therefore, it is safe to conclude that thousands were yearly offered up, in the different cities of Anahuac, on the bloody altars of the Mexican divinities. ” — Ibid., pp. 80, 81.
In commenting on the atrocity of these murderous rites, Mr. Prescott very fairly reminds us of the Inquisition, which continued for centuries, in the name even of our own mild and merciful religion, first to torture, and then butcher thousands after thousands ; but Christianity commands no such immolations, and is not answerable any more than liberty for the numerous crimes that have been committed in its sacred name.
We now turn to a more pleasing part of the picture, and take a view of the intellectual culture of the Aztecs, as exhibited by Mr. Prescott. A convenient written language is so essential to literary advancement, that we could hardly expect to find a nation distinguished in this way, with a system so inadequate and imperfect as that of the Mexican hieroglyphics. We are referring particularly to literature in distinction from science : in the latter it is less essential, as was seen both in Egypt and here. The Egyptians, however, had a system of hieroglyphics vastly more comprehensive than the Mexicans, the latter being chiefly the figurative or simple picture-writing, to which, in the former, there was added the symbolic and the phonetic. But it is not possible, at the present day, to determine precisely how far the art was carried among the Mexicans : a very small number of their manuscripts remain to show the progress they had made, the Spanish priests, in their fanaticism, having burnt the greater part of them, some of which, it is not improbable, recorded their origin and their migrations. They had, however, in addition to their hieroglyphical, a sort of oral literature, consisting of traditions, legends, and tales, imbodied in songs and hymns, which were taught and sung in schools. In science they reached a higher degree of culture : they had a regular system of arithmetical notation, which, inferior as it was to the Arabic, afforded great facility in computation. Their year was the solar one of three hundred and sixty-five days, divided into eighteen months of twenty days each, with an intercalation of five to make out the complete number, and another intercalation, every fifty-two years, to correct the error which had arisen by neglecting the odd hours. So accurate were they in their measurement of time, that at the time of the conquest their calendar was found to agree with the Gregorian, when duly corrected. In their chronological reckonings they were equally precise. The epoch from which they dated corresponded to the year 1091 of the Christian era, being the year of the last reform of their calendar. By a very ingenious contrivance, which is minutely described and figured in Mr. Prescott’s work, and one which they had in common with most Asiatic nations, they were able to specify the particular year in a simple and concise manner. Besides the solar calendar, the priests had a mystic one for their own particular use and advantage, but otherwise wholly unnecessary, and easily to be accounted for, as the author justly observes, by ” that love of power, that has led the priesthood of many a faith to affect a mystery, the key to which was in their own keeping. ” By this calendar the priests regulated the religious festivals, and made their calculations in astrology ; for the Aztecs, like most nations in a state of imperfect civilization, placed great rehance upon the revealings of the stars. That they also studied their movements for more valuable purposes, may be inferred from the facts in the following passage : —
” We know little further of the astronomical attainments of the Aztecs. That they were acquainted with the cause of eclipses is evident from the representation, on their maps, of the disk of the moon projected on that of the sun. Whether they had arranged a system of constellations is uncertain ; though, that they recognized some of the most obvious, as the Pleiades, for example, is evident from the fact that they regulated their festivals by them. We know of no astronomical instruments used by them, except the dial. An immense circular block of carvad stone, disinterred in 1790, in the great square of Mexico, has supplied an acute and learned scholar with the means of establishing some interesting facts in regard to Mexican science. This colossal fragment, on which the calendar is engraved, shows that they had the means of settling the hours of the day with precision, the periods of the solstices and of the equinoxes, and that of the transit of the sun across the zenith of Mexico. ” — Vol. i, pp. 122, 123.
It now remains to glauce at the state of Aztec civilization as respects the useful arts and social life. All genuine civilization begins with the selection of a place for permanent residence. The mere savage subsists by hunting or fishing, or upon the spontaneous productions of the earth ; the nomad by his flocks and herds ; but civilization is planted with the first seed that is put into the ground fixed upon for a home. We advert to this principle here, because we think it goes far toward explaining the highly-improved condition in which the Aztecs were found at the time of the conquest. No bird of passage, in its flight from the inclement north to the balmy south, ever lighted in a richer or more beautiful valley than they found when they stopped their wanderings. The teeming earth opened its bosom to their embraces, and the genial heavens promised the most bounteous returns for labor. These invitations were not offered in vain. Agriculture now flourished and became an honored occupation ; it was skillfully prosecuted, and abundant harvests were gathered in as its rewards. The men took upon themselves its severer toils, and the women joined them in its lighter ones. They practiced fallowing, irrigating, and the other arts of careful husbandry. They cultivated the banana, the cocoa, the vanilla, and some other plants of less note ; but Indian corn was their staple, which they used not only for bread, but also extracted sugar from its luxuriant shoots in large quantities, the cane being then unknown there. The Agave Americana, and other species of that genus, shot up without culture in great luxuriance, furnishing them with ” meat, drink, and clothing ; ” and yet neither the bountiful provision of nature in this, nor the incredible productiveness of the banana, induced habits of sloth and indolence among them ; they were industrious without necessity, and hence we infer they had the spirit and spring of improvement within themselves. They must also have had a taste for the beautiful : they did not leave the fragrant and brilliant flowers which grew in wild luxuriance on their mountains and in their valleys to waste their sweetness on the desert air ; they transplanted them to their gardens and conservatories, and cultivated them with care. These conservatories, Mr. Prescott thinks, may have furnished the original suggestion for the botanic gardens of Europe, as they were established not long after the conquest : we deem it more probable, however, that they are to be traced to earlier usages. The Romans paid much attention to the cultivation of flowers ; and ornamental gardens were an appendage to their villas, one of which is particularly described in the letters of the younger Pliny ; and they had also a very beautiful mode of decorating the interior courts of their houses with pots of flowers, in stands encircling the small fountains which kept playing in their courts, the vestiges of which are still to be seen among the ruins of Pompeii. The revival and extension of similar usages in modern Italy may account for botanic gardens being first established there. We cannot wholly agree with Mr. Prescott in the praises he bestows upon the Mexican Flora ; that it is gaudy and varied, we readily acknowledge, but not that the greatest attractions of our green-houses are gathered from it, nor that it is the richest and most diversified of any on the globe. Ours is the continent for flowering trees and shrubs ; but it is comparatively poor in herbaceous plants. We have few native roses, fewer geraniums, no heaths, and no camellias. Still we can readily disprove the common reproach that we have no flowers of fragrance and no birds of song ; for not even Araby the blest can match the Peruvian heliotrope with a flower of sweet scent, nor the Peruvian bulbul vie with the mocking-bird of our warmer climes in melody of song.
But to return to the cultivation of the Aztecs. Their mining operations were conducted with no less skill than their agricultural : they brought out silver, lead, tin, and copper from their veins in the rock, separated them from their ores, and applied them to various uses : they collected gold from the sands and beds of the river, and cast it into ingots, or kept it in grains for the payment of the royal tribute. They had no coinage, and they knew not the use of iron ; but they were cunning artificers, working in gold, silver, and precious stones, with implements of hardened copper, or the sharp edges of obsidian. Their domestic utensils were of earthen ware, of convenient forms, and not badly made. They had a passion for sculptured images, and crowded them upon their temples and other edifices for ornament : nothing, however, has been found indicative of much taste or skill in the plastic art. Cotton fabrics of various degrees of fineness were manufactured by them. These were dyed with the rich crimson of the cochineal, and sometimes interwoven with the hair of animals, so as to form a warm and beautiful texture, upon which they put curious embroideries of birds, flowers, and the like. But their greatest skill and ingenuity were displayed upon their work in feathers ; and as the country abounded in birds of brilliant and varied plumage, the fabrics of this kind were generally of exquisite beauty. Instead of shops, they used the market-places for the purposes of traffic, where frequent fairs were held, and merchandise of every kind sold or exchanged. As a substitute for coin, they used quills of gold dust, small bits of tin, and bags of cocoa. Industry in some pursuit was enjoined upon all ; and trade was particularly honored. The Aztec merchants formed a powerful body in the community, and were especially favored and protected by the sovereign. The drones of modern society might take a good lesson from the exhortation of an aged Aztec chief to his son : — ” Apply yourself, ” said he to him, ” to some honorable calling : never was it heard that nobility alone was able to maintain its possessor. “
Their domestic manners present a still more striking proof of their great advances in civilization : and many of the features of their social life afford strong presumption that they originated with themselves. Contrary to the usage of the nations of the East, woman was treated with every mark of respect and indulgence, and with greater kindness than she ever received until Christianity exalted her to her rightful place in social life. Marriage was sacred, as far as it can be said to be so where polygamy prevails. Children were educated with great care, under the direction of the priests, as before mentioned, and subjected to a system of severe discipline. Grown-up daughters were treated very kindly by their parents, and more carefully instructed in their duties than they are under modern or even Christian civilization, if the lessons of prudence and virtue, given in the Appendix, are a fair specimen of those laught by Aztec mothers generally.
In their social entertainments they seem to have approached very near to the usages of modern European life. They had dinner and dancing parties, and festivities of every kind ; and in all of them the women participated. On such occasions their houses were scented with perfumes, and decorated with flowers, and a great abundance of the latter distributed, in bouquets no doubt, to the guests. They had also the refinements of napkins and finger basins, and were particular in observing all the requisitions of cleanliness. Their table furniture was of gold and silver, and the like costly materials. They indulged in the use of tobacco, but chiefly for smoking. They did not chew, nor put the nauseous weed into their mouths at all. Their cigars were smoked through moutnpieces of gold, or silver, or tortoise-shell. Sometimes they used pipes filled with aromatic perfumes, according to the fashion of the East ; and they also pulverized tobacco, and took it in the form of snuff. The women were seated apart by themselves at table ; but whether they joined in the smoking or not, it is not said. This usage, at any rate, proves their imperfect civilization. They had choice viands, nice cookery, high-flavored, spiced, and exhilarating drinks. Game was abundant, particularly the wild turkey, in speaking of which Mr. Prescott takes occasion to settle the question of its origin in favor of this continent, which has been denied, because both its English name of Turkey, and its French one of d’Inde, implied the contrary. Their tables were set out with entremets, hors d’oeuvres, patisseries, confitures, and all the stimulants to appetite now provided by European luxury : but amid them all there often peered out, especially if the feast was a religious one, the revolting spectacle of a dish of human flesh, taken from some wretched captive or slave, dressed á la Tartare, and sumptuously served, betraying the savage, the pagan, and the cannibal.
When the feasting was over, the young people rose up to dance, leaving the ciders at table to gossip over then pulque, their substitute for wine, of which they not unfrequently drank to inebriation, showing the inefficacy of the severest laws in restraining the taste for intoxicating drinks, when once indulged. Festive entertainments did not break up until past midnight : on leaving, rich presents of dresses and ornaments were made to the guests, which gave occasion to the same kind of ill-natured, ungrateful comments upon the want of taste or extravagance of their hosts, as are now wont to be made among fashionable ladies when they meet after a party.
We have been thus minute in our abstract of Mr. Prescott’s most interesting and carefully-drawn sketch of Aztec civilization, as we could not otherwise do justice to the subject. We had either to pass over it entirely, or to dwell upon it in sufficient detail to give our readers a correct idea of its distinctive features. They will find it so extraordinary, and so marked by contrasts, that they may doubt, perhaps, if the representations of our author are herein correct. But he is supported by the best authority in every word of his statement ; and the general facts may be regarded as unquestionable. At the same time, it is natural to suppose that the surprise excited by the novelty of these scenes, and the bigotry acting upon the mind of the fanatical crusaders who gave the first accounts of them, may have imparted a deeper color to their picture. Mr. Prescoo himself is fully aware of the seeming inconsistency in the different features of this unique civilization, and makes the following comments upon it : –
” In this remarkable picture of manners, which I have copied faithfully from the records of earliest date after the conquest, we find no resemblance to the other races of North American Indians. Some resemblance we may trace to the general style of Asiatic pomp and luxury. But in Asia, woman, far from being admitted to unreserved intercourse with the other sex, is too often jealously immured within the walls of the harem. European civilization, which accords to this loveliest portion of creation her proper rank in the social scale, is still more removed from some of the brutish usages of the Aztecs. That such usages should have existed with the degree of refinement they showed in other things is almost inconceivable. It can only be explained as the result of religious superstition — superstition which clouds the moral perception, and perverts even the natural senses, till man, civilized man, is reconciled to the very things which are most revolting to humanity. Habits and opinions founded on religion must not be taken as conclusive evidence of the actual refinement of a people.
” The Aztec character was perfectly original and unique. It was made up of incongruities apparently irreconcilable. It blended into one the marked peculiarities of different nations, not only of the same phase of civilization, but as far remowed from each other as the extremes of barbarism and refinement. It may find a fitting parallel in their own wonderful climate, capable of producing, on a few square leagues of surface, the boundless variety of vegetable forms which belong to the frozen regions of the North, the temperate zone of Europe, and the burning skies of Arabia and Hindostan ! ” — Vol. i, pp. 157, 158.
The concluding chapter of the Introduction, devoted to the Tezcucans, a kindred race of the Aztecs, which had reached a still higher degree of civilization, is one of the most interesting in the book ; and we very much regret that our limits will not allow us to give our readers a more particular knowledge of its contents : for that we must refer them to the work itself. After a few remarks upon his essay on the origin of the civilization we have been considering, which Mr. Prescott has detached from the Introduction and thrown into the Appendix, we shall direct our attention to the body of the work, and take a view of these strange people in their struggle to preserve themselves from foreign subjugation.
In attempting to decide on the origin of a people from a comparison of their usages and customs, characteristic of civilized life, with those of nations supposed to be older, we are met in the outset with the difficulty of determining which are the result of an indigenous and which of a derived civilization. Starting with the supposition of a single primitive pair, and we believe that there is no known fact contradictory to this supposition, we say, that neither to this primitive pair, nor to their progeny, has God ever directly communicated knowledge of any kind that it was in their power to acquire by the use of the faculties with which they are endued, and certainly of this description is the knowledge which provides for the wants, the comforts, the conveniences, and the luxuries of life. There is therefore no degree of civilization readied by any of the families of man, which might not be reached by all the remaining families, excepting those of an evident natural inferiority of intellectual powers. Any portion of the human race that force, or accident, or enterprise may have separated from their brethren, had power in themselves to originate institutions and usages, and make inventions and improvements demanded by their insulated condition. To a certain extent this has always been done ; and the variety in the phases of civilization is mainly to be attributed to variety of climate and local situation. There are, however, marks of identity of origin which can never be mistaken ; but they are not to be sought in buildings, or dress, or manner of preparing food, or in any of the common arts of life, unless it be in their minutest circumstances. Language is the infallible criterion, and it is the only one. But the Aztec isolation is far greater in this respect than in any other : nothing whatever has been discovered in their language connecting them with any nation of the Eastern continent. Their imagined affinity to the Egyptians, from their use of picture- writing, somewhat resembling hieroglyphics, amounts to very little. Picture-writing of some kind is a universal savage mode of rendering thought visible ; and until the Mexican is shown to be phonetic, coinciding in symbols and sounds to the Egyptian, no inference can be drawn from it. Nor do we come upon anything much more conclusive when we go on and examine the various other grounds of ressemblance which have been found or fancied to the Egyptians or other nations of the East, such as traditions, rites, symbols, chronological system, analogies from science, physical structure, architectural remains, and social usages : in all these respects many remarkable coincidences are observed ; but as yet none sufficiently minute to identify the Mexicans with any particular branch of the human family. Still we do not believe that it is to remain for ever a hidden mystery : the same spirit of inquiry and enterprise in man, which led to the discovery of this western world, will doubtless lead to the discovery of its primitive inhabitants, and the true history of the races that followed. Very much is now doing to aid these inquiries, and give rise to the expectation, that the time is not far distant when they will all be settled. We know that they are not autochthones, for we have the Mosaic history to the contrary ; and we know also that the question of their origin is not of its own nature an insolvable problem. In the present uncertainty and want of data for a more positive opinion, we fully agree with Mr. Prescott in his conjectures as to that portion of them of which we have been writing, — that their civilization was in some degree influenced by that of Eastern Asia, but so remotely as to justify its being called, at the time of the conquest, a peculiar and indigenous civilization. The beauty of the country, the fertility of the soil, the amenity of the climate, and the evident adaptation of the race to self-cultivation, all favor this supposition.
We conclude this part of the subject with the remark, that it is worthy of note, that of all the great primitive Indian races, none are found in the nomadic or pastoral state : they are either entirely savage, roaming wild in the forest, and subsisting by the chase, as the North American tribes, or so far advanced in civilization as to have houses and villages, and subsist by agriculture, like the Mexicans. These, we have seen, were so far from being pastoral, that they had no domestic animals whatever, not even cows.
The conquest of Mexico is justly accounted one of the greatest of human exploits ; but as it was the first considerable conflict between European and Indian tactics, it was effected under circumstances too peculiar to admit of comparison with any other renowned deed of military heroism. In fact, it can have no parallel, either in ancient or modern history ; for never, before or since, has there been a similar struggle between science and civilization on the one side, and countless numbers on the other. And never, in any enterprise, was the whole success so entirely attributable to its leader as in this ; for it was not mere military talent that made Cortes at all limes triumphant, but a universal energy of mind and character, propared for every exigence, and resolute in every danger. If we add to these qualities his unwavering reliance on himself, his unequaled command of the affections and confidence of his followers, and his firm conviction that he was God’s chosen instrument for effecting this work of conversion, we see what made him the daring adventurer and successful conqueror. On the other hand, we have an explanation of the ineffectual resistance made by a very populous, and powerful, and civilized nation, to a mere handful of invaders, in the superstitious dread and general panic which the appearance of the ” white gods ” occasioned. The belief that Cortes was the conqueror predicted in the book of their destiny, was of itself sutlicient to make him so. A glance at the leading events of this marvelous conquest will suflice to show the powerful influence which the moral causes here spoken of had in the result.
The Spaniards obtained their first knowledge of Mexico in 1518. Grijalva, who was then prosecuting a voyage of discovery upon that coast, chanced to land not far south of the place since called Vera Cruz, when he had an interview with an Aztec chief ; but being both ignorant of each other’s language, and having no interpreter, nothing more was learned than could be communicated by signs. At parting they exchanged presents ; and then the rich and curiously-wrought vessels of gold given to Grijalva told him the story he most wished to hear. Alvarado, one of his captains, was forthwith dispatched to Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, with the gifts and the information received from the cacique, which were regarded by him as sufficient indications of the riches of the country to make it an object of more particular discovery. Accordingly he resolved at once upon fitting out a new expedition, and Cortes was selected to command it. He was then in the vigor of life, being about thirty-three years of age, and had been a resident in Hispaniola and Cuba nearly fifteen years, his love of adventure having early taken him from home. Velasquez had had an opportunity of observing the fitness of Cortes for such a command, as he had been with him in the conquest of Cuba, and had then displayed great intrepidity and energy of character. From the moment of his appointment, the enterprise became the all-absorbing subject of his thoughts, and he gave himself to it with a singleness of purpose that showed how fully he believed it was a work which God had given him to do. But Velasquez, either from a revival of a former enmity to Cortes, or from jealousy of the glory he might acquire, soon determined to recall the command, and would have stopped the expedition had not Cortes been too quick for him, and stolen out of port by night, with his fleet but half prepared, giving him an earnest of the independent spirit with which he would manage the whole enterprise. The instructions which had been previously given to him limited his authority to the exercise of a peaceful mission : he was not to attempt to conquer or colonize, but only to traffic with the natives, endeavor to convert them to Christianity, and invite them to acknowledge allegiance to the king of Spain, and at the same time to collect all possible information about the country and people. Cortes, however, was not the man to heed the letter of authority, when opportunity offered for doing more, as he had already shown more than once ; and his first address to his companions, as soon as he was beyond the reach of Velasquez, very clearly reveals what higher purposes, than the authorized ones, he was revolving in his own mind. And yet it is almost incredible that he could have then thought of attempting what he afterward accomplished, so paltry was the force with which he started. Altogether it numbered less than nine hundred souls, composed of one hundred and ten sailors, five hundred and forty-three soldiers, and something more than two hundred Indians, women included. He had ten heavy guns, and four light ones, and sixteen horses. His fleet consisted of eleven sail, the largest of which was but a hundred tons ; next three from seventy to eighty, and the residue very small. With this force he set sail from Cuba on the 1Sth of February, 1519, and with it he made his way to the Mexican capital in eight months from the time he first landed on the coast.
This first landing was made early in March, at Tabasco ; and the very first exercise of his power should have taught the natives how httle they had to expect from his tender mercies. A slight show of resistance on the part of the Tabascans was taken advantage of as a pretext for a general onslaught ; and within twenty-four hours a regular battle was fought, in which the Indians were entirely defeated, and some thousands of them slain. They fought desperately, and might probably have conquered, had they not been dismayed at the sight of the cavalry, to them no less terrific than novel. This carnage was followed by the farce of a general conversion to Christianity. The Tabascans sought to propitiate their conquerors every way, particularly by gifts. Among these offerings was a female slave, named Marina, who proved of great value to them as an interpreter and guide, and a faithful adherent to their cause.
At another point on the coast, not far from Tabasco, Cortes hearing of the name and fame of Montezuma, required messengers to be sent to his capital, soliciting a formal interview with him. In about eight days the messengers returned with splendid presents in exchange for those sent by Cortes to the emperor ; but permission for the interview was refused, and the strangers ordered to leave the country immediately. A second embassy proving alike ineffectual, Cortes resolved to waive all further ceremony, and march to the capital, distant about two hundred miles from the station he then occupied : but he had first to acquaint himself how this could be best and most safely done. Having learned from the Totonacs of Cempoalla, a considerable town near the coast which he had visited, that the yoke of the Aztec emperor was galling to many of the smaller tribes that were subject to him, he determined, if possible, to turn their discontent to his own advantage, by making them his allies. But he had first to conciliate some unquiet spirits among his own men, who were plotting against the enterprise ; and this he did by founding a colony and a city, called Villa Rica, or Vera Cruz, to be held in the name of the Spanish sovereign, under the joint administration of one of his own and one of Velasquez’s partisans. This conciliatory measure, aided by his own popularity, soon restored harmony to his camp. This colony, it is worthy of note, was the first one planted by the Spaniards in New Spain, and as a port it was important to Cortes in his after operations.
The religious ceremonies of the Indians, particularly their sacrifices of human beings, were too revolting to the feelings of Cortes and his followers to be endured ; and finding no persuasions could
induce them to abandon these horrid rites, he ventured upon the
bold measure of entering by force into one of their teocalli, seizing and destroying their idols, as he had done before at Columel, and then raised a Christian altar on the spot where they had stood. It was this prompt decision which defeated every plan of opposition before it could be matured, and it was shown alike in his proceedings with Spaniards as with Indians, and never with more effect than when he ordered his whole fleet to be sunk, to prevent the meditated desertion of a part of his troops : it showed them that there could be no return until their work was accomplished. A few words of his own on this occasion will give the best idea of that undaunted spirit which carried him safely through every peril. ” If there be any so craven, ” said he to his soldiers, ” as to shrink from sharing the dangers of our glorious enterprise, let them go home, in God’s name. There is still one vessel left, let them take that, and return to Cuba. They can tell there how they have deserted their commander and their comrades, and patiently wait till we return, loaded with the spoils of the Aztecs. ” ” To Mexico, to Mexico, ” was the response with which the appeal was answered, and the march thither was immediately undertaken.
We look upon this step as the sublimest display of courage ex- hibited by Cortes in the whole enterprise. On other occasions, when perils were impending and appalling, no choice was left but to do or die. On this it was a cool decision to meet them, be they what they might, and none the less for being untried. The extent of the danger was not known, but enough was known to have turned back the stoutest hearts. With a feeble force, and that not wholly loyal, a hostile march of two hundred miles over lofty mountains was to be made into a pagan country of which he was entirely ignorant, uncertain of subsistence, and against an enemy of whose numbers and military strength he could form no estimate. But his resolution was taken, and he lost no time in carrying it into execution. Leaving a part of his men in garrison at Villa Rica de Vera Cruz to keep up the semblance of authority, he set out with the rest on his march to the capital, August 16, 1519. The force taken with him consisted of four hundred foot, fifteen horse, and seven pieces of artillery, to which were added thirteen hundred Indian warriors, and one thousand porters for transporting the guns and baggage. Without interruption, or remarkable adventure of any kind, this daring band proceeded on their toilsome march as far as the confines of Tlascala, which they reached on the 1st of September. They had now made two-thirds of the whole distance from the coast to the capital, having stopped four or five days at a place of rest on the way, where they learned many things of Montezuma, and of the grandeur of his empire. Before entering the Tlascalan dominions, which he found protected by a lofty wall closing up the gorge of the mountain in which they lived, he sent a deputation of his Indian allies to ask permission to pass through their country ; and while they were doubting as to their answer, accident brought the parties into conflict, which was kept up in various desperate engagements, until the Tlascalans were completely defeated, with the loss of many thousands slain. But these defeats did not quiet them : according to Indian usage, they had recourse to stratagem to effect what they could not do openly, which was discovered, and a signal but barbarous punishment inflicted on the spies who were engaged in it. The sight of these wretched mutilated objects struck them with terror, and they offered no further resistance. This is one of the many brutal acts which have brought upon Cortes the just indignation of every friend of humanity ; and if any extenuation can be offered for it, it must be in the necessity of the case. He had seen enough of the Tlascalans to know that the result of the contest with them would be decisive of his own fate. He had seen with what determined courage they had fought in open battle ; how well nigh they had come to surprising him by nightly attack, and still that their double defeat had not produced submission. In the fear of some greater, because hidden danger, he adopted their own mode of warfare, and visited lliem with an act of savage vengeance, as the only means of averting it. The result proved that he knew with whom he had to deal. A hostile arm was never again raised against him by the Tlascalans. On the contrary, they alone, of all the Indian tribes, remained firm and unwavering in their adherence to him, and by their aid he effected his conquest.
They were a hardy race of mountaineers, the inveterate enemy of the Aztecs, and sufficiently numerous to bring a hundred thousand warriors into the field. With such allies, Cortes might well feel that his work was done. And Montezuma must have felt so too : he had confidently anticipated the entire destruction of the invaders by the bold race that he had found invincible, and his heart is said to have sunk within him when that hope failed him, as well it might, for the announcement of the Tlascalan defeat was the first stroke of his own death knell.
On the 23d of September the conquerors were received into the city of Tlascala with every mark of honor, and there entertained for some time with the most friendly hospitality. Cortes did not neglect this opportunity for attempting their conversion to Christianity, to which no opposition was made ; but, on the contrary, free permission was given him to establish Christian worship in the public square of the city. Here a large cross was erected, and mass celebrated in the presence of many thousands of Indians. A few converts were made ; among them several Indian maidens, who had been promised Spanish husbands on condition of their conversion and baptism, a far milder and more lawful method than the sword of Mohammed for propagating the true faith. The most distinguished of these young converts was a daughter of Xicotenatl, the aged chief, who had first counseled resistance to Cortes, but now his firmest friend. This princess became the wife of Alvarado, and the mother of a line of the loftiest nobles of Spain. While Cortes remained at Tlascala, various embassies were sent to him from Montezuma, with sumptuous presents, and the strongest assurances of respect and friendly disposition ; but they all manifested the weakest pusillanimity, and the greatest dread of his approach to the capital. When Montezuma found that his deprecations were in vain, appearing to be no longer reluctant to the visit, he sent Cortes an invitation to come, recommending him to take the route by Cholula as safest and best, and this with the most treacherous views, as was shown in the sequel. Contrary to the earnest remonstrances of the Tlascalans, who knew there must be some concealed snare, Cortes followed the advice, which was enforced by an earnest invitation from the Cholulans themselves. As he was about to depart from Tlascala, immense multitudes volunteered to enlist under his banner and accompany him to Mexico, six thousand of whom he accepted ; so that with the recruits before made, he had now an Indian force of nine thousand men, but less than four hundred Spaniards. Cholula, being scarcely twenty miles distant from Tlascala, was soon reached ; and as the strongest enmity existed between the two people, he thought it best not to take the Tlascalan troop into the city, but leave them near, where they could rejoin him when he pursued his march. The first reception given him by the Cholulans was so friendly as greatly to invalidate the representations of their enemies, and might perhaps have led him to neglect their warning, but for the change which he observed in their manner after the arrival of some messengers from Montezuma. This circumstance put him on his guard, and excited suspicions of hostile intentions, which were confirmed by accounts received from the faithful Marina. She discovered that a plot had been laid for surprising and massacring or capturing the whole Spanish force, and that twenty thousand troops sent by Montezuma were secreted in the neighborhood for that purpose. The consequences of this discovery were terrible to the Cholulans. Their ancient and sacred city, adorned with splendid edifices and abounding in population, was given up to pillage and the sword. The carnage was truly frightful, the slain amounting, by Cortes’ own account, to three thousand, and to twice or thrice that number, according to others. It cannot be justified ; but, on the other hand, before it is too severely condemned, it should be remembered, that had victory been on the other side, it would have been followed by extermination.
A new embassy soon arrived from Montezuma, disavowing all participation in this plot of the Cholulans, and acknowledging the justice of the vengeance it had brought upon their heads. He thus hoped, perhaps, to propitiate the invader, whom he wanted courage to repel. Vain hope ; the clouds were rolling rapidly on, which were soon to burst upon his devoted head. Every hour brought his dread foes nearer to his capital, and every step they advanced presented their prize under new attractions. When they reached the point of the mountain from which they obtained their first view of the enchanting valley of Mexico, they gave vent to their feelings in one general shout of rapturous delight. On descending to the valley, they received another embassy from the emperor, which he had intended should have met and stopped them before they had passed the curtain of mountains which hung around him, by the tempting bribe of four loads of gold to the general, and one to each of his captains, if they would advance no further — but when such riches could be offered, still greater could be taken, and they moved on. When Montezuma heard of the rejection of his offer, he gave himself up to the most pitiful despair, and in answer to every proposal of resistance, constantly exclaimed, ” Of what avail is resistance when the gods have declared themselves against us ? ” Strange ! that among his warriors no one was found resolute enough first to plunge the steel into the heart of their cowardly monarch, and then lead out their countless hosts to meet and exterminate their invaders. But instead of meeting resistance, they moved on amidst every demonstration of homage and awe, wondering, as they advanced, at the magnificence of this barbaric city, riding proudly like a gallant ship upon the waters, and surrounded with floating gardens, and aviaries of singing birds, and other like novel scenes of enchantment. The memorable day of their triumphal entry into the Aztec capital was November 8, 1519, being within three months from the time they left the coast. The presence of Cortes seems to have diminished none of the awe which his approach had created : he was received by Montezuma with a deference that betrayed his own conscious inferiority, and the homage due to an acknowledged sovereign master. Equally surprising as the intimidation produced by his presence upon Montezuma, is the confidence with which Cortes trusted himself in his power, in an insular capital, from which his escape could at any moment be cut off by the mere raising of a draw-bridge ; and strangest of all, that he should have been suffered to go and fasten the chains upon a powerful sovereign, and complete the subjugation of a great nation, with scarcely the show of resistance. Both sovereign and subjects must have been stupefied and unnerved by their fatal belief in his supernatural power, and he may have seen his safety in that very belief. We cannot agree with Mr. Prescott in thinking that Cortes must have been more doubtful than ever of the subversion of the Aztec empire, now that he had seen its capital ; on the contrary, it seems to us he must certainly have considered the grand question of the possibility of the conquest settled, when he thus found himself safely master in it. Still he could not at once have formed any definite plan for maintaining his authority ; this he must have left to be suggested by observation and circumstances. Hence we see him proceeding cautiously, first strengthening his own quarters, then finding a pretext for removing Montezuma from his palace and placing him under his own eye, and soon after of loading him with chains. All these indignities were borne without open resistance, if not without remonstrance by the emperor himself, but far differently by the chiefs of his family, some of whom cried out vengeance upon their invaders, and were constantly forming plots for their destruction. Although Cortes’ vigilance suffered none of them to go undetected, they could not but remind him of the insecurity of his position, and the necessity of providing means of escape from the city, in case he could not protect himself and his followers in it. With this view he had two vessels built, of sufficient size to take his forces across the lake, which were kept in readiness to be used at any moment.
In the meanwhile Cortes went on with his exactions of submission, and obtained from Montezuma, first, full recognition of the supremacy of the Spanish monarch ; next, the surrender of his treasures ; and at length, after ineffectual resistance, the conversion of one of the teocalli into a church for Christian worship. The last measure was the drop too much ; it roused the indignation of the priests to such a degree, that the emperor was compelled to listen to their demands, and insist upon Cortes’ departure from the country. Feigning a readiness to comply with this requisition, he asked only for sufficient delay to enable him to build ships on the coast to transport his troops, promising to give immediate orders to this effect ; and adding, if this request was not granted, he should be compelled to take the emperor with him. Montezuma acceded to his proposal, and to hasten the preparations, sent a large body of Aztecs to the coast to assist in building the ships. But an unexpected event obliged Cortes to leave the capital without delay. A fleet had arrived from Cuba, under the command of Narvaez, who had orders from Velasquez to supersede him, and send him back to that island. This imposed upon Cortes the necessity of meeting him at once, and the perplexing alternative of wholly abandoning his hold on the Mexican capital, or leaving there a portion of his force in the hope of retaining it. He chose the latter, and ventured upon the perilous experiment of trusting a small garrison of one hundred and forty men, under the command of Alvarado, to the mercy of the Aztecs, exasperated as they were by his cruelties and indignities. After exacting a promise from Montezuma, that he would remain in friendly relation with the garrison, and having given the strictest charge of moderation and caution to Alvarado, he set out on his march to the coast with a little band of seventy, being all of his force which remained, a detachment of one hundred and twenty having been previously sent off under Velasquez de Leon, to plant a colony in the south. His conduct upon this occasion is one of the most striking instances in his history of his unequaled courage. In the same bold spirit that he had engaged the Indian hosts at fearful odds, he hastened on to engage a vastly superior force of his own countrymen, well knowing that Narvaez had more than ten times his numbers ; but he was fortunately reinforced on his march by de Leon’s detachment, which he found at Cholula, and afterward with one sent out from Villa Rica under Sandoval, so that he now numbered nearly three hundred in his ranks. Still his force was not one-third as large as that of Narvaez, who had brought out from Cuba nine hundred Spaniards and a thousand Indians, well armed and provided with all the munitions of war. But he heeded not the disparity ; taking care to come up with his rival under cover of night, he commenced an immediate attack, and completely defeated him, with a very inconsiderable loss on either side. This work was scarcely accomplished, when he received intelligence from the capital, that the garrison he left there had been assaulted, and was threatened with immediate destruction, and that the vessels provided for their escape had been burnt. Without a moment’s delay, he called in all the detachments he had sent out to form settlements, and joined the conquered forces of Narvaez to his own, making out a far more powerful army than had ever been under his command, amounting to one thousand foot and a hundred cavalry, and with these he hastened to the relief of his garrison. On his way his faithful Tlascalans added two thousand warriors to his army, and his appearance on his return to the capital was altogether more formidable than on his first visit to it, and doubtless as reanimating to the trembling garrison as it was dismaying to the revolted Aztecs. He had been absent six weeks, and during that time a spirit of determined resistance to the Spaniards had been roused among them, that nothing could allay. Under pretext of putting down an intended revolt, Alvarado had seized a large number of caciques assembled for the celebration of one of their principal festivals, and barbarously put them all to the sword, amounting to six hundred or more. By this atrocious act, a cry for vengeance was raised among the Aztecs, that was never silenced until scarce a voice was left to continue it. All the efforts for pacification, both of Cortes and Montezuma, were ineffectual ; the Aztecs fell upon their invaders with a courage, derived from fury and despair, that they had never before shown, and after a succession of the most desperate conflicts, continued daily from June 24th to the 30th, and scarcely interrupted at night, Cortes seeing himself compelled to evacuate the capital, directed all his attention to securing a retreat, now rendered the more necessary by the death of Montezuma, on whose kind dispositions he had placed much reliance. This unfortunate and imbecile monarch probably fell a victim to chagrin : he had been wounded by the arrows of his own men in a moment of indignation at his cowardice ; the wound was slight, but the disgrace inflicted one in his heart which could not be cured.
Cortes found it no easy matter to effect a retreat from an island city, over a narrow causeway ten miles in length, cut at short intervals by canals, from which the bridges had been broken down or removed, and so signal and terrible were the disasters his army experienced the night they attempted it, that it is perpetuated in history by the name of the noche triste. It cost him at least one-third of his army, both Spaniards and Indians. Disheartened by this immense loss, and worn out with fatigue, they were very slow in escaping beyond the reach of their enemy : on the seventh day after the calamity, they had gone but thirty miles, which brought them to the plains of Otompan. Here they were met and attacked by such hosts of the various Indian tribes of that region, that escape from destruction would have been impossible, but for the miraculous courage and daring of Cortes. Seeing that his condition was so desperate, that nothing but the death of the barbarian leader could extricate him from it, attended by a few followers, he rushed impetuously into the midst of the enemy’s ranks, and struck him down at a blow — until that moment they had not yielded an inch, and then they fled in the most precipitate haste. Exaggerated as the accounts must be which represent the number of Indians in this conflict at two hundred thousand, and that of the slain at twenty thousand, it cannot be doubted that they were very great.
Cortes continued his retreat without interruption as far as Tlascala, and was received by its inhabitants in the same friendly manner as before his disasters, every attempt to induce them to violate their faith having been indignantly rejected. Here his own companions renewed their efforts, both by art and persuasion, to deter him from any further prosecution of his enterprise ; but they found him more resolute than ever. After a few days of successful skirmishing against the smaller tribes of Indians in the vicinity of Tlascala, he resumed his preparations for a new attack upon the capital, which he now determined should be made both by water and by land. To carry this into effect, he hit upon the extraordinary project of building a fleet of small vessels to the number of thirteen, at Tlascala, to be transported in pieces sixty miles over the mountains on men’s shoulders and put together on the lake. This project he carried into effect ; but many months were required for its accomplishment, and it was not until the end of December that he found himself in readiness to proceed. In this interim, Cuitlahua, the successor of Montezuma, had died, after a short reign of four months, and been followed by Guatemozin, a nephew and son-in-law of the latter.
Several fortunate circumstances had occurred to increase the Spanish forces whde they were encamped at Tlascala, which Cortes found, on the day he set out on his return to Mexico, Dec. 28th, 1520, amounted to six hundred men, supported by a very large army of Indian allies. On the 31st he entered Tezcuco, where he made his head quarters, while he was planning operations for the reduction of the capital. A part of these operations consisted in digging a canal from Tezcuco, where he put his vessels together, to the lake, a distance of half a league, and as this was a work of great labor, it was not until the 28lh of April that his fleet was launched into the lake. With this fleet, and a force of eight hundred and eighteen foot, eighty-seven horse, three large, and fifteen small guns, and fifty thousand Indian allies, he commenced the siege toward the end of May, which lasted until the 13th of August, on which day Gualcmozin was made prisoner, and all further resistance ceased. We have no room for the details of the horrors of these murderous operations : it is sufficient to say, that the siege was conducted with masterly skill on the part of the besiegers, and with the most desperate courage on the part of the Aztecs, the latter being almost annihilated by disease, famine, and carnage, before they gave up. When the last blow was struck, seven-eighths of the city was in ruins, and from one to two hundred thousand lives had been sacrificed. Well might it be said of Cortes, he made a solitude, and called it peace. Prodigies of valor he had certainly accomplished with his little band of Castilians ; but it must not be forgotten, that in every step of this memorable conquest he was aided by a powerful body of faithful Tlascalans, who never deserted him in his reverses, and never numbered but one traitor in their ranks. To them is due the credit, if credit it be, of having fixed the Spanish yoke on the necks of the Aztecs.
It has been our object in this paper to present our readers with the great features of the Aztec civilization, and the important facts of the Mexican conquest. In doing this, we have occupied so much space that we are compelled to omit the reflections we had intended to make on these events and the principal personages connected with them ; and having already expressed ourselves very fully upon the historical merits of this work, we must close with a single remark upon the beauty and spirit of its descriptive parts. Had the author been a traveler in the country described, and written from personal observation, he could not have given more life and distinctness to his descriptions. This is so striking a characteristic of the book that we could not neglect to notice it. If we had more space, it should be devoted to the publishers of these beautiful volumes, who have done their part of the work in a manner deserving of all commendation.
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Olivier Jacquot (2021, 22 juillet). Document : Compte rendu (1844) de : History of the Conquest of Mexico de William H. Prescott. Amoxcalli. Consulté le 27 février 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/b3ci
- « Art. V. History of the Conquest of Mexico, with a Prelimiuary [sic] View of the Ancient Mexican Civilization, and the Life of the Conqueror, Hernando Cortes. By William H. Prescott. In three volumes. New-York : Harper & Brothers. 1843. », The Methodist quarterly review, 1844, april, vol. IV, p. 284-310. Disponible en ligne, url : <https://archive.org/details/methodistquarter34meth/page/n573/mode/2up>.