The Spaniards who lived on the island of Hispaniola sent frequent expeditions to the mainland in the hope of finding gold.
Hernando Cortes, a dashing young Spaniard with a love of adventure and a reckless daring seldom seen, was given command of one of these expeditions.
In March, 1519, he landed on the coast of Central America, with about six hundred men, ten heavy guns, and sixteen horses. Here Cortes found the natives in large numbers arrayed against him. A fierce battle was fought. But the firearms of the Spaniards frightened the barbarians, and when the cavalry arrived the Indians fled in terror. The Indians, who had never seen horses before, thought the man riding the horse was a part of the animal, and that these strange creatures were sent by the gods. Fear made the Indians helpless, and it was easy for Cortes to gain a victory over them.
After this victory Cortes sailed northward along the coast of San Juan de Ulloa. The natives of that region had heard of the wonderful white-skinned and bearded men who bore charmed lives, and they thought that these men were gods. They, therefore, treated the Spaniards in a friendly manner, and brought gifts of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, and also ornaments of gold and silver to Cortes.
Here Cortes landed and founded the city of Vera Cruz, which is to-day an important seaport of Mexico. The native Indians in this place were called Aztecs. Some of their chiefs, who paid a visit to Cortes, told him of the great Emperor Montezuma, who was rich and powerful, and who lived inland, in a wonderful city built in a lake.
By these chiefs Cortes sent to Montezuma presents of collars, bracelets, and ornaments of glass, an armchair richly carved, and an embroidered crimson cap. In return, Montezuma sent shields, helmets, and plates of pure gold, sandals, fans, gold ornaments of exquisite workmanship, together with robes of fine cotton interwoven with feather work, so skillfully done that it resembled painting. The cap which Cortes had sent was returned filled with gold dust.
The great Montezuma also sent a message to Cortes, saying that he would be glad to meet so brave a general, but that the road to the Mexican capital was too dangerous for an army to pass over. He also promised to pay a yearly tribute to the Spanish king if Cortes and his followers would depart and leave him in peace.
The Spaniards were jubilant when they saw the superb gifts. They felt certain that this great emperor must have enormous wealth at his command, and in spite of the warning message, most of them wished to start immediately for the Mexican capital. Some, however, thought such a course very unwise; Montezuma, they said, was so powerful a ruler that it was absurd to attack him with their small force, and they advised returning to Cuba for a large number of soldiers.
But Cortes had his own ideas on the subject. So he secretly ordered his ships to be sunk, and then, all chance of retreat being cut off, the entire force proceeded toward Mexico, August 16, 1519.
After a long march, the Spaniards began to ascend the plateau on which the city of Mexico is situated, and finally reached the top of it, seven thousand feet high.
They found the climate on this plateau temperate and balmy. The fields were cultivated, and beautiful flowers grew wild in profusion.
During the march the Spaniards passed many towns containing queer houses and temples. They entered many of the temples, threw down the idols, and took possession of ornaments of value. At length they saw in the distance a city which was built in a salt lake. Three avenues, built of stone, led across the water to it.
These avenues, which were four or five miles in length, were guarded on both sides by Indians in canoes. The avenues continued through the city, meeting in the center, where the great temple was situated.
The temple was inclosed by a huge stone wall, and contained twenty pyramids, each a hundred feet in height. Nearly all of the houses were two stories high, and were built of red stone. The roofs were flat, with towers at the corners, and on top of the roofs there were beautiful flower gardens.
Into this remarkable town Cortes and his followers marched. Montezuma received his unwelcome guests with every mark of friendship, and with much pomp and ceremony. The great emperor was carried on a litter, which was richly decorated with gold and silver. The nobles of his court surrounded him, and hundreds of his retainers were drawn up in line behind him.
The first thing, when Cortes and Montezuma met, was the customary exchange of presents. Cortes presented Montezuma with a chain of colored glass beads, and in return the Aztec ruler gave Cortes a house which was large enough to accommodate all of the Spaniards.
For ten days these two men met each other and exchanged civilities, Cortes pretending to be paying a friendly visit, and Montezuma feeling puzzled and uncertain.
At length Cortes induced Montezuma to go to the house where the Spaniards were living, and then, when he got him there, refused to allow him to leave, thus keeping him a prisoner in his own city.
This daring act aroused the suspicions of the Aztecs. But Cortes used all his cunning to deceive these simple-hearted people and to make them continue to think that the Spaniards were gods. Still, the Aztecs were beginning to feel very bitter toward Cortes and his followers because of the disrespect with which they treated the Aztec temples and gods. The Spaniards were constantly throwing these gods out of the temples. Even their great god of war was not safe.
Cortes openly derided this image, calling it trash, and proposing to erect the emblems of the Spanish religion in its place in the Aztec temples.
Now, the Aztec god of war was a frightful image with golden serpents entwined about the body. The face was hideous, and in its hand was carried a plate upon which were placed human hearts as sacrifices. But to the Aztecs the image was sacred, and this insult, together with many others which had been offered their gods, made the natives very angry.
One day the Aztecs discovered that some of the Spaniards had died. This knowledge dispelled the fear that their unbidden visitors were gods, and they attacked the Spaniards with great fury.
The Aztec warriors wore quilted cotton doublets and headdresses adorned with feathers. They carried leather shields, and fought fiercely with bows and arrows, copper-pointed lances, javelins, and slings. Though by comparison few in numbers, the Spaniards, who were protected by coats of mail, made great havoc with their guns and horses.
The battle between these unequal forces raged with great fury, and for a time the result was uncertain. Cortes compelled Montezuma, his prisoner, to show himself on the roof of his house and try to persuade the Aztecs to stop fighting.
The Indians, however, no longer feared their emperor, and instead of obeying him, they made him a target for their arrows and stones. In the midst of the fight, the great Montezuma was finally knocked down and killed by one of his former subjects.
After a desperate struggle, the Spaniards were forced to retreat. While making their escape over the bridges of the city they were attacked by Indian warriors in canoes, and more than half of their number were killed.
Notwithstanding this defeat and the loss of so many men, Cortes did not give up his design of conquering Mexico. He made an alliance with hostile tribes of Indians, and again attacked the city.
The Aztecs had now a new king, named Gua-te-mot-zin, who was as brave and determined as Cortes himself. Guatemotzin made preparations to oppose Cortes, and during the terrible siege which followed never once thought of surrendering or of asking for peace.
The Spaniards made attack after attack, and terrible battles were fought, in which the loss on both sides was very great. During one of these battles Cortes was nearly captured, and it seemed as though the war god was to be avenged upon the man who had so insulted him. But a young Spaniard rushed to the assistance of Cortes, and with one blow of his sword cut off the arms of the Indian who had dared to seize the Spanish leader.
After a time the Aztecs found themselves prisoners within their own city. The Spaniards had cut off all means of escape, and the Indians were starving to death. Their sufferings were terrible, and hundreds dropped down daily in the streets. Yet the proud king Guatemotzin refused to submit, and Cortes ordered a final attack. After furious fighting Guatemotzin was captured, and the Aztecs surrendered. Their cruel religion, with its strange gods and human sacrifices, was now overthrown.
Cortes, with his few followers, never more than one thousand trained soldiers, had succeeded in conquering a country larger than Spain. Over a million Mexicans had perished, and those that remained left the city and fled to the mountains.
In this way the magnificent civilization of the ancient Mexicans was destroyed. Shiploads of treasures were sent by Cortes to the Spanish king, Charles V., who rejoiced at the glory gained for his country.