Landing of Columbus by John Vanderlyn, 1846 This painting hangs in the rotunda at the U.S. capitol since its installment in 1847. (Source: Architect of the Capitol)
For years, people journeyed to museums to catch a glimpse of what the rest of the world looked like. These places were often a window to what "primitive" cultures had to "offer" for the appetite of an "adventurous" populous. As foreign expeditions were led by selected conquerors (who we now so conveniently refer to as "explorers"), they brought items collected through trade or plunder upon their return.
This tradition can be traced to the time of Christopher Columbus who, upon returning to Europe from the "New World" on March 15, 1493, cast before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the resources he had promised them. Among these gifts were precious minerals, spices, and even people (about 4 shiploads of people sent on record to be more precise)!
Italian Historian Peter Martyr d'Anghiera (1457-1526), who served in the court of Spain, wrote letters about the exploits of the Spanish and the Portuguese in the New World. He sent them to his friends across Europe.
Peter Martyr Henry Meyer engraved by Henry Meyer, published by L. B. Seeley & Son, 169 Fleet St, November 1825 (Source: John Carter Brown Library)
Peter Martyr learned about the adventures of Columbus through letters addressed to him by Columbus himself and from the public testimonies of crew members. On September 25, 1493, Columbus was on his way back to the New World. Just about a week later, Martyr wrote to the Archbishop of Braga, Portugal:
A certain Columbus sailed to the antipodes from the West and to the shores of India, at least he supposes it. He discovered several islands thought to be close to India. These are the ones that the cosmographs refer to as Islands outside the Eastern Ocean. I believe him willingly, although the size of the sphere seems contrary to this opinion. There is no shortage of scientists who think that Spain is not at a very considerable distance from the Indian shore. The discovery is considerable. Columbus gave evidence of what he says: he even says that his later discoveries will be more important again.Suffice it to learn that half of the world will not remain more hidden. From day to day, the Portuguese are getting closer and closer to equinoctial circle. Also all these unknown shores will soon be accessible to all, because each people, driven by emulation, submits to be born, to work and to excessive dangers.
Admiral Columbus left Hispaniola; this illustrious discoverer thinks that it corresponds to the Ophir where Solomon harvested gold. From Hispaniola, he went to another region situated to the west, and whose extremity is not very away from the furthest point of Hispaniola. This region...the natives call Cuba. Columbus passed along the southern coast, he did not lose sight of it for sixty years.
The 19th century editors cite an 1863 edition of the Diccionario geografico eslatistico liislorico of the island of Cuba published in Madrid, stating "Columbus first believed that Cuba belonged to the island of Cipangu, that is, to Japan. He only noticed on his third voyage that Cuba was an island [of itself]." Columbus also thought that he had seen mainland "Cathay" (China). At that time, the Indies were considered to be Southeast Asia, India, and Japan. So it was that the people came to be labeled "Indians."
Portolan chart of Pacific Coast of Central and South America from Guatemala to northern Peru with the Galapagos Islands [Spanish, ca. 1565] (Source: Library of Congress)
Portolan chart of the Pacific coast from Mexico to northern Chile [Spanish? ca. 1500] (Source: Library of Congress)
To the Archbishop of Cosenza in Southern Italy on July 12, 1522:
Let's talk about India. A small squadron has just arrived. You in Valladolid, you have seen the presents offered to the Emperor. They are wonderful works, and denote among the natives a high degree of civilization. You also learned a lot about this huge lacustrine [lake] city of Temistitan [Teotihuacan], and on King Muteczuma, the most powerful of kings and princes of the country.
Here is part of a letter "to the marquises" on March 5, 1521:
The Spaniards leaving the island of Cuba, otherwise known as Fernandina, directed a little towards the South, towards the Yacatan, which they had before recognized. In the interior of the country, they discovered a body of salt water, more than 60 leagues from the sea... It is said that he is very rich in fish-, and frequented by a multitude of water birds. In the middle of the lake is a city designated by the natives under the name of Temistitam or Mexico. Ours called it the rich Venice. It is governed by a very strong Sovereign named Muteczuma. The number of houses in this city is fifty thousand, and, according to several accounts, a hundred thousand. They say wonders on the edifices of this city and the neighboring cities, on its commerce, on its large population. All houses are stone. As many lords recognize the supremacy of Muteczuma, as more, at certain times of the year, they must assist in the distribution of justice, and that all children must be brought up in his palace, they all have palaces in this capital. The extent of the lands that obey to this monarch is considerable. On the shores of the lake sit six other cities whose stone houses are built either in the middle of the waters or on the mainlands. They count each of five to six thousand houses. Their inhabitants, mounted on boats dug into a single tree trunk, continually go to the capital, where they bring their products, and then come home with what they bought in the city. It's the same exchange business that's done at home between villages and country houses on one side, cities and the strong castles of the other.
They have large squares surrounded by porticoes, adorned with beautiful shops for the merchants. In their fairs and markets, which are held three times week, it is claimed that meet, to exchange their products, sixty and even seventy thousand men...By way of money, they use not metal, but some trees that look like almonds.
On December 9, 1519, he wrote to "the great chancellor":
Amazing things are told about these especially about human sacrifices.
To "Jean Borromee, knight of Vespon d'Or, citizen of Milan, Count of Lake Maggiore" is this letter dated October 20, 1494:
Every day we learn amazing things about the New World discovered by Columbus, that Genoese, whom my kings rewarded with his services by naming him admiral. Large amounts of gold meet at the ground surface. The admiral claims that since Hispaniola, he has advanced in direction of the west almost to the Golden Chersonese ["Golden Peninsula" - a land of gold in Malaysia written about by the Ancient Greeks], the most remote from the known world. The sun goes around the earth in twenty-four hours: Columbus thinks he only needs to know the countries it illuminates for two of these twenty-four hours. He found peoples who feed on human flesh Their neighbors call them Cannibals. They are naked, as are all the other natives. I started a book on this beautiful discovery. If God gives me life, I will take care not to omit anything worthy of being reported.
A footnote identifies that it is the Caribbean being referred to here. "On all maps of the sixteenth century, the West Indies are called the Cannibal Islands."
In a letter to his "illustrious friend" and "remarkable scientist" Pomponio Loett dated December 5, 1494, Martyr writes:
You've been told about Lestrygons [a people of ferocious giants and cannibals in Greek Mythology] and Polyphemes [a giant man-eating cyclops in Homer's Odyssey] that were feeding on human flesh: do not doubt their existence. When [from] Fortunate Islands, also called Canaries, we go to Hispaniola (that is, in fact, the name of the island where we land), if we go a little bit towards the south, we falls on a considerable archipelago, populated by fierce islanders called cannibals or caribbean. Although naked, they are formidable war mulberries. The bow and the club are their favorite weapons. They have fishing boats in the trunk of a single tree, very large, and which they call canoes. They use it to disembark en masse in neighboring islands populated by civilized natives. They fall unexpectedly on their villages and eat on the spot the men whom they make prisoners. As for the children, they castrate [them] as we do chickens, then let them grow, grease [them], slaughter and eat them. This is how we learned these details. When our ships landed on their islands, cannibals, effrayed by their greatness, abandoned their homes and fled to the mountains and in the thickness of the woods. Our men entered their homes mansions that are spherical in shape and are built of wood. [From] beams which supported the roof, were suspended, as at home, sausages, hams of salty human flesh.The Spaniards found the head of a young man recently killed, and again reinphe de sang [bloody?]. In boilers, to be scalded with pieces of goose and parrot, were some of the members of this young man; the others, stitched on pins, were prepared to be roasted. The queen of cannibals, accompanied by her son and six men, returning from the hunt, mounted on a boat. She was seized by our men, but they could not take any other native. Thirty of those who were kept by the cannibals, as we keep the calves in the stables to be eaten, were collected by the Spaniards. They had been taken prisoner in the neighboring islands.
"Cannibalism in Brazil" by Theodore de Bry, 1592 (Source: Akg-Images) *Note: The artist never traveled to the New World.
In a letter to Pomponio the previous year, Martyr wrote more on this story:
The examination of all that belongs to us throws them into a silent surprise. They remain gaping mouth at our sight. To them believe we descend due heaven, but we began to pass for true gods when they saw our hands seven cannibals and their queen that our men had captured on their way. Even if they were bound, they looked at them only trembling, with terror, and did not dare to consider them face to face.
Of the part about the children, a footnote by the 19th century editors identifies "This is a mistake because Indians have always loved children." [references to other texts cited]
Admiral Columbus, our friend, has returned from the new world. He gave us some details about the countries he has traveled. They are located south, sixth degree north of the equinox. Almost all are rich in oriental pearls. The admiral thinks that these countries are the continuation and the suile of Cuba, or, to be more exact, that they belong, as well as Cuba, to the continent of Gangelic India. He sailed for several days along these shores, and, as proof of his assertion, declares that he has not seen the [terminus] anywhere or the end. The natives, who are very numerous, name this land Paria. They eat, among other foods, the flesh of the shells, from which they have previously removed the pearls.
What especially made the Spaniards believe that this land was a continent, is that the forests were peopled by all sorts of animals like ours, such as deer, wild boars, and the like, and also by birds, such as geese, ducks and peacocks...
They gladly exchange their pearls for soaked things, pieces of glass and other trifles of this kind. They made it clear by gestures that if the Spaniards promised to return, they would pick up a quantity of pearls for them.
Columbus entered the Gulf of Paria in modern-day Venezuela and planted the Spanish flag in South America on August 1, 1498. He thought that he had discovered the outer regions of the Garden of Eden.
Martyr wrote about the cruelties of the Native Americans towards the Spaniards, especially those who Columbus had left behind from his first voyage. He wrote about the perceived oddities of their culture.
But you will notice that there was not even a mention of what it took on the part of the dealers to secure the artifacts they brought home to show the people of Europe.
Here are some vivid details provided by an author of our time:
Tainos over age 14 had to pay tribute every three months, either a hawks' bell full of gold or 25 pounds of cotton. In exchange the Spaniards gave them a copper or brass medallion to wear to show they had paid; later the amount of gold required was cut in half. Many Tainos, who failed to pay this tax, had their hands cut off and often bled to death. Michele de Cuneo reported that in February 1495 Columbus captured 1,600 Tainos and put 550 on ships, though 200 died on the return passage. Columbus claimed that four shiploads sent with Torres that year were cannibal Caribs, and they were sold in Spain as slaves to lessen colonial expenses.
According to Peter Martyr, 50,000 Tainos had already died before this from famine, because they destroyed their own crops to discourage the Spaniards from settling on the island. In March 1496 Columbus stopped at the Caribs' islands to plunder food for their voyage back to Spain. On the island of Guadalupe he left some prisoners and gifts to gain good will so that they could use that island for provisions in the future.
Las Casas later calculated that by 1496 the Tainos population on Española had been reduced to a third of what it had been.
That year Bartolomé Colon [Columbus' brother and fellow "explorer"] recorded that there were more than a million Tainos adults in their domain.
Columbus at the port of Cadiz [in Spain] saw three ships led by Pedro Alonso Niño [the Moorish pilot of the Santa María during Columbus' first voyage - and of course, his Moorish heritage is disputed by some scholars today] departing in June 1496, and he gave him a letter authorizing him to sell prisoners of war as slaves.
That summer Bartolomé Colon collected 300 "prisoners" and sent them back with Niño's fleet while they built Santo Domingo on the south coast of Española.
Columbus had actually incurred certain debts for his voyages as wealthy people funded his journey, supplying his needs and those of his crew for the duration of his time abroad. They did this in exchange for the guarantee of having their loans satisfied in payments of gold and other materials of high value.
Christopher Columbus seated chained in a prison cell, looking up print made by Francesco Gonin, 1870 (Source: British Museum)
Cristobal Colon's very name means "Christ-bearing colonizer". He named the first island he landed on in the Bahamas San Salvador ("Holy Savior"). And yet, there was NO savior in Columbus. Rather, there is NO DOUBT that his presence and legacy in the Americas was one of devastation.
"There I found very many islands, filled with innumerable people, and I have taken possession of them all for their Highnesses, done by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me." "As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts...At present, those I bring with me are still of the opinion that I come from Heaven, for all the intercourse which they have had with me.They were the first to announce this wherever I went, and the others went running from house to house, and to the neighbouring towns, with loud cries of, "Come! Come! See the men from Heaven!" So all came, men and women alike, when their minds were set at rest concerning us, not one, small or great, remaining behind, and they all brought something to eat and drink, which they gave with extraordinary affection."
"In these islands I have so far found no human monstrosities, as many expected, but on the contrary the whole population is very well tried, nor are they negroes as in Guinea, but their hair is flowing and they are not born where there is intense force in the rays of the sun." "They go naked, as I have already said, and they are the most timorous people in the world, so that the men whom I have left there alone would suffice to destroy all that land, and the island is without danger for their persons, if they know how to govern themselves."
"Thus I have found no monsters, nor had a report of any, except in an island "Carib," which is the second at the coming into the Indies, and which is inhabited by people who are regarded in all the islands as very fierce and who eat human flesh. They have many canoes with which they range through all the islands of India and pillage and take whatever they can. They are no more malformed than are the others, except that they have the custom of wearing their hair long like women..."
"First arrival of Ch. Columbus in America (Guanahani), October 12, 1492" by Theodore de Bry, 1596 (Source: Akg-Images)
Columbus wrote in his log:
"They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."
As Columbus and other Spaniards arrived on these islands, they read aloud a statement in Spanish, which came to be known as "The Requirement." In this, they openly declared that if the natives of the land did not submit to them immediately, they would force them to submit through war and through slavery. The example here is attributed to Spanish conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas (1465-1527).
Bartolomé de las Casas, a priest who accompanied Columbus, describes what would happen after this proclamation was read:
About the Fourth Watch of the Night, or Three in the Morning these poor Innocents overwhelm'd with heavy Sleep, ran violently on that place they named, set Fire to their Hovels, which were all thatcht, and so, without Notice, burnt Men, Women and Children; kill'd whom they pleas'd upon the Spot; but those they preserv'd as Captives, were compell'd through Torments to confess where they had hid the Gold, when they found little or none at their Houses; but they who liv'd being first stigmatized, were made Slaves; yet after the Fire was extinguisht, they came hastily in quest of the Gold.
Columbus with 200 Foot, 20 Horse & 20 Wolf Dogs, assisted by a body of the Islanders defeats 100,000 Indians, engraved by Robert Scot and Robert Allardice c. 1795 (Source: Worcester Art Museum)
In 1495, Christopher Columbus prepared 200 Christians with 20 horses and hunting dogs for a war against about 100,000 Taino natives. Bartolomé de las Casas was appointed over half of this group.
The natives fled at the sight of the horses and dogs, and many of them were killed. Most of those captured in this battle were executed except for the mountain king Caonabo (one of the four rulers on the island of Hispanola) and his family. Caonabo confessed to murdering the men Columbus left at Navidad during his first voyage and died while being shipped as a prisoner to Castile, Spain.
On one occasion, "a certain Tyrant, and Chief Commander" took a king captive for six or seven months, "demanding of him, without any reason, [a storage] of Gold and Emeralds."
The said King, whose name was Bogoca, through fear, promised him a House of Gold, hoping, in time, to escape out of his clutches, who thus plagued him, and sent some Indians for Gold, who frequently, and at several times, brought him a great quantity of Gold, and many Jewels; but because the King did not, according to his promise, bestow upon him an Apartment made of pure Gold, he must therefore forfeit his Life. The Tyrant commanded him to be brought to Trial before himself, and so they cite and summon to a Trial the greatest King in the whole Region; and the Tyrant pronounced this Sentence, that unless he did perform his Golden Promise he should be exposed to severe Torments.
Then, the torture began. "The Tyrant" chained his legs and his neck to two posts, cut him open, "poured boiling Soap into his Bowels", "and so applyed the scorching heat of the Fire to his Feet", "himself often casting his eye upon him, and threatning him with death, if he did not give him the promised Gold; and thus with these kind of horrid torments, the said Lord was destroy'd."
"The Tyrant" then set the city on fire "and the rest of the Captains, following his example, destroy'd all the Lords of that Region by Fire and Faggot."
"A certain Captain" continued into the province of Bogotá (the modern capital of Colombia) "to inquire who succeeded that Prince there, whom he so barbarously and inhumanely Murder'd." He took "as many Indians as he could get." For those who did not give him a satisfactory answer, he either cut off their hands or fed them to "hunger-starved" hunting dogs. Some people who had escaped into the mountains returned to the cities thinking they were safe.
But he seized on them all, and commanding them to extend their hands on the ground, cut them off with his own Sword, saying, that he punished them after this manner, because they would not inform him what Lord it was, that succeeded in that Kingdom.
This very Tyrant came once to the city Cota, where he surprized [an] abundance of Men, together with fifteen or twenty Casics of the highest rank and quality, whom he cast to the Dogs to be torn Limb-meal in pieces, and cut off the Hands of several Men and Women, which being run through with a pole, were exposed to be viewed and gaz'd upon by the Indians, where you might see at once seventy pair of hands, transfixed with Poles; nor is it to be forgotten, that he cut off the Noses of many Women and Children.
A local king named Sagipa died under similar circumstances to the king in this story.
The "Captain" described was probably Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada y Rivera (1496?-1579) and the "Tyrant" would be his younger brother Hernán Pérez de Quesada (1500 – 1544). De Quesada was put on trial in Bogotá for his crimes against the indigenous people and for the executions of three consecutive leaders of the people. Many witnesses testified and out of the record came this report.
The sentence was banishment from the land. It was only a matter of time that the Quesadas were on their way back to Spain as free men.
As if predestined by fate or - to borrow the words of las Casas, "God being willing to manifest how displeasing these Cruelties are to His Divine Majesty" - both brothers were stuck by a bolt of lightning, fried in an instant. Several conquistadors with them were injured. They had only departed the coast moments earlier.
In the Kingdom of Grenada, a Captain (most likely Rodrigo de Bastidas) "and other Tyrants, the Destroyers of Mankind, who accompany him, and have power still given them by him to exercise the same" did everything they could to secure gold for themselves. Las Casas exposes their crimes:
The Indians are daily slaughtered to accumulate and enrich themselves with Gold, which the Inhabitants have been so rob'd of, that they are now grown bare, for what they had, they have disposed to the Spaniards already.
They started their quest in 1514 and by 1522, this was the result:
And at the very time (as I conjecture) the Spaniards did depraedate or rob this Kingdom of above Ten Hundred Thousand Crowns of Gold: Yet all these their Thefts and Felonies, we scarce find upon Record that Three Hundred Thousand Castilian Crowns ever came into the Spanish King's Coffers; yet there were above Eight Hundred Thousand Men slain: The other Tyrants who governed this Kingdom afterward to the Three and Thirtieth year, deprived all of them of Life that remain'd among the Inhabitants
Las Casas writes about how the Natives themselves responded to the Spaniards with efforts to purge them of their sins:
when they had taken some of them Prisoners (which was rarely) they bound them hand and foot, laid them on the ground, and then pouring melted Gold down their Throats, cried out and called to them aloud in derision, yield, throw up thy Gold O Christian!Vomit and spew out the Mettal which hath so inqinated and invenom'd both Body and Soul, that hath stain'd and infected they mind with desires and contrivances, and thy hands with Commission of such matchless Enormities.
"The Indians pouring melted gold into the mouths of the Spaniards to satiate them with their greed" by Theodore de Bry, 1594 (Source: Akg-Images)
Of course, the Spaniards had their own methods:
If at any time it happened, (which was rarely) that the Indians irritated upon a just account destroy'd or took away the Life of any Spaniard, they promulgated and proclaim'd this Law among them, that One Hundred Indians should dye for every individual Spaniard that should be slain.
Many are under the false assumption that the Americas were a vast wilderness with maybe a few people scattered around. This is far from true. In this extensive excerpt from his account, Las Casas describes the population of the islands and of North America in the 16th century:
America was discovered and found out Ann. Dom. 1492, and the Year insuing inhabited by the Spaniards, and afterward a multitude of them travelled thither from Spain for the space of Nine and Forty Years. Their first attempt was on the Spanish Island, which indeed is a most fertile soil, and at present in great reputation for its Spaciousness and Length, containing in Circumference Six Hundred Miles: Nay it is on all sides surrounded with an almost innumerable number of Islands, which we found so well peopled with Natives and Forreigners [Hmm...], that there is scarce any Region in the Universe fortified with so many Inhabitants: But the main Land or Continent, distant from this Island Two Hundred and Fifty Miles and upwards, extends it self above Ten Thousand Miles in Length near the sea-shore, which Lands are some of them already discover'd, and more may be found out in process of time: And such a multitude of People inhabits these Countries, that it seems as if the Omnipotent God has Assembled and Convocated the major part of Mankind in this part of the World. Now this infinite multitude of Men are by the Creation of God innocently simple, altogether void of and averse to all manner of Craft, Subtlety and Malice, and most Obedient and Loyal Subjects to their Native Sovereigns; and behave themselves very patiently, sumissively and quietly towards the Spaniards, to whom they are subservient and subject; so that finally they live without the least thirst after revenge, laying aside all litigiousness, Commotion and hatred. This is a most tender and effeminate people, and so imbecile and unequal-balanced temper, that they are altogether incapable of hard labour, and in few years, by one Distemper or other soon expire...
The Men are pregnant and docible. The natives tractable, and capable of Morality or Goodness, very apt to receive the instill'd principles of Catholick Religion; nor are they averse to Civility and good Manners, being not so much discompos'd by variety of Obstructions, as the rest of Mankind; insomuch, that having suckt in (if I may so express my self) the the very first Rudiments of the Christian Faith...
The Spaniards first assaulted the innocent Sheep, so qualified by the Almighty, as is premention'd, like most cruel Tygers, Wolves and Lions hunger-starv'd, studying nothing, for the space of Forty Years, after their first landing, but the Massacre of these Wretches, whom they have so inhumanely and barbarously butcher'd and harass'd with several kinds of Torments, never before known, or heard...that of Three Millions of Persons, which lived in Hispaniola itself, there is at present but the inconsiderable remnant of scarce Three Hundred. Nay the Isle of Cuba, which extends as far, as Valledolid in Spain is distant from Rome, lies now uncultivated, like a Desert, and intombed in its own Ruins.
You may also find the Isles of St. John, and Jamaica, both large and fruitful places, unpeopled and desolate.The Lucayan Islands on the North Side, adjacent to Hispaniola and Cuba, which are Sixty in number, or thereabout, together with with those, vulgarly known by the name of the Gigantic Isles, and others, the most infertile whereof, exceeds the Royal Garden of Sevil in fruitfulness, a most Healthful and pleasant Climate, is now laid waste and uninhabited; and whereas, when the Spaniards first arrived here, about Five Hundred Thousand Men dwelt in it, they are now cut off, some by slaughter, and others ravished away by Force and Violence, to work in the Mines of Hispaniola, which was destitute of Native Inhabitants: For a certain Vessel, sailing to this Isle, to the end, that the Harvest being over (some good Christian, moved with Piety and Pity, undertook this dangerous Voyage, to convert Souls to Christianity) the remaining gleanings might be gathered up, there were only found Eleven Persons, which I saw with my own Eyes.
There are other Islands Thirty in number, and upward bordering upon the Isle of St. John, totally unpeopled; all which are above Two Thousand miles in Length, and yet remain without Inhabitants, Native, or People.
As to the firm land, we are certainly satisfied, and assured, that the Spaniards by their barbarous and execrable Actions have absolutely depopulated Ten Kingdoms, of greater extent than all Spain, together with the Kingdoms of Arragon and Portugal, that is to say, above One Thousand Miles, which now lye wast and desolate, and are absolutely ruined, when as formerly no other Country whatsoever was more populous. Nay we dare boldly affirm, that during the Forty Years space, wherein they exercised their sanguinary and detestable Tyranny in these Regions, above Twelve Millions (computing Men, Women, and Children) have undeservedly perished; nor do I conceive that I should deviate from the Truth by saying that above Fifty Millions in all paid their last Debt to Nature.
Those that arrived at these Islands from the remotest parts of Spain, and who pride themselves in the Name of Christians, steer'd Two courses principally, in order to the Extirpation, and Exterminating of this People from the face of the Earth.The first whereof was raising an unjust, sanguinolent, cruel War. The other, by putting them to death, who hitherto, thirsted after their Liberty, or designed (which the most Potent, Strenuous and Magnanimous Spirits intended) to recover their pristine Freedom, and shake off the Shackles of so injurious a Captivity: For they being taken off in War, none but Women and Children were permitted to enjoy the benefit of that Country-Air, in whom they did in succeeding times lay such a heavy Yoke, that the very Brutes were more happy than they: To which Two Species of Tyranny as subalternate things to the Genus, the other innumerable Courses they took to extirpate and make this a desolate People, may be reduced and referred.
Now the ultimate end and scope that incited the Spaniards to endeavor the Extirptaion and Desolation of this People, was Gold only; that thereby growing opulent in a short time, they might arrive at once at such Degrees and Dignities, as were no ways consistent with their Persons.
Studies of the art that the Native Americans left as proof of their existence confirm that even the remotest parts of the Caribbean and the continents were peopled by creatures of intelligence.
Of the religious instruction of the natives in Grenada, las Casas wrote:
I will only make this small addition to what I have said that the Spaniards, from the beginning of their first entrance upon America to this present day, were no more solicitous of promoting the Preaching of the Gospel of Christ to these Nations, then if they had been Dogs or Beasts, but which is worst of all, they expressly prohibited their addresses to the Religious, laying many heavy Impositions upon them, daily afflicting and persecuting them, that they might not have so much time and leisure at their own disposal, as to attend their Preaching and Divine Service; for they looked upon that to be an impediment to their getting Gold, and raking up riches which their Avarice stimulated them so boundlessly to prosecute. Nor do they understand any more of a God, whether he be made of Wood, Brass or Clay, then they did above an hundred years ago, New Spain only exempted, which is a small part of America, and was visited and instructed by the Religious. Thus they did formerly and still do perish without true Faith, or the knowledge and benefit of our Religious Sacraments.
He ends his book with these words:
The Spaniards first set Sail to America, not for the Honour of God, or as Persons moved and merited thereunto by fervent Zeal to the True Faith, nor to promote the Salvation of their Neighbours, nor to serve the King, as they falsely boast and pretend to do, but in truth, only stimulated and goaded on by insatiable Avarice and Ambition, that they might for ever Domineer, Command, and Tyrannize over the West-Indians, whose Kingdoms they hoped to divide and distribute among themselves.
"Columbus and his brother Bartholomew are taken prisoner in Hispaniola on Bobadilla's orders, August 1500" by Theodore de Bry, 1594 (Source: Akg-Images)
Even while Columbus would be punished for some of his cruelties as a colonizer (chief of which was depleting numerous islands in the Caribbean of their indigenous populations and being the first to begin an unparalleled enslavement of two races in the Americas), he was completely forgiven and he was still rewarded by the empire he represented in many ways. He was awarded his own coat of arms from the government, he has a city named after him, he has many statues built in his honor, he has a day marked out in the U.S. calendar to celebrate him, he got a charter for yet another fourth voyage, he got to secure his own cut of the blood money, and he almost earned his own sainthood from the church. His brothers were knighted and titled "Don". His son was eager to restore all of his father's privileges and claim an inheritance for himself.
Other conquistadors would follow (at least 120 who are known by name).
After the Spaniards, under conquistador Hernándo Cortés (1485-1547), enslaved six thousand natives and put to death six or seven thousand soldiers along with their King in the city of Cholula in New Spain (in this case colonial Mexico, but inclusive of all Central America and the Caribbean, most of North America, and a part of South America), "they also committed a very great Butchery in the City Tepeara, which was larger and better stored with Houses than the former; and here they Massacred an incredible number with the point of the Sword."
(You can see a Native American variation of this scene from the Tlaxaca Codex in the National Library of Spain here.)
Episodes of the Conquest [of Mexico]: The Massacre of Cholula by Félix Parra (1845-1919), 1877 (Source: Université Paris-Sorbonne via Wikipedia Commons)
Then, the Spaniards traveled to Mexico city to meet the Supreme king of the land, Montezuma, whom the king of Cholula said would avenge the deaths of his people upon them.
They brought me ten pieces of gold plate, fifteen hundred pieces of cotton cloth, a great number of fowls, and a beverage, in common use among them, which is called pauicap [this was basically a chocolate drink] ... [Muteczuma] begged me not to trouble myself to visit his country, as it was a barren region, and the people were in a suffering condition; and that he would send to me, wherever I was, to ascertain my wants, which he would supply in the most bountifiul manner. I answered that I could not dispense with visiting his dominions, as I was obliged to transmit an account of them, as well as.of himself, to your Majesty; that I fully believed what he had stated, by his envoys; nevertheless, since I should not relinquish my purpose of seeing him, that it would be better it should be done in a friendly manner, and that no obstacles be thrown in my way, as otherwise it would be attended with injury to himself, and I should much regret any such occurrence.
Montezuma was hoping that if he sent enough gold and other treasures to Cortés, the Spaniards would be satisfied and leave in peace.
I left the city of Cholula, I advanced four leagues to some villages in the state of Guasucingo, where we were well received by the natives, who gave me a number of female slaves, ‘ some cotton‘ cloth, and several small pieces of gold, amounting altogether to very little, as the people are not well supplied with it... We had reached the inhabited parts, we found a newly constructed building for our quarters, and so large that all my men and myself were comfortably lodged in it, although I had with me more than four thousand Indians, natives of the provinces of Tascaltecal, Guasucingo, Churultecal, and Cempoal, for all of whom there was an abundant supply of provisions; and there were large fires in all the lodging-rooms, with a plenty of wood, as it was very cold...
There came to me at this place several persons, apparently of some rank, among whom was one that I was told was a brother of Muteczuma. They brought me gold to the value of 3,000 pesos, and said on behalf of that sovereign, that he had sent me this present, and at the same time requested that I would retrace my steps, and not think of visiting his city, as the country was ill supplied with provisions, and the road that led to it was bad; and that the city was all on the water, so that I could not enter it except in canoes, and with many other inconveniences that would obstruct my course. They added, that I might have all that I asked, which Muteczuma, their sovereign, had commanded them to give me; and that they would agree to pay me every year a certain sum (cerium quid), which they would carry to the sea, or wherever I wished.
I received them kindly, and spoke to them of our Spain, of which they had heard much, addressing myself especially to the one who was said to be a brother of Muteczuma. In answer to their official communication, I said,—that if it was in my power to return, I would do so to oblige Muteczuma; but that I had come into this country by the command of your Majesty, and that I was particularly charged to render an account of Muteczuma and his great city, of the fame of which your Highness had long since heard that they might assure him from me, that I was extremely desirous he should take my visit to him in good part, since it would be productive of no injury, but rather of advantage to his person and country; that after I had seen him, if it was still his wish not to have my company, I would then return; and that we should be better able to agree in person, as to the homage he should render to your Highness, than through the agency of others, however trustworthy they might be. With this answer they returned.
Judging from the appearance of our quarters, and the arrangements made respecting them, it struck me that the Indians intended to attack us that night; but on perceiving this, I took such precautions as, coming to their knowledge, changed their determination; and they drew off that night very secretly a large force, which they had placed in the mountains adjacent to our camp, as was observed by many of our scouts and sentinels.
As soon as it was day I set out for a town two leagues distant, called Amaquerucaf in the province of Chalco, which contains a population, including the villages within two leagues of it, of more than twenty thousand inhabitants. In this place they quartered us in the excellent houses of the governor. Many persons, apparently of a superior rank, here waited upon me, and announced that Muteczuma, their sovereign lord, had sent them to receive me at this place, with orders to provide every thing necessary to supply our wants. The governor of this province and town presented me with forty slaves?‘ and 3000 castellanos, and during the two days that I was there supplied us with an abundance of provisions.
The next day-—accompanied by the envoys of Muteczuma who received us here:-I departed and reached for the night a small place four leagues distant, situated partly upon a great lake, and partly upon a rough, rocky mountain, where we were well lodged. Here likewise they would have tried our strength, but that they desired to do so without danger to themselves, as it seemed, by attacking us in the night, when they expected to take us by surprise. But as I was well informed of their intentions, they found that I had anticipated their designs. That night I placed a strong guard, who took and killed fifteen or twenty spies that came in canoes on the lake, or descended the mountain to see whether I was prepared to resist an attack. Thus few of them returned to give the information they were sent to obtain; and finding us always upon our guard, they concluded to change their plans, and to suffer us to proceed in safety.
Cortés met a native noble in a litter who told him Montezuma apologized that he could not see him in person "on account of indisposition". He told Cortés to continue and that he was getting closer to the capital.
In the next city, Vera Cruz, the king's brother brought them, (las Casas writes) "many gifts in Gold, Silver, and Robes Emboidered with Gold". As Cortés puts it "3 or 4000 castellanos, some slaves, and cotton cloth, giving me altogether a very agreeable reception."
The date was April 19, 1519. Good Friday.
A feast was prepared for the Spaniards and in return, Cortés had his men put on a show of military force for the natives as they ate.
One conquistador wrote that they were afraid, "for they said that we shot out flashes of lightning" but Montezuma would later take these reports as "a joke" after meeting the Spaniards for himself.
Cortés describes the luxury of a new sight on the way forward.
The city of Iztapalapa contains twelve or fifteen thousand houses; it is situated on the shore of a large salt lake, one-half of it being built upon the water, and one- half on terra firma. The governor or chief of the city has several new houses, which, although they are not yet finished, are equal to the better class of houses in Spain—being large and well constructed, in the stone work, the carpentry, the floors, and the various appendages necessary to render a house complete, excepting the reliefs and other rich work usual in Spanish houses. There are also many upper and lower rooms—cool gardens, abounding in trees and odoriferous flowers; also pools of fresh water, well constructed, with stairs leading to the bottom. There is also a very extensive kitchen garden attached to the house, and over it a belvidere with beautiful corridors and halls; and within the garden a large square pond of fresh water, having its walls formed of handsome hewn stone; and adjacent to it there is a promenade, consisting of a tiled pavement so broad that four persons can walk on it abreast, and four hundred paces square, or sixteen hundred paces round; enclosed on one side towards the wall of the garden by canes, intermingled with vergas, and on the other side by shrubs and sweet-scented plants. The pond contains a great variety of fish and water-fowl, as wild ducks and others so numerous that they often cover the surface of the water.
Cortés crosses a causeway leading to the great lake city of Temixtitan (Mexico). There are three cities on the sides.
Mesicalsingo, is built for the most part on the lake, and the two others, called Nyciaca and Huchilohuchico, are situated along its borders, with many houses on the water. The former of these cities contains about three thousand families, the second more than six thousand, and the third four or five thousand; in all of them are well built houses and towers, especially the residences of the governors and principal men, and the mosques or temples, in which they have their idols. In these cities there is a considerable trade in salt, which is manufactured from the water of the lake, and from a deposit on the grounds washed by the lake, which they boil in some way, and make into loaves, selling it to the natives and persons out of the district or province.
At the entrance to Mexico city, Montezuma, carried by his court in "a golden Litter", and wearing "shoes", invited the Spaniards to his palace. Another member of Cortés' crew wrote that the king "was shod with sandals [cotoras] for so they call what they wear on their feet, the soles were of gold and the upper part adorned with precious stones."
The date was November 8, 1519. Behold Mexico City.
Old map of Tenochtitlán showing Lake Texcoco surrounding the city. (Credit: Travis S. on Flickr)
Notice the yellow flag at the top. The original map was made in Europe and sent to King Charles with Cortés' second letter. You can see it here.
Bird's Eye View of Tenochtitlan in 1519 (Reconstruction by the National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico via Trendolizer)
Recreation of Tenochtitlán made by Mexican artist Tomas Filsinger (Source: Mexicolore)
The king told Cortés a story about a prince who led his ancestors into the land of the Aztec empire.
"[He] departed from the country, and we have always heard that his descendants would come to conquer this direction from which you say you have come, namely, the quarter where the sun rises, and from what you say of the great lord or king who sent you hither, we believe and are assured that he is our natural sovereign, especially as you say that it is a long time since you first had knowledge of us. Therefore he assured that we will obey you, and acknowledge you for our sovereign in place of the great lord whom you mention, and that there shall be no default or deception on our part. And you have the power in all this land, I mean wherever my power extends, to command what is your pleasure, and it shall be done in obedience thereto, and all that we have is at your disposal. And since you are in your own proper land and your own house, rest and refresh yourselves after the toils of your journey, and the conflicts in which you have been engaged, which have been brought upon you, as I well know, by all the people from Puntunchan to this place; and I am aware that the Cempoallans and Tlascalans have told you much evil of me, but believe no more than you see with your own eyes, especially from those who are my enemies, some of whom were once my subjects, and having rebelled upon your arrival, make these statements to ingratiate themselves in your favor. These people, I know, have informed you that I possessed houses with walls of gold, and that my carpets and other things in common use were of the texture of gold; and that I was a god, or made myself one, and many other such things. The houses you see are of stone and lime and earth.” And then he opened his robes and showed his person to me, saying, “You see that I am composed of flesh and bone like yourselves, and that I am mortal, and palpable to the touch,” at the same time pinching his arms and body with his hands; “see,” he continued, “ how they have deceived you. It is true I have some things of gold, which my ancestors have left me; all that I have is at your service whenever you wish it. I am now going to my other houses where I reside; you will be here provided with every thing necessary for yourself and your people, and will suffer no embarrassment, as you are in your own house and country.”
I answered him in respect to all that he had said, expressing my acknowledgments, and adding whatever the occasion seemed to demand, especially endeavoring to confirm him in the belief that your Majesty was the sovereign they had looked for; and after this he took his leave, and having gone, we were liberally supplied with fowls, bread, fruits, and other things required for the use of our quarters. In this way I was for six days amply provided with all that was necessary, and visited by many of the nobility.
In it, he noted that Cortés told Montezuma about the creation of the world, Adam and Eve, and the story of Jesus. He also told the king:
...how such a brother as our great Emperor, grieving for the perdition of so many souls, such as those which their idols were leading to Hell, where they burn in living flames, had sent us, so that after what he [Montezuma] had now heard he would put a stop to it and they would no longer adore these Idols or sacrifice Indian men and women to them, for we were all brethren, nor should they commit sodomy or thefts. He also told them that, in course of time, our Lord and King would send some men who among us lead very holy lives, much better than we do, who will explain to them all about it, for at present we merely came to give them due warning.
The kind King Montezuma wanted peace, and said that he would give the Spaniards more gold if they would only go back to their own country. From The Men Who Found America
Montezuma replied—“Senor Malinche, I have understood your words and arguments very well before now, from what you said to my servants at the sand dunes, this about three Gods and the Cross, and all those things that you have preached in the towns through which you have come. We have not made any answer to it because here throughout all time we have worshipped our own gods, and thought they were good, as no doubt yours are, so do not trouble to speak to us any more about them at present. Regarding the creation of the world, we have held the same belief for ages past, and for this reason we take it for certain that you are those whom our ancestors predicted would come from the direction of the sunrise. As for your great King, I feel that I am indebted to him, and I will give him of what I possess, for as I have already said, two years ago I heard of the Captains who came in ships from the direction in which you came, and they said that they were the servants of this your great King, and I wish to know if you are all one and the same." Cortés replied, Yes, that we were all brethren and servants of our Emperor, and that those men came to examine the way and the seas and the ports so as to know them well in order that we might follow as we had done. Montezuma was referring to the expeditions of Francisco Hernández de Córdova and of Grijalva, when we first came on voyages of discovery, and he said that ever since that time he had wished to capture some of those men who had come so as to keep them in his kingdoms and cities and to do them honour, and his gods had now fulfilled his desires.
Cortés then explains to King Charles the contents of a letter he received from Gonzalo de Sandoval (1497-1528), a captain he left at Vera Cruz.
Sandoval wrote that Qualpopoca, "lord of the city of Almeria", tricked him into sending four Spaniards to guard the chief from his enemies on his way to "render homage...and to offer himself with all his territories as a vassal to your Majesty". The chief instead attacked the Spaniards and killed two of them.
There was a brutal retaliation.
The captain marched against the city of Almeria with fifty Spaniards, two horsemen, and two pieces of fire-arms, and a force of from eight to ten thousand friendly Indians, with which he fought the inhabitants of that city and killed many of them, driving the rest away, and burning and destroying the city. The Indians who had accompanied him, being enemies to the Almerians, aided in the attack with great spirit and vigor.
The chief's subjects testified to the reason for their ambush.
Qualpopoca himself, together with the other caeiques, his allies, who had come to his assistance, escaped by flight, and some prisoners who were taken in the city gave in formation as to the people engaged in its defence, and the cause of their killing the Spaniards that had been sent to them. They said that Muteczuma had ordered Qualpopoca and the others who had come there as his vassals, (for such they were) that when I left the city of Vera Cruz, they should fall upon those who had rebelled and entered the service of your Highness; and that they should devise every means of destroying the Spaniards I had left there, so that they might not aid or favor us; and that accordingly, in consequence of these orders, they had done so.
Six days having passed, most powerful Prince, since I entered the great city of Temixtitan, and having seen some things in it, though but a few compared with what there was to be seen and noted, it seemed to me, judging from these things, and from what I had observed of the country, that it would subserve the interests of your Majesty and our own security if Muteczuma was in my power, and not wholly free from restraint; in order that he might not be diverted from the resolution and willing spirit which he showed in the service of your Majesty, especially as we Spaniards were somewhat troublesome and difficult to please; lest feeling annoyed on any occasion, he should do us some serious injury, and even might cause all memory of us to perish, in the exercise of his great power. It also appeared to me that if he was under my control, all the other countries that were subject to him would be more easily brought to the knowledge and service of your Majesty, as afterwards actually happened. I resolved, therefore, to take him and place him in my quarters, which were of great strength; and revolving in my mind how this could be effected without occasioning any tumult or disturbance, I recollected what the officer whom I had left in command at Vera Cruz, had written me concerning the occurrences in the city of Almeria, which I have already related, and which, as he was informed, had all taken place in pursuance of orders from Muteczuma. Having used the precaution to station guards at the corners of the streets, I went to the palace of Muteczuma, as I had before often done to visit him; and after conversing with him in a sportive manner on agreeable topics, and receiving at his hands some jewels of gold, and one of his own daughters, together with several daughters of his nobles for some of my company, I then said to him, “that I had been informed of what had taken place in the city of Nautecal or Almeria, and of the fate of the Spaniards, who had been killed there; that Qualpopoca alleged in defence of his conduct, that whatever he had done was in pursuance of orders from him, which, as his vassal, he could not disregard; that I did not believe it was so, but nevertheless, in order to clear himself from the imputation, it seemed to me proper that he should send for Qualpopoca and the other principal men of that city, who had been concerned in the slaughter of the Spaniards, that the truth of the matter might be known, and those men punished, by which means he would satisfy your Majesty of his loyal disposition beyond all dispute; lest instead of the rewards which ‘your Majesty would order to be given him, the reports of these outrages might provoke your Majesty’s anger against him, on account of his having commanded the injury to be done; since I was well satisfied that the truth was contrary to what those men had declared.”
Immediately Muteczuma ordered certain of his followers to be called, to whom he gave a small stone resembling a seal, which he wore upon his arm, and ordered them to go to the city of Almeria, which is sixty or seventy leagues from Mextitan, [Mexico] and conduct Qualpopoca hither; and having ascertained What others were concerned in the murder of the Spaniards, to have them come likewise; that if they refused to come voluntarily, they should be brought as prisoners; and if they resisted, they should call upon the communities adjacent to that city, which he indicated to them, for an armed force to assist in taking the offenders; and that they should by no means return without them.
These persons departed at once, and when they had gone, I said to Muteczuma, that I was pleased with his diligence in this matter, since I should have to render an account to your Majesty of the Spaniards who had been killed. As for what remained of my duty in the premises, I must have him in my quarters until the truth was more clearly ascertained, and himself shown to be free from blame; and I begged him to suffer no uneasiness on this account, as he would not be treated as a prisoner, but left in the full possession of his liberty; that no obstacle should be interposed to his enjoying the service of his followers, who would continue to be at his command; that he might select an apartment, such as would please him, in the palace I occupied, where he would be at his ease; that he might rest assured that nothing should be allowed to give him pain or inconvenience; and that in addition to his own servants, my companions would cheerfully obey all his commands. Much conversation and discourse followed in regard to this arrangement, too long to be described at length, and even to be repeated than that, finally, he expressed his willingness to go with me.
Fifteen or twenty days after his imprisonment, the messengers arrived that Muteczuma had sent in quest of Qualpopoca and the others concerned in the murder of the Spaniards; and they brought with them that chief and his sons, together with fifteen persons who were said to be men of rank, and implicated in the affair. Qualpopoca was brought on a litter, much in the style of a governor, as in fact he was. They were delivered into my hands, and I caused them to be placed under a strong guard; and when they acknowledged that they had killed the Spaniards, I directed them to be asked if they were the vassals of Muteczuma, Qualpopoca replied—“If I have any other sovereign, who is it?” as much as to say that he had no other, and that they were his vassals. I also inquired if what had been done by them was by his command? They answered, no; although afterwards, when the sentence of death by burning was about to be executed upon them, they all with one voice declared that Muteczuma had sent to command it to be done, and that they had acted in pursuance of his orders. So they were publicly burned in a square of the city, without creating any disturbance; and on -the day of their execution, as they confessed that Muteczuma had directed them to kill the Spaniards, I caused him to be put in irons, which threw him into great consternation.
Here's las Casas' version:
That very day as I was informed by some persons then and there present by a grand piece of Treachery, they took the very great King Montencuma, never so much as dreaming of any such surprize, and put him into the custody of eighty Soldiers, and afterward loaded this Legs with irons.
Cortés relates something that las Casas did not write.
On the same day, however, after having spoken to him, I caused his irons to be removed, and left him quite satisfied; and from that time I exerted myself to gratify his wishes, and render him contented by all means in my power. I publicly announced and declared to all the natives of the country, as well to the governors as to the people who came to me, that your Majesty’s service would be promoted by Muteczuma’s remaining at the head of his government, only acknowledging your Majesty’s superiority, and that your Majesty would be pleased by their obeying and respecting Muteczuma as their sovereign, as they had done before my arrival in the country. Such was the kindness of my treatment towards him, and his own contentment with his situation, that when at different times I tempted him with the offer of his liberty, begging that he would return to his palace, he as often replied that he was well pleased with his present quarters, and did not wish to leave them, as he wanted nothing that he was accustomed to enjoy in his own palace; and that in case he went away, there would be reason to fear the importunities of the local governors, his vassals, might lead him to act against his own wishes, and in opposition to your Majesty, while he desired in every possible manner to promote your Majesty’s service; that so far he had informed them what he desired to have done, and was well content to remain where he was; and should they wish to suggest any thing to him, he could answer that he was not at liberty, and thus excuse himself from attending to them. ... When I discovered that Muteczuma was fully devoted to the service of your Highness, I requested him that, in order to enable me to render a complete account to your Majesty of the productions of the country, he would point out to me the mines from which gold was obtained; to which he consented with the greatest readiness, saying that it would give him pleasure to do so. He immediately sent for several of his public servants, and assigned them to four provinces, two to each province, in which he said the gold was obtained; and he asked, me to allow some of the Spaniards to go with them, that they might observe the manner in which gold was procured; and I accordingly deputed two Spaniards for the same number of his own men. One party of them went to a province called Cuzula, eighty leagues from the great city of Temixtitan, whose inhabitants are vassals of Muteczuma, where they were shown three rivers, from all of which they brought me specimens of gold, of a good quality, although procured with little trouble, and without any other instruments than those used by the Indians.
Indian Gold Mine by Theodore de Bry, 1596 (Source: Akg-Images)
The Spaniards entered a city outside Montezuma's jurisdiction.
They resolved to go alone, and were well received by the governor and his people, who showed them seven or eight mines from which they said gold was procured; and in their presence some of the Indians got out a quantity of the precious metal, of which specimens were brought to me. Coatelicamar sent by these Spaniards several messengers, offering himself and his land to the service of your Majesty, and accompanying his professions with presents of gold and cotton cloth.
"How they search for gold in a stream coming from the Apaltcy mountains" by Theodore de Bry, 1591 (Source: Akg-Images)
All along the way around the surrounding country, they found streams and streams of gold.
Muteczuma called together all the governors of the neighboring cities and states, for a lecture and and invited Cortés to join them. He spoke again to the people of their history. This time, he added a new twist.
According to what this captain has told us of the king and lord, who has sent him here, and also considering the quarter from which he says he has come, I hold it certain, and you must be of the same opinion, that this is the sovereign that we have expected; especially as he informs us, that he had some knowledge of us there.And since our predecessors did not render their just service to their sovereign lord, let us perform our duty; and let us render thanks to our gods, that he, who was so long expected by them, has come in our day. I must, therefore, entreat, since all this is well known to you, that hereafter, instead of regarding me as your sovereign, you will recognise and obey that great king, as he is our natural ruler, and receive this his captain in place of him; and all the tributes and services which till now you have rendered to me, you will hereafter render and yield to him, as I likewise contribute and yield all that he requires of me; and thus besides performing your duty, you will gratify and oblige me.
Cortés describes the sentiments of all who heard these words.
All this he said weeping, with more tears and sighs than becomes a man to exhibit; and likewise all the princes who were present wept so much,that for a long time they were unable to answer. And I assure your sacred Majesty that there was not a Spaniard who heard the discourse, that did not feel great compassion. After their grief had abated, they answered, that they recognized him as their sovereign, and had engaged to do whatever he might command; and that on this account, as well as for the reasons he had assigned, they were willing to act as he required; and that, from henceforth forever, they declared themselves the vassals of your Majesty, and all, and each for himself, would there promise, and did promise, to do and fulfill all that was commanded in the name of your Majesty as became good and loyal vassals; and to aid with tribute and services as they had heretofore done for Muteczuma, and as was their duty, together with whatever else might be required of them in the name of your Majesty. All this passed in the presence of a public notary, and was confirmed by a formal act; as well as by the testimony of many of our countrymen whom I had requested to be present.
Cortés brags to King Charles about how he was able to capitalize on this situation.
After this solemn act and acknowledgment on the part of these lords towards your Majesty, I one day spoke to Muteczuma and said that your Highness needed gold for certain works that he had ordered to be completed, and I wished him to send some of his people, and I would send some of mine, to the lands and abodes of those lords who had submitted themselves on that occasion, to ask them to supply your Majesty with some part of what they possessed; since besides the necessity your Majesty had for the gold, it would serve as a beginning of their fealty [formal acknowledgement of sworn loyalty], and your Highness would form a better opinion of their disposition to render him service by such a demonstration; and I also requested that he himself would give me what gold he had, as well as other things, in order that I might transmit them to your Majesty. He immediately requested that I would designate the Spaniards whom I wished to send on this business, and he distributed them two by two, and five by five, among many provinces and cities, the names of which I do not recollect, the records having perished, as they were numerous and different, some eighty, some one hundred leagues from the great city of Temixtitan; and with them he sent some of his own people, and directed them to go to the governors of provinces and cities, and say that commanded each one of them to give a certain proportion of gold, which he prescribed. Accordingly all those caciques to whom he. sent contributed freely what he demanded of them, as well jewels as plates and leaves of gold and silver, and whatever else they possessed; and melting down all that admitted it, we found that the fifth part belonging to your Majesty amounted to 32,400 pesos of gold and upwards, without reckoning the jewels of gold and silver, the feather-work, and precious stones, together with many other valuable articles that I set apart for your sacred Majesty, worth more than 100,000 ducats.
These besides their monied value, were of so costly and curious workmanship, that considering their novelty and wonderful beauty, no price could be set on them;- nor is it probable that any one of all the princes of the world to whose knowledge they might come, could produce any articles of equal splendor. It may seem to your Majesty like a fabulous story, but it is true, that all the natural objects, both on sea and land, of which Muteczuma has any knowledge, are imitated in gold and silver, as well as in precious stones and feathers, in such perfection that they appear almost the same.
He gave me numerous specimens of many of these for your Highness, besides other things of which I had given him drawings, which he caused to be wrought in gold, such as images, crucifixes, medals, jewels, and necklaces, together with many other articles, of which he had imitations made. They assigned to your Majesty a fifth part of the silver, amounting to one hundred marks and upwards, which at my request the natives worked up into large and small dishes, porringers, cups, and spoons; and they made them as perfectly as they could understand their form from our description. Beside these, Muteczuma gave me a large quantity of his cotton stuff, which, considering it was cotton without silk, could not be equaled in the whole world, either in texture, or in the variety and beauty of the colors, or in the workmanship. It comprised male and female apparel of remarkable elegance; ornamental hangings for bed-chambers, superior beyond comparison to those made of silk; together with other fabrics of cotton, as tapestries, designed for halls and temples; counterpanes, composed of feathers interwoven with cotton, and extremely beautiful; and many other articles, so numerous and ingenious, that I am unable to describe them to your Majesty.
Peruvian goldsmiths by Theodore de Bry, 1594 (Source: Akg-Images)
Cortés later left to confront another conquistador, Pánfilo de Narváez (1478-1528), who sent "secret agents" to persuade his men to "throw off their allegiance" and join him "in the service of your Majesty." Narváez claimed that the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar (1465-1524), appointed him the new "Captain General and Lieutenant Governor over these countries" under "your Majesty’s orders" and he was now on his way to place Cortés under arrest.
Indeed, Velázquez sent him and 1400 men on 19 ships to México to intercept Cortés, who had actually recalled Cortés' expedition to México shortly after be embarked in 1519 because he learned by some reports that Cortés was increasingly self-conceited.
[Cortés] began to adorn himself and be more careful of his appearance than before, and he wore a plume of feathers with a medal, and a gold chain [the one Montezuma gave him on his arrival], and a velvet cloak trimmed with knots of gold, in fact, he looked like a gallant and courageous Captain.
"It would be impossible to enumerate all the miseries that have been suffered; nor have I any time, if I could, for night is fast approaching; and now, after we have undergone all this, Pamfilo Narvaez comes tearing along, like a mad dog, to destroy us all; calls us villains and traitors, and makes disclosures to Motecusuma, not like a prudent general, but with the spirit of a rebel; he has even presumed to throw one of the emperor's auditors into chains—of itself a criminal act; and to sum up, has declared a war of extermination against us, just as if we had been a troop of Moors."
Narváez attacked Sandoval's forces at Vera Cruz and Sandoval managed to capture him.
And what of Montezuma and the Aztecs?
Las Casas picks up the story from there:
In the interim all the Nobility and Commonality of the City thought of nothing else, but how to exhilarate the Spirit of their Captive King, and solace him during his Confinement with [a] variety of diversions and Recreations; and among the rest this was one, viz., Revellings and Dances which they celebrated in all Streets and Highways, by night and they, in their Idiom term Mirotes, as the Islanders do Arcytos; to these Masques and nocturnal Jigs they usually go with all their Riches, Costly Vestments and Robes, together with any thing that is precious and glorious, being wholly addicted to this humor, nor is there any greater token among them then this of their extraordinary exultation and rejoicing. The Nobles in like manner, and Princes of the Blood Royal every one according to his degree exercise these Masques and Dances, in some place adjoining to the House where their King and Lord is detained Prisoner.
The occasion was the celebration of Toxcatl (an Aztec festivity in honor of Tezcatlipoca, one of their main gods). However, the festival was interrupted by a bloody massacre. An Aztec version of the story says the Spaniards shut off all the exits and everyone was either decapitated or stabbed to death.
[T]hey invaded every room, hunting and killing.
A Spanish version of the story suggests that they were enticed into action by the gold the Aztecs were wearing.
Las Casas' version supports both accounts.
Portrait of Pedro de Alvarado by Humberto Garavito (Source: Museum of Santiago de los Caballeros, Guatemala via Wikipedia Commons)
Now there were not far from the Palace about 2000 Young Noblemen who were the issue of the greatest Potentates of the Kingdom, and indeed the flower of the whole Nobility of King Motencuma, and a Spanish Captain [this was none other than Pedro de Alvarado y Contreras (1485-1541)] went to visit them with some Soldiers, and sent others to the rest of the places in the City where these Revellings were kept, under pretence only of being spectators of the solemnity. Now the Captain had commanded, that, at a certain hour appointed they should fall upon these Revellers, and he himself approaching the Indians very busy at their Dancing, said, San Jago (that is St. James it seems that was the Word) Let us rush in upon them, which was no sooner heard, but they all began with their naked Swords in hand to pierce their tender and naked Bodies, and spill their generous and Noble blood, till not one of them was left alive on the place, and the rest following his example in other parts, (to their inexpressible stupefaction and grief) seized on all these Provinces. Nor will the Inhabitants till the General conflagration ever discontinue the Celebration of these Festivals, and the Lamentation and Singing with certain kind of Rhythms in their Arcytos, the doleful ditty of the Calamity and Ruin of this Seminary of the antient Nobility of the whole Kingdom, which was their frequent Pride and Glory.
This image is from the Codex Duran, written by the Spanish Diego Durán.
Massacre of Mexica musicians by the Spanish at Tenochtitlan, May 1520 Codex Duran fol. 29a (Source: Mexicolore)
Alvarado already made it clear that no weapons would be allowed during the celebrations. It is suggested that he was disturbed by the images, sounds, and what he thought would be a human sacrifice.
Clash between the Spanish conquistadors and the Aztecs, following an uprising in 1521 illustration extracted from the Duran Codex (Source: Mexicolore)
The Indians seeing this not to be exampled cruelty and iniquity executed against such a number of guiltless persons, and also bearing with incredible patience the unjust Imprisonment of their King, from whom they had an absolute Command not to take up Arms against the Spaniard, the whole City was suddenly up in Arms fell on the Spaniards and wounded many of them, the rest hardly escaping; but they presenting the point of a Sword to the Kings Breast, threatened him with death unless he out of the Window commanded them to desist; but the Indians for the present disobeying the Kings Mandate, proceeded to the Election of a Generalissimo, or Commander in Chief over all their Forces.
By this time, Cortés, Sandoval, and their men, including former disciples of Narváez', returned to the Aztec capital.
The inscription on the bottom right of this painting reads:
The Spanish, finding themselves trapped in the palace in Mexico, make Moctezuma appear on a roof terrace, and from there he quieted them, but an Indian threw a stone and the rest launched arrows from which he died. They burn the rooms.
In all the commotion, the Spaniards set fire to idols in the Templo Mayor, the largest and most important building in the center of Tenochtitlàn's ceremonial complex, destroying major icons of Aztec heritage. Native accounts attribute the death of Montezuma to the Spaniards themselves.
Because that the Captain, who went to the Port returned Victor, and brought away a far greater number of Spaniards then he took along with him, there was a Cessation of Arms for three or four days, till he re-entered the City, and then the Indians having gathered together and made up a great Army, fought so long and so strenuously, that the Spaniards despairing of their safety, called a Council of War and therein resolved to retreat in the dead time of night [Midnight on July 1, 1520] and so draw off their Forces from the City.
The Aztecs had damaged some of the bridges leading outside the city. The Spaniards found themselves in hot water - so to speak. It was sink or swim.
Spanish captain Alonso de Avila found Hernán Cortés crying and said
"Oh sir, now is the time to cry?"
"And do not you think I'm right? Know that tonight there will not be a man of us alive if we do not have some means to get out."
Alonso de Ávila with Pedro de Alvarado and others built a drawbridge with a wide beam to escape, thus giving courage to Cortés. On June 30, 1520, the Spaniards attempted to sneak out of the city on one of the causeways under the cover of rain and mist, but they were spotted.
...coming to the knowledge of the Indians they destroyed a great number Retreating on the Bridges made over their Lakes in this just and Holy War, for the causes above-mentioned, deserving the approbation of every upright Judge.
This was certainly a humiliating loss for the Spanish army. Their bridge was removed. Some drowned, weighed down by the golden heist they dragged away with them in their frenzy.
According to Castillo:
if the Almighty had not lent us extraordinary powers, every man of us would have been killed! It was really terrific to see the immense crowds which fell upon us from all sides, and the number of canoes which were merely waiting for the moment to carry off the prisoners, all of whom were destined to be sacrificed to their gods! It was a fearful sight indeed!
When Cortés at last reached the shore of Lake Texcoco, he turned back, and, overwhelmed by the gravity of the scene before him, "tears flowed from his eyes".
The event was named La Noche Triste ("The Night of Sorrows"). Estimates of the casualties range between 450 and 860 Spaniards with somewhere over 2,000 native allies. The Aztecs under their new emperor, Cuitláhuac, had wiped out at least a third to as much as half of their enemies and they weren't done yet.
They soon closed in on the Spaniards as they entered an open field in the valley of Otumba around July 7, 1520. Cortés and his captains (including Sandoval, Alvarado, and Avila) breeched enemy ranks, rushed the Aztec general, Matlatzincatzin.
They killed the officers surrounding the chief, and captured his battle standard, causing the native army to scatter.
We then commended ourselves to God and the holy Virgin, and boldly rushed forth upon the enemy, under the cry of Santiago! Santiago! Our cavalry charged the enemy's line five abreast, and broke it, we rushing in after them close at their heels. What a terrific battle and remarkable victory was this!
In this way we continued fighting courageously, for God and the blessed Virgin strengthened us, and St. Santiago de Compostella certainly came to our assistance.
Although outnumbered by the Aztecs 20 to 1, the Spaniards held them off and made another hasty retreat.
A scene depicting the Battle of Otumba, the last great battle of July 1520 in which the Aztec almost annhilated the Spaniards led by Hernán Cortés as they were retreating from the empire's capital (Source: Famous Men of Modern Times)
Cortés had his men raid villages and haul away fresh timber to an outpost in Tlaxcala in order to construct brigantines for their future siege on the capital. He instructed Sandoval to transport the newly constructed ships to their headquarters in Texcoco, a task that required 200 soldiers, 20 gunsmiths and crossbowmen, and 15 on horseback, in addition to many native Tlaxcaltecas.
Along the way, Cortés ordered Sandoval to conquer a town he named poblado morisco ("Moorish town") in Calpulalpan or Sultepec.
The population fled at the approach of the Spanish.
They found two faces of Spaniards and several horsehides hanging on top of one of the temples (The Indians had no horses.) In another temple, they found an inscription about a soldier who arrived earlier with Narváez.
Here was imprisoned the hapless Juan Yuste, with many others he brought in my company.
After destroying the town and annihilating its population, Sandoval returned to his task of transporting the brigs.
A full year after their defeat, the Spaniards were ready for round four.
The Spaniards having recruited and got together in a Body, they resolved to take the City and carried it at last, wherein [the] most detestable Butcheries were acted, a vast number of the people slain, and their Rulers perished in the Flames.
When they were done, all that was left to drink was dirty water because the lake was "dyed red with blood."
In Cortés' words to the king:
We had more trouble in preventing our allies from killing with such cruelty than we had in fighting the enemy. For no race, however savage, has ever practiced such fierce and unnatural cruelty as the natives of these parts. Our allies also took many spoils that day, which we were unable to prevent, as they numbered more than 150,000 and we Spaniards only some nine hundred. Neither our precautions nor our warnings could stop their looting, though we did all we could...there were so many that we could not prevent more than fifteen thousand being killed and sacrificed [by the Tlaxcalans] that day.
A new Aztec emperor named Cuauhtémoc (Guatemoc) had replaced the former after he died during a smallpox epidemic in the winter. Castillo attributes the disease to a servant of Narváez.
To return to Narvaez. He happened to have a negro servant with him ill with the smallpox, through whom this terrific disease, which, according to the accounts of the inhabitants, was previously unknown in the country, spread itself through New Spain, where it created the greater devastation, from the poor Indians, in their ignorance, solely applying cold water as a remedy, with which they constantly bathed themselves; so that vast numbers were cut off before they had the blessing of being received into the bosom of the Christian church.
The Florentine Codex, written under the leadership of Franciscan (Spanish) missionary Fray Bernardino de Sahagun (c. 1499-1590) and based on the accounts of the natives, says that the epidemic started when the Spaniards arrived and ravaged even the bravest warriors while the Spaniards were preparing to attack the city.
Decades later, Father Duran repeats Castillo's story
After the country had been conquered a plague of smallpox broke out. This had been brought by a Negro who had come with the Spaniards. A multitude of Indians died from this disease since there were no doctors and the illness was new to them. So it was that thousands died, attributing the pestilence to the Spaniards who had brought it.
The islands were most affected. Around 95% of the population in the elevated parts of Mexico and Peru, away from the Spaniards, survived.
In his crafty language, Castillo condemns Africans and Native Americans as having brought their own death and destruction upon themselves for no other reason than that they were not White and Christian. In his imagination, he pits them against each other. Now the unwelcoming effects of the Spanish conquest was the result of something else entirely: Negro-on-Indian crime.
Anyways, Cuauhtémoc attempted to escape on the lake with gold, silver, and other jewels of the kingdom, but he was apprehended.
During the conquest...the glorious Patron of Spain, Saint James, appeared just as his image appeared in the church of Tlatelolco. The Indians claim that they saw him in the greatest of the battles when the Spaniards were losing and their banners had been taken from them and torn, to their great shame. At that moment the glorious Saint James appeared, frightening away the Indians and favoring the Spaniards through divine permission. Once Mexico had been taken in the name of His Majesty, Cortés ordered that the pyramid be demolished, the idols broken, the city razed and the canals filled in.
After peace had thus been restored to the whole province, and the inhabitants had submitted to the sceptre of his majesty, Cortes, finding there was nothing further to be done at present, determined, with the crown officers, to mark all the slaves with the iron, and set apart the fifth of them for his majesty....
Every man, accordingly, brought the females and young men he had taken prisoners... After all the slaves had been brought together and severally marked with the letter G, the emperor's fifths and then Cortes' were deducted before we were aware of it; and, besides this, on the night preceding, the finest of the Indian females had been secretly set apart, so that when it came to a division among us soldiers, we found none left but old and ugly women. This occasioned excessive murmuring against Cortes and all those who had thus picked and chosen before us; and some of Narvaez's men told Cortes to his face that they were not aware, up to the present moment, there were two kings in the Spanish dominions, and that two royal fifths could be demanded. A certain Juan Bono, who was also loud in his complaints, added, that such proceedings should not be permitted in New Spain, and that he would send information of it to his majesty and the council of India. Another soldier asked Cortes if the division he had made of the gold in Mexico was not a sufficient imposition? for, at first, he had merely spoken of 300,000 pesos, but when we were obliged to retreat from the city, it was estimated at 700,000 pesos. And now he was going to deprive the poor soldier, who had undergone so many hardships, and suffered from innumerable wounds, of this small remuneration, and not even allow him a pretty Indian female for a companion!
Cortés himself had a son with his native interpreter Doña Marina (Malintzin in Nahuatl), who was originally gifted to him as a slave. He wrote "after God we owe this conquest of New Spain to Doña Marina." Cortésrequested a dowry for Montezuma's oldest daughter, who married a Spaniard. It consisted of encomiendas (grants of indigenous land and labor) and several ranches. Imagine that...
Father Diego Durán, who recorded the stories of the natives, noted that some encomiendas were entire cities stolen from the natives and awarded to each of his men in the wake of the empire's destruction.
He also wrote that Cuauhtémoc requested freedom for all the captives.
Cortés then gave orders that, under pain of death, all the Spaniards liberate those who were being held captive. So it was done and all the refugees, men and women, returned to the city and resettled in it. But the dead on that day were over forty thousand men and women who, rather than fall into the hands of the Spaniards, threw themselves and their children into the canals. The stench of the corpses was so great that even though bodies were carried out of the city continually, many were left and the evil spell was unbearable for a long time. ...it is my opinion that this man should have been suspended or excommunicated since I have heard that he was more eager to wash his hands in the blood of innocents than Pilate to wash his hands on the death of Christ.
The Torture of Cuauhtémoc and his cousin, Tetlepanquetzal, Lord of Tlacopan by Leandro Izaguirre (1867 - 1941), 1893 (Source: Museo Nacional de Arte via Google Art Project)
Cuauhtémoc was executed four years after the conquest amidst reports that he was planning an uprising and to assassinate Cortés.
Although Cortés was openly defiant of his superior, Velázquez, he did not receive as much as a slap on the wrist when he returned to Spain.
The Emperor Charles V style of Juan Pantoja de la Cruz (1553-1608), 16th Century (Source: The Bowes Museum via Art UK)
In fact, is obvious that King Charles V was in agreement with Cortes' actions as written in his letter to the king. In 1535, the king sent a letter to Antonio de Mendoza (1495-1552), whom he had appointed to be the first viceroy (governor) of New Spain.
It read in part:
Since I have been informed that the Indians of that country pay their tributes in blankets, corn, and other local goods that are difficult to turn into revenue, you should find a manner in which their tributes can be paid by converting all those things into a certain quantity of gold or silver yearly. This should be accomplished in such a manner that it increases Our revenue but not their labor, and since this is a very important matter, you should place great care in it...
Also, we are informed that in many places in the said province there are large and wealthy mines of gold, silver, and other metals, and that in addition to the fifths paid by private individuals who mine them with Our license and permission, We could increase Our revenues greatly if Our officials in the said mines purchased for Us a large number of slaves, either blacks or people purchased from the Indians who are held and reputed to be slaves. And because this is a matter of great importance and We could receive great benefit if it is correct, We charge and command you, after you have discussed this matter with Our judges and officials in New Spain and with other persons who have knowledge of it, to make provision as you think is most appropriate for this purpose. And if you should see that to carry this out better it would be good to have a quantity of slaves sent out from these kingdoms or other regions, you should advise Us of it, giving the number and quality of the slaves desired and what you have begun to do in carrying this out, so that I can make disposition in this matter quickly as is appropriate for Our service and the good administration of Our treasury.
Writing in 1581, Father Durán, who lived in Spain and traveled to live in Mexico, reflected on the next few decades:
So it was that iusete vel iniuste, just or unjustly, men, women, and children were taken, branded on their faces and sold as slaves for the mines or as servants.
In those times they even loaded ships with slaves to be carried away from New Spain. I myself met some of them in the home of my relatives, and they were marked in the face with the name of the man who had sold them. These slaves had not come from nearby towns but were brought from more than ten leagues away from Mexico. Most of them were brought to the city from the province of Guatemala and from the coasts distant to Mexico. And even though I did not actually see slaves branded with hot irons on the face, just like horses in a corral, I did see these men and women liberated through the intercession of the monks in the time of the most Christian Viceroy Don Antonio de Mendoza.
HERNAN CORTES: Marques del Valle, Captain General of New Spain He was born in Medellin in 1485, died in 1547, although he made immortal his amazing deeds, and his conquest of the Mexican Empire (Source: Mariner's Museum)
"FRANCISCO PIZARRO: Natural of Truxillo Discoverer and Conqueror of Peru; He was murdered in Lima at 73 years of age in 1541." (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro (c.1471-1541) led an expedition that effectively captured, baptized, and executed the Inca Emperor Atahualpa (by strangling), then installed a puppet regime without a loss to the Spanish colonial army. Much gold, silver, and emeralds were looted from the people of Peru.
"HERNANDO DE SOTO: Extremaduran, one of the discoverers and conquerors of Peru He travelled across all of Florida and defeated its previously invincible natives He died on his expedition in the year 1542 at the age of 42" (Source: Library of Congress)
Spanish conquistador and governor of Cuba, Hernando de Soto (c. 1495-1542), assisted his second cousin Pizzaro and did some conquering of his own, "venturing" into the southeastern parts of what is now the United States of America.
Ferdinandus Sotto (Hernando de Soto) lays waste to the countryside in Florida in 1539 by Theodore de Bry, 1594 (Source: Akg-Images)
I'm sure we don't need to go into the gruesome details any further about what took place under the authority of the colonizers and their fellow colonists (ESPECIALLY the colonists) who would land on the shores of North and South America within the next 250 years.
The Last Days of Tenochtitlan, Conquest of Mexico by Cortez by William de Leftwich Dodge, 1899 (Source: Howard Tilton Library via Wikipedia Commons)
In schools across the United States today, we never learn the full story of America's colonial history. The truth is that the history of America does not actually begin with Christopher Columbus at all. It begins with the conditions that prompted Columbus' risky 10-week expedition - namely, the aftermath of the pan-European 781-year-long crusade against the Moors of North Africa from 711 AD to 1492, which left Spain utterly devastated from war. The other major trigger was the aftermath of the Battle of Guinea in 1478. This was a battle which would ultimately decide the fate of millions upon millions of human beings across two continents.
An original Mixtec gold pendant from a tomb in the Isthmus of Tehantepec, Mexico at the British Museum (Credit: Mexicolore)