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DA GAMA'S return from the India Orient with tales of fabulous wealth, supporting the reports made by Marco Polo, naturally, in an age when Portugal and Spain were rival powers in an extension of their sovereignty over unexplored regions of the earth, quickened public energies and caused the spirit of discovery to blaze up with ten-fold greater intensity than was even excited by the adventures of Columbus. In her efforts to colonize Cuba, St. Domingo and the islands of the Caribbean, Spain sent ships, supplies, and men to several points which appeared favorable for settlements, and over those established in Hispaniola (St. Domingo) Ovando, one of Columbus' bravest comrades, was appointed governor. But Ovando became inimical to the interests of Columbus, and at the latter's instigation he was recalled, and Diego, the eldest son of Columbus, was appointed in his stead. Upon assuming this dignity Diego took the title of Viceroy and affected such magnificence as is usually reserved for royalty. But he was not content with an august and splendid rule on a small island, and scarcely had he gained the gubernatorial office when he became ambitious to extend his power over new dominions in the name of Spain. In pursuance of this desire for greater glory Diego organized an expedition of 300 men against Cuba, with the view of annexing that large and most beautiful island, and gave the command to an adventurous and daring character named Diego de Velasquez. Such an enterprise of course attracted the attention of all the bold spirits that had settled in Hispaniola, and among those who sought enlistment under Velasquez was a youthful scapegrace named Hernando Cortez. This remarkable character was a native of the little town of Medellin, in Spain, where he was born to a captain in the Spanish navy in the year 1485. With a disposition remarkable for recklessness, we are not surprised that he should be expelled from school, and that he gave his father no end of trouble by his wild escapades, in which guilty and shameless amours were most frequent. Unable to restrain Hernando at home, his father concluded to send him to St. Domingo, but on the evening of his intended departure the reckless boy, then but seventeen years of age, while making an effort to secretly gain the balcony of his lady love's room, lost his hold upon the railing and fell so heavily to the ground below that his life was for a while despaired of. Recovering at length, however, he sailed away to the new world and found congenial companionship with the bold rovers who had preceded him.


Hernando spent seven years with his uncle, Ovando, governor of St. Domingo, occupying some minor official positions, but in this time performing no special service beyond that of messenger to natives living in the interior of the island, whose hostility and treachery were such that no one but a daring character could be engaged to treat with them.

On account of his bravery and the experience acquired by his intercourse with the natives of St. Domingo, Hernando was accepted as a valuable acquisition to the expedition sent out by Diego Columbus in 1511, under Velasquez, to accomplish the subjugation of Cuba. This most fertile island on the globe was discovered by Columbus during his first voyage (Oct. 28, 1492) and in honor of Prince John, son of Ferdinand and Isabella, was named Juana, but at the death of the King the name was changed to Fernandina. Some years later it was designated, in honor of Spain's patron saint, Santiago, and subsequently it was called after the holy virgin, Ave Maria. These several names became so confusing that it was finally decided to continue the designation by which it was known to the natives at the time of its discovery, viz., Cuba. At this time the island was divided into nine principalities, each preserving its independence, and ruled by as many caciques or chiefs. The people are described as living in an easy, voluptuous and contented manner, and at peace among themselves because they appeared to be indifferent to conditions. They were semi-religious; that is, they appeared to entertain a belief in the existence of a supreme being and in the immortality of the soul, but they practised no ceremonies, and employed no rites, nor were their beliefs well defined.


In the several conflicts between the marines who accompanied Columbus and the Cubans the latter had exhibited little valor, being, as they were, such voluptuaries that they accepted any harsh conditions rather than engage their foes, whose severities they had more than once felt. The invasion of Velasquez met with so little opposition that the march was not once interrupted, the natives fleeing at the sight of the white invaders, leaving their burning villages to be plundered at will. Only one cacique offered the slightest resistance, and for his appeal to his people to repel the white robbers he was taken by Velasquez and given the alternative of embracing the Christian religion or being burned alive. When told, in reply to his enquiry, that many Spaniards were in heaven he accepted the latter, for said he, "I would rather be annihilated by fire than be compelled to associate even in heaven with such fiends as are the Spaniards." With characteristic malignity and mercilessness Velasquez bound the unhappy chief to a stake, and heaping fagots about him ordered fire to be applied to the pile, and watched with satisfaction the slow consumption, and heard with laugh of pleasure the piercing screams of his helpless victim. This horror brought the natives to make an acknowledgment of perpetual submission to Spain, and by this bloody title Cuba has continued to remain a possession of that country to this day.

Having mastered the island, on July 25, 1515, Velasquez established a settlement on the south coast, at the mouth of the river Mayabeque, and in honor of Columbus called the place San Cristobel de la Habana. But the location proving unhealthy the town was removed to the mouth of the Rio Almenderes; but this site being no better than the first, the settlement was again transferred
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in 1519 to its present location, at the entrance of one of the finest harbors in the world, and to the new town was given another name, Havana, by which it has ever since been known. At nearly the same time that a settlement was formed at San Cristobel, another was established on the south-east coast and called Santiago, which Velasquez made his capital, while still another was made on the south central coast and named Trinidad, both of which flourished and developed into important ports of commerce, and which they have continued to be to this day.


The acquisition of Cuba was directly followed by the appointment of Velasquez as governor, and in recognition of his valuable services Cortez was chosen his secretary. But the intimate relations between Velasquez and his secretary were not to remain long undisturbed, for an enmity was presently engendered by the infamous conduct of Cortez towards one of four sisters, daughters of a rich gentleman from Castile, who had come over with hundreds of other wealthy families to settle in the fair land of Cuba. Velasquez resented the insult, being deeply attached to one of the young ladies, and to avenge himself Cortez entered into a conspiracy to secure the removal of his chief. He was detected, however, and being arrested was tried and sentenced to death, but he contrived to break his fetters, and forcing his way through a window of the prison sought refuge in a church where, according to the customs of the time, he was secure, for the church sanctuary must not be violated. After remaining for some days in this place of refuge he attempted to escape in the night, but was again arrested and taken on ship-board to be sent to St. Domingo, with a cord, as the badge of a traitor, about his neck. But for a second time he managed to divest himself of his manacles, and slipping out upon the deck plunged into the sea and swam ashore and regained the sanctuary of the church. Being badly disabled and exhausted, to end his distress he offered to marry the girl that he had wronged, and his proposal was accepted. This act reinstated him in the good opinion and confidence of Velasquez, who soon after selected him to command an expedition, the results of which served to establish his fame for all ages.

A year before the incident just related, Velasquez had despatched an expedition of three small vessels, and something more than 100 men, under the command of Francisco Hernandez, to make an exploration among the adjacent islands with the view of attaching them to the Spanish Crown. This expedition sailed as far west as Yucatan, which they discovered, and by trading with the natives the Spaniards obtained a large number of brightly burnished hatchets and other articles which they thought were gold. But they were so avaricious that what they were unable to secure by barter, they sought to possess by force, which precipitated a conflict, in which a greater part of the Spaniards were killed. Only about thirty of the original number returned, and several of these were so severely wounded that they died, among these latter being Hernandez, the commander.

The fate of the expedition was, however, forgotten in the wild excitement produced by reports that the land from which the remnant of the voyagers returned so abounded with gold that the natives used it as the commonest of metals. And even after an assay of the burnished hatchets had disclosed the fact that they were copper instead of gold, the excitement did not seem to abate, for the belief continued that somewhere in the interior of the country thus discovered there were mines and mountains of the precious mineral from which the natives procured it in great abundance. Acting under this belief Velasquez fitted, out another expedition of four ships and 240 men, which under the command of Juan de Grijalva, left the port of Santiago in April, 1518. After a sail of eight days they reached the shore of Central America, but found the natives so hostile that it was not deemed prudent to make a landing. Continuing along the coast, therefore, the expedition anchored before a Mexican town, which has since been named St. Juan de Uloa, where they were hospitably received, and a profitable trade was conducted with the people. A considerable quantity of gold was here secured in exchange for glass beads, and information was also obtained of a wondrously rich kingdom and of a magnificent capital in the interior, where a mighty ruler known as Montezuma lived in unexampled splendor.


When the expedition under Grijalva returned with its report and with many specimens of gold in verification of the stories concerning wealth of the Mexican Kingdom, excitement was unbounded, not only in Cuba, but also in Spain, where the news was transmitted by Velasquez with request for assistance in organizing another expedition for the subjugation of the new country. The help asked for was so speedily rendered that in a surprisingly short time a fleet of vessels was provided, and Hernando Cortez was appointed to the command, but a full complement of men yet remained to be obtained. Before preparations were fully completed, with the fear that Velasquez might deprive him of the honors bestowed, Cortez raised his anchors and sailed away from Santiago for Trinidad to procure additional troops. Here, by his impassioned appeals to the people, exciting both their religious zeal and their cupidity, he succeeded in enlisting several hundred cross-bowmen, and besides muskets and other weapons he obtained several small cannons. Having been joined by nearly 200 men in Trinidad, Cortez collected a large quantity of military supplies, provided padded coats for some and armor for others of his soldiers, and set them through a thorough course of drill. Besides inspiring his followers with promises of large rewards in the land of gold, Cortez intensified their ardor by declaring that one of his prime purposes in undertaking the conquest was to supplant the idol-worship of the Mexicans with the cross of Christianity, and to emphasize this intent in the minds of his men, he planted before his tent a banner of black velvet embroidered with gold, on which was a gilt sign of the cross surrounded with an emblazoned device, "Let us follow the cross, for under this sign we shall conquer."

Just before his departure from Trinidad, Cortez perceived two ships with valuable cargoes putting into the harbor, which he captured under the pretence that the Lord had made him an instrument for spreading the gospel, and that as a servant of God he had need for the vessels, which with their cargoes should be devoted to the Lord's service. Singular enough his eloquence was such that he persuaded the crews of both vessels, including their owners, to join his expedition, after which he sailed to Havana, and there
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completed his preparations for the enterprise which he had so auspiciously undertaken. He found his expedition now to consist of eleven vessels, most of which, however, were only open barks, with one of 100, and three of seventy tons, but into these he embarked 110 seamen, 553 soldiers, and something over 200 Indian men and women who acted as servants. On account of the smallness of his vessels Cortez took with him only sixteen horses, but these valuable animals had not been brought over from Spain in any considerable numbers as yet, and were, therefore, difficult to procure; but had he known the important part they were to play in his expedition he would have taken a larger number at whatever expense or hazard. Formidable weapons were also scarce, so that he was able to arm only thirty of his men with muskets, and thirty-two with cross-bows, the rest having to be content with swords, spears, and a few battle-axes.

Thus poorly provided in an undertaking to subjugate millions whose power he had no means of knowing, Cortez left Havana on the 18th of February, 1519, for the shores of Yucatan.


After a stormy passage of a week's duration, the expedition came in sight of the Island of Cozumel, which is a considerable body of land thirty miles from the shores of Yucatan. A large number of natives were assembled upon the beach, and viewed in terror the sails of the approaching squadron. They were horror-stricken at the spectacle, in expectation of the Spaniards coming to avenge the murder of their comrades under Grijalva, whose expedition met with such a sorry defeat at their hands. After the squadron had made anchor, a large party of Spaniards debarked and entered one of the native temples in which an idol, decorated with gold, was discovered and was seized as lawful prey by one of the sub-commanders of the party. Cortez, however, rebuked this rash and impolitic act, and not only restored the idol to the sanctuary from which it had been ravaged, but took every means to assure the natives of his peaceful intentions, by which efforts he finally obtained their confidence and opened a lucrative traffic, which redounded in no small benefits to the Spaniards.


On the 4th of March the squadron departed from the island upon which they had had a pleasant stay, and on the following day reached the shores of the continent, along which he sailed a distance of 200 miles, until he reached the mouth of the river Tabasco, before which he anchored his ships, and with a well armed party, in boats, ascended the shallow stream. After proceeding several miles he attempted a landing at a beautiful place before which stretched a wide and inviting meadow. But he was intercepted by a large party of natives, who, flourishing their weapons, shouted words of defiance, and as the day was far spent, Cortez prudently decided to wait until morning before engaging the hostiles. He accordingly anchored off shore, where, for the time, he would be secure, as no canoes were near in which the natives might reach his boats.

When morning broke on the following day, there was presented to his startled view an enormous force of savages who had been rallying the entire night and now stood in battle array, armed with weapons from which the sun flashed in blinding brilliancy, and with heads covered with plumes that gave them both a wild and martial appearance. The blast of trumpets and the roll of drums, mingled with shouts from thousands of dark-skinned natives, was quickly answered by the firing of the few muskets that Cortez had,
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and a charge from the entire force of Spaniards. The natives were armed principally with bows and arrows, and at the first attack the air seemed filled with these missiles. But the Spaniards were protected by their helmets and shields, so that few casualties resulted to the invaders, and a heroic charge soon put the natives to rout, with a loss of several hundred. The Indians had believed the thunder of the cannons and muskets was produced by supernatural powers, and fled from what they were convinced was the anger of an enraged god. Only fourteen of the Spaniards were wounded, and none of these so seriously but they were able to continue the march. On the following day Cortez proceeded to Tabasco, which was the capital of a province in Central America, of which he took possession without meeting any resistance from the natives, all of whom fled in dismay upon the approach of the invaders. Cortez' arrival in the town was the signal for another gathering of the Indians, who sent out couriers in every direction, and in a surprisingly short time thousands came flocking to the standards of their chiefs to repel their white foes. But anticipating an attack, Cortez sent back to his vessels for all the arms that were brought over and for every man that could be spared from the ships, so that he was able to marshal a force of more than 500 men, splendidly equipped, and six cannons the thunder of which was more terrible to the natives than the slaughter which they wrought.


On the 25th of March, the great battle which had been anticipated for nearly a week began. The enemy is estimated to have numbered 40,000 warriors, armed with arrows, slings, stones and javelins, against which there were to contend less than 600 Spaniards, whose lack of number was more than compensated by their superior weapons and their religious fanaticism, Cortez having been careful to arouse their fervor by declaring that God would fight their battles for them, and that they were but instruments in His hands to extend Christianity in the New World. The natives were first to attack with a volley that wounded seventy Spaniards, but only one was killed. But the charge was heroically met by the invaders, who opened a fire with muskets, and cannons that tore great gaps in the ranks of the Indians, and was followed by a slaughter that has few parallels in the history of Mexico. Cortez, at the head of his small force of cavalry, had made a detour, and arrived unperceived in the rear of the natives whom he charged with such impetuosity that many were trampled beneath the hoofs of his horses and hundreds were cut down by the broad-swords of his men. But the slaughter and dismay caused by the charge were nothing to the terror inspired by the sight of the horses, which the natives had never before seen. They believed that horse and rider was some strange creature, half man, half beast, that devoured, as well as killed, before which nothing mortal could stand.

The slaughter had now been so great that 30,000 of the natives lay dead upon the field, while but two of the Spaniards had been killed outright, and scarcely more than a hundred wounded. Terror-stricken and beaten, a panic now seized the Indians, and a dreadful rout ensued, in which many more were slain. Upon this blood-stained field Cortez now re-assembled his army, and setting up his banner and erecting the cross, prepared, to celebrate mass in a manner as imposing as the scene immediately before had been awful; the wounds of the Spaniards were then dressed with fat stripped from Indians that had been killed, and night coming on, peace again brooded over that terrible field.

The power of the natives about Yucatan having been completely broken, they were ready to sue for peace upon any terms, and accepted the conditions which Cortez imposed. They renounced their own religion, embraced Catholicism, destroyed their idols, and accepting the priests that were offered them, were confirmed in the holy religion from which they have not since departed. Before leaving Yucatan, Cortez was presented with twenty Indian girls whom he distributed as wives among his captains, retaining for
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himself the most beautiful one, whose name was Marina. Polygamy was the custom of the country, so that this young woman believed her relations to Cortez to be legitimate, and by her devotion and loyalty soon won his love. She was the daughter of a powerful Mexican cacique, but her father having died, her mother married again, whose affections were estranged from the daughter by the influence of a son by her second husband, so that the beautiful Marina was finally driven from home, and became a slave to a merchant of the country. Thus she acquired the language of Yucatan, and being familiar also with the Mexican tongue, proved invaluable in her services to Cortez, not only through her devoted loyalty to him but by acting as interpreter through a Spaniard who had some years before been driven by a storm and wrecked upon the shore of Central America, among the natives of which country he had lived until the landing of Cortez gave him opportunity to escape and join the expedition.

Leaving Tabasco, Cortez continued his voyage up the Central American coast, until he arrived before the Island of San Juan de Uloa, which is at the mouth of one of the principal harbors of the empire of Mexico.

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