Chronicles of America ´╗┐

Cempoalla and the Totonac Indians

CortÚs approached Cempoalla overland with four hundred men and two light guns; while the fleet ascended the coast some ten leagues to a harbor called Bernal, discovered by Francisco de Montejo. At the anchorage opposite San Juan de Ul˙a — the present Vera Cruz — it was not only hot and damp, but according to Bernal Diaz "there were always there many mosquitoes, both long-legged ones and small ones." The way to Cempoalla wound through tropical forest filled with birds of startling plumage and dominated throughout by the snow-crowned peak of Orizaba, "Star Mountain," gleaming in majesty to the south and west. As for the settlement itself, it was the first great town, the product of barbarism, which the Spaniards had seen. From out a plaza rose towered temples on pyramidal foundations; while the sides of the square were formed by terrace-roofed buildings of stone and adobe, the whole brilliant with white stucco.

Cempoalla was dazzling, but no less was it beautiful. Not only did it shine like silver, of which some of the Spaniards at first thought it to be constructed, but its houses were embowered in green, and against this green and the white walls beneath glowed the massed colors of tropical flowers. Roses in particular abounded. As the Spaniards entered and marched along, they were met by deputations which showered roses upon the horsemen. To CortÚs some handed bouquets, while others flung rose garlands about his neck or placed wreaths on his helmet. The foot-soldiers, too, were remembered, for to them were given pineapples, cherries, juicy zapotes, and aromatic anonas. The palace or official abode of the cacique was at length reached, and, though that personage was very sedate, he was so corpulent and shook so when he walked that the Spaniards could not be restrained from laughing at him.

Hardly had CortÚs arrived in the Cempoallan district when proof of the dread which the overlord of Ulna or Mexico inspired was dramatically revealed. Five of Montezuma's tribute men appeared. Haughty and insolent was their mien, and upon them the Cempoallans attended like slaves. "Their shining hair," says Bernal Diaz, "was gathered up as though tied on their heads, and each one was smelling the roses that he carried, and each had a crooked staff in his hand." The meaning of the visit was that Montezuma resented the fact that Cempoalla was entertaining the white strangers, especially as by the last embassy sent to CortÚs it had been made plain that their presence in Mexico was no longer desired. Expiation, therefore, was demanded, and of the Cempoallan youth, men and maids, twenty must accompany the tribute men to Ulna and yield their hearts upon the altar.


Bearing or manner, especially as it reveals an inner state of mind.

Note: "mean" is a statistical measure, an average; "mesne" is a legal reference to intermediate, middle or intervening; and "mien" is a person's way of conducting themselves.

CortÚs's purpose in Cempoalla was to cement an alliance with the Totonacs, yet to avoid as long as possible a break with the lord of Ulna. He secretly ordered the Cempoallans to throw Montezuma's envoys into prison and to withhold tribute. At the same time he ingratiated himself with Montezuma by covertly liberating the prisoners and sending them to their lord with the tale of their deliverance at his hands. Montezuma therefore reopened relations with the Spanish leader by sending a further embassy bearing presents. Upon this delegation CortÚs wrought with great effect by resorting to his never failing dependence — the horse. Verily, to the Mexicans, the neck of the horse was "clothed with thunder "; "the glory of his nostrils was terrible "; "he swallowed the ground with fierceness and rage, and said among the trumpets 'ha! ha!' "

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