Chronicles of America 

Córdoba and Grijalva Expeditions

In 1516, because of the continued famine in Darien, Governor Pedrarias gave leave to his silken host, as many as wished, to go to Cuba, where provisions were not lacking. And one hundred and ten went. Velasquez met them cordially and promised them land if they would wait for vacancies, but they were tired of a passive role and craved activity. Slave catching, though contrary to law, was at this time practiced in the island, and it no doubt was with the profits from such an enterprise in view that the Darien arrivals made ready an expedition which would serve as an outlet for their energies. They chartered two vessels, Velasquez, it is said, contributing a third, and on February 8, 1517, with Hernandez de Córdoba, now a rich planter of Santo Espiritu, as captain, unfurled their sails from San Cristóbal, the old Habana.

Whither should they fare? Their chief pilot counseled adventuring straight into the west, into the region of the people who "wore clothes." The squadron, about the 1st or 2d of March, reached the island of Las Mugeres (Island of Women), and on the 4th landed at Point Catoche, the extreme northeasterly limit of Yucatan. Their next landing was at Champotón, in Campeche, whence they tediously worked their way back to San Cristóbal by way of the peninsula of Florida. On this expedition the Spaniards were roughly handled by the natives. Both Córdoba and Bernal Diaz were wounded, the former so severely that soon after reaching Cuba he died. But the invaders succeeded in bringing away two youths whom they named, respectively, Melchor and Julian, and to whom they taught Spanish, that they might serve as interpreters.

Foiled as to slave catching but curious regarding Yucatan, the Cuban settlers by 1518 were ready for a second adventure into the west, and this time it was Velasquez who took the lead. He managed to add two vessels to two others left from the expedition of Córdoba, enlisted some two hundred and fifty men, and appointed Juan de Grijalva commander-in-chief. Sail was made from Santiago de Cuba on the 8th of April, with Alaminos once more as chief pilot, and on the 3d of May the fleet gained, to the southward of Point Catoche, a large island called Cozumel (Island of Swallows). By the last of the month the expedition had passed Lake Terminos, and by the 18th of June various rivers of Tabasco, such as Rio de Grijalva and Rio de Banderas, and various islands off Mexico, including San Juan de Ulúa and Isla de Sacrificios. They made a landing where now stands the city of Vera Cruz.

Grijalva, under the orders given him, might trade in any regions discovered, but he might not colonize, and, as the country everywhere by its aspect invited to colonization, Alvarado on the 24th of June was permitted to sail for Cuba to carry back the sick, report progress, and, if possible, obtain permission to form settlements.

Meanwhile Grijalva followed the Mexican coast as far north as Cape Rojo, whence, returning to Yucatan, he sailed for Cuba, reaching Matanzas about the 1st of November.

On both the Córdoba and Grijalva expeditions the Spaniards were impressed by divers things, but more than with anything else by the scenery, the sacrificial mounds, and the stone temples. On every island, and dotting the coast of the mainland, were to be seen mounds pyramidal in form, ascended by stone steps, and surmounted by temple towers of squat masonry. The towers gleamed white, and over them floated the smoke of incense and of sacrifice. At Campeche, Córdoba saw many temples or "prayer-places" wetted within with fresh blood. From each there swarmed angrily forth half a score of priests, armed with braziers, and clad in white mantles down which fell their hair, long, black, and disheveled — so matted and clotted with blood, from their own ears lacerated in penance, that one strand could not be separated from another. Indeed the farther to the west the Spaniards fared — the closer their approach, that is to say, to the Nahua tribes of Mexico as distinguished from the Maya of Yucatan — the more the evidences of human sacrifices multiplied.

"Why," asked Grijalva of a Tabasco Indian, "this ripping open of human bodies and offering of bloody hearts to hungry gods?" "Because," was the reply, "the people of Ulúa [by which was meant Mexico] will have it so."

When, in November, 1518, Grijalva reached Cuba — then called Isla Fernandina — he found himself most undeservedly out of favor. He was young, handsome, and chivalric, but above all conscientious, so conscientious that Las Casas tells us he would have made a good monk. Having been ordered not to plant colonies, he had obeyed. But obedience proved to be his undoing, for, angered by it, his subordinates, particularly Alvarado, whom he had reproved, had misrepresented him to Velásquez, and already that grasping ruler had decided upon a new voyage in which Grijalva was not to share.

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