Chronicles of America 

Cortés and the Tabasco Indians

At this time there was no knowledge in the Indies of the fate of the Valdivia party, but on the Córdoba expedition Indians of Campeche had saluted the Spaniards with the word " Castilan," and this was deemed significant. At any rate after much inquiry on the Yucatán coast and much dispatching of messengers inland, Aguilar appeared, though Guerrero did not. Provided thus with a reliable interpreter — for Melchor and Julian had proved wanting and Aguilar was willing — Cortés early in March set sail with his fleet for the country of the cacique Tabasco.

The halting point of the Spaniards was an island in the Tabasco or Grijalva River, but when they sought to establish themselves on the mainland, christened by Cortés "New Spain, " they were vigorously withstood. A fight took place on the 25th of March, and fortune was turned in favor of the Spaniards and against overwhelming bodies of Indians by the artillery and the horses.

In Darien, where the natives were lower in the scale of barbarism than in Yucatán and Mexico, Balboa had already won triumphs by the aid of powerful dogs. But to the east of the Gulf of Urabá, that region of the poisoned arrow, dogs had not been found effective; and in Yucatánand Mexico — where the missiles most in use were darts, javelins, slingstones, and the obsidian-edged sword-club or macuahuitl — dogs, save for hunting purposes, were eschewed. What in Darien was accomplished by the dog was accomplished in the region farther west by the horse.


macuahuitl (or maquahuitl) was an Aztec obsidian-edged sword-club. It served both as an edged weapon (due to its obsidian blades) and an impact weapon (due to its stout hardwood body). The macuahuitl was also self sharpening. It was capable of easily cleaving to bone. According to Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, it was also capable of decapitating a horse. Though sharper than a steel weapon, it was less durable as the obsidian blades cracked more easily.

Aztec warriors as shown in the 16th century Florentine Codex. Note that each warrior is brandishing a maquahuitl.Although the macuahuitl could cleave like a sword, it lacked a point and could not be used for thrusting. It balanced like a club instead of sword. These were shortcomings and placed the Aztecs at a disadvantage when fighting against Spanish sword-and-target men.

All recovered Aztec accounts concerning the macuahuitl describe it as a one-handed weapon, generally to be used with a shield. However, many Spanish accounts describe it as being used with two-hands as well.

Macuahuitl - Wikipedia

At Tabasco; or rather on the plain of Ceutla near by, the horses, supported by the cannon, therefore won the day. The Indians, who "covered the whole plain," who "wore great feather crests" and "quilted cotton armor," who carried "drums and trumpets" and rained upon their foe arrows, javelins, and stones, were finally hemmed in between the Spanish guns, which ploughed through their masses, and the Spanish horse, who under Cortés himself speared them down, and so were brought to a stand. In the eyes of the terrorized barbarians the guns with their thunder and lightning were a marvel; but the horsemen were a greater marvel still for they were each a living monster, horse and rider, in the words of Bernal Diaz, "being all one animal."

It was at the close of this battle that the Tabascans, suing for peace, brought to Cortés twenty young women, among them Dona Marina, as she came to be known — "a truly great chiefteness, a daughter of caciques and a mistress of vassals." Marina was Aztec, but as a little girl had been given by her mother to the Indians of Tabasco in order to make way for the succession of a half-brother to the headship of her tribe. Cortés at first did not bestow upon her especial notice, merely assigning her to "a distinguished gentleman." What made her fortune was her knowledge of both Nahua and Maya speech, combined with her intelligence. The rescued Aguilar, who spoke the Maya of Yucatán and Tabasco, readily understood the Maya of Tabasco as spoken by Marina. So, as it proved, the chain of tongues indispensable to Cortés was complete — Marina translating Aztec Nahua into Tabascan Maya, which Aguilar in turn put into Castilian Spanish.

Cortés, who no less than Columbus was devout, spent Palm Sunday of the year 1519 at Tabasco, where a religious procession was held and mass was sung, and where the Indians were stoutly exhorted to give up their bloody sacrifices and idols. The fleet then set sail and by Holy Thursday was at the island of San Juan de Ulna. Here the Spaniards first came to a definite knowledge of the existence and importance of Montezuma. It is true that at Tabasco Grijalva had heard of a Culúa, or Ulúa, "where there was plenty of gold"; but, in the words of the chronicler, "we did not know what this Culúa could be."

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