Chronicles of America 

Hernan Cortés

For this new voyage Velásquez sought a commander of quite supermundane qualities — one astute and valiant enough to achieve rare deeds and at the same time subservient enough to give all the honors and emoluments to Velasquez. The Governor, profiting by Grijalva's labors, had already on the 13th of November secured for himself the adelantadoship of all that "he had discovered" in the West or "might thereafter discover" there, and his solicitude to make just the right choice of a commander was intense. Then, as not seldom in human affairs, stepped in Fate —ironical, mocking Fate. To Diego Velasquez, tremulous with apprehension lest he choose wrongly for himself, Fate dictated the selection of Hernan Cortés!

It has been said that the rise of Cortés was due to the third voyage of Columbus; and the statement is true in that his rise was part of the movement following upon Columbus's pearl discoveries — a movement which, through Nicuesa and Ojeda, begat Balboa; and, through Balboa, begat Pedrarias; and, through Pedrarias, those activities in Cuba which resulted in the expeditions of Córdoba and Grijalva. Apropos of Columbus, in this connection, regret at times has found voice that it was not he who conquered Mexico rather than Cortés. There, it is said, he would have found fulfillment of his dream of gold, if not of spicery, in measure far more complete than in Asia and India, for in the fifteenth century the Cathay of Marco Polo, as also Polo's Cipangu, were vanished things. But to each his task. The Mexican conquest called for traits at least one of which, ruthlessness, Columbus did not possess. It called, that is to say, for the traits which were peculiarly Spanish, and it called for all of them — for ruthlessness, for pride, for devoutness, and for romanticism. These traits, combined and coordinated in a unique manner, belonged to Cortés.

Hernan Cortés was born in Medellin, in Extremadura, in 1485. His parents were — as who in those days in Spain was not? — of noble descent though poor. As he was delicate in health, he was destined for the law. At fourteen he entered the University of Salamanca, where he remained two years, acquiring a smattering of Latin and some ease in rhetoric. On leaving the university he looked about him. He might join the banner of the Great Captain, Córdoba, as had been the frustrated purpose of so many of the followers of Pedrarias, or he might go to the Indies. The Indies were his choice, and thither in 1504 he took passage.

This was the period just subsequent to the coming of Nicolás de Ovando to Espanola as Governor, and Cortés after some hesitation was induced by Ovando to become a planter. In 1510 he would have joined Nicuesa on his Veragua (Castilla del Oro) expedition, but was prevented by an abscess under the right knee. In 1511 Diego Velásquez, who admired his intelligence, took him to Cuba as business adviser or private secretary. Cortés was young and famed for his amorous gallantries. According to reports not altogether illuminating, his " affairs " in Cuba involved him in discord with Velásquez. Catalina Suárez was the name of one of his inamoratas, and her he married. By 1518 Velásquez, despite differences, had appointed him alcalde at Santiago de Cuba. Cortés was now thirty-three. He was of medium stature, compact and muscular, and had dark eyes, good features, a short beard, and legs a trifle bowed. Outwardly he was frank and vivacious, but inwardly he was calculating and self-contained.

Since 1516 in Espanola, Diego Columbus, as Admiral and Governor, had been under the supervisory authority of three monks, known as the Jeronimite Fathers, who had been sent to the Indies at the instance of Las Casas to temper somewhat with mercy the dealings of Spaniards with the natives, and it was necessary to obtain from them sanction for enterprises such as that for which Velásquez had selected Cortés. Velásquez obtained the requisite sanction and, on the 23d of October, before Grijalva's own return from the west, he issued instructions authorizing (as in Grijalva's case) exploration but not colonization.

Cortés was now energy itself. He mortgaged his estate; he secured a large contribution from Velásquez; he stuck a plume in his bonnet; he hoisted a banner; he issued proclamations. By these means and by enacting throughout a jovial role, he gathered out of Cuba and Jamaica eleven vessels, 508 soldiers, and 109 seamen by February 10, 1519. But there were difficulties, and the gravest of these was a distrust of Cortés which was more and more perceptibly defining itself in the mind of the Governor.

Like the chorus in the drama of antiquity, the fool or jester of early modern drama performed a work of prognosis. He forecast the issue. Such a fool Diego Columbus had about him, officially, in the person of a sharp-witted dwarf named Francisquillo. This oracle, unlike the fool in Lear, did not say openly to his master: "Thou had'st little wit in thy bald crown when thou gav'st thy golden one away, " but he said what was equivalent to it. To Velásquez — as one day, along with Cortés, he surveyed the harbor of Santiago alive with the preparation of Cortés's fleet — Francisquillo, who was capering about, exclaimed: "Have a care, Diego, Diego, lest this Estremaduran captain of yours make off with the fleet!" Herein, it is said, the distrust on the part of Velásquez took its rise.

Cortés did not slink from Santiago with his ships in the night. He left openly in the daytime after embracing the Governor, but he was nevertheless closely watched. Indeed Velásquez's distrust of him continued to grow, for he made frantic efforts to supersede him at Trinidad and to stop him and apprehend him at San Cristóbal.

In his train Cortés took a notable band of Spanish gentlemen — ten stanch captains each in command of a company, with himself in command of the eleventh. The arms carried were thirty-two crossbows, thirteen firelocks, and an outfit of swords and spears, the whole reënforced by artillery in the form of ten bronzed guns — breechloaders! — and four falconets. But above and beyond all else were sixteen noble horses, about which more anon. The general rendezvous was Cape San Antonio, the most westerly point of Cuba, whence on the 18th of February the expedition —all save Pedro de Alvarado's ship, which was driven aside by tempest — set its prows for Cozumel.

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