Hernan Cortes Arrives in Mexico

It is spring, 1519. A Spanish expedition consisting of 11 ships is setting sail westward in hopes of expanding the Empire. News had reached Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, that some of his men had found land past the oceanic horizon where the sun sets. Velasquez appointed Hernan Cortes as Captain-General of the Armada and sent him off to follow the rumor.

Cortes may not have been the most qualified to lead the expedition. Though he was experienced and renowned for his courage, another reason for his appointment was his promise to help finance the expedition. Cortes emptied his personal wealth and poured it into the trip. He mortgaged his lands. He called on friends to both help prepare for the trip and to join his small army.

508 soldiers sailed from Cuba with Cortes in search of new wealth. What had motivated these men to leave Spain in search of rumors? Many of them were Spaniards who had arrived at the end of the Cuban "land grab". The first Spaniards to arrive in Cuba were given land and Taino Indians to use as slave labor. Latecomers, however, found little bounty left for them. Some of them lived in poor and overpopulated regions of Spain, and wished to find breathing room. They had learned their lesson: they now set sail with Cortes to be the first Spaniards to reap the wealth that new lands brought.

The first land Cortes and his crew spotted was the coast of Yucatan, at one time the central nervous system of the Mayan empire. Although never a fully unified empire, distinct groups of Mayans occupied these areas, all sharing cultural characteristics such as a highly developed calendar, a complex writing system, and sophisticated mathematics. Even today, the Maya occupy some of these same lands and heartily preserve their significant cultures and languages.

Meanwhile, General Alvarado, one of Cortes' men who had traveled ahead, attacked a Maya temple. Cortes reprimanded the general: it was impetuous aggression like this that could bring their expedition to a disastrous and quick end. At Punta Catoche, Cortes came across Aguilar, a man who had survived a shipwreck and spent nine years as a slave to a warlord. Cortes enlisted the man; his knowledge of Maya would be invaluable to the explorer.

At Champoton, the first shots were fired against the Tabasco natives. The natives quickly surrendered to Cortes' superior military power and supplied the Spaniards with goods and, more importantly, an interpreter named Doña Malintzin. They then settled the city of Santa Maria de la Victoria and departed Yucatan towards San Juan de Ulúa.

Cortes was unaware of the spiritual implications that surrounded his expedition. His arrival in the Americas coincided perfectly with the predicted return of the Plumed Serpent named Quetzalcoatl, the Aztecs main god, credited with creating Man and teaching the use of metals and the cultivation of the land.

The expectation among the Aztecs about the return of Quetzalcoatl was considerable. Cortes’ armada arrived at Veracruz on Holy Thursday of 1519. Moctezuma Xocoyotzin II contemplated how to approach the strangers, one of whom could be Quetzalcoatl. Ruling Tenochtitlan from 1502 to 1520, Moctezuma was devoutly religious and well-read in the ancient doctrines.

Moctezuma sent envoys to greet the newcomers, and the Spaniard fired shots to intimidate the greeting party. Reports went back to Moctezuma, saying: "The noise weakened one, dizzied one. Something like a stone came out of their weapons in a shower of fire and sparks. The smoke was foul; it had a sickening, fetid smell." Another message characterized the visitors as people with "very light skin, much lighter than ours. They all have long beards, and their hair comes only to their ears"

The envoys also described the visitors, who traveled on horseback, as beasts with "two heads and six legs". Montezuma decided to meet Cortés, who ultimately, aware of his superiority, conquered Tenochtitlán. In comparison to the British colonization that occurred later in the north, the Spaniards wanted to colonize the entire continent. The British inhabited the continent more slowly and less ambitiously. Cortes viewed the death of Indians as a tragedy, considering they could help the Spanish crown tap the resources of the land. The British, on the other hand, interpreted the death of Indians as divine help to further the English cause.

The Spanish regarded Indians as subjects of the Crown. When possible, they were converted to Christianity and taught useful crafts in order to ensure their contribution to the Spanish colonization efforts. The British viewed the Indians as aliens and made no attempt to accept them into their colonization plans, with the notable exception of colonists William Penn and Roger Williams, two populists who championed religious tolerance, a liberal government and the fair treatment of Indians.

Spain exerted strict control of immigration into their new land. They excluded heretics, attempted to uphold the purity of the Spanish ruling stock and fervently guarded the resources of the newly conquered lands. As a result, the Spanish colonization of North America promoted a mainly Spanish and Indian culture in the southern portion.

The British, on the other hand, were more liberal in regards to who entered the New World. "Come one, come all" described their philosophy. They had come to create a New World and populate it with whomever was willing to contribute. Since the Indians in Mexico had been forced to submit to their conquerors, the British accepted the Spanish as simply another ruler. The Indians to the north never accepted the new government of the British.

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