The Zempoallans And Quiavistlans

Photo taken in Cempoala, State of Veracruz, Mexico

About this time, Bernal Diaz and another sentinel being stationed on the beach, at some distance from the camp, perceived five Indians of a different appearance from any hitherto seen, approaching them upon the level sands. Diaz conducted them to the general, who learned, by Marina s interpretation, that they came in behalf of the cacique of Zempoala, or Cempoal, to proffer the services of their king and his people. This tribe held the Mexicans in great fear and detestation, and rejoiced in the opportunity now presented for attempting some retaliation for former oppressions and injuries.

The exploring expedition had discovered a desirable location, at the town of Quiavistlan, a few leagues north of the encampment, and Hernando Cortez concluded to move thither immediately. Before taking further steps, he established himself more firmly in command by resigning his commission under Valasquez, and taking the vote of his followers as to whether he should be their captain. This being settled to his satisfaction, he marched for Quiavistlan, passing the river at the spot where Vera Cruz was afterwards built.

Zempoalla lay in his route, and there the army was met by a deputation from the cacique, he being too corpulent to come in person. Sweet-smelling flowers were offered as tokens of friendship to the Spanish officers. The town was well built, and ornamented with shade trees. The inhabitants collected in innumerable but orderly crowds to witness the entrance of the cavalcade. The “fat cacique” entertained his guests handsomely, making grievous complaints of the oppressions and ex actions suffered by him and his tribes at the hands of Montezuma s officers. He had been subdued by the great emperor, and was now his unwilling tributary.

Quiavistlan was situated upon a rocky eminence, up which the army advanced, prepared to crush any opposition on the part of the inhabitants. These, however, had mostly fled from their homes on the approach of the Spaniards. In the principal square, Cortez was met, and saluted with the usual fumigations of incense, by fifteen of the chief men of the town. They excused the timidity of their people, and promised that they should immediately return, as no injuries were intended by the strangers.

They came accordingly; the chiefs, together with the corpulent cacique of Zempoalla, being borne upon litters. All united in lamentations over the cruel state of degradation and servitude to which they were subjected by the tyrant Montezuma. He plundered them of their treasures, seized and carried away their wives and daughters, and sacrificed no small number of them to his gods.

While they were yet consulting and beseeching assistance from the Spaniards, the whole conclave was stricken with terror by the intelligence of the arrival of five royal emissaries or tax-gatherers. These stately personages, to whom the Quiavistlans hastened to minister with cringing servility, did not even condescend to bestow a look upon the Spanish officers. “They were dressed,” says Diaz, “in mantles elegantly wrought, and drawers of the same, their hair shining, and, as it were, tied at the top of the head, and each of them had in his hand a bunch of roses, which he occasionally smelt to. They were attended by servants, who fanned them, and each of whom carried a cord and a hooked stick.”

Calling the caciques before them, these dignitaries rebuked them for entertaining foreigners, who disregarded the expressed will of the emperor, and, as a punishment for the contempt, demanded twenty victims for sacrifice. Cortez, being informed of this, advised the seizure and imprisonment of these emissaries until report of their cruelties and insolence could be made to their master. The caciques, accustomed to submission, were at first horror-stricken at the proposal, but Cortez persisting boldly and confidently in his opinion, they went to the other extreme. The five magnates were placed, says Solis, “in a kind of pillories, used in their prisons, and very incommodious; for they held the delinquents by the neck, obliging them continually to do the utmost with their shoulders to ease the weight, for the freedom of breathing.” “One of them, also, being refractory, was beaten soundly.”

The exultant Quiavistlans would have gone still farther, and made a speedy end of their prisoners, had not Cortez interfered. Not willing to give immediate offence to Montezuma, but desirous of being in condition at any moment to pick a quarrel, or to claim the rewards and consideration due to meritorious services, he contrived to effect the escape of two of these lords, charging them to give him all credit for the act at their master s court. To preserve the other three from destruction, he took them on board one of his vessels, (the fleet having come round by sea) under pretense of safekeeping. He, none the less, pro claimed to the caciques, his allies, that they should there after be free from all oppressions and exaction on the part of the Mexican authorities.

The army was now set to work at the foundation of a permanent fortification and town. By the willing assistance of the natives, the walls of Vera Cruz rose rapidly. To excite a spirit of industry and emulation, Cortez commenced the work of digging and carrying materials with his own hands. Thirty caciques, from the mountainous districts of the Totonaques, led by reports of Spanish valor and virtues, came in to offer their services and alliance. Their followers are numbered by Herrera (an author who speaks too confidently of particulars) at one hundred thou sand men; wild mountaineers, but bold and efficient.

While all hands were at work upon the new town, messengers once again appeared from Montezuma. His anger, greatly excited by the first reports of the seizure of his officers, had been mitigated by the favorable report of those who had been allowed to escape; and he now sent two of his own nephews, accompanied by four old lords, and a splendid retinue. Acknowledgments were made by the embassy for the service rendered by Cortez in setting the two tax-gatherers at liberty; but he was, at the same time, vehemently requested to leave the country, and not hinder, by the respect due to his presence, the just punishment of the rebels with whom he was cohabiting. He was adjured not to dream of making further progress towards the royal court, ” for that the impediments and dangers of that journey were very great. On which point they enlarged with a mysterious tediousness; this being the principal point of their instructions.”

Cortez replied that danger and difficulties would but give zest to the adventure, for that Spaniards knew no fear, and only sought for glory and renown. He entertained the ministers handsomely, and dismissed them with presents.

The Zempoalans thought that the friendship cemented between them and the foreigners could not be taken ad vantage of better than by engaging them to subdue a neighboring tribe, whose chief town was called Cingapacinga. They therefore induced Cortez, by pretending that a troublesome Mexican garrison was quartered there, to assist them in conquering the country. With four hundred Spaniards, and a great company of Zempoalans, the Spanish leader entered the mountain district where the enemy was to be sought. As the army approached the town, eight old priests, in black and hooded robes, like friars, came out to deprecate his anger. These functionaries presented, as usual, the most disgusting and horrible appearance. Their long hair was tangled and clotted with, human blood, which it was a part of their rules should never be washed off, and their persons were filthy, loath some, and offensive beyond conception.

Cortez discovered that he had been deceived, as no Mexicans were in the vicinity, but he put a good face on the matter, and succeeded in making a peaceable arrangement between the rival tribes.

Returning to Zempoala, renewed evidence was brought before the eyes of this zealous Catholic, of the extent to which the custom of human sacrifice was carried; and especially of the sale and consumption of the bodies of the victims as a “sacred food.” He therefore concluded to prostrate the idols, and set up the insignia of the true religion. Long and earnest harangues failed to induce the natives to perform this service themselves: they would be cut to pieces, they said, ere they would be guilty of such sacrilege. The soldiers then broke up and destroyed the images, purged the temples, and, covering the bloody marks of pagan worship with lime and plaster, erected an altar, and celebrated the rites of Catholicism. As no prodigy or signal vengeance from Heaven followed the audacious act, the pliable natives seemed readily to fall in with the proposed change, and, burning the fragments of their idols, they aped the posture and formula of the devout Spaniards. An old and partially disabled soldier, named Torres, agreed to remain as keeper of the newly consecrated temple, on the departure of the troops.

Execution Of Qualpopoca And His Companions

Meanwhile, Qualpopoca, the governor of the district where Juan de Escalente lost his life, was sent for, together with his associate officers. When they arrived, Cortez was allowed by Montezuma to punish them at his own discretion, and the inhuman monster caused them to be burned alive in the sight of the populace. The fuel used for this purpose consisted of the royal stores of arrows, darts, and other warlike implements. Still further to quell the spirit of the king, fetters were placed upon his ankles during the execution of this cruel sentence.

The people of Mexico could not be blinded to the true position of their sovereign, and it was not long before ominous signs appeared of a general determination to avenge his wrongs, and vindicate the insulted honor of the nation. The young lord of the ancient and powerful city of Tezcuco was foremost in arousing this spirit of resistance, but by artifice and treachery he fell into the hands of the Spaniards, and his brother was proclaimed governor in his stead.

The king was brought so low as to consent to acknowledge himself a subject of the Spanish emperor; and he delivered up to Cortez treasures of gold and silver, to the amount, according to computation, of more than six mil lions of dollars, as a present to his new sovereign. But a small portion of this wealth was reserved to be sent to Spain; the rest was divided among the conquerors, the chiefs and officers appropriating the lion s share.

The next movement was to establish the Christian ceremonies of worship upon the very site so long venerated as the palace of the great god of war. After strong opposition, a portion of the area on the summit of the chief temple was set apart for the Spaniards use in the solemnities of their religion, while the blood-stained idol and the stone of sacrifice maintained their old position.

At these sacrilegious innovations, the whole populace became more and more exasperated. Montezuma warned his oppressors of the storm that would break upon them, declaring that if he should but give the sign, his whole people would rise as one man to release him and destroy the hated whites. The unfortunate monarch seems to have been distracted and overcome by emotions of the most conflicting nature. For some of the Spanish officers he had contracted no small degree of personal attachment, while he must have felt continually galled by the restraint placed upon his person, and by the consciousness that he was now but a tool in the hands of the proud invaders of his dominions. The mildness and dignity of his demeanor excited sympathy and respect from his jailers, and Cortez exacted the utmost deference and respect towards his captive from all around him.

The prudent general saw the necessity for every precaution against an attack from the natives, and, to guard against his retreat being cut off, on such a contingency, had two vessels built and furnished from the stores saved from the dismantled fleet. Living upon an island, it was in the power of the natives at any time to destroy the bridges and causeys, by which alone there was communication with the main.

At this crisis, when all his energies were required to resist the fury of an outraged multitude of barbarians around him, Cortez heard of danger from another source, which moved him more deeply than any hostilities on the part of the Mexicans.

History, Zempoala,


Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864.

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