This piece is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either invented or used fictitiously.
I, Hernan Cortes, was a god. So believed the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma. I used my power to seize the emperor's territory and wealth for my God and the King of Spain.
Spain needed gold. I needed gold. As a conquistador in the new World, I resided in Cuba and heard rumors that great empires on the mainland possessed huge repositories of treasure, including gold. Disgusted with kowtowing to Governor Velazquez and his greedy daughter, Catalina (my wife), I acquired 11 boats and 500 men for an expedition to the Yucatan peninsula to establish my own exploration base.
EXPEDITION TO THE YUCATAN
We set sail and first stopped off the Yucatan coast at Cozumel. To my good fortune, we came upon Geronimo Aguilar, a shipwreck survivor who had lived with the Mayan Indians. It pleased meto offer him employment with my excursion; I felt that he could be of great use to me as an interpreter. Then we sailed around the peninsula into the western part of the Bahia de Campech, where we disembarked. The Mayans there greeted us with friendliness and so we stayed and built a settlement, which we named Veracruz.
One of the Mayan chiefs made me the gift of a striking young slave woman whom I named Dona Marina. Again, I felt blessed with good fortune, for Dona Marina possessed knowledge of many tribal languages, including Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs). When emisarries of various tribes travelled through Veracruz, Dona Marina helped me greatly by translating our conversations. From emissaries of neighboring city-states that the Aztec emperor had conquered, we learned that many tribes felt great enmity toward him and all Aztecs.
"Emperor Moctezuma lives in his empire's enormous capital city, Tenochtitlan. It's perched like a bowl atop an island in Lake Texcoco," they said. "The feared, powerful ruler enjoys the loyalty of tens of thousands of Aztec warriors. His empire extends from the northern dry regions to Guatemala in the South, and from the Gulf of the Mexica to the Pacific Ocean." They stretched their arms wide, demonstrating the expansiveness of their foe's empire.
One day Moctezuma's own envoys happened upon Veracruz enroute to Aztec territories. With every gesture of their hands and arms, thin bracelets of silver--and armbands of gold--flashed in the sunlight.
"If mere emissaries ornament themselves so lavishly, the treasures of Moctezuma must be great, indeed," I whispered to Dona Marina.
Later, Emperor Moctezuma sent envoys and porters laden with gifts to Veracruz especially for me. Chests overflowed brightly with the reds, yellows, turquoise, and greens of fabrics. Golden sculptures of birds and animals spilled from reed baskets. The porters' muscles bulged as they hefted cartwheel-sized disks of gold and silver. I could not resist stroking these with my palms. Into a basket of sparkling gemstones and rings I plunged my hands, grasping handfuls and letting them slip through my fingers.
"What message do you bring from your emperor?" I asked.
"He says, 'May you live long - in Veracruz.'"
Using the resentment of the neighboring tribes to my advantage, I allied with hundres of Totoncallies and 3,000 Tlaxcalan warriors to fight Moctezuma and his Aztecs. En route to Tenochtitlan, we and 300 of my Spanish soldiers arrived at Cholula, the second-largest city in the Aztec empire. By tricking the chiefs and leaders to gather in the public square, we ambushed them and a large crowd of citizens killing, in a single assault, all the leaders of the city and its warriors.
We carried on to the capital. As we rode onto the causeway, the grand city rose before us out of the water. We could only stop to stare in astonishment. Many cities and villages had been built both upon the water and upon dry land. We saw high towers, pyramids and other large buildings--all made of masonry and painted in brilliant colors. Heaped with goods and loaded with people, canoes numbering in the hundreds bustled in the canals.
Prepared to fight a battle, I was surprised when Moctezuma approached in a litter carried by only a few attendants. He alighted and preceded by slaves who swept the ground before him, walked toward me. He bowed to me and welcomed me and my army graciously.
Addressing me in a manner that puzzled me, he said, "Quetzel, Great White God from the east. We exist only to serve You. Please enjoy Your visit by staying in Tenoch Palace. It is staffed with slaves whose only wishes are to obey Your commands and to see to Your comforts."
After we exchanged gifts of necklaces, he accompanied us to our palace. Later, he sent more gifts of jewels, gold and silver to me. I imagined how pleased my avaricious wife in Santiago would be to adorn herself with these riches. Vain as she was, she would enjoy too to wear the gifts of head ornaments made of red, green, yellow, and turquoise feathers.
My soldiers and I easily settled into our palace and enjoyed the hospitality of our royal host. As we all roamed the city on horseback, Dona Marina informed me that she overheard the Aztecs speak of their astonishment about our mounts--the people had never before seen horses. They said that hoof beats on the cobblestones sounded like the loud noise of "stones raining on the ground."
The citizens, following the example of their leader's hospitality, were only too happy to show us the marvels of their city. A large number of beautiful edifices--its temples--housed the Aztecs' hundreds of idols. Men in charge of the worship of each of these lived in the principal ones. They dressed all in black and never cut or combed their hair for the duration of their religious positions. Moreover, their vocation demanded that they abstain from eating certain foods and live without the pleasure of any female society whatever.
RELIGIOUS CONVERSION OF MOCTEZUMA
One temple, its architecture so grand, stood out from all the others. A towering wall surrounded it, and it had enough space to hold a municipality of 500 families. The religious leaders lived in the large halls and corridors. Forty well-built towers, the mausoleums for Aztecs nobles, rose into the air, the highest one exceeding the height of the principal tower of the church at Seville back home. The interior of its vast chambers housing the idols were decorated with odd images designed in stone, with plaster ceilings and woodwork carved in relief, and painted with figures of monsters and other fearsome creatures.
Three halls in this temple contained the principal idols, which were enormous in size and of amazing craftsmanship. They were adorned with figures sculpted in stone and wood. The sight of them filled me with abhorrence. Selecting the idols that the Aztecs most worshipped, I heaved them off their pedestals and smashed them. By my actions, I purified the chambers: all the idols had been fouled with the blood of human sacrifice. Then, I replaced the unclean idols with images of Our Lady and the Saints, much to the consternation of Moctezuma and the temple dwellers.
"If they knew what you did, the people would attack you," Moctezuma reproached. "For hundreds of years, the people believed that their Gods bestowed on them their daily needs, and that if the Gods were mistreated, They would become angry and withhold Their abundance; the Aztecs feared deprivation of their Gods' favors, and death from famine and scarcity." He gazed at me with sorrowful eyes.
How I welcomed this opportunity to teach the Aztecs about Christianity. This would be sure to win me favors with King Carlos in Spain.
"Moctezuma, we Spaniards worship one God, the Lord of all, Creator of all, the One who is without beginning and who is forever." I raised my eyes towards the heavens.
"Great White God from the east," he said, "our ancestors emigrated to this valley many years ago and after so long an absence from their native land, it is likely that our later generations have strayed from the truth. Oh, my Lord Quetzel, You have more recently arrived--nay, returned--and You know best what we must believe. Please instruct us in the true faith." He kneeled before me.
I felt surprised by the good emperor's contrite attitude. Powerful ruler that he was, Moctezuma was unexpectedly submissive. Though puzzled by the honor with which he continued to address me, I felt pleased.
I looked down at him. "Moctezuma," I said. "I forbid the human sacrifice."
"So that's where I have erred," he said, rising to gaze with shame at the bloodstained fragments of the idols below. The Lord Quetzel has returned to admonish me for following the practice He had abhorred centuries ago. I obey Your will." Again he bowed.
LIFE AND CUSTOMS IN THE CITY
My soldiers and I observed the grandeur of the houses in Tenochtitlan. In addition to living quarters, they contained entire upper and lower floors that served as conservatories for flowers! Flowers seemed important to the people; they always held fragrant blooms in front of their faces when they spoke with us. The city residents enjoyed an abundant supply of excellent water which reached them by way of aqueducts. They used huge amounts for bathing--and for washing the streets. In fact, thousands of slave workers watered and swept the streets daily.
We noticed that the Aztecs paid more attention to styilized clothing and etiquette than the people we had encountered in other provinces and cities. This was likely due to the presence of the emperor and his nobles in the capital. The people wore plenty of jewelery, magnificent representations of nature carefully sculpted in rare stones, gold, silver and feathers.
No castles in Spain equaled the size and beauty of Moctezuma's palaces. These too were decorated with gold, silver, and precious stones. One--a palace inferior to the others--boasted a beautiful garden, with balconies extending over it and supported by marble columns. Its elegant floor was made of jasper artistically inlaid. The huge apartments inside were large enough to house high-ranking princes and their retinues. All manner of waterfowl floated on ten crystalline pools gracing part of the palace grounds. Three hundred men worked to care for the birds.
Another palace contained Moctezuma's zoo, including huge cages for birds of prey, like many seen in Spain. And yet another palace housed giants and dwarfs and people of deformity, who enjoyed the attentive care of the emperor' slaves.
Like all else he did, Moctezuma conducted his daily routine on a grand scale. At sunrise, 600 nobles and men of high rank attended at his palace, though not always with the emperor in his apartments. The servants and attendants of all 600 stayed in the courtyards until sundown. Moctezuma opened his dining hall to all who wished to eat and drink. This was just as well for every day, his cooks prepared 300 different dishes for his selection, and it was highly unlikely he chose them all! This huge menu contained such delicacies as snakes, grasshoppers, and Chihuahua dogs. Great quantities of pulque were consumed as well. The Aztecs made this strong liquor from the milky juices of the agave, also called maguey cactus. More than 300 youths served the meals, providing also clean napkins, plates, serving dishes, and water for hand washing for each course.
Moctezuma wore four different suits of clothing each day; he never wore one more than once. When people approached him, they bowed their heads and their bodies; they avoided looking him in the face when speaking to him, in this way demonstrating their humility and respect. When the emperor appeared in the city streets, people either turned away without looking at him or prostrated themselves until he passed.
Our idylls in the magnificence of Moctezuma's environs ended when I received news that Aztec warriors had attacked my men in Veracruz. To protect my soldiers in Tenochtitlan, I took Moctezuma hostage. Ever the appeaser, the esteemed emperor allowed us to plunder his storehouses of gold. My dreams of wealth had come true.
I ruled the city by making use of my captive's authority, and waited for an opportune time to defeat the populace with force. Later, while I was in Veracruz and occupied with its problems, Pedro de Alverado, my lieutenant in Tenochtitlan, learned that the Aztecs had plotted against the Spaniards there. He ordered and attack against unarmed citizens celebrating the greatest of the Aztec festivals at the Templo Mayor, and massacred 8,000 people. I credited him and my soldiers with preventing the rituals of human sacrifice and cannibalism that would otherwise have taken place that day.
Bernal Diaz described to me the sacrifice ritual that was occurring when my soldiers arrived at the temple. "It was the most terrible and frightful thing we had ever seen. On the altars stood stinking idols with evil-looking bodies. To ensure that their pleas to the idols were acceptable, the priests seized many boys, girls, and adults, and standing before the grotesque idols, they cut open the victims' chests--when they were still alive. The priests removed the still-beating hearts and the entrails, and then burnt them before the idols, offering the smoke as sacrifice."
The Aztecs in Tenochtitlan retaliated against my soldiers by attacking them until my men retreated to Moctezuma's palace for his protection. Soon I returned to the capital with more Spanish forces and Tlaxcalan allies. The streets were deserted, allowing my army and I to reach Moctezuma's palace easily. However, it was there that the Aztecs were angrily gathered, still armed for battle. They permitted Major Salinos Gomez and I to enter and speak with the emperor.
"Moctezuma. You must stop your people from revolting against us. Go out and talk to them." I raised him from his chair and led him to the balcony.
"Lord Quetzel, I obey." He bowed low.
Moctezuma made his way to the edge of the balcony. Silent at first, he straightened his back and squared his shoulders; he raised his right arm high to signal for quiet.
"My people; Lord Quetzel's people: Treat your White-skinned God with deference. It is His desire to live with us in peace in Tenochtitlan. You are honored by His presence. I am honored by His presence. I shall cease the practice of human sacrifice. Lord Quetzel has returned to remind me that it is His wish, just as it was when He ruled centuries ago."
The crowd of warriors grumbled amongst themselves, and then their rumblings grew to a roar.
"Traitor! Stone him. Stone him," they shouted, suiting their actions to their words. Stones struck Moctezuma in the chest, the belly and his head. He fell and gasped his final breaths. The emperor who called me Lord Quetzel had died."