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Everything being thus settled, Cortes left to explore other countries along the same coast. They visited the gulf noted by Alaminos during the voyage of Grijalva, and named it the Bay of San Juan; bay in the Spanish being the same thing as gulf. A mile from the bank was a walled town, containing about five hundred houses, built upon a hill. The inhabitants offered hospitality and the half of their town, if the Spaniards cared to stay permanently. It is probable that they were frightened by what had happened to the inhabitants of Potonchan, the news of which had reached them, and they hoped to secure protection of such heroes against their neighbours, for they likewise are afflicted by that malady which never disappears, and is in some fashion inborn in humanity; like all men, they thirst for dominion. The Spaniards refused to stop there permanently but agreed to make a halt.1 When they returned to the coast the people followed them and quickly built huts of green branches covered by improvised roofs against the rain. On that spot the Spaniards pitched their camp. To provide them with occupation Cortes commanded the pilot Alaminos and Francisco Montejo to explore the country towards the west, and meantime his weary men rested and those who had been wounded at Potonchan were cared for.
Fifty men embarked upon the two brigantines, the other soldiers remaining behind with the chief. Up to that time the gulf current had moderated, but hardly had the Spaniards advanced somewhat to the west, than they were seized, as it were, by a torrent rushing down from a mountain. The force of the waters was such that in a very short time they were carried fifty leagues away from their companions. They were next caught in a countercurrent, and before them stretched a vast extent of sea, running contrary to the waves coming from the west; so that it seemed as though two great rivers were flowing in opposite directions and coming into conflict with one another. The current flowing from the south seemed to resist, as does the first owner of the soil resist enemies who seek to invade his property.
Spaniards throughout. She bore Cortes one son, Martin, and a daughter; possibly other children. In 1524 she was married to a Spanish soldier Juan Xaramillo and in the year 1537 she was still living. Consult Alaman, Disertaciones Histaricas; also MacNutt's Letters of Cortes. Appendix I. to Second Letter, vol. i.
1 Cortes landed on Good Friday which fell that year on April 21st.
Along the horizon directly in front of them the Spaniards beheld the land, but neither to the right nor the left was anything visible. They drifted about in this terrible whirlpool, and were driven first in one direction and then in another by waves which threatened to engulf them. All hope was lost and doubt prevailed; finally they decided to sail back over the current that had brought them thither. They set all their sails and even used oars, but it was with the greatest difficulty they could master the current; and when they thought they had advanced two leagues, they found that in the course of one night they had been carried back four. With the help of God, they succeeded, but they had lost twenty-two days in the course of this little maritime expedition. Rejoining their companions they recounted what had happened, believing that they had found the extremity of the land of Coluacan, and of the supposed continent. They imagined the land sighted in the distance was a part of our continent or was joined to the southern part of the coast of Baccalaos, of which I have spoken at length in these Decades. This point is still doubtful, Most Holy Father; some day it will be explained. Meanwhile I report what has been related to me.
While Alaminos and Francisco de Montejo sought to discover these secrets, the king of that country, called Muteczuma, sent one of his vassals called Quitalbitor1 who commanded a fortified town of which we have spoken, bearing a number of valuable presents, some beautifully wrought in gold and silver with precious stones. It was decided to send them to our sovereign. The project was also formed, but without consulting Diego Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, of founding a colony. The opinions on this point were divided, some believing that they had not the right to proceed thus, while others,—and they were the majority,—seduced by the artifices of Cortes, held the contrary view. It is in this connection that many stories circulated about the disloyalty of Cortes,—a thing to be discussed at length later on. The decision reached was that no heed would be paid to the governor, and that the matter would be referred to a higher tribunal, that is to say, the King. The Spaniards applied to the cacique Quitalbitor for food. The site chosen for the colony was in the midst of a fertile tract twelve leagues distant from that place, and the commander Cortes, was elected governor.
Cortes likewise appointed officials for the colony about to be founded.' Portocarrero and Montejo, about whom enough has been already said above, were chosen to carry the gifts to our King, the Emperor, with the pilot Alaminos to accompany them. Four great leaders and two women, who, according to the national usage, were assigned for their service, accompanied them. These natives are of a brownish colour. Both sexes pierce the ears and wear golden pendants in them, and the men pierce the extremity of the under lip, down to the roots of the lower teeth. Just as we wear precious stones mounted in gold upon our fingers, so do they insert pieces of gold the size of a ring into their lips. This piece of gold is as large as a silver Carolus,' and thick as a finger. I cannot remember ever to have seen anything more hideous; but they think that nothing more elegant exists under the lunar circle. This example proves the blindness and the foolishness of the human race: it likewise proves how we deceive ourselves. The Ethiopian thinks that black is a more beautiful colour than white, while the white man thinks the opposite. A bald man thinks himself more handsome than a hairy one, and a man with a beard laughs at him who is without one. We are influenced by passions rather than guided by reason, and the human race accepts these foolish notions, each country following its own fancy. In deference to another's opinion, we prefer foolish things, while we reject solid and certain ones.
1 The messengers of Montezuma were Teuthlili, governor of Cuetlaxtla, and Quitlalpitoc who had discharged a similar mission to Grijalva. Consult Las Casas, Historia de las Indias, tom, iii., p. 119; Torquemada, Monorchia Indiana, tom, iv., cap. xvii.; Orozco y Berra, Conquista de Mexico, tom, iv., p. 139; MacNutt, Fernando Cortes, cap. iii.
* Read in this connection the letter of the magistrates of Vera Cruz, included under the title of First Letter in the Cartas de Relacion; MacNutt, Letters of Cortes; Prescott's Conquest of Mexico, tom, i., cap. v.; Orozco y Berra, Conquista de Mexico, tom. iv.
It is already known whence the natives obtain their gold; but the Spaniards were amazed to learn the whereabouts of their silver, which comes from lofty mountains. The summits of these mountains are covered with perpetual snow, and are only perceptible at certain periods of the year because of dense clouds and fogs. It appears therefore, that the plains and lower mountains produce gold, while silver is found in the rugged mountains and their colder valleys. So it is also with copper, of which war-hatchets and hoes for digging the ground are made, but neither iron nor steel. Let us now examine the gifts sent to the King, and we will begin with the books.1
'A Flemish coin of the period.
1 A list of the various articles of value taken to Spain by Portocarrero and Montejo may be found in the first volume of Letters of Cortes, at the end of the first letter; also in Gomara, Cronica, pp. 321-323.
WE have already stated that these natives possess books. The messengers sent from the new country of Colhuacan brought a number of these books amongst other presents. The pages on which the natives write are made of the thin bark of trees, of the quality found in the first, outer layer.1 It may be compared to those scales, found, not precisely in the willow or the elm, but rather in the edible palm-leaves, in which tough filaments cross one another in the upper layer, just as in nets the openings and narrow meshes alternate. These membranes are smeared with a tough bitumen, after which they are limbered and given the desired form; they are stretched out at will and when they are hardened, a kind of plaster or analogous substance is spread over them. I know Your Holiness has handled some of these tablets, on which sifted plaster similar to flour was sprinkled. One may write thereon whatever comes into one's mind, a sponge or a cloth sufficing to rub it out, after which the tablet may be again used. The natives also used fig leaves for making small books, which the stewards of important households take with them when they go to market. They write down their purchases with a little point, and afterwards erase them when they have been entered in their books. They do
1 The fibrous leaves of the maguey were used for making writing tablets. See Humboldt's, Vie des Cordillieres, p. 53; Prescott, Orozco y Berra, Clavigero, Bustamante, and other writers on ancient Mexican civilisation, describe the paper used and the manner of its preparation.