Here's What You Need to Know: Native peoples helped the conquistadors slowly, methodically, and bloodily conquer the Aztecs.
In March 1519, a small square of 400 Spanish adventurers under the command of Hernándo Cortés stood at bay on the plain of Cintla in Tabasco, Mexico. The conquistadors were surrounded by thousands of Indian warriors whose hunger for human sacrifices was equaled only by that of their gods. With no avenue of retreat, the Spaniards faced death in battle or an even more horrible death on the sacrificial altars of the Indians’ strange, blood-nourished gods. As their enemies advanced, shooting clouds of sharp arrows and slinging deadly stones, the invaders replied with muskets, cannons, and heavy bolts from their European crossbows. Fighting for his life among the beleaguered Spaniards was a castaway priest-turned-conquistador named Jeronimo Aguilar.
Jeronimo Aguilar: Catholic Warrior Priest of the Xamanzana
Eight years before Cortés set foot in Yucatan, Aguilar had been a passenger sailing from Panama to Santo Domingo on a ship, captained by Enciso y Valdivia, that struck a reef near Jamaica. Aguilar boarded the ship’s lifeboat along with 15 other men and two women, hoping that the currents would take them to Cuba or Jamaica. The boat had no sails, water, or food, and half the men died of starvation as they drifted helplessly toward the Yucatan peninsula.
After two weeks at sea, the survivors reached land. Upon arrival they were quickly rounded up by the locals, who immediately sacrificed Valdivia and five of his men. The Indians then butchered the bodies and cooked and ate their victims. Aguilar and six others were imprisoned in a wooden cage so that they could be fattened up for the next round of sacrifices. Somehow they managed to escape. Stumbling through the thick, tropical jungle, Aguilar was recaptured by the tribesmen of Xamanzana, who brought him to their chief, Aquinouz. Aguilar spent the next three years at hard labor. When he wasn’t working in the fields, he was hauling wood, water, and fish on his back.
Aguilar was a good worker and an obedient servant. Possibly to reward him for his diligence, Aquinouz’s successor, Taxmar, offered the Spaniard a wife. But Aguilar had taken holy orders back in Spain and was not about to cohabitate with an infidel. Amused, Taxmar arranged many temptations for his unusual slave, even sending him to fish with an attractive young girl as his overnight companion. Aguilar put his faith in God and his tattered Book of Hours, his only possession to survive the shipwreck, and he remained celibate. This impressed Taxmar even more, and he placed Aguilar in charge of his household, including his wives.
No less bellicose than the average conquistador, Aguilar asked to be allowed to fight his master’s many enemies. Aguilar’s prowess as a warrior must have been formidable. Taxmar’s chief enemy, unable to defeat him in battle, sent a message complaining that Aguilar’s presence on the battlefield was an impious insult to their gods; he suggested that to make amends Aguilar should be sacrificed. Taxmar refused, but his council advised him to comply with their enemy’s demand. Taxmar was reluctant to order the death of such a valuable and honorable servant, and he asked Aguilar what he would do in his place. Aguilar, of course, was not about to countenance his own death, and he promised Taxmar victory if he would follow his battle plan.
The two warring camps advanced on each another with a shower of arrows and stones. As Aguilar had advised, Taxmar fell back. Eager to exploit their victory, Taxmar’s rivals rushed forward in pursuit, but their overconfidence was fatal. Concealed in the tall grass, Aguilar and a small unit of his Indian compatriots let their enemies pass, then fell on their rear. Taxmar and the main body of troops renewed the attack. Caught between hammer and anvil, as it were, Taxmar’s surprised enemies were crushed in a bloody vise.
An Expedition for the Governor of Cuba
In 1518 the governor of Cuba, Diego Velasquez, sent Juan de Grijalva with four ships and 240 men back to Yucatan to trade for gold and silver, and if possible, to found a settlement. They touched land briefly at Cozumel, but all the inhabitants fled at their approach. They then sailed to Champoton, where the Indian inhabitants began to shoot arrows at them. So thick was the storm of missiles that every other man in the Spanish force was wounded, even though they had adopted the Indians’ own type of padded armor, it being impossible to wear metal armor in the equatorial heat. The Europeans fought their way ashore and easily hacked through the Indians’ wicker shields and cotton armor. The Indians fought back fiercely enough to kill seven Spaniards, but they were finally driven into the swamps that bordered the town.
After three days the expedition set sail up the coast. Tacking close to shore, they reached a wide river that the Indians called Tabasco and decided to rename it Rio de Grijalva. Indians from the nearby town of Tabasco lined the river banks in canoes, armed for war. Denied passage upriver, the Spaniards landed on a palm-covered headland a mile or so from town. No sooner had they touched solid ground than a fleet of 50 well-armed canoes glided into view. After a few tense moments hostilities were avoided, and the local chiefs were placated by the gift of green beads that the Indians thought were jade. The locals seem to have figured out the Spaniards’ purpose. Pointing to the sunset, they kept repeating, “Mexico, Mexico.” None of the Spaniards knew what Mexico meant, but they knew what gold was, and they immediately set sail.
“Dios y Santa Maria de Sevilla”
They had better luck with the next tribes they encountered, managing to bring back a substantial quantity of gold to Cuba. Impressed by the precious metals, Velasquez appointed Hernando Cortés to command another, even larger expedition. The governor of Cuba had heard rumors of Spanish captives, and in addition to gold, he ordered Cortés to bring back any Castilian castaways. In February 1519 Cortés set sail for Cozumel with 11 ships, 550 soldiers, 16 horses, and 12 field pieces. Along the way, he was held up by a lost rudder and his henchman, Pedro de Alvarado, landed at the island two days before his commander. At his approach, the Indians left their villages and fled to the interior. Alvarado followed them and quickly appropriated their food and any items of gold that he could find. He captured two men and a woman. As he was making his way back to the coast, Cortés landed. Upon learning of Alvarado’s actions, he upbraided his captain, gave the captured Indians some glass beads, and sent them off to tell their chief that he had nothing to fear from the Spaniards.
The Indians returned the next day. Cortés asked the local leaders if they knew of any Spaniards living in the vicinity. They replied that there were bearded men living as slaves in Yucatan, two days’ journey to the west. Cortés immediately decided to attempt a rescue. His pilots advised against a landing on the rocky coast, and the Indians told him that the prisoners would probably be killed as soon as he attacked. They suggested that he ransom the captives. Cortés induced three Indians to take a letter to the tribe in question. The messengers set off inland, and two days later handed Aguilar the letter and the beads. When he read the letter and received the ransom, he carried the beads delightedly to his master and begged leave to depart. Taxmar gave him permission to go wherever he wished. Aguilar left with the two Indians who had brought him the letter and followed them to Cape Cartouche. But his would-be rescuers had gotten tired of waiting and sailed back to Cozumel. Aguilar returned unhappily to Taxmar.
Cortés was less than satisfied with the way things had turned out and, after spending some time forcibly converting the locals to Christianity, he resumed his voyage of conquest. Not far from Cozumel, Juan de Escalante’s ship sprang a leak and headed back to the island. It took the Spaniards four days to recaulk Escalante’s ship. During that time Aguilar, learning of their unexpected return, hired a canoe and sailed for Cozumel.
While hunting for wild pigs, some of Cortés’s men spotted Indians in a canoe approaching from Cape Cartouche. Cortés sent Andres de Tapia and two men to intercept them. They concealed themselves among the lush, tropical foliage and watched while the Indians walked up the beach. Suddenly they appeared with drawn swords. Aguilar’s companions were struck with fear, but the Castilian castaway ran forward, crying, “Dios y Santa Maria de Sevilla.” After eight years among the Maya, his words were ill pronounced, but the conquistadors understood them. Tapia embraced him and led him to Cortés.
Aguilar was burned brown by the sun, and his hair and dress were those of an Indian. As the group reached him, Cortés asked, “Where is the Spaniard?” Aguilar replied, “I am.” Cortés took off his cloak and wrapped it around Aguilar’s shoulders. A few days later the conquistadors sailed from Cozumel, but the ships’ pilots advised against landing in the shallow harbor, so the conquistadors continued their voyage, heading toward Tabasco, where Grijalva had successfully traded beads for gold and silver.