The story of the career of Hernando Cortes during his conquest of Mexico is a story of extraordinary courage, undaunted resolution, and hideous cruelty. It is a story of the subjection of a “little people,” overcome and enslaved by a superior nation, which, in its lust for gold and territorial aggrandizement, left no methods of stratagem, cunning, military science, and barbarous cruelty untried to achieve its purpose. Granted that the early Emperors of Mexico were tyrannical in their treatment of the natives and that their religious rites were accompanied by human sacrifices and cannibalism, Mexican cruelty pales before the horrible scenes enacted by so-called civilized Spain in this dreadful Mexican drama.
The three principal figures are Hernando Cortes, Montezuma, and Guatemozin—Cortes, the conqueror; Montezuma, the weak-spirited Emperor, victim of his own people’s fury; Guatemozin, the patriot.
Cortes was a born adventurer, and in his youth possessed of skill in all military exercises. He was a man of consummate cunning and captivating address, of soaring ambition and marked ability as an administrator and general. Apparently he never knew what it was to fear, and consequently no danger was great enough to appall him. He was so skilled in stratagem that no situation was devious enough to prevent its solution. He had the same greed of gold as all Spaniards of his day had, and no means of obtaining it were considered dishonorable as long as they were successful. But courageous, resolute, and ambitious as Cortes was, he will go down through the ages branded with infamy for his treatment of Montezuma, for the frightful massacres at Cholula and Otumba, for his execution of Guatemozin, last of the Aztec Emperors, for the burning of caciques and chiefs which he ordered, and for the countless atrocities of his men which he permitted.
In his old age, like Columbus, he suffered from the neglect of an ungrateful Court, but, while we can sympathize with Columbus in that situation, we can feel no sympathy for Cortes as we recall the black chapters of his career.