hernando cortes lands "with one bare foot" -- 1/19/21

Today's selection -- from Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend. In a history-changing clash of civilizations, the explorer Hernando Cortes invaded Mexico:

"Then in 1517, the townsfolk [of Potonchan] heard that some strangers with remarkably hairy faces had landed a very large boat at Champoton, another Chontal town lying to the east. After a skirmish, the outsiders were driven off, with many of their men badly wounded, but they left many Chontal warriors wounded and dying. The strangers were clearly dangerous to the political order -- a political order that required the Chontal to appear invul­nerable to the surrounding peoples.

"The strangers returned the next year. This time, they bypassed the feisty town of Champoton. Messengers on speeding canoes came to say that they had stopped near Xicallanco, but didn't find it, hidden as it was in its lagoon. They kidnapped four young boys who had boarded the boat to trade and then proceeded west. All of Potonchan waited. Within days, the strangers found the mouth of the Rio Tabasco. From where they floated, they could see the town clearly. Hundreds of Chontal warriors gathered along the shore; they made their way out toward the larger boat in dozens of canoes, arrows notched, ready to fly. A huge dog aboard the strangers' boat spotted land, jumped overboard, and began to swim toward the shore. The young Chontal men gave a great shout and showered the creature with arrows. Within moments, something aboard the massive boat seemed to explode, and bits of metal flew everywhere, wounding many. Some slumped over, apparently dead. The Chontal retreated.

"All the households buzzed with gossip. The next day, the town's leaders sent a few canoes of men out to try to parley, and the strangers brought for­ward a young prisoner who spoke their language. He told the Chontal he had been kidnapped years ago near Cozumel. Yes, the warriors said, they had heard rumors that strangers were occasionally appearing along the eastern coast of the Yucatan peninsula, and some even asserted that they governed a huge island six days' sail to the east of Cozumel, but the previous year was the first time they had heard a full and coherent story, from Champoton. The interpreter told them the strangers were indeed dangerous and that they sought gold and food in regular supplies. To the indigenous, this signified that they were demanding tribute; it was not good news. The Chontal asked the interpreter to explain that the Mexica, far to the west, were really the peo­ple to seek if they wanted gold and other precious goods, but that they would barter what they had, if only the strangers would return the four boys they had kidnapped near Xicallanco. Some goods were brought out and traded, but the boys were not returned. Later that day the winds were right, and the strangers rapidly put up a sail and departed.

"No one could tell if they were gone for good. The Chontal leaders built a few stockades and arranged for neighboring peoples to fight at their side if it came to that. The people harvested their corn and cacao and wove their cloth. Many undoubtedly forgot about the incident or put it out of their minds. But if the women had ceased to gossip and speculate about the strangers, the sub­ject nevertheless resurfaced dramatically less than a year later. In 1519 a mes­senger arrived, saying that no fewer than ten of the big boats were sailing westward from Cozumel.

"The ships came straight to Potonchan. In the talks that unfolded between Spaniard and Indian on the very first day -- undoubtedly while the women and children were being led out of the city -- the Chontal leaders said bluntly that they would kill anyone who entered their land. They offered food and advised the strangers to leave before anything unpleasant happened. The for­eigners' leader, a man in his early thirties who called himself 'Hernando Cortés,' refused to listen. Instead, he made plans to come ashore. He divided his men into two groups. One landed at the mouth of the river on the coast and then moved overland toward the town, and the other sailed upriver, then drew near the settlement in smaller boats and began to wade ashore in a tight formation. Their glinting swords were bared, creating a circle of space around them, and their outer clothing was likewise made of metal, so they could move with relative impunity, as the Indians' stone arrowheads and spear tips shattered against it. Still, it was tough going for them. One of the strangers later described the scene:

 With great bravery the [locals] surrounded us in their canoes, pouring. such a shower of arrows on us that they kept us in the water up to our waists. There was so much mud and swamp that we had difficulty get­ting clear of it; and so many Indians attacked us, hurling their lances and shooting arrows, that it took us a long time to struggle ashore. While Cortes was fighting, he lost a sandal in the mud and could not recover it. So he landed with one bare foot.

"As soon as they were ashore, the invaders began to use their crossbows and lances against the indigenous, who were armored only in padded cotton, forc­ing them to retreat. With their metal weapons, the strangers broke through the wooden stockades that had been constructed, and then the other group of outsiders, who had been making their way overland, arrived. The Indians rap­idly withdrew, and the newcomers were left in command of the abandoned center of Potonchan, a square surrounded by empty temples and halls. There they slept, with sentries standing guard. Armed and armored and in a large group, they were relatively invulnerable. But they soon grew hungry. When they sent out foraging parties, the Chontal attacked them guerrilla-style and killed several men.

"Two days later, the strangers, determined to make something happen, moved out in a body onto an open plain. Wave after wave of warriors attacked the group of metal-clad foreigners, perishing before the lethal steel weapons, but wearing them down nevertheless. The battle continued for more than an hour. The Chontal lords thought the strangers would surely tire soon, and then their own greater numbers would carry the day. Then, from behind, there suddenly came thundering over the plain more enemies mounted on huge quadrupeds, twenty times as strong as deer. Under cover of night, the Spaniards had unloaded ten horses from the ships that were still in the mouth of the river. It was a time-consuming and difficult task, requiring pulleys and canvas slings, but the men were protected by darkness and their armor, and whichever Chontal were watching could not possibly have known how sig­nificant these actions would turn out to be. The horsemen, who had been struggling through the coastal swamps all morning, came charging over the flat grasslands, cutting down Chontal foot soldiers with wild exhilaration. The warriors had no alternative but to withdraw.

"The leaders of Potonchan counted their missing men, whose bodies lay strewn over the field of battle. They had lost over 220 warriors in only a few hours. Nothing comparable had ever occurred in all the histories recorded in stone or legend. They simply could not afford to keep up a fight like that. Even if in the end they could drive these men away, the battle would do them no good, for everyone in their world would learn of it. They would be left weak and defenseless, vulnerable to their enemies, having lost many hundreds of their own. Moreover, it seemed likely that more of these strangers would arrive the following year. So it was that the Chontal sued for peace. One of the enemy, strangely enough, spoke some Yucatec Mayan, a language well known to the Chontal. He had been a prisoner on the pen­insula for years. He said that his leader, Cortes, would forgive them if they made amends.

"Among many other gifts, the Chontal leaders sent twenty slave girls down to the shore."



Camilla Townsend


Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs


Oxford University Press


Oxford University Press 2019


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