Seekers of El Dorado
The Spanish occupation of mainland America proceeded from an already established base in the West Indies, where Columbus had planted the first European colony in America. Grijalva, sent out to explore by the governor of Cuba, gathered gold on the coast of Mexico and heard of the rich Aztec civilization in the interior. Thereupon Hernando Cortés, with some five hundred men, thirty muskets, a few toy cannons, and sixteen horses, set forth in 1519 from Cuba, a rebel against the island governor, to conquer this land of rumored gold. He arrived on the Vera Cruz coast with sixteen horses and a colt. Here, Grijalva's report was confirmed by the lavish present sent to the bold invader by Montezuma, the frightened ruler at the Aztec capital situated on a lake on the high plateau 250 miles inland.
This astonishing gift was emphatic evidence of the great wealth of Mexico. The present included a gold necklace set with emeralds and hung with pearls, a huge golden disk, as large as a wagon wheel, representing the sun, and another of silver to simulate the moon. There were gold and silver ornaments and toys, feather headdresses decorated with gems, pearlpointed tridents, amazing feather-work, garments of finely woven cotton, and what were called "books" written in hieroglyphics. The bare list of items comprised in the gift occupies several pages of modern print. It was one of the decisive documents in world history, for it caused a "gold rush" embracing twothirds of the hemisphere, and brought about revolutionary changes in America, Europe, and Asia.
Montezuma had sent these lavish offerings to induce the unwelcome visitor to depart, but they merely whetted his appetite and fired his imagination. Don Hernando, in turn, sent the treasure to Spain as a bribe to soften the heart of Charles V toward a rebel, and then marched boldly toward the Aztec capital, fighting battles and winning native allies as he went. In spite of a veritable "Dunkirk" in the Noche Triste retreat, he overthrew Montezuma, made himself master of the heart of the country, was forgiven for rebellion, and rewarded by being made captain-general and marquis, with thousands of tributary subjects.
Cortés, by his lucky strike, set everybody in motion. To discover other Mexicos, great prospecting expeditions were organized, some launched in Spain, some in the islands, and others on the mainland of North and South America. As a rule they were privately financed, for the Emperor was thrifty. A typical expedition consisted of a few hundred Spaniards, followed by hordes of natives carrying the baggage, opening roads, performing camp duty, and serving as couriers and interpreters. As far as possible the invaders lived off the country they raided. But in most cases, as a precautionary measure, a commissary department was driven on all fours, and included droves of hogs, herds of cattle, and flocks of sheep and goats, brought from Spain or the West Indies with immeasurable difficulty. Supply ships crossing the ocean with livestock and provisions stank to heaven. Below the Isthmus of Panama, immense droves of llamas were taken along both as pack animals and to serve as food. An airplane view of Mundus Novus at almost any time in the two decades after 1520 would have disclosed several different bands of these gold-thirsty prospectors, crawling like armies of ants across the face of the Hemisphere in numerous regions wide apart, all bound on the same errand. In some instances they were able to penetrate the mainland by the great river systems. But whether they traveled by water or by land, their object was the same--wealth and adventure. The ranks of these armies were filled with eager young fellows who had read in Spain or obtained in the book stalls of Mexico and Lima the romances of chivalry just then being published-Amadís de Gaula, Las Serges de Esplandián, Palmería de Oliva, and a dozen others, whose influence in the conquest Dr. Irving Leonard has so convincingly set forth.
Many individual soldiers of fortune were ubiquitous, appearing, in spite of the difficulties of travel, here, there, and yonder, now at the top and then at the bottom of the map, like the proverbial prospector who joins every new gold rush. The names of some of these repeaters are familiar to every schoolboy. De Soto pioneered in regions as far apart as Central America, Peru, Florida, and the Mississippi Valley; Pedro de Alvarado in Mexico, Central America, and Ecuador; Cabeza de Vaca in Texas, Mexico, and Paraguay. Las Casas was with the vanguard in Guatemala, Peru, and Mexico; Fray Juan de Padilla in Tehuantepec, Jalisco, New Mexico, and Kansas.
On the mainland the regions inhabited by sedentary natives were usually first to be subjugated, and they became the first centers of permanent Spanish settlement on a considerable scale. The reasons for this are not far to seek. Sedentary people were the easiest to conquer, for they had fixed homes and could not run away. They were the most worth exploiting because they were accustomed to disciplined labor. They had a steady food supply and, in some cases, an accumulation of precious metals. Their daughters were pleasing, so there were many thousands of "Pocahontases" in America long before the days of John Smith of Jamestown. When the Europeans entered the interior they carried with them the extravagant tales they had heard in Europe or the islands, added to their repertoire new ones gathered on the way, and embroidered them with fantastic passementerie of their own fabrication, sometimes with waggish humor. Each track made by the explorers on the enormous map of the New World represents some glowing idea, some feverish quest, and effort to run to its source this or that tale of treasure, some rumored city, some wonder in the country beyond--mas allá.
In this expansion the lieutenants of Cortés quickly extended their conquests in all directions from the Aztec capital till most of the sedentary peoples of central and southern Mexico were under Spanish control. Red-headed Pedro de Alvarado pushed into Guatemala, seat of an old civilization, in some respects more remarkable than that of the Aztecs. Panama became a base for expeditions northward into Central America which met and contested the field with the men of Cortés. The fever spread to South America. Panama City was barely three years old when adventurers began to sail down the Pacific coast to investigate rumors of great wealth in Peru. Francisco Pizarro, cousin of Cortés, set forth from the Isthmus to emulate his now millionaire relative. Like Mexico, Peru was easy to conquer because of internal dissensions. Atahualpa, governor of Quito, was in rebellion against the Inca at Cuzco. Pizarro marched inland over the towering Andes and captured Atahualpa, who for his ransom paid a room full of gold and another of silver, the combined value of which has been estimated at several millions of dollars. Pizarro now made himself master of a large part of Peru, founded Lima, and extended his conquest into what are now Bolivia and Chile. Thus Mexico and Lima, established by two humble cousins from rock-strewn Estremadura in Mother Spain, became the capitals of Spanish North and South America.
Settlers at Santa Marta, near the mouth of the great Magdalena River, which pours its waters northward into the Caribbean Sea, heard the legend of the Gilded Man. It told of a tribe in the south, on the high plateau of Bogotá, whose chief was installed by an unusual rite of deep religious significance. He was anointed with oil and sprinkled with gold dust, then, being pushed on a raft out upon the sacred lake of Guatavitá, he dived into the water and washed off the gleaming metal. As part of the ceremony the natives threw into the lake countless gold ornaments and precious stones as offerings to the gods. The gold-sprinkled chief became known to the Spaniards as El Dorado--the Gilded Man. This story inspired a new series of epic marches southward from the Spanish Main, a three-cornered struggle among conquerors, and the founding, by Quesada, of the city of Bogotá, now the cultured capital of the Republic of Colombia. The longest chase of El Dorado was still to come, for when Quesada reached Guatavitá, the Gilded Man was no longer there, so the treasure hunters continued the search eastward over the Andes. In the quest, Orellano navigated the largest river in the world to its mouth. Because of a battle with brawny women on its banks, so the story goes, the river was called and still is known as the Amazon. All this had happened within the space of a few years.
The military success of these small bands of Spaniards--a few hundred in each army at the most--was due to the ability and boldness of their leaders, their possession of gunpowder and horses, and the lack of organization and equipment of the natives. Indians using bows and arrows were as helpless in the face of mounted men and fire-arms as were some of the armies of World War II which, using the weapons of 1914, had to oppose modern tanks and bombing planes. Even more important than the material equipment of the Europeans were the hordes of native allies who joined the invaders. In fact, it might well be said that the Spaniards did not conquer America--the natives, led by the Spaniards, conquered each other.
Cortés, meanwhile, had been active in western Mexico, seeking other El Dorados. He extended the conquest across Michoacán, and, less than a year after the fall of the Aztec capital, his lieutenants reached the Pacific Ocean and there established bases for expansion by sea. A ship sent by Cortés from Zacatula in 1527, safely reached the Moluccas, thus making the first American voyage to the Orient--two and one-half centuries ahead of Robert Gray. Colima, founded on the coast at the foot of the towering volcano, became a base for long strides up the map in pursuit of new and old objectives. The search for slaves, gold, and silver led in that direction. Other lures were reports of a good harbor and tales of Amazons. Native chiefs, said Cortés, "affirm that there is an island inhabited only by women . . . and that at certain times men from the mainland visit them." So the excitement increased.
The conqueror of Mexico was now summoned to Spain to defend his rights in America, and the advance up the west coast was continued by his tough-fibered rival, Nuño de Guzmán.
In 1529 Don Nuño left central Mexico with five hundred Spaniards and several thousand native allies. At Tepic he established a garrison, the germ of the capital of the present state of Nayarit. Going north, and failing to find the Amazons, he turned his attention to a search for the legendary Seven Cities, long famed in European tradition and now transplanted to America. Some time previously, when a conquistador in Pánuco, Don Nuño had contemplated an expedition to the northern interior. An Indian named Tejo told him of a trading jaunt which he had once made with his father in that direction to some rich and populous cities, seven in number. Like the story of the Amazons, this one of Seven Cities came out of the distant past and was brought to America by the discoverers. In the Middle Ages, so the old tale ran, seven Portuguese bishops, pressed by the conquering Mohammedans, fled west into the "Ocean Sea," and founded the Seven Cities of Antilia--hence the name Antilles, given by the Spaniards to the West Indian islands. The story was not confined to Portuguese and Spanish circles. John Cabot, after his celebrated voyage to Newfoundland in 1497 in the service of England, was reputed to have discovered "the isles of Brazil and the Seven Cities," as well as the Kingdom of the Gran Khan of China. Now, if Tejo told the truth, seven cities had been visited not long ago by natives of Mexico. Could these be the same as those of the legend? Whatever they might be, Guzmán decided to seek them by crossing the formidable Sierra Madre Occidental, for it was from Pánuco in the east that Tejo had journeyed north with his father to those terraced towns. The difficult march was made in vain; but, to secure the lands he had conquered on the west coast, Guzmán established the permanent settlement of Culiacán in 1531, just a century before the founding of Boston. Don Nuño himself now withdrew to Tepic, but his colonists extended their explorations and slave hunting raids as far north as the Yaqui River.
This advance into Sinaloa and Sonora by land spurred Cortés to further activities by sea. Returning to Mexico he renewed his expeditions up the coast. Four years later Jiménez, one of his sea captains, discovered pearls on the Peninsula of California, which he thought was an island, and to which the Amazons had retreated. The legend was popularized by Montalvo's best-seller novel of the day in which he wrote: "Know ye that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body with strong, passionate hearts and great virtue. The island itself is one of the wildest in the world on account of its bold and craggy rocks." Two years after its discovery by Jiménez, Cortés himself led a colony to this island of pearls and Amazons. Thus California was brought into history. In that same year, however, Antonio de Mendoza became first viceroy of Mexico, checked the activities of Cortés in the Gulf, caused the withdrawal of the California colony, and sent Guzmán, a prisoner, to Spain.