So far there are no satisfactory critical editions of the History of the conquest of New Spain , although at least we have the possibility to check online the different versions and get an idea of the evolution of this peculiar book:. Florence: Villa I Tatti. Introductory Essay by J. Elliott to Letters from Mexico. Translated, edited, and with a new introduction by Anthony Pagden. Revised edition published by Yale University Press in From Easter Sunday, , a single, supreme objective established itself clearly in his mind.
From the moment of his hasty departure from Santiago, in Cuba, he found himself in a highly equivocal position, both in relation to his immediate superiors and to the Spanish Crown. Ferdinand the Catholic had died in , and in September, , Charles of Ghent arrived in Castile from Flanders to take up his Spanish inheritance.
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If he were ever to be a great conqueror in his own right, it was therefore essential for him to act with speed, and to obtain as much freedom for maneuver as possible. Thanks to Article 27, he was now empowered to take such measures as he might consider necessary, and which were not specifically covered by his instructions. Hence the indecent haste of his departure from Santiago. He knew well enough the grave risks he was running. The king was the fountainhead of justice.
Similarly, he took formal possession of the land at the Tabasco River in the name of the Crown, in spite of—or, more accurately, precisely because of—the inconvenient fact that Grijalva had already taken formal possession at the same spot, on behalf of the governor of Cuba.
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The lines came from the ballad of Montesinos, who was exiled from court because of a false accusation by his mortal enemy, Tomillas. They were concerned, like all conquistadors, with fame, riches and honor. But there was a wrong way, as well as a right way, of going about this great work. In the Antilles, the Castilians had gone about it the wrong way, with disastrous consequences. This was done with considerable skill, by playing on their desire for gold and land.
At this point the troops, whose expectations had been aroused and now looked like being dashed, came out with what seemed to be a spontaneous demand that the expedition should continue. It was in pursuance of this simple but time-honored political philosophy that the remarkable events of June and July, , were enacted. As a municipality, they then proceeded to appoint the usual municipal officials, the alcaldes and regidores. But what seemed plausible enough in Mexico was bound to seem highly implausible in Cuba and at the Spanish Court.
Everything now depended on the successful presentation of his case at Court, where the Fonseca group would certainly do all in its power to destroy him.
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They took with them, too, such documentation as was needed to justify their cause. The most important document carried to Spain by Puertocarrero and Montejo was the letter from the new municipality of Vera Cruz, addressed to Charles and Juana. Having offered this tendentious explanation of the founding of Vera Cruz, the letter then dwelt at some length on the alleged riches of the country and on the abominable customs of its inhabitants.
The danger was acute, and the blow could fall at any time, perhaps even from within Mexico itself.
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The friends of the governor of Cuba appear to have been plotting to send him warning of the mission of Montejo and Puertocarrero, so that he could intercept their ship. He must also cut the physical links. This was probably the major consideration in his famous decision to scuttle or beach his ships, although their destruction would have the added advantage of enabling him to add their crews to his tiny army. Once the ships were destroyed, all contact with Cuba was broken. A garrison was left at Vera Cruz under the command of Juan de Escalante, and the army began its march from Cempoal into the interior on August 16, knowing that it had openly defied the governor of Cuba and that there could be no turning back.
But he was a good deal less safe in the rear than he had anticipated. Montejo and Puertocarrero had received strict instructions to avoid Cuba and make straight for Spain, but Montejo had other ideas. Needing provisions—or perhaps prudently hedging his bets—he chose to put in on the west of the island to make a brief visit to his estate. He arrived on August 23, left letters for a friend, and, on his last night, displayed the Mexican treasures to his major-domo before sailing again on the twenty-sixth.
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But their pilot, Alaminos, took the ship by a new route through the Bahamas Straits, and Montejo and Puertocarrero made their escape into the Atlantic and thence to Seville. News of these preparations greatly alarmed the judges of the highest tribunal in the Indies, the Audiencia of Santo Domingo. Conflicts among rival bands of conquistadors were all too common an occurrence, and the Audiencia was anxious to prevent still more shedding of blood. But in the Spanish monarchy of the sixteenth century a military solution could never be final. Legality was paramount, and the key to legality lay with the king.
Everything therefore turned on the success of Montejo and Puertocarrero in Spain. They duly reached Seville at the beginning of November, , only to find their country on the verge of revolt.
Charles had been elected Holy Roman Emperor on June When the procuradores arrived in Seville, the emperor was still in Barcelona, heavily preoccupied with plans for his departure; and the Castilian cities were beginning to voice their dissatisfaction at the prospect of heavy new fiscal demands and an absentee king. They reached Barcelona near the end of January, , only to find that the emperor had already left for Burgos. From Barcelona they moved across Spain in the tracks of the emperor, finally catching up with him at Tordesillas, near Valladolid, early in March.
The precious gold objects and the delicate featherwork had created a sensation in Seville, and such treasures could hardly be left indefinitely impounded in the hands of the officials of the House of Trade. This at least was an encouraging start, and the procuradores gained another victory when a royal decree, dated May 10, , ordered the officials in Seville to return their confiscated funds.
Their gold, too, would now come into its own.
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But there was still a very long way to go, and the political climate was menacing. Castile was now in open revolt. Fonseca remained a highly influential figure, and his brother was the royalist army commander. Both in the Indies and in Castile, the emperor was faced with treason and revolt. During the course of the same night, the noche triste , the Spaniards made their famous retreat from Tenochtitlan.
This letter, like its predecessor from Vera Cruz, is both more and less than a straightforward narrative of events, for it, too, has an essentially political purpose. In the first place, he still did not know what decision, if any, had been reached in Spain on his plea for retrospective authorization of his unconventional proceedings.
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Finally, he had won a new empire for Charles and had proceeded to lose it. Some passages in his two speeches contain so many Christian overtones as to be unbelievable coming from a pagan Aztec. It is clear that this entire letter was superbly designed to appeal directly to Charles over the heads of Fonseca and his friends in the Council of the Indies and the imperial entourage. But Fonseca was still far from ready to admit defeat.
To defy Tapia, who had come to New Spain as the legally appointed representative of the royal authority, would be the height of imprudence, and yet to surrender the empire into his hands would be intolerable. Carefully avoiding a personal meeting with Tapia, who would at once have presented him with a royal warrant, he sent a Franciscan, Fray Pedro de Melgarejo, to greet Tapia, and no doubt to pass him an appropriate bribe.
The representatives of the various municipalities of New Spain, usefully reinforced for the occasion by the rapid founding of the new town of Medellin, met Tapia at Cempoal on December 24, , and went through the time-honored Castilian procedure followed by those who were prepared to obey but not to comply. With honor thus satisfied on both sides, Tapia took the next ship back to Hispaniola, a wiser, and no doubt a richer, man. This could only be explained, he concluded, by the machinations of his enemies, who were concealing the truth from the emperor.
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Nor could there any longer be real doubt that the chief among these enemies was Fonseca, the bishop of Burgos. It was Fonseca who had been responsible for the unwelcome intervention of Tapia. In Garay, the governor of Jamaica, obtained from Fonseca a warrant authorizing him to conquer and colonize the Panuco region, to the north of Vera Cruz. He landed at Panuco in July, , with an army of four hundred infantry and cavalry. It was this challenge which he described in the opening pages of his Fourth Letter of October 15, , where for the first time Fonseca is mentioned by name.
This year, which saw the defeat of the Comuneros, saw also the siege and capture of Tenochtitlan. His agents were lobbying hard in the regency council of Adrian of Utrecht, and duly convinced the regent that the bishop of Burgos had done the emperor an ill service in persistently supporting the governor of Cuba. The original strategy, so tenaciously pursued, of appealing directly to the sovereign over the heads of his officials, had yielded its expected dividend. When Garay landed in July, , it had not yet come, but it arrived in September, just in time to give a decisive turn to events.
Copies of the decrees were also dispatched to Garay, who saw that he was beaten and gave up without a fight. It was a game whose ground rules he had studied closely, and which he had fought with every weapon at his command.
Events in Mexico itself were crucial, because success in Mexico was the prerequisite for success at Court. He achieved what he intended to achieve; and yet, in the end, his very success proved his own undoing. His acutely sensitive political antennae, which had told him that he must win at Court if he were to win at all, failed him at the very moment of success.
It was the policy of the Castilian Crown, firmly laid down in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, that no subject should be permitted to grow overmighty, and that acts of insubordination should be promptly punished without fear or favor.