« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »
Californian Gulf. When he found that no other continent remained for him to conquer, he made serious proposals to the Emperor to equip a fleet at his own expense, with which he would sail to the Moluccas, and subdue the Spice Islands for the Crown of Castile !
“ This spirit of knight-errantry might lead us to undervalue his talents as a general, and to regard him merely in the light of a lucky adventurer. But this would be doing him injustice ; for Cortés was certainly a great general, if that man be one, who performs great achievements with the resources which his own genius has created. There is probably no instance in history, where so vast an enterprise has been achieved by means apparently so inadequate. He may be truly said to have effected the Conquest by his own resources.
If he was indebted for his success to the coöperation of the Indian tribes, it was the force of his genius that obtained command of such materials. He arrested the arm that was lifted to smite him, and made it do battle in his behalf. He beat the Tlasca. lans, and made them his stanch allies. He beat the soldiers of Narvaez, and doubled his effective force by it. When his own men deserted him, he did not desert himself. He drew them back by degrees, and compelled them to act by his will, till they were all as one man. He brought together the most miscellaneous collection of mercenaries who ever fought under one standard ; adventurers from Cuba and the Isles, craving for gold; hidalgos, who came from the old country to win laurels ; brokendown cavaliers, who hoped to mend their fortunes in the New World ; vagabonds flying from justice; the grasping followers of Narvaez, and his own reckless veterans, men with hardly a common tie, and burning with the spirit of jealousy and faction; wild tribes of the natives from all parts of the country, who had been sworn enemies from their cradles, and who had only met to cut one another's throats, and to procure victims for sacrifice ; men, in short, differing in race, in language, and in interests, with scarcely any thing in common among them. Yet this motley congregation was assembled in one camp, compelled to bend to the will of one man, to consort together in harmony, to breathe, as it were, one spirit, and to move on a common principle of action! It is in this wonderful power over the discordant masses thus gathered under his banner, that we recognise the genius of the great commander, no less than in the skill of his military operations.
“ His power over the minds of his soldiers was a natural result of their confidence in his abilities. But it is also to be at. tributed to his popular manners, - that happy union of authori
ty and companionship, which fitted him for the command of a band of roving adventurers. It would not have done for him to have fenced himself round with the stately reserve of a commander of regular forces. He was embarked with his men in a common adventure, and nearly on terms of equality, since he held his commission by no legal warrant. But, while he indulg. ed this freedom and familiarity with his soldiers, he never allowed it to interfere with their strict obedience, nor to impair the severity of discipline. When he had risen to higher consideration, aithough he affected more state, he still admitted his veterans to the same intimacy. He preferred,' says Diaz, "to be called “Cortés ” by us, to being called by any title ; and with good reason,' continues the enthusiastic old cavalier, ‘for the name of Cortés is as famous in our day as was that of Cæsar among the Romans, or of Hannibal among the Carthaginians.' He showed the same kind regard towards his ancient comrades in the very last act of his life. For he appropriated a sum by his will for the celebration of two thousand masses for the souls of those who had fought with him in the campaigns of Mexico.
“ One trait more remains to be noticed in the character of this remarkable man ; that is, his bigotry, the failing of the age,
– for, surely, it should be termed only a failing. When we see the hand, red with the blood of the wretched native, raised to invoke the blessing of Heaven on the cause which it maintains, we experience something like a sensation of disgust at the act, and a doubt of its sincerity. But this is unjust. We should throw ourselves back (it cannot be too often repeated) into the age; the age of the Crusades. For every Spanish cavalier, however sordid and selfish might be his private motives, felt himself to be the soldier of the Cross. Many of them would have died in defence of it. Whoever has read the correspondence of Cortés, or, still more, has attended to the circumstances of his career, will hardly doubt that he would have been among the first to lay down his life for the Faith. He more than once perilled life, and fortune, and the success of his whole enterprise, by the premature and most impolitic manner in which he would have forced conversion on the natives. To the more rational spirit of the present day, enlightened by a purer Christianity, it may seem difficult to reconcile gross deviations from morals with such devotion to the cause of religion. But the religion taught in that day was one of form and elaborate cere. mony. In the punctilious attention to discipline, the spirit of Christianity was permitted to evaporate. The mind, occupied with forms, thinks little of substance. In a worship that is ad. VOL. LVIII. No. 122.
dressed too exclusively to the senses, it is often the case, that morality becomes divorced from religion, and the measure of righteousness is determined by the creed rather than by the conduct." Vol. 111. pp. 352 - 362.
It may be objected by some persons, that Mr. Prescott has not reprobated with sufficient severity the cruel excesses with which the conquest of Mexico was stained, and that, especially, he has passed too mild a sentence upon the character of Cortés. Undoubtedly, there is room for a tone of more indignant declamation on these points than Mr. Prescott has indulged himself in, and a writer of more impassioned temperament would probably have recorded a more stern and vehement protest. Readers of an enthusiastic humanity will be very likely to regret the measured language which he employs. But they should hear before they condemn. Mr. Prescott did not feel himself called upon to take the ground of a moralist, and to use the events of the Conquest as a theme upon which to discourse, and by means of which to inspire a just horror' of bigotry aud cruelty. He felt it to be his duty to preserve that sobriety of mind which is ever appropriate to a historian, and to give the Spaniards the advantage, to which they are fairly entitled, of being judged by the standard of their own age — of being tried by their peers. In weighing the errors and crimes which darken the page of history, allowance must be made for the influences of different periods of society, and for the state of public opinion at the time. We must be satisfied, if men are no worse than their neighbours. We have no right to apply to one age the moral standard of another. We do not condemn the suicide of Cato as we do that of a modern felon. If a Lord Chancellor in our times should accept a present from a suitor in his court, a deeper weight of obloquy would rest upon his name than weighs down the memory of the illustrious Bacon, because in his days the practice was not without precedent. A member of Parliament, who should now defend the slave-trade with such arguments as were listened to with favor in the year seventeen hundred and eighty-eight, would find his voice lost in a general hiss of indignation. We do not judge Dryden as we should a dramatic author who should now insult the public with the ribaldry of his “ Limberham,” or “ Wild Gallant.” This principle Mr. Prescott has kept steadily in view. He extenuates nothing,
and apologizes for nothing. He relates in temperate language every enormity of the Conquerors, and furnishes them with the explanation to which they are fairly entitled. Now, a reader has a right to say, that this is not the way in which history should be written. He may prefer, that the historian should look at all moral questions from the point of view supplied by his own age, and may insist, that the interests of truth require that all historical personages should be tried by the highest standard. It may be so. But this is not the question. The point at issue is, whether Mr. Prescott is not right, if you grant him his own premises. Take the character of Cortés. It is admitted, that he was treacherous, bigoted, and cruel, and that our admiration of his energy and capacity is ever checked by the moral reprobation which his conduct awakens. But was he any worse than the conspicuous men of action in his time, always excepting Columbus, who was raised above his contemporaries not less by the purity of his motives than by the grandeur of his genius? Nay, more ; of all the successful soldiers who have scourged the earth, — the hunters of mankind, from Nimrod to Napoleon, - how many have left a whiter name than his ? How many have ever shrunk from falsehood, or cruelty, when an obstacle was to be removed or an advantage to be gained? We abhor the character of Cortés, it is true ; but we no less abhor that of hundreds of others of the great names of history, men who have carved out kingdoms with their swords, who have founded families, and won wealth and honor, whose praises have been sung by venal minstrels, and whose features and forms the glowing canvass and the breathing marble have transmitted to posterity.
The materials for the history of the Conquest, both in manuscript and in print, are various and ample. The writings of Las Casas, Herrera, Oviedo, Camargo, and Toribio furnish information more or less authentic, and either directly or incidentally useful. The letters of Cortés are of great value, as having been written on the spot by the principal actor in the scenes commemorated ; but we need dwell no further upon these, as they form the subject of an article in our last Number. * Two of the principal authorities are the chronicles of Gomara and of Bernal Diaz, men resembling each other as little as any two authors who have ever written on the same subject. Gomara was a churchman and a scholar. He became the chaplain of Cortés, upon his return to Spain, after the Conquest, and, after his death, continued in the service of his son. The simple elegance of his style, and the skill with which he arranged his materials, have made his work extensively and permanently. popular. His information was derived from the highest sources,—from Cortés himself, and from the other leading actors in the scenes he records. His position in the family of Cortés, however, while it afforded him such advantages in the accumulation of facts, naturally gave him a bias in favor of his patron, which is very perceptible in his work, and which has impaired its value as an authentic history. To the faults of Cortés he is more than a little blind, and to his virtues he is very kind. But we must not judge him too severely. Sturdy independence is a quality for which the chaplains of great men have not, in any age, been famous. The humble and dependent ecclesiastic must have been a man of superhuman virtue to write with strict impartiality the life of his “honored patron,” (to borrow a phrase of poor Peter Pattieson,) to whom he had been so long indebted for protection and for bread. A man of letters does not flourish well in a great man's shadow.
* We take the liberty here of correcting a statement, which was inadvertently made in that article, that the publication of Mr. Folsom contains a translation of all the despatches of Cortés now extant. There are some which still remain in manuscript, having never been printed.
Bernal Diaz is a writer of quite a different stamp. He was a rough soldier, as little accustomed to the pen as Gomara was to the pike or arquebuse. He was one of those hardy adventurers who left the Old World to seek their fortunes in the New. After various toilsome and perilous enterprises, he enlisted under the banners of Cortés, and remained with him till the close of the Conquest. He was engaged in more than a hundred battles and rencontres, in no one of which did an enemy ever see his back. He was as faithful to his commander as he was brave, and was honored by him with various offices of trust and responsibility. In his old age, nearly half a century after the Conquest, we find him established as regidor of the city of Guatemala, having survived his general and nearly all his companions in arms. Here he was doubtless allowed the privileges of an old campaigner ; to tell stories of the Conquest, as interminable as those of Dugald Dalgetty about the “ Lion of the North”;