Tuesday, May 13, 2014

First Battle fought by Cortez in New Spain

In Chapter XXXIV, Bernal Diaz describes the first battle Cortez and his forces fought in “New Spain.” The chapter is entitled “How we are attacked by all the caziques of Tabasco, and the whole armed force of this province, and what took place.” I cannot tell how numerous the forces involved were. Whatever force Cortez had come to Tabasco on his ships. Diaz at one point said that an attack he advocated was rejected at first because it would involve each of Cortez soldiers going up against 300 Indians. No doubt that shouldn’t be taken literally, but the Spaniards were facing overwhelming numbers. They had the advantage of better weapons, better tactics, and horses; which the Indians had apparently never seen before.

Since Diaz describes the first battle Cortez and his forces fought in “New Spain” we see something of what Cochran and Harpending had in mind when they wrote that Cortez achieved something very like that in a modern adventure movie where a single man defeats an army of enemies. I’ll quote this chapter up to the point where Diaz states that the battle is over:

“The Indians were already moving forward in search of us, when we came up with them: every one had a large bunch of feathers on his head, a cotton cuirass on, and their faces were daubed with white, black, and red colours. Besides having drums and trumpets, they were armed with huge bows and arrows, shields, lances, and large broadswords; they had also bodies of slingers, and others armed with poles hardened in the fire. The Indians were in such vast numbers that they completely filled the bean fields, and immediately fell upon us on all sides at once, like furious dogs. Their attack was so impetuous, so numerous were the arrows, stones, and lances with which they greeted us, that above seventy of our men were wounded in no time, and one named Saldaña, was struck by an arrow in the ear, and instantly dropt down dead. With like fury they rushed at us with their pikes, at the same time pouring forth showers of arrows, and continually wounding our men. However, we fully repaid them with our crossbows, muskets, and heavy cannon, cutting right and left among them with our swords. By this means we forced them to give ground a little, but only that they might shower forth their arrows at a greater distance, where they thought themselves more secure from our arms. Even then our artilleryman Mesa made terrible havoc among them, standing as they did crowded together and within reach of the cannon, so that he could fire among them to his heart's content. Notwithstanding the destruction we made among their ranks, we could not put them to flight. I now remarked to our commander Diego de Ordas that we should rush forward upon the Indians and close with them. My motive for advising this was, because I saw that they merely retreated from fear of our swords, but still continued to annoy us at a distance with arrows, lances, and large stones. De Ordas, however, considered this not expedient, as the enemy's numbers were so vast that every single man of us would have had to encounter 300 of the enemy at once.

“My advice, however, was at length followed up, and we fell so heavily upon them that they retreated as far as the wells. All this time Cortes still remained behind with the cavalry, though we so greatly longed for reinforcement: we began to fear that some misfortune might also have befallen him. I shall never forget the piping and yelling which the Indians set up at every shot we fired, and how they sought to hide their loss from us by tossing up earth and straw into the air, making a terrible noise with their drums and trumpets, and their war-whoop Ala lala. In one of these moments Cortes came galloping up with the horse. Our enemies being still busily engaged with us, did not immediately observe this, so that our cavalry easily dashed in among them from behind. The nature of the ground was quite favorable for its manœuvres; and as it consisted of strong active fellows, most of the horses being, moreover, powerful and fiery animals, our small body of cavalry in every way made the best use of their weapons. When we, who were already hotly engaged with the enemy, espied our cavalry, we fought with renewed energy, while the latter, by attacking them in the rear at the same time, now obliged them to face about. The Indians, who had never seen any horses before, could not think otherwise than that horse and rider were one body. Quite astounded at this to them so novel a sight, they quitted the plain and retreated to a rising ground.

“Cortes now related why he had not come sooner. First, he had been delayed by the morass; then again he was obliged to fight his way through other bodies of the enemy whom he had met, in which five men and eight horses were wounded. Having somewhat rested from our fatigue under the trees which stood on the field of battle, we praised God and the holy Virgin, and thanked them with uplifted hands for the complete victory they had granted us: and, as it was the feast of the annunciation to the holy Virgin, the town which was subsequently built here in memory of this great victory, was named Santa Maria de la Vitoria. This was the first battle we fought under Cortes in New Spain.

[Del Castillo, Bernal Diaz (2013-11-03). The Conquest of New Spain (Kindle Locations 1802-1832). Bybliotech. Kindle Edition.]

Comment: Should we trust the account of Bernal Diaz or is there some other? Diaz throughout is critical of the history written by Francisco López de Gómara. Apparently Gomara’s history was well received in Spain. But note that Gomara was born in 1511 and the battle Diaz describes occurred in 1519. Wikipedia says of Gomara, “Francisco López de Gómara (c. 1511 - c. 1566) was a Spanish historian who worked in Seville, particularly noted for his works in which he described the early 16th century expedition undertaken by Hernán Cortés in the Spanish conquest of the New World. Although Gómara himself did not accompany Cortés, and had in fact never been to the Americas, he had firsthand access to Cortés and others of the returning conquistadores as the sources of his account. However other contemporaries, among them most notably Bernal Díaz del Castillo, criticised his work as being full of inaccuracies, and one which unjustifiably sanitised the events and aggrandised Cortés' role. As such, the reliability of his works may be called into question; yet they remain a valuable and oft-cited record of these events.”

While Amazon does provide Diaz’s account in Kindle format, they do not provide Gomara’s. Gomara’s “history” has had an interesting history: “Whether through the desire to aggrandize his patron, [Lord Don Martin Cortés, Marques del Valle"—the son and heir of the conqueror] or through relying on the firsthand information which the latter gave him (Gómara was never in America) or from malice, or for some other reason Gómara fell into serious errors and in many instances sinned gravely against historical truth. It was perhaps for this reason that Prince Philip (afterwards Philip II of Spain), in a decree issued at Valladolid on November 17, 1553, ordered all the copies of his work that could be found to be gathered in and imposed a penalty of 200,000 maravedis on anyone who should reprint it. This prohibition was removed in 1727 through the efforts of Don Andreas Gonzalez Martial who included Gómara's work in his collection of early historians of the New World (Coleccion de historiadores primitivos de las Indias Occidentales). The Verdadera historia de la Conquesta de Nueva Espana ("True History of the Conquest of New Spain") of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a companion of Hernán Cortés, was written to refute Gómara. The latter's style is concise and agreeable, the narrative running on rapidly and gracefully, all of which has had the effect of attracting readers to the work. Among other works of his which have remained unpublished are Batallas de mar de nuestros tiempos ("Contemporary Naval Battles") and Historia de Harrue y Harradin Barbarroja.

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