Juan de Grijalva (or Grijalba) set out from Cuba on April 8, 1518, with four ships and explored the Yucatan Peninsula and the Aztec shores of Mexico. He made one of the first sizable gold hauls from Mexican soil, which unfortunately made Spaniards like Harnán Cortés insatiably hungry for more. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, an eyewitness who was present on the Juan de Grijalva expedition, the explorers bartered enough beads and cut glass to accumulate a cargo of gold that was worth more than 20,000 16th-century silver pesos.
Although the Spaniards loved gold, they were also incredibly excited about a peculiar orangey-gold item that they had bought in bulk from the natives. According to Bernal Díaz, the members of the Juan de Grijalva expedition were enthralled with some ornate axes that the locals were wearing. The handles of these tools were ornately painted and the polished metal of the axe heads was a bright yellowish-orange color. In their gold-fever, the Spaniards immediately assumed that the natives were wielding pricey golden axes.
Believing that they had found veritable ingots of sharpened gold on sticks, the Spaniards began bartering their beads, cut glass, and Spanish-style shirts for the axes. By the time the expedition was heading back to Cuba, they had collected more than 600 of the shiny axe heads. The sailors reportedly stowed them away securely and did not look at the axes until they anchored in Cuba.
Unfortunately, when the sailors unveiled their prized golden axes, something was immediately amiss. While the axes had been stowed away, the once gleaming metal had become unmistakably tarnished. Instead of gold, the axes had been made of polished copper, and with the fresh layer of tarnish, the mistake was now very, very obvious. While the axes were still worth some money, the Spaniards understandably felt devastated by the discovery. When news of the axe mix-up spread through Cuba, other Spanish notables on the island teased Juan de Grijalva to no end.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Mesoamerican copper axe, c. 1300 – 1599, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and picryl.com).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.