After defeating the Mayan-related Tzendals of Tabasco, Mexico, in March 1519, Hernán Cortés and his fleet sailed to a port called San Juan de Ulua, located in a region that would be called Vera Cruz. San Juan de Ulua was controlled by the Aztec emperor, Montezuma II, and once Hernán Cortés entered the region, his fleet was closely watched by Aztec agents—it only took a reported half hour after the Spaniards dropped anchor before representatives of Montezuma rowed up to the Spanish fleet in canoes. Although the first Aztec diplomats were apparently of low rank, it was not long before officials of loftier positions began to arrive.
Hernán Cortés, according to his comrade Bernal Díaz del Castillo, was said to have anchored in San Juan de Ulua on a Thursday, and then he cautiously disembarked on Friday. The very next day, an Aztec leader named Cuitlalpitoc sent a large delegation to meet with Cortés. Cuitlalpitoc, said by the Spanish to have been the equivalent of a governor, did not personally visit, but the delegation he sent arrived with pageantry and gifts. They gave the Spaniards presents of food and gold, as well as some building supplies, such as lumber, axes and cloth. On Sunday, the day after the delegation’s arrival, an even greater Aztec procession marched up to San Juan de Ulua to meet with Hernán Cortés. The party was led by two men. One was the aforementioned Cuitlalpitoc and the other was Tendile (also called Teuthlille), who was of equal or greater rank than his companion. They brought more gifts for the Spaniards, including another round of food and a reported ten bales of marvelous white cloth.
Yet, besides handing out gifts, the Aztec officials were also doing a bit of intelligence gathering on behalf of Montezuma. As it was centuries before the days of spy planes and cameras, the Aztecs did the next best thing—they painted portraits. Tendile reportedly had in his party numerous painters who diligently put on canvas every aspect of the Spanish expedition. About these artists, Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote:
“It appears Tendile brought with him some of those skilled painters they have in Mexico, and that he gave them instructions to make realistic full-length portraits of Cortés and all his captains and soldiers, also to draw the ships, sails, horses, Doña Marina and Aguilar [Cortés’ translators], and even the two greyhounds. The cannon and cannon-balls, and indeed the whole of our army, were faithfully portrayed, and the drawings were taken to Montezuma.” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 38)
After taking the detailed portraits of the Spaniards, and receiving several gifts from Cortés to be handed over to Montezuma, Tendile left San Juan de Ulua to report what he had seen to the Aztec emperor. The portrait of Hernán Cortés must have been quite accurate, for Montezuma curiously sent a Cortés look-alike to accompany Tendile on his return trip to San Juan de Ulua. Bernal Díaz made mention of this look-alike, whom the Spaniards named Quintalbor, and admitted that the man was, indeed, an impeccable impersonator of the conquistador: “On account of this resemblance we in the camp called them ‘our Cortés’ and ‘the other Cortés’ (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 39). Yet, it was not the look-alike that caused the most excitement. Tendile also brought with him a large treasure of gold, both in unworked ore and grains, as well as exquisitely crafted golden disks and figures. Unfortunately, this made the Spaniards exponentially more curious and envious of Aztec wealth, and despite Montezuma ordering his people to cut off contact with the Spaniards, Hernán Cortés would soon show up at Montezuma’s capital city of Tenochtitlán.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Banquet scene of the Conquest of Mexico, by Miguel Gonzales (Virreinato de la Nueva España, XVII – XVIII century – Virreinato de la Nueva España), c. 17th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.