The “Silver Walls” of Zempoala, Mexico


In 1519, during the early stages of Hernán Cortés’ adventures in Mexico, the expedition fleet anchored at a port called San Juan de Ulua. There, Cortés met with two Aztec leaders that the Spanish thought were governors. For more than a week, they talked and exchanged gifts (including a large treasure of gold from Montezuma II and a fine chair from Cortés), until the Aztec leader, Montezuma, apparently ordered his people to abruptly cut off contact with the conquistadors. Yet, although the Aztec governors and their attendants quickly withdrew without notice, another group of local natives covertly sent ambassadors to speak with the Spaniards. The newly-arrived diplomats represented the Totonac people, a network of communities that had been subjugated by the Aztecs but were eager to rebel.

The leading city of the Totonac people was Zempoala (or Cempoala), in the vicinity of what would become Vera Cruz, Mexico. The leader of the city sent a delegation of five men to meet with Cortés in San Juan de Ulua. The diplomats, reportedly wearing golden decorations on their ears and lips, made a good first impression on the gold-obsessed Spaniards. Having obtained Cortés’ attention, the messengers expressed their leader’s eagerness to work with the Spaniards against Montezuma, and they invited the Spanish to visit the city of Zempoala. Cortés agreed to visit, but maintained that he was in a hurry to reach a city called Quiahuitzlan, which had piqued the interest of ships Cortés had earlier sent out to scout the coast. The conquistadors were in luck, for Zempoala was on the route to Quiahuitzlan and the leader of Zempoala knew the leader of the other city well.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo was among the conquistadors who saw Zempoala and he wrote this dramatic description of the community:

“as we came among the houses we saw how large a town it was, larger than any we had yet seen, and were full of admiration. It was so green with vegetation that it looked like a garden; and its streets were so full of men and women who had come out to see us that we gave thanks to God for the discovery of such a country” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 45).

It was such a thriving settlement that the Spaniards reportedly nicknamed it the City of Abundance. The ambitious leader of Zempoala was a perfect figurehead for the city, as he, like his large and well-fed city, was reported to have been incredibly obese. As the aforementioned Bernal Díaz explained, “He was so fat that I must call him the fat Cacique” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 45). True to his word, that was the consistent name given to the leader of Zempoala in the remainder of Bernal Díaz’s account.

The large leader of the city allowed the Spaniards to stay in some well-maintained buildings in the city courtyard. Cortés sent scouts to check out the lodgings. The wealth of the city and the general lust for gold and silver must have affected one of the scouts, for he rushed back to his comrades to tell them of a remarkable sight. According to him, the walls of their quarters, and those of other buildings in the city, were made of gleaming silver. Sadly, Bernal Díaz made no mention of how this news was received among the conquistadors, but, thankfully for Cortés, his culturally and architecturally aware translators were able stop the infectious rumor from spreading. Doña Marina (Cortés’ translator and mistress) and Aguilar (a priest formerly held captive by the Maya) explained that Zempoala was not a city of silver, but instead had walls covered in bright plaster.

This is how Bernal Díaz presented this amusing scene:

“Our mounted scouts had come to a great square with courtyards where they had prepared our lodgings, which appeared to have been lime-coated and burnished during the last few days. The Indians are so skillful at these arts that one of the horsemen took the shining whiteness for silver, and came galloping back to tell Cortés that our quarters had silver walls. Doña Marina and Aguilar said that it must have been plaster, and we laughed at his excitement. Indeed we reminded him ever afterwards that anything white looked to him as silver” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 45).

Cortes eventually left Zempoala and traveled to the city of Quiahuitzlan. The so-called fat Cacique followed the conquistadors to Quiahuitzlan, and there the two Totonac leaders continued to pressure Cortés to aid them in rebellion against Montezuma. Hernán Cortés eventually agreed and soon after founded the Spanish Colonial city of Vera Cruz not far from the location of Quiahuitzlan.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A city scene from the Conquest of Mexico (Virreinato de la Nueva España), by Miguel Gonzales c. 17th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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