Around August, 1519, the conquistador Hernán Cortés went to the city of Cempoala to talk to his native allies about a fateful mission he was envisioning—to seek out the Aztec leader, Montezuma II. Giving the Spaniards a course in regional politics, the Cempoalans (who had been brought into rebellion against Montezuma by Cortés) suggested that the Spaniards enlist the aid of the Tlascalans, perhaps Montezuma’s greatest native foe at the time. Eager to start his journey, Hernan Cortés deputized a man named Juan Escalante to look after their newfound colony of Vera Cruz during his absence. With his intel gathered and his forces mustered, Cortés was ready to begin a new phase of his expedition. Yet, before he could set off, a message arrived from Vera Cruz with troubling information. A European ship had sailed past the colony, and despite the inhabitants of Vera Cruz making smoke signals, and waving red cloaks in the air to catch the attention of the ship, the sailors onboard pretended not to see them and refused to enter the colony’s harbor, instead dropping anchor at a location several miles away.
It was all bad news for Cortés. Various thoughts must have run through his head. Did the ship belong to a rival colonial power? Was it a crew of pirates or outlaws? Cortés did not have any reinforcements scheduled—in fact the governor he worked for wanted him arrested.
In response to the message, Cortés gathered around fifty of his swiftest men, leaving the rest behind in Cempoala, and quickly marched back to Vera Cruz, reaching the colony around nightfall. Upon arrival, there was little rest and no food for the weary travelers, as Cortés almost immediately set off with the same band of fifty men, this time heading for where the mysterious ship had anchored. While they marched, they happened to encounter four scouts who had been dropped off by the ship—these men, they found out, were not pirates, and neither were the scouts from rival kingdoms or empires. Instead, they were fellow Spanish explorers, sent to claim land in Mexico for the Spanish crown on behalf of the governor of Jamaica, Francisco de Garay. Despite them being on the same team, as it were, Hernán Cortés looked upon this new ship of Spaniards with hostility.
Cortés’s motivations in Mexico may have been for country and currency, but there was one more word beginning with ‘C’ that he likely prioritized before the rest—Cortés. This was his turf and he already did not want to share it with his boss in Cuba, much less the governor of Jamaica. Hernán Cortés arrested the four scouts and continued marching to where the rival ship was sighted.
Cortés eventually decided that his best course of action was to seize the ship. He brought the captured Spaniards to their rendezvous point and pressured them to signal their comrades on the ship to row ashore. The sailors, however, had seen Cortés’ forces, and wisely ignored the signals.
His first plan thwarted, Cortés masterminded a more subtle plot. He commandeered the clothes of his four prisoners and dressed four of his own men of similar sizes in the captives’ clothing. These disguised conquistadors were left at the rendezvous point, while Cortés led the rest of his band along the coastline back toward Vera Cruz, letting the sailors see their departure. As soon as Cortés was out of sight of the ship, however, he quickly marched his force back to a forested area near the men he had left behind, and he set up an ambush for the rival Spaniards. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who was present for this subterfuge, wrote down his experiences during that odd night and morning:
“So four of our men remained behind dressed in the prisoners’ clothes, and the rest of us with Cortes hid in a wood till after midnight, when the moon had set and it was dark enough for us to creep down to the mouth of the creek. Here we concealed ourselves again, leaving only the four soldiers to be seen; and when dawn broke these four began to wave their cloaks at the ship, from which a boat with six sailors quickly put off. Two of these sailors jumped ashore to fill two pitchers with water, and we who were with Cortes remained in hiding, waiting for the others to land. However they stayed in the boat, and our four men who were disguised kept their faces hidden and pretended to be washing their hands. Then the crew of the boat shouted: ‘Come on board. What are you doing there? Why don’t you come?’ Then one of our men called back: ‘Come on shore, you’ll find there’s a well.’ As they did not recognize his voice the men in the boat rowed away, and though we went on calling no one answered us. We wanted to shoot at them with our muskets and crossbows, but Cortes would not let us” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 60).
As the rowboat escaped to the ship, Cortés awkwardly launched his trap and captured the two men who had come ashore to gather water. After spending the entire night on the coast without food, he had managed to only capture six of the rival explorers, and the ship was able to sail away. Hernán Cortés brought his prisoners back to Vera Cruz, and Francisco de Garay would continue to be a political rival in the region for years to come.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (night scene of the Hernan Cortes expedition, illustrated by Margaret Duncan Coxhead (c. 1909), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.