Dividing wealth among treasure-hunters is often a tense task, prone to arguments and suspicion, but relationships in such situations can become especially strained when the discovered treasure turns out to be much less than what was originally expected. Such was the case of Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors. In 1521, Cortes and his forces attacked the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan in a bloody months-long siege. They were driven on by the belief that once they conquered and pillaged the leading city of the Aztec Empire, they would discover untold riches. Many died in battle during that assault to take Tenochtitlan, and dozens of conquistadors who were captured during the daily skirmishes ended up as human sacrifices, dispatched within view of their comrades. With all the bloodshed and terror involved in conquering the Aztecs, Hernan Cortes’ conquistadors hoped that the discovery of treasure would make their tribulations worthwhile. Yet, when they conquered Tenochtitlan, captured the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc, and began searching the city for treasure, the wealth that they discovered was far less than what they were expecting.
After the Spanish king’s cut of the treasure was safely stored away, and Cortes’ own share was taken from the loot, the rest of the pool that was to be divided among the troops was relatively small, and few of the conquistadors were content with their allotted plunder. With the anger came suspicion and conspiracy theories. Some of the conquistadors accused Cortes of hiding vast quantities of treasure, keeping it hidden for his own gain. These disgruntled troops soon found a creative way to vent their anger—they started leaving graffiti messages on the white walls near Cortes’ quarters. These messages of protest, sometimes written with poetry and humor (yet other times composed as plain insults), became quite an entertaining feature in the conquistador camp. Hernan Cortes soon began to write his own responses to the messages left on the defaced wall. Before long, dialogue on the white wall evolved into a battle of wits between the conquistador captain and the most eloquent of the vandals.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the conquistadors present in Hernan Cortes’ entourage, wrote a lively description of the graffiti incident in his history, The Conquest of New Spain. He stated, “While Cortes was at Coyoacan, he lodged in a place with whitewashed walls on which it was easy to write with charcoal and ink; and every morning malicious remarks appeared, some in verse and some in prose, in the manner of lampoons” (Bernal Díaz, Conquest of New Spain, vol. II, chapter 157). Díaz also commented on Cortes’ written responses to the scribbles on his walls. According to his account, the captain’s responses were seen as a bit too selfish for many in the camp. He wrote:
“When Cortes came out of his quarters of a morning, he would read these lampoons. Their style was elegant, the verses well rhymed, and each couplet not only had point but ended with a sharp reproof that was not so naïve as I may have suggested. As Cortes himself was something of a poet, he prided himself on composing answers, which tended to praise his own deeds and belittle those of Diego Velazquez, Grijalva, and Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba” (Bernal Díaz, Conquest of New Spain, vol. II, chapter 157).
Stoked by the lack of loot and the somewhat insensitive self-praise of Hernan Cortes, the graffiti battles in the camp soon became less jovial and more bitter. As the story goes, the last message that Cortes wrote to his detractors on the whitewashed surface outside his headquarters was, “A blank wall is a fool’s writing paper,” to which one of the captain’s critics responded with a message of, “A wise man’s too, who knows the truth, as His Majesty will do very soon!” (Bernal Díaz, Conquest of New Spain, vol. II, chapter 157). After this exchange, Hernan Cortes forbade his troops from writing any further notes on his walls, and instead focused on settling his conquistadors down in their newly conquered lands.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Hernán Cortés Arriving in Mexico, by Vicente Alanís (1730–1807), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.