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Cortes conquers Mexico, land of gold

Posted in Discoveries, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

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This edited article about cities of gold originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

Cortes, picture, image, illustration

Hernando Cortes conquered Mexico, by Severino Baraldi

To the iron-hard Spanish soldier-explorers who had conquered Mexico and Peru nothing seemed impossible. No tall tale of fabulous treasure seemed too far fetched to be true. How could anything be beyond them? Had not Hernando Cortes with a mere 500 men brought the Aztec Empire of Mexico tumbling down and turned it into New Spain? Had not Francisco Pizarro, with less than 200 men, toppled the even vaster Inca Empire of Peru?

So when the news broke in Mexico City, the capital of New Spain, that there were golden cities to the north – the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola – it was thrilling, but hardly surprising.

Besides, it tied in with ancient legends. These dated back several centuries to a time when most of Spain and Portugal was in the hands of the Moors, the fierce invaders from North Africa. Seven bishops and some of their flock sailed across the Sea of Darkness and reached the Blessed Isles, so the story went. Reaching a particularly lovely island they called Antilia, the exiles built seven golden cities for the seven bishops.

When Spaniards reached the New World in the 1490s and early 1500s, they hopefully named a group of islands the Antilles, but found little gold in them. So – they argued without any evidence – the cities must be on the newly discovered mainland.

Mexico finally fell to Cortes and his army in 1521, and from 1528 onwards the hunt for the cities was on. That year 300 men sailed from Cuba to Florida on the mainland – and disappeared. Not a word was heard of them for eight years, but meanwhile the search had begun in other directions.

In 1530, a Spanish officer, Nunez de Guzman, set off northwards from Mexico City with some soldiers, following up exciting rumours of seven cities, their streets paved with gold. There was so much of it about, so it was rumoured, that the citizens could hardly move, so great was the amount of precious metal on their clothes.

Finding no gold, Guzman switched the purpose of the expedition and began enslaving Indians, which was against Spanish law, a law that was totally unenforceable in distant Mexico.

While busily making his fortune, he accidentally came across the remnants of the ill-fated expedition to Florida. In 1536, one of his men stumbled on two survivors. One was a Moorish slave called Esteban, the other, who had been Esteban’s master, was a nobleman and soldier called Cabeza de Vaca. Not that he looked like a nobleman, for he was as brown as an Indian and dressed in ragged deerskins.

Two more Spaniards were found nearby. They were the only survivors of the ill-fated expedition and had been wandering about the West for years, sometimes enslaved by Indians, but often being regarded as medicine men.

The four received a great welcome in Mexico City. The Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, questioned them hopefully about gold and de Vaca said that, though he had seen none, he had heard rumours.

This time the rumours included other precious minerals – turquoises and emeralds – as well as gold. Naturally, all this pointed to the Seven Cities. An expedition must be mounted at once.

Mendoza chose Francisco de Coronado as the man to take charge of the new quest. He was a 27-year-old nobleman, who was already an established leader of men. Having been made governor of New Galicia in northern Mexico his orders were to send out reconnaissance expeditions into the unknown land to the north, then mount and lead a major expedition aimed at the Seven Cities.

The first group to set out was led by a veteran named Marcos de Niza, a friar who had been with the conquerors of Peru. With him went Esteban the Moor as guide. They were to note everything of interest on their journey, especially metals and minerals.

Esteban went ahead of the rest, accompanied by a few Indian guides, his job being to send back news of any towns and villages they found. His newly acquired position had gone to his head, and he dressed himself in long robes, a magnificent plumed headdress and splendid bracelets to which were attached jingling bells.

His knowledge of the skills of the medicine man proved very useful and soon he was reporting back what the friar wanted most to hear, news of seven mighty cities all ruled over by one lord. The cities were all gathered under one name, Cibola, which was soon to be as magical as the legendary city of Eldorado. Friar Marcos de Niza was beside himself with joy.

Suddenly things started to go wrong. Two Indians, both badly wounded, staggered back into the friar’s camp with grim news. They had approached the first city of Cibola on their route and Esteban had sent his medicine man’s bag ahead of him as he usually did to ensure proper treatment and respect. With it he was ready, so his message stated, to cure the sick. But, alas, when the local chief saw the container, he reacted angrily, saying that the rattles in the bag were not the same kind as his.

When Esteban heard the bad news, he decided to press on anyway. He was not allowed into the city, but was forced to stay outside overnight. The next day, Esteban and his men left their lodging, only to be showered with arrows. The two survivors had not seen him fall, but knew he must be dead.

Nothing daunted, de Niza pushed on and in the distance saw what he realised must be one of the cities. He raised a cross and a cairn and claimed all the land about him for his king. Then with his small party he headed back southwards for Mexico City.

On his way he saw, as he thought, the distant outline of other cities of gold, little knowing that what looked like palaces in the sun were villages of stone and mud houses four stories high. The more he thought about what he thought he had seen, the more his imagination became enflamed, and it was further fuelled by rumours of riches he heard from Indians.

Six months after he had started out, he reached Mexico City, which was soon filled with the most exciting rumours, while he wrote out a long report for the Viceroy. When its contents were revealed, the city went wild with excitement.

Soon de Niza was telling tales which made Cibola sound like ancient Rome or Athens at their most splendid. The Viceroy ordered Coronado to set out northwards as soon as possible.

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