Great River


The four ships of the little fleet were under the command of Captain Alonso Alvarez de Pineda. With him were two hundred and seventy Spanish men-at-arms. They had been afloat since the previous spring. Their orders, issued by Francisco Garay, governor of Jamaica, directed them to coast along the shores of Florida as far as they might in order to find a water passage to the Orient. For a while the term Florida signified the whole immense crescent of the Gulf of Mexico. Pineda logged rivers and bays, but he had not found the strait for Cathay when in August he came upon other Spaniards already ashore at Veracruz.

There was an incident at Veracruz. Pineda anchored his fleet in the harbor. The ships were reported to the Spanish commander ashore—Cortés, who at once went with fifty soldiers to investigate. No newcomers were welcome on that shore. Cortés had already sunk his own ships. His men were ready with his own spirit to take Mexico, for by now they had seen with him the gifts brought with soft messages by ambassadors from Montezuma; and they lusted for such a country. The feathered ambassadors had laid before Cortés an image of the sun, beautifully chased, of pure gold, the size of a carriage wheel, alone worth more than twenty thousand crowns; a larger disc, of silver, which was the moon; a helmet full of raw gold to the value of three thousand crowns; thirty excellently modelled gold figures of ducks, dogs, lions, deer, monkeys and tigers; ornaments—rods, collars, plumes of feathers, fans, all done in gold or silver; headdresses of precious green parrot feathers. Cortés wanted none to help, and none to share, in the ravishment of Mexico. Coming to the Veracruz beach with his soldiers to see who anchored offshore and what was wanted, he did not see Pineda, but met a notary and two soldiers from the anchored fleet, who in ceremony took possession of these lands for Governor Garay of Jamaica.

Cortés at once had them arrested and denuded. Putting three of his own men in the clothes of the captives, he sent them in the landing-party’s own boat to hail the ships to send ashore. A small boat with twelve men in it put in to the beach, and four came from it through the surf carrying crossbows and guns. Cortés’s men sprang out of hiding and surrounded them. The small boat pushed off in alarm, and as it reached the nearest anchored ship, the fleet was already making sail. It departed.

So Cortés knew from his captives that the coasting expedition was also charged with laying claim to lands; and Pineda knew that a ruthless and powerful campaign was afoot in Mexico. Plunging heavily northward, the four ships travelled along the barren coast which at that season was also mild. There were no signs of other Spaniards, there were nothing but naked brown staring creatures as Pineda brought the squadron to the mouth of the river that reached inland and showed its course by its aisle of palm trees. The tallest masts of the vessels reached as high as the highest palms. At rest, the ships looked heavy and swollen, with their high bows and bulging sides and tall, suddenly narrowed housing at the stern where rows of windows framed in gilt carving flashed slowly when the hulls veered. Either under sail, or with sail furled as now, the ships looked to be nodding forward, across their own bowsprits.

Seen close to, their mystery vanished. Their clinker-built planking was crusted with barnacles. When an unloading port in the side was opened, and men leaned out gazing, a wave of foul air was let go. What looked like a cloud on the horizon was dirty coarse sailcloth with faded heraldic painting on it. The hulls were perhaps a third as long as the masts were high. A small boat was launched over the side to bring Pineda ashore. It was then proper style to step into the surf when the boat grounded and, drawing a sword, slash the blade into the waves, stating at the same time that these waters, and this land, and all in their provinces, now came under the possession of His Most Catholic Majesty.

Company from the ships followed the captain ashore. They were in general slender and muscular people, not very tall, but finely proportioned. Their heads were narrow, their faces oval, their hands and fingers long, their shoulders sloping. Moving with grace, and a certain suggestion of repose, they yet could in an instant flare into violence, sparring with blade or pike swift and deadly. Their skin was tough and swarthy, taking the light with a faint tarnish of gold, and turning in shadow with warm darks that suggested embers buried but alive and ardent. They kept their dark hair cropped like caps hugging their tall skulls. Many of them, even youths, wore mustaches that curved out about the mouth to meet sharply pointed beards under the lower lip. The lips were exposed, ruddy and sharply scrolled. These swarthy faces flashed alive with startling whites—the whites of eyes set off by the piercing black of their pupils, and the whites of teeth showing through lips parted for the breath of interest. Their eyes were set deep and often showed black shadows under the carved shell of their brows.