In the intervening years Cortés becomes restless despite his status as mayor of Santiago, the largest city in Cuba. But even worse, his relationship with Governor Diego Velásquez deteriorates badly, mostly due to his hesitation in marrying Catalina. This subject is a continual source of marital dispute in the Velásquez household because his wife Leonor, who is Catalina’s sister, reminds him of it often.
As if that weren’t enough, Velásquez also became wary of Cortés’ ambitions and fears he might seek to replace him as Governor since he has many powerful political allies in the territory. The situation reaches critical mass when the Governor becomes so incensed with Cortés he has him thrown in jail on trumped-up treason charges.
Some of Cortés’ friends quickly advise him of the condition for his freedom: marry Catalina. A deal is struck secretly, so as not to embarrass Catalina or the Governor, and Cortés reluctantly announces his engagement upon his release.
The wedding is a happy and festive occasion for everyone except Cortés. All the important people in the capital turn out and Governor Velásquez not only stands as witness for Cortés but even gives away the bride. This way not only does he make Leonor happy, but he figures the marriage will insure Cortés’ loyalty and remove him as a threat.
After enduring two years of a loveless (at least on his part) marriage, Cortés is bored, restless, and desperate for a way out. Then some excitement comes to the colony of Cuba when the Governor launches a small expedition to explore westward.
Under the command of Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba three ships and 110 men including Bernal Diaz del Castillo, sail west into the unknown. After weathering a furious storm, the tiny fleet makes land on the 21st day.
They immediately run into natives they continue to call ‘Indians’ and discover these people are more intelligent—and dangerous than the natives of Cuba. The natives, wearing cotton garments and faces painted black and white, attack the Spanish with spears, arrows and slingshots. During several battles Captain Cordoba suffers wounds in no less than twelve different places by their arrows and Bernal Diaz is wounded himself by three arrows, which fall like rain upon them.
But the Spanish make two important discoveries for their troubles: Three temples built of stone inside of which they find idols of horrible and frightening shapes, but also three crowns and other ornaments, some in the shape of fish, others in the shape of ducks made of gold. They also run into the native priests—ten of whom came running out of one of the temples, dressed in long white robes, with the thick hair of their heads entangled and clotted with blood.
The Spanish retreat to their ships, and addition to the gold manage to capture two native prisoners, who they baptize and convert to Christians. One is named Melchior and the other Julian.
In the end the expedition loses fifty-seven men, besides two the Indians carried off alive, and five who died on ship of their wounds and extreme thirst.
The tales of fine architecture and more importantly—gold, convince Velásquez to form another expedition the following year, this time with four ships and double the men, under the command of Juan de Grijalva, since Cordoba had died of his wounds. Bernal Diaz is also on this voyage, as are the two natives Melchior and Julian, who are to act as guides.
So the fleet set sail for the newly discovered country the natives called ‘Yucatan’. Once again they meet with more fierce resistance, and only a few days after making landfall they suffer sixty wounded during a huge battle. The men barely escape with their lives and press onward, finally encountering some natives who will talk. Melchior and Julian are able to communicate and tell the native chief the Spanish are only here to trade, upon which they are warned the natives have an 8,000 man army ready to repel any attempt to conquer them.
During a six day period they are able to trade for upwards of 1,500 pesos’ worth of gold trinkets—a small fortune of about $18,000. When the Spanish ask for more, they are told the tribe has given them all it has, but there is much more gold to the west—in the capital of the Empire.
The expedition continues, running into both friendly and not friendly natives who constantly attack them. After months of exploring, they are exhausted and sail back to Cuba to treat their numerous wounded.
When Governor Velásquez sees the gold and hears the accounts of much more to the west, he is determined to send out an enlarged third expedition and this news spreads like wildfire through the colony.
Cortés is determined to lead this new mission, but the competition is fierce. Not only does de Grijalva want to return, but every would-be conquistador and relative of Velásquez vies for the opportunity. So Cortés enlists his friends and confidants of Diego Velázquez: Andreas de Duero, secretary to the governor, and Almador de Lares, the royal treasurer, to persuade the Governor in his favor.
His strategy is successful and Cortés is elected Captain of the new expedition, but in return is expected to finance it himself. While he manages to come up with 30%, he has spent a great deal of his wealth on the marriage so he petitions his friends and is given 4000 gold pieces plus 4000 more in supplies in exchange for a mortgage on his land and a future share of the profits from the voyage. Upon receiving these funds he has several ornate banners made, and Cortés being Cortés, custom uniforms including one coat trimmed in real gold.
With Cortés’ experience as an administrator, knowledge gained from many failed expeditions, and his impeccable rhetoric he is able to gather six ships and 300 men within a month. Most importantly many of the conquistadors from the previous expeditions (those still alive) such as Bernal Diaz join him.
The choice of Cortés creates no little envy and the Governor’s relatives bombard him with complaints and suspicions about Cortés to the point he is advised by his close friends and benefactors to leave immediately before the Governor changes his mind. So he leaves early—with the Governor’s full knowledge and blessing—and sails to the port of Trinidad Cuba, where he plans to lay over and accumulate more ships and men, safe from the jealousy in the capital.
Here Cortés easily convinces 200 more men to join him including Pedro de Alvarado, and even some of Velázquez’s relatives and gains five more ships. But with Cortés gone from Santiago and unable to defend himself, his enemies prevail and convince the Governor to rescind Cortés’ charter. Velásquez sends a messenger to Trinidad ordering the expedition back.
When Cortés hears this he has a meeting with the mayor of Trinidad and along with his men convince him he has done nothing wrong. He openly writes a letter to the Governor proclaiming his eternal loyalty and promising to uphold his charter—which is to claim the lands for Spain. Of course Cortés knows that is a ruse since Velázquez’s main intent is to establish trade with the Indians—cheap trinkets for gold.
The clever Cortés also suggests innocently that Trinidad may not want to be caught in the middle of a battle and this point hits home since Cortés has by then nearly 500 experienced soldiers under his command. The mayor decides to ignore the Governor’s message and Cortés is smart enough to leave when he has the chance, so he takes the fleet to Havana, the final port of Cuba.
There the expedition and especially Cortés are greeted warmly and the Conqueror takes on the last of fresh supplies they will need for the journey. He seeks to purchase more horses but they are in short supply. Cortés manages to purchase one with a strip of gold from his very coat.
But when the Governor learns no one obeyed his order and Cortés has left Trinidad he flies into a rage, accusing even his secretary and the royal accountant of conspiracy in a plot with Cortés to steal the fortunes of the New World. Those two immediately dispatch a message to Cortés while Velásquez sends an aide to Havana with orders for his relatives to take him prisoner and stop the expedition.
The plan backfires completely. The messenger not only apprises Cortés of the situation but actually joins him. And the very men Velásquez ordered to arrest Cortés side with him instead—a sign of the Conqueror’s considerable leadership skills.
So Cortés, after the example set by Quintero years earlier, ignores the order and slips away from the Cuban coast accompanied by eleven ships, 500 men, 13 horses and a small number of cannons and sets sail for the YucatanPeninsula in Mayan territory with banners flying the sign of a red cross.
“Comrades, let us follow the sign of the holy Cross with true faith, and through it we shall conquer.” Hernando Cortés speaks to his men.
Thus begins the conquest of Mexico. And the three cogs: The Emperor, The Conqueror, and The Heroine, meshed unknowingly for some 17 years, are turning into their final alignment.