The Burning Mountain of Huexotzinco

The Conquest of New Spain, an eye-witness account of how Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico, is one of the most memorable non-fiction books I’ve ever read. And I don’t just mean that I vividly recall various episodes in the book; no, there’s more to it than that. Because of this book, I ended up reading others on the subject, and some of them, like Tlaloc Weeps For Mexico, a novel by László Passuth, were excellent. And because of this book, I practically haunt the Aztec rooms of the British Museum. (And I wish that I remembered more of the exhibits of the Museo de América in Madrid!)

If you love history, eye-witness accounts are at once a blessing and a curse. For when it comes to eye-witnesses, few of them turns out to have had any literary talent at all. As long as you’re content with reading the second-hand retelling of momentous events in history by latter day historians, overlaced with their own interpretations, fine, you can choose from many; but if you’d like to be there with the eye-witness, well, be thankful you’ve actually found one. Your eye-witness is unique – you can love him or curse him but what he offers no-one else can give you.

As it happens, I consider Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the author of The Conquest of New Spain, one of the more lucid and readable eye-witness chroniclers I’ve so far came across (although my edition of his book did benefit hugely from some ruthless editing). Unlike most, he even shows some awareness of the reader:

My worthy readers will be tired of listening to our discussions and conversations with the Tlascalans…

He is certainly not any worse to read than the celebrated Julius Caesar (and at least he doesn’t talk of himself in the third person). And Caesar was not merely a common soldier, he was, after all, a politician as well, of whom you would expect some literary skill.

Xiuhtecuhtli, Aztec god of volcanoes
The statuette of Xiuhtecuhtli, Aztec god of volcanoes in the British Museum

I could write volumes about Díaz del Castillo’s book, and bit by bit over the time I probably will. (You’ve been forewarned.) But one of the most memorable passages, at least, to me, is when Diego de Ordaz climbed the erupting Popocatepetl and set eyes on Tenochtitlan from the summit for the first time. Strictly speaking, as Díaz himself didn’t climb the Popocatepetl, this is not exactly an eye-witness history, but well, it’s as good as we’re going to get, given that Ordaz, as far as I’m aware, never published an account of his own of this particular adventure.

The story is told in Chapter LXXVIII in no more than a few lucid paragraphs. So few and lucid, in fact, that I have absolutely no intention of interfering with it here but will let it stand as it has been written. (Scroll down the page for the Spanish original if you can read it.)


How Diego de Ordaz Climbed the Erupting Popocatepetl and Became the First European to Set Eyes on Tenochtitlán

… the volcano near Huexotzinco… was throwing out more fire than usual while we were at Tlascala. All of us, including our Captain, were greatly astonished at this, since we had never seen a volcano before. One of our captains, Diego de Ordaz, wishing to go to see what it was, asked the general’s permission to climb it. Permission was granted, and Cortes even expressly ordered him to make the ascent. Diego took two of our soldiers and certain Indian chiefs from Huexotzinco, who frightened him with the information that halfway up Popocatepetl – for this was the volcano’s name – the earth-tremors and the flames, stones, and ashes that were thrown out of the mountain were more than a man could bear. They said the guides would not dare to climb further than the cues of those idols that are called the Teules of Popocatepetl. Nevertheless, Diego de Ordaz and his two companions climbed on till they came to the top, leaving the Indians below too scared to make the ascent.

From what Ordaz and the two soldiers said afterwards it appears that, as they climbed, the volcano began to throw out great tongues of flame, and half-burnt stones of no great weight, and a great deal of ash, and that the whole mountain range in which it stands was so shaken that they stopped still, not daring to go forward for quite an hour, until they saw that the eruption was over and the smoke and ashes were getting less. They then climbed up to the crater, which was very round and wide and about a mile and a half across. From the summit they could see the city of Mexico and the whole lake, and all the towns on its shores. The volcano is about eighteen or twenty miles from Mexico.

Ordaz was delighted and astonished with the view of Mexico and its cities. After gazing at them for some time he went back to Tlascala with his companions, and the Indians of Huexotzinco and Tlascala regarded his climb as a very brave deed. When he told his story to Captain Cortes and the rest of us, we were greatly astonished. For we had never seen or heard of Popocatepetl as we have today, when many Spaniards, including some Franciscans, have climbed to the crater.

When Diego de Ordaz went to Castile he asked His Majesty to grant him the volcano as his coat-of-arms, which his nephew, who lives at Puebla, now bears.

Cómo Diego de Ordaz subió al Popocatepetl en plena erupción y se hizo el primer europeo que vio Tenochtitlán

…el volcán que está cabe Guaxocingo echaba en aquella sazón que estábamos en Tlaxcala mucho fuego, más que otras veces solía echar, de lo cual nuestro capitán Cortés y todos nosotros, como no habíamos visto tal, nos admiramos de ello; y un capitán de los nuestros que se decía Diego de Ordaz tomóle codicia de ir a ver qué cosa era, y demandó licencia a nuestro general para subir en él, la cual licencia le dió, y aun de hecho se lo mandó. Y llevó consigo dos de nuestros soldados y ciertos indios principáles de Guaxocingo; y los principales que consigo llevaba poníanle temor con decirle que luego que estuviese a medio camino de Popocatepeque, que así llaman aquel volcán, no podría sufrir el temblor de la tierra y llamas y piedras y ceniza que de él sale, y que ellos no se atraverían a subir más de donde tienen unos cúes de ídolos que llaman los teules de Popocatepeque. Y todavía Diego de Ordaz con sus dos compañeros fué su camino hasta llegar arriba, y los indios que iban en su compañía se le quedaron en lo bajo, que no se atrevieron a subir, y parece ser, según dijo después Ordaz y los dos soldados, que al subir que comenzó el volcán de echar grandes llamaradas de fuego y piedras medio quemadas y livianas, y mucha ceniza, y que temblaba toda aquella sierra y montaña adonde está el volcán, y que estuvieron quedos sin dar más paso adelante hasta de ahí a una hora que sintieron que había pasado aquella llamarada y no echaba tanta ceniza ni humo, y que subieron hasta la boca, que era muy redonda y ancha y que habría en el anchor un cuarto de legua, y que desde allí se parecía la gran ciudad the México y toda la laguna y todos los pueblos que están en ella poblados.

Y está este volcán de México obra de doce o trece leguas. Y después de bien visto, muy gozoso Ordaz y admirado de haber visto a México y sus ciudades, volvió a Tlaxcala con sus compañeros, y los indios de Guaxocingo y los de Tlaxcala se lo tuvieron a mucho atrevimiento, y cuando lo contaba al capitán Cortés y a todos nosotros, come en aquella sazón no lo habíamos visto ni oído como ahora, que sabemos lo que es y han subido encima de la boca muchos españoles y aun frailes franciscos, nos admiramos entonces de ello, y cuando fué Diego de Ordaz a Castilla lo demandó por armas a Su Majestad, y así las tiene ahora un sobrino Ordaz, que vive en la Puebla. Después acá desde que estamos en esta tierra no le habemos visto echar tanto fuego ni con tanto ruido como al principio, y aun estuvo ciertos años que no echaba fuego hasta el año de mil quinientos treinta y nueve, que echó muy grandes llamas y piedra y ceniza.

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