« PreviousContinue »
illustrating the whole colonial history of Spain in this quarter of the globe. In this task, he labored with indefatigable industry, with a zeal that no obstacles could chill, and a patient assiduity that shrunk from no amount of toil, however exhausting. It was an employment congenial to his taste, and he pursued it with that intense devotion which belongs only to a labor of love. By royal command, every repository was thrown open to him ; the archives of cities and towns, in the Old and the New World, were ransacked by him ; he explored the dark recesses of convent libraries, and disturbed the dust of generations which had settled upon their shelves the great national collections of Seville and Simancas opened to him their treasures. Manuscripts mouldy with age were rescued from the devouring jaws of time and brought forth into the light of day, to give their testimony to the past. So patient of labor was he, that he transcribed with his own hand the manuscript of Sahagun's history, forming two bulky volumes in folio, and made a similar transcript of the printed account of Grijalva's expedition by his chaplain, because the book had become so exceedingly rare, that he feared the entire destruction of every existing copy by some of those many casualties that books are heirs to. The result of his labors and researches was an enormous mass of documents, consisting of letters, ordinances, chronicles, journals, and official reports. Of this collection he did not live to reap the benefit himself. Death arrested his labors when he had completed one volume of his great work, which contains an account of a portion of the discoveries of Columbus.
A second collection was made by Don Vargas Ponçe, president of the Academy of History. His manuscripts were chiefly drawn from the archives at Seville, a rich and extensive repository of official documents. He died, too, before he had had time to avail himself of the fruits of his own researches ; and both his manuscripts and those of Muñoz are preserved in the archives of the Royal Academy of History at Madrid, which is intrusted by government with a particular supervision of the colonial history.
A third collection was made by Navarrete, the present president of the Academy, well known as the author of an excellent life of Cervantes, and who is still living in Madrid, in a green old age, universally respected and beloved for his
learning, his talents, his estimable character, and amiable manners. He went over the same ground, gleaning what his predecessors had left, and making many important additions for his own private collection. About twenty years ago, he commenced the publication of the various documents in his possession and that of the Academy. The work is called " Coleccion de los Viages y Descubrimientos de los Españoles.” The first two volumes are devoted to the life and voyages of Columbus, and in consequence of their publication, Mr. Irving went from London to Madrid to avail himself of these new materials to write the life of the Great Admiral. A third volume, afterwards printed, gives the voyages of the inferior discoverers, as Vespucci, Balboa, and others, who followed in the track of Columbus, and supplied Mr. Irving with the materials for his Companions of Columbus.” Instead of going on, as he had originally proposed, with the publication of the documents illustrating the conquests of Peru and Mexico, Navarrete, in the succeeding volumes, turned aside to the discovery of the Moluccas and the voyages in the East.
The troubled state of affairs in Spain prevented the continuation of this excellent undertaking, and the publication was accordingly suspended.
The application which Mr. Prescott made to the Academy for permission to copy that part of their inestimable collection, which related to Mexico and Peru, was received by them in a manner which showed their consciousness, that the admirable work which he had already written, upon one of the most brilliant periods in the annals of Spain, had created a debt of gratitude on the part of the scholars of that country, which they felt a lively desire to repay. After choosing him a member of their body, they appointed one of their own number, a distinguished German scholar resident in Madrid, to superintend the copying of all the materials in their possession. In a similar spirit of generous courtesy, Navarrete, their president, allowed him the free use of his own private collection, the fruits of a long life of accumulation.
From all these various sources, a mass of unpublished documents was obtained, relating to the conquest and settlement of Mexico and Peru, comprising altogether about eight thousand folio pages, varying, of course, in authority and interest, but none without some value, and many of the highest importance. It is a curious subject of reflection, that two Spanish scholars, armed with all the authority of government, had thus been employed for half a century in gathering materials for the use of a writer, living in a distant portion of the globe, to whom they were not bound by ties either of religion, language, or blood. A shade of melancholy, too, passes over the mind in remembering, that they were not permitted to reap the fruits of their own labors, and to shape their ample materials into a fair edifice of literary fame. It was for others to gather where they had sown. The law of Providence, which Virgil has embodied in his well-known lines, which dooms the bee, the bird, and the ox to toil for others, and not for themselves, is perpetually applied in the history of literary enterprises. The materials are slowly gathered, the plan is sketched, years of patient inquiry and reflection are devoted to preliminary preparation, and when the projected work is beginning to assume distinct proportions in the scholar's mind, when the creative spirit of genius is proceeding to arrange the confused mass into order and beauty, when the heart beats high with anticipated success, and the laurel seems already within the grasp,
“ Comes the blind Fury, with the abhorred shears,
And slits the thin-spun life.” All, too, who take pleasure in seeing the decline of exclusiveness and intolerance, and the removal of those walls of division which separate nations from each other, will be gratified with the courteous and liberal spirit manifested by the Spanish Academy, which shows, that, even in that part of Europe which is the least progressive in its movement, a decided advance has been made in generous feeling and elevated sentiment since the days of Robertson.
Mr. Prescott did not rest here in his accumulation of unpublished materials. From the Duke of Monteleone, a Sicilian nobleman, the descendant and representative of Cortés, who courteously opened to him the archives of his fanıily, were obtained some interesting manuscripts of a personal nature, illustrating the biography of that renowned adventurer.
After these details, it will be hardly necessary to add, that he provided himself with every printed work which had reference to the subject, including the splendid publications of Dupaix and Lord Kingsborough, which, from their colossal dimensions and costly character, are not often found in private libraries.
As the events, which Mr. Prescott was called upon to record, took place in a country and among a people whose usages and institutions were unlike those of any other, his first step was to transport the reader to the period of the Conquest, and to paint the scene of the enterprise as it appeared to the Spaniards upon their landing and during their progress.
This he has done with singular judgment, taste, and sagacity in his Introduction, of about two hundred pages, devoted to a consideration of the Mexican, or, more properly speaking, Aztec civilization. This portion of the work, embodying, as it does, the results of careful reflection and exhausting research, will require to be read with more concentrated attention than the narrative of the Conquest ; but it will richly repay all the time which may be devoted to it. It contains a summary and abstract of many elaborate works neither accessible nor attractive to the general reader, written in a style of transparent beauty and simplicity, and pervaded by a sound judgment equally removed from the extremes of credulity and skepticism. We read in it, with melancholy interest, the tale of the flourishing fortunes and palmy prosperity of a race, now humbled to the dust by long years of subjection, and with every spark of manly feeling trampled out by the iron heel of their oppressors.
When the Spaniards landed upon the shores of Mexico, they found themselves in a new world. The singular physical features of the country prepared them for strange revelations, and at every step their anticipations were confirmed. The forms of animal life, which they observed, everywhere suggested resemblances to those of the European world, but nowhere presented an exact parallel. In the productions of the vegetable kingdom, the discrepancy was still more marked. The exhaustless wealth of a tropical soil lavished itself in the grandest and most fantastic shapes; in trees of giant size and luxuriant foliage ; in a tangled undergrowth of shrubbery ;
in a variety of climbing plants, that threw their green arches over the open spaces of the forest, or hung in pendulous grace from the highest branches ; and in flowers of vivid hues, whose intoxicating perfume was flung upon the air for many a league. It was a vision of fairy land made real. The old world which they had left seemed tame, languid, and The Aztec woman was exempted from the severe toil imposed upon the female sex among all the other Indian races in North America, and only such light labors were exacted of her as were suited to her strength. She shared the confidence of her husband, and was not excluded from his hours of social relaxation. She was his companion, and not his slave. The obligations of the marriage vow were mutually recognized. Their daily life had not the sullen monotony of the more northern races, but was sweetened by those unbought attentions and spontaneous courtesies, which throw their charm over the social intercourse of a civilized community. The sympathizing heart of the Aztec felt it to be a privilege to express by visits of congratulation, and by presents, his pleas
his pleasure in the happiness of his friends, as on occasion of a marriage, or the birth of a child. Their social entertainments were tasteful and elegant. They had a taste for the pleasures of the table, and in the science of cookery were no mean proficients. Their meats were dressed with various sauces, were accompanied with a profusion of vegetables and fruits, and the more delicate luxuries of pastry and confectionary. After a sumptuous dinner, the Aztec gourmand refreshed himself with a cup of chocolate flavored with vanilla, and aided the process of digestion by smoking a pipe or a cigar. The table of Montezuma was spread with imperial magnificence, though he had the bad taste to take his meals alone. Fish, which cannot now be obtained at any price in the city of Mexico, were frequently served up at his board, which, the day before, had been swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, two hundred miles distant. The Aztecs were remarkable for a passionate love of flowers ; a taste which they have transmitted to their degenerate and degraded descendants, and which is so generally the accompaniment of a kindly and gentle nature. They decorated their persons with them; their hues and odors heightened the charm of their entertainments, and were blended with their religious observances.
In scientific culture, they had made remarkable progress. By their peculiar and ingenious system of picture-writing, they were furnished with a tolerable substitute for alphabetical signs, and enabled to transport intelligence to distant points, to publish laws and edicts, and to record and hand down to posterity the memorable public and private events