Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
By Cindy Vallar
More than a century before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, the Mexica established a village on an island in Lake Texococo. Tenochtitlán grew to become the center of the Aztec Empire and one of the largest cities in the world.1 Hernán Cortés described it in his second letter to Carlos I of Spain (Carlos V of the Holy Roman Empire) in 1520.
Left to Right: Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo (1519); Engraving of Hernán Cortés
from Book of America by R. Cronau; and Carlos V, Holy Roman Emperor by Lucas Cranch the Elder (1533)
(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, & Wikimedia Commons)
This great city . . . is situated in this salt lake . . . . There are four avenues or entrances to the city, all of which are formed by artificial causeways, two spears’ length in width. The city is as large as Seville or Cordova; its streets . . . are very wide and straight; some of these . . . are half land and half water, and navigated by canoes. . . . there are also very wide bridges . . . on many . . . ten horses can go abreast. . . . by removing the bridges at the entrances . . . they could leave us to perish by famine without our being able to reach the main land.In 1517 news of Mayan riches reached Cuba and among those eager to go in search of this treasure was a magistrate named Hernán Cortés. A year later, in October, the governor appointed him Captain-General and tasked him with leading an expedition to locate and return with these riches. As Cortés was fitting out two ships and gathering men to accompany him, the governor became alarmed at the expedition’s growing costs and size. He tried to relieve Cortés as commander, but the messenger was killed. Rather than stick around, Cortés quickly finished his preparations and set sail in February 1519. After traveling around the Yucatán, he learned of a fabulous city in central Mexico and his army arrived at Tenochtitlán on 8 November 1519.
This city has many public squares, in which are situated the markets . . . one square twice as large as that of the city of Salamanca, surrounded by porticoes, where are daily assembled more than sixty thousand souls, engaged in buying, and selling . . . jewels of gold and silver, lead, brass, copper, tin, precious stones, bones, shells, snails, and feathers. . . . There is a street for game, where every variety of birds . . . are sold. . . . There is also an herb street . . . apothecaries’ shops . . . and restaurateurs . . . every thing that can be found throughout the whole country is sold in the markets . . . . There is a building in the great square that is used as an audience house, where . . . magistrates, sit and decide all controversies.
This great city contains a large number of temples . . . very handsome edifices, which are situated in the different districts and the suburbs . . . . (Letters, 110-118)
Map of the Gulf of Mexico (left) and Tenochtitlán (right), 1524 German woodcut possibly from drawing by one of Cortés's men.
(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Moctezuma II, leader of the Aztecs, welcomed his visitors with fine gifts, which only increased Spanish greed. Soon after, the relationship between these two peoples soured. Cortés and his men seized control of Tenochtitlán, but Cuba’s governor tired of Cortés’s continued disobedience and sent soldiers to arrest him. That expedition did not go well for the Cubans, and Cortés returned to the Aztec capital only to discover the area in rebellion. The conquistadores reasserted control and by August 1521, the Aztec Empire was no more. Its wealth, however, remained and before long, regular shipments were sent to Spain.
Cortés' route to conquer the Aztec Empire by Yavidaxiu
(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Reception of Hernando Cortez by the Emperor Montezuma, 1878
(Courtesy of Library of Congress)
Cortés sorted through the treasures and selected Alonso de Álila, one of his trusted officers, to see that they were delivered to Spain. These riches were taken first to Havana, where they were loaded onto Antonio de Quiñones’s caravel and, with two escorts, the ships sailed for home. When they reached the Azores, Quiñones was killed in a duel over a woman. Soon after, the Spaniards weighed anchor for Seville.2
At the time, France was at war with Spain and five French corsairs spotted the enemy vessels. The leader of these privateers was Jean Fleury (also spelled as Jehan Fleury, Jean Florin, Juan Florin, or Juan Florentin), who commanded the 300-ton Dieppe (sometimes identified as Salamander). During a pursuit off of Portugal’s Cape Saint Vincent, Fleury fired his guns until one Spanish caravel lost a mast and another received a shot that penetrated her hull. The treasure ship and one escort were captured; the other vessel fled.
Fleury was astonished by the riches stored in the hold: “three huge cases of gold ingots; 500 pounds weight of gold dust in bags; Aztec pearls weighing 680 pounds; and emeralds, topazes, golden masks set with gems, Aztec rings and helmets, and feathered cloaks.” (Cordingly, 36) One emerald matched the size of a man’s fist. The booty also included a caged jaguar, Cortés’s report to his king, and valuable navigation charts for crossing the Atlantic. The total value of the plunder exceeded 800,000 ducats ($24,000,000 in 2010 according to Angus Konstam).
Moctezuma II's headdress by Thomas Ledl
(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Fleury and his ships returned to Normandy, France, where he showed the man who had financed his expedition all that they had found. Jean Ango, the Viscount of Dieppe, used these funds to finance additional voyages of corsairing and exploration. In the village of Villequier a stained-glass window depicting Fleury’s capture of the Aztec treasure was installed in the church of Saint Martin. When King François I learned of this great plunder, he issued many more privateering commissions and, for the next forty years, French corsairs attacked Spanish ships and ports.3
The devastating loss of the treasure prodded Carlos and his advisors to set up a system to protect Spanish ships bound from the New World. Thus began the Armada del Mar Océano, the first of Spain’s convoy systems, which escorted their vessels sailing between Cadiz and the Azores.
Stained glass depicting Jean Fleury's capture of Spanish galleon carrying Mexican treasures at the Church of St. Martin in Villequier, France
(Courtesy of George Rault, Les Ex-Voto Marins -- used with permission)
Unfortunately for Fleury, his luck finally ran out in 1527. At the time, he was cruising alone when he was captured after a six-hour battle with six Basques ships. Eighty-seven of his men either died or suffered serious wounds. He offered the Basques 30,000 ducats in exchange for his liberty. Instead, they sold him to the Carlos. Still miffed at having lost the Aztec treasures, the Spanish king ordered Fleury and 150 of his men be hanged as pirates.
1. Modern-day Mexico City was built atop Tenochtitlán.
2. Some sources give the date as June 1522, others as May 1523.
3. Two such Frenchmen were François le Clerc (also known as Jambe de Bois or Peg Leg) and Jacque de Sores, who attacked Cuba in 1555.
For additional information, I recommend the following resources:
Antony, Robert J. Pirates in the Age of Sail: A Norton Casebook in History. W. W. Norton, 2007.
B., Sebastián Donoso. “The First Privateer of the New World,” No Quarter Given (Nov/Dec 2006), 4-5, 12.
Barroqueiro, Silvéro A. The Aztecs: A Pre-Columbian History (curriculum unit). Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 1999.
Bicheno, Hugh. Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs: How the English became the Scourge of the Seas. Conway, 2012.
Cartwright, Mark, “The Aztec Civilization,” Ancient History Encyclopedia 26 February 2014.
Cartwright, Mark. “Montezuma,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 10 October 2013.
Conquistadors. PBS, unknown.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. Random House, 1995.
Foerster, Brian. “Tenochtitlan: The Great Ceremonial Capital of the Aztec People,” Hidden Inca Tours, unknown.
Haywood, John. Atlas of Past Times. Borders Press, 2003.
“Hernán Cortés,” The Ages of Exploration. The Mariners’ Museum, 2018.
Jaime. Aztec History. 2006-2018.
Jarus, Owen. “Tenochtitlán: History of Aztec Capital,” Live Science, 15 June 2017.
“Jean Fleury, le corsaire normand,” Passion Genealogie et Histoires Normandes 29 July 2015. [English translation]
Konstam, Angus. “Privateers, Pirates and Aztec Gold,” The Aztecs at Mexicolore, unknown.
Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Lyons Press, 2010.
“Letters from Hernán Cortés,” in The Conquest of Mexico by Nancy Fitch. American Historical Association, unknown.
Little, Benerson. Pirate Hunting: The Fight against Pirates, Privateers, and Sea Raiders from Antiquity to the Present. Potomac, 2010.
Marley, David F. “The Lure of Spanish Gold” in Pirates: Terror on the High Seas from the Caribbean to the South China Sea” edited by David Cordingly. Turner, 1996.
Pérotin-Dumon, Anne. “The Pirate and the Emperor: Power and the Law on the Seas, 1450-1850,” in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader edited by C. R. Pennell. New York University, 2001, 25-54.
Rogoziński, Jan. Pirates! Brigands, Buccaneers, and Privateers in Fact, Fiction, and Legend. Facts on File, 1995.
Selinger, Gail. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates. Alpha, 2006.
Shady Isle Pirates. “Privateer History – French Corsairs,” The Shady Isle Pirate Society, unknown.
“Unearthing the Secrets of the Aztecs,” The Harvard Gazette April 2018.
Waldman, Carl. “Aztec,” Word Dance: The Language of Native American Culture. Facts on File, 1994, 14-15.
World History Atlas edited by Jeremy Black. Dorling Kindersley, 2005.
Copyright © 2018 Cindy Vallar
Home Pirate Articles Pirate Links Book Reviews Thistles & Pirates
Click on the Cannon to Contact Me