The portion of the new world earliest colonized by the Spaniards was the Island of St. Domingo, Hayti, or Hispaniola, discovered by Columbus in his first voyage in the year 1492. For nearly twenty years this island was the only colony of importance held by the Spaniards in the new world; here alone did they occupy lands, build towns, and found a regular commonwealth. Cuba, although the second of the islands discovered by Columbus, remained long uncolonized; indeed it was not till the year 1509 that it was circumnavigated, and ascertained to be an island. At length, in 1511, Don Diego Columbus, the great admiral's son, governor of Hispaniola, despatched a force of three hundred men, under Don Diego Velasquez, to take possession of the island. Velasquez soon subdued the island, the natives of which offered but little resistance, and he was shortly afterwards appointed governor; subordinate to the governor of Hispaniola. Ambitious of sharing in the glory to be derived from the discovery of new countries, Velasquez fitted out one or two expeditions, which he despatched westward, to explore the seas in that direction. In one of these expeditions, which set out in 1517, commanded by a rich colonist called Cordova, the peninsula of Yucatan was discovered, and the existence of a large and rich country called Culua or Mexico ascertained. Elated with this discovery, Velasquez fitted out another expedition under his nephew, Juan de Grijalva, who leaving Cuba in April 1518, spent five months in cruising along the newly-discovered coast, and trafficking with the natives for gold trinkets and cotton cloths, very skillfully manufactured. The result of this expedition was the importation to Cuba of gold and jewels to the amount of twenty thousand pesos, or upwards of fifty thousand pounds.
Delighted with this success, Velasquez wrote home to Spain announcing his discovery, and petitioning for authority from the king to conquer and colonize the country which his subordinates, Cordova and Grijalva, had discovered. Without waiting, however, for a reply to his petition, he commenced fitting out a much larger squadron than either of the two former; and this he placed under the command of Hernando Cortez, a respectable Spanish hidalgo, or gentleman, residing in the island, and who was at this time thirty-three years of age.
Cortez proceeded with the greatest activity in making his preparations. 'Borrowing money for the purpose,' says Bernal Diaz the gossiping chronicler of the Conquest, 'he caused to be made a standard of gold and velvet, with the royal arms and a cross embroidered thereon, and a Latin motto, the meaning of which was, 'Brothers, follow this holy cross with true faith, for under it we shall conquer.' It was proclaimed by beat of drum and sound of trumpet, that all such as entered the service in the present expedition should have their shares of what gold was obtained, and grants of land, as soon as the conquest was effected. The proclamation was no sooner made than, by general inclination as well as the private influence of Cortez, volunteers offered themselves everywhere. Nothing was to be seen or spoken of but selling lands to purchase arms and horses, quilting coats of mail, making bread, and salting pork for sea-store. Above three hundred of us assembled in the town of St. Jago.' These preparations were likely to be interrupted. Velasquez, 'ruminating the probable consequences of the expedition, had begun to repent of having appointed Cortez to the command, and was secretly plotting his removal. Cortez, perceiving these symptoms, determined to outwit his patron. Accordingly, on the night of the 18th of November 1518 having warned all the captains, masters, pilots, and soldiers to be on board, and having shipped all the stores that had been collected Cortez set sail from the port of St. Jago without announcing his intention to Velasquez, resolving to stop at some of the more westerly ports of the island for the purpose of completing his preparations, where he would be beyond the reach of the governor. Nothing could exceed the rage of Velasquez at the sudden departure of Cortez. He wrote to the commandants of two towns at which he learned that the fleet had put in for recruits and provisions, to seize Cortez, and send him back; but such was the popularity of Cortez, that both were afraid to make the attempt.
At last all was ready, and Cortez finally set sail from Cuba on the 18th of February 1519. The expedition, which consisted of eleven vessels, most of them small, and without decks, met with no disaster at sea, but arrived safely at the island of Cozumel, off the coast of Yucatan, after a few days' sail. Here Cortez landed, to review his troops. They consisted of five hundred and fifty-three soldiers, not including the mariners, who amounted to one hundred and ten. They possessed sixteen horses, some of them not very serviceable, ten brass field-pieces, four smaller pieces called falconets, and thirty-two cross-bows; the majority of the soldiers being armed with ordinary steel weapons. Attending on the army were about two hundred Cuba Indians, and some Indian women. And as religion in those days sanctioned military conquest, there were in addition two clergymen - Juan Diaz, and Bartholomew de Olmedo.
For nine or ten days the Spaniards remained at Cozumel, making acquaintance with the natives, who were very friendly. Here Cortez, whose zeal for the Catholic religion was one of the strongest of his feelings, made it one of his first concerns to argue with the natives, through an interpreter, on the point of their religion. He even went so far as to demolish their idols before their eyes, and erect an altar to the Virgin on the spot where they had stood. The natives were horror-struck, and seemed at first ready to fall upon the Spaniards, but at length they acquiesced.