The conversion of the heathen was a predominant motive with Cortes in his expedition. It was not a vain boast. He would have sacrificed his life for it at any time; and more than once, by his indiscreet zeal, he actually did place his life and the success of his enterprise in jeopardy.
-William H Prescott
In modern culture, Hernando Cortez has a bad reputation. From cartoons such as The Road to El Dorado to modern history documentaries on the subject, he is made out to be a gold-thirsty tyrant. Cruelties of the Aztecs are quickly followed by leveling the same accusations at Cortez. For example, in the A&E’s Ancient Mysteries: Human Sacrifice, the Conquistadors are said to have stopped the practice of human sacrifice by “ironically” slaughtering thousands of Aztec men, women, and children. Earlier the program states that the Aztecs were “equally appalled” because the Spaniards did not kill to protect harvests, they killed “indiscriminately” for conquest. The program never fails to call the Aztecs “advanced” when it can.
In addition to its slander of the Spaniards, this is a sickening apology for one of the most bloodthirsty civilizations in all of history. From its inception, the Aztecs were an appallingly brutal and murderous nation. They oppressed surrounding tribes, had feasts dedicated to wearing skin of sacrificial victims, and cannibalized the tens of thousands that they sacrificed yearly. The expedition of Cortez, an amazing chronicle of luck, human fortitude, and divine intervention, is perhaps one of the most just wars in history.
It is very telling that the final battle between Cortez and the Aztecs at their capital of Tenochtitlan, Cortez’ army consisted of less than 1% Spaniards. Two hundred thousand natives from oppressed tribes willingly came to destroy their oppressors. Cortez was a liberator; he was their liberator.
The founding of Tenochtitlan is indicative of the entire Aztec culture. The Aztecs founded their capital after they skinned a princess of a tribe (the Culhuacan) who had invited the Aztecs to stay in their land. From Father Joseph De Acosta’s The Natural and Moral History of the Indies:
Whereupon they resolved to send to the King of Culhuacan, to demand his daughter to be Queen of the Mexicans, and mother to their god, who received this Ambassage willingly, sending his daughter presently gorgeously attired and well accompanied. The same night she arrived, by order of the murderer whom they worshipped, they killed her cruelly, and having filleted her artificially as they could do, they did clothe a young man with her skin, and thereupon her apparel, placing him near their idol, dedicating him for a goddess and the mother of their god, and ever after did worship it, making an idol which they called Tocci, which is to say our grand-mother. Not content with this cruelty, they did maliciously invite the King of Culhuacan, the father of the young maid, to come and worship his daughter, who was now consecrated a goddess, who coming with great presents, and well accompanied with his people, he was led into a very dark chapel where their idol was, that he might offer sacrifice to his daughter that was in that place. But it chanced that the incense that was upon the hearth, according to their custom, kindled in such sort, as he might discern his daughter’s hair, and having by this means discovered the cruelty and deceit, he went forth crying aloud, and with all his men he fell upon the Mexicans, forcing them to retire to the lake, so as they were almost drowned. [spelling modernized by me]
After founding their capital city, their bloodlust insured rapid growth and conquest. By the time of Cortez they were sacrificing thousands per festival. Historian William H Prescott estimates as high as 50 thousand sacrifices per year:
Human sacrifices have been practised by many nations, not excepting the most polished nations of antiquity; but never by any, on a scale to be compared with those in Anahuac. The amount of victims immolated on its accursed altars would stagger the faith of the least scrupulous believer. Scarcely any author pretends to estimate the yearly sacrifices throughout the empire at less than twenty thousand, and some carry the number as high as fifty!
Others put the estimate as high as 250,000 per year. In 1487, Ahuizotl (leader of the Aztecs) claimed to have sacrificed 80,400 people in 4 days. To put this event in perspective, 1519 was the start of Cortez’ campaign (30 years later). The liar Bartolomé de las Casas estimates a mere 100 sacrifices per year (because he thought if the higher numbers were true the land would not be so densely populated!) and then he defended human sacrifice. Las Casas had more hatred of the Spanish government then he did love for the oppressed people of Mexico. The Aztecs were wickedly cruel and grotesque. One eyewitness account describes their cannibalization of prisoners:
After having torn their hearts from them and poured the blood into a gourd vessel, which the master of the slain man himself received, they started the body rolling down the pyramid steps. It came to rest upon a small square below. There some old men, whom they called Quaquacuiltin, laid hold of it and carried it to their tribal temple, where they dismembered it and divided it up in order to eat it (Bernardino De Sahagún)
William H Prescott expounds on this:
The most loathsome part of the story, the manner in which the body of the sacrificed captive was disposed of, remains yet to be told. It was delivered to the warrior who had taken him in battle, and by him, after being dressed, was served up in an entertainment to his friends. This was not the coarse repast of famished cannibals, but a banquet teeming with delicious beverages and delicate viands, prepared with art, and attended by both sexes, who, as we shall see hereafter, conducted themselves with all the decorum of civilized life. Surely, never were refinement and the extreme of barbarism brought so closely in contact with each other!
One fact may be considered certain. It was customary to preserve the skulls of the sacrificed, in buildings appropriated to the purpose. The companions of Cortes counted one hundred and thirty-six thousand in one of these edifices! Without attempting a precise calculation, therefore, it is safe to conclude that thousands were yearly offered up, in the different cities of Anahuac, on the bloody altars of the Mexican divinities.
So this was the land Cortez came upon: human sacrifice (including men, women, and children), cannibalization, wearing of skin of the murdered (a yearly Aztec festival), and a bitter oppression of neighboring nations. The best book that describes these events is William H Prescott’s classic A History of the Conquest of Mexico. This is a book that praises Cortez for his primary mission to convert the natives. To illustrate Prescott’s objectivity, in his A History of the Conquest of Peru, William H Prescott rightly vilifies Pizarro. Cortez was more noble in his objectives then Pizarro ever was:
Before setting out on the expedition, Cortes published a code of ordinances, as he terms them, or regulations for the army, too remarkable to be passed over in silence. The preamble sets forth that in all institutions, whether divine or human,-if the latter have any worth,-order is the great law… The instrument then reminds the army that the conversion of the heathen is the work most acceptable in the eye of the Almighty, and one that will be sure to receive his support. It calls on every soldier to regard this as the prime object of the expedition, without which the war would be manifestly unjust, and every acquisition made by it a robbery.
Then Prescott writes about an event illustrating Cortes’ devotion to conversion even above his own safety:
The next object of Cortes was to reclaim the natives from their gross idolatry, and to substitute a purer form of worship. In accomplishing this he was prepared to use force, if milder measures should be ineffectual. There was nothing which the Spanish government had more earnestly at heart, than the conversion of the Indians. It forms the constant burden of their instructions, and gave to the military expeditions in this Western Hemisphere somewhat of the air of a crusade. The cavalier who embarked in them entered fully into these chivalrous and devotional feelings… Not to care for the soul of his benighted enemy was to put his own in jeopardy. The conversion of a single soul might cover a multitude of sins. It was not for morals that he was concerned, but for the faith…
No one partook more fully of the feelings above described than Hernan Cortes. He was, in truth, the very mirror of the times in which he lived, reflecting its motley characteristics, its speculative devotion, and practical licence,-but with an intensity all his own. He was greatly scandalized at the exhibition of the idolatrous practices of the people of Cozumel, though untainted, as it would seem, with human sacrifices…
These two missionaries vainly laboured to persuade the people of Cozumel to renounce their abominations, and to allow the Indian idols, in which the Christians recognized the true lineaments of Satan, to be thrown down and demolished. The simple natives, filled with horror at the proposed profanation, exclaimed that these were the gods who sent them the sunshine and the storm, and, should any violence be offered, they would be sure to avenge it by sending their lightnings on the heads of its perpetrators.
Cortes was probably not much of a polemic. At all events, he preferred on the present occasion action to argument; and thought that the best way to convince the Indians of their error was to prove the falsehood of the prediction. He accordingly, without further ceremony, caused the venerated images to be rolled down the stairs of the great temple, amidst the groans and lamentations of the natives. An altar was hastily constructed, an image of the Virgin and Child placed over it, and mass was performed by Father Olmedo and his reverend companion for the first time within the walls of a temple in New Spain. The patient ministers tried once more to pour the light of the gospel into the benighted understandings of the islanders, and to expound the mysteries of the Catholic faith. The Indian interpreter must have afforded rather a dubious channel for the transmission of such abstruse doctrines. But they at length found favour with their auditors, who, whether overawed by the bold bearing of the invaders, or convinced of the impotence of deities that could not shield their own shrines from violation, now consented to embrace Christianity.
About those supposed massacres perpetrated by the Spaniards, Prescott tells the real story. There was one massacre by one of Cortez’ men, Alvarado, of 600 Aztec noblemen and women (maybe some children?). Alvarado claimed these people were conspiring to destroy the Spanish, with no verified evidence. After the massacre, the city rose up to destroy the Spaniards, leading to intense urban warfare. An isolated, unsanctioned incident is hardly cause to condemn the whole of Cortez’ mission. This would be like rogue American soldiers during WW2 killing prisoners. An event like this does not condemn the entire war.
A previous massacre was conducted by Cortez at Cholula, which subverted an actual betrayal. The natives of Cholula had planned to massacre the Spanish with the help of the Aztecs. This is hardly an indefensible action on the part of Cortez.
So, one rogue incident of killing 600 Aztecs, gives historians, commentators, and movie directors license to compare the Spanish (who liberated millions of oppressed people) to the bloody Aztec who sacrificed, cannibalized, and skinned upwards of 250 thousand per year. It is very telling ideology justifies the worst of human activities.