Hernan Cortes (16th century Spanish Conquistador and Conqueror of Mexico) has a terrible reputation in the modern culture. He is seen as having bloodlust for gold, but as historian William H Prescott explains, Cortes actually had a bloodlust for God. Hernan Cortes would have gladly died for the salvation of the natives and often times put his entire mission at risk to do so.
Setting the scene of Mexico: Mexico was controlled by the Aztec empire. They introduced human sacrifice to the area centuries before and the practice was widespread at the time Cortes landed. The Aztecs sacrificed 50,000 to 250,000 human beings per year. Sometimes, there would be special occasions in which a great number more would be sacrificed. In 1487, the Aztecs sacrificed 80,400 people in 4 days! Their victims would promptly be cannibalized. The tribute tribes and even the rebel tribes all incorporated this practice into their religious practices. Stopping human sacrifice was a driving motivational force for the Spaniards as they encountered the gruesome scenes. Through the course of Cortes’ campaign, many a Spaniard died at the hands of pagan priests, having their hearts removed while alive and bodies rolled down a pyramid to hungry warriors below. The inside walls of the pagan temples were black goo from the flesh of the victims.
Cortes’ official mission was never to conquer Mexico. Cortes invented this mission himself and snuck a fleet of ships out of Cuba to embark on it. Cortes decided to land 110 sailors, 553 soldiers, and 200 natives into an unexplored nation filled with millions of hostile warriors without having the slightest information on how he would be received. In fact, Cortes’ first landing at the Yucatán Peninsula he fights several intense battles against waves of the natives. To top it all off, he later scuttles his own ships so his 863+ people cannot even escape. Putting this in perspective, the Aztec King Montezuma was said to be able to call upon over 3 million warriors (30 vassals with 100 thousand men each). But Cortes didn’t care: he believed the greater the odds the more God would help him overcome.
Cortes’ primary motive was conversion of the natives to Christianity. Cortes’ first attempt at converting the natives is forthright. While at a pagan temple on an island, the natives inform him that their idols give them the sun and the rain. Cortes is less than impressed and proceeds to roll the idols down the temple stairs. He replaces it with a shrine to Mary. The natives at least feign conversion. Later, upon meeting representatives from the Aztec empire, Cortes enthusiastically tells them about Jesus. But this time it is the natives’ turn to be less than impressed; they quietly leave during the night. This seems to be the common theme throughout Cortes’ journey. Several temples were destroyed in a similar manner and the Aztecs (more than other nations) politely decline Christianity.
After events on the first island, Cortes attempts to gain a foothold on the continent. Cortes valiantly asks for free passage and warns the natives that any blood would be on their heads. When they refuse, a battle ensues. Cortes exposes himself to great danger in hand to hand combat, waste deep in water (Cortes always fought in the thick of the action). The natives single him out, but he repeals their onslaught. After winning the battle, Cortes learns the entire country is in arms. His hard band of explorers is fighting an entire nation (the Tabascans). He decisively defeats them, before relocating his men to Veracruz.
At Veracruz, the Totonacs reach out to Cortes. They had been recently conquered by the Aztecs and were looking for relief from Aztec oppression. At this time, Cortes used his intellect to band together sick and rebellious Castilians, engender moral, and convince his men to follow him despite rumors that Cortes was far exceeding his authority from Spain. After reaching the leader of the Totonacs, Cortes implores them to convert to Christianity and abolish the practice of human sacrifice. The chieftain warns Cortes of the Aztec military might. Undeterred, Cortes declares that one Castilian can defeat a host of warriors.
When Aztec nobles arrive demanding human sacrifices, Cortes has them imprisoned and then released skillfully to mitigate Aztec suspicions. Cortes then put his entire alliance with the Totonacs in jeopardy by destroying their idols. It is at this time Cortes sends treasure to Spain to secure their favor and secretly sinks the rest of his fleet to prevent communication with Cuba. Cortes then resolves all the resulting problems solely through his power of persuasion alone. He calms the Aztecs, the Totonacs and even his rebellious men.
Cortes then sets off for the Aztec capital, planting Christian crosses in receptive cities. When he reached the Tlascalans (a rebel warrior tribe) he weathered several surprise attacks by an opposing force that were over 30 times as numerous. Cortes was heard yelling “If we fail now, the cross of Christ can never be planted in the land.” Cortes, throughout his campaign, gave persuasive and inspirational speeches. Although crippled from fever, Cortes defeats the warrior Tlascalan military (something even the Aztecs could not do). He then enlists them against the Aztecs. After his new allies warn Cortes not to go to the city of Cholula, he resolves that going to Cholula would be his best course of action. There he repeals an Aztec plot against him.
When finally arriving at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, Cortes again preaches Christianity. He devotion to conversion is illustrated by the fact that word has already reached Montezuma that the Castilians preach Christianity wherever they go. The Spaniards reside in Tenochtitlan for about 6 months before having to then fight a superior force of competing Spaniards that land near Veracruz. Cortes defeats them in a surprise night battle, and then enlisted them into his force. This is further evidence that arms alone were not the reason for the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Returning to Tenochtitlan, he finds the city in arms. One of his captains has led a massacre against the locals. Cortes reprimands him and sets up measures for defense and retreat. This is the low point of his career, as he personally must face the problems caused by a lesser man. He leads his men through a hostile city filled with millions of angry warriors. His casualties are high. About a third of his European force escapes, the rest are killed or sacrificed on the alters of the pagans. Along with high casualties Cortes loses his cannons, muskets, most his horses, and virtually all his crossbows.
The survivors set out towards the nation of the Tlascalans, their only hope. Cortes keeps them in the best of spirits and they weather the elements, hostile natives, starvation, and heat stroke. He rallies this mutinous, weary, and starving force against a vastly superior Aztec force sent to cut them off. Devoid of their superior weapons, the Spanish press into battle. Using his own flare of personal heroics, Cortes finally prevails against this army by thrusting his force deep into the enemy lines and killing the enemy commander. Cortes always fought on the front lines, and by his force of will alone turned the tides of a large number of battles.
Feverous and battle weary, Cortes rests among the Tlascalans. If the Tlascalans turned against him, this would be the end of Cortes’ quest. But the eldest Tlascalan chief persuades his people to ally with the Spanish rather than their ancient enemies, the Aztecs. This was one more of a series of miracles that was Cortes’ campaign.
When Cortes recoups, he leads assaults on various Aztec allies and strongholds, regaining the trust of his previous allies and converting new allies in the process. Cortes was not a vindictive man. He was focused and dedicated to his goals, and all his actions were designed to affect his goals. If a nation surrendered, he was quick to forgive past atrocities. If a nation resisted, it felt his wrath. Cortes always commanded his men to spare women and children, but his native allies felt no such compunction. In this way, Cortes encouraged bloodless submission. But not every tribe submitted.
In a stroke of divine providence, random European ships would show up, bringing extra men and the more invaluable cannons, horses, crossbows, and guns (which had been wiped out in the Aztec capitol). They always seemed to have been diverted by a storm or other chance event. Even Cortes’ Cuban rivals accidently send him supplies. In a stroke of genius, Cortes builds an inland fleet of ships to blockade Tenochtitlan. Then they carry this fleet over the mountains and reassemble on the lake surrounding Tenochtitlan.
When Cortes besieged Tenochtitlan, he had approximately 16 canons, 80,000–200,000 native allies, about 100 cavalry, and about 1,000 Spanish soldiers. This was against the Aztecs which probably had 300,000 warriors inside the capitol, and various tribute states surrounding the lake. Cortes was not leading an invasion force from Europe, but a native, freedom coalition against their oppressors. Cortes even had to dismiss native allies because his force was becoming too cumbersome.
From here Cortes leads his forces around the massive lake, cutting off as many supply routes to Tenochtitlan as possible. He submits various Aztec allies, and cuts off all main entrances to Tenochtitlan. At this point, he leads a three prong assault on the city, using his fleet of ships and canons to press to the gates of the city. Always outnumbered, Cortes successfully cuts off enemy supplies and presses into the city.
Once inside the city, his men can daily hear and see their captured comrades being sacrificed on the pagan alters. But at every turn, Cortes offers to allow the Aztecs a bloodless surrender. But the Aztec will is strong and proud; Cortes cannot gain ground until he literally dismantles every building in the city. The previously oppressed tribes of Mexico eagerly flock to Tenochtitlan with their picks and hoes to rip to shreds the glory of their oppressors.
Even in the end, the Aztecs fight to a man. They were dying of starvation as Cortes conquered the last bit of the city and captured the Aztec king. Cortes offers the survivors peace, and his first act is to rebuild the capitol.
The reputation of Cortes was so great among the natives that intertribal conflicts were appealed directly to Cortes. Cortes sued for peace between ancient enemies and pacified rival tribes. Cortes was consulted on successions of Kings, and was seen as almost a god himself. It may be because of this charisma that that King of Spain ensured Cortes was not allowed to govern Mexico. Instead it fell to less capable hands, which instituted unheard cruelties on the native population. Cortes was left powerless over the nation that he conquered. Cortes did ensure proper (not corrupt) missionaries were established in the land.
Cortes’ legacy is this:
1. Single handedly being responsible for the conquest of Mexico.
2. Converting the people to Christianity.
3. Stopping the mass murder and cannibalism among the native tribes.
4. Unifying Mexico.
Two dark spots remain on Cortes’ character:
1. He asks Spain to institute repartimientos (a form of indentured servitude) when he found out the natives didn’t like hard work (who does?).
2. In a later journey Cortes executes his prisoners (the Aztec king and some Aztec nobles) because of a rumor of a plot (which no one believed).
In total, Cortes should be seen as a soldier of God, whom God personally helped conquer Mexico. He is not the villain that modern apologists for the Aztecs depict. Cortes was a liberator of the oppressed. Cortes saved the lives of countless people who would have been murdered in pagan temples. Cortes was a blessing to humanity. More than anything, Cortes sought the conversion of the natives to Christianity. Cortes is a hero of Christianity.
See also Apologists for the Aztecs