Burn the Ships: Hernán Cortés and the Order that Changed the New World

Columbus Day approaches, and we will soon be subjected to the now commonplace rants from mainstream outlets and far-left rags about the horrors of colonialism. You can expect a revived debate on the relative merits of celebrating Christopher Columbus and other explorers to the Americas. This is likely to be particularly vitriolic this year with the added fuel to the fire of the sex abuse scandal in Pennsylvania.

There are legitimate qualms about colonization and how the original regions were governed. There were accusations of forced labor and tyranny in areas controlled by the Spanish Empire. But what many people tend to do is exaggerate the negatives of the Conquista of the Americas in order to demonize the brave men and women who left everything to come to the New World. The calls against conquistadors (and the fact that we still use that word) speak to the persistence of many of the Black Legends surrounding this era and the Holy Catholic Church.

One fact glaringly stands out in U.S. history: the original prejudice was not whites versus blacks, but Protestants versus Catholics in this land. This has deeply affected the way history has been recorded and presented in the Western world, particularly regarding the Spanish conquests. An unfortunate casualty of this misreporting of history is the great conquistador Hernán Cortés.

Cortés was an early settler in modern Cuba and was commissioned to explore the Mexican coastline but not to settle there. He decided to conquer the place for several reasons, but a predominant one was the conversion to Catholicism of the natives. In fact, it was the practice of the Spanish to encourage marriage to the natives. While the settlers of North America largely brought women with them and discouraged marriage with the native populations, the intermarriage between the Spanish and the natives would greatly influence future generations and win an entire region for the faith.

Cortés disobeyed his orders by engaging in a mission of conquest, which was not officially sanctioned by the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez. This was not uncommon at the time; in fact, it was how Velázquez gained the governorship of Cuba in 1511.[1] In order to do this, Cortés took over Veracruz in 1519, which placed him directly under the authority of King Charles V. Now, some may be tempted to think this set the course for the conquest of Mexico; however, Velázquez only refrained from approving the conquest because he wanted to do it himself.

The Aztec Empire

The Aztec Empire, the primary opponent of Cortés, was known for its barbarism. The Aztecs had subjugated many other tribes in the region and demanded tribute (slaves) for their religious practices in the temples. Some tribes under Aztec rule, it is commonly believed, were left not fully conquered so that the Aztecs could capture more slaves and on a more regular basis. This was linked to the practice of “flower warfare” and was a way for both the Aztecs and other tribes to obtain human sacrifices.[2] Montezuma actually admitted to this, according to Andrés de Tapia. The emperor, asked why the Aztecs did not finish off their enemies, replied: “We could easily do so; but then there would remain nowhere for the young men to train [militarily], except far from here; and, also, we wanted there to always be [nearby] people to sacrifice to our gods.”[3] This horrific practice went on from approximately 1450 to 1519, when Cortés and his troops found allies among the Tlaxcala and other rival powers.

The mention of sacrifice to the gods was in reference to the widespread practice of the Aztecs of human sacrifice. The practice was so prevalent that Cortés estimated that up to four thousand humans were sacrificed in the empire every year. The Aztecs served cruel pagan gods who wanted human sacrifices often and in brutal fashion. There were many gods in the Aztec world, and almost all of them required both animal and human sacrifices. The chief god, Huitzilopochtli, had a temple in the capital at Tenochtitlan that was decorated with skulls and painted blood red. The rain god, Tlaloc, considered one of the most ancient deities in Mesoamerica, relished the cries and tears of children. Babies and children were sacrificed to this god regularly.

The preferred method of human sacrifice was to use an obsidian knife to slice downward from the base of the neck to the navel. The person doing the offering would then remove the still beating heart of the victim as well as the bowels and place them on a fire at the base of an idol. This was described by those who had seen it as “the most terrible and frightful thing to behold that has ever been seen.”

I set this up and use graphic descriptions of the Aztecs’ practices to show what exactly the Spaniards were up against.

The Conquest

The conquest of Mexico by Cortés and his men is legendary. The tales of the sacking of Tenochtitlan have passed through the ages down to today as a turning point for the region of Central America.

The conquest did not begin until 1519, officially with the taking over of Veracruz, the coastal region on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico from Cuba. The conquest of Mexico was twofold. The first was the military conquest of the land and people, and the second was the spiritual conquest for the Catholic Church of the hearts and souls of the nation.

One of the first actions of Cortés, on capturing Veracruz, was to order the sinking of his own ships – commonly thought to be burning, but that is contested – so there would be no option for his men but to continue. What is certain is that the sinking would set an irreversible course for the conqueror.

The conquistadors skirmished with some local tribes while seeking alliances against the Aztecs in 1519. One of these was the Tlaxcalans, mentioned above, who first fought the Spanish. Once they realized that the Spanish wanted peace and an alliance, they decided to join the conquerors. The larger force then, in October 1519, marched on Cholula, the second largest city in the region.

There was a massacre of the Cholulan nobles; scholars disagree as to the motivation. The view one takes on the issue largely depends on one’s view of Cortés himself. He claimed it was due to treachery, and others claim it was to send a message. There is a record of the speech Cortés gave formally accusing the assembled nobles of treachery and his claim to be following Spanish law (see previous link). The nobles said they were acting on behalf of Montezuma. The city was taken, and its altars and temples were burned.

The Bible has a history of God using armies of men to bring his vengeance on idolaters, as we see in the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites.

After taking over Cholula, the conquistadors undertook their first march on Tenochtitlan, where they arrived in November of 1519. They were admitted to the city by Montezuma so the Aztecs could learn the weaknesses of the Spanish. This would be a poor move for the Aztec emperor, as Montezuma’s soldiers on the coast had killed many Spaniards, and word quickly reached Cortés, who decided to take Montezuma hostage.

The conquest might have ended there, but Velázquez still wanted to take the land himself and sent an army to confront Cortés in April of 1520. Cortés and most of his men, leaving Montezuma in the capital as the hostage of his garrison, departed to deal with the army of Velázquez. They were outnumbered, but they prevailed, and they convinced the soldiers of the losing side to join their forces in returning to Tenochtitlan. This setback lasted from April of 1520 until July of 1520.

As Cortés returned to the capital after dealing with Velázquez, Montezuma was stoned to death by his people in general revolt, thus shaking the tenuous hold the Spanish had on the city. The conquistadors were forced to flee to Tlaxcala and regroup. On their way, they suffered major losses in the Battle of Otumba. The won the battle against all odds as their force was approximately 1,300 men against upwards of 10,000 Aztec warriors. Fewer than 500 in the Spanish and Tlaxcalan forces escaped with their lives once Cortés had his mounted soldiers take out the leader on the field.

Once the Spanish regrouped, they laid siege to Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan was an island city, which greatly aided Cortés. The conquest officially ended when the Spaniards captured Cuauhtemoc, who had replaced Montezuma as the head of the city in August of 1521. The city was officially renamed Mexico City, and the conversion was set to begin.

The armies of the Catholic Empire had conquered the demon gods of the Aztecs, and Cortés himself was known at the time for piety. He was concerned about the Church sending official priests to Mexico and instead requested friars of the Dominican and Franciscan orders. His concern was the negative reflection the priests and their “vices” would have on the natives and the harm it would bring to the Church.[4] This was the same period of corruption in the Church that had led to the breaking off of Luther just four years prior in 1517. Cortés was concerned that the practices of the officials of the Church would turn off the natives, and his judgment was sound. Due to his actions and those of his “Twelve Apostles of Mexico,” the conversion of Mexico began. By 1540, an estimated 9 million souls were brought to Holy Mother Church via the Virgin of Guadalupe and the longstanding Catholic monasteries, some of which still stand today.

Cortés made a special request in his letters to the emperor for special powers to be granted by the pope to the friars he requested for evangelization. He was greatly concerned for the souls of the natives as well as the souls of his men. He sought the dispensation of powers for the Franciscans and Dominicans because his people and the natives were “so far from the proper remedies of our consciences,” but he feared the damage normal clerics may cause.[5] Cortés is shown in the writings of Díaz del Castillo, who was with him on the conquest, to have regularly and publicly given speeches and thanks to God to encourage the conversion. One such example is recounted in thorough detail in the Historia Verdadera, Vol. 2, Chapter 77, where Cortés is personally attempting to convert the Tlaxcalans. He is recounted as explaining the mission of the Spaniards to convert the natives and end human sacrifice as well as venerating the Blessed Virgin Mary before them. He also showed deference to the priest, Father de la Merced, which enabled the Spanish to obtain from the Tlaxcalans a newly constructed temple for Our Lord.[6]

The spiritual aspect of Cortés’s conquest was far more important than the terrestrial aspect. The gods of the Aztec peoples along with those in the remainder of Mexico demanded cruel and regular sacrifices. The Aztecs diligently provided them in cooperation and in conflict with their neighbors, and they have stood out as one of the most brutal empires in the history of the world. Thousands were offered up to the gods every year, including women and children.

The conversion of the New World started with the order from Cortés to burn his ships and take over the nation. His passion for the conversion to Christ led Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican friar, to write: “Through this captain, God opened the door for us to preach his holy gospel, and it was he who caused the Indians to revere the holy sacraments and respect the ministers of the church.”[7]

Trying times lie ahead in the Church, and many will be tempted to leave the faith due to the abuses of our times. The burning of ships by Cortés reminds us that the Catholic faith is a commitment for life. There is no turning back. We need to redouble our efforts to defend and spread the faith while cleaning out the Church of those who corrupt her. Take Cortés as an example in courage and piety from a time in many ways much more brutal than our own, and remember: the gates of Hell cannot prevail against the Church.

[1] The Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, 1963

[2] Isaac, Barry L. “The Aztec ‘Flowery War’: A Geopolitical Explanation.” Journal of Anthropological Research 39.4 (1983): 415–432. Web.

[3] Id. at p. 416

[4] Cortés, Hernán. Hernán Cortés: Letters from Mexico. Translated and edited by Anthony   R. Pagden. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1971. Letter IV. Page 333.

[5] Id. at Page 334

[6] https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/teaching-resources-for-historians/teaching-and-learning-in-the-digital-age/the-history-of-the-americas/the-conquest-of-mexico/historia-verdadera/spaniards-attempt-to-convert-tlaxcalans

[7] See the link cited on pages 246-247.

Image: Alejandro Linares Garcia via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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