I cannot escape a constant sense, like a dull pain in the lower back, of the debilitating poverty of our present age. A slog through O’Hare Airport, for example, where I find Our Lord’s command to love my fellow man especially difficult to follow, exacerbates the ache some. Reading the story of Hernán Cortés, however, brings the poverty of our age into stark relief.
Poverty? Really? What can I possibly mean when so high a “standard of living” is enjoyed by so many—more than ever in history?
I am certain that many more insightful writers than I have already exposed the stupidity of a phrase that measures human success with the base barometer of material comfort. Which standard, after all? Yes, I know, we live suffocated by a superabundance of the triumphs of liberalism: cheap Chinese-made things that blink and bleep in “hi-def”, “super-sized” portions of bland, unhealthy food, instantly available and altogether mainstreamed pornography, sex denatured by the contraceptive pill, bad music, bad books, and bad motion pictures.
Engulfed in the enervating din of so many sights and sounds, and surrounded by so much stuff, too many of us are deaf and blind to the poverty of our age, but look here:
Our age does not produce men of the magnificence of Hernán Cortés.
Our age offers no calls to greatness to compare with the conquest of a new world for Cross and Crown. Pace, Tom Wolfe. As brilliant and amazing as the astounding allocation of taxpayer dollars called the Space Program was, it is a trifle alongside discovering an undiscovered world, vanquishing the overwhelming and terrifying evil that held it in its death grip, and founding a new land that flourished for three centuries informed and inspired by policies and principles that traced their origins to the Cross: Mexico, the most Christian country ever to grace this continent.
The legacy of Hernán Cortés is nothing less. Moreover, he began the whole enterprise, not with a state-of-the-art rocket ship designed and supported by the top engineers, physicists, and mathematicians of the day, but instead with 508 Spanish soldiers, 109 sailors, 38 crossbows, 13 matchlocks, 14 second-rate cannons, 16 horses, and a handful of camp followers. Oh, and he paid for his expedition not with the taxes of too easily fleeced atomic-age jingoes seeking stirring feelings of national greatness in a very expensive international game of one-upmanship, but with his own fortune, a fortune he built because he decided to leave the easy promises of a lawyer’s life behind in Spain and risk it all across the Atlantic.
I wonder, however, if the most troubling measure of our own age is not that we hold in our hearts gridiron gorillas and silver-screen sybarites where once 16th Century Spaniards held the courageous conquistadores, but is that we have lost even the capacity to marvel at a tale like that of Cortés.
If your sons yet harbor what G.K. Chesterton called the “gift of wonder”—or even if they do not—confiscate their “mobile devices” and hand them a copy of Bernal Díaz’s Discovery and Conquest of New Spain.
Alas, I found Díaz, who accompanied Cortés as a footsoldier every step of the way, late in life. A few years ago, my friend Tom Fleming pointed me towards Diaz’s epic as he described the thrill he felt as a schoolboy reading what may well be the most extraordinary adventure since Odysseus took the long road back to Penelope or Aeneas made his way across the Mediterranean to found the world’s greatest civilization, Rome.
Rome’s daughter, Hispania, after seven centuries of fighting the enemies of Jesus Christ, and with the abundant fervor she cultivated in history’s longest war, emerged as second in history only to her patria, and in the 16th Century, she secured her greatness by doubling the size of the world.
Spain forever changed modern history. No nutty New-England puritans or virile Virginians under the command Captain John Smith would have “brought forth upon this continent” a new nation conceived in religious intolerance (the Massachusetts Bay Colony) or capital gain (Jamestown) had it not been for Hernán Cortés who laid the foundation for a civilization guided by Providence to bring Christianity to the New World.
Was not Cortés lured by the prospect of gold beyond imagining? Of course he was. Was he not an aggressive womanizer with a string of children natural and legitimate? Yes. Did he not spill much blood throughout his conquest? Also, yes. We all heard it in fifth or seventh grade, and insofar as we hear anything of it today, it is to add that the whole event brought cruelty, subjugation, and smallpox to an unspoiled land that was at once bucolic and a masterpiece of city planning.
The truth is that Mexico under Aztec rule was a wretched place to live. Perhaps the nicest thing we could say about the Aztecs would be to describe them as downmarket Carthaginians. We might point out, however, that Carthage, along with brutally enslaving their neighbors, crucifying their generals who suffered battlefield defeat, and tossing toddlers into the fiery furnace on a regular basis, at least knew how to mine tin, forge steel, sail ships on the open ocean, and operate an international trade that would stir the pulses of today’s multinational stockholders.
Where the Aztecs certainly outdid the Carthaginians was in the scale of their human sacrifice: as many as 80,000 a year, by some estimates, and as many as 20,000 on a single feast day. Cannibalism, not in evidence in Carthage, was common in pre-European Mexico, and not just among the Aztecs, but among all the surrounding tribes they subjugated. Much is made of an “Aztec empire.” As Bishop Francis Kelley reminds us, however, “The ‘foreign policy” of the Aztecs was not to form a peaceful empire.” The Aztec relationship with the neighboring tribes unfortunate enough to suffer under their rule was driven by the demonic desire for blood. The Spanish cruelty of which we hear so much did not call for a steady supply of victims for Aztec priests whose religious rites culminated in a still-beating heart being torn from a living man, woman, or child out of the hole in the chest rent by a stone knife.
The truth of the greatest conquistador’s relationship with the natives is this: they welcomed the deliverance he brought from Aztec tyranny.
Here are the principal events. After working briefly as a notary in Hispaniola, in 1511 Cortés joined Diego Velásquez in his conquest in Cuba. For the next decade he accumulated land and wealth, sometimes quarreling and sometimes cooperating with Governor Velasquez. In short, Cuba was not big enough for both of them. At the age of 34, Cortes led his expedition to the mainland in defiance of the Governor.
Landing at Yucatan, he made his way up the coast, defeated an army of Tabasco Indians, and took on his famous mistress and translator, the clever and beautiful Nahua woman, Malinalli or “La Maliniche,” an expression that survives regrettably in Mexico today to describe a traitor.
Founding Vera Cruz on Good Friday, Cortés claimed Mexico for Our Lord and for the Spanish Crown and declared himself its ruler, answerable directly to Charles V. There would be no retreat. Scuttling his ships (not burning them, as is often told), but keeping the hardware and the rigging, he declared his intention to march inland to seek the legendary Aztecs, famous for their gold.
The events of the arduous overland march revealed the breadth of the conqueror’s virtue: his capacity to inspire his men in extremis, his brilliance at diplomacy in enlisting Indian tribes along the way, and his skill at battlefield tactics and near reckless courage in the thick of the fight, when diplomacy failed. Within four months he had come within range of Tenochtitlan, but his reputation had arrived long before. Moctezuma had sent several letters telling Cortés not to come. These missives the conquistador ignored, and when he showed up with his Spanish soldiers and tens of thousands of Tlaxcalteca allies, the Aztec king, perhaps believing Cortés was the ancient god Quetzalcoatl, or at least his messenger, received his conqueror with a kind of melancholic fatalism that led, in time, to his end.
Moctezuma and his people were advanced. Indeed, they bathed more frequently than the Spaniards. Yet in the center of the marvelous floating city of Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards came face-to-face with evil. Diaz’s descriptions of the stench inside the Aztec pyramid-top temple, the walls caked with the dried blood of tens of thousands of victims, are terrifying to read. Imagine a few hundred Spaniards inside this city, uneasily measuring their every move to prevent insurrection, ever imagining their own bodies lashed to the stone altar.
In a stroke of real daring, Cortés took Moctezuma prisoner and might have proceeded peacefully with his conquest had not the jealous Velasquez sent an army after him. Leaving the least garrison possible in the city, the badly outnumbered Cortés marched out to meet the Cuban Governor’s army (the obese Velasquez did not join the expedition). In a surprise night attack Cortés defeated his fellow Spaniards with very few casualties and won them to his side.
It was a good thing, too, for his Tenochtitlan garrison under Pedro de Alvarado, provoked an Aztec rebellion by their massacre of some 600 Aztec noblemen and were forced to flee the city. Where Cortés had once taken the city on the lake with his charm, he was now forced to invest it. Few of the legendary buildings survived the three-month siege, the final, decisive, most brutal battle on the Conquest.
Cortés the warrior-conqueror, now became Cortés the no-less brilliant administrator, a role for which he is insufficiently celebrated, for he began the building of truly Christian land in the New World.
Was there slavery? Yes, but in time it gave way to vassalage that in time gave way to abundant landownership among the natives. Unlike in the Protestant and English United States, where Manifest Destiny meant keep pushing the brown people toward the Pacific Ocean, Cortés encouraged intermarriage with the natives. His policy was: baptize and integrate.
Did it work?
Magnificently. Mexicans of Indian blood would paint pictures to rival those of European masters. They would master the tongue of Cicero and the philosophy of Aristotle, and they would one day teach both to the great grandchildren of the Conquistadores in the lecture halls of Mexico’s universities.
In short, the Spanish transformed Mexico in Christ. As in medieval Europe, the Liturgical Calendar and the Sacraments leavened the activities of domestic and civil life. It is very difficult for Americans, who live where the fiction of separation of Church and State is sacrosanct, to understand the depth to which the Faith penetrated human experience in Mexico, but only by making an effort to can we get our imaginations around the legacy of Hernán Cortés.
Editor’s Note: For a Catholic history of Mexico, Christopher Check recommends Blood Drenched Altars by Bishop Francis Kelley.