The Magnificence of Hernán Cortés

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.

Christopher Check


Christopher Check is Director of Development at Catholic Answers. A graduate of Rice University, for nearly two decades he served as vice president of The Rockford Institute, publisher of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Before that he served for seven years as a field artillery officer in the Marine Corps, attaining the grade of captain. His recorded lectures on church history are available from Angelus Press. He and his wife, Jacqueline, have four sons. The Checks show and breed Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, famed companions of the Stuart kings, under the kennel name Top Meadow Cavaliers, named for G.K. Chesterton’s Beaconsfield estate.

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  • Owen

    Really, this is a bit much. The evil practices of the Aztecs certainly need to be recognized, but that doesn’t mean we should be excusing the barbarism of Cortes.

    • Marc L

      I’m trying to conceive a definition of “barbarism”–in line with its usual negative connotations–by which the actions of Cortes rank anywhere near those of the Aztecs, let alone allowing you to compare him negatively in the same sentence. I think I see what you’re trying to get at, but even aside from the whiggishness of your historical perspective, the word loses all meaning when used that way. The problem is this: as flawed a man as he was, you’re going to have to do a little more digging to find an adjective of moral turpitude that applies to Cortes and still not a hundred or thousandfold more to those he conquered. Good luck with that.

    • Brian A. Cook

      Thank you, Owen. I cringe when I see whitewashing. This may be the only catechism that a young person ever reads.

  • NE-observer

    A most glorious story.

    It stands in stark contrast to what Mexico became in less than 200 years and exists as today. As for being the” most Christian” country on the continent – it’s sort of like saying Haiti is the “most Catholic” of nations today – unfortunately, anyone who has spent any real time in either place – would be hard put to find these as positive adjectives.

  • David


    Marvelous piece. Reminds me of a saying about the Spaniards and the Spain of old: “Espana, Cuna de San Ignacio, Martillo de los herejes; luz de Trento; evangelizador de la mitad del mundo—esta hacido nuestra gloria, no tenemos otra”! (Spain, cradle of St. Ignatius, hammer of the heretics, light of Trent, evangelizer of half the world—this has been our glory, we have no other.)

  • Maria

    I wonder if Mr. Check has read the book “The Virgin and the Serpent God” by Helen Behrens; an american that researched the codices of the indians and discovered how God had prepared them by prophecies to received the true, only God. She thinks that is why Moctezuma did not offered any resistance to the Spaniards,

  • fides

    I enjoyed—-You may want peruse a copy of “Glory, God and Gold”, Paul Wellman. The financing of the evangelization of the New World is an interesting story. Recognizing the different motives—wealth seekers vs. Evangelist is a threaded tapestry of a story that needs retelling—accurately and truthfully. Catholic legal scholars of the time advocated the moral human rights that were being trampled—base economic pressure was also at play. From Muslim Spain came Catholic Spain, an explosion of culture of spreading the faith — I don’t do it justice in saying it—but read the diaries of the Alsatian Jesuit missionaries —of Baja, etc. The real pivot points in the history of the new world ought to be brought out — I believe that some points that get recognition are in reality in the shadow of the great moral efforts and leaders of those efforts. Thank you for your writing — it is a wonderful opportunity for me to rethink and learn.

  • An interesting question — with an obvious answer, as it seems to me. You’re an aboriginal man in 1600. What are your descendants doing in 1800? If you live south of the Rio Grande, your descendants are ruling; everybody’s in the same boat, pretty much. If you live north of the Rio Grande, your descendants are being driven hither and yon. Unless you live in Francophone Canada, in which case you are getting along with your fellow Catholics, the French, and marrying with them.

    • elarga

      If by “descendants” you mean mestizos, you would be right for most Latin American countries but not all. If by “descendants” you mean full-blooded Indians, who make up nearly half the population of Guatemala, a third or so of Peru and Ecuador, you would be completely wrong, for those populations have been subject to something like South Africa’s apartheid for centuries, and continue to be today. The only exception is Bolivia, where more than half the population is indigenous, and who elected Evo Morales, the first full blood Indian to govern as president, in 2006 — but of course, it takes more than a president to ensure civil and political rights for his people, but he and his party have achieved a great deal — over the fierce opposition of mestizos and whites.

      • elarga

        Self correction: I see that I overlooked Tony’s reference to the year 1800 as the moment when he considered that the descendants of the Indians were “ruling.” My original reply should be read in connection with the present. As for the year 1800, Tony’s assertion is completely,unambiguously and risibly false. In 1800, all of Spanish-speaking Latin America was still part of the Spanish monarchy, and the idea that the descendants of the Indians were in any sense ruling these dominions of Spain is simply preposterous. In 1800, in fact, the Monarchy still imposed caste and race restrictions on the civil rights of anyone with a fraction of Indian or African blood. Far from being allowed to govern, Indians couldn’t legally do things like ride a horse! Not even European whites were allowed to participate in government on the basis of equality with Spanish-born whites!

        • Christopher Check

          Elarga, you might make your way through the first hundred pages of Bishop Kelley’s book. He does not whitewash the fallen nature of the Conquistadores (nor did I), yet the transformation of the lives of Indians after the Conquest is beyond dispute. Hospitals, universities (to which women were admitted in contrast to those in New England), grammar schools (for boys and girls), shorter worker hours than in Queen Elizabeth’s England, property ownership, accumulated wealth, self-governing villages, all attested to by the first-hand accounts of foreign visitors to Mexico from England and the Continent.

          Oh–and did I forget? Spain brought the Sacraments.

          And from 1696-1701 a direct descendent of Moctezuma was Viceroy of of New Spain. As Bishop Kelleys, “It will be a long time before a full-blooded descendent of Sitting Bull sits in the White House.”

          • elarga

            The bishop was wrong. The viceroy in question was Jose Sarmiento Valladares. He was not a descendant of Montezuma but his wife was. While Sarmiento is said to be the first mestizo viceroy, it should be kept in mind that mestizos could purchase a certificate (the “gracias al sacar”) attesting to the purity of their white blood so that they could “pass” officially in Spanish society; the Spanish monarch was so broke it would sell anything — including the highest political posts. It is quite true that unlike the case of North America, Spaniards and Indians intermarried from the start, giving rise to what the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos would call “the cosmic race.” Unfortunately, this sort of racial tolerance did not make New Spain’s property owning class any less devoted to the forced labor regime (“encomienda”), which applied to Indians only, on which they depended for their wealth. As for the sacraments, I don’t think Christ’s injunction to “teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19) was meant to be accompanied by a regime of enslavement (common until abolished by royal decree in the 1540s) or forced labor (common until well into 18th century, and beyond in some places, well after independence). It’s not a case of “fallen nature” — no one questions original sin here, but of not whitewashing the real nature of the relationship between the mass of Indians and the Spanish state. In can’t go into the details here, but I can assure you the lovely picture of Indian-white relations you attribute to him above is absurd, though initially an effort was made to educate the Aztec elite. By the way, the very word “indio” in much of Latin America, including Mexico, is often hurled as an insult — “no seas indio” or “es puro indio.”

            • Christopher Check


              Many thanks for the clarification concerning the Viceroy. Since no one used the word “lovely” to describe the Indian/Spanish relationship (including Bishop Kelley) there is no need of you to assure me of its absurdity. I do appreciate your further clarification that within a generation of Cortés the Church had prevailed in seeing slavery abolished (unlike in the United States were some million lives were given over to a cause that the North had little interest in other than politics.) So far as racial relations are concerned, intermarriage with the aboriginal population stands in stark contrast to this gem from John Dix, senator from New York, who explained Manifest Destiny in 1848 in religious terms, “It is the behest of Providence that idleness, and ignorance, and barbarism [Indians], shall give way to industry, and knowledge, and civilization [The White Man].”

              The Faith is not practiced perfectly in Mexico, or perhaps even well. It is laced too much with superstition and hobbled by a grave lack of catechetical training. But there is nothing in U.S. history to compare to the Catholic uprising in West Central Mexico in the late 1920s. That uprising, incomplete as it was, is a legacy of the Spanish Conquest.

              • elarga

                Only Indian slavery was abolished in 1541-42, not African slavery, which continued to be legal until it was abolished by the republic following independence in 1821. Indian enslavement was objected to mainly on political and economic not moral grounds: Indians were subjects of the king; they paid an annual head tax; their numbers had been greatly reduced by plague and massacre and thus a labor scarcity confronted settlers who had no intention of doing manual labor. Africans on the other hand could be enslaved because they were not subjects of the king, and because (under the customs of the time) were considered to have been captured (by their African enemies) in a “just war” and thus subject to enslavement. Of course the latter was a facile rationalization.

  • musicacre

    Great article! Timely too, since the politically correct thing in the schools now is to disparage any and all history of conquest. The students are taught by example to be cynical of the very people who used their courage and daring to expand the world for all of us! I think no one in these times would be willing to be on the ocean, cut off from civilization with no cellphone, satellite phone, or GPS!

  • Tobi

    Even if we assume, for the sake of the argument, that the conquest was a just war, a just use of force, do you really think this legitimates war crimes? The end justifies the means? Go study Catholic ethics before you judge the actions of anyone.

  • elarga

    This is a bit over the top. Cortes’ contemporary, Bartolomé de las Casas (first bishop of Chiapas), had a rather different opinion of the conquest. Or consider the holocaust that awaited the forced-draft labor of the Indians of Peru in that viceroy’s silver mines. Millions of Indians were literally worked to death to satisfy the Spaniards’ desire for silver and other commodities. Or read Antonio Montesinos’ great Advent sermon in 1511 in Santo Domingo. You can’t defeat one twisted history by inventing another one. And in any case, the version of Christianity that most Indians adopted was heavily laced with pagan customs and beliefs (and still is today) as is very well documented by contemporary churchmen.

    • Chris

      Actually, the bigger issue is that Cortes was one thing and Pedro de Alvarado (southern Mexico and Guatemala) and Francisco Pizarro (Peru) quite another. The fact the some Spanish conquistadores were bloodthirsty — to say nothing of idiotic, in the case of Pedro de Alvarado — says nothing about the virtues of others. It merely indicates that a virtuous culture in the throes of original sin can and does produce both heroes and monsters. Cortes was decidedly of the former extraction; Alvarado (a much more direct target of the legitimate criticism of Bartolomé de las Casas, who was writing from San Cristobal) was decidedly of the latter.

      And so on through the entire list of Spanish conquistadores, encomendados, and the like. That Mexico, despite its current drug war, is today a stable and relatively prosperous Latin American state, while Central America remains a basket case, can trace its beginnings to the prudence of Cortes on the one hand, and the idiocy of Alvarado on the other. Indeed, the author refers to Alvarado’s barbarity in the article, observing that he and his garrison “provoked an Aztec rebellion by their massacre of some 600 Aztec noblemen and were forced to flee the city.”

  • Cortez’ words, “We must risk something for God !,” when he scuttled his ships at Vera Cruz, and headed west to conquer the empire steeped in slave’s blood, stir me to action every day. North America has become what Mexico was, drenched in the sacrificed blood of 55 million innocents. As deluded as were the Aztecs, we are faced with a pagan emperor whose thirst for the blood of innocents far surpasses that of Motecezoma II. And just as there was an uncrowned power behind the throne in Mexico, Tlacallel, who was always urging more and more human sacrifices, we have a culture that is driven by the hidden-in-the-open lusts engendered by a racist genocidal trollop named Sanger, the archetype of the “Liberated Feminist” who requires more and ever more barren wombs and ritual sexual sacrifices to the staring and dead eyes of the goddess of “Choice.”

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  • Brian

    Am I allowed to look at slavery? Am I allowed to look at the attitude that natives were mere infants who needed to be punished? Am I allowed to look at the general suffering endured by natives?