In defense of the Conquistadors

It seems that everywhere you look Cortés is described as the merciless leader of the bloodthirsty and brutal Conquistadors that butchered the entire country of Mexico and exterminated the Aztecs. And most of these statements are by historians and scholars, who apparently want to be in the vogue of blaming the white man for the fall of all ancient civilizations. In fact, a casual review of the facts using a logical and common sense approach, would point to the opposite.

1. Cortés’ mission in Mexico was to open trade and convert the natives to Christianity- two things that would have been impossible to accomplish if the natives were all dead!

2. Everywhere Cortés went in Mexico, from the first moment he stepped on shore, he attempted to make peace with the natives first. The Conquistadors never fired the first shot. It was only after the natives attacked first that the Conquistadors would of course defend themselves. Even then Cortés repeatedly sent captured native warriors back to their chiefs to attempt to make peace. Eventually they all made peace and became allies- a point many historians gloss over. From the natives of Tabasco to the Tlaxcalans, Cortés always attempted to negotiate first. In fact the Tlaxcalans attacked after repeated pleas that the Spanish only wanted to travel through their territory on the way to the Aztec capital! Finally the elders agreed to peace but one of their generals ignored the order and fought on. It was only when Cortés arrived in Cholula that things got confusing. The Cholulans set a trap for the Spanish at the instigation of Montezuma: they welcomed him into their city with the intention of murdering all the Conquistadors. When Cortés found this out (mostly from his new allies the Tlaxcalans), he put many of them to death. Even here it can be reasonably argued this was a battle and not a massacre since there were 10,000 Aztec warriors in the town at the time ready to attack.

3. Many scholars attribute the Conquistadors’ superior firepower to their easy victories and brutal manner of subduing the natives. In fact the Spanish had primitive black powder muskets, and only a few at that, probably no more than fifty to a hundred maximum. Muskets were enormously expensive in the 1500’s and only a few could afford them. The Conquistadors were after all not an army but just a group of common and noble men looking for wealth and adventure. Also the musket is a very slow firing weapon: it must be loaded with gunpowder, a wad, and a ball, which is then tamped down with a long rod down the barrel. Then more gunpowder must be poured in the powder hole and ignited with a piece of flint that caused a spark which finally set off the gunpowder in the beech. Not a fast weapon and one that would take a minimum of a minute or two to reload. There were around 450 Conquistadors (only about 50 with muskets) facing up to 10,000 natives in a given battle- how many do you think they could kill at one time before being over run by sheer numbers? Even with cannon, there were only so many kills possible at any time. The fact is Cortés had to make peace – and quickly each time!

4. We hear about the ‘rape’ of Mexico, yet the Spanish certainly did not need women- they were freely given women as presents each time they encountered a new tribe! La Malinche herself was given to Cortés along with 19 others. If you count each time women were given to the Conquistadors, all way up till they met Montezuma, 8 here, 10 there, 20 more here, at some point probably everyone of Cortés’ men had one. They had absolutely no need to kidnap or rape any female. Add to that that every Conquistador was a devout Catholic who attended Mass every day- not exactly a charactoristic of men prone to rape.

5. It is important to remember the 1500’s were a brutal period (these were after all the medieval Middle Ages). Hands and feet were cut off for certain offences, people were routinely hanged, and some burned alive- and that was the Spanish punishing their own people! Cortés punished many of his own men for stealing from and abusing the natives. He insisted the natives be treated kindly and respectfully. Even so slaves were a fact of life on both sides: all the natives practiced slavery as did the Spanish.

6. Finally, the vast majority of deaths in Mexico were not by battles or murder but from small pox. And Cortés can’t be accused of bringing that with him either. Actually, in 1520 another group of Spanish arrived in Mexico from Hispaniola under the command of Narvaez, bringing with them the smallpox which had already been ravaging that island for two years. This group was sent by the greedy governor of Cuba to arrest Cortés and take all the riches for himself. When Cortés heard about the other group, he went and defeated them. In this contact, one of Cortés’s men contracted the disease from a Negro slave. When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan, he inadvertently brought the disease with him. Soon, the Aztecs rose up in rebellion against Cortés and his men. Outnumbered, the Spanish were forced to flee. In the fighting, the Spanish soldier carrying smallpox died. After the battle, the Aztecs probably contracted the virus from the invaders’ bodies. Smallpox then devastated the Aztec population. It killed most of the Aztec army and 25% of the overall population. The Spanish Franciscan Motolinia left this description: “As the Indians did not know the remedy of the disease…they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places it happened that everyone in a house died and, as it was impossible to bury the great number of dead, they pulled down the houses over them so that their homes become their tombs.” On Cortés’s return, he found the Aztec army’s chain of command in ruins. The soldiers who still lived were weak from the disease. Cortés then easily defeated the Aztecs and entered Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards said that they could not walk through the streets without stepping on the bodies of smallpox victims. All in all, while the Spanish probably brought the disease to Mexico, it certainly wasn’t done on purpose, and Cortés can hardly be blamed for it anymore than some random airplane passenger today can be blamed for spreading AIDS or the bird flu around the world.