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Old July 20th, 2015, 01:27 PM   #1
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What were Hernan Cortes's original intentions upon entering Mexico?


I've recently read Bernal Diaz's The History of the Conquest of New Spain and I was wondering what others thought of this book or other first hand accounts like it. It seems the Spanish were originally interested in trading with the natives but learned the Aztecs wanted them to leave. I don't see how Cortes thought he could conquer the Aztecs with only 500 men, until he began making allies.

What were his original intentions?

What are some other first hand sources I can read about the conquest?
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Old July 20th, 2015, 07:49 PM   #2

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Quite simply, Cortes illegally gathered an expedition of men away from Cuba after hearing rumors of a wealthy empire to the west. Cuban govenor Diego Velázquez specifically ordered him not to go so he left in the middle of the night. His motives were no better than any other bandit in history. Velázquez may have letters but I am unaware of them or even if they have ever been translated into English (if they've survived at all).

Unfortunately, little written evidence remains of Cortes' murderous rampage through Mexico. Diaz is the only conquistador besides Cortes who wrote an account, so I would recommend reading Cortes' letters to the Spanish crown as well. I don't believe they would be hard to find. Note that one major difference between Cortes and Diax is the usage of the pronoun I versus we; Cortes was not fond of sharing credit.

The Azteca were very literate! Unfortunately most of their collected literature was burned by the Spanish as heretical. Still, a few accounts from the native perspective remain and may be purchased under the title The Broken Spears. From the indigenous perspective we learn that Cortes and his men travelled with an army of 200,000 Tlaxcaltecas and others who wished to defeat the hated Aztecs. Mexican society was very stratified, with the Aztecs assuming a dominant role over numerous other ethnic groups. Much has been made (and in many ways rightfully so) of Aztec human sacrifice, but the vast majority of captured enemies were distributed as slaves amongst Aztec families. Broken Spears thus poses an interesting question - how much impact does this army have on the decision to go to war against the ruling class?

It is further reasonable to question the significance of Cortes' translator, a woman known as Malinka by the Mexicans and La Malinche by the Spanish. Fluent in Spanish by means of a shipwrecked Spanish sailor, Malinka seems to have hated the Aztec nobility. Herself the daughter of a noble family, Malinka was married off away from Tenochtitlan, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world, to the boonies because her family fell out of favor. Malinka never forgave this insult and proved vital to Cortes' conquests.

None of this should discount Cortes' and his conquistadors greed, but it is questionable whether or not the ending of Aztec control of Mesoamerica was Cortes' plan, or whether he and his men were uses as an elite strike force (essentially as pawns) in a civil war. It wasn't until after the conquest that smallpox decimates the population, otherwise the conquest would have likely resulted in Tlaxcaltecan rule of Mexico.
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Old July 21st, 2015, 08:35 AM   #3

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Originally Posted by JTWuest View Post
Quite simply, Cortes illegally gathered an expedition of men away from Cuba after hearing rumors of a wealthy empire to the west. Cuban govenor Diego Velázquez specifically ordered him not to go so he left in the middle of the night. His motives were no better than any other bandit in history. Velázquez may have letters but I am unaware of them or even if they have ever been translated into English (if they've survived at all).

Unfortunately, little written evidence remains of Cortes' murderous rampage through Mexico. Diaz is the only conquistador besides Cortes who wrote an account, so I would recommend reading Cortes' letters to the Spanish crown as well. I don't believe they would be hard to find. Note that one major difference between Cortes and Diax is the usage of the pronoun I versus we; Cortes was not fond of sharing credit.

The Azteca were very literate! Unfortunately most of their collected literature was burned by the Spanish as heretical. Still, a few accounts from the native perspective remain and may be purchased under the title The Broken Spears. From the indigenous perspective we learn that Cortes and his men travelled with an army of 200,000 Tlaxcaltecas and others who wished to defeat the hated Aztecs. Mexican society was very stratified, with the Aztecs assuming a dominant role over numerous other ethnic groups. Much has been made (and in many ways rightfully so) of Aztec human sacrifice, but the vast majority of captured enemies were distributed as slaves amongst Aztec families. Broken Spears thus poses an interesting question - how much impact does this army have on the decision to go to war against the ruling class?

It is further reasonable to question the significance of Cortes' translator, a woman known as Malinka by the Mexicans and La Malinche by the Spanish. Fluent in Spanish by means of a shipwrecked Spanish sailor, Malinka seems to have hated the Aztec nobility. Herself the daughter of a noble family, Malinka was married off away from Tenochtitlan, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world, to the boonies because her family fell out of favor. Malinka never forgave this insult and proved vital to Cortes' conquests.

None of this should discount Cortes' and his conquistadors greed, but it is questionable whether or not the ending of Aztec control of Mesoamerica was Cortes' plan, or whether he and his men were uses as an elite strike force (essentially as pawns) in a civil war. It wasn't until after the conquest that smallpox decimates the population, otherwise the conquest would have likely resulted in Tlaxcaltecan rule of Mexico.
La Malinche as she is known in the spanish speaking world has become somewhat of an offhand way of saying traitor at the same level as Benedict Arnold or Vidkun Quisling.
It was all about conquest, only after conquest did the spanish try to mingle with the locals to keep control over such a vast demographic area, particularly with the tlaxaltecas whom intermarried with the spanish conquistadors and were from what I was recently taught, treated as nobility in spain as they were bona fide princesses in their own right.
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Old July 21st, 2015, 01:13 PM   #4

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I would be surprised if Cortes envisioned conquest at the onset of his incursion. Initially he only had about 500 men with him, zero intelligence and zero allies. It is hard to imagine even the most egotistical commander imagining that he could conquer an entire nation with those few resources.

Thus it may be most accurate to describe him as a brigand who fell into a situation that allowed him the opportunity to expand his original intentions.
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Old July 22nd, 2015, 11:28 AM   #5

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I would be surprised if Cortes envisioned conquest at the onset of his incursion. Initially he only had about 500 men with him, zero intelligence and zero allies. It is hard to imagine even the most egotistical commander imagining that he could conquer an entire nation with those few resources.

Thus it may be most accurate to describe him as a brigand who fell into a situation that allowed him the opportunity to expand his original intentions.
But what were his intentions if they weren't to conquer? As pointed out above, he stole ships and men from the governor of Cuba (who had earlier approved an expedition to colonize Mexico but later revoked it) to make his expedition, and then, according to legend, burned his ships at Vera Cruz on the Mexican Coast so that his men could only conquer or die.

Whatever we think about Cortes the man, he is one of the most fascinating characters in history. A friend of mine used to teach High School Spanish, and, when she told her students about Cortes, they refused to believe her. "No one could have done that" they'd say.
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Old July 22nd, 2015, 11:39 AM   #6

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Originally Posted by David Vagamundo View Post
But what were his intentions if they weren't to conquer? As pointed out above, he stole ships and men from the governor of Cuba (who had earlier approved an expedition to colonize Mexico but later revoked it) to make his expedition, and then, according to legend, burned his ships at Vera Cruz on the Mexican Coast so that his men could only conquer or die.

Whatever we think about Cortes the man, he is one of the most fascinating characters in history. A friend of mine used to teach High School Spanish, and, when she told her students about Cortes, they refused to believe her. "No one could have done that" they'd say.
The idea of destroying the ships was pretty neat in one of my lower-level history classes at the university. Later though we learned about other ships that arrived with people and gear, so it is not as if he was all alone. There is even evidence in an archaeological site that they had Spanish women with them, too. That is the site where a couple hundred from his second groups were captured and sacrificed (Spanish and Mesoamerican allies). There are even horses heads on some of those Aztec skull racks.
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Old July 22nd, 2015, 12:00 PM   #7

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The aid given to Cortes by enemies of the Aztecs like the Tlaxcalans is often underrated. The vast bulk of the manpower that brought down the Aztecs wasn't Spanish, but native.
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Old July 22nd, 2015, 12:10 PM   #8

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The aid given to Cortes by enemies of the Aztecs like the Tlaxcalans is often underrated. The vast bulk of the manpower that brought down the Aztecs wasn't Spanish, but native.
Absolutely. That was a big point in my Ancient Mesoamerican class I took a couple years ago. Those guys were kind of lost in the sauce, but had the luck of so many allies, guides, and the female translator. There were also issues within Aztec society that allowed Cortez and his men to get in there. If it had just been a bunch of Conquistadors vs the Aztec warriors, Cortez's legacy would probably look a lot like poor Custer's.
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Old July 22nd, 2015, 04:22 PM   #9

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His original intensions were to find gold, in which he was successfull, but also to make a name for himself in history, in which he was also successfull.
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Old July 22nd, 2015, 11:10 PM   #10

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In the words of Indians Jones:

"Fortune and Glory, kid, Fortune and Glory"
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