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Cortés and 16th Century Brutality

By Taylor Marvin

Cortés encounters the Tlaxcalans.

Cortés encounters the Tlaxcalans.

I’m currently reading Jon Manchip White’s excellent, if under appreciated, Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire. The encounter between the Spanish and the Aztecs is one of the most interesting episodes in human history. On the eve of the Spanish Conquest, civilization in the Americas had been isolated from the rest of humanity for at least 60,000 years, were roughly 4,500 years technologically behind European cultures, and had developed advanced urban societies completely alien to Europeans. It’s doubtful that history has seen another encounter between two peoples with so little in common, or one so violent- over the course of the conquest, the Spanish conquistadores and their indigenous allies likely killed over one hundred thousand Aztecs by hand. One Spanish chronicler recounts forty thousand Aztecs killed in a single battle, though this is possibly an exaggeration. This brutality extends to the Spanish reaction to the Aztec religious tradition, which the conquistadors violently eradicated. Modern popular history, both in Mexico and the rest of the world, tend to demonize Cortés for this slaughter. This blame is partially justified — though the vast majority of American indigenous deaths in the centuries after the European contact were due to the introduction of European diseases, the conquest of the Americas is still one of the greatest catastrophes in human history. But blaming the conquistadors for their brutality ignores the reality of the world they inhabited. Cortés was a product of a world universally at war, and the idea of religious coexistence had no basis in their world.

Cortés and his companions lived in a world of two religions- Christianity and Islam. In the eyes of Cortés Christianity, specifically Catholicism, was the one faith of civilization, while Islam was the deadly religion of aggressive fanatics that threatened to overrun all of the civilized world. This worldview wasn’t bigoted, but was rather an accurate reaction to the world a 16th century Spaniard inhabited. Europeans saw the Islam they encountered, with good reason, as aggressive and an existential threat to Christendom. Cortés and his men had experienced this conflict firsthand in Spain’s centuries long battle to evict the Moors, and also through stories of the seemingly unstoppable Turkish advance into Eastern Europe. In 16th century Spaniard’s worldview only two religions were even possible- the true Catholic religion of civilization, and that of barbarians. The Aztec religion clearly fell in to the latter category, and had to be destroyed. It’s telling that in Cortés’ dispaches to the Spanish emperor he refers to Aztec temples as “mosques.” The Aztecs didn’t build churches, so their religion and society was as much a threat as that of the Moors.

It is not surprising that no Spaniards questioned the narrative that it was their religious duty to conquer and forcibly convert the Americas. The idea that different religious beliefs could peacefully coexist was completely alien to the 16th century. While the Protestant reformation had begun in Germany 2 years before Cortés’ expedition into the Aztec Empire, it’s doubtful that he or any of his men were aware of it. To Cortés and his companions, the world was neatly divided into two competing sects — civilized Christendom  and Islam. Cortés was aware that other religious practices existed among Indian tribes that the Spanish had already encountered, but these practices were likely easy to dismiss as petty witchcraft rather than developed religious traditions equal in theological rigor  to Christianity. Similarly, Cortés and the rest of contemporary Spain deeply admired their Roman predecessors, who were clearly non-Christian. However, the religions of the ancient Romans and contemporary Indians were only academic interests — to practical Spanish soldiers, what mattered in the world was the apocalyptic confrontation between Christianity and Islam, or civilization and barbarism.

It’s not surprising that the Spaniards reacted to the Aztecs with such brutality. In addition to their motives of conquest, the Aztec religion was as organized and codified as Christianity, making it, unlike the unorganized religious practices of the Caribbean natives, a threat that the Spaniards’ experience with an aggressive Islam demanded they react aggressively against. This worldview of zero-sum cultural competition was undoubtably strengthened by the undeniably horrible aspects of the Aztec religion like human sacrifice, practices that, despite the Spaniards’ own appetite for violence and sadism, disgusted the conquistadors. The point is that we shouldn’t judge the Spaniards’ brutal conquest. Their actions were a product of their culture, a culture that grew out of a world more violent than we can really understand. The unified Spanish state was forged in the desperate struggle against the Moors, and we shouldn’t judge contemporary Spanish culture for its brutality and religious fanaticism, a fanaticism that was the natural reaction to a violent world. In many ways modern Latin America was born from the long brutal war between the Spanish and the Moors — we shouldn’t be surprised that the birth was violent.

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