"Hernan Cortes -The Caesar Of Mexico"
By Mildred Boyd
August 2002 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 18, Number 12

     In all of Mexico not a single statue or monument commemorates his deeds. No town or village, not even a street, bears his name. Muralists depict him as a deformed monster with the face of Evil Incarnate.
     The Conquest produced villains aplenty; soldiers greedy for gold and glory, priests who considered torture the perfect instrument for conversion, Viceroys whose only concern was extorting wealth without thought to the plight of an enslaved people. Possibly, there were even a few saints; priests who decried violence and sought to win converts by loving kindness or lay administrators who tried to rule justly.
     Hernan Cortes hardly fits either category. He was only a man; one with many of the faults and a surprising number of the virtues of his time. Even his most ardent admirer, historian Francisco Lopez Gomara, records instances of "intriguing, lying, cajoling, bullying and threatening," but let it be noted that these tactics were usually employed against his own countrymen. His dealings with the Indians were almost always honorable.
     Cortes sought to pacify, not provoke; to appease with gifts, not oppress with guns. He hoped to acquire a productive province, not a slave slate. Orders to his troops were explicit. No one was to "vex or offend" the natives. Women and children must always be spared. Only food, and that scrupulously paid for, might be taken. Looting and rape were punishable by death.
     That is not to say that Cortes never used force. Many bloody battles were fought and many Indians died for the "crime" of defending home and family. Yet he seldom attacked without provocation or without offering peaceful overtures.
     The numerous accusations against Cortes are mostly lies propagated by his arch-enemy, Nuno de Guzman. He murdered his wife. (If so, it seems to have been the most attention that poor lady ever received from him.) He tried to poison an entire Royal deputation. (The earliest recorded case of "Moctezuma's revenge?") He planned to rebel and set himself up as king. The list goes on, but surprisingly few accusations involve mistreatment of Indians.
     The Massacre at Cholula is one, and on the face of it, the slaughter of, 3,000 Indians might seem inexcusable. But was it? Granted that Cortes should never have been there at all; his position was untenable. His Tlaxcalan allies had been left outside to avoid offending the Cholulans and he and his small band were virtual prisoners in a hostile town. Is it any wonder that, when presented with proof of a treasonous plot, he decided to strike first?
     The death of Cuauhtemoc is another accusation. But why Cortes should keep his bitterest enemy alive for years, only to haul him off to the Guatemalan jungles for execution, is a mystery. Unless, of course, the Aztec prince was truly guilty of fomenting rebellion?
     It must be remembered that Cortes's puny army, however brave, could never have prevailed against hundreds of thousands of hostile foes. Only in the first few battles were they without allies. Cortes's policy of friendship allowed him to use the internal dissensions of the Aztec Empire to destroy it. In so doing, he made himself the champion of the vast majority of the Indians of New Spain. He was their friend and protector, and he never lost their love and respect.
     Cortes hoped to avoid the errors that had been made in the Islands. His letters to Charles V are filled with warnings and pleas. He begged that only settlers be allowed in New Spain, not adventurers "intent on consuming the country's substance and then abandoning it." He asked for humble priests who would convert by pious example, not high prelates who would "dispose of the gifts of the Church and waste them in pomp and other vices." Despite (or because of?) the fact that he had studied law, he recommended that lawyers be banned on the grounds that they encouraged contention in order to profit from the ensuing litigation. Most of all, he deplored the practice of repaying services to the Crown with Indian slaves to work land grants. Yet he had no other way of rewarding his own followers.
     Charles was not interested. He obviously believed his insistence on the conversion of the natives, thus ensuring their Heavenly reward, was quite enough and considered enslavement a small price to pay for such favors. Nor did he accede to any other request. The troublesome Cortes was soon replaced with a governing committee which exiled him.
     His fall from grace was a black-letter day for the natives and they knew it. Had he chosen defiance, Gomara claims, "almost all the Spanish and all the Indians would have taken up arms in his favor and defense." This was undoubtedly true. When Cortes returned from Honduras after having been reported dead he found his lands confiscated, his treasury looted and his home occupied by enemies. The Indians greeted him with wild rejoicing and his fellow Spaniards were willing to join him in ousting the usurpers.
     Instead, Cortes meekly sailed for Spain, hoping to clear his name with the Emperor. He succeeded and was fobbed off with a title and huge land grants, complete with thousands of slaves. He was graciously allowed to retain the office of Captain General and continue his profitable conquests for the Crown, but denied any say in their administration. Cortes was forced to watch as men like Nuno de Guzman destroyed all he had hoped to build.
     His own estates were models of what proper management and respect for Indian rights could achieve and his people sincerely mourned his passing. He died in Spain in 1547 and his body was returned to Mexico for burial. Yet by 1810 this man had come to symbolize all the evils of the Spanish Conquest and, for fear of desecration, his remains were dug up and hidden for years before reburial.
     As with Caesar, all of the good Cortes did has been " . . . interred with his bones." So let it be with Hernan Cortes.

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