The Writings of Hernan Cortes and Bartolome de las Casas
The Writings of Hernan Cortes and Bartolome de las Casas
In the half-century following Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the so-called “New World” of the Western Hemisphere, millions of indigenous peoples were slaughtered, hundreds of villages had been destroyed, and a hundred-year-old empire had fallen. Though all of these events took place at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, contemporary narratives of this tragic moment in history vary. In the early sixteenth century writings of Hernan Cortes and Bartolome de las Cases, two divergent views of the native population of the Americas and the justification for Spanish conquest emerge. This paper will examine the conflicting perspectives of Cortes’ Second Letter to Charles V (1520) and de las Casas’ Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indes (1542), focusing on the role of perceived Christian values in each author’s construction of a narrative about the events of the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
With each author relying on religious justification to support some or all of their attitudes toward the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Hernan Cortes and Bartolome de las Casas hold polarizing views of the Spanish conquistadors’ role in the destruction of native villages and peoples; Cortes justifies his actions by claiming to fulfill God’s will, expanding the empire of Charles V and converting native souls into Christendom, while de las Casas sees the natives as creations of the same God in whose name they were slaughtered, and the actions of the Spanish conquistadors as a slaughter of innocent sheep.
As stated above, the justification for conquest of these lands was twofold: religious and political. However, as Spanish contact with indigenous Americans increased, it soon became clear that these two missions were often mutually incompatible. Primary source materials, namely accounts of life in American written by some of the earliest Spaniards to visit the area, reveal the dissonance between those who travelled to the New World for political conquest and those who went as missionaries of the Christian faith.
The two sources examined in this paper must be viewed in this particular context. Though Cortes and de las Casas each address or appeal to Charles V in these particular writings, Cortes is corresponding with his king in reference to the conquests which will add considerably to his political and economic empire, while the de las Casas is writing in defense of the principles of Christianity which conquistadors such as Cortes used as a superficial justification for immoral and unforgivable acts of atrocity against the indigenous peoples of America. The former is loyal to the secular power of Spain, and the latter is a representative of Spain’s great ally, the Catholic Church.
Arguments & Evidence
In Cortes’ account of his conquest of Mexico, as described in his Second Letter to Charles V, he seems at times impressed with the achievements and splendor of Montezuma’s empire, and with the vast reaches of the Aztec emperor’s rule, yet refers to the people, the cities, and the riches, all as objects to be conquered. He writes to his sovereign,
“I have been desirous that your Highness should be informed concerning the affairs of this country, because, as I have already mentioned in my former relation, such are its extent and importance, that the possession of it would authorize your Majesty to assume anew the title of Emperor, which it is no less worthy of conferring than Germany itself, which, by the grace of God, you already possess.” (Cortes, p. 1)
Here, Cortes makes clear his intent throughout his expedition into the interior of Mexico: to exploit the Aztec people and gain dominion over them in the name of the Spanish crown.
In his interactions with indigenous Americans, he takes a “convert or die” approach, in which cities and villages were either brought into allegiance with the Spanish crown or “reduced by conquest” (Cortes, p. 1). Thus “being constantly engaged in making conquests and establishing peace,” Cortes winds his way to the heart of the Aztec empire, destroying villages without a second thought, and seeking alliances with powerful kingdoms with the exclusive intent of conquering them at his earliest opportunity. In one campaign, he claims to have “destroyed five or six small villages of a hundred houses each, and took four hundred prisoners, including men and women then returned to the camp, fighting my way, but without suffering any loss” (p. 9) and then the very next day, “destroyed more than ten towns, one of which contained about three thousand houses, where we encountered the town's-people alone, the forces of the enemy not being present.” He goes on to attribute his success the Christian God: “As we carried the banner of the cross, and fought for our faith and in the service of your Sacred Majesty, God in his glorious providence gave us so great a victory, that we destroyed many people without ourselves receiving any injury” (p. 10).
Later in his narrative, Cortes explains his encounter with the religious icons and practices of the citizens of the Aztec Empire in the great city of Temixtitlan. He described toppling their religious statues, “in which the people have greatest faith and confidence,” “cast[ing] them down the steps of the temple,” and replacing them with images of Our Lady and the Saints, which excited not a little feeling in Muteczuma and the inhabitants” (Cortes, p. 42). He describes them as barbarous and attempts to “draw them to a knowledge of God our Lord,” succeeding in convincing them to cease the practice of human sacrifice (p. 42).
Throughout his letter, the words Cortes chooses to describe the natives and his dealings with them make it clear that the murder of thousands of innocent natives were justified, even divinely ordained, a rhetoric which was common for such narratives of early Spanish exploration and colonization. To de las Casas, however, this dominant narrative of the conquest of New Spain was not only inaccurate, but also served to obfuscate the atrocities committed by Spanish explorers in the name of empire and Christianity.
De las Casas, a Dominican Friar, describes the people of the Americas as “innocent sheep, so qualified by the Almighty,” and acknowledges their humanity regardless of whether they had converted to the Christian faith (de las Casas, p. 2). While many of Cortes’ descriptions of natives dehumanize them, de las Casas saw them as “tractable, and capable of Morality or Goodness, very apt to receive the instill'd principles of Catholick Religion; nor are they averse to Civility and good Manners” (p. 3) He contrasts the “Humility and Patience of the Inhabitants” of the Americas with the “Ambition and Avarice” of the Spanish conquerors, who “treated [the natives]not as Beasts, which I cordially wished they would, but as the most abject dung and filth of the Earth” (p. 4)
De las Casas describes the once rich countryside and villages of the indigenous Americans as a landscape now “unpeopled and laid waste, like a Desert” in the decades after Cortes and other conquistadors arrived (de las Casas, p. 10). He tells tales of captured natives being tortured, raped, dismembered, and forced to perform “intolerable labors” in slavery (p. 8). He claims these atrocities were widespread throughout the colonies exploited by the Spaniards with slavery especially rampant in Florida, Guatemala, New Spain, and Hispaniola.
In contrast to Cortes, de las Casas came to the New World not to increase the temporal power of Spain, but to spread the Christian faith to its in habitants. However, he asserted that the actions of the Spaniards in these lands were dangerously out of line with Christian values. He ended his account with a moral plea to end the violent and indiscriminate destruction of the native people, and states his belief that Charles V, in awakening to the tragedies taking place in the Spanish colonies, would call for an end to such atrocities (p. 37).
Though Hernan Cortes and Bartolome de las Casas were men of the same era and country, who witnessed firsthand the initial contact between Spaniards and natives in the Americas. However, each man had come to the New World with a different goal and a different set of values. For Cortes, conquest was the primary motive for interacting with these inhabitants of previously uncharted territory, in the hopes of winning the favor of Charles the V and expanding his empire. On the other hand, de las Casas had lived a life of serving God and travelled to America to spread knowledge of his faith to what he saw as inherently good people. Each of these perspectives colored their perceptions of the indigenous Americans, and of the morality of the Spanish mission to colonize their lands.
Cortés, Hernan (1520). Second Letter of Hernando Cortés to Charles V. The Dispatches of Hernando Cortés, The Conqueror of Mexico, addressed to the Emperor Charles V, written during the conquest, and containing a narrative of its events. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1843.
De las Casas, Bartolome (1542). A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Project Gutenberg, January 2007, http://www-personal.umich.edu/~twod/latam-s2010/read/las_casasb2032120321-8.pdf (Accessed February 10, 2016).