Friday, May 23, 2014

Cortes and his men may be teules, but they believe in justice

Cortes and his men fought several battles against the Amerindians, but it was not his intention to fight them all the way to Mexico City. According to Bernal Diaz, Cortes was a master at deception – and politics. The Aztecs sent tax gatherers to some of the tribes Cortes had defeated. Cortes whether from a political motive or deception locked up the tax gatherers and informed the Amerindians round about that they no longer had to pay taxes to Motecusuma. “When the Indians learnt this astounding, and to them so important an occurrence, they said to one another, that, such great things could not have been done by men, but only by teules, which sometimes mean gods, sometimes demons, here in the former sense; which was the reason they termed us teules, from that moment; and I beg the reader to observe, that whenever in future I speak of teules in affairs relating to us, that we are meant thereby. [Del Castillo, Bernal Diaz (2013-11-03). The Conquest of New Spain (Kindle Locations 2420-2427). Bybliotech. Kindle Edition.]

While Cortes did not claim that he and his men were teules, he encouraged the idea that they were invincible heroes, and if the Amerindians and Aztecs concluded they were indeed teules, that was okay. Coming upon some soldiers sent by Motecusuma to oppose him, he gathered his men and said, "Methinks, gentlemen, we already pass here for great heroes; indeed, after what has happened with the tax-gatherers these people must look upon us as gods, or a species of beings like their idols. Now, I am of opinion it is best to strengthen them in this notion; and that they may think that one single man of us is sufficient to dislodge the Mexicans from the fortress of Tzinpantzinco, we will send thither old Heredia of Biscay. The malignancy of his features, his huge beard, his half-mangled countenance, his squinting eyes and lame leg, constitute him the most fitting person for this object, besides which he is a musketeer."

Cortes then sent for the man and said to him: "You must go with the caziques to the river which flows about a mile from this spot. When you have arrived there do as if you were thirsty, and wished to wash your hands; then fire off your musket. This shall be a signal for me to send someone after you, who will, in my name, desire you to return. All this is done in order that the Indians may suppose us to be deities, and as you have not one of the most pleasing countenances, I trust they will take you by preference to be some idol." Heredia, who had served many years in Italia, perfectly well knew how to perform his part, and gladly undertook this matter. Cortes now ordered the fat cazique, and the other chief Indians who were expecting succours from us, into his presence again, saying to them: "I send this my brother with you to drive the Mexicans out of the fortress, and to bring those whom he does not kill prisoners to me." When the caziques heard this they stood in utter amazement, not knowing whether Cortes was in earnest; but finding he did not change countenance, they began to convince themselves that this was really his intention, and marched away in company of Heredia. When he had arrived between the mountains he loaded his musket and shot it off in the air, that it might be heard by every Indian in the district. The caziques themselves sent notice to the different townships, that they had a teule with them, and were marching to Tzinpantzinco in order to kill the Mexicans there.”

Bernal Diaz then writes, “I have mentioned this laughable circumstance, that the reader may see what artifices Cortes employed to throw dust into the eyes of the Indians. Of course, when Heredia arrived at the river he was recalled; the caziques returning with him, to whom Cortes said, he had formed a different plan.” [Bernal Diaz, (Kindle Locations 2511-2530)]

Comment: It should not be thought, however, that Cortes was all deception. He really did believe that he and his troops could defeat Amerindian forces that far outnumbered them, but why do it if a bluff would serve as well. He had lost some men already from previous battles and knew he couldn’t keep on in that manner. Attrition would one day defeat him.

It helped tremendously that there was an Aztec prophecy saying men from the direction of the rising sun would one day arrive and defeat the Aztecs. Motecusuma procrastinated: one day he was convinced that the Cortes resembled their god of war and was a fulfillment of the prophecy, but then the priests would show up after a bloody sacrifice, their hair and beards caked with blood and report that their gods, especially the god of war, said that the Spaniards could be defeated; so Motecusuma would send out half-hearted attempts to defeat Cortes, but was in no way surprised when his attempts failed.

It is especially interesting that Cortes won over the Amerindians as he advanced by treating them fairly and enforcing justice whenever justice was abused in his presence. For example, Diaz writes in location 2597, “Although Indians, they readily perceived what a good and holy thing is justice, and that Cortes' declaration of our having come into these countries to p they, therefore, became the more united to us. We passed the night in these huts, and returned next morning, in company of our Indian friends, to Sempoalla. Indeed, the only wish of the Sempoallans was now, that we should never leave their country again, fearing Motecusuma would send an army about their ears; they, therefore, proposed to Cortes, since such a close and friendly alliance now subsisted between us, and we could look upon each other as brothers, [Diaz, Kindle Locations 2600-2605]

Cortes’s actions as described by Diaz have an uncanny conformance to the “moral instinct” all Homo sapiens are said (by many geneticists and some anthropologists – who knows how many of each because specialists are still digesting new information) to share.

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