Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Hernando Cortez, Evangelist

Cortez was warned that if he took his troops into Mexico, he and all of them would be killed, some of whom would be sacrificed to idols and most would be eaten.  Despite that he and his 550 men entered Mexico and were welcomed by Motecusuma.  Motecusuma earlier sent word that Cortez should not come,  but when Cortez told him that he needed to come to complete his mission, Motecusuma had his priests consult the Aztec gods and their response was that Cortez should be allowed to come.  Motecusuma got along fine with Cortez and most of his men.  One or two were disrespectful to Motecusuma and Cortez had them whipped.  Most like Bernal Diaz treated Motecusuma with great respect, even to the point of saying that he and the others loved Motecusuma.  And Motecusuma reciprocated.  Motecusuma was eventually taken prisoner by Cortez, but it was a gentle imprisonment.  Motecusuma had the freedom to carry on his business as usual, he just had to do it in the Spaniards quarters and presence.  When Motecusuma’s nephews plotted to attack the Spaniards and free Motecusuma, he informed on them to Cortez.  His argument was that if the Nephews attacked there would be a great slaughter which he wanted to avoid, but his actions do sound as though he were experiencing the Stockholm Syndrome.

One doesn’t see religion mentioned prominently in modern historical references, or perhaps I didn’t notice it as much, but it is extremely prominent in Bernal Diaz’s The Conquest of New Spain. William Prescott and perhaps most moderns will make light of the conquistadores and say their primary motive was loot, but it is hard to see that in Diaz’s narration.  Gold is important but less so than the commission they were on and even less so than religion.  Wherever Cortez went he preached to the natives telling them they should quit human sacrifice and that there gods were false and their statues needed to be pulled down.   A priest was along with Cortez and kept telling him to curtail his evangelism, and that more time was needed, but he kept on, despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered in Motecusuma’s Mexican city.  One day in Motecusuma’s holiest shrines, Cortez preached to him again telling him that all the gods there were false and Motecusuma took terrible offense.  Cortez’s priest urged Cortez to give it up and return to his quarters; which Cortez did.  I thought this would have been an ideal time for Motecusuma to escape to his generals and order them to annihilate the Spaniards, but he didn’t.  He returned to captivity. 

If one doubts the sincerity of Diaz and Cortez; which seems a very difficult thing to do if one actually reads The Conquest of New Spain – at least in Kindle which has the complete narration.  An abridgement exists published by Penguin Books which may have some of the religious accounts deleted, I don’t know, but what about the religion of the Aztecs.  Not only did the Aztec priests sacrifice humans, but afterwards they and the population at large perhaps, or at least the upper classes, ate the remains.  Something like a butcher shop existed where those allowed to eat these remains (which may have been everyone) picked out the cuts they wanted.

Cortez ordered the Motecusuma and the Mexicans to stop their human sacrifices.  Motecusuma agreed, but the sacrifices went on anyway and Diaz wrote that they had to turn a blind eye because they were in no position to force them to stop.

It is common to day to scoff at religious motivation: the Conquistadors must have been in it for the gold.  Crusaders must have been in it for the loot, but post-modern (not intended as a technical term) theory suggests otherwise.  Nicholas Wade in 2009 wrote The Faith Instinct, How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures. He isn’t the first to hypothesize that we all have a religious instinct.  This isn’t to say that it can’t be denied or rejected, but it is there and it does provide its adherents with an advantage.  Where is the war where one or both sides weren’t motivated by their religion?  And lest the non-religious are inclined to feel superior, the sincerely religious will fight with more single-mindedness and self-sacrifice than the modern-day (or any previous day) skeptic.  Thus, if skeptics ever did mount an army, believers would be sure to beat it (everything else being equal).

But, someone might object, the sincerely believing human-sacrificing Aztecs far outnumber the sincerely believing Roman Catholic Spaniards, a million plus to about 550; how is it that Cortez and his conquistadores survived?  Well to some extent it was due to their being an Aztec prophesy which foretold that men would one day arrive from the direction of the rising of the sun and conquer them.  Motecusuma and who knows how many other Mexicans had no doubt but that Cortez’s arrival fulfilled that prophesy; so what good would it do to fight them? The Gods had foretold that they would lose.

One in my opinion shouldn’t disparage the intense religious conviction of the Conquistadors.  They prayed fervently, especially when they had to fight against the enormous numbers that the Indians and especially the Aztecs could bring against them.   Cortez knew in whom he believed and felt the obligation to confess Him in the presence of his enemies.  There is a verse some place where Jesus says something like, “if you confess me before men, then I’ll confess you before my heavenly father, but if you will not confess me before men I will not confess you before my heavenly father.”  That Cortez would preach to Motecusuma is, I suspect, an application of that verse.

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