The Conquistador’s Playbook

Posted on March 13, 2013

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Cortes Sinks Ships--Veracruz 1519History of Aboriginal America 12

Cortés and the Seven Protocols of Conquest

Shortly after he came ashore on the Central American mainland in 1519, Hernán Cortés symbolically “founded” the city of Vera Cruz, and after dispatching an agent to Spain, he thereafter grounded and scuttled his remaining ships.  What were these mad Spaniards up to now?

In fact, Cortés was merely engaged in a couple of plays from the Conquistador playbook.  He is assigned a lot of points from later historians for originality, but in fact, Cortés pretty much followed the book as far as conquistadors go, following a set of procedures and protocols which had root in Spanish custom and had been undergoing consolidation throughout the Caribbean phase of empire, 1492-1519.  This was where rules that Cortés habitually played by originated.

The first chapter of the conquistador playbook concerned itself with legalisms.  We dealt with legalisms previously when we discussed the Requerimiento, a Spanish get-out-of-jail-free card for atrocities against strangers.  The Spanish also liked to draw up formal documents to make their territorial claims more real.  And they also liked to found cities.

francisco de montejoHernán Cortés was doing nothing unusual in “founding,” however ephemerally, the city of Vera Cruz in 1519.  Santo Domingo and Havana were founded more than once before they were actually built.  Francisco de Montejo, companion and onetime spokesman for Cortés, himself founded the city of Salamanca four times in the Yucatan, but only once with any consequence.  Founding a city looked like you were doing something, a sweet achievement for a conqueror’s resume.  Cities stood for civilization, for social status, for safety.  Found a city for the king, for Spain, for Christendom, and it looked like you, as a mighty conquistador, were doing a mighty thing.  Okay, the cities might not actually be there, but Spain was a long ways away, and who was going to know? So in “founding” Vera Cruz, Cortés was on chapter one of the conquistador playbook, but he was also on chapter two.

Chapter two was all about setting up on your own. Cortés’ sponsor for his expedition to the Mexican mainland was Diego Veláquez, the governor of Cuba.  It was Veláquez who actually held the license for conquest.  It was Veláquez who stood to gain most if Cortés’ expedition was successful and led to gains of new territory for Spain.  The agreement between them allowed Cortés and Veláquez to split any booty found through Cortés’ efforts, but governorships and the like were more likely to go to Veláquez as the sponsoring party.  What Cortés was attempting to do by founding Vera Cruz was do an end-run around the arrangement with his sponsor.

Diego Velazquez CuellarAfter founding his fictional city, Cortés established himself and members of his party as town fathers, a separate legal entity from Cuba, which gave him standing to petition the king on his own behalf.  After drawing up his petition and dispatching agents to Spain to argue his case before the king, Cortés then scuttled and beached his remaining ships to prevent word of his doings from reaching Diego Veláquez whose interests he was undermining and who was capable of stopping Cortés if he knew what he was doing.

Some historians have attributed boldness and military genius to Cortés for his act of scuttling his ships.  But having not yet encountered the Aztec empire, he could hardly have known what he was getting into by his act.  The foes that Spain had encountered before then would have been easy pickings for a force like his, according to his own knowledge and experience.  And, in regard to his reasons for doing so, it wasn’t a military act at all.  He was merely doing to the governor of Cuba what his agent Francisco de Montejo did to him in claiming a separate right to conquer the Yucatan apart from Cortés’ claims in central Mexico, and what Pizarro did to the governor of Panama in regard to the Inca empire, and what Francisco de Orellana did in Brazil, and so on.  It was just part of the playbook.

Chapter three of the playbook was the search for gold and silver, needed to finance government.

Chapter four was the search for native allies, always essential in circumstances where the Spanish were chronically outnumbered and knew little or nothing about their enemies or the territories they had come to.

malinche-cortesChapter five involved finding an interpreter—Cortés found the famous Malinche, an act for which he is accorded special credit by some historians, but was really just standard operating procedure in the conquistador manual.  (Malinche herself deserves credit, however, for how well she fulfilled the role.)

Chapter six of the playbook, which again Cortés is given undeserved credit for developing (as if sociopathic violence is some sort of special skill) was the use of display violence.  Every movie bank robber (who like the Spanish invaders of the 16th century are always outnumbered) knows the shock value of killing a hostage.  Cortés’ acts of ritual terror were simply more of the same, what the Spanish conquistadors had been doing from the beginning.

Writes Matthew Restall,

Theatrical and terrorizing techniques appear again and again in the records of Conquest expeditions.

These include the severing of the right hands (or sometimes the arms) of native prisoners, often by the hundreds, the killing of women and, if necessary, sending the corpses home; and the mutilation or killing of select individuals, most typically by fire or by setting mastiffs on them, in front of native witnesses.  Another technique was the massacre of unarmed natives, whose effect was magnified if women, children, and the elderly were killed (as in the Cortés-led massacre in Cholula, or if the victims were celebrants in an important native festival or ritual (as in the Alverado-led massacre in Tenochtitlán), or if the victims were confined by space or crowded tightly together (as in both of the above cases as well as the Pizarro-led massacre of Atahuallpa’s entourage.)  As John Olgivy put it in 1670, Spanish expeditions advanced with “fear conquering more than slaughter.”  If these examples use terror more than theatre, more theatrical tactics and techniques were intended to confuse or impress.  These included attaching bells to horses; the sounding of trumpets in conjunction with the firing of guns; and the use of cannons to blow apart trees or buildings.

Chapter seven of the playbook involved the capture of native rulers.  Cortés did this with Moctezuma and Pizarro did it with Atahuallpa.  Before that they and people with them had done the same with other rulers in Panama and Nicaragua, and other Spaniards had done the same with native rulers in the Caribbean. Some writers considered Cortés actions startling and original when he took the Aztec king captive at Cajamarca.  He was in fact, as he was in so many of his actions, merely doing it by the playbook.

It was there in chapter seven.

See Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, Oxford University Press, 2003.