The Mayan civilization peaked around 900 AD, then declined due to drought and internal disruptions.
Centuries later, the Aztecs grew to control 200,000 square miles, ruling 6 million people.
But in 1519, just two years after Martin Luther began the Reformation in Germany, Hernan Cortés arrived in Central America with the mixed motives of “God, Glory and Gold.”
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It was an era when the Muslim pirate Barbarossa dominated the Mediterranean, raiding the coasts of France, Italy, and Spain, carrying away thousands of Europeans into slavery.
Muslims had conquered the Byzantine Empire and, under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, were invading Serbia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Austria.
During this time, Spanish soldiers proved to be the most successful in defending Christendom, with Spain’s King Ferdinand ending the 700 year Muslim occupation of Western Europe.
On the other side of the world, 34-year-old Cortés led his Spanish troops into Mexico in what he believed to be a holy cause, telling his men:
“Soldiers of Spain, we are standing upon the verge of the greatest adventure ever undertaken by so small a body of men. We now leave the known world behind us: from this time forth we plunge into a region never before trodden by men of our race or religion. The hazards of this adventure I shall not dwell upon; they are well estimated by the bravest among you… The shores we shall storm are lined with teeming millions of savages, unfriendly if not openly hostile. We have only our swords and our good right arms to protect us against their overwhelming numbers. Therefore let not childish strife or inner dissension weaken the front we must present to the enemy. If we go as united as we go courageously, we have nothing to fear, nothing to lose… We are marching as Christians into a land of infidels. We seek not only to subdue boundless territory in the name of our Emperor Don Carlos, but to win millions of unsalvaged souls to the True Faith.”
Cortés ordered his ships sunk. There was no turning back.
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With 500 men, 16 horses, and 10 cannons, Cortés set out from Vera Cruz on February 10, 1519, toward Mexico City.
His troops saw horrendous sights:
- prisoners nailed to temple walls with their hearts cut out;
- pyramid style temples covered with human blood;
- bodies of men and boys without arms or legs;
- human skulls stacked on poles;
- hundreds of thousands of human skulls arranged in piles;
- gnawed human bones piled in houses and streets;
- wooden houses built with grates jammed with captives awaiting sacrifice;
- pagan priests with hair matted with dried blood;
- the stench of carrion;
- and sacrificed humans rolled down temples where frenzied hoards ate them.
This was part of their religion which believed the Sun god needed human blood to live and that the Aztecs were responsible to feed him daily with captives from other tribes.
As the Spanish troops went from town to town, other Indian tribes were elated with hopes of being freed from Aztec rule which required them to provide youth for sacrifices.
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Cortés’ men freed captives, rolled idols down temple steps, and erected crosses.
Francisco Lopez de Gomara, Cortés’ personal secretary and chaplain, reported how they found in Cozumel a Catholic priest, Gerónimo de Aguilar, who had been shipwrecked on Yucatan eight years earlier and had learned the language:
“So Gerónimo de Aguilar preached to them about salvation, and, either because of what he told them, or because of the beginning they had already made, they were pleased to have their idols cast down, and they even assisted at it, breaking into small pieces what they had formerly held sacred.
“And soon our Spaniards had left not a whole idol standing, and in each chapel they set up a Cross or the image of Our Lady, whom all the islanders worshipped with prayer and great devotion…
“They begged Cortés to leave someone behind to teach them to believe in the God of the Christians; but he did not dare consent, for fear they might kill the preacher, and also because he had few priests and friars with him. And in this he did wrong, in view of their earnest request and supplications.”
In giving battle instructions, Cortés exhorted:
“Sirs, let us follow our banner which bears the sign of the Holy Cross, and through it we shall conquer!”
After defeating the Aztec-allied Tabascan tribe, Cortés preached through interpreter Gerónimo de Aguilar, as reported by Francisco Lopez de Gomara:
“Cortés told them of their blindness and great vanity in worshipping many gods and making sacrifices of human blood to them, and in thinking that those images, being mute and soulless, made by the Indians with their own hands, were capable of doing good or harm.
“He then told them of a single God, Creator of Heaven and earth and men, whom the Christians worshiped and served, and whom all men should worship and serve. In short, after he had explained the Mysteries to them, and how the Son of God had suffered on the Cross, they accepted it and broke up their idols.
“Thus it was that with great reverence, before a large concourse of Indians, and with many tears on the part of the Spaniards, a Cross was erected in the temple of Potonchan, and our men first, kneeling, kissed and worshiped it, and after them the Indians.”
When ambassadors from Montezuma arrived bearing gifts, Cortés took the opportunity to preach to them through an interpreter.
Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a soldier who served with Cortés, recorded the scene:
“When Tendile and Pitalpitoque saw us thus kneeling, as they were very intelligent, they asked what was the reason that we humbled ourselves before a tree cut in that particular way. As Cortés heard this remark he said to the Padre de la Merced who was present:
“‘It is a good opportunity, father, as we have good material at hand, to explain through our interpreters matters touching our holy faith.’
“And then he delivered a discourse to the Caciques so fitting to the occasion that no good theologian could have bettered it. After telling them that we were Christians and relating all matters pertaining to our holy religion, he told them that their idols were not good but evil things which would take flight at the presence of the sign of the cross, for on a similar cross the Lord of Heaven and earth and all created things suffered passion and death; that it is He whom we adore and in whom we believe, our true God, Jesus Christ, who had been willing to suffer and die in order to save the whole human race; that the third day He rose again and is now in heaven; and that by Him we shall all be judged.
“Cortés said many other things very well expressed, which they would report them to their prince Montezuma. Cortés also told them that one of the objects for which our great Emperor had sent us to their country was to abolish human sacrifices and the other evil rites which they practiced.”
Meeting resistance with the Cempoallan tribe, a Spaniard suggested accommodating their practices. Cortés adamantly replied:
“How can we ever accomplish anything worth doing for the honor of God if we do not first abolish these sacrifices made to idols?”
Upon reaching Tenochitlan (Mexico City), Montezuma asked Cortés if he was the god Quetzalcoatl, who was predicted to return from the east as a white man with a beard and blue eyes, to stamp out human sacrifice and deliver the oppressed.
“It was true that we came from where the sun rose, and were the vassals and servants of a great Prince called the Emperor Don Carlos, who held beneath his sway many and great princes, and that the Emperor having heard of him and what a great prince he was, had sent us to these parts to see him, and to beg them to become Christians, the same as our Emperor and all of us, so that his soul and those of all his vassals might be saved.”
Montezuma was in awe of Cortés and his men, primarily because of the ominous portents and signs that had recently occurred which were interpreted as foretelling Quetzalcoatl’s return and the end of the Aztec Empire, namely:
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- water of the lake around Mexico City boiling over due to volcanic eruption
- unusual northern lights
- the temple of the sun god catching fire
- eerie wailing noises at night
- and the king’s sister revived from her grave saying strange beings would enter the country and ruin it.
Montezuma showed Cortés and his men their temples.
There was a theater made of human skulls and mortar, wherein Gonzalo de Umbria counted 136,000 skulls, which included those in the steps and on poles. A tower was made of skulls too numerous to count.
There were obsidian knives, stone altars, black-robed priests with hair matted down with human blood, idols with basins for human blood, walls and steps covered with human blood and gore, an idol made out of seeds kneaded and ground with the blood of virgins and babies, pits where the human bodies were thrown after people had eaten off the arms and legs.
Bernal Diaz del Castillo recorded:
“Our Captain said to Montezuma through our interpreter, half laughing:
“‘Señor Montezuma, I do not understand how such a great Prince and wise man as you are has not come to the conclusion, in your mind, that these idols of yours are not gods, but evil things that are called devils and so that you may know it and all your priests may see it clearly, do me the favor to approve of my placing a cross here on the top of this tower.'”
According to Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s account, Cortés discoursed with Montezuma further:
“We told them we were Christians and worshipped one true and only God, named Jesus Christ, who suffered death and passion to save us, and we told them that a cross (when they asked why we worshipped it) was a sign of the other Cross on which our Lord God was crucified for our salvation; and that the death and passion which he suffered was for the salvation of the whole human race, which was lost, and that this our God rose on the third day and is now in heaven, and it is He who made the heavens and the earth, the sea and the sands, and created all the things that are in the world, and He sends the rain and the dew, and nothing happens in the world without His holy will. That we believe in Him and worship Him; but that those whom they look upon as gods are not so, but are devils, which are worse, and they could see that they were evil and of little worth, for where we had set up crosses such as those his ambassadors had seen, they dared not appear before them, through fear of them, and that as time went on they would notice this…”
Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s account continued:
“Cortés explained to him very clearly about creation of the world, and how we are all brothers, sons of one father and one mother who were called Adam and Eve, and how such a brother as our great Emperor, grieving for the perdition of so many souls, such as those which their idols were leading to Hell, where they burn in living flames, had sent us, so that after what he (Montezuma) had now heard he would put a stop to it and they would no longer adore these idols or sacrifice Indian men and women to them, for we were all brethren, nor should they commit sodomy or thefts.
“He also told them that, in the course of time, our Lord and King would send some men among us who lead very holy lives, much better than we do, who will explain to them all about it, for at present we merely came to give them due warning. And so he prayed him to do what he was asked and carry it into effect.”
Cortés suddenly left for the coast when he got word that a Spanish expedition led by Narváez was sent to fight him.
Narváez had on his ship an African slave, Francisico de Baguia, and possibly some Cuban Indians, who were infected with smallpox.
During the fighting, Cortés’ men most likely came in contact with the disease, which they unsuspectingly brought back to Mexico City.
Cortés returned to find the city in chaos.
The troops Cortés had left in Mexico City panicked during a loud Aztec ceremony and fired a cannon into the crowd, killing many.
Cortés fought his way back into the palace and had Montezuma try to quell the uproar, but Aztec priests pelted Montezuma with rocks and he soon died.
Bernal Diaz del Castillo recalled:
“Cortés wept for him, and all of us Captains and soldiers, and there was no man among us who knew him and was intimate with him, who did not bemoan him as though he were our father, and it is not to be wondered at, considering how good he was.”
Cortés fought his way out of the city with great loss to his ranks, and fled back to the coast.
After several months of recovery, Cortés decided to mount a last final attack on Mexico City.
On December 26, 1520, Cortés addressed his force of 540 soldiers and 40 cavalry, who were armed with 80 crossbows and 9 muskets, saying:
“My brothers, I give many thanks to Jesus Christ to see you now cured of your wounds and free from sickness. I am glad to find you armed and eager to return to Mexico to avenge the deaths of your comrades and recover that great city. This, I trust in God, we shall soon do, because we have with us Tlazcala and many other provinces, and because you are who you are, and the enemies the same as they have been, and we shall do so for the Christian Faith that we proclaim…
“The principal reason for our coming to these parts is to glorify and preach the Faith of Jesus Christ… We cast down their idols, put a stop to their sacrificing and eating of men, and began to convert the Indians during the few days we were in Mexico. It is not fitting that we abandon all that good that we began, rather, we should go wherever our Faith and the sins of our enemies call us.
“They, indeed, deserve a great whipping and punishment, because, if you remember, the people of the city, not satisfied with killing an infinite number of men, women, and children in sacrifices to their gods (devils, rather), eat them afterward, a cruel thing, abhorrent to God and punished by Him, and one which all good men, especially Christians, abominate, forbid, and chastise.”
“Moreover, without penalty or shame, they commit that accursed sin because of which five cities, along with Sodom, were burned and destroyed. Well, then, what greater or better reward could one desire here on earth than to uproot these evils and plant the Faith among such cruel men, by proclaiming the Holy Gospel? Let us go, then, and serve God, honor our nation, magnify our King, and enrich ourselves, for the conquest of Mexico is all these things. Tomorrow, with the help of God, we shall begin.”
Cortés and his men returned to find Mexico City devastated by smallpox. The ill and weakened Aztecs were defeated and the great Aztec Empire fell.
Bernardino de Sahagún’s personal history of the conquest, completed in 1585, confirmed:
“Among the Mexicans who fell victim to this pestilence was the lord Cuitlahuactzin, who they had elected a little earlier. Many leaders, many veteran soldiers, and valiant men who were their defense in time of war, also died.”
Cortés captured the last Aztec ruler, Cuauhtémoc, and then personally ruled Mexico until 1524.
Lack of immunity resulted in an estimated one-half of the indigenous population dying.
Though greedy conquistadors motivated by gold treated native people harshly, there were missionaries motivated by the gospel, such as Bartolome’ de las Casas, who sincerely cared for the condition of Indians.
In 1531, on Tepeyac Hill outside of the former Aztec capitol of Mexico City, the story of Indian Juan Diego and “Our Lady of Guadalupe” resulted in an estimate 15 million Indians being baptized in the next 20 years in what many consider the largest mass conversion in history.
Cortés traveled back and forth to Spain, and even joined a fleet in 1541, commanded by Andrea Doria, to fight the infamous Muslim Turkish Barbary pirate Barbarossa of Algiers.
Cortés died in Mexico on DECEMBER 2, 1547.
Driven by the mixed motives of “God, Glory and Gold,” Cortés had inscribed on his coat of arms the Latin phrase:
“Judicium Domini apprehendit eos, et fortitudo ejus corroboravit bracchium meum.
(The judgement of the Lord overtook them; His might strengthened my arm.)”
Photo Credit: loc.gov
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