Emotions, Ethics, Existentialism, Friendship, General U.S. History, History, Identity, Life, Philosophy, Racism, Thoughts, Utilitarianism

Cortes, Diaz, and Emotions: Comparing Texts for Feelings & Legitimacy

I did an essay a year or so ago for my Senior Seminar History class and I decided to revise, edit and post it here. This is my contribution to the History of Emotions.

Determining the ethics of actions taken by humans is a challenge and narrowing it down to intentions, helps it seem less complex. Judging the intentions of individuals can become problematic in and of itself though, when something like a mission of exploration evolves itself into a mission of domination. In Hernan Cortes’ Letters from Mexico, he chronicles his experiences to King Charles V during his voyage (and eventual acquisition) into never-before-seen territory. In these letters, Cortes repeatedly demonstrates sympathy, albeit in a condescending manner, for the native Aztecs and therefore, is his reason in his appeal to Charles V for conquering this newly “discovered” land. This is somewhat echoed by Bernal Diaz in his memoirs, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, many years later in his text. Moreover, Diaz is given an opportunity to correct the misconstrued accounts of previous historians that Cortes was indeed, altruistic in his endeavors. Nevertheless, by examining both the texts, emotions of patronizing compassion in evangelizing the Aztec natives as well as emotions of fear used to inspire the native population to convert and that in turn, assisted in the manipulation of some natives to go against their own groups, are what performed a crucial role in the “true” conquest of Mexico.

In 1519, when Cortes first made his voyage, it is important to note that he was acting upon his own volition when establishing a settlement in Mexico. His original task was essentially to search for a Grijalva’s fleet and locate any of the allied Christians who were held captive as commanded by his superior, the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velasquez. Additionally, Cortes was “authorized to explore and to trade, but had no permission to colonize.”[1] Yet, for whatever reason Cortes, decided to venture off and go against Velasquez in pursuit of what would subsequently be known as, Mexico. In doing so, he knew that this would enable Velasquez to have Cortes prosecuted, therefore Cortes had to take drastic measures in how he approached things to King Charles V as well as having Velazquez “painted in the darkest colours as a man consumed by greed and personal interest, whereas Cortes himself emerges as the faithful servant of the Spanish Crown and a staunch upholder of the common wealth.”[2]

              Cortes’ first letter to King Charles V discusses in great detail, the local customs of the indigenous people. Most significantly, the act of sacrifice, which according to Cortes is

a most horrid and abominable custom which truly ought to be punished and which until now we have seen in no other part…whenever they wish to ask something of the idols, in order that their plea may find more acceptance, they take many girls and boys and even adults, in the presence of the idols they open their chests while they are still alive and take out their hearts and entrails and burn them before the idols, offering the smoke as sacrifice.[3]

The amount of disdain Cortes possesses for sacrifice is clear. In subsequent sentences, Cortes appeals to the king that if the natives were taught “the True Faith, many of them, and perhaps even all, would soon renounce their false beliefs and come to the true knowledge of God.”[4] The significance of this statement illustrates the correlation between two emotions, where Cortes displays utter abhorrence for a cultural practice, that is unnatural to him, while simultaneously demonstrating a sort of optimism in his ability to “rehabilitate” them.

              For the sake of argument, one can assume that the aforementioned report, seemed to be coming from a genuine place; it is later revealed in the second letter, that the indigenous people were not ready for change as Cortes once expected. “I had taken [the idols] from their places and thrown them down the steps…and I had images of Our Lady and of other saints put there, which caused Mutezuma and other natives some sorrow.”[5] Taking into consideration that Idolatry was not considered unusual during their time and human sacrifice “by the time the Spaniards arrived it had become a common practice throughout Mesoamerica.” Unapologetically, the idea of cultural relativism has not surfaced the minds of these “explorers”. Thus explaining why in a paternalistic matter, “[he] made them understand…how deceived they were in placing their trust in those idols which they had made with their hands from unclean things.”    

              Still, Cortes maintains this attitude of what he believes to be, compassion, especially when he learns of Panfilo de Narvaez, a soldier of Diego Velasquez, being sent to apprehend him and “leave the people of this land in complete freedom.”[6] Yet Cortes has already made his mark with the Native people as their savior so it is unsurprising that Cortes would disclose to the King

the disservice which he was doing to Your Highness…I was very diligent in my obedience and, therefore, until [the conquest] was done, I would not be persuaded by bribes to do as they asked, for I, and those who were with me, would rather die in defense of the land which we had won and now held in subjection for Your Majesty than be disloyal or traitors to our king.[7]

With that, not only does Cortes manage to conceal his chagrin at the thought of Diego Velazquez hindering his chances of acquiring wealth. But he also successfully makes Velazquez seem incompetent in his false inferencw. Bernal Diaz pursues to take Cortes’ side against Velazquez and even show him to be constantly apprehensive of his men and especially “was always distrustful of Cortes, although he concealed his fears.”[8]

              Inadvertently, Cortes attests to the terror he brought amongst the natives, to be notorious when he criticizes Narvaez for the “great harm which was being stirred up…in revolt because of Narvaez.” Cortes continues, “It seemed to me that if I went to where [Narvaez] was the country would, in great part, become calm, for the Indians would not dare to rebel once they had seen me”[9] Thereby, contradicting emotions of compassion for the Aztecs in his blatant appeal to the King by showing how Cortes negligently has established himself as this daunting figure that the Aztecs would essentially stop causing a ruckus simply at the sight of his presence. And, going back to an earlier statement, he explains why it was out of the question for them to cease their mission now “for fear that once I had done so, the inhabitants would rebel and I would lose all the gold, the jewels, and even the city itself.”[10] 

              It is unimaginable that the inspired fear amongst the native population is to be done alone. Cortes states multiple times of the different groups of Aztec’s inclination to have the companionship of Cortes and his men. Although because of the ostensible rivalry against different groups, it becomes problematic to determine which group can be trusted and which group is more subversive.  Cortes is able to, in a Machiavellian manner, take advantage of the preconceived notions the different groups had against one another to manipulate them.[11]

When I saw the discord and animosity between these two peoples I was not a little pleased, for it seemed to further my purpose considerably; consequently, I might have the opportunity of subduing them more quickly, for as the saying goes, ‘divided they fall’…so I maneuvered one against the other and thanked each side for their warnings and told each that I held his friendship to be of more worth than the other’s.[12]

The correlation in Cortes’ ability to beguile the Aztecs by fear is almost overstated, “messengers arrived from the chieftains saying that they wished to be vassals of Your Highness and my friends; and they begged me to forgive them for what they had done.”[13] And his dismissive absolution, naturally follows as a response: “I replied that they had done wrong, but that I was content to be their friend and to forgive what they had done.”[14]

It is wordings such as this, that make Cortes’ letters a challenge for readers to figure out Cortes as a person. Ambiguity seems to be his watchword even with Moctezuma as he describes to the King in his manner of how Moctezuma essentially handed Cortes his wealth by disclosing him of a prophetic tale being fulfilled:

Because of the place from which you claim to come, namely from where the sun rises, and the things you tell us of the great lord or king who sent you here, we believe and are certain that he is our natural lord…So be assured that we shall obey you and hold you as our lord in place of that great sovereign of whom you speak; and this there should be no offense or betrayal whatsoever. And in all the land that lies in my domain, you may command as you will, for you shall be obeyed; and all that we own is for you to dispose of as you choose.[15]

Because the prophecy which Moctezuma is referring to is mythical and the terminology used by Moctezuma seems farfetched, scholars make the claim that Cortes made up the words himself.[16] And Cortes, by responding with, what one could infer is, uniformed consent in his description of the events to the King, only provides more evidence to this claim: “I replied to all he said as I thought most fitting, especially in making believe that Your Majesty was he whom they were expecting”[17] As a result of the many ambiguous description of events, as well as adverse emotions being implemented,  “it is hard to avoid the impression that Cortes was drawing all his very considerable reserves of imagination in order to for Charles V a solemn and spectacular picture of a scene may never have occurred.”[18]

              Cortes does have a way with words but the emotions in “his letters have a kind of flat affect when compared to Diaz del Castillo’s”[19] Which could most likely be a result of how Diaz viewed a former chaplain of Hernan Cortes, Francisco Lopez de Gomara’s publication of the voyage of the New World. Ironically, Gomara had never actually been to the New World, yet because of

 its polished style and clarity of diction made [Diaz] keenly conscious of his own literary deficiencies but, as an eye witness of so many events narrated, its alleged inaccuracies incensed him. [Therefore,] in colloquial, rather than refined language and with a reading experience largely limited to the currently popular romances of chivalry to guide him in form and organization, he plunged into the liveliest and [gossipiest]composition that the Spanish Conquest offers.[20]

Bernal Diaz, in his own words, attempts to disprove any trace of paternalism; maintaining that Cortes acted in accordance of “the grace of God” and that the natives came to them with open arms, although, the statements contradict one another (just like Cortes) when emotions are taken into account. According to Diaz, the Spaniards under the command of Cortes were willing to reciprocate this evangelical compromise with the Aztecs, on the condition that “they must get rid of those idols which they believed in and worshipped, and which kept them in darkness, and must no longer offer sacrifices to them…then our bonds of brotherhood would be most firmly tied.”[21]

By taking a closer look, one can make the argument that the idea of human sacrifices did not seem to antagonize Diaz, in the same manner it did to Cortes. Instead, it would be safe to say that Diaz’s feelings for human sacrifice were that it nauseated him more than he despised it: “Every day we saw sacrificed before us three, four or five [natives] whose hearts were offered to the idols and their blood plastered on the walls, and the feet, arms and legs of the victims were cut off and eaten, just as in our country we eat beef brought from the butchers.”[22]  The reader can see the mirrored expressions of irrational irritation, as previously seen by Cortes, when Diaz explains their reactions to receiving hesitant responses to cease their traditional ways because “when Cortes and all of us who had seen so many cruelties and infamies which I have mentioned heard that disrespectful answer, we could not stand it.”[23]

  With that, Diaz takes a contradictory approach. Yet again, he seems to attest that while there was some resistance among the native inhabitants, there were certain attributes that the Spaniards had that made the Natives slightly intimidated. One example, would be the ability the Spaniards had in taming their horses. The way Diaz tells the story, seems as though the natives had never seen such an animal before, and once “the horse began to paw the ground and neigh and become wild with excitement, looking all the time towards the Indians…the Caciques thought [the horse] was roaring at them and they were terrified.” Diaz continues by having Cortes essentially put their fears to rest but almost in a conniving way. “When Cortes observed their state of mind, he rose from his seat and went to the horse…and said to the Indians that he told the horse not to be angry as they were friendly and wished to make peace.”[24]

              To reiterate, the preceding example used seems juvenile but was purposefully chosen in an effort to exacerbate the amount of superiority the Spaniards felt they had against the Native population.  A darker example from Diaz, would be based on how “smooth” the transition between religious ideologies by Cortes and his men makes the idea apocryphal. Granted, Cortes makes it a point to mention “some sorrow” but by simply reading that, one would be under the impression that Cortes was able to empathize with the Aztecs. Diaz, perhaps unintentionally, disproves that theory by mentioning how while the Natives were protesting, “the words were hardly out of their mouths before more than fifty of us soldiers had clambered up [to the temple] and had thrown down their idols which came rolling down the steps shattered to pieces.”[25] That being said, it is inarguable to say that sorrow did not come from simply by paternalistic compassion, as so eloquently explained by Cortes, but rather, emotions of terror resulting in forceful conversion, thereby eliminating any sense of resistance.

 It is apparent in the numerous times Cortes brings up how the Aztecs demonstrate an apologetic feeling as a response to the terror instilled by Cortes, to where Cortes replies with clemency. Diaz, on the other hand, fails to share the same sentiments Cortes has in their ability to change their ways: “Cortes and all of us saw such great cruelty, [Cortes] showed that he was very angry with the Caciques of Tlaxcala, and they promised that from that time forth they would not kill and eat Indians in that way.” Diaz continues, “I said [to myself] of what benefit were all those promises? For as soon as we turned our heads they would commit the same cruelties.”[26] With this sentence, he repudiates any sense of altruism, on his part because despite the meaning of altruism, unconditional generosity, there is a transparency in the demand for reciprocity. “The important thing to remember about reciprocity is that whenever there is a time delay between the giving of a favor and the return of a favor, there is a danger of exploitation.”[27]

  In subsequent pages, Diaz reiterates his discontent with the Aztecs by saying how “The Great [Moctezuma] always showed good will to us, but he never ceased his sacrifices at which human beings were killed, and Cortes tried to dissuade him from this but met with no success.”[28] The pressure Cortes and Diaz are placing upon the Aztecs in converting at one point become too much for Moctezuma to handle and he asks Cortes “I pray you not to say another word to their dishonor”[29] Cortes is unfazed by this and continues to press Moctezuma to heed his cautions “I wish you to know that all my companions and these captains who are with me have come to beg you to give them leave to remove the gods from your temple and put our Lady Santa Maria and a cross in their place, and, if you will not give them leave now, they will go and remove them, and I would not like them to kill any priests.”[30]Because there is an exorbitant amount of stress being placed by Cortes and Diaz in their desire for Moctezuma and the Aztecs in general to cease their traditional beliefs, the reader can see that the genuine altruism fading.

The emotional mechanisms that lead to people to return favors that they have received are variously referred to as gratitude, obligation, or guilt. [And] often we can persuade people that we have helped them when we really haven’t. Or we can persuade them that the favor we did for them was much greater than it actually was.[31]

Recanting the introductory sentence of this essay, Kant states that, “in law, a man is guilty when he violates the rights of others. In ethics he is guilty if he only thinks of doing so.” After careful examination of the texts by Bernal Diaz and Hernan Cortes, ever-present conflicting emotions of pretentious benevolence and fearful manipulation performed a fundamental role in “the conquest of Mexico, which was as much a political as a military operation, and one conducted simultaneously against [the] Aztec emperor and the governor of Cuba.”[32] In spite of Cortes’ claims to King Charles V of amicable service towards the native people combined with extravagant jewels and gifts, it only shows how Hernan Cortes, “long[ed] for the wealth that will enable him to crash the barriers of the social hierarchy, and bask in the pleasures enjoyed by the titled and the rich; and his chosen weapons for achieving this ambition were the same as theirs.”[33] And despite Diaz’s best efforts of literary vigor, he has been unable to convince this writer on the inability of previous writers of the Spanish Conquest to capture the true altruistic nature of Cortes.

-Mr. Writer

Originally Written on the 5th of December, 2016  


Bernal Diaz, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521, trans. Irving A. Leonard (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1956)

Francis J. Brooks, Motecuzoma Xocoyotl, Hernan Cortes, and Bernal Diaz Del Castillo: The Construction of an Arrest. The Hispanic American Historical Review 75.2 (1995): 149-83. JSTOR. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.

Hernan Cortes, Letters from Mexico, trans. Anthony Padgen (with Introduction by J.H. Elliot) (Yale University Press, 1986)

Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics: The Works of Immanuel Kant, trans. Peter Heath, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 192

J.H. Elliot, Introduction to Letters from Mexico by Hernan Cortes, trans. Anthony Padgen, New Hampshire: Yale University press, 1986

  1. H. Elliott, The Mental World of Hernan Cortes. (Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 17) (1967): 41-58. JSTOR. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

Joel Rudinow, Manipulation. Ethics 88.4 (1978): 338-47. JSTOR. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.

Paul D. Allison, How Culture Induces Altruistic Behavior (1992): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. 3 Dec. 2016. <http://statisticalhorizons.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/AltruCult.pdf>.

Susan Kellogg. Nahuas, Emotions, and Conquest: Rereading Early Colonial Texts for Feelings. N.p., n.d. Print. 27 Oct. 2016.

[1] J.H. Elliot, Cortes, Velazquez, and Charles V, xiii; Introduction to Letters from Mexico (Hernan Cortes) trans., Anthony Padgen

[2] Ibid, 60

[3] Padgen, 35

[4] Cortes, 36

[5] Ibid, 106

[6] Ibid, 122

[7] Ibid, 123-124

[8] Bernal Diaz. The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, trans. Irving A. Leonard, 33

[9] Cortes, 119

[10] Cortes, 118

[11] Joel Rudinow, Ethics, 346; Rudinow states that: “To describe some piece of behavior as manipulative is usually to diagnose or interpret it, to say of the behavior something which calls for support by reference to details of the history and contextual surroundings of the behavior.”

[12] Cortes, 69-70

[13] Ibid, 60

[14] Ibid, 60

[15] Ibid, 86

[16]  J.H. Elliot, Mental World of Hernan Cortes, 51; Elliot states: It is “in [Cortes’] account of the confrontation with Montezuma that Cortes’ powers of imagination and invention are revealed at their best.”

[17] Cortes, 98

[18] Elliot, 52

[19] Susan Kellogg, Nahuas, Emotion, and Conquest, 20

[20] Leonard, trans., The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico (Diaz), xvi

[21] Diaz, 102

[22] Ibid, 102

[23] Ibid, 103

[24] Ibid, 60

[25] Ibid, 104

[26] Ibid, 160

[27] Paul Allison, How Culture Induces Altruistic Behavior, 6

[28] Diaz, 251

[29] Diaz, 221

[30] Ibid, 251-252

[31] Allison, 6

[32] Elliot, 51

[33] Ibid, 50

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