Conquistador your stallion stands in need of company
And like some angel’s haloed brow
You reek of purity
I see your armor plated breast
Has long since lost its sheen
And in your death mask face
There are no signs which can be seen
And though I hoped for something to find
I could see no maze to unwind
Conquistador a vulture sits, upon your silver sheath
And in your rusty scabbard now, the sand has taken seed
And though your jewel-encrusted blade
Has not been plundered still
The sea has washed across your face
And taken of its fill
And though I hoped for something to find
I could see no maze to unwind
Conquistador there is no time, I must pay my respects
And though I came to jeer at you
I leave now with regret
And as the gloom begins to fall
I see there is no aureole
Though you came with sword held high
You did not conquer, only die

Procol Harum

Madrid’s new exhibition, “The Route of Hernán Cortés” takes on the controversial Cortés, his character and what actually happened in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. There are over 400 astonishing artifacts on display, many never shown before in Spain, brought together by a team of more than 40 national and international museums mainly from the Spanish-speaking world. Happily, this excellent exhibit promotes no particular agenda, focusing instead on a straightforward, well-documented account of Cortés and his bold ventures in the New World.

By Teresa Limjoco

Hernán Cortés was a man whose very bones were controversial. Three centuries after his death, in the aftermath of the independence of México in 1823, there were fears that his body would be desecrated.  The conquistador’s bones were quickly hidden; it was generally believed they had been sent out of México.

It was not until 1946 that they were rediscovered, thanks to the unearthing of a secret document. Cortés’ remains were restored by supporters of the Hispanic tradition in Mexico, this time with a bronze inscription and his coat of arms.

However, the controversy raged on. One supporter of an indigenist vision of Mexico “proposed that the remains be publicly burned in front of the statue of (the Indian) Cuauhtemoc, and the ashes flung into the air.”1

Step into the Age of Discovery

It is nearly impossible for those of us born in an age of comfort to imagine these early voyages, but  today’s museum visitor can get a sense of the experience of traveling inside a 16th century caravel crossing the Atlantic.

Spanish caravels held several hundred men, sixteen horses, a few cannon, crossbows, and matchlock rifles. A mock-up of a caravel interior in the exhibit depicts the rough ocean waters with animated waves projected against a pitch-dark night sky, and the sounds of creaking wood, thunder and splashing water complete the illusion.

I marveled especially at the actual letters written by Cortés to the Spanish Crown, and an early printed copy of Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s “Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España”, the first historical account of Cortés’ exploits.  A 1555 “Vocabulario en la lengua castellana y mexicana” (Castilian-Mexican Dictionary), compiled by Friar Alonso de Molina is available.  Finally, there is the “Leyes de Indias” (“Laws of the Indies”) published in 1596. In this authorized publication of the Spanish Crown, the rights of Indians were defined and codified, fully a quarter century before the Pilgrims made landfall in North America.

Human sacrifice and bloody religion

In the New World today – though not in Spain — academics hold Cortés responsible for bringing peonage and disease to the Aztecs, whose culture is by contrast extolled for its purported advanced organization and technical knowledge.

However, as the exhibit makes clear, life in that milieu was not exactly blissful.  The blunt truth is that the Aztec belief system required human sacrifice to appease their gods; their religion was a ravenous beast that required feeding. As many as several thousand lives — tens of thousands by some accounts — could be offered up in just one feast day. 

Among the artifacts at the Madrid exhibit are those used in bloody Aztec religious rites. A copy of the headdress of Moctezuma stands out with its brilliant green feathers. A striking example of a knife used in the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice, wherein victims would be painted and placed on a slab where their heart would be cut out and held up to the sun.  Their bodies would be discarded down the stairs of the temple pyramid and later fed to zoo animals. 2

Amid a wooden frame structure that replicates such a pyramid, there is the reconstructed tzompantli (altar) of Tecoaque that is especially chilling: four wooden poles set in a vertical array, impaled with two to four human skulls each. Of the female skulls, five have been identified to be of European origin, one is Mayan, and one is a mulatta (a female born to one white and one black parent). All were ritually murdered.

As this exhibit makes clear, it was from this ghastly, diabolical system of belief and practice that the Aztec people were delivered by Cortés and his combined army of Spanish conquistadors and natives. 

Because of the controversial undertakings of Cortés, the scarcity of contemporaneous reliable sources of information and the subsequent politicization of his legacy, it has become problematic to assert anything definitive about his personality and motivations. But the facts speak for themselves.

Politically, Cortés was a rough and proud man, a risk-taker who disobeyed his superiors in Spain when it suited him. There is a story about which has him chiding a negligent Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who pretended not to know him, saying “I am the man who brought you more lands than your ancestors left you cities.”

Cortés also initiated the construction of what is now Mexico City, destroying Aztec temples and buildings and then rebuilding on the Aztec ruins, especially the great Cathedral of Mexico (first erected in the early 16th century and made grander during the reign King Philip II).   His expeditions brought agriculture and livestock breeding, as well as shipbuilding to New Spain.

Cortés founded new cities and appointed men to extend Spanish rule to all of New Spain, imposing the encomienda system in 1524. He reserved encomiendas for himself and his retinue, which antagonized later arrivals and factions antipathetic to Cortés.

CORTÉS & DOÑA MARINDA NEGOTIATE WITH THE AZTECS: Cortés was a serial womanizer who fathered children with a variety of indigenous women, including a ‘ Doña Marinda’ who acted as interpreter in his dealings with the Aztecs.  Accused though never prosecuted for the death of his first wife, a Spaniard, he married again and fathered more children. However, he left every one of his children provided for, and even petitioned the Church to remove their ‘natural’ (illegitimate) status.

Cortés was, above all, a Catholic. Concerned about successfully evangelizing the natives, he asked the King to send friars, particularly from mendicant orders, to New Spain. He did not want secular priests, whom he considered too corrupted by vice. He even advised the King to ask the Pope to grant to the Franciscan and Dominican friars the power to perform all the Sacraments so as to ease the conversion of the natives

Cortés and the Black Legend

The negative aspects of Cortés’ actions would spawn what would become known as the Black Legend (“La leyenda negra”). This was a campaign by European colonial powers — France, Holland, Germany and England — to malign Spanish expansionism. 

Today observers point out that Spain’s empire-building was akin to that of the Roman Empire. Not primarily utilitarian — as was the mercantile colonialism practiced by other European countries — but more about politics and culture. 

Certainly gold and glory lured the Spanish to the New World and beyond, but it is clear that Cortés and his monarchs also wished sincerely to bring the Catholic faith to all the peoples they encountered.

The exploration of unknown lands, after all, was first conceived by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, through their support of Christopher Columbus’ voyages in the previous century.  Their descendants remained earnest in their desire to spread the faith and felt it part of their mission to seek the salvation of souls. Such may seem an impossibly quaint notion in our more cynical world, but this was demonstrably a most serious matter to them. 

Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from this exemplary exhibit was the first, truly meaningful interactions between the New and Old Worlds — a mix that would enrich music and art, science, botany, industry and mining.  With the Manila galleon trade that reached as far as China and Japan, and the Mexican “duro” (silver coin) becoming the first universally circulated currency, the Spanish indeed had sown the first seeds of a truly global civilization.

The exhibition runs through May 3, 2015.  Address: Paseo de la Castellana, 214, Madrid. Metro stop: Plaza de Castilla. 

Visit the official website.


‘Itinerario de  Hernán Cortés’. Guia de la Exposición. Centro de Exposiciones Arte Canal, 2014.

1 Benjamin Keen, The Aztecs Image in Western Thought, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 1971


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