Illustration of Hernan Cortes the conquistador leading his army to conquer Mexico.

The Legend of Hernan Cortes & His Ships

Hernán Cortés was the Spanish conquistador who led the expedition that toppled the Méxica empire. The Méxica was the group of Aztecs who ruled over the land now known as Mexico. When he first arrived, there’s a legend that he burned his ships to prevent his men from retreating. That’s not true. His plan was more devious than that. Here’s what really happened.

Slashes made by an enraged barbarian fabulist.

In the early 16th century, the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, began making plans to conquer Mexico. He sent out two expeditions to scout the coast, neither of which returned. He knew he needed to send a larger force with a cleverer captain, but not too clever, for Velázquez wanted to keep the lion’s share of the glory for himself.

Hernán Cortés, a wealthy magistrate, offered to contribute funds to the third expedition on the condition that he would be the one to lead it. Cortés had a reputation for being overly ambitious, and Velázquez was hesitant to give him command. Velázquez hesitantly appointed him captain, then quickly changed his mind. However, Cortés knew Velázquez to be a fickle man, so he had set sail before the news of his demotion could reach him.

Cortés arrived on the Eastern shores of Mexico with 500 men armed with horses, guns, armour, and canons. They were greeted by the native Totonac people, who told tales of the golden city of Tenochtitlán, ruled by the fearsome Méxica, savage conquerors who worshipped gods of war and sacrifice. The Totonac people told of how barbaric Aztec warriors had invaded from the north, flaying the indigenous peoples alive, tearing their beating hearts from their chests, eating their organs, and wearing their skin. Cortés saw an opportunity in their terror.

Cortés was the captain of a scouting expedition, nothing more. His men knew this, and upon hearing these horror stories of the Méxica, they were eager to keep close to the shore, build tall walls to hide behind, and return to Cuba as soon as possible. Cortés had much grander plans. He wished to conquer all of Mexico. But for his plan to work, he would need the unwavering commitment of his men.

Late one night, under a moonless sky, Cortés had a few of his most trusted men bore holes in the hulls of his ships. When dawn broke, his soldiers awoke to the sight of their ships sinking slowly into the ocean. Cortés explain how the ships had been ravaged by shipworms and could no longer make the return voyage home. They were trapped in Mexico.

With no choice but to continue onwards, his men salvaged their supplies from the ships and used the timber to construct fortifications. Steeling themselves against the nightmarish visions of blood-soaked altars, frenzied cannibal feasts, and the relentless onslaught of Aztec warriors, the men vowed to fight for their lives, for glory, and for the promise of untold riches.

The tyranny of the Méxica empire had created many enemies among the subjugated indigenous groups. Cortés took advantage of their fear and anger. He rallied them together as he marched towards Tenochtitlán, hacking their way through dense jungles filled with poisonous snakes and insects, marching over treacherous mountains where icy winds blackened their fingers and toes, and stumbling across arid deserts where the sun burned their skin from their bodies.

With no ships to retreat to, Cortés and his men had no choice but to press forward for God, for Glory, and for Gold.

Juan Artola Miranda

I am Juan Artola Miranda, a fabulist living in the Mexican Caribbean. My friends know me by the name of my father's father, but that name grew into something bigger, my writing reaching tens of millions of readers. It was too strong for me to control. Artola Miranda is the name of my mother's mother. It's a better name for a fabulist.

Leave a Comment