The Spanish conquest of Mexico led by Cortes

The history of the conquest of Mexico is the history of Cortes, who was its very soul. He was a typical knight-errant; more than this, he was a great commander. There is probably no instance in history where so vast an enterprise has been achieved by means apparently so inadequate. He may be truly said to have effected the conquest by his own resources. It was the force of his genius that obtained command of the co-operation of the Indian tribes.

He arrested the arm that was lifted to smite him, and made it do battle in his behalf. When his own men deserted him, he did not desert himself. He brought together the most miscellaneous collection of mercenaries who ever fought under one standard--men with hardly a common tie, and burning with the spirit of jealousy and faction; wild tribes of the natives also, who had been sworn enemies from their cradles. Yet this motley congregation was assembled in one camp, to breathe one spirit and to move on a common principle of action.

As regards the whole character of his enterprise, which seems to modern eyes a bloody and at first quite unmerited war waged against the Indian nations, it must be remembered that Cortes and his soldiers fought in the belief that their victories were the victories of the Cross, and that any war resulting in the conversion of the enemy to Christianity, even as by force, was a righteous and meritorious war. This consideration dwelt in their minds, mingling, indeed, with the desire for glory and for gain, but without any doubt influencing them powerfully.

This is, at any rate, one of the clues to this extraordinary chapter of history, so full of suffering and bloodshed, and also of unsurpassed courage and heroism on every side.

Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I