The Machiavellian Conquest of New Spain
Having participated in a proverbial game of chess against a foreign opponent, the Conquistadors had to be cautious in their approach and adapt to the warfare of strategic trickery practiced by the Aztecs. As Machiavelli exclaimed in his novel, The Prince, there is a necessity for a leader to adjust to each given situation with the awareness of all potential vulnerabilities to his province or himself. Through confrontations with both the indigenous Aztec princes, Montezuma and Guatemoc, and internal quarallels from his own superior Diego Velazquez, Hernan Cortes, waged an uphill battle to continue his expedition into Mexico, as well as to retain his position of leadership. Savvy to the treacherous on-goings around himself and his forces, Cortes plunged into the heart of battle, but Cortes harbored a predilection to forgo any bloodshed. These propensities demonstrated by Cortes are indicative of Machiavellian characteristics, but Cortes showcases some discrepancies in his character, which may be construed to counter Cortes as an ideal Machiavellian model. These discrepancies are presented in Cortes’ ambiguous intentions, whether they are to salvage gold (for personal greed or in name of his Majesty) or establish a Christian society, is chronicled in Bernal Diaz’s The Conquest of New Spain.
Exhibiting the traits of the Machiavellian fox and lion, Cortes bursts with the tenacity of the lion during battle to frighten off wolves (potential assailants), but Cortes has enough restraint to examine his surroundings for these wolves before moving forward as the fox would do (, PG 68). Even when Hernan Cortes is first introduced as commander of the expedition, Diaz acknowledges the intensity of Cortes’ aura: “[Cortes] was not only enterprising but knew how to command and inspire fear” (, PG 45). These abilities attributed to Cortes are important to a successful leader as Machiavelli claims there to be “two ways of fighting: by means of law, by means of force” (, PG 68). A slight irony arises in this analysis. While fighting against a horde of Indians, Cortes’ horsemen arrived as the cavalry, and they descended upon the Indians, who believed the horse and men to be one and the same because they had never seen a horse (, PG 76). The Indians retreated out of bewilderment and the overwhelming introduction of the horsemen. Cortes’ tactical advantage over the Indians was short-lived as the Indians discovered the horse to be a terrestrial, mortal creature. The power of these horsemen is ironic in the Machiavellian sense due to Machiavelli’s reference of Chiron the centaur as the tutor of the princes of yesteryear (, PG 68). The slyness of Cortes as a fox may be seen in more than this tactical trickery, which Diaz acknowledged at the beginning of their expedition. Allegedly, Cortes slithered his way into Diego Velazquez’s good grace through misleading circumstances, and Cortes sought to conduct his agenda despite what Diego Velazquez’s intentions were. These accusations against the character of Cortes led Diego Velazquez to commission two messengers to arrest Cortes. This logic ran contrary to what had transpired in Cortes’ actions since the departure though; Diego de Ordaz had corroborated Cortes’ character as loyal to Diego Velazquez, although, doing otherwise would be to easily attained as Diego Velazquez had treated the important men among Cortes’ command less than fair, specifically with the proportions of Indians granted to them (, PG 52). Whether or not Cortes had attained command of the expedition under false pretenses is a moot point, the importance the controversy demonstrated is the magnitude of prestige Cortes commanded in such a short amount of time. Cortes had strong allies to protect his name and being. This protection was not always necessary:
As soon as Cortes saw that we were capturing bridges, causeways, and barricades in the city and destroying the houses, he ordered three Mexican captains, men of importance whom we had captured, to go to Guatemoc and induce him to make peace (, PG 392-3).
In the midst of a rising Aztec rebellion against Guatemoc, successor to Montezuma, and knowledge that Guatemoc’s supplies were drastically diminishing, Cortes wished to hasten what he predicted to be an eventual victory. To the chagrin of Cortes, this proposition for peace was met with a surprise assault upon approaching the city of Xochimilco. Due to the ferocity of the assault, Cortes and the army had to ready themselves for a what was certain be a long battle against warriors “like brave lions who hoped to carry us off” (, PG 395). In this particular statement by Diaz, Machiavelli’s lion may be caught engaging in combat against another lion. Ultimately, Cortes and his company of men captured Guatemoc and Guatemoc’s captains on August 13th, 1521 (, PG 403). As Machiavelli states, “a prince ought to be a fox in recognizing snares,” as it is not enough to be ferocious in nature (, PG 68). Guatemoc’s misgiving led to the fall of Aztec empire. Since Cortes had the aptitude to determine when it was appropriate to warrant a peaceful resolution or send his army forward, Machiavelli would likely appreciate Cortes as a contestant for an ideal prince. Having made this supposition, what Cortes’ character illustrates to be Machiavellian is held in contempt by some of his political pursuits with the Aztecs.
Venturing to the future territories of New Spain, these Conquistadors’ colonization was wrought with a crafty and unexpected opposition from his fellow Spaniards. Cortes, while wise, was also fallible, and his leadership would falter at times. Even worse, it would become questionable, as with his execution of capturing Montezuma. After trying to persuade Montezuma to leave as their prisoner for an undisclosed amount of time, Juan Velazquez, kinsman to Diego Velazquez and self-acknowledge favourite of Cortes, became anxious and started arguing with Cortes, “’What is the use of all these words? Either we take him or we knife him. If we do not look after ourselves now we shall be dead men’” (, PG 246). The argument, while threatening Cortes’ authority as commander, assisted in convincing Montezuma to accompanying Cortes on the grounds that Montezuma believed his life was threatened, but Montezuma did not yet fully believe that his captivity was a fair resolution. Through Cortes’ insistence of the gravity the discussed situation bore (Montezuma’s captains had assaulted several of Cortes’ men), Montezuma finally conceded to leave his temple as Cortes’ captive because it was the only peaceful way to resolve the debate. Despite the objection of Juan Velazquez, discussion proved necessary for a friendly compromise; “He showed no resentment at being detained” (, PG 247). While this internal strife is light in comparison to what opposition the Aztecs brought against Cortes, Diego Velazquez provided ample amounts of obstacles for Cortes to traverse. As referenced earlier, Diego had authorized the arrest of Cortes, however, this was done more than on just one occasion. Diego Velazquez had ordered Panfilo de Narvaez capture Cortes and his men (, PG 128). The animosity between Diego Velazquez and Cortes evolved into vulnerability; in what appeared to be a coup d’état, the Mexican assault against one of Cortes’ captains, Pedro de Alvarado, which may have been due to two reasons: the wished to free Montezuma, or “that Narvaez’ message to Montezuma that he was coming to release him and capture [Cortes and his men]” (, PG 285). By means of implementing long copper-tipped lances to compete against Narvaez’ horsemen, Cortes was able to clinch victory over Narvaez (, PG 282). This tactical offense had not been the only attributing factor to victory; through bribery and flattery, Narvaez’s men were lured to join Cortes. Although Cortes had been in contest with his fellow Spaniards, by strategically tackling the opposition in a vulnerable area, Cortes was able to keep the stability of his authority in Mexico. This tactic exercised by Cortes is one that parallels that of Machiavelli’s examination of Darius:
Now, if you consider the nature of Darius’ government you will find it similar to that of the Turkish monarchy. Therefore it was necessary that Alexander make an all-out attack and deprive Darius of the field. After this victory, Darius then being dead, the state remained securely in Alexander’s hands, for the reasons already given (, PG 27).
This excerpt demonstrated the necessity to remove Diego Velazquez as the de facto leader of the expedition to allow for more control and mobility of Cortes’ trek through Mexico. Cortes commanded an army with little to no internal contention to his position following the defeat of Narvaez, which became more evident with the acquisition of his own fifth of the riches discovered (as the King had also reserved a fifth).
While the keen, animalistic aptitudes are demanded of a prince, there is time for a man to stand above decide through political terms the best course of action for his province, as well as his enemies. In the capture of Montezuma, Cortes sought to remedy the threat of Montezuma overpowering his forces, but hoped to maintain a degree of peace and companionship with the agreeable prince. In order to sustain this positive relations with Montezuma, Cortes and his soldiers entertained Montezuma “with all possible attentions and amusements, and he was put under no restraint” (, PG 247). In fitting with Machiavelli’s algorithm for a victorious prince, Cortes saw the most effective way to:
...when one acquires states in a province where the language, the customs, and the laws are different, there are difficulties; here both fortune and great ability are needed to them. One of the best and most ready solutions is for the new ruler to reside there (, PG 19).
As Montezuma had proved to be a figure of reverence to both the Aztec empire (heralded as the best king they ever had in Mexico, ruling for seventeen years) and the Spaniards themselves, Cortes’ (alternative (‘alternative’ is in parentheses because while this is not his alternative, it is arguably a close variant idea to the one presented by Machiavelli)) option led him to hold Montezuma as his prisoner. Generating sparks of friction amongst these groups were the pagan rituals practiced by the Aztecs. Neglecting to convert to Christianity during this time period was punishable by execution; warranted, the Conquistadors were hard pressed to change an entire culture. This tactic to assimilate the Aztecs into a similar culture, while it would make it exceedingly more simple to rule over with an initial submission out of the way (i.e. the foot-in-the-door technique), actually attaining obedience from a drastically different culture would take submission of the highest referential power, the king. Despite all the hostilities of warfare, there remained to be a jovial nature between Montezuma and Cortes’ army is undeniably when analyzing the scene of Montezuma’s death described by Diaz:
Cortes and all of us captains and soliders wept for him, and there was no one among us that knew him and had dealings with who did not mourn him as if he were our father, which was not surprising, since he was so good (, PG 294).
Following the death of Montezuma, Cortes was being heavily seiged by the Aztecs. After establishing dominance over the Aztecs once again, Cortes extended an olive branch to Guatemoc in hopes of reaching some civil conclusion. With the refusal of a peace treaty/submission to Cortes, Cortes proceeded to dismantle the remains of the Aztec empire. By capturing Guatemoc, Cortes exploited yet another political tactic theorized by Machiavelli. Machiavelli wrote of the two ways principalities exist: by centralized power to one solitary prince with miniscule servents of little importance, and by a prince with governmental power allocated to barons by inheritance (, PG 25). As news spread of Guatemoc capture, the chieftains came forward to congratulate Cortes on his victory (, PG 413). By cutting the head of the snake, Cortes had invariably accomplished to conquer the Aztec empire. His unrelenting force and amorphous nature yielded victory for Cortes.
Amidst an alien dominion, Cortes and crew intended to procure what bounties the land and indigenous people were able to offer, willingly or otherwise; in their commitment to the acquisition of the bounties/land is where Niccolò Machiavelli’s philosophy was visibly being practiced. To be more precise, the political deconstruction that Cortes executed to achieve the desired outcome. By exposure and confrontation with this newly discovered Aztec culture, tactical moves were made to strike (peace). Divided in the causality behind their exploration of provinces of Mexico (either from an urge to claim land in the name of the King, save the Aztecs by teaching them the ways of the Christian God, or for personal greed), Cortes’ attempts to reach an amicable relationship with the Aztec empire were thwarted due to an emerging rebellion from Diego Velazquez. Protecting his position of leadership, Cortes continues on his expedition despite disapproval from his superior. This insubordination of Cortes exposed his true intentions behind the expedition propagated by greed (as to whether or not it gold or power or adventure is another matter of discussion). Cortes is Machiavellian in this regard due to his flexibility to circumstances in order to reach his aspirations of more (which can be seen in his tactical leverage with Montezuma held prisoner (power), and his acquisition of his own fifth (wealth), and the continuation of his expedition past the bounds of the novel itself (adventure)).
 Niccolo Machiavelli, Daniel Donno. The Prince. New York: Bantam Classics, 1992. Print.
 Díaz, Bernal Castillo, Bernal, and J. M. Cohen. The Conquest of New Spain. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1963. Print.