Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) led the expedition that conquered the Aztec empire of Mexico in 1519–1521. In five graphic “letters” to Charles I, the Spanish king, Cortés recorded his observations and sought to justify the actions he had taken among the indigenous populations of the region. The excerpt that follows is taken from his second letter. The requerimiento was a declaration of papal dominion drawn up by the jurist Palacios Rubios of the Council of Castile in 1510. In accordance with prescribed practice, Cortés claimed he tried to read this one-thousand-word legal document to an assembled audience of Indians. Had they accepted its provisions and converted to Catholicism, Cortés would have been duty bound to allow them to retain all of their possessions. Their refusal thus supposedly freed Cortés and his men to “make war against . . . [them] in all ways and manners.” I began to deliver my requerimiento in due form by means of the interpreters with me and in the presence of a notary: but the more I endeavored to admonish them and treat them with peaceable words, the more fiercely they attacked us. Seeing then that demands and protestations were alike useless we began to defend ourselves as we could, and thus they continued attacking us until we were surrounded on all sides by more than a hundred thousand men, with whom we contended throughout the day until an hour before sunset when they retired. In this battle, with the half dozen cannon which I had, five or six muskets and the thirteen horsemen who remained, I did them great damage, without suffering anything worse than the toil and weariness of long hours of fighting without food.
And in this it was plainly manifest that God was fighting on our side, that among so great a multitude of people of such fury and skill in war and with such various arms with which to attack us, we came off so free. That night we made ourselves secure in a small tower containing their idols which stood on a slight eminence and then at very early dawn I sallied out leaving two hundred men in the camp and all the guns, and since I was now attacking I took with me the horsemen and a hundred Spaniards on foot together with four hundred Indians from among those whom I brought from Cempoal and three hundred from Ixtacamaxtitlan. And before they had time to gather together I burnt some five or six little villages, each of about a hundred inhabitants, took about four hundred prisoners both men and women, and regained the camp fighting with them but without receiving any casualties. Next day at daybreak more than a hundred and thirty-nine thousand men advanced upon our camp, so many that they seemed to cover the whole plain, and with such determination that several of them succeeded in forcing an entrance and came to handgrips with my men: we marched out against them and by the good will of our Lord helping us in four hours we had cleared a space so that they could not attack the camp directly although they still made a few charges in other parts of the field. And so we were fighting until darkness came and they retired.
Next day I again sallied out in a different direction before daybreak without being perceived by them and with my horsemen, a hundred foot and my faithful Indians, burnt more than ten townships, in some of which there were over three thousand houses, and the inhabitants there fought against me, for no other Indians came up. And as we bore the banner of the cross and were fighting for our faith and in the service of your Majesty, God gave us such victory in your Majesty's cause that we killed many Indians without ourselves receiving any hurt: and shortly after noon, by which time the forces of the Indians had gathered together from all sides, we were back again in camp with the victory already won.
On the following day messengers came to me from the chieftains saying that they desired to be vassals of your Majesty and my friends, and begging me to forgive their past evil doing. They brought food and certain feather ornaments which they wear and value highly. I told them in reply that they had done very wrong but that it pleased me to be their friend and pardon them what they had done. On the morrow nearly fifty Indians came up who, it appeared, were men of some importance among them, saying that they were bringing us provisions, but paying close attention to the exits and entrances of the camp and certain huts in which we were living. . . . I took one of them carefully aside without the others perceiving it and closeting him with myself and one or two interpreters threatened him that I might get the truth from him: upon which he confessed that Sicutengal who is the captain of this province was stationed with a large force beyond the range of hills which fronts the camp in order to fall upon us that night. . . . He confessed further that they had been sent to spy out our camp and those places in which it could be entered and in what way our straw huts might be set alight and burnt. Forthwith I took another of the Indians and questioned him in like manner, upon which he confessed almost in the same words, and I proceeded thus to threaten five or six, and they all confirmed these words. Seeing this I ordered the whole fifty to be arrested and their hands cut off, which done I sent them back to tell their lord that night and day whenever and however many times he should come against us he should see what manner of men we are.
With this I fortified the camp as strongly as I could, placed my men at such posts as seemed best and remained thus on guard until sunset: and as night was falling the Indians began to descend the valleys on either side of us, thinking that their advance to surround us and thus be nearer to execute their plan was unperceived. But as I was forewarned I saw them, and it occurred to me that to allow them to approach the camp would be extremely dangerous, for in the night being unable to see my preparations they would approach without fear, and moreover, the Spaniards being unable to see them might in certain instances lack their usual courage in fighting; above all I was afraid lest they should set fire to any part of the camp: for any such accident would have been so damaging to us that not one of us would have escaped: accordingly I determined to go out against them with all my horse either to await them or put them to rout in such wise that they should not reach the camp. And thus it fell out that when they learnt that we were advancing on horseback to attack them, without a moment's delay or so much as a cry they took to the cornfields which covered the whole country and lightened themselves somewhat of the provisions they were carrying for feasting and triumphing over us if they should succeed in obtaining a complete victory: thus they retreated that night and left us unharmed. For several days after this I did not leave camp save to visit the immediate neighborhood in order to prevent the advance of certain Indians who engaged in shouting and some slight skirmishing.
Having thus rested somewhat I rode out one night, after going the rounds of the first guard, with a hundred foot, the Indians and my own horsemen as before, and a league from the camp no less than five of the horses and mares fell and could in no wise proceed further, upon which I had to send them back to camp: and although all my companions urged me to turn back on account of the evil omen yet I held on my course, considering that God is more powerful than nature. Before dawn I lighted upon two towns in which I killed many people, but abstained from burning houses, since the flames would have betrayed my presence to other towns which were hard by: and just as dawn was breaking I fell upon another town so great that, as I afterwards found by a later examination, it contained more than twenty thousand houses. I attacked it so suddenly that all rushed out unarmed, the women and children naked, into the streets, and I was beginning to do them no small hurt. Upon this, seeing that they could make no resistance certain chieftains of the town came running up to me begging me to do them no more harm, for they were willing to be vassals of your Majesty and my friends, and saw plainly that they were to blame in having refused to believe me; but from that time onward I should see that they would always do what I should bid them in your Majesty's name, and they would be your Majesty's very loyal subjects.
Answer the following questions for discussion in class on the day specified by the syllabus.
Be sure to note where the information to answer the question is located in the document (i.e., Highlighting or notes in the margin) but, DO NOT copy and paste parts of the document for your answer. (This is plagiarism)
Answer the questions in your own words. You may hand write or word process your answers.
1. What type of document is this? (Primary/Secondary and what IS it?) ________________________________
3. Did Cortés genuinely expect the Indians to understand, let alone accept, the terms of the requerimiento? If not, what was its intended purpose? ____________________________________________________________
4.There is more than a hint of self-promotion in Cortés's letter to the king. Was he simply bragging? What other motives might have inspired such a tone in his letter? ______________________________________________
5. What impressions did Cortés convey to his readers with regard to the native population? How might the victims of his assault have described these same encounters? ________________________________________