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Discussion of the Motives of Columbus and Cortes in Their Exploration Endeavors

Updated on December 20, 2014

Columbus kept a journal in which he both wrote a letter to the crown. (Internet Medieval Sourcebook: Christopher Columbus: 
Extracts from Journal Christopher Columbus. 1492.) This letter seems to serve several purposes including keeping track of events and progress during Columbus’ voyage. The main purposes seem to be to please the Spanish crown and to create a perception that Columbus is an important man. According to Wikipedia, when Columbus left for his voyage, there was a great deal between him and his Spanish sponsors. He wanted to simultaneously redeem himself in the eyes of the King and Queen and make his ”discoveries” a matter of record since everyone knows paper trails are helpful. This became reality since we have all grown up hearing about his famous discovery. He is a permanent fixture in history. The main difference is that, as children, we are not exposed to the malicious details of what actually occurred. Columbus’ actions were fueled by his desire for gold and glory. Although Spielvogel as our textbook author has the ability to portrays figures as he views them via his own phrasing, Columbus is typically portrayed the same consistently. Typically, children who first learn of Columbus’ voyage are not going to have their opinions soiled at such an early age.

Christopher Columbus

From the very beginning, it is evident that Columbus views the natives as inferior to himself. He writes, “It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion. They very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them. If it please our Lord, I intend at my return to carry home six of them to your Highnesses, that they may learn our language. (Columbus, 1492). He obviously views Christianity as the only real form of religion by insinuating that the “Indians” being worthy to be servants is contingent upon their willingness to convert.

According to Wikipedia, Columbus had originally intended to reach the East Indies and as a result, proceeded to call the natives “Indians”. (Wikipedia) This illustrates his ignorance in that he had never been to the East Indies, yet assumed he was there and the natives could be called whatever he presumed to call them. Wikipedia quotes historian Edmund Morgan as saying, “Columbus was not a scholarly man. Yet he studied these books, made hundreds of marginal notations in them and came out with ideas about the world that were characteristically simple and strong and sometimes wrong, the kind of ideas that the self-educated person gains from independent reading and clings to in defiance of what anyone else tries to tell him” (Wikipedia). In reality, Columbus’ arrogance toward the natives was really quite ironic. He may have taken initiative, however unsuccessful, to educate himself, yet he was really no better educated than the natives who have their own experiences and knowledge that are just as valid as his own. Since neither party had formal instruction or a reputable instructing source, it is really quite pompous of Columbus to assume the natives are subordinate. He treats them with no respect and dignity and they in turn are welcoming and curious about him. He wants to use them for their resources such as materials, labor and land. Some of them are helpful and welcoming, while others are shy and run away. None try to exploit him and his resources as he does them.

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Hernan Cortes was a Spanish conquistador and explorer who defeated the Aztec empire and claimed Mexico for Spain. According to "The History Junkie, (http://thehistoryjunkie.com/hernan-cortes-facts/), "Hernan Cortes (1485 – December 2, 1547) was a Spanish Conquistador known for his bravery, ambition, thirst for gold, brutality, and extraordinary leadership. Cortes was a self-made man who was a bastard son to a Spanish noble. While Cortes accomplished much in his sixty-two years he would become infamous for his actions against the Aztec Civilization".

When Cortes arrives in Temixtitlan-Tenochtitlan or Mexico-Tenochtitlan, his description indicates he is impressed by the city as he states, “if the inhabitants of the city should prove treacherous, they would possess great advantages from the manner in which the city is constructed”. In his Text “Conquistodors”, Michael Wood maintains that Cortes and his men were in awe of the accomplishments of the Aztecs and of their treasures. (Wood, 2001) Cortes himself mentions in his writings that due to the clever construction and layout of their city, the natives could easily keep him and his men from their ship and starve them. Obviously, Cortes found them very capable.

Cortes wrote, “I said everything to them I could to divert them from their idolatries, and draw them to a knowledge of God our Lord. Moctezuma replied, the others assenting to what he said”. (Cortes, 1520) This statement indicates he feels anyone who does not know Christianity is ignorant and inferior. “Moctezuma and many of the principal citizens remained with me until I had removed the idols, purified the chapels, and placed the images in them, manifesting apparent pleasure; and I forbade them sacrificing human beings to their idols as they had been accustomed to do”. (Cortes, 1520) There was no way for him to know that the Aztecs sacrifice humans or that they found pleasure in the images he and his men placed in their chapels. That was his perception because he believed his religion to be correct. He assumed they were heathens in need of taming. Like Columbus, Cortes also assumes his religion is correct and the Aztecs were in need of purification. It is also ironic that his “true religion” would supposedly allow him to enslave other human beings and treat them like animals. Cortes was definitely hypocritical due to the fact that the Inquisition was putting people to death for false beliefs. He justified his actions because the natives were “wild” and were never exposed to the “true religion”, therefore their beliefs were simply ignorant. They could not choose before because they had never known the “true religion”, so it was his duty to “educate” them.

The impact of Cortes and his men was devastating to the culture of the Aztecs. They brought disease that killed off the population and destroyed their culture by enslaving them and converting their religion. This is evidenced by the fact that historians will never know how long the Aztec civilization may have survived had it not been for Cortes and his men.

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There are similarities and differences between Columbus and Cortes. Both men set out for riches and glory and found people in whom they saw a great deal of potential. They may have even been threatened by the accomplishments of these natives. Surely, if they were to enslave the natives, it would work to their advantage by removing the threat of non-compliance and/or inability to secure the territory and help create opportunity for the “explorers” by increasing labor force and trade materials. For those seeking gold and glory, the choice was easy and they justified it by claiming to tame the heathens.

Sources:

Internet Medieval Sourcebook: Christopher Columbus: 
Extracts from Journal

Christopher Columbus. 1492.

Modern History Sourcebook: Hernan Cortés: from Second Letter to Charles V, 1520. Hernan Cortes. 1520.

Spielvogal, Jackson J. Western Civilization: Volume II Since 1500. 7th Edition. Thomson Wadsworth. 2009.

Wikipedia. Christopher Columbus. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Columbus.

Wood, Michael. Conquistadors. Accessed at http://www.pbs.org/conquistadors/cortes/cortes_a00.html. PBS. 2001.

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