Cortes and the Burning of the Boats at Vera Cruz

             In 1519, Capitan Hernando Cortes and a small army left the Spanish held island of Cuba and set out on one of the greatest conquests in the history of the world. Cortes was going to accomplish his goals no matter the consequences. He put to death some of those who opposed him, got himself appointed Capitan-General in order to get out from under Diego Velazquez’s authority, and even destroyed his fleet in an attempt to motivate his men to adapt to his at-all-costs attitude. The destruction of the ships has been widely studied and is still debated today. The dispute is not if he destroyed his ships, but how and to what extent.
             Many sources claim that Cortes had the ships destroyed secretly. Very few state that Cortes told his men of his intent; but Bernal Diaz tells that Cortes was advised by his men to destroy his ships. (Diaz, 131) Diaz states, “. . . we who were his friends advised him . . . not to leave a single ship in port, but to destroy them all immediately, in order to leave no cause of trouble behind.” (Diaz, 130) Diaz goes on to say, “The ships were destroyed with our full knowledge and not . . . in secret.” (Diaz, 131) Salvador De Madariaga suggests that Cortes “planted” some friends to advise him to destroy his fleet; thus, at least some of the soldiers knew of the plan. (Madariaga, 156) He also says that Cortes was in Cempoal at the time for clemency. (Madariaga, 155) Jacob Abbott wrote that most of the soldiers were in Zempoalla and suggests that Cortez acted without them knowing. (Abbott, 126) John Manchip White states, “This drastic action was performed secretly.” (White, 185) Francisco Lopez de Gomara said that Cortes begged the sailing masters to spread a story about the ships being decayed and no longer seaworthy. He also alleges, “. . . that his companions might prevent it, as the doubtless would have done if the realized what he had in mind.” (Gomara, 90)

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