In March, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador demanded Spain and the Vatican apologize to his country’s natives for centuries of colonialism and conquest. “I have sent a letter to the Spanish King and another letter to the Pope so that abuses can be acknowledged and an apology made to the indigenous peoples for the violations of what we now call human rights,” Obrador announced. “The so-called conquest was done with the sword and the cross. They raised churches on top of temples.” With Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés first landing on Mexican soil in the spring of 1519, Obrador’s demand for an apology is one way to mark this momentous quincentenary. Another would be to send a thank-you note.

Contemporary conventional wisdom holds that Cortés was a madman driven by his twin lusts for gold and blood – Neil Young’s 1975 rocker “Cortez the Killer” pretty much summing up modern opinions of the man. A more fulsome view of history and morality reveals a rather more complicated story. For if anyone was fighting on behalf of “what we now call the human rights” of indigenous Mexicans in 1519, it was Cortés.

When he arrived at Vera Cruz 500 years ago, Cortés found himself on the shores of what might be considered history’s most banally evil government. The then-100-year old Aztec empire covered most of central Mexico, comprising somewhere between 5 million and 20 million people spread across hundreds of individual tribes and cities. Ruling over it all was Moctezuma II from his throne in the fabled city of Tenochtitlán.

The President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, demands an apology from Spain and the Vatican for it’s part in the conquest and colonialism of Mexico.

Moctezuma’s Tenochtitlán, a city of about 250,000, was a warrior society wholly dependent on tribute extracted from its client states throughout the country on pain of military violence. His authority was indivisible from the Aztec state religion that required homage paid to a variety of cruel and demanding gods. Without daily offerings of hearts ripped live from human sacrifices to the god Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec believed their sun would die. To ensure another dawn, four priests atop a temple would hold their victim face-up over a stone block while a fifth used a flint knife to pluck out the still-beating heart, which would then be burned on a brazier. The head would then be cut off and kept as a trophy while the rest of the body was tossed down the temple’s steep steps to be ritualistically eaten by members of the upper class.

Other religious events were similarly horrific. Those honouring rain god Tlaloc required wetting the ground with human tears prior to performing human sacrifices, preferably of young children. When tears were not forthcoming, priests would tear out the children’s fingernails to induce crying. Slavery was ubiquitous in Aztec society, driving much of the economy and foreign relations and, among many cruel fates, slaves could be sacrificed and eaten.

The vast supply of victims required for these grim offerings came from tribes under Tenochtitlán’s thumb, either as taxes rendered or prisoners taken from regions that resisted Aztec control. The capital city’s annual butcher’s bill ran to an estimated 4,000 men, women and children; other regions had their own regular requirements. Special occasions required slaughter on a far grander scale. During the coronation of Moctezuma’s predecessor, an estimated 80,000 lives were consumed in four days of unprecedented ritual murder and cannibalism, with the lineup of victims stretching as far as the eye could see.

When Cortés and his men arrived in Tenochtitlán, they reported seeing racks holding tens of thousands of skulls of sacrificial victims on public display. Such claims were once dismissed as colonial-era exaggeration, but recent archaeological evidence now backs their case. To this day, in fact, the most authoritative description of the vast scale and intricacies of Aztec sacrifice can be found in the writings of Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, who arrived in Mexico in 1529 and spent nearly 50 years recording Aztec history, culture and religious practices. While broadly sympathetic to the native community and its fate, de Sahagún’s detailed reports on the requirements of their bloody calendar are as shocking today as they were to 16th century readers.

Tenochtitlán, located in the heart of what is now Mexico City, was the largest city and capital of the Aztec Empire.

“Aztec society involved a level of slaughter that has probably never been equalled prior to the advent of mechanized means,” observes historian Justin Lyons, author of a recent book comparing Alexander the Great with Cortés. “The death toll was beyond count.” While the world has been grim witness to many efficiently murderous regimes throughout history (the various waves of Eurasian Steppe peoples, including Genghis Khan’s Mongols and Tamerlane’s Muslim horde, deserve special mention here), the Aztec empire’s fixation on systematically devouring its own constituent population remains a terrible and thankfully rare outlier.  

It was into this world – rather than the indolent paradise Neil Young and others have sought to evoke – that Cortés and his small band of adventurers strode in 1519. While the promise of gold and glory were the undisputed engines of their mission, the conquistadors were utterly appalled by the official slaughter they uncovered. And they went to great lengths to put an end to it. “Cortés was sincerely opposed to human sacrifice, both for personal reasons and due to his religious creed,” Lyons pointed out in an interview. “As a result he destroyed temples and forbade sacrificial ceremonies wherever he went.”

Archeologists unearthed a tower of sacrificial human skulls near Templo Mayor, one of the main temples in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, as mentioned by Andres de Tapia, a Spanish soldier who accompanied Cortés in the 1521 conquest of Mexico.
Archeologists unearthed a tower of sacrificial human skulls near Templo Mayor, one of the main temples in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, as mentioned by Andres de Tapia, a Spanish soldier who accompanied Cortés in the 1521 conquest of Mexico.

The conquest of Mexico depended heavily on Cortés’ alliance with restive tribes eager to overthrow Tenochtitlán’s hegemony. Yet Cortés repeatedly angered his allies by tearing down their altars and interrupting their religious practices. When Obrador talks of churches being raised on the tops of temples, this was how Cortés sought to halt the ritualized massacre of a powerless Mexican native population.

A lesser and greedier man might have simply allowed the slaughter to continue as he filled his coffers with gold and other booty. Instead Cortés put his goals and his life at serious risk by imposing Christian standards of behaviour on the world he conquered. And while it’s now popular to shrug away Aztec religious practices by casually equating them with the Spanish Inquisition or similar European habits, such a comparison is absurd. The primary focus of Aztec governance was to habitually consume its own and subject peoples by grotesque means. Despite its many flaws, Renaissance Europe was never so murderous or single-minded. Putting an end to the Aztec horrors was a blow struck for all humanity.

Now Obrador wants an apology for that. That’s not only ahistorical, it was the Church that formed the most potent opposition to the worst aspects of the colonialization of New Spain. Sahagún and other Catholic thinkers spoke out passionately against the enslavement of native Mexicans and in favour of their recognition and treatment as equals to their Spanish brethren. By this standard, the Pope has the least to apologize for.

Tsilhqo’tin Nation Chiefs stand on the steps of Parliament in Ottawa in 2018 as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issues a formal apology and exonerates the Nation’s 1884 war chiefs.

Of course this need for balance and context when declaring historical figures or peoples to be either heroes or villains applies not just to Mexican colonialism. Every one of the many apologies delivered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on behalf of the Canadian government and its predecessors regarding native schooling, refugee policies, human rights and other colonial-era actions and inactions is built on the same base of partial-truths and historical blindness that motivates Obrador’s demands of Spain and the Vatican. The whole truth is always more complex and often more exculpatory than whatever version politicians may prefer for their own present-day purposes.

Certainly an honest retelling of Cortés’ story requires including the recognition that he killed a great many people during his devastating assault on Tenochtitlán in 1521. And smallpox, inadvertently spread by later additions to his party, resulted in an even greater loss of life in Mexico and throughout both continents. The tragedies associated with European colonization of the Americas by Cortés and those who followed him should never be forgotten. But if the most basic of human rights is protection from arbitrary murder by a malign authority – one’s own rulers, in fact – then surely Cortés deserves recognition as this continent’s first great defender of those rights. And perhaps, on the 500th anniversary of his arrival, a brief note of thanks.

Peter Shawn Taylor is a contributing editor at Maclean’s magazine. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario.