Hernán Cortés, when he explored Yucatan and the Mexico region, was dead set on destroying native temples and replacing them with Christian altars. He did, however, use the native religion to his advantage whenever it suited his goals. 16th-century Spanish writers, such as the conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, claimed that many of the natives believed the Spaniards were gods. Whether or not this debatable claim was fully accurate, Hernán Cortés and his comrades did reportedly try to associate themselves with the local pantheon of gods. This was particularly clear in an odd mission that Cortés gave to one unfortunate conquistador.
In 1519, just after the Spaniards had founded Vera Cruz, Hernán Cortés thought up an interesting scheme to boost the already sky-rocketing reputation of the conquistadors among the locals. He launched this plan when the Totonac people (Cortés’ allies who had recently rebelled against the Aztecs) asked for Spanish help against hostile warriors who were marauding around a nearby town. Cortés, indeed, agreed to aid the Totonacs, but his help came in a very odd form. He gave the chiefs a single old veteran conquistador, confidently assuring the allied chieftains that the one Spaniard had more than enough strength to demolish all of the marauders.
An aging Basque warrior by the name of Heredia was chosen for this mission. Unfortunately, his reason for selection was not very flattering. As Cortés wanted the conquistadors to be connotated with the local gods, Heredia reportedly was chosen solely because he resembled some of the idols and religious representations that the Spaniards had seen during their travels. The Spaniards, however, thought very little of the appearances of the native gods, often describing them as monstrous, hideous and ugly. Therefore, poor Heredia had the misfortune of being considered one of the ugliest men among Hernán Cortés’ expeditionary force.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo was a member of Cortés’ expedition and described Heredia as “an old Basque musketeer with a very ugly face covered with scars, a huge beard, and one blind eye. He was also lame in one leg” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 49). Before Heredia set off with his trusty musket, Cortes gave the gruff and tough veteran some instructions. Cortés reassured the man that he would not actually be fighting the reported marauders alone. Instead, Heredia’s true mission was to look intimidating and march with their Totonac allies to a nearby river. He was also told to continually fire his musket, so that those with him could hear the explosion of the shot, and see the flash of powder and the billowing gun smoke. Even if Heredia’s firearm did not impress the natives, Hernán Cortés was sure that the man’s appearance would leave a great impression. According to Bernal Díaz, Heredia was told directly by Cortés that “when they see your ugly face they’ll certainly take you for one of their idols” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 49).
Heredia was apparently a good sport and went along with the plan. Putting on his best impression of a god, the blind-eyed, lame-legged and well-aged warrior marched with a force of locals, firing occasional shots from his musket at nothing in particular. Each blast, it was said, amazed the natives who were within earshot and eyesight of the man. When Heredia reached a nearby river, he began to loiter there by washing his hands in the stream and taking a drink of water. As was preplanned, a messenger from Cortés then arrived to halt the war party. In his message, Cortés claimed that, although Heredia could have done the job alone, Hernán Cortés had decided to show his dedication to the Totonac people by leading his whole army of conquistadors, in person, against the nearby marauders. According to Spanish sources, Cortés’ scheme worked and the Totonac people disseminated propaganda that claimed there was a god marching with their forces. Yet the Totonacs caught the Spaniards in a ruse of their own—when Cortés and his army reached the locations of the so-called marauders, he discovered no hostile forces, but instead found that his Totonac allies had led him to a long-hated rival city. Although some looting and pillaging occurred upon arrival, as soon as Cortés discovered the truth of the situation, he reportedly halted the assault and brokered a truce or alliance between the two enemy peoples.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The conquistadors pray before entry to Tenochtitlan, painted by Margaret Duncan Coxhead, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.