Cortés Burns the Ships

Scholarly study of Hernán Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs has long relied on the accounts of Bernal Diaz del Castillo along with the letters that Cortés himself wrote to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Less known is the account kept by Bernal’s younger brother, Esteban, known to the rest of the expedition simply as “Hermanito Diaz.” These are the same people who decided to refer to the fat cacique they met as The Fat Cacique; sophisticated nicknaming was not one of the advances of civilization Spaniards brought to the New World.

Recently, a handful of pages from Hermanito’s account, previously lost, were found in the sock drawer of a dying, 90-year-old Spanish Jesuit, Fr. Javier de Alonso whose last words were, “Oh, yeah, those. I’ve been meaning to do something with them. Had ’em forever. You should probably take them. Urghh.”

The papers were turned over to Dr. James “Scooter” McCorkle, a University of California, Santa Cruz Professor of Trans-Atlantic History and Surf Studies. What follows is Dr. Scooter’s translation. It should be noted that Hermanito’s account differs often and wildly from the other, more established accounts of the Cortés expedition.


“We’re fucked,” I said to my friend Manolito Cabeza de Gallina.

“No, Dude, this is totally badass. I’m like, totally stoked,” he responded.

We were sitting on palm leaves, atop the crest of a dune near what we had just decided was the city of Veracruz. Me cleaning my arquebus, he polishing his morion helmet – you know, the pointy ones we used to wear, couldn’t tell the front from the back. Stylistically, I don’t know what we were thinking. . . Below us in the bay, the eleven ships that had brought us here began to smoke and smolder.

Shortly before, Captain Hernán Cortés had gathered us all up. Standing on a makeshift dais in front of a cross made by our carpenters, beside a statue of the Blessed Mother, he informed us of his decision to destroy the ships. “Listen up,” he shouted, arms jauntily akimbo. “In case any of you assholes were thinking of turning chickenshit, I’ve decided I’m gonna burn the ships into the fucking ocean! Every last motherfucking one of ’em!” I thought the line sounded derivative and vaguely familiar, but it brought a cheer from most of the men. “Tomorrow we march inland,” he continued, “to meet the great Montezuma. This is no time to be timid. There is no way back. Only forward!” More cheers. “We will bring the word of God, take possession of lands and riches to further the glory of great King of whom we are vassals. And . . . we will get stinking rich ourselves. We do these things or we die!” The men went batshit, huzzaing and whatnot. Cortés, reveling in the glow of his men’s adulation, pranced back and forth like a matador trying not to poop his gold lamé pantalones.


By the time Manolito and I had moved on to cleaning and honing our swords – both made of fine Toledo steel – the ships were well and truly ablaze.

“I tell you,” he said, “I have every confidence in our fine Toledo steel. Compared to their crude obsidian-lined weapons, more cudgel than proper sword, we are at a great advantage.”

“Other than being outnumbered, potentially thousands to one, you mean?”

“I suppose. But still I’m very confident that I would be able to cleave ten of them clean in two before one could even touch me.” Manolito had always had an inflated opinion of his swordsmanship.

“All things being equal,” I responded, “I’d rather stand at a distance and shoot them with my arquebus.”

He snorted. “Ha! If they are so accommodating as to stand still long enough for you to load and light the damn thing, and if it doesn’t explode in your face. Even then, if a five-year-old shot peas out of his mouth, he would have a greater chance of doing damage to an enemy than you with that thing. What you need is a crossbow.”

“Couldn’t afford one. And I already had the arquebus. Bought it when they first came out; pretty buggy. I hear the latest, upgraded versions back in Europe are much improved; can hit a target more often than they hit the ground. Should have known better than to buy the first version. Anyway, it makes a terrible noise and that seems to startle them. Perhaps my shooting will give you a chance to cleave as many as twelve or thirteen before they bash your head in.”

As the ships crackled and burned, Cortés set about selecting the perfect codpiece for the march inland. The Captain’s love of fine codpieces was well known. His was the finest, most expensive collection in the New World. Better even than that of Governor Diego Velazquez. Indeed, the Governor’s attempt to arrest Cortés and revoke his commission even before we left Cuba was based on many reasons, but well up at the top of the list was the true jealousy and rancor created by the Captain’s superior cod-piece collection.

I have read my brother Bernal’s account of our early victory over the Tabascan people south of our present position. Not once did he mention the greatest single reason for our success in that battle. Certainly our firearms, crossbows, bravery, and the mercy of Christ allowed us to win; true enough. But it was when the Captain surged to the front of our ranks that the Tabascan warriors, valiant as they were, locked their eyes on his cod. I can only imagine they believed, just as they initially thought our horses and riders to be one creature, that Cortés’ actual junk was purple, velvety, and bejeweled, not to mention inhumanly large. It was because they stood transfixed by the sight, as though spellbound, that we were able to slaughter them in the thousands, to the glory of our Lord.


As the sun began to set, the ships began to break apart and sink, flames sizzling out as they reached the waterline. We had cleaned, prepared, and packed everything. We just sat watching the final death throes of our only way back.

Down the beach, The Captain had finally made his choice. Having gone through most of his collection, trying this one then that one, he had ruled out the velvety look, deciding instead to go with one of the more intimidating steel or wrought iron pieces. Even then, he had five or seven to consider: the rhino horn, the armadillo, the stag head and so forth. In the end, the “erect cannon” piece was bestowed the honor of leading our Captain’s cod into history. Having strapped it on with the assistance of his footman, he strutted forward five or ten steps, halted abruptly in front of an imaginary Montezuma, gesticulating decisively with both hands, fingers together like little spades, toward his crotch, palms upward, shouting, “Hey, Monty, have some of this!” After a dramatic pause, he announced, “Yes. This will do. This will do nicely.”


“So,” Manolito said “Do you think we’ll die?”

“Could be,” I answered. “There’s going to be an awful lot more of them than there are of us. If it comes to outright war, we could just get worn down. But we have the Holy Mother on our side. If our cause is righteous, we will prevail. Still, if I die in the cause, I hope I die in outright battle, not taken as a prisoner to be sacrificed to heathen idols.”

Manolito became more animated. “I hear that the obsidian knives are so sharp, the skill of the priests so honed, that they can cut out your heart fast enough to show it to you. Just before you die! Your own motherfucking beating heart!”

“No way.”



“I know right?”

“Well,” I said, “That might be kinda cool. How many people get a chance to see their own heart? You know my biggest fear though? I just hope they don’t have some kinds of weird diseases we’ve never heard of so that we all just get sick and die.”

“Yeah dude,” said Manolito. “Dying a horrible, lingering, painful death without so much as the chance to give a proper account of ourselves? That would suck.”

© 2014 Whiskey Leavins


2 thoughts on “Cortés Burns the Ships

  1. WhiskeyLeavins

    Reblogged this on THE DEVIL'S OWN PISS and commented:

    Whiskey Sez: The Devil’s Own Piss is about to be a precocious two year-old. To commemorate the occasion, here’s a re-posting of one of the two stories that appeared on that very first day, two years ago. A bit of Whiskey-ed up history. Enjoy!


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