There are times in life when we need to have blind faith in forward momentum. We need cease the deliberations, the doubts, the equivocations, and the rationalizations. We should, instead, resolve to maintain a steady forward pace, trusting to our own abilities and the favorable intercession of Fortune. We may not have contingency plans for every eventuality, but we must press on with blind faith nonetheless. Momentum creates its own dynamic, and its own outcomes. It was precisely this principle that the great Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés brought to bear in the early stages of the conquest of Mexico in 1519.
Conditions could hardly have been less favorable to Cortés. He and his men were isolated in a strange land, cut off from reinforcements and supplies from his countrymen. His mission had barely even been authorized by his superiors. Yet the cunning Extremaduran lawyer had a deep-seated faith in his own abilities, and an uncanny knack for exploiting opportunities that presented themselves. During the early stages of his march on Mexico City–which historian Bernal Diaz calls the “Tlascalan Campaign”–his men were troubled by the situation they found themselves in. They were worried that their captain-general had overreached himself; they did not understand his plans or motives and were shocked by his decision to burn his ships after arriving on the Mexican coast.
Diaz, who participated in the campaign, wrote decades later that a few of the other Spaniards in their party began to have grave doubts as to the strength of Cortés’s judgment. They told their captain-general that he should “consider the condition we were in, wounded, thin, and harassed, and the great hardships we endured by night, as sentinels, watchmen, patrols, and scouts, and in continuous fighting both day and night.” Even though they had enjoyed victory in every battle that had taken place since they had left Cuba, the men felt that their commander was tempting fate too much. Instead of pressing on to the Aztec capital, they said, might it not be better to go back to Villa Real, and wait among their Totonac allies? They could then build another ship and sail back to Cuba, and send for reinforcements. They chided Cortés with the fact that he had not consulted them at all before he burned his ships. Would it not have been better to save just one or two, in the event of an emergency? Even Alexander the Great and the most daring Roman commanders, the men insisted, would not have taken such an apparently reckless step. And by daring to attack such a large population as the Aztecs with no assistance, he was showing little regard for his own life and for the lives of his men. So it seemed to some of Cortés’s men.
The captain-general listened patiently to these concerns and objections. He knew some of his men wanted desperately to go back to Cuba, where they had land, food, and women, and a life of comparative ease. He said he was well aware of the facts and dangers that currently presented themselves; there was not another military force of Spaniards in all the world that had endured as much and done as much as they had. According to Bernal Diaz, Cortés then spoke the following words:
Why, gentlemen, should we talk of valorous deeds when truly Our Lord is pleased to help us? When I remember seeing us surrounded by so many companies of the enemy, and watching the play of their broadswords at such close quarters, even now I am terrified. When they killed the mare with a single sword-stroke we were defeated and lost, and at that same moment I was more aware of your matchless courage then ever before. Since God saved us from this great peril, I have every hope that He will do so again in the future. And I will say more, that in all these dangers you will find no negligence on m part; I shared every one of them with you.
I wish to remind you, gentlemen, that since Our Lord has been pleased to help us in the past we have hope that He may do so in the future. For ever since we entered this country we have preached the holy doctrine to the best of our ability in every town through which we have passed, and have induced the natives to destroy their idols…As for scuttling the ships it was a good plan, and if some of you were not consulted about it, as other gentlemen were, it was on account of my resentment at certain events on the beach, which I do not now wish to recall…
You will find that there are many gentlemen in the camp who will be strongly opposed to the course you advocate, and that it will be better to trust all things to God and carry on his holy service…If God helps us, far more will be said in future history books about our exploits than has ever been said about those of the past. For, I repeat, all our labors are devoted to the service of God and to our great Emperor Charles…
So, gentlemen, it would clearly be wrong to take a single step backwards, for if these people we leave behind in peace were to see us retreat, the very stones would rise up against us. They who at present hold us to be gods and idols and call us so would consider us cowards and weaklings. As for what you say about our staying among our friendly allies the Totonacs, if they saw us return without visiting Mexico [City], they would rise up against us too…
And what would the great Montezuma say on hearing that we had retreated? That the whole expedition was a childish joke. What would he think of our speeches and our messages to him? So, gentlemen, if one course is bad the other is worse, and it is better to stay where we are, where the ground is level and thickly inhabited, and our camp is kept well supplied with poultry and dogs…We did not come here to take our ease, however, but to fight when the opportunity offered.
Therefore I pray you, gentlemen, kindly to behave like gentlemen, I mean those whose habit is to encourage others whom they see displaying weakness. From now on, keep the island of Cuba and what you have left there out of your thoughts, and try to act, as you have done hitherto, like brave soldiers. For after God, who is our aid and support, we must rely on our own strong arms. [Trans. by J.M. Cohen]
Taking even the smallest step backwards, Cortés knew, would have been fatal. It would have psychologically crippled his men, and it would have sent a disastrous message of vacillation to his native “allies.” He knew that most of his advantage over his enemies was psychological, and that if he showed even a hint of weakness, they would swarm about him like piranhas. The only thing to do was to keep moving forward, and to let his momentum carry him all the way to the Aztec capital. Those who want constant assurances in life should remember that there are times when such guarantees cannot be given; that there are times when one must leap calculatingly into the unknown, trusting to Fate and to one’s own capabilities. For unless these leaps are taken, a man will find himself in the same place throughout his life, quietly marking time until the twilight of his years.
Read more about other great feats of daring in Thirty-Seven: