Just a Great Way to Learn

Cortes Burns the Ships

18 Feb 2017

Every time we face a major change, we also face our fears of letting go of the past.

Many people, when faced with a step into the unknown, hold on to a route back, in case they lose courage or things don't work out as planned.

We've all faced these dilemmas and it's the stuff of both comedy and tragedy. Think of the bridegroom who has second thoughts just as he's asked to say, "I do". Think of the young woman who has the chance of a great new job but has to decide between friends and family where she is and a new life somewhere else.

To understand this dilemma further, consider the story of the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, who in 1519 sailed from his base in Cuba with 11 ships and 500 men and anchored off the Mexican coast at Veracruz.

Cortes's mission was to plunder the riches of the Aztecs so it was not a wholly virtuous mission. His men were very aware of what they would gain from the adventure. Yet, they also knew that they had never seen combat before and nor had Cortes. They had every reason to believe that the native Mexican Indians would put up strong resistance and there was no guarantee of success.

So, Cortes rallied his doubting men and told them that they should not think about the calculations of success or failure but have confidence in him and themselves.

He told them, "As for me, I have chosen my part. I will remain here, while there is one to bear me company. If there be any so craven, as to shrink from sharing the dangers of our glorious enterprise, let them go home, in God's name. There is still one vessel left. Let them take that and return to Cuba. They can tell there how they deserted their commander and their comrades, and patiently wait till we return loaded with the spoils of the Aztecs."

You can imagine how this went down with some of Cortes' men. The offer of a way out, a retreat, a chance to avoid the possibility of a humiliating defeat, even their own death.

When it was clear that some would choose to go back, Cortes decided that he had made a mistake in offering his men a a way out. He was going on and he needed everyone with him. So, there was only one thing he could do to ensure the success of his mission.

He burnt the ships.

There was now no escape route. Cortes and his men had to go on.

By July of 1519, Cortes had successfully taken Veracruz and begun a 3-year process which would end in the successful taking of the whole of Mexico for Spain.

Some would say that Cortes was ruthless, dictatorial, a bad leader. Others would say that his action was creative, inspirational, and the mark of a great change manager.

What would you say?

(The picture at the top shows Cortes scuttling his ships off the coast of Veracruz. The work is attributed to Miguel Gonzalez and is on display at the Naval History Museum in Mexico City. It is published here on Wikipedia with permission for copying, distribution and modifying under a GNU licence.)