It is given to us by pastors, writers, and musicians as an illustration for how sold out for Jesus we should be when we give our lives to him. It’s the story of how we should be like Cortes, the great Spanish explorer who burned his entire fleet upon reaching the destination of his mission. Landing at present-day Veracruz, Mexico, he destroyed his ships so that when the going got rough his men would have no means of retreat. It was do or die trying. No going back, only pressing on.
It’s a great message and an attitude for which every Christian should strive to emulate. Christ calls us and calls us fully. No cheap grace. We are to die to everything else and live fully for the one who has saved us.
Search for “Burn Your Ships” and you’ll find dozens of sermons written and preached on this topic. But while the message is true, the illustration is not. At least not completely.
Scholars have long researched and written on the fascinating life of this Christianizing explorer and conqueror and have remarkable detail and knowledge of Cortes’s exploits in the Americas. Among these scholars, it is well documented and common knowledge that the historical record does not indicate Cortes actually burned his boats, as folklore popularly has it, nor removed any chance of retreat.
He did not burn his boats at all, but scuttled them—at least most of them. As ordered, the crew ran all but one aground and physically stripped the vessels of all their rigging, sails, weapons, and tackle, using the materials and timbers to build the necessary houses for the troops. Cortes explained in his own writing that the “we’re all in and there’s no turning back” part of the story is largely true in sentiment if not in actuality. After dismantling their ships, each man, as he reports, “then had nothing to rely on, apart from his own hands, and the assurance that they would conquer and win the land, or die in the attempt.”
The scuttling was not motivated by bravery and commitment, but solely to prevent Cortes’s men from escaping the trials and dangers ahead in their conquest by leaving for the safety and resources of Cuba. And they did leave that one ship intact, kept for riches and treasures to be sent back to their king in Spain. The boat also afforded a remaining opportunity for the higher-ranking men to beat a hasty retreat if things turned really bad.
However, the assumption that the boats were burned rather than manually deconstructed was not created out of thin air. The celebrated British historian Hugh Thomas in his magisterial history of Cortes’s adventures explains how the misunderstanding likely arose:
The mistake [originating in the latter half of the 16th century] perhaps derives from the fact that the early documents spoke of the boats breaking, quebrando; thanks to the bad handwriting of a scribe. . . . [The early historian recounting the tale] may have read the word as quemando, “burning.”
But Thomas and other scholars show that Cortes himself, writing his account of the experience, explains that it was a deliberate grounding and dismantling, not a burning, that destroyed nearly all of his ships.
So let’s use the story of Cortes and his ships to illustrate the truth of the radical commitment Christ calls us to. But let us do it with the story as it truly was.
Winston A. Reynolds, “The Burning Ships of Hernán Cortés,” Hispania, Vol. 42 (1959), pp. 317-324.
Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortez, and the Fall of Old Mexico (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993) p. 222-223.