To keep those who remained loyal to the Cuban governor [Valazquez] from returning to Havana and disclosing his treachery, Cortez resorted to a simple but drastic expedient. Once he and his men landed on the shores of Mexico he burned his ships.As a college freshman hoping to become a teacher of history, I highlighted the declaration that Cortés burned his ships and committed this fact to memory. Now, Hugh Thomas informs me that this fact is none such: it is a fabrication that results from bad handwriting.
Allen Weinstein and R. Jackson Wilson, Freedom and Crisis, 2nd ed., 11.
The Caudillo next proceeded with audacity to an action which took even his friends by surprise. He ordered the masters of nine of the twelve ships which were anchored off Villa Rica to sail their vessels on to the sands.It is important that we get these facts correct. Thomas states that the “action was, as all who observed the thing agree, and as Cortés himself wrote, a grounding, not a burning” (223). The phrase “the burning of the boats,” he tells us, first appeared in 1546 in Diálogo de la Dignidad del Hombre (Dialogue of the Dignity of Man) by Cervantes de Salazar. Thomas speculates that the error derives from confusion between two words rendered indistinguishable by sloppy handwriting: quebrando (breaking) and quemando (burning).
Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico, 222.
Whether burned or run on the sand and stripped of rigging and wood, it remains true that Hernán Cortés achieved two important aims, augmenting his army with former sailors now become soldiers, and, more important, committing his forces to success or death in Mexico. But the legend that he burned ships that were, in fact, run aground threatens to cast doubt on many other details of the enterprise. The legend carries history into the realms of myth.
Postscript 1 March 2008:
I found an old article, absent from the footnotes to pp. 222-223 in Conquest, that makes an effort to explain the development of the myth The conclusion sums the author's point.
The expression in English and Spanish "to burn one's boats" (quemar las naves), a reference to Cortés in the minds of many people, has contributed to its continuing popularity and perpetuation. In the end, to present the legend today as historical fact can only be attributed to ignorance; but its use in creative literature must not be condemned, for it is dramatically appealing and actually a mere embellishment of the truth. Cortés' deed, one way or the other, remains a universal symbol of bold vision and heroic action.
Winston A. Reynolds, "The Burning Ships of Hernán Cortés," Hispania 42 (1959), 322.