Voices from the 16th Century: Cristobal de Pedraza on the ‘four who perished of hunger’



Hernán Cortés (pictured) is infamously remembered as the Spanish conquistador who initiated the fall of the Aztec empire, primarily through taking advantage of Aztec superstition and introducing European pathogens to an indigenous population which had no immunity.

Nevertheless, Cortés still had to work.

On many a visit to a new village, he brought with him not only soldiers but musicians. The intent was to impress native peoples with ritual, something they could relate to. Music could be shared and appreciated even if no common language existed. It was part of Cortés’ campaign involving “conquest and conversion.”

On one occasion, however, the mission was compromised and the musicians ended up getting the short end of the stick. And it didn’t even involve any sort of confrontation with indigenous people.

Cortés decided to go after one of his former men, Cristóbal de Olid, a conquistador turned black sheep, who marched south in an attempt to take over Honduras.

In pursuit, Cortés took with him a group of soldiers and, surprisingly, five musicians (players of shawms, sackbuts, and dulcians). The mission had plenty of men but not enough supplies to sustain them.

They inevitably ran out of food, so they kept themselves alive by eating their horses. When that was no longer an option the Spaniards turned to cannibalism.

Unfortunately, four of the five musicians were on the menu.

The details of the musicians’ tragic demise were preserved by Bartolomé de Medrano, the sole surviving musician, whose testament was taken down and recounted some two decades later by Cristóbal de Pedraza, the first Bishop of Honduras:

“Medrano who at present is a shawmer at Toledo Cathedral told me, and many others as well, that he had eaten the brains of the sackbut player Montesinos, native of Seville, and the intestines and brains of Bernardo Caldera, brother of the licenciado Caldera who was a long time in Peru.

Also he said he helped eat Bernardo Caldera’s cousin.

These four instrumentalists were all natives of Seville, specially contracted for Cortés’ service, and all four perished of hunger in the expedition.” (Translation: Robert Stevenson)

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