As legend now has it, Cortés decided to preempt this plan of action. Accordingly, he had the men burn their ships. Cortés instinctively understood that, with their ability to retreat to their previous way of life now gone, he and his men were now left no option but to press on toward their stated objective. Simply put, he removed their safety net!
The burning of those ships was a powerful statement. Far more than just separating he and his men from their old ways and old comfort zones, it symbolized what lay ahead. For it now represented the blazing fire within their hearts that would be needed to complete their mission, and in so doing, to be a part of something far greater than their own selves.
Thus it is that the phrase “burn your ships” has come down to us as reminder of making a total commitment. When we burn our ships, as it were, we let go of our safety nets and turn our focus from the past to the future. In so doing, we recognize that there is now no turning back to old habits or old ways or old securities. We then turn to face our destiny; and, without reservation, we boldly march forward!
I do not know how well Hernán Cortés knew the Bible. But I do know that the notion of “burning your ships” has a Biblical precedent. We read about this in the Old Testament Book of I Kings (chapter 19, verses 15-21) in the story of the call of the Prophet Elisha. The context is that the Prophet Elijah has been instructed by God to seek out Elisha and ordain him as his successor. Beginning in verse 15, we read:
19So Elijah went and found Elisha son of Shaphat plowing a field. There were twelve teams of oxen in the field, and Elisha was plowing with the twelfth team. Elijah went over to him and threw his cloak across his shoulders and then walked away. 20Elisha left the oxen standing there, ran after Elijah, and said to him, “First let me go and kiss my father and mother good-bye, and then I will go with you!”
Elijah replied, “Go on back, but think about what I have done to you.” 21So Elisha returned to his oxen and slaughtered them. He used the wood from the plow to build a fire to roast their flesh. He passed around the meat to the townspeople, and they all ate. Then he went with Elijah as his assistant.
To his credit, the young man Elisha demonstrates a total commitment to his new found calling. He slaughters his oxen and burns his plow to create a fire to cook the meat they provide. Then he gives away this meat to feed others, says his good-byes, and never looks back!
Thus we see in the story of the calling of the Prophet Elisha a young man who, like Alexander some 600 years later, and like Caesar some 800 years later, and like Cortés some 2500 years later, burns any connection he has to the past and all it provides.
For Elisha, after that day, gone were the comforts, the security, and the allure of the past. From that day onward, he was only going one direction: forward!
What about you? Do you have any ships that you need to burn today? Is your own future currently held in check by any inordinate connection to your past? If so, then why not strike the match and set your personal ships ablaze? You might be surprised to discover just how freeing it is. And also just how exhilarating!
STORY SOURCE: Available widely in varying forms on the internet.
Cf.: https://blog.thecenterforsalesstrategy.com/burn-your-ships-how-to-be-a-great-leader; as well as https://www.weburntheship.com/the-story/.
NOTE: Some historians say that Cortés sunk his ship on the premise that they were no longer seaworthy. Either way, he removed any possible means of abandoning his agenda and retreating by sea.
Cf. : http://www.pbs.org/conquistadors/cortes/cortes_d00.html; as well as:
NOTE ALSO: The notion of burning one’s ships so as to prevent retreat has been variously attributed to many historical conquerors. Among them are Alexander the Great in his invasion of Asia (“We go home in Persian ships or we die!”), Julius Caesar, and even the Vikings.
SCRIPTURE SOURCE: https://biblehub.com/nlt/1_kings/19.htm.