• Print

The Curse of Cortés

National Palace, Mexico City/Schalkwijk/Art Resource/© 2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Detail of Diego Rivera’s Disembarkation of the Spanish at Veracruz>, showing Hernán Cortés as a hunchback, 1951

On the road to Toboso, where he is hoping to meet Dulcinea, Don Quixote talks to Sancho Panza about the nature of fame. He mentions four characters from classical literature who achieved it by acts of unlikely valor, Julius Caesar among them. Then he adds a more modern figure: “the gallant Cortés.” Appearing in Don Quixote alongside Julius Caesar is no mean achievement for a member of the minor aristocracy who enriched himself as a bureaucrat on the furthest shores of the Spanish empire.

The reference in Don Quixote de La Mancha is not the only one Cervantes makes to Hernán Cortés. In “The Novel of the Glass Lawyer,” one of the stories in the Exemplary Novels, he mentions Cortés in passing when writing about Venice:

But thanks be to heaven and the great Hernando de Cortés, who conquered great Mexico City so that great Venice would in some way have some competition. These two famous cities resemble each other in their streets, which are all of water: the one in Europe, the admiration of the old world; the one in America, the fright of the new.

That to Cervantes, Cortés should be like Julius Caesar, and that Tenochtitlan—the original name for Mexico City—was a fright (espanto), gives a clear sense of seventeenth-century imperial Spain’s perception of the Conquest of Mexico. Cortés was a figure with the stature of a classical hero, and the city of Tenochtitlan an abomination that was subjugated and occupied by Spain, with Providence guiding Cortés’s arm.

This perception has changed. Any military occupation that directly or indirectly caused the deaths, in less than a century, of 90 percent of the population is hardly one to celebrate. It is true that Aztec civilization continues to be seen as a particularly bloodthirsty one, but the general assessment of it has also become more sophisticated. If Cervantes—a knowledgeable dissident in his time—lived today, he would recognize Cortés as a genocidal killer and would not define Tenochtitlan as a “fright” but as a triumph of environmentally sound engineering whose inhabitants suffered from a worrying tendency to make violent death into a performance.

In When Montezuma Met Cortés, the American historian Matthew Restall examines documents concerning the military conflict that set the Aztecs in opposition to the Spanish empire in 1520. His aim is to reassess the process of simplification by which Cortés, in his letters to King Carlos I (also Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire), justified the permanent occupation of Mexico and gave it a moral basis. Cortés’s vaguenesses and generalizations were extraordinarily effective—you might accuse him of many things, but not of being unable to tell a convincing story—and implied, according to Restall, that Emperor Montezuma and Cortés had more important parts in the conflict than was actually the case. Restall argues that the Spaniard’s account would come to distort our understanding of what was in fact a messy and confusing war, one that involved several armies and leaders from several nations, all in alliances with or opposition to one another for a variety of reasons.

Before Cortés sailed to Mexico, he had lived in the Caribbean for fifteen years, first in Hispaniola and then in Cuba. Like other settlers, he received encomiendas, grants that gave him land and the right to exploit the labor of native inhabitants, whom he forced to search for precious metals. He served as a notary in Hispaniola and later was secretary to Diego de Velázquez, Cuba’s governor. Restall notes that during this time Cortés did not participate in any of the expeditions that explored or conquered parts of the Caribbean, South America, or Mexico, but rather “lived an ordinary life on Hispaniola and Cuba because he was an ordinary man of ordinary abilities.”

In 1518, Velázquez selected Cortés to lead an expedition along the Mexican coast; according to Restall, he was not a major figure in the power struggles among Cuba’s wealthier and more experienced Spaniards. Before the ships were scheduled to launch, however, Velázquez changed his mind and withdrew his authorization of the mission. Cortés proceeded anyway, departing Cuba with ships and men and landing in Mexico on April 21, 1519. What was meant to be an exploratory voyage eventually became, under Cortés’s illicit leadership, one of conquest. Velázquez later tried to get Cortés declared a traitor for his disobedience.

How did this unremarkable man become as famous as Julius Caesar? At the start of his book, Restall makes use of a term coined by Dennis Tedlock, the translator of the Popol Vuh—the holy book of the K’iche’ Mayas—to define historiography in Mesoamerican cultures. According to Tedlock, the pre-Hispanic epics are “mythistories” because they make no distinction between the factual and the legendary; their function is not to shore up what Westerners define as historical truth, but to supply a foundational narrative that helps a group of people form a collective identity. In the opening pages of When Montezuma Met Cortés, Restall applies Tedlock’s neologism to European narratives of the Conquest. Although European mythistories are based on the historical record, they make use of the beliefs and literary imaginations of those who circulated them with the aim of constructing an ideology that could be exploited for political gain.

In his effort to see history from the Aztecs’ point of view, Restall deploys strategies that have been used before: explaining where indigenous sources came from and how they were written, and examining the work of contemporary Mexican historians and archaeologists, who have always been more inclined to sympathize with the Aztecs than the European and American writers who had, until recently, dominated the discourse on the Conquest of Mexico. The most spectacular and productive of Restall’s strategies is purely rhetorical: by renaming the Conquest of Mexico “the Spanish-Aztec War,” he grants the losers an active part in it. In this same vein, he refers to the Spanish captains and their men by the name given to them by their Nahua allies and enemies: the Caxtilteca, or the people of Castile. He thus situates them more precisely in the historical and political settings in which they were fighting: the Caxtilteca were one small faction—though the most eccentric and ultimately the most politically astute—of many that united behind the Tlaxcaltecas in an internal war for the control of central Mexico.

Restall begins by looking at the accounts of the first Europeans in Mexico, in which he finds a consistent emphasis on those practices that have earned the Aztecs their fearsome reputation: human sacrifice and cannibalism. In one passage that would be amusing had its consequences for the Americas’ native populations not been so devastating, he shows that most estimates of the frequency of human sacrifices in Tenochtitlan come from an unfounded assertion by the Franciscan friar Diego Valadés, who was born twenty-two years after the city fell. Valadés claimed that between 15,000 and 20,000 people were sacrificed in Tenochtitlan per year. Fray Juan de Zumárraga, Carlos I’s confessor and the first archbishop of Mexico, accepted this figure, which, with the passing of time, became 20,000 sacrificed children a year. Then Francisco López de Gomara, Cortés’s confessor and the first formal historian of the Conquest of Mexico, raised the figure to 50,000.

The number is remarkable for how preposterous it is: more than 137 sacrifices a day, five an hour, one every twelve minutes, twenty-four hours a day. Aztec sacrifice was a nonmechanized process that demanded extensive ritual preparation and an individually selected victim, and archaeologists have never found evidence to support the Spaniards’ figures. As Restall points out, although human skulls have been retrieved from ritual burial grounds close to Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor (the city’s main temple), most of the sacrificial remains that have been found belong to animals—wolves mostly—and these remains don’t add up even to hundreds of victims, let alone thousands.

Restall shows that while the Aztecs did indeed practice ritual cannibalism, the fixation on the eating of human flesh in the earliest European accounts of Mexico had a mercantile motive: owing to a royal law from 1503, an enemy fighter who practiced cannibalism could be enslaved for life, and shortly before Cortés left Cuba for Mexico a smallpox epidemic caused a drastic reduction in native manual labor in the Caribbean. The later narratives that were so insistent on the subject of cannibalism are always, in Restall’s view, related to the conquistador generation’s claim to cost-free indigenous servitude. This argument became especially important after the Crown abolished native slavery and gave indigenous subjects rights identical to those of Spaniards in the New Laws of 1542.

Restall next studies the myths that surround Cortés and Montezuma, who until recently were seen as equal agents, with the captain taking an active role. His reconstruction of the depictions of Montezuma begins with recent archaeological findings, which provide insights into his way of governing, and a close look at the descriptions by contemporaries—including Cortés—who saw him as a disciplined, thoughtful, inquiring, exquisitely courteous man. Restall then follows the emperor’s transformation in the Western popular imagination through literary, dramatic, and operatic texts in which he appears as a fearful despot, an indecisive general, and a weakling in thrall to superstitions.

This rehabilitation of the character of Montezuma is complemented by a minutely detailed reconstruction of the texts that transformed Cortés from a rebellious captain who began the conquest without authorization into the heroic figure that the Church in Rome, so devastated by the desertions of Henry VIII and Martin Luther, urgently needed to convey a victorious image. By depicting Cortés as an ingenious strategist, the Church and the Spanish Crown—who had judged him harshly in his lifetime—turned an unattractive war into a providential epic: by the end of the sixteenth century, Cortés had gone from being a political outcast who died alone, in 1547, on an estate on the outskirts of Seville, to the antidote sent by the Holy Spirit to protect Rome and Spain against Lutheran reform.

Restall’s assertion that European accounts of the Spaniards’ invincibility were mythologized is based not only on analysis of documentary evidence, but also on a polemical argument. He asks, as do all of us with any interest in this crucial moment in the expansion of European languages and culture, Why did Montezuma decide to lodge the Conquistadores peacefully in the palace of his father, the former emperor Axayacatl, right beside his own, in the very heart of Tenochtitlan? By the time of the Spaniards’ arrival in the city in November 1519, Montezuma was already finished as emperor of all Mesoamerica, but he was still the central political figure in a respectable territory, and his army was almost totally intact. He could simply have executed the Spaniards the moment they entered the city—a city that, being an island, was also a trap. Moreover, the Spaniards, on their journey inland, had allied themselves with two cities, Tetzcoco and Tlaxcala, which had recently defeated the Aztecs in battle. This would have given Montezuma more reason to execute the foreigners.

In his letters to King Carlos I, Cortés frequently suggested that the many legendary gifts sent by the Aztec emperor to the Spaniards as they made their way from Veracruz toward Mexico City were intended to urge them back to the Caribbean. This, says Restall, is unlikely, since Montezuma never attacked them directly despite having countless opportunities during Cortés’s long march. He proposes something that perhaps should always have seemed obvious: that Montezuma was attempting to seduce them. If the conquistadors made it to Tenochtitlan, entered the city, and were set up in a palace, it’s because that is how Montezuma wanted it.

While Restall’s logical solution to the mystery of the Spaniards’ peaceful entry into Tenochtitlan and their stay there is convincing, his interpretation of the emperor’s motives is less so: he argues that Montezuma wanted the Spaniards close to him because he collected specimens of everything in his empire, and as soon as they had disembarked in it, the Spaniards had been transformed into a kind of novelty. It is true that Montezuma’s Tenochtitlan contained a zoo, a botanical garden, and a palace in which he kept people with exceptional deformities. He enjoyed seeing his own grandeur reflected in the infinite variety of living species in the empire, but to suggest that the emperor decided to convert his father’s house into a menagerie of Europeans might be pulling the thread of speculation too far.

Restall offers a more convincing account of Montezuma’s reason for housing a group of soldiers who had arrived in the city allied to two of the Aztecs’ enemies. He points out that in the 235 days the Spaniards spent in Tenochtitlan before the beginning of open warfare, not a single one of the captains sent a letter, or drafted a minute, or wrote anything at all that survives today. This is remarkable, especially in view of Cortés’s earlier experience as a notary and secretary. The conquistadors, furthermore, were part of a rebellion against the colonial government, so they left behind a trail of documents to protect themselves in case they had to stand trial sometime in the future—as Cortés eventually would.

This documentary silence leads Restall to suspect that it was the Spaniards who submitted to the power of a foreign emperor and not—as the chronicles that followed had it—Montezuma. As he makes clear, the Aztec prince continued to govern peacefully until he was finally taken prisoner by the Spaniards, by which time war was already imminent. Up until that crucial moment the Spaniards, not Montezuma, had had permanent escorts as they moved around the city and the empire. When Cortés returned to Veracruz to fight a new contingent of soldiers sent by the governor of Cuba to arrest him, he had to agree to have a unit from Montezuma’s army accompany him without any intention of taking part in the fighting—Restall is convinced they were acting not as supporting troops, but as guards.

However transparent and simple the story that Restall tells, there remains a problem with the documentary evidence. On the first days of November 1519, at the Palace of Axayacatl, Montezuma seems to have accepted some kind of vassalage to Carlos I of Spain, telling the Spaniards that prophecies had spoken of their arrival in Mexico and of King Carlos’s divine lineage. The conversation was recorded by Cortés in his “Second Letter of Relation,” written almost a year later, but it also appears in accounts and judicial depositions from a number of the soldiers present, as Hugh Thomas notes in his monumental Conquest (1993).

San Ildefonso College, Mexico City/Schalkwijk/Art Resource/© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SOMAAP, Mexico City
José Clemente Orozco: Hernán Cortés and La Malinche, 1926

The basic facts of the matter are the same in all the witnesses’ accounts, including those produced with the aim of denouncing Cortés during his 1526 administrative inquiry, the process of public assessment previous to his return to Spain and decommissioning. This is important because Montezuma’s unexpected acceptance of vassalage allowed Cortés to declare that the Aztecs who rose up after the emperor’s death in 1520 were rebels and to legally wage war against them. The confrontation could likely not have been avoided, nor could Montezuma have understood the consequences of his declaration, but the event was recorded and became a crucial element in what would happen later.

Though Restall’s book is called When Montezuma Met Cortés, it ignores this part of the archive. A reader unfamiliar with Thomas’s reappraisal of the conversation between the emperor and the captain would be left with the impression that Cortés simply lied about Montezuma’s submission. Like Restall, I myself “love to hate” Cortés, and I do think the Spanish-Aztec War should be reconsidered by separating it, as far as possible, from the conquistador narrative, but the archive is the archive, and one shouldn’t replace one mythistory with another.

Restall’s book is less a history than a polemic. It belongs to that strand of American writing driven by the urge to acknowledge the Other’s point of view. Once he gets past the story—always so hard to tell because it is so unrealistic, even if it may have been true—of the meeting between Montezuma and Cortés and what the conquistadors interpreted as a surrender, he undertakes a revealing exercise: removing the two main characters, who are such potent figures and so seductive, from the narrative, and telling it only as a dreadful confrontation between two militarized cultures.

It is generally known that the victory of the Spanish in Mexico was due to the help they received from the cities of Tetzcoco and Tlaxcala, whose uprising against the Aztec empire coincided with Cortés’s progression toward Mexico City. There are, however, holes in the traditional account: Why would the Tlaxcalteca warriors follow a handful of Spaniards to the capital if there were many more of them and they were the ones who knew the terrain? If the Tlaxcalteca accompanied Cortés to Tenochtitlan, why did they not launch their invasion of the city right away? Where were they during the 235 days the conquistadors spent as Montezuma’s guests? Why would Montezuma trust a group of foreigners who were accompanied by an enemy army and let them settle in his city?

War in Mesoamerica, unlike in Europe, was a highly ritualized process, determined by the calendar and agreements between specific groups. Cities did not have defenses—there were no ramparts, no moats, no castles—because the dates and locations of battles were agreed on beforehand, during the brief period in the calendar when the Nahua belief system allowed for fighting. Attacks on cities and open battles with civilian casualties did occur, but they were exceptional. In general, wars were great pieces of choreography in which the appearance of the soldiers’ clothing was more important than its defensive function and in which the fighting happened individually: one man against another. There was no iron and there were no horses. At the end of the fight, each army would return to its city following the imposition of a material tribute and servitude on the losers.

Restall notes that the Spanish captains entered Mexico’s highlands when the city of Tlaxcala, never conquered by Tenochtitlan, upset the balance of Mesoamerican forces by defeating the Aztecs in a series of victories that culminated in the Battle of Cholula in the fall of 1519. The Spaniards fought in this battle as one small unit in the army of the smaller city of Tlaxcala. By the time the war was over, Tenochtitlan was greatly weakened.

Montezuma received Cortés, then, at the darkest moment of his life. He was not oppressed by superstitions about prophecies or ready to surrender to a group of foreigners whom he thought invincible because their God and their skin color were different. He was in the midst of a political crisis. This does explain, perhaps, why on first meeting Cortés he speculated in his polite way that his arrival might have been a divine curse.

When the Spaniards, after their long stay in the city, took the emperor prisoner, the population rose up. It has never been possible to know for certain whether Montezuma was stabbed by the Spaniards, as the indigenous chroniclers would have it, or was stoned by his own people, as the conquistadors claimed. In any case, the Europeans had to flee Tenochtitlan on June 30, 1520, and took refuge across the lake to launch a counterattack as part of the military alliance largely made up of Tlaxcalteca warriors. According to Restall, the number of fighters exceeded the Aztec army by five to one. The presence of the Spaniards among the invaders was not greatly significant: they made up one soldier in two hundred.

In the traditional narrative, the Cortesian epic had something miraculous about it—inexplicable without recourse to the Providence of the Catholics’ God—because the captain managed to conquer a vast, wealthy empire skilled in the art of war despite having arrived in Tenochtitlan with only 250 soldiers. In his reappraisal, Restall demonstrates that this figure, too, is mythic. Though Cortés did indeed begin his march to Tenochtitlan with a mere handful of men, Spanish ships never stopped sailing to Mexico, bringing soldiers, arms, horses, and slaves. On August 13, 1521, the day Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, was captured by Tlaxcalteca warriors while trying to flee the city, there were 980 Spanish soldiers in Tenochtitlan, four times as many as historiography has been telling us for almost five centuries. Still more revealing is the fact that between 2,600 and 3,000 Spaniards had disembarked in Mexico over the little more than two years it took for the Aztec empire to fall. Between 65 and 70 percent of these soldiers had died in combat or from maladies over the course of the war.

What is fascinating about the fall of Tenochtitlan, then, is not the fact that a handful of Spaniards managed—as legend would have it—to win, but what followed: that they ended up taking over Mesoamerica despite the precariousness of their own situation once hostilities had ceased. The real victors had been Tetzcoco and Tlaxcala, and yet the Caxtiltecas ended up imposing their language and government on the Aztecs despite having lost two thirds of their soldiers. In Western accounts, once the war ended and the Aztecs had been subjugated, the Spanish administration was miraculously established: on August 14, 1521, Cortés ordered a Te Deum to be celebrated amid the ruins of Tenochtitlan, and European surveyors, under the rule and supervision of their captain, were already drafting maps and distributing plots of land and Indian captives among the Spaniards.

Restall suggests an explanation for the Spaniards’ improbable success. Immediately after the war, they didn’t have the capital, the men, or the technologies they needed to rule the territory they had just won. The Aztec or Tlaxcalteca nobility, like the nobility of every other Mesoamerican political entity that had direct contact with the conquistadors, maintained its status and privileges, and continued to rule their cities. In 1620, Mexico City was still being governed, under the surveillance of a Spanish viceroy, by Aztec nobility, the descendants of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century emperors. They kept their power, but the population decreased by an unimaginable 90 percent during the first eighty years of Spanish occupation due to epidemics and enforced servitude—still the worst genocide in history.

The spaces left by the dead were being occupied by unceasing waves of Spanish soldiers, adventurers and their families, Taino and African slaves, priests and nuns, and specialized workers needed to construct and maintain the colonial infrastructure. This made the indigenous nobility irrelevant. After the continent was successfully colonized and Europeanized, it was emptied and repopulated. A hundred and eighty-seven million people died during the first century of the occupation of America.

Spain’s American epic was the first modern European project of permanent occupation that actually worked. The military and economic success of the Cortesian expedition gave Europe the narrative of a providential destiny. From that day forth, the languages with global reach and power have all been European ones; Spanish continues to be the most widely distributed language in the world and the second-most spoken language after Mandarin. It was the fall of Tenochtitlan that unleashed the angels and demons of globalization.

—Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn