Victors and Vanquished
The Spanish conquest of Mexico is an epic story that is understudied. The historical documents recounting the events are either written through the memory of the conquerors or the conquered, and as a result there is a great disparity in the facts, those facts changing depending on which side produced the documents. We will take a look at several of the documents published in Victors and Vanquished from both the Spanish and Nahua perspectives, analyzing them for bias, lessons learned, as well as the different contrasts between different perspectives.
In addition I think it is important to look at the overall motivation behind the Spanish conquest. In Bernal Diaz second writing in the book he speaks of the Spanish movement from Santa Maria de la Victoria to San Juan de Ulua. When The Spaniards arrive they have their first meeting with representatives from Moctezuma. According to Diaz, Cortez treats the ambassadors very well, and it seems that Cortez is quite intended on making a good impression with Montezuma as well as the locals, confessing that they are there to simply trade with the Indians.
When Montezuma’s ambassadors return from delivering Cortez’ message to their king, they bring back a good amount of treasures with them. The ambassadors also tell Cortez that Montezumadoes not think an interview is necessary. This is an interesting statement and something that I believe may have shown the hidden motivations behind Montezuma’s thinking. I have to wonder if Montezuma was hoping that if he sent an acceptable amount of gold and some kind words the Spaniards would accept it graciously and be on their way.
When a person in power says something along the lines of, “an interview is not necessary (pp 90),” it is a nice way of saying, “I do not want to be interviewed. ” Political correctness is not something that is new to modern times. Unfortunately for Montezuma, by sending all that gold, his plan backfired as the Spaniards noted that with the helmet filled with fine grains of gold it, “showed us that there were good mines there. ” (pp 89-90) Shortly after this, Cortez informs Montezumaof his strong intentions on meeting him.
Another interesting fact is that Cortez seems very focused on imparting the idea that he is there with peaceful intentions, despite the eight hundred Indians he had left dead in Tabasco. I can understand Cortez’ desire to trade and explore a new country with new people, but the bottom line is that he had more on his mind than trading and exploration. He and his men had received a less than warm welcome in Tabasco, and rather than find another route or turn back (which of course they couldn’t do) they opted instead to kill around eight hundred of the indigenous peoples.
When Montezuma sent that helmet filled with gold to Cortez I believe he sealed his fate. Cortez’ acts of kindness from that point forward were a means to an end, a necessary deposit on what he hoped to be a big payoff. The next few writings I’d like to look at deal with the Chalula massacre. In Adres de Tapia’s account of the incident the Cholulans put up a very friendly front, but are however plotting to kill the conquistadors all along.
The Plot is uncovered through Dona Marina (Cortez translator and mother to his son) once the conquistadors are informed of the plot they confront the Chalulan warriors (who were at the time under the guise of slaves). They end up locking the warriors in a courtyard and then according to de Tapia, “he ordered most of the lords to be killed. ” (pp 118) Then the Spaniards and Indians (Tlaxcalans) went throughout the city, “killing warriors and burning houses. ” (pp 118) De Tapia makes it sound as if the Spaniards were simply executing those guilty of treason and lies.
However I think one has to question if the destruction of the entire city was necessary. Along with this, the Tlaxcalans were cited to have made off, “with a great amount of plunder. ” (pp 118) It is hard for me to believe that while the Tlaxcalans were making off with all that plunder, the conquistadors were standing by not indulging themselves. In my opinion, the Tlaxcalans provide a good scapegoat for the conquistadors. The other side of this story written by Sahagun offers some key differences (as expected).
Sahagun’s story is much simpler than de Tapia’s with the conquistadors arriving in Cholula and having been previously warned by the Tlaxcalans that, “the Cholulans are very evil; they are our enemies. ” (pp 121) They simply issue a general summons for the higher ranking officials and warriors to assemble in the courtyard and slaughter them followed by the city. According to Sahugun the Chalulans were not even armed. Sahagun goes on to describe the conquistadors as a war machine.
Mentioning all the iron incorporated with their weapons and armor, and making it sound like they steamrolled through Chalula which was a small bump on their way to Mexico. One interesting fact is that in this account there is no mention of the plunder that Diaz had mentioned. Given the Nahua’s obvious spite for the conquistadors it seems likely that they would take every opportunity to mention all the negative aspects of the Spanish conquest. This leads you to believe they either did not know about it, or it didn’t happen (most likely the former. They do make mention of the conquistadors greed when shortly after Montezuma sent them gold gifts and, “Like monkeys the grabbed the gold. It was as though their hearts were put to rest. ” (pp 122) The Spaniards entry into Tenochtitlan was initially surprisingly peaceful. With each leader feeling out the other, Montezuma especially seems to be very cordial toward the Spaniards treating them as teules (gods). This shaky peace ends abruptly with a bloodbath during the fiesta of Huitzilopochtli.
There are three documents dealing with this massacre that I’d think are important to look over. All the documents are fairly short in length, but there are a lot of things to consider. The first document written by Francisco Lopez de Gomara (whom Bernal Diaz often mentions with disdain) discusses the fiesta covering some of the rituals and dances, then quickly progresses to the Indian murders. The only motivation Gomara offers as to why the Spanish so abruptly decided to abandon peace was that, “they coveted their gold and jewels. (pp 162) Thus the Spaniards locked the doors to the temple and murdered all that were inside taking from them their treasures. Given the conquistadors track record up to this point it is not unbelievable that this could happen, but I find myself wondering if there wasn’t something more persuading them. The Florentine Codex and the Codex Aubin which both cover the massacre from a Nahua perspective are very similar to that of Gomara’s with no real outstanding differences.
This begs the question, was the treasure present at the ceremony reason enough to attack? I think that question is answered in another source. Bernal Diaz while describing the initial entry of the Spaniards into Tenochtitlan seems to be fairly peaceful as mentioned before. There is, however a turning point is his writings. The Spaniards find a cemented door near there quarters in the city and end up breaking into it, only to discover a large storehouse of treasure.
The description of the vast quantities of gold was like a dream. Immediately after this discovery the Spaniards start to feel like they are wearing out their welcome, and that the Aztecs are becoming more hostile toward them. This should not be surprising given that they had broken into the Aztecs treasure vault, of sorts. However the conquistadors discovery of the chamber seems to be the major turning point in the relations between the Aztecs and the Spaniards and is what I believe led to the massacre and ventual conquer of the empire. In my opinion the Spaniards greed was ultimately one of the biggest driving forces behind the destruction of the Aztec empire. When analyzing historical documents it is very difficult to try and read between the lines and separate fact from fiction. Undoubtedly emotions and time cloud people’s memories. However with so many various sources I think you begin to realize the truth stereotypically resides somewhere close to the middle.