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Conquest in history. The conquest of Mexico can be considered one of the events in the world history that can be perceived in accordance with the literary sources available on the conquest. As such, two reputable sources Five Letters of Cortés to the Emperor: 1519-1526 by Hernan Cortés and The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel Leyn-Portilla advocate different perspectives on this historic phenomenon with detailed descriptions and evidence.
However, to have a full picture of what has happened in Mexico in the era of the Aztec empire, it is necessary to take into account both perspectives and analyze views of both sides of the conflict.
Disparities in Amerindian and Spanish versions. The main portion of disparities in the versions reported by Spaniards and Amerindians concerns the role of both sides in the conflict and the position they advocate. Thus, Spaniards, whose version has been regarded as the only documentary source of the conquest, perceive this conflict as an ordinary thing when they told the inhabitants about their friendly intentions but razed the city to collect gold and other riches.
At the same time, Amerindians’ perspective reflects the culture of the Aztecs and lack of knowledge about the real plans of Spaniards. Though these two sources are completely different, they have a lot in common as they demonstrate the same events from different perspectives and seem t complement each other.
Comparison of Sources
First reports about the contact of Spaniards and Aztecs, mission of Spaniards, and perception of Aztecs. The first encounters of Spaniards and Aztecs are perceived in different ways by the two authors. As such, Cortés claims that Spaniards were friendly to the natives and wanted to establish commercial relations with the representatives of the Aztec empire in order to trade with them while the natives welcomed them in a hostile manner and many Spaniards were killed or wounded:
Cortés, replying by means of the native interpreter whom he had with him, informed them he was going to do them no harm but admonish them and bring them to the knowledge of our Holy Catholic Faith, that they might become vassals of your Majesty and serve and obey him, as had the Indians and peoples of those parts which are already peopled with Spanish subjects of your Majesty (Cortés Five Letters 4).
At the same time, this event was described in a completely different way by Leyn-Portilla.
The Aztecs were terrified when they came to know about the arrival of strangers but though them to be of divine origin. So, “Prince Ixtlilxochitl of Tezcoco … left his city with a group of followers to greet Cortés in peace” (Leyn-Portilla II-330).
This means that the Aztecs were ready to welcome the strangers and share everything they had with them because they believed Spaniards to be the gods that returned to their country to rule it. In other words, the perception of Aztecs was widely marked with their religious traditions and cultural peculiarities whereas the perception of Spaniards was marked only with a desire to serve the crown of his Majesty, spread Christianity at all costs, and enrich themselves and the Spanish rulers with the gold they noticed in the continent.
The difference occurs due to the varieties in the perception of the conquest as a concept by both sides as for one party this was a massacre and destruction of the empire while for another this became a source of wealth.
The image of Aztecs by Spaniards, and image of conquistadors by Aztecs. The image of each party differs greatly from another. This happens due to the disparities in their views, background knowledge of both sides, ability to infer from what they see, and use the information acquired for further development.
At the same time, both authors emphasize the divine origin of Spaniards as perceived by Aztecs. For instance, Amerindians thought Spaniard to be their gods and were ready to accept whatever they say due to their desire to be helpful for their gods.
The first contacts of Spaniards and Aztecs reflect the admiration of both parties, “the prince was astonished to see a man with such white skin and with a beard and with so much courage and majesty” (Leyn-Portilla II-331) as well as Cortés openly admired the people he saw. This means that friendly relationships could be the basis for future cooperation, commerce, and partnership.
The main reason for Spaniards to attack the Aztecs included their desire to serve the Spanish crown and “bring the natives of the land to the knowledge of our Catholic faith” (Cortés The Fifth Letter 4) and collect the riches of the land in order to bring those to the mainland for their rulers. As reported by Townsend, “The belief was part and parcel of their [Aztecs’] cosmology and does not by any means indicate that they were lacking in intelligence or that their culture was ‘less developed’” (para. 4).
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The main reason for their differences was the way they wanted to cooperate because it was important for Aztecs to remain a state with its own ruler and culture whereas the Spaniards tried to spread their faith by any means and retrieve as much gold and other riches from this abundant land as they could using violence to persuade people take their side.
Tenochtitlan and Cortés razing the main city of Aztec empire. The aspect of cooperation is viewed differently by the two authors who provide evidence to support their perspectives. At the same time, this aspect appears to be decisive for both parties as they have different missions and have different means for their accomplishment.
As such, it is necessary to review the source by Chaliand who cites an excerpt from the book Letters from Mexico by Hernan Cortés where the captain Cortés reports the rulers of Spain about the victory over natives and the results of their campaign and the city they have captured. Moreover, the author enumerates the cities they have destroyed and other ‘successful outcomes’.
On the contrary, this situation with the main city of the Aztec empire called Tenochtitlan was perceived as the cruel and unfair action of Spaniards toward the native inhabitants of this land. Leyn-Portilla describes: “When the Spaniards entered the Royal House, they placed Motecuhzoma under guard and kept him under their vigilance” (II-334). This means that they pretended to be friendly only to reach the gold and were not interested in commerce with these people.
Spaniards used Aztecs to reach their goal and performed their tasks with special cruelty; they “gathered all the gold into a great mount and set fire to everything else, regardless of its value” (Leyn-Portilla II-334). This means that Spaniards did not care about the cultural heritage of the native people of Mexico because they wanted gold and they received gold – the goal was attained.
However, the razing of the city of Tenochtitlan is not described by Cortés as something inappropriate which should not have been done or special needs of soldiers or aggression from natives that could have caused such violent response. The more interesting is the question why the natives allowed Spaniards to capture their chief and burn their houses and deprive them of their riches and other valuable issues.
Warfare: Gap in technological issues. The gap in technology made the Aztecs unable to conquer the Spaniards and defend themselves and their princes. If
Cortés writes that the Aztecs “many enclosures, pits and ditches, and many kinds of weapons” (131); however, these weapons were mostly for fighting with other people from other settlings and for hunting. Such perspective helps to analyze the entire concepts of the conquest and its success for Spaniards because they could use their more advanced weapon to conquer these people with spending minimal human resources on this.
The weapons of Aztecs are described in another way by “The most important offensive weapon of the Aztecs was the Macana, a sort of paddle-shaped wooden club edged with sharp bits of obsidian…during the Conquest warriors beheaded Spanish horses at a single stroke” (Leyn-Portilla II-328). Besides, the rituals were an integral part of the Aztec culture and they did not start a war without declaring it to the enemies.
In fact, the tradition to declare war explains everything as the Aztecs were not ready to fight because they welcomed Spaniards as their friends. At the same time, both perspectives include description of weapons and warfare skills of the Aztec warriors contrasted to the lack of knowledge about the territory possessed by the Spaniards. In other words, the main technological advantage of the Spaniards can be considered the way they started the war without declaring it and caught them unawares.
Though Spaniards had indigenous allies among natives, they suffered from endemic diseases which were one of the main drawbacks of their army whereas natives were less vulnerable in terms of their health and endemic diseases but truly believed in respect and other virtues typical of noble men (as you remember, they admired the courage and majesty of Cortés when they first saw him).
The controversy that arises after reviewing the sources on the Mexican conquest can be directed into another way. After accurately analyzing the evidence provided by Hernan Cortés and Miguel Leyn-Portilla in their books suggesting quite opposing accounts of this historic event, it is possible to advocate the idea that these two sources complement each other because it is inappropriate to infer after regarding the perspective of only one party of the conflict.
This means that the differences in the description of first contacts, razing of Tenochtitlan, and analysis of warfare peculiarities can be smoothed with the help of dual perspective. In other words, the importance of objective idea about the main historic events is the key way to success and this approach should be used every time certain controversy over the issue arises.
Chaliand, Gérard. The Art of War in World History: From Antiquity to the Nuclear Age. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994. Print.
Cortés, Hernán. The Fifth Letter of Hernan Cortes to the Emperor Charles V, Containing an Account of His Expedition to Honduras. Elibron.com, 2001. Print.
Cortés, Hernándo. Five Letters of Cortés to the Emperor: 1519-1526. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1991. Print.
Leyn-Portilla, Miguel. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992. Web.
Townsend, Camilla. “Burying the White Gods: New Perspectives on the Conquest of Mexico.” The American Historical Review 108.3 (2003): 56 pars. Web. <https://historycooperative.org/journal/burying-the-white-gods-new-perspectives-on-the-conquest-of-mexico/>.