The Spanish conquest of Mexico is a peculiar moment of cultural exchange in the annals of history.
For the first time, a European power had acquired the technological superiority necessary to decisively subjugate a massive collection of foreign cultures within the span of a few decades. Understanding how this series of vast, virtually unopposed conquests began is vital if we are to understand the history of the world beyond that point. In order to do this, we must carefully examine the first and second-hand sources available from that period to understand the events of the conquest and determine if any biases or inaccuracies are present.
The memoirs of the conquistador Bernal Diaz Del Castillo are, perhaps, the most commonly sourced first hand accounts to examine. Another is the Anonymous Conqueror, who wrote several brief accounts of the events that took place in Mexico. The letters of Hernan Cortes are also firsthand accounts, but they are heavily biased and untrustworthy. The accounts of Torquemada and Sahagun are extremely helpful when examining specific information, and Ixtlilxochitl provides interesting post colonial analysis. Furthermore, conclusions drawn by modern scholars must also be examined and critically analyzed. No source is completely without bias, and each perspective must be looked at with both logic and skepticism.
First and foremost, the depiction of Emperor Moctezuma II by the Spanish is highly questionable in many places. Whether intentionally misleading or not, the Spanish accounts indicate that Moctezuma II was pious, strong willed, kind, amenable, submissive, and superstitious. The Spaniards seem to have had a very positive view of Moctezuma and they indicated that he was in support of their actions and accepted Spanish annexation without quarrel. This view is opposed by many contemporary scholars and historians who now believe that Moctezuma was a weak and ineffective leader and was incapable of properly defending his empire.
Pre colonial accounts of Moctezuma II seem to disagree with both narratives. According to anthropologist Ross Hassig (who himself sources Castillo, Sahagun, Torquemada, etc.), Moctezuma II rose to power in 1502 after the death of his highly successful predecessor Ahuitzotl. Immediately after, Moctezuma purged his entire cabinet, allegedly sentencing all of them to death. This indicates that Moctezuma was extremely thorough when attempting to curb the power of individuals within his court and was capable of making sacrifices in order to accomplish this. Emperors and kings in the Aztec world who were weak-willed and ineffective in war often did not last long, a fact learned by the Aztec emperor Tizoc who “mysteriously” died five years into his stagnant rule.
Moreover, Moctezuma was an accomplished leader at war; personally marching armies of hundreds of thousands of men several hundred kilometers to conquer large tracts of Mixtec and Zapotec land in Oaxaca. In keeping with the usual standard of Aztec imperial rule, many of the regions that rebelled against their new overlords were swiftly reconquered and faced even more demanding tributary obligations. In the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma strengthened the sumptuary laws that granted special rights and privileges to the nobility even further. Based on historical accounts, Moctezuma seemed to heavily favor the nobility over commoners and removed many of the latter from positions of power to replace them with noble lords.
The accounts of Moctezuma II before the Spanish landing, if they are to be entirely trusted, suggest that he was an ambitious man who sought to make a rich empire richer. He did not shy away from political intrigue and assassination, in fact he embraced it as soon as he gained power. He was capable of leading men into battle and, based on his success in Oaxaca, he was at the very least a competent general. He openly supported widening the divide between commoners and nobles, and by granting the nobility power, land, and privilege, he expanded his network of indebted associates throughout the empire and began strengthening his own political role in it. All of this seems to indicate that Moctezuma was interested in transitioning the empire from a decentralized, partially meritocratic confederation to a more stratified, centralized state that was subject to the rule of its emperor.
As far as I am concerned, Moctezuma II was not a weak or ineffective leader; an argument that is further supported by the fact that the Aztec Empire was at its political, military, and economic height by the time the Spanish arrived. Moreover, I find it doubtful that such an ambitious leader would so easily submit to the rule of a foreign party of five hundred soldiers. That being said, when the Spanish arrived in Tenochtitlan, they took Moctezuma captive, forcing him to cooperate if he wished to survive. After a series of both successful and unsuccessful political and military calculations from both Cortes and Moctezuma, war finally began.
There is something of a peculiar trend among historians and anthropologists to justify nearly every action that a society or a person engages in. For example, Jared Diamond’s influence in the anthropological community is not necessarily a bad thing; he has generated a great deal of interest in the subject and made it more accessible for the average reader, but his conclusions are often based entirely on a simplistic view of environmental determinism. Mistakes, misrepresentations, and incorrect assumptions are common, cross cultural occurrences in humanity.
When Cortes landed, Moctezuma incorrectly believed that the Spaniards could be placated with gold and jewels; a catastrophically erroneous assumption. The conquistadors were well led by Hernan Cortes, but even he made several major mistakes with pronounced consequences. According to Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Cortes left Tenochtitlan with a contingent of several hundred soldiers to confront another Spanish expedition led by Panfilo de Narvaez; a captain charged with arresting Cortes for treason. Cortes left Pedro de Alvarado in charge of the Spanish garrison in Tenochtitlan, but during his time away, open hostility had broken out in the city. Pedro de Alvarado, with or without Cortes’ consent (the truth is not fully known), ordered his soldiers to massacre Aztec nobles during a religious celebration. The violence was triggered by a supposed Aztec plan to kill the conquistadors, but ended up backfiring and the Spaniards were overwhelmed and besieged shortly after. Cortes’ soldiers erroneously believed that they had seized total control of the city of Tenochtitlan. In reality, they were hopelessly outnumbered and their miscalculation cost the lives of about 800 Spaniards and as many as several thousand native allies.
Other inconsistencies and incomplete narratives from the Spanish include overestimating and perhaps intentionally inflating numbers. In his memoir The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Diaz Del Castillo writes that, at a temple in a relatively unknown city in Mexico, there was a pile of “no less than 100,000 skulls” from sacrificial victims. The logistical infeasibility of this skull pile cannot be underestimated. Assuming the city could sustainably sacrifice 1,000 people per year, it would still be a century before this skull pile could be completed. The Hueyi Tzompantli, or “great skull rack” in Tenochtitlan had a maximum of probably about 60,000 skulls, despite the fact the Tenochtitlan was the center of the largest empire that central Mexico had ever seen, the city itself had a two hundred year history, and the Mexica probably practiced human sacrifice more than any other ethnic group in the area. By comparison, the city (or town) that Bernal Diaz was describing almost certainly lacked the population and military influence necessary to secure that many captives and then successfully execute them.
Another improbable narrative in some Spanish sources is the insistence that, during the consecration of the Templo Mayor in 1487, some 80,400 prisoners of war were sacrificed over the course of four days. This belief has unfortunately bled into today’s history and many people repeat the same mistake that was uttered nearly five centuries ago. The sacrifices were made in honor of the newest improvement of Tenochtitlan’s largest pyramid. Supposedly, emperor Ahuitzotl and his army had taken all of these captives in battle, and they were presumably disarmed and marched to Tenochtitlan for sacrifice. This scenario becomes extremely unlikely upon the realization that, in order to sacrifice that many people in that span of time, 20,100 people had to be ritually killed each day, or roughly fourteen people per minute.
Some anthropologists have compared this hypothetical scenario to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, which allegedly could not have killed that many people in that amount of time, even with modern technology and brutally efficient execution methods. Other estimates for the number of people killed during that ceremony in Tenochtitlan range from 20,000 people to the Codex Telleriano-Remensis’ low estimate of 4,000. It is impossible to know precisely, largely because both the Spanish and the Aztecs had reason to intentionally exaggerate the numbers to help further their political goals. More recently, it has become common to give the Mexica the benefit of the doubt and I have personally seen many people try to defend or justify human sacrifice. When observing how people lived and died in the past, it’s important to look through an objective lense and reserve judgement.
**This essay was written for my class, Topics in the History of Imperialism – Myth and History in Colonial Encounters**