The conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards to this day reigns as the example of the true beginning of the colonization of the Americas. For the centuries since these fateful few months, authors have tried to document what exactly took place in 1519. The cruelty and brutality became to some an example of the horrors Europe had imposed on colonized people; to many others a heroic tale of the superior Spanish conquest over the misguided childlike natives. To explore the historiography of this event we have to cover nearly 500 years of writing beginning with the body of works by Bartholomé de Las Casas and the many years of debate over the legitimacy his interpretations. We then move to the changes of this interpretation as authors began to try and justify the conquest by the Spanish. And eventually we find in the wake of World War Two and the explosion of cultural and social history a complete revisioning of the study of the conquest looking at angles previously unexplored and growing the field exponentially. Lastly, we look at modern research and the exploration of what caused a mere 600 Spaniards to conquer a nation of millions with such ease.
In April of 1519, Hernan Cortes landed at the spot of what would today come to be called the city of Vera Cruz. Within a matter of days the ambassadors of Moctezoma kept a line of communication between the Spaniards and the throne of Tenochtitlan. Their arrival and their lack of a city of origin made them an extreme disruption to the tributary empire that the Aztecs built. Cortes’s arrival had begun from the months at Vera Cruz to the march on Tenochtitlan to break down the social order of the Aztec empire. By the time the Spanish arrived in Tenochtitlan in November, they had already forged their alliance with the Tlaxcalan's, long time enemies of the Aztecs. Moctezoma then exchanged gifts with the Spaniards, likely as a way to show off his power. Cortes upon receiving these gifts interpreted it as a sign of submission to the king of Spain. Cortes’s strategy began to shift once he received two large disks made of gold and silver. Once they arrived in Tenochtitlan, Moctezoma gifted them with gold and rare feathers; at this point the Aztecs had documented “they lusted for it [the gold] like pigs”. The Spaniards also came clothed in iron, a mysterious practice to the Aztecs. When they saw the Spaniards’ horses they likened them to large angry dogs. The Mexican natives gave a respect and admiration for the courage of horses they never extended to their masters. As conflict broke between them, the Aztecs learned the Spanish did not fight fairly, attacking unarmed and sleeping men or mutilating emissaries. The Mexicans found that the Spaniards did not follow their proper idea of warfare. The Spaniards would kill from a distance with the use of crossbows and canon artillery, or retreated from battle. They employed methods of starvation and attacked soldier and civilian alike. The Spaniards eventually captured Moctezoma and held him hostage. Cortes upon returning from a conflict with other Spanish forces returned to an incident in which several Spaniards had slaughtered unarmed Aztecs dancing in a sacred ceremony. The Spaniards were driven from the city; many were killed in an event the Spaniards came to call the ‘Noche Triste’. In the uprising that caused this evacuation, Moctezoma was killed. Believing the Spanish defeated, the new rulers felt safe until smallpox ravaged the great city, the Aztecs having no experience with plague or diseases on this scale. Within a year the Spanish returned to Tenochtitlan with their new allies and after a four month siege, the city of Tenochtitlan had fallen. With this came the fall of Mexico to the Spanish conquistadores. This of course is one of the most modern interpretations however of the conquest, and it comes after many debates over the centuries.
The first written popular historical account of the conquest of Mexico was by the Dominican friar Bartholomé de Las Casas. Much of the historiography of the conquest relies on his works and the verdict on Las Casas himself. In 1542 (published in 1552) he released his first historical account of the Latin American conquest called A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. The documentation of the conquest of Mexico as well as other areas of Latin America was written less as an objective amoral approach to record the events of the conquest, but read as a plea on behalf of the natives of the West Indies.
Despite returning to Spain, Las Casas remained an advocate for the rights of the natives of Latin America. One of the actions Las Casas is most famous for is his debate with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda where he defended the natives against the accusations of barbarism and a natural inclination to servitude. This debate resulted in the publishing of the book The Second Democrates, or reasons that justify war against the Indians. This publication resulted to be the final verdict of the public policy towards the natives and made the established history that the natives of Latin America were naturally inclined towards slavery and that the conquest was justified. It set the president on the case of ethnocentricity and racist interpretation of Aristotle’s ideas on politics. Las Casas published a work attacking these premises in a book called Apologética historia sumaria (A Brief Apologetic History). He continued to write in defense of the natives until his death in 1566. His depiction of the conquest of Mexico shaped the next four centuries of Historiography on the subject.
Las Casas’s depiction of the conquest of the new world and the conquest of New Spain in particular is called today the ‘black legend’. In his work An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies he begins his section on the conquest of New Spain with the moral plea right away. His first sentence on the Conquest of Mexico is “In the year 1517 New Spain was discovered, and in that discovery great atrocities were wrought upon the Indians and not a few deaths committed by those who did discover it.” He framed the actions of the Spaniards towards the natives as evidence of a loss of the Christian way of life and without any dignity. He depicted the cities and kingdoms of the Natives around Mexico City as just as rich and fertile as the kingdoms of Spain. He then documented what were the first popular record of the conquest and the story of Moctezoma and Cortes. Strangely, Las Casas does not mention very specific things that are considered today essential parts of the conquest of Mexico. He did not refer to Cortes by name, he ignored the allegiance with the Tlaxcala people, he did not mention La Malinche and he did not reference anything about the culture of the Aztecs. In essence the purpose of the writings of Las Casas seems geared towards creating a stereotype of the Conquistador and emphasizing their brutality while leaving the natives as a pure, noble people. There were large omissions on the allegiances made and in the end remains woefully incomplete. Many questions such as how the Spaniards managed to defeat the Aztec empire are not even asked.
This black legend was propagated quickly through Europe, thanks largely to the printing press. By the end of the 16th century the account had been translated many times and spread across Europe. Protestant nations in Europe took this account as a justification for their settlement in the Americas and to demonize the Catholics. The widespread impact of this work generated centuries of debate over the lifelong works of Las Casas. The majority of historical writings on the Conquest of Mexico from the time of Las Casas until the mid-19th century were based on his writings.
The renaissance saw little change in the historiography of the conquest of Mexico. For nearly two centuries the record was more or less still that of Las Casas. This began to shift with the romantic period of the mid-19th century. This new approach to the history of the conquest took up a notably pro-Spanish slant that persisted until the mid-20th century. This time period is called the ‘white legend’ and primarily existed amongst English Historians.
This change in perspectives is exemplified in several historians one such example is William H. Prescott. In his work Conquest of Mexico, there is an addition of much more detail such as the Tlaxcalan’s and Cortes’s ability to translate via Malinche. At the time of his publication in 1843 there was little in the way of scholarly writings on the conquest of Mexico and therefore his works added much needed details to the narrative of the time. Though it is very present in his works, especially in his Monumental History of the Conquest of Peru he shows a significant pro-Spanish bias. In the Conquest of Mexico he downplays much of the violence of the Spaniards and while using the at the time relevant idea of historicism, he still implies that the conquest was justified by the bringing of European civilization to the new world.
Another Historian while he did not focus on Mexican history but became an example of this movement was the Historian Francis Parkman. His works on the conquest of North America is another example like Prescott of an apologist history of the European colonization of the new world. Parkman, like Prescott had the idea of a superior Christian society righteously conquering the pagans of the Americas. Though natives in Parkman’s works were romanticized and made into heroes, they were always portrayed as hopelessly in combat against the growing superior white civilization in their land. The history of this time downplayed the cruelties and created a more romantic view of imperialism by the Spanish. Though there is still evidence of an anti-Catholic slant in these works, there is still the strong influence of the popular Social Darwinism of the time regarding the Spanish and the natives. Las Casas in this time was marginalized as a misguided, naïve writer who exaggerated the negative aspects of the Spanish conquest.
As the 20th century began these positions got more extreme. As historicism began to become an antiquated position and relativism took a dominant role, there began to be even stronger and surprisingly more confident approaches to the Spanish conquest. One such author who is known for his outright defenses of Spanish cruelties is Arthur S. Aiton. In his paper Real Hacienda in New Spain Under the First Viceroy Aiton defends some of the most brutal acts of the Spanish Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. These actions included during the Mixton war using cruel forms of punishment such as firing natives out of cannons. Aiton describes the actions as a necessary means to punish the natives by using fear. Aiton is an example of the White Legend as it moved into the relativist period and reflecting the tone of some academics in the interwar period. Bailey W. Diffie and Lewis Hanke did not dismiss the writings of Las Casas, but even used them as examples of Spanish benevolence to further the white legend. Diffie and Hanke and the revision of the White Legend were considered the last stage of this period. Though this was still an example of apologetic writing on behalf of Spanish imperialism, the perspective would come to change by the end of the Second World War, reinventing the entire perspective of Las Casas and expanding the field exponentially.
Las Casas was ‘redeemed’ after the Second World War by authors Juan Friede and Benjamin Keen when they published the book Bartolomé de las Casas in History: Toward an Understanding of the Man and His Work. Published in 1971, this is considered the grand piece that reanalyzes the works of Las Casas and in the introduction of the book states that the reputation of Las Casas has never been higher. It is an example of a Historical figure being lionized by the changes in outlooks of people over time. This change is likely brought on by the changing attitudes towards racism and colonization that exemplifies the post-World War II era. After this point, while Las Casas has been placed in his historical context and his role in other fields like political science and theology are still discussed, he is rarely used as a primary source for the conquest of Mexico.
In this post-World War Two age there was also a growing interest in social history. Approaching the conquest this meant a renewed interest in native perspectives. One such example is the works of Charles Gibson. Over his time as a Historian he published many works on Latin American history with a perspective of the natives kept close at hand. On the conquest of Mexico he published the book The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule where he describes in detail the cruelties and violence done towards the natives of Mexico in the conquest. His perspective also took into account the survival methods of the natives of Mexico and how they learned to cope with Spanish rule. Works like this continue even today with a notable Modern example being the work of James Lockhart such as The Nahuas After the Conquest. In The Nahuas After the Conquest Lockhart even refers several times to the works of Charles Gibson as he crafted a history of the conquest and post-conquest world using solely Nahuatl sources. This combined with the explosion of discoveries of Aztec artifacts in the latter half of the 20th century has led to an increased interest in Aztec culture. Differentiation in cultures in the historical narrative by Historians in this time became more detailed and the natives were no longer referred to as ‘Indians’ but cultural groups such as the Maya, the Apache, and the Nahuas.
This leads to the modern point in which there appears to be a division in the narratives that Historians choose to follow today. The focus seems to be on either the writings of native resistance and adaptation to conquest; an angle that requires close analysis of Nahuatl sources and the growing archaeological evidence that compared to other cultures has been unearthed fairly recently. There is another angle that chooses to focus on the destruction of the natives which by nature requires more analysis of European sources and on the colonial system the Europeans built in the new world. Most recently this field has started to question why the conquest of Mexico happened so easily, analyzing the politics of Cortes and the spreading of disease as well as the differences in technologies. Some Historians chose to shift from finding the details of the conquest and through analysis find out why exactly the Spanish had such a remarkable advantage over the Mexicans.
For most of the historiography of the conquest there was next to no literature on the reasons the Spanish defeated the Aztec empire with such ease. For most, the explanation given by Cortes in his letters on the alliance with the Tlaxcalans seemed sufficient. Though in recent times, there has been more broad looking attempts to find out why places like Mexico found themselves so technologically behind and so prone to conquest by the Europeans. The most recent efforts to uncover the underlying reasons for the conquest of Mexico is best summarized by the author Jared Diamond when he published his book Guns, Germs, and Steel in 1997. By the title it is not surprising his determination for the reasons the Mexicans fell so easily to the Spanish came down to the inventions of gunpowder and steel as well as European diseases. What Diamond set out to do with his book was to determine why Human civilizations technologically progressed at different rates. His main argument is that the technological dominance of Eurasians has not to do with ingenuity but a natural luck and opportunity passed on geography. In essence, a series of preconditions helped the Eurasian people to progress as they did. He argued that the development of agriculture and sedentary societies is the first major step towards an advanced civilization and that Eurasia with the animals and plants available was the best suited to have powerful agricultural potential. Eurasia also had access to useful protein-rich animals as well as beasts of burden to increase the potential work force of their civilization like the donkey or the horse. He contrasted this with the available fauna of Mesoamerica which had nothing in the way of beasts of burden larger than a dog and the only rich food crop maize took much longer to selectively breed into the useful crop it is today. He made a large argument over the domestication of the large animals, and how the sheer size of Eurasia allowed for the greatest chance to have the most docile large animals in the world. While South America only had two and the rest of the world had none. He argued that proximity to these animals crossed over many different diseases making Eurasians the most exposed to disease while in areas like Mexico lack of closeness between animals and Humans meant that very few diseases took root. Some major criticisms of this book include accusations of an environmental determinist outlook and have been called a euro centrist historian for his giving credit to Europeans for Asian and Middle-Eastern inventions.
The question of why the Mexicans were conquered with such ease by the Spaniards is now debated between many factors. While the field has branched out and learned a considerable amount in just the last half of the 20th century, there are still many questions left to answer. The importance of each of the major factors like disease, technology, and strategic alliances are still not fully determined and other established ideas like the mistaking of the Spanish for Quetzalcoatl are being called into question as post-hoc rationalizations. Along with the growing wealth of archaeological evidence still being dug up around modern day Mexico City, the mysteries about the conquest of Mexico are still yet to be solved.
Aiton, Arthur S. "Real Hacienda in New Spain under the First Viceroy." The Hispanic American Historical Review 6, no. 4 (1926): 232-245.
Blaut, James M. "Environmentalism and Eurocentrism." American Geographical Society 89, no. 3 (1999): 391-408.
Carrasco, David. Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire: Myths and Prophecies in the Aztec Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs: an interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Friede, Juan. Keen, Benjamin. BartolomÈ de las Casas in History: Toward an Understanding of the Man and His Work. Chicago: Northern Illinois University Press, 1971.
Gibson, Charles. The Aztecs under Spanish rule: a history of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964.
Las Casas, Bartolome. An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies. Franklin W. Knight, Andrew Hurley trans. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2003.
Lockhart, James. The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.
McDonnell, Michael A., Moses, A. Dirk. "Raphael Lemkin as historian of genocide in the Americas." Journal of Genocide Research 7, no. 4 (2005): 501-529.
Parkman, Francis. Pioneers of France in the New World. 25 ed.
Prescott, William H. The Conquest of Mexico. New York: The Book League of America, 1934.
University of Pennsylvania. "Cultural Readings: Colonization & Print in the Americas." February 3, 2003.http://www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/rbm/kislak/viewers/black.html (accessed March 19, 2011).
 Clendinnen, p. 267 - 273
 Knight, p. xxix - xxx
 Ibid, p. xxxi - xxxiii
 Ibid, p. xxxiii
 University of Pennsylvania
 Las Casas, p. 28 - 38
 University of Pennsylvania
 Aiton, p. 235
 McDonnell, Moses, p. 517
 Friede, Keen, p. i-xx
 Diamond, p. 13 - 32
 Ibid, p. 85-92
 Ibid, p. 193, 194
 Blaut, p. 392 - 403
 Carrasco, p. 148 - 175