Tension builds in the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan as an ambitious Spanish explorer introduces himself to the ruler of the Aztec people. The two people are from completely different worlds in the sense that neither of them previously knew that the other’s culture even existed. Their words of initial contact are spoken through a translator caught in the middle, forced into this position of mediation between the two distinct cultures, perhaps failing to convey clearly the meanings of each individual in a different tongue. The year was 1519, a year in which Spanish Conquest of America reached its climax. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes was meeting the Aztec ruler Moctezuma in the Mexica city of Tenochtitlan for the first time. Prior to this meeting, Christopher Columbus paved the way for colonization of the Americas by crossing the Atlantic for the first time in Spanish history. Cortes set out from Cuba to establish a colony in Mexico in 1518. After setting up a colony in Vera Cruz, Cortes traveled to the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan. The set of unique circumstances that led up to this encounter and the events that took place afterwards are surrounded by lies, lies that have turned into myths over the centuries since Spanish Conquest. The outcome of the event mentioned above is similar to the sad outcome reached by many of Spain’s encounters with native tribes, one ignored by the public until recent years. Though most people have learned about the Spanish Conquest through textbooks, movies, or primary sources, the widely accepted history regarding this event is often inaccurate and incomplete because of myths and miscommunication, both of which are closely connected to Western pride.
Myth of Discovery
In textbooks, movies, and literature, Spanish exploration of America is often taught from the European view, placing conquistadores in the position of heroes and dubbing first contact with America as “discovery”, popularizing this event as parallel to the moon landing. The exploration of America, in fact, was hardly a discovery by definition. Leif Eriksson, along with other Vikings, traveled to North America five centuries before Columbus supposedly “discovered” it. As has been recently accepted by the general public, the former part of this claim is also false in that the Spanish conquistadors were seldom adventurers wanting to discover new land and more frequently common people seeking to rise in the ranks or Friars on a mission to spread Christianity. The myths begin with the very first conquistador, whose persona has changed over time to shape him into the revered explorer he is today.
Myths About Columbus
Contrary to popular belief, Columbus did not sail to prove that the world was round, nor did he sail to find new land. A merchant by trade, his main goal was to find a shorter passage to India. Columbus rejected the ideas of Ptolemy, claiming that the world was much smaller and that a shorter passage to India could be found by traveling West. Though in American history books, Columbus is praised solely for his discovery of North America, he actually turned back once he had reached Caribbean islands, the most notable of which being Hispaniola, or modern-day Haiti. Although he did form the idea of a larger continent from finding fresh water flowing into the Gulf of Peria, Columbus actually never set foot on American soil. His journeys did, however, open the way for other explorers to reach and colonize this new continent. These explorers, known as conquistadors, paved their legacy though a thick web of myths.
The Myth of Spanish Superiority
The myth of Spanish superiority overshadows all other myths regarding Spanish Conquest and has had a major influence in the behavior of the Spanish towards the native tribes in South America. The Spanish often paint themselves as superior forms like Aristotle had described centuries earlier, a notion which has tainted history. Unique cultural heritage in Spain was one reason why the Spaniards developed this elevated view of themselves. They took on airs as the preservers of ancient civilization and knowledge, a theme which had come back in style during the Renaissance. The underlying theme of superiority was projected by Columbus in several of his letters and even by those who advocated for the rights of native tribes, such as Bartolome de las Casas. Many conquistadores, such as Columbus, depicted the native tribes in their letters as either vicious or childlike, but nothing in between. They deemed several tribes cannibals due to exaggerated reports, sometimes giving them animalistic traits. This myth was later disproved by Columbus in his letters to the king and queen and no doubt myths about animalistic qualities were cast aside after knowledge of the newly explored Americas became widespread, but the myth of superiority remains to this day. The Spanish claimed superiority based on having more advanced weapons and clothing, ultimately weak reasons for this unfounded claim.
In fact, upon entering the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, the conquistadores could not help but be struck by its great size. They also praised it for its remarkable beauty, having no frame of reference to compare it to. As for the people themselves, Mayans were moderately literate and displayed much similar literacy to the Spaniards. Though part of Spanish colonization efforts included teaching indigenous notaries to use writing for important documents such as land sales, it is likely that these individuals were already literate. Few Spaniards were fully literate, conquistadors being no exception. Actually, some conquistadors were completely illiterate, making written documents from the time of Spanish colonization rare. In regards to warfare, the Mexica were in some respects more humane in their treatment of the Spaniards than the treatment they received. They had many rituals surrounding war, including capturing their enemies instead of killing them immediately and refusing to launch surprise attacks. Historians have commented that Mexica battle strategies show respect for human life. This is a contrast to Spanish battle strategies, in which the Spanish frequently massacred thousands of innocent people. Disease, not superiority, was the real reason for Spanish victory over native tribes. Wherever the idea springs from, superiority remains a widespread misconception of many Western countries, a misconception which has led many to picture Spaniards alone as conquistadors in South America.
Myths About Spanish Conquistadors
The Spanish monarchy did not commission soldiers to go to the Americas, nor did it finance, organize, or plan the expeditions. Movies, textbooks, pictures, and scholarly articles, such as the painting “Veracruz N2” and the movie Conquest of Paradise, paint conquistadors as an organized army sent out by the Spanish government. In reality, most conquistadors, like Columbus, went to the Americas for their own reasons, such as out of curiosity and in search of gold. Though they had to plan the expeditions themselves, conquistadores were compensated with labor grants, pensions, titles, and partial share of the gold they acquired. Conquistadors were given the title adelantado, or licensed conquistador, signifying the loose backing of the monarchy. After this, titles would be bestowed according to the success of their conquest. Columbus received the titles of Admiral of the Ocean, Vice-Roy, and governor bestowed on him by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Interestingly enough, the King and Queen put so much faith in Columbus that these titles were given to him before he completed a conquest. Columbus also kept a portion of the gold he found in Hispaniola, which provided him with a comfortable life for his last few years. Many conquistadors petitioned for pensions and titles in their letters to the Monarchy. These conquistadors often depicted themselves as great men through their letters. Though some conquistadors came to occupy government offices, later on, most were not sent by the crown. Many not only mistake conquistadors for soldiers, but for heroes.
Conquistadors often portrayed as “great men” or “heroes” due to their ability to conquer, often had questionable morals. Bartolomeu de las Casas vividly describes the widespread destruction that several conquistadors brought on the native people. Though barbarity was usually a term used by the Spaniards when referring to the native tribes, Casas instead uses this term when describing some of the conquistadores. This number may be exaggerated, but Casas estimates that twelve million native people were murdered by the Spanish. The Spanish would use displays of violence to force the natives to obey them, such as killing innocent women and children. Some would roast the leaders alive and do it slowly to add pain to their deaths. The survivors were kept as slaves and treated in the most brutal manner. Conquistadors frequently looted houses, so much so that one native American man named Hathuey thought that gold was the Spanish religion. Conquistadors also kidnapped people and forced them and their families into slave labor. Because of this immense lack of virtue on the part of the Spanish, Casas, a Dominican friar, makes the justified claim that the conquistadors’ actions dishonored God.