WASHINGTON - Hernando Cortez conquered the Aztecs almost 500 years ago. The
event, by now, has achieved legendary status. We know how the Aztecs
mistook the conquistadors for gods; the Spanish attacked and laid waste to
the Valley of Mexico; and Native cultures were crushed in a tragedy ever
after known to history as the "Conquest."
What a shame, as Matthew Restall wrote in "Seven Myths of the Spanish
Conquest" (Oxford University Press), that much of that history has been
distorted, knowingly or not, and in a way that makes Native people seem
invisible or powerless in the wake of their European invaders.
Restall argued that we have been taught cliches about the Conquest, not
facts - and the facts, so far as we know them, are much more interesting.
As always, the cliches fit with common misconceptions about Native people
that have lingered for half a millennia in spite of good historical
evidence to the contrary.
A professor at Pennsylvania State University, the author debunks one tired
myth after another. The conquistadors weren't royal soldiers, he pointed
out, but freebooting tradesmen who often barely knew how to read. Many
so-called "Spanish" invaders, it so happens, were African by birth. And the
Spaniards didn't go anywhere without a large contingent of Native allies
marching at their side - so much for the idea that a handful of European
soldiers conquered the Valley of Mexico. In fact, the "Conquest" took
decades to control the core areas of Mexico and Peru, and revolts against
the Spanish continued well into the modern era, of which the Zapatista
uprising is only the latest example. From Chiapas to the Bolivian
highlands, the Conquest is still being contested culturally and politically
by people who never accepted the terms of occupation with heads bowed.
Consider the tale of how the gullible Aztecs perceived the Spaniards as
"gods." Endorsed by many top scholars, this is a centerpiece of Conquest
folklore, Restall reminded us. Since the ruthless invaders proved to be
only too human, of course, to have ever believed they were deities makes
Native people seem utterly childish in hindsight.
But the "god story," Restall explained, was invented decades after the fact
- by the Church and its Indian allies. The first Native scribes to write
the history of the Conquest were tutored by Franciscan monks who hoped, in
retrospect, to make the Spanish arrival seem providential. Since the
scribes hailed from a group unfriendly to the Aztecs, they didn't hesitate
in their chronicles to disparage their rivals as weak and indecisive.
Another Conquest myth has it that the Aztecs were duped, that their enemies
triumphed through superior powers of communication and sheer cunning.
Though this claim may give credit to the shrewdness of Cortez, it makes his
Native rivals seem, once again, ill-tutored and passive in the face of what
was a grave national crisis.
In fact, noted the author, the Aztecs had their own written language, were
accomplished in the art of high diplomacy, and knew all about hardball
politics without ever having read a page of Machiavelli. What doomed them
were different factors, some within their control, others not: Contagious
disease, political rivalries in the Valley of Mexico, and the cutting-edge
technology of Spanish steel.
The idea that the Aztecs were deceived or betrayed, Restall implied, may
gain them a kind of moral revenge in hindsight - but it also deprives them
of a full-fledged role in their own history. The powerlessness of defeat
can become a paralyzing and angry burden if no alternatives are presented.
Scholars increasingly argue that tragic accounts of submission and
conquest, beyond a certain point, deny people the conviction they are in
control of their own lives. Much the same debate has occurred in recent
decades about the history of slavery, so that the bulk of research today
explores how Africans and their ancestors resisted and survived
enslavement, not how they were crushed by it.
Restall is among those who would apply this lesson to Native studies. As
the old adage has it, "the winner writes history" - and most winners start
by describing how they won. "Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest" recounts,
among other things, how the defeated can become even more hopeless in
accepting a story on faith alone. The myths are part of the air we breathe,
the food we eat, the words we speak.
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