MARCH 24, 2019
It is very difficult to like Cortés, but impossible not to admire him.
— Octavio Paz
HISTORIANS LOVE round numbers. We regularly celebrate centenaries, sesquicentenaries, bicentenaries, and quincentenaries as if the addition of a year and a zero makes a life or an event the more real, the more worthy of our attention. Or maybe it’s just a way to momentarily stop the clock and tidy up, simplify, and condense. Indeed, centenaries regularly elicit fireworks and parades and traffic jams, but occasionally they do offer the opportunity for introspection and reassessment. Consider how Latin Americans have responded to two “founding” — an explosive word, to be sure — events.
The first was in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America. Though Columbus immediately claimed the islands where he landed for the Spanish Crown and asked the inhabitants where to find gold, he was sure that he had reached parts of Asia already known to someone. Returning to Spain, he insisted that what he had discovered was not a new world, but a new way to get to the old world. To claim otherwise would have been heresy: since there was no unknown land — no terra incognita — on Catholic maps, how could any possibly exist? Columbus simply fit what he found into the existing paradigms of his time. He was a skilled sailor, but his ideological compass was thoroughly medieval.
While Columbus never touched the shores of North America, we yearly celebrate his arrival on “Columbus Day,” and more recently as “Día de la Raza,” with a three-day weekend in October. The holiday, first observed in the mid-19th century by the Italian-American immigrant community in New York, soon came to serve the purposes of the Catholic Church as well. Indeed, Columbus was nearly canonized for “propagating the faith,” despite the fact that his goals were commercial, not theological. The Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier casts this odd episode in his 1979 novel El arpa y la sombra (The Harp and the Shadow): Columbus’s ghost — the “shadow” of the title — hovers over the ecclesiastical proceedings in the Vatican while reflecting on his past ambitions and delusions. In the final scene of the novel, we see the ghostly Almirante de la Mar Océano (Admiral of the Ocean Sea, the title he requested from the Spanish monarchs upon his return). He floats above Bernini’s colonnades in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, hoping for good news and hearing nothing. So he evaporates “into the air that enveloped and passed through him, and he became one with the transparent ether.”
In less poetic fashion, let me propose something similar. In the United States, we don’t commemorate Columbus on Columbus Day, or his “discovery” of our continent, but rather an immigrant community’s discovery of its ability to repurpose the past with both eyes on the present. Thanks to pressure from the Italian community, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared October 12 as Columbus Day. The term Día de la Raza also reflects the power of immigrants in our country — this time our Hispanic immigrants. Furthermore, it draws attention to the historical presence of Hispanics not as immigrants but as subjects of Spain and then as citizens of Mexico, long before half of Mexico’s territory was annexed by the United States in 1848. The new cultural identity produced by the meeting and mixing of European and Amerindian cultures and peoples throughout the hemisphere is what 1992 really celebrated, and what we continue to celebrate every year on October 12.
Yet in Mexico, “discovery” precedes “conquest” in the national lexicon, so feelings ran high in 1992. There were debates about how (or more to the point, how not) to celebrate it. The statue of Columbus on Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma was defaced to protest the devastation of indigenous cultures by the European invaders, but in fact a majority of Mexicans acknowledge their Spanish cultural heritage with pride, while also recognizing their mestizo identity as individuals and as a nation. In the end, the Mexican government collaborated with Spain to honor Columbus’s achievement on the condition that the term “discovery” be discarded in favor of the phrase encuentro de dos mundos (encounter of two worlds). Rather than referring to cultures and histories that preceded contact with Europe as precolombinas (pre-Columbian), Mexico uses the term precortesiano (pre-Cortesian). The quincentenary that we are now marking is at the pivot of pre- and post-Cortesian: Hernán Cortés arrived on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in 1519 and defeated the Aztec Empire in 1521.
Once the Spanish monarchy grasped the vast potential of Columbus’s “discovery,” history’s greatest land grab was launched. Hernán Cortés set sail from Spain in 1504 at the age of 19 to seek his fortune in the new world, a world now conveniently recognized as land that could be claimed for the Spanish crown. Cortés landed on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), participated in its “conquest,” and then in 1511 accompanied the commander of the Spanish invasion of Cuba.
Cuba was added to the maps of Spanish dominions in 1515, and Cortés stayed on and worked his way up in the Spanish bureaucracy, acquiring favor and an encomienda (land assigned by the Crown that came with Indian labor in exchange for the promise to convert them to Christianity), and more importantly, learning how the system worked. In 1517 and 1518, expeditions had sailed from Cuba to Mexico; both had landed on the Yucatán Peninsula and the second reached the Gulf Coast of Mexico, but both met resistance and returned to Cuba. In 1519, the governor of Cuba gave Cortés command of a third expedition. At the last minute, he revoked Cortés’s charter but Cortés sailed anyway, adding men and ships with his own money before leaving Cuba. He landed on the Yucatán Peninsula and then sailed north around the peninsula, into the Gulf and west to Mexico’s coast. There he called into existence a town that he named La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, allowing him to circumvent the authority of the Cuban governor and, in principal, report directly to the King of Spain.
From this point on, Cortés did as he saw fit. In Mexico, it is said that if Niccolò Machiavelli had known of Cortés, he would have used him, rather than Cesare Borgia, as his model. While Columbus could not imagine a new world, Cortés had no trouble at all. In The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World (1992), Carlos Fuentes refers to Cortés ironically as “one of the great figures of Renaissance Europe,” and describes him as possessed of “a modern individualism of a Machiavellian stripe, common throughout Renaissance Europe […] arrivistes, climbers, men on the make.”
As a man on the make, Cortés soon unmade the Aztec Empire. In 1519, he marched his troops up the mountains to meet Moctezuma II. Their meeting is described by Cortés himself in the second of five letters to Charles V, King of Spain. Historians take these letters to be self-interested, given Cortés’s need to please his royal patron and demonstrate his own heroism, but his amazement is genuine. He describes his first glimpse of the emperor in the ceremonial center of Tenochtitlán, a city that rises in the middle of a lake skirted by snowcapped volcanoes:
After we had crossed this bridge, Moctezuma came to greet us and with him some two hundred lords, all barefoot and dressed in a different costume. […] They came in two columns, pressed very close to the walls of the street, which is very wide and beautiful and so straight that you can see from one end to the other. It is two-thirds of a league long and has on both sides very good and big houses, both dwellings and temples.
Moctezuma presents Cortés with “two necklaces, wrapped in a cloth, made from red snails’ shells, which they hold in great esteem; and from each necklace hung eight shrimps of refined gold almost a span in length.” He then quotes Moctezuma, supposedly verbatim. The emperor explains that he is not a god but a human being like his guests, but he then cedes his authority to Cortés, apparently imagining him to be envoy of a departed ruler who promised to return. Over the centuries, this passage has given rise to the myth that Moctezuma mistook Cortés for the returning god Quetzalcóatl and meekly submitted to the new ruler. This is far from the case. It doesn’t take long for the emperor to revise his estimate, but Cortés takes full advantage of Moctezuma’s mistake and the Aztecs’ enemies.
The term “epic” is regularly used to describe this meeting of the representatives of two civilizations, neither of whom knew of the other’s existence and yet managed to meet and express wonder at each other’s accouterments and equipment: the Aztecs’ monumental city and exquisite artifacts, the Spaniards’ horses and cannons and harquebuses. We know the outcome, but how did these men converse? Cortés had the good luck to find two translators who were essential to his enterprise: Jerónimo de Aguilar, a Spaniard who had survived a shipwreck off the coast of the Yucatán in 1511 and learned Chontal Maya during his years as a captive, and a woman who spoke Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) before being sold by her mother to a Maya chieftain, who in turn gave her, along with 20 other young women, to Cortés as tribute. Known as La Malinche, she became Cortés’s consort, bore his son, and along with Aguilar, served as his translator during the two years of strategic maneuvering that led to the final battle in Tenochtitlán on August 13, 1521. She knew the animosity of indigenous groups under Aztec imperial rule and provided information that allowed Cortés to make strategic alliances and employ thousands of indigenous warriors against the Aztecs. Cortés, when asked to explain his victory, is said to have replied, “The will of God and La Malinche.” Even if the phrase is apocryphal, the part about La Malinche is accurate.
In effect, then, this quincentenary lasts two and a half years. It has already started with Cortés’s landing in Mexico 500 years ago in February, and it will culminate on August 13, 2021. There are no statues of Cortés in public spaces in Mexico, nor is there a Cortés Day to pair with Columbus Day. Mexico, more than most of Latin America, is acutely aware of the loss exacted by European colonization. What this quincentenary will generate are scholarly reconsiderations of the conquest. Specialists and nonspecialists alike cannot find a better place to begin than with Matthew Restall’s recent book, When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History (2018). The author’s strategy is to identify “myths” that have developed over the centuries, such as the one I mentioned about Moctezuma’s idea that Cortés is a ruler who had promised to return — an idea that eventually makes Cortés into the returning god Quetzalcóatl. Restall is excellent at reviewing the sources and development of what he calls the “mythistory” surrounding the “conquest”; and his proposals for alternative readings, some based on accounts by indigenous witnesses and later informants, make sense. Such reconsiderations are all to the good. Octavio Paz puts it this way:
Cortés should be restored to the place where he belongs, with all his grandeur and faults: to history. When Cortés ceases to be a myth and becomes what he really is — a historical person — Mexicans will be able to see ourselves with greater clarity, generosity, and serenity.