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.