A methodical deconstruction of the myths surrounding Hernando Cortés’ “Mexican conquest” and the surrender of Montezuma.
Restall’s (Latin American History/Pennsylvania State Univ.; The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan, 2013, etc.) main point is that the more you shift the point of view, the more is revealed. The traditional story fits the bill for all Western universal narratives in which civilizations are victorious over barbarism, thereby justifying invasion. The same goes for the usual claims that the natives were cannibals and sodomists, all used to make the victors look good. The story of Cortés landing in Mexico, being treated as a god, and accepting Montezuma’s “surrender” to the great king of Spain is fiction. The author looks at the small force Cortés brought from Cuba to explore the coastline and sees an outnumbered group, fighting among themselves and overstepping their orders. He also reminds us of the “black legend” of the conquistadors as vicious, bloodthirsty murderers and slavers. The myth of Cortés is based almost entirely on his second letter (the first is lost) to the Spanish king in which his claims are nothing but fabrications. At the time of writing, he and his men were guests of Montezuma and nowhere near subduing this highly civilized people. It is the case of the victor writing the history, and Cortés’ letter was the basis for it. Even more interesting is Restall’s view of emperor Montezuma, whom history has called a coward. The author makes an excellent case for a strong leader of a civilization of tens of thousands in a city with gardens, palaces, and even a zoo at least a century before any European court. There was no need for him to fear the few hundred Spanish, and he was most likely toying with them, unaware of the cruel treachery that would result. Throughout, Restall’s assertions are well-supported and difficult to refute, and the timeline that opens the book is particularly helpful.
An engaging revisionist exploration of “one of human history’s great lies.”