A strange creature arrives at the city gates, his bearded head human but with four legs resembling a deer’s, only much taller. His skin shimmers, reflecting glittering sunlight in a thousand directions. Beholding him, the awestruck people of the city kneel in obeisance, and soon the place belongs to the newcomer and his companions, who metamorphose between two- and four-legged beings at will.
Thus the story of Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Mexica, or Aztec, empire—at least as one old, schoolbookish narrative would have it.
The story continues that after an initial meeting with the emperor, the mighty Montezuma, Cortés played on native superstition and overcame an army tens of thousands strong with a handful of men. That gives rise to what Matthew Restall, professor of Latin American history at Pennsylvania State University, calls the myth of “Montezuma the Coward,” that of the encounter “the Meeting as Surrender.”
Restall’s new book, When Montezuma Met Cortés, aims to explode the body of legend surrounding the Spanish conquest of the Mexica. Most of the core story of Montezuma’s quivering acquiescence to the might of the newcomer comes from a letter from Cortés to his boss, the king of Spain. Naturally enough, it flatters the winner and downplays the strengths of the loser.
In truth, Montezuma—whose meeting with Cortés will reach its 500th anniversary in November 2019—was a canny strategist who thought he could play the Spanish while using them to shore up his rule. That was a mistake, to be sure, but not a cowardly one, and in any event the conquest was a bloody affair that was anything but easy. Cortés’ men fought among themselves, while from many nations, Montezuma’s allies and enemies alike assembled to settle old scores. The result, Restall says, was that “instead of a glorious, miraculous, rapid conquest, the Spanish-Aztec encounter was a brutal, messy war marked by atrocities and driven by multiple protagonists—indigenous and Spanish.”
Restall’s reimagining of the first moves of the conquest revises the story in critical ways, one of which is to rearrange players on the chessboard. It was not so much the Spanish newcomers who conquered Tenochtitlan, by this view, as it was the leaders of indigenous nations who had been biding their time to rise against Montezuma. Cortés, a shrewd politician who had amassed power and influence over the previous eight years in Cuba, skillfully worked these alliances. He emerges as less a hero than a resourceful disruptor of the status quo, dividing and conquering, flattering and browbeating.
Montezuma, for his part, emerges from the narrative as a ruler just as skilled in administering armies and cities—though, in the end, badly outnumbered, for Restall reckons that there were 200 native soldiers fighting against the Mexica for every Spaniard and that their combined force was four to five times greater than the enemy’s. There’s no room for cowardice in his revised account and no room for undue glorification, either.
“My goal is not to turn Montezuma into a hero while demonizing Cortés and the conquistadors,” says Restall. “Yes, there is some merit to reversing their reputations as an exercise in seeing the story as freshly as possible. But ultimately it is important to see both Aztecs and Spaniards of the era as real people whose motivations and actions make sense to us, given the contexts and circumstances.”
Make sense they do, for everybody wants to rule the world, and facts are malleable things. That the victor writes the history is nothing new, and, Restall notes, many of the key documents of the conquest are hard to read and easily overlooked in any event, leading to a long acceptance of Cortés’ view as the correct one. Restall did read them, and he went far beyond. “I dug as deep as I could into difficult archival material,” he says. “I also broadened my search to include sources of various kinds and in all languages stretching across centuries—from 16th-century accounts in Spanish or Latin or Nahuatl to 17th-century English plays to operas written in Italian and French in the 18th and 19th centuries, and so on.”
The result is a narrative that complicates our understanding of a history that, though well-known, is wrong in many of its details. In correcting it, Restall makes a fine contribution to the history of the New World, one that should inspire other re-evaluations of our cherished stories.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.