In two years, from 1519 to 1521, an ambitious, cruel, intelligent, determined and above all, gold hungry Spaniard named Hernan Cortés, took México by storm. Cortés did not only change North American history as we know it, he destroyed and demolished one of the most sophisticated civilizations, the Aztec empire or as I like to call them, the Mexica. (Mexica was the name they called themselves and was used for centuries. The Aztec name was made popular in the 18th century by Jesuit scholar, Francisco Javier Clavijero, and then by the single minded account of the conquest of México by William H. Prescott.)
The phrase that best describes Cortés’ conquest is “audacity”. It contains a hint of imagination, impudence, a capacity to perform the unexpected which differentiates it from mere bravery. He was an ordinary man, from a lesser nobility class, but he was decisive, flexible, quick in talk, skillful, daring in execution and full of threats in war.
The conquest of México is interesting to me not because a small group of adventurers won battles against a large static army. It’s interesting because it was a clash of two empires, equally powerful. They both were imaginative and inventive. Though different, they held many things sacred, they loved ceremonials, and they had conquered others. They both were cruel by any modern standards, but cultivated.
The 15th century Mexicans were well organized, well feared by their neighbors and hated by the same. Old México was very much like a state. Many conquistadors believed that their houses were superior to those of Spain. The upper class wore embroidered cloths. Their jewelry astonished the Europeans for years, and they provided universal education to boys. In the sixteen century, the Spaniards still used the roman system of numbering, but Mexicans used the decimal system. The Mexicans used the vigesimal method, as well as the Zero which made the calculation more accurate than it was possible in Europe. But they had one flaw: they believed in gods and that’s what Cortés used to break them down.
Charles V, the Emperor of Spain, was called the “Most Reliable Sword of Christianity” but as many scholars agree, he wasn’t a true believer, nor was Cortés. He used his Christianity as a tool to climb the ladders of hypocrisy, and he did it very well. He held many sermons and he preached the Lord like he was a chosen one. But he only wanted one thing, gold. The Spaniards had unbounded confidence in their own qualities, in the political wisdom of their imperial mission and spiritual superiority of the Catholic Church.
It is true that the Mexicans practiced in human sacrifices, but to justify the Spaniards actions who called the Mexican barbarians is preposterous. “O what great good fortune for the Indians is the coming of Spaniards,” the historian Cervantes de Salazar would write in 1554, “since they have passed from this unhappiness to their present blessed state.”
By 1521 Teotihuacán, the capital of the magnificent Mexica Empire fell under the sword of Cortés, and México today is as we know it. Yet again, thousands of lives were lost in the name of the good Lord and the fate of Montezuma is known by every school kid in the world.
After the conquest, Cortés sent a model silver canon to Charles V of Spain as a present. He named it “The Phoenix”. On it he had inscribed:
This was born without equal
I am without a second in serving you
You are without an equal in the world.
The visit to these temples was our farewell to México City. We’re leaving tomorrow for Oaxaca on the same road Cortés’ men traveled. Will it look remotely the same as they saw it? I doubt it.