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The Aztec Account of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico
 
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PostSubject: Introduction   Tue Jun 30, 2009 8:07 am

On November 8, 1519, the Spanish conquistadors first entered the great city of Mexico, the metropolis the Aztecs had built on a lake island. Don Hernando Cortes, who was accompanied by six hundred Spaniards and a great many native allies, at last could see for himself the temples and palaces about which he had heard so many marvels. The Spaniards arrived from the direction of Tlalpan, to the south of the city, passing across one of the wide causeways that connected the island with the mainland. When they reached a locality known as Xoloco, they were welcomed by the last of the Motecuhzomas, who had come out to meet them in the belief that the white men must be Quetzalcoatll and other gods, returning at last from across the waters now known as the Gulf of Mexico. Thus Cortes and his men entered the city, not only as guests, but also as gods coming home. It was the first direct encounter between one of the most extraordinary pre-Columbian cultures and the strangers who would eventually destroy it.

Cortes landed on the coast at Veracruz on Good Friday, April 22, 1519; the Aztec capital surrendered to him on August 13, 1521. The events that took place between these two dates have been recounted in a number of chronicles and other writings, of which the best known are the letters Cortes wrote to King Charles V and the True History of the Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Diaz del Castillo. These two works, along with a few others also written by Spaniards, until now have been almost the only basis on which historians have judged the conquest of one of the greatest civilizations in pre-Columbian America.

But these chronicles present only one side of the story, that of the conquerors. For some reason-scorn, perhaps-historians have failed to consider that the conquered might have set down their own version in their own language. This book is the first to offer a selection from those indigenous accounts, some of them written as early as 1528, only seven years after the fall of the city. These writings make up a brief history of the Conquest as told by the victims, and include passages written by native priests and wise men who managed to survive the persecution and death that attended the final struggle. The manuscripts from which we have drawn are now preserved in a number of different libraries, of which the most important are the National Library in Paris, the Laurenziana Library in Florence and the library of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The Indian accounts of the Conquest contain many passages whose dramatic interest is equal to that of the great classical epics. As Homer, singing in the Iliad of the fall of Troy, depicted scenes of the most vivid tragic realism, so the native writers, masters of the black and red ink evoked the most dramatic moments of the Conquest. A few paragraphs from the documents presented in this book will make this clear.

The Indian chroniclers describe the beginning of the terrible slaughter perpetrated by Pedro de Alvarado in the patio of the main temple in Tenochtitlan. After mentioning the first rituals of the fiesta that was being celebrated-a fiesta in which "song was linked to song"-they tell how the Spaniards entered the sacred patio:

They ran in among the dancers, forcing their way to the place where the drums were played. They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off his arms. Then they cut off his head, and it rolled across the floor.
They attacked all the celebrants, stabbing them, spearing them, striking them with their swords. They attacked some of them from behind, and these fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out. Others they beheaded: they cut off their heads, or split their heads to pieces.
They struck others in the shoulders, and their arms were torn from their bodies. They wounded some in the thigh and some in the calf. They slashed others in the abdomen, and their entrails all spilled to the ground. Some attempted to run away, but their intestines dragged as they ran; they seemed to tangle their feet in their own entrails. No matter how they tried to save themselves, they could find no escape.

Another passage, a masterpiece of the descriptive art of the Aztecs, shows how the Indians pictured the "stags or deer" on which the Spaniards rode. Motolinia, one of the early missionaries, wrote that the Indians "were filled with wonder to behold their horses, and the Spaniards riding on their backs." Now they present their own description, so vivid that it recalls another extraordinary picture of the horse, written in Hebrew by the author of the Book of Job. They report:

The "stags" came forward, carrying the soldiers on their backs. The soldiers were wearing cotton armor. They bore their leather shields and their iron spears in their hands, but their swords hung downfrom the necks of the "stags."
These animals wear little bells, they are adorned with many little bells. When the "stags" gallop, the bells make a loud clamor, ringing and reverberating.
These "stags," these "horses," snort and bellow. They sweat a very great deal, the sweat pours from their bodies in streams. The foam from their muzzles drips onto the ground. It spins out in fat drops, like a lather of a mole.
They make a loud noise when they run; they make a great din, as if stones were raining on the earth. Then the ground is pitted and scarred where they set down their hooves. It opens wherever their hooves touch it.
The Valley of Mexico

The indigenous documents contain a number of scenes like these, so vivid that they seem to invite the artist to interpret them with his pen or brush. But to understand this epic narrative of the Conquest, it is important to know something of Aztec history, geography and culture. The following sketch is necessarily limited to the broad outlines, but at least it will provide a context in which the indigenous narratives can be seen more clearly.
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