Sometimes how historical figures are perceived has much more to do with how perceptions change over time than what people actually did in their own lifetimes. Sometimes certain people in the past take on a romantic hue that also can distort our vision.
I thought about this phenomena while reading Five Letters of Cortes, a collection of letters Cortes sent back to the continent detailing events in Mexico. The book interested me because historians today routinely treat Cortes as a great villain, and I wanted to see how he measured up to that reputation in his own words. Scholars of course debate the veracity of some details Cortes narrates (without giving much credence to the idea that he simply told the truth as he saw it). But my interest was not what happened so much as how Cortes wanted his readers to perceive him, regardless of whether or not he spoke fairly and truly.
As I read I thought of how history views Alexander the Great. The two men have some similarities. Both sought glory, perhaps Alexander most of all. Both conquered and destroyed a foreign people and culture with at least questionable justification. Both dealt with internal disputes in their own ranks. Both used diplomacy to great effect, perhaps Cortes most of all. And yet, history loves Alexander and despises Cortes, generally speaking, and we should ask why.
A few things stood out to me in Cortes’ letters.
- Cortes de-emphasizes violence and tries to play up his relationship with the natives when he can. He writes early in the first letter that, “the Indians went among us with as little fear as if they had already had dealings with us for many years.” He seems proudest when he makes friends. The “battles” (not battles in a traditional sense) and violence that occur happen when things break down, or in response to a tough situation initiated (in Cortes’ view) by the misunderstanding of the natives.
- Cortes clearly admires the natives. A modern westerner expecting to find a racially motivated imperialist will be disappointed. He describes the sacrifices and violence surrounding Aztec religion in a lengthy passage:
And always on the day before some important enterprise they burn incense in their temples, and sometimes even sacrifice their own persons, some cutting out their tongues, others their ears, still others slicing their bodies with knives in order to offer to their idols the blood which flows from their wounds; sometimes sprinkling the whole of the temple with blood and throwing it up in the air, and many other fashions of sacrifice they use . . .
One very horrible and abominable custom they have which we have seen in no other part, and that is that whenever they wish to beg anything of their idols, in order that their petition may find more acceptance, they take large numbers of boys and girls and even of grown men and women and tear out their heart and bowels while still alive, burning them in the presence of those idols . . . Some of us have actually seen this done and they say it is the most terrible and frightful thing that they have ever seen. . . . Your majesties can therefore be certain that there can be no year in which they have not sacrificed some three to four thousand souls.
As to what the Spanish should do in light of this, I leave the reader to decide. Cortes continues,
Your majesties may therefore perceive whether it is their duty to prevent such loss and evil, and certainly it will be pleasing to God if by means of, and under the protection of your royal majesties, these people are introduced to and instructed in the Holy Catholic Faith . . .
And yet, after describing the most horrible aspect of Aztec society, Cortes concludes the section by writing,
For it is certain that if they should ever serve God with that same faith, fervor, and diligence [as their idols] they would work many miracles. We believe that by the aid of interpreters who should plainly declare to them the truths of the Holy Faith and the error in which they are, many, perhaps all of them, would quickly depart from their evil ways and come to true knowledge, for they live more equably and reasonably than any other of the tribes which we have hitherto come across.
Cortes also hates the fact that some of the Spanish use the Indians as currency in slaves. This, he argues, earns the “notorious” Diego Velazquez followers, and Cortes urges the king to remove him from any position of authority at once.
Spanish commentary on the Aztec king Montezuma strike a poignant note. Multiple sources all converge on the idea of admiration for the man. Here is Diaz de Casillo writing,
The Great Montezuma was about forty years old, of good height, well proportioned, spare and slight, and not very dark, though of the usual Indian complexion. He did not wear his hair long but just over his ears, and he had a short black beard, well-shaped and thin. His face was rather long and cheerful, he had fine eyes, and in his appearance and manner could express geniality or, when necessary, a serious composure. He was very neat and clean, and took a bath every afternoon. He had many women as his mistresses, the daughters of chieftains, but two legitimate wives who were Caciques in their own right, and only some of his servants knew of it. He was quite free from sodomy. The clothes he wore one day he did not wear again till three or four days later. He had a guard of two hundred chieftains lodged in rooms beside his own, only some of whom were permitted to speak to him.”
When Moctezuma was allegedly killed by being stoned to death by his own people Cortés and all of us captains and soldiers wept for him, and there was no one among us that knew him and had dealings with him who did not mourn him as if he were our father, which was not surprising, since he was so good. It was stated that he had reigned for seventeen years, and was the best king they ever had in Mexico, and that he had personally triumphed in three wars against countries he had subjugated. I have spoken of the sorrow we all felt when we saw that Montezuma was dead. We even blamed the Mercederian friar for not having persuaded him to become a Christian.
Of course Cortes used violence at times directly and on purpose, however much he wanted to avoid it. In one such instance, we have both Aztec and Spanish sources for the same event. Regarding a terrible massacre, the Aztecs write,
Here it is told how the Spaniards killed, they murdered the Mexicans who were celebrating the Fiesta of Huitzilopochtli in the place they called The Patio of the Gods
- At this time, when everyone was enjoying the celebration, when everyone was already dancing, when everyone was already singing, when song was linked to song and the songs roared like waves, in that precise moment the Spaniards determined to kill people. They came into the patio, armed for battle.
- They came to close the exits, the steps, the entrances [to the patio]: The Gate of the Eagle in the smallest palace, The Gate of the Canestalk and the Gate of the Snake of Mirrors. And when they had closed them, no one could get out anywhere.
- Once they had done this, they entered the Sacred Patio to kill people. They came on foot, carrying swords and wooden and metal shields. Immediately, they surrounded those who danced, then rushed to the place where the drums were played. They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off both his arms. Then they cut off his head [with such a force] that it flew off, falling far away.
- At that moment, they then attacked all the people, stabbing them, spearing them, wounding them with their swords. They struck some from behind, who fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out [of their bodies]. They cut off the heads of some and smashed the heads of others into little pieces.
- They struck others in the shoulders and tore their arms from their bodies. They struck some in the thighs and some in the calves. They slashed others in the abdomen and their entrails fell to the earth. There were some who even ran in vain, but their bowels spilled as they ran; they seemed to get their feet entangled with their own entrails. Eager to flee, they found nowhere to go.
- Some tried to escape, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates while they laughed. Others climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. Others entered the communal house, where they were safe for a while. Others lay down among the victims and pretended to be dead. But if they stood up again they [the Spaniards] would see them and kill them.
- The blood of the warriors ran like water as they ran, forming pools, which widened, as the smell of blood and entrails fouled the air.
- And the Spaniards walked everywhere, searching the communal houses to kill those who were hiding. They ran everywhere, they searched every place.
- When [people] outside [the Sacred Patio learned of the massacre], shouting began, “Captains, Mexicas, come here quickly! Come here with all arms, spears, and shields! Our captains have been murdered! Our warriors have been slain! Oh Mexica captains, [our warriors] have been annihilated!”
Then a roar was heard, screams, people wailed, as they beat their palms against their lips. Quickly the captains assembled, as if planned in advance, and carried their spears and shields. Then the battle began. [The Mexicas] attacked them with arrows and even javelins, including small javelins used for hunting birds. They furiously hurled their javelins [at the Spaniards]. It was as if a layer of yellow canes spread over the Spaniards.
And the Spanish version of the same event:
Cortes wanted to entirely understand the cause of the Indians’ rebellion. He interrogated them [the Spaniards] altogether. Some said it was caused by the message sent by Narváez, others because the people wanted to toss the Spaniards out of Mexico [Tenochtitlan], which had been planned as soon as the ships had arrived, because while they were fighting they shouted “Get out!” at them. Others said it was to liberate Moctezuma, for they fought saying, “Free our god and King if you don’t want to die!” Still others said it was to steal the gold, silver, and jewels that the Spaniards had, because they heard the Indians say, “Here you shall leave the gold that you have taken!” Again, some said it was to keep the Tlaxcalans and other mortal enemies out of Mexico. Finally, many believed that taking their idols as gods, they had given themselves to the devil.
Any of these things would have been enough to cause the rebellion, not to mention all of them together. But the principal one was that a few days after Cortes left to confront Narváez, it became time for a festival the Mexicas wanted to celebrate in their traditional way. . . . They begged Pedro de Alvarado to give them his permission, so [the Spaniards] wouldn’t think that they planned to kill them. Alvarado consented provided that there were no sacrifices, no people killed, and no one had weapons.
- More than 600 gentlemen and several lords gathered in the yard of the largest temple; some said there were more than a thousand there. They made a lot of noise with their drums, shells, bugles, and hendidos, which sounded like a loud whistle. Preparing their festival, they were naked, but covered with precious stones, pearls, necklaces, belts, bracelets, many jewels of gold, silver, and mother-of-pearl, wearing very rich feathers on their heads. They performed a dance called the mazeualiztli, which is called that because it is a holiday from work [symbolized by the word for farmer, macehaulli]. . . . They laid mats in the patio of the temple and played drums on them. They danced in circles, holding hands, to the music of the singers, to which they responded.
The songs were sacred, and not profane, and were sung to praise the god honored in the festival, to induce him to provide water and grain, health, and victory, or to thank him for healthy children and other things. And those who knew the language and these ceremonial rites said that when the people danced in the temples, they perform very different from those who danced the netoteliztli, in voice, movement of the body, head, arms, and feet, by which they manifested their concepts of good and evil. The Spaniards called this dance, an areito, a word they brought from the islands of Cuba and Santo Domingo. While the Mexica gentlemen were dancing in the temple yard of Vitcilopuchtli [Huitzilopochtli], Pedro de Alvarado went there. Whether on [the basis of] his own opinion or in an agreement decided by everyone, I don’t know, but some say he had been warned that the Indian nobles of the city had assembled to plot the mutiny and the rebellion, which they later carried out; others, believe that [the Spaniards] went to watch them perform this famous and praised dance, and seeing how rich they were and wanting the gold the Indians were wearing, he [Alvarado] covered each of the entrances with ten or twelve Spaniards and went inside with more than fifty [Spaniards], and without remorse and lacking any Christian piety, they brutally stabbed and killed the Indians, and took what they were wearing.
I have no wish to downplay a terrible massacre. For our purposes, however, a few things surprised me about the Spanish account.
- We might expect ‘righteous’ conquistadors rejoicing in their deed. Some accounts of the Crusaders massacring civilians in Jerusalem in 1099 sound this way. Instead we them troubled and very much aware of the fact that they departed from their faith with their actions.
- Confusion, not certainty, dominates the text. They search for answers and have a hard time understanding what it is they face or why it happened in the first place. Some historians/sources apparently indicate that the Spanish may have believed that they were about to do another human sacrifice, though the account above does not hint at this or use it as an excuse.
One can disagree with the reasons for the Spanish presence in the new world. One can lament the results of the Spanish conquest and the subsequent treatment of the natives. But I found my overall opinion about Cortes changed from reading his writings, though I still lack a great deal of familiarity with the events in general and other particular sources to come to definite conclusions.
But other historians presumably do not. And this brings us back to my question earlier about comparing Alexander and Cortes. Some historians fall over themselves fawning about Alexander, and no one treats Cortes this way, despite their similarities.
Alexander had a few points in his favor . . .
- The fact that he was king and thus the focal point of all narratives about him. Cortes reported to the emperor, there were other conquistadors, Montezuma is a striking figure, etc.
- Alexander destroyed the Persians in classic and dramatic pitched battles, the events of which featured himself. The Aztecs died partly as a result of cunning diplomacy, Montezuma’s attitude, some skirmishes, etc. Lacking a Battle of Issus or Gaugemela, we have a hard time latching onto Cortes to fully appreciate his skills (you don’t have to approve of Cortes to admire certain aspects of him).
- Alexander operated within a “heroic” culture where for the most part, great deeds needed no particular justification. Even modern treatments of Alexander pick up on this, consciously or no. I can’t recall any in depth discussion from ancient writers, for example, about Alexander’s motives, or the justice of his cause. They simply don’t matter. Cortes operated within a much different (and certainly superior) moral framework that calls much of the Spanish enterprise into question.
- Of course we cannot discount the fact that, however well intentioned Cortes may have been, those that followed often exploited the natives for wealth and personal gain. We should not directly blame Cortes for this, but his association with it taints him inevitably, and perhaps with some justice.
Of course unlike Alexander, Cortes never killed those close to him out of paranoia or political expediency (i.e. as Alexander did with Parmenio and Callisthenes), nor did he murder his friends in fits of drunken rage (Cleitus). But these acts usually get overlooked amidst the grandeur of Gaugemela.
Whatever we may think of Cortes, sifting through accumulated historiography about him is a tricky business, especially in light of his own words.