As long as the world will endure,
the fame and glory of Mexico-Tenochtitlán
will never perish.Domingo Chimalpahín Cuauhtlehuanitzin, Memorial breve de la fundación
de la ciudad de Culhuacán
In 1519 the Spaniards came. In April of that year Hernando Cortés and his men made landfall on the Gulf Coast close to what was to become ‘La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz’, the ‘Rich City of the True Cross’. An earlier Spanish expedition had skirted those shores, and Moctezoma's local governors had been on the alert. They quickly attended the strangers, with the Indian ruler's ambassadors arriving in a matter of days. From that time on, the agents of Cortés and Moctezoma were in near-constant interaction.
The received version of the story of the conquest of Mexico stresses the superiority of Spanish arms and of Spanish tenacity, valour and resourcefulness over the moral and cognitive indecision of the natives, so echoing the account by the Spanish commander to his king. This is unfortunate, given the high degree of invention Cort´es brought to its concoction, and his systematic exaggeration of his control over men, Spanish and Indian alike. Cort´ es’s romantic account of the Mexica ruler voluntarily abdicating his authority in favour of Charles V – a cession which, however implausible, was crucial to his strategy for political survival – ought to have been laid to rest by Anthony Pagden’s incisive commentary on the Cortés letters, which exposes the tight correlation between Cortés’s implausible claims, omissions, and extravagances, and his desperate political dilemma. It has nonetheless survived, the traditional tale being too much in accord with European preferences to be easily surrendered, and the story the victors told continues to pass for truth. However, a close reading of the few Indian texts (most, admittedly, written down well after the event and deeply tinctured by Spanish understandings) set in the context of the Spanish sources, allows a partial retrieval of the Mexica view and the more concealed movement of the conquest encounter. I have explored those issues elsewhere.