What screams I'm upper class in Mexico

Aztec Empire: Hernán Cortés versus Montezuma

Around 500 years ago, Hernán Cortés conquered the metropolis of the Aztec ruler Montezuma, practically in a coup. The conquistador will henceforth be celebrated for his epoch-making victory - which in truth never happened

This is the story of a blender and deceiver who lets himself be celebrated as a genius general and conqueror of strange worlds, who leads most of his men to their death, who massacres civilians and who is still revered as a hero. It is also the story of a supposedly dark empire, populated by cruel cannibals and bloodthirsty warriors, which turns out to be a haven of beauty and high culture. It is the story of a great lie: that of the conquest of the Aztec Empire by a small group of Spanish conquistadors under Hernán Cortés.

In November 1519 Cortés and the Aztec ruler Montezuma meet (actually “Motcuhzma” for reasons of legibility we use the Europeanized spelling of the name throughout). It is a moment that will change the world from the ground up. And which now has to be told completely anew. Because the triumph of Hernán Cortés, as it is still in our textbooks and history books today, never happened. And the empire of the Aztecs: It was completely different from what we believe to this day.

What really happened 500 years ago?

In the spring of 1519, Hernán Cortés landed with eleven ships and around 500 to 600 men on the Atlantic coast of Central America, in what is now Mexico. The Aztec ruler Montezuma, whose power stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the semi-deserts in the north to the jungle in the lowlands of the south, showered the Spaniards with precious gifts, according to the popular version of the story. He humbly surrenders his land. The "King of the Gentiles" was blinded by the martial arts of the conquistadors, who spread fear and terror with their firearms and their horses, and was under the spell of ancient prophecies that heralded the arrival of the strangers as divine messengers.

This is considered a historical fact - and in the light of the latest research findings is increasingly proving to be a mirage. As a fantasy story, written down by Cortés and his followers. Not for the pleasure of telling stories, but in the struggle for survival.

The American historian Matthew Restall is considered to be the most radical of the well-known doubters of the myth of the conquest of Mexico. For his latest work (“When Montezuma Met Cortés”), the director of the Institute for Latin American Studies at Pennsylvania State University subjected the documents in the archives of Seville and Mexico City to a thorough revision. "It dawned on me that we had been asking the wrong questions for far too long," he explains. What does he mean by that? “Science still puzzles today how such a small force of conquistadors could defeat a warlike great power with tens of thousands of fighters,” replies Restall. “But there can be no answer to this question. Because this conquest never happened like this. "

This distortion of the truth arises from the one-sided sources. There are no contemporary documents in Nahuatl, the Aztec language; the conquistadors destroyed the documents of the locals, in which the events could have been reflected undistorted. “You stole the voice of this other world,” concludes Restall. History speaks Spanish, the language of the winners. Our supposed knowledge is based on the reports of only one war party.

In the fall of the Aztecs, Cortés was more of a spectator than an actor

Matthew Restall shows a whole new perspective on what happened 500 years ago. He takes the outshining Cortés out of the limelight, banishes him to the backdrop and thus clears the view for a more deeply illuminated image of the historical stage. One of his theses reads: The fall of the Aztec metropolis Tenochtitlan is above all the result of a war between indigenous peoples.

Other scientists now see it that way too. What has condensed into a Spanish triumphal procession in the European narrative tradition was actually something completely different: "A successful uprising of indigenous ethnic groups against their tributaries, the Aztecs," says Stefan Rinke, Professor of Latin American History at the Free University of Berlin. And Cortés only played a minor role in this internal American unrest.

The starting point: a good three hundred years before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztecs invaded what is now central Mexico, quickly conquered vast areas and forced the peoples living there into an exploitative tribute system. The Aztecs are widely hated as oppressors and their rule is based on a fragile system of alliances and forced alliances. There are bloody riots.

The Spaniards stumble into the middle of a war whose rules they do not know. You become “a plaything of events,” says Restall. In 1521 Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, is surrounded by enemies. Tens of thousands of warriors, according to Restall's estimate even more than 200,000, are besieging the metropolis. The proportion of Spaniards among the attackers: about one percent.

It is not the Europeans who conquer Tenochtitlan, but an alliance of dozens of cities and regions that rise up against the Aztecs, led by the Tlaxcaltec people and the city-state of Texcoco.

The winners enter into a Faustian pact with the Spaniards (the latter will only gradually, after decades, after centuries, gain the upper hand in Central America, and never completely). Why do the Tlaxcaltecs act like that? Because it seems tactically smart to them. The lack of understanding of the solidarity between the indigenous peoples and the invaders is a product of nationalist historiography in the 19th and 20th centuries. 500 years ago there was no Central American identity. Just as there was no European consciousness this side of the Atlantic.

The most powerful weapon of the Spaniards is invisible

The power struggles and intrigues among the indigenous peoples are not the only reason that ultimately makes the Spaniards victorious. Nor are they superior weapons. With their steel blades, the Spaniards have an advantage over the Aztecs, who fight with obsidian swords and killers. And the crossbows of the conquistadors kill more efficiently than the arrows of their opponents. But none of this is militarily decisive in view of the vast majority of the indigenous people.

And the horses of the Spaniards, beings from a strange world unknown to America at the time: aren't they a terrifying psychological weapon? Again, this is more of a myth. In the second week of the fight, indigenous warriors incapacitated half of the warhorses. Sometimes they thought the animals were big deer, by no means monsters. And always easy to kill.

The firearms of the Spaniards, on the other hand, the primitive muzzle-loaders and cannons, are of little use on the offensive, are too cumbersome, too imprecise, too laborious to reload when advancing rapidly in confusing terrain. On the defensive, however, which the Spaniards are very often on (two-thirds of them are killed in this war, Matthew Restall estimates), they ensure survival. With these weapons, a position against numerically superior and always frontal attacking indigenous forces can be held until reinforcements arrive.

What, however, according to the assessment of Latin America expert Stefan Rinke, is actually decisive for the war: The Spaniards bring a terrible weapon of mass destruction with them from Europe - the smallpox virus.

The Aztec warriors have no defenses whatsoever against the plague that has been introduced; it kills peasants as well as kings, according to calculations by some historians, around 40 percent of the population of central Mexico falls victim to the epidemics - within just one year. Famine breaks out because many fields lie fallow and transport routes are orphaned. The Spanish conquerors, who are more resistant to the disease that has already ravaged Europe, are entering a power vacuum. And they rewrite history in their own way.

The massive human sacrifice of the Aztecs: an invention of Europe

The story goes that horror lives in Montezuma's metropolis. As they march in, the Spaniards stare spellbound at the building that they could see from a long way off: a pyramid, 45 meters high, crowned by two shrines, the steeply rising steps stained black with dried blood. 80,400 people were sacrificed to the Aztec gods here on the occasion of the coronation of the ruler Ahuitzotl in 1486, according to various sources from the 16th century. In four rows, each about five kilometers long, the prisoners had walked towards sacrificial death a year later at a temple consecration; When they arrived at the altar, the priests would have cut their bodies open and tore out their hearts. At Montezuma's accession to the throne, around 20 years later, another 30,000 people are said to have been sacrificed in this cruel way.

The Aztecs believed in satanic gods who insatiable demand for human sacrifice: this is considered a historical certainty. But even this nightmarish religion, according to Matthew Restall, is largely a gruesome invention of the Europeans.

Around 60,000 people lived in Tenochtitlan. The previously rumored number of more than 200,000 inhabitants seems exaggerated (this is how Restall determined it by taking the area of ​​the islands on which the city extended: barely 14 square kilometers - far too little for the alleged megacity). The fact that tens of thousands were supposed to have been sacrificed there within days would hardly be understandable for reasons of logistics.

And if it had been so, there would have to be far more traces of such a large number of victims to be found today than is the case. But the foundations of the high-rise buildings in Mexico City, Tenochtitlan's successor, are by no means in a layer of bones.
Most scientists believe it has been proven that the Aztecs sacrificed people, albeit in far fewer numbers. "Tens of thousands for a single occasion, that's grotesquely exaggerated," says Stefan Rinke.

Even Restall does not deny that the Aztecs were violent. The mass public executions were by no means part of a "human sacrifice culture", as is often claimed. Rather, it was a matter of “ritual executions” in the context of political and military conflicts. In the battle for Tenochtitlan, for example, the Spaniards had to watch how the enemy brutally executed their captured comrades on the pyramid. The Spaniards, however, had also carried out horrific massacres of the civilian population since the beginning of the campaign in order to intimidate their opponents.

Excessive violence does not characterize one ethnic group, but the entire age, and not just in Central America. Also across the Atlantic, public executions were the order of the day in the early modern period. Inquisition, religious wars, witch hunts, Jewish pogroms: observers from the Aztec empire could have reported massive ritual murders in the empires of the Europeans in the 16th century. All the prisoners who died by fire in the religious frenzy, wouldn't they also be human sacrifices?

But Europeans wrote the story. And in their version, the Aztecs are considered to be those who are caught in a repulsive belief in diabolical deities, from which only the Christians free them. When the Spaniards put an end to the rituals, conquest and colonization become a feat of civilization, a victory over barbarism. The darker the locals appear, the brighter the conquistadors shine as saviors, saviors, knights on behalf of the Lord.

And the demonization of the "Indians" is helpful for another, often overlooked purpose: the conquistadors are also slave hunters. The precious metal in Central America is not as far off as they had hoped; the really great treasures do not exist or cannot be found. Cortés repeatedly had to put down mutinies and uprisings of his men because the gold is almost always only enough for the leaders. But there is this other treasure.

A decade of human hunt has already emptied the Caribbean, which is why the expeditions to Central America also serve the purpose of opening up new hunting grounds. Cortés alone had thousands and thousands of slaves in his possession at the height of his power. Slavery, also widespread among the indigenous peoples of Central America, is only permitted to the Spaniards within narrow limits. According to the royal law, the conquistadors are not allowed to arbitrarily capture, exploit or sell people. But monsters do: cannibals, idol worshipers, they can be kidnapped. So they declared the Aztecs to be.

Montezuma's zoo is more significant than its pyramid

The temple pyramid of Tenochtitlan with its steps full of blood became the dominant symbol of Aztec (un) culture. But Restall also takes a radical change of perspective with regard to the city's infrastructure - and draws attention to Montezuma's zoological gardens and its collections, to a palace of joy and knowledge in the middle of Tenochtitlan.

The Aztec metropolis stretches across a shallow lake, seemingly floating above the water. The city is criss-crossed by canals and boulevards and framed by floating gardens. The barges of the farmers, fishermen and traders, the barges of the aristocrats, the war boats crowd the lake. Paved dams lead into the city, through the streets of the pen makers and the medical experts, the goldsmiths and stonemasons, to the residences in the center. Montezuma's palace complexes include arsenals, archives and a library. To the east extend the zoological gardens and parks with hundreds of plant and animal species, to the west the aviariums, spacious free-flight halls for birds, covered with nets and lined with marble galleries. "Montezuma is one of the great collectors in human history," says Restall.

In his zoos, the ruler delights in the biodiversity of his empire, from jaguars to eagles; its material collection reflects the wealth of Aztec culture: pictures and writings, fine clothing and precious jewelry, featherwork and fine carvings, weapons, sculptures, works made of metal. It is quite possible that with this collection, Montezuma, quite unintentionally, even inspired the chambers of art and curiosities of Europe, the forerunners of our museums. Its treasures caused a sensation in Europe in the 16th century when King Charles I of Spain (crowned Emperor Charles V in 1520) sent them on tour through his Habsburg Empire. Albrecht Dürer, artist genius of the Renaissance, writes enthusiastically about this looted art exhibition that he visits in Brussels: "I haven't seen anything in my life that has so pleased my heart."

But Restall is another aspect that is more important, which is revealed in Montezuma's passion: If the Aztec ruler was such an avid collector, inquisitive observer and keen mind, he must not have been fascinated by the "Caxtilteks", the people from Castile who stumble through his realm like aliens?

He wants to watch the Spaniards, study them, maybe learn something from them. That is why he lures them to his city. It would be a possible explanation for his hesitant military action against the invaders.

The chroniclers have portrayed Montezuma as fearful and hesitant since the 16th century. A superstitious ruler who, paralyzed by mysterious prophecies about the messengers of God from afar, gives away his kingdom.

But he probably never did that. His famous submission speech: certainly an invention of the Spaniards. Because if the Aztec ruler surrenders, the conquistadors can claim the right to colonize the country for themselves. Montezuma's speech of submission is the license to exploit - probably written by Cortés himself.

How did Montezuma die?

And yet this speech is still widely regarded as authentic today, and it is even recommended as teaching material in schools. The Ministry of Culture of Baden-Württemberg, for example, is proposing a teaching unit on its education server on the subject of "The Aztec Empire becomes Spanish: the vassal oath of Montezuma". Task: analyze the submission speech and find out why Montezuma unconditionally surrenders. And why he sheds tears in the process. But the Spaniards would have felt more like crying than Montezuma arrested them in Tenochtitlan.They were the ones who capitulated, according to Matthew Restall. And it is hard to imagine that Montezuma dedicated a long life to this interesting, this most dangerous part of his collection.

Possibly he wants to have the conquistadors killed in ritual war games; they, like the Romans, make their gladiators an element of a bloody spectacle that is performed on certain feast days. But that's speculation.

In any case: in the early summer of 1520 things got out of hand. Fighting breaks out in the city and the Spaniards are entrenched in the palace. Although they are prisoners of the Aztecs, they in turn got hold of prisoners: Montezuma and parts of his government - the Spaniards were apparently able to take them hostage.

Montezuma calls on his furious subjects to stop fighting immediately, according to the popular version, whereupon the mob knocks him down. There is also talk of suicide. Another variant brings his successor Cuauhtémoc into play as regicide. This explanation of what happened is logical and probable: The Spaniards kill Montezuma and the other hostages when, with the courage of desperation and with immense losses, they fight their way out of the city. This defeat will go down in their annals as another dreary, “sad night”.

Then in August 1521 Tenochtitlan fell under the attack of the fighters from Tlaxcala and Texcoco. The city is losing power, but is still ruled by Aztec ruling dynasties. Did Cortés ever have control over her? Probably not.

But he and his chroniclers have always maintained this, because the conquistadors needed nothing more urgently than reports of success. The mission had been disastrous. The first comrades in arms: almost all of them dead. The possession of immeasurable treasuries: a hoax.

Only a brilliant winning story could silence the growing number of its critics. And lure the urgently needed fresh forces into his fantasy realm. The fairy tale of the conquest of fabulous riches becomes the survival lie of Hernán Cortés.

Cortés was not a heroic conqueror, his importance: largely overrated

Cortés cannot have been the shining leader of a Spanish army, if only because one never existed. There is no regular army that Mexico has conquered. The conquistadors who take this bloody work into their hands are a thrown together heap of groups and small groups with changing loyalties and leaders, without a clear strategy, only committed to their own interests: to gather wealth as quickly as possible.

After the end of the Reconquista, the recapture of the peninsula from the Muslim Moors, there are few prospects for fame and fortune for the lower nobility of Spain. Many of these aristocrats now go out into the world as soldiers of fortune in order to gain possession and prestige by force of arms. And the teams of these conquistadors are mostly not professional soldiers, but rather penniless adventurers, attracted by the golden shimmer in the west. A mercenary force. The only difference is that they do not receive any pay, but rather follow a promise for the future: rich booty.

As early as 1518 when the ships were being equipped in Cuba, Cortés behaved like a robber baron. His client Diego Velázquez, governor of the island, quickly began to have doubts about the qualifications of this shady executive. He wants to withdraw command of the mission from Cortés at the last moment. But he can no longer take the chance - and just sails away.

Bloody arguments break out among the conquistadors over the question: Shouldn't it be better to turn back, to go back to Cuba, to submit to Velázquez? Or defiantly move on into the unknown, against whose orders, and possibly end up as a rebel on the gallows? Cortés prevails - too tempting the riches he holds out in prospect.

The conquistador cleverly plans his next move: as early as 1519 he sent the Spanish king a shipment of treasures from the Aztec empire. Karl is delighted with these samples. And about the letters from Cortés that are enclosed with them: full of promises of more, much more. Cortés plays a daring game for time. His employer, Velázquez, has meanwhile sent 19 ships with well over a thousand men to capture him. It is the largest armada America has seen by then. A civil war is looming among the Spaniards in the New World.

But the legendary city of Tenochtitlan unfolds irresistible attractions. The treasures that supposedly await the conquerors there are a promise to which Velázquez ’men also succumb. Cortés lures them with real gold and with false promises, after a short battle they overflow to him. Without these men, who multiply Cortés ’powers, his poor squad would have been quickly drowned in the hail of arrows.

The king raised him to the rank of governor in 1522. Cortés won his game with breathtaking coolness. He is now one of the richest and most powerful people in the Spanish world.

But he gambled too high. His bluff is exposed. As early as 1528, only nine years after landing in Central America, he was ordered to Spain, where he had to face judicial questioning. The resulting indictment comprises 101 points, the allegations range from embezzlement to massacres of the civilian population. Because there are also limits to the arbitrariness of a conquistador.

Crimes against the so-called "Indios" are not prosecuted with particular vigor. But where there is a plaintiff, there is a judge. And the theologian Bartolomé de Las Casas, the most prominent campaigner for the rights of indigenous peoples, raises his voice against Cortés. He calls him a thief, a bandit, a liar, describes the conquistadors as tyrants, "unworthy to call themselves a Christian".

More serious is the accusation that Cortés embezzled taxes to which the crown is entitled. He also has to answer for multiple murders: of rivals, royal officials, and his own wife. He is never condemned, but posts, benefices and the favor of the king are lost. In 1547, at the age of 62, Cortés died on an estate near Seville. Unlike most of his companions of natural causes in bed. He remains a shrewd survivor until the end.

How fictions turn into facts

Much remains a mystery about the Montezuma versus Cortés case. Matthew Restall's theses are also not free from contradictions. His great merit lies in the deconstruction of a false story, in the knowledge: At least that's not how it could have been. Question marks are always better than false certainties.
Did Montezuma, with the hubris of a ruler who believes he is invulnerable, underestimate the Spaniards, but in the end played into their hands? No matter how deep the archaeologists dig, they can't find an answer to that question. It is probably not hidden in undiscovered tombs, but rather in the spiritual world of the Aztecs. Lynn Sebastian Purcell from New York State University did research on the highly developed philosophy of the Aztecs (GEO 11/2017). He says: In their worldview, the good always appears in connection with something undesirable. Pain and impermanence were an inevitable part of the Aztec existence.

If we knew more about this Aztec philosophy, we would get closer to the truth. But the evidence of their culture that has been preserved is all too sparse, too many documents have been destroyed by flames. The Spaniards burned down many of the libraries of the Aztecs and their neighboring peoples, the Inquisition threw their writings and documents into the fire as the work of the devil.

And already the first Christianized generation of the subjugated willingly take over the historiography of the victorious power. The indigenous upper class naturally cultivates a myth of surrender. Christianity was immediately accepted and faithfully placed in Spanish service: this false confession is a recipe for survival. Especially in Spain's political culture, which is characterized by loyalty, it secures the indigenous aristocracy a remainder of power and influence, the Tlaxcalteks can even maintain a certain independence with it. And in the supposed prophecy of the aliens sent by God, there is a comforting history of salvation for the peoples who have converted to Christianity. With it, the deep rift between the old and the new world of faith can be bridged.

In Europe, on the other hand, and later also in the USA, the legend of the conquest becomes a pseudo-truth because it is too good to be untrue. She fits perfectly into learned narrative patterns, with a hero (Hernán Cortés), a villain (Diego Velázquez), a tragic hero (Montezuma); with its dramatic twists and turns and erotic entanglements (especially in the person of the translator Malinche, at the side of the hero, of course). It's a success story that has worked for centuries, as a novel and as a poem, as a song and as an opera. It is retold again and again, be it in books, be it in television documentaries or on the Internet, ultimately also by historians who are only too happy to use easily accessible sources.

The myth of the conquest of Mexico is an example of what psychologists use the word "confirmation error" to refer to: a skewed story interpreted for the desired outcome.

And therein lies an insight that goes far beyond what happened 500 years ago: the constant warning of skepticism, the warning against gullibility and the call to question history over and over again.