Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

Synopsis

Here is an intriguing exploration of the ways in which the history of the Spanish Conquest has been misread and passed down to become popular knowledge of these events. The book offers a fresh account of the activities of the best-known conquistadors and explorers, including Columbus, Cortes, and Pizarro. Using a wide array of sources, historian Matthew Restall highlights seven key myths, uncovering the source of the inaccuracies and exploding the fallacies and misconceptions behind each myth. This vividly written and authoritative book shows, for instance, that native Americans did not take the conquistadors for gods and that small numbers of vastly outnumbered Spaniards did not bring down great empires with stunning rapidity. We discover that Columbus was correctly seen in his lifetime--and for decades after--as a briefly fortunate but unexceptional participant in efforts involving many southern Europeans. It was only much later that Columbus was portrayed as a great man who fought against the ignorance of his age to discover the new world. Another popular misconception--that the Conquistadors worked alone--is shattered by the revelation that vast numbers of black and native allies joined them in a conflict that pitted native Americans against each other. This and other factors, not the supposed superiority of the Spaniards, made conquests possible. The Conquest, Restall shows, was more complex--and more fascinating--than conventional histories have portrayed it. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest offers a richer and more nuanced account of a key event in the history of the Americas.

Excerpt

It has been a shock for us to learn that we do not perceive the world just as it is, and that our knowledge of the world is inescapably framed by the concepts and language of our culture.

—Behan McCullagh (1998)

Historians today are priests of a cult of truth, called to the service of a god whose existence they are doomed to doubt.

—Felipe Fernández-Armesto (1999)

Let the curious reader consider whether there is not much to ponder in this that I am writing. What men have there been in the world who have shown such daring?

—Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1570)

When Bernal Díaz first saw the Aztec capital he was lost for words. Years later, the words would come, many of them, when he wrote a lengthy account of his experiences as a member of the Spanish expedition led by Hernán Cortés against the Aztec empire. But on that November afternoon in 1519, as Díaz and his fellow conquistadors came over the mountain pass and looked down upon the Valley of Mexico for the first time, “gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before us was real.”

Díaz's struggle to describe what he saw—the metropolis of Tenochtitlán, studded with pyramids, crisscrossed with canals, seeming to hover on a lake that was “crowded with canoes” and edged with other “great cities”—derived from his shock at realizing that the world was not what he had perceived it to be. Just as artists would for centuries draw pre-Conquest Tenochtitlán with distinctly European features (see Figure 1), so did Díaz try to compare the valley to European cityscapes of his experience, but could not. In the end, he resorted to a reference to medieval fiction, so that the Aztec cities “seemed . . .

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