If that mythical moment—the birth of modern history—can be said to exist, it occurred on November 8, 1519, when Motecuzoma Xocoyotl and Hernán Cortés came face to face. That meeting was epoch making in a far more real sense than was the moment singled out by both Adam Smith and Karl Marx when, 27 years and 27 days earlier, Columbus made his landfall on San Salvador. During those years the Spaniards, pursuing rumors and illusions, had probed the Caribbean and its littoral. They knew they had found a new continent and, with Amerigo Vespucci, they called it a New World. But the people they met appeared feeble and seemed to fade away at the mere approach of the Spaniards. Little gold or silver was found. The natives died whenever they were put to work. Nothing grew that justified the trouble and expense of crossing the Atlantic. There was no sign of Cathay or the Great Khan. Until 1517, “the dismal story narrated by Peter Martyr [was] of a tropical paradise invaded by ruthless bands of marauders intent on enslaving its witless inhabitants.”1

Then came news of something different to the west of Cuba. Samples of gold were brought back as tangible proof. A further expedition in 1518 confirmed these first hopes. A third expedition, led by Hernán Cortés, left in February 1519. In Yucatán and Chiapas, Cortés encountered sizable populations. On Good Friday, he landed and called the “city” he founded “La Muy Rica Villa de la Vera Cruz.” Soon he heard that there was an overlord, an emperor, whose name he understood was Mutezuma but whom the Spaniards came to call Moctezuma. On November 7, 1519, Cortés and his motley band came through the pass in the sierras above Amecameca and saw, spread out before them, a valley enclosing a lake, which was ringed with a number of towns. On an island in the lake was a large city shining white in the afternoon sun. On the following day, November 8, 1519, Hernán Cortés, claiming, with somewhat spurious credentials, to be the representative of the queen, doña Juana of Castile, and her son, King Carlos I of Castile and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, met Motecuzoma Xocoyotl, the Uei Tlatoani, or Great Speaker, of the Colhua-Mexica people of Anahuac. Cortés moved to embrace him but was prevented from doing so because no one might touch the person of the Great Speaker.2 That same evening, as Cortés tells the story, Moctezuma handed over his entire dominions to Cortés and his liege lord.3 At that moment the Spanish Empire in America was born, and with it the age of European imperialism.

At its birth, that imperialism was composed, as it was to be for the next four hundred years, of three elements. The first was the assumption of the superiority of Europeans over all other races and of the right to rule them, an assumption so deeply ingrained, so axiomatic and self-evident, that it felt no need to justify itself and did so, somewhat testily, only when purblind critics raised irrelevant remonstrance or misplaced censure. The second was its corollary, that these other races were naturally inferior to, and therefore subjects of, the Europeans. The third was that this was the natural order of things, and that when this was made clear to them those other races naturally accepted it.

Cortés’ Story: A Rhetorical Construct

The first and principal source of our knowledge of the meeting is a letter, the second of his Cartas de relación, sent to Charles V by Cortés 11 months later, in October 1520. By then Moctezuma was dead, but Tenochtitlan, the principal city of the Mexica federation, was undefeated. An impartial judge might well have said, despite Cortés’ rhetoric, that it was likely to remain so.4 The letter is a tale of unmitigated disaster. Yet in Cortés’ telling, the superiority of the Spaniards remains axiomatic, and the willing submission of the Mexica, as its logical corollary, no more than is to be expected. The axiom and the corollary are still intact after nearly five hundred years.5 If we are to reach the truth of the story we must first get past the language of Spanish imperialism in which it is first told.6

The letter is structured as a drama in three acts. The journey from Vera Cruz to Tenochtitlan, between August and November 1519, makes up the first act. The events during the Spaniards’ stay in Tenochtitlan, from November 1519 to May 1520, form the second. The arrival of the Narváez expedition and the ensuing disaster of the Noche Triste form the third. The climax, in the second act, is Moctezuma’s submission. It is framed by the dramatically contrasted first and third acts. The first recounts Cortés’ intrepid and almost unhindered progress toward that meeting while collecting, along the way, the ready submission of most of the chiefs he encounters. The third recounts disaster, the rebellion stirred up by Pánfilo de Narváez, and the destruction, as a result, of all that Cortés had achieved. The epilogue is Cortés’ “I shall return” and the promise to reconquer all that has been lost.7

In the first act of the drama, Cortés delineates many of the elements of that climax: the weakly held frontier provinces, the ready submission to a “natural lord,” the enclaves of hostility to Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards’ military prowess and their willingness to use it, the perception of vacillating weakness at the apex of Aztec power. Before leaving the coast Cortés had already discovered that the marches of the Aztec Empire were not strongly held. They “had been subdued by force not long previously,” and the people had asked Cortés “to protect them from that great lord who held them by tyranny and by force.” Along the way, virtually all towns were “pacified” or voluntarily declared themselves vassals of Charles V. The Tlaxcalans were in a state of perpetual warfare with Tenochtitlan, which pleased Cortés “not a little”; he adds, with devastating cynicism, “so I maneuvered one against the other and thanked each side for their warnings and told each that I held his friendship to be of more worth than the other’s.”8

At Cholula, the imperial blitzkrieg was unleashed, and he slaughtered “more than three thousand” of the inhabitants.9 One of the most notorious moments in the Black Legend of Spanish savagery, this may well have been a ghastly overreaction to a real or imagined threat from the Cholulans. If it was intended as a preemptive strike, it confirms the opinion of those who think Cortés’ military skills are overrated. It may well have been a highly dramatic proclamation of empire against a state independent of, though allied to, Moctezuma. Whatever it was, it could not be readily incorporated into the theme of Charles’ natural lordship, and it fit only somewhat awkwardly into the theme of empire.

While describing the stay in Tlaxcala and Cholula, Cortés first recounts Moctezuma’s offer of danegeld, the payment of large sums of money to the invader to persuade him to turn back.10 Ixtlilxóchitl informs us that there were factions in the Aztec council, and the collective response to the arrival of the Spaniards probably alternated between receiving them as an embassy from a foreign king and repelling them as invaders.11 When he came to write the letter, Cortés had to portray a monolithic “empire” with Moctezuma as its absolute ruler whose traditio imperii bound the whole people. Both Francisco López de Gómara and Bernal Díaz del Castillo comment that these changes of tactics were the vacillations of an indecisive and superstitious mind.12 Cortés does not comment. As he tells it, the march from Cholula to Tenochtitlan was a royal progress. Disregarding all threats and avoiding all traps, he proceeded triumphantly until he came face to face with Moctezuma on November 8.

The second act is structured around three speeches that Cortés reports Moctezuma made or, more correctly, puts into Moctezuma’s mouth. The first of these takes place immediately after the arrival of the Spaniards and, albeit the stuff of fantasy, is fairly straightforward. The second is set in a much more elaborate context, is more detailed, is followed by the formal submission of “all the other lords, ” and is set down by a notary public in a duly witnessed formal document which, by “misfortune,” Cortés has since lost.13 The third, in reported rather than direct speech, is almost lost in the middle of a long description of the policía of the empire.

The meeting on the causeway outside Tenochtitlan is followed, after the briefest of formalities, by the first speech, the elements of which are as follows: the Aztecs always knew they were not natives of the country. A chieftain of whom their ancestors were vassals brought them here, departed, returned, and was then rejected. They always knew that the descendants of this chieftain would come and conquer the land and make them his vassals. From what Cortés tells them, Charles V is their natural lord and they will obey Cortés as his representative. Finally, their city is not fabulous, nor is Moctezuma a god (“See that I am flesh and blood like you”). Cortés’ reply is both laconic (“I replied to all he said as I thought most fitting”) and cynical, implicating Charles in a conspiracy to deceive the natives, “especially in making him believe that Your Majesty was he whom they were expecting.”14

The second speech, described as having been made about four weeks later, is set in a much more highly elaborated context made up of four elements: the arrest of Moctezuma, the burning of Qualpopoca, the entrapment of Cacama, and a discourse on the suitability of Mexico for Spanish settlement. The most important, and the most mysterious, of these elements is Moctezuma’s “arrest.” The “means to capture him without causing a disturbance” is the imprisonment and execution by burning of Qualpopoca, chief of the city of Almeria, for killing four Spaniards.15 That arrest causes Cacama, lord of Texcoco, to become extremely hostile. To circumvent his hostility, Cortés and Moctezuma arrange for him to be entrapped and brought as a prisoner to Tenochtitlan. Cortés then appoints one of Cacama’s sons to rule in his place. Into the story of these events Cortés weaves an account of how suitable Mexico is for Spanish settlement. Moctezuma’s “desire to serve Your Highness” leads him to describe in detail the mineral and agricultural wealth of the kingdom, the suitable location of ports and navigable rivers, and therefore the excellent prospects for Spanish settlement. For Cortés, “empire” means taking land from the present possessors but, as well, it has always implied settlement.16

The formal ritual of submission is made in an assembly of “all the chiefs of the cities and lands thereabouts” shortly after the imprisonment of Cacama. They have, Moctezuma tells them, been his “subjects and vassals. Yet they have always known they were subject to a distant lord who said “he would return or would send such forces as would compel them to serve him.” Cortés, he tells them, has spoken of the lord and king who sent him. “I am certain, and so must you be also, that this is the same lord for whom we have been waiting, especially as he says that there they know of us.” “What we have so long awaited has come to pass in our time.” Therefore, “from now on you should obey this great King, for he is your rightful lord, and as his representative acknowledge this his captain.” So Moctezuma moves to the public transfer of sovereignty. The lords are too overcome with weeping to reply, but when they can restrain their tears they say they are very pleased to obey.

Then all together and each one by himself they promised to obey and comply with all that was demanded of them in the name of Your Majesty, as true and loyal vassals must do, and to provide all the tributes and services which formerly they paid to Mutezuma and whatever else might be required of them in Your Highness’ name. And all this was said before a notary public, who set it down in a formal document, which I asked for, attested by the presence of many Spaniards who served as witnesses.17

As soon as the submission is complete, Cortés tells Moctezuma “that Your Highness had need of gold for certain works You had ordered to be done.” While relating how the gold was delivered, he rhapsodizes about the wealth and the artistry of the Mexica, “the magnificence, the strange and marvelous things of this great city of Temixtitan and of the dominion and wealth of this Mutezuma, its ruler, and of the rites and customs of the people, and of the order there is in the government of the capital as well as in the other cities of Mutezuma’s dominions.” Then he presents a detailed description of the province, the valley and the lake, the city, and an item-by-item catalogue of the markets, all of which are ordered and policed.18

In his account of the temples, Cortés relates that he destroyed the most important of the Aztec idols, “which caused Mutezuma and the other natives some sorrow.” “First they asked me not to do it”[!]. But “through the interpreters,” he makes them understand how deceived they have been; that there is only one God, of whom the Spaniards will tell them. Then he reports Moctezuma’s third speech, in perhaps the most extraordinary sentence in the whole letter.

All of them, especially Mutezuma, replied that they had already told me how they were not natives of this land, and that as it was many years since their forefathers had come here, they well knew that they might have erred somewhat in what they believed, for they had left their native land so long ago; and as I had only recently arrived from there, I would better know the things they should believe, and should explain to them and make them understand, for they would do as I said was best.19

Cortés goes on to describe the “many large and beautiful houses, the aqueducts across the lake, the economic ordering of the canoe trade, and the elegance and courtliness of the inhabitants of the city. In summary, “I will only say that these people live almost like those in Spain, and in as much harmony and order as there, and considering that they are barbarous and so far from the knowledge of God and cut off from all civilized nations, it is truly remarkable to see what they have achieved in all things.”20 Moctezuma’s court, his palaces, his other residences, his fish ponds and aviaries are praised unstintingly. Of the elaborate rituals of his meals, his sumptuous clothes, and the ceremonies with which he was attended, Cortés remarks that they are so many and varied, “I do not think. . . the sultans nor any of the infidel lords of whom we have heard until now are attended with such ceremony.” Finally, the second act draws to a close with a magnificent crescendo of crashing chords.

While in this great city I was seeing to the things which I thought were required in the service of Your Sacred Majesty and subduing and persuading to Your service many provinces and lands containing very many and very great cities, towns, and fortresses. I was discovering mines and finding out many of the secrets of Mutezuma’s lands and of those which bordered on them and those of which he had knowledge, and they are so many and so wonderful that they seem almost unbelievable. All of which was done with such goodwill and delight on the part of Mutezuma and all the natives of the aforementioned lands that it seemed as if ab initio they had known Your Sacred Majesty to be their king and rightful lord, and with no less goodwill they have done all that I, in Your Royal name, have commanded them.21

The third act in Cortés’ epistolary drama tells of the ill-starred coming of Narváez. Cortés’ conciliatory approach is nullified by Narváez’ “evil intent.” Cortés leaves the city and, through the exercise of superior military skill, captures Narváez and co-opts the members of his expedition. During Cortés’ enforced absence from Tenochtitlan, however, the Aztecs revolt. This news sends him hurrying back, but, unable to repair the damage, he is forced to abandon the city with the loss of several hundred men, many horses, most of the gold and jewels, and all the notarized records of the Aztec submission. Finally, bloodied and harassed, he and his company reach Tlaxcala, which, to their relief, has remained an ally.

Deconstructing the Story

The content of the letter has been subjected to such close scrutiny that it would seem impossible to say anything new about it. That it purports to be a straightforward report of the events between August 1519 and October 1520 and is nothing of the sort has been spelled out many times, most venomously by Eulalia Guzmán and most thoroughly by John Elliott, who, in his introduction to Anthony Pagden’s translation, places the letter in both its local and its wider context.22

The local context was Cortés’ relationship with Diego Velázquez, the governor of Cuba. Velázquez had sent him with explicit instructions not to colonize but only to explore. Cortés had circumvented those instructions by means of a device of such dubious legality that, without both total success and ratification of his authority by the king himself, he must have been held to be a rebel. To obtain that ratification he argued that because Charles was already “natural lord” of the people and lands through which he, Cortés, had progressed, those people had readily offered their submission through Cortés to the king.23 Cortés was Charles’ representative pro tern, appointed by the municipal council of the city of Vera Cruz. Velázquez, on the other hand, was avariciously concerned only with his private gain, and whenever he or his partisans intervened, the recognition of Charles’ natural lordship was endangered.

The wider context to the letter was furnished by the coincidence that in June 1519, Charles had been elected Holy Roman Emperor. The news reached Mexico while the events the letter recounts were happening. Cortés was able, then, to introduce the theme of empire. He was now winning for Charles an empire in the New World no less glorious than that “which, by the Grace of God, Your Sacred Majesty already possesses.”24

The letter is a rhetorical construct. In the precise sense of the word, it is a fiction. It was constructed, in October 1520, solely to serve Cortés’ purpose at the time he was writing: to inform the king that Moctezuma as an absolute ruler had, through Cortés, made his submission and that of the whole population. It is not ajournai tracing the events as they occurred, but is entirely put together after the event. All hermeneutic questions about the letter must begin with, and retain constantly in view, the fact that it is a construct. Its form and its content are dictated by the demands not of narrative but of context and rhetoric. In both the immediate and the wider contexts, the rhetorical strategy, to which all else is subservient, is to give the maximum dramatic force to Moctezuma’s submission to Charles V.

That strategy also is to give rhetorical coherence to three somewhat discrepant propositions. The first is that the people naturally and readily acknowledged Charles as their natural lord. The second is that because Pánfilo de Narváez incited them to rebellion they threw off their allegiance, thereby showing that they are “curs,” inferior to real humans, prone to unnatural vices, and fitted by nature to be subject to the Spaniards. Third is that while Cortés has won for Charles an empire in America equal to the Holy Roman Empire in Europe, these people must now be conquered and forced to submit.

This rhetorical strategy dictates the studied opposition between the first and third acts of the drama. The contrast between Cortés and Velázquez had already been strongly drawn in the first letter, of July 10, 1519, signed by the “Justiciary and Municipal Council of the Muy Rica Villa de la Vera Cruz.” This same contrast is now spelled out between Cortés in the first act and Narváez—Velázquez’ doppelgänger—in the third. All the characteristic contrasts from the Siete Partidas between true and false liegemen are brought into service. On the one side is the virtuous and loyal vassal of the king in pursuit of the common good; on the other is the perverter of the king’s justice who avariciously seeks only his private profit. On the one side is the truth-telling servant who reports to his lord all that he has discovered of his new domains; on the other is the lying, false vassal who uses his public trust to deceive the king and slander the good name of the king’s true servants. On the one side is the king’s friend; on the other his enemy. This relentlessly reiterated contrast is the setting for the climax—Moctezuma’s speeches and his arrest: the traditio imperii.

It is Cortés’ argument that his coming revealed the true juridical reality; namely, that the natives were already vassals of the king of Castile. Once this was made plain to them they accepted Charles’ overlordship with “goodwill and delight.’’ In contrast, Narváez came “with pernicious intent” to kill Cortés. He sent “suborners and letters of inducement to the people ... to rise against me and join him as though one of us were a Christian and the other an infidel or as if one were Your Highness’ vassal and the other his enemy.” Traitorously, Narváez promised to free Moctezuma and to leave his land in complete freedom. As a result the Indians revolted against Charles and his representative, Cortés. They attacked the garrison Cortés had left in Tenochtitlan “so that they and their land might be free, and all memory of the Spaniards obliterated.” The ensuing disaster—necessary consequence of treachery—was such that “had they accomplished all they intended, this land which has now been conquered and subdued [sic; Cortés is writing in October 1520 when this is patently and confessedly untrue] could not be regained in 20 years.” When Narváez tried to bribe him to abandon Mexico, Cortés remained “diligent” in his obedience and “would not be persuaded by bribes to do as they asked, for I, and those who were with me, would rather die in defense of the land which we had won and now held in subjection to Your Majesty than be disloyal or traitors to our King.”25

It is, therefore, ingenuous to see the letter as charting the real progress of, say, Cortés’ understanding of and admiration for the Aztecs. Jon Vincent Blake, for instance, notices a change in Cortés’ opinion after the Noche Triste.26 Before his defeat Cortés is unstinting in his praise. Tlaxcala is “larger than Granada . . . with many more people . . . and very much better supplied with the produce of the land.” “There is amongst them every consequence of good order and courtesy, and they are such an orderly and intelligent people that the best in Africa cannot equal them.” “The orderly manner in which, until now, these people have been governed is almost like that of the states of Venice or Genoa or Pisa. . . .” After the disaster, the Aztecs become “curs”; “they are all cannibals,” of which he adds, in self-revealing comment, “I send Your Majesty no evidence because it is so infamous.” They are arrogant and proud, and, the ultimate evil, “rebellious” and “traitors” against the king, fit only to be enslaved.27

It is no less ingenuous to construe Cortés’ purpose as the collecting of information in order to manipulate “signs.”28 In the Siete Partidas, gathering information and rendering an account of it to his lord are marks of the faithful vassal.29 Cortés, particularly in the first letter, has constantly portrayed himself as such a faithful vassal and the lackeys of Diego Velázquez as false. If this were simple reportage it might be read as though in them, real “others” existed whom wily Europeans could manipulate by their use of signs. But simple reportage these texts are not. Cortés’ letters, like those of Columbus before him, serve solely as a means to achieve an end within the Spanish polity. The manipulator of signs is also the creator of the reported “other.” That other exists only within a text, the purpose of which is not to convey information about the Aztecs but to make a case in Spanish law. The manipulation, such as it is, is no more than an extension of the author’s creative—one might almost say his forensic—technique.30

If the letters were a series of dispatches they might be a record of disillusionment or of manipulation. They are not. Cortés writes of his admiration for the natives and his contempt for them as “curs” at the same time and in the same letter. These are simultaneous logical contraries quite deliberately juxtaposed, and the simultaneity serves not to describe or evaluate what Cortés has seen but to further his rhetorical strategy. “His letters do not form a chronicle of the events of the conquest, as they purport to do; instead, they are a grouping of legal arguments in defense of actions that directly contradicted the orders under which he was supposed to operate.”31

Viewed thus, the three speeches of Moctezuma can be seen for what they are: not the words of the Uei Tlatoani but a formal expression of Spanish imperial theory. In Cortés’ dramatic structure, Moctezuma, by making them, accepts overlordship and empire and submits to it. His submission is secured by his being taken into custody. The arrest of Moctezuma is, then, the climax of Cortés’ letter and the most important information it is designed to communicate. It determines where, in the constructed text, everything else is located. He has, Cortés is telling the king, easily and peacefully obtained the formal submission of all the people and, by taking the person of their ruler under his control, has secured their continued obedience. The Narváez expedition has now jeopardized this triumph he has so skillfully won.

The question of whether Moctezuma said anything like the words Cortés puts into his mouth has occupied several scholars. Three of the most recent differ significantly from each other. Susan Gillespie agrees with those who think the speeches are “fabrications.” She does suggest, however, that having the Aztecs refer to themselves as strangers might possibly be an echo of a real fear that others would come to usurp the kingship, and that Cortés could have picked up such rumors.32 Ross Hassig makes no reference to any of the speeches other than to say that Moctezuma “assembled his nobles and ordered them to pledge fealty to Cortés.”33 Hugh Thomas accepts Cortés’ account as more or less accurate despite the extreme skepticism, which he notes, of Pagden, León-Portilla, Clendinnen, Guzmán, and Frankl. His argument is that Cortés could not have invented these speeches out of whole cloth. Yet inventing speeches was common practice among historians of the Renaissance. Putting elaborate speeches into the mouths of the dramatis personae not to report what they had said but to set down what, in the writer’s opinion, “was called for by each situation” had been customary since the days of Thucydides.34 Thomas accepts Cortés at face value because not one of Cortés’ many enemies ever denied the accuracy of his report. In particular Bernal Diaz, the eyewitness, corroborates his account. That is not the least reason why this essay considers the case of Bernal Díaz.

It is hardly surprising that no Spaniard ever said that Moctezuma did not acknowledge the suzerainty of the king of Spain. To have done so would have verged on lesa majestad. Las Casas was almost the only person in sixteenth-century Castile who qualified—and even he did not deny—the natural right of Spain to rule.35 Thomas’ only positive reason for accepting that Moctezuma actually said, in substance, what Cortés has him say is that in point of fact he did surrender his sovereignty. “Montezuma did, after all, subsequently accept abasement at Castilian hands.”36 It is the purpose of this essay to suggest that such abasement may not have been so immediate or so total as many would have us believe.

Cortés, we know, had earlier announced that he was going to take Moctezuma captive. At the beginning of the second letter he reminds the king, “with respect to the quest of this lord, I undertook more than I was able, for I assured Your Highness that I would take him alive in chains or make him subject to Your Majesty’s Royal Crown.”37 The unwonted modesty of that “I undertook more than I was able” almost certainly means that Cortés did indeed say something very similar in his lost first letter. The likelihood is strengthened by Gómara’s repetition of the rash boast: “Besides, he had boldly written the Emperor that he would seize Moctezuma and his empire.”38 Here, Cortés is claiming that he had succeeded. He had won an empire. He had secured the allegiance of the new vassals, and these fruits of his victory have been destroyed by the traitor Narváez.

He had made the boast because capturing the chief and ruling through him was the standard procedure in the Caribbean and on the Isthmus of Panama. Experience, the golden rule of the men of the Indies, dictated that the same strategy be followed in Mexico.39 Yet the political structures of the Mexica were much more complex than anything the Spaniards had met before. The culture and the history of the society comprised a more finely grained network of values and perceptions than the conquistadores could ever have conceived.40 Attempting to capture the chief and then ruling through him was a different order of reality in Mexico from what it had been in the Caribbean. If Moctezuma had indeed ceded the empire, if the Spaniards had indeed taken him prisoner, they would truly have been conquerors. According to Julius Caesar, it is the law of war that conquerors may do with the conquered whatsoever they wish.41 By that criterion they were not.

It is instructive to compare Cortés’ account of the imprisonment of Moctezuma with the Spaniards’ treatment of Atahualpa in Peru. The latter story is completely of a piece. The strategy was simple: to capture the leader. It was achieved with breathtaking singleness of purpose: to extract the maximum ransom possible and then—and only if it proved feasible—to use the prisoner as a front man for Spanish rule. The ransom was collected and, when the captured ruler proved useless, he was eliminated with barely a second thought.42 The contrast with Mexico could not be starker. Cortés’ strategy, even in his own narrative, is unclear. It is not until at least a week after his arrival in Tenochtitlan that the project is bruited; then he goes to great lengths of elaborate explanation to vindicate his actions. The Spaniards, moreover, derive very little material advantage from their “prisoner.” None of the aims of Spanish rule is much advanced. The puppet ruler does not even provide his captors with military assistance against the interlopers.

For all his rhetoric, Cortés, even in his own story, was no closer to conquest between November 1519 and May 1520 than he had been the previous July, when he made his ill-starred boast to Charles V that he would take Moctezuma “alive or dead.” The conventional strategy might well be to have the puppet ruler retain all the trappings of authority. Yet here, the constraint on him by his captors, if such it was, is almost invisible. The account of the captured Moctezuma’s food and service at table is detailed and circumstantial. What Cortés is actually describing are rituals he has observed many times in the normal course of events. Moctezuma is a man at liberty, at the center of an enormous household operating according to its familiar routines. “The forms and ceremonies with which this lord was attended are so many and so varied,” says Cortés, that he cannot recall them all. Similarly, the descriptions of the markets and their policing, the temples and the priests, the elegance and courtly bearing of the citizens depict a society operating normally and without undue pressure.

Moctezuma here is still ruler, despite the reading that refers to him as a puppet king. Gomara describes him as a passive victim of fate and then, in a screeching change of stylistic gears, tells of him organizing a hundred thousand men in order to expel the Spaniards.43 Idolatry is still rife, as both Cortés and Gómara admit.44 When Cortés tells Moctezuma to cast down the idols, “Moctezuma told him to do no such thing, for the people would mutiny and take up arms for the defense and protection of their ancient religion and benevolent gods.”45 When Cortés does try to throw down the idols and Moctezuma asks him to stop, “Cortés complied because, as he explained to them through the interpreters, this did not seem to be the fitting moment for it, nor did he have the force necessary to carry out his intent.”46 Cortés’ plans for “the conversion of all the Indians to Christianity have come to naught because Moctezuma—the hostage-guarantor of Spanish rule—has “changed his attitude” and has told Cortés to leave the country. Moctezuma was moved to do so, says Gómara, for three reasons: the people put unremitting pressure on him to resist and destroy the Spaniards; the devil persuaded him; and finally—“which was not made public”—“men are fickle.”47

If Moctezuma was a prisoner it was, in some measure, by his own will. To that extent he was not a prisoner. He continued to rule or, perhaps better, the political structure remained largely intact. He kept all his household; he was attended by “never less than three thousand men,” yet is described as under the power of five or six Spaniards. He traveled to other residences and always returned. There was no public reaction to his “imprisonment”; “all was quiet and remained so all the time I held Moctezuma prisoner.” In Cortés’ newspeak Moctezuma was “not to be imprisoned but given all his freedom.”48 Caught in his own oxymoron, even Cortés becomes unwontedly coy. The suggestion that Moctezuma “should stay in my quarters” raised some considerable discussion, “all of which is too lengthy to write down and too tedious and too little pertinent to the issue [!] to give Your Highness an account.”49 The outcome was that he agreed to go with Cortés. Yet once Cortés had his “prisoner,” “many times I offered him his liberty begging him to return to his house.” Now it was the prisoner who refused to go. He was “pleased to be where he was” ; and he says in Cortés report that if he were in his own home, some of his vassals might suborn him and make him do something “prejudicial to the service of Your Highness.” While he is with the Spaniards, Cortés has him declare, he can plead that he is not free to act on their nefarious suggestions.50 The complexities of the Mexica polity do occasionally show through the otherwise seamless weave of monolithic rule that Cortés depicts.

If Cortés had really been in control, it is beyond belief that he would not immediately have written to the king to tell him that he had made good his boast and had conquered Mexico, that he had taken its emperor captive, and that he now held the land peacefully and fruitfully. That he made no move to inform Charles of a success that, if real, would have made an overwhelming argument for the king to grant Cortés the legitimacy he was seeking must call the whole account into question.51 The truth is that on examination, the “arrest” of Moctezuma turns out to be far more complicated than it appears on the surface of Cortés’ narrative.

The seizure of Moctezuma, whatever it denoted, left the integrity of the Mexica polity almost untouched. But the story as Cortés narrates it accumulates improbabilities, which in a real world are impossibilities. It even includes elements bordering on farce. The very notion of formal speeches as a means of communication is absurd. Spaniards and Mexicans communicated through two interpreters and three languages. As a vehicle for expressing anything, let alone nuanced philosophical ideas, the arrangement was not efficient. A written agreement between the two sides also was quite literally impossible. That those speeches and their notarized report should have been couched in the terms of technical political theory is simply nonsense. That Cortés should report Moctezuma making biblical allusions is fatuous. And to take all these absurdities as literally true and to find in them evidence of Cortés’ power to manipulate the Indians by his control of “signs” is ingenuous.

The stories of the taking of Qualpopoca and Cacama also are studded with absurdities. The Qualpopoca story is cited to prove Moctezuma’s postfealty treachery, yet Cortés relates that he had heard it several days before he first met Moctezuma, while he was still in Cholula.52 He describes Qualpopoca as ordering four Spaniards to be killed “in such a way as to appear he had not done it.” Appear to whom? Hardly to the rest of the Spaniards, since Qualpopoca had, in the story, openly invited the four of them to come visit him. To Moctezuma? Qualpopoca was supposed to be obeying widely disseminated orders from Moctezuma to kill Spaniards at every opportunity. The remark, which is nonsense in the real world, does serve in the story to ascribe a sense of guilt to Qualpopoca; that is, to make the deed not an act of war but an act of treachery, a crime in the hypothetical Spanish polity. Qualpopoca’s punishment is to be burned to death—the fate of heretics. In a European context—that is, in the context of Cortés’ story—revolt by the Aztecs after their submission could be held to be a relapse into heresy.53 On the Aztecs, of course, any such significance would have been completely lost.

The story about Cacama is inherently much more plausible given the known tensions between the members of the Triple Alliance. It does, however, call into question Cortés’ depiction of Moctezuma as an absolute ruler. Cacama was Moctezuma’s nephew and lord of Texcoco. This lakeside city was, along with Tlacopan, Tenochtitlan’s partner in the alliance of independent states which, rather than “empire,” is a better way of describing the polity of the valley. Whatever the normal relationship between the leaders of that alliance, Cacama was certainly too independently powerful at this juncture to be commanded. Cortés’ ingenuous description is that Moctezuma “had in Cacamazin’s land many important persons who received salaries from him.”54 He could be captured only through a subterfuge carried out by those in his court who were agents of Moctezuma. Cortés did occasionally catch sight of the frangibility of the Triple Alliance.

Many historians recognize the absurdities of Cortés’ story; many discount the ipsissima verba of Moctezuma’s speeches while accepting without question the story of the arrest. But a close reading of Cortés’ second letter does suggest that this story, too, is questionable. If that reading is correct, we can readily understand why Cortés might prefer to relate the story as he does. But we are still left with two questions: what did happen, and why do other sources substantiate Cortés’ version?

Although Cortés almost certainly did not take Moctezuma prisoner in November 1519, he had done so by the end of April 1520. What would have been preposterous in the days following the Spaniards’ arrival in Tenochtitlan became necessary with the landing of Narváez. The “arrest,” which in November 1519 would have been possible only if Moctezuma were a nincompoop and useful only if he were an autocrat, had by the following April become essential if Cortés were to retain any control of the conquest. Whatever had been Cortés’ relationship with Moctezuma, it changed with the news of Narváez’ arrival. Now there were Spanish factions to be played off against each other. Now Cortés, far from being in control, was forced to abandon the Aztec capital in order to secure himself against an attack by his own compatriots. In April 1520, taking Moctezuma hostage not only made military sense, it was almost the only option left. It was not, however, the daring ploy of a supremely confident leader of the master race but a desperate and, as it turned out, unsuccessful gamble. Moctezuma, left in the power of Alvarado while Cortés scampered to the coast to deal with Narváez, was not the effective means of maintaining control that Cortés must have hoped he would be. The Aztec nobles threatened violent resistance. Another Cholula occurred—a massacre in the courtyard—only this time the populace was not cowed into submission as, according to Cortés’ story, they had been at Cholula. Instead they rose up against the alien invaders.

If that is what happened, there are obvious reasons why Cortés should tell the story differently. Taking Moctezuma hostage in March or April as a desperate attempt to stave off the Narváez threat is very different from doing so as a declaration of imperial power immediately after arriving in Tenochtitlan. Cortés had to represent it as the deliberate move of the master strategist and not just as a last resort. His purpose in writing the letter was to tell the king that on Cortés’ entering the Aztec capital, Charles’ sovereignty—natural lordship—had been recognized immediately. The formal submission of all the people had been made and, by taking the person of their ruler under his control, he, Cortés, had secured their continued obedience. The representative of the natural lord could hardly tell of a drastic and unsuccessful stratagem forced on him at the last minute by the arrival of the interloper.

Cortés’ account of his meeting with Moctezuma, the arrest, and the formal transfer of sovereignty is an artfully constructed but highly improbable pièce de théâtre. But it is the theater of the absurd. The overarching absurdity is that a complete society should, on its first contact with the stranger, simply deny its own identity. Yet in logic, Cortés’ statement that the Aztecs quite naturally did just that is no more than the corollary of the proposition in Spanish political theory that the Spaniards were rulers by nature, born to rule. The Indians were simply recognizing that they were naturally inferior; that is, born to be ruled, to be vassals. Logically, the one proposition implies the other.

The logic of an assertion may be valid even though its content is false. The rational is not necessarily real. If we had only Cortés’ letter, we would be reluctant to believe that he arrested Moctezuma a week or so after arriving in Tenochtitlan. Without corroboration the story looks like a transparent falsehood. Even supported by Gómara it remains improbable. The preposterousness of the story, thus, places a very heavy burden of verification on Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Does it become more credible just because Bernal Díaz, like Pooh-Bah, adds “corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative”?55

Bernal Díaz’ Story: Corroborative Detail

Shaping the story thus meets the demands of Cortés’ rhetorical strategy. For Gómara, too, the story thus told fits the constraints of his literary form. Cortés, in Gómara’s story, has to be in control, and Moctezuma has to submit abjectly. Taking Moctezuma prisoner is a key element of the story: “unless he arrested the king he could not take the country.” Given that he has taken the country—the book, after all, is the life of the conqueror—it follows that he must have arrested the king. The episode places Cortés in the ranks of the greatest heroes of history. “Never did Greek or Roman, or man of any nation, since kings have existed, do what Cortés did in seizing Moctezuma, a most powerful king in his own house, a very strong place, surrounded by an infinity of people, while Cortés had only 450 companions.” This “most powerful king,” however, whose sole decision has placed the whole population in vassalage to Charles V, is shown alongside Cortés to be no more than a weak-kneed poltroon. “Moctezuma must have been a weak man of little courage, to let himself be seized and then, while a prisoner, never to attempt flight, even when Cortés offered him his freedom and his own men begged him to take it.”56

We can understand, too, why many of the later writers tell the same story. All of them have either read Cortés’ letters or know the gist of them.57 The authority of the man who was both the victor and the first reporter was, and is, immense. Oviedo is skeptical of some of the details of Cortés’ story: he refers to the first speech as “more of a story, a means of inventing a fable to serve his purpose, by an astute, wise, and artful captain”—but does not pursue the matter. He accepts the story of the arrest but betrays some unease about it. “To the chronicler it appears, from what he can gather about this matter, that Moctezuma was lacking in spirit or pusillanimous, or was very prudent, although in many things those who saw him praised him as a very worthy lord who showed good judgment in his reasonings.”58

Most other Spanish sources, starting with Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, copy Gómara. Antonio Herrera y Tordesillas copies him word for word, adding only some extra details otherwise unsupported by the evidence. Modern commentators accept the story of the arrest of Moctezuma as plain, if not quite unadorned, fact. For James Lockhart, it is the normal conquistador tactic and is barely noteworthy. The first thing any leader of an expedition did was to capture the chief.59 For John Elliott, it is simply the logical conclusion of the Spaniards’ natural strategic plan: take the ruler into custody and extract from him a recognition of the sovereignty of the king of Spain.60 This plan, says Elliott, “worked with greater precision than even Cortés himself could have dared to hope.” Yet the success of the plan exists principally in Cortés’ telling of it. Whether it existed as precisely in reality is the question at issue. Because all European-language accounts rely to a greater or lesser extent on Cortés’ version of the story, that question must remain moot. But Bernal Díaz, as he repeatedly reminds us, was an eyewitness. Unlike all the others, he was there. Why should he corroborate the story if it is not true?

One intriguing possibility is that he was not an eyewitness. His name does not appear on the official list of the conquistadores.61 No witness, apart from himself, unequivocally places him in Mexico before 1521. In 1540, the fiscal of the Council of the Indies asserted that “the said Bernal Díaz was not one of the conquistadores as he said.”62 Bernal Díaz, it is hardly necessary to say, ignored the allegation, and it is perhaps better that we should do so, too. He does tell a convincing story, and he does seem too honest and even too simple a person to have invented what he did not witness. Prescott thought so: “The character of Bernal Díaz himself shows clearly enough in his story; it is that of a lovable old soldier such as novelists have delighted to portray in Napoleon’s ‘old guard,’ simple, . . . enduring, splendidly courageous, and unaffectedly vain.”63 Maudslay felt that he could never have gotten away with it. “In reading his pages, we feel that, whatever are the errors into which he has fallen, from oblivion of ancient transaction, or from unconscious vanity—of which he had full measure—or from credulity, or any other cause, there is nowhere a willful perversion of the truth. Had he attempted it, indeed, his very simplicity would have betrayed him.”64

That confident judgment about the sincerity of past authors comes, perhaps, rather less easily to us today than it did to either Maudslay or Prescott. Freud has made us reluctant romantics. Linguistic philosophers, from Wittgenstein to Derrida, urge us to uncover the subtext. We know that Bernal Díaz filched parts of his story from Motolinía and a great deal from Gómara.65 We know that he is not just the garrulous raconteur. We know that he systematically reworked the story in “an attempt to keep abreast of the politicking concerning the institution of the encomienda, which politicking profoundly threatened his economic well-being.”66 We know that while he sniped at Gómara’s adulation of Cortés, the real objects of his hate were the bureaucrats and clerics who were attempting to deny Bernal Díaz the just rewards of winning an empire for the king and saving so many souls from hell. We, rightly, demand convincing evidence of deliberate falsification or plagiarism, but we are, perhaps, ready at least to consider the possibility.

The ideology that informs Bernal Díaz’ story is the same as that which informs Gómara’s. A further question is, does he depend on Gómara yet more closely? He is, after Cortés himself, our principal source of information about what happened in Tenochtitlan between November 1519 and May 1520. He claims to be an independent witness who confirms or refutes the claims of the primary reporter, Cortés/Gómara. It is fundamental to our knowledge of what happened in the conquest of Mexico to know whether we can accept that claim.

Many writers, among them Henry Wagner and Ramón Iglesia, have speculated about the extent to which Bernal Díaz borrows from Gómara.67 It has frequently been noted that he follows Gómaras outline. But he does much more. The whole structure of his story, from the time of the Spaniards’ arrival in Tenochtitlan until the coming of Pánfilo de Narváez, conforms so closely to Gómara’s that he hardly qualifies as an independent witness. Often he simply places himself at the center of what is, in essence, Gómara’s story. “Cortés took with him five captains who were Pedro de Alvarado, Gonzalo de Sandoval, Juan Velázquez de León, Francisco de Lugo, and Alonso de Avila, and he took me and our interpreters doña Marina and Aguilar. . . .” In effect, all he is doing is endorsing Gómara’s account, altering it only to put himself on stage. In that respect, he is simply repeating Gómara in the same way Cervantes de Salazar and Herrera do. He is in no sense a corroborative witness.

Bernal Díaz uses a suspiciously large number of identical expressions. His assertion, “it is [we] the true Conquistadores who discovered and conquered [the country], and from the first took away their Idols and taught them the holy doctrine” is very close to Gómara’s: “Truth to tell, it is war and warriors that really persuade the Indians to give up their idols, their bestial rites, and their abominable bloody sacrifices and the eating of men (which is directly contrary to the law of God and nature), and it is thus that of their own free will and consent they more quickly receive, listen to, and believe our preachers, and accept the Gospel and baptism, which is what Christianity and faith consist of.”68

His account of the speech made by Moctezuma on the evening of the day the Spaniards arrived in the city is a clear instance of plagiarizing another person’s material by simply changing some of the words.

GómaraBernal Díaz
If I begged you heretofore not to come here, it was because my people were afraid of you . . . And if he had on other occasions sent to say that we should not enter his city, it was . . . because his vassals were afraid . . . 
for you . . . brought animals that . . . swallow men, and because, since you came from heaven, you could call down the lightning and thunder. . . . . . they said that we shot out flashes of lightning, and killed many Indians with our horses, and that we were angry Teules . . . 
But now that I know you to be mortal men and honorable . . . . . . and now that he . . . knew that we were flesh and bone, and had sound sense . . . 
. . . what I have been told about you is jests and lies . . . . . . and other childish stories . . . 
And if you come believing that I am a god, and that the walls and roof of my house, as well as my service, are all of fine gold, as I understand you were told by those of. . . Tlaxcala . . . , I wish to disabuse you, even though I do not think you are the kind of men who would believe such nonsense. . . . I know very well that these people of Tlaxcala . . . have told you that I am a sort of God or Teul, and that everything in my house is made of gold and silver and precious stones, I know well enough that you are wise and did not believe it but took it as a joke. 
Touch my body, which is of flesh and bone.. . . The houses that you see are of sticks and mud, or at most of stone. Do you not see how you have been lied to? For the rest . . . in the treasure of my father and grandfather I have . . . riches, guarded for long years, as is the custom of kings. Behold now . . . my body is of flesh and bone like yours, my houses and palaces of stone and wood and lime; that I am a great king and inherit the riches of my ancestors is true, but not all the nonsense and lies that they have told you about me. . . .69 
GómaraBernal Díaz
If I begged you heretofore not to come here, it was because my people were afraid of you . . . And if he had on other occasions sent to say that we should not enter his city, it was . . . because his vassals were afraid . . . 
for you . . . brought animals that . . . swallow men, and because, since you came from heaven, you could call down the lightning and thunder. . . . . . they said that we shot out flashes of lightning, and killed many Indians with our horses, and that we were angry Teules . . . 
But now that I know you to be mortal men and honorable . . . . . . and now that he . . . knew that we were flesh and bone, and had sound sense . . . 
. . . what I have been told about you is jests and lies . . . . . . and other childish stories . . . 
And if you come believing that I am a god, and that the walls and roof of my house, as well as my service, are all of fine gold, as I understand you were told by those of. . . Tlaxcala . . . , I wish to disabuse you, even though I do not think you are the kind of men who would believe such nonsense. . . . I know very well that these people of Tlaxcala . . . have told you that I am a sort of God or Teul, and that everything in my house is made of gold and silver and precious stones, I know well enough that you are wise and did not believe it but took it as a joke. 
Touch my body, which is of flesh and bone.. . . The houses that you see are of sticks and mud, or at most of stone. Do you not see how you have been lied to? For the rest . . . in the treasure of my father and grandfather I have . . . riches, guarded for long years, as is the custom of kings. Behold now . . . my body is of flesh and bone like yours, my houses and palaces of stone and wood and lime; that I am a great king and inherit the riches of my ancestors is true, but not all the nonsense and lies that they have told you about me. . . .69 

The sentiments of his summation—and even many of its words—are the same as Gómara’s. All that has changed is that “we” did it rather than Cortés.

GómaraBernal Díaz
Never did Greek or Roman, or man of any nation, since kings have existed, do what Cortés did in seizing Moctezuma, a most powerful king, in his own house, a very strong place, surrounded by an infinity of people, while Cortés had only 450 companions. The great deeds we did in those days . . . to seize Montezuma who was the King of the country in his own city and within his own palace, where he had such a numerous guard of warriors . . .
. . . what men have there been in the world who, numbering 400 soldiers (we did not even reach that number), would have dared to enter such a strong city as Mexico . . . and take prisoner so great a Prince, and punish his Captains before his eyes!70 
GómaraBernal Díaz
Never did Greek or Roman, or man of any nation, since kings have existed, do what Cortés did in seizing Moctezuma, a most powerful king, in his own house, a very strong place, surrounded by an infinity of people, while Cortés had only 450 companions. The great deeds we did in those days . . . to seize Montezuma who was the King of the country in his own city and within his own palace, where he had such a numerous guard of warriors . . .
. . . what men have there been in the world who, numbering 400 soldiers (we did not even reach that number), would have dared to enter such a strong city as Mexico . . . and take prisoner so great a Prince, and punish his Captains before his eyes!70 

Sometimes—he is not always a very accomplished copier—Bernal Díaz manages to mangle his material. One sentence in the description of Moctezuma and his habits is a classic of ill-digested plagiarism.

CortésGómaraBernal Díaz
He dressed each day in four different garments and never dressed again in the same ones. He changed his own [garments] four times a day and never wore the same garments twice. The clothes that he wore one day, he did not put on again until four days later.71 
CortésGómaraBernal Díaz
He dressed each day in four different garments and never dressed again in the same ones. He changed his own [garments] four times a day and never wore the same garments twice. The clothes that he wore one day, he did not put on again until four days later.71 

If he is an eyewitness, he is one who depends very heavily on Gómara. Moreover, his purpose in writing is not just the eyewitness’ desire to set the record straight. The reason Bernal Díaz was in Spain in 1540 was to advance his claim, as one of the original conquistadores, for a larger and, more important, a permanent encomienda. Rolena Adorno has shown that this goal colored much of the writing of his history. His overt target might be Gómara, but the true object of his attack is Las Casas and the bureaucrats who, during the 1540s and 1550s, were trying to persuade the crown to abolish perpetual encomiendas. The Historia verdadera is his weapon.

Bernal Díaz might have the wide-eyed innocence of the ingenuous eyewitness, but he has no less of the practiced skill of the novelist. He is superb at creating imaginary conversations.72 He has the raconteur’s ability to narrate diverting but irrelevant incidents. Moreover, his book, beneath its Candidelike artlessness, is a sustained and even sophisticated statement that the conquest was a just war, the argument of Gómara no less than of Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda against Las Casas at the Valladolid debate. In the opening pages he announces: “I shall also tell about all the good results that came of it, and about the large number of souls that have been saved, and are daily being saved, by conversion to the faith, all of which souls were formerly lost in Hell.”73 The first part of his book, until the expedition arrives at Cholula, is sprinkled with statements about Indian idolatry, human sacrifice, cannibalism, and sodomy, and the Spaniards’ moves to extirpate them.74 The Tlaxcalans promise to stop human sacrifice, but once the Spaniards have gone they no longer carry out their promise.75 His telling of the story of the massacre at Cholula is, as Adorno shows, not just of a preemptive strike against treachery but equally the assertion that force alone puts a stop to unnatural vices. Preaching and extracting promises do not work.76 In Tenochtitlan, Cortés cannot dissuade even the allegedly imprisoned Moctezuma from human sacrifice, and without additional forces the Spaniards are powerless to prevent it.77

At the very end, in chapter 208, Bernal Díaz gives a lurid account of human sacrifice, cannibalism, sodomy, drunkenness, and promiscuity. From all these things which I have enumerated it pleased Our Lord Jesus Christ that, with his holy aid, we, the true Conquistadores . . . have freed them, and led them into cleanly ways and taught them holy doctrine.” Two and more years after they had achieved all this, the “very good Franciscan Friars” came. They, and the Dominicans, “have extirpated [vice] from the root.” This is the great good that the conquest achieved. Yet, it should be carefully noted, “it is to us the true Conquistadores who discovered and conquered [the country], and from the first took away their Idols and taught them the holy doctrine, that the prize and reward of it all is due, before all other persons, although they be priests; for when a good beginning is made and the middle is [satisfactory] and the end good, the whole is worthy of praise, which interested readers can see in the good order, Christianity, and justice which we show them in New Spain.”78

His book is a systematic documentation of the case that the conquest of Mexico fulfilled all the requirements for a just war. It was fought by legitimate authority. Hence, Cortés cannot be a rebel. (Hence, too, we might add, Cortés cannot be a liar. His story must be true, and so Bernal Díaz corroborates it.) For all his sniping at Gómara’s portrait, Bernal Díaz always gives “our Cortés” unqualified support against Diego Velázquez and Pánfilo de Narváez. The causes of the war were just. It was fought to repel force whether, as at Cholula, by preemptive strike, or against natives already attacking. It was fought to release the subject peoples from the tyranny of the Aztecs and to defend them from further harm. Especially it was fought to punish evildoers—those who, unpunished, had committed crimes of idolatry, human sacrifice, cannibalism, sodomy, and all manner of unnatural vices. And these things have been successfully uprooted in Mexico. Hence, the conquistadores who fought this just war and achieved this admirable end should be rewarded.79

Like Cortés and Gómara, Bernal Díaz insists on the fact of Moctezuma’s imprisonment. Like them, too, he turns out, on examination, to indicate that the “arrest” actually made very little difference. Moctezuma was free to “dispatch his affairs, to attend to the government of his realms as before, and to speak publicly and privately with all those who wished to see him.” He went hunting. He went to the temple to offer sacrifices.80 He was served as he would have been in his own palace.

There, where he remained, he had his service and his women and his baths in which he bathed himself, and twenty great chiefs always stayed in his company holding their ancient offices, as well as his councillors and captains, and he stayed there a prisoner without showing any anger at it, and Ambassadors from distant lands came there with their suites, and brought him his tribute, and he carried on his important business.81

Apart from the statement that Spaniards stand guard over him, the description is one of a man still at liberty and at the center of a large household operating according to its customary and highly elaborate ceremonials.82 In effect, Bernal Díaz admits this: “He always had with him many chieftains in his company, and the many other chieftains who came from distant lands, who paid great court to him, and the great number of persons to whom he daily gave food and drink, neither more nor less than when he was not in confinement.. . .,”83 The circumstantial and colorful detail, the hallmark of Bernal Díaz’ style, does not add to the plausibility of Moctezuma’s arrest. The studied deference of the guards (“whenever we passed before him . . . we doffed our mailed caps”); the presents to the jailers (“Look here, Malinche, I love you so much that I want to give you one of my daughters, who is very beautiful, so that you can marry her and treat her as your legitimate wife.” “Bernal Díaz del Castillo, they tell me that you have quantities of cloth and gold, and I will order them to give you a pretty maid”); the games of totoloque, the page Orteguilla, the hawks; all are corroborative details. All tend to confer artistic verisimilitude, and all are compatible with a host attentive to the demands of his honored, if unruly, guests.84

Despite Cortés’ assertion that human sacrifice has ceased at his order, Bernal Díaz tells us that Moctezuma “persisted in killing men and boys to accomplish his sacrifice, and we could do nothing at that time, only pretend not to notice it.”85 Later he adds: “The Great Montezuma . . . never ceased his sacrifices at which human beings were killed, and Cortés tried to dissuade him from this but met with no success.” Like the prisoner of Cortés’ and Gómara’s story, Bernal Díaz’ Moctezuma is remarkably free.

The Aztec Story: A Submission to Fate

It is not, of course, just the Spaniards who tell the story. Several Indian accounts of the capture of Moctezuma exist as well.86 Many of them gloss over the story of the capture. Some accept the event while distancing themselves from its implications. Bernardino de Sahagún’s informants have the nobles maintaining the polity even while its lord is being violated. They recall the Spaniards marching into the city “arrayed . . . for war” and brazenly gawking at the Great Speaker, on whose face no commoner could look. He was taken prisoner immediately, and the other nobles “abandoned him in anger”; “when he summoned forth the noblemen, no longer did they obey him.” The narrative offers no details of the conditions of his imprisonment and passes at once to the feast of Huitzilopochtli, at which Alvarado slaughtered the dancing nobles.87

Diego Durán also has several doubts about the story. His sources likewise tell of instant capture, adding that “Moteczoma was depicted in irons, wrapped up in a mantle, and carried on the shoulders of his chieftains.” Durán comments: “This seems difficult to believe, since I have never met a Spaniard who will concede this point to me.” The only detail of the imprisonment Durán gives: “It is said that in the 80 days during which the Aztec king remained there he was instructed in things of the Faith . . . and that he received the waters of Holy Baptism.” Durán, however, does not believe this, either. “My Chronicle says no such thing.” The friar who told him said “in a hesitant way . . . that he had not been present at the baptism, but he believed it had taken place at that time.”88

The Christianized Indian Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, who writes from the perspective of Texcoco and thus with a measure of detachment about the invincibility of Tenochtitlan, is also somewhat puzzled. He recounts that the Spaniards were four days in the city, “well provided for and content” when, “for what reason I do not know,” Cortés took Moctezuma prisoner. His only comment is the banality: “By doing so they confirmed the adage Every cruel man is a coward.” Yet, adds the pious Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, “in truth it was the will of God, because otherwise it would have been impossible for four [hundred] Spaniards to subject so great and populous a world as happened at this time.”89

It is perhaps not surprising that the Indian sources that come to us through a Spanish or mestizo filter should endorse the received account. Yet the sources in the native tradition do not contradict it, either. Why this should be so is spelled out in rich detail by Gillespie. The Aztec Kings is an analysis of the genealogies of the Mexica kings; that is, the histories of the nine kings, or tlatoque (plural of tlatoani), from Acamapichtli in the fourteenth century through Motecuhzoma the Younger in 1520. These histories were written following the conquest. Gillespie lists more than 50 texts.90 All combine history and an explanation of the conquest; that is, of the catastrophic change that put an end to the old, stable world. They are full of contradictions and opaque passages. The dates and the authorship of almost all of them are uncertain. Different regions produced different accounts. Yet from them emerges the Mexica people’s perception of themselves and their past, of their relation to Tollan and its civilization, of the multifaceted and ambivalent figure of Quetzalcoatl, of the relation of the daughters and wives of the Mexica kings to Toltec mother goddesses and to the legitimate Toltec inheritance. From this swirling tradition, with its interlocking network of symbols, the Mexica, the latest of the Chichimecas to irrupt into the valley, constructed a foundation for their inheritance of legitimacy. Already they had rewritten the past in order to explain the present. That first change, the coming of themselves as outsiders, called for a new history to legitimate it. In exactly the same way, the survivors of Tenochtitlan wrote the histories of the Mexica kings to legitimate the violent irruption of the Spaniards and to place it within the purview of the old gods.

Crucial to this understanding is the person of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotl/Motecuhzoma II/Motecuhzoma the Younger. In the texts Gillespie analyses, he is paired with his namesake, Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina/ Motecuhzoma I/Motecuhzoma the Elder.91 Both are figures who stand at the center of the world—that is, at the locus of stability and fruitfulness—and on its boundaries—that is, in the region of danger and of transition. Both are paired with Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, the figure who, in departing from Tollan, marks the earlier and archetypal transition. In the histories, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotl is a boundary figure. He marks the end of a dynastic cycle betokened by the Spanish conquest. The figure on the boundary, at the interstices, is one characterized by uncertainty and instability. His persona is constructed as a figure of fears and doubts, of paralysis and inaction, of abasement and powerlessness.92 Moctezuma’s fears and doubts are part of the later structuring of the conquest story.

Similarly, the stories of Quetzalcoatl’s expected return are all postconquest constructions of the Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl epic.93 The omens and other portents of impending doom, though they appear early—some as early as 1536—are all associated with the Franciscans, whose expectation was that the end of the world would be foreshadowed by portents. In their definitive version, in Sahagún, those portents derive as well from the classical culture taught to the Indian pupils at Tlatelolco.94 The stories of the abasement of the tlatoani; of his symbolic death either by imprisonment or, perhaps, by sacrificial regicide to make way for his successor; of the “false Quetzalcoatl” Cortés; of the boundary-marking and transitional persona of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotl; all these, while they derive from the indigenous tradition, reinforce the Spanish story of his captivity.95 We should not expect any Mexica chroniclers of the postconquest period to deny that story.

A Literary Construct

The problem of what happened to Moctezuma is, eventually, hermeneutic. Prescott comments on the arrest that the story might well be “too extravagant, altogether too improbable, for the pages of romance! It is, nevertheless, literally true.”96 That “literally true” suggests the key to the question. The story is “true” in the literature, in the texts. But these are constructs, literally fictions, those of Bernal Díaz and the Indians no less than those of Cortés and Gómara. The authors have placed themselves in the drama beside the “other” dramatis personae of their text. If they manipulate those others, they do so within the drama. But that drama bears a problematic relationship to the real world. In the real world, what actually happened was almost certainly much less dramatic and much messier than it is in the texts. John Elliott maintains, “Motecuçoma was in some respects the least dangerous of the enemies whom Cortés had to face, and . . . he had more to fear from some of his own countrymen than from the emperor of Mexico.”97 Insofar as Cortés is writing for an audience in Spain, this is quite true; but in Mexico, things were different. If “Motecuçoma” had decided to destroy the Spaniards, no European text and no European political power would have made any difference.

As contemporary explanations for the Spaniards’ success, all the constructed stories are adequate—Cortés’ because luck, native allies, and a shipbuilder made possible in 1521 a victory that few might have forecast in 1520; all the others because, written later, they accept that as Cortés told it, so it was. The implicit belief of many was that it had to be. As empirical accounts of a sequence of events, none of them is wholly believable, Uncorroborated, Cortés’ story of Moctezuma’s arrest defies belief. The account of the Aztecs’ instant abdication to the foreigner is so improbable that without verification we would have to dismiss it out of hand. What empirical evidence we do have substantiates this judgment. At their first meeting, Cortés is prevented from touching the person of the Great Speaker. That tiny detail, the significance of which escapes Cortés when, 11 months later, he is writing the letter, reveals how, at the very moment of contact, it is precisely the Aztec world that is sacred and the Spaniards who are, quite literally, profane. The descriptions by both Cortés and Bernal Díaz of household and marketplace as the Spaniards observed them, operating peacefully and according to well-established custom, are no less revealing. This is not a society in crisis. Bernal Díaz’ novelistic touches of local and personal color do not make Moctezuma’s involuntary confinement any more plausible. On the contrary, some of Bernal Díaz’ detail indicates that the Spaniards’ power was very limited. The native accounts tell nothing of Moctezuma’s living conditions under arrest; moreover, those accounts were recorded long after the event by survivors who, at the time, would have been young and far removed from any privy access to the person of the Great Speaker.98 The historians, even the contemporaries Gómara and Oviedo, had no more information than we have. Almost all the reported details of the arrest are suspect.

The story of submission and imprisonment is believable only if we postulate that Moctezuma succumbed to an overwhelming sense of fate. The capture was achieved not by Spanish arms or daring, still less by the Spaniards’ routine strategy in the Caribbean or the Isthmus of Panama to “capture the chief,” but by the paralysis of Moctezuma and, by extension, all the Aztecs in the face of an inexorable decree of their gods. “Had he possessed the spirit of the first Montezuma,” says Prescott, “he would have called his guards around him, and left his lifeblood on the threshold, sooner than have been dragged a dishonored captive across it. But his courage sank under circumstances. He felt he was the instrument of an irresistible Fate.”99

Oviedo, whom Prescott quotes, notes Moctezuma’s submission to fate: “he thought that no uprising [by the people] could either give him life or deprive him of it until the determined time arrived.” Oviedo, however, draws from this passivity a conclusion significantly different from Prescott’s. “A Prince as great as Moctezuma did not have to allow himself to be treated in this manner, nor to consent to be detained by so few Spaniards, nor by any other people; but since God had ordained what had to be, no one could escape from his judgment.”100 For Oviedo, as for the Christianized Texcocan chronicler Ixtlilxóchitl, the providence of the Christian god is inescapable; for Prescott, the Aztec is deprived of any human choice by his own sense of fate. Either way, the helplessness of the Indian at the approach of the European is axiomatic.

We know that Moctezuma was held hostage by the Spanish garrison Cortés left behind in Tenochtitlan when he marched toward the coast to deal with Narváez. Several Spaniards related that they had stood guard over Moctezuma while he was a prisoner. The licenciado Ayllón reported that in April 1520, he interrogated several men who said that they had guarded Moctezuma. In September 1520, Cortés put on record several statements of witnesses about what had happened to the Aztec gold; they all reported that Moctezuma had been held captive. So did both Andrés de Tapia and Francisco de Aguilar.101

One sequence of events that would accord with these reports, as well as with the story related by Cortés and Bernal Díaz, is a progressive movement from sovereign independence to imprisonment. Cortés’ and Bernal Díaz’ detailed descriptions of his person and his household indicate that Moctezuma spent a great deal of time in the Spaniards’ company during those six months. Their alien ways clearly fascinated him. The move from fascination to suggestibility to a readiness to accommodate many of the outlandish demands and the uncouth behavior of these strangers could well have been gradual. Durán mentions 80 days of confinement. If that number is correct, it would put the arrest at about the beginning of April 1520. That would be compatible with both the scenario suggested here and the strategic crisis Cortés faced with the coming of Narváez. It would, moreover, scotch the nonsensical tale of instant surrender to the newcomers.

Such an explanation is believable. Instant capitulation is absurd, not least because many accounts, beginning with Cortés’ third letter, tell of fierce and successful resistance. Inga Clendinnen has filled in many of the awful details of the final siege of Tenochtitlan.102 Ross Hassig has shown in great detail the advantages, and the limitations, of European weaponry. In the last analysis, that arsenal could be brought to bear only because Cortés had thousands upon thousands of native allies.103 The Spanish conquest of Mexico is credible only if it is, first of all, a conquest of the Mexica by other Nahuas.

All other explanations of the conquest of Mexico—except that of disease—are reducible, in the final analysis, to the assertion that the Aztecs surrendered to fate (and, in form if not content, the disease argument is not very different).104 That Aztecs had a precontact version of “the return of the king” story is immaterial. Most people have some such myth. The Christian version is canonized in the Book of the Apocalypse and articulated in a formal theological eschatology. The myth, however, is irrelevant. What is important is the people’s readiness to act on it. Most Christians do not await the second coming of Christ. A secure polity does not expect the end of the world. But a defeated people will often draw comfort from knowing that the defeat was predicted by the gods and so remains in the gods’ control.

The stories that later emerged of omens and auguries of doom served exactly the same purpose for the Aztecs. Conquest was decreed by fate or by the gods. Catastrophe is thereby accommodated to the natural order of things. With exactly the same logic, victory for the conqueror is the inevitable working out of a law of nature. That “we,” the Mexica, were defeated as the gods foretold serves to show that the gods still rule.105 That “we,” the Spaniards, were victorious shows us that we are naturally superior and that our God has given us the victory. The historian does well to pause before événements that sustain such contrary theodicies.

The role of prophecy, omens, auguries, and millenarian and eschatological expectations in any human society must always be complex. It is likely that all societies have had individuals and small groups who await the eschatos, or at least the turn of fortune’s wheel. Almost by definition, they live on the fringes, excluded from their society’s wellsprings of power and identity. Their influence, if discernible at all, is likely to fall only on similarly marginalized groups. When catastrophe happens, however, their role changes radically. The cartoon of the man sitting among the ruins of Armageddon, changing his placard from “The end of the world is at hand” to “I told you so” expresses graphically what Tolstoy wrote.106 Always after a catastrophe there will be prophets of doom, now finally vindicated, who will say, correctly, that their warnings were ignored and that the coming of doom proves that they were right after all. The postconquest Mexica accounts of their history articulate that view precisely. Historians should not too readily assume that this is the only sustainable version of the past.

Yet those who assert that the Aztecs were paralyzed by a sense of inexorable fate do just that. After the event, stories surfaced that the gods had foretold it. The defeated comforted themselves with the belief that they could not have resisted fate. For the historian—whose stock in trade is the contingent—none of these explanations will, of itself, be sufficient. If the story of the Aztecs immediately surrendering themselves to the Europeans and of the Europeans taking the Aztecs’ unresisting ruler into custody derives not from the contingent events but from the assumption of an ineluctable European superiority, then it behooves the historian to inquire whether that story might, at least in part, be untrue.


David A. Brading, The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492–1867 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), 25. Peter Martyr D’Anghiera, De Orbe Novo: The Eight Decades of Peter Martyr D’Anghiera, trans. F. A. MacNutt, 2 vols. (New York: B. Franklin Press, 1912), 2:144. Hugh Thomas makes the point that the epochal moment was in 1519. See The Real Discovery of America: Mexico, November 8, 1519 (Mount Kisco, N.Y.: Moyer Bell, 1992). Thomas’ definitive work, The Conquest of Mexico (London: Hutchinson, 1993), became available to me only when this essay was nearing completion. Where he deals with those aspects of the conquest with which I am concerned he seems to me too readily to take Cortés undiscriminatingly at his word.


“When we met I dismounted and stepped forward to embrace him, but the two lords who were with him stopped me with their hands so that I should not touch him. . . .” Hernán Cortés, Letters from Mexico [Cartas de relación], trans. and ed. Anthony R. Pagden (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1986), 84. (All quotations cited in this essay, except as noted, refer to this edition.) It should be noted that this, the recognition of the sacred status of the Great Speaker and the profane status of the newcomer, is the very first word to appear in print directly describing the actual meeting of the Mexica Lord and the representative of the Holy Roman Emperor.


There are several Europeanized forms of the Great Speaker’s name, none of them strictly accurate. Pagden suggests that the closest is Motecuçoma. Gillespie gives Motecuhzoma. Cortés calls him Mutezuma. The Spaniards finally settled for Moctezuma; the English, Montezuma. I have adopted the Spanish usage except where the more precise form is necessary to the argument. See Cortés, Letters from Mexico, 460; Susan D. Gillespie, The Aztec Kings: The Construction of Rulership in Mexica History (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1989).


Ross Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest (London: Longman, 1994), 99, 108–9.


“This dispiriting consensus as to Spanish invincibility and Indian vulnerability springs from the too eager acceptance of key documents, primarily Spanish but also Indian, as directly and adequately descriptive of actuality, rather than as the mythic constructs they largely are. Both the letter of Hernando Cortés and the main Indian account of the defeat of their city owe as much to the ordering impulse of imagination as to the devoted inscription of events as they occurred. ” Inga Clendinnen, “Cortés, Signs, and the Conquest of Mexico,” in The Transmission of Culture in Early Modern Europe, ed. Anthony Grafton and Ann Blair (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), 90. See also Clendinnen, “ ‘Fierce and Unnatural Cruelty’: Cortés and the Conquest of Mexico,” Representations 33 (Winter 1991), 65–100. Imagination it most certainly is, but Cortés’ ordering impulse is the demands of forensic rhetoric.


Until the events of 1519–1521, the Spaniards were, as Brading points out, remarkably silent about the New World. Cortés’ letters were an innovation. At least with the second letter, moreover, these were designed for publication. This awareness alone, even if we know nothing of his purpose in telling the story to the king, might alert us to the need for care in interpreting them. Brading’s irony is presumably intentional: “At last, here was a Spaniard telling a very Spanish story, his unvarnished prose rising to the greatness of the occasion, affording the spectacle of a great captain turning from the heat of battle to compose dispatches for his royal master.” Brading, First America, 25–26.


Cortés, Letters from Mexico, 50–84, 84–113, 113–44, and 145–59, respectively.


Ibid., 50–51, 69–70.


Ibid., 73–74.


Ibid., 69, 76–77, 79–80, 81.


Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, Obras históricas de Don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, 2 vols. (Mexico City: Editorial Nacional, 1965), 1:451.


Francisco López de Gómara, Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary, trans. and ed. Lesley Byrd Simpson (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1964), 132–34; Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, trans. and ed. Alfred P. Maudslay, 5 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1908–16), 2:9 [book 5, chap. 83].


“For in a certain misfortune that has recently befallen me, of which I shall render complete account later in this report, I lost all the proceedings and agreements I had made with the natives of these lands, and many other things besides.” Cortés, Letters from Mexico, 50.


Ibid., 85–86. The problem of the references to Quetzalcoatl in Moctezuma’s speeches as Cortés reports them exists on three levels: whether the Mexica believed that Quetzalcoatl would return to claim the kingdom; the complexities of the persona of Quetzalcoatl; and the identification of Quetzalcoatl with Cortés. The second and third of these are realities or, better, processes of colonial history, the ramifications of which Gillespie explores in detail. The Quetzalcoatl cult was not prominent in Tenochtitlan. Its center was Cholula. Miguel León-Portilla, “Quetzalcoatl-Cortés en la conquista de México,” Historia Mexicana 93, 24:1 (July–Sept. 1974), 13–35. Both Gillespie and León-Portilla show that the role the myth played in the interchanges between Moctezuma and Cortés is problematical. León-Portilla shows that the belief in the return of the god/king/prophet was held in Anahuac before the coming of the Spaniards. It must also have been sufficiently prominent to have been retailed to Cortés. The important question is who did so and with what purpose. Bernal Díaz relates that the Tlaxcalans told them the Quetzalcoatl story. If they did, it might well have been in the form, “We have been awaiting your coming in order to overthrow the power of Tenochtitlan.” This is one kind of information. It is not a “manipulation of signs” compelling Moctezuma to move directly from what was merely one inchoate belief (among hundreds of others) to the immediate denial of the independent reality of his society. That the belief existed tells nothing about who was ready to act on it or with what moral commitment. That is the problem with David Carrasco’s overly vigorous assertion that the preconquest existence of the myth proves that it dominated the minds and the decisions of the Mexica in 1519. See Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire: Myths and Prophecies in the Aztec Tradition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982), 187–204; Bernal Díaz, True History of the Conquest, 1:286–87.


No disturbance took place in November 1519. It occurred six months later, in May or June 1520. The story of Qualpopoca, with all its convolutions and contradictions, serves to permit Cortés to carry the account of Moctezuma’s “arrest” rapidly past the gaping hole of a people entirely passive in the face of flagrant violence to their lord. William H. Prescott attributes this spurious rationale for the arrest to Cortés’ better feelings: “the most barefaced action seeks to veil itself under some show of decency. ” Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru ([1843, 1847] New York: Modern Library, n.d.), 342. We may not completely understand Hernán Cortés’ sense of morality, but we can be quite sure that he felt no need to have the Aztecs approve his actions as “decent.”


Richard Konetzke, “Hernán Cortés como poblador de la Nueva España,” Estudios cortesianos: recopilación con motivo del IV centenario de la muerte de Hernán Cortés (15471947) (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas [CSIC], 1948), 341–81. See also Margo Glantz, “Ciudad y escritura: la ciudad de México en las Cartas de Relación,” Hispamérica 19:56–57(1990), 165–74.


Cortés, Letters from Mexico, 98–99.


Ibid., 99, 101, 102–5.


Ibid., 106–7.


Ibid., 107–8.


Ibid., 112–13.


Eulalia Guzmán, [Cartas inéditas] Relaciones de Hernán Cortés a Carlos V sobre la invasión de Anáhuac, vol. 1 (Mexico City: Libros Anáhuas, 1958); John H. Elliott, “Cortés, Velázquez, and Charles V,” introduction to Cortés, Letters from Mexico, ed. Pagden, xi–xxxvii. See also Adrián Blázquez Gargajosa, “Las ‘cartas de relación de la conquista de México’: política, psicología, y literatura,” Bulletin Hispanique 87:1–2 (Jan.–June 1985), 5–46; Beatriz Pastor Bodmer, The Armature of Conquest: Spanish Accounts of the Discovery of America, 1492–1589 [Discursos narrativos de la conquista], trans. Lydia Longstreth Hunt (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1992), 50–100; Clendinnen, “Cortés, Signs, and the Conquest of Mexico.”


Roberts. Chamberlain, “The Concept of the Señor Natural as Revealed by Castilian Law and Administrative Documents,” HAHR 19 (1939), 130–37.


See Victor Frankl, “Imperio particular e imperio universal en las cartas de relación de Hernán Cortés,” Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos 165 (Sept. 1963), 443–82. The theme of natural lordship is not always compatible with—and at times is logically contrary to—that of empire; but for the most part, Cortés ignores the dissonance.


Cortés, Letters from Mexico, 113, 116, 122, 127, 124.


Jon Vincent Blake, “Hernán Cortés y la conquista intelectual de América,” Romance Notes 16:3 (Spring 1975), 764–69.


Cortés, Letters from Mexico, 67, 68, 158, 156, 146, 125, 143.


Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, trans. from the French by Richard Howard (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), 99, 104.


Cf. Victor Frankl, “Hernán Cortés y la tradición de las Siete Partidas,” Revista de Historia de America 53–54 (1962), 9–74, esp. 45–46.


Inga Clendinnen’s examination of Cortés’ literary craft misses the crucial point. It is the “literary construction”—“Cortés’ literary craft”—that occupies her, despite a nod to Elliott’s introduction to the Pagden edition of the letters (but not to the Frankl article, which shows that the letters are not only influenced in a general way by the Siete Partidas but are composed in the language and use the specific structures of the code). Cortés’ purpose is not literary. It is not an appeal to the king’s personal feelings or private sympathy but to the legal characteristic of benevolence. A just lord is bound to grant favors to reward his faithful vassal. Clendinnen, “Cortés, Signs, and the Conquest of Mexico,” 90–92; Frankl, “Hernán Cortés y la tradición de las Siete Partidas,” 33–34.


Gillespie, Aztec Kings, 181.


Ibid., 181, 226–27.


Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest, 86–89.


Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954), vol. 1, chap. 22, p. 47.


Bartolomé de Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, ed. and trans. Nigel Griffin (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992), 48.


Thomas, Conquest of Mexico, 283–84.


Cortés, Letters from Mexico, 50. The Spanish text reads, “. . . . lo habría, preso o muerto, o subdito a la corona real de vuestra majestad.” Hernán Cortés, Cartas y documentos (Mexico City: Porrua, 1963), 34. He had, of course, precisely fulfilled the terms of that boast—Moctezuma was “preso o muerto”—but the achievement was of precious little value.


Gómara, Cortés, 169.


James Lockhart, The Men of Cajamarca: A Social and Biographical Study of the First Conquerors of Peru (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1972), 10, 22.


For a “thick description” of the organic unity of Mexica society, its gods, its warriors and rituals, its people and their routine lives, see Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991). She, however, deliberately eschews the historical dimension of the Mexica. See Francis J. Brooks, “Text and Truth: Reading Latin American History, Historical Journal 37:1 (1994), 233–44. The historical dimension is supplied in a rich and multilayered interpretation by Gillespie, Aztec Kings.


Julius Caesar, De bello Gallico, book 1, sect. 36.


Lockhart, Men of Cajamarca, 10, 11, 191, 195–96.


Gómara, Cortés, 187–90.


Cortés, Letters from Mexico, 107.


Gómara, Cortés, 173.


Ibid., 174. The significance of the last clause should be carefully noted.


Ibid., 188, 189.


Cortés, Letters from Mexico, 89.


Ibid., 90. Both Gómara and Bernal Díaz are similarly opaque. “The two spent more than four hours discussing the matter, at the end of which Moctezuma said he would go [with Cortés], because he had to rule and govern.” Gómara, Cortés, 170. “Cortés replied to [Moctezuma’s statement that he was not the person to whom such an order could be given, and that it was not his wish to go] with very good arguments and Montezuma answered him with even better, showing that he ought not to leave his house. . . . At the end of much more discussion that took place, Montezuma said that he would go willingly. . . .” Bernal Díaz, True History of the Conquest, 2:94, 95.


Cortés, Letters from Mexico, 91. “At present it was better for him to stay there a prisoner, for there was danger, as his chieftains were numerous, and his nephews and relations came every day to him to say that it would be a good thing to attack us and free him from prison, that as soon as they saw him outside they might drive him [to attack us].” Bernal Díaz, True History of the Conquest, 2:98. Cf. Gómara, Cortés, 179.


Significantly, Gómara states that when Cortés found himself “rich and powerful” he formed the plan to send to Santo Domingo for reinforcements. That he did not do so before the arrival of Narváez, five months after the “arrest” of Moctezuma, which was the foundation of both riches and power, suggests that the foundation was less solid than Gómara would have us believe. Gómara, Cortés, 187–88.


Cortés, Letters from Mexico, 87.


Cf. Gillespie, Aztec Kings, 181.


Cortés, Letters from Mexico, 97.


William Schwenk Gilbert, ‘The Mikado,” Savoy Operas, 2 vols. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1962), 2:56.


Gómara, Cortés, 168, 171, 179.


Cf. Gillespie, Aztec Kings, 182.


Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, Historia general y natural de las Indias, Biblioteca de Autores Españoles 117–21, 5 vols. (Madrid: Atlas, 1959), 4:36, 42, 97.


Lockhart, Men of Cajamarca, 10–11. See also Lockhart and Stuart B. Schwartz, Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), 80.


John H. Elliott, “The Spanish Conquest,” in Colonial Spanish America, ed. Leslie Bethell (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), 28–29.


See Henry R. Wagner, The Rise of Fernando Cortés (Los Angeles: Cortés Society, 1944), xx.


Carmelo Sáenz de Santa Maria, Introducción crítica a la “Historia verdadera’’ de Bernal Díaz del Castillo (Madrid: CSIC, Instituto “Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo,” 1967), 85.


Prescott, Conquest of Mexico, 503.


Alfred P. Maudslay, introduction by the translator, in Bernal Díaz, True History of the Conquest, lxi.


While Bernal Díaz does refer to Fray Toribio Benavente (known as Motolinía) in his Historia, he also borrows material without acknowledging his debt. For example, a textual comparison of Motolinía’s account of the smallpox epidemic shows that Bernal Díaz is simply copying. See Francis J. Brooks, “Revising the Conquest of Mexico: Smallpox, Sources, and Population,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 24:1 (Summer 1993), 22–23.


See three works by Rolena Adorno: “Discourses on Colonialism: Bernal Díaz, Las Casas, and the Twentieth-Century Reader,” Modern Language Notes 103:2 (Mar. 1988), 239–58; “Literary Production and Suppression: Reading and Writing About Amerindians in Colonial Spanish America,” Dispositio 9:28–29 (1986), 15–19; and “The Discursive Encounter of Spain and America: The Authority of Eyewitness Testimony in the Writing of History,” William and Mary Quarterly 49:2 (Apr. 1992), 210–28. See also Robert Brody, “Bernal’s Strategies,” Hispanic Review 55 (1987), 323–36; and Julio Caillet-Bois, “Bernal Díaz del Castillo, o la verdad en la historia,” Revista Iberoamericana 25–60 (1960), 199–228.


Henry R. Wagner, Three Studies on the Same Subject: Bernal Díaz del Castillo, HAHR 25 (1945), 184; Ramón Iglesia, Columbus, Cortés, and Other Essays [El hombre Colón y otros ensayos], trans. and ed. Lesley Byrd Simpson (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1969).


Gómara, Cortés, 33.


Ibid., 140–41; Bernal Díaz, True History of the Conquest, 2:58–59.


Gómara, Cortés, 171; Bernal Díaz, True History of the Conquest, 2:99–100.


Cortés, Letters from Mexico, 112; Gómara, Cortés, 143; Bernal Díaz, True History of the Conquest, 2:60.


Stephan Gilman remarks that Bernal Díaz has the ability to portray spontaneous conversation in the tradition of the Celestina and the Corbacho. Gilman, “Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Amadis de Gaula,” in Homenaje a Dámaso Alonso (Madrid: Gredos, 1961), 103–4. Cf. Anthony J. Cascardi, “Chronicle Toward Novel: Bernal Díaz’ History of the Conquest of Mexico,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 15:3 (Spring 1982), 197–212; Mari Vittoria Calvi, “Problematica del dialogo nella ‘Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España,’ ” Studi di Letteratura Ispano-Americana 17 (1986), 7–43. Literary critics have frequently remarked on Bernal Díaz’ skill as a novelist, but few historians seem to have considered the implications of his creative skill. He uses his constant appeal to the memory of the eyewitness “para garantizar la autenticidad de lo narrado,” to quote Américo Castro, La realidad histórica de España (Mexico City: Porrua, 1954), 341. Historians are perhaps less ready to accept either sincerity or novelistic plausibility as “a guarantee of authenticity.”


Bernal Díaz, True History of the Conquest, 1:6, 7.


I have counted 35 occasions on which Bernal Díaz refers explicitly to one or more of these four classic unnatural vices, the extirpation of which justified war on them. Ibid., 1:16–20, 40, 44, 54–55, 62, 97–98, 102, 105, 127–28, 134, 148–49, 151, 161, 162–63, 165, 170, 183, 184, 186–87, 195–96. 211, 221, 222–23, 226, 227, 235, 238, 241–42, 252, 254, 258, 279, 281, 283, 288–89. On several occasions also he relates that Cortés preached against these vices and, at Tlaxcala, freed prisoners who were being fattened to be sacrificed and eaten. Adorno’s argument, that interpretation of the Historia verdadera should begin by placing it in the context of the politics of the encomienda and the debate about just war theory to which that politics was, in part, related, has been vigorously challenged by David A. Boruchoff. He insists that the “newness” of what Bernal Díaz describes is self-validating. Yet he dismisses the central thrust of Adorno’s argument too readily. Much of his argument depends on a technical reconstruction of the available manuscript sources of the Historia, on which this writer lacks the expertise to comment. Yet in one or another version of his manuscript, Bernal Díaz did argue vigorously the terms, if not all the theological ramifications, of just war theory. And the reiteration of the evils of idolatry, human sacrifice, and cannibalism, whose extirpation is due to the true conquistadores, is something of a leitmotiv of the whole book. Boruchoff, “Beyond Utopia and Paradise: Cortés, Bernal Díaz, and the Rhetoric of Consecration,” Modern Language Notes 106:2 (Mar. 1991), 330–69.


Bernal Díaz, True History of the Conquest, 1:288–89.


Adorno, “Discourses on Colonialism”; Bernal Díaz, True History of the Conquest, 2:3, 14, 17, 19–20.


Bernal Díaz, True History of the Conquest, 2:146, 174.


Ibid., 5:264.


On the classic statement of the conditions of a just war as they applied to Mexico, see Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, Democrates Alter, Spanish trans. Demócrates segundo; o de las justas causas de la guerra contra los indios, critical bilingual edition, trans. and ed. Angel Losada (Madrid: Instituto Francisco de Vitoria, 1951).


Bemal Díaz, True History of the Conquest, 2:110–11, 112–14, 146–47.


Ibid., 2:96.


“. . . we know neither the nature nor the extent of the Great Speaker’s normal authority within and beyond Tenochtitlan, nor . . . the actual degree of coercion and physical control imposed on him during his captivity.” Clendinnen, “Cortés, Signs, and the Conquest of Mexico,” 99.


Bernal Díaz, True History of the Conquest, 2:108–9.


Ibid., 2:98–99, 105, 113–14, 123.


Ibid., 2:111, 146.


James Lockhart, ed. and trans., We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992).


Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, 13 vols. (12 books), book 12, The Conquest of Mexico, trans. Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (Santa Fe: School of American Research/Univ. of Utah Press, 1970). 13:39–41, 45, 47.


Fray Diego D. Durán, The Aztecs: History of the Indies of New Spain (1581), trans. Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas (New York: Orion Press, 1964), 293, 294.


Ixtlilxóchitl, Obras históricas, 1:451.


Gillespie, Aztec Kings, 232–35.


It was only after the conquest that Ilhuicamina was given the name Motecuhzoma in an overt act of rewriting the past to account for the present. Ibid., 167–70.


Ibid., 195.




Felipe Fernández-Armesto, “‘Aztec’ Auguries and Memories of the Conquest of Mexico,’’ Renaissance Studies 6 (1992), 287–305. See also Stephen A. Colston, “ ‘No Longer Will There Be a Mexico’: Omens, Prophecies, and the Conquest of the Aztec Empire,” American Indian Quarterly 9 (Summer 1985), 239–58.


Gillespie, Aztec Kings., 195–96.


Prescott, Conquest of Mexico, 349.


Elliott, “Cortés, Velázquez, and Charles V,” xii.


Clendinnen, “Cortés, Signs, and the Conquest of Mexico,” 93–94.


Prescott, Conquest of Mexico, 345.


Oviedo, Historia general y natural de las Indias, 4:36.


“Información promovida por Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón sobre la situación de Hernán Cortés en la ciudad de México con el Señor Motecuhzoma, en attención a la llegada de los soldados de Pánfilo de Narváez, San Juan de Ulúa, lunes 23 de abril de 1520 [Polavieja, Hernán Cortés: copias de documentos (Seville, 1889), 127–31], reprinted in José Luis Martínez, Documentos cortesianos, 2 vols. (Mexico City: Univ. Nacional Autónoma de México, 1990–91), 1:105–8. See also G. R. G. Conway, La Noche Triste. Documentos: segura de la frontera en Nueva España, año de MDXX que se publican integramente por primera vez con un prólogo y notas (Mexico City: Porrua, 1943). Andrés de Tapia and Fray Francisco de Aguilar both give brief accounts of the arrest. Neither adds much of substance, and both comment on his freedom. Tapia makes the interesting observation that the people did not even know that he was under arrest. “The Chronicle of Andrés de Tapia,” in The Conquistadors: First-Person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico, ed. and trans. Patricia de Fuentes (New York: Orion Press, 1963), 17–48; and “The Chronicle of Fray Francisco de Aguilar,” ibid., 134–64.


Clendinnen, “Fierce and Unnatural Cruelty.”


Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest, 108–9.


For a detailed analysis of the weakness of a too-aprioristic view of the role of disease in the conquest of Mexico, see Brooks, “Revising the Conquest.”


Inga Clendinnen, “Landscape and World View: The Survival of the Yucatec Maya Culture Under Spanish Conquest,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 22:3 (July 1980), 374–93.


“. . . however the matter may end, there will invariably be people to declare: ‘I said so at the time,’ entirely forgetting that among their numerous hypotheses were some in favor of quite the opposite.” Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957), book 3, pt. 2, p. 811.