This is a fascinating book. Never before has a connected account of the coming of the Spaniards to Mexico and the conquest of Tenochtitlán been put together from native accounts. Though some of the native writers have apparently been partially won over to the Spanish point of view, in the main this is an account of events by the “other side.” The native chroniclers, after their initial amazement and dismay at seeing horses, metal armor, steel swords, and artillery, were not greatly impressed by the qualities of their conquerors. The greed of the Spaniards who scrambled for gold “like pigs” disgusted them.
In his introduction Miguel León-Portilla does a masterful job of summarizing the Aztec Empire, way of life of the people, and the situation surrounding the conquest. He is a bit carried away by his enthusiasm for things Aztec when he bounds the Aztec Empire. When he says that it stretched “from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf Coast,” he is only technically correct, and perhaps not even that. Four times the Aztecs attempted to conquer the Tarascans of western Mexico and four times they were beaten decisively. Only small Nahua enclaves existed on or near the Pacific Coast and there is room for grave doubt that they were attached to the confederacy of the Culhua Mexia. This is not a serious error.
The “Omens Foretelling the Coming of the Spaniards” as described by Sahagún’s informants and by Muñoz Camargo are quite provocative. One is inclined to speculate as to how much consists in exaggeration of natural phenomena after the fact of the conquest, how much was based upon Aztec mythological lore and how much was pure fabrication on someone’s part. Some of them might be explained quite naturally; others we cannot be expected to believe at all. There is evidence that the Aztec people believed them, though, and that they had a very definite depressing effect on Motecuhzoma, now better known as Moctezuma.
The native accounts contained in this book do not disagree in general with the history of the Conquest as related by modern historians. This is partly due to the fact that modern historians have taken the native chronicles into account. It is only in small matters of interpreting of events and of emotional reaction that we find any variance.
The English translation by Lysander Kemp is felicitous; the illustrations by Alberto Beltran, adapted from drawings in the codices, fit singularly well with the spirit of the book. Three elegies on the fall of Tenochtitlán are included and, on finishing the book, we can respond empathically with the scribe who wrote: “Broken spears lie in the roads; we have torn our hair in grief. The houses are roofless now, and their walls are red with blood.” The Aztec glory was gone.