History of the Conquest of Mexico Essay - Critical Essays

William Hickling Prescott


Prescott’s observations on Spanish efforts to convert the Aztecs betray his rather marked suspicion of the Catholic Church. His personal biases are less pronounced in other matters. Because Prescott deals with his narrative in dramatic terms and with an abundance of background material, particularly on the Aztec civilization, his HISTORY OF THE CONQUEST OF MEXICO has remained the classic account of the death of a civilization which in many ways rivaled ancient Egypt’s.

The success of the Spanish conquest was aided by the Aztec legend of Quetzalcoatl, a benevolent god who, once having lived on earth and departed, was expected to return: tall, white-skinned, dark-bearded. When the first Spanish expeditionary party, led by Juan de Grijalva, made a preliminary exploration of the mainland, it encountered an unfriendly reception on landing. When the Aztecs happened to associate the Spaniards with the legend of Quetzalcoatl, however, they sent Grijalva away with rich gifts. As a result, Velasquez, Governor of Cuba, immediately organized a second expedition, to be led by Hernando Cortes.

Cortes’ armada left Cuba on February 10, 1519, and landed on the island of Cozumel. At that time he acquired two valuable aides: a Spanish soldier named Aguilar, who had been taken captive by the natives of Cozumel during the Grijalva expedition, to serve as an interpreter, and Marina, a girl from the mainland whose mother had sold her on Cozumel. Marina became not only an interpreter but Cortes’ mistress.

When the Spaniards moved on to the mainland, landing on Good Friday at what is now Vera Cruz, they stepped ashore in a Mexico significantly disunited. Montezuma, Emperor of the Aztecs, was a good warrior and a just ruler, but he was also superstitious and a lover of pleasure, with numerous enemies. There was in addition to this political unrest a vague feeling among the people that the return of Quetzalcoatl was imminent: since the days of Columbus, there had been rumors of the Spaniards, and these rumors had somehow fused with the ancient legend. Dissension among the lesser kingdoms and tribes of Montezuma’s empire and the revival of the Quetzalcoatl myth were of great value to the Spaniards in their invasion of Mexico.

Because he sensed mounting resistance to his leadership, Cortes established Vera Cruz as a civil colony rather than a military base; in this way he made the expedition responsible only to the crown, not to the governor of Cuba. Later, when Juan Diaz conspired to turn the expedition back to Cuba, Cortes ordered the destruction of his fleet. With only one small ship left, the men had little to think about but the march forward.

Leaving some men behind to protect the coastal settlement, Cortes began his march toward the capital, Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. While one of the original purposes of the expedition was the conversion of the Indians to Catholicism, the expedition, once under way, did not delay for missionary activities. Indeed, Father Olmedo, the expedition’s priest, persuaded Cortes not to try to convert all of the heathen along the route.

The first pronounced resistance to the...

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