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Historically Speaking May/june 2004 The Spanish Conquest Revisited Matthew Restall During his invasion of highland Guatemala in 1524 the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado wrote two letters to Hernando Cortés. In the first letter Alvarado described the triumphs and tribulations ofthe 250 Spanish invaders, as well as the reactions of the Mayas defendingtheirhomelands . He did notreferto any other non-Spaniards. In the second letter there was likewise no mention at all of African slaves and servants fighting alongside Spanish masters, or of native warriors alliedwith the invaders beyond a single parenthetical reference to "about five or six thousand friendly Indians."1 At the time, Cortés was presiding over the rising ofMexico City from the ruins of the Mexica (Aztec) capital ofTenochtitlán. He would have been well aware that native warriors fromvarious regions ofMesoamerica , outnumbering Spaniards byatleastfifty to one, would have formed an essential part of the first expedition into Maya country. But Cortés was not the only reader ofsuch narratives. Alvarado's letters were published inMadrid in 1525, for example, and in New Yorkin English in 1924. Later readers, who did not witness firsthand how the Spanish conquests in the Americas really unfolded, would have been impressed bythe abilityof small numbers ofSpanish conquistadors to defeat vast native armies and seize great kingdoms—in Guatemala as, more famously, in Mexico and Peru. Expressions of awe at the achievements of the conquistadors can be as readily found in modern textbooks as they canin the chronicles and commentaries of 16th-century Europeans. Yet such awe is based on historical fiction—on a mythologized view ofthe Conquest rooted partlyin the war correspondence of the conquerors themselves. The contrary perspective, emphasizing the complex and crucial role ofnative elites, is not merely based on passing references by Spaniards; itiswell documented byarchival sources, some of which have been known and available for decades, others ofwhich are only now being unearthed by scholars. In the Spanish imperial archives in Seville, for example, there are petitions submitted to the king by Nahuas (Nahuatl-speakers from central Mexico, such as the Mexica) requesting tribute-exemptions and other rewards for their services in the Conquest of Guatemala. One such veteran, a Mexica baptized as Pero González, testified in 1564 that fortyyears earlier there came to help in the Conquest a great quantity of Indian allies, natives of Tlaxcala and Mexicas and natives of Cholula and Zapotees and Mixtees and Yopes and Guacachulans, all allies of the Spaniards, who after coming to this land—this witness saw—in the service of God our lord and of Your Majesty, were at all the battles and encounters . . . and served very well with their persons and their arms, suffering much exhaustion and hunger and deprivation and many wounds over many years until the land was conquered and pacified and placed under the dominion of Your Majesty.2 Ifthe native Mesoamerican involvement on both sides ofthe Spanish Conquestis so well documented, why is it not better known? Is this simplya case ofhistorybeing written by the victors? Or is this a case of Tolstoy's adage that events seem at the time to be the doing of the men known to be "concerned in" them, while our knowledge ofthe consequences ofremote events "prevent our conceiving ofanything else as possible "?3 The fact ofthree centuries ofcolonial rule in Spanish America certainly makes it hard to imagine an alternative outcome. Indeed the very names we have given to the SpanishMexicanWar (1519-152 1) and the SpanishIncaWar (1532-35)—the ConquestofMexico and the Conquest of Peru respectively—underscore the apparent inevitabüity ofSpanish victory. This makes it easier to forget how close Cortés and Pizarro came to failure and how much their survival depended on such factors as luck (recognized bythe conquistadors butrepackaged as divine intervention) and native alliances (grudgingly acknowledged in the May/June 2004 · Historically Speaking wake ofvictory, later to be largely forgotten). Furthermore, for every successful Spanish expedition ofexploration and invasion, there were manythat ended badly. The decades of disaster in places like Florida and the River Plate are less well known than the wars of conquest in Mesoamerica and Peru because they are marked more by ignominy than glory...


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