- The First Letter from New Spain: The Lost Petition of Cortés and his Company, June 20, 1519 by John Frederick Schwaller
Historians of the conquest over generations have asked new questions of old sources by conquerors themselves and of new types of sources, such as those in indigenous languages. But rarely does such an important and early European source as the June 20, 1519, Veracruz petition to the crown appear serendipitously. The petition, now in the Archivo General de Indias, is signed by hundreds of the company of Spaniards following their Good Friday founding of the town of Veracruz on April 22, 1519. It asks the crown to recognize its founding: if granted, the crown’s decision would negate the authority of the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, over Veracruz and authorize a proposed expedition of conquest to be led by Hernán Cortés to the interior of Mexico. By throwing off Velázquez’s authority, the company of conquerors put themselves at risk as traitors to the crown’s authority. But their unity of purpose is demonstrated by the formal petition and the conquerors’ pledge to the enterprise with individual signatures.
The Veracruz petition is damaged, and many signatories’ names and rubrics have been lost. However, the main text is largely intact, and there are over 300 extant signatures, making possible this full-scale work. Fritz Schwaller’s meticulous and engagingly written study is a timely and important contribution to our understanding of a major event in early Spanish American history. With an introduction and conclusion, the book is organized in six substantive chapters. Schwaller begins with a clear and fast-paced synopsis of the conquest of Mexico, goes on to provide the historiographical context of the Veracruz petition, and provides a description of the petition itself (this last by Schwaller and Helen Nader).
Following next is a facsimile of the petition, with a transcription of the Spanish text and a translation to English, which is the heart of the book. A major analytical chapter is Schwaller’s prosopographical essay on the members of the company, building on the work of previous scholars. Finally, a chapter gives individual biographies of the signatories. Helen Nader provides an appendix on the 545 signatories of the 1520 [End Page 660] document by which the second Spanish town in Mexico, Segura de la Frontera, was founded.
Cortés did not sign the petition, which was drawn up and signed by the other members of the company. An important signature is that of veteran Bernal Díaz del Castillo (signature 181), whose own “true history of the conquest” is a major revisionist work from the conquest era itself. Schwaller’s work hones in on the dynamic of conquest, which can be more fully understood not as “great-man history” but as a study of the unity of purpose and support of those Spanish men participating in the company. Cortés’s group at Veracruz was large, some 450 men. Schwaller also highlights some present in Veracruz who did not sign the petition because they were considered not members of the company. These include women and Caribbean indigenous servants or auxiliaries.
Schwaller worries in the conclusion that his book “will have the unintended consequence of further reifying this one moment in the conquest of Mexico,” even though he has placed the petition in historical context so as to lessen the importance of a single event. That might be the case, but in this reviewer’s assessment, Schwaller’s analysis of this singular, new document and his laying out of the larger context make this book a major contribution to conquest history. The book is also a heuristic tour de force of how historians puzzle through difficult paleography and how and why providing the larger context aids our understanding of texts. Publishing just the document would have been useful to specialists, but Schwaller’s...