Conquest of New Spain Term Paper

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Conquest of New Spain

Castillo, Bernal Diaz del. The Conquest of New Spain. Translated and Introduction by John M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963.

Immediately upon reading the title of Bernal Diaz del Castillo's the Conquest of New Spain a critical reader bridles at the title, and expects an imperialistic history. After all, to our postmodern, politically correct ears, Mexico is not 'new Spain,' but an independent nation. When one hears that Diaz del Castillo's account is a 16th century memoir of one of the soldiers who accompanied the conqueror and, in today's view, the modern imperialist, Cortes to the New World of Central America, the reader grows even more suspicious. However, although the author's biases must be acknowledged, this is still an important account of a grounds-eye view of Cortes and his invasion of Central America. It was written after the destruction the Aztec Empire, and according to the author it was designed to deflate rather than inflate the mythology that had grown up around Cortes' invasion.Get full Download Microsoft Word File access
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Term Paper on Conquest of New Spain Assignment

Diaz del Castillo presents a version of events that is both horrifying and enlightening. Initially, the Spanish arrivals were accommodated by the Mexican leader Montezuma, treated as guests and even allowed to practice their own religion. And at first, there is some suggestion that the Indians saw the Spaniards as supernatural beings or even gods worthy of reverence and deference (Diaz del Castillo 94). At the beginning of their encroachment into the territory, there are many scenes of a rather humorous nature, in which Cortes strives to circumvent the degree that the soldiers are not allowed to barter gold for food, except for Cortes himself, so that the "royal fifth" can be extracted (Diaz del Castillo 97). Cortes protests "the amount of gold they have gained is a mere trifle, and, God willing, we are going to gain a great deal more" (Diaz del Castillo 97). However, although there were some reports that Cortes in his initial wrangling attempted to pretend that the Spaniards did not know the worth of gold, and cared little for the precious metal, "Montezuma must have known the truth, and his opinion must have been confirmed when we sent him the helmet with a request that it should be filled with gold grains from the mines....the Mexicans were not the sort of people to misunderstand such things" (Diaz del Castillo 97).

Diaz del Castillo and his fellow Spaniards saw the Aztecs as far from stupid or credulous, for all the Spaniard belief in their savageness. There are conciliatory scenes: "The great Montezuma had some fine gold jewels of various shapes in readiness which he gave to Cortes after this conversation. And to each of our captains he presented small gold objects...After the distribution of presents, he asked Cortes if we were all brothers and vassals of our great Emperor...Montezuma had ordered his stewards to provide us with everything we needed for our way of living: maize, grindstones, women to make our bread, fowls, fruit and plenty of fodder for the horses" (Diaz del Castillo 221). For all of these shows of generosity, even during the most positive portrayals of Montezuma and Aztec hospitality and wealth, there are always ominous hints about the undercurrent of oppression amongst the Aztecs -- the populace is portrayed as following Montezuma with eyes downcast -- with fear more than respect, even as gold is given almost as if it were a careless trinket to the Spaniards in great excess.

However, tensions began to escalate as the Spaniard's horror with the Aztec religious practices began to increase, and with attempts to convert the Aztecs to less bloodthirsty practice, to incite violence. As well as to accumulate gold, at least according to Diaz del Castillo, the Spaniards were determined to covert the 'heathens' to Christianity. Diaz del Castillo presents a horrific account of Aztec native religion. The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice and piled their temples high with human skulls. The altars of the architectural marvel, the Temple of the Sun were stained with blood, and the sacrificial rituals involved people being cut open wit their hearts still beating from within. The bloodshed was relentless, until even the priests were exhausted from the efforts.

Although Diaz del Castillo often takes a humorous view of his leader Cortes' rapaciousness and desire for gold and power, he is thus quite unsympathetic to the conquered, and views them more with a detached wonder than either pity or respect. He notes that in the Spaniards' defense, they conquered the Aztecs not alone but also with the support of native allies who had been subjected to a kind of colonial tyranny by Montezuma. The Aztecs, before they were colonized, colonized other people and subjected their neighbors to their own religious beliefs, as well as taxed them mightily. Diaz del Castillo is unsentimental, and at times suggests that absolute power corrupts absolutely

Yet even the religious practices of other peoples who aided them disgusted the Spaniards. "I must now tell in the town of Tlasca we found wooden cages made of lattice-work in which men and women were imprisoned until they grew fat enough to be sacrificed and eaten. We broke open and destroyed these prisons, but the poor creatures did not dare to run away...they kept close to us and so escaped with their lives...whenever we entered a town our captain's first order was to break down the gages and release the prisoners, for these prison cages existed throughout the country" (Diaz del Castillo 183).

Cortes, for all of his many flaws, is portrayed as a moral force in terms of his religious beliefs and his Christianity, forever demanding of the leaders to cease such primitive practices, although Diaz del Castillo believes they were quickly resumed once again. Cortes is show in such accounts as a force for God and the cross, not simply a man seeking gold and power. and, as the translator John M. Cohen points out in his introduction, "by their own standards, the Spaniards, "were often behaving with moderation," regarding their religious practices, on several occasions the [anonymous] Mercedarian friar...urged Cortes to restrain his prostelization" (Cohen 10). (There is of course some irony in the fact that the most zealous Christian was not the friars and priests, but Cortes, the gold-hungry and power hungry conquistador).

For all of his flaws, Cortes evidentially respected the Aztec tyrant's strength. But both Diaz del Castillo and Cortes saw Montezuma as a cruel and tyrannical leader, not simply because of his peoples' practice of human sacrifice, but also because of his heavy taxation of his nation and those people under the Aztec sway. Without the military support and lodging of the Aztec's enemies Cortes could never have triumphed. When Montezuma made overtures, Cortes was forever warned not to go to the city, else "they could not escape with their lives" because the Aztec reputation for ferocity loomed so large (Diaz del Castillo 207).

This is an interesting note, given that many modern historians have stressed the role of 'germs' rather than 'steel' in enabling the Spanish conquest, rather than morality. Diaz del Castillo does note that "a severe epidemic" of smallpox "spread among the Indians who did not know this disease, but follows the account of a triumph due to the native sufferance from this disease with bad news about a native victory and a chapter entitled the "Flight from Mexico" (Diaz del Castillo 282-283). In short, the Spanish victory is phrased in moral and military terms, not in terms of accidental practices, for all of the author's desire to remain objective and not to inflate the moral nature of his people and leader.

The idea that the Mexican peninsula did contain barbaric religious practices does not mesh with the current desire to stress the evils of the conquistadors.… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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