Research Paper: Hernan Cortes and Bernal Diaz

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¶ … Hernan Cortes and Bernal Diaz; an Assessment of the Underlying Motivations

There is a saying which states history is written by the victor. This is certainly the case when examining the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the history which survives is almost exclusively from Spanish perspective. The perspective of the victor has traditionally been the perspective of the leaders, those who have initiated and controlled actions and strategies, and subsequently reported on their own successes. The accounts are inevitably biased towards the perspective of those writing, the bias may be a purposeful presentation of select facts, with bias in the way they are presented, especially where there is the use of subjective judgments. Victors have also been known to misrepresent or even fabricate facts to support their actions and perspective; an easy feat if there are no survivors to record an alternate version of events. However, when there are several accounts from those on the side of victory, there is no assurance they will recount the same details or even agree on many of facts. In the modern world, with an increased level of access to the media, there has been an increased level of reporting from the minority perspectives, regardless of which side they are on. However, in the context of historical events, such as the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the potential for dissenting views was far more limited. Limited access to the contemporary media and the way in which political and economic powers were held, effectively prevented minority views emerging. As subsequent generations reviewed history, the potential for minority or dissenting views diminished, and the records that remained would become perceived as an accurate record of events.

In the Spanish conquest of Mexico there is a relatively unusual situation; surviving documents written by men on the same side, which provide a contrast in terms of perspective on the events which occurred. The letter of Hernan Cortes to Charles V, known as the "cartas de relacion," a primary source of information, and were published in a single volume. The letters, are invariably written from the perspective of Cortes himself, document the events, including the extreme cruelty that he showed the natives. The narrative provided by Cortes can be considered as reliable, as it is a primary source, but it is also likely to have inherent biases colored by the motivations of the author in writing the texts. This is particularly evident when comparing the narrative provided by Cortes when writing to Charles V with the narrative that was written by Bernal Diaz, a soldier in the Army, who served under Cortes, but provides a very different perspective on events.

The interpretation of Cortes has varied over the years. The contemporary perspective, presented in Cortes's own documents, was that of a hero and conqueror, bringing Christianity to a pagan land as well as seeking gold for the benefit of his king. By examining the history of Cortes it is possible to examine some of his potential motives, as well as determine how and why he presented events in a particular manner.

Cortes himself came from a military background, Catalina Pizarro Altamirano and his father Rodrigo Fernandez de Monroy in 1845 in western Spain, he was not to follow his education but it is believed was gained at the University of Salamanca, instead he decided to sail to the New World in order to seek his fortune. The early history of Cortes does not indicate a hero or man of honor; he Cortes initially meant to sail to Hispaniola in 1503, with the new governor of the island; Nicolas de Ovando, who was a distant relative. However, following an injury sustained during an affair with a married woman, he was unable to sail until the next day. The desire to retain Cortes's image in line with the heroic conqueror can be seen in the way this story was related in the biography published by Pickering in 1849, in which the way the injury is sustained is described in the following terms;

"As he was scaling a high wall, one night, which gave him access to the apartment of a lady with whom he was engaged in an intrigue, the stones gave way, and he was thrown down with much violence and buried under the ruins. A severe contusion, though attended with no other serious consequences, confined him to his bed till after the departure of the fleet."

(Prescott, 1849; book 2, chapter 3).

It maybe argued this is an example of the way in which Cortes's reputation has been protected from the texts, and also reflects the impression of Cortes himself gives in the narratives sent to Charles V. By examining the biography of Cortes there are maybe some clues regarding the reasons why the letters written and their underlying motives, along with the potential for bias.

When in Hispaniola, Cortes was not always successful. It appears he met with initial success, and to start with was a favorite of the governor; Velazquez, who appointed him on his secretaries, and then granted him a commission for an expedition to Mexico (Prescott, 1849). A possible reason for a rift between Cortes and Velazquez is given by Prescott (1849), with the story of the Xuarez. It appears that Cortes has been taken with the beauty of one of the Cortes systems; Catalina, and promise to marry her, premise on which he later reneged (Prescott, 1849). The family, as well as the governor remonstrated with Cortes, but he remained resistant. This rebuke by Velazquez may have caused a rift, may also have impacted on the trust between the two men, but certainly saw a change in attitude of Cortes, with Prescott (1849), stating that Cortes then started to associate with other disaffected parties, and would brood on the reasons for their discontent, including port requital for their services in that lands and offices were distributed. The motivations of Cortes appear to be shifted to that of selfish interests, even Prescott (1849), who appears to be well disposed towards Cortes, argues that no leader of a colony would ever be able to satisfy the needs of the different speculators and adventurous over which they sought to rule.

The pursuit of self-interest is seen in the way Cortes sought to take his grievances to higher authorities located in Hispaniola, the authorities who had granted Velazquez his commission. However, before Cortes could set sail to add his grievances to the higher authority, the governor heard of the plan and then stopped the departure, placing Cortes in confinement (Prescott, 1849). It is argued that Cortes would have been hung without the intervention of friends (Prescott, 1849).

Later Cortes was to realize the error of his ways, and although no explanation is given, he relinquished his objections to making good on the marriage proposal to Catalina, and as such re-gained the goodwill of her family (Prescott, 1849). It was after this that the governor himself also became reunited with Cortes. This may be seen as a man seeing the error of his ways, but it may also be an indication of more Machiavellian motives; undertaking the actions required in order to promote self-interest (Prescott, 1849).

When one considers an individual of this type of characteristic, it is quite possible that the letters written to Charles V or undertaken in order to promote his self-interest, rather than simply informing the King of the events which are occurring. In the second letter Cortes writes to Charles V, in 1520, there is an indication of his self-confidence and motivation, as the letters appear to contain some self aggrandizing. Cortes refers to the first letter, which has been lost, stating;

"Most Excellent Prince, I gave a list of the cities and towns that had to that time voluntarily submitted to your authority, together with those I had reduced by conquest"

(Cortes, second letter to Charles V, 1520, published 1849).

This second letter details of his journey to Tenochtitlan, and his reminds the king of his former promise where he assured Charles V that the great Mexican Lord Muteczuma would "be taken either dead or alive, or become a subject to the royal throne of your Majesty" (Cortes, 1520). Cortes tells the king of his journey, with only 150 men and two horses, emphasizing his own success in the area by stating they travel through 50 towns and fortresses which contain 50,000 warriors under the rule of Muteczuma, but loyal to the King (Cortes, 1520). His own aggrandizement is seen with the claim that many of those he saw while travelling with asking him to protect them against Lord Muteczuma, who is described as a tyrant who would use violent measures to subdue his subjects, including the sacrifice of sons to idols (Cortes, 1520). A consideration of the contemporary environment, and one of the aspects of conquest being the religious conversion of the natives, may indicate the way in which this account, even if completely accurate, creates a perception of Cortes being a… [END OF PREVIEW]

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