Historia de la conquista de la Nueva España, de Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1585)

On the fifth centenary of the arrival of Hernán Cortés to the Aztec empire, it is worth remembering one of the key books that tells the events that changed the world forever. And this one from the aztec point of view: the book of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590) entitled History of the conquest of New Spain or Book XII of the General History of the things of New Spain.

Book XII

This General History was the result of a long compilation process carried out between 1547 and 1585, initiated shortly after the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. It is also known as the Florentine Codex, since a version is in the Medicea Laurenziana Library of Florence, Italy. The complete codex can be consulted online at the World Digital Library (WDL)

But approaching this work requires first knowing the process of its elaboration and understanding how it has reached us, since it is about a complex document which offers a variety of information about Mexica culture in Náhuatl, Spanish, and Latin. It also contains pictographical images and ornaments which unite elements of precolonial writing with glyphs and European paintings. It is considered the result of a complicated transculturation process.

The Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España or General history of the things of New Spain is an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of the Aztec empire compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after the Spanish conquest by Hernán Cortés.

Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, circa 1499

The General history went through several stages between 1535 and 1585, and between Tlatelolco, Tepepulco, and Mexico City. The communicative interactions between Sahagún and the nahua elders he decided to interrogate were always mediated by a group of literate nahua, proud heirs of the legacy of their own people and proficient participants in the cultural tradition inculcated into them by the Franciscans fathers at the College of the Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco, established by the Spaniards in 1536.

Although Sahagún compiled two substantial náhuatl texts (which became Book VI ‘Rhetorical and moral philosophy’ and Book XII ‘History of the Conquest’ of the Florentine Codex) some years earlier, it was not until 1558 that he was officially commissioned by the Provincial of his order, Fray Francisco de Toral, to undertake a systematic investigation of the native culture by compiling in náhuatl what would be “useful for the indoctrination, the propagation and perpetuation of the Christianization of these natives of this New Spain, and as a help to the workers and ministers who indoctrinate them”

Thus, in 1558 Fray Bernardino settled in the convent of Tepepulco, today Tepeapulco in the state of Hidalgo, where with informants of the indigenous nobility he produced, between 1558 and 1561, his first handwritten works of the General History of the things of New Spain.

General History of the things of New Spain

Tepepulco materials, Náhuatl texts and paintings, were called by the great Mexican scholar Francisco del Paso y Troncoso First memorials. There are 88 folios that Paso y Troncoso selected and ordered from the so-called Códices matritenses (because there are in Madrid, at the Royal Palace Library and the Royal Academy of History) for its 1905 edition, with such a good feel that they are still being edited in the same way.

Between 1565 and 1569, already in the convent of San Francisco de México, Sahagún completes his General history in nine books and four volumes. The following years, 1569-1570, will be the most bitter in the life of Sahagun. The Provincial Chapter of his Order, to which he submits his writings, decides that they are “highly esteemed and should be favored” but, at the same time, he takes away his scribes. He himself, over seventy years old, can no longer write because of the trembling of his hands. And shortly after, the provincial Fray Alonso de Escalona (1570-3) disperses the writings of Fray Bernardino through the Franciscan convents of the Province of Mexico. Despite these obstacles, Sahagun managed, to continue his work.

By 1575 Sahagún recovers his manuscripts and, thanks to the interest shown by Juan de Ovando, president of the Council of the Indies, the new commissioner of the Order, Fray Rodrigo de Sequera, again provides Sahagún with scribes who are compiling the texts in Náhuatl and which dictates the Spanish text of its General history of the things of New Spain, which extracts and comments on the materials provided by the Indian informants.

However, from the year 1577, Philip II and with it the Council of the Indies, already dead Ovando, changed their position regarding the research on indigenous cultures: they were considered dangerous as they spread pagan ideas and encouraged rebel and independence spirit. This change in the treatment of indigenous cultures motivated the order of Philip II to confiscate the book of Sahagún.

It then was taken to Spain by Fray Rodrigo de Sequera. The work was bound in four volumes but later rebound into three. Each volume is arranged in two columns: on the right is the original Náhuatl text, on the left is Sahagún’s Spanish translation. The 2,468 magnificent illustrations, made by the students, are mostly in the left-hand column, where the text is shorter. The illustrations combine the syntactic and symbolic traits of the ancient Nahua tradition of painting-writing with the formal qualities of European Renaissance painting.

Later, the manuscript could have been gifted to Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici by Philip II or just escaped confiscation and were transported to a safe haven in Rome, in the library of this Cardinal, collector of exotic plants, precious stones, and wondrous objects from America, including feather paintings such as are described in detail in the manuscript. When Ferdinando renounced the red hat to succeed his late brother, Francesco I, as Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1587, he took the manuscript with him to Florence. Although he generally kept the existence of the book secret, he allowed it to be consulted for the ceiling frescoes painted by Ludovico Buti in the armory in the Uffizi in 1588. Retained in the Medici guardarobba for most of the grand-ducal period, the book entered the Medicea Laurenziana Library in 1783, and thenceforth has generally been known as the Codex Florentinus, Codice fiorentino, or Florentine Codex.

Therefore, what is commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex is a manuscript that consists of 12 books devoted to different topics, firstly completed around 1579, archived in the Medicea Laurenziana Library of Florence, Italy. Sahagún followed the typology of earlier medieval works in organizing his research into “the divine, human, and natural things” of New Spain and addressing these topics in order.

Book I ‘The Gods’ thus deals with the gods. It describes the principal deities in the Aztec pantheon, listing their distinctive physical features, attire, main functions, and the festivals dedicated to them. To make these gods more comprehensible to European readers, Sahagún sometimes likens them to figures from Greek and Roman mythology. Huitzilopochtli (“Uitzilobuchtli” in the codex) is called “another Hercules,” Tezcatlipoca “another Jupiter.” Huitzilopochtli was the patron god of the Aztecs, who guided them on their pilgrimage from Aztlán, the mythical “white land” of their origins, to the “promised land,” where in 1325 they founded the city of Tenochtitlan. He was the god of war and of the sun, huge, immensely strong, and warlike, and to him was dedicated one of the two shrines of the Templo Mayor (Great Pyramid) of Tenochtitlan. The other shrine was dedicated to Tlaloc, the lord of rain, who lived on the highest mountains where clouds form and was associated with the agricultural world and the fertility of the land. Huitzilopochtli, Tlaloc, and two other major gods are depicted on folio 10r. For Sahagún, religion was the key to Aztec civilization. As he wrote in the prologue to Book I, “in religion and the adoration of their gods, I do not believe that there have ever been idolaters more devoted to their gods, nor at such great cost to themselves as these [people] of New Spain.”

Book II ‘The Ceremonies’ deals with the feasts and sacrifices to the gods, made in accordance with the 20-day ritual calendar. It includes the 20 sacred canticles or hymns to the gods, which Sahagún gathered from oral testimony at an early stage in his research. This book also describes ceremonies involving human sacrifice, which so shocked the Spaniards when they arrived in Mexico. Sacrifices were offered so that the cosmic cycle might continue and the sun rise every morning. In a perennial process of regeneration, it was thought that Aztec gods died and then returned to life stronger than before, and it was their death that was “relived” in the sacrifice. The gods were embodied in the sacrificial victims—their ixiptla (images) or representatives—and received sustenance from human hearts and blood. The illustration at folio 84v depicts the sacrifice of the ixiptla of Tezcatlipoca, god of the night sky and of memory. The victim was to be a fit young man, without physical imperfections, who was granted a year to live at leisure, learning to play the flute and to carry “smoking tubes” in the manner of the chiefs and nobles. He was then carefully dressed and adorned and, after various ceremonies, taken to the foot of the pyramid where he was killed. The sacrificial victims were generally soldiers captured in battle, but they also could be slaves, men found guilty of some crime, or young women or children (offered to the deities of the rain and the waters). In battle, the goal was not to kill the enemy, but to take prisoners, who were grabbed by the hair and destined to be sacrificed. Warfare for the purpose of securing sacrificial victims is depicted in the illustrations on folio 74r and folio 74v of this book.

Book III ‘The Origin of the Gods’ deals with the origin of the gods, in particular Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, and includes appendices on the afterlife and on education. Aztec religion was permeated with stories about the birth, death, and return to life of the gods. This perennial process of regeneration was reflected in ceremonies involving human and other sacrifice and in the architecture of Tenochtitlan. The Templo Mayor (Great Pyramid) was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc and had separate shrines to each of these gods. This dual construction had great significance in Mesoamerican cosmology, symbolizing the two sacred mountains, Tonacatepetl (the Hill of Sustenance), and Coatepec (the Hill of the Snake). The shrine dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain, represented the mountain housing maize and other things that Quetzalcoatl stole from the gods to give to mankind. The shrine dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and of the sun, represented the mountain on which the god was born, already an adult and dressed as a warrior, his mother Coatlicue having generated him after she placed a feather ball in her lap. On the mountain the god defeated his sister Coyolxauhqui, the moon goddess, and his 400 brothers who were jealous of his birth. Once dead, they went to form the Milky Way. Among the noteworthy illustrations in Book III is the depiction, on folio 232v, in the appendix on education, of parents taking children to school. The nobles sent their children to the calmecac (row of houses), an extremely strict school reserved for the elite, where they received instructions on how to become “those who command, chiefs and senators and nobles, … those who have military posts.”

Book IV ‘The Art of Divination’ deals with the art of divination, or judicial astrology as practiced by the Aztecs, and in particular with the Tonalpohualli (ritual calendar). The Mesoamericans used two calendars, one solar and the other ritual. The Xiuhpohualli (solar calendar) had a cycle of 365 days divided into 18 months of 20 days each, plus five days considered inauspicious. The ritual calendar consisted of 260 days and was formed by associating the numbers from 1 to 13 with 20 different signs. A table that was principally used by priests in divination is reproduced in striking detail on folios 329r and 329v. Among the other illustrations in Book IV is a gruesome depiction of anthropophagy, or ritual cannibalism, which often was practiced as part of the rite of human sacrifice. Sahagún describes the sacrifice in relation to the festivals of Xipe Tótec, the god of spring and regeneration, and of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and of the sun (folio 268r). Prisoners were taken to the temple of Huitzilopochtli, killed, and their flesh consumed by the notables. By means of this practice, the strength of the enemy was consumed and assumed by their captors, in a kind of communion with the dead person and with the gods.

Book V ‘Omens and Superstitions’ deals with omens, auguries, and superstitions. As in Book IV, on divination, Sahagún cites ancient native traditions gleaned from questionnaires and interactions with Nahua elders. Sahagún’s enduring interest in this subject was scholarly and ethnographic, but fundamentally religious in its motivation. He believed that many of the conversions to Christianity claimed by Catholic priests in Mexico were superficial, and masked lingering adherence to pagan beliefs. As he wrote in the prologue to his work, the “sins of idolatry and idolatrous rites, superstitions and omens, and superstitions and idolatrous ceremonies have not disappeared altogether. In order to preach against these things or even to be aware of their existence, we must be familiar with how they were practiced in pagan times, [because] through our ignorance, they [the Indians] do many idolatrous things without our understanding it.”

Book VI ‘Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy’ is concerned with rhetoric and moral philosophy. It contains texts that Sahagún collected around 1547, in the earliest stage of his research into indigenous culture, from oral recitations by Nahua elders. Known as Huehuetlahtolli (Ancient word), these texts embodied, according to Sahagún, “the rhetoric, moral philosophy, and theology of the Mexican people, in which there are many curious things exhibiting the beauties of the language and very delicate things relating to the moral virtues.” Although he was repelled by Aztec religion, Sahagún was deeply impressed by the wisdom and beauty of the ancient texts, and he quotes at length, for example, a talk delivered by a Nahua father to a daughter who has reached the age of reason. An illustration of parents exhorting their children is at folio 80r. In the original binding, Book VI was the beginning of the second volume. It thus opens with a dedication to Rodrigo de Sequera, commissary general of the Franciscan Order and a great admirer of Sahagún’s work. A similar dedication originally was placed at the beginning of Book I, but it subsequently was torn out and survives only in a later copy of the codex.

Book VII ‘The Sun, Moon, and Stars, and the Binding of the Years’ is about the sun, the moon, and the stars. It contains an account of the creation of the sun and the moon in what the Aztecs called the “fifth age of the world,” which Sahagún drew from ancient poems and legends shared with him by the elders. The illustration at folio 228v depicts the rabbit in the moon. The ancient Mesoamericans claimed that the outline of a rabbit could be seen in a full moon, a visual effect that results from the combination of dark spots caused by the alteration of rises and craters on the moon’s surface, but which they explained mythologically. In the Aztec account, before the creation of the day the gods met at Teotihuacán to create the sun so that it might illuminate the world. For this to happen, someone had to sacrifice himself. The god Tezcuciztecatl (also seen as Tecciztecatl) volunteered, but another god was also required. Everyone else was afraid and no one stepped forward, so they turned to Nanahuatzin, who was covered with pustules, and he accepted gracefully. Both gods prepared themselves for sacrifice by doing penance for four days. Tezcuciztecatl performed self-sacrifice using feathers, gold, and sharp fragments of precious stones and coral, while Nanahuatzin used humble materials and offered up his blood and pus. A large fire was lit and all the gods gathered around it at midnight, but when the moment came for Tezcuciztecatl to throw himself into the fire to be transformed into the sun, he hung back. Nanahuatzin, in contrast, bravely threw himself into the fire and began to shine. Only then did Tezcuciztecatl, who was envious, follow suit to be transformed into a second sun. The gods had not reckoned on there being two lights of equal brightness in the sky, so one of them took a rabbit and hurled it into the second sun to diminish its brightness, which is how it came to be the moon, with the shape of a rabbit visible on its face.

Book VIII ‘Kings and Lords’ is concerned with kings and nobles, forms of government, elections of rulers, and the customs and pastimes of the nobility. In addition to being interested in these topics for their own sake, Sahagún was motivated by linguistic considerations to describe as many aspects of Aztec life as he could. It was only by doing so, he explained, that he could bring “to light all the words of this language with their literal and metaphoric meanings and all their manners of speech and the greater part of their antiquities, good and evil.” Book VIII is rich in illustrations relating to the Aztec way of life. The paintings at folios 219, 261, and 280–81 relate to clothing. They show the loom, how clothing was made, and textile patterns worn by the nobility. The majority of the Aztec population could only wear clothes made from agave yarn, undyed and without adornment, but the nobles wore colored cotton clothes decorated with shell or bone-and-feather patches. The illustration on folio 269r shows the game patolli, described by Sahagún as similar to dice, in which the players gambled jewels and other possessions by letting fall three large beans onto a large cross painted on a mat. The illustration on folio 292v depicts tlachtli, a ball game originally linked to the Mesoamerican view of the cosmos as the product of a clash between opposing but complementary forces, such as life and death, day and night, fertility and barrenness, and light and darkness. The struggle was reproduced in the game, as two teams representing opposing cosmic forces faced each other on a court, striving to bounce a heavy rubber ball as many times as possible against the side walls of the court. According to Sahagún, the game was a diversion of the nobility that had lost its earlier religious significance.

Book IX ‘The merchants’ is about merchants, officials responsible for gold and precious stones, and feather working. The pochteca (merchants) were an important group in Aztec society. They undertook long journeys in search of precious commodities and goods, and they were valued for the information they gathered in the lands they visited, which the Aztecs often used to plan wars of conquest. Pack animals and the wheel were unknown in Mesoamerica, so goods were carried on foot by tlameme (porters), who placed their loads in a cacaxtli (wooden frame), which was supported by a cord that went around the porter’s shoulders and forehead. Folio 316r contains an illustration showing porters with their loads. Arte plumario (feather art) was one of the minor arts practiced in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Feather-art products were reserved for the Aztec elite—the king, nobles, priests, and warriors—who wore items such as cloaks, fans, and headdresses principally for ceremonies. Folio 370r has an illustration showing artisans at work on a headdress. Also discussed in Book IX is smoking, which the Mesoamericans did during banquets and religious ceremonies, using both pipes that were filled with herbs and grasses or by smoking cigars made by rolling up tobacco leaves. Smoking is depicted on folio 336r.

Book X ‘The People, Their Virtues and Vices, and Other Nations’ is about Aztec society and covers such subjects as the virtues and vices of the people, food and drink, the parts of the human body, and illnesses and remedies. In this book, Sahagún describes the process of making chocolate from cacao beans, which is also depicted on folio 71v. The beverage made from pure cacao and spices was considered the greatest delicacy, and was reserved only for the nobles. Book X also discusses agriculture and food preparation. The Aztec economy was based mainly on agriculture. Farming was the responsibility of the commoners, who cultivated land assigned to them and the land of the nobles and rulers. The staple crop was corn, from which the Aztecs made a kind of bread. Preparing food was the task of women, and is depicted on folio 315r. While the commoners had a very simple diet, the elite ate richer and more abundant fare. Sahagún includes a long list of dishes flavored with different sauces. The last chapter in Book X, on “the nations who have come to inhabit this land,” includes two lengthy texts, derived from Sahagún’s questioning of Nahua elders, on the history of Mesoamerica. One tells of Quetzalcoatl and the Toltecs; the other gives an overview of the cultural evolution of the Nahua peoples.

Book XI ‘Natural Things’ the longest in the codex, is a treatise on natural history. Following the traditional division of knowledge common to many European encyclopedic works, the Florentine Codex deals with “all things divine (or rather idolatrous), human and natural of New Spain.” Thus, having dealt with higher beings and humans, Sahagún turns to animals, plants, and all types of minerals. For the discussion of medicinal herbs and minerals, Sahagún drew upon the knowledge of indigenous physicians, creating what the scholar Miguel León-Portilla has called a kind of pre-Hispanic pharmacology. The discussion of animals draws upon Aztec legends about various animals, both real and mythical. The book is an especially important source for understanding how the Mesoamericans used natural resources before the arrival of the Europeans. Many animals raised in Europe, such as cows, pigs, chickens, and horses, were unknown to Mesoamerican peoples. Instead they raised rabbits, xoloitzcuintli (a breed of hairless dog), birds, and, in particular, turkeys. They supplemented their diet with wild boars, deer, tapirs, birds, frogs, ants, crickets, and snakes. Other animals were hunted chiefly for their skins, such as the jaguar and other felines, or for their feathers. Book XI contains numerous illustrations of animals, including mammals (jaguar and armadillo), birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects.

Book XII ‘The conquest of Mexico’ recounts the Spanish conquest of Mexico, which took place between 1519, when Cortés landed on the coast with just over 100 men and a few horses, and 1521, when Tenochtitlan was taken and the Aztecs subjugated. The story is told from the perspective of indigenous elders who were living in Tenochtitlan at the time of the conquest and witnessed firsthand the events described. Sahagún gathered these accounts around 1553–55, when he was working at the College of Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco. The Náhuatl narrative begins with an evocation of the “signs and omens” that were said to have appeared before the arrival of the Spanish and concludes with the surrender of Tenochtitlan after an 80-day siege. By drawing upon primary accounts, Sahagún was able to capture the astonishment felt by the Aztecs and the trauma that followed their defeat at the hands of the Spanish. Among the key factors that determined the Spanish victory were the ruthlessness of the Spanish soldiers and of Cortés in particular, the use of horses and firearms, which the Mesoamericans had never seen, and Cortés’s intuition that the peoples of the Aztec Empire were prepared to join forces with him to shake off Aztec rule. Book XII contains numerous illustrations depicting scenes from the conquest, including the arrival of Cortés, an image of the Templo Mayor (Great Pyramid) in Tenochtitlan, battles between the indigenous people and the Spanish, and destruction of Aztec temples by the Spanish.

Book XII therefore contains the History of the conquest of New Spain, which can be read online in English, Spanish and Náhuatl, in the Early Nahuatl Library of the University of Oregon.

It can be said that there are at least four versions of this Book XII. The first version, with texts in Spanish and Náhuatl, was completed around 1579 and was delivered to Sequera as part of the twelve books later known as the Florentine Codex.

The second version of Book XII was done by Sahagún when, reviewing what he kept of his papers in 1585, he set out to correct and enrich his ancient nahua testimonies about the conquest. At the beginning of what was his new version he wrote down the following:

“When this writing [about the Conquest] was written, which has been over thirty years ago, it was all written in the Mexican language. Those who helped me in this scripture were old principal and very knowledgeable […] who were present in the war when this city was conquered.

In book XII, where it is about this Conquest, several defects were made, and it was that some things were put into the narration of this Conquest that were misplaced, and others were silent, that were poorly silenced. For this cause, this year of one thousand five hundred and eighty-five, I amended this book ”

So we have two editions of Sahagun from this book XII, one from 1579 and another from 1585. There is a third version of this book, only in Spanish, known by the end of the 18th century and named Tolosa Manuscript for having been stored in the Franciscan convent of Tolosa (Navarra). This copy, made around 1580, basically coincides with the Spanish text of Book XII of the Florentine Codex.

In addition, we can even consider a fourth version in Spanish. This is the complete translation of the original Nahuatl text, since Fray Bernardino’s Spanish translations are partial, adding and removing paragraphs throughout the book.

When in 1829 Bustamante began the editions of General history, he included the text of the Tolosa Manuscript as History of the conquest of New Spain, in Spanish, without illustrations and without the corrections made by Sahagún in 1585.

1829 Bustamante

Bustamante himself published in 1840 for the first time the version corrected by Fray Bernardino in 1585, although with a strange title: The Apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe de Mexico (full title in Spanish: La aparición de Ntra. Señora de Guadalupe de México. Comprobada con la refutación del argumento negativo que presenta D. Juan Bautista Muñoz, fundándose en el testimonio del P. Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún; o sea, Historial Original de este escritor que altera la publicada en 1829 en el equivocado concepto de ser la única y original de dicho autor).

In later editions various editorial solutions have been given to the existence of different versions of the same work:

So far there are no satisfactory critical editions of the History of the conquest of New Spain, although at least we have the possibility to check online the different versions and get an idea of the evolution of this peculiar book:

  1. General history of the things of New Spain, or Florentine Codex, Book XII, circa 1579 (https://www.wdl.org/es/item/10096/view/3/823/) Text in Spanish and Náhuatl, two columns, with illustrations. The Spanish text does not correspond to a complete translation of the Nahuatl text. (References: CN1, CS1)
  2. History of the Conquest of Mexico, published by Carlos María de Bustamante in Mexico, 1829, separated from the General history of the things of New Spain. It bears the title: “Twelve book of how the Spaniards conquered the city of Mexico”(https://archive.org/details/historiadelaconq00sahaiala/page/viii) Spanish text taken from the Tolosa Manuscript, copy of the 1579 text made around 1580. No illustrations. (Reference: CS2)
  3. The appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe of Mexico. Proven with the refutation of the negative argument presented by Juan Bautista Muñoz, based on the testimony of Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún; that is, Original History of this writer that alters the one published in 1829 in the wrong concept of being the only and original of said author, Mexico, 1840 (http://bdh-rd.bne.es/viewer.vm?id=0000123164&page=1) Contains the Spanish text of the latest version of Sahagún, written in 1585, of the History of the Conquest of Mexico. (Reference: CS3)
  4. General history of the things of New Spain, prepared by Joaquín Ramírez Cabañas, with a preliminary study by Wigberto Jiménez Moreno, in five volumes, Mexico, 1938. Volume IV contains Book XII that deals with the Conquest of Mexico (https://archive.org/details/b29827620_0004/page/14) Includes the Spanish text of the Tolosa Manuscript and, in notes, the variants of the Sahagún text of 1585. It also includes a full Spanish translation of the Náhuatl text in the Florentine Codex. No illustrations. (References: CS1, CS2, CS3, CS4)
  5. History of the conquest of New Spain (Book XII of General history), which can be read in the online version in English, Spanish and Náhuatl of the Early Nahuatl Library of the University of Oregon, 2000-2018 (https://enl.uoregon.edu/fcbk12ch01/elements/fcbk12ch01f01r/00) Contains the illustrations of the Florentine Codex and the texts in Spanish, Náhuatl, with the Spanish text translated into English, and the Náhuatl text translated into English. (References: CN1, CS1, CS4, CE1, CE2)

Other references:

Wolf, Gerhard, Joseph Connors, and Louis A Waldman, ed. 2012. Colors Between Two Worlds: The Florentine Codex of Bernardino de Sahagún. Florence: Villa I Tatti.

Cortés, Velázquez and Charles V, by J. H. Elliott

Introductory Essay by J. H. Elliott to Letters from Mexico. Translated, edited, and with a new introduction by Anthony Pagden. Revised edition published by Yale University Press in 1986.

Cortés, Velázquez and Charles V{1}

When Cortés landed on the coast of Mexico on April 22, 1519, he was on the point of committing himself to an enterprise of un­known proportions against an enemy of unknown character and strength. After the meeting with the Totonac chief Tentlil on Eas­ter Sunday he knew at least that, somewhere in the interior, there lived a powerful ruler called Motecuçoma, whose dominion in­cluded the peoples of the coastal plain. But this fact of Motecuçoma’s existence was the fact he most needed to know. From Easter Sunday, 1519, a single, supreme objective established itself clearly in his mind. He must reach Motecuçoma and somehow induce him to acknowledge the supreme overlordship of Juana and her son Charles, the sovereign rulers of Castile.

Although everything else was surrounded by innumerable uncertainties, the central objective of Cortés’s Mexican strategy was therefore clearly defined, and he pursued it undeviatingly until it was triumphantly attained. The march into the interior, the entry down the causeway into Tenochtitlan on November 8, the taking of Motecuçoma into custody on the fourteenth, and the “volun­tary” donation of Motecuçoma’s empire to Charles—these repre­sented the critical moments in an exceptionally hazardous but care­ fully calculated military and political exercise, which worked with greater precision than even Cortés himself could have dared to hope. Within nine months of landing, he had made himself master of Motecuçoma’s empire in the name of the sovereigns of Castile.

The magnitude and the brilliance of this achievement can all too easily obscure the fact that Motecuçoma was in some respects the least dangerous of the enemies whom Cortés had to face, and that he had more to fear from some of his own countrymen than from the emperor of the Mexica. From the moment of his hasty departure from Santiago, in Cuba, he found himself in a highly equivocal position, both in relation to his immediate superiors and to the Spanish Crown.

Technically, Cortés was commanding an expedition on be­half of the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, who himself was merely the deputy of the hereditary admiral of the Indies, Diego Colón (Columbus). Velázquez, however, was an ambitious man, eager to conquer new lands in his own right. To do this, he must somehow break free from Colón’s jurisdiction, and obtain from the Crown his own license to explore, conquer and colonize. In the two or three years before the dispatch of Cortés, he had made a number of moves directed toward this end. In 1517 and 1518 he had sent out the exploring and trading expeditions of Hernández de Córdoba and Juan de Grijalva; and for the second of these expedi­tions he had taken care to obtain authorization from the Hieronymite governors of Hispaniola, who were the Crown’s direct repre­sentatives in the Indies, and were independent of Diego Colón. He had also dispatched, in succession, two personal agents to the Span­ish Court—Gónzalo de Guzmán, and his chaplain, Benito Martín —to urge the Crown to grant him the title of adelantado of Yuca­tán, with the right to conquer and settle the newly discovered lands.

Apart from some further lucrative trading, Velázquez’s principal purpose in dispatching Cortés in the wake of the two pre­vious expeditions of Hernández de Córdoba and Grijalva seems to have been to keep his claims alive during the period when he was impatiently awaiting the outcome of his initiative at Court. This would explain the nature of his instructions for Cortés, dated Octo­ ber 23, 1518.{2} The purpose of Cortés’s expedition, according to these instructions, was to go in search of Grijalva’s fleet (of whose return to Cuba Velázquez was still unaware) and of any Christians held captive in Yucatán. Cortés was also authorized to explore and to trade, but had no permission to colonize. The reason for this was that Velázquez himself was still awaiting such authorization from Spain, and had no legal authority to confer a right that was not yet his.

Recent changes in Spain, however, made it reasonably cer­tain that Velázquez would soon secure his title of adelantado, and the rights of conquest and jurisdiction for which he was petition­ing. Ferdinand the Catholic had died in 1516, and in September, 1517, Charles of Ghent arrived in Castile from Flanders to take up his Spanish inheritance. Charles’s arrival in the peninsula was fol­lowed by a purge of the officials who had governed Spain and the Indies during the regency of Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros. Among the councilors and officials who acquired, or returned to, favor with the coming of the new regime was the formidable figure of the bishop of Burgos, Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, the councilor prin­cipally responsible for the affairs of the Indies during the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella. Fonseca had always had fierce enemies and devoted partisans; and among the latter was Diego Velázquez, who was married to Fonseca’s niece.{3} There was every reason, then, to assume that he would use all his newly recovered influence to sup­port the pretensions of Velázquez.

Cortés, who kept himself well informed of what went on at Court, must have been well aware that, with the return to power of Fonseca, the tide of events in Spain was moving in Velázquez’s favor. If he were ever to be a great conqueror in his own right, it was therefore essential for him to act with speed, and to obtain as much freedom for maneuver as possible. Cortés, who had been quick to learn the tragic lessons of the Spanish Caribbean, had grasped the crucial fact that the key to empire was settlement. It was exactly this which Velázquez’s instructions denied him. But Cortés was skillful enough to secure the insertion of a clause which gave him a certain amount of latitude. Velázquez admitted that it was impossible to foresee all eventualities; and he authorized Cortés, in the event of unexpected emergencies, to take such meas­ures as would conform most closely to “the service of God and their highnesses.”{4} Clearly, Velázquez did not know his man. Cortés had his own ideas about God’s service, and Their High­nesses’, and they were not quite the same as those of the governor of Cuba. Thanks to Article 27, he was now empowered to take such measures as he might consider necessary, and which were not specifically covered by his instructions. But this useful legal weapon, which he had devised to justify an unauthorized act of settlement, would be rendered useless if Velázquez should receive permission to conquer and settle while Cortés was still in Cuba. Hence the indecent haste of his departure from Santiago. On no account must he still be accessible when Velázquez’s warrant arrived from Spain.

In sailing so precipitately from Santiago, Cortés had there­fore defied his own immediate superior, Velázquez, and had poten­tially antagonized Velázquez’s powerful friends at Court. He knew well enough the grave risks he was running. But to Cortés and his friends—Puertocarrero, the Alvarado brothers, Gonzalo de Sandoval—the risks paled before the attractions of the anticipated prize. Nothing could more quickly obliterate the stigma of treachery and rebellion than a brilliant military success and the acquisition of fab­ulous riches. If new peoples were won for the Faith, and rich new lands won for the Crown, there was reason to hope that the original defiance of Velázquez would be regarded as no more than a pecca­dillo, and that Velázquez’s friends and protectors would be silenced by a fait accompli.

The king was the fountainhead of justice. It rested with him to punish the wicked, reward the good, and forgive the occasional act of insubordination—especially when the act was committed, as it would be this time, in the king’s own interest and for the greater glory of God. It was well known that God had specifically en­trusted the sovereigns of Castile with the task of winning for the Church the peoples of the newly discovered Indies, and that this divine mission had been confirmed by decision of the papacy. Cortés, therefore, would from the first act in the name of the king, in order to further this providential mission; and then, insofar as he had offended against the letter of the law, would throw himself on his mercy. This meant that, from the moment of his departure from Cuba, Cortés totally ignored any claims to jurisdiction of Veláz­quez or Colón and behaved as if he were directly subordinate to the Crown alone. Any Indians he met as he cruised along the Mexican coast were regarded as being already the vassals of the Crown of Castile,{5} by virtue of the papal donation. Similarly, he took formal possession of the land at the Tabasco River in the name of the Crown, in spite of—or, more accurately, precisely because of—the inconvenient fact that Grijalva had already taken formal possession at the same spot, on behalf of the governor of Cuba.

That Cortés and his close associates were banking on even­tual vindication by the Crown is further suggested by the jocular exchange on board ship just before the landing at San Juan de Ulúa, as reported by Bernal Diaz.{6} Alonso Hernández de Puertocarrero came up to Cortés, quoting a snatch from one of the romances in the Castilian romancero general:

Look on France, Montesinos,
Look on Paris, the city,
Look on the waters of the Duero,
Flowing down into the sea.

The lines came from the ballad of Montesinos, who was exiled from court because of a false accusation by his mortal enemy, Tomillas. Montesinos, the innocent exile, was seeking permission from his fa­ther to return to court in disguise and take service with the king, in order to avenge his wrong. If Montesinos was Cortés, then Tomil­las, his enemy, was Velázquez; and Cortés could hope to resolve his difficulties, as Montesinos resolved his, by taking service under the king. “He who takes the king’s pay,” continued the ballad, “can avenge himself of everything.” Cortés promptly responded in kind, with a quotation from another ballad about another exile: “God give us the same good fortune in fighting as he gave to the Paladin Roland.”

Success in arms, and resort to the highest authority of all, that of the king himself—these were the aims of Cortés and his fel­low conspirators as they prepared in April, 1519, to compound their defiance of Velázquez by a landing which would mark the real beginning of their attempt to conquer an empire. They were concerned, like all conquistadors, with fame, riches and honor. But behind the willful defiance of the governor of Cuba there existed, at least in Cortés’s mind, a philosophy of conquest and colonization which made his action something more than an attempt at self- aggrandizement at the expense of Velázquez. He entertained, like so many Castilians of his generation, an exalted view of the royal serv­ice, and of Castile’s divinely appointed mission. Both the divine and the royal favor would shine on those who cast down idols, extir­ pated pagan superstitions, and won new lands and peoples for God and Castile. But there was a wrong way, as well as a right way, of going about this great work. In the Antilles, the Castilians had gone about it the wrong way, with disastrous consequences. Cortés had seen with his own eyes how captains and soldiers whose sole con­cern was the quest for gold and the capture of slaves and booty had destroyed the islands and peoples discovered by Columbus only a generation ago. The extension to the New World of a style of war­ fare reminiscent of the war against the Moors in medieval Spain had made a desert of a paradise and had left even the Spaniards them­ selves shiftless and discontented. The failure of Grijalva’s expedi­tion had only served to drive home the lesson already learned by Cortés—that conquest, to achieve any long-term success, required intelligent colonization. Whether Velázquez had learned the same lesson seems doubtful; and Cortés could always point to the ab­sence from his instructions of any order to colonize, to prove that he had not. But in any event Velázquez would be given no oppor­tunity to put the question to the test. Cortés would conquer Mex­ico, and not only conquer it but settle it as well.

It was, then, with the intention of establishing a permanent settlement that Cortés dropped anchor in the harbor of San Juan de Ulúa on April 21, 1519. But some careful preliminary maneuvers were needed before he could openly flout Velázquez’s orders by formally founding a town. There was a strong faction of Veláz­quez’s partisans in the expedition, headed by Francisco de Montejo and Juan Velázquez de Leon. This faction had first to be neutral­ized, and the rank and file of the army be induced to support Cortés. The first months on Mexican soil were therefore taken up, not only with reconnaissance surveys designed to discover the na­ture of Motecuçoma’s empire and the extent of his power, but also with attempts to detach the soldiers from their adherence to Veláz­quez’s men. This was done with considerable skill, by playing on their desire for gold and land. Bernal Díaz’s account{7} suggests how cleverly Cortés forced the Velázquez faction into the open with a demand that the expedition should return to Cuba—a demand with which Cortés seemed ready to comply. At this point the troops, whose expectations had been aroused and now looked like being dashed, came out with what seemed to be a spontaneous demand that the expedition should continue.

Cortés had been given his cue, and the Velázquez faction had been outmaneuvered. But although the practical difficulties in the way of settlement had been overcome, there still remained the problem of finding some legal justification for disregard of Veláz­quez’s orders. It was at this point that Cortés’s knowledge of Castilian law came into its own. That great medieval compilation, the Siete Partidas of Alfonso X, dating from 1256-1263, presented a cogent picture of the organic unity that should naturally prevail between the king and his subjects, bound together in mutual concern for the upholding of the commonweal against selfish private interest. In the context of events in the New World in 1519, Veláz­quez and his friends could be depicted as self-interested officials, moved by greed and ambition, while Cortés and his army repre­sented the true community, motivated by concern for the com­monweal and the desire to serve God and the king. Whereas the private interest of Velázquez busied itself solely with trade and barter, which would fill his own capacious pockets, the common­ weal demanded an expedition of conquest and colonization, which would promote the true interests of the realm.

It was in pursuance of this simple but time-honored political philosophy that the remarkable events of June and July, 1519, were enacted. According to the Siete Partidas, the laws could only be set aside by the demand of all the good men of the land. On the soil of Mexico, these were clearly the rank and file of Cortés’s army, and it was in deference to their demand that he now set aside his instruc­tions. They were united in agreeing that the expedition should not return to Cuba but should remain to attempt the conquest of Motecuçoma’s empire; and they formally constituted themselves a com­munity—the Villa Rica de Vera Cruz—in order to ensure that the king’s interests were upheld. As a municipality, they then proceeded to appoint the usual municipal officials, the alcaldes and regidores. From this point, Velázquez’s instructions were regarded as inoperative, and the authority conferred by them on Cortés was deemed to have lapsed. Supreme jurisdiction in Mexico now resided in the municipality of Vera Cruz, and the charade was duly com­pleted when the municipality, acting on behalf of Charles and Juana, appointed Cortés alcalde mayor and justicia of Vera Cruz, and captain of the royal army.

The effect of this brilliant legalistic maneuver was to free Cortés from his obligations to his immediate superior, Velázquez, and to make him directly dependent on the king. But what seemed plausible enough in Mexico was bound to seem highly implausible in Cuba and at the Spanish Court. Clearly it was essential to win support in Spain for an action which Fonseca and his friends would certainly represent to the king as an act of open rebellion; and this became all the more urgent with the arrival at San Juan de Ulúa on July 1 of a ship commanded by Francisco de Saucedo bearing the not unexpected news that Velázquez, by royal decree of Novem­ber 13, 1518, had been appointed adelantado of Yucatán, and had been granted the right to conquer and settle. Now that Velázquez had obtained his authorization, Cortés’s action seemed to lack even the shadow of legality.

Everything now depended on the successful presentation of his case at Court, where the Fonseca group would certainly do all in its power to destroy him. If possible, Charles and his advisers must be reached and won over before they had time to learn from Velázquez himself of Cortés’s act of rebellion. For this purpose, Puertocarrero and Montejo, who had been detached from the Ve­lázquez faction, were appointed procuradores, or representatives, of Vera Cruz, with full powers to present the municipality’s case to the king in person. To assist them in their mission, they were to take with them, as a gift for the king, all the gold and jewels brought to Cortés by Motecuçoma’s envoys, together with the tra­ditional royal fifth of all the booty so far acquired. They took with them, too, such documentation as was needed to justify their cause. This documentation included the “lost” First Letter of Relation of Cortés—unless, as is perfectly conceivable, he never wrote such a letter, for it would necessarily have involved a number of personal explanations which could well have offered embarrassing hostages to fortune.

The most important document carried to Spain by Puertocarrero and Montejo was the letter from the new municipality of Vera Cruz, addressed to Charles and Juana. This letter, which customarily replaces Cortés’s “missing” First Letter, bears all the stamp of his personality, and was no doubt written largely to his dictation. It should therefore be read, as it was written, not as an accurate historical narrative but as a brilliant piece of special pleading, designed to justify an act of rebellion and to press the claims of Cortés against those of the governor of Cuba.

For all Cortés’s eager insistence that he was providing a “true” relation,{8} he displayed a masterly capacity for suppression of evidence and ingenious distortion. Great care was taken to play down the expeditions of Hernández de Córdoba and Grijalva, and the awkward fact that the latter had taken formal possession of the land was quietly ignored. The letter also missed no opportunity to blacken the reputation of Velázquez—”moved more by cupidity than any other passion” {9} —and to suggest that his financial contribution to the expedition was insignificant. The persistent denigration of Velázquez only served to emphasize, by contrast, the loyalty and the high ideals of Cortés himself, as a man passionately determined to serve God and the king by extirpating idolatry, converting the heathen and conquering rich new lands for the Crown of Castile. At the same time, Cortés was careful to imply that he broke with Velázquez’s instructions only under pressure from the popular will, as represented by the army. It was the soldiers, eager to convert a trading expedition into a military and colonizing enterprise, who had demanded a change of plan; and Cortés, after due deliberation, had accepted their demand as conducive to the royal interest.

Having offered this tendentious explanation of the founding of Vera Cruz, the letter then dwelt at some length on the alleged riches of the country and on the abominable customs of its inhabitants. The object of this was to appeal both to Charles’s cupidity— an appeal skillfully reinforced by the gift of Motecuçoma’s treasures—and to his sense of religious obligation, as a ruler specially entrusted by God and the Pope with the duty of winning new peoples to the Faith. But the letter’s real climax came only after the description of Mexico and the Mexicans, and consisted of a direct appeal to Charles and Juana “on no account to give or grant concessions to Diego Velázquez … or judicial powers; and if any shall have been given him, that they be revoked.” {10} Since the arrival of Saucedo, Cortés was perfectly well aware that Velázquez’s commission had in fact already arrived. Ignorance, however, was the better policy; and Cortés drove home his request with a final denunciation of the governor of Cuba as a man of such patent wickedness as to make him totally unfitted to receive the least token of royal favor.

The first letter from Mexico, then, was essentially a political document, speaking for Cortés in the name of his army, and designed to appeal directly to the Crown over the heads of Velázquez and his friends in the Council of the Indies. Cortés was now involved in a desperate race against time. Montejo and Puertocarrero left for Spain on July 26, 1519, with their bundle of letters and the gold; and unless, or until, they could persuade Charles to sanction retrospectively the behavior of Cortés and his men, Cortés was technically a traitor, liable to arrest and persecution at the hands of an irate governor of Cuba, fully empowered to act in the royal name. The danger was acute, and the blow could fall at any time, perhaps even from within Mexico itself. For there was still a strong group of Velázquez partisans in the expedition, and these men would do all they could to sabotage Cortés’s plans. But Cortés, who had his spies posted, was well aware of the dangers. The friends of the governor of Cuba appear to have been plotting to send him warning of the mission of Montejo and Puertocarrero, so that he could intercept their ship. The plot was discovered, the conspirators arrested, and two of them, Juan Escudero and Diego Cermeño, put to death.{11}

This abortive conspiracy seems to have convinced Cortés that it was not enough simply to cut the bonds of legality that tied him to Cuba. He must also cut the physical links. This was probably the major consideration in his famous decision to scuttle or beach his ships, although their destruction would have the added advantage of enabling him to add their crews to his tiny army. Once the ships were destroyed, all contact with Cuba was broken. A garrison was left at Vera Cruz under the command of Juan de Escalante, and the army began its march from Cempoal into the interior on August 16, knowing that it had openly defied the governor of Cuba and that there could be no turning back.

As long as Cortés could command the loyalties of his army —and this would ultimately depend on his ability to capture and distribute the fabulous riches of Motecuçoma’s empire—he was now reasonably safe from subversion within the ranks. But he was a good deal less safe in the rear than he had anticipated. Montejo and Puertocarrero had received strict instructions to avoid Cuba and make straight for Spain, but Montejo had other ideas. Needing provisions—or perhaps prudently hedging his bets—he chose to put in on the west of the island to make a brief visit to his estate. He arrived on August 23, left letters for a friend, and, on his last night, displayed the Mexican treasures to his major-domo before sailing again on the twenty-sixth. The major-domo duly informed Velázquez, who immediately dispatched two ships in pursuit of the procuradores. But their pilot, Alaminos, took the ship by a new route through the Bahamas Straits, and Montejo and Puertocarrero made their escape into the Atlantic and thence to Seville.

Thwarted of his prey, Velázquez made two moves which were to be crucial for the future course of events. Gonzalo de Guzmán, who had already acted on his behalf at the Spanish Court, was sent back to Spain again in mid-October to counter the activities of the Vera Cruz procuradores, and to convince the Crown and the Council of the Indies that Cortés was a traitor and should be treated as such. Simultaneously, Velázquez began to organize an army to be sent to Mexico against Cortés. News of these preparations greatly alarmed the judges of the highest tribunal in the Indies, the Audiencia of Santo Domingo. Conflicts among rival bands of conquistadors were all too common an occurrence, and the Audiencia was anxious to prevent still more shedding of blood. It therefore sent the licenciado Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon to halt the preparations, but Velázquez was in no mood to listen to the Audiencia, and the expedition was already preparing to sail by the time of the licenciado’s arrival.

At a time when a smallpox epidemic was raging in Cuba, Velázquez felt unable to lead his army in person, and handed over the command to one of his more reliable but less intelligent friends, Pánfilo de Narváez. The army, twice the size of that of Cortés, set sail from Cuba on March 5, 1520, accompanied by Vázquez de Ayllón, who clearly felt that, having failed to prevent it from sailing, the least he could do was to act as a witness and perhaps as an umpire. He was rewarded for his pains by being placed under arrest when Narváez landed at San Juan de Ulúa on April 20.

During the autumn and winter of 1519, therefore, at the time when Cortés was securing the submission of Motecuçoma and had established himself precariously in Tenochtitlan, he was faced with the prospect of a military confrontation with his immediate superior, the governor of Cuba, who himself was acting in defiance of the Audiencia of Santo Domingo. The outcome was likely to be determined on the battlefield, in an internecine struggle of Spaniard against Spaniard, which could well jeopardize and even destroy Cortés’s uncertain hold over the Aztec empire. But in the Spanish monarchy of the sixteenth century a military solution could never be final. Legality was paramount, and the key to legality lay with the king.

Everything therefore turned on the success of Montejo and Puertocarrero in Spain. They duly reached Seville at the beginning of November, 1519, only to find their country on the verge of revolt. Charles had been elected Holy Roman Emperor on June 28. Once elected, his immediate aim was to extract the largest possible subsidies from the Cortés of the various Spanish kingdoms, and then to leave for Germany. When the procuradores arrived in Seville, the emperor was still in Barcelona, heavily preoccupied with plans for his departure; and the Castilian cities were beginning to voice their dissatisfaction at the prospect of heavy new fiscal demands and an absentee king.

At this particular moment the chances of winning the emperor’s support for a still-unknown adventurer on the other side of the world hardly looked very promising. It was also unfortunate for the procuradores that Velázquez’s chaplain, Benito Martín, happened to be in Seville at the time of their arrival. Martín persuaded the officials of the Casa de la Contratación to embargo their ships, together with the Mexican treasure, and so deprived them of their most powerful argument, gold. In spite of this, Montejo and Puertocarrero set out for Barcelona, accompanied by the most faithful of Cortés’s agents in Spain, his own father, Martín Cortés de Monroy. They reached Barcelona near the end of January, 1520, only to find that the emperor had already left for Burgos. But their visit to Barcelona at least enabled them to make a number of influential contacts, and they were lucky to find there Francisco Nuñez, a royal official and a cousin of Cortés, who agreed to act as his legal representative. From Barcelona they moved across Spain in the tracks of the emperor, finally catching up with him at Tordesillas, near Valladolid, early in March. Here, seven months after leaving Vera Cruz, they could at last petition the emperor in person to confirm Cortés in his position as captain general and justicia mayor.

Their petition was fiercely contested, not only by Velázquez’s agent, Gonzalo de Guzmán, but also by his patron, the bishop of Burgos. Fonseca’s position, however, was not quite as strong as it had been. Charles’s Flemish advisers were falling out with Fonseca and his friends, whose collective reputation in the affairs of the Indies had been tarnished by the denunciations made before the emperor in December by that zealous apostle of Indian liberty, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Above all, there was Motecuçoma’s treasure to speak on behalf of Cortés. The precious gold objects and the delicate featherwork had created a sensation in Seville, and such treasures could hardly be left indefinitely impounded in the hands of the officials of the House of Trade. On the emperor’s orders, the treasure was dispatched from Seville and reached him early in April, although Cortés’s friends were able to allege that not everything was there, and that Fonseca had deliberately held some of it back. As was to be expected, the treasure powerfully reinforced the arguments of Montejo and Puertocarrero, who put their case again at Coruña, just before Charles was due to sail. The emperor deferred his decision, but declined to follow Fonseca’s advice and declare Cortés a rebel. This at least was an encouraging start, and the procuradores gained another victory when a royal decree, dated May 10, 1520, ordered the officials in Seville to return their confiscated funds.

When Charles sailed for Germany on May 20, therefore, Cortés’s friends could claim at least a partial success. Their gold, too, would now come into its own. But there was still a very long way to go, and the political climate was menacing. Castile was now in open revolt. Fonseca remained a highly influential figure, and his brother was the royalist army commander. In these circumstances, it was easy enough to tar Cortés with the same brush of rebellion as the Comuneros of Castile. Both in the Indies and in Castile, the emperor was faced with treason and revolt. Could the rebellions be crushed, and the emperor’s authority be preserved? As far as Mexico was concerned, Fonseca pinned his hopes on the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez. But in fact, a few days after Charles left for Germany, the fate of Narváez had been decided. Cortés, marching back to the coast from Tenochtitlan, outmaneuvered, defeated and captured him on May 27.

Narváez’s defeat left the governor of Cuba a ruined and broken man. Cortés had defeated Velázquez—geographically his nearest enemy—but he was still without news from the Spanish Court. Moreover, his march to the coast to defeat Narváez had fatally weakened the Spanish position in Tenochtitlan. When Cortés got back to the capital on June 25 it was already too late. The behavior of Alvarado and his men in Tenochtitlan during Cortés’s absence had precipitated an Indian uprising, and neither Cortés’s troops, nor the diminished authority of Motecuçoma, proved sufficient to quell the revolt. Motecuçoma, rejected by his own subjects, died his strange death on June 30. During the course of the same night, the noche triste, the Spaniards made their famous retreat from Tenochtitlan. Cortés might have defeated the governor of Cuba, but he had also lost the empire he had promised to Charles.

It was during the autumn months of 1520, while Cortés was preparing for the siege and reconquest of Tenochtitlan, that he wrote the Second Letter. This letter, like its predecessor from Vera Cruz, is both more and less than a straightforward narrative of events, for it, too, has an essentially political purpose. Cortés, when writing it, was influenced by three major considerations. In the first place, he still did not know what decision, if any, had been reached in Spain on his plea for retrospective authorization of his unconventional proceedings. In the second place, he had by now heard the news of Charles’s election to the imperial throne. Finally, he had won a new empire for Charles and had proceeded to lose it. His letter, therefore, had to be so angled as to suggest that, at the most, he had suffered no more than a temporary setback (attributable to other men’s crimes), and that he would soon be in a position to render the most signal new services to a king who had now become the mightiest monarch in the world.

With these considerations in mind, Cortés carefully contrived his letter to convey a predominantly “imperial” theme. Its opening paragraph contained a graceful allusion to Charles’s new empire in Germany, which was skillfully coupled with a reference to a second empire across the Atlantic, to which he could claim an equal title.{12} This reference set the tone for the document as a whole. The fact that Cortés was no longer at this moment the effective master of the Mexican empire was no doubt inconvenient, but could be played down as far as possible. For the thesis of the letter was that Charles was already the legal emperor of this great new empire, and that Cortés would soon recover for him what was rightfully his.

The entire story of the march to Tenochtitlan and the imprisonment of Motecuçoma was related in such a way as to support this general thesis. Motecuçoma, by his speeches and his actions, was portrayed as a man who voluntarily recognized the sovereignty of Charles V, and voluntarily surrendered his empire into his hands. Whether Motecuçoma did indeed speak anything like the words which Cortés attributes to him will probably never be known for certain. Some passages in his two speeches contain so many Christian overtones as to be unbelievable coming from a pagan Aztec. Others, and in particular the identification of the Spaniards with the former rulers of Mexico wrongly banished from their land, may be an ingenious fabrication by Cortés, or may conceivably reflect certain beliefs and legends, which Motecuçoma himself may or may not have accepted. Whatever its origins, the story of the expected return of lords from the east was essential to Cortés’s grand design, for it enabled him to allege and explain a “voluntary” submission of Motecuçoma, and the “legal” transfer of his empire—an empire far removed from the jurisdiction of the Audiencia of Santo Domingo and from the Caribbean world of Diego Colón and Velázquez—to its rightful ruler, Charles V .

Motecuçoma’s death at the hands of his own subjects left Charles the undisputed master of the field. It was unfortunate that the Mexicans were now in open rebellion—a situation which could only be ascribed to the nefarious activities of the governor of Cuba, acting through his agent Pánfilo de Narváez. But although Narváez’s invasion had nearly brought disaster, the tide had now been turned, because God was on the emperor’s side. With divine help, and through the agency of that most loyal of lieutenants, Hernan Cortés, the land would soon be recovered; and what better name could be bestowed upon it than that of New Spain?{13}

It is clear that this entire letter was superbly designed to appeal directly to Charles over the heads of Fonseca and his friends in the Council of the Indies and the imperial entourage. But Fonseca was still far from ready to admit defeat. It was always possible that Cortés would suffer the fate of other conquistadors, and be unseated by conspirators among his own men. The abortive plot of Antonio de Villafaña during the siege of Tenochtitlan{14} showed that Velázquez still had his friends, and that this was by no means an unreasonable hope. There was a chance, too, that Fonseca could rid himself of Cortés by more subtle means. With Narváez’s defeat, military overthrow had become unlikely; but as long as Charles V declined to pronounce on Cortés’s status, he remained intensely vulnerable to legal action.

When news of Narváez’s defeat reached Spain, Fonseca persuaded Adrian of Utrecht, who headed the regency government during Charles’s absence in Germany, to appoint a royal official to intervene in Mexico. The chosen official was Cristóbal de Tapia, a royal inspector in Hispaniola. He received his commission in April, 1521—the month when the Castilian Comuneros were defeated and crushed at Villalar—and he was apparently ordered to take over the government of New Spain, and, if possible, to arrest Cortés and ship him home. Tapia landed at Vera Cruz on December 4, 1521, four months after Cortés’s army had captured Tenochtitlan. The Aztec empire had been destroyed; but, for all his success, Cortés was in a delicate position. To defy Tapia, who had come to New Spain as the legally appointed representative of the royal authority, would be the height of imprudence, and yet to surrender the empire into his hands would be intolerable.

Once again, however, as the Third Letter makes clear, Cortés showed himself equal to the occasion. Carefully avoiding a personal meeting with Tapia, who would at once have presented him with a royal warrant, he sent a Franciscan, Fray Pedro de Melgarejo, to greet Tapia, and no doubt to pass him an appropriate bribe. At the same time, he had recourse to the device which he had already employed at the beginning of the conquest, and arranged another “spontaneous” assertion of the popular will. The representatives of the various municipalities of New Spain, usefully reinforced for the occasion by the rapid founding of the new town of Medellin, met Tapia at Cempoal on December 24, 1521, and went through the time-honored Castilian procedure followed by those who were prepared to obey but not to comply. With honor thus satisfied on both sides, Tapia took the next ship back to Hispaniola, a wiser, and no doubt a richer, man.

Tapia’s intervention provided Cortés, in his Third Letter of May 15, 1522, with a diabolus ex machina, equivalent to Narváez in the Second Letter. While the letter related in great detail the siege and capture of Tenochtitlan, it also enabled him to smear by implication all those royal officials who placed their own interest before the emperor’s. It was scarcely necessary to contrast their conduct with that of Cortés, who had not only conquered an empire for Charles, but was now offering him yet another vision of fabulous riches—a vision, this time, of the Spice Islands of the Pacific and the world of Cathay.{15}

It must have been bitterly frustrating for Cortés that, in spite of all these services, no word of royal approval had yet been received. This could only be explained, he concluded, by the machinations of his enemies, who were concealing the truth from the emperor. Nor could there any longer be real doubt that the chief among these enemies was Fonseca, the bishop of Burgos. It was Fonseca who had been responsible for the unwelcome intervention of Tapia. It was Fonseca, too, who was responsible in 1523 for a further challenge to Cortés’s position—the intervention of Juan de Garay.

In 1521 Garay, the governor of Jamaica, obtained from Fonseca a warrant authorizing him to conquer and colonize the Panuco region, to the north of Vera Cruz. He landed at Panuco in July, 1523, with an army of four hundred infantry and 120 cavalry. This could easily have been another Narváez affair, and Cortés at once recalled his captains, now dispersed over Mexico, to meet the new challenge to his authority. It was this challenge which he described in the opening pages of his Fourth Letter of October 15, 1524, where for the first time Fonseca is mentioned by name.{16} Tapia and Garay, like Narváez in the Second Letter, are portrayed as self-interested men whose ill-chosen and ill-timed intervention in the affairs of New Spain placed the imperial authority and the achievements of Cortés at risk. Cortés himself emerges, not for the first time, as the loyalist, confronted by a quartet of enemies—Fonseca, Diego Colón, Velázquez and Garay—united in their sinister machinations to accomplish his ruin.

By the time this letter was written, however, Cortés’s battle for recognition had long since been won. During the course of 1521 the balance of power in the emperor’s councils had perceptibly shifted. This year, which saw the defeat of the Comuneros, saw also the siege and capture of Tenochtitlan. If Fonseca’s brother had emerged victorious in Castile, Fonseca’s enemy had emerged victorious in New Spain; and as more and more wealth flowed in from Mexico, something of the significance of Cortés’s achievement began to be realized. His agents were lobbying hard in the regency council of Adrian of Utrecht, and duly convinced the regent that the bishop of Burgos had done the emperor an ill service in persistently supporting the governor of Cuba. He therefore deprived Fonseca of jurisdiction in the suit between Cortés and Velázquez, instituted to determine which of the two could rightfully lay claim to the spoils of New Spain.

Charles V returned to Spain in July, 1522, and received Cortés’s representatives in audience the following month. After hearing their arguments, he confirmed Adrian’s decision, but appointed a new tribunal to receive representations from both parties and to reach a final verdict. This tribunal, which included among its members the grand chancellor Gattinara, eventually decided in Cortés’s favor. It was left open to Velázquez to sue Cortés for debts, but it was ruled that Velázquez’s financial contribution to the original expedition, even if it were larger than that of Cortés, did not entitle him to claim credit for the conquest of Mexico.

The tribunal’s recommendations were accepted by the emperor and embodied in a decree dated October 15, 1522, which named Cortés governor and captain general of New Spain.{17} At last, some three and a half years after his original act of insubordination, Cortés had received the vindication for which he and his agents had worked so hard. The original strategy, so tenaciously pursued, of appealing directly to the sovereign over the heads of his officials, had yielded its expected dividend. Cortés was no longer a rebel— another Comunero—but the emperor’s official governor of the newly conquered realm of New Spain.

The news, however, still had to reach Cortés. It was conveyed to Mexico by his brother-in-law Francisco de las Casas, and his cousin, Rodrigo de Paz, who in due course secured appointment as Cortés’s personal secretary and major-domo. When Garay landed in July, 1523, it had not yet come, but it arrived in September, just in time to give a decisive turn to events. Cortés at once had the contents of the emperor’s decree publicly announced in Mexico City—now rising on the ruins of Tenochtitlan—along with those of another imperial decree forbidding Garay to interfere in the affairs of New Spain. Copies of the decrees were also dispatched to Garay, who saw that he was beaten and gave up without a fight. He duly traveled to Mexico City to visit Cortés, and died there suddenly on December 27.

One after another, then, Cortés’s opponents and rivals, from Velázquez to Garay, had been worsted in the intricate political game which Cortés had played with such skill since the moment he first took ship for Mexico. It was a game whose ground rules he had studied closely, and which he had fought with every weapon at his command. Events in Mexico itself were crucial, because success in Mexico was the prerequisite for success at Court. However skillful the maneuvers of Cortés’s relatives and agents at home in Spain, their chances of success ultimately turned on Cortés’s ability to conquer Motecuçoma’s empire and to replenish the imperial coffers with Mexican gold. But Cortés knew well enough that victory in Mexico would be nothing without victory at Court, and the entire presentation of his case through his letters to the emperor was most cunningly designed to bring this about.

He achieved what he intended to achieve; and yet, in the end, his very success proved his own undoing. By consistently emphasizing his own absolute loyalty to the emperor, he had delivered himself into the emperor’s hands. His acutely sensitive political antennae, which had told him that he must win at Court if he were to win at all, failed him at the very moment of success. For if the Court could make a man, it could also unmake him; and there were reasons enough for unmaking Cortés.

When Fonseca fought his protracted battle with Cortés, he may to some extent have been motivated by personal animosity, but at the same time he was profoundly conscious of his position as the Crown’s principal minister in the government of the Indies. It was the policy of the Castilian Crown, firmly laid down in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, that no subject should be permitted to grow overmighty, and that acts of insubordination should be promptly punished without fear or favor. In persecuting Cortés, Fonseca was doing his duty, even if he did it with some personal relish. But Cortés, in the end, proved too strong for him. The intuitive political genius outmaneuvered and outclassed the bureaucratic mind.

The bureaucratic mind, however, is distinguished by its tenacity; and even if Fonseca himself had failed, his successors in the government of the Indies could hardly afford to let Cortés get away with his success. If the Crown’s authority were to be effectively established on the far shores of the Atlantic, acts of private initiative must at all costs be curbed. It was symptomatic of the Court’s concern at the very magnitude of Cortés’s success that the decree of October 15, 1522, appointing him governor of New Spain, should be accompanied by another, appointing four royal officials to assist him in government.{18} Already the bureaucrats were preparing to wrest power from the military in New Spain.

The four officials—Alonso de Estrada, Gonzalo de Salazar, Rodrigo de Albornoz and Pedro Almíndez Chirinos—duly arrived in Mexico in 1524. In the course of this same year, Cortés’s two great enemies, Velázquez and Fonseca, both died: Velázquez in June and Fonseca in October. But each in his way secured a posthumous revenge.

Once central Mexico had been conquered, Cortés turned his attention to the west and the south. As part of the project for southward expansion, Pedro de Alvarado was dispatched in 1523 to conquer Guatemala, while another of Cortés’s captains, Cristóbal de Olid, was given the task of occupying Honduras. Olid, a former partisan of Velázquez, left Mexico for Havana in January, 1524, to collect reinforcements. In Cuba he met Velázquez, now approaching the end of his life, and was persuaded to defy Cortés, as Cortés himself had once defied the governor of Cuba. Once Olid reached Honduras and had taken possession, he disavowed Cortés’s authority. Velázquez had obtained his revenge at last.

The terrible news of Olid’s treachery helps to account for the bitterness of Cortés’s Fourth Letter. Having at last, after years of waiting, secured the authority that he regarded as rightfully his, he found himself betrayed by one of his own captains, at the prompting of his old enemy, Diego Velázquez. The irony of the situation rubbed salt in the wound. But his fresh denunciations of the archvillain, Velázquez, were this time accompanied by a highly imprudent threat to send a force to Cuba and arrest Velázquez for trial in Spain.{19} Nothing could have been better calculated to alarm the already nervous members of the Council of the Indies. Cortés’s proposal to take the law into his own hands, and pursue a personal vendetta in the royal name, could only be regarded as conclusive evidence of the dangers in leaving Cortés in untrammeled exercise of his powers. The emperor’s reaction was predictable enough. A special juez de residencia, Ponce de León, was appointed in November, 1525, to visit New Spain and conduct a full inquiry into Cortés’s activities.

The threat to arrest the governor of Cuba was not the only misjudgment made by Cortés after receiving the news of Olid’s treachery. Francisco de las Casas was sent to bargain with Olid, who promptly took him into custody. Cortés, in exasperation, then decided to lead a force to Honduras under his own command to deal with his insubordinate captain. The Honduras expedition, which provides the theme of the Fifth Letter, was an extraordinary saga of heroism and suffering. Cortés emerged from it alive, but a different, and in some ways a broken, man. A heightened religious intensity pervades the letter, as if Cortés had suddenly been made aware of man’s weakness in face of the inscrutable ways of a Providence that had seemed for so long to be on his side. The Cortés who staggered ashore at Vera Cruz on May 24, 1526, so thin and weak that people had difficulty in recognizing him, contrasted strangely with the arrogant royal governor who had set out as if on a triumphal procession a year and a half before.

Yet, from the moment of its conception, the Honduras expedition seemed such a wild undertaking that it is questionable whether Cortés had not already lost his touch. The long years of waiting for the emperor’s approval had imposed an intolerable strain upon him, perhaps sufficient in itself to affect his judgment. But it is just as likely that the unwelcome presence of royal officials also played a significant part. As soon as the bureaucrats began to arrive in any number, Cortés would cease to be the real ruler of New Spain. Already by the autumn of 1524 he was beginning to feel hemmed in, and the decision to leave for Honduras may well have been prompted by an impulsive desire to escape into a world where he could again enjoy the delights of supreme command.

Whatever the balance of motives, Cortés’s decision proved to be the most disastrous of his life. No one else in New Spain enjoyed even a shadow of his personal authority, and his departure was the signal for anarchy. As soon as his back was turned, his enemies came out into the open, and the old faction feuds reasserted themselves in a vicious quarrel over the spoils of conquest. The old Velázquez faction, which had felt cheated in the distribution of booty and land, turned for leadership to Gonzalo de Salazar. The followers of Cortés, for their part, grouped themselves around the person of his major-domo, Rodrigo de Paz. There was virtual civil war in Mexico in 1525, and Paz was captured, tortured and killed. But the unexpected news of Cortés’s survival, and of his imminent return to New Spain, encouraged his followers to launch a counter-offensive; and when Cortes made his triumphal entry into Mexico City in June, 1526, he returned to a capital once again controlled by his own partisans.

But the triumph of 1526 was ephemeral. The violent faction feuds in New Spain merely confirmed the determination of the Council of the Indies to bring it under the effective control of the Crown. A few days after Cortés’s return to the capital, Ponce de León arrived to conduct his residencia, and suspended him from his office of governor. The net was slowly closing on Cortés, and each new official pulled it a little tighter around him. Fonseca’s hand stretched beyond the grave.

Embittered by the apparent neglect of his services, Cortés de­cided to seek redress, as he had always attempted to seek it, with the emperor in person. He left Mexico for Spain in March, 1528, and was duly accorded a magnificent reception at Court. He was raised to the nobility with the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, and the emperor confirmed him in the possession of numerous vassals and vast estates. But he did not reappoint him to the governorship of New Spain. When he returned to Mexico in 1530 he returned with no office or special authority, and he found that the royal offi­cials assiduously kept him at arm’s length. In the Spanish-style bureaucratic state that was being constructed on the ruins of Motecuçoma’s empire, there was no place for the conqueror of Mexico. In 1540 he retired to Spain, where he lived out the remaining seven years of his life, a disappointed and disillusioned man. He had played the game according to the rules, but these had been laid down by the Spanish Crown. And Cortés, who had devoted such time and thought to their study, had overlooked the most important fact of all: that those who devise the rules are likely, in the last round, to win the match.

J. H. Elliott

Notes:

In the following notes Cedulario refers to Cedulario Cortesiano, compilación de Beatriz Arteaga Garaz y Guadalupe Pérez San Vicente. Publicaciones de la Sociedad de Estudios Cortesianos No. I, Mexico, 1949.

Below, p. number refers to pages in the book Letters from Mexico. Translated, edited, and with a new introduction by Anthony Pagden. Revised edition published by Yale University Press in 1986.

{1} This brief survey has drawn heavily on the illuminating studies of Cortés and his ideas by Victor Frankl: “Hernán Cortés y la tradición de las Siete Partidas”; “Die Begriffe des Mexicanischen Kaisertums und der Weltmonarchie in den ‘Cartas de Relacion’ des Hernán Cortés”; “Imperio particular e imperio universal en las cartas de relacion de Hernán Cortés.” Frankl’s critical reassessment of Cortés as a reliable source for his own exploits is to some extent inspired by Eulalia Guzmán, Relaciones de Hernán Cortés a Carlos V sobre la invasión de Anáhuac, an annotated edition of the first two letters which is often shrewd and penetrating in its judgments but is vitiated by the author’s antipathy toward Cortés. The most interesting and suggestive attempt so far made to reconstruct the political scene in Spain and the Indies in the first decades of the sixteenth century is to be found in the massively ambitious biography of Las Casas by Manuel Giménez Fernández, to which his Hernán Cortés y su Revolución Comunera en la Nueva España may be regarded as a useful pendant. In addition to these works, I have also made use of the following: Robert S. Chamberlain, “La controversia entre Cortés y Velázquez sobre la gobernación de la Nueva España, 1519-1522,” and his “Two unpublished documents of Hernán Cortés and New Spain, 1519 and 1524”; Richard Konetzke, “Hernán Cortés como poblador de la Nueva España”; José Valero Silva, El Legalismo de Hernán Cortés como instrumento de su Conquista; H. R. Wagner, The Rise of Fernando Cortés.

{2} Cedulario, doc. 1.

{3} The relationship is reported by Francisco López de Gómara, Cortés, The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary, p. 327. Giménez Fernández, Hernán Cortés, p. 53, suggests that the “niece” was a daughter.

{4} Clause 27, Cedulario, p. 30.

{5} Below, p. 452, n. 15.

{6} Chap. 36. Frankl, in “Hernán Cortés y la tradición de las Siete Partidas,” was the first to appreciate the cryptic references in the exchange.

{7} Chap. 41.

{8} Below, p. 18.

{9} Below, p. 5.

{10} Below, p. 37.

{11} Below, p. 51.

{12} Below, p. 48.

{13} Below, p. 158.

{14} Below, pp. 277-278.

{15} Below, pp. 267, 327, 444.

{16} Below, p. 289.

{17} Cedulario, doc. 2.

{18} Cedulario, doc. 3.

{19} Below, p. 332.

Charles V / Carlos V

2000 International Congress. Carlos V y la quiebra del humanismo político en Europa (1530-1558): Madrid, 3-6 July 2000

The idea of Empire and humanism / La idea del imperio y el humanismo 

VOLUME I 

Empire and political relationships / Imperio y relaciones políticas 

Charles V and the Low Countries / Carlos V y los Países Bajos 

Charles V and the moriscos / Carlos V y los moriscos 

VOLUME II 

Institutions and power elites / Instituciones y élites de poder 

VOLUME III 

Art and culture / Arte y cultura 

VOLUME IV 

The Indies during the reign of Charles V / Las Indias durante el reinado de Carlos V

Religiousness and Inquisition / Religiosidad e Inquisición

Economical and financial aspects / Aspectos económicos y financieros