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Cortes & Montezuma

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So, 502 years ago in Technotitlan (now known as Mexico City) Cortes met Montezuma in a major episode of the European conquest of the globe with the pope’s blessing in the form of the Doctrine of Discovery. But more of that later.
I was not there personally, of course, regular Fashion by Dad listeners, know that I was in Tudor England, an inward looking backwater of a nation recovering from the 100 years war, in which I did a lot of my soldiering.
As a consequence I got most of the inside gossip from Bernal Diaz, who was a young monk travelling with the conquistadors. An ordinary human, Bernal died before his book was published, but he was accompanied by an ancient, a holy man in Aztec society who soon adopted a role in the European court as a jester.
His work has been recently recounted by historian Matthew Restall, a mortal with a keen sense of the real passage of time.

The opening pages of his book When Cortes Met Montezuma, which I have owned twice and given away both time, but borrow every now and then from the library begins with an apt quote from Felipe Fernandez-Armesto.
“History is a muse, you glimpse bathing between the leaves.”
Imagine seeing Technotitlan for the first time
Imagine how they must have felt, those few hundred Spaniards and their African slaves, the first people from outside the Americas to have seen the great Aztec metropolis. The setting was spectacular, the scene breathtaking. The imperial capital was a massive island city, floating on a lake, surrounded by volcanic mountains. It was possibly the most stunningly beautiful combination of the natural and the built environments in human history. Who among us would not want to see such a sight?
Those first visitors must have been overwhelmed with disbelief, wonder and fear.
We certainly would be.

A review of the book starts
Matthew Restall’s When Montezuma met Cortés delivers a blow to the basic structure of all current histories of the conquest of Mexico. Absolutely all accounts, from Cortés’ second letter to Charles V in 1520 to Inga Clendinnen’s  masterful 1991 article “’Fierce and Unnatural Cruelty,’”[1] assume that the conquest of Mexico was led by Hernán Cortés, who is described by Wikipedia as a “Spanish Conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of what is now mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile.”
And concludes
Restall dwells on Montezuma’s zoos and collections to provide an answer to another puzzling decision of Cortés and his captains: they disassembled their fleet in Veracruz and crossed Central Mexico to dwell in Tenochtitlan for nine months. Restall proves that Montezuma’s majesty resided in his collection: zoos, gardens, and pharmacopeias. Montezuma collected women, wolves, and dwarfs. He led Cortés and his bosses to Tenochtitlan to add the pale Spaniards to his menageries and palaces. The Spanish factions had no choice. Montezuma was no one’s puppet. He used the Spaniards as curiosities to reinforce his majesty and power. Montezuma was no one’s prisoner; he was murdered. His body never desecrated by his own people. After the murder, the Spaniards were slaughtered and the few survivors fled the capital in the middle of the night, humiliated and beaten. The historiography has called the night when the Aztecs routed the Spaniards the Noche Triste.
Cortés and his surviving captains reassembled after the rout in Tlaxcala, from where they allegedly led a year long assault on Tenochtitlan. Restall shows that this protracted,  final battle over the capital and the surrounding towns was not a campaign Cortés; captains controlled, any more than they controlled the first visit to Tenochtitlan. The final siege of Tenochtitlan was a war among noble Nahua factions as well as the reshuffling of altepetl (Nahua city) alliances. Elite families of Texcoco realigned to create a new alliance with Tlaxcala.
History may well be written by the victors but as the west loses its grip on colonial dominance, the accidental empires that have propped up our white privilege begin to crack.

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