A Handful of Myths

Posted on March 11, 2013

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hernan-cortes conquerorHistory of Aboriginal America 11

Cortés, the conquistadors, and the myth of the “handful of adventurers.”

When 19th century historian William Prescott wrote about Hernán Cortés’ and his role in the invasion and destruction of the Aztec empire beginning in 1521, he described the event as “the subversion of a great empire by a handful of adventurers.”  The idea of a handful of great men making history, asserting through their success the inherently superior qualities of the conquering civilization, is and was a very appealing story to the European mind.  Thus Prescott’s idea of the Conquest has survived, to be returned to again and again.  It exists, for example, practically unchanged and unchallenged in Hugh Thomas’s 1995 book, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico.

The problem with the “handful of adventurers” theory is that it was always a dubious idea arising from always dubious sources.  And in fact the theory did not originate with Prescott but with the boasting of Hernán Cortés himself, assisted by other Spaniards.

During the era of the so-called Spanish Conquest (many of those supposedly conquered think of the events as invasion not conquest) adventurers succeeded or failed by patronage.  Through patronage they could achieve offices and titles.  Through patronage they could achieve a pension for life from the king.  And the way to achieve such patronage was through a formal document known as a probanza de mérito, a proof of merit.

The probanza was intended to keep the king informed of events and new conquests, particularly if the new conquests included settled Aboriginal populations and precious metals.  But they were also characteristically used to petition for rewards as a return on the value of the new conquests, discoveries, etc.

William PrescottLook at a probanza, and what you’re going to find is a lot of boasting, a lot of arguments about why the writer is entitled to all the glory, and to all the rewards for that glory.  Boasting and exaggerated claims are in the very nature of probanza.  And if you accept too many such documents at face value, as so many historians do and did, then the “handful of adventurers” theory is what you get.

Several probanza were written by Cortés himself defending his actions in Mexico.  The writings of Cortés’ contemporary Bernal Diaz, also heavily relied upon by Prescott and Thomas, are essentially an extended probanza as well.

Beyond the conquistadors themselves, many others also found value in selling the “handful of adventurers” myth.  To justify Spanish actions in the New World, for instance, Spanish historians of the 16th century attempted to sell the idea that the conquests and invasions were part of a divine plan, with Cortés as the principal instrument of that plan.  He was accorded this importance because of the value of Mexico to the empire, because of its wealth and impressiveness, as well as through his own successful self-promotion and the ongoing support of the Franciscans.

The Order of St. Francis were major players in the New World, and they saw Cortés as important in bringing them to that role.  “[T]hrough this captain, God opened the door for us to preach his holy gospel, and it was he who caused the Indians to revere the holy sacraments and respect the ministers of the church,” wrote Friar Toribio Motolinía in 1555.

The Franciscans believed that the Spanish victories in the New World were a step towards the conversion of all mankind to Catholicism, a prerequisite for the second coming of Christ, and because of this they tended to give Cortés a divine importance and an air of holy purpose when writing about him.

Contributing to the Cortés myth was the long absence and suppression of alternative and dissenting voices.  Bartolomé de las Casas’ General History of the Indies was not published until 1875, for instance, nor his The Apologetic History until 1909.

The result is a historical myth that has been a long time a-dying.  Describing Hugh Thomas’s book, Conquest:  Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico (1995), Matthew Restall lays out the structure of that myth:

Thomas’s book contains the chief elements of that Conquest perspective running back through Prescott and Gómera to Cortés himself and the probanzas of the conquerors.  Those elements are the structuring of the Conquest into a clear narrative that leads inexorably to victory, an explanation of the Conquest that ultimately testifies to civilizational superiority of the Spaniards, a glorification of Cortés, and an endorsement of the myth that a few great and exceptional men made the Conquest possible. (18)

But if the tale told by Thomas, Prescott, Gómera and Cortés is a myth, what is the true tale of the conquest of Mexico?  I will return to that question in subsequent chapters.

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See Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, Oxford University Press, 2002.