Also at the Conquest

Posted on April 5, 2013


Tlaxcalan & Spaniards vs Mexica - Florentine Codex 1579-sHistory of Aboriginal America 13

The Invisible Allies of the Conquistadors

Columbus was notorious for continuing to insist, despite growing evidence to the contrary—and his own encounter with the South American continent on his fourth voyage—that he had found the route to the Indies in 1492.  You could call this insistence peculiar stubbornness (of which Columbus had plenty, admittedly) but it’s also true that the particular patronage requirements he was working under may have persuaded him to that approach.

Columbus had undertaken the voyage in 1492 with the promise to the Spanish monarchs of finding a route to the Indies.  All the boons that came his way as the result of that voyage were contingent on his finding that route.  There was nothing in his contract about discovering lands new to Europe, no bonus points for extracurricular continents.  Thus, Columbus had to insist that the newly reconnoitred lands were in fact the Indies or risk losing his privileges, which he eventually did anyway.

Columbus’ claims of finding a route to the Indies were quickly superseded by better geography (although his original error still labels the inhabitants of two continents as Indians) but the claims of his later compatriots during the Spanish invasions–despite being distorted by the same requirements of patronage which made Columbus insist on his error–have been largely unchallenged by history.

The requirements of patronage persuaded the conquistadors to exaggerate their own accomplishments and omit that of others.  Hollywood has been accused of taking stories that are not necessarily about Europeans and making them about Europeans.  Lincoln frees the slaves without an African voice being heard.  Dancing with Wolves is about a White man’s experience among the Lakota, where Kevin Costner finds and marries a White woman.  Crossroads is about two Euro-American males bringing the blues to a new level in a cutting contest.  The European history of the so-called Spanish Conquests suffers from this Hollywood vice because of its own reliance on the conquistador narratives, and because conquistador history so well matches the colonist’s view of the world.

JM Blaut shows how colonist history–which has dominated European history-telling for centuries–characteristically treats the European as the mover and shaker of history, as the place from which civilization flows.  It would be inconvenient to this view to point out that in terms of literacy the Spaniards and the people they invaded were fairly equal—especially the Maya—a few greatly literate, a few illiterate, most of the rest in the middle.   It’s the Spanish who are supposed to be civilized, and since literacy is considered a civilized characteristic, Aboriginal literacy is ignored or forgotten.

Hernan_Fernando_CortesSimilarly, in Eurocentric history-telling Cortés is credited with dividing and conquering the Mexica empire.  That the factions existed before Cortés came along—every empire has enemies—is not allowed to get in the way of the accepted narrative wherein he created these divisions through the force of his European cleverness.  That the pre-existing factions may have used Cortés against their Aztec overlords just as much as Cortés was using them is not allowed to get in the way of the narrative that it was Cortés’ European savvy that brought about the alliance, nothing else, and thus Europeans who were driving history and engineering events, nobody else.

Making it a European story rather than an African or an Aboriginal story means that you just have to count the Spaniards crossing the causeways into Tenochtitlan in 1519.  Leave out the approximately 6000 Aboriginal allies that crossed over with him, and it seems like a much bolder act.  Making it a European story rather than an Aboriginal story, you don’t have to count the approximately 200,000 Aboriginal allies that accompanied Cortés during the invasion and downfall of Tenochtitlan in 1521.

In fact the wars of the Spanish invasions heavily involved Aboriginal allies, and you might count it careless the history that omitted to mention 200,000 of them.  And speaking of carelessness, after 1530, the majority of the non-Aboriginal people involved in those invasions and conflicts were African in descent, not Spanish.

In one example, Spanish chronicler Vásquez de Espinoza discussed and praised the actions of Black conquistador Juan Beltrán, “a valiant governor and captain” who was presented with 500 Indians who were “very obedient to him.  He made himself respected and feared in all the neighboring provinces….”

As William Restall puts it, “Vásquez de Espinoza’s purpose was to eulogize Beltrán, but in doing so he revealed a “Spanish” Conquest in which a black captain led native warriors against other Native Americans.”

In other words, in that particular “Spanish Conquest,” contrary to name and reputation, there wasn’t a Spaniard in sight.


William Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, Oxford University Press 2003.

J.M. Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World, Guilford Press, New York, 1993.