For the past week, self has been immersed in Fernando Cervantes’s Conquistadores: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest.
There must be a reason people watch films like Apocalypto. Self could not look away, even in the passages dealing with human sacrifice (e.g. A Mexica chief thought nothing of sacrificing fifty individuals at a festival, etc etc).
Picture this moment: Cortes’s men (less than 300 soldiers) enter Tenochtitlan through a causeway. The entire city turns out to greet them. Moctezuma himself puts in an appearance, carried on a litter. He descends from the litter, and Cortes has his first sight of the man who rules the largest and most wondrous city in the known world (the main square was “twice the size of the great square at Salamanca”): his lower lip encrusted with stones in the shape a blue hummingbird, his face adorned with earplug and nose ornaments, surrounded by warriors in jaguar costumes. If self were Cortes, she would have been quaking in her boots!
It seems Moctezuma didn’t know whether to placate the visitors or to finish them off. The Spaniards spent the entire winter in that wondrous city, every moment feeling dread and uncertainty, especially at the sound of the drums beating in the main temple, announcing the start of another human sacrifice. (Yes, why didn’t Moctezuma finish them off? It would have been soooo easy. Even if, as it happens, Cortes’s appearance coincided with the prophecy of the return of the god Quetzalcoatl in the Mayan calendar I-Reed — the Spaniards were dressed in black because it was Good Friday, and black just so happened to be “one of the colors of Quetzalcoatl” — why didn’t Moctezuma just end it all right there? One of the greatest mysteries of history)
When self began reading Conquistadores, she found many parallels between the Spanish “discovery” of the Philippines and the colonization of Cuba and the Caribbean. But starting with the Mexico sections, the tale becomes impossible to categorize: it’s just itself, a great and confounding story. Cortes pulled off one of the greatest “cons” — if not the greatest — of all time.
(To be continued)