The Broken Spears
The book The Broken Spears, by Miguel Leon-Portilla, presents an account of the Conquest of Mexico from the point of view of the some of the indigenous people who survived those events. The passages used, written in the native language of the victims, provide us a brief description of the encounters with the Spaniards that were not seen in the documented history of the conquest. Native priests and wise men had documented the welcoming of Cortes and his men as the arrival of their God Quetzalcoatl and other deities, the reaction to the march of these “gods” on several cities within the Aztec state, and the manner in which the Spaniards conquered this once, independent, well-structured, pre-Columbian American civilizations.
In the introduction to the book, it describes the development of a new state in Central Mexico during the 9th century known as the “Toltec Empire”. Toltec is a synonym for artist. As stated in the Cultural Stages of Ancient Mexico section of the introduction, the Toltec people were described as “superb artisans, devout worshipers, skillful tradesmen- extraordinary persons in every way.” Under the protection of their God, Quetzalcoatl, the Toltecs had extended their civilization and influenced regions down into the Yucatan and Central America. Their God soon departed, headed eastward, and promised that “someday he would return from across the sea.”
The Aztecs, a civilization that settled in the region during the middle of the 13th century, claimed to be from Toltec nobility and believed the arrival of the Spaniards to be ”Quetzalcoatl and other Gods returning from overseas.” In the ten years leading up to the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztecs were witness to eight omens that, whether told by the Codex Florentio or the Historia de Tlaxcala, were believed to be the foretelling of that very arrival. Thus, when news of the arrival reached them, the King, Motecuhzoma, immediately sent out his messengers thinking this was the return of Quetzalcoatl.
Chapter 3, The Messengers’ journeys, begins by telling us that “the texts describing the instructions that Motecuhzoma gave to his envoys are presented first. These show clearly how the Nahuas attempted to explain the coming of the Spaniards by a projection of earlier ideas: they assumed that the new arrivals were Quetzalcoatl and other deities.” The messengers made their way to the Spaniards’ ships in order to pay reverence to their god. They said to him, "If the god will deign to hear us, your deputy Motecuhzoma has sent us to render you homage. He has the City of Mexico in his care. He says: 'the god is weary.’"
The emotions towards their gods began to change when the messengers delivered the report of what they had seen; “how the cannon roared, how its noise resounded, how it caused one to faint and grow deaf.” The messengers told him: "A thing like a ball of stone comes out of its entrails: it comes out shooting sparks and raining fire. The smoke that comes out with it has a pestilent odor, like that of rotten mud. This odor penetrates even to the brain and causes the greatest discomfort. If the cannon is aimed against a mountain, the mountain splits and cracks open. If it is aimed against a tree, it shatters the tree into splinters. This is a most unnatural sight, as if the tree had exploded from within." They become fearful of the news that Cortes was planning on marching on the city. This fear is described in Chapter 4, Motecuhzoma’s Terror and Apathy. “Motecuhzoma was distraught and bewildered; he was filled with terror, not knowing what would happen to the city. The people were also terrified, debating the news among themselves. There were meetings and arguments and gossip in the street; there was weeping and lamenting. The people were downcast: they went about with their heads bowed down and greeted each other with tears.”
When Cortes’ march began, some cities chose to welcome the Spaniards in an attempt to align themselves with Cortes, while others debated whether to take a stand or not. This gave us a great perspective of the varying confidence levels between the tribes in regard to their ability to defend themselves. In Tlaxcala, the lords of Tlaxcala “guided them to the city; they brought them there and invited them to enter. They paid them great honors, attended to their every want, joined with them as allies.” In Tenochtitlan, “when Motecuhzoma learned what had happened in Tezcoco, he called together his nephew Cacama, his brother Cuitlahuac and the other lords. He proposed a long discussion in order to decide whether they should welcome the Christians when they arrived, and if so, in what manner. Cuitlahuac replied that they should not welcome them in any manner, but Cacama disagreed, saying that it would show a want of courage to deny them entrance once they were at the gates. He added that it was not proper for a great lord like his uncle to turn away the ambassadors of another great prince. If the visitors made any demands which displeased Motecuhzoma, he could punish their insolence by sending his hosts of brave warriors against them.”
From Chapter 8, The Spaniards Arrive in Tenochtitlan, to Chapter 13, The Surrender of Tenochtitlan, a detailed account of the events that took place in the Aztec capital are given. It describes how Motecuhzoma met with Cortes, “He showered gifts upon them and hung flowers around their necks; he gave them necklaces of flowers and bands of flowers to adorn their breasts; he set garlands of flowers upon their heads. Then he hung the gold necklaces around their necks and gave them presents of every sort as gifts of welcome.” It also provides details on how the Spaniards imprisoned the Aztec King, took possession of the city, and seized all of his treasures.
The book gives a detailed description of The Massacre in the Main Temple During the Fiesta of Toxcatl that occurred during the Spaniards’ possession of the city. These events display the brutality of the Spaniards and the decision of the Aztec people to fight back and retaliate against the occupation of their city. The Spaniards Attack the Celebrants section of Chapter 9 describes it as follows: “when the dance was loveliest and when song was linked to song, the Spaniards were seized with an urge to kill the celebrants. They all ran forward, armed as if for battle. They closed the entrances and passageways, all the gates of the patio: the Eagle Gate in the lesser palace, the Gate of the Canestalk and the Gate of the serpent of mirrors.” “They attacked all the celebrants, stabbing them, spearing them, striking them with their swords. They attacked some of them from behind, and these fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out. Others they beheaded: they cut off their heads, or split their heads to pieces.”
The Aztecs Retaliate section tells us: “when the news of this massacre was heard outside the Sacred Patio, a great cry went up: "Mexicanos, come running! Bring your spears and shields! The strangers have murdered our warriors!" The Aztecs were obviously enraged by the horrendous attack on their warriors during a time of celebration. The book displays the emotions of these people well and, even though it gave them a stronger will to fight, they would only last so long.
Throughout the book The Broken Spears we are introduced to the array of emotions and perspectives of the indigenous people, as told by the indigenous people. We are given a chance to see that there were a number of different interactions with Cortes and his army. This detailed account of the events surrounding the Conquest of Mexico provides the opportunity to see much more of the story than a textbook can allow.
The textbook, Traditions and Encounters, only gives a brief outline of the conquest of the city of Tenochtitlan. It does not give details of those events or the meetings between the natives and Cortes. It does not give information on any of the other cities that were massacred or surrendered to Cortes. All of the information in the textbook is delivered from a European attempt at objectivity. The amount space provided in a history book such as this for an in-depth review of these events is very limited. There is mention of the timeframe, 1519-1521, that Cortez was in Mexico, but the story begins at the point where he lead his soldiers to the Aztec capital which is approximately seven months after he first arrived.
In conclusion, while I think that the textbook Transitions and Encounters is a great tool for getting a snapshot of history, the book The Broken Spears is a great piece of work for the details of the Conquest of Mexico. Although I had a very difficult time deciphering which native was which and what city was where, I found the book very informative. The detailed accounts of what happened, as told by the victims “who managed to survive the persecution and death that attended the final struggle,” provide the perfect window into the events not covered in our textbook.