English 328-“The European Conquest”

Now that we’ve read Bernal Díaz Del Castillo’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, we shall take up a contentious issue in the study of Europe’s encounter with Native America.  In this case, Bernal Díaz, a soldier under Hernan Cortés, narrates the conquest of the Aztecs.  One of the strategies that the author uses is evident in the description of Tlatelolco marketplace in Mexico City (chapter 91).  The author resorts to a preexisting frame of knowledge, most of all when describing idols as “satanic” and “hellish.”  (The Aztecs, of course, would have no knowledge of the Christian Bible at this time.)  The author references the similar market stalls in “Medina del Campo” (48) in Spain as one example of commonality.  He also remarks: “They [the Aztecs] bring as many slaves to be sold in that market as the Portuguese bring Negroes from Guinea” (48).  Here, too, there is a reference to a preexisting example of African slavery in the Iberian Peninsula (where Portugal and Spain are located).  The point in such examples is that there is something in common with Europe.  It breaks down the radical newness of the “New World” and makes it digestible for his European readers.

Perhaps this is really the only way to do this as a writer-explorer.  If we were to land on the moon and find unknown inhabitants we would likely compare them (favorable and/or unfavorably) to people on earth.  There is something similar going on here.  But let’s also consider how the reality of “America” here gets lost in translation.  What, if anything, would constitute an act of seeing with eyes better attuned to the diversity and specificity of this place?  It may help to imagine yourself seeing this part of the world for the first time, and trying to make sense of it.

21 thoughts on “English 328-“The European Conquest”

  1. One thing that really stuck out to me was between Chapter 97 and Chapter 152. Chapter 97 focuses on Montezuma being held as a prisoner, and Cortes, with some other captains, would keep him company and even play Totoloque with him. This obviously paints the Spaniards in a good light and focuses on their kindness, even in regards to the treatment of a prisoner. In chapter 152, it is obvious that Bernal Diaz del Castillo is trying to paint the Indians inhabiting Mexico as the bad guys. Castillo states that even though they were retreating, they saw their “comrades who had been captured in Cortes’ defeat being dragged up the steps to be sacrificed” (58). This, to me, paints the picture of the Spaniards showing mercy and having a better understanding of humanity, while the Indians are ruthless and blood thirsty and do not offer any mercy. However, if this story was written from the Indians perspective, then they would show how violent the Spaniards were (despite their appearance portrayed in these chapters). This can all be boiled down to the fact that a Spaniard wrote these chapters, and of course they are going to make their conquest and their people look brave and generous. This also would be true if Americans were to find an alien life form on another planet. We would paint ourselves as the good people, and show the new life form being the one causing controversy.

    • Hi Tiffany,

      I do not agree with you because in my interpretation when reading the first chapters of the story, the Spaniards seem to strong and offensive. This is my interpretation because in the Chapters 89 & 90 the Spanairds do not respect the beliefs system of the Indians, which yes it is correct to spread the word of God but with love and understanding that the other party will not accept their beliefs, this can be offensive to the indians. The Spanairds in my perspective are being pushy and offensive to the traditions of the indians because the Spanairds could observe that the indians that their gods are considered “idols”. Also, when explaining their Doctrine they seem as if they are “pure” and go full force in explaining about the Doctrine. With this, I can connect as a christain (Baptist) because when spreading the Bible you cant be pushy, you to expain the Gospel with love and understanding.

      So almost at the end of Chapter 90, the Indian leader gets offened by the way they are being pushing and the Spanairds directly telling them that their belief system is wrong, ebverything they do is wrong. The leader rejects their belief because of the Spanairds being to direct.

    • Cortes and his men first enter into the gates of Mexico and are in awe of the city. They talk about Montezuma being a great leader and giving them magnificent gifts throughout their stay. They are so impressed and fascinated by this culture, yet their main goal is the alter it to become more like their own through converting the native to Christianity. As an explorer, it is expected that one will make comparisons between new culture and his own; however, this can also take away from the ability to look at the discovered territory as its own fully developed society.

  2. In Chapter 89, it gives an explanation that the Spaniards only worshiped one God, and they continued with their explanation of their doctrine later in Chapter 90. In Chapter 90, the Spaniards explain to the Indians that their God is love, and that the earth was only created by him, the doctrine that they believe does not allow them to worship any gods (idols), which are known to them as devils. The Spaniards continue proclaiming that God created the world with Adam and Eve as the beginning of creation. However, in Chapter 90, the Spaniards may have not intended but seem to pushy for the Indians to believe in their God, but Montezuma seems to be offended by the Spaniards by pressuring them to believe in the beliefs. Montezuma then later responds that they have belief in their religion since the beginning of time and that they don not think in changing their mind set because they believe in their gods. Montezuma rejected the beliefs of Spaniards because he knew that if it worked before since their existence why would their belief change just because of some Spaniards told them about their belief in God.
    The I connect with this part of the story because as I Christian (Baptist) and I can understand what the Spaniards are trying to do but might seem a little pushy by sharing the Gospel but they have to go by it by sharing little bit of the Doctrine each time for the other party to not be offended by it. With sharing the Gospel, you must be yet understanding and sharing it with love, not pressuring the other person to quickly understand it, because not two minds share the same thinking. Each mind has its own universe.

  3. The whole point of the Spainards arriving at this new place was in order to covert them from their “satanic” worship into Christianity. Normally when trying to convert people into a new religion you don’t insult their current one. That is what I mainly focused on while exploring these readings. In chapter 91 Cortes asks Montezuma to see his people’s place of worship. Walking into the building Cortes and his men see huge idol figures with disgusting features. One would normally show respect but Cortes instead disrespects and basically calls Montezuma a fool for believing in these creatures. This causes a rift between the two and insults usually lead to fights but the way everything is written favors the Spainards to look like they are the sane ones while the others are insane. The same would go if we found new life on a different planet. At first, everyone would be civil with one other until one person makes a comment that insults one group and a war begins.

  4. As Christianity has had the same morals and beliefs for ages, it is understandable to look upon other religions and deities as absurd. In Chapter 91, it is seen that Montezuma’s practiced sacrifices where talked about by Cortés in a somewhat sarcastic manner. According to Christianity, Montezuma’s idols are considered devils, yet Montezuma is forced through violence to accept/practice Christianity. Castillo depicts Cortés as a loving and devoted Christian who, when even at his worst, can be seen as a giving Spaniard (Chapter 97). Nevertheless, Montezuma was imprisoned and subject to nothing but violence. Castillo painted the picture as the Spaniards doing the Indians a good deed by introducing them to Christianity. The two groups were portrayed as being confronted with a culture radically different from their own, but by the Spaniards degrading other beliefs besides Christianity, they are seen as powerful and helpful. This can relate to the same new-life scenarios presented by Tiffany and Bayan.

  5. A more fair view of the Aztec culture and religion would be one that critiques their culture and religion through the lens of Aztec values. Montezuma is so offended by Cortes’ retort about Huichilobos because to Montezuma and the people of Mexico, Huichilobos and the other Aztec gods have always been good to them. This respect and devotion to their gods can be seen in the homage of human sacrificing. Perhaps the best example of misinterpretation in Del Castillo’s writing is the way he describes the horrific death of those who are sacrificed, lacing his descriptions not only with factual details but with embellishing judgements about the evilness of the sacrifices. What one must consider is that it is, in fact, a sacrifice, and it is in the name of loyalty and thankfulness to the gods who have provided the native people with life. To Christians who are only familiar with the bible, the sacrifices are bound to look barbaric, but someone from Montezuma’s Mexico may think it foolish to drink wine at mass when it is not actually blood. To them, it may even seem like mockery, as with eating bread rather than flesh. The same can be said of Del Castillo’s recounting of the collection of feces, because though he did mention was used as a skin cure, he does not hesitate to poke fun at it. He even apologizes in advance for mentioning it, as though it would harm the reader to come across those words. Again, it would be more fair to recognize that the Aztecs likely did not give the same stigma of filth and degradation to feces that europeans did, so their use of it as skin care would be nothing more than a standard practice, rather than an embarrassment. Seeing with better attuned eyes would be seeing with eyes that have taken in the customs and values of the culture, then evaluating the practices based on those values.

  6. During these chapters, the bias towards the Spaniards is blatantly apparent when Cortes visits the place of worship of the Native people. It is from this perspective that we see the Spaniards take it upon themselves and by their word of God to impose their religion on the Native Americans. The Spaniards imposed their will to a point of disrespecting the religion of the Natives, by calling their religious idols, evil beings. When reading this I feel as if the Spaniards had no common sense and find it silly that throughout history, tensions between groups over religious beliefs can be almost avoided if one would respect another’s beliefs. But, I understand that the perspective of both groups believe that the other is wrong, and by abruptly being introduced to individuals who are essentially alien during this time, it is only natural for each group to defend and impose their ideas and beliefs.

  7. From this week’s reading, I see a similarity from what is happening in the reading and what is going on in the world today. We tension in both groups that portray wrong doings as we see in our lives today. Religion plays a major role throughout the story and I feel as if it was made a bigger deal than it should have been. I believe that it could have gone about differently or even be left alone. In all, I think this week’s reading was pretty interesting to read and I learned about the different cultures.

  8. The way that Bernal Diaz del Castillo viewed the Aztecs and their culture was heavily influenced by his own cultural and religious experiences. As a result, the piece is influenced by the Christian and European lens. This lens takes away from understanding the cultural practices and lifestyle of the Aztecs. Although digesting and comparing a new culture to your own is not inherently wrong, it can lead to the explorer (or in this case, colonizer) to make assumptions and perceive a society untruthfully. This is best demonstrated when the author assumes that slave trade in the Aztec empire is the same as Spain. The Portuguese engaged in chattel slavery, and the author is framing the slaves that he sees in the market through that same lens. However, it is possible that slavery functions differently in that society. In this example, an act that would constitute as seeing with eyes better attuned to the society would be asking questions about slavery in the Aztec empire rather than assuming what is based from your own society’s practices.

  9. I shall follow up on Eli’s response. It shows a sophisticated understanding of the issues at hand: how does one embrace cultural difference when it upsets one’s religious sensibility? Beyond that, sacrificial blood killings would be illegal today (and immoral by global standards). This is not to say that murder and violence do not occur today, but it would not be accepted in such a demonstrable form.

    I can imagine some unreported part of the conversation between Cortes and Montezuma going something like this. Cortes tells Montezuma about the Christian sacrifice, wherein Christ dies on the cross, his blood a kind of holy wine for believers. The Christian story is spiritual, but nonetheless based in blood.

    Montezuma may have seen the similarities and simply thought: yes, and we believe something somewhat similar. The difference is that we take our sacrifices seriously. We do not take it as symbolic, with stand-ins for the blood and body of the savior. Unlike you, we are more committed to what is necessary–spilling blood and reminding our society of divine sacrifice. We give to the gods daily.

    So, think on this for a while. What fascinates me is the common foundation in giving blood for a higher purpose. Salvation comes through the body because that’s what human beings can understand as an ultimate sacrifice of themselves. Christianity and Aztec religion had something in common, and in upcoming units we shall see how they eventually fuse to form what we now call “Latin America.”

  10. There were two parts of this reading that stuck with me. In chapters 91 and 107 it is brought to light how they see the native religions. Chapter 91 uses a lot of language like “hell” and “devils” to describe the religious ceremonies and holy spaces of the Native people. It is important to note because it is part of the process in dehumanizing the natives, it erases the culture and reasons for the traditions into more of a savage type stereotype. Chapter 107 is basically the true beginning of erasing the Native peoples religion. It says that if Montezuma refused to take down their idols and put up the crucifix and our lady that they would “go and remove them just the same, and I should not like them to kill any priests”. This is a direct threat for them to start adapting to this new culture and religion or they would remove the idols anyways and kill some priests in the process.

  11. Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s interaction of the Aztec’s culture was heavily influenced by his own cultural and religious experiences. Although viewing and digesting a new society through comparison to your own is not inherently bad, it can lead to the explorer (or in this case, colonizer) to make assumptions. These assumptions can lead to an untruthful understanding of the Aztec empire. This is best demonstrated when the author describes the slaves in the marketplace. During this time period, the Portuguese engaged in chattel slavery and the author is making the assumption that the slave trade in the Aztec empire does the same. His own understanding of the slave trade in Spain is interfering with his understanding of the one in the Aztec empire. In this example, an act of seeing with eyes better attuned to the specificity of this place would be asking questions about slavery in this new society instead of making assumptions.

  12. Of course, throughout this week’s reading, we see a biased account of the Spaniard’s first encounters with the Aztecs. We are given a deep look at what their way of life is, but told in a way that make the conquerors seem like they have a better understanding of the Aztec practices than the Aztecs themselves do. This can be easily seen when the author talks about how the natives engage in sacrificial rituals, making them sound abhorrent and monstrous. One of the other important things to look at is when the author mentions how the Spanish attempted to erect Christian monuments and sanctuaries, thinking that by doing so, they would be helping the Aztecs move away from their “satanic” way of living. It didn’t even occur to them that this would be a direct insult to Montezuma and the Aztec people, as they believe that they are doing everything that they should be doing in order to appease their gods. The Aztecs considered their own gods to be “very good, they give us health and rain and crops and weather, and all the victories we desire”. This shows that the Spanish sought to compare the lives of the Aztec to their own, even though the two are completely different, and one is not simply “more correct” than the other. This ignorance was dangerous even then, and would lead to more harm than anything.

  13. While there is most certainly a biased account of the Spaniards conquest of the Aztecs, as they are the ones retelling it, there are moments throughout Castillo’s encounter where the perspective of the Aztecs seeps through. One such encounter takes place in an excerpt from Chapter 90 when Cortes attempts to introduce Christianity to Montezuma. Cortes recounts the story of Adam and Eve and the way that God created the world. In response Montezuma says, “I have comprehended these arguments of yours long before now…we have worshipped our gods here from the beginning of time and know them to be good. No doubt yours are also good…Regarding the creation of the world we have held the same belief for ages…As for your great King, I am indebted to him…,” (45). Here we see inklings of the Aztec perspective of the Spaniards; this is not the first time that they have heard the story of Jesus Christ, though Montezuma never addresses he or God by name, and they have also heard nothing but positive things about the God the Spaniards worship. The Aztecs, or at least Montezuma, appears to be much more willing to understand the religion that the Spaniards practice than the Spaniards are willing to understand his religion. Expanding the Aztecs encounter, we know that they have only heard the positive tales of Christianity which allows them to revere him as an understanding god that will understand why they are going to continue worshipping their own gods. The Spaniards do not offer up the same understanding, as they ultimately believe that the Aztecs are worshipping false idols and refuse to find the similarities between their worship.

  14. It is difficult to set aside the knowledge of what happened to the Aztec people at the hands of the Spanish while reading the selections for this week. We know that the encounter between Cortes and Montezuma resulted in decimation for the Aztecs and we are biased by that knowledge. Reporting well after after his journey with Cortes, Castillo writes with the knowledge of the outcome and, as the introduction on page 40 points out, with the motive of correcting what he feels has been misinformation regarding their exploration. To widen Castillo’s view of indigenous people and their culture, we would have to remove the information that Cortes’ expedition had been given regarding Montezuma. In the excerpt from chapter 89 Cortes reveals that Emperor Charles “Having heard news of Montezuma and what a great prince he was…had sent [Cortes] to see him, and to beg them to become Christians.” To me this indicates that Cortes landed and encountered the people with preconceived ideas that came not only from his cultural background but by reports from other explorers.

  15. I agree that the narrative of this story is biased, and told through the lens of the Spaniards, just as Columbus’ narrative was told under the guise of his background. That’s a common theme among all of the narratives from the European view. It’s an attempt to process information through prior experience. If we wanted to look at the natives of Mexico with a softer eye, I think we’d have to learn about the culture. It might look like Cortes was trying to do that when he asked Montezuma to show the Conquistadors their gods, but there was an ulterior motive behind that request. The whole plot was to get Montezuma talking about their gods so that Cortes could bring up his. It’s almost like when some, emphasis on some, Christians engage in debates with other cultures about their belief system, so that they can “debunk” it and bring up Christianity. We can see that the Conquistadors had no intention of going into the temple with an open mind from the way Diaz del Castillo describes the building as a gory slaughterhouse. There’s also a point to be made about the connections between Christianity, with Christ’s gruesome death on the cross, and the human sacrifices to the Aztec’s gods. Both religions see these sacrifices as necessary to appease their god, but the Conquistadors don’t see the connections. I wonder if this is because Cortes and his men already see the Aztecs as savages to be conquered, thus anything they do is shrouded in a layer of savagery. Sure, they can marvel at their technological advances, and their wealth, but they’re still savages in their sight. This ideology probably kept them from being open to the culture and religion of the natives, and influenced the bias of Diaz de Castillo’s narrative. This is obviously unfair, but it’s interesting how this view of the civilized coming to save the savages is something that has persisted even up until today.

  16. If I were to come across a world I was completely unfamiliar with, like America for instance, I would like to think that I would keep an open mind about how the native people would react to outsiders arriving on their land. If the roles were reversed and people from the Americas had come across Europe, then how would the Europeans have reacted? They probably would have been unsure about foreigners coming into their space. That is why I think it would have been helpful for the Europeans to be patient with the Americans. They should have asked questions and been open minded about the answers. However, it is obvious from the language used in our readings that the Europeans were not open minded. For example, words such as “wretched” (47), “horrible” (51), and “insolent” (53). In fact, they sound disgusted by the culture they observed.

  17. People who have only ever seen and experienced one way of life will always see all other cultures through the same perspective. Castillo’s account of the interaction with the natives is saturated with the ideas that he and the society around him believed at the time. His comparisons of the market stalls and slavery to that of the ones present in European society show that he is not interested in understanding or considering anything that doesn’t fit his narrative. The Spaniards’ motivation for interaction with natives was spurred by Christianity, thus creating an environment in which anything seen as overtly against the Christian religion was immediately deemed evil and sinful. This can easily be shown when Cortes tells Montezuma “I cannot imagine how a prince as great and wise as you are can have failed to realise that these idols of yours are not gods but evil things, the proper name for which is devils” (51). Montezuma could have easily repeated the same thing back to him. Who is Cortes to say that their way of life is the wrong one, and not the other way around? Cortes (and the rest of the Spaniards for that matter) have overlooked the religion and perspective of the natives because of what they perceive as the one true path, which they think is Christianity. Montezuma explains to him that what they have always practiced has worked, so that is what they must continue to do. In order to fully conceptualize a new society and observe a culture without judgement (or at least with less judgement), one must abandon the principles that they have been taught- to embrace a society in a neutral view and abandon comparisons to what is previously known or accepted.

  18. Castillo makes many references to his Christian faith in his accounts of the Aztecs. In reference to European intervention in the lives of the natives, he states, “everything is guided and directed by the hand of God.” I believe that writers would create fewer ethnocentric accounts if they abandoned the assumption that God is only always on their side. This is a belief that has functioned to justify colonization and racism for centuries. It is a very dangerous belief because it assumes that no matter what injustices are committed God will always protect the Europeans interests. While some may try to portray the lives of the natives with accuracy, they still largely neglect accepting other beliefs besides their own. They continue to believe that their ways of life are superior and this bleeds through into their writing. The only true means of speaking about a group of people and minimize bias is to walk into a land without intentions of adding to one’s fame, religion, or possessions. One must truly want to understand the natives as they are, not as who they need to be to carry out a European narrative effectively.

  19. A better way of looking at this ‘new world’ would be to note the rich culture that existed for thousands of years prior to their arrival. Instead of scheming up ways to plant their own culture in the Aztec’s cities, it would have been more beneficial and respectful to simply observe their unique culture instead of aggressively imposing themselves on the natives. All in all, I don’t believe the Spaniards ever had the intention to live peacefully amongst the natives (hence why they burned their ships like madmen) and therefore don’t believe their existed a way to peacefully conquer the new world. Conquering people usually doesn’t happen peacefully. Nonetheless, if I were to stumble across this part of the world for the first time, I hope I’d actually have the mindset to learn about their culture and the rich history of their culture. I’d try to immerse myself into learning about their religious beliefs, political systems and geography with the idea that my culture isn’t superior to theirs – just different. However, I think that it’s human to think about new concepts by comparing them to ones that you already know and that comparison of the two cultures is not only natural but helpful as well.

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