Seven myths of the Spanish Conquest
Professor Restall has made an extraordinary study in this book. With a lot of common sense and based on thorough study of the basic documents he has unplugged several persistent preconceptions.
One of the biggest myths was the idea that only a handful of Spanish soldiers conquered established civilisations. They fought and won against an immense majority, helped by the fact that the indigenas believed these white people to be gods. This image has been repeated over and over again in stories, novels, history writing and movies.
The image professor Restall presents is much more convincing. First of all, there were no Spanish soldiers at all — or only as a side effect of the Conquest. The majority of the conquistadors were adventurers, who invested to come to the new world to multiply their original investment. Some were artisans, like carpenters, some, but only a small part were farmers. Most of the Spanish conquistadores came to America as part of a compañía. That is a ‘company’ of people that invested in the enterprise. The enterprise being the voyage to America and the investment in the equipments and necessary arms. Such a ‘company’ was mainly composed of people that already knew each other, such as family members or inhabitants of the same city.
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto gives this appreciation:
The conquest of Mexico puzzled even participants in it and generated legends which have continued to hold historians spellbound: Restall subjects them to re-examination with a ferociously critical intellect, a historically disciplined imagination, and exceptional command of the sources. By unpicking the myths, Restall makes possible, for the first time, a believable reconstruction of what really happened.
I couldn’t agree more. I marked a few characteristics in the texts. All of these are very obvious in this short (only 218 pages) and well-written study. Isn’t it unbelievable that we had to wait until 2003 to have a clear view on what probably happened in the 16th century in the Americas?
Or is there still someone out there that believes that the Aztecs fell on their knees in awe on seeing those white gods on horses?
So, how did it really work? How was it possible that a few hundred adventurers conquered a complete continent with developed societies as the Aztecs, the Mayas, the Incas?
Matthew Restall begins to give an answer while he investigates and demines seven myths:
— the myth of Exceptional Men
— the myth of the King’s Army
— the myth of the White Conquistador
— the myth of Completion
— the myth of (Mis)Communication
— the myth of native Desolation
— the myth of Superiority
An example: the myth of Completion. The early conquistadors wrote long letters of victory to the emperor Charles V and later to his son, Philips II, claiming they had conquered whole regions (often much bigger than Spain itself) and boasting of the submission of the local inhabitants. They did this in the hope of getting royal governorships. Several conquistadors competed with each other for this title (and the connected rights). Of course they did not conquer whole regions bigger than Spain, they mainly conquered footholds and they survived thanks to exploiting the rivalry between several local people. And they were themselves exploited by local chiefs to help fight their own enemies.
A century later there were of course much more Europeans in South and Middle America, but not enough to win a war against the original inhabitants if they would have worked together to expel those ferocious foreigners. By then there was already a Spanish hierarchy, but local people kept on living like they did centuries before and under their own chiefs. Those chiefs held their places as long as they provided the intruders with work force and food, etc.
But in reality, huge parts of South-America had not been ‘conquered’ until much later. For instance Santiago de Chile was founded in 1541, but the south of Chile, Araucania, was only conquered in late 19th century by a brutal and murderous campaign against the Mapuche. One of the new colonists in the south of Chile was Pablo Neruda’s father.
This is a work of significance, not only for the history of the Conquest itself, but also and perhaps more important because it emphasizes the need to always remain critical, to study the sources with an open mind. Too often writers, even historians, only repeat what others already said. If this myth-making were only kept among historians it would be bad enough, but once these myths are broadcasted by television and film, the damage is done.