Review: The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel León-Portilla

The Broken Spears [1959/97] – ★★★★

The Aztecs…thought the strangers were Quetzalcoatl, and other gods returning from over the sea, while the Spaniards, despite their amazement at the splendours of Tenochtitlan, considered the Aztecs barbarians and thought only of seizing their riches and of forcing them to become Christians and Spanish subjects” (León-Portilla/Kemp, Beacon Press, 1959/97: xxxiii).

On 22 April 1519, Spaniard Don Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico, and on 13 August 1521, the Aztecs, one of the greatest civilisations of South America, fell. The Aztecs, a nation possessing an intricate culture and complex political organisation, were destroyed and plundered beyond all recognition. In this book, Mexican anthropologist Miguel León-Portilla aims to show the invasion of Mexico by the Spaniards in 1519 from the point of view of the native Aztecs. The non-fiction, translated from the Spanish by Lysander Kemp, compiles a number of first-hand account writings from indigenous people, giving the voice to the victims of this unprecedented encounter between two very distinct military powers and cultures.

Bad Omens, First Sightings & Contact

Years before the arrival of the Europeans, Aztecs saw what they believed to be certain “bad omens” that could only signal some disaster to occur in the near future, including spontaneous combustion of houses, the appearance of people with two heads, but one body, and a flying star (a comet). When Aztecs first spotted the Spaniards near Veracruz, the people of the King of the Aztecs – Moctezuma II, reported seeing “moving towers or small mountains floating on the waves of the sea”, meaning the Spaniards’ ships, and were amazed by the new arrivals’ very light skin, short haircuts, iron-clad bodies, and their animals, including “stags without horns” which the new-comers rode, meaning horses. The rumours spread that these new-comers must be no other than the Gods returning to the land of Aztecs, as prophecies foretold, including God Quetzalcoatl (“The Feathered Serpent”). So, given this information, Moctezuma ordered his people to send the finest gifts to the new-comers, including a serpent mark inlaid with turquoise shells and decorated with gold and mother-of-pearl. The goal of the Aztecs at this point in time was to “welcome the Deities home”.

One of the bad omens – Moctezuma Watching the Comet, Codex, Diego Duran 1537 – 1588

What followed from then onwards was the Spaniards’ encroachment on the Aztec territories, including alliances forged with the tribes that were hostile to the Aztecs and small victories won, with Moctezuma receiving mixed messages about the intentions of the Spaniards, being uncertain whether Cortés and his people were really Gods. These “Gods” definitely came armed and wasted no time showing off their weaponry, including cannons. One of the “red flags” for the Aztecs were the sheer amazement they felt upon finding out that the new-comers were sickened by all the human sacrifices practised by the Aztecs. Surely, if these were the Gods, they would have welcomed these bloody ceremonies. Here, it is probably interesting to note that there is so much more to the Aztec civilisation’s culture than the gruesome spectacle of human sacrifices, which the European sources want to emphasise. It is true that human sacrifices were very important to the Aztecs and were practiced regularly, but the Aztecs also possessed an advanced state of political and social organisation, as well as a writing system, literature and education. Human sacrifices formed just one part of their beliefs, and the Aztecs’ calendar-keeping practice and their advanced architecture still astound many today. In fact, when Cortés and his men first entered Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City), they were simply stunned by its order, beauty, cleanliness and supreme organisation. Moctezuma promises every gift and tribute to Cortés’s King of Spain in exchange than the Spaniard will not enter the city of Tenochtitlan, but to no avail.

The Battle of Cholula

The battle of Cholula or, rather, the massacre of Cholula, was one of the events prior to Cortés’s capture of Tenochtitlan. Tlaxcaltecas were the enemies of Cholula, so they “brought certain rumours to Cortés to destroy Cholula”. They tricked its people to gather in one place with no escape, and then the Spaniards massacred them (records say some 2000 people gathered in only one courtyard), with the Cholula people facing the danger without weapons. The reason the Cholula people were in that place without weapons was because they agreed to accompany Cortés’s army further to Tenochtitlan, but working only as porters. They were joyous and in a good mood, when Cortés’s forces ambushed them. There are various explanations given for Cortés’s attack, but most cite Cortés’s suspicions, heightened by the Cholula people’s stubbornness. Some say 3000 Cholulans were killed, others say 6000. Afterwards, Cortés marched on to Tenochtitlan.

The Cholula Massacre during the Spanish Conquest by Felix Parra, 1845-1919

The Night of Sorrows

Before reaching the city of Tenochtitlan, Cortés converted the Texcoco people to his cause, and then, in Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma received Cortés as a dignitary, “lavishing him with presents: flowers, gold and precious stones”. The indigenous accounts say that the Spaniards then took Moctezuma hostage, and started the search for gold: “they gathered all the gold into a great mound and set fire to everything else, regardless of its value. They melted down the gold into ingots” (Sixty-eight). Then, as Cortés was away for twenty days, the Spaniards massacred the Aztecs involved in the fiesta of Huitzilopochtli, the people who wanted to show the Aztecs “the marvel and the beauty that were their rituals”. What followed was the Spaniards inside a besieged castle and the infamous Night of Sorrows (Laments) unfolded, when the Spaniards were forced to flee from the capital as the Aztecs, angered by the massacre of their people at the festivity, started to fight back.

The Final Battle

The indigenous account continues that, after the Aztecs were successful in warding off the Spaniards, they were convinced that the white men would never return, and simply continued their celebrations. However, soon, the plague entered the city, probably smallpox, and many died this way. And, shortly after, the reinforced Spaniards re-appeared. The siege of Tenochtitlan started anew, and, given the Spaniards’ superior weapons, as well as the support of a number of tribes that were hostile to Aztecs or that Cortés managed to bribe or force into submission, the Spaniards won that war and Tenochtitlan surrendered. Reports say that some 240.000 Aztecs might have died, including through smallpox, torture while Spaniards sought gold, and hunger. After the Aztec defeat and in the years that followed, the Aztec clergy was in a particular difficult position, brutally forced out of their sanctuaries, raided and persecuted, with “fires set to pyramids, smashed statutes, and burned codices”. A number of accounts also underline the fact that the Spaniards had “a lot of help” in their conquest of the Aztecs. The Totonacs and Tlaxcalands in particular were in alliance with Cortés, and contributed to bringing down the Aztec empire.

The book starts with a brief history of a cultural evolution of ancient Mexico before the arrivals of the Europeans, and concludes with elegies, songs and poems, most of which composed around 1523. I probably wanted more of León-Portilla’s own insight included in this book, such as some commentary presented alongside the indigenous account given, and, since this account is a compilation of a number of accounts, the reader will read the coverage of the same event from two or more different perspectives. Still, the book is enlightening, and the author is to be praised for “bringing marginalised perspective to light”, putting the indigenous voice at the front of the narrative, letting the victims tell their story of the conquest of Mexico.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel León-Portilla

  1. Wow, the book sounds so interesting and you gave a brilliant review of it! I have always been fascinated with the Aztec civilisation but know very little about it, so this could be a start for me! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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