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Western Mythology of Cortes, Pizzaro and James Smith

Cortés scuttling his own fleet off the coast of Veracruz in order to eliminate the possibility of retreat. (via Wikipedia)
Cortés scuttling his own fleet off the coast of Veracruz in order to eliminate the possibility of retreat (via Wikipedia).

In Western mythology, Hernan Cortes is a larger-than-life hero. He was responsible for single handedly conquering the Aztecs with a small army. From a story telling perspective think about the impact of this foundational story: a rich and powerful empire was conquered by few soldiers. According to one myth making site,

Hernán Cortés, marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, was a Spanish conquistador who overthrew the Aztec empire and won Mexico for the crown of Spain. He marched to Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital and home to ruler Montezuma II. Cortés took Montezuma hostage and his soldiers raided the city. Cortés left the city after learning that Spanish troops were coming to arrest him for disobeying orders. After facing off against Spanish forces, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán to find a rebellion in progress. The Aztecs eventually drove the Spanish from the city, but Cortés returned again to defeat them and take the city in 1521.

You can imagine myth making before the time of the printing press. Western socities have continued this myth making that continues to this day. Remember the Weapons of Mass Destruction myth making that happened right in front of our eyes. During the destruction of Native Americans in North America the myths around Pocahontas and James Smith was created. The same was done for Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru, again with a few hundred men.

Artificially created myths have an expiry date. When Peruvian archaeologists revisited the history written by the victors they discovered that the romantic tales woven by the Conquistadors were – well, tales. Out of the many skeletons found in the grave near Lima, only three were found to be killed by Spanish weapons; the rest by Incas. A testimony by Incas who were present in the battle was found in the Archive of the Franciscans at the Convent of San Francisco de Lima, which mentioned that it was not a great battle, but just a few skirmishes. Pizzaro was helped by a large army of native American allies and the battle was not between the Spaniards and Incas, but between two Inca groups. It was also found that size of rebels were not in tens of thousands, but in thousands and there was no cavalry charge.

In the case of Pocahontas, according to the popular narrative, Smith was about to be executed by the Powhatan tribe, based on an order by Pocahontas’ father. As they were about to strike, Pocahantas threw herself on James Smith and he is spared. In the Disney version, they settle in a dugout canoe and sing, while a talking raccoon fawns. According to a discussion in BBC’s In Our Time, this incident never happened. Pocahontas, who lived nearby, visited the colony often and her age at that time was around 10 which makes it unlikely that she threw herself to save a 30 year old Smith. Also, in a narrative written by James Smith in 1608, this incident is never mentioned. In another version written in 1624, seven years after Pocahontas died, this incident appears. Not just that, in his voyages, there seems to be a pattern; James Smith is saved by maidens three other times as well.

How true is the story that Cortes managed to conquer a vast, wealthy empire with only 250 soldiers? The reality of what happened will give good exercise to your eyebrows. Many interesting events happened after the arrival of the Spaniards, whom the Aztecs called Castillians. By November 1519, the emperor Montezuma was finished as an emperor, but had territory and army. When the Spaniards showed up, he could have killed them, because they had aligned with Tetzcoco and Tlaxcala who had defeated the Aztecs in battle. After the Spaniards arrived at Tenochtitlan, they spent 235 days as the guest of Montezuma. This is puzzling: why did Montezuma trust the foreigners who came with the Aztec enemy? Anyway, after their long stay, the Spaniards took the emperor as prisoner, but had to flee very soon. They came back in 1520, as part of a military alliance made up of Tlaxcalteca warriors. In the composition of that army, the Spaniards were one in two hundred. That victory was rewritten to make it seem as if the Spaniards won on their own.

All of thse episodes make you wonder about the edifice on which Western history is built. Conquests which were brutal, required a mythological origin to erase the reality of a violent origin. It also required some larger-than-life heroes — Cortes,  Pizzaro, James Smith. The themes also varied. The 19th century conquest of Native Americans was about Manifest Destiny; now a days it is about spreading freedom and democracy. The Pocahontas myth — the affair between a Native American and a White settler — gave imperialism a human face. Cortes’ adventures required a different literary imagination. Though the real victors were Tetzcoco and Tlaxcala, the Spaniards established their government, grabbed land, and imposed their language. This military and economic success required a foundational narrative, powered by literary conceit to justify land grabbing and the subsequent loot.

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