The Spanish and the Aztecs

Western Civilization II

:: Activity

Week 3 – Presentation: The Spanish and the Aztecs

( Due: Sun, 20 Jul | Status: Not Completed )

Key Terms/Figures: Aztecs, Moctezuma II, Hernan Cortes, Noche Triste, Incas, Francisco Pizarro, Encomienda System, Bartolome de las Casas, Papal Bull of 1537, Criollos, Mestizos, Peninsulares


This week you will discover the “eye-witness” accounts of early encounters between the Spanish and the indigenous peoples of Central America. “The Conquest of Mexico” is a self-contained excerpt fromGeneral History of the Things of New Spain, a collection of Aztec testimony (note the heading to the first section of The Conquest of Mexico: “The Omens as Described by Sahagún’s Informants”) and writing preserved by the Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahagún. This document tells the story of the conquest from the Aztec perspective. The excerpt from Hernán Cortés’ Letters from Mexico tells a portion of the same story from the conqueror’s perspective, while the excerpt from Bartolomé de las Casas’s The History of the Indies speaks more generally about Spanish colonialism, a practice las Casas, a priest and a contemporary of Cortés, found immoral.

Place yourself in the role of historian: you have three very different eye-witness accounts, each representing a particular bias and agenda. Sahagún, for example, was invested in making the Aztecs appear sympathetic, the Spanish unsympathetic; Cortés was writing to win the favor of the Spanish king; and las Casas was writing in an effort to reform the Spanish practice of colonialism. How, given these objectives, do you sort truth from hyperbole? How, in The Conquest of Mexico, do you separate myth from fact? How do you reconcile the discrepancies in Cortés’ account of meeting Moctezuma and the account of this meeting given in The Conquest of Mexico? These are the kinds of problems historians consistently face.

Bernardino de Sahagún

While we will focus this the week primarily on first encounters and the act of conquest, it is important to note that the aftermath of such conquest–colonialism–is perhaps the dominant historical force of the last 500 years. The Early Modern Period marks the beginning of the “rise of Europe,” the time in which Europe set about colonizing most of the rest of the world. The Spanish model of colonialism, while unique in some respects, is typical in that it establishes a wholly unequal economic relationship: the colonized are forced to serve the economic interests of the “mother” country. A side-effect of the colonization of the Americas was an escalation in the African slave trade. African slaves were shipped to the New World to provide additional labor on plantations. As our textbook notes, it is estimated that as many as 10 million African slaves were sent to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries.


Aztec Calendar


This site offers a useful primer on Aztec culture, including art, music, and dance.

BBC History: Hernándo Cortes
The BBC maintains a page dedicated to Hernán Cortés.

Bartolomé de las Casas
This site “provides information, research, and analysis of the life and writings of the person who has become a symbol of justice and human rights in Latin America and elsewhere.”

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