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Broken Spears By Miquel Leon-Portilla



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    Current paper makes a critical overview of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the context of Miguel Leon-Portilla’s “The Broken Spears”. The main argument of the paper is focused on the question of Spanish assistance provided to the Aztecs in order to change their lives for the better. It is certainly a question if the Aztecs were benefited from the Spanish conquest and how civilizing influence has impacted their life.

    “On the day that Tenochtitlan was taken, the Spaniards committed some of the most brutal acts ever inflicted upon the unfortunate people of this land.  The cries of the helpless women and children were heart-rending.” (Leon-Portilla, 172).  This is one of the scenes which became a common detail and a vivid feature of Spanish conquest of Mexico described by Miguel Leon-Portilla, the famous author and editor.  His job is outstanding as the unique extract of written documents and evidences on the behalf of the Aztecs’ community. Taking this work as a base  he recalled the events that occurred at the times of Spanish invasion of the New World. The story begins with recreation of cultural and historical aspects of the Aztecan life, their beliefs and attitudes. Spanish arrival to the  Aztecan land had a mysterious character at the very beginning therefore  King Montezuma as an arrogant and powerful  ruler was rather cruel not taking the word of his people for the truth and seeing the hand of some magic or god Quetzalcoatl’s hand in Spanish intervention and especially in Cortez personally.

    The first and the most powerful evidence that made the Aztecs to believe in the Spanish magic is the men’s military attitude towards the technology innovations shown by Spanish warriors.  However the Aztecs were smart in using their own inventions against their enemies their position was too weak compared Spanish tactics and technology.  The Aztecs recognized immediately that they are not the competitors towards the Spaniards’ powerful weapons: “The crossbowman aimed the bolt well, he pointed it right at the person he was going to shoot, and when it went off, it went whining, hissing and humming. And the arrows missed nothing, they all hit someone, went all the way through someone. The guns were pointed and aimed right at people … It came upon people unawares, giving no warning when it killed them. However many were fired at died, when some dangerous part was hit: the forehead, the nape of the neck, the heart, the chest, the stomach, or the abdomen.” (Lockhart, 2003, p.146).  Reviewing the war of the Aztecs’ wisdom and Spanish technology we can clearly conclude that the first belief in Spaniards as some god power has disappeared after the Aztecan people recognized what technology is and how they can compete with it. The bright example of such competition was the creation of those long spears that were able to take an occasional horseman by surprise, killing the beast and pulling down the rider.

    At the other hand the Aztecs were not able to produce the bullets but they learned to zigzag with their canoes so rapidly that guns could not be trained on them, so they were able to lure the Spanish boats into shallow water and capture them. (Lockhart. 2003, pp.129-133) T

    To create a decent alternative to the Aztecs inventions Cortés decided to build a catapult to terrorize the city but without right professional skills the trial became rather humorous than scary: “And then those Spaniards installed a catapult on top of an altar platform with which to hurl stones at the people … Then they wound it up, then the arm of the catapult rose up. But the stone did not land on the people, but fell [almost straight down] behind the marketplace at Xomolco. Because of that the Spaniards there argued among themselves. They looked as if they were jabbing their fingers in one another’s faces, chattering a great deal. And [meanwhile] the catapult kept returning back and forth, going one way and then the other.(Lockhart, 2003, p.230) All these scenes cited above are to be an evidence of European technology that is mentioned frequently in the story as military power or military faults, the explanation  of the military losses so not as something mystifying in the hands of gods. The most powerful god of Spanish warriors was iron:  “Their war gear was all iron. They clothed their bodies in iron, they put iron on their heads, their swords were iron, their bows were iron, and their shields and lances were iron.”  (Lockhart, 2003, p.80)

    I do believe that what the Aztecs took for the gods’ evidence was pure materialized thing such as using iron as a protection or dogs as an accomplishment for tracing enemies. The Aztecs were really surprised by the dedication of those animals (dogs) to their masters. The Aztecs loss was envisaged even before the fight. They simply haven’t any chances to compete with well trained Spanish military machine. There is another description of Spanish warriors just after killing more the Aztecan people in Cholula: “Their iron lances and halberds seem to sparkle, and their iron swords were curved like a stream of water. Their cuirasses and iron helmets seemed to make a clattering sound.” (Lockhart, 2003, 96-100). The great attention was paid to metal weapons and armor, that their description became a context for several pages. For me it became a sign of feasibility of Spanish victory even in the Aztecs eyes that is approved by their post conquest behavior.  Following the Aztecan description of their main god Quezalcoatl and Spaniards behavior we can find out that these two things cannot be combined at any case. According to the Aztecs beliefs  Quezalcoatl was a father of all human beings: “Along with the myth of creation there is one other myth that was very important to the Aztecs: The exile and prophesized return of the god Quetzalcoatl (Inga, 1991, 100). Already in the next five years after the conquest the Aztecs saw that there is nothing from gods in the real Spanish people life and their social discipline including religion, therefore local people paid very low attention to the priests who were attempting to reach the people. Even in 1526th, when the Franciscans held marriage ceremony for a prince they failed to convince the Indians to follow their example, because at the time it was already obvious for Indian people that Spanish men had more than one women, so that is not a way to follow. Another case with Cortez school opened for nobles to send their sons to study. Only servants were studied there as the smart substitute made by Aztecs families because they were quite confident that “the newcomers are too stupid to know the difference” (Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe, 1992, p. 287). This is a bright example of the Aztecs attitude to Spanish religion and study institutions. It also became a strong evidence for the matter of people changing their belief in newcomer’s super power once they saw the real background of the Spanish society and culture and the ground it was based on. There are many theories around the fact and the reason why Montezuma was so generous to Spanish warriors, why he allowed them to march to the city and even offered to Cortez his throne. Following the facts shown above I need to admit that there is rather a will to support the theory about Montezuma’s trick, as it was a well known fact that Montezuma invited the rival kings and chiefs to his palace and made them imprisoned afterwards, until they join the Aztecs’ side or die than believe that Montezuma actually thought that Cortez was Quetzalcoatl.

    According to Aztec history the year of 1520th was really special for the Aztecs; it was the year when the Aztecs rebellion drove Spanish warriors from the city. It was also the year when King Montezuma died. The records which the history saved until nowadays indicated that the main reasons for Montezuma’s death   were the wounds he received at the first days of rebellion. Cortez   attacked Tenochtitlan again in the beginning of the year 1521st. It was one of the cruelest attacks arranged by Cortez, after it most of Aztec historian artifacts were destroyed. Spaniards were not alone in their attempt to destroy the Aztecan unique country and culture. In the period of time from the year 1520th until the year 1521st the 10% -50% of the population became victims of smallpox epidemic. The population of   the valley of Mexico was rather unlucky experiencing two bad epidemics in the first 60 years of Spanish invasion that became a reason of its shortening up to 80%. This factor has influenced heavily the development of Aztec codices, the most valuable sources of information about Aztecan Empire for present generations therefore only a few extant Aztec codices created before Spanish invasion   were saved until today. All the later codices were influenced heavily by Spanish religion and cultural influence; moreover many of pre Spanish were just burned for missionary reasons.  All the accounts which were made by the conquistadors are focused on confronting the new civilization, so they tried to interpret Aztecan life according to their own culture.

    The firsthand account was created by Cortés, who was the most educated, and wrote the letters to Carl V regularly. Among the other important accounts were the works of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who accompanied Cortes. His accounts were based on real facts but the problem was that he didn’t study native languages. The other valuable input for creating the Aztec history made priests and scholars. However they rather reflected their own faith and culture and even Diego Duran, Motolinia and Mendeta tried to prove that Aztecs were one of the lost tribes from Israe, their accounts are still interesting for the present history of Aztecs creation. It is obvious that one of the strongest source about the Aztecs is Bernardino de Sahagún and his manuscriopts. He worked with the surviving Aztec wise men. He teached the Aztecs  to write the original Nahuatl accounts with using the Latin alphabet. However he kept his work anonymously because of the cruelty of Spanish authorities, he created well known Florentine Codex that is a valuable source of Aztecs history and culture for many generations forward. Also nowadays the rich Aztec history can be explored through very small part of its architecture that remained. Spaniards headed by Cortez truly believed that it was their Christian duty to destroy the Aztec temples as well as every other trace of the Aztecan history. They completely ruined Tenochtitlan and built the modern day Mexico City. Within hard archeologists’ work several artifacts of the Aztec history have been subsequently recovered, in this way people began to know where the Great Temple was located. Four sides of the building were uncovered and six thousands objects became the treasure for the history of Aztecs, among them there were ancient statues, jewelry, pottery, wall carvings and remains of old human and animals sacrifices.

    Today is different, people remember and respect their history, in the modern Mexico City there is a tendency to glorify Aztecs valuable heritage with famous names. We can meet numerous parks, streets, schools, statues and bridges named by Montecuhzuma and Cuauhtemoc in the modern City. However  there not many  sources left to help historians to depict the old events, mostly the ancient artifacts are known through archaeological evidence such as renowned Templo Mayor in Mexico City, indigenous paper codices, eyewitness records made by Spanish conquistadors such as Hernan Cortezand Bernal Diaz del Castillo and, of course, through description of Aztec culture and history dated by 16-17th century written by Spanish clergymen and literate Aztecs in the Spanish or Nahuatl language, such as the famous Florentine Codex compiled by the Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagún with the help of indigenous Aztec informants,  the present generation of Aztecs living in great Mexico City carefully and instantly cares about its historical heritage studying and discovering their  original roots though evaluating ancient sources.

    1.      Robert Borofsky (2000).  “Cook, Lono, Obeyesekere, and Sahlins,” in Robert Borofsky, ed., Remembrance of Pacific Pasts: An Invitation to Remake History (University of Hawaii Press), pp. 420-442.

    2.      Leon-Portilla, Miguel (1992). The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston: Beacon,  p.115-126.

    3.      Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe (1992). “Aztec auguries and memories of the conquest of Mexico.” Renaissance Studies. Volume 6

    4.      Clendinnen, Inga (1991). “Fierce and Unnatural Cruelty: Cortez and the Conquest of Mexico.” Representations 33 Special Issue: The New World  65-100.

    5.      Berdan, Frances F.(1982).  The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace,

    1.      Florentine Lockhart (2003).  We People Here. John Hopkins University Press. Pp. 80, 90, 96, 110.

    Broken Spears By Miquel Leon-Portilla. (2016, Jun 29). Retrieved from

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