When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History

When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History

A dramatic rethinking of the encounter between Montezuma and Hernando Cortés that completely overturns what we know about the Spanish conquest of the AmericasOn November 8, 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés first met Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, at the entrance to the capital city of Tenochtitlan. This introduction—the prelude to the Spanish seizure of Mexico...

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Title:When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History
Author:Matthew Restall
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Edition Language:English

When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History Reviews

  • James Murphy

    Next year will be the 500th anniversary of Cortes's entrance into Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec peoples of Mesoamerica. Such a long span of time helps explain the story's blurring. Much of what we think we know of the Aztecs and the Spanish conquest of Mexico is wrong. Restall calls his history a revisionist one because he tries to correct the misperceptions and exaggerations which have grown from the various histories written about those events. He explains that those blurred lines are

    Next year will be the 500th anniversary of Cortes's entrance into Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec peoples of Mesoamerica. Such a long span of time helps explain the story's blurring. Much of what we think we know of the Aztecs and the Spanish conquest of Mexico is wrong. Restall calls his history a revisionist one because he tries to correct the misperceptions and exaggerations which have grown from the various histories written about those events. He explains that those blurred lines are history.

    In effect his book explains how the Cortes story has hurdled history to become mythohistory.

    Restall doesn't tell the story chronologically until the end of the book. Nevertheless, all the essential elements are here as he spends time with the particular facts which make it up. So here are detailed discussions of Cortes's mission, the famous burning of the boats, who Marina, Cortes's Nahua translator/lover was, the politics of Mesoamerica and the politics of the Spanish, conquistador mentality, and much more. Most interesting and surprising is the description of what's perhaps the most famous event of the conquest, the moment on 8 Nov 1519 when Montezuma met Cortes on the causeway leading into the city situated on an island in what was then Lake Texcoco and how what the Spanish called a surrender was in fact a captivity. And how the 2-year war unfolded from the Aztec and Spanish misunderstanding of their respective cultures and intentions, resulting in, essentially, the destruction of both.

    Restall excavates many layers of history and legend to get to the bedrock he calls the truth. Much of his history is explaining how the events of the past are remembered and chronicled in ways reflecting the agendas of the many factions involved. His history is a sifting through the inventions and inadvertent distortions and inevitable blanks in the record to get at the bedrock of what really happened. Restall writes, "I have had to describe the myth in detail, to expose history as mythistory, in order to bust it." His meditation on history and his retelling of the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortes and company is convincing, fascinating reading.

  • Peter Goodman

    “When Montezuma Met Cortés: the true story of the meeting that changed history,” by Matthew Restall (HarperCollins, 2018). Long story short: Cortés was not the brilliant, courageous, visionary, world-striding conqueror he has long been presented as. Montezuma was not a blithering, cowardly, effeminate loser. The reverse: Cortés was a mediocre, not very enterprising, lower level conquistador with talents for self-promotion and survival. Montezuma was a well-established, confident ruler with a his

    “When Montezuma Met Cortés: the true story of the meeting that changed history,” by Matthew Restall (HarperCollins, 2018). Long story short: Cortés was not the brilliant, courageous, visionary, world-striding conqueror he has long been presented as. Montezuma was not a blithering, cowardly, effeminate loser. The reverse: Cortés was a mediocre, not very enterprising, lower level conquistador with talents for self-promotion and survival. Montezuma was a well-established, confident ruler with a history of military success who lured the Spanish deep into his own kingdom with the intention of adding them to his collection of zoological specimens (the Aztecs had a zoo in Tenochtitlan). In addition, the Spanish incursion was inserted into a long-standing conflict between the Aztec alliance of three kingdoms and the Tlaxcalteca Triple Alliance. The Spanish were being used by the locals. The famous meeting and embrace between Montezuma and Cortés was not a sign that the Aztecs were surrendering and accepting the Spanish as their overlords. In truth, according to Mesoamerican custom, Montezuma was showing his dominance over the newcomers. Unfortunately for the Aztecs (and the rest of Mesoamerica), the Spanish were much more dangerous animals than they knew, escaped from their luxurious cages, and destroyed much of Mesoamerican society. On the surface, the book has an odd structure: Restall spends much of the time describing how Cortés has been seen in western art, literature and culture. He cites plays, poems, novels, sculpture, painting from the 16th century up to today. Gradually, as the book continues, Restall digs more deeply into other Spanish accounts, and surviving accounts written by the locals. He does a lot of extrapolation and informed speculation. Among other things, he reads Spanish, French, German, Italian, Latin---and NAHUATL, the language of the actual inhabitant, who did not call themselves Aztecs. They called themselves Nahua, and the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan and its surrounding kingdom were Mexica. So Restall is quoting what the Aztec/Nahua themselves wrote. Not to mention that after the “conquest” (which was a horribly bloody affair close to genocide, though neither the term nor the concept existed at the time) there was so much intermarriage that most of the Mexica ruling families continued to hold power. They just added Spanish names to their own. Remarkable and fascinating. There are so many semi-digressions: what was the actual population of the city---about 60,000, nowhere near a million; the Spanish were extremely brutal, murdering each other as much as the natives, and raping women and girls by the tens of thousands; how was the war different from other wars ---it wasn’t; who was Malintzin? There was no legend of Quetzalcoatl and a returning god; Cortes did not burn his ships; etc etc etc. Restall destroys myths and legends I didn’t know existed. He calls the event the Spanish-Aztec War, not the Conquest. The Spanish did not win so much as their constant, uncontrollable presence and destruction of many of the leading aristocracy so destabilized the Nahua society that it collapsed. One riddle Restall cannot solve: how did Montezuma die? Was he killed by the Nahua as a traitor? Was he murdered by the Spanish? On a side note: the Nahua names are so complicated I gave up trying to keep them separate, let alone try to pronounce them: Tetlahuehuetzquititl; Nezahualcoyotl; Izhuetzcatocatl; Ixtlilxohitl. Amazing.

  • Socraticgadfly

    This is "revisionist history" at its best. The book is dense at times and does jump around somewhat.

    That said, if one looks at Restall's author page, he's definitely got the background and the chops to know what he's talking about. His general reframing ideas are sound.

    For one reviewer who doesn't like Restall's calling the Aztec sacrifices 'executions,' how do you know that, too, isn't part of Spanish reframing?

    For the unfamiliar, Restall's thesis is that Montezuma did NOT "surrender." He inste

    This is "revisionist history" at its best. The book is dense at times and does jump around somewhat.

    That said, if one looks at Restall's author page, he's definitely got the background and the chops to know what he's talking about. His general reframing ideas are sound.

    For one reviewer who doesn't like Restall's calling the Aztec sacrifices 'executions,' how do you know that, too, isn't part of Spanish reframing?

    For the unfamiliar, Restall's thesis is that Montezuma did NOT "surrender." He instead invited the Spaniards to his city while basically placing them on house probation. Restall also says the Triple Alliance and other pro- and anti-"Aztec" relations in the Valley of Mexico were more complex than the Spanish presented. Finally, he says that Montezuma's death and the last battles didn't go down exactly the way traditionally presented.

    Per some academics, the idea that these are "myths" is really only for norteamericanos who don't know better.

  • Judy

    Matthew Restall certainly does his research. I find myself skipping parts, going ahead and then going back. This book should be of interest to any history buff. A whole different perspective on the Spanish invasion of Mexico. Not a quick read but very enlightening.

  • John A. Kristianson

    So this book is about 550 pages. The narrative is 350 of that. The rest is footnotes, cast of characters etc. The reason that I point this out is that this is a HISTORY book. Not a novel. It is very heavily researched and footnoted.

    A very good read on the mythistory (I think that is the word the author used) of the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish. The author peels away the myths surrounding Cortes and his conquistadors with their relations to the indigenous population that inhabited Southern

    So this book is about 550 pages. The narrative is 350 of that. The rest is footnotes, cast of characters etc. The reason that I point this out is that this is a HISTORY book. Not a novel. It is very heavily researched and footnoted.

    A very good read on the mythistory (I think that is the word the author used) of the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish. The author peels away the myths surrounding Cortes and his conquistadors with their relations to the indigenous population that inhabited Southern Mexico. The Mayans are mostly mentioned in passing. The thrust of the book is the journey that Cortes made from Vera Cruz to Tenochitlan and the reception that the Spanish received by the Mexica.

    This book is heavy lifting. It is not a casual read. It is very thought provoking and it provides many insights into what actually did occur over 500 years ago. A very scholarly read on Cortes, Montezuma and the interactions between the Spanish and the Mexica.

  • Jake

    It's meticulously researched and Restall brings up some interesting ways in which to think about history, I'll give him that.

    But if I had known the book was going to amount to a 350 page literature review with no real narrative to speak of (for example, the book starts with The Meeting, then shifts to pre-Cortez Aztec life, then jumps to Cortez's early life, then to Montezuma's death, then Cortez's legacy and later life then...you get the picture) I would have skipped it.

  • Avery

    This book's mission is actually a very cool one: it exposes the story of "Montezuma welcoming Cortez as the reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl" as a long, storied fabrication that actually began with the confusion of the conquistadors themselves. Evidence is presented that Cortez was neither a hero nor a villain, but merely a quick-witted con man who was possibly putting a Quixotic spin on the events around him to his fellow conquistadors even as they wandered around in Tenochtitlan. The author also

    This book's mission is actually a very cool one: it exposes the story of "Montezuma welcoming Cortez as the reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl" as a long, storied fabrication that actually began with the confusion of the conquistadors themselves. Evidence is presented that Cortez was neither a hero nor a villain, but merely a quick-witted con man who was possibly putting a Quixotic spin on the events around him to his fellow conquistadors even as they wandered around in Tenochtitlan. The author also presents evidence that the real Spanish-Mexican War didn't start until long

    Montezuma's fictional "surrender." The fact that the conquistadors themselves never really had any curiosity about the actual politics of their warfare attests to the persuasiveness of Cortez's narrative.

    The basic idea of weaving in all our centuries of Cortez myth is also interesting at least in theory. The difficulty of establishing an origin for all the different aspects of the myth, and the questions of whether elaborations from centuries later might offer some insight on the real history, is reminiscent of the difficulties surrounding the story of Christ.

    The problem is that while the author "presents evidence" and data as I have just said, the framing for that data which I have just offered is mine. In my opinion I've just offered a better summary of the book than it ever offers for itself. The author's own framing of Cortez and Monetzuma is extremely uninspiring and the entire book is a disaster of almost unreadable disorganization. There is no need to mention roller coasters or random news articles that come up in a Google search for Monetzuma. I think the author wanted to write for a popular audience but had completely forgotten how popular books work. Awful.

  • Randal

    Likely a polarizing title. OK, back up. All stories of conquest are polarizing; victor writes the history, etc., until recent pushback has gotten more vanquished tales in print. Columbus / Cortés are taking their kickings these days. But this one is likely to create a rift between scholars of Mesoamerica and everybody else, not because of the content but the way it's put together.

    The first third of the book is essentially a review of the literature; an apologia. It turns into the longest straw-m

    Likely a polarizing title. OK, back up. All stories of conquest are polarizing; victor writes the history, etc., until recent pushback has gotten more vanquished tales in print. Columbus / Cortés are taking their kickings these days. But this one is likely to create a rift between scholars of Mesoamerica and everybody else, not because of the content but the way it's put together.

    The first third of the book is essentially a review of the literature; an apologia. It turns into the longest straw-man argument I can recall, largely because Restall focuses on the tellings of the tale of Montezuma from the late 1500s to approximately the early 20th century; I kept waiting for some recognition that more of us grew up listening to Neil Young's

    than have heard all the operatic renditions combined. But Neil (and virtually everyone else who has written about the conquest of the Aztecs in a negative light) has to wait until the second and later parts of the book (and then is dismissed as a romantic). Restall breezes past "the indigenes" who are demonizing Cortés with barely a nod. This guts the overall message of Part One, which argues that Cortés has been viewed as a romantic hero, at worst an anti-hero. But to do that, Restall's got to ignore the past half-century and it weakens his argument unbelievably.

    He also has an annoying habit of putting the "why" ahead of the "what," often with a teaser that we'll get to that later. So he discusses Montezuma's death from a dozen angles before describing the events of his death; several outcomes of the arrival and stay of the conquistadors in Tenochtitlan are addressed dozens and dozens of pages before he describes how that took place; and he repeatedly discusses peoples' motives and legacies before he actually gets around to their biographies. (Malintzin / La Malinche appears throughout the book but her story is almost in the epilogue; he never actually does get around to detailing the Noche Triste or the details of the feud with Veracruz but gives each a couple of dozen glancing references.)

    Which is why I suggest the book may be polarizing. Mesoamerican scholars don't need to be told what happened, so it's likely going to be less annoying for them to read than somebody like myself who only knows the story in broad strokes and picked this up hoping to learn more (still unclear on many details, thanks for asking).

    And parts of it feel ... dishonest. One suspects that one of the reasons Restall has delayed the telling of some of the events is that the details are lost to history. Montezuma's death, for instance, is clouded by unreliable narrators on both sides. So setting out an unclear event and drawing a book's worth of conclusions from it would seem sketchy. But responding in detail to 500+ years of histories, romances, novels, paintings and sculptures ... there's plenty of grist for the mill. And then a couple of paragraphs of Restall's best (and convoluted) guess as to what happened.

    Worse is the way he chooses data selectively while criticizing those who came before for doing the same thing. For example, the relative importance of the Spaniards in the fall of the Aztec empire varies from page to page. At one point, the Spaniards are a tiny percentage of an army, essentially a spare part of the regular Aztec calendar (which includes "war season" when the crops aren't due). A few pages later, and historians have failed to recognize just how large the invading army was. Which is it? Tiny or huge? Montezuma's pets or a rapacious horde?

    Another, perhaps more telling, example is the chapter that ends with Cortés having achieved nothing -- because the "Dynastic Vine" proves Montezuma's family still ruled decades and decades after the conquistador died. It's immediately followed by a chapter that details the horror and ruin of total war brought to Mexico by the invaders. If the Aztecs were still in control, as Restall argues, why would they have turned over dozens of the daughters of the ruling classes to be sex slaves to the invaders, which Restall also argues. And why, if they had any power, was tribute flowing out of Mexico to Castile, instead of into Tenochtitlan from the surrounding countryside? And don't even get me started on the claim that the Aztecs didn't believe in human sacrifice -- right before describing how the Aztec would get all their captives stoned on hallucinogens and then ritually kill them and tear their hearts out, which Restall wants to call "executing." OK, execution by ritual murder and heart-cleaving. It's a fine point.

    The true answer is still the simplest -- the Aztecs on the throne were puppets. Their beliefs included human sacrifice. Cortés probably did have his translator read the articles of surrender to Montezuma but the meaning likely changed by the time it went both directions through two translators -- the latter of whom would be familiar with the power of the

    and who might well not have wanted to tell the emperor in so many words that it was time to hang 'em up and let the white man have his job. Nobody really knows how Montezuma died (although Restall's conclusion that the conquistadors showed the king to the combatants in order to get him killed by an Aztec seems far-fetched. It could just as easily have caused a huge rescue attempt by emotional subjects). That said, in Restall's defense, it was a bloody war of conquest, not a quick capitulation and Montezuma almost undoubtedly didn't just hand over the whole empire to Cortés just because he was such a charming fellow.

    Look, it's an fascinating subject, and Restall's key point (Montezuma didn't abdicate, he was the

    until he was the dead

    . Long live the

    !) is a valid one and well-made. And it's a good enough book that I've just bothered to write the guts of a decent college paper about it (sans footnotes because I have my degrees and I don't have to touch another style manual as long as I live, nyah-nyah-nyah). But in attempting to dismiss pretty much everything ever composed about Montezuma as "mythistory," Restall has written himself in circles. One dust jacket critic enthuses that Restall has changed the way history will be written. If this is the future of history, give me its past.

    Two stars for a general reader; likely a must-read for Aztec academia.

    PS What's with his hangup over the Angry Aztec jigsaw puzzle? Is he as concerned about the Rotten Romans and Awful Egyptians?

  • Peter Tillman

    Good review-essay, at NYRB:

    "Before Cortés sailed to Mexico, he had lived in the Caribbean for fifteen years, first in Hispaniola and then in Cuba. Like other settlers, he received encomiendas, grants that gave him land and the right to exploit the labor of native inhabitants, whom he forced to search for precious metals. He served as a notary in Hispaniola and later was secretary to Diego de Velázquez, Cuba’s governor. ... He “lived an ordinary life on His

    Good review-essay, at NYRB:

    "Before Cortés sailed to Mexico, he had lived in the Caribbean for fifteen years, first in Hispaniola and then in Cuba. Like other settlers, he received encomiendas, grants that gave him land and the right to exploit the labor of native inhabitants, whom he forced to search for precious metals. He served as a notary in Hispaniola and later was secretary to Diego de Velázquez, Cuba’s governor. ... He “lived an ordinary life on Hispaniola and Cuba because he was an ordinary man of ordinary abilities.”

    ...." by renaming the Conquest of Mexico “the Spanish-Aztec War,” he grants the losers an active part in it. In this same vein, he refers to the Spanish captains and their men by the name given to them by their Nahua allies and enemies: the Caxtilteca, or the people of Castile. He thus situates them more precisely in the historical and political settings in which they were fighting: the Caxtilteca were one small faction—though the most eccentric and ultimately the most politically astute—of many that united behind the Tlaxcaltecas in an internal war for the control of central Mexico."

    Aztec human sacrifice, Spanish propaganda: "Francisco López de Gomara, Cortés’s confessor and the first formal historian of the Conquest of Mexico, raised the figure to 50,000 [sacrifices per year].

    The number is remarkable for how preposterous it is: more than 137 sacrifices a day, five an hour, one every twelve minutes, twenty-four hours a day. Aztec sacrifice was a nonmechanized process that demanded extensive ritual preparation and an individually selected victim, and archaeologists have never found evidence to support the Spaniards’ figures." The remains actually found "don’t add up even to hundreds of victims, let alone thousands."

    "In 1620, Mexico City was still being governed, under the surveillance of a Spanish viceroy, by Aztec nobility, the descendants of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century emperors. They kept their power, but the population decreased by an unimaginable 90 percent during the first eighty years of Spanish occupation due to epidemics and enforced servitude—still the worst genocide in history.

    The spaces left by the dead were being occupied by unceasing waves of Spanish soldiers, adventurers and their families, Taino and African slaves, priests and nuns, and specialized workers needed to construct and maintain the colonial infrastructure. This made the indigenous nobility irrelevant. After the continent was successfully colonized and Europeanized, it was emptied and repopulated. A hundred and eighty-seven million people died during the first century of the occupation of America.

    Spain’s American epic was the first modern European project of permanent occupation that actually worked."

    I'll be reading it. The NYRB reviewer accurately call Spain's conquest a genocide, but it was largely an accidental one, from the European diseases that came with the Spanish immigrants and felled the indigenes in uncountable numbers. And this was (almost certainly) inevitable, no matter which late-medieval Europeans colonized first. The die-offs were no less, in the French, English and Portuguese colonies.

    I think most historians now agree that all of the indigenous peoples in the Americas lost around 90% of their population in the great European-disease plagues. Still an underdocumented episode in history, perhaps because it's so ugly. 187,000,000 deaths (someone's guess) is by far the world record.

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