On November 8, 1519, after spending more than six months fighting his way into the heart of Mexico, Spanish explorer Hernando Cortés came face to face with the Aztec emperor Montezuma on a causeway leading into Tenochtitlán. At the entrance to the capital, the two men exchanged gifts and greetings, and Montezuma then invited Cortés and his hundreds of followers into the city as his guests. For nearly five centuries, the dominant interpretation of this meeting has been the one originally offered by Cortés himself: that Montezuma had effectively surrendered to the Spanish invaders. Now comes Matthew Restall, a professor of history at Pennsylvania State University, to take aim at this version of the narrative, branding it “one of human history’s great lies.”
Employing a vast array of primary and secondary sources in a half-dozen European and Native American languages, Restall completely recasts the story of the fall of the Aztec empire. At the heart of his revisionism is the demystification of Hernando Cortés, which he achieves by puncturing the popular image—originally created by Cortés himself through his letters to King Charles V—of a hero who leads a small band of Spaniards to conquer millions of “hostile” Indians. In Restall’s view, Cortés was “a mediocre captain,” incredibly lucky, and, most important, a survivor. Rather than engineering a military victory, Restall writes, Cortés merely managed to survive a civil war (partly of his own making) among the many indigenous peoples against the imperialist Aztecs. Diseases imported from Europe (chiefly smallpox) also played a role in what Restall calls the Spanish-Aztec War. As the victors, Cortés, his lieutenants, and Spanish priests then produced their own “history” of the conflict, one that glorified their roles in the “conquest” and that justified their genocidal war against native peoples in the name of “civilization.”
In When Montezuma Met Cortés, Restall succeeds in deconstructing the traditional narrative of European military superiority overwhelming a naive and barbarous indigenous ruler. In Restall’s telling, Montezuma’s monumental miscalculation—allowing Cortés into Tenochtitlán—led not only to his own demise but also to the end of his empire. MHQ
MARSHALL C. EAKIN is a professor of Latin American history at Vanderbilt University.
This article appears in the Summer 2018 issue (Vol. 30, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Book Review | When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting That Changed History