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Part of a mural by Diego Rivera on the Spanish-Aztec war, National Palace, Mexico City

‘Conquest’: the impact - expert opinions (3)

We extend here our assembly of thoughts on the Spanish invasion by members of our Panel of Experts with welcome fresh contributions... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

First up, this brief but penetrating assessment by John Schwaller of the Spanish-Aztec war as the direct result of a ‘failure of basic understanding’...
’Back in 1492, one of the subtitles for the event was “The Encounter of Two Worlds.” If I had my way we probably should use that terminology rather than talk of conquest. Many other, wiser people have weighed in on this topic, so what I write is found in many places. The essence of the Spanish and Mexica war (i.e. what we know as the conquest of Mexico) exemplifies a condition that James Lockhart characterized as “Double Mistaken Identity.” In viewing one another, the Mexica and the Spanish recognized a bit of themselves in the other. As a result, they acted as if the other party would understand what they were doing themselves. After all, an attack is an attack; a smile is a smile. But the reality was quite different. These two cultures were as different from one another as one can imagine. The smallest gesture could be, and often was, completely misunderstood by the other. Large acts usually were misunderstood. Just as the two parties spoke different languages, so everything about their understanding of the world differed. Even when there were individuals who could translate the words spoken by each side, the deep meaning of those words was routinely missed or misunderstood. This happens today among speakers of a single language! Just what do you mean by “dumb?” Do you mean ignorant or speechless? As a result, the ensuing conflict between the Spanish and the Mexica merely demonstrates that warfare is a failure of diplomacy, or in this instance a failure of basic understanding.

Pic 2: Moteuhzoma meets Cortés. Illustration by Keith Henderson, who pictures the Aztec leader ‘leaning on the arms of the Lords of Tezcuco and Iztlapalapan’
Pic 2: Moteuhzoma meets Cortés. Illustration by Keith Henderson, who pictures the Aztec leader ‘leaning on the arms of the Lords of Tezcuco and Iztlapalapan’ (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Thus, when pressed to explain the seeming victory of the Spanish over the Mexica, I usually say that it boils down to the fact that the Spanish had a basic idea of what they wanted to do: gain gold and treasure at all cost. The Mexica, for their part, were continually trying to determine just what these strange people’s next move would be. The actions of the Spanish were just inexplicable to them; the two cultures were so different from one another. As peoples who have been raised in the ethos and culture of the West for centuries now, the actions of the Spanish seem perfectly logical to us. Yet to truly understand what happened, we have to divorce ourselves from everything we think is logical and reasonable and immerse ourselves in that other culture.’

Picture source:-
• Main pic: photo of part of a mural on the Spanish invasion by Diego Rivera in the National Palace, Mexico City; photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: Illustration by Keith Henderson, scanned from our own copy of The Conquest of Mexico by William H. Prescott (vol. 1), London, Chatto & Windus, 1922.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 02nd 2017

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