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History Lessons

Hernan Cortés Arives at Tenochtitlán

When Hernan Cortés and his band of three hundred Spaniards arrived at Tenochtitlán on November 8, 1519, he brought two great civilizations into contact for the first time and radically changed the culture and language of Mexico and much of North America.

"The ruler of the largest empire in the Americas (Montecuhzoma), still at the height of his power, coming face to face to face with the self-appointed emissary of the king of Spain, who, though under guard in a well-kept and well-ordered city, larger than any to be seen in Europe, was yet strangely unawed," writes Nicholas Ostler in Empires of the Word. 

"Their words set the tone for all that was to follow, above all the tragic diplomacy and incomprehension of the Aztecs, and the calculating, dissembling, but unremitting, aggression of the Spaniards. It was the first step towards the replacement of Nahuatl as the imperial language of Mexico, and the progress of Spanish towards its establishment as the language first of government and religion and then of everything else in the New World."

Moctezuma welcomed Cortés on the Great Causeway into Tenochtitlán. Cortés  knew that the Aztec ruler suspected him of being the legendary man-god Quetzalcoatl, or at least his emissary. The Messiah-like bearded and white-skinned Quetzalcoatl was expected to return to Tenochtitlán in a One-Reed year on the 52-year Aztec cyclical calendar. Fatefully, 1519 was the One-Reed year in the current cycle.

According to the Spanish record of the meeting, Cortés spoke first: "Are you Moctezuma? Are you the king? Is it true that you are the king, Moctezuma?"

The king replied: 'Yes, I am Moctezuma.' 

Standing up, he came forward, bowed his head low, and said, "Our lord, you are weary, the journey has tired you, but now you have arrived on the earth. You have come to your city, Mexico. You have come here to sit on your throne, to sit under its canopy... This was foretold by the kings who governed your city, and now it has taken place. You have come back to us; you have come down from the sky. Rest now, and take possession of your royal houses. Welcome to your land, my lord."

Cortés took full advantage of the Quetzalcoatl myth. Although the visit to Tenochtitlán was his first contact with the Aztec empire, he had been in the New World for eight years and had done his homework. He went along with the mistaken identity and, consequently, Moctezuma treated Cortés as an equal, granting regal hospitality to the Spanish soldiers. He took the conquistador to the roof of the temple to show off the rich, bustling city below them.

According to Cortés and others in his party, Tenochtitlán was larger, more beautiful and more complex than any European city of the time. The city's builders and craftsmen were a match for any in Europe and its pyramids were equal to those in  Egypt.

None of this, however, dissuaded Cortés from his self-appointed mission: to impose Christianity and the Spanish Empire on the New World and to plunder the city's riches. He had Moctezuma seized and made a prisoner, collecting a huge ransom from the stunned Aztecs. 

After fighting off Spanish troops that were sent by Diego de Velázquez to relieve him of his command and stop his zealous expedition, Cortés took attempted to govern Tenochtitlán through the captive Montezuma, but the Aztec leader was killed during an uprising and the conquistadors left the city with heavy losses.

In 1521, Cortés and the conquistadors returned with reinforcements (enemies of the Aztecs) and, after a three-month siege, they seized and destroyed Tenochtitlán, putting an abrupt end to the Aztec empire

Dawn of Discovery
Dawn of Discovery


Empires of the Word
A Language History of the World
by Nicholas Ostler 
HarperCollins, 2005

Circumnavigating the world of languages, this fascinating history traces the progress of a few dozen out of thousands of human tongues that have spread most widely.

"Somehow, and for a variety of reasons, the communities that spoke them were able to persuade others to join them, and so they expanded," author Nicholas Ostler explains.

"The motives for that persuasion can be very diverse -- including military domination, hopes of propserity, religious conversion, attendance at a boarding school, service in an army, and many others beside."

Ostler believes that the growth, development and collapse of language communities has been poorly considered. And he maintains, in conflict with the conventional wisdom of most linguists, that the structure and properties of a language can affect its prospects for survival.

This book traces the fortunes of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin,and  Aramaic languages as well as English, Spanish, Hindi, Portugese and many other tongues. Why did Greek survive the fall of the Roman Empire while the use of Latin collapsed? How did Chinese thrive despite millenia of conquests by outsiders?

Ostler poses interesting questions and explores them in deeply considered and accessible prose.

The New World Of Martin Cortes
by Anna Lanyon 
Da Capo Press, 2005

This is the story of Martin Cortes, son of the conquistador Hernan Cortes. The illegitimate child of Cortes and
Malinche, the Spaniard's indigenous American translator, Martin Cortes is remembered by Mexicans as the first mestizo, emblematic of Mexico's dual heritage.
Mexico and the Spanish Conquest
Mexico and the Spanish Conquest

by Ross Hassig 
University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.

Anthropologist and ethnohistorian Ross Hassig surveys the Spanish conquest of Mexico from a new perspective: the role of
indigenous peoples in the Spaniards' success.


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Information in this document is subject to change without notice.