Sad Nights

Michael Wood

  • The Conquest of Mexico by Hugh Thomas
    Hutchinson, 832 pp, £25.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 671 70518 0
  • The Conquest of Mexico by Serge Gruzinski, translated by Eileen Corrigan
    Polity, 336 pp, £45.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 7456 0873 6

One of the strangest recurring moments in the Spanish invasion of the Americas was the reading of the Requerimiento, the Requisition, a document which both proclaimed possession of a territory and converted its natives into subjects of the Spanish Crown; all resistance, therefore, could be called rebellion. The natives were supposed to be present at the reading, although it seems they weren’t always. Even when they were, of course, they would have no way of grasping the language or even the gist of the proclamation. What was needed was that the words should be spoken, not that they should be understood; and the person who always was present was a notary. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, the defender of the American Indians, said in the 16th century that he didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry at the procedure, and two Colombian Indians are reported by Hugh Thomas as saying, in 1515, that the Pope must have been drunk when he divided between the Spanish and the Portuguese so much land which wasn’t his to give.

The procedure was not simply absurd, however. Or even ‘at once ridiculous and touching’, as Thomas says of another legal fiction with which the Spaniards cloaked an act of power. It was cynical and formalist, but it also had an eye on history, on the future justification of deeds fell to be dubious: it satisfied a need for ritual and it created a record. It provided prospective conquerors with a mythology of conquest, which was doubly useful in that the absurdity of its application could simultaneously be acknowledged (and was, contemporary accounts seem to suggest) and ignored. What is striking, to weary modern eyes, is not that the Conquistadors should have resorted to such a transparent near-hoax, but that, they should have bothered with international law at all.

Stephen Greenblatt, in Marvellous Possessions, makes a similar suggestion about Columbus’s remark that he was not contradicted – ‘y no me fué contradicho’ – when he took possession of a series of Caribbean islands in the name of the Spanish king. How could he have been contradicted, if no one understood what he was saying? Yet the claim is not void, it is an intricate legalism – as if we were to declare that silence is consent when we have gagged everyone who could speak. Again, the curious feature is not the gag but the invocation of the law. I’m not sure there is ‘an ethical reservation’ here, as Greenblatt suggests; but there is an odd loyally to a certain story of justice, a need to bend the story to the practice rather than simply abandon it.

There are many such moves in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. A legal culture encounters a ceremonial one. They misunderstand each other, actually talk past each other; but they share many assumptions, and they both deal in elaborate fictions, where courtesy, tactics, self-deception and opportunism become inextricably entangled. Did Montezuma, the ruler if the Mexica of ancient Tenochtitlán, actually declare his allegiance to the Spanish Crown, or did Cortés just say he did? Did Cortés take Mexican courtesy for European subservience? Was there an error of translation, a muddle between ‘vassal’ and ‘friend’, not clearly distinguished, apparently, in the language of the Mexica? Thomas shrewdly suggests that Montezuma may have made something like a mistake in chess: a ceremonial gesture of extreme politeness, which Cortés understood as such but deliberately took, when it suited him, as a legal commitment.

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