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.

Thomas sees the Mexica as trapped by their rigid culture, unable to improvise or resist superstition until it was far too late. Of Cuauhtemoc, a successor of Montezuma, and the most heroic of Mexica leaders, Thomas bluntly says: he ‘did not have in him the capacity to imagine catastrophe. All his education prevented it.’ The Spanish, by contrast, are flexible and inventive, always ready to make new policies and strategies on the run. This looks like a clash between a totalitarian society and a set of lively if unscrupulous individuals, an incipient allegory of a later time: of our time. There must be much unallegorical truth in this picture, but there is surely some kind of slippage too, or a crossing of different stories. Thomas is enormously thorough about backgrounds and figures on both sides, especially figures having to do with population and money, but his book is not finally about individuals against individuals or about a culture against a culture. It is, as his own opening sentence and the whole tilt of his work makes clear, about Spanish individuals against Mexican culture: about ‘how a small party of wellled adventurers fought against a large static monarchy’. Thomas goes on to say his book ‘is also a study of a clash between two empires’; but the Spanish Empire is all intrigue and political history, and doesn’t seem to determine mentalities the way the Mexican Empire does. We probably can’t avoid Eurocentrism here, but we might want to ask why Cortés was freed by his culture while the Mexicans were hampered by theirs. We could look at the relative attractions of law and ceremony, or the fantasies induced by either; at the virtues of doublethink, and the ability to take a formula literally when you need to. The Mexican says, as Mexicans still do, ‘This is your house,’ meaning ‘Make yourself at home’; the European says, ‘Thanks,’ and draws up the title deed. This is an instance of what Thomas calls ‘private enterprise’ at work, but it is also a European cultural effect; and becomes really interesting if seen not only as the quick gesture of an adventurer but as an act justifiable in the long term by the irrestistible apparatus of the law. They shouldn’t have said it if they didn’t mean it. The closest Thomas comes to thinking this through is in a brilliant but quickly abandoned analogy between the Fall of Tenochtitlán and the Fall of France in 1940, supported by an astute quotation from Marc Bloch: routine and regulations o the French and the Mexicans versus the concrete imagination and suppleness of intelligence of the Germans and the Spanish. That is a clash of cultures, and an uncomfortable comparison, as Thomas clearly knows. Particularly when we shift the question from the conduct of war to the interpretation of contract.

Thomas evokes Prescott’s famous History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) in his Preface, and rightly says that the ‘tone’ of Prescott’s work is different – it is capacious, kindly, leisurely, mandarin – and that much new material has come to light since the mid-19th century. Thomas’s book is long but brisk, a close, detailed narrative of the profuse events which turn out to occupy, astonishingly, only three years. In that span the Spaniards discovered that what is now Mexico was not an island but part of a continent, and that it was peopled by a number of civilisations quite different from anything they had encountered in the West Indies; that at the heart of the highlands was a spectacular city on a lake, an American Venice, as they repeatedly said, with a population larger than the then considerable (200,000) populations of Naples and Constantinople. This city was the centre of a loosely aggregated empire. The Spaniards made allies of many of the Empire’s disaffected subjects, travelled to the city and entered it; and after many diversions and reverses, conquered and destroyed it. Cortés had hoped, it seems, to deliver a working civilisation, a social wonder of the new world, to his sovereign Charles V, and to become himself the effective ruler of the Mexica and indeed all the Indians of Central America. He lost a lot of the treasure he had gathered, and he conquered a ruin; but he ended a world, or consigned that world to the devious and subterranean life it is seen to live in Serge Gruzinski’s book.

Cortés left Cuba in November 1518. By June 1519 he had founded a city on the Mexican coast, La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. The plaza was designed, building begun, stocks set up already, ‘a reminder’, as Thomas nicely says, ‘that a civilised society was under Construction’. Thomas’s narrative is generously spiced with these quiet ironies. The Indians of Cempoallan, he says, may well have thought learning how to make candles ‘was worth a mass’; and Cortés later misfortunes with a large catapult provoke the comment, ‘The idea of a “new weapon” always attracts commanders at a loss as to how to finish a war.’ In July, Cortés scuttled his ships, so that no one could go home. By November 1519, he had fought a major battle, and made a major ally, the Tlaxcalans, traditional enemies of the Mexica; had permitted, if not instigated a massacre at Cholula, and had entered Tenochtitlán, where he was greeted by the ceremonious and uncertain Montezuma. Montezuma’s behaviour is pure mystery, before and after his being kidnapped by Cortés in his own city. He hesitates, avoids, prevaricates; makes Cortés welcome; conspires against him. It doesn’t seem enough to say Montezuma was a superstitious Mexican, or that he believed that Cortés was the returning god Quetzalcoatl. First, because the idea of superstition only rephrases the question, and it’s not entirely clear that Montezuma did believe Cortés was the god; second, because at one point Montezuma appeared to be ready to resist the Spaniards even if they were gods. ‘Who would not have done the same in similar circumstances?’ Thomas asks vaguely of Montezuma’s vacillation. The answer, as Thomas immediately goes on to show, is virtually anyone, including most of the Mexicans. A tougher question would be why the Mexicans continued for so long to obey the compromised Montezuma, but that seems unanswerable. A great virtue of Thomas’s book is that, although he settles questions when he can, and amiably offers guesses when he can’t, he respects the many considerable mysteries of his subject. He wants to keep the amazing story open rather than to close it.

By July 1520, Cortés had seen off a threat from a Spanish force sent to curb his independence, a terrible massacre of Mexicans had occurred in Tenochtitlán in his absence, Montezuma was dead, and the Spaniards, beleaguered by the now militant Mexicans, had trailed out of the city. The loss of life was stupendous: this is the legendary noche triste, the low point of Cortés fortunes. The come back was not easy, or uninterrupted, but by August 1521, Cortés had built ships, besieged the city, and finally taken Tenochtitlán again – or taken it for the first time as conqueror and destroyer. The adventure was over, although Cortés lived on to face many disputes over treasure and killings and his authority for what he did, including the possible murder of his wife. He constructed a palace in Cuernavaca, and became Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, with immense holdings in the centre of Mexico. He died near Seville in 1547, at the age of 62. It’s true, as Thomas says, that ‘one does not have to be a believer in any special theory that great men dominate history to see that Cortés’s combination of intelligence and prudence, bravery and political judgment were decisive in the extraordinary events in Mexico between 1519 and 1521.’ True too that, theory or not, Cortés pretty much runs away with Thomas’s story.

The identity of Gruzinski’s title with Thomas’s is an accident of free translation. In French the book, a version of Gruzinski’s doctoral thesis, published in 1988, was called La Colonisation de l’imaginaire. ‘L’imaginaire’ glances at Lacan, but also has larger connotations of imagination and imaginary, since Gruzinski’s interest is in the way the Spanish sought to take over the minds of indigenous Americans, to subject them to a colonial ‘reality’, not only a fact of power but a manner of picturing the world, a radically different ordering of time and space and the supernatural. But he also examines the subtle modes in which these subjects often subverted what Christianity and the alphabet offered to them. ‘Europeanisation is irreversible,’ Gruzinski says, we cannot plausibly seek a ‘miraculously preserved’ Indian authenticity. But we can read the texts and images, the paintings, the pictograms, the codices, the official reports, the accounts of miracles and legends, see the cultural complexity, the lingering resistances which lurk beneath the European dominion, and this is what he does in great detail. It’s impossible to summarise Gruzinski’s packed and learned discussion, and indeed his own summaries don’t amount to much more than rather bland invocations of cultural diversity. But the detail is fascinating, the arguments intricate and compelling, and perhaps the following will give some idea of the delicacy of the work. Glyphs painted by Indians on the walls of Mexican convents and churches, within the confines of organised Christianity, perhaps

enabled Indian artisans to keep visible to all signs that were officially banned, without the friars perceiving what they might conceal that was incompatible with the new faith. But the misunderstanding that these glyphs took advantage of could turn against them: tolerated as decoration, thus without symbolic content, extracted from their traditional contexts, dissociated from the steles and reliefs of old, they appeared in predominantly European compositions that treated them as ornamental motifs.

The same was happening, although Gruzinski doesn’t say this until later, to the Indians themselves, and has happened more and more since the 16th century. They refuse or are not really offered what Gruzinski calls ‘the paradises in turn flourished before their eyes’, Christianity, the Enlightenment, liberalism, modernity, the consumer society; but their own culture has been both battered and paraded, invaded and yet treated too often as the ornament and decoration of various myths of the modern nation. Thus the brutal Mexica, fighting against the equally brutal Spanish, turn miraculously into noble savages – Mexican murals are full of them. But the double life, the fragments of the old faiths, do remain, and there are many faiths. That is why it is important to remember, with Hugh Thomas, that Cortés, whatever we think of him, fought with Indians against Indians, and that Mexican Indians in the 16th century were not innocent or without history. They were different, from each other and from us, and the case against the Requerimiento is not that the Indians were the simple victims of Spanish force and hypocrisy, but that they were expropriated in a language that they could not know. They had a language (they had languages), their silence was not just unspoken Spanish and it was not consent.