Readings for this Audio Essay

  • Bernal Diaz, “Cortes in Difficulties,” 1552-1568 (PDF)
  • “An Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico,” 1528 (PDF)
  • Bernal Diaz, “The Flight from Mexico,” 1552-1568 (PDF)
  • Sahagún, “The Battle for Tenochtitlan,” mid to late 1500s (PDF)
  • Hemming, The Conquest of the Incas, Chapters 1 and 2 (PDF)

(PDFs listed above are available within the Learning Management System, or Blackboard.)

Audio Essay Transcript


I’m Steve Anderson, and this audio essay describes the primary and secondary source readings for the Conquest of the Americas — these include the defeat of the Aztecs, and also the capture of the Inca ruler, Atahualpa.

The primary source readings on the Conquest of the Aztecs include Spanish and Aztec perspectives. The reading for the capture of the Inca ruler, Atahualpa, is a secondary source based on primary sources by the historian John Hemming.

Just as with the term “Discovery,” the term “Conquest” can be a bit deceiving. The Conquest of the Americas occurred over a much greater time than these initial, but decisive battles might portray.

As you listen, please have your readings out, either on the computer or in printed form, and as we go through the readings you can take notes. I find that downloading the PDFs to the computer, instead of viewing them in the browser, makes them a little easier to navigate. I’ll pause between the documents so you can organize your readings.

As with any historical document, take a moment before reading to examine the time, location, and author of the document. Also consider the writer, and whether they were describing events as they personally witnessed them, or if they’re interviewing someone else who was present, or as in the case with the reading on the Incas, relying on other written accounts that were transcribed long ago. Also consider the distance in time between the event and its recording or historical interpretation. After all, even Bernal Diaz wrote his True History many decades later, during the colonial period.

Bernal Diaz, “Cortes in Difficulties,” 1552-1568

The first reading is by Bernal Diaz, it’s a short chapter from the The True History of the Conquest of New Spain. In this reading, Diaz is describing how the tensions were building in Tenochtitlan due to the presence and actions of the Spaniards. Because the Spaniards had “purified the chapels” in the Templo Mayor, meaning that they destroyed Aztec religious objects and replaced them with Catholic figures, the Aztecs were angry, and possibly preparing for war.

At this very moment, Spanish forces arrived on the coast of Mexico in Veracruz. These new Spanish soldiers were not sent to help Cortes — instead they were meant to arrest him for disobeying orders in his exploration of Mexico. Because of this turn of events, Cortes left the floating city, placing Pedro de Alvarado in charge of Spanish affairs in Tenochtitlan while he traveled to the coast.

There is no introduction for this reading, as it is directly from Diaz’s book, but there are some asides in brackets that help explain the events taking place.

A few points to consider for this reading:

  1. Notice that Huichilobos, or Huitzilopotchli is “to be appeased with sacrifices, though not of human lives” while Cortes is gone. What is Huitzilopotchli the god of, and how could this relate to the building of tensions in the city?
  2. Cortés is also referred to as “Lord Malinche” in this reading. Consider the exchanges between Cortés and Moctezuma when they hear of the new Spanish soldiers arriving on the coast. How do they (Cortés and Moctezuma) address each other, and how is this different from their actions?
  3. Consider the arrival of smallpox, and the way that Diaz describes the incident in Tenochtitlan. Notice who brought the message to Cortés stating that Alvarado was in trouble.

Also consider that Diaz was on the coast with Cortés, so his narrative does not report the events as they were happening in Tenochtitlan, but only in their aftermath.

The next reading describes the events that took place in Tenochtitlan from the Aztec point of view. This event, the night of Pedro de Alvarado’s attack on the Aztecs, is referred to as the “The Massacre in the Main Temple.”

Pause the recording here to organize your notes and readings.

“An Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico,” 1528

The second reading is called, “An Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico,” it’s a reading of the events that occurred during the Massacre in the Main Temple.

As noted in the short introduction, “The Captain” is Cortés, and the person referred to as “The Sun” is Pedro de Alvarado. Also notice the spelling of Moctezuma, which is here written or pronounced as “Motecuhzoma.”

A few things to consider in this reading:

  1. Notice how time is reckoned, and the description of work being done, and also the gifts offered.
  2. Notice the dissension within the leadership of Tenochtitlan itself.
  3. Consider that Cortés was allowed to reenter the city, even after the actions of Alvarado — why would the Aztecs allow him to return, to cross the causeways over the lake, and reenter their temples?
  4. What is the role of gender and politics in this reading? What do the men and women do, how do they react, and how are these actions different from social norms.
  5. Lastly, at the end of the reading the “priests” being referred to are actually Aztec priests. Notice how even life itself has been commodified under the new rule of the Spanish.

The next reading brings us back to Bernal Diaz’s True History. In this chapter of his book, Diaz is describing the events after the return of Cortés to Tenochtitlan.

Pause the recording here to organize your notes and readings.

Bernal Diaz, “The Flight from Mexico,” 1552-1568

This chapter from The True History of the Conquest of New Spain is titled, “The Flight from Mexico.” Here, Diaz describes the reentry of Cortés into Tenochtitlan after his trip to the coast, and also their later escape. Cortés convinced the Spanish soldiers that were sent to arrest him, to join his expedition instead. With promises of gold and other riches, Cortés reentered Tenochtitlan with many more men than he had left with.

After the attack by Pedro de Alvarado, as described in the previous reading, “An Aztec Account,” the Aztec people rose up in rebellion, both against the Spanish, and also against their own leaders.

The general Aztec population in Tenochtitlan was angered by the presence of the Spaniards, and it was difficult to understand why Moctezuma would be so accommodating to them. This idea, that Moctezuma was somehow entranced by Cortés has led to the idea that he was believed to be a god. It’s more likely however, that Moctezuma was simply unsure of his own actions, and attempting to use Spanish presence to reassert his own political power.

These events here described by Diaz — the battle and escape from Tenochtitlan — are referred to as “The Night of Sorrows” or “La Noche Triste.”

A few things to consider in this reading:

  1. Notice how the placing of the image of Our Lady and the cross in the temple of Huitzilopotchli atop the Templo Mayor is still being discussed. (It was mentioned in a few of the previous readings.)
  2. Things are going pretty well here for Cortés so far in his expedition, notice how the actions of Alvarado have changed Cortés’ mood, and how the story shifts.
  3. Pages 293 and 294 are especially important. This is where Moctezuma pleaded with the Aztecs to stop the fighting, and where he was killed, supposedly, by his own people. Remember that in the textbook, it says that Moctezuma was actually murdered by the Spaniards — could Diaz be lying about the events, or twisting the account, could The True History be Spanish propaganda?
  4. The Spaniards escaped only with the help of Indian warriors. Once outside the city, other Indians helped the Spanish regroup and tended to their wounds. How were the indigenous peoples effecting their own history? What was the political climate in Mexico at the time — was there one, single “Mexican” point of view?

The next reading is by the Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagún. This reading is an oral history, and it is composed of interviews of indigenous peoples who were eye-witnesses to the Conquest, and recorded in text 25 years later.

Pause the recording here to organize your notes and readings.

Sahagún, “The Battle for Tenochtitlan,” mid to late 1500s

This reading by Sahagún brings us another indigenous perspective on the Conquest. This reading is a recap of the events. It discusses the march of Cortés and his conquistadors into Tenochtitlan, his entry into the floating city, and his trip to the coast to meet the soldiers sent from Cuba to arrest him. This reading also discusses the Massacre in the Main Temple, and the Night of Sorrows where the Spaniards fled Tenochtitlan. And lastly, this reading picks up after the Night of Sorrows, or the Flight from Mexico, and continues with the siege of the great floating city.

A few things to consider in this reading:

  1. Notice the role of disease. Smallpox ran through the indigenous population like wildfire, weakening and killing many, many Aztecs from all walks of life. How does considering the role of disease effect the story of the Conquest?
  2. Also notice how this reading has short asides throughout it. These passages are added by modern scholars, and they give additional and very helpful information for understanding the events as they occurred.
  3. This final reading on the Conquest of the Aztecs describes the extended siege of Tenochtitlan, notice again the role of disease, and starvation. Also consider the role of the Aztec warrior in the quetzal-owl costume, how his actions were somewhat of a gamble, and what became of him.

The final reading takes us from the Conquest of the Aztecs to the capture of the Inca ruler, Atahualpa.

Pause the recording here to organize your notes and readings.

Hemming, The Conquest of the Incas, Chapters 1 and 2

This reading is from John Hemming’s book, The Conquest of the Incas, which was written in 1970. This is definitely a secondary source, but it is based on primary source materials. While there are many texts on the Conquest of the Aztecs from both Spanish and indigenous sources, primary materials for the Conquest of the Incas are harder to come by, and it’s even more difficult to construct a complete narrative. By using the Hemming reading, we can get a good overview of the capture of Atahualpa, and the later fall of the Inca empire.

The Conquest of the Aztecs took place between 1519 and 1521 under the leadership of Hernán Cortés. This did not mean that all of Mexico was under Spanish rule in 1521, but only that Tenochtitlan, the largest and most central city was controlled by the Spaniards, and from there colonial rule would eventually spread to the countryside.

The Incas, by contrast, were much more difficult to subdue. Although the capture of Atahualpa was decisive, bringing the peoples of the Andes under Spanish colonial rule took many decades. The capture of Atahualpa occurred in 1532, and it wasn’t until 1572, forty years later, that the last Inca ruler named Túpac Amaru was killed by Spanish forces.

The ransom for Atahualpa was beyond imagination, possibly the greatest ransom ever paid in history. Despite this, Atahualpa was murdered by the Spaniards and a series of puppet Inca rulers were put in place. As a response to this, a shadow government developed in the remote jungle region of Vilcabamba. In the 1570s, under the leadership of the new Spanish viceroy, Francisco de Toledo, the Neo-Inca state was destroyed and Túpac Amaru, the last Sapa Inca, was executed.

This reading is a bit longer than the previous ones, but keep in mind that this is our only reading for the Conquest of the Incas.

A few things to consider in this reading:

  1. Notice the role that geography plays in the Conquest of the Incas. How is the geography of central Mexico different from the Andean capital of Cuzco?
  2. Along with the story of Atahualpa’s capture, notice the descriptions of Inca architecture, food, materials, and daily life.
  3. As you read, compare and contrast the civilizations of the Incas and the Aztecs. How were the captures of the indigenous rulers, Moctezuma and Atahualpa, different or similar? What role did written history play for the European invaders?

Thanks for listening, and if you have any additional questions before you write your Formal Essays, please post them on the discussion board, “Questions for Steve.”

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