Readings for this audio essay

  • “Letter from Columbus to Luis de Santangel,” 1493 (PDF)
  • Hernán Cortés, “Second Letter to Charles V,” 1520
  • Bernal Diaz, excerpt from The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, 1552-1568 (PDF)
  • Bartolomé de Las Casas, Apologetic History of the Indies, 1566 (PDF)
  • “Politics, Gender, and the Conquest of Mexico” – Bernal Diaz, 1552-1568 (PDF)

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

Audio essay transcript


I’m Steve Anderson, and this audio essay explores various perspectives of the Discovery and Conquest of the New World.

The primary source readings for this essay are Spanish documents, dating from the first contact with Americans in 1492, through the Conquest, and into the colonial period in the mid 1500s.

The term “Discovery” is certainly misleading. It was more so a meeting of disparate civilizations held apart by the vast Atlantic Ocean for thousands of years until sailing technology and the accidents of history brought them together.

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 window, 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As with any historical document, take a moment before reading to examine the time, location, and author of the document.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 audience — for example, letters to a wealthy patron would have a very different tone than those written to a close friend.

As you read through these Spanish documents, also consider the indigenous point of view. Although the vast majority of indigenous writings were destroyed by Spanish military and religious figures, we can still attempt to understand pre-Columbian culture, however imperfectly, through these documents.

Realize that first and foremost, sailing expeditions were a financial endeavor. Without the potential for a return on their investment, wealthy patrons were unlikely to underwrite the journey. If explorers, were unable to secure ships, crews, supplies, and also a royal sponsorship, there would be no voyage.

From the ecclesiastical viewpoint, however, the greatest benefit to the exploration of the Atlantic world was the potential for new converts to Christianity. In this case, bringing those who did not know of Christ into the religious fold of Catholicism was of the utmost importance.

Also consider the power of Catholicism in Western Europe at the time of the Discovery. When Columbus set sail, the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation were still 25 years away. And also consider, that at this time in history, to be Spanish was to be Catholic.

“Letter from Columbus to Luis de Santangel,” 1493

The first reading is a letter written by Columbus to Luis de Santangel, and the introduction to the reading provides some explanation. Santangel was connected to the finances of the crown, and he helped persuade Queen Isabella to allow the expeditions to occur. With the financial backing of Santangel, the crown was freed from the responsibility of the expedition if it failed. And if the expedition succeeded, which it certainly did, then the crown was able to reap the rewards.

In this particular introduction notice the attention to detail about the letter itself. Unlike the introductions to the primary sources for the Origin Myths, this intro focuses on the document itself, how it traveled, how it was printed, the persons involved in its scholarly journey, and also the places and languages it was printed in. Notice that the first printed editions have the most “authority.” Consider this aspect of documenting history, and as we move forward with the history of Latin America, documents, papers, and the work they do will become increasingly important.

The primary source begins on the sixth page, or page 263 in the PDF. A couple of side-notes here — “Cathay” is China, and to “parley” means to speak with people, or hold a conference.

A few important points to consider about the Letter to Santangel:

  1. Consider who Columbus is writing to — why would he mention “gold” so often?
  2. How does Columbus describe the religion of the so-called Indians he meets, and why would this interest other Europeans?
  3. Consider that the small canoes or boats common in the Caribbean at the time of the Discovery were mostly driven by oars, or man power. Columbus however, arrived by using the wind alone. Also consider that throughout Mesoamerica, wind gods were a common religious feature — they tied together the seasons, the weather, and harvests, with religious ceremony and ritual. With all this in mind, imagine the conversations taking place between Columbus and Indian leaders, neither of which spoke or knew of the other’s language or customs. What misconceptions could arise in such a meeting, or clash of civilizations?

We’ll go on to the second reading now, a letter written by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés to Charles V (also referred to as Carlos V). Charles V was the king of Spain as well as the Holy Roman Emperor. Pause the recording here to organize your notes and readings.

“Second Letter to Charles V,” Hernán Cortés, 1520

In this second reading, Cortes is writing directly to the King of Spain, and Cortes is in a bit of a quandary, or dilemma. Cortes left the island of Cuba, the Spanish stronghold in the New World in the early 1500s, and sailed to the mainland near Veracruz, Mexico. The instructions Cortes left with, were to only explore the mainland but he took things much further. As Cortes left Cuba, the governor of the island attempted to stop him, but Cortes pressed on and continued his personal mission into unknown territory. Cortes traveled deep into Mexico, and through a series of fortunate events, arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519.

In this letter, Cortes is describing the wonders of the Aztec capital city to the King of Spain. Consider that in order for this letter to reach the king, a messenger had to travel back from Tenochtitlan to the Mexican coast, then the letter would sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Once reaching Spanish ports, the letter would then travel to Spain’s capital city of Madrid, or be directed further on to wherever the king and his advisors might be in Europe at the time. The contents of this letter are undoubtedly important for Latin American history, but equally interesting are the complex networks of communication that enabled such letters to reach their destinations.

A few important points to consider in the reading:

  1. The letter might seem a bit long compared to some of our other readings because of it’s lengthy description. Notice that Cortes is aware that he’s listing many items of interest, and consider the wondrous nature of his visit to the Aztec capital.
  2. How does Cortes begin and end the letter? Why is this rhetoric important?
  3. What does Cortes do in the capital city, and how does he view Moctezuma? Consider these actions and perspectives and how their importance might impact events to come.

The next reading is an excerpt of the book, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz. Pause the recording here to organize your notes and readings.

Bernal Diaz, excerpt from The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, 1552-1568

The introduction to this reading is only a short paragraph, but it’s extremely important for understanding this primary source document. Bernal Diaz was an eighteen-year-old soldier accompanying Cortes on his journey into Tenochtitlan. His account of the Conquest, however, was written over six decades later, when Diaz was elderly and upset about the previous stories of the Conquest written by those who had never witnessed the splendor of pre-Columbian Tenochtitlan. Consider how Diaz’s age and agenda could color his retelling of events. The True History, as it’s often referred to, is indeed a primary source, despite the distance in time between the events and their recording.

A few notes for this reading — the word “Uichilobos” with a “U” is referring to the Aztec god, Huitzilopotchli (check the transcript for spelling, and remember that many of these terms can be spelled in various ways). The “image of a dragon” that Diaz refers to, is the god Tlaloc, and the great cu is the Templo Mayor, the main temple in Tenochtitlan from which the entire Valley of Mexico could be overseen. One of the gods mentioned as “Tezcatepuca” is actually Tezcatlipoca. The “half man and half lizard” god was actually Quetzalcoatl, also known as the feathered or plumed serpent, who was a god of wind and also of merchants.

Many of the gods throughout Mesoamerica represented a variety of religious aspects — some of these were elemental, such with the gods of wind, rain, and fire, and others were more nuanced as with commerce and trade. There were also other gods relating to fertility and war, as well as lightening and death. Most importantly though, is that the representations of these gods were often a combination of effects — the base figure was a human form, and it was combined with grotesque or animalistic features.

A few points to consider for this reading, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain

  1. Consider the cleanliness of the temples. How does Diaz describe these very important Aztec centers of religion, and how does this differ from Catholicism or Christianity, and Islam and Judaism?
  2. How does Diaz describe the city of Tenochtitlan and its environs, and how does he compare the architecture to Europe?
  3. When Diaz refers to “Our Lady,” this is prior to the Marian Apparitions, or the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531. Here, Diaz is referring to Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Extremadura, Spain. Consider this exchange involving the Christian cross, and the referencing of the Aztec gods as devils. Also consider that Cortes is referred to as “Señor Malinche,” and what this might mean for the role of Doña Marina in Mexican history.

Our fourth reading is by Bartolomé de las Casas. Pause the recording here to organize your notes and readings.

Apologetic History of the Indies

The fourth reading is the “Apologetic History of the Indies,” written by Bartolomé de las Casas in 1566. In the case of this reading, the word “apologetic” doesn’t mean to be sorry or regretful, instead it refers to the writing as a justification of religious theory or doctrine. The issue at hand for Las Casas was the treatment of the Indians at the hands of the Europeans.

Las Casas observed the cruel treatment of the Indians by Spanish conquistadors and encomenderos, and he fought for the rights of indigenous peoples against slavery and exploitation. Consider though, that while Las Casas questioned the methods of conquest and exploration, as well as the treatment of indigenous peoples, he did not question the role of Spain as a ruler of the continent, or the conversion of the Indians to Catholicism.

Some further items to consider for this reading:

  1. How does Las Casas compare the people of the New World to Europe? What time or place in the history of the world do the Indians seem to hold?
  2. How does Las Casas compare or describe the “rational judgement” or prudence of the Indians? How does Las Casas compare the indigenous religion of the Indians to Christianity, and how does this differ from other Catholic accounts?
  3. What are the “three types of prudence” that Las Casas refers to, and why are these ideas important for his argument?

Our fifth and final reading brings us back to the story of Bernal Diaz and the Conquest. Pause the recording here to organize your notes and readings.

“Politics, Gender, and the Conquest of Mexico” – Bernal Diaz, 1552-1568

Although we’re moving back in time from Las Casas in the mid 1560s to the Conquest in 1521, consider that this reading brings with it a modern historical perspective. The role of politics and gender are crucial for understanding the Conquest, and in this reading we can think back to Cortes being referred to as “Señor Malinche” and consider its importance.

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Doña Marina, or La Malinche, was a central figure of the Conquest, and yet largely written out of history by male authors. As stated in the introduction to this reading, Doña Marina was simultaneously a “conquistador, concubine, and slave.” She was at once a hero and a victim, a madonna and a whore, so to speak, a concubine for the Spanish invaders, the mother to mestizo children, and also a military leader and loyal confidant.

Doña Marina was at the center of heretofore unimaginable historical events, and yet we have no writings from her. She exists only in codex images and in Spanish texts, such as here by Bernal Diaz.

Some further points for this reading:

  1. Consider that Diaz is writing about Doña Marina, and using this name instead of La Malinche — how does this simple choice of wording impact his story? Also, how does Diaz keep track of time?
  2. What is the story of Doña Marina, how did she leave her status as “cacique” and become a slave? How did she react when she met her family again, and how would Diaz’s writing about this event impact her reputation?
  3. The crucial event in this reading is the arrest of the tax-gatherers, and Doña Marina is at the center of this event. How could this moment effect the view of Doña Marina, or La Malinche, in longer view of Mexican history.

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

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