Colonizing or Re-colonizing the Past?

Reading Prescott's Conquest of Mexico in the light of Matthew Restall's Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest


In Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, Professor of Colonial Latin American History Matthew Restall argues that Western historiography has built a myth-based narrative of the history of the conquest of Latin America by the Spanish Empire.[1] Defining a myth as a fictitious object commonly taken to be true, Restall claims that the mythical modus operandi of history writing stems from an anthropological need to legitimatize the conquest.[2] Although the construction of the said myths may have been contemporary to the Conquest and the colonial period themselves, Restall points to the critical role played by nineteenth century scholars in reworking and solidifying this mythical explanation of the Conquest. Restall emphasizes in particular the importance of American historian William H. Prescott's Conquest of Mexico, a work published in 1843 that remained an undisputed source of historical authority for decades.[3] Contrasting a portrait of Cortés from Prescott's book with Restall's explanatory framework, this paper will first focus on how Prescott's depiction of Cortés reflects what Prestall names the Cortés myth and a personalize vision of history, before going on to discuss how Prescott's text more broadly demonstrates the myth of Spanish superiority pinpointed by Restall—namely the ongoing narrative of the Conquest as a process leading inexorably to the victory of the Spanish

According to Restall, the first element of Cortés' legend is his exceptionality.[4] Describing Cortés as endowed with "powers", Prescott suggests from the outset his divine nature.[5] Prescott also does emphasize Cortés' outstandingness by highlighting his courage and taste for "dangers and difficulties."[6] Prescott further stresses Cortés' unwavering determination and ambition by stating that Cortés "prefer[red] to take his enterprises by the most difficult side."[7] He uses a ternary rhythm and constructs parallel propositions to describe how Cortés led the conquest of Mexico as follows:

When he saw the strength of its civilization, he was not turned from his purpose. When he was assailed by the superior force of Narvaez, the still persisted in it, and, when he was driven in ruin form the capital, he still cherished his original idea.[8]

This form of sentences structure echoes the romanticized vision of Cortés' trajectory depicted by Prescott. Mentioning the "strength of [the Aztéc] civilization" by contrast with "[Cortés]'s little navy" indeed reinforces Cortés' merit in defeating it. Prescott also describes the Cortés strategy as a well-refined plan "conceived at the first moment of [Cortés]'s landing in Mexico."[9] Furthermore, Prescott singularizes the figure of Cortés vis-a-vis other conquistadors by stating that: "of all the band of adventurous cavaliers [...] there was no one more deeply filled with the spirit of romantic enterprise than Hernando Cortés."[10]

Restall claims that the mythical description of Cortés by Prescott is rooted in the circulation of a narrow number of sources dating from the XVIth century, highlighting not only the exceptionality of the conquistadors in general, but the uniqueness of Cortés in particular. Restall explains that the conquistador's probanzas, (reports to the King aiming at informing the monarch about the discoveries, yet also used to tout the conquistadors' merits), were critical in shaping sixteenth and seventeenth century historical works.[11] Restall also underscores the limited number of first hand historical records of the Conquest, namely those of Bernal de Díaz and Garcilaso De La Vega, which both emphasize the determination of the conquistadors. He finally explains that Gómara's hagiography of Cortés significantly contributed to establish Cortés as the emblematic conquistador while eclipsing Pizarro and Columbus. According to Restall, Prescott's intervention within this historiographical landscape was to enshrine the personalization of the Conquest in the figure of Cortés as well as to make the Conquest of Mexico the symbol of the entire conquest.[12]

This last point is embedded within the very opening statement of Prescott's text, which unambiguously states: "the history of the Conquest, [...] is necessarily that of Cortés."[13] The personification of the Conquest in the figure of Cortés is further suggested by Prescott's emphasis on Cortés' ubiquity and corporeality. Described as "present everywhere in person," and in every battlefield, as he is both "leading his soldiers [...] and his little navy,"[14] Cortés seems to multiply himself in space and time such that he leads himself every operation of the conquest. Prescott adds that Cortés is "not merely the soul, but the body of the enterprise"[15] thus emphasizing that Cortés is the literal and physical incarnation of the conquest.

To the myth of Cortés that reflects a "great men approach" to the history of the Conquest, Restall opposes three main sets of arguments.[16] First, Restall denounces how every move of Cortés had been taken as "indicative of his exceptionality," by arguing that Cortés' conquest followed methods rooted in the Iberian procedures predating the Conquest as well as those rooted in the Caribbean phase.[17] Second, Restall shows that reducing the history of the Conquest to that of the conquistadors ignores the impact of larger processes motivating Spanish expansionism, such as European rivalries and competition to discover precious metals. This narrative also silences the critical role played by the Spaniards' native allies and African fighters in the conquest, thus exhibiting what Restall names the myth of invisible warriors.  Third, Restall argues that far from being an exceptionally brave soldier motivated by noble ideals, Cortés was in fact a quite ordinary and cynical conqueror.[18]

In this regard, Restall claims that the figure of Cortés is archetypical in the sense that it illustrates general erroneous characteristics commonly associated with the conquistadors. Two of those can be found in Prescott's text: the conquistador's allegedly romantic vision of the Conquest and the predominance of military terms to describe the Spanish expeditions. Indeed, Prescott depicts Cortés as featuring his "musket", his "swords," while leading his "soldiers" and his "navy."[19] According to Restall, this vocabulary reflects the late sixteenth century gradual adoption of the term soldado as a result to a change in the ways Europeans waged war.[20] Indeed, the context of Franco-Spanish rivalries combined with the modernization of the Spanish artillery led to the institutionalization of permanent armies, underpinned by the invention of new weapons, such as the musket - hence the anachronistic quote by Prescott. Rather than being soldiers in an army, Restall argues, the conquistadors acquired their skills on the field, when encountering conflicts. Moreover, whereas Prescott describes Cortés as a "knight-errant"[21] endowed with a "romantic spirit of enterprise," Restall claims that the main rationale of the conquistador was the prospective of profit. [22]  On the field, the conquistador was seeking opportunities through patronage-based[23] networks.[24] Within Restall's framework, Prescott's text illustrates the myth of the King's army, namely the historiographical process through which "conquerors became conquistadors" as a result of the sixteenth and seventeenth century European "military revolution.".[25]

Prescott's extract ends on the following statement: "how successfully [Cortés] carried [his original idea] into execution, we have seen."[26] This sentence implies that the scope of Cortés' achievements speaks for itself and does not need further comments, and thus resonates with the ultimate myth analyzed by Restall: the myth of Spanish superiority. Used to justify colonialism to this day, this myth has however encountered variations over times. Restall sustains that during the nineteenth century, this myth was repackaged to cope with Western imperialism in general and European expansionism in particular. This nineteenth century vision of the superiority myth relies on the discourse of Spanish double superiority of civilization and technology when they encountered the 'New World'.[27] Both of these elements surface in Prescott's text. Cortés' success despite the "strength of [Mexico's] civilization" combined with his "powers" points to his supremacy sustained by his providential nature.[28] Furthermore, as analyzed above, Prescott's reference to Cortés' weapons, soldiers and navy suggests his technical superiority. While not providing his reader with a clear conclusion regarding the validity of this last point, Restall brings a twofold response to the superiority myth. First, he argues that the two greatest allies of the conquistadors were in fact the disease they brought with them as well as Native disunity. Second, Restall claims that the superiority framework is not sufficient to take full account of the Spanish Conquest, which must be understood as an "uneven encounter" within the broader history of the "gradual globalization of resources," a period "we are still living through." [29]

In this regard and to conclude, Prescott's text functions as a precious primary source exemplifying the argument made by Restall in Seven Myth of the Spanish Conquest.  Indeed, Prescott's work not only reflects how the history of the Spanish conquest has and continues to be imprisoned in a subjective narrative based on a system of myths, but also how these myths have been re-interpreted over time to eventually build our contemporary understanding of the past, still influenced by Prescott's personalization of the Conquest and imperial-justifying ideology.

© Rosalie Calvet, November 2016


Work Cited

Prescott, William Hickling. The Conquest of Mexico. New York: H. Holt and company, 1922.

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. New York, US: Oxford University Press, 2003.

[1] Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (New York, US: Oxford University Press, 2003),

[2] Ibid., 134.

[3] William Hickling Prescott, The Conquest of Mexico (New York: H. Holt and company, 1922).

[4] Restall, 15.

[5] Prescott, 907.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Prescott, 907.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Restall, 14.

[12] Restall, 17.

[13] Prescott, 907

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Restall, 4.

[17] Ibid., 19.

[18] Ibid, 10.

[19] Prescott, 907.

[20] Restall, 32.

[21] Interesting metaphor not discussed by Restall in his book. The theme of the kinght-errant, inherited from the Middle Age, was extremely popular in sixteenth century Iberian literature. Prescott's using this word thus suggests a continuity between sixteenth and nineteenth century usage of the term.

[22] Prescott, 907.

[23] including Cortés himself, whom took advantage of his own network as well as that of Governor Velazquez to maximize its chances of success

[24] Restall, 38.

[25] Ibid., 32.

[26] Prescott, 907.

[27] Restall, 137.

[28] Prescott, 907.

[29] Restall, 145.