Analysis Of When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story Of The Meeting That Changed History By Matthew Restall

Matthew Restall in his resent work When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History challenges history’s dominate interpretation of “The Conquest of Mexico”. Starting in 1519 with what Restall would argue to be one of the most significant meetings of civilizations between the Aztec leaders and Spanish conquistadors in Tenochtitlan, the enriched capital of the Aztec Empire now known as Mexico City. The narrative in question, written in a series of letters by the conquistador himself, Hernán Cortés, to Spain’s King Carlos V, detailing both a failed interpretation of Montezuma's welcoming address as a signal of surrender to Cortés and his presumed “fabricated” conquest, Restall notes, is one “in which civilization, faith, reason, reality and a progressive future are victorious over barbarism, idolatry, superstition, irrationality, and retrogressive past”. Restall’s claim is that this historic meeting stands as a symbol for the history of European colonization of the Americas in its entirety and warrants re-examination.

As explained in the books earlier chapters, Restall’s goal is not to turn “legends into losers”. Although Restall proves that Cortés was a lackluster leader and womanizer, the belief of Montezuma’s surrender is not the soul responsibility of Cortés. Restall uses of Mexican history, art and its languages to do his own translating of primary sources which both confirm and contradicts what he calls the "mythistory” of the event. Moreover, to simply accept the interpretation that Cortés letters are the root of the propaganda, would be too “slavish to the legend of his alleged genius”. Restall instead attacks the questionable tactic of historians relying on “easy sources” to promote an approach where "history is encounter... the sum of all the narratives of those encounters”(19).When Montezuma Met Cortés dives deep into the details of 16th-century Spanish exploration and imperialism with the text divided into 3 sections including 150 pages of footnotes and bibliography. This is a work of revisionism, giving Restall a great deal of primary and secondary resources to research that supports his skepticism of the traditional narrative surrounding the meeting between Spain and Mesoamrica. This is true, till the reader reaches Restall’s conclusion where it is argued that instead of Cortés being the hunter of Montezuma, it was rather Montezuma capturing his Spanish adversaries for his royal collation of animals and objects, proving the Aztec to be more cunning than historical accounts.

Restall’s affirmations of Aztec logic continues into his examination of the ritual cannibalism and human sacrifices taking place at the time of Cortés arrival. Archeological finding tell us that human sacrifices did occur and Rituals justifies the consumption the flesh of your enemy, Restall finds better use focusing on these facts as justification for a confirmation bias, rather than simply a questionable aspects of any culture. Although, throughout his work, Restall’s assertions are well-supported, like when he makes a case for the depiction of a strong leader of the Aztec civilization in a city with gardens, palaces, and even a zoo a century before European rather than a cowardly fool. Yet, other facts are apparently absent, like the assumption that there was no need for Montezuma to fear the few hundred Spanish, as he was baiting them for research? This detail is of the most “critical importance understanding Montezuma” yet, he also finishes this chapter by claiming that there is “no direct evidence proving this fact”.

The confession Restall provides for lacking evidence of Montezuma’s double cross does not hinder Restall arguments, nor does any cultural rituals supersede all the atrocities of rape and genocide taking place in 1520 at the hands of the conquistadors. As Restall puts it, “the Conquest of México should be seen as a war”. A battle that continues today for Cortés’s exceptionalism, which is not due strategically victory, but simply surviving, proving that "Cortés’s greatest accomplishment was self-preservation”.

03 December 2019
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