13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 2005
This well edited text brings students the documents behind the stories they may have read in high school textbooks. How did the Spanish conquer the spectacular city of Tenochtitlan with so few soldiers and in alien territory? The documents tell how they exploited alliances that were already in place. With hundreds of Tlaxcalan warriors accompanying them, housing them, feeding men and horses alike, the group of Spaniards was able to approach Tenochtitlan, make themselves unwelcome, and barely escape from the city alive... A fascinating read.
35 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2004
When the British Empire relinquished control to India, the jewel in the British crown, it became evident the age of Imperial European expansionism had come to an end. The period of global decolonization following World War II paved the way for a more critical approach to colonial history. The Euro-centric historical narratives of the colonial conquests were no longer acceptable within the academic community or for that matter entirely accurate. Stuart B. Schwartz a Professor of History at Yale University has set out to ensure the history of the conquest of Mexico is not written exclusively by the winners, but rather to present a fair and balanced compilation of European and Native American primary sources complemented by his own expert analysis. "Additional alternate texts paint a broader, richer canvas, fleshing out the narrative and conveying to the reader a sense that there was not simply a "Spanish" or an "Indian" view. Rather, there are a variety of visions and opinions, influenced and mediated by personal interests, class and ethnic biases, political considerations, and many other factors."
The introduction provides the reader with a comprehensive description of Mesoamerican and Spanish societies on the eve of the conquest. Included is the rise to power of the Mexica Empire through conquest and expansion and the foundation of the empire's island capital at Tenochtitlan. The author describes the historical background of the primary sources which constitute the majority of the narrative. Nahua sources are drawn primarily from The Florentine Codex, a post-conquest study of indigenous history and culture conducted by literate natives under the auspices of a Spanish missionary named Fray Bernardino De Sahagun. Erudite natives rather quickly adopted the Roman alphabet, for the most part abandoning the use of Nahuatl hieroglyphics, and by the late 1500's were capable of writing both Spanish and Nahuatl. However, the reader is advised of the existence of tribal differences and patron appeasement reflected within the codex as historical partiality as the greater part of Sahagun's indigenous informants were from Tlatelolco, a city under Tenochtitlan political control, and highly critical of the Mexica Empire and Montezuma. The principal Spanish source is Bernal Diaz del Castillo's book The True History of the Conquest of New Spain which chronicles the conquest from a soldier's perspective. Despite the wandering and crude prose of Bernal Diaz, his account documents the typical conquistador's motivations and justifications for the conquest, reveals the true scope of the clash of cultures beginning with the first encounters up to the fall of Tenochtitlan, and provides indispensable anecdotes from a human voice and mind of reason which serve to bring the events and personalities of the conquest to life for the student of Mesoamerican history.
The book is divided into eight chapters proceeding in chronological order from 1518-1521. Each section is preceded by a succinct analysis of the documents, the biases to avoid and the themes to concentrate upon. Integrated among the sources are useful maps, both ancient and modern, and paintings, both Spanish and Native American, which are complemented with academically irrefutable analysis and interpretations.
The first chapter entitled "Forebodings and Omens" deals primarily with a mysterious comet, an unexplained temple fire attributed to vindictive gods, and a weeping prophetic woman in the streets of Tenochtitlan which ominously preceded the tragic death of the empire. The mysterious premonitions are largely attributable to post-conquest indigenous attempts at justifying the procedures of their government. The aforementioned is particularly conspicuous in the legend of Quetzalcoatl, a god/man who left Tenochtitlan in the eastward direction, vowing to return in claim of his land. Thus, as Cortes arrived from the east, the Nahua mistook the Spaniard to be Quetzalcoatl. However, Schwartz informs the reader the myth of Quetzalcoatl is most likely a defense for Montezuma's vacillation. The second chapter "Preparations" concerns the backgrounds of the conquistadors and how Hernando Cortes came to lead the expedition.
The third chapter "Encounters" relies heavily upon Bernal Diaz's account of the first cross-cultural encounters at Cozumel and the Yucatan. Hernando Cortes is portrayed displaying his horses and cannons to frighten the natives at every chance that presented itself as both a joke and a military tactic. Both Spanish and native accounts however focus on the importance of interpreters such as Dona Marina, diplomacy, and the exchange of gifts in the interactions between the two civilizations. The fourth chapter "The March Inland: Tlaxcala and Cholula" in which Schwartz explains the strategic alliance between the Spanish and the Tlaxcalans, arrived at after a fierce battle, often neglected from native accounts. The Spanish-Tlaxcala alliance was of paramount importance in helping a band of approximately a thousand Spaniards turn the tide against an empire of warriors. However, after the battle for Tenochtitlan, the Tlaxcalans were offered no special consideration by the conquerors, resulting in distortion of the differentiation between historical victors and vanquished. After consummating the alliance at Tlaxcala, the Spanish arrive at Cholula where they are at first cordially accepted but were apparently deceived by the Cholulans. Here history becomes vague as the actors attempt to justify, excuse, or condemn, nonetheless the result was a bloodbath. Adres de Tapia, a Spanish conquistador justifies the Cholula massacre as a provoked attack to prevent a planned ambush. While the native accounts differ because of post-conquest patron appeasements, the consensus leaned toward an unprovoked slaughter.
In chapters five and six Schwartz compares indigenous and Spanish accounts of Cortes' arrival at the island capital which are remarkably equivalent with the exception of the native's bewilderment at the deer upon which the Spaniards were mounted and the Spanish comparison of the city of Tenochtitlan to Venice, Italy. Nonetheless, the sense of awe and astonishment are present throughout both accounts. Conversely, the versions disagree over the incident at Toxcatl with the Indians claiming an unprovoked massacre and the Spaniards claiming Pedro de Alvarado was merely foiling a rebellion. Likewise, the tragic death of Montezuma is portrayed differently in each account. The Tlatelocans appear angered equally by the death of their leader and the capitulation of their leader while the Spanish are mournful of the death of Montezuma. The pure emotion surrounding the foreboding death of the emperor is evident in Bernal Diaz's account when he laments: "Cortes wept for him, and all of us Captains and soldiers, and there was no man among us who knew him and was intimate with him, who did not bemoan him as though he were our father"
Chapters seven and eight refer to the final defeat of the city of Tenochtitlan and the protracted effects of the conquest, colonial rule, and cultural syncretism. Schwartz reveals the glory and sophistication of Mexica civilization, its valiant resistance as it gasped its last breaths at Tenochtitlan, and its resilience under colonial rule. Bernal Diaz's account of the fierce native resistance, the siege of Tenochtitlan and the final defeat of the empire is characterized by his intense reverence of the courage, strength and resiliency of the natives. The native account of the defeat drawn from The Florentine Codex encapsulates the tragedy of the annihilation of the civilization: "the Spainiards took things from people by force. They were looking for gold; they cared nothing for green-stone, precious feathers, or turquoise. Then they burned some of them on the mouth [branded them]; and...the weapons were laid down and we collapsed"
Criticism of Victors and Vanquished can only be directed at the personal agendas, political motivations, class, ethnic, and religious biases contained within the primary sources themselves which supplant historical fact with historical subjectivism. Schwartz reminds the reader that historical scholarship is constructed upon a foundation of anecdotal primary sources and it is the endeavor of the scholar to interpret and distinguish the factual from the tainted and distorted. Schwartz emphasizes the Sisyphean task of creating a true accurate history and invites debate inquiring, "What is a "true" history?"
Nonetheless, the author equips the wary reader with a concise analysis preceding each primary source allowing the scholar to continue reading cognizant of biases to avoid and themes to concentrate upon. His writing style is neither loquacious nor deficient, but rather Schwartz provides the ideal amount of flawless and meticulous analysis all the while exhibiting his dominant command of the subject. Stuart B. Schwartz's Victors and Vanquished is an unprecedented and enriching academic breakthrough in the interpretation of the past, deviating from the archaic tradition of history dictated exclusively by conquerors to a balanced and even-handed scholarship shining light on victors and vanquished alike.