Source Criticism, Broken Bones

Paul Fischer
Natives of the Americas
Writing Assignment 1: Source Criticism, Broken Bones
HST 223 – 005


The defeat of the Aztecs occurred primarily in two phases, each of about one year, separated by a short period in which Cortes was driven out of Tenochtitlan and forced to take refuge with his near-by allies. This short period, in the summer of 1520, opens a window into the mind of one individual that was central to the nature of the Spanish Conquest and typical of the conquistadors that wreaked havoc across one of the world’s most prosperous regions. Also, the response of the Spanish, seen through both Cortes’ letters to the king and a soldier’s fond memoirs reveals a great amount of what sort of bias exists both for the Spanish and those that compiled the Broken Bones.


Cortes portrays himself as the ultimate European leader, but in fact he was only as a bully allowed to enter the chocolate factory. The response of the Aztecs to his presence is surprisingly muted initially, as he topples religious centers and humiliates Montezuma, suggesting a hatred from the Aztec people for the feared emperor and his deities, an impression that would have been reinforced by the evil of the Spanish.

There are lots of explanations for why the small Spanish force was able to topple one of the greatest empires in the world, but these explanations are equivalent to saying a bully is stronger than his victims, or better trained. The situation in Central America was not one of particularly exciting technology or warfare, but simple savagery. This is seen by analysing the bias of Broken Bones in order to gain a better understanding of the actual sequence of events, and more importantly, what Cortes was expecting to achieve with his brutal actions.  The barbaric manner in which the Spanish mass amputated natives’ hands or killed innocents, often unrelated to battle of any sort, terrified the natives into submission, which allowed Cortes to prey upon them further.

In his letters to the King, Cortes tends to justify these actions primarily through religion. As a part of a systematic eradication of a Satanic religion, the crown would tolerate any treatment of its subjects.  The expulsion of the Spanish from Mexico City is described by the natives as a direct result of the Spaniard’s greed, which  overtook them as they entered a new city. Cortes’ account of the event describes his pragmatic attack on a plot to poison or kill the Spanish and their allies.

Regardless, some factor, whether it was just Spanish greed or native hostility, arose that created anonymity between the two. Also it is known that Cortes responded in a characteristic manner, massacring the natives at one of their important warrior festivals analogous to Easter in importance and in date.  That Cortes wished this conflict to be viewed as a betrayal rather than unprovoked murder shows that he has some consciousness, at least in communication with his homeland, of the cruelty of his actions. With Montezuma losing control, and the Spaniards engaging in worse and worse behaviour such as raping women or pillaging delicate sculptures for ingots of precious metals,  nobles or other leaders in Aztec society may have attempted to grab control by driving the Spaniards out. The probability of this, however, is low because of the strictly hierarchical society in which the Aztecs lived that would not have allowed them to disobey their god-ruler, Montezuma.

The cruelty of Cortes is seen over and over again in his journey through Central American, and the religious setting of this massacre is typical for him. Among the most complete accomplishments of his conquest was the eradication of the indigenous religion. His favors for the catholic church include both hastily rededicated temples and priests, as well as killing prominent individuals involved with religious services. As Montezuma was treated with the worshipping reverence French nobles later gave to the Sun King, it is possible that Cortes had difficulty discerning between the upper and lower classes of society.  Thus his massacre of heretic dancing warriors may have actually been the first violence between the Spanish and the upper classes of Aztec society, resulting in bloodshed and warfare, where before the Spanish were only abusing peasants (with the exception of course of Montezuma).

The affluence of the Aztec civilization may have awed the Spanish, who would certainly have been overcome with greed, but this would not make Cortes any less shrewd in his actions. Where Broken Bones places the blame for the massacre squarely on the Spanish, and less directly, their greed, it is perhaps better to consider that the noble class of the Aztecs was highly militaristic and relied on their leader, Montezuma, for guidance. Cortes made his first mistake humiliating Montezuma, but after that he realized the use of a puppet ruler. This is seen in Broken Bones as he attempts to re-establish the power of Montezuma before killing him (literally described by the Spanish as an accident with their swords) and running for the woods. The greater mistake was in the massacre of innocent dancers, which may have been simply Cortes’ way of blowing off steam after the nobles refused to acknowledge Montezuma anymore (though they  were still far too scared to actually threaten Cortes). In this massacre, there must have been some element which enraged the Aztecs freshly, and more deeply, than the humiliation of their ruler. This could have  been the killing of influential nobles, warriors who wielded real power in Aztec society. This isn’t certain, but it is sure that the group who controlled the Aztec government was angered by the massacre at the ritual dancing in a way that the Spanish desecration of Temples and Emperor could not.

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