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  • by Michael Wood (Author)
  • November 2002
  • First Edition
  • Paperback
  • Title Details

    Rights: Available in US and Territories, Canada
    Pages: 288
    ISBN: 9780520236912
    Trim Size: 7.25 x 9.5
    Illustrations: 100 color illustrations, 11 black-and-white illustrations, 5 maps

Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1: Cortes and Montezuma
Massacre in the Temple

From Chapter 6: The Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca
The Spanish Become Healers

Cortes and Montezuma

From Massacre in the Temple:

While Cortes was away on the coast, things came to a head in Mexico. We will never know whether, as the Spanish claimed, the Mexicans were planning an armed assault on the Spanish but, as we have seen, there are hints that they were trying to organize an alternative government and had raised an army of resistance. The Spanish mention no troubles, but one of the earliest and most interesting Aztec accounts - a brief set of annals, written in Tlatelolco, in the north of Mexico City, in 1528 - gives some crucial clues.

During the time Cortes was absent fighting Narvaez, Alvarado imprisoned two important leaders, including the military chief of Tlatelolco. He hanged another chief, and murdered the king of Nautla by shooting him with arrows and burning him alive. So the situation had already taken a turn for the worse when the time came for the great Aztec spring festival: 'That was why our warriors were on guard at the Eagle Gate. . . sentries from Tenochtitlan at one side; Tlatlolco on the other.'

In other words, the Aztecs were expecting trouble. But at Montezuma's specific request, according to the annals, the festival still went ahead. The Aztec annals, although laconic in the extreme, differ from the more detailed accounts in Spanish, and from the eye-witness reports gathered later by Father Sahagun. According to the Aztecs, the first day passed as normal: the idol of Huitzilopochti was made and dressed and the celebrants sang their songs without interference. It was on the second day that the Spanish struck:

They began to sing again but without warning they were all put to death.
The dancers and the singers were completely unarmed. They brought only their embroidered cloaks, their turquoises, their lip plugs, their necklaces, their clusters of heron feathers, their trinkets made of deer hooves. Those who played the drums, the old men, had brought their gourds of snuff and their timbrels.

The Spanish attacked the musicians first, slashing at their hands and faces until they had killed all of them. The singers - and even the spectators - were also killed. This slaughter in the Sacred Patio went on for three hours. Then the Spaniards burst into the rooms of the temple to kill the others: those who were carrying water, or bringing fodder for the horses, or grinding meal, or sweeping the floor. . .

Those are the bare facts, undisputed by either side. In the Florentine Codex account, which gives a report from an Aztec eye-witness who was present that day, there is an horrendous, agonizingly painful, and detailed description of the slaughter that triggered the Mexican uprising against Cortes. Through his words, we watch in slow motion as the camera turns from one horror to the next in the wide stuccoed courtyard: the sun beating down, the turquoise-blue and emerald-green feathers of quetzals and macaws, the gorgeous finery of the warriors, the flash of gold arm-rings, the liquid sheen of jade lip-plugs. The Spanish suddenly move forward in their armour, bearing their long swords of Toledo steel. The first Mexican victim, we are told, was a drummer. First his hands were severed, then his neck: 'Of some they slashed open their backs, then their entrails gushed out. Of some they cut their heads to pieces. . . Some they struck on the shoulders; they split openings. . . they split bodies open. . . '

Although the Mexicans had heard reports of what happened at Cholula, they had never seen Spanish swords at work first-hand. What was the meaning in this cutting of unarmed warriors? The Mexicans, for all their 'fierce and unnatural cruelty', as the Spanish describe it - and as we still tend to see them today - had very precise rules about the conduct of warfare, and very precise rules about violence to the human body. As their sacrificial ceremonies show, their cruelties were strictly controlled, ritualized. The idea of this kind of pre-emptive strike - a primitive massacre, like that at Cholula - was incredible to them, and the tone of the Aztec account is full of incredulity. For them, it was the Spanish who exhibited 'unnatural cruelty'.

The massacre in the temple is a key inciting moment in the tale: why did it happen? Did Alvarado panic? Obviously Cortes knew that Alvarado was impetuous - and, doubtless, in the way that calculating people are drawn to their opposites, this was why Cortes was drawn to Alvarado. Cortes must have left Alvarado with contingency plans, and these must have included the use of force if Alvarado believed they were threatened. But with that act of violence, the spell exerted by the bearded foreigners was broken. The upshot now was war: 'It was the twentieth day after Cortes left for the coast. . . We allowed the Captain to return to the city in peace. But on the following day we attacked him with all our might, and that was the beginning of the war. . . '

Cortes had returned on 25 June 1520. By 30 June, his situation was desperate. The causeways had been cut, the bridges taken away and the net had closed. The Spanish were now denied food supplies and there was an acute shortage of drinking water. With growing terror, they found themselves imprisoned in the heart of the City of Dreams.

What happened next on the Aztec side is shrouded in mystery, but we have to assume that, in secret rituals, they stripped Montezuma of the power of tlatoani, and appointed a successor - something which had never happened before in Aztec history. Did Cortes know this before he took his next step? We do not know, but he now forced Montezuma to speak to the crowds from the rooftop to try and pacify them. But, having already lost his power, Montezuma was forced to duck back under a hail of missiles.

The Spanish later claimed that Montezuma was wounded and later died of his injuries. But, hurt or not, when he was taken back to the palace, it seems clear that the Great Speaker was now understood by Cortes to have lost all his power and was, therefore, of no further use to the Spanish. The other captive nobles were also considered to be an encumbrance who should not be allowed to go free. That night, as the crowd roared outside, Cortes conferred with his captains and decided that Montezuma should be killed. Then, according to Father Sahagun's Aztec informants, he 'garrotted all the nobles he had in power'. The bodies were thrown off the roof into the courtyard below.

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The Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca

The Spanish become Healers

What Cabeza de Vaca chooses to record of his adventures - and what he does not say - constitutes the great riddle of his text. But in one area, though, he allows us a detailed glance. It was first of all on the island 'that the Indians tried to make us into medicine men or healers'. This moment is one of the inciting incidents in his inner journey: a key part of the process by which Cabeza de Vaca came to see things the Indian way, although it was obviously understood by him in Christian terms as he shaped his remarkable story into a book eight years later:

It was on that island that they tried to make us into medicine men, without examining us or asking for our credentials: for they cure illnesses by blowing on the sick person, and by blowing, and use of their hands, they cast the illness out of him; and they ordered us to do the same and to be of some use. We laughed at it, saying it was a joke, and that we did not know how to heal, and because of this they stopped giving us food, until we did as they had told us. And seeing our resistance, one Indian said to me that I did not know what I was talking about when I said that his knowledge would be no use to me - for [he said] stones and other things that grow in the fields have virtue, and by using a hot stone and passing it over the stomach he could take away pain; and we, who were superior men, surely had greater virtue and power than that.

It is, of course, a fantastic moment in this encounter with the Other. Like those first exchanges on the shore of Peru (told on page 119), this is another conversation in which the 500 years separating us are simply erased: 'At last we were under such pressure that we had to do it, without fear that we would be held up to scorn for it. . . ' (Remember that Cabeza de Vaca is excusing himself here to his readers in Spain, many years later.)

He then goes on to describe the Indian methods of healing, including not only their rituals, but also their practical medical interventions, such as cutting (with a sharpened bone or shell blade) and simple forms of cauterization by fire, 'which I have tried with good results,' he adds. He continues:

The way we cured was by making the sign of the cross over them, and blowing on them, and reciting a Pater Noster and an Ave Maria, and then we would pray as best we could to God our Lord to give them health and inspire them to give us good treatment. And God out Lord, and His mercy, willed that as soon as we had done this, all those for whom we had prayed, told the others that they were well and healthy. . .

So the themes of the odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca are laid out. The poor Karankawas on the Isle of Misfortune give us the signs by which we are meant to read the inner map of the tail - the journey that Cabeza de Vaca made to encounter and understand what it is like to be the Other. Such stories of healing happen too often in his accounts for us to disbelieve them - indeed, as we shall see, they are attested independently by four or five widely separated testimonies recounted by Indians to other Spanish expeditions over the next twenty years. No question, then, that these things happened. As for their meaning, this no doubt lies in the realms of the psychology of healing - and of belief. As far as we know, during his years on or near the Texas coast, Cabeza de Vaca remained a Christian - at least, that is how he presents the story. As far as the Indians were concerned, of course, to separate the world of spirits and the world of perceptible reality was not a meaningful division. The hidden world for them - as it still is for many surviving North American peoples - is palpable and always liable to break in on the present. For them, the spiritual life is life, and everything in the waking world is conditioned by it. To them, it was quite natural that a receptive person such as Cabeza de Vaca might be able to heal, and hence they asked him to do so.

At first, the Spaniard says he does not know how, and uses his Christian techniques of prayer in a true believer's way. It was the beginning of a long, strange and fruitful intermingling of Christian and indigenous religion in these parts. The tale, then, is extraordinary, but neither unnatural nor unbelievable. And it is noteworthy that, at the very end of his account, recollecting these events in the tranquillity of Spain, Cabeza de Vaca - as if in rebuke to those who wrote about Indian 'idolatry' - says simply, that 'in all the thousands of leagues I travelled, I never saw idolatry: for there is none among the Indians'. It is one of the most astonishing statements made by a European in the entire Age of Discovery.

Cabeza de Vaca could now speak the Karankawas' language and began to reconcile himself to a life among the Indians, far away from the Christian world. In the early days he was kept as a slave, working for his hosts. In the spring, he collected birds' eggs on the shore; sometimes he crossed to the mainland to kill a few deer or buffalo, saving the skins for clothing. Eventually, though, he could face their cruel existence no longer, and used his knowledge of their contacts to leave the island and move into the interior where the people treated him more kindly. For the next few years he lived among semi-nomadic Coahuiltecan Indians, trading for them, bartering seashells and coral with the people of the coast.

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