Force of Personality or Forces of History?
The Spanish conquest of Mexico, a turning point in human history comparable to the feats of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan, took place nearly 500 years ago, between February 1519, when Hernan Cortes and his small fleet first made landfall on the coast of the Yucatan, and August 1521 which saw the final apocalyptic siege and destruction of the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan – the site of modern Mexico City.
The people who history so often wrongly refers to as the Aztecs called themselves the Mexica and that is how I refer to them in War God . Under their Emperor Moctezuma they could put 200,000 ferocious, battle-hardened warriors in the field. Confronting this gigantic army, which sought to honor the war god Huitzilopochtli – “Hummingbird” – by taking enemies prisoner, bringing them to the great pyramid of Tenochtitlan and cutting out their hearts in gruesome spectacles of blood and terror, Cortes commanded just 490 Spanish irregular troops. Their numbers were swelled by some 100 sailors bringing the total invading force to about 600 after Cortes had scuttled his own fleet in a spectacular act of audacity and defiance, telling his men “we must conquer this land or die”.
Academics often argue about whether personalities make much difference in great events, or whether broader social, economic and political forces are the real engines of history, but one of the many things I have found so intriguing about the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and one of the reasons I decided to write War God as a novel rather than as a work of non-fiction, is that personalities clearly mattered very much indeed.
If, for example, Moctezuma had been a different sort of ruler, if he had possessed a shred of kindness or decency, if there had been any capacity in him to love, then he surely would not have preyed upon neighboring peoples for human sacrifices to offer up to his war god, in which case he could have earned their devotion and respect rather than their universal loathing, and thus might have been in a position to lead a united opposition to the Spanish adventurers and to crush them utterly within weeks of setting foot in his lands. But he was none of these things and thus Cortes was almost immediately able to exploit the hatred that Moctezuma’s behavior had provoked and find allies amongst those the Mexica had terrorized and exploited – allies who were crucial to the success of the conquest. Of particular note in this respect were the mountain people called the Tlascalans who had suffered the depredations of the Mexica more profoundly than any others and who were led by Shikotenka, a general so brave and so principled that he at first fought the Spanish tooth and nail – seeing the existential danger they posed to the entire culture of the region – despite the liberation from Moctezuma’s tyranny that Cortes offered him. Only when Cortes had utterly crushed Shikotenka in battle did he finally give in to the demands of the Tlascalan Senate to make an alliance with the Spaniards, an alliance that soon put tens of thousands of auxiliaries under Cortes’ command.
Another personality who also played a vital role, arguably a decisive role, was the mysterious and reportedly very beautiful woman called Malinal who had a gift for languages and who was to become Cortes’ interpreter and ultimately his lover and the mother of his child. History does not tell us why Malinal bore Moctezuma such a deep personal grudge that she was willing to sell out her own people in order to see him defeated, but one of the joys of writing fiction rather than non-fiction is that it allows me to fill in such gaps. In my novel we first meet Malinal in the women’s fattening pen in Tenochtitlan being prepared for sacrifice – her heart to be cut out, her body to be butchered and eaten – by Moctezuma himself. Through daring, and with the aid of a fourteen-year-old witch named Tozi, another central character in my story, Malinal escapes this fate and flees to the coast of the Yucatan where she encounters Cortes and soon makes herself indispensable to him.
It is Malinal who tells Cortes about the white-skinned, bearded god Quetzalcoatl, “Feathered Serpent”, who an ancient prophecy said would return in the year One-Reed to overthrow a wicked king and restore peace and justice to the land. And as it happened 1519 in our calendar was the year One-Reed in the Mexica calendar. Whether this was pure chance or whether some inscrutable design might have been at work, Malinal taught Cortes how to exploit the myth of the god’s return. What followed was a ruthless and spectacularly successful campaign to dominate Moctezuma psychologically long before the Spaniards faced him in battle.
In future articles, I’ll have more to say about Quetzalcoatl and about the role of the supernatural in my story.
More information about War God here.
In this article I share information on my new novel War God which tells the epic story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico – a true adventure so extraordinary, and at times so unbelievable, you literally “couldn’t make it up”.