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Research of The History of The Conquest of Mexico Analyzing The Works by William H. Prescott and Matthew Restall

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In the course of academic research into the Spanish Conquest, several myths and misunderstandings came to light that continue to survive, even to the present day. In Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, Matthew Restall, a historian and professor specializing in Colonial Latin America, convincingly debunks some of the core beliefs that were born out of academic explanations that later transformed into common knowledge. For example, an American historian by the name of William H. Prescott serves as a naked example of how one man’s attempt to explain the Spanish conquest (with the help of primary sources) still lead to numerous misconceptions – primarily that of an extraordinary personality born from a superior society that was able to overcome a vast and powerful empire in a relatively short span.

William H. Prescott lived in a time in the United States where the idea of manifest destiny was in full swing. In his book, History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843, preceded the Mexican cession by five years where the United States gained a huge portion of Mexico’s territory by force. The book was popular as it legitimized the seizure of territory of an inferior culture by a superior one. However, Matthew Restall delved into an important question: How accurate is our popular knowledge or history of the Spanish Conquest? Restall started with archival sources between the 16th to 18th centuries and moved onto published primary sources. He concludes with sources that our current society is exposed to: television programs, movies, and textbooks. Correspondingly, he was more interested in the nature of history and how that history was generated and morphed, beginning with the events themselves. Whether these accounts were condemned or promoted, they also set the critical foundations of what we deem today as the ‘truth. ’

In the case of the Spanish Conquest, there were accounts that were published in multiple languages of people that were actually in the events. Prescott contends that “Of all the band of adventurous cavaliers, whom Spain, in the sixteenth century, sent forth on the career of discovery and “conquest, there was none more deeply filled with the spirit of romantic enterprise than Hernando Cortés”. Prescott’s romanticizing and idolizing of Cortés proves Restall’s point that the Spanish Conquest requires one to look at the more nuanced details that often get missed in the portraits that serve to focus on heroes and their exploits. In his book, he argues “larger processes of social change… It fails to recognize the significance of context and the degree to which the great men are obliged to react to – rather than fashion – events, forces, and the many other human beings around them. ” This exemplifies society’s natural state to accept the way things are simply because it is easy to understand a few overriding reasons and explanations. It is this thought process that reduces processes to key figures and events while ignoring entire perspectives. Furthermore, Prescott would state that “When he was assailed by the superior force of Narvaez, he still persisted in it. ” Restall would express the counterargument that the belief that the Spanish conquest was accomplished by a small number of white Spaniards needs to be questioned. Restall claims that much of the actual military operations were undertaken by the indigenous allies of the Conquistadors, outnumbering the actual Spanish forces by many hundreds to one. Restall would evidently continue with “And if the number of Africans on earlier expeditions was in dozens or hundreds, there were soon thousands of black men and women in core colonies such as Peru – even while Conquest continued” which portrays that the numbers increased in such a rapid manner in which at some point, it was impossible for Spanish conquistadors to deny their presence altogether.

There also were several conquistadors of African and Moorish descent within their ranks, which dispels the popularly held belief that it was solely the white Europeans that conquered despite being heavily outnumbered. The Spaniards believed that without them, the Africans and Natives would not have even gotten the opportunity to fight in the first place and therefore were simply looked as tools rather than human beings. Instead of the popular image of a small group of conquistadors overcoming a vast empire on their own, Restall argues that they were merely one faction who tipped the balance in a long civil war between warring tribes in Mesoamerica. Prescott would continue with “with his sword or with his musket, sometimes leading his soldiers, and sometimes directing his little navy”. It states his belief that the Spanish not only possessed some form of cultural superiority but overwhelming technological superiority as well when it came to the engagement of warfare: handguns, cannons, steel armor, and horses. Surely, the Mesoamerican natives, with their primitive clubs and bows, stood at a significant disadvantage in the battlefield with regards to their equipment. However, Restall poses a hypothetical situation in which “when the weapons factor is removed from context and privileged as the sole or overwhelming Spanish advantage, the entire Conquest comes down to the clash of superior and inferior weapons” which again, proves an oversimplification of the Spanish Conquest. It reduces us to believe that because of this superiority we are supposed to accept this phenomenon as the main driver of the conquest. If there was something that the Spanish did have an indisputable advantage over the natives, was their transmission and spread of Old World diseases. Certain diseases such as “. . . smallpox, measles, and flu originated, meant that Europeans and Africans arrived in the New World with a deadly array of germs” which indicated how severely the Natives were ill-prepared for the onslaught of epidemics that followed the conquistadors. Both the general population and the leaders that ruled them in the New World suffered a heavy toll from diseases which served to accelerate the Spanish Conquest.

Furthermore, Restall would remind us that we have to look at the bigger picture within the context of the war. Restall states that “Natives were fighting on their home ground; Spaniards were not. Spaniards had nothing more to lose than their lives” showed that the circumstances of the opposing parties were entirely different. The Natives were much quicker to compromise when any threats against their livelihoods and homes were made. For the Natives, their entire way of life was at stake, in contrast to the Spanish who had little to lose. This explains why the Spanish were able to conquer the Natives deceptively quickly far outside of their relatively small number. According to Restall, the Spanish assumed that the Americas were populated by “barbarians” which revealed their strong ethnocentrism. In their personal accounts, the conquistadors how severely outnumbered they were and despite all odds, still managed to pacify the peoples they encountered. It is also important to note that the conquistadors explicitly used the word, ‘conquer. ’ They promoted themselves in terms of extraordinary and superlative terms, exaggerating their exploits, force of character, and strategy. By looking at native accounts we can see a different aspect of the conquest that was left out of the accounts of the conquistadors and their supporters. It was not an unequal conflict between the superior Europeans and inferior, superstitious natives. Restall describes it as a series of negotiations, where both sides were equal of generally equal footing. What is also important to note that “native cultures were neither barbarous nor idyllic, but as civilized and imperfect as European cultures of the time.

Native responses to the invasion were based on appraisals of self-interest similar to Spanish decisions, and their responses were highly varied, not homogeneous. Native cultures proved resilient and adaptive, and many natives, especially elites, found opportunity in the Conquest-era transition” which is an indication that the natives’ responses were not carbon copies of each other. Each had their own motives, driven mostly by self-interest and most importantly, not to support the idea of a pan-Mesoamerican state, which proves that they did not act as a single group. Restall tries to make the case that the Natives and the Spanish despite their obvious differences, were in fact very much alike, despite the commonly held belief that the Spanish were superior by virtue of historical events.

Prescott’s book was hailed in its day for bringing the major figures of the conquest of Mexico to life. However, by myopically focusing on Cortes as the central figure of the conquest, he inevitably left out factors that did not support the heroic narrative framework. It was the stories of exceptional men performing noteworthy acts that 19th century America had an appetite for. More nuanced descriptions of the conquest of Mexico would have to wait a century later by other academics like Restall who took a more holistic view of the event.

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Research of the History of the Conquest of Mexico Analyzing the Works by William H. Prescott and Matthew Restall. (2020, April 02). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 26, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/research-of-the-history-of-the-conquest-of-mexico-analyzing-the-works-by-william-h-prescott-and-matthew-restall/
“Research of the History of the Conquest of Mexico Analyzing the Works by William H. Prescott and Matthew Restall.” GradesFixer, 02 Apr. 2020, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/research-of-the-history-of-the-conquest-of-mexico-analyzing-the-works-by-william-h-prescott-and-matthew-restall/
Research of the History of the Conquest of Mexico Analyzing the Works by William H. Prescott and Matthew Restall. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/research-of-the-history-of-the-conquest-of-mexico-analyzing-the-works-by-william-h-prescott-and-matthew-restall/> [Accessed 26 Jan. 2022].
Research of the History of the Conquest of Mexico Analyzing the Works by William H. Prescott and Matthew Restall [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 Apr 02 [cited 2022 Jan 26]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/research-of-the-history-of-the-conquest-of-mexico-analyzing-the-works-by-william-h-prescott-and-matthew-restall/
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