Andrew S.

Terrell - HIST 6393: Atlantic America to 1750

1 September 2010

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.

The two monographs under review within cover facets of the Spanish Conquest of Latin America in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Matthew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, chose to take a successive approach to seven popular myths as the title suggested. While such a monograph certainly has its place in modern scholarship, one is left without specifics of the conquest itself, and therefore unable to make independent deductions. Restall’s monograph was better suited for those already fluent in specifics and ongoing scholarly debate of the Spanish Conquest of America. Enter Ross Hassig’s Mexico and the Spanish Conquest, a monograph which from the beginning chose to be a retelling of what Hassig determined was most likely correct information drawn from a pool of first and secondhand accounts as well as successive scholarship centuries later. Hassig chose to use a narrative approach to history to allow his readers to make their own interpretations of the events. These were the fundamental differences between the two recent publications. Though neither are necessarily more practical than the other, different audiences will appreciate one or the other inevitably. This reader contends the debunking attempts of Restall, however, are insufficiently defended when compared with Hassig’s more thorough depiction of this period in history. The first major discrepancy between the two monographs is that of the conquistadors and their men. Were they soldiers, or were they as Restall contends merely fortune seekers inexperienced with combat and most certainly not soldiers? Hassig used great details in successive chapters covering the early encounters of the Spanish and Mesoamerican natives. In these retellings, the reader is convinced the Spanish had superior fire power in gun powder, suitable armor that kept wounds to the limbs, and stronger steel blades that kept their edge
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Andrew S. Terrell - HIST 6393: Atlantic America to 1750

1 September 2010

longer. However, Hassig is also quick to point out many early military defeats of Spanish forces, especially along the Yucatan under Córdoba’s lead. Restall went to great lengths to expose a myth that the men accompanying many Spanish escapades were not fighting men, but Hassig’s accounts show 200:1 odds against the Spanish. The overwhelming numbers against the Spanish forces were cited as key components to victories against the aggressive Spanish invaders, and yet, many Spanish survived these fights because of the technologies mentioned earlier. One finds it very difficult to believe the first Spaniards to explore on land the coasts of Mexico were mere treasure hunters as depicted by Restall. It seems much more likely that they were trained to work as a functional military unit akin to the European armies of the day. Another issue was the sheer cost for armor at the time; if the men who marched with Córtes and his contemporaries were not trained soldiers how would they have been able to carry the added weight and known military formations? There are too many open ended issues with naming the men who landed on early Mexico untrained combatants. Unlike the variations between who the Spaniards were, stories of Córtes and his first impressions of the Aztecs are much closer in synthesis. Restall notes frequently that riches were actively sought everywhere, but once they landed in Mesoamerica, the Spaniards accepted that riches were to be found in vegetation rather than trace amounts of gold and silver as predicted earlier. Hassig, however, retells an early encounter were gold items were traded with Córtes in his first fortification on the beaches of central Mexico. Hassig goes so far as to suggest that this sealed the fate of the Aztec Empire; the Spanish were at the end of the day greedy treasure hunters as Restall concurred.

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Andrew S. Terrell - HIST 6393: Atlantic America to 1750

1 September 2010

Another similarity between the two monographs was the alliances’ importance for Córtes’s missions. Restall, however gave tribute to West Africans and Native Americans whereas Hassig described the majority of Córtes’s forces to be Natives from allied tribes after the battles with the Tlaxcallan. However, up to those battles, Hassig sufficiently proves that the Spanish army presence in Mexico was made up of three hundred soldiers and a few nobles from allied tribes, and then several porters. There is ample evidence of African porters, however, Hassig’s retelling suggests many of the Island Natives and Africans brought ashore with Córtes died out before his forces met the Tlaxcallan armies. This does not diminish the importance of African and Island Natives with Córtes, but the specifics given by Hassig reveal how little their roles were in the eventual conquest of the Aztec Empire. At the macro level, the two monographs differentiate significantly. As stated, each author had their prerogatives in publication, but the effectiveness of the finished products are very disparate. Readers of differing expertise and knowledge in the subjects will walk away from each book with contrasting feelings and reactions. For example, Restall’s Seven Myths was intended to depict the inaccuracies in several popular “mythistories” of the Spanish Conquest. As such, critical readers will likely double back as pretentious statements are made and over exaggerated to a point of inessential balderdash very unbecoming of the majority of his otherwise well-written, well-researched and very welcome challenges to preconceived notions of the Spanish Conquest. On the other hand, Hassig took a more careful approach to the topic by working as a narrative synthesis of the Spanish Conquest. Hassig’s more thorough retelling of events was also more useful for those not quite as well versed in Latin American history. Furthermore, Hassig wrote with a greater believability as a historian because of his admission

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Andrew S. Terrell - HIST 6393: Atlantic America to 1750

1 September 2010

early on that he intended to use heavy amounts of details and compromised figures so as to incorporate more sources on the era. One does not wish to suggest that Restall’s Seven Myths was an inferior accomplishment to Hassig’s Mexico, however, if future editions were produced they should include more of the “how and why” history usually associated with military history. As these two monographs are recent publications, however, they add significant levels of analysis to an ever-expanding history of early America and its encounters with modern Europe.

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