The Conquest of Mexico
An Annotated Bibliography
Dr. Nancy Fitch
Professor of History
California State University, Fullerton
General Discussion of the Primary Sources Used in This Project
[Note of clarification: I am using the word Mexicas to refer to the people who controlled Tenochtitlan when the Spaniards arrived in 1519. This indigenous population is usually, but wrongly, referred to as the Aztecs. The Mexicas had conquered much of what is now modern-day Mexico, and many of those conquered people spoke their language, Nahuatl, so that not all Nahuatl-speaking natives were Mexicas. Others, especially in the south and what is now Central America, spoke various dialects of Mayan. Where possible, I will try to identify the specific indigenous people who wrote the manuscripts. In other cases, if the codices are in Nahuatl, I will describe their authors as Nahuas, following the practice of Mexican historian, Miguel León-Portilla.]
There are only a handful of primary sources available on the conquest of Mexico, and all of them are “tainted” in at least some ways. Many historians would accept only Don Hernán Cortés’s letters to King Charles V as “genuine” primary sources, since they were written by the Spanish conqueror in his native language at the time he was battling the Mexicas. But during much of the conquest, Cortés’s letters could be interpreted as an attempt to justify his deliberate failure to obey Diego Velázquez de Cellar, the Spanish governor in Cuba, the sponsor of his expedition. Moreover, the first and fifth letters were lost until a French scholar found them in Vienna (sixteenth century Spain was part of the Hapsburg Empire) in the eighteenth century. The published first letter was, in fact, not Cortés’s original letter, but one revised by a committee with the deliberate intention of positively influencing Charles V.
The Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote his version of what he had witnessed during the conquest, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, decades after the Spanish victory in 1521. His book appeared in Spain in 1576 after Fray Bartolomé de las Casas had published A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, his outspoken critique of Spanish policies in North America. He was also reacting against an account published by Cortés’s secretary, Francisco López de Gómara, who published an account that seemed to give Cortés all of the credit for the conquest. Díaz del Castillo’s account is, thus, at least partially an attempt to describe the conquest as a heroic battle fought by courageous soldiers against fierce warriors. Although the 1574 manuscript was published in 1632, long after its appearance in Spain, Díaz del Castillo continued to revise his manuscript in the Americas up until the time he died in 1584. The 1584 manuscript was not published until 1904, so most out of copyright copies of the book are based on the earlier 1576 version.
Authorities disagree over how early the Nahuas adopted the Spanish alphabet to render Nahuatl into a written language to produce their own codices or written accounts of the conquest. The Mexican historian Miguel León-Portilla, author of The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, believes that a rare French Bibliothèque National manuscript--variously described as “Manuscript 22,” Unos anales historicos de la nacion mexicana, or the Tlatelolco Codex--was written in Nahuatl by a group of anonymous natives of Tlatelolco in 1528, just seven years after the conquest. J. Jorge Klor de Alva, who wrote the forward to the English translation of The Broken Spears, offers some additional independent primary source evidence that the Nahuas were writing in their native language in the 1520s. In any case, I could not use this source in this project, since it was only translated in the twentieth century.
There is evidence that indigenous peoples authored many codices, but the Spaniards destroyed most of them in their attempt to eradicate ancient beliefs. Moreover, we have very little sense of how their production was shaped by interaction with the Spaniards, since the fourth Mexica King Itzcoatl apparently destroyed most earlier manuscripts during his reign from 1426-1440 to preserve his vision of how he constructed the Mexica empire. Still others simply disappeared without being published or preserved. Thus, various personal translations of the Codex Florentino became my primary source for the Mexica account of the conquest. The Florentine Codex is unquestionably a troubling primary source. Natives writing in Nahuatl under the supervision of the Spanish Fray Bernardino de Sahagún apparently produced the manuscript in the 1500s. The facts of its production raise serious questions about whether the manuscript represents the vision of the vanquished or of the colonizers. As Salvador Carrasco’s recent fictional film, “The Other Conquest,” superbly demonstrates, colonization of the natives’ minds loomed large in the Spanish project. The film begins with Motecuhzoma II’s fictional son, Topiltzin, writing a codex to expose Spanish brutality and to preserve the historical memory of the Mexicas. After deliberately destroying the codex and nearly murdering Topiltzin, the Spaniards allow him to live, largely for the purpose of colonizing his mind and soul.
The Spaniards believed language and evangelization were the keys to making the natives “Spanish,” in their understanding of the world. Topiltzin in the film, like many historical sons of caciques in sixteenth century New Spain, was sent to the priests to be taught to read and write in Spanish and to be indoctrinated in Catholicism. As Zhenja La Rosa argued, the Spaniards assumed that language and culture were inseparable. Initially, the Spaniards believed that Castilian Spanish was the only way to transmit Catholicism, so that a major objective of colonial policy became instructing the natives in Spanish and religion. La Rosa suggested that in spite of Spanish efforts to force all of the indigenous Americans to speak Spanish, many priests found it in their interests to learn the multiple languages spoken in the region. Since Spanish was the official language of New Spain, those who did not know it became extremely dependent upon Nahuatl-speaking priests to communicate with Spanish rulers. At the same time, if the priests understood local languages, they were better able to root out native religious heresies. The Florentine Codex, eventually published under the title Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, appeared during a complex transition in Spanish language politics, when some priests began to urge that Nahuatl be made the official language of all of the indigenous peoples living in New Spain. In short, many local languages were spoken in New Spain, but Nahuatl might have been the most common given the Mexicas’ previous colonization of the region. The Spaniards initially insisted on forcing the indigenous populations to speak Spanish, a policy that was wholly unsuccessful. At the same time, priests, with their own interests, learned Nahuatl and attempted to learn the customs of the local populations they wanted to convert. Even the suggestions that Nahuatl become the official language represented a policy designed to further control local populations. With language understood as a primary mechanism of control in a war that had cultural obliteration as its goal, the opportunities for mistranslations and misunderstandings were enormous. León-Portilla argues that the Nahuas took advantage of the Spanish acceptance of Nahuatl for a brief period of time as a golden opportunity to tell their own story. He may very well be correct, but readers need to understand the complex cultural and linguistic politics of the period in which the manuscript was produced.
To make matters worse, while it appears that the original manuscript was completed in Nahuatl some time around 1555, no evidence of it remains. Authorities in New Spain confiscated his manuscripts in 1575, and at various times, the Spanish monarchy ordered him to stop his work. The earliest known version of the manuscript is, thus, Sahagún’s summary of it written in Spanish. In 1585, he published a revised version of the codex, which, he argued, corrected some errors and integrated some things ignored in his earlier summary. Sahagún’s revised version is the manuscript commonly known as the Florentine Codex. It can still be found in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenzianna in Florence, Italy. Somewhat later, the codex was revised again in Spanish and published as the Madrid Codex, which is housed in the Múseo de America in Madrid, Spain. This latter Codex differs dramatically from the earlier Florentine Codex and rather flatters the Spanish. It appears that it was a Spanish publication for the Spanish, whereas earlier versions may have genuinely attempted to preserve the Nahuas’ historical memory regardless of their devastating critiques of Spanish actions. I have strived to find out of copyright translations of the original Florentine Codex rather than use works based on the Madrid Codex, but at times I have been forced to work with both because of the difficulty of verifying the pedigrees of subsequent texts and translations.
Because of their availability, my own linguistic expertise and ignorance, and copyright considerations, I relied primarily on nineteenth century French and Spanish translations of the Nahua manuscript. Obviously, this introduces its own problems of translation, which are divorced from the issues of translation addressed above. Happily, the rich Latin American resources in Southern California make it feasible to examine multiple translations and editions of the sources for verification of precise language regardless of copyright. My one concession is to have in places slightly modified awkward language from the nineteenth century renditions of it where I deemed it to have no historical significance. To avoid student confusion, I also standardized the spelling of names and places across sources even though they differed in the original documents.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the indigenous populations wrote in a pictographic style and used paintings as vehicles for writing history. Many of the friars educating, controlling, and indoctrinating New Spain villages, thus, encouraged the natives to paint. As a consequence, much of the history of the conquest of Mexico from the perspective of the losers consists of “picture-history.” Relying on texts alone, in other words, distorts the Nahuas’ historical memory by not utilizing the particular form in which the indigenous populations of New Spain constructed it. Reading images introduces challenges of its own. One needs to have at least some visual literacy as well as understand the conventions used in the Nahuas’ paintings. Finally, finding images not covered by copyright is a challenge for the best of historians. The drawings accompanying “authentic” manuscript reproductions often contained drawings from multiple sources, not just those included in the original manuscript itself. Moreover, in producing this project, I discovered that artists often “copied” originals or sometimes provided their own drawings, which were similar but different from the original paintings. The process of verifying the pedigree of out of copyright drawings has, thus, been a nightmare, especially when the books I was using failed to indicate the source of the illustrations.
Problems aside, there are three major sources of “picture-history” of the conquest of Mexico. By far, the most important is the Florentine Codex. The codex richly illustrated many battles and encounters between the Spanish, the Mexicas, and other indigenous peoples. A group of indigenous people, the Tlaxcalans, who allied with the Spanish and massacred many of the Mexicas themselves, produced eighty paintings published in the mid-sixteenth century in a manuscript called El Lienzo de Tlaxcala. These images generate even more questions about whose vision is represented in them, since the Tlaxcalans backed the Spanish without hesitation and produced their paintings to impress the Spanish monarchy with their loyalty to Spain. In other words, just because a manuscript was written in Nahuatl does not necessarily mean that it represented the Mexica point of view, itself an enormous insight into the complex politics of pre-colonial Mexico. The Aubin Codex, often called the Manuscrito de 1576 although that was probably the date of its origin rather than its publication, largely consists of “picture-histories” of the Mexicas from their earliest migration south to the conquest and construction of New Spain. This manuscript is housed in the Bibliothèque National in France. It is plausible that Fray Diego de Durán may have supervised the preparation of this manuscript, and it was published in 1867 as Historia de las Indias de Nueva-España y isles de Tierra Firme with Durán as the author.
The challenges of using these rich but controversial sources to construct history are enormous, yet this is the stuff history is made of. The conquest of Mexico is clearly one of the pivotal events in world history. Thousands of historians have written about it from this questionable evidence. Most of these histories address one very simple question: how could a handful of Spaniards, even with their powerful and superior weapons, have defeated tens of thousands of indigenous peoples who lived in what the Spaniards themselves described as a very impressive, advanced civilization? Their answers to this question, generally not based upon a reading of the relevant primary sources, have then been reduced to a few lines in world civilization textbooks. Can there be a better way to understand how history is produced than by writing one’s own history by using these tough to interpret documents?
Note: I have set up living footnotes in the Web Site. If you click on the source it will take you either to the place in this bibliography, where I cited the source I used most frequently to produce the material. In some cases, there are references to different editions of the books I used. One can scroll up and down to see the other versions of the sources.
Alvarado Tezozómoc, Fernando. Crónica mexicana: precedida del Codice Ramírez, manuscrito del Siglo 16 intítulado: Relación del origen de los indios que hábitan esta Nueva España según sus Historias. S.l.: Impr. y litog. De I. Paz, 1878.
A sixteenth century manuscript which includes illustrations drawn by indigenous people. I did not use any of the illustrations from this volume, as a second edition of it appeared in 1975. A copy of it is available in the Los Angeles County Public Library.
Anales de Tlatelolco, unos annals históricos de la nación mexicana y Códice de Tlatelolco. México: Antigua Libreía Robredo, de J. Porrúa, 1948. [Not put on-line]
An anonymous manuscript that Mexican historian Miguel León-Portilla believes was written as early as 1528 from a Tlatelolco perspective. Believed to be the first document in Nahuatl rendered into alphabetic script. It consists of its own narrative that mentions things not discussed in the Florentine Codex but is entirely consistent with it. Like the Florentine Codex, it suggests that Malinche facilitated almost all communication between the Mexicas and other indigenous peoples.
Códice Florentino. [See the entries under Sahagún, Bernardino de].
Códice Ramirez. [See Alvarado Tezozómoc, Fernando].
This was the major source of Cortés’ letters that I used in the construction of this Web site. Especially important were his descriptions of the Valley of Mexico, particularly Tenochtitlan, and his explanations for the actions he took.
Cortés, Hernán. The Despatches of Hernando Cortes, the Conqueror of Mexico, Addressed to the Emperor Charles V, Written during the Conquest, and Containing a Narrative of Its Events. Edited and Trans. by George Folsom. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1843.
A readily available translation of Cortés’s long letters to Charles V sometimes explaining his actions and in many cases describing the vast wealth and civilization he found in the Valley of Mexico, especially in Tenochtitlan.
Cortés, Hernán. Lettres de Fernand Cortes à Charles-Quint sur la découverte et la Conquête du Mexique. Trans. by Désiré Charnay. Paris: Hachette, 1896. Microfilm.
A French translation of Cortés’s letters to Charles V, which may have been based on the Spanish edition I used.
Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España.. 4 vols. México: Oficina tipográfica de la Secretaría de fomento, 1904, 1905.
Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador, was with Cortés when most of the important incidents related to the conquest of Mexico took place. His account is, thus, one of the most complete from the Spanish perspective and covers the Spanish landing on the coast to Cortés’ fruitless trek over land to put down a rebellion in Honduras. This edition is, to my knowledge, the first published version of Díaz del Castillo’s final version of his manuscript.
Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Trans. by John Ingram Lockhart. 2 vols. London: J. Hatchard and Son, 1844.
This edition appears to be an English translation of the earliest version of Díaz del Castillo’s manuscript.
This edition appears to be a French translation of the earliest version of Díaz del Castillo’s manuscript.
Fray Diego de Durán studied many of the local manuscripts produced in the sixteenth century. He used them and referred to them in his manuscript. This volume was most useful for its Atlas and illustrations. It also contains a facsimile of the Codice Aubin.
This publication contains eighty plates describing the activities of the Tlaxcalans as they fought along side Cortés and the Spaniards against the Mexicas. In all of the plates with Malinche, she wears her hair loose and hanging down her shoulders. These images are quite different from those found in the Florentine Codex.
An interesting collection of lesser known narratives of the conquest that add an additional dimension and helps to clarify the documents used here. Occasionally used for clarification but not included in the on-line documents.
Histoire de la nation mexicaine: depuis le depart d’Aztlan jusqu’à l’arrivée des conquérants espagnols, et au delà 1607: manuscript figurative accompagné de texte en langue Nahuatl ou mexicaine suivi d’une traduction en français: reproduction du codex de 1576 appartenant à la collection de M. E. Eugène Goupil. Paris: E. Leroux, 1893.
This document is also known as The Codex Aubin or “The Manuscript of 1576.” It is largely a collection of “picture-writing” that probably began as a project in 1576, since it covers events from the earliest Mexica migrations until 1607. The original is housed in the Bibliothèque National in Paris, France.
Alva Ixtilxochitl descended from the ruling family of Tezcoco. He claims to have used Nahuatl sources that no longer existed in presenting his interpretation of the conquest from the perspective of the Tezcocanos. The Tezcocanos, like the Tlaxcalans, fought along side of the Spaniards against the Mexicas, which, after the fact, makes this an extremely important document.
Las Casas, Bartolomé de. Breuissima relacion de la destruycion de las Indias: colegida por el Obispo do fray Bartolomé de las Casas o Casaus, de la orden de Sãcto Domingo. Seville: Sebastian Trugillo, 1552. Microcard edition.
Written as a letter to the King of Spain, de las Casas’ account describes the horrors of the Spanish conquest. He published the book in Spain to obtain sympathy for the indigenous populations of New Spain. Too general to be of much use except for his account of the “massacre” in Cholula. De Las Casas also sided with Cuban Governor Velasquez and believed that Cortés was nothing more than an out of control adventurer.
León-Portilla, Miguel, ed. Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Trans. from Nahuatl into Spanish by Angel Maria Garibay K. Trans. from Spanish into English by Lysander Kemp. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
López de Gómara wrote his volume as an eye-witness testimony of the conquest, but, in fact, he was not there. He bcame Cortés’s private secretary after Cortés returned to Spain. Though it was based on Cortés’s papers, it is closer to a secondary source that glorifies Cortés. This is the volume that prompted Bernal Díaz del Castillo to write his “true” history.
This anonymous manuscript has commonly been attributed to Motolinía, although it is not clear who its author was. Motolinía’s given name was Fray Toribio de Benavente. He was among the earliest friars to arrive in New Spain in 1534 and, if he is the author of this manuscript, he quickly recognized the native population’s interest in preserving their historical memory of the conquest. Entitled Historia de los Indios de la Nueva España, this manuscript can be found in the Escorial, Spain. Like De Las Casas, Motolinía saw himself as a protector of the indigenous peoples of New Spain and was horrified by the native population’s high death rate during the conquest, as he estimated (probably erroneously) that half the population died in the 1520 epidemic. He died in 1568.
Peñafiel, Antonio, ed.. Cantares en idioma mexicano. México: Oficina tipográfica de la Secretaría de fomento, 1906.
Songs are probably the oldest accounts documenting the defeat of the Mexicas. The editor of this volume believes that some of these songs pre-date the conquest, but others are icnocuicatl or songs of sorrow lamenting the destruction of Tenochititlán. The editor of the volume believes that priests compiled the songs during the seventeenth century. The original manuscript is housed in the Biblioteca Nacional de México.
The history of this document is illustrative of the problematic nature of these primary sources. This document is also known as “The Manuscript of 1576.” It is based on the same manuscript as Histoire de la nation mexicaine. It was apparently held in private collections (of a French adventurer with a Mexican mother) that changed hands. A copy of the manuscript was made late in the seventeenth or early in the eighteenth century. Hence, there are two copies of it. One is housed in the Royal Library of Berlin; the other, in the Bibliothèque National in Paris. This translation was based on the copy held in Berlin, which is probably the later, copied version of the manuscript. [See, Histoire de la nation mexicaine]
Although this book was originally written in the late sixteenth century, it is extremely useful in understanding the documents from Tlaxcala.
Meyer, Michael C., Sherman, William L., and Deeds, Susan M. The Course of Mexican History. Sixth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Last Updated: October 7, 2008