Published Date

May 1, 2004

This resource was developed in 2004 as part of “The Conquest of Mexico” by Nancy Fitch.

Historians make distinctions between what they call primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are firsthand accounts of people present at an event. In effect, they are witnesses of the event, in this case, of the conquest of Mexico. Secondary sources are based on primary sources. Historians carefully read and evaluate primary sources to make decisions about how and why things happened as they did. Although many students (and some professors) believe that textbooks are a good source of facts about the past, they are in fact interpretations based mostly on other secondary sources, which themselves are based on primary sources. Looking at how different textbooks treat the conquest of Mexico, should give you some sense of how different the interpretations of what happened are.

This project is primarily based on the three major published primary sources on the conquest of Mexico. By far the most important source from the Aztec/Mexica perspective is Fray Bernardino de Sahagún’s General History of the Things of New Spain, also called the Florentine Codex after the name of the manuscript it was based on. I have referred to this material in the footnotes as the Florentine Codex for the sake of brevity. Sahagún was a Spanish friar sent to New Spain to Christianize the indigenous people who lived there, including the Mexicas. While in New Spain he decided to learn as much as he could about the people who lived there, so he talked to people. Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztecs/Mexicas had no written language so their histories were based on oral traditions and histories drawn in pictures. The documents contained in this project include written versions of the oral traditions, which account for many of the oddities in how they are written, since they were meant to be spoken. To understand this, read them out loud. Many of the images in this project also came from this source.

There are two other primary sources at least partially incorporated in this project that are taken as examples of “native” opinion: the Lienza de Tlaxcala and Diego de Muñoz Camargo’s Historia de Tlaxcala [History of Tlaxcala]. The Lienza de Tlaxcala was a history written in pictures, some of them used here, from a Tlaxcala perspective. Muñoz Camargo’s history was written much later in the century, when the Tlaxcalans were beginning to have second thoughts about their alliance with the Spaniards. In part, it was written because the Tlaxcalans wanted to remind the Spaniards of their help in the conquest. This means that it does not represent the same perspective as the one offered in Sahagún’s history based on Aztec/Mexica oral traditions.

The story of the conquest of Mexico from a Spanish perspective comes largely from Cortés’s letters justifying himself to Emperor Charles V and from Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s A True History of the Conquest of New Spain (Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España). As you read Cortés’s letters, you need to keep in mind that the Governor of Cuba, his immediate superior, ordered him not to conquer Mexico, an order he disobeyed. Much of what he wrote was to persuade the Emperor to take his side. Díaz del Castillo wrote his book in response to a book written by Francisco López de Gómara, Conquista de Méjico [Conquest of Mexico]. López de Gómara wrote the book as a primary source, but he only became Cortés’ private secretary after Cortés returned to Spain, and was not present at the conquest. I included a brief account of the massacre at the Tóxcatl festival, since it was based on Cortés’ papers. Neither Cortés or Díaz del Castillo had anything to say about it, since both were fighting on the coast and not in Tenochtitlan when it occurred.

You may object to writing history based on biased primary sources, but then as now, all sources are to some extent biased.