Early Missions - Spanish

           From the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, or Mexica, won by Hernan Cortes between the years 1518 and 1521, comes one of the best-known stories of mixed Spanish motives, violence, and natives suffering. From these accounts, we can see that, although the Spanish were motivated in part by evangelical zeal for Catholicism and horror at the Aztecs’ practice of human sacrifice, they also wanted quick wealth and military glory. We also see, from the Mayan Chilam Balam of Chumael, that the Aztecs and Mayans regarded the arrival of the Spaniards as the beginning of a time of great suffering for them at the hands of their exploitative conquerors. The Spaniards’ initial enslavement and exploitation of the Native Americans, which was reformed over time, damaged their credibility in spreading Catholicism and multiplied the obstacles which Franciscan missionaries would encounter as they followed behind the conquistadors. In fact, one Franciscan friar, Bartolomeo De La Casas, would author an account of Native American suffering and mass deaths due to Spanish mistreatment in 1542, an account which would later be instrumental in prompting the Spaniards to be more lenient towards their Native American subjects in the New World. These primary sources provide fascinating accounts of the meeting between two very different cultures and religions. Note, in the primary sources, how religion is important to the Aztecs and Mayans as well as to the Spaniards, and how, once the Aztecs get over their initial fear at the sight of armed Spanish men, they examine the newcomers with a critical and curious eye.

As you read the texts below, consider the following questions:

-What imagery do the Aztecs initially use to describe the Spaniards, their ships, clothing, animals, and equipment? How would you explain Cortes’ actions towards the Aztec emissaries? Would it have been possible to establish peaceful contact between the two societies in other circumstances?

-How do these texts show a melding of Native American and European religious ideas? In what ways do you think the cultural perspectives of the Aztecs and Mayans helped to filter the Catholic doctrines they were told of by the Franciscans?

-How does Benavides’ report depict different Native American ethnicities in the American Southwest? Are they generally hostile towards Christianity or open to hearing about it? What are some reasons they give for their lack of receptivity, when they adopt that attitude? Does Christianity seem “reasonable” and obvious to the Native Americans who hear about it?

Primary Sources:

Fr. Alonso de Benavides report to King Philip IV of Spain

Mexica (Aztec) and Tlaxcala Accounts of the Spanish Conquest, 1500s

The Mayan Account of the Spanish Conquest (1540-1546) in the Chilam Balam of Chumayel


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