Myths are "hangups from way back": false or highly inaccurate beliefs that are taken at face value. One collection of myths which has exercised a powerful grip on the minds of many, and contributed to feelings of inferiority on the part of large numbers of "pure" or "mixed" descendants of Native Americans in the region of northern Mesoamerica,2 has to do with the conquest of the "Aztec Empire" by HernanCortes and his followers in the early sixteenth century. This paper attempts to shatter one of these myths; namely, that Cortes was an extraordinarily brave and intelligent individual who accomplished an almost miraculous feat. It will do so by making use of the twin concepts of virtu and fortuna.
These two terms are basic to Niccolo Machiavelli's thought. For this (in)famous political theorist, the "wheel of fortune" is an ever-present phenomenon in human affairs--- even though its effects can be controlled via the application of what he calls virtu. It is difficult to specify the meaning of this word, as it encompasses a wide range of qualities (including bravery, cunning and prudence) that need to be handled with great flexibility in order for a person or social group to be able to adapt to changing circumstances.
The Spanish conquistador HernanCortes is considered to be an outstanding example of a man possessed of virtu. My contention is that the latter's virtu was insufficient for him to be able to control the effects of fortuna. Granted, Cortes faced favorable circumstances on several occasions and took advantage of these. However, at other times conditions were adverse and he was unable to surmount them. In what follows, I analyze several events that occurred during and after the so-called Conquest of Mexico in order to show that Cortes' political achievements were more modest than is generally believed.
Cortes in Totonacapan
During his stay in the region of Totonacapan, Cortes took two audacious decisions: to destroy the majority of his ships in order to force his men to follow him; and to embark on a march to Tenochtitlan, passing first through Tlaxcallan. Both decisions were based on his ignorance of the actual power of the Triple Alliance and the confederation of Tlaxcallan.
Cortes underestimated these two because of his early experiences in Mesoamerica. Although they initially tried to avoid confrontations with the native communities, the Spaniards had to engage in several battles against a coalition of Maya armies near Potonchan (located in the present-day state of Tabasco). However, they were able to win these battles thanks to the superiority of their weapons and military tactics.
The outcome of these skirmishes was quickly known! by the Triple Alliance. As a result, when Cortes arrived in the region of Totonacapan, this alliance opted in favor of a strategy of deterrence rather than war. Envoys sent by Tenochtitlan established contact with Cortes and presented him with a...