Paul Lay wrote yesterday that Moctezuma emerged in the exhibition as an ‘insubstantial’ figure. In my view, such a representation is, however, inevitable primarily due to the nature of the historic sources used to document the period. Mexican sources of the time were largely destroyed following the Spanish conquest and the main surviving sources are Spanish accounts. Some were written posthumously, but there also exist contemporary eyewitness accounts written by Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) himself and by those who accompanied him.
Cortes’ Letters from Mexico consist of a series of five letters written by Cortes to Charles V of Spain and document the conquest of Mexico from Cortes’ arrival at Veracruz to his journey to Honduras in 1525. A second key source is The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo who accompanied Cortes on his voyage to Mexico. Nevertheless, both sources should be read with a pinch of salt. Cortes was in dispute with the crown and would inevitably have sought to highlight his achievements in an attempt to justify his voyage.
The nature of the sources for the period is just one grey and shadowy area in the representation of Moctezuma. How accurate are Spanish accounts of the period? How did the Mexica view their leader? One of the Spanish documents on display in the exhibition is a Spanish map of Tenochtitlan. The map was drawn in 1514, three years after the conquest, but the artist appears to have had first hand knowledge of the city and his representation was on the whole accurate. Nevertheless, his addition of spires and pitched roofs to some of the buildings illustrates perfectly how Spanish authors and artists may have twisted what they saw and experienced in Mexico in accordance with their own visions of the world and the expectations of their Spanish audiences at home.
Moctezuma’s achievements and success as a leader are also shrouded in controversy. Moctezuma was in many ways a great ruler: he expanded the empire to the south of Tenochtitlan; successfully formed a Triple Alliance between the major cities of Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco and Tlacopan; developed trading links across Mexico and commissioned a program of lavish public building in Tenochtitlan. But despite these achievements he is remembered and blamed in Mexico for the demise of the Aztec empire.
Furthermore, the circumstances and causes of Moctezuma’s death remain a mystery: was he murdered by the Spanish or stoned to death by his own angry people, who felt that he had betrayed them? Again, the sources offer different interpretations. Whilst many views suggest that the Mexica turned against their ruler, according to The Florentine Codex, Moctezuma’s followers sought to retrieve his body in order for it to be cremated. The Florentine Codex is a series of twelve books written under the supervision of the Spanish Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagun between approximately 1540 and 1585. It is a copy of the records of interviews with indigenous sources and remains the main source of Mexica life in the years preceding the Spanish conquest.
Numerous other questions also remain unanswered. Was the Aztec civilization really as violent and brutal as it is often portrayed - notably in Hollywood films such as Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto? Has it been unfairly portrayed? Moreover, why did Moctezuma become such a mythical figure in Europe notably in the centuries following the Spanish conquest? In 16th-century Europe there was a growing appetite for accounts of indigenous kings and on display in the exhibition is the earliest European portrait of Moctezuma by the French artist Andre Thevet dated to 1584. Why did he become more familiar in Europe than in Mexico?
The figure of Moctezuma is surrounded by unanswered questions and issues for debate. Yet, the British Museum’s exhibition largely avoids confronting these questions. These uncertainties and the insubstantiality of Moctezuma’s person are, however, the most fascinating and focal point in the study of the Aztec empire and the Spanish conquest. They would have been the perfect starting point for the exhibition and the perfect theme around which to base it. Has the British Museum missed the point?
For further information on the Aztec Empire and the Spanish conquest of Mexico, visit our History of Mexico focus page.