Of names and unsung heroes
“If I have a son, I’m going to name him Guatemoc,” second son said from the backseat of the car.
“Guatemoc. The last hero of the Aztec people, a warrior who died with his honour intact.”
“Ah.” I chose not to comment further. Some ideas are best killed by silence rather than arguments, and knowing second son, too voluble a protest against the idea of a future grandson named Guatemoc might very well result in an innocent Swedish babe being lumbered with this historically proud name.
Anyway, as a consequence of this discussion I felt compelled to find out more about this (in my ears) unsung hero. Having grown up in South America, having celebrated 12 of October as the “Día de la Raza” on numerous occasions (and these days the feast day has been renamed to Día de la Hispanidad, i.e. a celebration of Hispanic culture rather than the sovereignty of the Spanish race – much better name, I think), I considered myself to have a pretty good grasp of the Spanish Conquest of America. My mother ensured I not only heard the panegyrics, but handed me Bartolomé de las Casas very critical and contemporary description of the conquest, reminding me over and over again that history is always written by the winner. But despite all this, Guatemoc did not ring a bell.
In Peru, Francisco Pizarro conquered the mighty Inca Empire with a handful of soldiers and a huge portion of sly cunning. The fate of the last Inca Emperor, Atahualpa, I have touched upon in a previous post, but so far I don’t think I’ve written about Montezuma and dear old Hernán. In difference to most of the Spanish Conquistadores, Hernán was an educated man, a younger son in a minor noble family. His parents wanted him to be a lawyer, but after two years kicking his heels in Salamance, Hernán decided the life of law was not for him, which was why, at the age of nineteen, he set out for the New World and its beckoning riches.
Initially, there weren’t any riches. Hernán ended up in Cuba where there were no mountains of gold, no rubies littering the ground. But he, like many others, heard of endless riches in mainland Mexico. Which was why this ruthless and greedy adventurer landed in México in 1519 on an exploratory expedition. Some months later, he was safely ensconced in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, an honoured guest of the mighty Aztec emperor, Montezuma.
What happened afterwards is all a bit hazy. The Aztec nobility were none too happy when their Spanish “guests” kept on extending their stay, and at some point they grumbled so loudly Montezuma suggested it might be wise for the Spanish leave – for a while.
“Hmm,” said Cortés, who had just received word a certain Pánfilo de Narváez had landed in Mexico, here with an order from the governor of Cuba to arrest Hernán for having set off on an “unauthorised invasion of Mexico”. (Yes, even the Spanish had some standards. Well: the governor was seriously pissed off at losing his share of the expected booty…) Anyway: Hernán set off to deal with Pánfilo, and despite being severely outnumbered, he took his would-be-arrester prisoner.
Left behind in Tenochtitlán were a large number of Spanish under the command of Pedro de Alvarado. After all, Cortés had no intention of returning to the Aztec capital only to find its gates barred to him. So while Hernán was trussing up Pánofilo, the Spanish in Tenochtitlán decided to liven things up a bit. The Aztecs were celebrating the feast of Toxcatl, the temple grounds filled to bursting with celebrating people, when the armed Spanish barred the gates and then proceeded to kill as many of the defenceless natives as they could. The ground grew muddy with blood and entrails, people attempted to scale the walls to escape the murdering conquistadores – who would later claim they’d only intervened to stop the planned human sacrifices.
The massacre provoked a rebellion. The Spanish retreated to Montezuma’s palace, and their former host was now their hostage, a shield with which to protect themselves from the angered mob. Hernán returned to a situation that had escalated beyond the point of return. In one last bid to calm the people, he forced Montezuma to step out on his balcony and appeal to his people to lay down their arms.
As per the Spanish, the heathen Aztecs were having none of this and pelted their emperor with so many stones and other objects that he died some days later. As per indigenous narratives, it was the Spanish who killed Montezuma, dumping his body on the streets while fleeing Tenochtitlán and its angry Aztec warriors.
Not that Cortés was planning on going anywhere far: he had his sights firmly set on the Aztec empire, and he struck an alliance with the Tlaxcalans, offering them their freedom from Aztec dominance if they just sided with the Spanish. Seeing as the Aztecs were anything but nice and cuddly overlords, the Tlaxcalans jumped at the offer. Cortés prepared for war.
Meanwhile, in Tenochtitlán, my son’s hero Guatemoc had just emerged from the shadows. A nephew of Montezuma, he assumed the role of Aztec ruler and reinforced his claim by marrying Montezuma’s twelve-year-old daughter. By then, his people were not only fighting the Spanish – they had just been ravaged by a small-pox epidemic that had them dying like flies.
Despite all this, Guatemoc was not about to roll over before the Spanish and their allies. His Aztec warriors thoroughly agreed with this approach to things, and for close to a year, the determined Aztecs fought for their world. Beset on all sides, it was a losing battle, and late in 1521, the last Aztec emperor was captured by Cortés. Reputedly, Guatemoc demanded that Cortés kill him there and then, but Cortés refused, expressing how impressed he was by the young leader’s bravery.
With Guatemoc’s surrender, the Aztec empire had submitted, defeated by the 800 or so remaining Spanish adventurers. Magnanimous in victory, Cortés allowed the defeated to retire from Tenochtitlán, but as per various versions, this magnanimity turned sour when he and his men did not discover the stockpiles of gold they had hoped for. Guatemoc was therefore subjected to torture, the Spanish demanding he reveal where the treasure was hidden. Problem was, there wasn’t all that much treasure…To judge from the painting below, Guatemoc took it all stoically (he practically dangles his own foot in the fire, doesn’t he?)
Somehow, Guatemoc and Hernán repaired their relationship after the torture incident. To be honest, Guatemoc had no choice, just as he had no choice when Cortés ordered him to accompany Cortés on his expedition to Honduras. There, Cortés purportedly heard of a secret plot to kill him, led by Guatemoc and two others. Taking no chances, Cortés had Guatemoc hanged – on extremely scanty evidence. Once again, some narratives state that Cortés fabricated the plot, others say he genuinely belived in it.
Whatever the case, Guatemoc was dead as a log, and Cortés was plagued by insomnia for years – guilt, some said, Guatemoc coming back to haunt him. Not entirely impossible, especially not after Cortés moved Guatemoc’s wife in to live with him and got her with child…
“Quite the man, that Guatemoc,” I commented to second son some days after doing my reading.
“Eh?” He looked up from his book. “Oh, him.” He smiled. “Well, you don’t need to worry, I’ve decided to not name my future son after him.” He held up his reading matter. “Machiavelli has a much better ring to it, don’t you think?”
Why does he do this to me? But at least this time I know who the potential namesake of my potential grandson is. I guess one must always count the small blessings, right? And if I play my cards right, maybe I can move him towards Cesare rather than Machiavelli. Cesare Belfrage – has quite the ring, IMO.