Sunday, January 19, 2020

The True History of the Conquest of New Spain

First-hand accounts from history usually make for dry reading, but when a good author meets the front lines of change, the results are worth reading.  The True History of the Conquest of New Spain is a thrilling tale of adventure and brutality, the story of the Spanish discovery and conquest of the Aztec Empire, told by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador who was part of the events.

It's a story any band of murder-hobos would understand.

The central figure of the True History is the expedition's leader, Hernando Cortés, the epitome of cleverness and cruelty.  Where he comes from isn't important -- his hometown never plays a part in the tale, and he's not really working for anyone, despite his claims of being loyal to the Spanish crown.  Cortés is, foremost, an adventurer out for his own interests.

Reading about the expedition, I was struck by how much it sounded like a roleplaying game.  Typical people only fight as a last resort, when they've been pushed far enough and have no other choices.

Adventurers, I think, are not typical people.  Cortés fights for his own gold and glory, and no amount of danger seems to deter him.

The story begins in Spanish Cuba, 1519.  Rumors of treasure come in from the west.  Against the governor's orders, Cortés gathers some ships and a party of soldiers and heads for the unexplored country.

It's a straightforward setup for an adventure so far.  Treasure is their only goal, in whatever form.  They've heard that the mainland might have gold.  But the truth is that the party has no idea where they're going; the coast is just a question mark on a map.

The first encounter is immensely helpful: they find a Spanish priest, the survivor of a shipwreck who has spent years as a slave among the Maya people.  Most importantly, the priest has learned the Maya language.

Next along the coast in Tabasco they have a combat encounter.  It doesn't start as one, but like proper adventurers, they take any opportunity they have to start a fight.  By the end, Cortés and his party sail away with a bit of loot: some golden jewelry, rich cloaks, and several women (one of whom speaks the Aztec language) as slaves for the men.

Brutality in this story runs deep, crimes highlighted all the more by their contrast with the noble words of those who commit them.  Cortés and his adventurers kill and rape and plunder without a thought, then speak of peaceful relations and spreading good deeds.  The priest occasionally complains of their behavior, but it continues nonetheless.

Each jaunt further into the unknown puts these adventurers in contact with another strange group.  From our perspective we can see that both sides are humans like ourselves, but to the people involved, it's more like first contact with an alien race.  The Tabascans have never seen anything like these Spaniards, being especially terrified of their cannons and horses.  From the Tabascan point of view, strange monsters have invaded from across the sea.

At this point, the party doesn't have a long-term goal.  They're looking for treasure, but they don't really know where to look, so they're just working their way along the coast, ending up in the region of the Totonacs.

Far away, in a highland country known as Mexico, a great emperor rules over cities and armies.  His agents travel far and wide collecting information and tribute, and word has come to emperor Moctezuma of strangers from across the sea.

A richly-appointed emissary of Moctezuma comes to meet the Spaniards at the coast, attended by sketch artists to record the event.  For the first time, Cortés and his men learn of the existence of this powerful empire.  The Totonac king is clearly terrified of the forces of Mexico, but he's also afraid of the guns and horses Cortés and his men have brought along.

All this leads to an argument among the adventurers.  Should they journey into the highlands and face the power of Moctezuma, or should they return home to the safety of Cuba?

Cortés resolves the argument by destroying their ships, leaving the party stranded in hostile territory.  In a way, this is where the adventure truly begins.

From that point on, they keep getting deeper and deeper into peril as Cortés drives ahead with little more than trickery and bravado.  I should avoid any spoilers -- we all know how the story ends, but what happens along the way makes for a thrilling tale.

There's treachery and murder, slaughter at a banquet, dignitaries arrested and humiliated.  Ships are built, great pyramids are climbed, and ancient cities are besieged.  They face the defiant yet impoverished Tlaxcalans, climb the volcano of Popocatepetl, and stand in awe of the splendors of the great city of Tenochtitlan.

There are many lessons you might draw from this when shaping your own adventure.  Three come to mind so far:

  1. Conflicting motives create drama.  Everyone wants something different, causing alliances to shift as conditions change.  Is Xicotencatl a friend of Cortés or an enemy?  In the end, he's a bit of both, seeking power in his own kingdom first.
  2. Shortage and hardship drive adventure.  Any time someone in this story is hungry or short on weapons, it forces them to make hard choices.  When Tlaxcala runs out of salt or Cortés runs out of powder, conflict is thrust upon them.
  3. All people can be monsters in their own way.  While it's clear that the author wants to portray the conquest in a good light, all the major figures come across as monsters.  Cortés and his men rightly fear that they'll be eaten, just as Moctezuma rightly fears that his people will be branded and enslaved.  This is not a story of good and peaceful men.
The True History of the Conquest of New Spain is one of the most fascinating adventure stories I've ever read.  If you're looking for a thrilling tale, I think you won't be disappointed.