The Americas in the age of indigenous empires

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On November 8, 1519, the history of the Americas was forever changed. For a quarter-century, three empires had been aggressively expanding in the hemisphere, and on that day two of them met. The meeting took the form of a diplomatic encounter between Moctezuma, the emperor of the Aztecs, and Fernando Cortés, the dominant captain of a Spanish expedition of invasion. As told by some of the Spaniards who were there-most notably Cortés himself-the Aztec ruler came with a vast entourage to the edge of his capital city of Mexico-Tenochtitlán to welcome the foreign visitors, who for several months had been working their way across the empire from the coast. Upon first meeting, the two leaders exchanged greetings and necklaces, before the Spaniards were led to their guest quarters in the palace of Moctezuma’s late father. There, the emperor delivered a speech to Cortés, who a year later repeated it in a letter to the king of Spain, styled as a statement of surrender. Cortés’s strategic interpretation of the speech found a ready audience; it was echoed in subsequent Spanish and indigenous accounts of the conquest years, working its way into chronicles, histories and paintings, becoming an elemental part of the traditional narrative of the conquest that survives to this day. In my view, the meeting of November 8 was defined not by Moctezuma’s alleged surrender, but by misunderstanding. A symbolic moment came when Cortés attempted to put his arms around the emperor. In the conquistador’s own words, "when we met, I dismounted and went to embrace him alone, but those two lords who had come with him stopped me with their hands, so that I could not touch him." In other words, the meeting was replete with miscommunication. As a diplomatic encounter, it was doomed to fail, with conflict bound to follow.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge World History Volume VI
Subtitle of host publicationThe Construction of a Global World, 1400-1800 CE, Part 1: Foundation
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages33
ISBN (Electronic)9781139194594
ISBN (Print)9780521761628
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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