Hernan Cortes

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Hernan Cortes

Myths are "hangups from way back":[1] 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.[3]

The Spanish conquistador HernanCortes is considered to be an outstanding example of a man possessed of virtu.[4] 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 Co...

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...Conquest. New York: Longman, 1994.

Martinez, Jose Luis. HernanCortes. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1990.

MacNutt, F.A. Fernando Cortes and the Conquest of Mexico. New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1940.

Savigear, P. "Nicco1o Machiavelli: The Prince and the Discourses," in M.G. Forsyth and H.M.A. Keens-Soper (eds.) A Guide to the Political Classics: Plato to Rousseau. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.

Thomas, H. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Todorov, T. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

By Marco A. Almazan

Marco A. Almazan is Professor of International Relations and History at Universidad de las Americas-Puebla. His current research interests are the comparative study of states' systems and the history of international political thought.

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