cover image When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting That Changed History

When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting That Changed History

Matthew Restall. Ecco, $29.99 (560p) ISBN 978-0-06-242726-7

Restall (The Conquistadors), director of Latin-American studies at Penn State, makes an impressive and nuanced case for why radically reinterpreting the Nov. 8, 1519, encounter between Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés and Aztec emperor Montezuma leads to a totally different view of the following four centuries. “The Meeting,” as Restall dubs it, is the founding myth of Latin-American history, an event that inhabits the liminal space between history and legend. What is known about the meeting has been gleaned almost entirely from one source: 16th-century foot-soldier Bernal Díaz’s True History of New Spain, which Restall argues is neither true nor strictly historical. Using his knowledge of the Nahuatl language to revisit forgotten texts and parse eyewitness accounts of the Aztecs’ “surrender,” Restall strips away layers of accumulated historical sediment to reveal a meeting that looks very different from the version found in history textbooks and memorialized in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. According to Restall, the meeting wasn’t a turning point but rather merely one moment in the Spanish-Aztec War, a brutal two-year struggle historically whitewashed in favor of an account that justifies and reinforces the European presence in the Americas and became the foundation for a false history of indigenous weakness and European superiority. Blending erudition with enthusiasm, Restall has achieved a rare kind of work—serious scholarship that is impossible to put down. Illus. (Jan.)