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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 1: New World Beginnings, 33,000 B.C.A.D. 1769


Christopher Columbus (1451 - 1506)

Although his encounter with continents and peoples previously unknown to Europeans transformed world history, Columbus, the Genoese sailor who discovered America for the Spanish monarchy, never really understood the nature or significance of his accomplishment.

Having sailed under the flags of many nations, including Portugal, Columbus was already a well-known, successful voyager when he became obsessed with the idea of reaching Cathay (China) and the Indies by sailing west. His frustrating inability to gain backing for the venture ended when Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to supply him with three ships.

The great achievement of Columbuss first voyage was not only to navigate unknown waters under unprecedented conditions but to keep his crews from mutinyespecially when the ships were becalmed after nearly sixty days. Although well aware during all his voyages that he was not in China or India, Columbus became firmly convinced that he had found islands just off the Asian coast and that the rich cities of Japan and China were not far away. This notion was reinforced by his desperate need to obtain continuing funding from the Spanish rulers, who pressed ever harder for concrete economic gains from the voyages.

Quote: The inhabitants of this and of all the other islands I have found or gained intelligence of, both men and women, go as naked as they were born, with the exception that some of the women cover one part only with a single leaf or grass with a piece of cotton, made for that purpose. I gave away a thousand good and pretty articles which I had brought with me in order to win their affection, and that they might be led to become Christians, and be well inclined to love and serve their highnesses and the whole Spanish nation. (Letter on the first voyage, 1493)

REFERENCE: John Stewart Wilford, The Mysterious History of Columbus (1991).


Moctezuma II (1466 - 1520)

Moctezuma II (also called Montezuma II) was the Aztec ruler who succumbed to Cortéss invasion of Mexico.

He was the tenth in the line of Aztec emperors who controlled the vast regions and diverse peoples of Mexico from their rich capital at Tenochtitlán. Like other members of the royal aristocracy, he lived in luxury and served as a high priest of the elaborate but cruel Aztec religion. He succeeded to the throne in 1502 on the death of his uncle Ahuitzotl.

Before Cortés arrived, Moctezuma had expanded the Aztec realm, yet controlling the increasingly restless subordinate peoples of the empire demanded more and more of his energy. He was particularly devoted to the god Huitzilpochtli, but also came under the influence of astrologers and readers of portents. Their pessimistic predictions about his fate evidently weakened his will to resist the Spanish invaders.

After Cortés and his men seized Moctezuma and held him under house arrest, the people of Tenochtitlán became increasingly hostile to their leader. When Moctezuma appeared in public for the first time in nearly a year in early 1520, the angry populace showered him with stones before he could retreat indoors. The Spanish claimed that the wounded ruler died shortly thereafter from the stoning, but many Aztecs believed that the Spanish killed him. The truth remains unknown.

Quote: I have in truth seen you and have now set eyes upon your force. You have come between mists and clouds, and now it has come to pass. Now you have arrived, with much fatigue and toil. Come to our land, come and repose. (Message to Cortés as he approached Tenochtitlán, 1519)

REFERENCE: Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico (1994).


Hernán Cortés (1485 - 1547)

Like many conquistadores, Cortés was born into a noble family but as a younger son failed to inherit extensive lands and wealth. As a youth, he was restless, ambitious, and nearly uncontrollable. In 1504, at age nineteen, he sailed for the island of Hispaniola (todays Dominican Republic and Haiti), at that time the headquarters of Spanish activity in the New World.

Cortés farmed and worked as a minor town official for six years, but he longed for greater adventures. In 1511, he joined a successful expedition to Cuba and then used a commission from the governor of Cuba, Velazquez, to assemble an expedition of eleven ships, five hundred soldiers, and sixteen horses. Although Velazquez soon changed his mind, Cortés had already sailed for Mexico. Cortéss brilliant, if treacherous, combination of military, political, and psychological tactics overcame Aztec resistance and gained him an empire larger than Spain. His reports of his conquests, contained in five lengthy letters to King Charles V of Spain, are full of fascinating detail, as well as much boasting and exaggeration.

Cortés was a talented administrator, but peaceful pursuits did not suit him, and in 1524 he headed for Honduras in search of further glory. There, he succeeded only in ruining his health and undermining his position in Mexico City. He retired to his estate in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1528, and in 1540 returned to Spain to die, a broken man.

Quote: Touching Montezumas palace and all that was remarkable in his magnificence and power, there is so much to describe that I do not know how to begin.There could be nothing more magnificent than that this barbarian lord should have all the things of heaven to be found under his domain, fashioned in gold and silver and jewels and feathers. (Second letter to King Charles V, 1521)

REFERENCE: Jon White, Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire: A Study in the Conflict of Cultures, rev. ed. (1989).



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