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date: 08 May 2021

Abstract and Keywords

With a handful of untrained and poorly equipped soldiers, Hernán Cortés overthrew the powerful Aztec civilization between 1519 and 1520. Born in Spain around 1485, Cortés decided to inform the king of Spain (and Holy Roman emperor) Charles V of his achievements, in a series of written updates. Despite their ostensible purpose, these “letters” were designed for more than the edification and delight of the emperor. Like Julius Caesar’s dispatches from the Gallic Wars of the 50s BCE—in which at least one million Gauls were killed and another million enslaved—these accounts were designed for broad public consumption. Each letter was sent to Spain as soon as it was ready, and it seems likely that Cortés’s father, Martín, arranged for their immediate publication. Over the course of these five published letters, although Cortés developed a persona for himself as a conquering hero and agent of imperial power, he also exposed the ruthlessness and brutality of his “conquest” of Mexico.

Hernán Cortés, Letters from Mexico, ed. and trans. Anthony Pagden (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 72–74.

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