The Conquest of Mexico: Indigenous Actions, Iberian Influence and Hegemony

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Throughout history, nations and states sought to dominate subordinate groups under many different circumstances. In the first quarter of the sixteenth century, the Spanish Conquistadors began to conquer and colonize the area that would become Mexico (this essay will primarily discuss the events of the conquest, not colonization). The ultimate result of the conquest was an established hegemony, a term I will describe in more detail as it pertains to this essay. In order to understand the extent to which indigenous actions shaped hegemony during the conquest of Mexico, we must first look what context the word hegemony is used in when discussing colonial Latin America; then, it can be argued that although the actions and interpretations, fear and intimidation from the initial encounter and 'barbarism' that  the Indigenous people practiced attracted the Spaniards to take control were important factors, Iberian ideologies and the Spanish attitudes of conquest, however, were also influential in shaping the hegemony that followed the conquest, despite the resistance. 

While there are numerous definitions of the word hegemony, Professor Sartorius defined it as "the process and outcome of dialect between dominant and sub-alter groups." In addition, William Roseberry goes a step further and "propose[s] that we use the concept not to understand consent but to understand struggle" (Roseberry 360). This definition and extension are more relative to the circumstances of the conquest of Mexico in 1519 by the Spanish conquistadors and therefore, more appropriate. Also, this definition is coherent with the thesis presented that the hegemony that developed as a result is not a black and white issue as to who established it. Therefore, for us to understand a balanced view of how this developed, we must look at the root causes of how it matured and why, starting with the framework of indigenous culture.

From the primary source documents, we understand that Indigenous people adopted a role of subordination when encountering the Spanish. Based on their actions, religion and interpretations, they were almost immediately dominated. The Aztec culture, which was a military power in Mexico, was accustomed to subordinating other tribes and forcing acceptance of domination as a lifestyle. For example, when Aztecs used military power to conquer another territory or tribe, the result was a succession of people into the sphere of influence so resources could be gained. The dominated tribes knew how this worked and paid tribute to the dominant tribes. Henceforth, we can say that since the Indigenous people had their own form of hegemony, they knew how it worked on both sides. 

The fact that the Indigenous people mistook the Spaniards as Gods contributed to the dominance that would build up from the initial encounter. As read in Victors and Vanquished, "They [indigenous people] thought it [the arrival of the Spaniards] was Topiltzin Quetzacoatl" (Sahagún 93). This was significant because in their mythology, the serpent God vowed to return and reclaim his seat of authority from the same direction the Spanish came from. In addition to this coincidence, the Indigenous people were initially very afraid of the Spaniards because they had guns, horses, and cannons. The messenger was said to have fainted when he saw a cannon go off and crumble a hill (Sahagún 97). This represents that there was a sense of fear within the indigenous community, and further reading told of how the emperor Moteuccoma was very fearful of the events to come (Sahagún 96). Moreover, when describing the Cholula massacre, the tone and content of the description clearly establishes the dominance that took place:

Their [Spaniards] iron lances and halberds seemed to sparkle, and their iron swords were curved like a stream of water. Their cuirasses and iron helmets seemed to make a clattering sound. Some of them came wearing armor all over, turned into iron beings, gleaming, so that they aroused fear and were generally seen with fear and dread (Sahagún 121). 

This is a prime example of how subordination began even before blood was shed; that is, the fear and intimidation caused by the circumstances already put the Indigenous people in a state of terror and gave the Spaniards an aura of being infallible. After the initial contact, the battles only supported the notion of the Spaniards being powerful beings, as represented by the quotation above. 

Further, when the Spaniards saw that the Indigenous people didn't have Christianity and acted 'barbaric' according to Spanish standards, this supported a dominant and even 'paternal' relationship that the Spanish felt obliged to act upon. At the initial encounter of the Spaniards with the Tlaxcala, the Florentine Codex tells of how Moteuccoma sent out emissaries to sprinkle blood in their food. As a result, "they were made sick to their stomachs, spitting, rubbing their eyelids, blinking, shaking their heads" (Sahagún 98). Moreover, the association of people in the new world being cannibals was represented in the account by Bernal Díaz when he said that he looked for human flesh in the food because he heard that "they were wont to cook for him the flesh of young boys" (Díaz 141). With religion being such an important aspect of Spanish culture, they felt obligated to Christianize the barbaric peoples of the new world. If Indigenous people are in line, getting ready to be baptized and converted to Christianity, this shows a level of influence Spaniards had over indigenous people (Lienzo 125). Clearly, the religious behaviors that the Indigenous people practiced that made them appear uncivilized and in need to Christianity. 

Despite indigenous actions, beliefs, and interpretations playing a primary role in the development of Spanish hegemony, Iberian ideologies such as the type of society and the Inquisition were also influential. For instance, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella held a vision to uphold the catholic orthodoxy in all areas of the Spanish empire, which was upheld through the reign of Charles V. This was a relevant precursor because since the Spanish succeeded in pushing out the Moors, they felt that Catholicism had finally prevailed, and religion was the answer. In relation to Indigenous people in the new world, any people that weren't Christian- Jews, Muslims, native people- faced domination against the Holy Office. Therefore, when the conquest of Mexico happened, the Spanish already had the notion that anyone that didn't practice Christianity was inferior, 'Godless', and needed to be converted. This played a critical role in the hegemony that formed because we can see in many paintings that indigenous people were pressured to adhere to the teachings of Christ as the Lienzo De Tlaxcala paintings show us (Lienzo 125).

Finally, The Spanish framework of conquest was an integral factor in shaping the hegemony that developed; that is, the attitudes of the conquistadors, style of governance and resistance to change were core factors that made up this 'framework.' In Jeremy Adelman's introduction to Colonial Legacies: The Problem in Persistence in Latin America, he quotes Abbe Raynal's observation in which he says that 'the natural pride of the conquerors, the particular temper of the Spaniards, their ignorance of the true principles of commerce; all these, and many other causes, prevented them from giving good laws, a sound administration, and a solid basis to their American Conquests, at first setting out' (Adelman 4). The reference to the personalities and culture of the founding conquistadors and how they led the way for leadership and dominance is also mentioned. Adelman even goes a step further and discusses how this initial encounter affected the overall future of Latin America. He noted that "the conquest and conquistador heritage created a pattern of rulership noted for its personalism, individualism, pride and violence" (Adelman 9). These observations tie back to the development of Spanish hegemony because the type of leadership that was practiced and carried out played an integral role in how operations were carried out. 

It is important to also look at the role that the haciendas played as a root cause in shaping hegemony because they were powered by indigenous labor. In feudal times, Europe was run by self-sufficient units that worked based on hierarchy. These feudal aristocracies acted the same way as haciendas did; that is, people worked the land for someone else and were part of an economic unit that operated because of slavery, although not labeled slavery in Europe, but servitude. These haciendas were the basis of Spanish hegemony because they demonstrated subordination, hierarchy, and struggle: the working definition of hegemony. As Adelman tells us, "both the landed estate and cabildo (townhouse) reinforced racial and ethnic hierarchies and patrimonialism in order to bolster control over sub-alter populations" (Adelman 7). Since the landed estate was a European concept that was carried over from Iberian influence, we can say that this is an example of how Spanish hegemony developed through the actions of the conquistadors. The Spaniards used the Indigenous people for labor and established clear dominance.

This concept of the hacienda and having Indigenous people work on it ties back very well with the fact that this concept began dyeing in Europe yet remained strong in Spain. Moreover, going back to Adelman's point of how Latin America "fails to follow the natural course of ‘Western' history" shows us that Spanish hegemony in the new world was greatly influenced by the actions of the conquistadors, who were influenced by the Crown and Church in Spain (Adelman 3). As the conquest followed this course, Indigenous people, based on fear, did much to adapt and accommodate the Spaniards, hoping to gain alliances. Many converted to Christianity and allied with them while those who opposed were quickly slaughtered. 

The hegemony that developed over the course of the conquest of Mexico was a result of various circumstances, reactions, ideologies by both indigenous people and Spaniards. We saw how hegemony is a term that represents struggle in a hierarchy and how it was the core of Spanish conquest. The initial fear and intimidation felt by the natives and misinterpretation of Cortes as a God were the base because they established the Spanish as already being dominant. By witnessing and seeing the barbarism conducted by the natives, the Spanish felt it necessary to help the indigenous people by giving them Christianity and changing their ways. On the side of the Spanish, it was the Iberian customs and ideologies that carried over to the new world that played an important role in shaping the hegemony. Finally, we can name the individual attitudes of the founding agents and the culture of leadership they brought to Mexico as a major component. As the sources have shown us, Spanish hegemony did not develop the way it did randomly; rather, distinct actions and cultural features on the part of both Indigenous people and Spaniards were the root causes of its development.

Figure 1 omitted in the preview, but available via download

Figure 2 omitted in the preview, but available via download