Written Work by Graham T. Baden
Matthew Restall’s sweeping and authoritative work, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest seeks to debunk five centuries of historiographical half-truths. Quoting Armesto, he begins his work by undermining the certainty of historical objectivity, saying “historians today are priests of a cult of truth, called to the service of a god whose existence they are doomed to doubt.”[xiii] Indeed, this acknowledgement of subjectivity is underwritten throughout his work, and is echoed often in its brief 157 pages. By offering a cross-reading of multiple sources, both from the sixteenth century and modern historiographies, Restall attempts to offer a “truer” perception of the meeting of the Western and Eastern Hemispheres.
As indicated by the title, and conveniently broken down by chapter, Restell feels that seven “myths” have been constructed in our popular histories of the “conquest” of the “New World.” These myths, or “convenient fictions,” place American Indians in a position of subservience to the European authorities who landed on their shores. The seven historical half-truths, named by Restall: “the Myth of Exceptional Men,” “The Myth of the King’s Army,” “The Myth of the White Conquistador,” “The Myth of Completion,” “The Myth of (Mis)Communication,” and “The Myth of Native Desolation” are followed by the linchpin of both his monograph and of colonialism, “The Myth of Superiority.” Restall finds that these myths are not only the product of the biased documentation of sixteenth century witnesses, but also of contemporary works of historiography. His three most compelling arguments are discussed briefly below.
Restall’s first myth, “The Myth of Exceptional Men,” is summed up by the ongoing belief that “a small handful of men” managed to topple the great empires of the Americas, stating that this myth has vexed historians for centuries. How could this feat have been accomplished if it were not for such exemplary men? One important piece of evidence cited by Restall is the emergence of a new “genre” of historical discourse during the sixteenth century, the probanza de mérito (proof of merit). These probanzas were written by voyagers to the New World in order to provide documentation of their exploration and to represent a fulfillment of their contracts with their patrons in Europe. For this reason, they are obviously one-sided, avoiding any evidence of failure or aide from outside sources. He states that while Columbus himself was regarded in his lifetime as unexceptional, lying about the success of his mission in order to maintain his contractual rewards, it was not until the tricentennial of his first trip to the Americas that he became the celebrity he is today. The heroic Columbus, it seems, is a product of the nineteenth century, when American historians sought to find “emblematic immigrants” on which to build national solidarity during the great Italian and Irish immigration booms of the 1800s.
Chapter three of Restall’s work, “Invisible Warriors,” outlines the “Myth of the White Conquistador.” This myth, giving credit only to the European conquistadors in their invasion of the Americas, ignores the efforts of the Native American allies and African slaves who fought alongside them. In many cases, while white conquistadors were the minority, there is little to no indication of Indian or African allies in sixteenth century records. In the few cases where they do make an appearance, their mention is cursory. These incomplete records, as well as the inherent racism underlying the entire colonial experience, led scholars to avoid or ignore non-white participation until the eighteenth century. Ilarione da Bergamo, writing a brief history of Mexican conquest in 1760, seems not to have been aware of Native American and African participation whatsoever. As late as 1978, finding what little evidence there is of black men in the New World, Peter Gerhard called Juan Valiente “the lone Negro conqueror of Chile.” Even for today’s scholars, it is difficult to unlearn the deep-seated prejudices against people of color in the story of European expansion.
Restall’s most general argument, his seventh myth, is perhaps his most important. Both in the Americas and in Africa, the history of colonialism has been justified by a “Myth of Superiority,” the belief that Europeans are somehow naturally “better.” Whether genetic, cultural, or religious, Europeans believed themselves to be worthy of their victories in the colonial world, as if they were destined by providence. Conquistadors often cited God as the direct reason for their success. Cortés said bluntly, “God gave us such a victory and we killed many persons.” Sixteenth century texts also cite such ethnocentric claims as Native American fatalism and lack of confidence. These claims are repeated even in the twentieth century. Historical texts give Europeans a “double superiority” of civilization and technology. Underlying the entire schema of “conquest” history is the clash of “civilization” and “barbarism,” the implications of which suggest a continued rationalization of colonialism; the Nero Complex continuing even after the Millenium. Restall suggests that instead, Europe’s two greatest allies were not superiority and providence, but disease and Native American disunity. These two factors immobilized Native American peoples, often before conquistadors ever set foot within their kingdoms. Why, then, have these myths continued? Perhaps “it is politically safer and emotionally less taxing,” Restall suggests, quoting Samuel Wilson, “to blur history into myth and thereby confine it.”
Through his work, Restall intends to offer an understanding not only of how history is subjectively recorded, but how it is read, interpreted, re-recorded, and built into our semi-truthful, semi-subjective vision of the past. In his attempt to identify and dispel these seven myths, finding a “middle-ground” between the perspectives offered by both Europeans and Native Americans and more objectively representing the events of their meeting, he has met with some success.[xviii] He has found evidence of what “really happened,” and attempted to represent the many perspectives of those who were present. Through this, he has found his objective middle ground, “something true about the world of the Spanish Conquest,” however muddy it may seem in places.  As he states in his introduction, though, “in the realm of subjectivity, things can get really interesting.”[xv]