The Meeting of Two Worlds – Short Research Assignment

Source: Todorov, Tzvetan. “Montezuma and Signs.” The Conquest of America, Harper & Row, 1984, pp. 63–97.


Different accounts of the Spanish colonization of Latin America are explored in “The Conquest of America” by Tzvetan Todorov. The section “Montezuma and Signs”, focuses on the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, showing how the Aztecs’ tendencies to rely on “communication between man and the world” (69) and their inability to “[master] interhuman communication” (70) were contributing factors in helping the Spaniards conquer the empire with relative ease.

Prior to the Spanish arrival into Latin America, the Aztec civilization was reliant on fortunetelling. The Aztecs’ calendar was cyclical, containing 13 months of 20 days” (63), and the fate of an individual was decided based on the day in which they were born, and the events of that day in the past – it was during this time that sorcerers, astrologers or soothsayers determined what was to be (64). However, unexpected events, which were not previously predicted, were explained by omens (64), a form of ‘communication between man and the world’ – Aztecs held this communication to the highest regard (66).

The Aztecs’ deep-rooted belief in the nature of the timeline initially helped the Spanish enter Mexico. Prior to the Spanish arrival, the Aztecs were reliant on fortunetelling. Their calendar was cyclical, containing “13 months of 20 days” (63), and fate was decided based on the day in which they were born, and the events of that day in the past, creating a form of prophecy. However, unexpected or unpredicted events were explained by omens (64), a form of ‘communication between man and the world’, which the Aztecs held to the highest regard (66). Montezuma II, the emperor of the Aztec Empire, searched the books of past events to predict the Spaniards’ intentions, however, the Spaniards’ arrival and behaviours could not be explained (86). Consequently, Montezuma II was unable to take adequate measures against the Spaniards, aiding in the overall ease of the Spanish conquest.

It was also the Aztecs’ inability to communicate effectively with both the Spaniards and each other that contributed to the fall of the empire. They attempted to convince the Spaniards to leave by sending them gold and offering them women (87-88), having the converse effect of giving them more reason to remain. Later, they attempted sacrificing Spanish soldiers, however, this aggravated relationships and motivated the Spaniards to be more determined to conquer the Aztecs (88). Additionally, war cries which the Aztecs used to scare their opposition (the Spanish soldiers), in reality, disclosed their proximity, giving the Spanish the advantage in battle (89). This highlights how their ineffective communication with other humans lead to their downfall.

Overall, Aztec adherence to their form of “communication between man and world” (69), inhibited their ability to successfully respond to the presence of the Spanish Conquistadors. Furthermore, they were unable to communicate effectively with each other and the Spaniards, and consequently, as Todorov concludes “[The Spaniards] were incontestably superior to the Indians in the realm of interhuman communication” (97). This superiority gave the Conquistadors the upper hand, and ultimately, helped them bring about the easily-achieved downfall and conquest of the Aztec Empire.

Week 2: The Meeting of Two Worlds

Growing up in Asia, the “discovery” of the Americas was not a major focus in History class, and hence, I do not have much previous knowledge with regards to Christopher Columbus and his journey to the Americas. However, despite my lack of extensive knowledge, I knew a little here and there. While I never truly saw him as a hero (because I believe that serendipity had a large role to play in his “discovery”… slightly more on that later) I never saw him as a villain either, despite the broad range of negative effects that his “discovery” had on the indigenous civilisations.

Both this video and the readings have also made me think about intention versus reception. Columbus set sail westward to find a faster route to Asia, as well as for his personal gain. Thus, he often is seen desperately trying to justify his journey to the Crown. However, here we are, over 5 centuries later, celebrating him as a hero in holidays such as “Columbus Day”. This makes me feel uneasy because, as the video states, Columbus himself was not even aware of what he “found”. The celebration of Columbus is merely due to serendipity, as chance played a large role in the way that events unfolded. He did not find a faster route to Asia. He did not necessarily “achieve his mission”. Yet, with the way that events played out, it is clear that serendipity has played a huge role in the celebration of Columbus today, and in the manner of which many people view Columbus today – As a “Hero” or as the one who “Discovered the Americas”.**

Additionally, I am slightly angered by the fact that Candia’s incorrect portrayal of the Incas led to more people coming to the America’s and stripping them of their resources, bringing along disease and suffering. However, I also believe that the world would not be the same today if it wasn’t for the events that took place. This is one of the reasons why I believe that it is important to learn history, and in this case, the history of Latin America. Many people say that it is to keep ourselves from making the same mistakes, but a big part of me wants to learn more about the events that occurred in the past out of respect for the people and civilisations that have died in the process of making history. They deserve to be known because without them, the modern world as we know it today potentially wouldn’t exist.

Well, those are just my personal thoughts and opinions with regards to Columbus. I am sorry if this offends you in any way 🙁

Some questions for discussion – If you could say something, or ask Christopher Columbus/Candia a question, what would you say/ask? Also, how do you think the world would be like today if Columbus never sailed the ocean blue? Do you think that similar events would’ve eventually happened, or do you think that everything would be different today? No wrong answers here, to be honest.,


Michelle Marin

** The reason why I struggle to say “Discovery” without (sarcastic) quotations marks is due to the fact that “discovery” implies that it was not known before, however, it is a very euro-centric way of explaining what occurred in 1492. The “discovery” of these civilisations occurred long before, as the civilisations themselves were aware of their own existence (Does this make sense..)

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