Last month saw the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, including the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. While the conquest is often seen as a wholly European act of empire, there were in fact Indigenous peoples who contributed significantly to the success of the Spanish Conquistadors–including the forces of the state of Tlaxcala in central Mexico: the image above is from the 1584 Lienzo de Tlaxcala, depicting Spanish-Tlaxcalan forces attacking the Aztecs by land and sea. This recent Guardian article describes the long-standing accusation against Tlaxcalans as ‘traitors’. What were the motives and consequences of this people becoming Spanish Tlaxcallies?
Following the Reconquista of Spain from Muslim powers, the monarchies of Portugal and Spain turned their attention to the newly ‘discovered’ Americas. Alongside the zeal to convert the inhabitants to Catholicism, the Conquistadors aspired to worldly glory and the treasures of the Mesoamerican empires, including Aztec gold. The state of Tlaxcala saw an alliance with Hernan Cortés as an opportunity to free themselves from the oppression of Mexica (as the Aztec empire was known). In other words, Tlaxcala felt that it enjoyed only minimal liberties alongside Meximal control.
Some 30,000-40,000 Mesoamericans, including the Tlaxcalans, helped to topple Tenochtitlan and the Aztec empire in 1521. The Tlaxcalans secured a promise from the Spanish that they would enjoy the privileges of nobility within New Spain. By the 1580s, however, Tlaxcalan leaders bemoaned that the promise had been breached, and that their rights as fellow Conquistadors were Tlaxcallously disregarded.
This 2019 article by Jannette Amaral-Rodríguez discusses the 1584-85 embassy of Tlaxcalan nobles to the Spanish king Philip II to redress these grievances. They were received positively, and Tlaxcala was granted a coat of arms and the title of Muy Noble y Leal Ciudad (Very Noble and Loyal City). Yet, the author argues, the situation of Tlaxcala within the Spanish empire was precarious: it may have been officially recognised as an exceptional state within New Spain, but there were frequent infringements of its special status. From the time Mexico was liberated from colonial rule in the 1820s, Tlaxcala has been considered a traitorous state. Thus, this state in central Mexico has been Tlaxcalled out for betraying its fellow Mesoamericans. In their defence, the descendants of this Indigenous people have argued that this was a Tlaxcalculated move to ensure their political survival, and that they should not be considered mere Mexicollaborators.
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Early Modern Tlaxcalorie-counting Studies Program