Antonio de Herrera, the royal chronicler of Philip II, writing about the conquest of the New World in Historia General, included these lines:
The nations of New Spain preserved the memory of their antiquities. In Yucatán and Honduras there were certain books in which the Indians recorded the events of their times, together with their knowledge of plants, animals and other natural things. In the Province of Mexico, they had libraries of histories and calendars, which they painted in pictures. Whatever had a concrete form was painted in its own image, while if it lacked a form, they represented it by other characters. Thus they set down what they wished.
The image of a lost library, of graphs, codices and, subsequently, alphabetical transcriptions of oral tales, is suitable in the quest to imagine, even partially, the wealth of knowledge and spirituality that the Spaniards sought to dismantle. For what is a library if not a depository of memory? The past was important for the Nahua and Maya people, among other pre-Hispanics. They fathomed the need to record their inner thoughts, to make “history,” to reflect on the nature and impact of human existence. That they “set down what they wished” is accounted for in the myriad inventories of colonization left to posterity.
As a teleological arrow, History, of course, is an invention of the nineteenth century. The lost library was a myth in the early stages of the conquest, heavily inflected by a somewhat twisted sense of nostalgia. In Mesoamerica–understood as the stretch of land that includes a large portion of Mexico today as well as Central America, with a population influenced by Olmec culture–the accounts of that loss were colored by a Zeitgeist that was unstoppable and merciless. In particular, the destruction of both the magisterial metropolis Tenochtitlán, by Hernán Cortés, and the Aztec empire were delivered with a sense of inevitability.
The events come to us mainly through Cortés’s own correspondence with Charles V and also through Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s True History of the Conquest of Mexico. The natives might be portrayed at best as generous and allowable. But the reader is biased toward the mighty Iberian army–only 600 men, who, even if faulty, are seen as fateful in their determinism. It wasn’t until Europe began to pay attention to the vanquished that an elaborate cognizance of the epic period emerged. But it took time and a decision to go beyond an easy racial favoritism. To historians like William Hickling Prescott, the choice of heroes in the epic was unquestionable. In his The Conquest of Mexico, it is not Moctezuma, the Mexican leader, but Cortés, the brave, white, adventurous knight, who was the appropriate figure to describe in a view that fit the embrace of the “civilized” by a barbarous, idolatrous empire.