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Segunda Carta de Relacion: Author, Summary & Theme

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How can a single letter help inform generations of authors and lay the basis for an entire national identity? In this lesson, we'll examine the Segunda Carta and see who wrote it and why.

Letters to the King

Letter writing can be intimidating. Your handwriting needs to be presentable, you've got to communicate all the information you need, and you need to convey the right tone. Now imagine how much more pressure it would be if you were writing to a king. Now imagine how even greater that pressure would be if you were trying to justify treason, and explain that you've encountered one of the world's greatest empires.

On October 30, 1520, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés found himself in exactly that scenario. With quite a bit of explaining to do, he wrote the Segunda Carta de Relación, the second of five letters he would send to Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. Of all five letters, this is the most famous, because this is the one in which Cortés first described the Aztec Empire. How's that for an intimidating letter to write?

Hernan Cortes
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Background

Hernán Cortés was never meant to be the conquistador to lead an invasion of Mexico. In 1519, the Governor of Cuba hired Cortés to lead a simple expedition along the coastline of Mexico, but Cortés began bragging that he would claim the whole land for Spain. The Governor worried that Cortés would try to steal the glory (which the Governor wanted for himself). So, he put out a warrant for Cortés' arrest. Cortés rallied his men and left Cuba under the cover of night. He directly disobeyed the Governor, and by extension the King. He had committed treason.

In June of 1519, Cortés founded a Spanish city on the coast of mainland Mexico, and in July he sent his first letter to Charles V (along with a hefty supply of treasure). It explained that the Governor was arrogant and cruel and that Cortés had to disobey him, (i.e. please don't execute me, I'm not the bad guy here).

Timeline and Events of the Second Letter

Cortés sent his second letter to Charles V more than a year later, in October of 1520. A lot had happened in that time. After leaving the coastline, the Spaniards marched inland, entering the domain of the Aztec Empire. Cortés describes the cities they encountered, as well as their first experiences witnessing human sacrifices. The most important city was Tlaxcala, sworn enemy of the Aztecs, with which Cortés began forming a secret alliance with.

Finally, in November of 1519, Cortés and the Spaniards reached the Valley of Mexico and got their first glance of Tenochtitlán, the capital city of the Aztec Empire, and home to the Mexica people. Waiting on the drawbridge to the city was the emperor himself, Moctezuma II.

At first, the conquistadors were guests of the Emperor, but later kidnapped him and held him hostage. Cortés started replacing pagan symbols with Christian ones and ordered human sacrifices to stop. This arrangement was maintained for months until Cortés had to leave the city in May of 1520. The Governor of Cuba had launched an invasion of Cortés city on the coast.

While Cortés was gone, the Mexica held one of their traditional festivals which the remaining conquistadors took as a prelude to war. They started killing the Mexica, and Cortés returned in June to find the city in chaos. As Cortés and Moctezuma tried together to calm the people, Moctezuma was killed and the Spanish barely escaped with their lives the next evening, a night known as La Noche Triste, the night of sorrows.

When Cortés finally wrote about all of this in his letter to Charles V, in October of 1520, he was in the city of Tlaxcala, recovering from his narrow escape and planning his return to Tenochtitlán.

Major Themes

Cortés' second letter was, like his first, inspired largely by a need to justify his actions and convince Charles V that this was all for the glory of Spain and the faith. Thus, Cortés spends most of the letter describing two things. First, are his attempts to convert the Mexica to Catholicism, and their growing acceptance of his teachings (this is partly tied into Cortés' incorrect insistence that the Mexica saw him as a god). The second theme was Tenochtitlán itself, and Cortés spends a lot of time simply describing the city.

Map
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