Sorry not sorry: Spain rejects Mexico’s demand for apology for colonial abuses

The 500-year-old wounds of the Spanish conquest were ripped open afresh on Monday when Mexico's president urged Spain and the Vatican to apologize for their "abuses" -- a request Madrid said it "firmly rejects."

Sorry not sorry: Spain rejects Mexico's demand for apology for colonial abuses
Hernán Cortés, with 200 Spaniards and 5,000 Indians defeats a larger Aztec force in 1520. Photo: Unknown/ Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS

Spain's centuries of dominance in the New World, backed by the Catholic Church, leapt from the history books to the headlines when Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called on Spanish King Felipe VI and Pope Francis to apologize for the conquest and the rights violations committed in its aftermath.

“I have sent a letter to the king of Spain and another to the pope, calling for a full account of the abuses and urging them to apologize to the indigenous peoples (of Mexico) for the violations of what we now call their human rights,” Lopez Obrador said.   

He made the remarks in a video, filmed at the ruins of the indigenous city of Comalcalco and posted on Facebook and Twitter.   

“There were massacres and oppression. The so-called conquest was waged with the sword and the cross. They built their churches on top of the (indigenous) temples,” added the anti-establishment leftist.

“The time has come to reconcile. But let us ask forgiveness first.”   Spain's rejection was immediate and blunt.

“The government of Spain deeply regrets that the letter the Mexican president sent to his majesty the king, whose contents we firmly reject, has been made public,” it said in a statement.

“The arrival, 500 years ago, of Spaniards to present Mexican territory cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations,” it said.   

“Our two brother nations have always known how to read our shared past without anger and with a constructive perspective.”

300-year reign

Lopez Obrador made the remarks during a visit to the Mayan pyramids of Comalcalco, in his native Tabasco state, in southern Mexico.   

He later visited the nearby city of Centla, the scene of the first battle between Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and the indigenous peoples of the land now known as Mexico, on March 14, 1519.

READ MORE: Who was Conquistador Hernán Cortés?

With the help of horses, swords, guns and smallpox — all unknown in the New World at the time — Cortes led an army of fewer than 1,000 men to defeat the Aztec empire, the start of 300 years of Spanish rule over Mexico.   

The abuses continued until independence from Spain in 1821, and beyond, Lopez Obrador said.

“Thousands of people were murdered during this period. One culture and civilization imposed itself on another,” he said later in a speech.   

“There are still open wounds. It's better to recognize that abuses were committed, and mistakes were made. It's better to ask forgiveness and seek to be brothers in a historic reconciliation.”

He added that he, too, planned to offer an apology, “because the repression of indigenous peoples continued after the colonial period.”

It's complicated

Mexico has a complicated relationship with its colonial past.

Its history, culture, food and the Mexican people themselves are the product of “mestizaje,” the mixing of the Old and New Worlds.   

According to a government study, 98 percent of Mexicans have some combination of indigenous, European and African ancestry.   

But although that mixture made modern Mexico — and gave the world the gifts of chocolate, tacos de carnitas and Day of the Dead — it is also a past tainted by violence, rape and oppression.

Lopez Obrador, 65, took office in December after a landslide election win that represented a firm break with Mexico's traditional political parties.   

A folksy populist, he pulls no punches in going after traditional elites, and has sought to cast himself as a champion of Mexico's indigenous peoples.   

Photo taken on January 30, 2019 Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (R) welcomes Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. AFP 

But he had so far cultivated cordial relations with Spain and the Vatican, including during a visit to Mexico City by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez earlier this year.

Sanchez, a fellow leftist, marked the occasion by presenting the Mexican president with his grandfather Jose Obrador's Spanish birth certificate, from 1893.

By AFP's Joshua Howat Berger, with Marianne Barriaux in Madrid

REACTION: Anger in Spain, eyerolls in Mexico over conquest row


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Who was Conquistador Hernán Cortés?

Five hundred years ago exactly, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés waged his first bloody battle against the Aztecs in the New World. But why is Mexico's president dragging it up now?

Who was Conquistador Hernán Cortés?
A statue of Hernán Cortés in Medellin, Extremadura. Photo: orensbruli/Depositphotos

Who was Hernán Cortés?

The body of Hernán Cortés, the conquistador who launched three centuries of Spanish rule in Mexico, today  lies all but forgotten in a Mexico City church, even as a new debate rages over his legacy.

The story of how it got there is as complicated and dramatic as the conquest itself, launched 500 years ago when Cortés, a talented, cunning and ambitious adventurer, defied his boss' orders and sailed off to conquer the Aztec empire.

That violent collision between the Old and New Worlds surged into the headlines this week when Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called on the king of Spain and the pope to apologize for the abuses of the conquest drawing a resentful response.

Amid the row, the remains of the Spaniard who started it all lie in oblivion in the Mexican capital, a silent reminder of both countries' shared past.

It is an unlikely fate for a man who rose from nothing to conquer an empire and build another in its place, winning fame and fortune along the way.   

“There's a very complicated and theatrical story behind Cortés's remains, worthy of a TV special,” said the historian Miguel Pastrana Flores, of Mexico's largest university, UNAM.

REACTION: Anger in Spain, eyerolls in Mexico over conquest row

Losing it all

Cortés was a smart but rebellious thirty-something when he launched the conquest in 1519 — defying his boss, the governor of Cuba, who had told the young official to stay put on the newly colonized island.

Instead, Cortés not only set sail for the mainland, but destroyed his own ships on arrival, leaving his several hundred men little choice but to try and colonize it.

With the help of horses, swords, guns and smallpox — all unknown in the New World — and alliances with other indigenous groups, Cortés overthrew the Aztec empire in 1521, claiming it for Spain.

He governed the new colony for several years, but was haunted by his own insubordinate streak: legal problems and frayed relations caused by his defiance of the nobility would dog him the rest of his life.

Cortés died in Spain in 1547, aged about 62, diseased and indebted.   

In his will, he asked his family to build a convent south of Mexico City and bury him there. But that never happened.

Dead man walking

Buying time, Cortés' heirs put his body in a mausoleum in Seville, then moved him to a nearby tomb three years later when another noble needed the space.

That was just the beginning.

“His remains have been moved from place to place” for centuries, Mexican writer Hector de Mauleon told AFP.   

Cortés' family finally sent his remains to Mexico in 1566. He was buried near his mother at a church north of Mexico City.   

In 1629, Cortés' last male heir died, and the colonial government ordered Cortés reburied alongside him in the capital's Franciscan monastery in a lavish ceremony.

Cortés' bones — now in a velvet-lined urn — were later transferred to the monastery's altar, locked with a key that passed from one generation of monks to the next.

In 1790, he was moved again, to a stately tomb inside the church that adjoins the Hospital de Jesus, the first hospital in the Americas, which he founded.

Mystery disappearance

But then Mexico declared independence in 1810.   

By 1823, “Mexico City was aflame with pamphlets, with calls to kick out the Spanish, to dig up Cortés' remains and drag them through the streets,” said De Mauleon.

A conservative historian and writer, Lucas Alaman, decided not to let that happen. He slipped into the church and removed Cortés' body from its tomb.   

For more than a century, its whereabouts were a mystery. Historians speculated it was in Spain or Italy.

Then, in 1946, a refugee of the Spanish civil war and a Cuban student invited the historian Francisco de la Maza to a secretive meeting. There, they told him they had a letter left by Alaman with a map to Cortés' body.

The remains, it turned out, were just meters from where Alaman had taken them, sealed inside a wall at the very same church.   

With the government's permission, De la Maza led a secret excavation — and found what experts confirmed was Cortés's body.   

It was a far cry from the image of the virile young conquistador, said De Mauleon.

“He had one tooth, various injuries sustained in combat, and his bones seemed eroded by venereal disease,” he said.   

The government ordered the body returned to the same spot. Today, it is marked by a discrete plaque: “Hernán Cortés, 1485-1547.”

Revisiting history

Pastrana criticized Mexico's request to Spain — two countries that didn't even exist as such at the time — and said the idea of good “Indians” versus evil conquistadors was overly simplistic.

“We have to try to understand these figures in their enormous complexity,” he said.

“Two civilizations… met without a single reference point. It's as if we went to Jupiter and found another civilization.”   

Spanish academic Guillermo Seres said it was “unjust” that Cortés, “a man of action, but also… of science and letters,” had been cast as a villain.   

“He has come to represent everything bad in Spanish history,” he said.

By AFP's Jean Luis Arce and Joshua Howat Berger

READ ALSO Sorry not sorry: Spain rejects Mexico's demand for apology for colonial abuses