Mexico City, 1524

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Map of Mexico City by Hernan Cortes, 1524.

I study the long history of revolution and social change in the Americas, which includes the legacies of colonialism and neocolonialism. It is for this reason I am fascinated by colonial maps, since they are products of their political contexts.

I find that this 1524 map of Tenochtitlan, or contemporary Mexico City, by Hernán Cortés tells us much about the historical context in which it was embedded (map, on the right, reproduced from Lehigh's original copy). Cortés is one of the most nefarious of Spain's conquistadors and was notoriously brutal in his treatment of South American indigenes. The map was made after Cortés's military and political successes in toppling the Aztec empire.

The detail of the map indicates that there was a thriving metropolis in Tenochtitlan, which is shown surrounded by Lake Texcoco with the Gulf of Mexico depicted on the left side of the map. Even though this world usually is not included in our history books, it is clear that the earlier European settlers found highly developed and organized societies. The thriving urban life of Tenochtitlan is evident in the map's inclusion of images of indigenous persons and its depiction of a sophisticated and advanced city. The map also shows expanding colonial territories and geographical knowledge; the depiction of the Gulf of Mexico includes "Florida" – one of the first times that name is used on a map.

The map includes images of people going about their everyday life, for instance canoeing as a mode of transportation. Perhaps they were still unaware of the intense social changes about to occur. This map is certainly a reflection of many dynamics occurring at the time, where the seeds of "what is to come" were just being sown.

Tanya Saunders
Predoctoral Fellow in Sociology and Anthropology