Skip to 0 minutes and 14 secondsI will be talking today about the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, a pictorial account of the conquest campaign conducted by the Spanish conquistador Jorge de Alvarado against the Maya people of Guatemala between 1527 and 1530. Quauhquecholteca warriors, from the Puebla region of Mexico, participated in large numbers in the Guatemalan campaign, reinforcing an alliance with Spaniards that had initially been formed for the purpose of defeating the Aztec empire in 1519-21. In keeping with indigenous traditions for recording their own histories, in the 1530s or 1540s the Quauhquecholteca documented the part they had played in the Guatemalan campaign on a large cloth (or lienzo) measuring some 2.35 metres by 3.25 metres.

Skip to 1 minute and 3 secondsThis 500 year-old document is housed in the Museo Casa de Alfenique in Puebla, but thanks to a recent digitalisation project by the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala, a high quality reproduction has been made available as an online resource, and it is from the online version that the images we will look at in a moment have been drawn. So, why pay attention to the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan? Well, as historians Florine Asselbergs and Matthew Restall have shown, its significance could hardly be over-estimated. The lienzo is the earliest known map of Guatemala, and it relates to a phase in the Spanish conquest of the region that is poorly documented in written sources.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 secondsMore importantly, the perspective that it offers on those events is that of the Quauhquecholteca warriors themselves. For this reason, it provides unique insight not only into how the conquest of Guatemala proceeded and progressed, but also how the Quauhquecholteca interpreted it, and how they wished it to be remembered by their own people. Thus, Quauhquecholteca warriors figure prominently in the lienzo, in contrast to how they appear in European paintings depicting Spanish conquests in the Americas. This example from a series of eight canvasses dating to the seventeenth century and now part of the Jay I Kislak Collection of the US Library of Congress is a case in point.

Skip to 2 minutes and 25 secondsIt depicts the conquest of Mexico rather than that of Guatemala, but what immediately strikes us is that the heavily armoured Spanish conquistadors are placed centre-stage, perhaps assisted by indigenous allies

Skip to 2 minutes and 37 secondsbut in a supporting rather than decisive role: understandably, perhaps, for the canvasses offer a Spanish perspective on conquest, and celebrate the courage of the conquistadors themselves. In the lienzo, the Guatemalan campaign of 1527-30 is presented as a joint enterprise, undertaken by an alliance of equal partners - Spaniards and Quauhquecholteca - with the latter being presented as conquerors in their own right. Their equality is depicted throughout the painting, so let us start by looking at one of the first images, representing the commencement of the Spanish-Quauhquecholteca alliance. This is a version of the Habsburg coat of arms, modified to represent the merging of Spanish and Indian forces, as shown by the two swords held in the eagle's claws, one Spanish, one indigenous.

Skip to 3 minutes and 26 secondsBelow we see depicted a warm embrace between a Quauhquecholteca lord and the Spaniard Hernan Cortes. A second Spaniard (most likely Jorge de Alvarado) stands nearby, as does a second native lord holding the gifts that were to symbolize the alliance. The next set of images marks the commencement of the Guatemalan campaign, further emphasising the joint nature of the enterprise, as it shows Alvarado alongside the four principal lords of Quauhquechollan. Note here also that the Quauhquecholteca conquerors are painted white, which does not, of course, mean that they thought of themselves as white - rather, their colour expressed the equality of both sides in the alliance and the political relationship between them.

Skip to 4 minutes and 9 secondsIf we go back to the whole lienzo, we can see that it depicts numerous battles. The paths marked by footsteps and hoof prints. The places and peoples encountered by glyphs. So let us look at a couple of those battle scenes. This one depicts a battle for control of the city of Panatacat (today, Escuintla), represented by four houses painted inside the mountain. Again, the emphasis is on the collaborative nature of the effort - the Spaniard Alvarado on the left, and Quauhquecholteca lords (recognisable by their feathered costumes and headdresses) together overcoming the resistance of local warriors.

Skip to 4 minutes and 48 secondsThese, in contrast to the Quauhquecholteca conquerors, are not only painted brown in colour, but also noticeably smaller in size and in terms of weaponry poorly equipped. We see these themes repeated in one of the final scenes on the lienzo, showing two Quauhquecholteca lords doing battle with local warriors. The Quauhquecholteca we can identify from their clothing, insignia, and weapons. If you look closely, they combine feather headdresses with Spanish swords and, in the case of the warrior in the upper part of the scene, also a Spanish-style helmet. The Quauhquecholteca are again painted white; the enemy brown, barefoot, dressed in cotton tunics, and holding simple arrows.

Skip to 5 minutes and 32 secondsWe know from the written record that the warriors encountered in Guatemala wore elaborate costumes, but these are diminished in the lienzo to emphasise the identity of the Quauhquecholteca as conquistadors. So what do we learn from the lienzo? What light does it shed on the conquest of Guatemala and the conquest period more broadly? The lienzo tells us a great deal about the violent battles that were fought and the places that were subjected (represented here by the sword pointing towards a stone structure). It tells us a great deal about prehispanic traditions for recording historical events.

Skip to 6 minutes and 7 secondsIt tells us about how the Quauhquecholteca viewed their alliance with the Spaniards, how they perceived themselves as equal partners in that alliance, and how they identified themselves as conquering, rather than as conquered, Indians, as crucial to the military victories in Guatemala as Spaniards were. From the point of view of the Quauhquecholteca, the conquest was not a story of humiliating defeat by Spaniards, but of joint victory with them over the Maya peoples. More broadly, the lienzo alerts us to the complexity of the conquest period. It reminds us that the story of the conquest was not simply (or straightforwardly) one of Spaniards against Indians.

Skip to 6 minutes and 47 secondsThe Quauhquecholteca, like many other indigenous groups in Meso - or middle-America chose to cooperate with rather than fight the Spanish, for which contribution they went on to enjoy a privileged place in the colonial order.

'The Quauhquechollan's cloth painting' with Dr Caroline Williams

This video will tell you about the ‘The Quauhquechollan’s cloth painting’.

It’s OK to pause the video or to watch it as many times as you like. The video subtitles do not show the accented characters, unfortunately. To see them you might like to refer to the transcript that is available below in the section ‘downloads’ - click ‘English Transcript pdf’.

(After you watch the video and click the pink circle ‘mark as complete’, move on to the next step and read the article ‘More about the image/cloth painting’.)

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Cultural Studies and Modern Languages: an Introduction

University of Bristol