What are the greatest PR successes of the past 500 years?
Now one might jibe at writing back into history the concept of PR but we now know through the work many modern historians (much of which has been described by the blog in books and articles) the extent to which opinion was shaped in countries around the world by techniques which we could identity as analogous to the practices of contemporary communicators.
The blog was recently encouraged to think anew on the question. Louis XIV’s portrayal from sculpture and portraits to books would obviously be a candidate; Martin Luther’s promotion of his views using revolutionary new communications technology would have to feature on any list; the British anti-slavery campaign would be another; the belief that the English monarchy has been a force for stability is perhaps worth a guernsey; and, the constant propaganda which has convinced many US citizens that they live in a democracy is also hard to top.
But some recent reading has convinced the blog that the prize ought to go to two concurrent campaigns: first; a monumentally negative campaign – the Spanish effort starting 500 years ago this year – launched by Cortes, to stigmatise the Aztecs as mass murdering cannibals who folded on being confronted by the reality that Cortes was a representative of some long forgotten individual re-emerging to ensure they paid homage to the Spanish king; and, second the celebrity-style promotion of Cortes as a far more significant figure than he was in reality.
There have been three books, among the many thousands published, well worth reading about the impact of the Spanish invasion of Mexico and Latin America. The first is the first – Bartolome de las Casas’ A Short Account of the Destruction of The Indies (written 1542 and published 1552); the second, Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (1973); and, the the late Australian author Inga Clendinnen’s Aztecs: An Interpretation (1991).
All have their points, faults and connections. Las Casas is the first great refutation of the Cortes view of the conquest and subsequent mass enslavement of the population. For a Christian of the day he was remarkably enlightened. He has memorials in many places around the world including Mexico, Spain and Cuba. His work was also translated by John Phillips in the 17th century as The Tears of the Indians when Cromwell was hoping to overturn the Spanish empire in the Caribbean by invading Jamaica. The outcome, though, was not liberation but ultimately more slavery. Galeano’s book is a Marxist polemic which starts with Christopher Columbus, takes in Cortes and encompasses ITT and the United Fruit Company. It was translated by Cedric Belfrage who also wrote a novel re-imagining what it was like to be on the receiving end of the post-Columbian invasion. Inga Clendinnen’s book is a masterful work combining anthropological insights and historical research to allow us to see – as much as possible – what Aztec society was like. She did the same thing in her book – Dancing with Strangers – on contact between indigenous Australians and the British invaders.
Now, the three are joined by a fourth. Matthew Restall’s When Montezuma Met Cortes: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History (2018). Restall is a professor of Latin American Studies at Penn State and has a written a number of works de-mystifying western views of Latin American history including Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest – the title of which says much about his latest book.
By the way, in terms of powerful rebuttals of the Cortes myth we should also, along with the four books, include the magnificent visual rebuttal – Diego de Rivera mural in the Palacio Nacional de Mexico which depicts Cortes, in Restall’s words, as ‘deformed and syphilitic.”
The Restall book can be approached in two ways: first as a deconstruction of the ‘official’ version of the Conquest; and second (from a PR point of view) how the beliefs, images and narratives about the conquest came to be shaped.
In the first instance it starts with a total demolition of the Cortes myths/lies about Montezuma’s reception of him at Tenochtitlan (then the Aztec capital and now Mexico City); meticulously debunks the nonsense that a few brave Spaniards on horses frightened and then defeated the Aztecs in short order; makes it clear that Cortes’ alliances with the local opponents of the Aztecs were critical; uses archaeological evidence to refute the propaganda about the Aztecs being vicious practisers of human sacrifice and cannibalism; demolishes the hagiographic biographies of Cortes making it clear there were four others preferred to lead the expedition and that his selection as a mediocre compromise candidate, rather than leadership ability, cemented the choice; dramatically demotes his role in the overall Spanish invasion and occupation of the region; reminds us that he probably murdered his wife; and, even puts the impact of small pox in context.
Most importantly Restall places the Cortes stories within the context of other Spanish ‘captains’/invaders of the period; the years of conflicts; indigenous initiative; and Cortes many failures from the 1520s onwards. As for human sacrifice, Restall neatly compares and contrasts Spanish and other European human sacrifice practices such as the public burning, after torture, of ‘heretics’.
Incidentally, the consistent Spanish claims that the inhabitants of the Caribbean and Latin America were ‘cannibals’ had a rationale worthy of the Nazis. It enabled, under Papal teaching, Columbus and post-Columbus mass enslavement of hundreds of thousands of the local population who survived the initial military and disease onslaughts.
In the second instance – how the narrative came to be framed and shaped – Restall examines the telling and re-telling of the conquest myths in history books, images, theatre, opera, poetry and films – even in the face of mounting evidence contradicting the myth.
A good example, for instance, of quite modern myth-making is the Mel Gibson film, Apocalypto, when in the final scene, he thinks he is escaping from the horror of human sacrifice, stumbles on the beach in front of his pursuers and then they both stop and see on the horizon the white sails of the invading Spaniards. The horror is just about to begin.
If you Google the film you will see the ongoing distortion of historical reality Restall describes. There Google directs you, in answer to queries about human sacrifice, to a comment about whether the human sacrifices in the film are based on Mayans or Aztecs: “Apocalypto has been criticized for portraying a type of human sacrifice which was more typical of the Aztecs than of the Maya. Archaeologist Lisa Lucero said, ‘The classic Maya really didn’t go in for mass sacrifice. That was the Aztecs.’” Professor Lucero may have been misquoted, particularly as it gets her discipline wrong – she’s an anthropologist who has published extensive work on the Maya.
But in 2019 – the 500th anniversary of Cortes’ meeting with Montezuma – the quote does demonstrate that the Conquest legends and myths Restall deconstructs still live on. Can any modern PR person imagine that in another 500 years one of their campaigns will be seen as equally successful?