"Putting Cortes on Trial"
Brooke Barbier, Department of History
Trial of Hernan Cortes Assignment
GH100: Critical Encounters in History (Fall 2007)
For three weeks, our class had studied the Conquest of Mexico by examining primary and secondary sources. My goal for this assignment was two-fold: I wanted my students to think critically about Cortes's impact on the natives of Mexico and how he, Spain, and history have justified such a conquest. I also wanted as many students participating during class, especially those who are less likely to raise their hands to talk. I thought a fun, different, and interesting way to approach these goals would be to put Cortes on trial for genocide. The case was brought by Montezuma and the Aztec Empire.
After briefly discussing our reading for that day, I divided the class into two groups: half were prosecutors and half were defendants. Each group had to come up with three witnesses to support their case. I told them to be creative in their witness selection process, as they could call anyone back from the dead. I also told each group that they must prepare questions to cross-examine the other side's witnesses. Each group also had to nominate a "lead counsel" who would provide an opening and closing statement. I gave them about 20 minutes to prepare and the trial (gladly) lasted longer than I thought.
The student reaction was better than I could have imagined. They worked together in their groups and I saw the shier students talking more in these small environments. But more than that, I saw that they were really thinking about how to prosecute or defend Cortes. And they were creative in their witness calling. In one of my classes, the defense team brought Jesus Christ as a witness to defend Cortes's actions in the name of Christianity. I was thrilled that they were thinking critically and creatively. The trial itself was fun because of the questions from the lawyers and the quick thinking from the witnesses.
I will absolutely do this assignment again and the only thing I would change would be to give the students more time to prepare their cases. I wanted to fit the preparation and trial all in one 75 minute class, and I needed to be more flexible. When the students are engaging with the material and history on the level that they were, I should just let them go with it for a little longer!