“Conquistadors. A New History” by Fernando Cervantes (published by allen lane)

Venality, brutality re-evaluated

When Hernán Cortés finally conquered the Aztecs on August 13, 1521, it should have been a glorious triumph for the Spanish invaders, who had suffered an ignominious rout the previous year. Tenochtitlán, the monumental Mexican capital constructed on a lake, which had so awed the conquistadors when they first sighted it in 1519, had been starved into submission during a weeks-long siege, and Cuauhtémoc, the Aztec emperor, had at last surrendered.
13. December 2020 13:27

Yet the mood, according to this enlightening new book on the Spanish Conquest of the Americas by Fernando Cervantes, a Mexican historian at the University of Bristol, UK, “was not even remotely celebratory … Although a great victory had been won, the price was disproportionately high.”

The extraordinary half-century following Christopher Columbus’s discovery, in 1492, of what he maintained to his dying day was in fact Asia, fueled guilt as well as greed. The conquistadors’ callous and extreme cruelty plagued the Spanish crown even as it relied on a stream of New World gold to fund its imperial ambitions in a fast-changing Europe.

Cervantes details the adventurers’ venality and brutality as they pushed through the Caribbean to Mexico, Central America, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and what is now the southern United States.

But while “Conquistadores” unflinchingly narrates the excesses of Cortés and others, including Francisco Pizarro, who conquered Peru, Cervantes argues for a “badly needed re-evaluation [that] should also allow us to see through the persistent condemnations of the legacy of the conquistadors as directly responsible for the ills that afflict modern Latin America.”

The book puts the conquistadors in the context both of the medieval religious culture that shaped their beliefs and the medieval legal tradition that helped Cortés, an experienced notary, erect “a convincing veneer of legality” to justify his actions in Mexico to the Spanish crown.

Their “disordered avarice” and chaotic corruption repeatedly landed them in legal hot water but, as Cervantes puts it, “this was a world that saw no inherent contradiction in the attempt to establish forms of governance that were simultaneously high-minded and shamelessly lucrative.”

His conclusion that the roots of Latin America’s enduring social ills lie with 19th-century liberal reforms rather than with the Conquest is an intriguing argument slipped into the penultimate page. But for a vivid portrayal of a clash of very different cultures, each equally astonishing to the other, and a group of men who “whatever their myriad faults and crimes … succeeded more or less through their own agency, in fundamentally transforming Spanish and European conceptions of the world in barely half a century,” this book makes for fascinating reading.

The author adopts a commonsense approach in that this was a different era with different belief systems. No one was aware that western diseases would wipe out much of the American indigenous populations and there were shockers on the indigenous inhabitants’ side as well as on the conquistadores.

Fernando Cervantes is a professor of Early Modern Studies at the University of Bristol specialising in the intellectual and religious history of early modern Spain and Spanish America. He drew upon previously untapped primary sources that include diaries, letters, chronicles and polemical treatises for his book, reframing the story of the Spanish conquest of the New World and examining the late medieval world from which the conquistadors emerged.

Leave a Reply