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Monday, September 23, 2013

“Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs”, by Buddy Levy

432 pages, Bantam, ISBN-13: 978-553805383

The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards was not a single event; it was not the result of disease, treachery, technology, or evil white men; it was a long two-year slog of battles won and battles lost. Too often the events surrounding the Conquest are simplified to issues of technology or disease and to a demonizing of the Spaniards. In Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs, the Cortes expedition is covered from the landing along the coast through the destruction of the Aztec capital, with a short wrap up of the featured players. I, for one, was glad that the author resisted the temptation to go on and on: he found his ending point and took it. For those wanting more, there is extra information about the important characters and chronologies in several appendices at the end.

Levy writes in a readable style that is befitting the book’s popular audience; it is a narrative account more than academic treatise. Although Montezuma gets equal billing in the title, the book is largely written from Cortes’ point of view; no doubt his person is better sourced, but it is also a choice of the author. It is Cortes who drives the action, landing in a foreign land basically on the run from the authority in Cuba. His courage, determination, diplomacy, and charisma gathers native allies and even Spaniards sent to arrest him. The encounter with Montezuma is almost anti-climactic, as he is an almost passive character once in Cortes’ presence. Once he is off stage the real resistance begins and the Last Stand of the Aztecs arrives and is recounted with a keen eye towards explaining tactics and narrating battles, without bogging down in the details.

However, a flaring problem with this book – as with many books that tackle the conquest of Mexico – is the author’s one-sidedness. Levy has a curious tendency to employ a judgmental tone towards Cortes and his actions while explaining away the gruesome practices of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and skinning (complete with the wearing of human skins) that was at the center of Aztec religion and culture. By their own accounts, the Aztecs could sacrifice tens of thousands of human beings during one religious festival; many of these victims were infants, children, and women. The Aztecs required tribute of human sacrifice victims from the peoples it conquered with their hearts being cut from their living bodies and shown to the victim as they expired. Cortes and the Spaniards were, understandably, horrified by this, and no doubt used these practices to justify his own conquest and domination of the natives. It strikes me as overcompensation, however, for the author to devote a lengthy footnote to the “hypocrisy” of Cortes which “cannot be overlooked or overstated” because of Spanish practices of the Reconquista and the Inquisition. Perhaps I am not as able to escape my Western perspective, but comparisons of tens of thousands of human sacrifices a year, including infants and children, versus an Inquisition that may have committed around 3,000 sanctioned murders over 150 or so years seems misplaced.

The comparison is especially interesting given the author’s more nuanced understanding of ritual human sacrifice on what is likely the largest scale in human history. Take this passage as an example: “After his priests sacrificed a dozen children, believing that the survival of the universe depended on them, Montezuma would kneel before flickering firelight and pray for vision, for truth.” Notably, up to this point, the author had reminded his audience several times that the Aztecs justified their human sacrifices as being required by the gods for the sun to come up, the rains to come, and the harvests to be successful. Setting aside for the moment the fact that the Spanish Inquisitors where no doubt just as sure they were doing God's bidding, dropping this reminder just after a very unpleasant fact associated with the Aztec religion comes across as misplaced excuse making. In short, there is a double standard of cultural context which condemns the West but absolves the Aztecs.

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