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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

“Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico”, by Hugh Thomas

812 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-0671705183

It is hard to exaggerate the quality of this magnum opus of research over what is, probably, the most incredible adventure and the most unlikely achievement in the history of humankind. Years of searching in all possible sources, as well as a lucid, vivid, and objective writing, allow us to go with Cortes and his followers into this hallucinating episode. Thomas begins by depicting the world of the Aztecs and their empire before the arrival of the Spaniards, and then he does the same with the Spain of the Reconquista, the ascent of Charles V (Charles I of Spain), as well as with the first Spanish communities in the Caribbean. Thomas also recounts the stories of the first two expeditions: one by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, and the other by Juan de Grijalva, which successfully threw light on that unknown world, as alien as another planet. The mystery and the glimpse of fabulous riches excited the ambition of several Conquistadores, in particular Diego Velazquez, the Governor of Cuba.

Meanwhile, the first contacts – sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent – between the inhabitants of the coast and the foreign visitors, and the notice of them, start filling Montezuma with sheer terror, as they seem to coincide with ancient prophecies about the return of Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent god, told to be “white and bearded”). Most reports agree that, at the time, Montezuma was lonely, depressive, and faint-hearted. An excessive knowledge of his people's myths and traditions paralyzed the emperor. Was it the arrival of the end of the Fifth Sun, and so the end of the Mexica civilization? There you have a case of self-fulfilled prophecies. Several high-ranking nobles, including Montezuma’s brother Cuitlahuac, are decided to resist the invaders by all means, but Montezuma chooses to contemporize, sending them exquisite presents on condition that they go away. This, of course, only makes the Spaniards salivate with greed for more. On his side, Cortes himself faces rebellion and intrigue, which he confronts with his habitual audacity, cunning, and even cruelty. By the way, the famous ships were never burned, but dismantled in order to take advantage of wood, nails, etc.

At the same time, he forges a fragile alliance with several tribes, especially the Tlaxcaltecans, who long to get rid of the blood-thirsty Aztec regime. Cortes and his allies advance towards Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) and everything happens: the first pacific occupation of the city, Montezuma’s reclusion, Narvaez's arrival to detain Cortes, Alvarado's stupid and tragic mistake in the Templo Mayor massacre, the Sad Night, exile in Tlaxcala, the arrival of reinforcements, the final assault on Tenochtitlan, and the first years of the New Spain.

Although the cast of characters is full of interesting ones, Cortes towers above all of them, by far. Hero or villain? Both and none. It's kind of silly to try to apply modern sensibilities to people of this time. The Spaniards were cruel and imperialistic; so were the Aztecs. Cortes is the prototype of the audacious man. Time and again the reader is amazed at the courage, cold blood, lucidity, and mental strength of this man with no previous military training or experience. Leader, boss, strategist and consummate politician, Cortes achieves the unthinkable. Even if one takes into account his incredible luck in finding numerous and willing allies, it's hard to think anyone else would have been successful. It is, of course, a very sad story: for all the Aztecs' savagery, their final fate is horrible to look at. This is a major work of history, fully documented and well written. It is adventure at its best, and it was real.

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