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Thursday, April 10, 2014

“Cortes: The Great Adventurer and the Fate of Aztec Mexico”, by Richard Lee Marks

347 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0679406099

Hernan Cortes – the quintessential conquistador, who in his conquest of Mexico set the pattern for Spanish expansion in the New World – was a puny, sickly baby and a dropout law student who, in Richard Lee Marks’ vivid biography, enjoyed a long, carousing youth that lasted well into his 30’s. As captain of Spain's expeditionary force to subjugate the Aztec empire, this gadabout transformed himself into a resolute, ambitious adventurer, and in this book a full-fleshed view of Cortes and a perception of the epic clash of Christian and Aztec cultures that is deeply sympathetic to both sides.

Born of good blood and small means in 1485, Cortes grew up in that heady time when Spain was celebrating its liberation from the Moors and its discovery of America. First studying law at Salamanca, then lustily pursuing the pleasures of youth on the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba, he at last finagled for himself the captaincy of an expedition sent to colonize the newly discovered mainland of Mexico. The Aztec civilization he encountered there was the product of millennia of human evolution in utter isolation, and to the Europeans it seemed both glorious in its flamboyance and shocking in its rites of human sacrifice and cannibalism. But both Cortes and the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, saw potential benefits in peaceful accommodation. A six-month period of peace-seeking ended when the greed of other Spaniards pursued Cortes and when the frustration of the proud Aztecs erupted. Caught between these two forces, Cortes and his men were nearly annihilated, yet a year later they won a more drastic and tragic victory than they desired. But powerful men in Spain and Cuba, hungry for Mexico’s gold and silver and envious of the conquistador’s fame, tried to topple Cortes. Intrigues surrounded and frustrated him, a man torn between the New World and the Old, and at the end of his life, he remained unconsoled for the glory he and Montezuma had lost.

Tapping firsthand accounts by Indians and Spaniards as well as historical chronicles, Marks disputes the conventional notion that Aztec emperor Montezuma was terrified by a prophecy that his rule was coming to an end – a view promulgated by accommodating Aztec priests who testified to Franciscans after the conquest. It’s more likely, claims Marks, that Montezuma saw himself in a trial partnership with Cortes and his men and was happy to regard them as descendants of Quetzalcoatl, the bearded white god and quasi-historical Toltec chief. Instead of the image of Cortes as a ruthless, bloodthirsty conqueror, Marks portrays a stubborn man who tried to succeed by guile rather than by armed combat, and who, by imposing Catholic ritual and Spanish law, ushered in 300 years of stability and peace in Mexico.

Here, then, is the complete Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, a man of explosive vitality, of passion, of principle, of piety, of treachery, of humor in the face of death; Cortes the converter of the heathen; Cortes the conniver; Cortes the man in full.

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