Atrocities of the “Conquistadores” Take Shape in New Story by Mexican-born Author
When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his band of 300 men reached the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in late 1519, they found a stunningly beautiful civilization that eclipsed any city in Western Europe.
The stucco towers, “painted with colorful animals and carved in stone” were “a wonder to behold”, drawing comparisons to Venice, one observer wrote. Tens of thousands of canoes lined Lake Texcoco, “some, like large barges, carrying up to sixty people,” writes Fernando Cervantes in Conquistadores, his new masterful story of the time.
Cortés was greeted by the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma who “appeared on a litter, carried by nobles, with a canopy of green feathers, trimmed with jade and beautifully adorned with gold and silver embroidery”. But it was said that Moctezuma himself was filled with a “sickening terror” about the arrival of the Spaniards, and his fears would prove to be premonitory. The fate of the Aztec city was already sealed.
When Cortés set out on another expedition, he temporarily left Tenochtitlan in the hands of his deputy, Pedro de Alvarado, who had “none of the political skills of Cortés and all the thorny honor of a chivalrous knight,” Cervantes writes. Finding themselves surrounded by dancers at a festival, Alvarado and his men suspect an impending attack and decide to strike first. In the ensuing massacre, one informant wrote: “The blood … flowed like water, it spread slippery and a foul odor emanated from it. The ensuing war ultimately left the great city of Tenochtitlan in ruins.
Historian of Mexican origin who now teaches at the University of Bristol in England, Cervantes brings together an enormous array of primary and secondary sources to tell the story of the decades since Christopher Columbus arrived on an island off the coast of this island. which is now Cuba, in “three cramped and ill-equipped vessels with a combined capacity of ninety men.
Columbus had spent years trying to persuade the Spanish rulers that he could find a western sea route to Asia and believed until his death that he had succeeded. What he achieved was undoubtedly much more consequent: his journey would launch a “flurry of expeditions” aimed at plundering the riches of the New World and, in doing so, at subduing its native populations, crowned by the bloody conquest of two great civilizations. : The Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru.
Far from home for months and separated by a vast ocean, the conquistadors who led these expeditions could act with independence, if not with impunity, and they would subdue and transform the New World at breakneck speed. “These newly acquired vast territories soon began to bear the marks of their energetic and often rapacious settlers,” writes Cervantes. Monasteries, palaces, mansions and commercial enterprises “soon dominated the landscape”, sending a message that the Spaniards were here to stay.
There is a depressing similarity in the way Cervantes tells the story. Indigenous people sometimes retaliated, often with great skill and courage, and could themselves be brutal towards their enemies. But in the end they were no match for the Europeans, who were coming more and more and carrying an artillery which seemed to give them divine powers. And what to do with the horses they rode? “… For a group of people who had never seen such animals – and who saw them ridden by men who seemed inseparably fused with them – it was a terrifying experience.” writes Cervantes.
For their part, Europeans viewed the inhabitants of the New World with a combination of fear and awe, but also as subjects of the Spanish crown – to be converted to Christianity whether they like it or not, as Cervantes details. Although they were almost always outnumbered by the natives, the Spaniards were adept at forming alliances, exploiting local rivalries by playing one native group against another. What followed was a culture shock of epic brutality.
Cervantes intends not to whitewash such atrocities but to put them in context. Modern historians like to point out the genocide and greed that are undeniably part of the legacy of the conquistadors, but as Cervantes reminds us, that was not always the case. In Spain at the time, “the most honored members of society were those who had conquered their wealth by force of arms”, and looting was seen as “a legitimate means of getting rich”. Far from being doomed, early explorers like Cortés and Francisco Pizarro were celebrated for their daring and bravery, in Spain and elsewhere. There was a swashbuckling romance in their stories.
This started to change as stories of violence and brutality returned to Europe, leading here and there to periods of soul-searching. Many people were appalled when Pizarro, eager to resume gold hunting, decided to execute the imprisoned Inca Emperor Atawallpa to neutralize him as a threat. In 1526, the Council of the Indies complained that too many Spaniards were treating the natives “much worse than if they were slaves” (who were themselves already brought to the New World), writes Cervantes. They had caused the deaths “of a great number of the said Indians on a scale which transformed many islands and vast expanses of the continent into veritable wasteland, devoid of population”. There were practical considerations: how could you convert the natives to Christianity if they were dead? But Spain’s rulers, mired in an endless series of costly religious wars, needed the gold and other treasures imported from the New World and often chose to ignore what was happening.
Cervantes argues that there are aspects of life after the Spanish conquest that should be reconsidered. He expresses a nuanced admiration for the network of beggar brothers who, by disobeying Rome, learned to merge Catholic teaching with indigenous religious rites in a way that allowed Christianity to take root in the New World. He also says that the system of governance put in place by Spain has proven to be more popular and more resilient than is generally believed. It was built not around the modern conception of nation-states but around indigenous “kingdoms” authorized to operate autonomously under “the legitimizing aegis of the monarchy”.
While that doesn’t change the fact that the conquest was brutal, it’s a story that’s easy to lose sight of when viewed alongside the long and bloody history that precedes it, Cervantes argues. Within a few years, the conquistadors had fallen out of favor and day-to-day control of the New World had been transferred to a less romantic but more enduring figure: the government bureaucrat.