Hernando Cortez by Frederick Ober
The Conquest of the Empire of the Aztecs by Cortes and his small band of conquistadors is one of the most dramatic and consequential tales in all history. This book tells the story in fascinating detail and is based on Prescott’s classic reference work The Conquest of Mexico. The manner in which Cortes was able to rally his desperate band of Spanish followers, conquer and befriend dozens of neighboring tribes, and topple an warrior empire with hundreds of thousands of men in arms, is worth telling in detail. The characters of all of those who played an important role in the drama—the hero Cortez, his tranlator Marina, his generals Sandoval and Alvarado, his Tlascalan allies, his Spanish enemies, and the Aztec emperor Montezuma are all portrayed with depth and interest. A truly spellbinding story told with terrific insight.
By the time I completed reading The Boys’ Prescott, a riveting account of the Conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortez, I had already read two other full length books on the same topic. Nevertheless, I found the book spell-binding, surely one of the greatest adventure stories of all time. Undoubtedly, this was partly due to the skill of the author, who used Prescott’s classic Conquest of Mexico as a basis for her outstanding work, simplifying appropriately for young readers. But a greater part, I think, had to do with Cortez himself. Although he remains one of the most controversial characters in history, his courageous leadership, coolness under fire, and indomitable spirit cannot be disputed. And his fantastic adventures, involving great feats of daring-do, tremendous reverses, strategic cunning, and constant danger, is the stuff of legends.
The story of Cortez’ conquest of Mexico is so rich in adventure and drama that properly told, it cannot fail to entertain. As my children say approvingly, “Cortez is Jack Bauer”, but if you’re not familiar with this accolade, almost any live action hero will do. It would, in fact, be difficult to come up with a screen-play for an action movie with as much drama, suspense and utterly implausible, hair-raising plot twists as the true story of Cortez. The only possible way to make it boring is to dismiss Cortez as “just another greedy conquistador” and fail to tell his story at all. Unfortunately, this seems to be the modern trend. It is nearly impossible to tell the complete story of his feats, without inspiring interest and recognizing the complexities of the situation in Mexico, so his story is no longer told. “The Spanish came and Indians died” is all modern school children are taught about this amazing hero.
When students fail to engage the full story of the Conquest of Mexico, they are more apt to absorb simplistic misrepresentations of both Spaniards and the Indians. The Spanish were not all blood-thirsty, and the Aztecs were not all hapless innocents. The desire for gold unquestionably motivated a great many of Cortez’ followers, but others, such as Father’s Olmedo and Diaz, were sincerely concerned with spreading the Christian faith, and freeing the Indians from the pagan oppressions of idol worship and human sacrifice. Cortez himself treated the Indians as valuable allies, and provided and cared for his Indian children. Certainly Spanish culture was highly stratified by class, but behavior as well as race determined ones social standing, and from the first generation, Spaniards intermarried freely with Indians. Latin societies were certainly segregated by class, but never as concerned with racial purity as German cultures of the 19th century, so modern notions of “racism” are misleading.
Another factor that becomes clear from reading the complete account of the Conquest of Mexico is that the Indian tribes were often hostile to their neighbors and treated each other very poorly. Slavery and human sacrifice were common, as was inter-tribal warfare, including massacres and torture of prisoners. The Spaniards’ abolition of human sacrifice, torture, and cannibalism must be considered when they are criticized for “destroying indigenous culture.” The only reason Cortez was able to carry out his conquest was because of long-standing rivalries between Indian tribes and resentment of the Aztecs’ oppressions. These issues are not raised to excuse Spanish abuses, but only to point out that story of Cortez is helpful in understanding the true condition of Mexico before the Spanish conquest.
Another benefit of reading a detailed account such as The Boys’ Prescott, Mexico, or Hernando Cortez is the insight it provides us into a number of very interesting secondary characters. Not only is Cortez revealed to be a complicated and somewhat admirable person, but so are many of the characters he surrounds himself with, such as:—
- Montezuma—The Aztec emperor was both a skillful warrior and an thoughtful priest who believed that Cortez may have been sent by the Gods. He is gracious and patient with the Spaniards, even in captivity, and did his best to prevent rebellion against the invaders among his people.
- Marina—An Aztec princess who was stripped of her inheritance, sold into slavery, and eventually presented to Cortez and his men as a peace offering. A highly intelligent woman, she quickly learned Spanish, converted to Christianity, and served as Cortez’s translator. She made herself irreplaceable as both an adviser and a diplomat, saved the Spanish from treachery on several occasions, and was at Cortez’ side throughout the conquest.
- Fathers Olmeda—This wise and patient priest who accompanied the expedition, advised Cortez in all matter of diplomacy, especially those dealing with the conversion of the natives. His sincerity, patience, and good judgment in bringing souls to Christ was key to the success of the mission.
- Sandoval—The right hand man of Cortez, was always an astute judge of men, and fearless leader in battle.
- Maxixca—The Chief of the Tlascalans first opposed Cortez, but after making peace, agreed to make an alliance with him in opposition to the Aztecs. The Tlascalans were the Spaniards’ most stalwart allies and through the influence of Maxixca, maintained their alliance even through costly setbacks.
- Guatemozin—When Montezuma died, his son-in-law was selected emperor. He led the Aztecs in battle against the Spaniards and their allies, who by then outnumbered the Aztec loyalists. He resisted the invaders to the bitter end, at the cost of the complete destruction of Tenochtitlan, rather than submit to Cortez.
- Valesquez—The Spanish governor of Cuba was at first an ally of Cortez, but when Cortez failed to acknowledge his leadership, he became the conqueror’s worst enemy. His plots and counter-schemes nearly ruined Cortez’ carefully laid plans.
In all three books, these characters are brought to life in full vitality along side Cortez himself, one of the most interesting and influential persons in world history.
To say that Cortez is controversial is a great understatement. He is vehemently vilified by critics of Spanish colonization, and all the evils of three centuries of Spanish rule are laid at his feet. Yet he impressed those who knew him as a leader of nearly super-human qualities. Few men in history have had as devoted a following, not only among his Spanish soldiers, but also among his Indian allies. His leadership skills and instinct for diplomacy were superlative. Although he was a great soldier, the number of actual battles fought during the conquest were few;—how could they be numerous when his band of followers was merely hundreds, arrayed against a warrior nation of millions?
Cortez’ critics accuse him of brutality and he was certainly guilty at times, but he was never cruel without a specific objective. He punished treachery severely, but was lenient and humane to enemies that opposed him openly, and was frequently able to gain the trust of Indian chieftains by his reputation for fair dealing. His victory over the Aztecs was won almost entirely by diplomacy, by convincing disgruntled tribes who resented Aztec domination to support his cause.
This defense of Cortez is not meant to excuse his faults, but to introduce him as a fascinating character worthy of study. Both Mexico and The Boys’ Prescott are excellent introductions to the life of this fascinating hero. The two books are similar in level of difficulty and approach. Mexico is based on the works of Fr. Diaz, one of the priests who accompanied Cortez on his conquests and provided a first hand account of the expedition. It is slightly shorter than The Boys’ Prescott, and provides somewhat more information regarding the years before and after the conquest. The Boys’ Prescott, of course, is based on Prescott’s English-language classic, and deals in somewhat more detail with matters of religion. Both versions are written to appeal to middle school students and older, with plenty of drama, dialogue, and striking illustrations.