Review: Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs

Conquistador Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs, by Buddy Levy, covers the Cortes expedition, from the landing along the Mexican coast through the destruction of the Aztec capital, with a short wrap up of the featured players. I was glad that the author resisted the temptation to go on and 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 an 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 authorities 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-climatic, as he is an almost passive character after Cortes' arrives in his presence. Once Montezuma is off stage (killed by his own people or Spanish duplicity, depending on who you believe) the real resistance begins and the Last Stand of the Aztecs arrives and is recounted with a keen eye towards tactics and narrating battles, without bogging down by too much focus on the details.

Although I liked the book, I had some problems with it. One reason is that there are a few scenes and characters that cry out for more detailed explanations or musings -- such as the passivity of Montezuma or the politics and motivations of Cortes' native allies. I appreciate the author's readable style and modest length, but some key points suffer from his relative brevity. A related issue is the relative lack of discussion of dissenting views or scholarly disputes. This may add to the readability of the book, but at perhaps too high a price.

Another reason is the curious tendency of the author to employ a judgmental tone towards Cortes while explaining away the gruesome practices of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and skinning (and wearing 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 the victims were infants, children, and women. The Aztecs required tribute of human sacrifice victims from the peoples it conquered. Their hearts were cut from their living bodies and shown to the victim. To get a dramatized portrait of how this might have looked, check out the sacrificial scene from Apocalypto.

Cortes, understandably, was 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 Reconquest 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. Notably, the actions of one of the priests accompanying Cortes sets up an interesting contrast with the Aztec religion and, indeed, the Inquisition itself. He regularly counseled restraint to Cortes when Cortes was tempted to exact brutal retribution, take violent action against the Aztec religion, or coerce conversion. True conversion, the priest counseled, would take time and convincing, not the sword.

The author's focus on Cortes' hypocrisy (thus personalizing responsibility for the Spanish Inquisition and Reconquest) 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." 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 mentioning 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 others.


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