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

I’d been looking for something a little different to read. So a few weeks ago I started asking around for recommendations of books about the famous explorers. Someone on TZ recommended this one …  Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy.

 Some details about the book, I read the hardcover flavor (pic via Buddy Levy):
Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: Bantam; Book Club edition (June 24, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 055380538X
ISBN-13: 978-0553805383

As I remembered from grade-school history, Cortés was the Spanish Conquistador who landed in modern-day Mexico, and ultimately conquered it (for better or worse) for Spain specifically and Europeans in general. I don’t recall much more than that except that he was considered brutal in his tactics, Tenochtitlan was massive and stunning by contemporary standards, and smallpox was somehow involved. Oh, and the Neil Young song ‘Cortez The Killer.’

Buddy Levy’s book seems to fit right in for those of us with that rough recollection but need many more details as an adult.

In 1519 Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro (1st Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca) lands in modern-day Mexico, more specifically,  the isle of Cozumel. As an aside, it’s amusing to think of Cozumel as the edge of a new world, instead of the resort we know it as today. As is often the case with history, the facts are a bit less romantic than we have been led to believe. Cortés had been living on his farm in Cuba when he finagled the opportunity.  He arrived with a group of military men, legal personnel, and adventurers looking for riches. He tried with very limited success to convert the inhabitants of the island to Christianity. Some were passionately opposed, some simply indifferent.

This story would make one hell of a movie. If it was done decades ago, it needs to be done again.

Cortés was successful in large part due to his constant scheming, guile, and a touch of luck at opportune times. While we often think of the Indians and native people of the time as a monolithic group, they often were not. Cortés quickly realized that there were deep and long-standing differences between sub-groups and neighboring tribes and people. Again and again he used this to his advantage, repeatedly forging alliances with various groups when most opportune. And he missed no opportunity to deceive and manipulate his enemies.

After Cozumel he landed on the mainland and slowly worked his way inland making friends and defeating enemies along the way. This was no quick trip. Cortés and his men spent months and years doing this, repeating the same journeys multiple times.

At times when it seemed sure he would be ruined by mutiny or defeat at the hands of an enemy tribe,  he brutally put-down rebellions and threats, both internal and external. Cortés never missed an opportunity to use any small advantage he had (numbers, mounted cavalry, timing, weapons, weather, etc.) to the fullest extent, and most of the time he needed it, otherwise he would have been ruined and killed.

Most Spanish explorers who came before him never made it to, much less past the beaches of the mainland. Those before had been killed by disease, hunger, or shipwreck. Or if they made it that far, were generally enslaved, killed and/or eaten by the Aztecs and surrounding civilizations.

Cortés eventually made it to the famed floating or island city of Tenochtitlan, the site of modern-day Mexico City. It was more amazing and expansive than he had even hoped. Impressive considering other beliefs about the new world turned out to be either exaggerations or simply false (cities paved with gold, fountains of youth, etc.). Buddy Levy tells us that not only was the city massive, it was also clean and amazingly engineered with canals and aqueducts. Of course there was a darker side as well: enslavement of other tribes, torture, cannibalism, slavery, and regular (daily?) sacrifice of men, women, and children.

[ A more modern example of architecture in Mexico City ]

Cortés and his men of course found this absolutely repugnant and tried at every step to rid these people of these practices, but they were loathe to give them up. Though Cortés and his men didn’t exactly have clean hands themselves. They had more than a few particularly nasty blemishes themselves on their résumés.

There’s simply no way that the Spaniards could have conquered Montezuma and the Aztecs on their own. Even with improved armor, horses, and technology they were outnumbered by 10:1 or more much of the time.  Cortés consistently relied upon aid from tribes he either made allegiances with or defeated. This aid often meant thousands of warriors to act as cannon-fodder (figuratively speaking of course, the Aztecs has no firearms) for him in his battles. At times these warriors amounted to 10,000, 20,000 or even more. The numbers of men involved in battles on both sides is simply staggering. Even if you assume the Spanish estimates were doubled out of bravado, they’re still tough to get your head around.

A few misc. thoughts:
1. The size and scope of Tenochtitlan  easily rivaled the largest European cities of the time
2. The time that Cortés and Montezuma spent as co-rulers (about 1/2 of a year?) is quite odd. It must have been considered awkward and precarious for both sides.
3. Montezuma died under murky circumstances on June 30, 1520

4. The Spanish came within a hair’s-breadth of total destruction on La Noche Triste. p. 191
5. Smallpox played a huge role in this story. Possibly brought to the new world by an African porter named Francisco de Eguia. p. 213
6. The Feast of The Flaying of Men. p. 238

7. Juan Ponce de León inadvertently makes an appearance in this story. p. 302
8. It’s estimated that the final siege of the city alone took the lives of perhaps, 200,000 Aztecs and 30,000 Tlaxcalans. p. 320
9. In spite of the vast riches and gold that the Spaniards saw with their own eyes, for various reasons very little of it made it back to Spain. p. 325
11. Cortés’s wife died with him under mysterious circumstance, resulting in a century of legal payments between families. p. 326

Some of Cortés’s military exploits in Mexico are amazing. He decided to ultimately take (after already losing once) the land-locked yet still water-borne city in a naval battle. He spent many months having his men build large wooden ships in the jungle, then dug a mile-long canal (also 12 feet deep and twelve feet wide) for them. Once they tested the boats they disassembled them and carried them piecemeal to the start of the canal, only to reassemble them for the invasion. They dragged 13 fifty-foot ships overland over 50 miles! They built a navy from scratch.

Aside from the obvious tragedy of the massive loss of life, you’re left wondering what might have been. Cortés and his men razed pretty much the entire city and melted all of the gold artifacts they could get their hands on. So future generations will never be able to see the wondrous city with their own eyes, nor the amazing art it apparently contained. What a tragic waste.

If you like history grab this title. I found the story much more engaging and fascinating as an adult.

Additional links:
Spain Says Hello – WSJ.com
Buddy Levy – Author & Journalist

  • Buddy

    Thanks for the review! Much appreciated. Best, Buddy

    • http://pretenseofknowledge.com/ speedmaster

      Thanks! Great to see you post here! ;-)