In an astonishing work of scholarship that reads like an adventure thriller, historian Buddy Levy records the last days of the Aztec empire and the two men at the center of an epic clash of cultures.
"I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold." --Hernan Cortes
It was a moment unique in human history, the face-to-face meeting between two men from civilizations a world apart. Only one would survive the encounter. In 1519, Hernan Cortes arrived on the shores of Mexico with a roughshod crew of adventurers and the intent to expand the Spanish empire. Along the way, this brash and roguish conquistador schemed to convert the native inhabitants to Catholicism and carry off a fortune in gold. That he saw nothing paradoxical in his intentions is one of the most remarkable--and tragic--aspects of this unforgettable story of conquest.
In Tenochtitlan, the famed City of Dreams, Cortes met his Aztec counterpart, Montezuma: king, divinity, ruler of fifteen million people, and commander of the most powerful military machine in the Americas. Yet in less than two years, Cortes defeated the entire Aztec nation in one of the most astonishing military campaigns ever waged. Sometimes outnumbered in battle thousands-to-one, Cortes repeatedly beat seemingly impossible odds. Buddy Levy meticulously researches the mix of cunning, courage, brutality, superstition, and finally disease that enabled Cortes and his men to survive.
Conquistador is the story of a lost kingdom--a complex and sophisticated civilization where floating gardens, immense wealth, and reverence for art stood side by side with bloodstained temples and gruesome rites of human sacrifice. It's the story of Montezuma--proud, spiritual, enigmatic, and doomed to misunderstand the stranger he thought a god. Epic in scope, as entertaining as it is enlightening, Conquistador is history at its most riveting.
The common perception of the Spanish conquest of Mexico is that a handful of men led by Hernan Cortes landed and, with the help of European technology, overcame the Aztec Empire. Levy (English, Washington State Univ.; American Legend: The Real-Life Adventures of David Crockett) reminds us that it was a protracted struggle in which the Spaniards came very close to being wiped out. It was only Cortes's tactics and his ability to form alliances with other native peoples, who wished to be free of Aztec hegemony, that saved the Spaniards. Drawing heavily on both Spanish and Aztec sources, as well as major secondary works, Levy gives a straightforward telling of the entire story, stressing the military strategy, diplomatic initiatives, and personal relationship between Cortes and Aztec emperor Montezuma. For those seeking more detail, his notes provide copious references to William Prescott's monumental The History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) and Hugh Thomas's authoritative and comprehensive Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma and the Fall of Old Mexico, as well as to other works. This well-written book is a good starting point for those seeking to understand the conquest of Mexico. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries.--Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
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1 . Bloody Page Turner
Posted January 01, 2009 by naseller , san diegoThis is a fascinating account of Cortes and Moctezuma, culled from actual accounts written at the time of the Spanish invasion of Mexico. It is put together in a highly interesting, easy to read, thought provoking manner. One of the drawbacks of the electronic readers is the inability to fully enjoy maps and photos and this book is loaded with them. I learned a great deal from this book and the facts I cross referenced through outside study were accurate and complete. The book helped illuminate other views of the Incan demise and the role Moctezuma played in destroying his own culture.
June 22, 2008
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Excerpt from Conquistador by Buddy Levy
Setting Out for New Spain and the Serendipitous Gift of Language
Hernan Cortes strode to the bow of his flagship Santa Maria de la Concepcion, a one-hundred-ton vessel and the largest of his armada, and scanned the horizon for land. He had much to ponder. His navigator and chief pilot, Antonio de Alaminos, an experienced veteran who had been pilot for Columbus on his final voyage, had been in these waters before--on the Ponce de Lean expedition in search of the fabled Fountain of Youth--and he suggested that if they encountered foul weather, the entire fleet should make land and convene on the island of Cozumel, just east of the Yucatan Peninsula's northernmost tip. Since their hurried departure from Cuba, the fleet had been buffeted by foul weather, scattering the boats. Cortes brought up the rear, simultaneously scouring for land and for brigantines and caravels blown astray. A few, perhaps as many as five, had been lost during the night, an inauspicious beginning to such an ambitious voyage.
Cortes had staked everything he owned on this venture--in fact more than that, for he had incurred significant debt building the ships and stocking them with provisions. His hope to get off to a good start had been slightly compromised when his patron, the fat hidalgo Diego Velazquez, now governor of Cuba, attempted to thwart his departure, even after he had signed a contract officially confirming Cortes as captain- general. Velazquez's behavior was no surprise, given the contentious nature of their relationship. On his arrival in Hispaniola (the modern-day Dominican Republic) in 1504, Cortes had sought out the established countryman and worked under him, initially on a raid to suppress an Indian uprising on the island's interior, and later on an expedition captained by Panfilo de Narvaez to conquer Cuba, which they accomplished easily enough. After this successful venture Velazquez, feeling magnanimous, gifted Cortes a large plot of land with many Indians and a number of viable, working mines on it, effectively making Cortes rich. But the two men were both obstinate, and their relationship was soon fraught with tensions that would ultimately threaten prison, and even death, for Cortes.
Both men shared a passion for women, and a disagreement over one Catalina Suarez resulted in the governor's having Cortes arrested and placed in the stocks. Cortes escaped by bribing the jailor, and Velazquez had him arrested again, even bringing a suit upon him and threatening to hang him for his refusal to marry Suarez, a snubbing that had sullied her reputation. Eventually Velazquez calmed, and the two men smoothed over their differences, but their relationship remained volatile. At present, in mid-February 1519, Velazquez held the political upper hand, for Cortes sailed under his aegis, as his emissary on a mission to trade, to find gold, and to obtain more Indians to work the mines of Cuba. But the wily Cortes had other intentions as he spotted land and had his pilot make anchor at Cozumel.
Cortes's ship was the last to arrive, and on setting foot on the island he found that the local inhabitants had fled at the arrival of the first ships, dispersing into the hills and jungle. Cortes noted their fear, filing it away as useful information. Then he was met with vexing news, and a reason for the local Indians' behavior: one of his most trusted captains, Pedro de Alvarado, had arrived early, immediately raided the first village he encountered--brusquely entering temples and thieving some small gold ornaments left there as prayer offerings--and then seized a flock of about forty turkeys that were milling around the Indians' thatch-roofed houses, even taking a few of the frightened Indians, two men and a woman, prisoner. Cortes, incensed, contemplated how to handle the situation. He needed to trust Alvarado, and he respected the fiery redheaded countryman who also hailed from his homeland, Estremadura. Alvarado, already battle-hardened and having commanded the previous Grijalva expedition to the Yucatan, was cocksure and felt justified in making his own independent decisions. Cortes needed him and required a symbiotic relationship with his captains, but he also insisted that they obey his command, and he would tolerate no insubordination.1 Such behavior, he impressed upon his men, "was no way to pacify a country."2
Cortes rebuked Alvarado by commanding his men to turn over the pilfered offerings and return them to their Indian owners. He also had Alvarado's pilot Camacho, who had failed to obey orders to wait for Cortes at sea, chained in irons. The turkeys had been slaughtered, and some of them already eaten, so Cortes ordered that the fowl be paid for with green glass beads and small bells, which he gave to the prisoners as he released them, along with a Spanish shirt for each. Then Cortes asked for a man named Melchior, a Mayan who had been taken prisoner during an earlier expedition and converted into something of an interpreter, having been taught some Spanish by his captors. Through Melchior, Cortes spoke to the Indians as he released them and sent them back to their families, instructing them that the Spaniards came in peace and wished to do them no harm, and that Cortes as their leader would like to meet personally with their chiefs or caciques.*
The initial diplomacy worked. The next day men, women, children, and eventually the chiefs of the villages poured forth
*Cacique is a Caribbean Arawak word for "chief" that the Spaniards brought with them from the islands. Many of the chroniclers, including Bernal Diaz and to a lesser extent Cortes, use the term. The word would have been unknown to mainland Mexicans.
from their hiding places in the lowland scrub and repopulated their village, which soon was bustling again. Conquistador Bernal Diaz, a soldier under Alvarado's command who had been on both the Cordoba and Grijalva expeditions, remarked that "men, women, and children went about with us as if they had been friends with us all their lives." Cortes sternly reiterated that the natives must not be harmed in any way. Diaz was impressed by Cortes's leadership and style, noting that "here in this island our Captain began to command most energetically, and Our Lord so favored him that whatever he touched succeeded."3
The islanders brought food to the Spaniards, including loads of fresh fish, bundles of colorful and sweet tropical fruits, and hives of island honey, a delicacy that the island people nurtured and managed. The Spaniards traded beads, cutlery, bells, and other trinkets for food and low-grade gold ornaments. Relations seemed convivial, and Cortes decided to hold a muster on the beach to assess the force he had amassed in Cuba.
The ships included his one-hundred-ton flagship plus three smaller vessels displacing seventy or eighty tons. The remaining boats had open or partially covered decks with makeshift canvas roofs to provide shade from the scorching sun or shelter from the rain squalls. The bigger ships transported smaller vessels that could be lowered at ports or some distance offshore, then rowed or sailed to a landing.4 The ships were packed belowdecks with ample supplies of island fare: maize, yucca, chiles, and robust quantities of salt pork which had a long shelf life, plus fodder for the stock.
The crew of mercenaries comprised chivalrous men bred on war and adventure. Over five hundred strong, these travel-hardened pikemen and swordsmen and lancers had either paid their way onto the voyage or come spurred by the promise of fortune. Cortes strode the beach and surveyed the sharpshooters, thirty accurate crossbowmen and twelve well-trained harquebusiers bearing handheld matchlocks fired from the shoulder or chest. Ten small cannons would be fired by experienced artillery-men, who also carried light, transportable brass cannons called falconets. The detail-oriented, highly prepared Cortes had the foresight to bring along a few blacksmiths who could repair damaged weaponry and, most important, keep the prized Spanish horses well shod. Extensive stocks of ammunition and gun- powder were packaged carefully in dry containers and guarded at all times. For land transport, Cortes brought two hundred islanders from Cuba, mostly men for heavy portaging, but also a handful of women to prepare food and repair and fabricate the wool, flax, and linen doublets, jerkins, and brigandines the men wore.
Cortes ordered the horses lowered from the ship's decks by means of strong leather harnesses, ropes, and pulleys, then had them led ashore to exercise and graze on the island's dense foliage. Curious islanders came forward. They had been observing the general muster, and now they were absolutely entranced by the horses--some islanders running away in fear at the sight of them--the first such creatures they had ever witnessed. Intrigued by the horses' impression on the locals, Cortes had his best cavalrymen mount the glistening and snorting animals and gallop them along the beach. Artillerymen tested cannons, firing them into the hillsides; the explosions were thunderous, flame and smoke belching from the muzzles. Archers shouldered crossbows and sent arrows whistling through the air at makeshift targets.5
When the smoke from the military display had cleared and the horses were put away, islanders approached the Spaniards more closely, and tugged at their beards and stroked the white skin of their forearms. A few of the chiefs became animated and gesticulated aggressively using sign language and pointing beyond the easternmost tip of the island. Cortes had Melchior brought forward, and after some discussion he reported some extraordinary news: the older chiefs claimed that years earlier other bearded white men had come and that two of them were still alive, held as slaves by Indians on mainland Yucatin, just a short distance, about a day's paddle, across the channel waters.
Cortes mused, deeply intrigued by the prospect of Spanish-speaking countrymen who had been living among mainland Indians. This was an unexpected and potentially profitable windfall. He appealed to one of the main caciques, asking him for a few of his able men whom he could send over as scouts to see what they might learn of these Spaniards and to bring them back if they could. The chief conferred with others, but they balked, explaining that they feared sending any of their own people as guides because they would quite likely be killed and sacrificed or even eaten by the mainlanders. Alarming as this fear seemed, Cortes pressed, offering more of the green glass beads that the islanders appeared to covet, and the chiefs acquiesced. Cortes dispatched several men, along with his captain and friend Juan de Escalante, in a brigantine. Hidden beneath the braided hair of one of the messengers was a letter stating that Cortes had arrived on Cozumel with more than five hundred Spanish soldiers on a mission to "explore and colonize these lands." Flanking them in support were two ships and fifty armed soldiers.6