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Romance of the Conquistadors

We cannot always admire Spain's glory-hunters, but we really should remember them.

Conquistadores: A New History, Fernando Cervantes, Allen Lane, 487 pages.

Christopher Columbus stands surrounded by traffic at the corner of Central Park, dwarfed by the beetling buildings of Broadway and Eighth. Yet his statue still draws eyes and imaginations, an emblem of all the Americas—Italian trailblazer for the “New Spanish,” carrying their colors and qualities in cargo, and even now arousing deep emotions. Driving distances from New York are measured from Columbus Circle, the first cowboys were gauchos, and the dollar sign is derived partly from the twin pillars of the Spanish gold real.

In this time of the overthrow of icons, it is pleasing to find a major publisher producing a nuanced new study of one of the stock villains of progressive historians. The conquistadors have not (yet) attracted the obtusest attentions of iconoclasts, but they are conventionally portrayed as uber-exploiters, unleashing ecological disaster, genocide, and slavery—a view conveyed by the title of Ronald Wright’s 1992 bestseller, Stolen Continents. Cervantes absolves these casqued pantomime villains of unfair accusations and contextualizes some actual crimes.

While acknowledging the devastating effects of European expansion, he has personal as well as scholarly reasons to rue “the complete absence of any counterbalancing viewpoint.” He is touchingly proud of being a Cervantes, descended from Don Quixote’s author, a name which recurs in Iberian accounts since even before the Reconquista set the conquistadors’ swaggering template.

He offers essential insights into intra-Catholic intellectual currents often overlooked by Protestant or post-Protestant chroniclers. Quixotically, he also defends the Inquisition. Twelfth-century chiliasts influenced the Franciscan conception of Spain’s king as the “last world emperor” in the 15th century, destined to bring the orb under Christ’s kingship. Those could have been Catholic end-times—the Turks had taken Constantinople, and were surging northwards and west, and the Reformation was roiling Christendom from within.

Chronic bullion shortages impelled searches for new sources, especially after the Ottomans closed off the east. Tantalizing travelogues like those of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, and chivalric romances like Joanot Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanc and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, were hugely popular. The Portuguese were an example, their caravels creeping inexorably towards India via the Congo and the Cape. Ocean roads lay enticingly open west of Finisterre, leading to lands of gold and legend (and Asia, as they thought)—maybe even the retaking of Jerusalem. To ardent spirits, whether fervent friars or the unsentimental sons of cash-strapped caballeros, Spain seemed suddenly small.

There were fewer than 1,000 conquistadors, chiefly hidalgos from Andalusia and Extremadura. They were experienced soldiers accustomed to winning wealth by war—simultaneously intensely legalistic and with a capacity for childlike wonder—and touchily obsessed with honor and personal liberty. Assuming these prickly provincials survived what Oviedo called the “sepulchre of the open sea,” they found themselves on the edge of an exotic immensity teeming with technicolor terrors—and innumerable “Indians,” from Arawaks to Zapotecs, whose architecture and arts amazed. They were aided greatly by arquebuses, steel swords, and that inadvertent, ignoble ally, smallpox. Horses and dogs helped too—conquistadors looked like centaurs to marveling Mesoamericans, while Ponce de León’s dog was namechecked by Herrera for having “made wonderful havock” among Puerto Ricans. 

There is a longstanding “Black Legend” of Spanish empire-builders as uniquely cruel and obscurantist. But Drake admired “The Dons,” even as he torched their towns and chased their treasure ships. Much later, Macaulay noted approvingly that “Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma and who strangled Atahualpa.” Some Americans were open to a Hispanic Manifest Destiny, W. H. Prescott noting in Conquest of Mexico “the peculiar circumstances of its Conquest, adventurous and romantic as any legend devised by Norman or Italian bard of chivalry.” In 1947, the liberal Spaniard Salvador de Madariaga rhapsodised, 

The conquistador is safe in his epic greatness…Above all, they had style—that style which…shows itself in the actions of a Cortés as clearly as in the play of a Shakespeare or in the symphonies of a Beethoven.

“Style” is certainly superabundant, along with bombast, bravery, and murderous mayhem worthy of any medieval romance. Cortés ran his ships aground so there was no way back except through Tenochtitlan. The impulsive redhead Alvarado (nicknamed Tonatiuh after the sun-god) massacred hundreds of religious dancers, precipitating 1520’s “Night of Sorrows” when hundreds of Spanish died. Cortés wept for them but rallied the survivors with a superb “Onwards, for we lack nothing!,” and retook the city the following year. The Aztec defender of Tenochtitlan launched an invincible quetzal-owl warrior as a desperate last ploy—a dyer by trade, who “vanished after dropping from a roof terrace.” Pizarro drew a line in the sand, asking only those to cross it who preferred glory, honor, and gold to ignominious retreat to Panama (only 13 did cross, later mythologized as “The Famous Thirteen”). The Jiménez and Federmann Colombian expeditionaries sank to eating leather and “mangy crippled dogs,” eventually staggering into Bogotá “befuddled and decimated, ill and naked, wearing nothing but makeshift deerskins.” Rich Don Antonio Osorio was reduced to trudging shoeless through Alabaman snow in 1540, wearing only torn blankets, and bearing a scabbard-less sword. 

Not content with native adversaries, the Spanish fought enthusiastically among themselves. Cortés was imprisoned twice by the governor of Cuba, and escaped, later turning up at the governor’s house with a crossbow. Balboa was executed. Pizarro was murdered by friends of Almagro (whom Pizarro’s brothers had garroted), knifed repeatedly and finally bashed to death with a water jar, slipping in blood and making the sign of the cross as an assassin shouted “You can go to Hell to make your confession!”

These cultured thugs founded unimaginative towns along Castilian lines, with gridiron streets, a church, town hall, prison and Plaza Mayor—but hearkened hungrily to legends like El Dorado, the great chief dusted with gold each morning which was rinsed away each evening, who lived just over the next horizon. They rationalized dubious deeds with legal ones, like the Requiremento read to newly-encountered tribes, informing them that if they did not submit “we shall make war against you in all ways and manners,” and that any deaths would be “your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours.” Cervantes defends even this ingenious instrument, and stresses the many attempts made to mitigate excesses and grant the natives rights, based on Castilian and Habsburg legal and political traditions, as well as Christian scruples. It was hard for the Crown to impose its will when it took eight months to get a message from old Spain to New, so there grew up a flexible patchwork of viceroyalties, captain-generalships, audiencias and governorships, which allowed abuses, yet may explain why the system survived three centuries.

The Spanish used terror as a tactic, but sometimes it was a vent for anger or fear. At yet other times they showed sympathy for native sufferings. If they could be cruel, so could the locals, and the Spanish always found eager allies. Cervantes gives unusual weight to these allies’ military contributions. He also casts doubt on the stereotypical view of Moctezuma as being stricken by superstitious fear of black-armored, pale strangers arriving from the ominous east in the ill-omened year of I-Reed. The lavishness of his gifts to the Europeans was no demonstration of fatalistic dread, but a rational attempt to buy off dangerous invaders.

Cervantes contextualizes Christian critiques of conquistador activities, notably Bartolomé de Las Casas’ still often-cited A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. The first official “Protector of the Indians” had a “tendency to embellishment,” profited personally from native gold-miners, and advocated importing Africans to replace the tragically pox-prone Taínos.

The author also addresses post-colonial critiques of Christianity. If the Church often erred, was it really worse than tearing out living hearts on reeking altars before casting them down the gore-stained sides of pyramids? What were pious friars to make of Aztec equivalents with dirty robes, necklaces of teeth, long fingernails, and long hair clotted with human blood—or locals who regarded the devil as just another deity? Some strove to align New World cosmology with Biblical teachings, but “noble savages” and “natural religion” were hard to reconcile with realities. There were zealous inquisitors, but other monks protected the natives, and won them to Christianity by persuasion and co-option of customs, as evidenced in today’s Día de los Muertos

Always ambiguous, old Spain proved ultimately ungrateful. Newly wealthy returning New Worlders were sneered at as vulgar peruleros. Ill-equipped for quiet lives and despising the coming world of commerce, aging conquistadors kept up late-medieval resentments, made bad investments, and walked away from comforts on new chimerical quests. Cortés was socially snubbed, and died embittered. Alvarado was crushed by his own horse while suppressing a revolt. Jiménez died in debt; Federmann passed away in prison at just 37; Benalcázar was sentenced to death.

Yet another Cervantes told Philip II that the conquistadors were “impoverished, humiliated, out of favor and ostracized,” while Bernal Díaz bemoaned in old age that only he and five others were still alive, and they were all poor. It seems a shabby end for glory-hunters, a bad return for gold-hungry grandees, but who else in history has had such adventures or amassed such cultural capital? We cannot always admire them, but we really should remember.  

Derek Turner is author of the novels A Modern Journey, Displacement, and Sea Changes, and reviews for journals including The Spectator, Country Life, Irish Times, and Quadrant.