The first Spaniards to make their way gropingly across the Atlantic were, in the minds of most Latinos, exactly as Fray Bartolomé de las Casas described in his Brevísima relación: “ravening wild beats, wolves, tigers, or lions that had been starved for many days … killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples.” Today the conquistadors are remembered, from Lima to Mexico City — especially among Latinos of color and those on the left — as little better than pale-faced plunderers, grinning demonically as they smashed the heads of Incan babies against boulders and ravished despondent mothers to death. The invasion executed by Colón and his imitators, it’s commonly asserted, amounted to a plague as monolithic as the yellow fever that would decimate the continent in ensuing centuries. Few Latinos give credence to the mere suggestion that post-Reconquista Spain desired anything other than the untold treasures of a so-called “New World” and the streaming blood of its heathens.

Perhaps none of the suspects is more vilified than Hernán Cortés, who brought the mighty Mexica Empire to its crashing demise in the summer of 1521, and who is the subject of a 2008 chronicle, Conquistador. Despite the title, Buddy Levy’s book isn’t a biography, but instead focuses on the captain-general’s infamous campaign for gold, indigenous slaves, and, above all, glory. The first scene depicts the swashbuckling extremeño standing at the bow of his flagship, another Santa María, as he approaches the island of Cozumel off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. At around 35 years of age, Cortés was already a man of considerable means and prestige in the Americas, having arrived in Hispaniola 15 years earlier and been granted an encomienda for his help in subduing the natives, and later joining the hapless Pánfilo de Narváez in his conquest of Cuba. Then, in October 1518, after a couple failed attempts at establishing a settlement in what would become Mexico, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, the first governor of Cuba and a distant relative of Cortés, commissioned his kinsman and lieutenant ostensibly to set up a trading post and bring back savages to replace those devoured by the mines.

From the time he set foot near the mouth of the Río Grijalva in March 1519 — at the head of over 500 men, with crossbows, harquebuses, cannons, mastiffs and wolfhounds, and the all-important warhorses, not to mention a few hundred Taínos and Africans brought along as porters — Cortés encountered hostile natives already wary of the Spanish as a result of earlier exchanges. Much of what we know of the campaign comes to us from Cortés’s own Cartas de relación to Charles V, the newly enthroned Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain, and also through the eyewitness account of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, an experienced explorer who’d already been in Panamá, Cuba, and had taken part in the first fatal attempts to settle the Yucatán. Díaz would publish Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España in 1568, nearly 50 years after the fact, in which he writes, “We went there to serve God, and also to get rich.” (Or, as Cortés himself explained to a Mexica ambassador, “I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold.”)

For their part, the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica were far from peaceful isolationists, as generations of Latinos would paint them. At Cozumel Cortés and his crew had come across Gerónimo de Aguilar, the Spanish survivor of a shipwreck in the area nine years earlier who barely escaped being eaten by his Mayan captors (though five of his countrymen weren’t so lucky). Cannibalism may have been a regular, honored part of Mesoamerican warfare, in fact. Blood was perhaps the most important commodity in Mexica society besides food. At Tenochtitlan, the Mexica capital city, a massive temple had stood at the center of the city since its founding in 1325, at the top of which sat two shrines on a level platform, one to the war god Huitzilopochtli, and the other to the rain god Tlaloc. With the blood-thirsty Huitzilopochtli as patron of Tenochtitlan, the Mexica performed thousands of sacrifices every year at Templo Mayor in hopes of satiating not only the god of war, but also the god of rain and Tezcatlipoca, the Zeus of Mexico’s Mount Olympus. The vast majority of victims were prisoners of war, taken from neighboring city-states, which were also required to pay tribute to their Mexica overlords. Later, when Cortés and his men finally reached Tenochtitlan, they were privy to “the slashing open of the throats of infants,” Levy writes, “the beheading of young women, and the dressing of teenagers in recently flayed human skins.” One shrine displayed over 100,000 human skulls. A constant stream of blood was necessary not only to curry favor with the gods: should the blood stop flowing, the Mexica believed, the universe itself would be destroyed.

The Spaniards’ first battles were with the Chontal Maya of modern-day Tabasco, bringing them to heel (as a former secretary of state might say) through the use of firepower and horses, two things the locals had never seen before. Once defeated, the Tabascans were ordered to surrender all the gold in their possession to Cortés, and when the Spaniards asked for more, the Tabascan chief pointed west, saying only “Mexico” — land of the Mexica. After holding the first Mass on the continent and a fateful meeting with La Malinche, the daughter of a Maya chieftan sold into slavery who conveniently spoke the Mexica language, Cortés continued along the coast toward present-day Veracruz (a city he would found in less than a month). Here is where he first heard the name Moctezuma, the Xerxian demigod who ruled a vast empire centered in the interior highlands.

At the time of Cortés’s arrival in 1519, the Mexica emperor was a little over 50 and nearing his 18th year as king of Tenochtitlan, the most powerful of three city-states which formed an alliance and dominated much of Mexico. His people had come to control the central Valley of Mexico after settling there in the early 14th century, founding their city on a marshy spit of land in the middle of the now vanished Lake Texcoco. It was at this site, according to Mexica lore, where Huitzilopochtli told the Mexica to build their city after they’d left their native Aztlán (probably in western Arizona). The god of war didn’t tell them directly but, as such things go, gave them a sign: an eagle atop a cactus chowing down on a snake. Moctezuma, who’d been trained as a priest, was a deeply superstitious ruler, regularly conducting various religious ceremonies himself, often descending the steps of the Templo Mayor completely ashen after spilling his own blood as offering to the gods. Hearing reports of strange white men with awesome powers landing on the coast, the emperor might’ve feared the fulfillment of a prophesy which spelled the end of his empire.

Readers of Levy’s account may be surprised to discover how clever Cortés was in getting what he wanted. He applied legalistic maneuvers and some serious royal ass-kissing to keep the wrath of his patron, Governor Velázquez, in check. As soon as one of the first Mexica delegations arrived on the coast with an impressive sampling of the empire’s treasures — “plates and ornaments and sandals,” Levy writes, “all pure gold, and a strung bow and a dozen arrows of solid gold …. two enormous plates of gold and silver, which were, according to Bernal Díaz, ‘as large as carriage wheels’ …. intricately woven and resplendently dyed cotton garments, cloaks of featherwork of inestimable beauty and value …. gold collars and necklaces and bracelets [which were] inlaid with shimmering precious stones and threaded with gleaming pearls …. golden deer and ducks and dogs, jaguars and monkeys and fish, golden rods and staffs” — Cortés set aside the royal fifth to be sent directly to Spain (not Cuba), resigned his commission under the governor’s command, and founded the colony of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, of which he was named chief justice and capitán general, answerable solely to the Spanish king. To make a march on Tenochtitlan practically necessary, Cortés then scuttled his entire fleet, saving only the sails, rigging, nails and equipment needed to build future ships, resolved to “either win the land or die in the attempt,” as he later wrote. He would promote Velázquez loyalists to positions of prestige in order to pacify them, and when that didn’t work, he sent them on far-flung missions to keep them out of his way. He told Moctezuma’s ambassadors that he came in peace, but promised the Tlaxcalans and the Totonac he would destroy the Mexica, their perennial foe — if only they agreed to be vassals of Spain and provide soldiers for the coming war, which they did. When Tenochtitlan fell a year and a half later, in August 1521, it was thanks to Cortés’s strategic prowess, the Spaniards’ superior firepower, horsepower and naval power, and the addition of at least 100,000 indigenous allies, if not double.

Because Levy’s focus is on the conquistador at center, and because he relies primarily on Spanish accounts, the indigenous Americans come across as the odd other. There’s something Swiftian, even Wellsian, in the Spaniards’ interactions with natives and the landscape. Take, for instance, the moment when the Totonacs (Eloi) inform Cortés of the dreaded Mexica (Morlocks):

While they waited, Indian families poured from their houses and crowded about, pulling at the Spaniards’ beards, at the horses, which they believed to be centaurs. Then the Totonac chief arrived, carried in a litter by many attendants. He was enormous, his distended belly supported by two men holding a solid pole between them as his corpulent flesh spilled over it. The fat chief, named Tlacochcalcatl, spoke in his native Totonac, and some of his men used Nahuatl to relay his message through Malinche and Aguilar. As the chief bellowed, he kept gesturing toward the interior, toward the high mountains beyond, his voice becoming louder, his words faster and more animated. He had heard of the great power of the Spaniards and how with only a small force they had defeated the Tabascans. He was very impressed. Then he told Cortés that he had a slight problem of his own, and perhaps the Spaniards could help him. The proud and independent tribe of the Totonacs, whose central city of Cempoala boasted more than twenty thousand inhabitants, had recently been conquered by the neighboring Aztecs, the Mexica. Now, against their will, they were subjects of the emperor Montezuma. Worse, they were forced to pay exorbitant tributes to their new ruler, who demanded large numbers of victims for his ongoing human sacrifices. Montezuma had been taking their finest young men and women at will, and now he was even demanding their wives. It was too much.

Besides Levy’s insistence on using the term Indian to describe the indigenous peoples of America (as well as a few other archaisms), his depiction of the fat chief — with his ginormous belly, unpronounceable name and hieroglyphic language — makes the Totonacs appear comically unhuman. And then, as Cortés and his men come through the pass between the Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl volcanoes on their approach to the Valley of Mexico, they set eyes on Laputa itself:

Mist lifted like steam from the valley floor and afforded them views that left them breathless: the connected lakes and waterways glinting in the sun like iridescent blue gemstones, and houses magically built on them, and white trails of wood smoke lofting up from the many whitewashed houses that stretched out for miles. Surrounding and outlying the cities on the lakes were manicured, cultivated jade-colored fields of beans and maize, and beyond them, Tenochtitlán itself — grander and higher and larger than the other cities — seemed to float upon Lake Texcoco. … [Cortés’s] amazement was only being pique. So too was that of Bernal Díaz, who remembered the place with astonished wonder: ‘When we saw all those cities and villages built in the water … and the straight level causeway leading to Mexico [City], we were astounded. These great towns and temples had buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, and it seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked if this was not all a dream.’ Cortés himself would refer to Tenochtitlán as ‘the City of Dreams,’ exclaiming that it was without question ‘the most beautiful thing in the world.’

The homes weren’t “magically built,” of course. Nor did the Mexica capital “float.” But, for Westerners like Cortés, Díaz and Levy, every achievement made by the pueblos indígenas before the advent of Western civilization is always endowed with a tinge of alchemy. Many today still wonder how it is that both the mathematical Egyptians and the wheelless Mexica were both able to design and erect towering pyramids that still stand. How could the Maya develop a sophisticated writing system, and a pretty advanced understanding of the cosmos and time to boot, independently from the Greeks or the Chinese? How did the Inca build a vast road system with no knowledge of the Via Appia, and how did Tenochtitlan construct its aqueducts without knowing how Rome built its own? To most Western minds, any wisdom not derived from Socrates, or any engineering feat whose genius cannot be traced to Archimedes, seems damn near extraterrestrial.

Writing on how the U.K. came to control India through the East India Company, Marx wondered if the Indian people weren’t better off under British rule than the alternatives: “Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history, is but the history of the successive intruders who founded their empires on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society. The question, therefore, is not whether the English had a right to conquer India, but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the Turk, by the Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton.” Marx, as penetrating and challenging on imperialism as he is on political economy, poses a question that all Latinos must at least consider if they’re to be honest with themselves. Given that the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the English were already conducting their own overseas explorations, it’s a safe bet that the Mexica and the Inca were bound to make contact with the outside world sooner or later. And considering the Europeans were militarily, scientifically and logistically more advanced than the Americans, how might the Americas fared had Cuauhtémoc and Atahualpa surrendered to, say, the Protestant Henry VIII of England or the Dutch Republic’s Staten-Generaal?

Moctezuma lived long enough to become a prisoner in his own palace, to see his treasure rooms looted, his sacred places defiled, the men and children of Tenochtitlan butchered, and its women carried off and allotted as booty. He died under mysterious circumstances, still in Spanish custody, in June 1520 — a few months before smallpox made its way to his great city, killing half the population, including his younger brother and successor. But “the strong do what they can,” Thucydides famously observed, “and the weak suffer what they must.” Both Moctezuma and Cortés — one a potent ruler, the other a soldier of fortune — clearly subscribed to such brutal logic. So did the Spaniards’ native allies, the Tlaxcalans, the Acolhua, the Tepanec and the Chalca. They, too, accepted the cruel calculus of power.

Make no mistake: The Mexica’s treatment of their neighbors suggests that, had Moctezuma been able to sail across the waves and conquer the Iberian Peninsula in the same way the Spanish subdued the Yucatán, carrying back all the treasures of the Old World in his canoes, plus a few thousand prisoners for the obligatory sacrifice, he would have. That he and the Mexica weren’t able to doesn’t make them more moral than the Spaniards, simply less lucky. Yet, even if the Mexica exceeded the Spanish in their penchant for cruelty and bloodshed, that doesn’t mean Moctezuma and his people had what was coming to them. Few of the other erased civilizations did. But just as Latinos do themselves a disservice by placing their indigenous ancestors under a false light, the disservice is doubled by a sheer contempt for their Spanish ancestors. Perhaps the most hated part of Latino heritage is the disconcerting fact that latinidad was born of a vicious conquest, and Latinos continue to idolize their indigenous ancestors as penance for what their Spanish ancestors did to them. Nearly every Latino, however, descends from victims and victimizers, both the conquered and the conquerors.

Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs

By Buddy Levy
Bantam Books: 448 pages

Image: “The Last Days of Tenochtitlan, Conquest of Mexico by Cortez”, by William de Leftwich Dodge (Public Domain)

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