Book Review: Conquistadores

Conquistadores: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest
Fernando Cervantes
Viking Books
Copyright 2020 by the author

There seems to be a trend in the study of history these days to reexamine and reframe the past to highlight the evils that have been painted over in our “standard narrative”. Winston Churchill, for example, was not the brilliant leader who kept Britain fighting throughout World War II; instead he was the brutal colonialist whose policies led to the deaths of millions when famine hit India in the 1940s.

Some will claim they’re just trying to present a more nuanced approach, but to me it seems like they’re just being petty and vindictive, blaming the Past for all the ills of the Present that they feel powerless to deal with. Or perhaps they just enjoy being contrarian.

For if they were truly trying for a more nuanced history, surely they would be willing to accept a reexamination of what the “standard narrative” states was Bad and Evil – right? Would it be acceptable, for example, to show that the Spanish conquest of the Americas wasn’t one huge mess of rape, plunder, and murder by the white European males?

Fernando Cervantes is in a great position to tackle this. A Mexican-born historian, he’s an expert in Early Modern Spain and Spanish America who has previously written on the clash and mixing of Christianity and native religion in Spanish Mexico. He certainly knows more about the topic than you do.

Conqistadores covers the five decades between Columbus’ first voyage and the promulgation of the “New Laws”, where the Spanish crown put an end to the conquistadores and set about governing their new territories. I note that means it conveniently stops just before the discovery of silver at Potosi in 1545, which radically changed everything in the Viceroyalty of Peru….

Cervantes devotes most of the work to Cortes and Pizarro and their conquests – in large part because they are the most interesting. They also knocked over the two largest empires in the New World, with a heck of a lot of luck along the way. It’s a wonderful and even exciting read, with a lot to offer.

It must be noted that there seems to be a tendency to treat all the native Americans (indeed, indigenous peoples everywhere) as being all part of the same big hippie commune, living in perfect harmony with their surroundings. This, as Cervantes makes clear, is about as far from reality as it can be. The larger Caribbean islands were each home to many different tribes, who enjoyed raiding each other. Moctezuma ruled over a collection of tribes and small kingdoms, not all of whom were happy about the situation (some of them even allied with Cortez in his attack on Tenochtitlan, vastly increasing the size of his army). And Pizarro arrived in the Mayan capital of Cuzco just as the dust was settling from a bloody civil war. The conquistadores quickly figured this out, and used the political situation to their advantage.

There’s also much discussion of the spread of Catholicism (it’s Cervantes’ particular expertise). In Mexico, the local religion was polytheistic; to them the Catholic god was just another deity to be added to their pantheon. If a silly little ritual or two got the Spaniards to leave them alone, well, why not? The friars who went to the New World to spread the gospel soon figured out that they could work with this, and just like the early missionaries heading north from the Roman Empire, they adapted Christian beliefs and practices to suit the local needs.

Adapting to local needs was a huge part of bringing these new lands under the Spanish crown. Charles V, the king of Spain, was literally an ocean away, and had a lot more on his plate. As long as the gold kept coming, the crown didn’t much care about the details. There was even a term that pops up a lot: “obedezco pero no cumplo” – “I obey, but do not comply”. In effect, “I acknowledge the receipt of your order….” with the implicit follow-up that the order will not be followed. It was an old practice. Given the lengthy travel times and the resulting delays in communication, an order from the Crown might wind up in the hands of its intended recipient when the conditions that prompted the order no longer applied – if they ever did. It was a bureaucratic face-saving work-around that allowed local governors to adapt their orders into what they, with much more experience and knowledge of their situation, could actually implement in practice.

The end result of the Spanish conquests, once the New Laws were enacted, was a system of government that worked. For close to three centuries afterwards, Spain managed one of the largest domains in the world, without needing a massive military commitment or having to deal with any serious rebellions. In the hierarchical Spanish society, the locals may have been on the bottom of the pile – but they were still citizens of the empire, with some rights and privileges. They were not slaves – and the Crown was constantly sending over reminders of that.

Speaking of slavery, Cervantes doesn’t spend much time talking about it. I gather that the mass importation of Africans came after the events that he wished to chronicle in this book. He does note, though, that it was Bartolome de las Casas, the passionate defender of the natives, who first called for the importation of African slaves to solve the labor shortages….. People can be complicated, right?

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