Thursday, June 4, 2015

History of the Conquest of America

Mural by Diego Rivera of life in Tenochtitlan, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City.
Summer is here, and our town library has kicked off its annual summer reading program for kids. Of course my kids always participate. They do pretty well in the raffle that follows, too.

Well, this year, there's a summer reading program for adults. Am I too proud to participate? No I'm not! Especially when the prizes comprise dinner for two at a local Mexican food restaurant, dinner for two at the country club, and a weekend getaway at a nearby river resort. The getaway and Mexican food sound pretty good; the country club dinner I think I'd scalp on e-Bay or something. At any rate, I've read less over the past few months than I like, so this is a much-needed spur.

So far I've read Prescott's History of the Conquest of Peru (1847) for about two and a half hours. (We keep a time log.) I read the same author's History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) several years ago in a mammoth Modern Library edition that contains both volumes. They're good old narrative histories after the manner of Gibbon, based for the most part on primary sources.

There are, I'm sure, more up-to-date histories out there, with glossy pages and color photographs, but I'll take Prescott over them any day. It's strange, but we no longer seem as able to produce the sweeping historical narratives that our forebears did, preferring the safety of narrow monographs and the like. My three favorite periods of history to read about are ancient Greece (for which I go to Herodotus, Thucydides, and J. B. Bury's A History of Greece), the later Roman Empire and Age of Migrations (for which I read Gibbon's Decline and Fall and Bury's Later Roman Empire), and the Spanish conquest of America. There's no better source for the last than Prescott.

Now, the author, William H. Prescott (1796 – 1859), an American historian who went blind after being struck in the eye with a crusty piece of bread during a food fight at Harvard College (!), is, unfortunately, rabidly anti-Catholic. What moved him to devote his energies to a culture for which he had so little sympathy I'll never know. Yes, the conquistadors were a damnable mixture of devotion, chivalry, rapacity, and cruelty, which is what makes them such interesting reading. And I'll even admit that perhaps their religion had more than a little to do with that. But it's tiresome to have Romish superstition and bigotry and credulity excoriated on every other page, and compared unfavorably with Anglo-Saxon virtues and the Protestant work-ethic.

One thing he likes to do is draw parallels between the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztec priests and the inquisitions of the Dominicans. Now, the enormities of the Spanish Inquisition are indefensible, but they were in quite a different category from Aztec piety, which (according to his sources) waged war for the sole purpose of securing sacrifices, and slaughtered tens of thousands of captives on an annual basis. I mean, it makes a difference, doesn't it, whether an execution is viewed (however wrongly) as a last resort but a necessary evil to preserve the social order, or as an act of supreme worship, an end in its own right commended by the gods? Plus, Protestant countries were not above the vilest cruelty in matters of religion or the mass delusion of witch-hunts, something Prescott conveniently forgets. I cast no aspersions, mind you; such was the tenor of the times.

But even this I'm willing to forgive, for they really are excellent histories, nitpicked but never to be superseded.

Mural by Diego Rivera of El Tajin, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City.
Why do I love reading about the Conquest? Partly I identify with it more than with the history of Anglo America. My father is Puerto Rican, that is, a mixture of Spanish, West African, and South American Indian. A good bit of that side of the family came from the Canary Islands, a stage in Columbus' explorations. In fact, my great grandmother's maiden name was Colon (Columbus), and family tradition holds that we're descendants of Columbus' younger brother, which would make me a great nephew of the explorer himself.

But beyond that, it's hard for me to think of a more picturesque period, combining familiar landscapes with fabulous civilizations and legendary heroic exploits. In 1541, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján marched across the Texas panhandle in search of the Cities of Gold. Think of that! Think of the clash of civilizations: of storm-tossed Spanish galleons landing on golden New World coasts; of armored caballeros hacking their way through steamy jungles and assaulting piled strongholds of ancient splendor; of floating garden-cities surrounded by snow-capped mountains, ruled by cannibal potentates of luxuriant cruelty; of stout Cortez who with eagle eyes stared at the Pacific, silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Well, no doubt I'll have more to say about the conquest of Mexico and Peru once I'm done. Or, more likely, you'll start seeing it pop up in my stories in various ways. I would love to write "sangre and sorcery" tales set during the time of the Conquest, but I fear that I'd have to visit the locales to do it justice. One day, perhaps I'll do just that.

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