Conquistadores: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest

Viking. Sept. 2021. 496p. ISBN 9781101981269. $35. HIST
Cervantes (history, Univ. of Bristol; Angels, Demons and the New World) delivers a colorful and sophisticated revisionist take on the Spaniards who encountered and conquered the Aztec, Incan, and other Indigenous civilizations of the Americas. Cervantes situates the conquistadores in the context of 16th-century Spanish society, which saw little “inherent contradiction” in being “simultaneously high-minded and shamelessly lucrative.” This mentality came from Spain’s late-medieval religious culture in which the quest for gold and glory was part and parcel of holy war. Cervantes also places the conquistadores in a global context. Looted Incan gold paid for Spain’s short-lived capture of Tunis from the Ottoman Empire in 1535. Cervantes lays bare dissent and in-fighting among the Spanish, from the assassination of Francisco Pizzaro to the humanitarian and theological concerns voiced by the friars Bartolomé de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria. The peoples of modern-day Mexico and Peru were even less united than the Spanish—the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was made possible by the conquistadores’ many local allies.
VERDICT A richly provocative retelling of the deeds of the conquistadores and the spirit of their age. Cervantes is a gifted scholar and storyteller who offers readers no easy moral clarity.
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