In "Conquistador", Buddy Levy offers a fascinating account of the impetuous Spanish adventurer Cortez and Montezuma, the ill-starred emperor of the Aztecs -- clearly the wrong emperor at the wrong place at the wrong time. Mr. Levy has an eye for vivid detail and manages to build a compelling narrative out of this almost unbelievable story of missionary zeal, greed, cruelty and courage. By avoiding the kind of ideological posturing that usually distorts re-tellings of the conquest of the New World, Mr. Levy rightly focuses his reader's attention on the story's antagonists.
Others had tried what Cortez wanted to do, and failed. They died in shipwrecks or were captured and sold into slavery by the Indians. Cortez, though, had the advantage of iron resolve, a good mind and an instinct for seizing the initiative in a crisis. With his handful of men, three cannon and 15 horses, he overawed the first tribes he encountered. Realizing that the gold trinkets they offered him were only a hint of the wealth lying further west, he began his drive into the interior of Mexico, fighting and marching through scorching deserts and over ice-bound mountain passes. He did not stop until he reached the capital of the most feared people of the central Mexican valley, the Aztecs.
Cortez was a man of deep contradictions. A devout Catholic, he was horrified by the sights and sounds of Aztec worship: its human sacrifices and cannibalism, its skull racks, its idols draped with human body parts, its priests with their blood-clotted hair. But he was not above massacring his enemies or burning them at the stake. He was genuinely dazzled by his first sight of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, with its tidy fields and gleaming stone causeways, a city of nearly a quarter-million people that was, he wrote in a letter to the Spanish king, more beautiful than any in Europe. Even so, he was ready to destroy it all to feed his desire for gold and to bend the Aztecs to his will.
If Cortez was a man of contradictions, Montezuma was not. Studious and conscientious, he had been trained for Aztec priesthood before becoming emperor in 1503 -- the same year that Cortes set out from Spain for America. Montezuma believed in the rightness of his own convictions but also, it appears, in the importance of an open mind. As Mr. Levy shows, he always looked for ways to dispel a crisis by placating the feelings of all concerned. He would have made a fine college president. From his first meeting with Cortez in November 1519, though, he was desperately overmatched.
Montezuma hoped that, by giving Cortez magnificent gifts of gold and silver, he could make him go away. He made him want to stay instead. The Aztec ruler never quite shook off the suspicion that Cortez might be the Aztec god Quetzelcoatl returning home according to ancient prophesy -- a suspicion that led Montezuma to want to treat the intrusive Spaniards as guests rather than a threat.
Cortez exploited Montezuma's weakness without scruple, squeezing one concession after another out of him until, though outnumbered by more than 1,000-to-1, Cortez made him a hostage. When Montezuma had lost all credibility with his people and was no longer useful, Cortez cast him aside. Montezuma died a broken man -- although probably not, Mr. Levy argues, at Cortes's order. It is more likely that Montezuma died from wounds inflicted by his own subjects. When they saw him appear in chains and appeal for calm, they had bombarded him with stones and arrows. His weakness, they understood, had betrayed them to the Spanish.
Cortez wound up besieging Tenochtitlan, in alliance with Indian tribes who had cursed their lot under Aztec rule. By Aug. 31, 1521, the city was a smoldering ruin. Nearly 100,000 people died in the siege; another 100,000 died of smallpox -- the disease that eventually tipped the demographic balance in favor of the Spaniards in the New World...
"It was Cortez, the consummate gambler," Mr. Levy writes, "who staked high wagers and won." Montezuma was the more lovable man. But his world has vanished into dust. The world Cortez made is still around us.
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