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Conquistador
Buddy Levy
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recently said, “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

Shortly after Columbus’ voyage in 1492, the Spaniards began crisscrossing the Caribbean in search of gold; a few ships even visited the mainland. Nevertheless, when Hernán Cortés entered Mexico in 1519, Europeans had no idea that a highly complex and powerful civilization existed just beyond the shoreline.

“Conquistador” by Buddy Levy records the brutal details of the most famous alien encounter in history. If Cortés had stepped off a spaceship, the annihilation of 33 percent of America’s indigenous population may have been quicker, but little else would have changed. When a technologically superior culture meets a less advanced civilization, the results are dismal. Along with their superior weapons, aliens also bring their diseases. The battle for control of the Aztec Empire pitted monotheists against polytheists, gunpowder against arrows. But neither gods nor guns determined the victor; smallpox did.

From Cortés’ perspective, God was on his side as he tossed Aztec priests to their deaths, starved or enslaved thousands of women and children, and laid waste to great swaths of Mexico. Montezuma, on the other hand, thought Cortés’ desire to stomp-out Aztec rituals was as bizarre as his horses. Human sacrifice appeased the gods, who in return allowed the sun to rise and rain to fall. To stop the human offerings meant certain death for everyone.

“Conquistador” is a bundle of paradoxes. When Spanish forces entered Tenochtitlán, present day Mexico City, they were dumbstruck by its beauty, order, and cleanliness. Cortés described it as “the most beautiful thing in the world.” But as they drew closer to the pyramids, the rows of skulls and the blood-soaked temple steps sickened them. Still, Cortés’ mass murders, branding of slaves, and the unspeakable tortures he employed to gain information, left me wondering exactly which culture was the more barbaric. However, the author spends little time moralizing about the atrocities committed by both sides. Perhaps he understood the raw facts are thought-provoking enough.

Levy compiled his account of Cortés’ defeat of the Aztec Empire with care. His source notes alone are a small book. Where conflicting accounts of the same event exist, he uses the most credible source, providing footnotes to alert readers about differing opinions. Then Levy breathes life into his meticulous research to retell one of history’s most lopsided victories. How could a small force, sometimes outnumbered 1000 to 1, overwhelm the ferocious Aztecs?  While we all know the ending to this story, “the devil is in the details.” And the details will leave you talking about “Conquistador” for a long time to come. Hollywood couldn’t have written this thriller – it’s too unbelievable. Only history in the hands of a skilled author can deliver an adventure filled with so much skill, cunning, greed and unfathomable brutality.

Historians like to debate whether Cortés was the luckiest conqueror in history, or a great military strategist. He wasn’t the first white man the Aztecs encountered, but Cortés did make a charmed landing in Mexico on “1-Reed;” a date that only occurred once every 52 years in the Aztec Calendar. The myth of Quetzalcoatl said “The bearded royal ancestor” would arrive on 1-Reed to “shake the foundation of heaven and conquer Tenochtitlán.” Levy credits the myth with buying Cortés time, but little else.

The firepower of two previous Spanish expeditions never made it beyond Mexico’s coastline before being beaten back into the sea. Yet historians often describe Cortés’ victory as a “cake walk.” Levy certainly disagrees. He said, “Cortés’ military and political genius is only exceeded by that of Alexander the Great,” who Cortés most likely studied.

Diego Velázquez, first governor of Cuba, ordered Cortés to the mainland to capture slaves to work in Cuba’s mines. But Cortés, who used his personal finances to outfit the ships, had another plan. He claimed his goal was: to capture territory for the king, convert natives to Catholicism, and “to plunder the minerals of the earth.” Velázquez wasn’t bothered by that until he discovered Cortés didn’t plan to share the booty with him.

Before his armada left Cuba, Cortés ordered his men not to harm the indigenous population upon landing. But as the fleet sailed to Cozumel his flagship lagged behind. Pedro de Alvarado, one of Cortés’ trusted captains, arrived first. His men grabbed 40 turkeys, looted gold ornaments from the temples, and seized two men and a woman as prisoners, causing the rest of the population to go into hiding. Infuriated by his men’s actions, Cortés demanded they return all of the stolen items and release the prisoners. He wanted to impress upon them that “such behavior was no way to pacify a country.”

Human kindness had little to do with Cortés’ actions. Alexander the Great discovered it’s easier to enslave a population with kindness, reserving the sword for those foolish enough to resist. Levy said Cortés copied the strategy because he fully understood the bleak odds his men faced. His motley crew needed local allies to boost their miniscule numbers and to gain knowledge about their new environment.

Cortés’ pacification program, combined with mounted horses, war dogs, and cannon fire when necessary, worked like a charm. Tabascan chiefs supplied his troops with maize cakes, meat, 20 women, and vital information about the Aztec Empire. One of the women, Malinche, spoke a number of dialects and she became Cortés’ chief translator and mistress. Levy writes, “Malinche translated and interpreted all major diplomatic and political negotiation, including the famous historical first conversation between Cortés and Montezuma.” She also moved freely among tribes, gathering tidbits of information that saved Cortés more than once.

Montezuma commanded 15 million people. His spies quickly sent word that a foreign force had landed. They possessed “deer” which they mounted and rode into battle, and weapons that shot out fire. In addition, their leader claimed, “I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only by gold.” So Montezuma sent ambassadors, loaded with gifts of huge finely engraved gold disks representing the sun, gold collars and bracelets, precious stones, and “meticulously crafted feathered garments.” He also sent the following message. Cortés should take the gifts and return home, without venturing any further into Aztec territory.

Little did Montezuma know - he had just committed the biggest cultural blunder ever recorded. Gold was plentiful in Mexico; the Aztecs valued colorful feathers far more than gold. Many other explorers may have taken the booty and scrammed. But the gifts only made Cortés more determined to meet Montezuma and discover what other treasures his empire might hold.

“Fortune favors the bold,” Levy said. And Cortés’ next move can only be described as extremely bold or stupid. After receiving Montezuma’s gifts, a number of men wanted to return to Cuba. Faced with a mutiny, Cortés scuttled the fleet. He told his men, “Now they had nothing to rely on save their own hands…they must either win the land or die in the attempt.”

Join Cortés’ journey over mountains towering 18,000 feet. Read how he captured Tenochtitlán only to lose control because he had to scurry back to the coast. Velázquez sent 18 Spanish warships with orders to bring Cortés back to Cuba in chains. Find out how Cortés out-smarted him. Learn about Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec King. As a leader, Montezuma pales in comparison.

“Conquistador” is not for the faint of heart. Two civilizations clashed in 1519. By 1521, at least 5 million people were dead, and the Aztec Empire no longer existed. Read this epic tale. Then the next time you see strange lights in the sky – run!

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2010 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
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