Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Conquistador was an absolutely thrilling read. South American history in general has been a bit of a blind spot for me personally, and although a book detailing the conquest of one of its native civilisations isn’t the best place to start, I had hoped that it would illuminate a bit more of the area for me.

That it has.

The Author, Buddy Levy, has done a fantastic job weaving the narrative together. The cliffhangers at the end of each chapter ensure that you are left gasping for more.

I personally appreciated the fact that at the beginning of the book we are told quite frankly that Hernan Cortes was an otherwise unassuming nobody before his conquest. Had it not been for what he had achieved against the Aztecs, we may never have known his name. While this may seem obvious, it served to state quite bluntly that he was an average man who had otherwise not achieved anything notable before. This humility is able to put into perspective how a single person with nothing otherwise to his name is able to change the course of history so profoundly.

Levy does a great job of making the reader empathise with Cortes’ frustrations at being so far and distant from meeting his antagonist Montezuma, yet also able to feel his determination to do so. I was able to imagine how laser focused Cortes must have been to meet him (and all the gold he imagined he would have), which explained his willingness to endure hardship and dire odds in order to achieve his goal.

On the opposing side, the reader can also empathise with Montezuma and his unease at the powerful, strange foreigners who had entered his realm and demanded to see him. While this saga is one of a native population being conquered by outsiders, we are shown the reality of Montezuma’s cruelty through his oppression of other tribes and demands of tribute of humans for their ultimate religious ritual of human sacrifice.

Such unimaginable cruelty was inflicted upon the subservient tribes by Montezuma’s sheer might in the region and they had no choice but to comply. Over time, this bred feelings of immense hatred against Montezuma’s and ultimately worked against him. Tribe after tribe decided to throw their lot in with Cortes and his men and allied with him to take on Montezuma himself. This led to Cortes not only having his own well armed and trained men to face Montezuma, but also tens of thousands of other native tribes alongside his forces. This was undoubtedly a huge assistance to him, as he was able to work with people who had generations old knowledge of the land and of the current political relationships between tribes, allowing Cortes to exploit them as required.

It should be noted however, that Cortes often had to beat these tribes in fierce battle before they recognised his superiority and allied with him. It wasn’t an easy feat at all despite being technologically superior, and there were many times were Cortes and his men were in real mortal danger. I also found myself in awe reading at the conditions in which Cortes and his men endured in order to merely survive. Many a time we read of them wearing their full armour as they slept in the humid rainforest, uncomfortable and undoubtedly suffering yet understanding that their preparedness was necessary for survival.

Bit by bit, Cortes slashed his way towards the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, and towards its Leader, Montezuma. Eventually, through understanding of Cortes’ might and determination, Montezuma eventually granted an audience to him. It didn’t help that Montezuma believed in a prophesy where one of his gods would return to the kingdom after an absence to retake the empire. Montezuma must have felt as though his time was near. Regardless, it was inevitable. The two stars of the show would finally meet face to face.

Tenochtitlan was a capital city unlike anything Cortes or his men could have ever dreamt of. It was incomparable to anything he had ever seen before in Spain or indeed anywhere else in Europe at the time. It seemed like the closest thing to visiting a foreign planet that anyone could imagine. It was mainly centred around an island in the middle of a huge lake, Lake Texcoco.

Cortes and his men were welcomed as guests by Montezuma and given many gifts of gold and extensive riches. What was to happen next however, was unprecedented.

Cortes took Montezuma prisoner in his own palace under threat of death, while Montezuma was instructed to inform his people that all was well. This hostage scenario lasted for months, with the two forming an almost unbelievable friendship amongst the otherwise hostile situation. The people of the Aztec Empire felt unease. They could tell that something was wrong yet they felt powerless to to anything about it.

After briefly leaving Tenochtitlan (and leaving some of his men in charge while he was away), Cortes dealt with some of his countrymen who had come to South America to assume control of the mission itself. After some diplomacy, Cortes once again retained control of his mission and headed back to Tenochtitlan.

Incidentally, while he was gone a massacre of the nobles and commanders of the Aztecs had taken place. Fearing a rebellion and their imminent death, the man Cortes placed in charge led a pre-emptive strike. Blood had been spilled and there was no going back. The swords had been unsheathed.

As the Spanish an their allies fought their way out of the city, they managed to regroup and plan their final conquest of the city. In the chaos of retreat, Montezuma had been injured and died. With him also died any hope of a peaceful transition of power.

After Montezuma, a new Leader eventually had taken control who allowed the Spanish no quarter. He declared his hostile intentions towards the invaders and vowed to vanquish them from his lands.

What followed was Cortes and his allies building ships along the coast of modern day Mexico, carrying them in winding human chains through the rainforest and reassembling them on a secluded part of the Great Lake in which the capital Tenochtitlan resided.

The rainforest was full of sounds previously unbeknown to the Aztecs as Cortes and his allies painstakingly reassembled the ships, gearing up for war and the final invasion. Cortes was throwing everything he had at the assault.

As the attack began, we are explained to in riveting detail how direct brigades of Cortes’ men fought their way around and into the city, their newly constructed ships blasting away at the Aztecs and their defences. It was clearly one sided but the Aztecs adapted to the new technology as much as they could. They noted that these ships could only fire their cannons in a straight line, so they look the advantage of swerving left and right when attacking to get close and try to damage them. Despite their undoubtable courage in the face of an overwhelming and technologically superior enemy, there is little doubt that they fought valiantly until the end as their new Leader instructed.

The Spanish and their allies finally managed to enter the city. There the next phase of street fighting ensued. It was bloody and brutal and a stark reminder that wars are ultimately won man-to-man.

The battle that took place to take the capital was bloody and fought to the last man. With tales of near death and unimaginable heroism on both sides, we come to the conclusion that the city was finally taken and the Aztec Empire finally laid to rest.

Cortes lived through to see his mission end in accomplishing his goal. He lived to see some further expeditions in his time, but the conquest of the Aztecs was a feat he could not reproduce.

This book was a riveting read and it kept my imagination occupied with images of the Amazon Rainforest and the mighty Aztec Civilisation. I did manage to temper my enthusiasm for this book by keeping in mind that this was the story of the victor, of the nation who conquered the other. While no story is necessarily free from some form of bias, narratives like these based on primary sources are the best we have.

I also took to time to do a bit of research. The capital of Tenochtitlan was described as being magnificently positioned on a vast lake. Surely if this still was the case today it would be all over travel guides and social media? It turns out that some time after the Spanish Conquest, an Engineer devised and executed a plan to drain the great lake so that the city could expand into what we know of it today, Mexico City.

One can only imagine what the city must have looked like in previous times, and I will endeavor to keep its memory alive through revisiting passages from this book and indeed with further reading on the subject matter.

In conclusion, this was a great read and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the meeting between these two great Empires of their age.

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