THE SPANISH presence in Mexico has been highlighted again recently, thanks to the controversial memorials to Columbus's voyages of discovery in 1492. Understandably enough, the Mexicans have preferred to see the arrival of the Europeans as 'an encounter of two worlds' rather than an invasion, or the disappearance, of their own native world under the weight of all-powerful new technologies and an equally combative new religion.
Hugh Thomas's rich and amply rewarding new book describes Cortes's eruption in Mexico between 1519 and 1521 as a disaster that happened almost against the will of its protagonists. He is careful to try to understand the gruesome theocracy at the centre of Montezuma's loose empire, and sees Cortes's actions as those of an honourable Renaissance man.
One of the first questions about the Spanish conquest of Mexico is why it took them so long. Established in the Caribbean since the 1490s, the Spaniards seemed almost content to settle and exploit the islands there instead of consistently exploring the lands beyond. It took someone as audacious as Cortes to set off in search of 'a new world of gold for the Spanish Crown'.
Thomas is good at conveying the thrusting spirit of these driven Spaniards as they head into the unknown; he also recreates the life of the Mexicans, in their lake island capital of Tenochtitlan, with deft and convincing touches. Time and again it is the detail that gives his narrative its satisfying depth. Take this description of the Spaniards catching a shark: 'On cutting it up, they discovered (it) to have within its belly a typical haul of flotsam from the 16th- century Caribbean: three shoes, a tin plate, over 30 rations of pork, and a cheese.'
If Cortes was driven on by twin thirsts for empire and gold, it was the leader of the Mexicans, Montezuma, who was playing another Renaissance role, that of the all- doubting Hamlet. Thomas describes the society he ruled over as one so entwined in its traditions and religious conventions that it was unable to decide how to react to these new intruders. Montezuma seems to have been more irresolute than most, wavering between considering Cortes and his men as gods returning in accordance with ancient scriptures, or invaders to be repulsed at all costs.
If the Spaniards had taken some time to push on from the Caribbean islands discovered by Columbus, the Mexicans themselves had shown little or no interest in the world beyond the boundaries of their lands. Thomas presents their failure to cope with the few hundred Spaniards who succeeded in conquering and destroying their civilisation in two years as above all a failure of imagination: the Mexicans seem to have been incapable of conceiving of anything so far outside their everyday experience and traditions that they crumbled in the face of the conquistadors' certainties.
This lack of adaptability to the new conditions thrust upon them extended crucially to the way that the Mexicans fought. As Thomas stresses, for them the aim of a battle was to capture rather than kill the enemy, so that the prisoners could be used either as booty or for human sacrifice. Thomas estimates that the Castillians lost around a thousand men in their two years' fighting in Mexico, as against a figure of 100,000 Mexicans. With them perished an ancient and in many ways glorious civilisation.
As in his previous books on the Spanish Civil War and the Cuban revolution, Thomas's strength is a narrative that brings a relatively short period of conflict to life. He concentrates on the individuals involved, and tries to understand the predicament and choices they faced. In so doing, he makes the 600 pages of his history speed along with the urgency of Cortes in full cry.
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