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Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma, and the Fall of…

Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico (1993)

by Hugh Thomas

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This is as complete a telling of Spanish conquest of the Caribbean islands and Mexico as I have ever read, with a heavy emphasis on Cortes and those around him and a lesser emphasis on Montezuma, the Mexica, their allies, vassals and enemies. I will say, as a lay person, this actually may have been too much detail, as there were definitely times while reading where I felt bogged down minutiae.

That said, if you are in fact interested in the subject, I highly recommend. Both Cortes and Montezuma are represented as people (as opposed, as sometimes happens, as "villain" and "tragically defeated"), and their motives, methods, and cultures put in some context, even if from a modern perspective both seem, at times, downright vile. The endless intrigues and maneuverings of Cortes, allies, enemies, and, dare I say it, frenemies, does, again, get old; real life, in its double crossings, grudges, and oversights, seems downright hackneyed compared to a soap opera's plot. ( )
  dcunning11235 | Oct 17, 2016 |
A very impressive bit of narrative history. Thomas and his research assistants obviously spent a long time going through vast piles of archive material to put this together, and the result is a highly-detailed picture of what went on, but it always reads like a connected story, not a mere compilation of data. I don't know enough about the subject to comment in detail on the conclusions Thomas comes to, but everything certainly looks measured and scholarly: if you wanted to disagree with him, you would be able to follow the chain of his reasoning back to the sources he uses easily enough.

I came across this by chance, and decided to read it largely because I was so impressed with Thomas's book on the Spanish civil war (which I read earlier this year), but also because it is a subject I knew absurdly little about. Just about the only thing I knew about Cortés — since I'd read the footnotes in my school poetry book — was the rather useless piece of information that Keats got it wrong and it was not he but some other stout Spaniard who stood upon a peak in Darien and looked at the Pacific (Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Wikipedia tells me). Now I see from the engraving Thomas reproduces of Cortés in old age that he wasn't even particularly stout! (Apparently I was also mistaken in thinking that the people running Mexico before the Spanish arrived were called Aztecs: Thomas tells us that they should properly be referred to as Mexica. We live and learn.)

More seriously, what really jumped out at me from this account of the conquistadors in Mexico was, firstly, what a small-scale, unofficial, private-enterprise operation it all was; and secondly, how it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the Mexican civilisation should fall before European power: had Cortés been less cunning and determined, or had Montezuma II been less of a defeatist, Mexico might perhaps have gone the way of Japan and kept the foreigners on its fringes for a few more centuries.

Obviously, the conquistadors were treasure-hunting bandits and vandals (like most imperialists, although they were a lot more open about their aims than many who came later). But you can't help having a sneaking respect for someone who in the space of a couple of years, and with no more than a few hundred soldiers and little or no outside support, manages to take over one of the great empires of the day, a polity substantially bigger and richer than Spain itself. Western technology played a role, but not a very big one: Cortés had only very limited supplies of firearms, horses, and crossbows, and the "terror effect" these produced soon wore off. His victory evidently came mostly through diplomacy: understanding and exploiting existing divisions in the Mexican empire, convincing the leaders of tributary states of the empire that it would be in their interest to support him against Tenochtitlan. When he managed to kidnap Montezuma and use him as a hostage, he came within a whisker of taking control of the empire without a serious fight. Without the unplanned landing of a rival Spanish force under Narváez, he might have got away with it: as it turned out, the Mexicans had a chance to regroup under a new, more aggressive emperor, and Cortés was faced with a bitter siege in which he had no choice but to destroy the city in order to take it.

More like an adventure story than most adventure stories! ( )
  thorold | Dec 7, 2014 |
Explorer, film-maker and writer Hugh Thomson has chosen to discuss Hugh Thomas’ The Conquest of Mexico , on FiveBooks (http://five-books.com) as one of the top five on his subject - Mexico, saying that:

“… Hernando Cortes dismantled his boats and then advanced into this huge and powerful empire with his few men, knowing that the Aztecs practised human sacrifice. Whatever one thinks of the Spaniards and their often brutal Conquest, they were undeniably brave. Thomas is good at using Aztec sources, chronicles and stories to show how it seemed from the native side...…”.

The full interview is available here: http://thebrowser.com/books/interviews/hugh-thomson ( )
  FiveBooks | Feb 9, 2010 |
History as good as it gets. ( )
  edwin.gleaves | Jul 1, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0671511041, Paperback)


Drawing on newly discovered sources and writing with brilliance, drama, and profound historical insight, Hugh Thomas presents an engrossing narrative of one of the most significant events of Western history.

Ringing with the fury of two great empires locked in an epic battle, Conquest captures in extraordinary detail the Mexican and Spanish civilizations and offers unprecedented in-depth portraits of the legendary opponents, Montezuma and Cortés. Conquest is an essential work of history from one of our most gifted historians.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:37 -0400)

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In Conquest one of the most distinguished modern historians has written the first major history of the conquest of Mexico since Prescott's classic account, published over 150 years ago. Cortes' conquest of Mexico in 1519-1521 is one of the most famous stories in the world. Macaulay wrote that the way Aztec emperor Montezuma died was one of the two things that every schoolboy knew. The story of the 500 conquistadores landing near Vera Cruz, the subsequent burning of the boats, the march up to the Aztec capital, the extraordinary battles and ruses en route, the welcome by Montezuma, the later quarrels, the Spanish withdrawal, the bloody fighting, and the eventual apocalyptic victory can never fail to excite the imagination. Drawing on newly discovered sources and taking into account information not available to earlier scholars, Hugh Thomas, author of the bestselling The Spanish Civil War and The History of the Cuban Revolution, presents a full and balanced history of one of the most significant events of Western civilization, a subject and an era of continued fascination to millions of readers. Here, in a brilliant and detailed narrative, full of the sound and fury of great events and the clash of empires and personalities, is a book that rivals Prescott's for its sweeping view of history, but is written with a new respect for the civilization and culture that Cortes ruthlessly destroyed. Hugh Thomas' account of the collapse of Montezuma's great Mexican empire under the onslaughts of Cortes' conquistadores is one of the major historical works of the decade. It bristles with moral and political issues that are profoundly relevant to our time, and is also a thrilling narrative, brimful of the sheer excitement of discovery.… (more)

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