Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs. By Buddy Levy. Bantam Dell. June 24, 2008.
The conquest of Mexico—how a few hundred Spanish adventurers conquered and despoiled the Aztec empire—is one of the great epics of history, and has attracted historians and storytellers alike. It is a tale that has been told many times in the past, and will be told many times in the future, most predictably around its quincentenary in 2019. Yet, the most recent big book on this subject in English, by Lord Hugh Thomas, was published a decade ago, and new research has enriched our historical understanding since then.
Fusing this new research with older interpretations of the Conquest into a readable narrative that preserves its epic quality is the ambitious task of Buddy Levy’s Conquistador. As a result, there is now no need to wait another decade for a history of the Conquest that is both up to date in its scholarship and a good read.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, Levy focuses much of his attention on the relationship between the Aztec ruler and his Spanish captor, from their first legendary encounter of contrasting signs and symbols through his kidnapping by Cortés and final death in a hail of angry Aztec stones. Throughout this first part of his book, Levy stresses the confusion that the unfamiliar Spaniards caused, paralyzing Montezuma and through him Aztec resistance.
Levy delineates character well, and both Cortés and Montezuma come to life in his pages, along with important secondary characters in this drama such as La Malinche, the talented Nahuatl-speaking slave who would become Cortés’ interpreter and mistress, and Pedro de Alvarado, his brutal lieutenant, whose massacre of unarmed Aztec warriors at a religious ceremony detonated the Aztec rebellion that cost Montezuma his life and drove the Spanish out of Tenochtitlán.
But Levy is also a good analyst of the European-style siege warfare that followed against a city built on an island and dependent on causeways and canoes for its vital supplies. His narrative of the Spanish reconquest of the Aztec capital is a gripping tale of house-by-house combat in the face of fierce resistance by warriors weakened by smallpox and hunger, yet fighting to the death against superior Spanish weapons and a large army of Cortés’ Indian allies. It justifies his subtitling Conquistador “the last stand of the Aztecs,” who emerge from his sympathetic account as even more heroic than their European conquerors. Yet Cortés remains the book’s hero, a conqueror who regrets having to destroy Tenochtitlán even as he orders it done, who is as capable a politician as a military commander, who always does what is necessary and does it well.
Conquistador, however, is more than a military history or great man biography. Levy is attuned to the politics of both the Spanish and Aztec empires, which frame his story of this “clash of empires.” He is also sensitive to the even larger frame of his tale: the fateful encounter of two worlds that would change both forever.
--History Book Club Review