Cervantes, reader in history at the University of Bristol, does not downplay the conquistadors’ violence. But he thinks they have been grossly misunderstood. Turning them into pantomime villains, he argues, completely misses the genuine force of their Christian faith, the importance of their late-medieval context and the historical reality of the conquests themselves ... Cervantes’s account makes it hard to see the indigenous peoples as saintly victims ... All the time Cervantes teases out the nuances of his story. He is brilliant at showing the wider context ... Carefully researched and vividly written, Cervantes’s account blasts hole after hole in the 21st-century view of the conquistadors as little more than 16th-century Nazis. In his account they are often tortured by self-doubt, holding anguished debates about their treatment of the indigenous peoples. And he ends with some enjoyably provocative observations.
... masterful ... Cervantes marshals an enormous array of primary and secondary sources to tell the story of the decades that followed Christopher Columbus' arrival on an island off what is now Cuba ... There's a depressing sameness to the way Cervantes tells the story. The indigenous populations sometimes fought back, often with great skill and courage, and could themselves be brutal to their enemies. But they were ultimately no match for the Europeans, who came in greater and greater numbers and carried artillery that seemed to give them God-like powers ... Cervantes sets out not to whitewash such atrocities but to place them in context.
The Mexican historian explains the background to those voyages and his total command of the details is the key to the book’s success ... Cervantes judiciously lays out the narratives we do have and helps steer the reader toward the most likely version of events. He frequently questions the official versions and paints rounded pictures of the conquerors, the vanquished indigenous leaders, and the worlds they inhabited in the late 15th and early 16th centuries ... The book is excellent in describing the rich and sophisticated worlds they encountered. Cervantes’ description of Tenochtitlán and the battles to control it are vivid, and the portraits of Moctezuma, Atawallpa, and the power struggles that proceeded the fall of the Inca empire are equally fantastic ... The book is weighty, but it is rarely slow or dull...In fact, it reads like both an adventure story and a travelogue, with Cervantes an enthralling guide ... If there are quibbles, they are over the slightly uneven pace. There is a heavy accent on the early expeditions in the Caribbean and Mexico ... But those are minor grumbles. Conquistadores is a tour de force and should be welcomed by anyone interested in Latin American history.
... enlightening ... [Cervantes'] conclusion that the roots of Latin America’s enduring social ills lie with 19th-century liberal reforms rather than with the conquest is an intriguing argument slipped into the penultimate page, and one that he could have developed further. But, for a vivid portrayal of a clash of very different cultures, each equally astonishing to the other, and a group of men who 'whatever their myriad faults and crimes . . . succeeded more or less through their own agency, in fundamentally transforming Spanish and European conceptions of the world in barely half a century', Conquistadores makes for fascinating reading.
I came away unpersuaded. In this work Cervantes engages in a kind of sleight of hand, I believe, by mentioning the enslavement of Indigenous peoples but never really focusing on it. Ultimately, the conquistadors don’t really seem to me very different from the Vikings. They were out to raid, to enslave people and to steal whatever they could carry away, usually in the form of gold, silver and precious stones. And they wrangled with one another for those treasures as well as for land and power.
Cervantes tries to balance academic rigour and a narrative for the general reader. Largely, he succeeds, although occasionally the book feels written for the in-crowd — for whom ‘Nebrija and Vives’ need no introduction. Elsewhere, attempts to popularise result in cliché ... Nonetheless, by providing a rich portrait of a period that is almost unimaginable today (one in which horses elicited preternatural fear, and Columbus and Cortés both thought they’d reached China), Cervantes does make the conquistadors slightly more sympathetic. Or, rather, less monolithic ... With the recent toppling of conquistador statues by Black Lives Matter activists in the USA and indigenous protestors in Colombia, this book comes at a key moment in the public perception of the conquistadors. But despite Cervantes’s persuasive reassessment, it remains difficult to look beyond their massacres and greed.
While this book is not perhaps an apologia, it’s the closest thing to a rehabilitation that the conquistadors are likely to get ... Cervantes skilfully constructs a complex story, packed with disturbing nuance, which obliterates that simplistic narrative of brutal conquistadors subduing innocent indigenes. The depth of research in this book is astonishing, but even more impressive is the analytical skill Cervantes applies to his discoveries. He is equally at home in cultural, literary, linguistic, artistic, economic and political history. All this sophisticated scholarship could so easily result in an unwieldy book, easy to admire, but difficult to read. Cervantes, however, conveys complex arguments in delightfully simple language, and most importantly knows how to tell a good story ... In the end the author achieves his purpose: he successfully reconstructs the complicated context from which the conquistadors emerged. Yet that should not erase nor excuse their brutality ... While this rehabilitation of the conquistadors is undoubtedly impressive, some readers might be dismayed by the cold rationality of its conclusions.
It’s a swashbuckling narrative, full of bold exploits against long odds, intrigues among rival conquistadors, and much brutality and bloodshed (though Cervantes contends that Bartolomé de las Casas’s contemporaneous and influential accounts of Spanish atrocities were exaggerated). Departing from the harshly condemnatory tone of modern treatments of the period, Cervantes highlights instead the Spaniards’ legal and religious self-justifications, the serious though inadequate attempts by the Spanish government to remedy abuses of conquered peoples, and the Spaniards’ success in creating a stable regime that accorded some security and autonomy to Indigenous communities. The result is an entertaining yet nuanced account of one of history’s most earth-shaking military adventures.