A history of 16th-century Spain and its legendary conquistadors, whose ambitious and morally contradictory campaigns propelled a small European kingdom to become one of the formidable empires in the world.
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.