Sunday, 29 November 2020

Conquistadores by Fernando Cervantes

Conquistadores by Fernando Cervantes
Published by Penguin on the 1st October 2020.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The 'conquistadores', the early explorers and settlers of Spanish America, have become the stuff of legends and nightmares. In their own time, they were glorified as heroic adventurers, spreading Christian culture and helping to build an empire unlike any the world had ever seen. Today, they stand condemned for their cruelty and exploitation, as men who decimated the ancient civilizations of the Aztecs and the Incas, and carried out horrific atrocities in their pursuit of gold and glory.

In Conquistadores, Mexican historian Fernando Cervantes cuts through the layers of myth and fiction to immerse the reader in the world of the late-medieval imperialist. It is a world as unfamiliar to us as the Indigenous peoples of the New World were to the conquistadores themselves. Drawing upon a wide range of sources including diaries, letters, chronicles and treatises, Cervantes reframes the story of the Spanish conquest of the New World, set against the political and intellectual landscape from which its main actors emerged. At the heart of the story are the conquistadores, whose epic ambitions and moral contradictions defined an era.

From Columbus to Cort├ęs, Pizarro and beyond, the explorers we think we know come alive in this thought-provoking and illuminating account of a period that irrevocably altered the course of world history.

I was drawn to read Fernando Cervantes new history of the early Spanish conquistadores because, other than Moctezuma, Christopher Columbus and Hernan Cortes, I knew very little about the leading men involved in this period of central American history. It turns out that I didn't know much about the three I could already name either! Cervantes details the years from just prior to Columbus' famous first voyage in 1492 through the reign of Emperor Charles V. I liked that he tried to explain how the political and religious motivations determined actions on both sides and he is obviously very well versed in the the contemporary documentation of the time. From the synopsis I had thought more original letters and diaries would be quoted whereas in fact they are more of simply referred to or described. I didn't feel that Conquistadores actually challenged my perceptions of the conquistadores though. I expected some ground-breaking insights, whereas what I actually felt I read was almost, at times, an apology for their behaviour. That the Spanish expeditions were driven in seemingly pretty equal parts by blind faith and greed isn't exactly news and sums up most imperial expansions throughout human history! What most disappointed me about this book though is how dryly Cervantes renders such a potentially fascinating an exciting period of history. As I found with the biography Francis I by Leonie Frieda, an examination of the French king's life through roughly the same period, I need more to engage with history than just lists of names engaging in endless battles. There are moments in Conquistadores where suddenly a person or scene sprang vividly to life for me, but unfortunately these were few and far between so, while this book is undoubtedly brilliantly researched and very informative, I found it a real slog to actually read.

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Fernando Cervantes / History books / Books from Mexico

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