Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico.

Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico. – book reviews

J.C.M. Ogelsby

Hugh Thomas established his reputation as an historian of things Spanish with his first, still important, study of the Spanish Civil War. He then went on to write an immense history of Cuba’s experience since 1762, which was admirably readable. These studies had no serious precursor. In Conquest he decides to take on William Hickling Prescott, the author of one of the mid-nineteenth century’s greatest epics and a work that has stood the test of time. Prescott published his Conquest of Mexico in 1843, and Thomas argues that the “tone is of another era” (xv). He is quite correct, but what a tone it is! Can this late twentieth-century historian, taking advantage of all the material unavailable to Prescott, push the Bostonian off his pedestal? I think not.

For one thing, Thomas does not have Prescott’s narrative power. It was not until Hernan Cortes was in the Mexican (Aztec) capital and bad to respond to the arrival of the expedition sent to bring him hack to Cuba that Thomas comes alive and catches the excitement of the moment. His account of the struggle between Cortes and Panfilo de Narvaez is more detailed than that of Prescott, and the narrative flows. By then, the reader is more than half-way through the work. Before that, the reader is provided with much information, all too often in parentheses, and the text is marred by the writer’s insistence on supposition. Thomas tends to overuse the words “probably,” “perhaps,” and “must have” at the expense of having the sources provide him with the evidence available.

Prescott wrote an occasional “probably” but usually avoided trying to put his views into the mind of his subject. Thomas was not reluctant to do this when he was dealing with the Spaniards. Paradoxically, Thomas’ section on the Mexican historical experience avoided supposition, and the reader could be forgiven for thinking that Thomas had more control over the Indo-American past than he did over the Spanish one. He does not, and the reader who is interested in that experience ought to turn to Inga Clendinnen’s Aztecs for a sound introduction to that society.

Yet, even on Spain, Thomas does not seem comfortable in the sixteenth century. For example, his paragraph organization gives the impression that the Inquisition was directed at Jews when it could only deal with Christians, in this case, Christians who had once been Jews. A knowledgeable reader might be able to arrive at that conclusion, but this book is aiming at a wide market and the author should be clear about such a sensitive matter. Nor is his handling of the seven-hundred-year reconquest of Iberia clear enough to enable the reader to understand the impact of a “warrior” society on the continuation of that conquest overseas.

Conquest has received considerable publicity as only a trade book can. That is all to the good if it brings the conquest to general readers, but historians would do better to read Prescott and more recent specialized monographs.

J. C. M. Ogelsby University of Western Ontario

COPYRIGHT 1995 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

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