Hernan Cortes: Conqueror of Mexico. By Salvador de Madariaga. The Macmillan Company. $4.00.
Perhaps no character in American history has been the subject of such varied and conflicting interpretations as has Hernan Cortes. In Cortes’s own time there was a singular lack of agreement as to his character, motives, and achievements, a lack of agreement amply demonstrated by the contemporary chroniclers, some of whom were eyewitnesses of the events they described. To his faithful followers he was a chivalrous leader, a very Christian knight, a far-seeing statesman; to his envious rivals he was a bloodthirsty looter, an ambitious upstart, and a political pipsqueak. There was still a third group: the friars like Las Casas, who saw in the conquered Indians only souls to be brought to salvation or living examples who were evidence in support of their “noble savage” theory. These saintly friars were inclined to be severe on all conquistadores, and perhaps rightly so, but they were certainly biased, sometimes to the point of becoming directly anti-Spanish in their pro-Indian sympathies.
The man himself, then, being an enigmatic and controversial character, presents an object of high interest to the biographer. At least equally interesting are his amazing exploits and their locale, both of which are glowingly described in the picturesque prose of Salvador de Madariaga’s “Hernan Cortes.” Senor Madariaga is at his best when he recounts the saga of five hundred Spaniards landing on a hostile shore, making their toilsome way, by conquest or diplomacy, through suspicious populations, struggling over the lofty Mexican mountains, past the causeways and through the lagoons into the very heart of the great Aztec capital; and there, in the face of a force which vastly outnumbered them, being received by the deified Montezuma as friends and gods. All this is amazing enough, but it is only the beginning. There arrives on the coast a much larger force of Spaniards, who are bent on destroying Cortes and appropriating his conquests for themselves. Surrounded by tens of thousands of Aztec warriors (who have now revolted against him) and penned up in a narrow enclosure in the city, a superior force of his own countrymen marching against his rear, and harassed by the intrigues and accusations of his enemies in the Spanish court, Cortes leads his men out of Mexico City. Again he crosses the mountains, falls upon the opposing Spanish army, defeats it, wins the remaining soldiers over to himself, recrosses the mountains with Indian allies to lay siege to the proud capital. This time it is a fight to the finish, and when the Spaniards finally re-enter the city, it is not as friends and gods, but as enemies and foreign devils, the killing and eating of whom the Aztecs regard not only as an act of the highest religious devotion but also as a keen personal pleasure.
Senor Madariaga excels also in describing the splendor and riches of the Aztec civilization with its exotic and gruesome religious rites. Indeed, the book is brilliantly written in the poetic and imaginative style of which Madariaga is a master. In some places it may be too scintillating to be sober history, and some passages smack of the intellectual esprit of eighteenth century France. The book is pervaded with a spirit of mysticism which sometimes borders on the obscure, and too many far-fetched attempts are made to read mystic analogies and symbolisms into events. It is doubtful, too, that Senor Madariaga has succeeded in solving the riddle of Cortes’s personality. Certainly he is very inconsistent in the use of sources. One chronicler is branded as unreliable, yet is freely used when his evidence fits into the pattern of the book as a whole; another is classified as trustworthy, yet his evidence is discarded when it strikes a discordant note. In short, it appears to this reviewer that the author is at times too intent on the effect he is seeking rather than on arriving at the facts. Senor Madariaga would have us believe that Cortes was a veritable crusader, animated solely by an altruistic desire to serve his king and his God, to bring light to those in darkness and to show them the error of their heathen religious practices. Yet he presents, sometimes in spite of himself, a Cortes who demands a disproportionate share of the booty, who is constantly struggling with rivals for power, and who hands over Aztec prisoners to his Mexican allies to be slaughtered and eaten.
Perhaps he is too much in love with his subject, whom he magnifies into one of the earth-shaking heroes of all humanity. He admires him more than he does that other discoverer, Columbus, of whom he has so brilliantly written, perhaps because the former is a Spaniard of the Spaniards and the latter, according to Madariaga, a Catalan Jew.
The style of the biography is the rich English familiar to all readers of Madariaga, but apparently he is not so much at home in the intricacies of American slang. To wit: having maneuvered his enemies into a very uncomfortable situation, Cortes (says Madariaga) had “put them on the map.” Now as Cortes’s greatest preoccupation at that particular moment was to remove them from the map, it is evident that what was meant was that he had “put them on the spot.”