The Conquest of New Spain

The Conquest of New Spain (Penguin Classics)

Lately I've been reading books that were on my father's bookshelf when I was growing up. One category he enjoyed was first-person historical narratives.

Bernal Diaz's The Conquest of New Spain is the story of how Cortez and 400 soldiers fought and bluffed their way into the command center of Mexico, where they took Montezuma hostage and had their way with the empire.

It's a bit like The Mouse That Roared, the bestseller and Peter Sellers movie from the 1960s. One of the greatest empires in the world comes to believe a few rowboats of musket-wielding soldiers also carries a secret weapon that can destroy civilization.

So they do the logical thing: they surrender. Nobody is more surprised than the soldiers themselves, who had already resigned themselves to having their hearts ripped out on stone altars.

Cortez had more enemies than George Bush. His patron in Cuba. Jealous officials in Spain. Every tribe he came across. (They were afraid of Cortez, but they feared Montezuma's Apocalypto-style violence even more.) And his own soldiers, of course, who saw themselves hopelessly outnumbered and being led to gruesome deaths.

Cortez used a mix of threats, appeals and promises to barely hold together the expedition as he collected gold, planted crosses and took hostages.

Diaz underplays the Gods-from-the-Sun angle. The Mexicans knew the soldiers could be killed like other men. It's never clear why Montezuma invited the soldiers across the bridges and into Tenochtitlan. Or how the Spaniards were able to walk away and return to Cuba safely.

Suppose the Mexicans had captured Cortez and his men (as they easily could have done)? Suppose they had taken the cannons and firearms and horses, forced the Spaniards to explain them, and built a defensive force of their own? What if they had been able to pull together an alliance with other tribes against the Europeans? Could they have held out another 100 years?

There's an alternative history waiting to be written: The Defense of the Mexican Empire.