For either longterm consequences or immediate drama, there are few conflicts in history to rival that between Montezuma and Hernan Cortes.
Thomas (Armed Truce, 1987, etc.) does it full justice, offering an authoritative, consistently colorful account of a clash in which character proved fate for both principals and their cultures. Drawing on standard sources and previously untapped archives in Seville, the author focuses on how an audacious soldier of fortune from Spain's minor nobility was able to conquer the Aztec realm and claim what is now central Mexico for Charles V. A 15-year veteran of the West Indies, Cortes landed in the Yucatan in 1519 with a small band of followers in hot pursuit of gold and glory. With hordes of indigenous allies (disaffected by Montezuma's rule), the captain from Castile gained both riches and fame by defeating (albeit only after a lengthy siege that cost both sides dearly) the mountain redoubt of Tenechitlan (modern-day Mexico City). Thomas does not shy away from cataloguing the many flaws of Cortes, whose brutality to native peoples triggered a bitter home-front debate on whether forcibly converting heathen practitioners of human sacrifice could be justified. The author nonetheless concludes that the unique strengths and ambition of this one conquistador were primarily responsible for the "astonishing'' achievements of the Spaniards in a bewilderingly new world. He also sheds fresh light on why the ultracivilized but irresolute and superstitious Montezuma did not simply crush the trespassers before they reached his capital. Covered as well are the perdurable faith and advanced technology (guns, horses, steel swords, etc.) that gave fewer than 500 Spanish troops decisive advantages against numerically superior foes.
Occasionally overdetailed, but, still, a grand, interpretive retelling of an epic chapter in the westward course of empire--with considerable appeal for lay-readers as well as scholars.