Kirkus Reviews QR Code


by Matthew Restall

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-19-516077-0
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Provocative if dry essay in New World historiography, gainsaying a large body of received wisdom.

Over the last half-century, many writers on the Spanish conquest of the Americas have confronted such thorny problems as the Black Legend and the demography of the pre-Columbian hemisphere, dispelling once-prevailing notions about, for example, why Coronado found so few Indians on his trip across the Great Plains and why Montezuma’s Mexico fell so quickly to Cortez and company. But many of those notions remain, writes Restall (History/Penn. State Univ.), even in such contemporary texts as the supposedly iconoclastic works of Tzvetan Todorov and Kirkpatrick Sale. Using the word loosely enough to give folklorists fits, Restall brands as “myth” the idea, for instance, that a mere handful of conquistadors took down Mexico and Peru, and the concomitant canard that the Indians thought that the Spanish were strange gods from across the sea. The Spanish were indeed few, he acknowledges, but backed by great numbers of Indian allies and, more to the point, by non-Spanish conquistadors, particularly black Africans like Juan García, who hauled a comfortable amount of gold to Spain from Peru and lived well thereafter. “There was no apotheosis,” he adds, “no ‘belief that the Spaniards are gods,’ and no resulting native paralysis.” Some of these myths, Restall holds, came from the pens of Columbus and certain of his contemporaries, who had an understandable interest in promoting themselves as lone heroes; others came from the likes of Washington Irving, whose romantic views of Columbus the visionary entered the historical record in the 19th century and have been hard to root out ever since. Restall’s alternative history of the Conquest emphasizes the multiethnic nature of the newcomers and the practicality of those who ceded land and wealth to them.

For specialists, mainly, though useful to those interested in how empires—and myths—are made.