CORTÉS by Richard Lee Marks


The Great Adventurer and the Fate of Aztec Mexico
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 A marvelously engrossing biography of Hern†n CortÇs (1485- 1547) that brings the intrepid conquistador and his exploits to vivid life. Drawing chiefly on narratives left by contemporary annalists and church scholars, Marks (Three Men of the Beagle, 1991) offers an essentially favorable portrait of the well-born soldier of fortune who in 1504 left Spain for the West Indies. Having participated in Hispaniola's subjugation of Cuba, CortÇs was chosen to lead a trading mission to Mexico. In the wake of his 1519 arrival, he founded Vera Cruz, burned the expedition's ships to prevent desertions, and, in search of gold and glory (and with hordes of indigenous allies disaffected by Aztec rule following him), marched on Montezuma's mountain city of Tenochtitl†n. CortÇs gained both riches and fame, defeating in mid-1521--after a three- month siege that cost both sides dearly--the valiant residents of what's now Mexico City. The captain then extended his triumph, eventually claiming most of northern Central America for the Spanish crown, but, while Carlos V made him a marquis, CortÇs was denied the governorship of Mexico. The conquistador died at age 62 in his homeland, neglected by a court preoccupied with European concerns. In retelling the dramatic story of a conquering hero whom history hasn't treated altogether kindly, Marks focuses on the probity, military acumen, and piety displayed by his subject in campaigns against foes ranging from native tribes to fellow Spaniards. The author argues that, while CortÇs couldn't sympathize with Mesoamerica's Indians (who engaged in cannibalism and human sacrifice), he empathized with them to the extent that many fought in his cause. Nor does Marks fail to note that, although CortÇs is buried in the hospital he built in 1524 in Mexico's future capital city, there's no public monument to his memory anywhere in that country. A rousing but thoughtful account of an Old World warrior in conflict with ancient civilizations whose virtues, shortcomings, and cruelties were substantively different from those of his own culture. (Twenty photographs)

Pub Date: Sept. 14th, 1993
ISBN: 0-679-40609-3
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 1993


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