CORTES by William Weber Johnson


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With the blessings of editor J.H. Plumb, Johnson sets out to give modern readers a more balanced view of Cortes, which essentially means making room once again for some concept of greatness, for glimpses of talent and humanity to set against the storied treachery. The result is a compelling narrative and a bridge to the primary sources (especially Bernal Diaz, Cortes' contemporary for whose ""homely, graphic"" account Johnson feels real affection). But this is a basically conservative approach to the Spanish Conquest--like many before him Johnson seems mesmerized by the Aztecs' human sacrifices. Bloody and rapacious are throwaway adjectives here, and the reader must take Johnson's word for it that this bloodlust predestined their fall. There's no anthropological context or any examination of other possible explanations: not much attention is paid to other weaknesses of the Aztecs' over-extended, decentralized empire, and the ironies attendant on Moctezuma's (relative) humanism--and the probability that he may have been mistaken Cortes for the gentler god Quetzalcoatl--are minimized. Within these limitations, Johnson does allow Cortes a recognizable, sometimes even an admirable, personality. Along with tremendous luck and guile, he seems to have been a talented administrator and strategist; he held the greediest of his followers in check and in his will expressed doubts about the justice of slavery as well as providing for his large family of illegitimate children; he achieved great wealth but the Spanish crown ungratefully deprived him of the honor due him. Those who have no time for Prescott's classic History of the Conquest will find this a readable alternative; but from the non-specialist's point of view it adds little of significance to the record of the greatest Conquistador, except for placing a sympathetic interpretation on his later accomplishments and disappointments. Solid--and solidly middle of the road.

Pub Date: Oct. 30th, 1975
Publisher: Little, Brown