So much has been written about the Spanish conquest of Latin America that it has become difficult to find new approaches to the topic. Hugh Thomas’s definitive history of the invasion of Mexico, now called simply Conquest, is 20 years old, but his monumental history of the Spanish monarchy is much more recent, and volume 2 covers the establishment in Mexico of ‘New Spain’. This is the story which John Harrison revisits, but the different approach he masters (as he did in telling the story of the conquest of the Incas in Cloud Road) is to follow the routes originally taken by the conquistadores as far as they can still be distinguished, travelling on buses, on horseback or on foot. While doing so, he weaves together his own travel journal, descriptions of what is known of the indigenous civilisations as they were at the time of the conquest, and the story of Hernán Cortés and his compatriots, and how they schemed and fought their way to power over what is now Mexico and Central America. There is another element to the story, too. Harrison had been diagnosed with cancer while planning the book and interwoven with the Mexican episodes are flashbacks to his experiences in dealing with the illness.
What could have been a disorganised patchwork actually fits together very well. It produces rather a different book to Cloud Road, as the journey to and through Peru was essentially linear and largely on foot. In Mexico, Harrison deals with the different expeditions that culminated in the conquest, and attempts to cover some of the rather complex routes followed by Cortés, his soldiers and translators. As in the earlier book though, Harrison delights in description, especially of the landscape and of the dozens of small traditional settlements that still exist in many parts of Latin America, often with at least some buildings dating from the time of the conquest.
As have many other writers, Harrison inevitably revisits the question of how the Spanish succeeded in defeating such a powerful empire. As in Peru, the availability of horses is clearly a major factor. The Incas were an empire divided between two rival princes, whereas in Mexico the weakness of the Aztecs (or, more accurately, the Mexica), exploited by the conquistadores, was the fact that they were hated by adjoining kingdoms, from which they extracted taxes. Cortés was therefore able to find allies who provided the foot power he would otherwise have lacked. Once reinforcements arrived from Spain, fortune brought with them smallpox, against which most of the Spanish were resistant but which devastated the Aztec forces. The final violent conflict lasted for weeks but at the end practically all the Aztecs had been exterminated if not by the sword then by starvation or disease.
Harrison is even-handed about the violence used by the warring cultures. The Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures practised human sacrifice, but as he points out if you believe in gods who might destroy the world again, as (according to myth) they have in the past, extreme measures to appease them may be required. As he also notes, the region is plagued by natural disasters (droughts and floods were and are frequent, in addition of course to the more spectacular earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes). As in Christianity, such events were seen as acts of god(s).
Cortés, like Pizarro in Peru, was ruthless towards his enemies. Harrison points to the massacre of the whole population of the city of Cholula as a turning point after which he resorted more and more to overwhelming violence. Also like Pizarro, he was happy to double-cross both allies and enemies. The Spanish may have been impressed by the sophistication of the cities they found, but this didn’t alter their view that their inhabitants should automatically offer obeisance to the Spanish throne and renounce their religions – or else be treated like savages. (If they did convert, of course, this usually only postponed the savagery.)
The great virtue of Harrison’s approach is that it make the complex history and geography more easily accessible. The interaction between cultures, the details of different religions, the reasons for the precise architecture of Mesoamerican cities and the way that its people came to have a complex understanding of the calendar and of celestial movements can be bewildering. By treating them episodically in step with his travel story, Harrison manages to serve them up in a much more digestible way.
The fact that he is travelling in the present day is also a constant reminder that Mesoamerican culture still survives in many forms. Living in Nicaragua, my daily Spanish is fertilised by words spoken in the Nahuatl language that the Aztecs spoke when Cortés defeated them, and which is today still a minority language in Mexico (as are many of the Mayan languages). Harrison finds the very church where captured chiefs were baptised as Christians, the earliest church surviving in the western hemisphere, and also the city with the hemisphere’s longest continuous occupation (since the 13th century). Much of what Cortés saw can still be seen, therefore, despite (in most cases) the best efforts of the conquistadores and the passage of five centuries. Harrison encourages us to go and look at some of these wonders for ourselves.