I suspect I am a good example of the intended audience for this book, which is a popular account of the strange, tragic relationship between Cortés and Montezuma, and the destruction of a way of life. I can’t remember reading anything about Cortés or Montezuma since high school, other than an occasional National Geographic article. So, I am not the best person to comment on the scholarship. But I can comment on the readability as a popular history, and Levy captured me in the initial pages. He has a way of spinning a good story, of keeping the pages turning, and as the pages turn, even the uninitiated learns a great deal about the early 16th century subjugation of the Aztecs and one of the most compelling, yet ultimately depressing, clashes between cultures in the Americas.
Levy has great admiration for Cortés. And, particularly from a military perspective, there is considerable to admire. Concerned about the possible mutiny of his troops, Cortés ordered his ships sunk to prevent retreat from Mexico once his invasion began, an “act of incredible, calculated daring.” In an audacious act of inhospitable behavior, Cortés took Montezuma prisoner in his own palace as the Aztec leader attempted to appease the Spaniard with generosity, “perhaps the most…astonishing takeover in the annals of military history.” Cortés’s construction of 13 brigantines to assist in the siege of the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, including the transport of ship planks across mountains, constructing of a dam and canal to determine their seaworthiness, and dismantling, transporting 50 miles, and reassembling the boats, was truly an incredible undertaking. “It is still among the largest land-locked naval operations ever conducted in the history of warfare,” and the overland portage “among the most outstanding achievements in military history: ingenious, audacious, unprecedented, and unequaled.”
I’ll grant the superlatives. Cortés was bold, powered by a greed that Montezuma unwittingly fueled. Time and again the Aztec leader gave Cortés golden gifts of exquisite craftsmanship hoping to buy him off or impress upon him the notion that Montezuma possessed unchallengeable wealth and power. Instead, the dazzling presents “piqued the greed and desire of the Spaniards.”
And while Cortés’s audacity can be unequivocally granted, it is a little easier to be daring when you hold immense technological advantages.
Cortés’s first battle in March 1519 resulted in the death of more than 800 Indians and two Spaniards, one-sided dominance rarely witnessed in warfare. The native people had never seen crossbows, armor, firearms, cannon, steel swords, horses, or military attack dogs. And as the Aztecs learned in the final siege of Tenochtitlan, their canoes hardly matched the fighting power of 50-foot-long brigantines carrying 30 well-armed men. Aztecs fighting Spaniards was something akin to the War of the Worlds–without the happy ending.
Still, Cortés might have had more of a challenge were it not for a most timely introduction of smallpox that killed Aztecs in such number that in a matter of months entire cities lost half their populations.
Then again, Montezuma proved hardly a worthy adversary for the greed/lust ruthlessness of Cortés. Time and again, Montezuma capitulated to Cortés, offering hospitality, passing on intelligence to the conquistador about his own Aztec warriors plotting against the Spaniards, helping Cortés to construct Christian temples inside his own city, and continuously lavishing the would-be conqueror with treasure. Had Genghis Khan sought to overwhelm Mahatma Gandhi, the result could hardly have been more predictable.
While ostensibly a “dual” biography of Cortés and Montezuma, Levy of course has the problem of dealing with a plethora of written records about one of his protagonists and a scarcity on the other. There is much we will never know about Montezuma. But even so, Levy seems to have little sympathy for him. Cortés takes Montezuma prisoner and the two seem to reach a one-sided accord whereby Montezuma acquiesces and facilitates Cortés’s attempted “peaceful” takeover of Tenochtitlan. “The two men coexisted for nearly half a year,” writes Levy, “in a bizarre captor-captive, ruler-puppet scenario of colliding religious beliefs.”
Finally, too late, a true Aztec rival to Cortés, Cuauhtemoc, assumes power and forces the Spaniards from the city, Montezuma being killed—but not mourned—in the resulting melee. Cortés barely manages to escape, but half his troops are killed, those unfortunate enough to be captured alive ruthlessly tortured, often with their still-beating hearts cut out.
Hardly cowed, Cortés plots to recapture the city and later embarks on a 75-day siege during which Aztecs literally starve to death, their two-mile-long aqueduct destroyed and food supply lines severed. Under Cuauhtemoc the Aztecs fight fiercely and sometimes brilliantly, learning new tactics along the way. But their smallpox-depleted ranks of starving, primitively-armed warriors could only match for a short time the technological and numerical superiority of their adversary, Cortés’s ranks having been swelled with tens of thousands of Indians seeking revenge for years of vassalage under the Aztecs and further lured to join the Spanish cause out of fear because of Cortés’s brutality. Killing and making examples of those who challenged him, Cortés “enticed” allies who found it nobler to fight on a winning cause than to be wantonly slaughtered or tortured.
As a result, Cortés realized his dream of capturing the most populous city in the world, but at the cost of an estimated 200,000 Aztec dead. “The battle for the Aztec empire ranks, in terms of human life,” notes Levy, “as the costliest single battle in history.”
And what had Cortés accomplished? The destruction of what Cortés himself called “The City of Dreams,” and “the most beautiful thing in the world.” Hardly a primitive society, the Aztecs had constructed at Tenochtitlan an unparalleled island metropolis of marvelous maritime architecture to be seen nowhere else in the world–elaborate canals, floating gardens, towering temples, buildings seeming to float above the water. Cortés remarked often that the craftsmanship and design surpassed anything in Spain. By the end of the siege, virtually everything had been destroyed. In its place, Cortés oversaw construction of Mexico City (hardly an artistic rival for the former Tenochtitlan), placing his own palace directly on top of the former palace of Montezuma.
In an effort to enrich himself, his king, and his troops, Cortés ordered exquisite works of gold and silver art–crafted by artisans “whose skill was such that they had no rivals in Europe”–melted into ingots so they could be weighed, appraised, and transported. Ironically, however, Cortés reaped his destruction upon Tenochtitlan with little corresponding gain in wealth. The Spaniards lost much of their booty in their initial forced retreat from the city, and Cuauhtemoc, according to Aztec legend, dumped the remainder in Lake Texcoco. While Cortés and the king made out reasonably well, the soldiers received 160 pesos apiece, at a time when a good crossbow cost 60.
Levy asserts that Cortés hoped to conquer Tenochtitlan without destroying the city or its people, and that Cuauhtemoc’s “fight to the death” strategy led to the empire’s demise. Perhaps. But it is hard to sympathize with a conqueror who reviled the Aztec religion, who allowed his Indian allies to burn and loot houses and slaughter innocents, who had chieftains burned at the stake as object lessons, who enslaved and branded (“the skin of their cheeks blistering and bubbling as they were held down”) those who did not ally with him, and who had Cuauhtemoc lashed to a pole and his oil-soaked feet burned in an eff
ort to convince the Aztec ruler to confide the location of treasure. Maybe, as Levy states, Cortés would have spared the city and its inhabitants had Cuauhtemoc surrendered. But I find that doubtful. Cortés could admire the Aztec’s craftsmanship. But he detested their religion. Even more significantly, he craved their treasure with such uncompromising zeal that their total destruction was a virtual forgone conclusion from the day he landed on Mexico’s shores.
The result was one of the saddest episodes in North American history. As Cortés relentlessly made his advance through Tenochtitlan during the final siege, Cuauhtemoc retreated until he held only a tiny sliver of the former elegant city. From the temple there “he could see everything, including former Aztec vassals, now allies of Cortés, arriving from all directions in numbers too great to count. Standing atop the pyramid, Cuauhtemoc took in the grim situation–he would be fighting not only the Spaniards but fellow Indians….And perhaps worst of all, he could see the dismantling, burning, and razing of his city, could hear the crashing of stone walls as they toppled, could watch the smoke smoldering from the rubble.”
Readers might not be quite as enamored with Cortés as is the author, but Levy writes in an easy, descriptive way. The tale is tragic. The result is inevitable. But still you keep turning the pages, for Levy has taken on one of the more compelling episodes in history. He handles it deftly, in a way anyone can appreciate–and admire.
Keith Petersen ’73 is the Idaho State Historian.
Buddy Levy is a clinical assistant professor in English at WSU.