Heroics of social climbing cowboys

Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest
April 30, 2004

Reading Matthew Restall, I have the déjà vu feeling that the author thinks he is addressing an audience that still believes in "myths". In truth, much of what the author wants to deconstruct has already been well dissected by earlier revisionist historians, especially during the controversy surrounding the Columbian quincentenary in 1992. Few, if any, of his present-day readers would admit to believing such troglodytic myths as, for instance, that indigenous Indians in the New World were inherently inferior to white Europeans, or that "civilisation" came to the Americas only after the Spanish conquest. Hence, Restall sometimes resorts to setting up straw men - comic-book stereotypes - to prove that myth-believers are still out there sowing intolerance.

To his credit, he writes very well and his prose is free of jargon. He has published four important books concerning his specialty, the indigenous Maya of the Yucatan. Indeed, he is at his best when discussing the native reaction to the Spanish invasion. He has also researched another matter hitherto little noticed in the literature: the role of Africans in the conquest. Apparently, the Spanish brought over large numbers of slaves and freed men, both to serve and to fight. Several became honoured conquistadors in their own right, eventually marrying into the colonial aristocracy and contributing their genes to the remarkable mestizo pool.

Restall is on less solid ground, however, in his attempt to demythologise the Spanish version of the conquest. For instance, he disputes the supposed superiority of Spanish weaponry. Neither gun nor horse, he avers, were the decisive weapons in the defeat of the Aztecs and Incas, but rather the long steel sword, wielded by infantry standing toe to toe with the enemy. While he is certainly correct about the efficacy of that ordinary weapon, he quite underestimates the power of the mounted lancer on charging steed, the pre-modern equivalent of the T34 tank. While the Spanish may have had only a few horses, the Indians had none, and no effective defence against them.

Furthermore, Restall wants to debunk the imputed fighting quality of the Spanish conquistadors, claiming they were not true "soldiers" in the Clausewitzian sense but simply civilian adventurers without military training. He overlooks the fact that the "band of brothers" who accompanied Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro to the New World were mostly from Extremadura, that Texas-like province of western Spain where every young man was raised in the saddle and wielded sword and lance with the same bravado as a gun-toting US cowboy.

My main disagreement with Restall's argument on this score, however, has to do with his notion, following the fashionable neo-historicist line, that the Spanish conquistadors, beginning with Columbus, were not exceptional heroes but rather commonplace adventurers trying to curry royal favour according to the social-climbing custom of those times; and that only by luck, by being in the right place at the right time, were they able to achieve what they did. According to Restall, if Columbus had not been the first to find America, "any one of numerous other navigators would have done so within a decade". So much for virtù , that unique quality of audacious self-confidence that fuelled the European Renaissance. Likewise, in Spain, where youths, weaned on the chivalric feats of the Christian knight, Amadis of Gaul, could hardly wait to do similar glorious deeds and win eternal fame by warring against the infidels.

By such reasoning, even Michelangelo could be deemed unexceptional. If he had not painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, couldn't "any number of other artists" have done the same?

Samuel Edgerton is professor of art history, Williams College, Massachusetts, US.

Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

Author - Matthew Restall
Editor - Oxford University Press
Pages - 218
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 19 516077 0

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