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Was Cortés the conquistador a human-rights warrior?

4 0 42
19.02.2019

A lot can happen in 500 years.

Sometime in mid-February 1519 — half a millennium ago most likely around Feb. 18 — Spanish adventurer Hernán Cortés sailed from Cuba in 11 ships with 650 men, 16 horses and a small armoury of early firearms. His goal: to discover a newer world — one richer and more rewarding in gold and glory than the New World of the Caribbean had proven to be for the early Conquistadors. A week later he set foot on Cozumel, Mexico, setting in motion events of continent-altering consequence.

Two years later, by 1521, Cortés had comprehensively conquered the wealthy and sophisticated Aztec empire. In doing so, he established the roadmap for subsequent European colonization of all North, Central and South America. For his signature role in shaping our modern world, Cortés, once hailed by his peers as a great leader, is now widely regarded as a butcher and a madman — a central figure in the “Black Legend” school of history that regards Spanish colonialism as a uniquely evil period. Neil Young’s 1975 grunge classic “Cortez the Killer” seems an apt summary of current opinion on the subject. (“Plenty bad man,” Young sings on the live version.)

Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes is depicted in battle in a circa 1500 painting titled “Cortes meets with obstinate resistance.”

“The conquest is a very difficult topic for Mexico,” admits Alicia Mayer, a historian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and director of the school’s Canadian campus in Gatineau, Que. “For centuries Cortés has been a very polemic historical figure,” she notes. “From a Black Legend point of view, he is a cruel, greedy murderer.” Alternatively, Cortés’ achievements have been regarded by other critics as preordained, and thus unworthy of special recognition. This line of thinking was popularized by geographer Jared Diamond’s 1997 bestseller Guns, Germs and Steel, which argues the advantages of horses, resistance to smallpox and superior military technology allowed European colonialists, beginning with Cortés, to conquer their Native American foes with unseemly ease.

Such is Cortés’ reputation today that Mayer notes there’s scant official recognition of the quincentenary of his momentous arrival in Mexico. “The past government (of former president Enrique Pena Nieto) had no program for Cortés,” the historian says, although she notes the newly elected administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is making a modest effort at commemorating the event.

Setting aside the question of whether it’s better for historical figures these days to be reviled, dismissed or ignored, the current state of Cortés’ reputation is entirely undeserved. From an enlightened perspective, Cortés’ personal accomplishments stand among the most remarkable and improbable in human history. His genius for leadership, adaptation and tactical diplomacy may never be equalled. Nor his resoluteness of purpose, nor his indomitability of spirit. And while there’s no........

© National Post