Conquistadores: A New History by Fernando Cervantes - review by Matthew Restall

Matthew Restall

Apocalypse Then?

Conquistadores: A New History


Allen Lane 512pp £30

‘If one considers that the primary intention of the conquerors in their settlements was none other than to bring souls to heaven and vassals to their king, as well as their own honour and duty, then cruelly destroying the Indians, as the Bishop says, would end everything without gathering souls for heaven nor vassals for the King.’ So wrote Bernardo de Vargas Machuca, a veteran conquistador, in 1618. The bishop to whom Vargas Machuca was referring was Bartolomé de Las Casas, a still-famous firebrand friar whose condemnations of conquistador atrocities against the indigenous peoples of the Americas, taken seriously at court and eventually influencing Spanish imperial policies, infuriated the likes of Vargas Machuca. He gave his riposte to the bishop a title, Defense and Discourse of the Western Conquests, that might serve as a description of Fernando Cervantes’s lively new book.

Even though Vargas Machuca’s statement is not found in Cervantes’s book, it captures much of its spirit and argument. For although Cervantes displays a more ambivalent attitude towards Las Casas than Vargas Machuca, he is as passionately convinced as was the latter that the conquistadores and their conquests are in dire need of an apologia.

Cervantes was born in Mexico but received his degrees in Britain in the 1980s and has taught at the University of Bristol for thirty years. That matters, because he positions himself here proudly in the tradition of the British Hispanists, viewing Spanish activities in the Americas with a foot firmly

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