W. H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico

This book, while it is certainly limited by Prescott’s particular time,
place, worldview, etc. must also be admitted
to be quite amazing, if only for its perniciousness. 

I was talking
about my homework with one of my roommates, and when I said that I was
reading an eighteenth century account of the conquest of Mexico, he
immediately responded, “Oh, so you must be reading Prescott!” It turns
out he read the book in Spanish when he was in university in Argentina.
He said Prescott is quite well-known throughout South America, and is
actually quite celebrated in Peru, the conquest of which is the subject
of another of his books.

Not bad for a half-blind man who never left Boston while writing about
South American history over 150 years ago.

Prescott’s biases are pretty obvious, and pretty strong. He’s definitely working within his century’s racial logic, with his construction of
“civilization” as a tiered structure, where, for example the Aztecs rate
above North American Indians, but below the Chinese, who in turn are
lower than Western culture.

But there’s something that several of my classmates said or intimated that I
don’t completely agree with—or at least that I see as an
oversimplification. While Prescott is obviously a little too forgiving
of Spanish transgressions against Native peoples, and a little too
dismissive of the sophistication of Native cultures, I think it’s
problematic to say that he’s not damning of the Spanish at times.

Honestly, I think that Prescott is fairly cynical about a lot of Spanish
activities in the conquest, especially taking into account his time. His
interpretation of Spanish conversions of the Indians, for example. He’s
not willing to forgive some transgressions that others may have.

Given his time and place, Prescott was bound to have lived around a
decent amount of anti-Catholic bias, and this seems to have rubbed off
on his interpretation of some Spanish activities.

I’d wager that the
book might be even more damning of the Spanish if it had been published
five or ten years later, after the influx of Irish immigrants into
Boston. Keep in mind that Prescott’s grandfather, given his age and
class, likely would have participated in Guy Fawkes day in Boston as a
young man, with its burning of effigies of the Pope and the Devil.

If anything, Prescott is forgiving of the Spanish, not because of an
affinity or like-mindedness, but because he sees among them a few “great
men,” of the sort believed to be the makers of history in that time.

Cortez is certainly one of them, by Prescott’s estimation. Queen
Isabella seems to be another—the expulsion of 1492 being glossed over in
a single sentence. (p. 157) He briefly comments on the barbarism of the
early years of the Inquisition, but the final effect, the expulsion,
gets a gloss.

Contrasting his portrayal of Cortez throughout the book with that of Las
Casas at the end of Book 2 is a good way to see the bias toward “great
men” with epic stories. Cortez is almost something out of a Greek myth,
or a superhero. While he was admirable, however, “Las Casas, in short,
was a man.”(275-276.)

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