History of the Conquest of Mexico (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


Mexico's rich culture has long fascinated scholars, with stories of ancient civilizations and great conquerors. History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) expounds upon the virtues of Mexico while seeking to explain the tragedy of the country's defeat in terms of its neighboring civilizations. The arrival of the Spaniards forever altered and in many ways curtailed indigenous cultural development in Mesoamerica; but, so too, began the history and culture, forever enriched by its ...
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History of the Conquest of Mexico (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


Mexico's rich culture has long fascinated scholars, with stories of ancient civilizations and great conquerors. History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) expounds upon the virtues of Mexico while seeking to explain the tragedy of the country's defeat in terms of its neighboring civilizations. The arrival of the Spaniards forever altered and in many ways curtailed indigenous cultural development in Mesoamerica; but, so too, began the history and culture, forever enriched by its dual heritage, of modern Mexico as we know it today.

Tells the story of Cortes' subjugation of the Incas in Peru.

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Meet the Author


William H. Prescott's family enjoyed distinction long before his histories made the name Prescott known worldwide. His paternal grandfather, Colonel William Prescott, had fought at Bunker Hill. His father was a lawyer of note, a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in 1820, and later a judge. His mother was the daughter of Thomas Hickling, a merchant by trade, who for many years was the American consul in the Azores. Prescott most likely was influenced to study Spanish history by his friendships with fellow Harvard graduates Alexander Everett, who was then U.S. Minister to the Court of Spain, and George Ticknor - a lapsed lawyer, like Prescott - who was the first professor of modern languages at Harvard College, author of the masterly three volume History of Spanish Literature (1849), and the first biographer of his old friend William Prescott.
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ANCIENT MEXICO-CLIMATE AND PRODUCTS-PRIMITIVE RACES-AZTEC EMPIRE


Of all that extensive empire which once acknowledged the authority of Spain in the New World, no portion, for interest and importance, can be compared with Mexico;--and this equally, whether we consider the variety of its soil and climate; the inexhaustible stores of its mineral wealth; its scenery, grand and picturesque beyond example; the character of its ancient inhabitants, not only far surpassing in intelligence that of the other North American races, but reminding us, by their monuments, of the primitive civilization of Egypt and Hindostan; or lastly, the peculiar circumstances of its Conquest, adventurous and romantic as any legend devised by Norman or Italian bard of chivalry. It is the purpose of the present narrative to exhibit the history of this Conquest, and that of the remarkable man by whom it was achieved.

But, in order that the reader may have a better understanding of the subject, it will be well, before entering on it, to take a general survey of the political and social institutions of the races who occupied the land at the time of its discovery.

The country of the ancient Mexicans, or Aztecs as they were called, formed but a very small part of the extensive territories comprehended in the modern republic of Mexico.1 Its boundaries cannot be defined with certainty. They were much enlarged in the latter days of the empire, when they may be considered as reaching from about the eighteenth degree north, to the twenty-first, on the Atlantic; and from the fourteenth to the nineteenth, including a very narrow strip, on the Pacific.2 In its greatest breadth, it could not exceed fivedegrees and a half, dwindling, as it approached its south-eastern limits, to less than two. It covered, probably, less than sixteen thousand square leagues.3 Yet such is the remarkable formation of this country, that, though not more than twice as large as New England, it presented every variety of climate, and was capable of yielding nearly every fruit, found between the equator and the Arctic circle.

All along the Atlantic, the country is bordered by a broad tract, called the tierra caliente, or hot region, which has the usual high temperature of equinoctial lands. Parched and sandy plains are intermingled with others, of exuberant fertility, almost impervious from thickets of aromatic shrubs and wild flowers, in the midst of which tower up trees of that magnificent growth which is found only within the tropics. In this wilderness of sweets lurks the fatal malaria, engendered, probably, by the decomposition of rank vegetable substances in a hot and humid soil. The season of the bilious fever,--vómito, as it is called,--which scourges these coasts, continues from the spring to the autumnal equinox, when it is checked by the cold winds that descend from Hudson's Bay. These winds in the winter season frequently freshen into tempests, and, sweeping down the Atlantic coast, and the winding Gulf of Mexico, burst with the fury of a hurricane on its unprotected shores, and on the neighboring West India islands. Such are the mighty spells with which Nature has surrounded this land of enchantment, as if to guard the golden treasures locked up within its bosom. The genius and enterprise of man have proved more potent than her spells.

After passing some twenty leagues across this burning region, the traveller finds himself rising into a purer atmosphere. His limbs recover their elasticity. He breathes more freely, for his senses are not now oppressed by the sultry heats and intoxicating perfumes of the valley. The aspect of nature, too, has changed, and his eye no longer revels among the gay variety of colors with which the landscape was painted there. The vanilla, the indigo, and the flowering cacao-groves disappear as he advances. The sugar-cane and the glossy-leaved banana still accompany him; and, when he has ascended about four thousand feet, he sees in the unchanging verdure, and the rich foliage of the liquid-amber tree, that he has reached the height where clouds and mists settle, in their passage from the Mexican Gulf. This is the region of perpetual humidity; but he welcomes it with pleasure, as announcing his escape from the influence of the deadly vómito.4 He has entered the tierra templada, or temperate region, whose character resembles that of the temperate zone of the globe. The features of the scenery become grand, and even terrible. His road sweeps along the base of mighty mountains, once gleaming with volcanic fires, and still resplendent in their mantles of snow, which serve as beacons to the mariner, for many a league at sea. All around he beholds traces of their ancient combustion, as his road passes along vast tracts of lava, bristling in the innumerable fantastic forms into which the fiery torrent has been thrown by the obstacles in its career. Perhaps, at the same moment, as he casts his eye down some steep slope, or almost unfathomable ravine, on the margin of the road, he sees their depths glowing with the rich blooms and enamelled vegetation of the tropics. Such are the singular contrasts presented at the same time, to the senses, in this picturesque region!

Still pressing upwards, the traveller mounts into other climates, favorable to other kinds of cultivation. The yellow maize, or Indian corn, as we usually call it, has continued to follow him up from the lowest level; but he now first sees fields of wheat, and the other European grains brought into the country by the Conquerors. Mingled with them, he views the plantations of the aloe or maguey (agave Americana), applied to such various and important uses by the Aztecs. The oaks now acquire a sturdier growth, and the dark forests of pine announce that he has entered the tierra fria, or cold region,--the third and last of the great natural terraces into which the country is divided. When he has climbed to the height of between seven and eight thousand feet, the weary traveller sets his foot on the summit of the Cordillera of the Andes,--the colossal range, that, after traversing South America and the Isthmus of Darien, spreads out, as it enters Mexico, into that vast sheet of table-land, which maintains an elevation of more than six thousand feet, for the distance of nearly two hundred leagues, until it gradually declines in the higher latitudes of the north.5

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Introduction

First published in 1843, William Hickling Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico remains the classic account of that epic event. The book has never gone out of print in the intervening century and a half. Historians continue to both laud and criticize the Boston Brahmin; his work carries on, providing a starting point for those with interest in Mexico's early history and pleasure for anyone who enjoys a good read. It stimulates the imagination, transports the reader back to an earlier time and makes each of us an observer of what can be seen variously as both one of the most tragic and triumphant occurrences in history: the collapse of the Aztec empire in 1521. True, the arrival of the Spaniards forever altered and in many ways curtailed indigenous cultural development in Mesoamerica; but, so too, began the history and culture, forever enriched by its dual heritage, of modern Mexico as we know it today.

To write a stirring narrative was Prescott's intent. As he writes in his preface, "Among the remarkable achievements of the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, there is no one more remarkable than the conquest of Mexico. The subversion of a great empire by a handful of adventurers has the air of romance rather than of sober history." That he succeeded so well in this intent---while employing the most rigorous historical standards of his era---is without doubt. That he did so plagued by poor health, suffering from periodic loss of vision and without ever setting foot in the land he describes to us so carefully and even poetically makes the very crafting of this work an adventure in itself.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1796, Prescott moved to Bostonat age ten. His family enjoyed no small measure of distinction long before his histories made the name Prescott known worldwide. His paternal grandfather, Colonel William Prescott, had fought at Bunker Hill. His father, another William, was a lawyer of note, a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in 1820 and later a judge. His mother, Catherine Hickling Prescott, was the daughter of Thomas Hickling, a merchant by trade, who for many years was the American consul in the Azores. Both parents exhibited a love of literature and imparted that affection to their children. Nightly they gathered them together to read and share the classic and popular books of the time. This was by no means a custom unique to the Prescott family. We easily forget today that in the nineteenth century books were one of the few diversions from duty available and a staple of family entertainment.

Expected to follow in his father's footsteps, young William entered Harvard University in 1811. During his junior year, youthful high spirits resulted one day in a food fight. A stray crust of bread lodged in the future author's left eye. Subject from that time on to progressively failing sight and repeated eye infections that forced him to spend weeks in nearly complete darkness, Prescott abandoned his legal career. The work would have been far too strenuous.

The idea of a young Boston lad of good family being idle never occurred to either William or his family. Returning to Boston after first recuperating at his grandfather's home in the Azores and later traveling to France, Italy, and England, he devoted himself during the next ten years or so to a course of study which included history; rhetoric; and English, French, Italian, and Spanish language and literature. Like all well-educated men of his generation he had been well grounded in Greek and Latin, which aided him in mastering other languages. By 1826, he had come to center on the study of Spanish history, influenced in no small part probably by his friendships with fellow Harvard graduates Alexander Everett, who was then U.S. Minister to the Court of Spain, and George Ticknor -- also a lapsed lawyer --, who was the first professor of modern languages at Harvard College, author of the masterly three volume History of Spanish Literature (1849), and the first biographer of his old friend William Prescott.

Throughout his literary life, Prescott would be aided by friends like Everett and Ticknor who not only influenced him and encouraged him but who also helped him to secure materials from foreign archives and private collections during their travels as well as providing him, through their letters, descriptions of the countries he wrote about but never visited. As his fame as an historian increased so, too, did the volume and range of his correspondence swell and expand as others sought advice from the learned Bostonian and access to the scholarly materials he had collected.

That same correspondence provides us with a sort of literary Who's Who of the period. There we encounter, among others, prominent Americans such as the historians Jared Sparks and George Bancroft and those well-known travelers, John Lloyd Stephens and Fredrick Catherwood, whose Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan with its wonderful engravings of old Mayan ruins continue to delight and intrigue today; prominent Englishmen like the novelist Charles Dickens and the writer and explorer Clements R. Markham; the German scholar Baron Alexander Von Humboldt; the French historian Jacques Nicolas Agustin Thierry; the Mexican politician and historian Lucas Alamán; and the Spanish diplomat and man of letters Don Angel Calderón de la Barca and his Scottish born wife, Frances Erskine Inglis, who left us her own impressions of Life in Mexico in the early 1840s. It is from the letters of the witty and observant "Fanny" that Prescott gleaned much of that descriptive detail which so delights the reader and pulls us into the story as we follow the Spaniards on their dramatic and often tortuous march from the coast, as they traversed the disease-ridden tierra caliente, or tropics, and trekked across the mountains until finally they emerged onto the Mexican plateau.

Dependent on not only friends but also a secession of readers, secretaries, and family members to further his research, Prescott's first work, The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic was published in both the United States and England in 1837. Over a decade had passed since he first decided to focus on a Spanish theme. That it was finished at all is testimony to the dedication and tenacity of Prescott. At about the same time that he sent a long wish list of books to his friend Everett in Spain, the would-be historian began to suffer problems with his right eye as well. Limited further in the use of his own eyes, he toyed briefly with abandoning the effort and devoting himself to an historical survey of English literature "because it will not be difficult to find good readers in English, through extremely difficult in any foreign language." Fortunately for us, he managed to do so.

The three volume Ferdinand and Isabella met with more success than the author had anticipated in both England and America. One of his early reviewers, the Spaniard Pascual de Gayangos, writing for the Edinburgh Review, became a close friend and invaluable aide to Prescott upon his return to Spain as a professor of Arabic. There he wrote his own histories of Arabic Spain, all the while seeking out manuscripts and transcribers for his Boston friend. Ferdinand and Isabella soon became known beyond the borders of the English-speaking world. Ticknor distributed copies to scholars and acquaintances in France and Germany, while Calderón de la Baca did the same first in Spain and later in Mexico. Eventually it would be translated into German and French, as well as Spanish and a half dozen other languages. By 1838 Prescott was established as an author and an expert on Spanish history on both sides of the Atlantic, in the Americas and in Europe. Encouraged to continue, he began contemplating his next subject. At first he thought to continue with his biographical studies, writing a life of Ferdinand and Isabella's great grandson, Phillip II. However, the avid reader of the great epics of antiquity such as the Odyssey and the chivalric romances of the French and the Italians who, by then, was versed also in the classics of Spanish history and literature, gradually turned his attention with some reservations to the possibility of dedicating his now proven talents to the ambitious task of recounting the dramatic tale of the Spanish conquests in America. Never lacking in ambition, Prescott planned first to follow Hernán Cortés to Mexico and later Francisco Pizarro to Peru.

Beyond the inherent drama of these stories, they were generally unknown to the Americans or the English. Granted, the Scottish historian (and, in the minds of many, one of the founders -- even if unwittingly -- of cultural anthropology) William Robertson had included them in his 1777 History of America. But Robertson's treatment had been broad, his subject so vast, that Prescott was confident he could write something original based on materials unknown to his literary predecessor. A lover of romance and epic tales, a writer extravagant in his expenditure of words to bring to life events brought to us within the covers of a book, a man of leisure, as we would say today, who did not need to worry about the wherewithal to provide his family the necessities of life, William Prescott was also a true son of New England, imbued with no small measure of both Yankee practicality and thrift. His letters to his British publisher, Richard Bentley, his concerns with keeping costs down where possible, and his occasional complaints about the delay in payments make this clear. So, too, his sometimes humorous suggestions as to how to avoid excessive expenses as when he wrote to don Angel Calderón de la Barca. "You say I can have a copy of the portrait of Cortés for $200. It is a swingeing [sic] sum for a copy. Could I not get the head and the shoulders at half the price?" As he debated with himself, before beginning to write Ferdinand and Isabella, the relative merits of a Spanish, English, or Italian topic, we get a sense that in part it was the money already spent to gather together his Spanish resources as well as the "novelty" of the subject that formed his final decision.

How providential for us this combination of practicality, parsimony, and the sad plight of Prescott whose vision began to fail at such a young age. Without it we might not still be enjoying and benefiting from one of the masterpieces of historical literature in the English language, History of the Conquest of Mexico.

The book, still read and admired by many, has served also as a jumping off point for generations of scholars dedicated to highlighting its defects as part of justifying their own labors: He is censured harshly. He contributed to the mythology of the conquest rather than to its history. He ignored important manuscripts. He "preached" rather than interpreted and displayed a distinct anti-catholic bias. He sacrificed his historical integrity by truncating the story of the Conquest, equating it with the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochitlán, and he idolized Cortés excessively.

Such criticisms are not without validity. The story as he told it is not complete. However, in judging Prescott, we would do well to remember his own words which preface the History of the Conquest of Mexico: "….while on the one hand, I have not hesitated to expose in their strongest colors the excesses of the Conquerors; on the other, I have given them the benefit of such mitigating reflections as might be suggested by the circumstances and the period in which they lived."

Prescott was writing, after all, during the infancy of both anthropology and archeology that have given us a very different portrait of life amongst the indigenous nations of the Americas. Our perceptions of what constitutes a "civilization" have changed. We are no longer bound, as he was by the belief, outlined by William Robertson in 1777, good son of the Enlightenment that he was, that the progress of humankind was subject to certain natural laws and passed through distinct stages: savagery, barbarism, and finally civilization. Nor is it so commonly held today that the triumph of Christianity over paganism is inevitable and a necessary step on the road to becoming a civilized nation or people. Thus we should be generous and pardon Prescott who repeatedly mitigates his obvious, if reluctant, admiration for the cultural and artistic and even political accomplishments of Mexico's Aztecs and their capital of Tenochitlán and other Mexica (the residents of Tacuba and Texcoco) by labeling them "barbaric" or "semi-civilized." He concludes on a number of occasions that the Spaniards escape from disaster and eventual Spanish triumph were close to miraculous. He misleads us, however, in his preface. Prescott, almost in contradiction to his own words, shows us clearly that the "handful of adventurers" would have perished if dissent within the Aztec empire had not won them native allies by the thousands. So, too, he understood and demonstrates that whatever confusion might or might not have existed in the mind of Moctezuma that these strangers from the East were gods was quickly dispelled. A careful reading of the History of the Conquest of Mexico in its entirety shows that rather than blindly perpetuating what have come to been seen as some of its main myths, the work sows the seeds of disbelief.

If this son of Boston, student of the classics, complacently protestant and eagerly seeking publication and praise in England strikes us as too "preachy" on occasion, if he interrupts his narrative too frequently in order to offer us his reflections on what he is recording, he is but doing his job as a conscientious historian of his era. Not too long before he picked up his pen all intellectual endeavors were divided into but two branches of philosophy, Moral and Natural. To write a history, or a novel as well, without drawing conclusions, without seeking the "moral" of the tale, as it were, was to leave a job half done. One only need glance at the enduring fictional classics of the era, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities or Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, for example, or graze through the pages of Prescott's fellow historians, George Bancroft in America or Thomas Babington Macaulay in England, to understand this imperative.

Regarding Prescott's research, it seems safe to conclude that he if he erred it was more for lack of information than a paucity of intellectual integrity. He wrote long before historians wrestled themselves into the role of scientists, but we might almost label his approach "scientific." He amassed a large quantity of manuscripts; he laboriously compared one to the other and he spent a long time musing over each before drawing his conclusions. If he abandoned some documents too soon, finding them too difficult to comprehend or decided prematurely that they added nothing to his work, his intent was to be thorough. While sometimes despairing of the task, he made the first serious attempt to understand and portray accurately the culture and nature of the Mexica and their rulers, the wise Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco, the hapless, if not tragic, Moctezuma and the valiant Cuauhtémoc. Indeed, he spent almost as much time on researching and pondering what he found to be "a confounding and bothering subject" as he did on the Spanish backgrounds and actual conquest itself that form the major portion of the book.

It is true that Prescott relied too heavily, on occasion, on a few favored sources: the Spanish friar Bernardino de Sahagún's General History of the Things of New Spain and the Obras Historicas of Ferdinand de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, a great-great grandson of one of Texcoco's last kings, to explain Aztec culture; The True History of the Conquest of New Spain written by the old conqueror Bernal Díaz del Castillo in his dotage and Francisco López de Gómara's The Life of Cortés by His Secretary, as well as the letters of "the Great Captain" himself to explain the Spaniards' motives and success. Nevertheless as the copious notes throughout the text testify they were not the only materials consulted. Moreover many chronicles and histories and Aztec codices, such as Father Diego de Durán's The History of the Indies of New Spain, which extend and enrich our understanding and challenge Prescott's description of events in our own day, were unknown in his.

Modern historians may find fault. Prescott's contemporaries, however, were astounded and admiring of the thoroughness of his research. The first printings in both England and America sold out quickly. Reviewers were lavish in their praise. Even Lucas Alamán, one of Mexico's most distinguished nineteenth-century historians and statesmen, lauded Prescott and admitted to relying heavily on the North American's book in his own Disertaciones Historicas, published in 1844 because "he has had available to his view many manuscripts and documents not known previously." In general, both Mexican and Spanish scholars, eager to have their countries known outside of national borders welcomed this addition to conquest literature as being thoroughly researched and without excessive bias or prejudice.

This was no small accomplishment in the period of heightened nationalism and political turmoil that followed Napoleon's final defeat in Europe, the independence struggles in Mexico and South America, and the interminable struggles between liberals and conservatives everywhere. History of the Conquest of Mexico first appeared in 1843. By then, Texas had already separated from Mexico and declared itself independent, but it was still five years before hostilities would break out between that country and the United States. We are fortunate, perhaps, in that early publication date. Prescott was not writing his history during the American invasion of Mexico. There was, therefore, no temptation to harness his historical talents to the justification or condemnation of his nation's march to Manifest Destiny.

Over the years, Prescott once nearly universally lauded came to be loudly criticized; such, too, was the fate of Hernán Cortés. While avoiding outright worship, Prescott did cast Cortés as the hero of his drama, finding him, as conquerors go, better than most: more intelligent, less cruel. Heroes, except those found in comic books, have gone out of fashion today; they were, however, still acceptable in Prescott's day. Furthermore, he wrote long before the Spanish-American War and the Mexican Revolution and their impact on historical writing and popular thought witnessed the vilification of Cortés as the epitome of the rapacious, cruel, and murdering Spaniard, a characterization as one sided as some of the eulogistic manuscripts and documents that Prescott consulted. American historians, at least many of them, writing during the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth venerated English colonization but denigrated Spanish colonization. They pointed proudly to the successes of the Protestant farmers and the failures of the Catholic conquistadors. Thus they explained and vindicated the United States' superiority over its southern neighbor, the "natural" extension of national boundaries through territory once held by Mexico and the acquisition of some of Spain's former colonies. Whatever evidence we see of Prescott's inherent anti-Catholic bias, especially when he feels forced to explain the excesses of the conquest, is muted in comparison to what came later.

Mexican historians also revised their history as political power changed hands. In Alamán's day, conservatives like him admired Cortés while liberals despised him. Their hatred was so intense that the scholar had to hide the conqueror's remains to keep them from being burnt. During the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz from 1876 until 1910 many began researching and unearthing the ancient past, but few doubted the positive benefits of the Spanish heritage and most disdained that of the indigenous peoples. After the Revolution of 1910-1921, it was the reverse. Only in the past twenty years or so have Mexican scholars begun once again to re-evaluate their history and accept that all was far from paradisiacal before the arrival of the Europeans nor completely infernal after the fall of Tenochitlán. Finally Cortés is becoming accepted as one of the founders of modern Mexico rather than the first and foremost enemy.

So, too, with this new edition of History of the Conquest of Mexico, we witness a revival of respect for its author. We are given the opportunity to read once again the work in its entirety, to enjoy the literary talent that earned Prescott fame in his lifetime, to immerse ourselves in all of the scholarly paraphernalia and speculation that he saw as necessary to his work and, above all, to simply admire the book that he planned and wrote, not the one that he failed to envision.

Mary Powlesland Commager returned to her native Massachusetts in 1976 after crisscrossing the country studying and teaching Latin American history. Now retired, she divides her time between Amherst, Massachusetts, and Cancun, Mexico, where she is working on a popular history of the Yucatan Peninsula.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 9 of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 22, 2011

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    Well worth it!

    "The Conquest of Mexico." I picked this up off my shelf mostly as a joke because I didn't know what to read next. I laughed, when I opened this very thick, dry sounding tome. But almost immediatly I was drawn into this fascinating, daunting adventure/conquest. Written mostly from primary texts of men who served with Hernan Cortes, this is a compelling story of survival, greed, triumph and tragedy. I loved it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 24, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting History

    At first I was hesitant to read the book because when I read the introduction, I realize that the author had never been to Mexico! I was able to put that aside and continue reading. Overall, there was a lot of interesting reading that I enjoyed. Very intriguing. The only aspect of the book I disliked was that the author (at times) took to much time trying to justify the atrocious actions of the Spaniards. In my opinion, a history book should just be that, a history book. Facts of the enterprise is what should be in the book, not what the author thinks is the reason for how they did things.
    For those readers that are familiar with Mexico, you will learn interesting facts about the places you have seen.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2000

    Confused

    The book is very indept abotu the happenings that lead up to Cortes conquoring Mexico. I am not a history major, this might explane my next statement. I did not understand what was going on and the book was very hard to follow.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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