How the Spanish didn’t do it

Seven Myths of the Spanish ConquestSeven Myths of the Spanish Conquest by Matthew Restall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Restall looks at common perceptions of the Spanish conquest of Latin America that he regards as mythical. The conquests are often looked at as led by “exceptional men,” as entirely carried out by white Spaniards while ignoring their African and native companions, and as carried out by the Spanish army rather than by men of many different backgrounds. Also, the conquests are often seen as establishing total Spanish dominance rather the submission of local authorities to Spanish rule, as wiping out an innocent or backward (depending on the source) native culture, and as proceeding from Spanish superiority over inferior natives. He also looks at the communication between the Spanish and the natives, arguing that it was neither perfectly mediated by translators nor totally confused. He traces each of these myths back to the 16th century and argues that they continue today.

It’s a fairly short book, but he gives enough information to illustrate his points. Most helpful were the discussions of how the conquerors recruited soldiers, how native authority and culture did persist even with the political and demographic disasters that came upon them, and how Africans often participated in the conquests.

At the end, he briefly summarizes the most important factors in the conquest: disease, native disunity (as they did not see themselves like one people), and the Spanish use of steel swords, which were much more important than guns, horses, or dogs. He also believes that different goals in warfare and the world-historical trend of expansion (not just European expansion) at the time made some difference as well.

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