Prescott’s Conquests

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Chief among his foreign collaborators was a Spanish scholar named Gayangos, whose perfect command of English and expert knowledge of Spanish history enabled him to serve Prescott superbly for twenty years. Prescott paid Gayangos’ expenses for travel and copyists; beyond this the Spaniard would not go in accepting the compensation repeatedly offered by the American historian. Also important to Prescott’s success in obtaining material from Spain was the cordial support given him by Fernández de Navarrete, president of the Royal Academy of History. Navarrete gave Prescott access to the academy’s treasure of manuscripts and opened his own valuable collection to the scholar.

Little wonder that Prescott referred to Spain as “the country of my adoption,” continuing, “I may truly call Spain so, for I have lived in it—in spirit at least—the last thirty years more of my time than in my own land.” Spain was the land where “old manuscripts and old wines of the noblest kind flourish side by side—the land of the hidalgo—the land that I love.”

The historian traveled seldom and reluctantly outside the tiny triangle of Boston, the North Shore, and Pepperell. Socially, too, he lived within close bounds. He and his wife were married in the same house where her parents had been wed. He lived at Harvard in the room where his father had lived, and where his own son would reside. Not one of the four houses in which he and his parents dwelt in Boston during his lifetime was more than a few hundred yards from the other or from Beacon Hill—when not on it.

Yet Prescott was an adventurer. Through his clouded eyes he saw the conquest of the New World, and he conveyed to his pages, for others to share, the excitement felt by conquistadors who penetrated the perilous kingdoms where no white man had ever been.

The Spanish conquests of Peru and Mexico were epics in fact. Prescott made them epics of literature. He recreated their unity of action, the brilliance of their settings, and the heroism and tragedy of their actors. He wrote of the conquest of Mexico in the introduction to his Conquest of Peru: “Indeed few subjects can present a parallel with that, for the purposes either of the historian or the poet. The natural development of the story, there, is precisely what would be prescribed by the severest rules of art. The conquest of the country is the great end always in view of the reader. From the first landing of the Spaniards on the soil, their subsequent adventures, their battles and negotiations, their ruinous retreat, their rally and final siege, all tend to this grand result, till the long series is closed by the downfall of the capital. In the march of events, all moves forward to this consummation. It is a magnificent epic, in which the unity of interest is complete.”

Deeds of daring fill the pages: Cortés dismantling his ships (burning, Prescott incorrectly had it) on the mysterious shore of Mexico to forestall even the thought of retreat from the perils ahead; Pizarro sailing south from Panama along the unknown coast, and at last, in the face of disease, hunger, and death from the Indians, on an island off the coast of Ecuador, drawing a line in the sand from east to west with his sword and challenging his reluctant men to cross and continue onward with him: “There lies Peru with its riches; here, Panama and its poverty. Choose, each man, what best becomes a brave Castilian. For my part, I go to the south.” Thirteen crossed, and by their boldness Spain gained yet another kingdom.

Here too are stories of a breed of men who amid the toil and peril of their march to Montezuma’s capital turned aside out of sheer energy and curiosity to scale one of the world’s highest volcanoes, Popocatepetl; men of whom it could be recorded as it was of each of the four brothers who led in the conquest of Peru: “To say that he was a Pizarro is enough to attest his claim to valor.”

Not that Prescott’s narratives are exclusively concerned with portraying the Spanish conquerors. He describes as well the Aztec and Peruvian Indians prior to the arrival of the white men. These parts of his work are fully as interesting as those dealing with the conquests, but they are historically less accurate.

The fault is not Prescott’s. He employed all the sources known at the time when he wrote, he scrupulously analyzed and compared them, and he stated their limitations. His appraisals of the two greatest Indian civilizations of America have been considerably altered in detail by archeologists and anthropologists (whose interest Prescott was primarily responsible for awakening), although today’s knowledge is far from complete. Yet his broad presentation of Aztec and Inca society remains valid. Although he tended to equate Indian institutions too readily with those of medieval and Renaissance Europe and perhaps to paint too romantic a picture of native life, his rugged nineteenth-century liberalism was on guard, pointing to the defects of these societies as he saw them.