Prescott’s Conquests

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The Inca empire, for example, which in its economic organization approached an ideal agrarian communism and in its social and political organization was an admirably integrated hierarchy, may hold much charm for the twentieth-century reader, who will find it pictured in Prescott’s pages as a stable regime of justice and security for all. But the author also had his own beliefs, which he did not hesitate to obtrude upon his readers: staunch confidence in representative government and belief in the inevitability of material and human progress, the whole founded upon faith in reason. He recognized the rule of the Inca, the emperor, for what it was—total rule.

“Where there is no free agency, there can be no morality,” he continued with Lockean conviction, for “if that government is the best which is felt the least … then of all governments devised by man the Peruvian has the least real claim to our admiration.” Nor did Prescott forbear to point up his assertions by contrasting the Inca kingship and the government of the United States—“our own free republic” in which “the experiment still going on is humanity’s best hope.”

He also applied his liberal judgments to the Aztec empire. The fate of that confederacy, he wrote, “may serve as a striking proof that a government which does not rest on the sympathies of its subjects cannot long abide; that human institutions, when not connected with human prosperity and progress, must fall,—if not before the increasing light of civilization, by the hand of violence; by violence from within if not from without. And who shall lament their fall?”

Prescott’s writings have defects of style and substance. Occasionally he confused and misattributed his Spanish manuscript sources. He did not understand the nature of the encomienda, the basic Spanish system for economic control of the Indians, which was not a method of land distribution but of tribute payment. His style is sometimes prolix and there are occasional digressions which detract from the main narrative. In general, however, he writes lucidly and powerfully, in a manner appropriate to the grand events which he relates. Read him, for example, on the meeting of the tiny Spanish army with the forces of one of the Aztec confederate nations: “The Spaniards had not advanced a quarter of a league when they came in sight of the Tlascalan army. Its dense array stretched far and wide over a vast plain or meadow ground, about six miles square. Its appearance justified the report which had been given of its numbers. Nothing could be more picturesque than the aspect of these Indian battalions, with the naked bodies of the common soldiers gaudily painted, the fantastic helmets of the chiefs glittering with gold and precious stones, and the glowing panoplies of featherwork which decorated their persons. Innumerable spears and darts tipped with points of transparent itzli, or fiery copper, sparkled bright in the morning sun, like the phosphoric gleams playing on the surface of a troubled sea, while the rear of the mighty host was dark with the shadows of banners, on which were emblazoned the armorial bearings of the Tlascalan and Otomie chiefs.”

Prescott was stylist and historian in superb combination. Notwithstanding what he termed the “seductions” of his subjects, his standard of accuracy and his objective were never lowered. He wrote: “I have conscientiously endeavored to distinguish fact from fiction, and to establish the narrative on as broad a basis as possible of contemporary evidence.” The task of the historian, in his opinion, was “to fill up the outline with the coloring of life,” yet “to place the whole on the foundation of copious citations from the original authorities.” His integrity to his sources was as complete as he could make it. If the ultimate synthesis was his own, so it must be with all written history that is more than a lumpish assortment of data. His endeavor was one of the highest and most difficult for a historian to fulfill; he strove to make his reader “a contemporary of the sixteenth century”—in the raw New World, he might have added.

He heavily discounted the long-accepted but exaggerated accounts of the destruction worked upon the Indian populations by the Spanish conquerors and colonists. It was on the basis of these accounts, further embellished, that other European powers, especially the English, served their own imperial ambitions by constructing the “black legend” of the Spanish conquest and settlement of America. Yet Prescott made no saints of the Spanish soldiers. He contrasted their spiritual claims and their temporal objectives with an irony as biting as that of Gibbon in his judgments on early Christianity.

Were the Spaniards hypocrites? Prescott thought not. “Whatever the vices of the Castilian cavalier, hypocrisy was not among the number. He felt that he was battling for the Cross, and under this conviction … he was blind to the baser motives that mingled in the enterprise.”