Seven Reasons to Read Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

I majored in history at George Washington University and had to read a number of history texts for my studies. Some of them were incredibly dry, like Death Valley dry, and rather forgettable but some of those texts hold an honored place on my bookshelf to this day. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest was definitely the latter.

There’s quite a bit I like about this book, but what I really enjoy about this book is the engaging prose. Matthew Restall is extremely well-versed on matters related to the Spanish invasion of the Americas, as one would expect for the Director of Latin American studies at Penn State University, but he never comes across as pedantic or self-absorbed in his writing. Rather, he comes across as conversational and earnest and I imagine there are a great many readers who could appreciate this. But putting aside Restall’s talent for wordplay, I think readers will also be able to appreciate the historical argument that undergirds Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest.

The answer will probably differ from person to person, but I personally believe the reason we study history is to challenge our assumptions and broaden our horizons. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest is a great resource in this regard and I would encourage anyone interested in learning more about the European colonization of the Americas, a monumental event that reshaped the global balance of power for centuries to come, or anyone interested in learning more about the way that history is remembered to consult this book. My strong suspicion is that readers who give this book a whirl will discover that the version of events they learn in school—whether it’s Cortes being perceived as a god or the idea that the locals were simply passive victims—bears little resemblance to truth.   

I have a very strong interest in the “Spanish conquest,” I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Spanish-Mexica war and I am writing historical series on the subject, but I think the book will appeal to a wide variety of readers. The book explores a number of issues related to race, gender, and class that are still very much relevant today and since 2019 is the five hundred year anniversary of Cortes first landing in Mexico, I think the book is especially relevant today. But for anyone not convinced they should check out the book, I would like to offer seven reasons worth considering:

  1. It’s a good read
  2. It’s an informative read
  3. It’s an easy read
  4. It’s a short read
  5. It’s a timely read
  6. Reasons 1-5
  7. Reasons 1-6

If those reasons aren’t good enough, I suppose nothing is. In any case, happy reading everyone!

**This book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries**

Benedict Arnold and Contemporary Attitudes Toward Treason

Benedict Arnold is one of the most famous traitors in all of American history. While I doubt there is any sort of polling on the matter, his attempt to hand over control of West Point to the British has inspired countless books and made him, for a time at least, “the most reviled person in American history.” So infamous is his treachery that some of his most important battlefield victories have been almost completely forgotten by the general public. I picked up John Enson Harr’s Dark Eagle because I wanted to gain a fuller understanding of Benedict Arnold as a historical figure and I am glad I did. 

Harr’s story begins long before Arnold turns traitor. To be specific, the story starts June 18, 1776. At this time, the declaration of independence has already been issued but the war is not going well for American forces. The Patriots have just lost a key battle with the British and are being forced to make a humiliating retreat. Brigadier-general Benedict Arnold has been tasked with defending the rear guard and to the surprise of many, he excels in the role. Owing to his many military contributions to the Revolution—the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga, the tactical victory at Lake Champlain—Arnold comes to believe he has earned the respect of his countrymen. The men who serve under him certainly respect him—the men he serves under are less keen on him. Washington extends him a great deal of respect but many of the other prominent generals in the Continental Army, such as Schuyler and Gates, are more reserved in their opinion. Members of the Continental Congress are downright hostile toward him and many refuse to honor his many battlefield victories with a promotion. Following a particularly stinging rebuke from the Continental Congress, Arnold decides to resign his commission. Nonetheless, he is unable to just stand by as the British attempt to invade New England and rallies local forces to the defense of Connecticut. The British forces suffer some humiliating losses at his hands, but Arnolds suffers a serious injury that leaves him with a debilitating limp. Despite the injury, Arnold re-enlists and the Continental Congress grudgingly honors his many victories.

As far as Arnold is concerned, it is too late and too little. He has bankrupted himself to help support the Revolution and has nothing to show for it besides an empty title and meaningless accolades. His actions in the Battle of Saratoga proved instrumental in securing victory, a battle that ultimately helped turn the tide of war in the Revolutionary War, but none of that seems to matter to the Continental Congress. Determined to improve his financial situation, Arnold decides to use his position as military governor of Philadelphia to gain much-needed income. That would he use his official position to requisition items for personal profit is not especially unusual and, truth be told, it would have been surprising had he declined to do so. Washington was famous for not taking a salary during the Revolutionary War but that did not stop him from taking advantage of an expense account of epic proportions. 

All the same, some of the more radical members of the Continental Congress considered Arnold’s conduct to be nothing short of shameful and subject him to an intense campaign of harassment and intimidation. Had he a thicker skin, or perhaps just more money, Arnold may have simply gritted his teeth and pretended the many slights of the Continental Congress caused him no hurt. Instead, he opted to share his grievances with his wife. In ordinary circumstances, this would not have been all that noteworthy. His wife, however, is no ordinary woman. His wife is Peggy Shippen and she just so happens to know John Andre. Owing to Andre’s position in the British military, Arnold is in a unique position to defect to the British cause.

Convinced that he will never be given his just due if he continues to fight on behalf of the Continental Congress, Arnold turns traitor and agrees to provide Andre information regarding West Point’s defenses. The intelligence, however, never reaches British command as Andre is captured before he can deliver it. Andre is hung and Arnold escapes to British territory. Still very much in possession of his wits, Arnold expects that he will command British forces and is heartbroken to discover that high command wants little to do with him. 

Ultimately, Arnold gains little by throwing in his lot with the British and continues to be reviled to this day. I think most people who read Dark Eagle will find it difficult to muster a strong antipathy toward Benedict Arnold. I hope that readers who enjoy Dark Eagle will also reflect on why Arnold inspires so much hatred as compared to other traitors. Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jackson killed far more Americans and did far less for their country while they still served in uniform–why do they have military bases and elementary schools named after them when Arnold does not? To be fair, Lee and Jackson did both serve in the Mexican-American war before turning traitor but even by the most charitable estimation, all they did was help expand American territory. Benedict Arnold, on the other hand, helped America gain independence from Great Britain. Moreover, considering Lee and Jackson fought to preserve the institution of slavery, it is especially noteworthy that they are honored with so many monuments. Whether or not readers consider this worthy of contemplation, I think Dark Eagle will appeal to anyone who enjoys well-written battle sequences and military politicking.

This book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.

A Tale of Two Tour Guides

In early 2019, I visited Mexico with some friends and we visited a number of historic sites with tour groups. Ultimately, I am glad we had guides to show us around and I think we had a richer experience because of it. Having said that, our experience with the tour guides was a poignant reminder of why it can be problematic to rely on just one source for information about historical matters.

Our first tour guide, a man named Gabe, set the bar pretty high when it came to tour guides. Completely bilingual, he was comfortable making jokes in Spanish and English and knew his script cold. It’s possible he was simply regurgitating company talking points and if that was the case, my hat goes off to the tour company for using talking points supported by modern scholarship. Chances are, however, Gabe gave us a speech he had probably written himself, considering all the personal tidbits he incorporated into his tour speech.

Gabe in the lower left corner

Right from the get go, he let us know he was not going to use the term Aztec, explained why he was not going to use the term, and then proceded to let us all know he would be using the term Mexica instead. While I cannot speak for the others in the group, I know that I personally appreciated his decision and his impassioned explanation. Moreover, I was very impressed by his ability to translate Nahua terms and his granular knowledge of artistic displays.

Xochimilco tour
Frida Kahla tour

The tour guide we had in Veracruz was not quite as impressive. Carlos employed far less humor in his presentation and never even used the term Mexica. Compared to Gabe, Carlos’ presentation was a tad dry and left a bit to be desired when it came to historical accuracy. Now just to be clear, Carlos was not a bad tour guide. He was very accommodating and had some great food suggestions—the restaurant, Villa Rica Mocambo if I remember correctly, he dropped us off at the end of the tour was so good we ended up coming back just two days later.

Quiahuiztlan
Picture from La Antigua

The main difference between Gabe and Carlos probably boils down to personal interests. While I cannot know for sure, I am pretty sure Gabe researched Mesoamerican history on his own and I am pretty sure Carlos just used the company script. Unfortunately, the company script probably relied upon outdated sources which ended up hamstringing Carlos’ ability to provide accurate information. By and large, Carlos did not say anything that raised eyebrows amongst other members of the tour group and I think that’s worth noting.

Cempoala

Owing to the research I have had to do for the Tenochtitlan Trilogy and my studies in school, I have learned quite a bit about pre-Hispanic Mexico. I genuinely enjoy reading books by the likes of Restall and Townsend and have a very strong interest in Mesoamerican history. Because of this, it was easy for me to tell that Gabe gave a much more accurate presentation than Carlos and I am inclined to believe that anybody who had Gabe and Carlos as tour guides would probably recognize that Gabe had a better understanding of the Spanish-Mexica war. Nonetheless, Carlos provides tours in Veracruz and Gabe provides tours in CDMX so I can’t imagine there is a great deal of overlap between their customers. Consequently, at least some of the people who were given a tour by Carlos never had any exposure to Gabe. It’s possible that all of Carlos’ tourists went out and read the most recent academic texts on the Spanish-Mexica war but I suspect that’s probably not the case. In any case, tourists who relied primarily on Carlos’ take probably received some bad information.

Unfortunately, bad information is not always easy to recognize. Sometimes a misleading narrative can be well-crafted—Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind or Shakespeare’s MacBeth are some great examples of this. So whether writing a historical novel or visiting a historic site, it’s worth noting that relying on just one source entails risk. Sometimes that one source can be someone like Gabe and sometimes that one source can be someone like Carlos. To know one way or another, it’s usually best to consult multiple sources and, all told, good sources are like good stories: the more, the merrier.

Amistad Book Review

I first learned about Amistad in middle school when we took time out of class to watch Spielberg’s Amistad. If I remember correctly, we only saw part of the movie but I struggle to remember exactly how much. In any case, I cannot say I found the movie particularly moving. I really enjoyed Spielberg’s historical films like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s list but Amistad just did not click with me. I did, however, find the case interesting and was glad I learned more about the case in some of my American history classes in college. It was not until I read David Pesci’s Amistad, however, that I felt like I gained a truly rich understanding of this unique historical incident.

Told primarily from the perspective of Singbe, a Mende tribesman abducted and sold into slavery, the story starts with the Amistad ship en route to the Caribbean. In terms of establishing proper context, it is important to note that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was technically illegal at this time so the slavers must take great pains to avoid detection. The upside for the smugglers, however, is that demand for slaves remains skyhigh on the plantations which all but ensures a great profit, as long as they can make it to a Western seaport alive. Singbe and the other enslaved Africans have only a vague notion of what awaits them on the other side of the Atlantic, but they are not about to trust their well-being to slavers. They are at first powerless to improve their situation but Singbe comes into possession a small item which could change everything: a loose nail. He quickly takes possession of this invaluable treasure and uses it to unlock his manacles, as well as the manacles of those locked below with him. The slavers are woefully unprepared for a revolt and the abducted Africans quickly gain control of the ship.

As it turns out, they have not departed the metaphorical woods just yet. Only the slavers know how to operate the ship which begs a terrible question: can the leaders of the slave revolt trust the men who tried to sell them into slavery? They are contemptible men to be sure but Singbe, unofficial leader of the slave revolt, reasons that everyone on board hopes to make landfall so he grudgingly allows the surviving slavers to assist with navigation. It ends up being a costly mistake and the smugglers secretly navigate the ship towards a nearby slave country which just so happens to be the United States. Singbe and the other Africans are arrested by American forces and thereafter put on trial for murder. The subsequent trial comprises the bulk of the novel and features cameos from major historical figures like John Quincy Adams as well as many lesser-known historical figures.

I love a good courtroom drama as much as the next person, but it’s the final few chapters of the book I remember most. At this point in the story, the trial is concluded but the abducted Africans are totally destitute and lack the means to return to West Africa. Fortunately, an anti-slavery society has agreed to help raise funds for their return and the “Amistads” tour New England to solicit funds. The Amistads prove to be a major draw with the abolitionist crowd and as they inch closer to their explicit goal, the partnership between the anti-slavery society and the Amistads begin to fray. The former is dedicated to the abolition of slavery nationwide and believe the Amistads should play a key role in that struggle on account of their unique popularity with audiences. The Amistads, however, are concerned first and foremost with returning home and have little interest in serving as spokesmen for the abolitionist cause if it will delay their ability to return home.

Ultimately, the anti-slavery society makes good on their promise but the conflict raises interesting questions. Are the Amistads selfish for not doing more to help the abolitionist cause? Are the abolitionists selfish for asking so much of the Amistads? I don’t think there is a simple yes or no for either question and that’s what makes the ending of Amistad powerful for me. The book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries and I recommend it to anyone interested in West African history, legal history, or American history.

Pavel’s Perspective in the Captivating Chernobyl Miniseries

Just recently, the venerable George R.R. Martin remarked that “I am working in a very different medium than David and Dan” when explaining why the ending he intends to write will differ from the final seasons of Game of Thrones. Now none of us are holding our breath waiting for the next entry in A Song of Ice and Fire, but Martin’s statement begs an interesting question: are authors better off not imagining their works as a televised program? The question may seem trivial but considering how often authors are exhorted to make mental movies of their work, I think it is worth pondering. Personally, I am inclined to say that it’s probably a good mental exercise for authors but it’s very important to remember that what works in television does not always work in literature and vice versa. For proof of this, we need only consider the miniseries Chernobyl.

In literature, recurring characters usually need to have some sort of backstory to hold the reader’s interest. Of course, there are exceptions but if we are going to spend time in a person’s head, we usually like to know what makes that person tick. When it comes to television, we don’t need to know nearly as much about a character because we can see how they feel and that provides an understanding of its own. Pavel, a young man conscripted into containment efforts in Chernobyl, is a great example of this.

Pavel being confronted by a superior for being negligent in his duties

His name is used sparingly in the show and even though he appears in multiple scenes, I could not remember his name without looking it up online. That did nothing, however, to prevent me from enjoying his storyline. Despite knowing little about the character in terms of his backstory or his interest, I still felt as if I understood a great deal about his character. After all, I could see how he felt when he was offered a drink by his new bunkmates, when he is informed that he has been ordered to shoot the dogs exposed to radiation, when he has to decide if he has the fortitude to kill a litter of puppies, and that helps a great deal with knowing how he feels.

According to the show runners, key information about Pavel was deliberately withheld from the audience so that he could serve as a symbol of the many individuals conscripted into containment efforts. Such sparse character development can work in television but is much harder to pull off in literature. There are practical reasons related to dialogue attribution and POV jumping but one reason stands out above all the rest: television requires less engagement from consumers. This is not to suggest less creativity or effort goes into the making of television—one need only consult the credits list for a movie to know just how much talent goes into the production of a televised event. But so long as Stranger Things is easy to binge and finishing Moby Dick is hard, I think characters like Pavel will work well on the screen but not so well on the page.

Perhaps I am wrong though. My TBR list grows longer by the day and I might revise my opinion on the matter once I make more progress on that front. For now, I am inclined to agree with George R.R. Martin that television is a very different medium and I would encourage everyone interested in good television to watch the miniseries Chernobyl. If the explosion in visits to the Exclusion Zone and the show’s stellar ratings are any indication, there’s a very good chance the show will be remembered as the best drama of 2018.  

Respect and history

Towards the end of my time in Ghana, I went to visit the Elmina slave castle with my CIEE group. It was an extremely moving experience and one that I will remember for a long time. Part of the reason it was so moving was the knowledge that my family had been taken as part of the Atlantic slave trade but judging by the expressions of the other students who had joined for the CIEE excursion, it was a poignant experience regardless of heritage. Nonetheless, it was an experience marred by my interactions with some of the locals. Before I could even enter the museum, I came across a Ghanaian man named Isaac Boston. Like most Ghanaians living in Cape Coast, he had an extremely Anglo name and had no trouble communicating with me in English. Before I even had the chance to say a few words to him, he had offered me a seashell with a note urging me to “have a good trip at Elmina Castle.”

I found it off-putting to say the least but that wasn’t even the worst of it. Isaac then had the temerity to ask me if I would be willing to give him a few cedi. He was quick to explain the seashell was completely free but added that tossing a few cedi his way would be a nice way of showing my appreciation for the seashell. His smile was so warm and his request so earnest that it was difficult to be angry with him, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth all the same. Unfortunately, things did not get better once we entered the castle.

The tour guide seemed to have little to no respect for the trauma associated with the Elmina slave castle and saw nothing at all wrong about taking us to a gift shop immediately after taking us to the Female Slave Dungeon where women would be abused and tortured for being disobedient. Perhaps it could have made sense if the gift shop was a place we visited after finishing the tour of Elmina, or at least had the knowledge that our money would go to some NGO like End Slavery Now, but it was a stop planned for the middle of the tour and absolutely no explanation was provided as to where our money would go.

From what I have read online, the Ghanaian man who led us around Elmina was not especially callous in his attitude toward the trauma of the Atlantic slave trade. If anything, his attitude was pretty typical. As far as many of the locals are concerned, the slave trade didn’t effect them. After all, they still live in Ghana so their lineage was “uninterrupted” so to speak.

What’s great about historical fiction is it can help coax the callous out of their comfort zones but, ultimately, the door swings both ways. Sometimes historical fiction can take the sharp edges off a tragedy, whether it’s using war and colonialism as the backdrop for an erotica series like Jennings did with his Aztec series or intentionally promoting a very distorted version of history like Mitchell did with Gone With the Wind. Historical novelists have a duty to be respectful of history and I think the same holds true for individuals that visit historic sites.

Chances are we have all been that “disrespectful tourist” at some point, either because we lacked for a basic understanding of the history behind a place or because we just really wanted a nice souvenir to take home. Nonetheless, I hope we can all realize that certain places are not meant for smiling selfies and some stories aren’t supposed to be light-hearted. Now that summer is pretty much in full swing, I think this is important for all of us to remember the importance of respect for history since many of us will use this time to write, to vacation, or to read. No matter how one chooses to spend this summer, I hope we can all learn a lesson from Isaac Boston. Otherwise, we run the risk of being an irreverent seashell and not understanding why nobody seems to like what that represents.

Coming of the Storm and the Value of Narrative Experimentation

Coming of the Storm is not exactly a typical historical novel. Set in pre-Columbian North America, the Gears’ create a world where human beings can converse with spiritual entities and gods can intervene in earthly matters. I tend to avoid all things supernatural in my writing and while I don’t avoid it in literature per se, I do think it can be distracting in a historical novel. War God: Nights of the Witch is one example of this but I am sure there are many. Nonetheless, the Gears’ thread the needle very well in Coming of the Storm and incorporate supernatural elements into the story in a way that does not distract from the larger narrative. If anything, the narrative experimentation makes Coming of the Storm all the more memorable.

The protagonist of the novel, Black Shell, has a deep respect for the power of the gods but that respect is tempered by bitterness. Black Shell used to be an upstanding member of the Chicaza tribe, known to many as the Chickasaw today, but he had to abandon that life at the behest of the Horned Serpent. Rejected by his family and his friends, he wanders from town to town with five pack dogs and a vast assortment of trade goods. Years of trading have honed his skills as a merchant and bring Pearl Hand, his eventual wife, into his life but also earns him the enmity of powerful chiefs like Irriparacoxi.

Confident in his ability to strike a bargain with anyone, Black Shell is determined to meet with the mysterious people known as the Kristianos. He knows next to nothing about them, though he has heard they speak a tongue none to known of his countrymen and have deathly pale skin, but Pearl Hand has serious reservation about meeting with the Kristianos. Moved by her pleas, Black Shell agrees to not meet with them and to simply watch them from afar instead. As it turns out, the precaution matters little as Black Shell is caught spying on the Kristianos and forced into slavery.

Thanks to Pearl Hand, Black Shell is able to escape captivity and is tempted to flee for the safety of the interior. His spirit dreams, however, give him pause and force him to consider the future that will result should de Soto establish a secure foothold. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, Horned Serpent tells Black Shell why it is important to rally defenders for the fight against the Spanish, explaining that “if de Soto survives, his stories will be told across the ocean. Others will see our land for what it is: rich in soils, forests, and game. They will not come for gold, Black Shell. They will come to conquer our world.” Not only does this do a great job of establishing the dramatic stakes of the story, I think it does a great job of alluding to the environmental destruction wrought by the colonial powers in North America. The rich soils have been squandered, the forests destroyed, and the game hunted to extinction.

Moreover, the destruction was not just limited to the environment. The colonial forays of “the mighty peoples on a choking land, longing to bring their ways here” led to the deaths of millions all throughout the Americas. Needless to say, this had profound social consequences for the region and the world. Often overlooked, however, are the theological consequences and the spirit dreams do a great job of reminding readers of the cultural erasure that happened as a result of European colonization. No scene does this better than the conversation between Water Panther, Snapping Turtle, and Black Shell. Black Shell struggles to understand how an immortal Spirit Being like Water Panther could ever experience fear, prompting Snapping Turtle to ask “Do you see images of the Piasas, the Horned Serpent, Eagle Man, or the Hero Twins on the Kristiano armor?” Black Shell does not and tells Snapping Turtle that he sees only “their cross of wood” on their armor. The chapter ends with Snapping Turtle asking Black Shell what will happen if de Soto and his cohorts triumph, “if they should convert all people to their cross… if no one believes in the Water Panther anymore.” It’s a powerful question and I imagine it will force many readers to think more critically about the European settling of the Americas.   

I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in North American history or anyone who likes historical novels with a dash of supernatural wonder.

The book is available on Amazon and can be requested in most libraries.