It caused the fall of empires, and the rise of a new one in their place. It changed the destiny of continents, and left the imprint of Europe on their face. And it was a tale of cruelty and ruthlessness - a disturbing and intensely fascinating human drama - which forever changed the Western Hemisphere; and by extension, the entire world.
Machu Picchu, Peru
The event is, of course, the Spanish Conquest; and generations of schoolchildren have grown up with the story of how it happened. The story has an air of Shakespearean tragedy to it, of complicated characters who manage to be sympathetic even when callous and cruel; and even the brutality and horrors of it cannot stop it from being interesting, captivating, and utterly compelling. We may not like it, but we'll never be able to get away from it; and instead of ignoring it, there is value in learning about this epic tale; and hearing of the tremendous impact it has left on our civilization, and our world.
Moctezuma II being held captive by Cortés, circa 1519 or 1520
Any true telling of this story will always have its fair share of sensationalism (perhaps even more), and generations of violent Hollywood movies have not taken away from its ability to shock us. But there's more to this story than the gross and shocking - it is also an intensely human story, which has the ability to teach us something about the human condition, and ourselves.
The story is retold in the television age through a remarkable documentary by Michael Wood, which was broadcast on both the BBC and American PBS. The documentary uses the few existing paintings and visual records of the time, but fills in most of the visual space with footage of the places where these things happened. Whether it's in the deserts of Mexico, the jungles of the Amazon, or the monuments of the ancients; the visual storytelling is done by stunning photography of the important historical sites, with a fascinating narration by the film's tour guide Michael Wood; and a fascinating tour it is. The Spanish Conquest will never be the same to you after you see the pictures.
The Fall of Tenochtitlan, 1521
And there is a local connection for those of us in the American Southwest, for much of the story of the conquest took place in lands later conquered by the United States. Some important events take place in Texas and Arizona, and Southwesterners like me are struck by the familiarity of the scenery. There is a fair amount of the exotic to those of us used to North America when the series gets to South America, but the setting of many other parts of the story is remarkably close to home for us, and the geography of the story can be astonishingly familiar to our eyes.
Battle of Calamarca, 1532
The film does not shy away from the details of the complex military campaigns, and one is struck by what a remarkable military accomplishment the Conquest was strategically. Whatever their ethical flaws, the Conquistadors were one tough group of people; and they could not have pulled off the conquest of the New World without being bad and tough. They were massively outnumbered by the natives they encountered, and yet managed to capitalize on the superstition and fear of European weapons to great psychological effect. Regardless of the conquest's many crimes, it was a masterpiece of military strategy and political savvy; and the dramatizations of individual Conquistadors help to show their more human side, and show that they are not the one-dimensional monsters they are sometimes made out to be. (They had a fair amount of the ruthless in them, but there's more to the story than just the ruthlessness.)
The film interviews people in the areas concerned, from Gringo historians in the American Southwest to the native peoples of Latin America, whose cultures where forever changed by the conquest. As Michael Wood's films often do, the film feels like a travelogue sometimes, with more focus on exotic travel than historical storytelling. But enough of the historical storytelling gets through to make this a fascinating film; and I would highly recommend it to both history buffs and fans of high drama. You'll never see the Spanish Conquest the same way again.
DVD at Amazon
If you liked this post, you might also like:
Michael Wood's "The Story of India" (BBC program)
Michael Wood's "The Story of England" (BBC program)
Latin America became independent because of Napoleonic Wars
U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848 (PBS program)
Mexican Revolution of 1910 (PBS program)