« PreviousContinue »
ous in the arts of war and peace. Cortés, the prominent figure in the group, may be esteemed a fair equivalent for the "Great Captain"; for, though they are not comparable in the splendor of their achievements, and still less in the scale on which their military enterprises were conducted, yet in all the essential qualities of a leader of armies, in valor, in patience, in fertility of resources, in coolness in the hour of danger, in provident forecast, in consistent firmness of discipline, and in the power of animating his soldiers with his own indomitable spirit, the Conqueror of Mexico need not shrink from a parallel. But we miss the lovely image of Isabella, the wise sovereign, the devoted wife, the affectionate mother, the warm-hearted woman, adorning a throne with those qualities of mind and character which would have shone with cheering lustre in the humblest station, and made her children, had they been born to daily toil, "rise up and call her blessed." No character supplies the place of the wary and sagacious Ferdinand, always commanding our respect, if he seldom inspires a warmer sentiment; or of the romantic and imaginative Columbus, perhaps, of all men, who have been so great in action, the most remarkable for that fervid temperament of genius which is essential to the highest success in literature. Still less can we find any type of that extraordinary man, Cardinal Ximenes, who united in his own person powers so various and so opposite; a scholar, as if he had dreamed away his years in some studious cell, with his elbow upon his desk; a statesman, as if he had breathed all his life the air of the cabinet; a soldier, as if his only training had been that of arms; with no touch of weakness, and free from every vice except pride; with a frame of adamant and a brain whose fibres never relaxed or grew weary, a capacity that foresaw all things, comprehended all things, and accomplished all things, and a fiery energy of will, before which obstacles vanished like chaff before the wind, and opposition melted away like walls of mists in the sun.
Still, the subject has attractive elements peculiar to itself. As a poetical and picturesque theme, stimulating the fancy and filling the mind with vivid and distinct images, it can hardly be surpassed. It carries us into a new and strange world, inhabited by a peculiar people, where all the institutions and habits of life are novel, and where the productive energy of nature itself is manifested in forms of unaccus
tomed beauty and grandeur. The whole scene is illumined by the last dying gleams of chivalry. The wild courage and reckless spirit of adventure of the knight-errant were displayed, in their full force, by those swarthy soldiers who planted the standard of Spain upon the soil of Mexico. The enterprise was one of the last manifestations of the age of the hand, as distinguished from the age of the head; of an age in which battles were decided by the personal prowess of a few champions, before war had become a succession of scientific combinations. The contest was between civilization and barbarism, between the steady and deliberate valor of disciplined troops and the impetuous daring of savage masses, in which the result was as inevitable as in the shock between the vessel of iron and the vessel of clay; and the conflict of these opposite forces affords constant opportunities for glowing narrative and picturesque description.
The wonderful character of the country itself, which was the prize in this contest, furnishes a brilliant accompaniment, in perfect keeping with the story. The scene is in unison with the actors and the events. The external features of Mexico, its extensive central plain, elevated so high, and with slopes on each side so steep and abrupt, its snow-covered volcanoes, the splendor and variety of its tropical vegetation, the strange animals which inhabited its soil, and the birds of novel and dazzling plumage which wantoned in its brilliant sunshine, its diversity of climate, the rare beauty of its flowers, and the luscious flavor of its fruits, all are powerfully stimulating to the imagination, and in harmony with the romantic incidents which it is the historian's duty to record. The character of the native population, their inconsistent civilization, the contrast between the superstitions which degraded and enslaved their minds and their general intelligence and progress in science and art, between their habitual gentleness and the bloody ferocity of their religious observances, are also fruitful in the elements of the poetical and the picturesque, and enable the writer to throw the charm of fiction over his pages, while adhering scrupulously to the unvarnished truth.
A subject so attractive has not been hitherto untouched. It has occupied the pens of two writers in English. The narrative of the conquest of Mexico fills about two hundred pages of Robertson's extended work on the history
of America. It is written in that carefully balanced and somewhat formal style which is characteristic of this historian, and is strongly marked by that tendency to generalization which is observable in all his writings. But the plan of a work so extensive admitted of no minuteness of detail, and the pages which he has devoted to this subject form rather an entertaining and well-written sketch than an elaborate history. Patient and exhausting research was not congenial to Dr. Robertson's habits of mind, and his historical works are more remarkable for sound judgment, skilful and luminous arrangement, studied beauty of style and distinctness of narrative, than for minute accuracy and profound knowledge. Succeeding inquirers in the same field of research often find themselves called upon to make energetic protests against the statements and opinions to which his flowing and full-dressed periods have given such wide circulation. Southey, with much injustice, applies to him his own remark upon Solis, that he knows no author in any language whose literary reputation so much surpasses his just claims; and Dr. Dunham, in his "History of Spain and Portugal," treats him with a caustic severity unbecoming when applied to a man so distinguished in literature and so eminently respectable in private life. Besides, whatever had been Dr. Robertson's plan, and however conscientiously he might have labored in his inquiries and researches, the imperfect materials at that time within his power would have made it impossible for him to treat the subject in a manner to satisfy the requisitions of the present age. As is well known, he complains that he was denied access to some of the most important public repositories in Spain, the treasures of all of which have been generously opened to Mr. Prescott. Upon the subject of the Mexican civilization, the knowledge of his time was extremely imperfect, compared with that which we possess. Humboldt had not poured upon the subject the light of his luminous and comprehensive genius. The works of Veytia, Sahagun, and Boturini slumbered in inaccessible manuscripts; those of Ixtlilxochitl have never been printed, and were unknown to Robertson; Gama had not written upon the Aztec chronology and astronomy; and the splendid pictorial works, which have recently been published, had not addressed their evidence to the eye, in such characters that he who runs may read. The cautious and skeptical
spirit in which he wrote, and which was warranted by the few facts which were within his knowledge, would now be esteemed as indicating an incredulity amounting (as Mrs. Thrale said Dr. Johnson's did) to disease.
Another work on this subject, forming one small volume, was written for "Constable's Miscellany," by Don Telesforo de Trueba y Cosio. He was a Spaniard, who lived many years in London, wrote some respectable novels on Spanish subjects, and died about ten years since in Paris. His work is written in English remarkably good for a foreigner, but the style has no grace or attraction; and, as a literary effort, it is a mere bookseller's job, the facts being borrowed from the most obvious sources, especially from Robertson.
The Spaniards have one good history of the Conquest, in some respects, their best history. It is written by Don Antonio de Solís, and holds the rank of a classic in the language. He was a cultivated scholar, and endowed with a poetical genius of no mean order; and the attractive qualities of his style, and a charm of manner not common among the historians of his country, have given his work a place in Spanish literature somewhat higher than its substantial merits justify. He shows the skill of a practised writer in the distribution of his subject and the arrangement of his materials, and the narrative is colored throughout with the warm hues of a poetical fancy. The rules of proportion and perspective are carefully observed, the subordinate parts are never allowed to assume an undue prominence, and the connexion between the several portions of the story is skilfully maintained. The style is finished and elaborate, betraying a close study and evident imitation of the Latin historians, and, though criticized by some foreigners, has received the uniform commendation of his own countrymen, who are alone qualified to pronounce an opinion. But in those essential qualities which make a history valuable to the student and the inquirer, its merits are not so high. He was neither a profound thinker nor a laborious student, and spent much more time upon the form than the substance of his work. He does not weigh with critical sagacity the value of authorities, and seems rather in search of what is rhetorically effective than of what is true. His custom of introducing set speeches into the mouths of his personages, though sanctioned
by the practice of antiquity and by some respectable names among modern historians, is offensive to the taste of the present age, produces something like stage effect, and casts "ominous conjectures" upon the accuracy of his narrative. His pages, too, are darkened by the most extravagant fanaticism, and he is equally disloyal to truth in the encomiums which he lavishes upon the Christian conquerors, and in the dark colors in which he has painted their heathen victims. The portrait of Cortés he has drawn without shadow; studiously exalting his merits and concealing his errors, the result is an ideal hero; such as his countrymen could have wished him to be, not such as he was. His history, in spite of its defects, has had great success. It has been printed and reprinted in the original, both in Spain and out of it, with various degrees of typographical elegance, and translated into the principal languages of Europe. The literary character of Solis is discussed by Mr. Prescott in a long and elaborate note, admirable for its just discrimination and beauty of style, to which we are indebted for the substance of the foregoing remarks.
In the studies and researches into which Mr. Prescott was led, while writing his "History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella," his attention was naturally directed to the kindred and collateral subject of the conquest of Mexico; and a little observation and inquiry satisfied him, that there were in existence, in print and in manuscript, the materials for a much more thorough and accurate history of this event than had hitherto appeared in any language. Having formed the plan of writing the work, he found that the facilities which would be extended to him, in the collection of manuscript authorities and original documentary evidence, were such as to exceed his most sanguine expectations. The result of his own exertions, and those of his friends and correspondents, (few men seem to be more rich in friends), was an accumulation of manuscript materials, far exceeding in amount and value those which had been within the reach of any previous historian.
These materials have been chiefly derived from three collections. The first was made by Don Juan Baptista Muñoz, the well known historiographer of Castile. This is a distinct office, with a salary attached to it. He employed upwards of thirty years in making a collection of documents