Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Volume LXII., No. 381, July, 1847
WILLIAM BLACKWOOD & SONS, EDINBURGH;
37, PATERNOSTER ROW, LONDON.
No. CCCLXXXI.JULY, 1847.Vol. LXII.
WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS, 45, GEORGE STREET;
AND 37, PATERNOSTER ROW, LONDON.
To whom all Communications (post paid) must be addressed.
SOLD BY ALL THE BOOKSELLERS IN THE UNITED KINGDOM.
PRINTED BY WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS, EDINBURGH.iv1
No. CCCLXXXI.JULY, 1847.Vol. LXII.
The world’s history contains nochapter more striking and attractivethan that comprising the narrative ofSpanish conquest in the Americas.Teeming with interest to the historianand philosopher, to the lover of daringenterprise and marvellous adventureit is full of fascination. On the vastimportance of the discovery of a westernhemisphere, vying in size, as itone day, perhaps, may compete incivilisation and power, with itseastern rival, it were idle to expatiate.But the manner of its conquest commandsunceasing admiration. It needsthe concurring testimony of a host ofchroniclers and eye-witnesses to convincesucceeding generations that thehardships endured, the perils surmounted,the victories obtained, bythe old Conquistadores of Mexico andPeru, were as real as their record isastounding. The subjugation of vastand populous empires by petty detachmentsof adventurers, often scantilyprovided and ignorantly led—the extraordinarydaring with which theyrisked themselves, a few score strong,into the heart of unknown countries,and in the midst of hostile millions,require strong confirmation to obtaincredence. Exploits so romantic gonear to realise the feats of those fabulouspaladins who, cased in impervioussteel and wielding enchanted lance,overthrew armies as easily as a Quixotescattered merinos. Hardly, whenthe tale is put before us in the quaintand garrulous chronicle of an Oviedoor a Zarate, can we bring ourselvesto accept it as history, not as thewild invention of imaginative monks,beguiling conventual leisure by thecomposition of fantastical romance.And the man who undertakes, at thepresent day, to narrate in all theirdetails the exploits and triumphs ofa Cortés or a Pizarro, allots himselfno slight task. A clear head and asound judgment, great industry and askilful pen, are needed to do justiceto the subject; to extract and combinethe scraps of truth buried undermountains of fiction and misrepresentation,to sift facts from the partialaccounts of Spanish jurists and officials,and to correct the boastful misrepresentationsof insolent conquerors.The necessary qualities have beenfound united in the person of an accomplishedAmerican author. Alreadyfavourably known by his historiesof the eventful and chivalrous reign ofFerdinand and Isabella, and of theexploits of the Great Marquis and hisiron followers, Mr Prescott has addedto his well-merited reputation by hisnarrative of the Conquest of Peru. Inits compilation he has spared no pains.Private collections and public libraries,the archives of Madrid and the manuscriptsof the Escurial, he has ransackedand collated. And he has been soscrupulously conscientious as to sendto Lima for a copy of the portraitwhose engraving faces his title-page.But although his materials had to beprocured from many and distantcountries, their collection appears tohave occasioned him less trouble than2their abundance. The comrades andcontemporaries of Pizarro were afflictedwith a scribbling mania. Theyhave left masses of correspondence,of memoranda and personal diaries,contradictory of each other, often absurdin their exaggerations and childishin their triviality. From this farragohas Mr Prescott had to cull,—a labourof no trifling magnitude, whose resultis most creditable to him. And toour admiration of his talents are addedfeelings of strong sympathy, when weread his manly and affecting accountof the painful circumstances underwhich the work was done. Deprivedby an accident of the sight of one eye,the other has for years been soweak as at times to be useless to himfor all purposes of reading and writing.At intervals he was able to read print severalhours a-day, but manuscript wasfar more trying to his impaired vision,and writing was only possible throughthose aids by which even the stone-blindmay accomplish it. But whenhe could read, although only by daylight,he felt, he says, satisfied withbeing raised so nearly to a level withthe rest of his species. Unfortunatelythe evil increases. “The sight of myeye has become gradually dimmed,whilst the sensibility of the nerve hasbeen so far increased, that for severalweeks of the last year I have notopened a volume, and through thewhole time I have not had the use ofit, on an average, for more than anhour a-day.” Sustained by love ofletters, and assisted by readers andamanuenses, the student and scholarhas triumphed over these cruel disadvantages,surmounted all obstacles,and produced three long and importanthistorical works, conspicuous bytheir impartiality, research, and elegance;entitling him to an exceedinglyhonourable position amongst writersin the English tongue, and to one ofthe very loftiest places in the as yetscantily filled gallery of Americanmen of letters. The last of theseworks, of which Pizarro is the heroand Peru the scene, yields nothing inmerit or interest to its predecessors.
The discovery of America infectedEurope with a fever of exploration.Scarce a country was there, possessinga sea-frontier, whence expeditions didnot proceed with a view to appropriatea share of the spoils and territory of thenew-found El-Dorado. In these venturesSpain, fresh from her long andbloody struggle with the Moor, andabounding in fierce unsettled spirits,eager for action and adventure, tooka prominent part. The conquests ofCortes followed hard upon the discoveriesof Columbus: Dutch, English,and Portuguese pushed their investigationsin all directions; and, in lessthan thirty years from its first discovery,the whole eastern coast ofboth Americas was explored fromnorth to south. The vast empire ofMexico was added to the Spanishcrown, and the mother country wasglutted and intoxicated by the Pactolusthat flowed from this new possession.But enterprise was not yetexhausted, or thirst of gold satiated,and Balboa’s discovery of the Pacificgave fresh stimulus to both. Rumourhad long spoken of lands, as yet untroddenby European foot, where theprecious metals were abundant andworthless as the sand upon the sea-beach.Years elapsed before anywell-directed attempt was made toreach these golden shores. With aview to discovery and traffic in thePacific, a settlement was made on thesouthern side of the Isthmus of Darien,and the town of Panama was built. Butthe armaments that were fitted outtook a westerly direction, in hopes torealise a fixed idea of the Spanishgovernment relative to an imaginarystrait intersecting the Isthmus. Atlast an expedition sailed southwards,but soon returned, owing to the badhealth of its commander. This wasin 1522. The moment and the manhad not yet arrived. They came, twoyears later; Pizarro appeared, andPeru was discovered.
But the discovery was comparativelya trifling matter. There laythe long line of coast, stretching south-eastwardsfrom Panama; the navigatordisposed to explore it, had butto spread his sails, keep the land insight, and take the risk of the hiddenshoals and reefs that might lie inhis course. The seas to be crossedwere often tempestuous; the countryintervening between St Michael’s Gulfand the southern empire, whose rumouredwealth and civilisation wroughtso potently upon Spanish imagination,3was peopled by fierce and warliketribes. Shipwreck was to be dreaded,and a landing might for weeks ormonths be unsafe, if not impracticable.But what were such secondary dangerscontrasted with the perils, doublyterrible from their unknown and mysteriousnature, incurred by the sanguineGenoese and his bold companions,when they turned their brigantine’sprow westward from Europe, andsailed—they knew not whither? Herethe path was comparatively plain,and the goal ascertained; and althoughrisks must be dared, rewardwas tolerably certain: for furthertidings of the Peruvian empire hadreached the ears of the Spaniards,less shadowy and incomplete than thevague hints received by Balboa froman Indian chief. Andagoya, theofficer whom illness had compelled toabandon an expedition when it wasscarcely commenced, had broughtback intelligence far more explicit,obtained from Indian traders whohad penetrated by land into the empireof the Incas, as far (so he saysin his own manuscript, comprisedin Navarrete’s collection) as its capitalcity of Cuzco. They spoke of apagan but civilised land, opulent andflourishing; they described the divisionsof its provinces, the wealth ofits cities, the manners and usages ofits inhabitants. But had their descriptionbeen far more minute andglowing, the imagination of thosewho received the accounts would stillhave outstripped reality and possibility.Those were the days of goldenvisions and chimerical day-dreams.In the fancy of the greedy and credulousSpaniards, each corner of theNew World contained treasures, comparedto which the golden trees andjewelled fruits of Aladdin’s gardenwere paste and tinsel. The exaggeratedreports of those adventurerswho returned wealth-laden to Spain,were swoln by repetition to dimensionswhich enchantment only couldhave realised. No marvels were toomonstrous and unwieldy for the cravinggullet of popular credulity. “Theylistened with attentive ears to talesof Amazons, which seemed to revivethe classic legends of antiquity, tostories of Patagonian giants, to flamingpictures of an El-Dorado, wherethe sands sparkled with gems, andgolden pebbles as large as birds’ eggswere dragged in nets out of therivers.” And expeditions were actuallyundertaken in search of a magicalFountain of Health, of golden sepulchresand temples. The Amazonsand the water of life are still to bediscovered; but as to golden templesand jewelled sands, their equivalents,at least, were forthcoming,—not forthe many, but for a chosen and luckyfew. Of the fortunes of these therecord is preserved; of the misfortunesof those comparatively little istold us. We hear of the thousandsof golden castellanos that fell to thelot of men, who a moment previously,were without a maravedi in theirtattered pouches; we find no catalogueof the fever-stricken victimswho left their bones in the noxiousdistricts of Panama and Castillo deOro. And those who achieved riches,earned them hardly by peril and privation,although, in the magnificenceof the plunder, past sufferings werequickly forgotten. Thrice did Pizarroand his daring companions sail southward;countless were their hardships,bitter their disappointments, beforethe sunshine of success rewardedtheir toils, revealing to them treasuresthat must in some degree have appeasedeven their appetite for lucre.They came suddenly upon a townwhose inhabitants, taken by surprise,fled in consternation, abandoning theirproperty to the invaders. It wasthe emerald region, and great storeof the gems fell into the hands ofthe Spaniards. Pizarro had one aslarge as a pigeon’s egg. A quantityof crowns and other ornaments, clumsilyfashioned, but of pure gold andsilver, were more to the taste of theignorant conquerors, who were scepticalas to the value of the jewels.“Many of them,” says Pedro Pizarro,whose rough, straightforward accountof the discovery and conquest of Peruis frequently quoted by Mr Prescott,“had emeralds of great value; sometried them upon anvils, striking themwith hammers, saying that if theywere genuine, they would not break;others despised them, and affirmedthat they were glass.” A cunningmonk, one of the missionaries whomPizarro had been ordered by the4Spanish government to take out inhis ships, encouraged this opinion, inorder to buy up the emeralds as theirmarket value declined. The specie,however, was of immense amount, ifthe authority just quoted may bedepended upon. He talks of twohundred thousand castellanos, thecommercial value of which was equivalentto more than half a millionsterling. This from one village, ofno great size or importance. It wasa handsome earnest of future spoils,and of the mountain of gold which,as an Inca’s ransom, awaited theSpaniards at Cuzco.
In these days, when the rumouredexistence of a land previously unknownprovokes expeditions authorisedand fitted out by half the maritimepowers of Europe, and whengreat nations risk the peace of theworld for