페이지 이미지

sustained in their worst calamities by what they were pleased to call their religion. The pagan Aztec gave the first place in his bloody pantheon to his terrible war-god, and with a cannibal appetite devoured the body of his captive. We have some consolation for this in knowing the Aztec was a heathen, and his god a chimera. But the deity the Spanish Catholic worshiped, and to whom he prayed for aid in his schemes of avarice, lust, and murder, was also of the family of Mexican deities, however much he may have deceived himself into the belief he was addressing the Christian's God. Moloch, Mammon, and Belial, were the inspiration of his schemes of conquest and deeds of massacre.

The great checks upon rapacity are conscience and natural humanity. It is one of the objects of true religion to strengthen and increase these natural obstacles to crime. When, however, bigotry sides with rapacity against human feeling, and breaks, instead of tightening, the bond of brotherhood, it produces those monstrosities of action so difficult to reconcile with the common principles of human nature. We can conceive of men as becoming demons, but the difficulty is to conceive of them as performing demoniacal acts from motives partly religious, and preserving any humanities in their character after the performance. Yet this we are compelled continually to do in following the Spaniards in their American conquests. It is one of the charms of Mr. Prescott's history that his worst characters are so fully developed that we perceive their humanity as well as their rascality. They never appear as bundles of evil qualities, but as men.

Mr. Prescott places his readers in a position to understand the moral condition of his personages, as that condition was influenced by the current practices of their age, and by their individual lives. Crimes, in their effect upon character, change their nature as the conventional standard of morals varies. To commit any delinquency whatever exercises a pernicious effect upon character; but its effect is not so pernicious when it is hailed as the sign of the hero, as when it is hooted at as the brand of the felon. In the one case a man may discharge many of the social and public duties of life, and preserve that degree of morality and religion conveyed in the phrase of “a respectable citizen;" in the other case he sinks into the common herd of profligates and criminals, and makes war • upon respectable citizens. In one sense shedding blood in battle is murder; yet there is still a great difference in the moral character of General Scott and Gibbs the pirate. No well-minded person can now follow the career of Cortés without an expression of horror and indignation; yet the countrymen of Cortés applauded

his exploits as our countrymen applaud those of the victor of Monterey and Buena Vista.

There is another very important fact to be considered in our estimate of the Spaniards. The pope, in whom was lodged the power to dispose of the kingdoms of the heathen, had given the new world to Spain, to be conquered and converted. Cortés, as a devout Catholic, had no scruples about the right of conquest. Mexico was clearly his, or his sovereign's, provided he could get it. Now, assuming the right of conquest, all the crimes in which he was directly implicated might be extenuated by the right of selfdefense. The truth is, he had no right to Mexico at all; and the chief crime he committed was in its invasion : but the head of Christendom had decided for him that this was not a crime, but a right. Many good Catholics might have been, and doubtless were, shocked at the barbarities which accompanied the conquest; but Cortés might have replied that what he did was necessary to obtain his rightful objects; that the question simply was, whether he and his followers should be sacrificed to the Mexican gods, or a certain number of Aztecs should be massacred. We know that his cruelties sprung from no disregard of his religion, such as it was. For that religion he was ready to die at any moment; for that religion he repeatedly risked the success of his enterprise; and it required all the address of father Almedo to prevent his zeal for the conversion of the natives and the overthrow of their gods from involving himself and his cause in a common ruin.

Cortés was in all respects a remarkable man, whether we consider the strength or the versatility of his genius. He attempted an enterprise as daring as ever entered the head of a maniac, and brought it to a successful result by the resources of his own mind. He was at once the most enthusiastic and most prudent of men, a heart all fire, and a head all ice. His intellect was large, flexible, capacious of great plans, inexhaustible in expedients, and preserving, in the fiercest inward excitement of his passions, a wonderful coolness, clearness, and readiness. He seems to have been naturally a man of quick sensibility, rather than of deep feeling, a cavalier elegant in person, lax in morals, with much versatility but little concentration of power, and chiefly distinguished for qualities which captivate, rather than command. It was not until his mind had been possessed by one dominant idea that the latent powers of his nature were displayed. This idea he held with the grasp of a giant, and it tamed his volatile passions, and concentrated his flashing powers, and put iron into his will. Everyth including life itself, was to him of little importance compared wi

the conquest of Mexico. In his darkest hours of defeal and despondency, when hope appeared to all others but the insanity of folly, he never gave up his project, but renewed his attempts to perform the “impossible" with the coolness of one setting about a common-place enterprise. It is needless to say that this idea made him unscrupulous, and silenced all objections to the commission of convenient crime. He was not cruel by nature; that is, he took no pleasure in viewing or inflicting pain : but his mind was remorseless. Like other conquerors, he never allowed his feelings to interfere with his plans, and carelessly sacrificed friends and foes to the success of a project. His hand executed at once what his mind conceived, not so much because he excelled other men in vigor, but because he was not deterred from action by any scruples. Remorselessness is almost ever the key to that vigor which is so much praised in great warriors and statesmen. If human nature consisted simply of intellect and will, the world would be full of vigorous characters; but the vigor would be demoniacal. To a cruel man the bloodshed which attended the conquest of Mexico would have been pleasant of itself; to Cortés, who was its cause, it was a mere means to an end. The desolation of a province and the butchery of its inhabitants were merely processes of working out a practical problem. The remorselessness of thought produces more suffering than the cruelty of passion. The latter may be glutted with a few victims at a time; the former may scalter firebrands, arrows, and death, over an empire. Cortés, in this respect, was not worse than a hundred others whose “vigor” is the admiration of the world, and the inspiration of the devil.

No general ever excelled Cortés in the command he exercised over the minds and hearts of his followers. He knew them better than they knew themselves, and his ready eloquence reached the very sources of their volitions. He was at once their commander and companion. He could bring them round to his plans against the evidence of their five senses, and made them dance in the very chains of famine and fatigue. The enterprise would have been repeatedly abandoned had it not been for his coolness, intrepidity, and honeyed eloquence. His whole lawless and licentious crew he held by a fascination for which they could not themselves account. They suspected him of making their lives and fortunes subsidiary to his ambition; they taxed him with deceit and treachery; they determined again and again to leave him; and yet they followed him—followed him, against their desires and reason, to encounter the most appalling dangers, for an object which receded as they advanced, and which they constantly pronounced a chimera.

The speeches of Cortés, given by Mr. Prescott, are master-pieces of practical eloquence. Indeed, wherever Cortés was, there could be but one will. What authority was unable to do he did by finesse and persuasion. That irritable temper and that impatient intellect bore all vexations patiently, intent on one object, and ready for all obstacles which stood in its path.

Cortés was brave in almost every sense of the term. He combined the courage of the knight-errant and the martyr. His daring in battle, perhaps, was not greater than that exhibited by some of his officers, Alvarado, for example; but he excelled all in the power of endurance. His constancy of purpose had the obstinacy of sheer stupidity, and seems almost incompatible with his fiery valor. Famine, fatigue, pestilence, defeat, every extreme of mental and physical wretchedness, could present no arguments sufficiently strong to shake his purpose of conquest. What depressed his followers only called forth his courage in its most splendid light. When he himself had most cause for despondency, his serene courage not only mounted above his own miseries, but enabled him to use all the resources of his fertile mind in cheering his followers. Wounded, bleeding, wasted by famine, broken down by disease and despair, there was always one voice whose magical tones could make their hearts leap with their old courage, and send them again on their old enterprise of peril and death.

We cannot follow the genius of Cortés as it was developed in the events of the conquest, and attempt an abstract of what Mr. Prescoit has performed with such fullness, richness, and power. Rarely has so splendid a theme been treated by an historian so fortunate at once in the possession of requisite materials and requisite capacity. Among the many characteristics of the work, that which will be most likely to strike and charm the general reader, is its picturesqueness of description, both as regards incidents and scenery. The freshness and vividness with which everything is presented is a continual stimulant to attention; and there is a nerve in the movement of the style which gives to the narrative a continual vitality. Among these descriptions we would particularize the account of the retreat from Mexico in the second volume, and the battles which preceded its final conquest and destruction in the third, as being especially pervaded by intense life. The critical reader, also, will not fail to perceive that the interest of particular passages is subservient to the general effect of the whole, and ihat the author has produced a work of art as well as a history. That quality of objectiveness, which we have mentioned as characterizing the mind of Mr. Prescott, and favorably distinguishing him

from many eminent historians, is especially obvious when we contrast the representations in “Ferdinand and Isabella” with those in the “Conquest of Mexico.” The objects are different, and in each case they are presented in their own form, life, and character. We can conceive of the two histories as the production of separate minds. But few historians are thus capable of representing objects in white light. To see anything through the medium of another mind is too often to see it caricatured. Objects to the egotist, whether he be called thinker or coxcomb, are commonly mirrors which more or less reflect himself. Nature, events, and persons, are considered as deriving their chief importance from their relation to him. This relation, and not their relation to each other, he is prone to call the philosophy of history.

Here, for the present, we must pause. We intended to include a review of Mr. Prescott's last history in this general survey of his works; but its subject is so interesting and important, and presents so many characters and topics for reflection and criticism, that we should be compelled either to pass it over with a superficial consideration, or to swell our article beyond those bounds which the patience of readers has fixed to the garrulity of critics. Few books published within the last twenty years have produced a stronger effect upon the public mind than the “History of the Conquest of Peru;" and as it exhibits, in many respects, the finest qualities of Mr. Prescott's historical method, and indicates in its style and general character the ripeness and maturity of his powers, we have concluded to postpone its consideration to our April number. We confess that such a course to many writers, whose popularity rushes up like a rocket, explodes at once into sparkles of momentary brilliancy, and then descends into darkness a mere worthless stick, would be sadly out of character with the objects of a review; but it is the great merit of Mr. Prescott's books that they never grow old, and we have no fear that the interest of the thinking classes in the “Conquest of Peru” will have abated at the period when we next appear before our readers.

« 이전계속 »