When Matthew Restall writes of “the Spanish Conquest,” he does not refer simply to the period when Spaniards arrived in this hemisphere and attempted to establish an administration modeled on their own; he also aludes to the way this period has been represented in writing ever since Columbus’s first voyage. The story hinges on what Restall calls “the myth of exceptional men,” and the conquistador par excellence is Hernán Cortés. The archetypal myth developed fully only in the nineteenth century, after the publication of William Hickling Prescott’s The Conquest of Mexico in 1843. Prescott plotted his story around the fulfillment of the intentions of a single heroic Spanish conquistador. This theme still resonates with the modern reader, as evidenced by blockbuster books such as those by Hugh Thomas and Jared Diamond, Disney movies about El Dorado in Mayaland, and even the cartoons of Gary Larson. Scholars are also caught in...

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