H. R. S. Pocock, who spent some twenty years in Chile as a petroleum distributor, wrote this book with the assumption that, except for the dated biography of Pedro de Valdivia by R. B. Cunninghame Graham, no English account of the Chilean conquest exists. Unfortunately he seems to have been unaware of Ida Stevenson Vernon’s monograph, published in 1946, which not only covers the same ground as his book, but far exceeds it in historical perspective and scholarship. Nevertheless, The Conquest of Chile is a highly readable popular narrative which traces Valdivia’s enterprise from its inauspicious beginnings to the death of the conqueror at Tucapel.
Pocock draws from the major printed documents, as well as the chronicles of Góngoro Marmolejo and Mariño de Lovera and such standard sources as Errázuriz Crescente and Encina. He emphasizes the dramatic character of Valdivia’s epic struggle to establish a successful settlement in what was regarded as a veritable wasteland.
Although generous quotations from the procesos of Pedro Sancho de Hoz and Francisco de Villagra enhance the drama, Pocock’s naive acceptance of rather dubious testimony leads him to such conclusions as a denial that Sancho de Hoz possessed any legitimate claims in the Chilean venture. In fact Sancho de Hoz, whose persistent intrigues threatened the infant colony at every turn, emerges as “the villain of the piece in the completest possible fashion” (p. 50).
Despite this scoundrel’s machinations, Valdivia won a vote of confidence from the Santiago cabildo and vindicated himself before Pedro de la Gasca with displays of statecraft which in Pocock’s analysis make him appear as the inventor of political one-upmanship. Tragedy quickly followed triumph, however, for the politically astute conqueror underestimated the tenacity of the Araucanians in defending their territory against his drive southward.
Ignoring the significant role which Francisco de Villagra played in preventing disaster after Tucapel, Pocock concludes that only a premature death and the fact that Chile lacked the romantic lure of Mexico and Peru have kept Valdivia from assuming his rightful place with Cortés and Pizarro among the conquistadores. Although the specialist may dispute this assessment as well as other interpretations, the general reader will probably find them thoroughly convincing after completing this vivid study.