A New History of the Conquest of Mexico

In which Las Casas’ Denunciations of the Popular Historians of that War are fully vindicated. By ROBERT ANDERSON WILSON, Counsellor at Law; Author of “Mexico and its Religion,” etc. Philadelphia: James Challen & Son. Boston: Crosby, Nichols, & Co.

BEFORE touching on the subject-matter of this book, we have something to say respecting the spirit in which it appears to have been written, the style of its execution, and the manner in which it has been introduced to the world. As it is avowedly an attempt to refute the positions taken up by Mr. Prescott in his “ History of the Conquest of Mexico,” and to destroy the established reputation of that work, we are naturally led into a comparison between the two writers, that extends beyond the theories and ideas which they have respectively adopted and maintained. We cannot but remember, (and such remembrances awaken now other feelings besides mere respect and admiration,) that, when Prescott was entering upon his literary career, he labored in silence and retirement; that, in the prosecution of his researches, in the gradual formation of his views, and in the preparation of his work, he spared no labor and made no account of time; that, devoting himself to his chosen pursuit with the ardor of a scholar and a searcher after truth, he felt a modest self-reliance, and a just confidence in the utility of his labors, without anticipating the reward of a wide-spread fame; that he was prompt to acknowledge every service, or offer of service, which, had been made to him, and communicated to the public not only his information, but the sources from which it had been derived ; that, where he rejected the conclusions of other writers, he treated those from whom he differed with the utmost courtesy and candor; and that, when his task was completed, he left it to the free judgment of the world, without soliciting approbation or courting any man’s applause.

This is not the course which Mr. Robert Anderson Wilson has thought fit to take. An accidental visit to Mexico, for which he appears to consider himself entitled to no slight commendation, led him into some speculations on the origin and civilization of the Aztec race. Without waiting to inform himself of the ideas entertained on these subjects by other men, he hastened to put forth his own crude notions in a work entitled “Mexico and its Religion,” and twice reprinted by its enterprising publishers, with titles varied to suit what was supposed to be the popular taste. Still entertaining an aversion to laborious study, (for which, indeed, his previous education, as well as precarious health, appears to have disqualified him,) he announced his purpose to write a History of the Conquest of Mexico “ from the American stand point,” and issued what he himself called “ a clap-trap advertisement." for the purpose of enlisting the sympathies of a class in whom hatred of Romanism preponderates over knowledge and judgment. He had made some progress in his “ History,” when he found that the ideas which he had supposed to be original in his own brain were old and trite. Being thus precluded from claiming for himself the merits of a discoverer, he has shown an eagerness, every way praiseworthy, to place the laurel on the brow to which he supposes it rightfully belongs. Accordingly, he presents to the world, as his master and pioneer, that renowned authority on the antiquities of New Spain, the Hon. Lewis Cass, who, it appears, had published an essay on the subject in the “North American Review.” While his work was passing through the press, Mr. Wilson wrote what he styles a “ Chapter Preliminary,” but what we suppose would have been styled by persons who affect the native idiom when writing their own language, a “ Preliminary Chapter.” This “ Chapter Preliminary ” he printed and circulated, in advance of the publication of his book ; and though it contains not a single fact in support of his theory, nor even any clear statement of the theory itself, he was rewarded, as he expected, with puffs preliminary from a portion of the press, prompt to recognize the merit of a gentleman who had something to sell, and consequently something to be advertised. The “advance notices,”—so he calls them,—thus obtained, are made part of his book, and may there be read alike by discerning and undiscerning readers. With equal ingenuity he has prefixed to it a title-page, tlie grammar of which is questionable and the punctuation vile, but in which he has contrived to represent his opinions as identical with those of Las Casas, the great historian of the Spanish Conquests in America, although, in truth, this identity of opinion is purely imaginary, being founded on his mere conjectures in regard to the contents of a work of Las Casas, which, as he bitterly complains, has been withheld from the world. Then, with his two supporters, Las Casas on the one side, and Lewis Casas—we beg his pardon, we mean Lewis Cass—on the other, Mr. Wilson comes before the public, making first a bow “preliminary” to “ Colonel and Mrs. Powell,” “my dear Uncle,” and “my dear Aunt,” in a Dedication that reminds us of a certain form of invitations which our readers may sometimes have received : “ Miss Smith presents her compliments to Mr. Brown, and I hope you will do me the favor to take tea with me to-morrow evening.”

But we have omitted to make mention of the letters “preliminary ” which he has printed with the “advance notices.” He indulges in frequent sneers at the “weight of authority ” to which Mr. Prescott was accustomed to attach some importance in the discussion of a doubtful point. Nevertheless, in his extreme eagerness to obtain for his own opinions the sanction of an authoritative name, he publishes, as “ Mr. Prescott’s estimate of his researches,” a letter which he had received from that gentleman, and, quite incapable of appreciating its quiet irony, evidently supposes that the historian of the Conquest of Mexico was prepared to retire from the field of his triumphs at the first blast of his assailant’s trumpet. Next comes a letter from a gentleman whom Mr. Wilson calls “Rousseau St. Hilaire, author of The History of Spain,’ &c., and Professor of the Faculty of Letters in the University of Paris.” This, we suppose, is the same gentleman who is elsewhere mentioned in the book as Rousseau de St. Hilaire, and as Rosseau St Hilaire. Now we might take issue with Mr. Wilson as to the existence of his correspondent. It would be easy to prove that no person bearing the name is connected with the University of Paris. Adopting the same line of argument by which our author endeavors to convert the old Spanish chronicler, Bernal Diaz, into a myth, we might contend that the Sorbonne—the college to which M. St. Hilaire is represented as belonging—has been almost as famous for its efforts to suppress truth and the free utterance of opinion as the Spanish Inquisition itself,— that it would not hesitate at any little invention or disguise for the furtherance of its objects,—and hence, that the professor in question is in all probability a “myth,” a mere “ Rousseau’s Dream,” or rather, a “Wilson’s Dream of Rousseau.” But we disdain to have recourse to such evasions. We admit that there is in the University of Paris a professor “ agrégé à la faculté des lettres,” who bears the name of Rosseeuw St. Hilaire; we admit Mr. Wilson’s incapacity to decipher foreign names or words, even when they stand before him in the clearest print,—an incapacity of which his book affords numerous examples,—and that this incapacity, and not any mental hallucination, has been the cause of the blunder which we have corrected. But we must add that he does evidently labor under an hallucination when he calls this letter of M. St. Ililaire a “ flattering notice.” He has been misled by his inability to comprehend the employment of courteous language between persons who differ from each other in matters of opinion. With the accustomed suavity of a Frenchman and a gentleman, M. St. Hilaire declines entering into a discussion with Mr. Wilson, and leaves him to “settle this difference with his learned fellow-citizen,” Mr. Prescott, mildly intimating at the same time that he will probably have “ his hands full.”

Something more remains to be said of the use which our author has made of the learned professor of the Sorbonne. One page of his book Mr. Wilson devotes to “ Acknowledgments.” These are few, but ponderous. “Acknowledgments are made” to the Hon. Lewis Cass, for having written — without any ulterior view, we imagine, to Mr. Wilson’s advantage— the before-mentioned article in the “ North American Review”; to the late Mr. Gallatin, for the publication — also, we suspect, without any foresight of the tremendous uses to which, it was to be turned — of a paper on the Mexican dialects ; to “Aaron Erickson, Esq., of Rochester, N. Y., for the advantages he has afforded ns in the prosecution of our arduous investigations ” ; to “ Major Robert Wilson, now at Fort Riley, Kanzas,” for no particular reason expressed ; and to “ M. Rous seau de St. Hilaire, both for the flattering notice he has taken of our preliminary work” (why not, “work preliminary ? ”) “on Mexico, and for the advantages derived from his writings.” In regard to the “ advantages ” here mentioned, we are going to relieve Mr. Wilson’s mind. His obligations to M. St. Hilaire are really far lighter than he supposes. It is true that he has picked most of the little information he possesses in regard to Spanish history out of the professor’s work, and has strewed his pages with copious extracts from this recondite source. But, in making his acknowledgments, he might have gone still farther back. M. St. Hilaire is a laborious and enthusiastic scholar. He has found time, in the midst of his professional duties, to write a really meritorious work on the history of Spain. But he had not the time, perhaps not the opportunity, for making a thorough examination of the original authorities. He was therefore obliged to take for his guide a modern author, who had made this history the peculiar field of his researches. The guide whom he selected, and he could have made no better choice, was William Hickling Prescott. So necessary was it for his purpose that the latter should precede him in a pathway so obscure, that he postponed the composition of a portion of his work until the publication of the first two volumes of the “ History of Philip the Second,” then in preparation, should supply him with the requisite light. His indebtedness to Mr. Prescott was frankly and fully acknowledged both in public and in private. In letters which now lie before us, he says,—“ I am working hard on ‘Philip the Second,’ and blessing at the same time the learned pioneer who has traced for me so easy a road through this confused and difficult period of history,” “ It is a piece of good-fortune which I cannot too highly appreciate, that your studies should have been directed to the most difficult portion of Spanish history, from which you have thus removed for me all the thorns. The conscientiousness and the thoroughness of your researches, the perfect trustworthiness of your conclusions, and the lofty calmness of your judgments, are the precious supports on which I lean; and I have now, for the reign of Philip the Second, a guide whom I shall be ever proud and happy to follow, as I have before followed him through the reigns of the Catholic Kings and the Conquests of Mexico and Peru.” That these expressions are no exaggeration of the facts of the case might be easily established by a comparison of the “Histoire d’Espagne” with the writings of the American historian. The passages in the former work cited by Mr. Wilson would form a portion of the proof; and thus, in following M. St. Hilaire, he has in fact been indirectly and ignorantly availing himself of labors which he affects to speak of with contempt.

But directly and knowingly, as we shall hereafter show, he has availed himself of Mr. Prescott’s labors to an extent which demanded the most ample “ acknowledgment.” No such acknowledgment is made. But we beg to ask Mr. Wilson whether there were not other reasons why he should have spoken of this eminent writer, if not with deference, at least with respect. He himself informs us that “the most kindly relations” existed between them. If we are not misinformed, Mr. Wilson opened the correspondence by modestly requesting the loan of Mr. Prescott’s collection of works relating to Mexican history, for the purpose of enabling him to write a refutation of the latter's History of the Conquest. That the replies which he received were courteous and kindly, we need hardly say. He was informed, that, although the constant use made of the collection by its possessor for the correction of his own work must prevent a full compliance with this request, yet any particular books which he might designate should be sent to him, and, if he were disposed to make a visit to Boston, the fullest opportunities should be granted him for the prosecution of his researches. This invitation Mr. Wilson did not think fit to accept. Books which were got in readiness for transmission to him he failed to send for. He had, in the mean time, discovered that “the American stand-point.” did not require any examination of “ authorities.” We regret that it should also have rendered superfluous an acquaintance with the customs of civilized society. The tone in which he speaks of his distinguished predecessor is sometimes amusing from the conceit which it displays, sometimes disgusting from its impudence and coarseness. He concedes Mr. Prescott’s good faith in the use of his materials. It was only Ins ignorance and want of the proper qualifications that prevented him from using them aright. “ His non-acquaintance with Indian character is much to be regretted.” Mr. Wilson himself enjoys, as he tells us, the inestimable advantage of being the son of an adopted member of the Iroquois tribe. Nay, " his ancestors, for several generations, dwelt near the Indian agency at Cherry Valley, on Wilson’s Patent, though in Cooperstown village was he born.” We perceive the author’s fondness for the inverted style in composition,—acquired, perhaps, in the course of his long study of Aboriginal oratory. Even without such proofs, and without his own assertion of the fact, it would not have been difficult, we think, to conjecture his familiarity with the forms of speech common among barbarous nations.

But it is not merely through “his nonacquaintance with Indian character” that Mr, Prescott was at fault. He was also, it appears, in a hopeless state of ignorance in regard to the political institutions of Spain. He knew nothing of the Spanish censorship, and its restrictions upon the freedom of the press. “ He showed his faith,” writes Mr. Wilson, “by the expenditure of a fortune at the commencement of his enterprise, in the purchase of books and MSS. relating to 'America of the Spaniards.'” This last phrase is marked as quoted, but we believe it to be the author's own, “ These were the materials out of which he framed his two histories of the two alioriginal empires, Mexico and Peru. At the time these works were written he could not have had the remotest idea of the circumstances under which his Spanish authorities had been produced, or of the external pressure that gave them their peculiar form and character. He could hardly understand that peculiar organization of Spanish society through which one set of opinions might be uniformly expressed in public, while the intellectual classes in secret entertain entirely opposite ones. He acted throughout in the most perfect good faith ; and if, on a subsequent scrutiny, his authorities have proved to be the fabulous creations of Spanish-Arabian fancy, he is not. in fault.” (p. 104.)—We, also, desire to deal in “perfect good faith” with our readers, who will naturally inquire what new light has been thrown on the “peculiar organization of Spanish society,” and on the conditions which limit the expression of opinions in Spain, since Mr. Prescott made those subjects bis especial study. We have looked carefully through Mr. Wilson’s book in the hope of being enabled to answer this inquiry ; but we have found nothing but partial and incorrect statements of facts with which the public is already familiar,—nothing that had escaped the notice of Prescott himself,—nothing that Mr. Ticknor, in his “ History of Spanish Literature,” had omitted to state, and that had not been fully discussed between these two distinguished men during an intercourse that had originated not only in the warmest personal friendship, but in the similarity of their studies and pursuits. On this, as on every other topic of which he treats, Mr. Wilson is reckless and arrogant in assertion : hut on this, as on every other topic, he makes no show of proofs.

His compliment to Prescott’s “ good faith" seems, after all, to have been premature. In other parts of his book we find remarks that seem in conflict with this admission. He makes several severe strictures on Mr. Prescott’s omission to give due credit to General Cass for his valuable contribution to Aztec history. “ Mr. Prescott nowhere refers to the subject, as we think he ought to have done.” (p. 30.) “ The ink was hardly dry on the leaves of the North American Quarterly which contained the exposure of these fictions, when another contributor to the same periodical, Mr. Prescott, began his history, founded on authors already denounced as fabulous by so high an authority as the Hon. Lewis Cass!” Think of the unparalleled audacity of the author of the “History of Ferdinand and Isabella” in actually exercising his own judgment with regard to the credibility of the Spanish chroniclers, after so high an authority had pronounced against them ! However, we are not yet prepared to abandon our own belief in Mr. Prescott’s "good faith." We really believe that he was guilty of no intentional disrespect towards the Hon. Lewis Cass. It is possible that he may never have seen the article in question. Contributors to periodicals are sometimes sadly neglectful of the most brilliant performances of their confrères. We doubt whether the “Autocrat” has ever read with proper attention any of our own modest, but not, we hope, inelegant effusions.

Mr. Wilson is not without a suspicion that the world may be slow to surrender its confidence in the veracity and accuracy of a writer whose works have already stood the test of many a severe and critical examination. When this idea breaks upon his mind, he manages to lash himself into a state of considerable excitement. He foresees the difficulty of convincing “ those who take an array of great names for the foundation of their belief, and those who judge a work only by the elegance with which its periods are strung together. And, besides these two,”—meaning, we presume, not two men, but two classes of men,—“ we have to encounter also the opposition of savans—men who live and judge the outside world through the medium of books alone. These hold as of no account, all but Greece and Rome,” [the proof-reader is requested not to disturb Mr, Wilson’s punctuation,] “ and receive no idea of antiquity that does not come through them. For any, then, too wise to learn or too thoughtless to inquire, this chapter is not designed. . . . Many there are,” [how many, we wonder,] “ who have dealt in Spanish romances, supposing them to be history ; and these are slow to abandon their delusions. At enormous expense they have gathered volumes of authorities ; will they readily admit them to be cheats and counterfeits'? They grudge the time too they have spent in their perusal ; and are loth, as well they may be, to lose it. But individual loss and injury is” [the proof-reader will please not to interfere with Mr. Wilson’s grammar] “ perhaps inevitable in the search after truth. Men cannot be held down to the theories of barbarism. These must give way to knowledge, or the intelligent, as in Roman Catholic countries, be driven to infidelity." [The printer may venture to italicize the closing prediction, as we wish to bring it under the particular notice of school-committees and superintendents of education, who will see the fearful responsibility they incur by placing copies of Prescott’s Histories, bound in sheep, in their school-libraries.]

But we interrupt the flow of our author’s bile by these irrelevant remarks. Let him have a full hearing : “ Before closing this chapter, the status of our literature suggests an apology is necessary, for having opened it in conformity with the, now neglected, rules of history—that we should try and snatch something from the wreck of antiquity.” [We cheerfully offer a reward of one copy of the present number of the “Atlantic” to any person who will parse the last sentence, explain the punctuation of it, and interpret its meaning,] “In other countries, the standard of history has been steadily rising for centuries ; but with us, it has been so lowered, as to sink every other qualification in the single one of turning faultless periods; and a gentleman possessing this, has been adjudged fully capable of purging the annals of Spain and her quondam colonies, from the mass of modern fable and forgery which now disfigure them. Incapable of submitting Cortez’ statement to the test, he assumes it to be true, even in those parts where it is impossible. Unable to detect the counterfeit in Diaz—he pronounces him the ‘child of nature,’ but does not on the testimony of this natural child reject the still more monstrous falsifier, Gomora; but adopts them both, according to the custom of novelists ; and not the slightest objection is raised. Then descending lower and still lower; disregarding alike the warning of Lord Bacon 'a credulous man is a deceiver,’ and of Tacitus fingunt simul creduntque—he rakes up even a devotee, Boturini, and makes him also an historic authority, without overtaxing public credulity ; though this wretch, as we have seen, out-Munchausens Pietro himself, and as he may have surpassed every other man in Spain in drawing the long bow, was justly selected for historiographer, at a time when death was the penalty for possessing a book not licensed by the Inquisition. Thus are discarded and disgusting impostures brought up from the literary cesspools of Spain to form for us the history of events that transpired on this continent hardly more than three hundred years ago ! ” (pp. 263, 264.) Instead of noticing the blunders and absurdities with which this paragraph is filled, we shall simply call attention to the remarkable good taste displayed in its allusions to a person with whom the writer, as he boasts, had maintained “ the most kindly relations,” from whom, as we have seen, he had received friendly offers of aid, and to whom, but a short time before the occurrence of that event which has so lately thrown the whole nation into mourning, he had been indebted, by his own admission, for the warmest encouragement in the prosecution of his inquiries.

But, though Prescott is the principal object of Mr. Wilson’s assaults, he does not fall, for he has not stood, alone. With the single exception of the Hon. Lewis Cass, every modern writer who has investigated the history and former condition of Spanish America, either with the help of books or of personal observation of the present state of that part of our continent, shares the same fate. Robertson, Dupaix, Stephens, Humboldt, are all objects of Mr. Wilson’s vituperation or contempt. To say that Alexander von Humboldt is probably the most learned man in Europe, and that Robert A. Wilson is undoubtedly one of the most ignorant men in America, would give but a slight notion of the contrast between them. Humboldt is not merely a man of science and a philosopher,—‘titles which the adopted Iroquois regards with natural scorn, —he has been also a great traveller, and knows almost every part of Spanish America from personal examination. Yet his claims to be considered as an authority on questions which no other living man is so competent to decide are disposed of by his shallow and conceited opponent in a single brief paragraph, which ends with a statement that “ the only defect in his work is, that he started from false premises, and of course his conclusions amount to nothinq.”

Robertson, however, is the especial butt of Mr. Wilson's unwieldy sarcasms. Robertson, he tells us, was the “ principal of the University High School of Edinburgh,”—an institution of which we do not remember ever to have heard before, He is especially indignant that “ Robertson—a Presbyterian minister!" (the Italics and note of admiration are Mr. Wilson's own) should have dared even to attempt to write a history of America. As Roman Catholics are also forbidden to venture on this ground, we should be glad to know the particular sect or sects to whose use it is to be appropriated. A principal cause of our author’s spite against Dr. Robertson appears to have been a statement made by the latter, that the Iroquois are cannibals. This allegation evidently touches a sensitive point. It is indignantly denied by the adopted member of the tribe. The Iroquois, he says, like other Indians, never eat human flesh, unless driven to it by hunger. He turns the tables (on which this ill-omened repast is spread) against the worthy Doctor. He charges him (falsely, however) with having represented Charles the Fifth as “ a pattern of abstinence, when he was in fact one of the greatest of royal gourmands. On this point he is willing for once to accept even the authority of Mr. Prescott, who, he says, has upset Robertson’s reputation as an historian by means of “ the Samanca papers,”

Mr. Wilson so often returns to these “ Samanca ” papers, and appears to labor under so many delusions in regard to them, that, hopeless as the attempt may seem, we cannot help trying to let a little daylight into his mind. “ Mr. Prescott," he writes, “having obtained copies of the most important Simanca ” [the reader must not be surprised at these little variations of orthography] “ papers of Ximenes' collection, supposes them a new discovery, of great value. Doubtless they are; ” [then there could be no great harm in supposing it;] “his agents did not fail to represent them to him in the most exalted terms, to enhance the value of their services according to the Spanish custom.” Now we can assure Mr. Wilson that Mr. Prescott had not in his possession a copy of a single document placed in the Archives of Simancas (for so an excusable partiality for custom, and not any want of respect for our author, obliges us to spell this name) by Cardinal Ximenes. He will also, we trust, be glad to learn, that, for the documents relating to the Emperor Charles the Fifth which Mr. Prescott did receive from Sinumcas, lie paid not a real beyond the established charge of the official copyists, — a charge which is the same in all cases, whatever may be the value of the originals,—the task of examining the collection and selecting the letters suitable for the purpose having been a labor of love on the part of the distinguished scholar by whom it was undertaken.

Mr. Wilson is animated by a fervent hatred against Cardinal Ximenes,— or “Jimines,” as he sometimes calls him. He terms him “a monster,” and “a wretch,” and is especially indignant at his having “founded the Samanca collection of papers.” “Any one,” he adds, “ who will carefully examine them will see that hardly a single paper has been put into this collection that does not, in some way, reflect glory on the church, or show the royal approval of the Inquisition.” We cannot undertake to say what discoveries might be made by a person who should carefully examine the collection of papers at Simancas. A scholar on whom the antediluvian length of life necessary for such a labor had been bestowed might also be endowed with commensurate powers of intellect that might lead to the most astonishing results. Our own knowledge of the collection is limited to a very small portion of its contents,— a mere drop in the enormous bucket. We have been under the impression that explorers who had spent long periods of time in the examination,—Lembke or Gachard, for example,—had sunk their shafts but a little way into that great mine. At all events, we feel particularly certain that Mr. Wilson never in his life saw a single manuscript, or a single copy of a manuscript, from the Archives of Simancas.

“ The monk Strada,” our author goes on to inform us, “ must have consulted them ” [the “ Samanca papers”] “in the composition of his history of the Low Country Wars, though he does not call the papers by that name.” [We should hope not.] “ The Glanville papers are not alone his authorities.” With regard to the “Glanville papers,” we cannot speak positively, never having seen them, or even heard of them. If an allusion is intended to the “ State Papers of Cardinal Granvelle” we admit that these were not Strada’s only authorities ; in fact, they were not his authorities at all; he never had the opportunity of consulting them. “ Robertson’s convent life of Charles V.” Mr. Wilson continues, “ is almost literally taken from Strada.” Now, if Strada followed the “ Samanca papers,” and Robertson has followed Strada, how is it that these same papers have been the groundwork for a complete refutation of Robertson ? Surely, when brought to light, they ought, on the contrary, to have confirmed his statements. The truth is, that Strada, who had access to no other manuscripts than those in possession of the Farnese family, never saw the “ Samanca papers”; and Robertson, far from following Strada exclusively, relied much more on the authority of Sandoval and other Spanish writers.

But our readers will naturally inquire what these matters have to do with the Aztec civilization and the Conquest of Mexico. So far as we know, nothing at all. We have merely followed our Iroquois foe, and kept perseveringly upon his track in the jungle to which he has taken. Whatever course he may take, we are determined to follow him. He shall not elude us. Through all the windings of his eccentric route, through pathless forests, across rugged sierras, along the sides of nameless streams, we shall pursue his trail. On the summit of the great teocalli of Mexico, dedicated to the fearful deity, Huitzilopotchli, he shall be offered up as a sacrifice, according to the awful customs in which he affects to disbelieve. We are compelled, indeed, by want of space, to grant him a respite for a month. Our present notice must be regarded only as a parboiling “ preliminary.” At the end of that time, with all due form and ceremony, we promise that the solemn rite shall be completed.