The European discovery of the Americas and the subsequent colonization of that land by Europeans was the most consequential occurrence of the last millennia. Two men prominent in that discovery’s opening events were Christopher Columbus and Hernando Cortés.
Sword of Empire: The Spanish Conquest of the Americas from Columbus to Cortés, 1492-1529, by Donald E. Chipman, tells the story of these two men. It explores the events of the first forty years of the Spanish acquisition of the American possessions.
Columbus opened the Age of Exploration. Cortés opened the Age of the Conquistador, where Spanish freebooters conquered the great empires of North and South America. Together the men form a set of bookends in the story of the Americas. Columbus departed the New World for the last time in 1504, dying in 1506. Cortés arrived at Santo Domingo, the colony founded by Columbus in the year of Columbus’s death. This allows Chipman to follow the thread of the opening years of Spain’s American adventures using these two as his focus.
These events shaped the modern world. Chipman takes readers with Columbus as he establishes colonies in the New World. He shows how adventurers from Spain settled the Caribbean, subjugating the primitive inhabitants of those islands. He then shows how the Spanish expanded into continental North America. Finally, he takes readers to present day Mexico, showing how a handful of Spaniards, led by Cortés, brought down the mightiest indigenous empire in the Americas.
Chipman is far more interested in Cortés than Columbus. Columbus exits the stage barely one-fifth of the way into the book. The remaining 80 percent focuses on Cortés. Additionally, most of the information about Columbus comes from secondary sources, while Chipman relies extensively on primary and archival sources when writing about Cortés. Yet the events involving Columbus prove critical to understanding how and why Cortés succeeded.
In Sword of Empire, Chipman attemptss to present an approachable and accessible history of the opening of the Americas. It is intended as a readable narrative for the general public and an accurate one for scholars. He succeeds in these goals. His book offers a clear and understandable presentation of the initial settlement of the Caribbean and the conquest of Mexico. It presents the events in an entertaining narrative that does not compromise accuracy. It places these events in a historical context, which does not surrender to twenty-first century political correctness.
“Sword of Empire: The Spanish Conquest of the Americas from Columbus to Cortés, 1492-1529,” by Donald E. Chipman, State House Press, 320 pages, $39.95 (hardcover), $24.95 (ebook)
*Mark Lardas is an engineer, freelance writer, historian and model-maker living in Texas. Mark posts on Ricochet as “Seawriter,” and is well-known for his regular and much appreciated reviews of books on all subjects. Of his reviews, he says “I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review.” His website is marklardas.com.