The film Captain From Castile is a beautiful first half of a historical epic. The first time I saw it, I hadn’t read the book and yet it was still more than clear that its ending was tacked on, and took place a good deal before the book’s ending would have. What’s more, the movie seemed, to me, to be building a nuanced and complicated view of the conquistadors, before suddenly ending with a voice-over speech about what heroes they were. I lated discovered that Samuel Shellabarger, the author of the book, was himself extremely disappointed with the movie, and felt that it had missed the point of his book.
Now, after having read the book, which I gushed about the other day, I am still not entirely sure what the point of it was… but again, maybe that’s kind of good.
In showing the Conquest of Mexico, Shellabarger does not at all shy away from the cruelties of the Spanish. Saving himself some moral credibility in our eyes, the hero, Pedro de Vargas, does turn against his own men for a brief moment when a massacre is begun, but it is worth pointing out that when said massacre prompts the city of Tenochtitlan to rise against them, Pedro is right back alongside his comrades, proud to be a Spanish soldier.
The conquistadors kill, loot, torture… even “saving” two human sacrifices and moments later beginning to torture them for information. (It should be pointed out that the supposed sacrifices wish to be killed, and nothing in the narrative itself particularly says that this is wrong.) They refer to the natives as godless heathens, and see no problem with taking over their city and availing themselves of the local gold. Shellabarger seems content to simply describe what happened without commenting on it himself, with notable exceptions, and so really does leave one wondering whether or not he is glorifying the taking of the New World.
There are, without a doubt, moments in which Shellabarger shows a way of thinking that runs against what the conquistadors themselves believe: in the words of the priest who travels with them, for example, who laments the slaughters of natives in the West Indies, and sees conversion as a far secondary duty of his on the expedition than watching the Spaniards and keeping them from committing atrocities. “‘Why, who is more guilty:’” he says at one point, “‘the Indian, serving his devils through ignorance; or the Spaniard, professing Christ and serving the devil in rape and murder, cruelty and extortion?’” Of course he still believes the natives to be heathens, but his view is far more complicated than only that.
Also, when Cortes and his men are dealing with Montezuma, the emperor of the Aztecs gives them a long list of grievances, all of which make perfect sense, and the narrator reminds us that: “It did not occur to any of them that the Aztec leader might have a grain of right and justice on his side. Such tolerance was unknown.” (If I use a lot of quotes, it is simply because the novel is incredibly well-written and extremely quotable.)
There are many other such moments scattered throughout the novel, especially in the later sections when Pedro is amongst the Zapotecs, a leader of whom, Coatl, cares greatly for Pedro, yet makes no secret of hating pretty much all other Spanish–and this particular feeling of Coatl’s is never particularly challenged by the narrative or the characters themselves. Coatl also has one of the most chilling lines in the book: “‘Who can match white men! They live to kill! Your eyes happy, senor, at thought of killing!’” Not exactly the kind of celebration of whiteness that the general white supremacist views of the 1940′s, when Shellabarger was writing, had in mind.
(Sorry about all the movie images, there aren’t any others related to the novel that I can find.)
Coatl is an especially interesting case, because it is through him that Pedro finally realizes that a native is still as much a human as he himself, and yet he never quite applies this knowledge to the rest of the conquest, or turns it into any desire to end his association with Cortes and his like. Coatl is also an immensely interesting character, due largely to his not being any sort of badly written “noble savage” personality, and instead is a very canny and human character, who finds himself torn between a debt to a friend and the needs of his people… and, all things considered, he doesn’t just make the decision that will help out the white folks.
There are many more aspects to the novel’s decidedly gray moral tone: the cruelties of the Aztecs themselves are not particularly hidden either, although when Pedro is witnessing human sacrifices, and makes some disparaging remarks about the ways of heathens, his friend Juan Garcia reminds him of the Inquisition scene from the beginning of the novel, and it is shown to be quite an apt comparison. Normally, one would expect the very complicated moral character of a book like Captain From Castile to be entirely a good thing: after all, history is complicated, and neither Cortes nor Montezuma were angels or devils, yet it becomes difficult because of our hero.
Early in the book, Pedro is clearly a young man swept up in huge events whose historical character he cannot begin to contemplate: but by the halfway point he has become one of Cortes’ most trustworthy and accomplished captains, making it harder for us to give our hero an “out,” so to speak, from the atrocities that we see. Yes, he reacts with anger at a massacre, but it is one perpetrated without Cortes’ go-ahead, and a large part of why Pedro disagrees, at first anyway, is because he simply considers it to be a bad idea. The more that Pedro takes part in the events of the novel, and the more he shows his opinion on them, and on Cortes, it becomes harder and harder to accept him as a hero: and yet, at the same time, we do. He is, in terms of many other things happening in the book, extremely heroic, and his major Spanish villains are extremely evil, and the reader glories in their clashes, yet it is never quite that simple.
All of this would have worked fine for me if our hero had eventually discovered the error of his ways, and yet he never really does: he gets sick of the conquest because by the time Tenochtitlan is actually taken, the fighting is very monotonous and regimented, no more of the unpredictability of the early days, and because more of Cortes’ bad side has come out. Yet, Pedro counts himself as a supporter of Cortes to the end, and that did not sit terribly well with me. Cortes himself is, I suspect, rendered quite realistically: he is charismatic and courageous, but also a scheming and “petulant dictator.” But this simply left me more confused as to why Pedro, about whom I had come to care greatly throughout the course of the book, still sided with him.
As to Shellabarger’s tone itself, it is extremely ambiguous. He shows the good and the bad of both sides, (although spends more time on the Europeans, which isn’t too surprising) and when the narrative voice editorializes it still seems fairly unbiased on the greater picture. He describes how the beautiful Tenochtitlan is turned into a burnt out husk, and shows his European characters only shrugging it away as the consequences of war. He shows the natives as being more than justified in attacking the Spaniards, and yet fills the reader with suspense as to whether those same Spaniards will make it out alive. It’s a strange experience. Superiority and inferiority do make appearances at times, often in the guise of “modern” and “stone age,” and yet not long after that Shellabarger will give us a character like Coatl, or remind us of the horrors of the Old World, such as the Inquisition.
The author’s point, to the best of my ability to tell, seems to be that, one way or another, these were the men and events that shaped the New World, and that we must take the bad with the good. Yet, by all rights Pedro should count amongst the bad, and yet in the climax (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with colonization or natives at all) we cannot help but root for him. It is all very strange and confusing, but perhaps that is the point. Maybe it isn’t really all that different from D’Artagnan, who is willing to kill just about anyone, no questions asked, even when he becomes less than fond of those giving the orders. The Three Musketeers has a good deal of satire behind its adventure in the form of the Kings, Queens, and Cardinals who order our heroes to war, and yet I never found myself so morally conflicted over its characters. Maybe it’s simply my own political correctness that makes such moral ambiguity in a protagonist who is, in other ways, intensely heroic, harder to take when the oppression is not being visited upon other white folks.
Phew, that came out long. As you can no doubt tell, I found Captain From Castile to be a quite engaging read. It was a nearly impossible book to put down, and I found myself intensely challenged by the events that took place within its pages, which, now that I say it, certainly seems like a compliment. I do highly recommend the book, but something about it left me uneasy in a way that I did not expect such an adventure to do. (It is, after all, for the most part a story of adventure.) It is an incredibly well-written, morally complex, at-times blatantly satiric, and at other times relentlessly exciting look at the formation of what became the New World, and I really do think that it should be better known these days, especially considering that it was a best-seller in its time.
However, I also think I will always recommend its follow up, Prince of Foxes, even more. I promise it won’t be too long before I explain why that is.