Book Review: The Search for Eldorado, John Hemming

I’ve wanted to get back to the topic of the history of San Antonio, but the next step was the conquistadors. I put off writing anything up because I had an unread book on my shelf, The Search for Eldorado”, by John Hemming. This originally came out in 1978, but I have the $21.95 paperback from Phoenix Press in 2001. I’m pretty sure I bought it at Half Price Books, probably for under $5.

I had supposed that the book covered the conquistadors who explored the southern stretches of the United States, and therefore the book would be worth reading before continuing the history of San Antonio. Instead, this could be better titled “The Early Search for Eldorado”. It discusses the military conquest of the rich regions of South America between 1513 when Vasco Núñez de Balboa stumbled upon the Pacific Ocean, and 1618 when Sir Walter Raleigh returned to England from a search for gold at the Orinoco and was beheaded for illegally warring against the Spanish (and perhaps for not bringing back plenty of precious metals).

When the first Europeans arrived in South America, they were surprised to discover that there was a great deal of gold and silver there, and that it was ill protected by the local armies. Even small groups of soldiers were able to use force of arms to live off the locals, and were able to conquer even the largest and strongest native states. The reader is probably already familiar with the more successful of these expeditions, how Hernán Cortés and 600 soldiers destroyed the Aztecs and Francisco Pizarro, with a force of 168, conquered the Inca. This book largely skips over these familiar events and focuses on the less well known conquests and attempted conquests.

As is usual with history, the closer one gets to the details, the less one achievers a unified vision and understanding. A few items caught my attention in this book. First, not all the Spanish conquistadors were Spanish. Nikolaus Federmann, Georg von Speyer, Philipp von Hutten, and Ambrosius Dalfinger were German. This tendency for Germans to be selected as generals of armies that are not German seems to be a constant of history. The beginning of this dates to the late Roman empire, but it has remained strong in the first and second world wars, the late 20th century, and continues on, for better or worse, to the present time.

A second theme that came to mind was the tendency for those Spanish who were farthest from the New World, to be the ones more likely to promote decent treatment for the natives. In the 19th century, the same situation held in the United States, with those on the frontier supporting more sanguinary solutions. This is a bit of a sad commentary on the human tendency towards justice as a theoretical concern that should be applied to distant people, rather than a practical concern that one must apply to those nearby as well.

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