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It’s doubtful there’s ever been an epoch in human history that can match the significance of the extraordinary age of great geographical discoveries: it was an event with a truly global scale that, in essence, began the process that is now called globalization. The epoch opened with the discovery of the New World in 1492 and its most important event was certainly the Spanish conquest of the Americas, which was given the name Conquista.
It’s no exaggeration to characterize the conquest, over all, as the most venturesome undertaking in human history. The defining characteristic of the conquest is the unique experience of entering an untouched expanse—this was unique because the expanse under discussion was two huge unexplored continents. The conquest blended with pioneering exploration and became intertwined with geographical discovery. Along with new knowledge of Earth came encounters with the unknown, miracles at every turn, mortal dangers, the harshest of ordeals, constant stepping over the boundaries of common sense and the limits of human possibility, unusual adventures, and plots that would be the envy of any chivalric tale.
Kofman reconstructs the history of the conquest through biographies of well-known conquistadors. Masterminds of the Conquest present a fascinating subject for analysis and reflection. There’s no denying that the conquistadors were not particularly appealing people and many of their deeds inspire revulsion. But they were undisputedly out-of-the-ordinary individuals who came into the world when the Middle Ages were ending and the Early Modern Period was beginning. A complex, multidimensional figure is created by combining various points of view of a person and his actions, including how he sees himself. The book is both based in scholarship and intended for the broadest readership, including high school students.
The process of choosing figures for the book was fairly obvious: conquistadors who made the most significant discoveries and conquests stand out in the history of the conquest. Four individual chapters are dedicated to four people who did not make any particular discoveries or conquests but were notable for other things: one for miserliness and brutality, another for betrayal, a third for carelessness, and a fourth for revolt and atrocities. It goes without saying that the book’s chapters turned out to be very uneven: some are voluminous and others are short but their lengths depend on factual material as well as significance, interest, and the abundance of events and peripeteias. The names and deeds of conquistadors of the so-called “second tier” have not been forgotten, either: they have found their places in the book and are included in thematically appropriate chapters. Certain key concepts of the ideologies and practices of the conquest that are linked to various historical moments have found places and explanations in the book, too.