When Hernán Cortés finally conquered the Aztecs on August 13 1521, it should have been a glorious triumph for the Spanish invaders, who had suffered an ignominious rout the previous year. Tenochtitlán, the monumental Mexican capital constructed on a lake, which had so awed the conquistadors when they first sighted it in 1519, had been starved into submission during a weeks-long siege, and Cuauhtémoc, the Aztec emperor, had at last surrendered.

Yet the mood, according to an enlightening new book on the Spanish conquest of the Americas by Fernando Cervantes, a Mexican historian at the University of Bristol, “was not even remotely celebratory  … although a great victory had been won, the price was disproportionately high”...

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