[ Question ]

Predictions/questions about conquistadors?

by Daniel Kokotajlo1 min read22nd May 202017 comments


World Modeling

After my post on conquistadors got loads of attention, I figured I should do more in-depth research. (For the post, all I did was read a bunch of Wikipedia articles). So I'm reading "The Conquest of Mexico and The Conquest of Peru" a 1400-page book written by a blind Harvard historian in the 1830s. It was recommended by Wikipedia as a classic work on the topic, the most thorough narrative of events to be found even today. (Let me know if you know of a better book to read!)

It seems good to register predictions and questions in advance, to help resist the natural human tendency to learn a bunch of facts and then rationalize why they support what you thought all along.

In the answers I'll put some of mine, and I would be very interested to hear yours as well.

New Answer
Ask Related Question
New Comment

2 Answers

1. On the importance of disease to Cortes' conquest:

--I predict that disease killed within a factor of 10 as many of Cortes' allies as enemies (Confidence: 80%, Tenochtitlan was under siege and a big city so probably especially vulnerable)

--I predict that I'll eventually conclude that Cortes had a >10% chance of winning even without the disease. (Confidence: 80%)

--I predict that I'll find some textual evidence of disease helping the Spanish maintain control later, e.g. locals deciding that the disease meant they needed to convert to christianity rather than deciding that it meant they needed to overthrow the foreigners, or e.g. some local ruler or population considering rebellion but then being too weak due to disease. (Confidence: 60%)

2. On the importance of "cunning" to Cortes' conquest:

--I predict that I'll conclude Cortes' had significantly more relevant data (stories of European interactions with American civilizations) than Aztec leaders had-- in particular, that the Aztecs didn't know about what happened in hispaniola, and knew less about what happened in Yucatan than Cortes did. (Confidence: 90%)

--I predict that I'll conclude the Aztecs suffered from a big information disadvantage, militarily: They had a noticeably worse sense of the capabilities and weaknesses of Spanish technology and tactics than the Spaniards dis of Aztec tech and tactics (Confidence: 80%)

--I predict that I'll conclude the Aztecs suffered from some sort of diplomatic cunning disadvantage, e.g. not even considering the possibility that Cortes might kidnap the Emperor, e.g. being preoccupied with prophecies and religious implications that distract from level-headed calculations of military and strategic possibilities. (Confidence: 65%)

3. On the importance of technology to Cortes' conquest:

--I predict that guns weren't that big a deal; they probably were useful as surprise weapons (shocking and demoralizing enemies not used to dealing with them) but that most of the fighting would be done by swords, bows, etc.

--I predict that I'll conclude the following ranking of technologies by importance: (Credence: 20%, it's hard to get so many things exactly right!)

Steel armor


Steel weapons


4. On the importance of disease to Pizarro's conquest:

--I predict I'll conclude that disease was mostly a factor in that it reduced the total number of native troops and also got a bloody civil war started. That is, if somehow the population had just been naturally lower, and a bloody civil war had happened, Pizarro would have had just as good a chance as he did have. (Credence: 70%)

5. On the importance of "cunning" to Pizarro's conquest:

--I predict that Pizarro designed his strategy to learn from Cortes' experience (Confidence: 90%)

--I predict that the Incas were not aware of what happened to the Aztecs at all (50%) or just vaguely (90%)

--I predict that Inca rulers made at least three serious mistakes in anticipating what Pizarro et al might do, mistakes that they wouldn't have made had they been familiar with the history of Cortes and the Aztecs

6. On the importance of technology to Pizarro's conquest:

--Same predictions as in 3, with the same confidence.

I would suggest that a book written on the subject in the 1830s is not a great book to understand what happened - if only because it was written in times where tendentious historiography was the norm. And unlike Gibson's Fall, a lot of the documentary material was not available then. There is so much more better and more comprehensive history. Which most importantly shows that while the 'highlight events' of these 'conquests' are correct, they did not actually mean at the time what they might mean to us today. I'd suggest starting with Restall's '7 myths' as an easy read but if you want a truly comprehensive history of that period and region, Thornton's 'Cultural history of the Atlantic world'.

I wrote up details of how these books (and more fit together) in a blog post last year - including excerpts of relevant quotes and links to YouTube videos: http://metaphorhacker.net/2019/09/so-you-think-you-have-a-historical-analogy-revisionist-history-and-anthropology-reading-list/ . It was aimed to provide some context to people trying to make historical analogies.