Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Montezuma’s Daughter by H. Rider Haggard

An Englishman’s adventures among the Aztecs and conquistadors
English author H. Rider Haggard is primarily known for his adventure novels set in Africa, most notably King Solomon’s Mines, She, and their various sequels. In 1893, however, Haggard published Montezuma’s Daughter, an adventure novel set in Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. As a lover of classic literature and an enthusiast of Mexican and ancient American history, I’m always on the lookout for a good, vintage novel dealing with the Aztecs, the Maya, or the Inca. Such books are rare, however, so I consider myself lucky to have stumbled upon this one. That said, after having read King Solomon’s Mines, I didn’t approach Montezuma’s Daughter with overly high expectations. To my pleasant surprise, however, this really is a very enjoyable adventure novel, and in my opinion far better than Haggard’s better-known works.

Though it was the Spaniards who conquered Mexico, Haggard was writing for an English audience, so he must have felt compelled to give the novel an English protagonist. The hero of Montezuma’s Daughter, Thomas Wingfield, is a young Englishman with a Spanish mother. He travels to the Americas in pursuit of a Spanish relative named de Garcia who has grievously wronged him and his family. In his quest for revenge, Wingfield ends up in Mexico where he is reunited with his nemesis, who has signed on as a member of Hernán Cortés’s expedition to conquer the Aztecs and capture their gold. At first the idea of an English witness to the Spanish conquest seems farfetched, but in the long run Wingfield’s Englishness actually works in the novel’s favor because it allows the Spaniards to be the villains. Wingfield takes the side of the Aztecs and lives among them, first as a prisoner and then as an honored guest. He even falls in love with the daughter of the Aztec emperor Montezuma, the beautiful and stately princess Otomie.

Though Haggard’s African novels often felt a bit too fanciful in their depiction of the Dark Continent, here he has actually done his research quite well. Those interested in Mexican history will enjoy the way he works Wingfield in as a witness to important events in the fall of the Aztecs, or at least the legends that have been built around the history. Not surprisingly, the narrative is heavy on human sacrifice, the one aspect of ancient Mexican culture that every adventure writer fixates on. Nevertheless, Haggard portrays the Mexicans more sympathetically than the Spaniards and treats the Aztec civilization with admiration, dignity, and respect. His depiction of an interracial relationship is surprisingly enlightened for the 19th century, particularly given that the woman is no damsel in distress but rather an equal partner in the union. On those occasions when Haggard does disparage the Native Americans, it is not on any racial or ethnic grounds, but rather—predictably for the Victorian era—on religious grounds, because they are not Christians.

The novel does have its flaws. Most glaring is the unbelievable way in which Wingfield and de Garcia keep conveniently and coincidentally running into each other all over the world. The novel also tends to drag in its second half, and the long-awaited climax is less satisfying than one would hope. Overall, however, the story is quite entertaining. What’s more, when Haggard deals with issues of the heart—separation from a loved one, the joy of family, the death of a child—the novel is actually quite touching. Frankly, I didn’t know Haggard had it in him. Anyone who enjoys Victorian adventure novels of the “lost world” vein or historical novels set in ancient times will enjoy reading Montezuma’s Daughter, especially those who have an interest in Mexico and its Native civilizations.

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