The year is 1519 and the cultures of Central and South America are at their peak. Their cities are magnificent, larger than European ones and they have ritual monuments larger than the Egyptians. But the Aztec thought that their time was running out and that they were living in their final days. Their leaders were admired as much for their outlook as their conquests.
Into this came the Spanish. Led by Hernán Cortés, they believed that the final days were happening, and that they had an urgent mission to convert the remaining peoples of the earth before judgement day. This aggressive desire to change the practices of the native people of these lands would lead to battles and bloodshed and shocking displays of brutality on both sides. The Mayans and the Aztec fought back as best they could, but the Spanish had the upper hand, horses with mounted soldiers and steel blades.
It is into this ancient landscape that Harrison steps. Starting with the points where Cortés landed, and being ferried around in boasts, he follows the route along the coast that the Spanish took, before heading inland. Travelling on buses and taxis between the towns and cities, he meets the locals and visits the places that saw the main events and battles happen. It is still a country rich with culture and history and the scale of the architecture still left can take your breath away. But this was a journey that nearly never happened, because part of the way through the research for this trip, John was diagnosed with throat cancer and a prediction that he would not live to make the journey.
As with all of Harrison’s books, it is solidly researched and well written. His relaxed manner whilst travelling and the way that he engages with the people and the places that he goes to make you feel that you are sitting alongside him looking through the grubby coach window. It is amazing that he actually made this expedition at all, not only was his cancer quite aggressive, but when he travelled he was in remission and recovering. Woven through the historical accounts and the travel is the diary of his treatment and feelings as he faces the bleakest of futures. Very poignant.
It was a little heavy on the history, but that was a minor flaw in what is another marvellous book from Harrison.
1519: A Journey to the End of Time by John Harrison
Parthian Books pbk Aug 1, 2015
WHAT WE ARE THINKING: The demise of the printed book?