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It’s rather a remarkable thing: in just about every line of work, the leading lights of any given time are all personally acquainted. They share ideas, adult beverages, occasionally their lovers, and a deadly rivalry here and there. The famous painters of the Italian Renaissance had regular confabs. Scientists all over Europe exchanged letters for centuries. You can trace an almost unbroken line of teachers and friendships from the Dutch polyphonic composers of the 1300s to the Romantics of assorted nationalities who congregated in Paris in the mid-19th century. The great poets of the Tang and Song dynasties of China–who were mostly government bureaucrats by day–exchanged paintings and poems when far away from one another, and shared endless pots of tea (and sometimes plum wine) when together.

It turns out the Spanish conquistadors were no different. A great many of them were from the Extremadura, a hot, dry province in the west of Spain, prone to drought. Some were second or illegitimate sons of minor nobility–which is to say they had some training in arms and horsemanship, a respectable name to recommend them for an officer’s post…and beyond that, they had to make their own way in the world. Others didn’t even have that much to start with. But they gave each other advice. Before Pizarro (conqueror of Peru) set off for the Caribbean, he sought out Cortes (his second cousin, by the way), who had just conquered Mexico, and who told him where new conquest opportunities might be. Pizarro also worked at various times with Balboa, apprenticed with a small officialdom in Panama, had De Soto working for him at one point, and so on.

The stories of the Spanish conquest could easily be transformed into Cecil B DeMille epics: greed, plague, a couple of hundred soldiers facing down thousands (sometimes the outnumbered were Spanish, sometimes they were indigenous people), triumph, tragedy, betrayal, and on and on. One of my favorite characters in the improbable tales I’ve read from the period–for sheer chutzpah, not personal likeability–was one Rodrigo Orgóñez, who at various times fought both for and against Pizarro.

Orgóñez was actually named Mendez when he was born, and his family were converted Jews, allegedly shoemakers. He enlisted in the army and was personally involved in the capture of Francis I of France, but was denied advancement due to his origins. So he changed his last name to that of the local lord and set off for the New World, where it would presumably be harder for anyone to call his bluff. Some years later, having made a small fortune in Peru and wanting a governorship, he sent a large amount of gold and a letter to Sir Orgóñez back in Spain, asking to be legitimized as his son!

Apparently the gold was enough to remind the elder man of a previously unknown kinship, though the governship remained elusive.

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