CAMILLA TOWNSEND — FIFTH SUN, A NEW HISTORY OF THE AZTECS — OXFORD UP — 2019
The Aztecs are a mystery in Mesoamerica, in fact in Mexico. Their own name is the Mexica and they are only one people in Mexico which was occupied before the Spaniards arrived sometime after Christopher Columbus by a mosaic of various Indian ethnic groups that are specified as for their ethnic names but that are not specified as for their origins and languages. They are just there, then, coming from no one really knows where without a real specified past. The only language that is mentioned is the Mexica or Aztec language which is Nahuatl.
The only specification about where the Mexica, not the other tribes, came from is summarized at the end as follows: “north, … the land of the remote ancestors, the forbears of Shield Flower and Itzcoatl, who came from the American Southwest.” (page 208) There is a vague allusion to the Mayas who are in the south, in Yucatan, with no more detail, and no connections whatsoever with the Mexica or Aztecs. The Maya are actually only mentioned because of La Malinche who was from the “empire” the Mexica were building in the fifteenth century by making their ethnic neighbors dependent, making them pay a tribute in exchange for peace and more or less self-government. The Maya were beyond this “empire” and La Malinche was sold into slavery by her own parents to slave dealers in the vast area controlled by the Mexica and she ended up sold as a slave in some Maya city. She was liberated by the Spaniards of Hernando Cortes and she became the stable and lasting main concubine of this Conquistador because she was fluent in Nahuatl and Maya languages. She could speak them and read them. And she had had the chance of learning Spanish from the Spaniards themselves and she became the translator and interpreter of Hernando Cortes. She thus took part, an extremely active part of all the negotiations Cortes had with the various people in Mesoamerica, and first of all the Mexica.
We get the impression that Mesoamerica and the central plains of what is today Mexico were inhabited and had been for a while, though there is absolutely no precision about the original inhabitants of this region, knowing that Indians are asserted to have been in Northern American since at least 20,000 or even 25,000 years ago, and at least as much if not actually more in South America and Mesoamerica (Chile, Cape Verde, second archaeological layer 20,000 BCE, and there is a third layer not yet reached dated as being 30,000 years old at least). This is a common shortcoming when dealing with Indian civilizations in the Americas. We speak in archaeological terms: a civilization is considered only when they left something behind, and we seem not to understand that it may have taken several thousand years to produce this first artifact on a durable lasting medium. We thus seem to date a civilization as being born when they left behind something that has survived them. The Mexica conquered a “territory” for themselves in Mesoamerica, but conquered it from whom? Who had they been before and who were the people they conquered this territory from?
This is rather embarrassing for me because the Mexica settled in Mesoamerica and built a rural-cum-urban (to use an India from India concept) civilization based on agriculture. The main crop is maize, but cacao and tobacco are kept marginal in the book, and we assume they had all the standard Mexican vegetables like beans, tomatoes, chili peppers, all sorts of squash, cotton, and a few more. The origin of these domesticated plants is mostly Amazonian and for some Mesoamerican, particularly Olmec and Maya agriculture (particularly for maize). But cacao has been archaeologically asserted in Bolivian Amazonia around 3500 BCE. We are thus thrown into the history of the Mexica — alias Aztec — under a historical and geographical big dome that more or less excludes the outside world and the past before these ethnically identified people. The only intrusion considered here is that of the Spaniards, and I must say the intrusive colonialism of these Spaniards is demonstrated and illustrated in full detail. And that’s why the book is interesting. If and when we stray away from this dome that makes me think of Stephen King’s Under the Dome novel, it is to follow Hernando Cortes and his adventures, and going away from his Mexica territory is rare and limited in scope and objectives.
But the book has two shortcomings that are just frustrating. There are no illustrations, and apart from one map, no images of the Mexica — alias Aztec — architecture, of their arts (paintings, carvings, codices, etc.). Nahuatl is often referred to as being written before the introduction of the Spanish phonetic alphabet, but no illustration or explanation about this writing system is provided. We may induce that the codices were lost, more or less all of them, due to the humid and hot climate, and probably because some might have been burned or destroyed by the Spaniards. But here again, apart from an allusion to accordion-style or screen-style folding codices, we get no pictures and no detail, apart from references. It would be interesting to compare the various codices produced in this Mesoamerican central plains by the Mexica, or other ethnic groups or communities, and then enter a comparison with Maya codices, in order to measure the level of writing development reached by the Mexica before the arrival of the Spaniards who are going to deculturate this vast area completely as for writing and even as for their languages. Spanish was eventually imposed. Old writing systems were banned. Christianity was imposed, at times brutally. In fact, brutality being the first and foremost colonial method used by the Spaniards, Christianity was always imposed within a context of extreme violence, and I regret a lot the pandemics are not studied seriously in this book.
Once again, as for these epidemics, an allusion, or a mention of one or several is all we get, but no real evaluation of the human damage. The final set of mentions in the last chapter is as follows: hemorrhagic smallpox (1576–1577, page 183), measles (1595, page 190), typhus (1606, page 193), whooping cough (1624, page 202), and I do not pretend to be exhaustive. In the same chapter the author speaks of Black African slaves arriving in droves in the Mexican Central Plains, and particularly in Mexico City and other cities with two main functions: being liveried servants in urban households and being plantation slaves in the countryside. But the fact that Hernando Cortes had a sugar plantation with black slaves is not mentioned, and the fact that Cortes had tried to mechanize some operations of the processing of this sugar cane, using the power of water in rivers, is not mentioned either. But the author cannot explain the shift from Indians to black slaves. She does say the Indian population is decreasing at an extremely fast rate and the black population is increasing very fast too. She gives one set of figures about the city of Mexico: circa 1610, there were 36,000 Spaniards, 12,000 Blacks, and 20–25,000 Indians. Note the imprecise Indian population. Why bring in so many Blacks? Because, as some say, Indians cannot work in slavery? This is absurd since there were slaves in Indians societies before the arrival of the Spaniards. But the book is totally fuzzy about this Indian slavery as for numbers, functions, living conditions, and only one function is more or less hinted at: they will be sacrificed sooner or later. That’s their final destination. But no precision about what they did in the meantime, and where they lived.
In fact, the epidemics were so drastic that the agriculture of these central plains of Mexico was destroyed and the Spaniards had to bring in black slaves to take over and particularly to develop the growing and harvesting of the crops that interested the Spaniards, and that is not specified. Up to 1619 when John Rolfe is able to produce Indian tobacco in Virginia thanks to the know-how of Pocahontas, the Spaniards had the absolute monopoly of tobacco in Europe and tobacco became very trendy as soon as it was introduced. In the same way, cane-sugar was a great agricultural asset for the Spaniards in Europe since there was no alternative apart from honey (no sugar-beetroots before Napoleon in France). And of course, some more interesting crops like indigo, cotton, and various vegetables and spices, but in this case, most of them were acclimated to European Climates from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. True enough potatoes were only introduced in the 18th century, but the others a lot earlier.
It would also have been interesting to study the case of horses. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, in the Americas, only one beast of burden had been domesticated, the llama in the Andes. So, the Mexica had no beast of burden and no draught animal, hence no carts and other vehicles of the sort with wheels. It would have been interesting to have some notions about the spread of wild horses first, and their domestication second by Indians. In the same way, the Spanish ships brought rats, and this is not mentioned. Rats were a pest attacking crops, particularly grain like corn, but they also carried all sorts of germs, bacteria, and viruses. Due to the absolute non-immunity of Indians to European diseases of all sorts (including by the way hepatitis A), rats could be an easy vector. Mosquitoes probably were too, getting loaded on the Spaniards and then passing whatever they got from them to Indians. It would have been interesting to specify the immunity of Black Africans to these diseases and that would have brought up the question of why only Indians from the Americas were non-immune and their genetic immune system was responsible. The people who mention this fact forget to explain why these Indians in the Americas who came from Siberia with individuals of two migrations out of Black Africa, the isolating-language migration around 120,000 years ago and the agglutinative-language migration around 80,000 years ago. All Indians coming, one way or another from Asia, though not all necessarily from Siberia, they had all met the Denisovans. The origin of this strange genetic immune system deficiency or simply particularity cannot come from these Denisovans since Asians, in general, have a similar immune system to Europeans and Africans. It is said this particular genetic originality can be found in Siberian in old human groups with no more precision, but we know that the traditional languages in Siberian are from the two families I have mentioned, isolating languages and agglutinative languages, with a good 40–50,000 years between the two migrations.
The book very clearly demonstrates how the Mexica were in the process of building an “empire,” like the Incas in Peru later on. In both cases, the unification processes were stranded, wrecked, and exploded by the intervention of the Spaniards who at once started playing one tribe versus another, the dissatisfied ethnic groups against the dominant ethnic groups. Note at the end of the 15th century the Portuguese, hence the Spaniards indirectly, found in Congo an “empire” in the process of being born and they played on the various ethnic branches of the polity in the process of being born to impose a king that would be favorable to them against the “legally” appointed king. The book blindingly shows how Cortes tried to play against Moctezuma but failed dramatically and his stakes were saved by an epidemic on the side of the Mexica, but also on the side of his own Indian allies. That’s really the center of the book. Before, the description of the Mexica is rather schematic. The author insists too much on the negative from a European point of view: Aztec culture is minorized; religion has been replaced by a “cult” of human sacrifice; patriotism, or simple community allegiance have been replaced by the “cult” of war for the sake of war and to make prisoners to feed the human sacrificial machine; political intrigue in a caricatural feudal society that has only one objective, collecting tributes under the duress of the menace of war; the practice of polygeny among the elite with families ending up with several dozen sons and daughters simply used as political currency in various feudal alliances, or within feudal dependency: one son or one daughter in exchange of a tribute and peace; the agricultural system is never really explained and the case of the Maya “milpa” that started in Amazonia and migrated north is not even alluded to, which should have brought up the case of slash-and-burn versus slash-and-char; Olmec before them all and Toltec after them all are not properly mentioned, though one mention of the Olmec can be found page 19–20. The result is the Mexica are locked up in their territories with the direct and immediate hostile for some or subservient for most neighbors. We are talking of one or two millennia in a geographical zone where from at least 1000 if not 2000 BCE or more, exchanges and connections are constant using rivers or building roads (a second choice because boats are faster and can transport goods and people. Only one allusion to the use of canoes by Indians is brought up within the last battle to capture the Mexica capital. Indians can attack with several hundred canoes on the lake around the island of Tenochtitlan, and the Spaniards finally found the answer, after quite a few setbacks if not defeats, and they built small wooden sail-boats to counter Indian canoes and the fighting became equal, meaning the Spaniards dominated the Indians.
A last remark has to be done on the language. The author gives most proper names of people or places in the transliteration in the Latin alphabet along with the phonetic transcription for the real pronunciation, plus the translation of these names. But not one single element on the morphology of these names and that is treating the readers as nincompoops that have to be satisfied with what they are provided with (I seem to remember Hergé making fun of the two “Dupont et Dupond” who become Dupont et Pontdu. Three names are built with the same morphology and the three translations suggest a morphological architecture, but the author does not condescend to explain. The names are “Nezahualtecolotl” — “Nezahualcoyotl” — “Nezahualpilli,” corresponding to “hungry owl” — “hungry coyote” — “hungry lord.” This implies “nezahual” could mean “hungry” but is it an adjective or is it a noun? Are the translations on the pattern of “hungry owls” or that of “owl of hunger”? It is banal in many languages to simply concatenate two nouns with one dominant and the other dominated, even in English, such as “justice-hall” or “city-hall” or “grammar-school.” It is particularly true in some Bantu languages where the attribution of a quality to someone is just the adjunction of the noun of this quality to the name or noun of the person like in Lingala “mondele makasi” or “mondele na makasi” for “whites strength” and “whites of force” meaning in both cases “whites are strong.” Along that line, we would have liked to know if Nahuatl is an ergative language like Maya because to see the world from an ergative point of view centered on the theme of the action, the entity that suffers the action submissively is quite different from an active language that centers its vision of the world on the agent of actions. That could explain the difference in the vision of sacrifice. For the Maya sacrifice is first of all self-sacrifice, hence, to submit to the command of God who requires the submission of the self-sacrificee. In the same way, human sacrifice is rare and it imposes onto the sacrificer a heavy load of conditions that have to be satisfied for the sacrificee to be sacrificed and the sacrifice to be effective in the granting of the favor by the concerned god. In an active vision, the sacrificer is the agent of the sacrifice and there is then a sort of exhilaration in the killing itself, the sacrificer becoming like a god himself since he can kill as much as he wants. There is an excessive practice of human sacrifice among Mexica as compared to the Maya’s more restrained practice. We might come to the idea that two cultures, two traditions met here, one from the North, one from the South and that may have produced a zealot mindset in those coming from the North who then picked the culture of the South and pushed it beyond some extreme point, like skull walls with several thousand skulls threaded together on horizontal poles with tens of poles one over the other to build a real wall of skulls, thousands of skulls.
But that must not make us forget that the Spaniards brought death, desolation, violence, war to Mesoamerica, and particularly the epidemics that bled the Indian population down to impotence, to a traumatic experience that could only produce long-lasting PTSS and rage. The book tries to show that within three or four generations the trauma had been dealt with. But we have to challenge this idea. Here is one more question about this colonizing practice, and this time with the black slaves. The Spanish Catholic Church, the Spanish crown and later the Spanish Inquisition all agreed on the objective that these slaves had to be Christianized from the very start, christened first, and then endowed with the matrimonial rights of normal married Christians: these slaves had to be married and have one day a week for their matrimonial duties, no matter whether the two married spouses were on the same plantations or on different plantations. What’s more, and the book alludes to the fact, the black slaves married Indian women who were free (and in disproportionate numbers due to the systematic maiming and killing of Indian males by the Spaniards (a fact that is not mentioned despite a vast testimonial iconography on the subject), so that their children were free because the children have the same status as the mother: “children would follow the legal condition of the mother.” (page 183). The Spanish Catholic Church accepted such couples. What’s more, the black slaves could buy their own freedom (manumission), so that in urban areas you could have a lot of freed black Africans. In Mexico City, the blacks had their own church, the church of Our Lady of Mercy and in 1612 it was seen as the center of some opposition to Spanish rules. The Spaniards were afraid the blacks, slaves or not, would join efforts with Indians against them. So, on Sunday, April 1, 1612, they started a preventive action; they were convinced the Holy Week was going to be the occasion for some uprising. So, on Monday of Holy Week in 1612, the Spaniards banned all the processions or public celebrations of Easter week. The result was pure terror on these black Christians.
“In the basement of the Royal Audiencia, dozens of the black men and women who had been arrested during Easter Week were being tortured on the rack, as well as with waterboarding, just as Malintzin’s son had been. [the son of La Malinche and Hernando Cortes, accused of being a traitor. This 1612 torturing led to the slaves denouncing their own slave-owners as part of the plot.] … the same reversal so often feared by white enslavers, male and female, throughout the hemisphere… On Wednesday, May 2, after only a few weeks of investigation, twenty-eight men and seven women were hanged in one day.’ It took three full hours to hang them,’[Chimalpahin] said… [They should have all been quartered but after some sanitary appeal from concerned Spaniards] [the authorities] decided the next day to quarter only six of them. The decapitated bodies of the other twenty-nine were deposited in the nearby chambers of the Royal Accounting Office.” (page186–187)
At this point, we should question why the blacks were targeted with such extreme violence. That’s where we have to start questioning the duplicity, if not the criminal hypocrisy of the Spaniards. They must have noticed the epidemics developing systematically among Indians. The first or second time they could have thought it was God’s help. But after a while, and in 1612 we are one century after the beginning of the conquest, the Spaniards must have been conscious and able to manage this situation with Indians. Since they died like flies with these diseases, let them be infected. Just send some European emissaries and let some epidemic start, and then the Spaniards could walk in with force and fire and win the day. That’s exactly the tactic used against the Maya: the real military conquest started two years after an epidemic. I suggest here that the Spaniards actually contributed to these epidemics and used them as a first attack against some resilient Indian communities. Maybe god was not on the Spaniards’ side, but germs, viruses, and other lethal bacteria were. But the blacks, slaves, or free people, were not that vulnerable because they had some level of immunity against these diseases. So, to weaken the blacks and make them submissive, they used brutality, and at the same time encouraged them to become Christian, to marry properly in the Church, to have their own church, and to be the beneficiaries of all Christian rites and rules. And yet, when some fear entered the minds of these Spanish colonizers, brutality, torture, executions and barbaric practices, in one word, terror, were used to frighten them into obedience and submission, and you must remember quartering generally occurred before death, hence alive. At the time the English used such execution techniques, particularly before the Bartholomew Fair in the open space in front of Saint Bartholomew’s in London, where for example William Wallace, the Scottish Nationalist of the 13th century, was executed.
“What follows comes from an 18th-century transcript of a medieval manuscript from the Sir Robert Cotton collection, which was lost in a fire in 1731. It is a contemporary record of Wallace’s ‘trial’ and sentence in London before an English court acting on behalf of a king whose authority Wallace never recognized. It is a translation from the original Latin. […]
It is considered that the aforesaid William, for the open sedition which he had made to the same lord the King by felonious contriving, by trying to bring about his death, the destruction and weakening of the crown and of his royal authority and by bringing his standard against his liege lord in war to the death, should be taken away to the palace of Westminster as far as the Tower of London, and from the Tower as far as Allegate [Aldgate], and thus through the middle of the city as far as Elmes, and for the robberies, murders and felonies which he carried out in the kingdom of England and the land of Scotland he should be hanged there and afterwards drawn. And because he had been outlawed and not afterwards restored to the King’s peace, he should be beheaded and decapitated.
And afterwards, for the measureless wickedness which he did to God and to the most Holy Church by burning churches, vessels and shrines, in which the body of Christ and the bodies of the saints and relics of the same were wont to be placed together, the heart, liver, and lung and all the internal [parts] of the same William, by which such evil thoughts proceeded, should be dispatched to the fire and burned. And also because he had committed both murders and felonies, not only to the lord the King himself but to the entire people of England and Scotland, the body of that William should be cut up and divided and cut up into four quarters, and that the head thus cut off should be affixed upon London bridge in the sight of those crossing both by land and by water, and one quarter should be hung on the gibbet at Newcastle upon Tyne, another quarter at Berwick, a third quarter at Stirling, and a fourth quarter at St John’s town [Perth] as a cause of fear and chastisement of all going past and looking upon these things &c.” (http://www.thesocietyofwilliamwallace.com/wallacesexecution.htm)
That cruelty has no end, when we think of what happened to the first son of Hernando Cortes and La Malinche, Martin Cortes Malintzin (1523–1595) when he was accused of treason. He was put to the rack and then to the waterboard in 1568, and he never gave them what they wanted, names, even fictitious names, since that was the only way to stop the torture, even if it may mean death in the end, fast or slow. Martin Cortes Malintzin stuck to his version that he had already said the truth and had nothing else to add. Strangely enough, the torturers actually got bored and finally stopped, empty-handed. Then he was exiled and finally in 1574 was exonerated by the King. Despite all, the Indians were treated a lot more severely: “[In July 1564] Forty-six men ended up arrested, thirty-one Tenochka and fifteen Tlatelolca. They were quickly tried over the next few days; all were found guilty. On July 21, their heads shaven to mark their shame, they were marched through the streets and given two hundred lashes as they went. Then they were sold into servitude for terms of two or five years.” (page 170) Compare with the blacks I have mentioned above, and then you have the harshest possible punishment for the blacks and that showed a sort of hierarchy in the “racism” or “racialism” of the Spaniards. I wanted to give these examples of such cruelty on the side of Spaniards and Europeans for us to reflect on the extreme use of human sacrifice by the Mexica, alias the Aztec, for us to get to some relativity in our judgment. It is true that the Mexica in Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) built a wall of skull racks with two round towers on both sides entirely made with the skulls of these human sacrificed people (75% men, 21% women and 4% children, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEGrrr3wIXQ) but think, in the same historical periods, of the religious wars in Europe, going along with numerous instrumentalized massacres, and think of the cyclical pogroms against Jews, and think of the hanging fields next to Paris and other big cities where executions took place day after day and the bodies were left hanging till they were only bones and they actually clattered down to the ground. François Villon committed a ballad on the subject:
Men my brothers who after us live,
Have your hearts against us not hardened.
For — if of poor us you take pity,
God of you sooner will show mercy.
You see us here, attached.
As for the flesh we too well have fed,
Long since it’s been devoured or has rotted.
And we the bones are becoming ash and dust.
Of our pain let nobody laugh,
But pray God
Would us all absolve.
And the Place de Grève, in front of what is today the City Hall of Paris, used to be the death penalty exhibition square with all types of “refined” methods to make people die slowly in utter suffering till they lost consciousness, which may happen many hours after the beginning of the ordeals that are no ordeals at all since death was necessarily the end. No hand of God to save you from that end. Have you ever read the details of a wheel execution with no garroting after a few hours, and imagine the crows and other birds landing there to have their dinner on a still live body? The supreme pleasure of such bewinged cannibals.
So, I sort of regret the tamed tone and discourse of the author on subjects that are of the utmost barbarity, and not on the side of Indians, necessarily, but equally, and I do say equally, on the side of the colonial powers, in this case, Spain.
We are post-romantic people and to give one example, Walt Whitman in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is taking us beyond the cultivation of suffering as the utmost pleasure in life to some empathetic (long before the word though, too modern for him and yet so true to his mood) epiphany and maybe lasting salvation:
Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me.
And sure enough, we may think of Paquiquineo brought forward by the author with the perfect pre-Whitmanian conclusion:
“The young Algonkian-speaking Indian from the Chesapeake was privy to all the protests that the Nahuas of Mexico City launched in 1564, as well as all the agonies they suffered. He saw the violence and heard all the plans to try to get the Spanish overlords to change their minds, but it all came to nothing. In early 1566, a direct order arrived from the king to send Paquiquineo to Cuba where he was needed to help launch an expedition to his homeland, and he finally left Mexico. It would end up taking four more years before he at last landfall in Chesapeake region near his home village, in the company of a Jesuit mission. There above the James River in Virginia, he was welcomed by his people. Not long after the ships that had brought the settlers left, he arranged to have all the Spaniards present killed, except for one young boy, who later told the story. The Spaniards concluded that if even a beloved protégé could do such a thing, then the northern Indian must be inherently barbaric; They steered clear of the northern lands for a long time afterward and allowed the English to gain a foothold at the place they called Jamestown. But perhaps Paquiquineo had simply learned something very important from his years among the Mexica: namely, the futility of rebellion once Europeans had gained a secure foothold.” (page 176–177)
At least, these northern Indians were to have some peace for an extra 37 years or so before the arrival of John Smith and his own English mission that will be successful in something like 12 years when the first black slaves arrived to work on John Rolfe’s tobacco plantation. The Mexican pattern was at work. And it will repeat over and over again
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU